All posts tagged movies seen

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3-Iron, 2004 / Ki-duk Kim

Let’s start with the bad: apart from its two main protagonists (young roamer Tae-suk and depressed and violated house wife Sun-hwa), 3-Iron boasts some impressively bad acting. But then: it’s also a movie well worth your time. Ki-duk Kim’s success – and his perceived lack of popularity in his home country – is more often than not rooted in his fable-like, poetic approach to writing. And 3-Iron makes no exception – it’s a visual poem that suffers on the rare occasions one of its characters opens their mouth. Maybe it’s because it centers on the themes of the beauty of invisibility, transcending of all kinds of prison walls, and breaking the boundaries of perception. Put this way, it all sounds a bit too general, and that’s why, like any Kim film, this one is better left not commented on. It’s better to simply see and experience it.

Still, on my little personal quest to cut through and uncover the structural (and with much greater difficulty, the emotional) foundation of almost everything I see – I am foolishly tickled to dive into terminology and formula application. 3-Iron has a surprisingly clear-cut plot. The hero has no apparent purpose in life, until he meets the girl, who is in trouble. He rescues her and makes her fall in love with him, but her troubles catch up with them. They fight with their antagonists and struggle, but are separated. So as she patiently waits for him, he hatches a plan that will help him be with her. In the end, as he vanquishes his antagonists, one by one, they are reunited. Sounds very simple, and it actually is – but in Kim’s terms, which is to say every next scene is both modest, true, surprising and yet feels like the natural thing to happen. Kim makes everyday life scenes look quite weird, often purely magical, and at the same time… well, everyday. You can’t help feeling that the writer and director is big on patience, and all his major characters (that I am familiar with) are blessed with plenty of this meditative patience. Some would say they behave in ways that show they are bigger than life itself, but there is rarely a hint of grandiosity. It’s replaced by humility.

Initially, Tae-suk does not seem to have a clear goal, apart from the everyday task of finding an empty apartment to spend the night. He never says a word (in fact, we never learn if he in fact is even able to speak), and he freely takes baths, watches TV, rearranges objects or wears the apartments’ owners clothes. But somehow, his is not a creepy presence. He explores the invaded homes in a way that makes us wonder what this would feel like if we were doing it. There is a certain freedom about the whole process, especially after it becomes clear how, to its owners, every place is both a loved, cozy nest, and a prison. As Tae-suk comes across the abused Sun-hwa in her own home, his goal is driven into focus – he needs to takes her out of her prison. It’s a classic – the independent and strong male feels the need to care for the wounded and fragile (and of course pretty) female. That’s a good plot foundation for Kim, as it allows him to step on it and then let his imagination run more freely when it comes to character motivations and poetic expressions of theme.

A very simple, but original plot thread shows how Sun-hwa’s attempts to tame Tae-suk’s inner rage lead him to commit a mistake and cause a serious bodily harm to an innocent minor character. It’s a little twist that forces a change in Tae-suk (he starts to feel shame and question himself), and prepares us for the events in the second half of the film, when he will be wrongfully imprisoned. This little episode is what will make Tae-suk accept his later imprisonment without trying to defend his obvious innocence (which otherwise would have been an extremely illogical action, to the point that it could have harmed the audience’s suspension of disbelief).

Coming back to the theme of “home as a prison” – Kim inserts a place that provides the exception to the rule. It’s the home of a young, kind and relaxed couple, which, in contrast to all other apartments, has a more open, nature-friendly feel. Kim, unapologetic, selects a location for it that openly resembles a Buddhist temple, thus continuing one of his favorite, oeuvre-defining themes, about the way in which a Buddhist way of life provides clarity, purpose, and meaning. In this home, three scenes take place: the fist kiss between Sun-hwa and Tae-suk; a moment when Sun-hwa’s returns there alone, while Tae-suk is still in prison – and, without saying a word to the owners, simply lies down on the sofa and takes a nap (to me, probably the strongest scene in the movie); and the return of Tae-suk there, after his escape from prison, as one of the steps on his quest to re-visit all previously shown apartments – but this time as an invisible, all-seeing ghost. The last scene, though it does serve a plot purpose, is still something of a mystery to me, and I will keep watching it to look for a deeper meaning (though there simply might not be one seeded there).

The third act is surprising mostly because of the method Tae-suk chooses to use for the final fight for his girl – he learns to become invisible. It is not a course of action a Hollywood-brainwashed mind would expect – and yet, it’s the one and only weapon he can call upon. This is what he has done all his life – staying silent, out of people’s view, sneaking through life. Now, however, he has a passionate motivation, a painfully clear goal. And this helps him perfect himself, change by moving to a higher level. A meditative scene inserted by Kim suggests the upgrade is, most of all, spiritual. And you wouldn’t expect anything less from this director.

