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My Own Private Idaho Review

The Human Condition

                                                           – The human condition is “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.”

Gus Van Sant’s Masterpiece

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote,
“The achievement of this film is that it wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass.”

The main source materials for My Own Private Idaho’s screenplay were two completely separate scripts and a short story, all written by Gus Van Sant. One of the scripts was a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV – part I and Henry IV – part IIVan Sant had actually discarded his original screenplay written in the 1970s after reading the novel City of Night by John Rechy and concluded that Rechy’s handling of the subject of street hustlers was better than his own. After unsuccessful attempts at acquiring Hollywood financing Van Sant explored the idea of making the film on minuscule budget with a cast of actual street kids. After Van Sant sent copies of his script to Reeves and then Reeves showed it to Phoenix, both agreed to star in the film on each other’s behalf.

Scott and Bob, their plot and, most of the time, dialogue is based on the Shakespeare play Henry IV; with Keanu Reeves playing the Prince Hal character of Scott, and William Richert playing the Falstaff like role of “King Of The Streets” Bob. Scott comes from an upper class family, he is the mayor’s son, a preppy prince who is rebelliously slumming in the streets defying even his sexuality. Bob is the leader of the band of hustlers and a father figure to Scott. Scott and Bob’s storyline plays out like a surrealist representation of Shakespeare. In stark contrast; Mike played by River Phoenix is a lovelorn narcoleptic drifter who spends his nights hustling on the streets of Portland, Oregon struggling with his interior journey from fragile adolescence to precarious adulthood, and his desultory attempts to find his missing mother. Flea (a founding member of the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers) also appears in yet another Van Sant film as Budd, loyal manservant to mentor Bob. Scott and Mike decide to go on the road in search of mike’s mother which takes them from Portland all the way to Italy and back meeting quirky characters along the way including a client who likes his room very, very clean and a young woman who falls in love with Scott.

mike

Idaho is, above all, a road movie and so we begin with a shot of a long stretch of highway that curves and disappears beyond the hill. Mike slides into the view with his cheek covered in a ragged blond sideburn and faint tracings of adolescent acne feels so close; it disorients and grounds you almost instantly. He looks down the road, “There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road . . . It’s one kind of place . . . Like a fucked-up face,” he says talking not entirely to himself but not quite to us either. It smoothly gets us in touch with Mike’s way of seeing things and then Van Sant helpfully guides you through mike’s point of view of the relevant features : the eyes are two bushes on the hill and the smile the shadow of a passing cloud . Suddenly, Mike collapses in the middle of the road. He dreams a faded home movie of himself as a child, safe in the arms of his mother, seated on the porch of a wood-frame house. Clouds rush across the sky, salmon leap in slow motion upriver, and Mike wakes in a Seattle hotel room, being sucked off by a balding, beer-bellied man. Mike reaches orgasm and a wooden barn comes crashing out of the sky, splintering onto the highway. These first few scenes are enough to give you an idea that this is not your typical coming of age movie.

A Flawed Gem

Some people describe My Own Private Idaho as ‘cinematic poetry’ whereas others argue that it is nothing but ‘absolute drivel disguised as art’ or even a ‘forced Shakespearean disaster’. But for me it is a flawed and forced but impactful and evocative narration of basic human needs of ‘love’ and ‘home’. Its flawed nature is what gives it character and grounds it in reality despite of its over the top and theatrical treatment. The sixties underground film scene had long disappeared at the dawn of the 1990s but Andy Warhol was still a major influence and postmodernist aesthetics still dominated the art world to some extent. These influences are most prominently evident in Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s third feature film which in some ways remains his most ambitious project.

mike and scott

Van Sant masterfully mixes documentary style realism with over the top improvised, theatrical Shakespearean outbursts of dialogue interspersed with home-movie dream sequences and Rudy Valle and The Pogues playing on the soundtrack. Through a clever use of provocative characters, poetic dialogue and grounded surrealism,  Idaho successfully evokes that state of mind where we become most aware of our human condition.

Sadly from this pinnacle Van Sant would go slowly but very surely downhill towards the main stream “Good Will Hunting” and the misguided “Psycho” remake.

