Leatherneck

May 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

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On The Docket: Trailers

April 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Submarine

Submarine is a coming of age story revolving around Oliver Tate, a knowledgeable yet socially awkward schoolboy who desires to fix his broken family and lose his virginity before his sixteenth birthday. Set to a pulsating score by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, the film, which debuted at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival and the 27th Sundance Film Festival, is a comedic portrait of adolescence and its respective idiosyncrasies.  Be sure to catch it in limited release when it hits theaters June 3rd.

Hesher

Loner. Rebel. Anarchist. Hesher tells the story of a tormented adolescent, and his strange, but life changing relationship with an unlikely mentor.  The film made waves at last years Sundance Film Festival, and is currently set for U.S. release this spring.

Natural Selection – Clip

Making his feature film debut, Writer/Director Robbie Pickering brings us the story of Linda, a Christian housewife who meets her 25 year old son for the first time after discovering her husband has secretly been donating his sperm.  The two of them embark on an odd yet momentous journey of self-discovery, forcing Linda to confront the demons of her past. The quirky dramedy starring Rachael Harris, Jon Gries, and Matt O’Leary, premiered at South by Southwest, and is still awaiting a date for wide-release.

Perfect Sense

As cryptic as the trailer is, Perfect Sense is the story of two people who fall in love as the world quickly descends into chaos.  Starring Eva Green (Casino Royale) and Ewan McGregor (Big Fish), the film revolves around Susan and Michael, two people who develop a burgeoning relationship in the wake of an epidemic.  The film, which premiered at Sundance, has yet to find a release date.

Miral

The fourth feature film from acclaimed director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Miral takes place in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war, where Miral, a naive seventeen-year-old girl is forced to choose between her passion for education, or the allegiance of her people.  The film is currently in theaters, playing in limited release.

Sympathy for Delicious

Making his directorial debut, actor Mark Ruffalo leads a cast that includes Orlando Bloom, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, and relative unknown Christopher Thornton.  The film revolves around a newly paralyzed D.J. who discovers the gift of healing and affects the lives of those around him.  Sympathy for Delicious was a sleeper hit, winning the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and scoring a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. It has yet to find a release date in the U.S.

By Zack Campbell, staff film writer.

Unexpected Transcendence: The Films of Wes Anderson

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Charming. Absurd. Bold and unique. Wes Anderson is one of the most interesting directors to emerge during the rise of independent film in recent years, and his style is perhaps the most defined and recognizable of his contemporaries. He has also, at times, been one of the most misunderstood, but his films speak for themselves when the audience listens sincerely.

Wes Anderson’s career began with the short film Bottle Rocket, which appeared at Sundance in 1994. Anderson wrote the screenplay with his old friend Owen Wilson, and it launched Wilson’s career as well. The short opens with two characters (played by Owen and his brother Luke) walking quickly and having an argument about the character Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch. Suddenly, the argument ends and they casually rob a house while upbeat jazz plays. The juxtaposition of intentional visual movement and absurd dialogue creates strong curious interest in a surprising new way. This ‘curiously unique’ quality, a rare gem in filmmaking, has been central to Wes Anderson’s films since. The short continues: we see the two characters in a diner and learn that they were robbing the house of Luke’s character’s parents. Suddenly, we realize that these characters are a couple of very simple, slightly pathetic guys stuck in Nowhere, USA, and they become immediately more charming. Already in this early work, Wes Anderson’s brilliant humor was apparent. The beauty of it is that it is always just a little bit sad. He evokes a more robust emotion than other comedy, a more human experience.

Fortunately, a few Hollywood notables recognized the

Anderson/Wilson team as a true and distinctly new voice that could speak directly to the emerging independent culture, and Bottle Rocket was remade as a full-length feature in 1996. Because of its obvious difference from typical Hollywood comedy, however, the film screened very badly. Its limited release kept it from reaching the audience that would appreciate it and appreciate it deeply. Again fortunately, Anderson got another shot withRushmore in 1998. And again, the film failed to make budget. But Anderson received constant critical acclaim for both films, and he got one more chance. Finally, with proper promotion and distribution, The Royal Tenenbaums was a financial success in 2001. Since then, Anderson has made The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004, The Darjeeling Limited (along with the short film Hotel Chevalier) in 2007, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009.