If you’ve seen the film’s official poster, you’ll unfortunately get a major hint about what happens in the end. Still, it’s beautiful.

Just be prepared to suffer and squirm through some of the supporting characters’ weirdly poor acting…

 

On The Road, 2012 / Walter Salles

Sprawling and trying to stay true to the character of the original book that inspires and informs it, On The Road eschews an easily identifiable, visible structure. The film is very much character-based, and, at least for about two-thirds of it, meanders around New York, California, Denver, and the US countryside, obediently following the chaotic and impulsive paths of main characters Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and Marylou. I’m sure there is a three-act structure hidden in there, but the only clearly present act is the third one, where the main relationship and underlying conflict (Sal vs. Dean) comes to a head. For a film with a subject matter with such potential for conflict, the resolution is not too dramatic, but this somehow feels right, once you’ve accepted On The Road for what it is. Bringing such an iconic piece of literature to the screen is bound to be impossible to please every critically-awaiting fan.

Sal’s goal is to write a great book – and we all know what that book came to be, so the following the goal fulfillment throughout the film happens with ease. A degree of predictability cannot be avoided, as we also pretty much know how this goal will come to be achieved. Sal’s main conflict, to me, seemed to be with a person (Dean Moriarty) but at the same time quite internalized. Sal adores Dean, theirs is a true friendship, and he can’t help but keep searching for Dean’s company, and following him on his crazy trips. There is the desire to experience good times with a young, free-spirited and inspiring friend; there is the temptation of an unbounded life away from his traditional family; there is Sal’s sexual attraction to Dean’s on-and-off girlfriend, Marylou; and there is his quest for true inspiration for his writing – a quest both overriding and casually neglected on his whirlwind travels. At the end, living through and acting out (over several years) his main conflict, turns out to be the only path to achieving his goal. There is not much drama associated with it, though our hearts eventually stay with the doomed character of Dean Moriarty – and I believe that was the director’s point. Dean is justified and his legacy is saved, though, going irreversibly down, he himself does not realize it.

The film touches upon multiple themes – friendship and loyalty, the impossibility of the struggle against the system, (the ubiquitous one of) coming of age – and outgrowing dependencies and people, the desire to achieve one’s potential. It seems to me, however, the it is the latter two that concentrate the film’s central question: will Sal eventually be able to find the Holy Grail – to complete his literary masterpiece? And since we know the answer in advance, the question is modified as “how” rather than “whether”, which dilutes the dramatic impact of On The Road. This is probably an inherent challenge when creating a biographical film, especially about a well-known person or event. But just think about 127 Hours as an example of a film that is by default stripped of its greatest mystery, but which manages to be extremely fresh and surprising as it tags along its true-story event line.

To be sure, 127 Hours benefited from a great acting performance (by James Franco), and On The Road can boast some impressive turns as well. Sam Riley (Sal) is a believable incarnation of Kerouac (though I somehow imagined a wilder figure), Kristen Stewart entices in the time she is given, and there are plenty of star-power peppered on top of the film through the cameos of Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams (wished she was given more, as I really respect her as an actress) and Steve Buscemi. But the top performance is that of Garrett Hedlund as Dean. And it’s exactly this performance – vulnerable and bold – that underlines probably the film’s greatest lack. I waited and waited for the characters and events to get crazy, to finally brim over and unleash themselves on me, grab me by the throat and take me not only on a road trip, but on a real ride. Instead, I was lead on respectfully by the hand. On The Road is still an enjoyable, visually impressive walk, but it could have been – and probably should have been – something more.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 2003 / Ki-duk Kim

As clearly suggested by its title, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring has a structure split in five acts. The four seasons – with the repeating Spring book-ending both the plot development and the main character’s life arc – are visually prominent, as the story takes place on a monastery (a Buddhist temple) floating on a small lake. Nature is an essential character here, and Kim saturates each scene with simply observed images of the lake’s surroundings – a frozen lake, a rain-battered lake, a small river, rocky hills, mountain tops and lush greenery. The carefully planned shots are never just self-serving beauty frames – nature provides not just the setting, but the backbone of the story. Kim is obviously a nature’s man (evidenced through his impressive acting turn in the last two segments) – and the film benefits greatly from his decision to set this fable of a film away from the big city and civilization as a whole.

The main character is a boy who grows up to become a young man, to experience love, passion, and doubt; to leave the monastery, despite the cautioning of his old master that “desire leads to attachment, and attachment leads to the intention of killing”; to then return, after committing a crime, in search of the necessary inner peace that precedes redemption; and to later take the place of his old master, but only after becoming synchronized with the world that surrounds him – and ultimately, after being able to understand this world. That’s the skeleton of the film’s plot, and – infused with Kim’s spiritual attitude to film making – it is closely connected with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring‘s theme. This theme has Buddhist undertones I am not qualified to discuss, but which are openly suggested by Kim through his visual choices and fable-like scenes (for instance, the prominent and somewhat mysterious presence of animals such as snakes, a rooster, a cat, fish and frogs). I guess the theme has to do with the necessity to live through and overcome carnal temptations, to first be weak and make mistakes and sin, before you can achieve balance and discover your own place in the world.