My Own Private River

Idaho is one of those movies that has been on my ‘to watch’ list for  a long time and although I had seen bits and pieces of it before I saw the entirety of the film just recently. Idaho is many things, a road movie, a comedy, a coming-of-age movie, a Shakespeare play, a surreal picture; but for me personally, it just screams River Phoenix from the beginning to the very end and I believe that must be the case with most people. In fact it has been almost three decades since the film’s initial release and it wouldn’t even be on my radar weren’t it for my pitiable obsession with River Phoenix.

At the time of release in 1991, in an interview Gus Van Sant said,                                                                           “The character of Mike was originally kind of asexual. Sex was something that he traded in, so he had no real sexual identity. But because he’s bored and they’re in the desert, he makes a pass at his friend. And it just sort of goes by, but his friend also notices that he needs something, he needs to be close, so he says, ‘We can be friends,’ and he hugs him. That was all it was going to be. But River makes it more like he’s attracted to his friend, that he’s really in love with him. He made the whole character that way.”

campfire

Anyone who has seen the movie knows that the campfire scene is one of the most incredibly touching and realistic scenes in the film and to know how much of it was pure River just makes me so happy. River Phoenix brings to his roles more than just his boyish charm and good looks. His performance as the narcoleptic and confused street hustler Mike is so poignant and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with him. None would or could argue that My Own Private Idaho, the best independent film of the 1990s, is the film that River Phoenix will long be remembered for.

Manchester by the Sea Review

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a 2016 American drama film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey AffleckMichelle WilliamsKyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges.

Story

At the very beginning we are introduced to the central character of Lee chandler, a handyman (played by Casey Affleck) who goes about living a solitary life in a single room basement doing electrical work, plumbing, taking out the garbage and an array of other mundane tasks for the grumpy tenants of the building he works at. His older brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler) lives in Manchester, a seaside town an hour up the coast, with his son, Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges). News of joe’s death sends Lee back to Manchester, the site of a loss so terrible that none dare to mention it. He is not just Lee Chandler here but ‘the Lee Chandler’.

Lee and Joe

Back in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea while staying in Joe’s home and arranging Joe’s funeral, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has named him as Patrick’s guardian. Reluctant to commit to the guardianship and unwilling to move back to Manchester, but opposed to returning Patrick to his estranged alcoholic mother, Lee makes plans for Patrick to move back to Boston with him. Patrick, deeply rooted in the Manchester community, objects to the idea.

The Oddball Relationships

Lee’s shrewd face pulses with anger as he tries to understand this unexpected burden of responsibility that he definitely did not bargain for. With clenched teeth and the most subtle pursed lips he goes to bars, ignores attractive women coming on to him and instead finds men to fight. A sociopath withdrawn from the world, who ignores any and every display of affection suddenly finds himself as the legal guardian of a 16-year-old, who in his own words “have two girlfriends and is in a band”. Patrick, in stark contrast to Lee, is a mixture of vulnerable, clueless and precociously worldly; and in many ways much better at masking his own grief than his uncle, until it finally pours out when a freezer spillage sparks a panic attack.

Lee and Patrick

This odd couple relationship between lee and his nephew is what dominates the bulk of the movie and that is definitely not a bad thing but it does divert from some of the other interesting characters. Randi (played by Michelle Williams) gets particularly sidelined diminishing the complexity of her character as most of her is explored through flashbacks of the past and a particularly heart-wrenching scene when Lee and Randi attempt to mend their relationship in an alleyway but ultimately fail.

Lee and Randi

Lonergan

Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director, previously co-wrote “Sopranos” a lite comedy and “Analyse this (1999)”; and made his directorial debut with “You Can Count On Me (200)” and later In 2005, filming took place for his second film as writer/director, MargaretThe film spent over five years in post-production, with Lonergan, the producers and various editors unable to agree on its final cut, resulting in multiple legal disputes. It was finally released in 2011 to critical acclaim. He earned an Academy Award for Best Director nomination for Manchester by the Sea, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for You Can Count on Me.

Lonergan’s precision with his actors, the way he invokes a sense of place and the level of control of tone is strikingly visible throughout the film. The way he methodically strives to avoid false notes is masterful work. It might not have the risk and sprawl of his 2011 masterpiece ‘Margaret’; even so it does not follow predetermined story arcs and sob stories of loss and eventual healing and harmony we may be expecting.

