The Big Sick and what makes a good romantic movie.

To give you the gist of it, The Big Sick is the story of Kumail and Emily and their pursuit of love and happiness in the face of the cultural discrepancies that stand in their way. Kumail’s parents want to arrange a Muslim marriage for him, in keeping with Pakistani tradition, while he himself isn’t even religious, but keeps up appearances because he fears being exiled from his family. Then stuff happens. I usually don’t keep these reviews spoiler-free, but in this case explaining the plot would mean taking away from the viewing experience, so I won’t.

The Big Sick had a budget of just 5 million dollars and was written by Nanjiani with the help of his wife, the real Emily Gordon. It premiered at Sundance and received universal critical acclaim, which led to the film being picked up by Amazon Studios, which significantly helped the distribution and subsequent commercial success of the movie. The Big Sick made 49 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing indie of 2017 (so far).

What sets it apart from the rest of the schlock that the rom-com/rom-dram genre has to offer is its ability to juggle its themes in a way that seems completely effortless and natural. It switches tones with such ease that the viewer doesn’t even truly notice the transition between comedy and drama, the movie flows like real life does – one second you’re talking to your girlfriend about something as inane as the weird American pronunciation of the name Craig, and before you know it she’s found your box-full of headshots of attractive Pakistani women, ready and waiting for a lucrative arranged marriage. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous when you write it out, but the chemistry between the two leads, Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani, makes their on-screen relationship as believable and realistic as romances get. It’s truly amazing to see how much can be achieved with just a strong cast and a well-written script. Even Ray Romano gets some actual acting done instead of phoning it in with his usual Everybody Loves Raymond shtick.

The dialogue is very snappy and quick-witted. Sure, there are some jokes that feel somewhat forced, like most of the stuff that Bo Burnham’s character says (half of his jokes sounded like they came from TJ Miller in the remarkably dull Deadpool), but the majority of the script is polished and genuinely funny. Nanjiani really does carry the latter half of the movie, displaying his ability to portray a much wider array of emotions than expected as he goes from sadness to rage and desperation.

So what does The Big Sick tell us about its genre and how to execute it properly? As mentioned above, a movie like this absolutely needs good characters. Any romantic comedy or drama is dead in the water if its writer isn’t competent or imaginative enough to create a pair of interesting and likable characters that the audience can connect with emotionally. We can’t root for a plastic cut-out or a walking cliche, and I say that with the conviction of someone who is above fed-up with manic depressive dream boys and girls and their tales of pseudo-depression and Facebook-tier philosophizing. A great example of horrible characterization can be found in this year’s In Search of Fellini. The protagonist is a sheltered girl that has never had any friends or, as far as I could tell, even gone to school. Her mother raised her at home, watching black and white movies with optimistic and hopeful messages, creating a false image of life and human interaction in her daughter’s head. The whole movie hinges on this ridiculous, nonsensical premise. It gets worse though, as this girl goes to Italy in the hopes of meeting the great Italian director Federico Fellini. She has very limited funds and no skills, social or otherwise. It’s all the story of her dreamy mental illness, which never even gets mentioned or noticed because apparently it’s not unusual for someone to spend their days watching romantic movies and fantasizing about having a relationship while simultaneously being completely unable to function as a human being, and how it led her to living the life that she was meant to be living. It’s cheap, it’s boring, and it’s offensive to anyone who has ever suffered from an actual mental illness. Compare this to The Big Sick where the characters behave like actual human beings instead of personified Tumblr posts. They’re not defined by any one thing, they don’t fall into some predetermined category that provides a template for their actions and opinions. Kumail and Emily react to the world they’re in, to the situations that they’re faced with.