The main character’s goal is not readily visible or simply defined. The most obvious answer is that he is trying to be with the girl he loves, but this is only clearly valid through the second (Summer), and then resonating in the third (Autumn) segment. Later, on his first return to the monastery, his goal becomes to try to escape from punishment for his crime; and then – on his second return – to atone for mistakes made earlier in life. The changing goal works in the set-up of this particular film – I guess simply because the film encompasses a full life cycle, and also because the story is so openly set as a fable.

The main character’s conflict is predominantly an inner one – a struggle between his devotion to his teacher and the way of life the teacher is trying to inspire in him, and the temptations of the “secular” world and his own human nature: a child’s cruelty, sexual lust, jealousy and rage, the urge to avoid taking responsibility for his own mistakes (selfishness). There are external manifestations of this conflict – the confrontation with the teacher when the latter decides to send away from the monastery the girl he loves, or his attempt to hide from the police officers pursuing him after his crime. But the conflict is ultimately an inner one, and in the end the hero is left to tackle, on his own, his own weakness, and to pay his debt to nature and nature’s divine order. As the conflict is resolved, the hero is literally positioned on the top of the world (in Kim’s visual language – a mountaintop overlooking the small lake with the floating monastery), naked and alone, clean and ready to care for another person. That person is a young boy brought to the monastery and left there by his faceless mother. The circle of life closes on itself, and is complete – only to start again from the beginning.

 

Miss Bala, 2011 / Gerardo Naranjo

Somehow, I have the feeling I managed to hit the London Film Festival at just the right time, in just the right spot. Midway through the festival I secured the viewings of two films and two only, but my gut feeling tells me they’re probably two of the very best in the programme. I’m yet to see “The Boy Who Was A King” by Andrei Paunov (BG cinema in London, yeaaah), so more on that one later I guess. But last night I sat in a movie theater, my wife clinging, terrified, to my elbow, gripped by the true, brutally honest, politically and physically and visually charged spectacle that is Miss Bala. There are very few movies that are so categorical in what they are that they grab you by the throat and don’t let go, and don’t allow you to question yourself – whether you like what you are seeing or not – until after the credits. Miss Bala is one of them. It’s a tense, terse, violent thriller that moves solidly in one direction, stays the course, and doesn’t ask unnecessary side questions.
Miss Bala is actually Laura Guerrero (played by the brilliant Stephanie Sigman), a regular Mexican girl from Tijuana with dreams of becoming a beauty queen. By the end of the movie her dreams are fulfilled in a devastating, soul-destroying manner. It’s no good giving out any plot points – as the director Gerardo Naranjo told in his post-screening chat, he initially set out to do a thriller, and, in this sense, Miss Bala is a powerful success. But it also offers a very painfully sober, bleeding view of a problem that haunts the society of a large country on pretty much daily basis. It seems Naranjo and his crew did their homework while researching the inner workings and the real-life vibes of the conflict “drug cartels-police” in present day Mexico. The way that the life of an unsuspecting nobody (Laura) gets caught up – and eventually grinded to dust – in these vile machine movements, is depicted with skill, precision, and love for the actual states of mind a real person experiences (as opposed to the parallel-world reality of, say, any ordinary Hollywood action movie). From the very beginning of Miss Bala, one gets transported inside the skin of Laura, and travels her journey together with her, actually sensing her terror, panic, temporary relief, hope, desperation, resignation… I really don’t know which is Naranjo’s bigger achievement – extracting such a performance from Sigman, or visualizing with such realism-based precision his obviously quality script. And coming back to the issue of films that grab you by the throat: once Miss Bala let go of mine, I realized the film had meanwhile planted the seeds of many important questions inside my mind. And that the time for gaining a perspective into such a major problem as the Mexican drug cartels are, the time for contemplating the moral of the film, the time for deciphering, post-factotum, the motivations behind each scene, each character’s acts, each relationship – has just begun. A definitely recommended movie, but be prepared to experience increased heartbeat rates.