Despite being filled with bizarre characters that do not immediately seem relatable, Wes Anderson’s films create powerful feelings of connection in audiences. He captures the pains and joys of a young independent culture in a way that no other contemporary filmmaker has managed. His humor is gloriously awkward and ironic, a reflection of postmodern self-awareness. The absurd lack of emotion that actors express under Anderson’s direction flirts with existentialism, and yet he manages to create very powerful emotional responses in audiences because of the poignant accuracy of his depiction of living a life of numbness. People in this culture recognize themselves in the characters and are deeply moved by what it reveals to them. For example, Margot, played magnificently by Gwyneth Paltrow in Tenenbaums, has stopped herself from really showing any emotion at all to block out the pain of disappointment her father has caused her. She speaks flatly and rarely changes expression. When we see her cry on Richie’s shoulder at the end of the film, even though it is only soft and slight, the effect is truly heart-wrenching. The fact that we can see her trying to stifle her sadness is far more emotionally affecting to us now than watching wild displays of grief, because, as a modern culture, we constantly repress ourselves. We can relate better to subtle inward pain. Wes Anderson reveals this about us with fine artistic sensibility.

Anderson uses a very deliberate style of cinematography to tease out this subtle pathos. Characters are introduced by images of the objects they are surrounded with. Every shot is visually appealing because of its intentional color palette and spatial composition, which also makes the world Anderson creates surreal. In a way, the surrealism and obvious intention of this world keeps the audience at distance, something typically undesirable in film, but because even this is intentional, it makes the films even more distinctive and enjoyable. Without the confines of realism, Wes Anderson is able to speak to us in the way he really thinks – and, for many, we find that we relate better to that than most realism.

Because many contemporary independent-culturals feel an honest connection to Wes Anderson’s work, many others have insincerely claimed appreciation for his films, throwing them among their collections of hip memorabilia in an attempt to be fashionable. This type of cultural diffusion is not uncommon. Independent people constantly form new cultures around new art forms that truly speak to them; others admire the idea of independence and try to recreate it by ‘possessing’ its art. This system does at times have its benefits (for example, the fact that environmental concern is currently popular has dramatically aided this noble cause; even though many participate only because it is hip, they are still making a positive difference), but in most cases, it is detrimental. It has certainly marred the public image of Wes Anderson’s films, as they are often dismissed as hipster candy because of their association with that group. The inherent themes of Wes Anderson’s films actually discourage this act; the characters are often rich and defined by their possessions, lost in a backdrop of grandeur, but their dissatisfaction helps us recognize that such forms of self-identification can’t make anyone happy.

Perhaps the most powerful, subjective, and difficult-to-explain reason Wes Anderson’s films are great is that when they are truly appreciated, they create moments of transcendence. They fill the audience with both an intense longing for connection and a deep love for people. Every confused emotion of the film will come together into one heart-stopping moment, often slow motion images set to unique, triumphant music: Dignan proclaiming his innocence as he gets caught by the police in Bottle Rocket; the family walking solemnly away from Royal’s grave after he has redeemed himself and brought them all back together in Royal Tenenbaums; everyone reaching out to Steve Zissou in the submarine as he sees the jaguar shark, begins to cry and realizes he can’t kill it in Life Aquatic; the brothers finally throwing away their luggage as they run for the train in Darjeeling Limited. They are spiritual moments where visual art, distinct characterization, and literary closure blend seamlessly together. They open a window to something more real than realism.

Life is absurd. Life is sad. Life is joyous. Too many artists only let themselves see one aspect of life. Wes Anderson finds the sadness in absurdity, the absurdity in sadness, and the joy that can come from both, when people finally make real human connection. He shows it in a way that speaks directly to us now. If we can sincerely appreciate that, we might just be able to learn how to love life a little bit better.