Dialogue is the second important point. No, it doesn’t need to be on par with the works of Paddy Chayefsky or Aaron Sorkin, but it needs to have rhythm. Take a look at The Coen Brothers’s films for an example of what rhythm in dialogue looks like, even in their weaker films that lack an impressive script. The cutting of the scene, the pauses, the very ebb and flow of conversation matters just as much as what is being said. A lot of the dialogue in movies in general these days sounds sterile and restrained, as if the characters simply need get something out of the way before continuing on to the next set-piece. The most memorable scripts, for me, are the ones that accurately portray human interaction, like in Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation, Network (despite its over-the-top satire), The Social Network, The Big Lebowski. All of these movies, even when they those that on occasion plunge into absurdity, share one thing in common – their ability to entertain you for hours on end with just the acting and dialogue. That’s why the script is so important in a rom-com, and in character-driven movies in general. They can’t fall back on the visual or technical aspect of film making because that would go against their stated purpose (not that they can’t be visually appealing, mind you, I’m simply arguing that their focus inherently lies elsewhere). The Big Sick hits the sweet spot. Its writing is impressive in that it meshes comedy with character development. It both furthers the plot in a non-intrusive way and entertains the viewer. I expect this movie to be near the very top of my Best of 2017 list.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I’ll be honest, this isn’t an easy watch. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is slow, pensive and introspective. It’s one of those films that make the passage of time a completely tangible process. But it also happens to be a masterpiece and quite possibly the greatest foreign film of the 21st century.

The movie’s plot is quite simple. A man’s been murdered, his body buried somewhere in the seemingly endless Turkish countryside. There are two suspects, one of them has promised to do his best to recall the exact location of the body, despite being blackout drunk on the night of the murder. The police officers do their jobs. That’s really all there is to it. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia‘s beauty is hidden beneath this surface layer, beneath the almost banal trivialities of the typical police procedural. Actually, scratch that. Those very trivialities are the whole point of the film. A man’s been murdered, in much the same way as hundreds of others are each year. The police fulfills its duties, as is expected of it. The bureaucrats write down everything that is relevant to the case. The criminal is put away. Life goes on as it always does and no single person has any real effect on it. None of the characters in the movie are exceptional. None of them excel at their jobs. They’re just making it through the day, getting the job done before returning home to deal with their duties there. This is the great tragedy of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and of the human race in general, if philosophical pessimism is your poison of choice – all is inconsequential, all is trivial and, ultimately, pointless. It’s a point that is reiterated time and time again  by the movie, be it visually or through dialogue. An example of the first would be the scene in which two shopkeepers sweep the sidewalk in front of their stores, a large mound of sand between them. No matter how much time they spend sweeping, the sand will always fall back in its prior place, erasing any and all signs of their hard work. Wind in general becomes the focus of a quite a few scenes. At some points the countryside is shown as mass of swaying grass, at the mercy of the blowing wind. In these scenes we realize, as does Dr. Cemal, the story’s protagonist, that man is just a helpless as the grass in the face of his own fate, unable to exert any sort of influence over it in the grand scheme of things. Other times we see the wind blowing away signs of human occupation and chasing the men back into their homes. The idea remains the same, and it’s one that becomes abundantly clear not only by the movie’s overt references to it, but also by Gökhan Tiryaki‘s brilliant cinematography. The camera work and direction are, at different points in the movie, reminiscent of two of cinema’s greatest artists, Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. The first half of the movie reminded me very much of Barry Lyndon, with its detached long shots (as well as extreme long shots that turn people into dots on the face of the landscape), limited or completely non-existent movement and remarkable framing and composition that turn every shot into a painting. The second half of the movie’s 150 minute run time put slightly more focus on the characters of the story, featuring more close-ups and interior shots. Dr. Cemal could well have been part of Stalker, what with the constant ambiguity of his expression and the philosophical theorizing.

One of the most telling and poignant parts of the movie comes during the doctor’s conversation with Arab, the driver of their police car (a shoddy old Lada):

It’s raining on Igdebeli.
Let it.  It’s been raining for centuries. What difference does it make?
But not even 100 years from now, Arab, neither you, me, the prosecutor or the police chief..
Well, as the poet said…Still the years will pass.. And not a trace will remain of me.  Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul..

These words are a summation of the film’s pervading theme of insignificance in the face of the overall grandeur of existence. The camera work, as mentioned and described above, makes that obvious right from the get go, making the characters it follows seem no more important than the beautiful landscape around them, at times even less important than it. As the officers are talking about the case, we see an apple fall from a tree. The camera leaves the characters and wanders off, following the apple on its trip down a gentle slope and into a small river. A lightning flash earlier on illuminates carvings on a boulder that the doctor is passing by, startling and unnerving him. There are these hypnotic, almost Lynchian moments that put into perspective man’s lack of a fundamental understanding of his existence. We inhabit a realm that we cannot even hope to ever truly understand, one that we have tricked ourselves into believing that we own, that we all subconsciously believe exists for or because of us.