Opening Night, 1977 / John Cassavetes

What can I say, Cassavetes films are one of a kind. I’ve seen three of them so far, and on each of these occasions (yes, they are occasions) was taken on a very organic, totally unpredictable, truthful, inspired trip. Opening Night resonates with me in a particular way, as it depicts the world of theatre, a world special to me. I’ve always wondered about the relationship between cinema and theatre, and how possible it is to depict theatre on film. Soderbergh does something very interesting in Full Frontal, though the play there is not really such a central part. Cassavetes goes to an extreme in that respect, putting us viewers in the middle of long long scenes on stage, keeping the camera rolling, basically filming the play as it develops. Of course, the movie needs to be extremely smart for him to be able to pull this off, but above all it’s a very heartfelt movie, which is why it works. An accidental death of a fan triggers an emotional and mental breakdown in the life of its main character, actress Myrtle Gordon (the brilliant, powerful Gena Rowlands). And that’s it basically, as far as the plot is concerned. It’s a way to stimulate the action, but from that point on (the death comes in one of the opening scenes) nothing is straighforward or predictable. Cassavetes was renowned for his improvisational techniques, building characters with flesh, blood and tears, never forcing upon his heroes unconvincing, fabricated scenes. As in his other works, here again the script appears impossible to invent – everything rather flows as if lifted from real life, as if the film maker was luckily there with a camera as things were actually happening. It’s rather impossible to describe…

Myrtle is a woman about 45-50 (she never reveals her actual age, which is a manifestation of one of her deeply lying problems – the difficulty of accepting the advance of aging). She has no one (no husband, no lover, no children) but her art and her reputation as a major film and stage star. Grappling with issues such as growing old and loneliness (you know about lonely nights? how about those lonely days?), she is good friends with alcohol, but not so good friends with the writer of her new play, “Second Woman”. Uncharacteristically, Myrtle can’t find a thing to identify with in the new text she is working on. The struggle to create a believable character is exacerbated by the death of a young female fan – a 17-year old who dies seconds after meeting Myrtle outside a theatre. The image of the rain-soaked, crying, almost collapsing in her emotions young woman haunts Myrtle into a mental state that crumbles further as the film progresses. Who is this young girl? Or, rather, what is she to Myrtle? Searching for the answer of this devastating question, Myrtle resorts to visiting the girl’s funeral, then a spiritualist, to letting go of herself on stage and improvising with abandon, even viciousness, before actual audiences. No one who has ever been to a theatre performance can help but feel uneasy while watching these sequences. In this sense, Opening Night is a quite visceral experience.

I found it extremely interesting that Myrtle had no one to turn to outside of the theatrical world. She could only look for help from the director (Cassavetes fave Ben Gazzara), the producer, even the writer, to whose face she openly admits, “I don’t think we could ever be friends.” All these people however, despite harbouring some kind of love, or at least respect, for Myrtle, are after their own agendas – keeping up reputations, ensuring the success of the play, maintaining political or artistic control. Myrtle is basically on her own, fighting demons, wrestling with solitude, trying to preserve the last shreds of her integrity. All leads up to the final scene – the New York premiere of the play, the actual opening night. I don’t want to spoil it for you (if this is relevant at all in a Cassavetes movie), but I should say what happens is the living nightmare for any theatre director. The interaction between Myrtle and Maurice (played with verve by Cassavetes himself) in that closing scene is electrifying. So human, so wonderfully weird, so worthy of being captured on film. The end is only natural, as Myrtle fights with her last ounces of strength to do probably the one thing she can – get out on that stage and give everything she has, and to hell with it. We as an audience can only applaud this reincarnation of life.

Half Nelson, 2006 / Ryan Fleck

What’s with the title of this movie? Half nelson is a something most men are familiar with, possibly from their school yard years – a wrestling hold where you partly immobilize an opponent by constricting one arm and putting hand upon his neck. I guess the movie borrows this name as it refers to a feeling of both a total inability to release yourself, and the tantalizing sense that what holds you down cannot actually be stronger than you. Half nelson is more of a smart, cheeky entanglement than a brute force. It allows you just a little leeway of space, challenging you to push just a bit harder, roll over with a bit more determination, scream a little bit louder… and you’ll be free.

Ryan Gosling’s character in the film, Dan Dunne, looks like he’s been caught in a half nelson for the best part of his life. By his drug addiction. Dunne is a teacher in a predominantly black New York primary school. Disheveled, deprived of normal sleep, living a double life, he is, as Alicia Keys put it, in a “constant state of going nowhere”. An owner of a weak will and a good heart, he seems to awaken only in class, when he teaches history to his 13-year old students – energetically, in an almost inspired way, not instructing them but utilizing their own language and attitudes to challenge their interest. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Dunne does not go to the level of his subjects on purpose, as a smart educational approach. Rather, he is one of them. He is a child – very intelligent, but at the same time naive, playful, loving the display of bravado and attitude, and often lost.