By Aaron Young Smith, staff film writer.

Love, By Numbers

March 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

So it goes: Boy meets Girl. However, Boy isn’t the “typical” societal standard for masculinity. Nonetheless, he catches Girl’s attention with his witty quips, off-kilter humor, and quirky sensibilities. Girl is hesitant at first, but Boy is persistent. Needless to say, Girl eventually falls for Boy. Insert: montage set to relevant, low-fi, alternative music, with the aforementioned couple partaking in everyday activities, heightened by an amorous sense of whimsy. Nevertheless, despite the wholesomeness of the relationship, Boy manages to screw things up with what he mistakenly believes to be an innocuous comment and/or action stemming from his newly acquired false bravado. Girl says she “needs time to think,” but really just consumes an unruly amount of Häagen-Dazs ice-cream in one sitting, crying hysterically into her pillow as she does so.  In short, Boy ultimately wins back Girl by standing in front of her window, holding a boom box above his head while blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.  Now, love rekindled, their future together is uncertain, strangely exciting, and most importantly—left up to the interpretation of the audience.

Essentially, the description above is an example of every romantic comedy in the past twenty years. If you can believe it, there was once a time when this now formulaic plot structure was original. Regardless, the vast majority of studio-produced “Love stories” tend to follow this framework without giving it a second thought. That is not to say that these types of films are altogether bad, rather, they just tend to follow somewhat of a paralyzing formula. When a film, or more specifically a character is boxed in, and forced to adhere to a set standard, the capacity to grow and likewise belong to a larger world beyond the silver screen diminishes.  As a result, the margin of personal relation lessens, curtailing with the attendance of every rom-com.  Oddly enough, the allure of the typical “McConaughey-esque” romance film stems from a level of disconnect.  The average movie-goer is inherently aware that the goofy hi-jinks taking place on screen are gingerly misappropriated for their own sake.  Ultimately, this is the reason we watch romantic comedies to begin with; to latch on to some disfigured hope that somewhere in the world there exists a love such as this.  That alone is the intent of every major movie studio pumping out timeless “classics” like Valentines Day, Gigli, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; not to mention the obvious “game changer,” From Justin to Kelly. Heaven forbid any self-respecting movie studio dare inject a little reality into romance.

My diagnosis? Get out while the getting is good.  The only thing we can really take away from these films is the fact that reality sucks, and thus we should stoop to an even lower level of theatrics, binge drinking the proverbial elixir that is banality.  The fact is, reality doesn’t suck, and is often more interesting than fiction. Not to point fingers, but a particular story revolving around a certain frenetic teenage Labeouf, an indelibly plastic girl, and a group of inter-galactic English-speaking robots, all of whom seek the same goal (which is still a mystery to me), is a prime example of the latter.  This particular film is disposed to the idea that, when shrouded with overbearing generalities like the “hot” girl falling for the “geek,” anybody can relate; which simply isn’t true. Then again, its irreverent sequel Fighting-Robots-Who-Speak-English-and-Transform-Into-Stuff 2, proved that the same formula can be used twice.  Needless to say, just because it can, that doesn’t mean it should.

As of late, a recent movement in the film industry known as Mumblecore provides a new venue in which to explore different aspects of filmmaking; doing so in a hyper-realistic manner.  This sub-genre is implored by uncharacteristically low budgets, improvisation, non-professional actors, and a strong focus on personal and intimate scenarios.  More specifically, Mumblecore has served to bring to the screen what is perhaps the hardest emotion to capture on film: Love. Oddly enough, it has done so in the easiest of ways. Once you cut out the unnecessary fluff, you’re left with the bare essentials. And love is just that—a bare essential. John Lennon said it best: “Love is all you need.” If one tries to shift this paradigm, the result will not be pretty (i.e. Transformers: Revenge of The Sequel). Perhaps the most obvious reason a lot of modern films fail in their portrayal of romance is the simple fact that love, in all of its glory, is fickle and unpredictable; and that simply can’t be structured.

