Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - Life in Six Films

Late one night, unable to sleep, flicking through the TV channels as I'm want to do occasionally, I came across "Amores Perros" for the first time. I'd missed the first 45 minutes or so and with the film being a twisted narrative I had no real idea what was going on but I was hooked immediately on this strange looping film where our main characters would dominate the screen so intensely then fade into an obscured and difficult to understand background. 

It struck a chord with me late into the night and shortly thereafter I purchased the DVD and another favourite Director was added to my lengthening list. It's an incredible film, but more of that later.

His films split audiences completely, from the life affirming crowd of supporters, to the dissenters who accuse his films of being too wrapped in themselves and too melancholic. His films can be a tough watch. Two of his six films to date are in his native Spanish, and subtitled for a UK audience. Their general themes of life and death, the value of both, the human spirit in adversity and familial breakdown can be challenging to the audience. But as with adversity, there is redemption and hope, of circumstances and luck or fate that can change our future.

Spanning fifteen years between 2000 and 2015 these are six of my favourite all time films from a Director who clearly has a verve and zest for life and for creating challenging and moving pieces of cinema.

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming six films. Rather, my purpose is to give a brief flavour of the film as I do not want to spoil these for you in any way. My film blogs are completely written from a fan's perspective and are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director with a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations. Here are six unique stories from a very unique storyteller:

Amores Perros (2000)

"If you want to make God laugh.......tell Him your plans"

Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch) entirely in Spanish and entirely enthralling. The first five minutes set the scene perfectly: A flash forward/flashback opening depict a frenetic car chase, bloodied fighting dogs shown explicitly and fully while introducing the majority of the main characters, before a violent car crash brings the opening, breathless scene to a conclusion. Welcome to Amores Perros. Three very different stories interweave throughout, with differing time lines (an Inarritu theme), as we follow a main story for each Act of the film. However the remaining two are often woven into the main story, sometimes subtly, sometimes deliberately not so, but always to great effect, and always to engage in the narrative.

Act One - "Octavio and Susana"

"Octavio" (the excellent Gael Garcia Bernal) idealistic and hopelessly in love with "Susana" (Vanessa Bauche) desperate to run away with her and from the decrepit house they share with his Mother and Brother "Ramiro" (Marco Perez). However, Susana and Ramiro are married with a young child, and Susana is pregnant again. Both Brothers continually fight for the affections of Susana and provide varying ways of raising much needed money.

Act Two - "Daniel and Valeria"

"Daniel" (Alvaro Guerrero) is a magazine editor and publisher. Married, yet in love with his girlfriend "Valeria" (Goya Toledo) they share brief time together before Daniel leaves his wife to be with the woman he adores. Now free to be together, their early idealistic love affair becomes frayed and increasingly difficult.

Act Three - "El Chivo and Maru"

"El Chivo" (brilliantly portrayed by Emilio Echevarria) is a bedraggled vagrant, dirty and unclean, taking and using rubbish to survive. Forever pushing a shopping trolley filled with his wares and accompanied by several stray dogs, he appears to walk aimlessly through the streets. An ex Guerrilla fighter and prisoner, pronounced dead to his family, yet desperately seeking a reunion with his daughter "Maru", played by real life daughter Lourdes Echevarria.

Across all 3 Acts, the action is quickly edited and often jolting, from one seemingly unconnected scene to another. As one story dominates, the other two run concurrently and slowly the connections between three very different stories and three sets of unconnected  people are drawn together. Common themes are prevalent throughout, from the obvious references to the title to life choices in general and how these dictate our life and those around us. Of coincidence, regret, loss and remorse. There are also key scenes (plot spoilers aside) where our surroundings and what we surround ourselves in are a key device. All three love stories are consumed with surroundings, from Octavio and his desperate desire to escape, similarly Valeria in Act 2 and the constant showing of her picture on the building opposite and even the pictures within the apartment. El Chivo is surrounded by both his dogs on whom he dotes, to being surrounded in regret and loss.