The main conflict of the movie pits Dunne versus one of his students – Drey (Shareeka Epps). She’s got issues of her own – a brother in prison for drug dealing, a family associate who constantly tries to seduce her in becoming his drug mule, a missing father and over-worked mother. As Drey becomes aware of Dunne’s drug problems and is drawn towards helping him (he is probably the most likable of teachers around), he sees in her the one chance to really help that “one person”, to really change the life of just one, to make his contribution to the world. Drey’s salvation is his own. He does not actually realize this – rather, he follows his blind, desperate instinct. And he really does not know how to go about saving her, oblivious to moral lines in their relationship and crossing them repeatedly.

Dunne is such a sympathetic character because it’s very easy to identify with his lack of spine. We are all like him in some respect – we all go round and round in our own very personal and at the same time very universal vicious circles, we all alternate between keeping the faith one day and despairing on the next. Drug addiction is a very real problem (and a dramatic one, which works cinematically) – but it could be anything. Mine is not finding the strength to drag out the stories in my mind and bring them to life. Yours might be something very different, like accepting baldness or cutting down silly spending. It’s all very human. So kudos to the filmmakers for recognizing this and just letting the film BE, rather than forcing the film to TELL – it’s the toughest job in the business I reckon.

In the end, it is suggested Dunne saves Drey by going to the extreme of being himself. The great part is that this is not presented as a conscious choice of his. He simply disintegrates to the point of inspiring a change, if such a process could even exist. It’s maybe just a coincidence, fate, or an example of the beauty of life even in the most fucked-up situations.

For some reason, Half Nelson makes me put on Alicia Keys’s Unplugged on. Everything out there is tough and cruel, but there’s always a reason to keep breathing. Just keep waking up every day, and one of these mornings, something might be different, the hand upon your neck might have loosened a bit…

A Serious Man, 2009 / The Coen Bros.

It’s a film I really love (big big fan of the Coen Brothers generally), but I have postponed writing about it until after my third viewing, which happened last night. Mainly because I have the feeling that trying to decipher A Serious Man is somewhat foolish. For one, I’m not Jewish and have no deep knowledge of Jewish religion and customs. But then, nobody really reads this blog anyway. And also, this is a film that tickles you, urges you to discuss with friends and attempt deconstruction. So let’s try kinda going scene by scene, definitely spoiling the movie for anybody who hasn’t seen it…

Of course, the relation of the opening scene to the rest of the movie has garnered plenty of media attention. It’s rather a vignette set two centuries prior to the main action in the film. A Yiddish family is faced with a weird (in a very Coen Brothers way) encounter with an old man, whom the wife sees as an evil spirit, a dybbuk. We are not really given the answer is he or isn’t he, and respectively is a righteous act committed, or a crime. But we are left with thoughts about “the sins of our predecessors and how they reflect on the next generations”. Maybe this is what this scene is about…

Next, we meet the main character, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He is already on a sloping plain towards the disintegration of his so far stable and respectable life. Actually, his story reconfirms the Coens’ reputation of being quite cruel to their main characters. Larry undergoes a thorough medical check, including an X-ray scan, and it all seems to be fine, as far as health is concerned.

Meanwhile, his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), has problems of his own. He owes 20 bucks to a bully of a classmate, but they get confiscated, together with the portable radio on which he secretly listens to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”. It’s here that the drug references start to pop up, and it’s difficult to find their relation to the whole story. Danny frequently smokes marijuana, and Larry himself indulges in a smoke later in the movie, but not before he has seen his world collapse. Is doing drugs the suggested antidote to the ultimately pointless struggle towards respectability, stability and logic? Danny uses because he is young and still innocent, his mind unburdened with questions of “why?” or “what is the reason for this?” On the other hand, Larry uses after he starts finding out that these questions probably have no answer, or that the answer is seemingly out of his reach. And then, this Jefferson Airplane song echoes through the entire movie, preaching psychedelia and nothing else but love…

The next problem crashes upon Larry’s head in the shape of Clive, a student (Larry is a physics teacher) disgruntled with his F grade, who seems to try to bribe Larry by discreetly leaving him an envelope with cash. Larry would try, unsuccessfully, to extract himself out of this embarrassing situation, all the while expecting the school’s decision on granting him a tenure.

At home, the problems keep mounting. His Nazi/extreme Republican-looking neighbour is obviously trying to claim a portion of Larry’s own front yard. Larry’s brother lives with Larry’s neurotic family and doesn’t seem to come out of the bathroom, let alone start looking for a place of his own. And Larry’s wife demands a ritual divorce, informing him of her closeness with fellow Jew, Sy Ableman.

Back at school, there follows an amusing scene involving Larry and Clive, the disgruntled student. Larry confronts him on the issue of the attempted bribe. Larry wants Clive to understand that actions always have consequences, while Clive agrees that “yes, they have consequences OFTEN”. This seems to enrage Larry, who for the first time mentions his moral convictions. Actions have to have corresponding consequences, right? And Larry has been a good man, a serious man all his life, trying to be morally upright, always trying to do the right things. So, the consequence to this has to be a good, morally upright, stable life. Not much to ask, right? Well, suddenly this does not seem to be the case with Larry, and he’s getting more and more lost with every new misfortune that comes crashing upon his head.