Like Crazy, a film that premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is a perfect depiction of this ideal.  Written as a detailed fifty-page outline, the indie flick, which largely consists of improvised dialogue, centers on Jacob, a young man who falls for a British collegian as her student visa is on the verge of expiring. Rather than forcing the actors to churn out recycled cliches, Director Drake Doremus allows his players to create the characters they’re portraying—themselves.  Although the story and events taking place are fictional, the characters are not. Through this process, the actors are able procure emotions like love in an organic and honest manner. And whilst what is caught on camera is at times awkward, uncomfortable, and shoddy; isn’t that love at its core?  These characters are visual representations of the vulnerability that everyone harbors, and similarly, what we’d like not to admit.  And, while Mumblecore provides a vast canvas for its audience to explore, it does not limit them to the events at hand.  It accepts that there is no story, nor is there a structure, but rather life; and life is not living, if painted by numbers.

By Zack Campbell, staff film writer.

Scorsese, Raging Bull, and the American Film Industry

March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books.” – The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, directed by Vincente Minelli

 

Film is an art form with unique barriers: making a professional film costs a lot of money, and each is expected to make a lot more money. By its nature film is made available to the widest audience, and there is always pressure to “give the audience what it wants” (namely easy partial-truths to make people feel better about themselves, or, more often, cheap entertainment to feed base desires). There are many financially successful filmmakers who would not admit to having any ideals. They will make whatever they think will sell, no matter how banal and degrading. Consequently, hundreds of bad movies come out every year. A constant conflict exists in the honest filmmaker between making good art and trying to please an audience. Every artist feels this conflict to some extent, but because of the large-scale financial risk, professional filmmakers often experience it most.

In America, the early film industry began primarily as a way to sell vaudeville to huge audiences in a shorter time. Simple, melodramatic tales are easy to enjoy. They don’t challenge and improve a person; they only distract from difficulty. (Much of early film in Europe was different; it first sought to be art, creating beauty and original expression while it entertained. The results of that legacy are still very apparent today, especially in contrast to Hollywood.) American filmmaking continued to please the crowd into its Golden Age with the studio system, where the producer was far more important than the director. Films became formulaic. Great films managed to come out of this era anyway, but they had to fight to keep up. (Citizen Kane, a rare director’s piece from the era, flopped at the box office because of the public’s expectation of formula taught to them by Hollywood. It is now widely regarded as the most important film ever made.)

In the late 50’s and 60’s, the Hollywood studio system began to fall apart. 1969’s Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy proved that the era had ended. The directors that rose after this time were far more personal and thoughtful. They exposed their own vulnerability as they made honest films that reflected their internal struggles, learning not from American cinema but from the great directors of Europe and Japan. Many of history’s great artists have found that for a piece of art to be good, the artist must put something of himself into it or it can’t be truly compelling; Hollywood films had lost personal touch and were run by money instead of meaning. With the rise of the director, the greatest American films were made.

One of the directors that rose in Hollywood’s Second Golden Age was Martin Scorsese. With Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1972), he established himself as a director. During this success, his friend and collaborator Robert De Niro tried to talk him into making a film adaptation of Jake La Motta’s autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story. Scorsese said he couldn’t do it, claiming after reading part of it that he had no idea what it was about. La Motta seemed to him a psychotic wreck. Then, after the box office flop of his New York, New York (1977), he was driven into depression and crippling addiction. Suddenly Scorsese connected to La Motta’s own self-destruction in a powerful way, and since its release in 1980, Raging Bull has come to be considered one of the greatest films ever made.

One reason Raging Bull is great is because it is so personal – Scorsese, thinking during his depression that it would be his last film, put everything he had into it. Jake La Motta is a terrible, sadomasochistic character, but instead of pronouncing judgment on him, the film merely shows him as he is. This is a key factor in why the film is so compelling: as an audience, we can see something of ourselves in Jake, and learn something from him. Jake is like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—slightly detached from reality, self-destructive, and a bit pathetic—but we sympathize with him, because he has been driven to this state by the warped desires of the same American culture we are pressured by every day. Jake is Everyman.