It’d be a mistake to think of this movie as uninterested in, or not empathizing with, its characters. There are moments that are so intimately human and believable that they make the viewer take a step back and wonder if he or she is still watching the same movie. The opening few minutes feature a dialogue about food that could have been ripped straight out of a Tarantino movie because of how efficiently it characterizes the protagonists through seemingly inane chatter and how fast-paced and entertaining the very execution is. But Nuri Bilge Ceylan specializes in realism, and it wouldn’t be a movie set in the Balkans or Anatolia without mentioning the death of the small town and the rural village, from the perspective of people who remain put in said small towns and rural villages, no less. Specters of a time and place that is disappearing, fading into complete obscurity.

Everything in this movie comes together to paint a rather bleak and morose picture, one of aimlessness and a lack of agency. The scenery is grey and repetitive with no music to help the viewer escape its pessimistic clutches; the characters are confused and rather restrained. It’s a tasking experience, one that is just as much emotional as it is intellectual, but it is certainly worth it to see a master practicing his craft.

Under 800: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Mental illness is a topic that many movies tackle, yet few do it in a manner that presents the audience with any actual insight into what the person suffering from the ailment feels and how they go through their life. Many modern directors go the Scorsese route, creating a character that is self-destructive, while simultaneously hostile towards the outside world as a whole, Fight Club being the most obvious example of this post-Taxi Driver sub genre. Others dramatize mental illness, turning it into a simple plot device that serves the purpose of furthering the story without adding any actual depth to the narrative, as is the case in Shyamalan’s The Visit.

Kenneth Lonergan chooses a third way of looking at depression, the affliction of Manchester by the Sea‘s protagonist Lee, and it is through the harsh lens of realism. The whole movie is guided by this one fundamental principle. It never glorifies or dramatizes its characters, never portrays them as anything other than struggling human beings, going about their lives and dealing with the death of their loved ones. Lee is a troubled man who lost his three kids in a house fire. A house fire that was his fault, if by accident. His wife leaves him, but not before telling everyone in their home town that Lee started the fire on purpose, in order to get back at her for ruining his night. Lee’s life spirals out of control and the beginning of the movie finds him working as a plumber in a new town, drinking heavily. And then his brother passes away, shattering what little stability he had in his life. The bulk of the movie follows Lee’s attempts at taking care of his brother’s teenage son, making sure that everything is all set up for him after the passing of his father.

It’s a rough story. The moments of optimism are few and far between, overshadowed by the permeating sense of ennui that every single aspect of the film hammers in. The camera is more oft than not kept at a distance, completely stationary. The framing is flat, at times almost boring. The colors are somewhat desaturated, muted by the overall greyness of the atmosphere. The cinematography serves to accentuate Lee’s underlying issues. His world is small and uninteresting, one that is past its peak. He looks and feels like a man that’s just about ready to give up on everything. Casey Affleck delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, giving us a window into the life of someone that’s hopelessly depressed and frustrated at his own inability to deal with everything that’s come his way. Lee dislikes himself and that reflects in his interactions with the outside world. He has trouble keeping eye contact with people outside his family. He prefers his own company and seems completely unable to keep a normal conversation going. But the most telling aspect of his self-loathing is his resistance to progress and positive change. Lee receives the opportunity to leave his one-room apartment and crappy, dead-end job in favor of a nice new home with all expenses covered, yet he refuses. Instead, he gets hammered at the bar in Manchester and gets into a fight (one that ends rather badly for him at that). It’s a move that makes not even the smallest bit of sense. It’s completely counter-intuitive. And that’s what depression is like – a constant feeling of unease and apathy, broken only by the occasional bouts of fierce self-loathing. It turns you into a mumbling, shambling mess, a shell of a human being. Lee is cursed to perpetually go over his past life, remembering the family and friends he once had, before losing everything in a cruel twist of fate. The film uses perfectly timed and executed flashbacks that show us a different Lee, one that has a direction in his life and doesn’t wander the streets with a somewhat vacant expression.

I believe this to be a near flawless movie. Some have, in retrospect, described certain directorial choices as bland and uninspired, but such complaints are completely missing the point of Manchester by the Sea. It isn’t the flashy or glamorous. There is no hero in this story. It’s just us humans there. Nothing else. The camera work matches the tone, or rather helps set it. And that’s what great cinematography is – a visual manifestation of the story, a half-seen force that guides the viewer’s perception and augments the emotional or intellectual significance of the film’s themes. In Manchester by the Sea‘s case, the camera had to be just as understated as the character it was following, giving us a chance to view him through his own prism, rather than our individual preconceived notions of what the person is or should be.