In a following scene, Sy Ableman, unable to get in touch with Larry, appears at his doorstep. Sy is a superficially gentle, kind, soft-spoken, but also oily, large-framed figure. A truly passive-aggressive man, he professes his love for Larry (and seemingly all human beings), touches, caresses and hugs him, while trying to talk him into agreeing to a “gett”, a ritual divorce that would allow Sy to marry Larry’s wife “in the faith”. Later, it will be suggested that Sy has written anonymous letters to the school committee responsible of the decision on Larry’s tenure, slandering him. Sy could be viewed as a figure inspired by the Devil, though this is in no way consistent with the fact that Sy actually dies in a car accident – thus providing Larry with a measure of relief in his misfortunes.

It’s relevant to mention that A Serious Man seems to be based – or inspired by – the biblical story of Job. A blessed, righteous man, Job was confronted with a series of great misfortunes. They happen after Satan challenges God, claiming that Job is faithful to God simply because God protects him. As a result, God removes his good will towards Job, to prove Satan that Job’s faith is true – and more importantly, that Job’s faith will remain firm even if Job is given no answers why misfortune has befallen him. Job proceeds to look for explanations for his misfortune, consulting three friends (the three rabbis in A Serious Man are a clear parallel). But he never turns against God, and is later rewarded with the restoration of his wealth, health and good fortune. Something the Coens do not do with their own Larry, hmmm…

Urged repeatedly by Danny to fix the TV aerial on the roof, Larry climbs up, and sees the wife of one of his neighbours, sunbathing full naked. Temptation is brought into the story, but to the morally correct Larry this simply seems like one more piece of misfortune.

In yet another enchanting scene with Sy Ableman, it is suggested to Larry that he should move out of his home and to a hotel. I can’t help but mention Sy’s extraordinary vocabulary – he refers to the hotel’s room as “eminently habitable”. Fred Melamed’s performance as Sy is a joy to observe again and again.

There follows a scene that seems quite important to me. Clive’s father comes to visit Larry, and threatens to sue him for defamation – for suggesting Clive has tried to bribe him. When Larry offers that they simply forget about it all, the father demands that Larry gives Clive a passing grade. Larry declines. Then the father says he’ll sue him – for accepting a bribe. Larry counterattacks: “So there was actually a bribe?” The father counter-counterattacks: “This is defamation!” Larry does not see the sense in this – either there’s was a bribe, or there wasn’t. Accept the mystery, is the father’s response.

The thing is, Larry is unable to accept the mystery. He needs answers why this is all happening to him. Unable to find them in logic or moral laws, his next step is to turn to a rabbi.

Before his visit to the first rabbi, Larry expresses the questions on his mind verbally for the first time, in a conversation with a female friend.

The first rabbi is actually rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg from “The Big Bang Theory”), the young deputy of rabbi Nachtner, whom Larry goes to see originally. Inexperienced but passionate, rabbi Scott gives Larry probably the most useful, and definitely least obscure advice out of the three rabbis. Still, this advice does nothing to help Larry decipher the cause of his misfortune and see the path he should take.

The second rabbi, rabbi Nachtner, chips in with the extremely amusing and well-shot story of “The Goy’s Teeth”. Basically, it’s another instance of Larry having his hopes of finding explanation dashed, in a way that actually increases his confusion. The second rabbi is older, presumably wiser, and his advice is ultimately… blander. To Larry, it now seems being wise has to mean being bland, being non-active, not really caring. His universe is shattered. However, Larry continues to see this new situation as a chapter in a story – something has to happen, this is not the end of it, there will be developments that will shed light on all the confusion. So he is now desperate to see the third rabbi. The fact that that third rabbi – rabbi Marshak – is impossible to through to, only spurs Larry on, increases his frustration, but somehow preserves his dying hopes of clarity still alive.

Soon after comes a scene where Larry teaches a class at school about “the uncertainty principle”. Scribbling a large blackboard full of complex mathematical formulas, he proves by the means of mathematics (probably his only pillar of stability left in the world) that… nothing is certain. As his students leave, he shouts after them that even though they can’t figure anything out, they would still be responsible for this at the exam.