De Niro’s contribution to the film in this area is as important as Scorsese’s. He holds nothing back in his portrayal of La Motta. He is never faking it, never show-acting, so the audience is never taken out of La Motta’s reality. De Niro knows the character so well that he is able to improvise many of the key scenes; intense dialogue flows with artistic reality as he takes every word personally and responds personally. He sees the connection between Jake’s pain and his own, and so is able to honestly sympathize with Jake’s downfall.

Raging Bull is also great for its cultural significance. Scorsese has been called the quintessential American filmmaker. Though most American films have little in common with Scorsese’s, he truly captures the American consciousness. America blends cultures, for good or bad. This blending can be felt strongly in Scorsese’s films without it being the main focus. Raging Bull is a perfect example. It takes a classic American film hero – the underdog boxer – and captures him in true Italian neorealistic style. Neorealism, a response among Italian filmmakers to fascist propaganda films and post-WWII Europe, defied the glamorous, white-washed standard set by Hollywood. It focused on the psyche and everyday life of the working class. Static camera shots of mundane events forced the viewer to become much more aware of the painful, stagnant atmosphere keeping the characters from growing. This can be seen clearly in Raging Bull. In one memorable scene, De Niro’s neurotic character attempts to fix a television in his small apartment as he argues with his brother. He suddenly accuses his brother (entirely without cause) of sleeping with his wife, and the argument is pushed immediately to the point of violence. The tension in this scene is unbelievable, but not because of any over-dramatic movement or cinematography. The static, medium shots give the viewer the impression that he is actually sitting in this claustrophobic living room watching this argument unfold, unable to stop its inevitable escalation. Catholic iconography and sentiments are also used effectively throughout the film to express the strange tensions influencing Italian-American culture. (It is interesting to note that Taxi Driver, another brilliant movie from Scorsese and De Niro, does the same thing for French New Wave cinema and New York culture as Raging Bull does for Neorealism and Italian-American culture.)

Raging Bull is not, however, simply a recreation of some other film movement’s style. Scorsese takes many different elements and fuses them seamlessly to make something new. Raging Bull is so meticulously filmed and edited that it is nearly impossible to cover all its technique; every shot could stand alone as an artistic achievement. Extensive use of slow-motion, complex tracking shots, and other expressionistic techniques constantly engage the viewer. Scorsese pioneered the disconcerting flashbulb cut for the film, a now-common technique. Using several such visual techniques including keeping the camera inside the ring, Scorsese created the most subjectively emotional, surreal and engaging boxing matches on film. The size of the ring subtly changes between fights to emphasize La Motta’s psychological state – he starts in control in a small ring, but then looks lost and pathetic in an oversized ring. Simple human sounds are transformed into an ominous chorus. Short segments of color film made to appear homemade intercut the high-contrast black-and-white film that first sets the tense mood. All of these techniques are the words of Scorsese’s poetry, personally crafted to tell an ever-poignant American story.

Personal films can connect powerfully with audiences because they are sincere, and they can change people because they give honest truth. So why don’t the most personal films sell the best right now? And why do many blockbusters receive mediocre reviews from critics and audiences alike? It isn’t hard to recognize that the studio system is once again a large part of Hollywood. Many major directors are actually producer-directors whose main talent is building hype. The culture of the 60’s and 70’s when the studio system first fell was more revolutionarily minded and welcomed that change, whereas since that time the culture has become comfortable and financially minded once again. But the fact that that reversion can be recognized suggests that another cultural revolution will come. There are certainly many who are fed up and want artistic independence, and independent filmmaking is always on the rise. And, if we are lucky, we could find the next Scorsese during this revolution.

By Aaron Smith, Staff Film Writer, with Irene Bernstein.

Hesher, A Dish Best Served…Under the Radar?