Under 800: It Comes at Night (2017)

It Comes at Night can only be described as an overtly competent film. There is no denying its impeccable atmosphere, generated, surprisingly enough, mainly by its haunting soundtrack that never misses a beat or misplaces a tone. The close confines of the cabin in the woods that Paul has hid his family in in order to ride out the apocalypse in relative safety make for a quaintly unsettling experience that is constantly teetering on the edge of terror. The interwoven nightmares that we experience along with Travis, Paul’s son, are an impressive attempt at combining the tone of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road with constrained surrealism à la Lynch in The Straight Story, where he found the perfect balance between coherently telling an emotional story and sprinkling in moments that are closer to his typical dream-like absurdity. The set is well constructed and presented, an incredibly important detail when it comes to creating paranoia and low-burning fear. Director Trey Shults has admitted to taking inspiration from Kubrick’s The Shining for the layout of the house that Paul and his family live in, deliberate leaving it unclear and confusing, a maze that the viewer’s mind can’t help but attempt to navigate. Overall, there’s no denying that the film is pretty damn good. So why, then, have audiences shunned it? Why do some hail it as the best horror movie of the past few years while others see in it nothing more than a polished turd?

The first part of the answer is simple – people hate being misled. The trailers for It Comes at Night made the movie seem much closer to the typical horror movie than it actually was. Most of its audience went in to see a straightforward monster flick, expecting the “It” in the title to refer to a zombie or a ghost. What they got instead was a visceral meditation on the nature of trust and the unreliability of the human brain’s perception of reality. Travis is as unreliable as narrators get, and that is where many of the seeming inconsistencies and plot holes arise from. None of the scenes we see through his eyes are representitive of what actually happens in the movie’s world. And that’s one of It Comes at Night‘s main stregths – the viewer is never put in a position of omniscience. We’re given just as much information as the characters dealing with the situations on screen. When Will, another survivor who happens upon the family by chance, moves his wife and son into Paul’s house, we’re given visual cues that make us doubt their true intentions. As Paul grows ever more suspicious and begins regretting his decision to invite them in, the viewer is still unsure as to the reality of the situation. Is Will a good guy? Is he simply waiting for the right time to strike? And no, in the end we realize there are no bad guys in this situation. Will and Paul both work towards the same goal – protecting their loved ones. They like each other as people, they like being together and keeping eachother company in the face of the overwhelming sense of isolation and ennui that is inherent to the deepest parts of any forest. But the world as they know it has collapsed, and no one can truly be trusted, except if they aren’t an immediate family member. The loneliness runs deep in It Comes at Night, bubbling just below the surface of each character’s perpetually uneasy demeanor.

The second thing that seems to have left many people upset is the lack of resolution to many of the film’s themes. It’s true, It Comes at Night raises many questions but rarely even so much as approaches an answer. How did Stanley the dog make it through the first door to the house, especially considering it was sick and lost in the woods just hours prior? Who opened the second, red door? Did Travis really see Will’s son sleepwalking? Were the events at the end of the movie indicative of the existence of some creature outside the house? Many audience members weren’t satisfied by the notion of a truly confused and possibly insane narrator. And it’s hard to argue this point because it comes down to personal preference. I personally thought that seeing the most important parts of the story through Travis’s eyes was a brilliant touch that fit the movie like a glove, thematically speaking. The way I saw the movie, there never really was an “It”. “It” is fear, coming at night when the characters are at their most vulnerable, creeping in the gloomy, dimly lit edges of the house. Travis is only unreliable during the night, when he is scared out of his mind and unable to stay asleep, constantly seeing scarier versions of the things that terify him in his waking life.

It Comes at Night is very much an experience and is definitely worth a watch for anyone willing to go into it with an open mind.

 

 

Under 800: Contagion (2011)

Contagion is about as realistic as epidemic movies get. Not once does it jump the shark and succumb to the seemingly innate ridiculousness of its genre, and that is perhaps its greatest strength.