Larry then knocks on the door of Mrs. Samsky (the neighbour’s wife which he saw naked before). I guess what takes him there is some parts desperation, some parts an instinctive, unrecognized drive to look for solutions in places where he wouldn’t venture in his “normal” life, if his mind was still intact. In a sexually charged scene, Mrs. Samsky, who at times frighteningly resembles a lifeless mannequin, gets him stoned on marijuana. For Larry, it’s a mental state of detachment that briefly puts him out of his misery. We are left to wonder if this would be the only recourse left to his character after the end of the film…

The story line involving Larry’s brother, Arthur (brilliantly clumsy Richard Kind), is curious. He seems a bit autistic, definitely neurotic, possibly suicidal man, obsessed with creating/figuring out the Mentaculus – a probability map of the Universe. He actually uses it to rake in money at out-of-town casinos. The funny thing is, Arthur is a social outcast, a man without a family or an own home, emotionally depressed, and only good at mathematics. he’s been like this all his life. After two-thirds of the movie, it seemed to me Larry is pretty much in the same position – about to lose his family, living in a hotel, totally lost, his moral universe crumbling with a mocking thud. So I guess the figure of Arthur is in the movie to pose the question: so what if Larry has always been the more successful of the brothers, when both they end up pretty much the same? What has been the point in creating a social structure and believing in some unnamed natural laws, when everything can evaporate in a flash? Who’s better off? Possibly sensing this, Larry dreams of helping Arthur escape (in a row boat!) and start a new life in Canada. This dream ends with Larry’s Nazi-looking neighbour shooting Arthur in the head, then going after Larry himself…

A scene that closes the cycle of the “three rabbis” shows Larry desperately trying to make his way past rabbi Marshak’s door, only to be rebuffed. Has Larry met the ultimate failure?

And as it appears as if it cannot get any worse… it doesn’t. Rays of hope break through the clouds above Larry. His son, Danny, passes his Bar Mitzvah, an occasion for the family to get together and feel hope for the next generation. Sy Ableman is gone and there is a hint that Larry’s wife might have a change of heart and take him back. The slandering letters sent by Sy Ableman have stopped, and the school committee finally grants him his tenure. At the same time, Danny is granted access to rabbi Marshak, who gives him the most obscure of advices – quoting the omnipresent Jefferson Airplane song, and restoring to Danny the portable radio. How this radio has found its way to the hands of this biblical looking old man is a mystery which the Coen Brothers willingly leave unresolved. But, innocently, Danny seems to understand what his meeting with rabbi Marshak is all about.

We have arrived at the happy end. Larry is genuinely relieved. he has received no answers to his dilemmas and questions, none at all. He does not understand the logic behind the myriad of bad things that have happened to him. But his condition has been remedied, so he has “accepted the mystery”. Maybe he will now have a new life credo – simply to accept what is happening to him, without trying too hard to make sense of it. There is no point, right? Besides, it would eventually all end up alright. Normalcy would be restored. There is no such thing as a cause-and-effect law in this world. Larry is actually so relieved that he wants to be good – he decides to correct Clive’s grade to a passing one. After all, this was the advice of the second rabbi, rabbi Nachtner: “We know nothing at all, but as for helping others? Coudn’t hurt.”

So Larry helps Clive. In the next instant, his phone rings. His doctor – remember, the one giving Larry a general medical check at the very beginning of the movie – wants to discuss with Larry his X-ray results. In private.

So Larry probably has cancer, we’re led to believe. Why is this so? Is it a mystical consequence of Larry’s action – betraying his morals by changing Clive’s grade? But no, because the X-ray tests were done much earlier. We, people, are the one choosing to “read signs”, design our own imperfect explanations of the inexplicable, search for archetypal story arcs in our daily lives, believe in the power of the combination “action-consequence”. According to the Coen Brothers, all we need to do is to accept the mystery. With the good and all the bad it brings us. Asking questions and looking for their answers is absolutely pointless, in the grand scheme of things.

But then, we are only humans…

Such a great movie…

Easy Rider, 1969 / Dennis Hopper

I plugged this glaring gap in my film culture only recently. By today’s standards, Easy Rider can easily seem a bit mundane, apart from the LSD-inspired montage near its end. I guess it depends what type of movie buff one is. But there is a reason why it’s considered an eternal film. The coolness of Peter Fonda as Wyatt (a clear reference to Wyatt Earp)… the freedom and lightness of the several pure riding scenes, where nothing much seems to happen apart from Wyatt and Dennis Hopper’s Billy (a clear reference to Billy the Kid) riding their bikes cross-country with cool smiles and to the soundtrack of classic tunes… the three confrontation scenes – with a bunch of hillbillies at a roadside diner, with the same bunch by the fire in a forest, and the final one on a narrow interstate road… the history-recording and culture-commenting scenes such as the hippie commune visit, or the portion of the film where Jack Nicholson takes centre-stage as a a drunk-lawyer who drops his cyclic life to hop on the bike behind Wyatt and ride cheerfully towards the end of everything… and of course, the cemetary/LSD scene that has to go down as a film history all-time highlight… Easy Rider still works today, and will surely work years from now not because it simply yet magically captures a potent period in American history. But because it is a metaphor for every man’s dream – that one day we will drop everything we own, everything that ties us down to society and chokes us, one day we’ll say “screw you” to all laws but our own emotional morals, and ride ecstatically towards the inevitable end, great music blaring in our ears.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010 / Banksy

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a unique movie. I’m not saying unbelievable, or a classic, just unique. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough films, but this one caught me by surprise. One note – if you go and see it, try not to read anything about it in advance. All I knew beforehand: some guy approached Banksy with the idea of making a documentary about him (if you don’t know much about Banksy, you have some catching up to do, so start now – though I’m not saying start here). Guy was so weird and interesting that instead of telling him to fuck off, Banksy decided to turn the tables and make a documentary about him. Cue Oscar nominations and shit. Well, it’s nothing like this. Of course, there is a hint of such storyline, but that was one lame synopsis I’d read. In fact Exit Through the Gift Shop goes much deeper, many levels and layers deeper, twists and turns, mostly on itself, but at the end – on you. Am I sure what I saw? Am I sure I got it? I don’t know for sure, all I know this documentary/mockumentary/piece of art/movie graffiti does work… I have a vague suspicion Banksy had to in some way respond, with a statement in his style, to the claims of him turning into a sell-out. But that’s just a vague suspicion. More than that though, the film is a statement about the nature of art today. Of what we make of it, how we make it be, how we build it up from nothing using purely the all-powerful tool of HYPE. Hype is a widely accepted means of misrepresentation, and Banksy happily embraces this tool, making the joke be simultaneously on the main character (typecast French weirdo Thierry Guetta), on himself, on the art world, and since all of these in the end seem to be non-existent (yeah, Banksy actually doesn’t exist, all these conspiracy theories and educated guesses and non-educated guesses about his identity define him as such), so, since all of these in the end seem to be non-existent, the joke lands on us viewers. We are all part of the shit, we make it be, we feed the shit every day. Exit Through the Gift Shop manages to be at the same time extremely funny, true to history, quite depressing and all made up. But it serves its major purpose – it makes us think. Think, think, think, keep thinking as you squeeze your eyes and make your way out through the gift shop, cause that’s the only way out. We’ve made it that way.

Just watch the film, all I can say…

Doubt, 2008 / John Patrick Shanley

I waited for several days before sitting down to recap Doubt in my mind. So first things first – the central part for me was the performance of Meryl Streep. As an actress, she is definitely in a class of her own, a living classic. So yeah, her talent is undoubted, and could be taken for granted, to some degree. Not her personality though. Not Meryl Streep the human being. Because it’s exactly this part of her that brings uniqueness to her roles – her humanity. I do have a crush on Meryl Streep, in a way that I wish she was my favourite aunt. I would spend days on end with her.

Being such a vital person, it’s incredible how perfectly controlled her performance in Doubt is. She is a conservative bitch that truly hates modernity, and seems immovable in her views on religion, the secular world, education and race issues. But as you watch through Shanley’s adaptation of his own (apparently successful) theatrical play, you cannot help but feel there is something beneath her surface. Something simmering very low down there, something driving her, some secret that maybe even she cannot define for herself. There is the feeling of a woman trapped, or should I say – of a human being trapped within her own limitations and belief system. And this only becomes truly apparent in the final scene between Sister Aloysius (Streep) and Sister James (Amy Adams)…

Otherwise, it’s a movie about the very current pedophilia-in-priests issue – but not really. Instead of going documentary or didactic on the subject, the script rather focuses on exploring the shades of doubt within a set of characters – Aloysius, James, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in yet another near-perfect role), and an African-American mother (Viola Davis, with a very understated, but powerful performance). Doubt is a very universal, and then a very personal thing, and all we know is that we can never know. One of the flaws of the movie is that it in a way nudges us in one of the possible directions, suggesting a truth to be discovered – while there is the sense that keeping viewers on the very edge till the very end could have given the film even more weight. Anyway, it’s worth watching even only because of the two confrontation scenes involving Streep – vs. Hoffman and vs. Davis.

The personal website of director Ivaylo Minov

I am a Bulgarian-born, London-based filmmaker. I have directed TV ads for agencies like DDB, Leo Burnett, Lowe Swing, Publicis, Huts JWT, Demner Merlicak & Bergmann. I have worked for a wide range of clients – from mobile telecoms through charities to a viral campaign for a presidential candidate.

I have a film-making diploma from the London Film Academy and a BA degree in Journalism by the American University in Bulgaria. I have worked in media and theatre, before discovering my passion for film making and turning it into a full-time devotion.

Find me at:
liaminov (at) gmail.com
0044 7757 428696 (UK)
00359 886 880564 (BG)
skype: liaminov

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