Monday, September 8, 2008

Monday Movie Day Reviews: An Ode to Humanity

Each of these films takes a look at the value of human life from a unique perspective. One looks at the vibrancy and creativity of the human soul through the story of two boys. Another looks at the darkness of the human condition through the impact of violence on a family. A third evaluates the meaning of human existence through the eyes of an elderly dying man. All are worthy and valuable films in their own right.

Son of Rambow (2008): Imagine Be Kind Rewind, only more touching, a bit more coherent, and with British kids. Living in 1980s Britain, Will is a quiet boy with a vivid imagination. He is growing up in a strict religious environment (think Amish), but is attending a public school. He meets Lee, a smart-mouthed troublemaker who is making a movie for a BBC contest. The two boys bond over making the film, combining Will's imagination with Lee's resourcefulness. When a group of other students want in on the film-making, the boys' friendship is put to the test.

I fell in love with the two boys. There was so much vitality and life in their characters, and I strongly related with Will. I remember running around in elementary school, attacking imaginary villains with invented weapons, saving the world and becoming the hero. I remember staring out windows, picturing the hidden world I was inventing in my mind. Sure, it seems silly now, but I filled notebooks with characters I imagined, created adventures and epic stories, then lived them out on the playground or in my room. I saw myself in Will, his mildly awkward yet insightful look at the world.

This is a story of friendship and family, but it is also a story of art and creativity. The boys take their art incredibly seriously. They don't want anyone else involved; and disaster strikes when their work is invaded by others. It's interesting: most artists know that their work will be displayed for the world to see, yet they are extremely private and protective of it while creating it. Only when it is complete and the artist has given birth to the work that it can be set loose for the pleasure and criticism of the world. The boys' story embodies this  well.

A History of Violence (2005): Directed by David Cronenberg (who directed one of my favorite films of last year, Eastern Promises), the film is an in-depth study of violence embodied in the character of a man. Tom Stall is a quiet family man and owner of a small-town diner. (I love the imagery of the name; "stall" implies that he is both penned-up and delaying the inevitable). He loves his wife; his son is a quiet and resourceful kid; his daughter represents innocence and purity. When he violently thwarts a robbery and becomes a local hero, the consequences prove dire. The lesson here is that violence begets violence. From the robbery scene onward, the entire tone of the film changes. Paranoia sweeps the family as mobsters begin to harass them, believing Tom to be a former gangster. As more secrets about Tom and his past are revealed, the violence increases to a crescendo, with an abrupt and redemptive ending that leaves one shaken. The film begs the question: when is the use of violence justifiable? Is it ever? What are the consequences of violence? Is there redemption for the violent? Viggo Mortensen gives a powerful and subtle performance as Tom. While I think his performance in Eastern Promises was much more memorable, he creates a very deep and complex character, communicating a great deal of inner turmoil with very few words or motion. Ultimately, it's a very uncomfortable film to watch; the violence is brutal and explicit. But it's also a deep look at the human condition, and I'll definitely reflect upon this for days.

Ikiru (1952): Akira Kurosawa is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. Rashomon would definitely be my "top films of all-time" list. I love the depth of his characters and the spiritual and moral overtones in each film. Ikiru moves away from Kurosawa's samurai narratives and focuses on a dreary bureaucrat working endlessly in a city office. When Watanabe discovers that he has cancer and only a few months left to live, he hits a crisis point. He's lived a meaningless life of stamping papers in an office. What will his legacy be? He first tries to drown his sorrows, spending an entire night drinking and partying. Then he tries to forget his inevitable death by spending as much time as he can with young people, vibrant and full of life. When both hedonism and denial leave him still feeling empty, he continues the search. Like a play, there are two main acts for this film. The first is told from the point of view of Watanabe and his search for meaning. The second half is shown five months later at Watanabe's wake, where his co-workers and family have gathered to remember him using many flashback sequences.

The spiritual element to this film is both thought-provoking and timeless. Like a Japanese "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Wild Strawberries," it takes a look one man's life and the impact he leaves on the world. If you want an introspective film or Kurosawa at his best, check this out.

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