The movie follows the story of a global epidemic, somewhat reminiscent of SARS, through the eyes of a variety of characters. From civilians to military officials and CDC workers, we’re allowed a peek into every facet of life during a catastrophic disease outbreak. We see Mitch (Matt Damon) dealing with the death of his wife and step-son while doing his best to protect his daughter; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) going around the continental US in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, while Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC tries to coordinate the scientific community’s efforts to find a cure; and then there’s Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) spinning his online web of conspiracy theories and profiting from his followers’ naiveté. Oh, there’s also Marrion Cotillard as Dr. Orantes in a plot line that never really converges with the main one and is quite pointless, only serving to demonstrate the global reach of the epidemic while not adding anything of import to the story.

There are quite a few characters in this movie, and all of them are given a sufficient amount of time to grow on the viewer and develop. Some remain boring and two-dimensional (the aforementioned Dr. Orantes is possibly one of the most useless characters I have ever seen in an otherwise good movie), but the majority are decently fleshed out and, perhaps more importantly, behave like rational human beings. There is very little incompetence in Contagion, if any at all – Mitch is ever alert and ready to protect his daughter, both from the disease and from the consequent collapse of the rule of law; the scientists all talk and behave like, well, scientists; even Alan Krumwiede is good at what he does, which is making money off a fake cure by convincing all of his viewers and readers that it actually works. All this may seem somewhat trivial, but take for example one of the movies that influenced Soderbergh, Outbreak (1995), which relied heavily on lapses in communication between the characters and scientific teams and on a sort of universal dullness, as if the overall level of intelligence in the world the movie was set in was somewhat lower than it is in reality.

Contagion succeeds in making the viewer feel uneasy, uncertain of what is going to happen next during its civilian segments. Mitch isn’t connected to some telepathic pool of knowledge that feeds information from the script straight into his cranium. His actions are often frantic, reactive. There’s always a look of slight confusion on his face, a great touch on Matt Damon’s part that shows just how shell-shocked Mitch is, to the point where he is somewhat removed from reality. The scenes he and his daughter are involved in give us a taste of what the average Joe might have to endure during a worldwide disaster – looting, food shortages, but most importantly, constant fear. The camera work goes a long way in translating the anarchic confusion of Mitch’s world to the viewer. Close-ups, clever angles that conceal some of the information that could be gleaned from the screen. In contrast with most disaster movies, Contagion is shot almost exclusively with steadicam and never resorts to shakiness and distortion as a means of creating artificial suspense or confusion. It’s a well-shot movie that doesn’t reach particularly high with its visuals because it doesn’t need to. The grounded, calm style of filming really fits the tone of the movie, while the more intimate, close-quarters shots that show us the reaction and shock of the characters in the face of death offer a great look into the psyche of a regular man faced with unimaginable circumstances.

Contagion is the most plausible disaster scenario ever put to the silver screen. At the end of the movie there is a sequence that shows us the very beginning of the virus. It spreads from forest bat to pigs in an industrial pork farm. It mutates during its brief stint in the pigsties and finds its way to its first human host, a chef in Macau, who becomes infected through his contiguity with the sick pig’s infected blood. From there it spreads to an American tourist, Mitch’s wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as one of the waiters in the restaurant, a man from Hong Kong. Each of them spreads it to the people who come into contact with them, et voila – we have the beginning of a bona fide epidemic. The CDC does its best to find patient zero, while virologists try to isolate and examine the new pathogen. Director Steven Soderbergh, of Ocean’s Eleven fame, consulted multiple virologists during the making of the movie, while some of the cast members even learned how to do things like taking genetic samples. Unlike most disaster movies, Contagion doesn’t end with the destruction of humanity or even the collapse of civil society. The movie sounds and feels like it was ripped straight out of a handbook on viral outbreaks, and that’s what makes it worth a watch.

On Christopher Nolan and Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is a mediocre movie. And the reason lies not in the product, but in its creator and his hubris. What was supposed to be a modern sci-fi epic in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, turned out to be no more than a melodramatic adventure movie with pretences of intellectual depth.