Lonergan breaks the monotonous, mundane proceedings of the present by interspersing it with trickling increments of past events as carefully placed critical scenes, each provoked by current circumstances or thoughts of the characters. An exchange with a doctor in a hospital lift brings us back to the moment when Joe was first diagnosed, before Lee pays his last respects in the mortuary room.

Boat

Life as it is lived

Manchester by the Sea, is an honest portrayal of life as it is lived in the real world. Life with no narrative closure. Emptiness is hard to portray and is too often represented by blank stares and vacant glances. Manchester by the Sea, avoids those oversights with its superbly complementing location and its two contrasting timelines with performances that bring into service the full range of its outstanding cast.

Lonergan’s film unapologetically suggests that life simply carries on; at some point, a decision is made and the courage found to keep up with it. As “Margaret” Lonergan’s films have always been more like works-in-progress rather than perfectly finished artefacts and it left me wanting more. With an outstanding set and poignant performances, the winner of the Academy Awards for best original script and best actor is a definite must-see.

Arrival Review

Arrival

Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted by Eric Heisserer from the 1998 short story and novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It stars Amy AdamsJeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

The Story

Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist (played by Amy Adams) is brought in by the U.S Army Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) on the day twelve extraterrestrial spacecrafts land on seemingly random locations across the world. She is to join physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) at a military camp in Montana and help their team to decipher the alien language.

lousie-and-ian

Inside the spacecraft Louise and Ian make contact with two seven limbed aliens or “Heptapods” nicknamed Abbot and Costello who reveal that they have a written language made up of complicated circular symbols.

human-in-heptapod

Human in Heptapod

Louise’s mission is to understand the alien language and ask the extraterrestrials a simple question “Why are you here ?” the answer to which result in distrust among the nations of the world and political tensions rise. Communications between the UFO sites across the world are broken down and China prepares for an offensive move against the alien beings.

Louise at the Montana site however continues to learn the alien language. As she becomes more proficient she starts seeing vivid dreams and images leading her to make decisions that will affect not only her life but the future of humanity as well.

Not just another science-fiction film

In recent years there has been a surge in science-fiction movies that ditch the expected galactic adventure path and opt for a more subdued personal story path. Movies like “Interstellar” and “Gravity” do this particularly well. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is another great movie to join their ranks.

It is an intelligent and dramatic take on humanity’s first contact with alien life and not just an overblown spectacle like “Independence Day – Resurgence”. It is a film about grief and communication rather than lasers and spaceships. Where movies like “Gravity” and “Interstellar” explore the human survival instinct and space-time relation, language and communication are the major themes of “Arrival”. The idea of “Linguistic Relativity” of how understanding another language might alter our world view or cognition is masterfully realised through Louise, Amy Adam’s character. The nations of the world prepare their weapons as Louise strives to understand the alien language despite of fear among the people around her making a solid case for communication over conflict.

louise

Amy Adams at her best

The opening scenes of the movie shows Amy Adams’s character and her daughter “Hannah” and detail their life in a montage of images. Hannah’s birth, her brief life and eventually her death at an adolescent age from cancer. Throughout the movie you carry this information with you as you read Amy Adams’s expressions. The movie is not CGI heavy resulting in a space for her to work that is more grounded and relatable. This is quite possibly the most subtle yet complicated science-fiction movie performance I have seen and much of the films success is a testament of that.

spaceship

Music

Jóhann Jóhannsson began writing the score as shooting started, drawing on the screenplay and concept art for his inspiration. He developed one of the main themes in the first week using vocals and experimental piano loops. Max Richter‘s “On the Nature of Daylight” that opens and closes the film is much like the film, subtle but effective, and will surely stay with you.

Thank god for this film

Recently I have come across much hate for this movie on the internet and I must address that here. It seems that it is edgy now to hate on a movie that does not patronise but challenge the viewer in any way. “Arrival” is not a crowd pleaser movie. It is a movie that asks questions and challenges its viewers to ponder upon those questions. Like with every film there are plot holes here as well. But the movie was not intended to perfectly portray reality but to present the limits of communication, how individuals handle grief and understanding our place in the universe. I agree that the movie does focus too much on cramming everything into the film and might no longer seem as subtle as it should have been. And it does particularly suffer from a slow and uninteresting middle part sandwiched between an intriguing start and an excellent end. But honestly, after a parade of stupid films that exist only to please the masses “Arrival” is a breath of fresh air.