March 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

For the common anarchist, the typical agent of chaos can be made from an array of everyday household items.  First, take 1 hot plate, add to it Dad’s old battery hydrometer, toss them both in an enameled steel container, and finish by topping them off with enough potassium chloride to make MacGyver’s head spin.  What you get is a concoction capable of leveling the fluorescent-lit garage from which it was born.  Or, you could try the easier, albeit much-more-compelling alternative, and watch Hesher, which entertains a similar formula.  Although hardly comparable to the physical act of “blowing shit up”, Hesher is probably the closest one could come to actually doing so.

To wit, the Sundance hit, which left the ears of its critics ringing after exploding on screens in Park City, Utah last year, was crafted with some of the finest ingredients Hollywood has to offer.  Add 1 part Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2 parts writer/director Spencer Susser, a teaspoon of newcomer Devin Brochu, a dash of Rainn Wilson, and just for kicks and giggles, a light sprinkle of an uncharacteristically mousy-faced Natalie Portman, and the result is a dangerously twisted coming of age story. So it would seem.

Hesher, which is supposedly set to hit select theaters in the spring of 2011, is the story of Hesher, a twenty-something, greasy-haired anarchist/heavy-metal enthusiast/pyro-maniac, who terrorizes the grief-stricken Paul Forney (played by the multi-faceted Rainn Wilson), and his young son T.J. (Brochu), as they attempt to cope with the recent death of T.J.’s mother.  Hesher spends his time sniffing glue, lighting things on fire, making bombs, and really, just doing anything else you could find in the Anarchist’s Cookbook.  Not exactly Beaver Cleaver, but interesting nonetheless.  Let’s just say, if Julia Child were a knife-wielding sociopath, Hesher would be the ever-present brainchild tugging at her skirt for another slice of fun-fetti cake. Yet at its heart, the story is ultimately about an unlikely friendship that blossoms between two misfits, both in search of hope.

Already having a respectable body of work behind him in such a short amount of time, Levitt has carved out quite a comfortable niche in the Hollywood community.  And while he is slowly cultivating his image as a leading man in several soon-to-be released blockbusters, this little film is sure to be a defining point in the up-and-comer’s career.

The ample amount of talent coupled with the flawless direction of first-timer Spencer Susser is sure to result in a disastrously compelling feast for the eyes.  Be sure to catch this gem while you can, as it is very likely to fly under the radar.

 

By Zack Campbell, Staff Film Writer.

Small-time Crime in Barcelona: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful

March 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s likely you haven’t heard about Biutiful, although it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year at the Academy Awards, and its lead, Javier Bardem, was nominated for Best Actor. (Bardem already won an Academy Award in 2008 for Best Supporting Actor in No Country for Old Men). It is the fourth film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, after the equally critically acclaimed Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores perros.

In short, the film is an intense human drama focusing on the struggles of a dedicated single father living a life of small-time crime in Barcelona. A deep well of conflicted thoughts and emotions sits below that surface.

This is not an easy film to watch. Instead of simply trying to shock his audience, Iñárritu expresses pain and despair in a beautifully simple and honest way. Some critics dismiss Biutiful for being “too grim.” Granted, much of the film seems empty of hope, but these critics miss the redemption that exists in all of the film’s unlikely relationships. We see Bardem as Uxbal, a worn-out, middle-aged Spanish father trying desperately to raise his children right on his own, look into the lifeless face of a sweet young Chinese immigrant who spoke little Spanish and watched his kids during the day. She had just died because of a mistake he made that was easily preventable. We see Uxbal’s face as he realizes in his moment of intense loss and guilt the love and care he has for this human being. There is pain and there is suffering and there is death, but at least all those projected barriers of age, race, and culture can be broken down. Iñárritu and Bardem express mankind’s ability to love one another in a meaningful way simply and powerfully. That is beautiful filmmaking.

And while that is only one of the many complex statements Iñárritu has woven into his film, Biutiful is an artistic achievement, not a soapbox. It does not give any simple messages and it is somewhat presumptuous to pull any out of it. The best thing to do is to see the film for yourself, because I can only express weakly what it expresses powerfully. If you do go to see it, let me give you some things to look for that make Biutiful a film very much worth watching. If you don’t, these are still good things to look for in any film. (Note: plot spoilers ahead.)