Around the release of the movie, many gushed over the stunning visuals of Interstellar, praising its beauty, as well as the realism of the CGI. I’d be inclined to agree, if we were discussing still photography. But the fact of the matter is that Interstellar is a boring movie in every sense of the word, and that includes its visuals. See, most great directors have mastered the art of visual storytelling. Blocking, lighting, transitions and editing, different in-camera effects. What Interstellar presents us with is sterile cinematography. There’s nothing clever about the way things are shown and presented to the viewer. No depth to the image. No meaning behind it. Everyone remembers the match cut in 2001, the one that transitions from a bone thrown in the air, the very first weapon in the history of humanity, into an orbiting satellite with nuclear capabilities. There is very little of that in Interstellar. The cinematography of Interstellar can only be described as functional. It shows you what is happening. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s very little symbolism or world building to be derived from it. Take a look at this still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001-A-Space-Odyssey-024.jpg

This is a great example of a meaningful shot. As the apes huddle around the black monolith that has appeared in their lair over night, the camera is placed at its very bottom, staring up at the rising sun. It’s the dawn of man. The beginning of our long journey, our evolution. There is much more that can be said about this in the context of the film, but I won’t go any further than that.

Now look at this page full of stills from Interstellar. Thousands upon thousands of them, probably every single shot of the movie is in there. And what do we see? Establishing shots. Close-ups. Mid-shots. Shot-reverse shot during conversations. The occasional view of the Earth from far away. Some stills of a CGI black hole. Dust. Space. There really isn’t much to look at, and really the only memorable shot was during the chase sequence with Dr. Mann, when the geography is distorted and seems to be closing in on the camera, heightening the tension and raising the stakes.

Now, one must agree that the lighting is quite exceptional and van Hoytema did a great job, considering the spacial constraints inside the space ships. It’s never easy for a cinematographer to work with practical effects, especially ones that move and are as complex as those in Interstellar. That is one thing I will always praise Nolan for – avoiding CGI when it isn’t strictly necessary and using practical effects where possible.

The issues I have with Interstellar’s cinematography play into a much wider problem I have with Nolan’s work, and that is his tendency to tell instead of show. There is a constant barrage of ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ in Interstellar. Characters spend minutes describing things to each other that both parties should already know. Whole discussions end up being nothing but very thinly veiled exposition. Nolan’s movies aren’t known for their riveting and believable dialogue, his brother Jonathan, the one who writes and co-writes all of his movies, is no Tarantino. It’s an issue that was most obvious in Inception, where one of the main characters served almost no other purpose than to ask questions so the audience could learn the rules of the world. Much the same can be seen all throughout Interstellar. Scientists, considered the best the world has to offer, sit around and discuss relativity like 8th graders, just so the viewer could learn that 1 hour on the planet they’re about to touch down on is equal to 7 years on Earth. Which in and of itself is hooey. Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist and scientific consultant for Interstellar, did his best to explain to Nolan that it was impossible for something like that to occur, but alas he was forced to bend the rules of physics in order to come up with a half-way plausible scenario.

The final scenes of the movie are always completely spoiled by this insatiable need to placate the audience with needless information. Initially, the inside of the black hole is interesting, it’s odd, it’s mysterious. But as the viewer tries to piece together the puzzle, to understand how this queer place, one that modern scientist aren’t even close to understanding, works, he’s overwhelmed by narration. The sense of wonder vanishes, as does our interest in what is happening on-screen, as everything is explained, down to the most minute detail. Connections are made instead of us. There is no payoff because Nolan takes it from us, replacing the satisfaction of figuring out a complex sequence of events with a melodramatic shouting session, courtesy of Matthew McConaughey.

And that brings me to the last point I want to touch on. As the credits roll, we’re hit with a realization – this movie wasn’t about saving the world from starvation or lack of oxygen. It was about family. Now, that could work, of course, anything could work as long as the execution is good enough. I’m sure that someone somewhere has a brilliant idea about how to put together a movie that combines familial struggles with epic space opera. That someone isn’t Christopher Nolan. Why? Because his characterization is abhorrent. His protagonists are almost always tropes, as are most of his characters in general. They act like walking clichés. Everything about them is plastic, it feels like you’ve already met them before, quite a few times at that. And that’s because Nolan doesn’t care about his characters, or his story for that matter. The man has a set of abstract ideas in his head, and very rarely do those ideas translate into anything more than a good popcorn movie with well-choreographed stunt work, great practical effects and horrible fight scenes. And I say that as someone who considers The Dark Knight to be the greatest blockbuster film ever made. But at the end of the day, that’s what his movies are – blockbusters. They’re meant to make money, not push boundaries. And decent movies make quite a bit more than bad ones.

