LIFE ITSELF (2018)

September 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The theory is that heavy dramas find it challenging to attract an audience during times when real life and newscasts are filled with daily downers. One need only tune in to the local news to see that we are in just such a “downer” period right now, and it would be difficult to argue that this latest from writer/director Dan Fogelman (“This is Us”) is anything but the weightiest of heavy dramas – with an emphasis on the preciousness of time and life.

It’s highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It’s a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won’t debate the merits of that criticism, and instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be entertaining, thought-provoking, and carry a worthwhile message.

Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Hero” and features Samuel L Jackson as the unreliable narrator – a recurring theme throughout. It’s also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.

Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan’s face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to “The Gonzalez Family” of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, VICTORIA), and Javier’s boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione’s olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle … or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L Jackson’s place after Chapter 1 is revealed.

Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (CRAZY STUPID LOVE) than as a director (DANNY COLLINS), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the CRASH of family dramas (the 2004 movie, not the one from 1996). Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here, but Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back – to “stand up” after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.

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VICTORIA (2015)

November 28, 2015

victoria Greetings again from the darkness. You have surely seen more complex and intricate bank robbery movies, but it’s doubtful you’ve seen one more ambitious from a technical standpoint. In a remarkable achievement of commitment, planning, and technical execution (plus some good luck), director Sebastian Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovler deliver 2 hours and 14 minutes with a single take and a low budget. It’s a testament to the cast and crew, as well as the advancements in digital equipment (mobility and battery life).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, both utilized extended/seamless takes in fascinating manner; however, it’s Mr. Schipper’s film that takes us through multiple locations – a dance club, the streets of Berlin, the roof of a building, a local café, inside a stolen van, back to the dance club, through an inner city escape, and into a luxury hotel. That’s right … each of these puzzle pieces are generated without ever pausing the camera or editing a shot. You might expect nausea-inducing shaky cam, but instead it plays more like we viewers are along for the ride.

Beyond the technical goodies, we get two fine performances from Frederick Lau as the streetwise and smooth-talking Sonne, and especially Laia Costa as Victoria. The titular character is first spotted enjoying a sweaty dance to thumping club music before leaving the club and bumping into Sonne and his group of “real Berlin guys”. It all seems playful enough, but as the flirtations escalate between Victoria and Sonne, we sense things could become a bit more ominous. The first part of the film really allows us to get to know these two as they get to know each other. Victoria’s childhood story explains much about her reactions throughout the ordeal, and it’s also the point that we realize our infatuation with her is justified.

Things do in fact turn ominous for the group, and a criminal act conducted out of desperation leads to a few action-oriented sequences … each impressive in light of the single-shot approach. No CGI as a fallback and no carefully manipulated sets. Instead, the actors and camera must continue, no matter the glitches or obstacles that real time tosses in their path.

Run Lola Run (1998) may be the best comparison for the frantic pace, but in actuality, the film has no legitimate pairing given the 2 plus hours single shot approach. You may choose to see this for the technical achievement that it is, and the guess is you will be equally impressed with Ms. Costa.

watch the trailer: