Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes, 2014) ***1/2

Six short stories, all centered on the theme of revenge, make up this Spanish-language film from Argentina. Better translated as “Savage Tales,” the stand-alone short films are written and directed by Damian Szifron.

“Pasternak” is the tale of a plane full of travelers who discover, to their rising horror, that they share something in common. “Las Ratas” (The Rats) tells the story of a waitress who is presented with the long-hoped-for opportunity for revenge. “El Mas Fuerte” (The Strongest) is about road-rage that escalates out of control. “Bombita” (Little Bomb), starring Ricardo Darin (“The Aura”, “Nine Queens”) is about an explosives engineer with a short fuse who gets fed up with his city's parking enforcement. In “La Propuesta” (The Proposal), a rich kid commits a hit-and-run vehicular homicide, and his parents try to pay someone to take the blame. In the final tale, “Hasta que la Muerte Nos Separe” (Til Death Do Us Part), a bride discovers, during her wedding, her new husband's infidelity, and she wreaks a revenge as dramatic as it is hilarious.

I was highly anticipating this award-winning film, and for the most part I was not disappointed. The stories explore revenge from a variety of angles, with sometimes unpredictable results. They don't always follow the standard Hollywood message about revenge being a futile and destructive enterprise. Some of these characters actually enjoy their payback. The film is, perhaps, a bit uneven. The black humor sometimes just turns black, and the characters in “El Mas Fuerte” and “La Propuesta” are so uniformly unlikeable that those stories are a bit harder to watch. “Bombita,” on the other hand, is a beautiful morality tale that boldly subverts its own premise. The best of the bunch is the finale, “Hasta que la Muerte Nos Separe”. The bride's transformation from heartbroken princess to wild-eyed, wanton Fury is delightful and hilarious.

Montage films like this often link all the stories in some way, sometimes getting a little too cute with it. I like that Damian Szifron didn't do that. Other than the common theme of revenge, the stories here truly stand alone, yet they go quite well together. I had lately been in a drought when it comes to Spanish-language films, and “Wild Tales” was just what I needed.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 25, 2015

All is Lost (2013) **** -Spoilers-

This is one that I put off watching for a long time because it sounded pretty grim. It was billed as a story of a lone sailor battling the elements and, based on the title, presumably losing. So I'm going to break my usual rule against spoilers by saying that all is not necessarily lost. The sailor gets rescued at the end, although it's possible to interpret the ending as a dying hallucination, maybe even a metaphor for entering the afterlife. Director J.C. Chandor has said that audiences are split roughly 50-50 in terms of which interpretation they choose. He seems perfectly satisfied with this ambiguity. I found it thought-provoking, but I think some viewers may feel cheated by an ambiguous ending, which is why I am giving you fair warning.

Robert Redford plays the sailor, a grizzled but fit old guy sailing alone in the Indian Ocean. The story begins with an accident. The sailor wakes up to the sound of a crash, followed by water gushing into his cabin. Out in the middle of nowhere, where he should have been perfectly safe, his boat has crashed into one of those metal shipping containers, which must have fallen off a cargo ship at some point. There shouldn't be anything in this section of ocean, but there this container is, gouging a hole in his boat.

Our sailor sets to work dealing with the situation, getting his boat separated from the container, then working to patch the hole, pump out the water, and dry out all his damaged electronics. With no radio or navigation equipment, however, he wanders into the path of a massive storm, which ultimately damages his boat again. He never gives up, but despite his best efforts, the situation continues to worsen.

Robert Redford is the only actor in the movie, and he hardly uses his voice at all. I always thought it must be hard for actors to memorize all those lines, but I think what Redford does here is much harder, conveying everything through facial expression and body language.

“All is Lost” deserves the prize for Most Existentialist Film of 2013. The point of the film is summed up in a letter the sailor composes for his family, where he says, “I want you all to know that I fought until the end, if that matters.” No matter how dire things get, how bad the storm, he keeps trying, and he even takes a moment to appreciate the beauty around him. It may not matter how you interpret the ending, because the point is not the end, but how he comports himself along the way. The important thing is not how he dies, but how he lived, because even if the sea doesn't take him, something eventually will, and the fact is we all have a shipping container waiting for us out there.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Life Itself (2014) ****

How do you write about a movie about a guy whose life was spent writing about movies? In this case, you do it with gratitude for a film that beautifully and sometimes heartbreakingly celebrates one of America's most beloved writers. “Life Itself,” based on film critic Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name, is Ebert's life story, focusing on his career as a film critic and on his end-of-life struggle with throat cancer. Given that Ebert essentially wrote it, this is an impressively warts-and-all biopic. The audience is not spared Ebert's history of alcoholism, his legendary petulance with his frenemy Gene Siskel, nor the gruesome facial disfigurement of his cancer surgeries.

Almost everyone is familiar with Roger Ebert's name, but if you have never read his movie reviews, you should do yourself a favor and check out his website. ( Ebert once said that “movies are a machine for generating empathy.” By this he referred to the process of sharing human stories, of seeing not just the consequences of characters' actions, but also their struggles and motivations, of seeing the humanity of the villain and the frailty of the hero. A good movie doesn't just lull us with sex and violence, it helps give us the language to understand ourselves and each other; it generates empathy. All art is designed to do this, but I think film may be the most accessible to the masses of people, and thus it has the greatest overall potential to increase the amount of empathy in the world.

Ebert certainly believed this, and thus his writing, while always intelligent and literate, was essentially populist. He didn't talk down to his readers, but he wrote with an understanding that the movies and his reviews of them were available to a wide audience, and he attempted to consider the tastes of his entire audience in his reviews. “Life Itself” shows a clip from “Sneak Previews” in which Siskel and Ebert argue about the movie “Benji the Hunted.” Siskel hated the trite movie, but Ebert defended it, pointing out that it was aimed at children and should be evaluated in that light. That belief informed all of his reviews.

At a full two hours, “Life Itself” may be just slightly longer than it needs to be, but I only wound up feeling restless at one point, and that quickly faded. Audiences should also be prepared to see the grim results of Mr. Ebert's throat surgeries, which finally left him without a lower jawbone and with no connection between his mouth and his throat. Despite that, his face is still surprisingly expressive, his eyes still sparkle, and his warmth still shines through.

If I came away from “Life Itself”with a warm, fuzzy feeling about Roger Ebert's life, it isn't because of all he accomplished as a film writer. It's owing to the dignity and optimism with which he and his family are shown facing his death. I suppose we should keep in mind that Ebert had some creative control here, so we are seeing him as he wanted to be seen. Nonetheless, having read his movie reviews for years, I know that the humor and empathy are real. Roger Ebert was a man who loved movies and loved people, and loved helping people enjoy movies.

4 stars out of 5