 

 

Under 800: Come and See (1985)

Come and See is possibly one of the most bleak, depressing experiences that cinema has to offer. Elem Klimov’s film about the Nazi invasion of Byelorussia follows a young boy’s descent into madness and desperation at the sight of the unspeakable horrors unfolding around him. At first the boy, Florya, is excited to become a partisan and defend his country. He digs through the sand near his village in search of a gun, a remnant of past skirmishes, in order to join the resistance forces and aid his fellow countrymen in the Sacred War. But his enthusiasm is short-lived. Every bit of Florya’s innocence is dismantled and discarded. First he loses his childish looks and the happy gleam in his eyes, then he loses his hearing and, finally, his mind.

What makes Come and See the definitive portrayal of the horrors of war is its detachment thereof. When Florya’s forced to give his boots to an older and more experienced partisan and is left behind by his comrades, there is no judgement on the film’s part. When the bombs fall and Florya and his new friend, Glosha, are nearly killed, there is no judgement. When Florya finally realizes his mother and sisters are dead, there is, again, no judgement. The list of atrocities grows ever longer, yet Klimov refrains from giving the viewer anything other than Florya’s reaction, his pain, his fear and confusion, only occasionally interrupted by the camera’s meandering through the bloody mise-en-scene.  It’s simply the story of a boy that is forced to endure, to survive in a climate that so many succumbed to, that haunts our collective consciousness even today, more than 70 years after the end of the war.

Not once are we, the viewers, permitted to avert our gaze. The camera focuses on the hellscape that surrounds Florya. There is no optimism to be found in Come and See, no respite for the boy or for the viewer. In scene after scene we see charred fields, misty villages full of unhealthy-looking common folk, bogs and swamps, destruction and decay. Nothing remains whole in this world for long, not the characters, not the scenery, not even the animals. When Florya and his uncle steal a cow in order to feed the people of their village, they are almost immediately beset by sentry fire in the middle of an open field. The uncle dies, but his passing is quick, painless and almost tranquil. The cow on the other hand stands amid the whizzing bullets, utterly confused and unable to process what is happening before finally being hit and killed. Much like the common people, those who suffered the bulk of both Stalin and Hitler’s murderous fantasies and power games, it was caught in the middle of something much larger than itself, something it couldn’t comprehend. And maybe it shouldn’t be able to comprehend it. After all, war is not part of nature. It’s a human creation that escaped our grasp and morphed into something that runs contrary to everything we are, everything we should be.

One of the main components of this carefully composed parade of confusion and terror is the sound design. There is overlapping babble of soldiers during the scenes in which the camera is left to wander, abandoning Florya’s nightmarish perception of what is unfolding around him and taking a stroll through the devastation, giving us an unflinching look at the pain and suffering caused by the Nazis on their march through Byelorussia, which we are told at the end of the movie resulted in 628 villages burned, along with the people in them. Back in Florya’s skin, we’re subjected to constant noise, reminding us of his damaged hearing and acting as a sort of barrier between him and the rest of the world. It is only at the very end of the movie that we hear music, uninterrupted and pure, as the camera looks up, towards the snow covered peaks of the pine trees in the forest and Mozart’s Lacrimosa from Requiem plays. The viewer is left to make of that what they will. Is it a hint of optimism at the end of a film that portrayed the beginning of a bloody campaign? Or is it Klimov’s way of saying c’est la vie and turning to the sky in a sign of complete bewilderment and desperation?

And, of course, I can’t help but mention the one sequence that most people talk about after seeing this movie. Florya, after witnessing the execution of the men responsible for the mass murder just minutes earlier in the film’s run time, sees a portrait of Hitler floating in the mud. As he points his gun at it and pulls the trigger, he witnesses time running backwards. All the events at the end of World War 2 are reversed. We see Hitler’s life in rewind all the way back to his first days on this planet, as a new-born babe in his mother’s hands. And Florya, shocked, lets go of the trigger. Again, no clear-cut answer is provided. Was Florya taken aback by the realization that his sworn enemy was not, in fact, an alien or a monster, but rather a human being just like him, yet capable of unspeakable evils, testament to the darkest parts of our psyche? Or did Florya simply snap at that moment and lose what remained of his marbles, going off with his comrades to fight in the war as a way of coping with his complete loss of humanity? Most great movies are ambiguous, and this one is no exception.