Race relations, as I have already mentioned, play a large role in the film, and Iñárritu has some interesting insights here. Uxbal makes a living off of illegal Chinese and Senegalese immigrants who need a way to avoid the police while they work. The employers pay Uxbal because they get cheap labor. This gives him a constant internal struggle: he has the dishonest occupation of living off these poor people, but he is human and he cares about them.

The title Biutiful refers to the way the English word “beautiful” sounds like it should be spelled in Spanish. Uxbal’s daughter mistakenly spells it this way. The word might not be right, but the meaning is not lost in translation. This concept continues throughout. Three languages are spoken in the film: Spanish, Chinese (in blue subtitles), and Senegalese (in orange subtitles). The subtitle colors match the distinct color palettes used in the homes of each group, creating obvious visual distinctions. Artificial barriers are set up between each group by these colored subtitles, and in scenes of conflict the characters use their different languages to separate themselves from others. But when they show they care for each other, everyone understands what it means. Iñárritu tells us through these images that there is hope if we can recognize each other’s humanity.

Biutiful also explores a topic that few films are able to say much worthwhile about: fatherhood. Uxbal is trying to be a good father, but it’s very hard. His experience runs parallel to that of a Chinese father and a Senegalese father. When each father acts without consideration for his family, the family gets hurt, and each feels that terrible pain himself. All three are far from perfect, maybe even far from good, but all make extreme sacrifices for the sake of their families. Iñárritu gives us the image of Uxbal clutching desperately to his daughter in his decaying apartment. To some, it might seem futile. These fathers can’t save their families forever. But their effort makes all the difference, emotionally speaking. They have a duty to be fathers that their children can respect and remember after they are gone. There is hope in that legacy.

Finally, the topic of death emerges. Biutiful begins and ends with a scene in which Uxbal meets his father in a snowy forest that seems to be some kind of afterlife. (This is a clear instance that illustrates how Iñárritu has connected all these topics in such a way that it is impossible to talk about each separately. It is very impressive.) His father sees something and goes to it. Uxbal follows his father and asks what it is, and we can see from Uxbal’s face that he is more at peace than ever before. The film ends without any hint at an answer to Uxbal’s question. Does Iñárritu believe in some kind of heaven? It’s not clear, and I doubt he wants the audience to know. But Bardem’s performance at the end leaves some glimmer of hope in something.

Throughout the film, Uxbal is dying of cancer (perhaps his inner struggle over his dishonest occupation manifesting itself in his body?), and this looming reality fuels his increasingly desperate desire to make things right in his life. The film’s art direction mirrors Uxbal’s cancer; everything is dark, faded and decaying. The film’s soundtrack follows Uxbal’s physical and emotional state, growing steadily disjointed and electronic.

Also, in one of the most interesting, unique, and haunting aspects of this film, Uxbal is represented realistically as having the ability to see and speak to the souls of those who have died but cannot yet pass on, and he is paid by families to learn the last wishes and confessions of their loved ones. This is where Iñárritu’s directorial work truly shines. His brilliant image of the souls is burned into my mind: they are trapped on the ceiling, looking down in silent confusion and sadness at their lifeless bodies. This is connected to an image of black moths that slowly collect on the ceiling in Uxbal’s bedroom. The night before he dies, as he begins to find hope in some resolution, he looks up and they are gone.

Again, Iñárritu makes us feel the importance of human connection and legacy. Even though Uxbal’s connection to spirits seems to pain him deeply, he continues to seek after it. (The souls on the ceiling are revealed to the camera in quick, frightening glimpses from behind Uxbal. We see his pained face in the foreground and we can tell that he senses their presence but can’t bear to turn around.) He has a subconscious desire to help these tortured souls, because he wants to be remembered well himself. In the end, there is even some hope in finding peace after death.

Biutiful is a masterfully made film with deeply compelling acting, hauntingly beautiful cinematography, and original storytelling, all under Iñárritu’s confident direction. Go see it, think about it, and appreciate it.

 

By Aaron Young Smith, Staff Film Writer.

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