All 3 acts share the disparity between despair and hope, a vision for the future blurred by the present every day situation. One character belies this truism of the film brilliantly. Dogs feature prominently in each narrative, again on vastly different ends of the spectrum. Being used as a fighting tool and a means to earn money to being utterly adored and worshipped. Woven throughout with explicit bloody violence and murder, this though is a character piece, a thrilling ride, and a masterpiece of a film. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, who would go on to pen Inarritu's next two films, it was also nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2000 Oscar's. 

21 Grams (2003)

"God even knows when a single hair moves on your head"

This was Inarritu's first English language film and first with an internationally recognised cast. And what a stellar cast it is. However, the premise: From a silent beginning, we quickly inter cut into the lives of all three main characters and their unconnected lives. Just two minutes in, and already we have a twisted back to front time line, with past/present and future events all quickly flashed before the audience, but in small segments and with the same characters looking vastly different in each sequence. An early example is Sean Penn (brilliant throughout), dying from an as yet unexplained medical condition, to very definitely dying from a gunshot, to standing tall, fresh and well and meeting a friend. Yep, it's an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu movie!

The cast, and some incredible cameo's and supporting roles deserve full explanation. Sean Penn plays "Paul" a married mathematics Professor requiring a heart transplant. Penn, one of the most underrated actors of his generation is on stunning form as the non linear timeline shows him from triumphant and exultant to weak and fragile in a manner of frames. Naomi Watts plays "Cristina", housewife and Mum of two girls in another stand out and heartbreaking performance, rightfully deserving of her Best Actress Nomination at the Oscars. Equally so Benicio Del Toro as "Jack", a reformed criminal and born again Christian. His astonishing and breathtaking performance was also rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. All characters are complex (to say the least) but Del Toro's torn and questioning Jack is incredible. All three main characters are shot repeatedly in extreme close ups with Del Toro in particular, shot from way below eye level and upward, enhancing his dominance of the scenes and more than a nod to his religious devotion.

In supporting roles, Melissa Leo is fantastic as "Marianne", wife of Jack, equally Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Mary", wife of Penn's character Paul. Danny Houston is underused even in a cameo role as "Michael", however Eddie Marsan as "Reverend John" is superb with a thunderous cameo role. 

Cleverly cut for each main character, scene by scene, often from massive high and massive low. Their lives begin to intersect on many levels, sometimes subconsciously, but with the twisted time line often immediately evident for the audience. The audience too questions why, how and when the characters are now together, but you're invested in the characters and rooting for their redemption. There are also many key character juxtapositions, a sick man desperately struggling with his health trying to masturbate in a hospital, a Preacher, espousing the love and forgiveness of God starting a fight, a health conscious and dedicated Mother, heavily drinking and smoking.

Key themes of the meaning of life, of love and devotion are evident. As are the obvious themes of faith, religion and redemption. The title refers to the supposed weight loss experienced at the time of death and this has been interpreted as the moving on of the soul. Watching and re watching this film, this is deliberately it's main theme. But leaving aside the theme's, this is another Inarritu character study and as always his characters are rich in depth and the Actors portraying them the very best there is. A triumph.

Babel (2006)

"They look at us like we're monsters"

A film dedicated to his children, Inarittu's third and most critically panned film (unfairly so) sees a constantly used theme of entirely unconnected lives becoming tangled and joined. There are in essence four separate stories, across three continents and in several different languages. Before I detail as plot spoiler free as possible, and of course wax lyrical on an astonishing film, there are two key issues of note, and both are changes from the Director. Firstly, though still a complicated and complex narrative structure, it is less fractured than previous films and though there are several flashback/forward sequences, the structure is more traditional and linear. As is the use of a more detailed musical score, and the soundtrack to the film is a joy, richly cosmopolitan as you would expect, and the first time I've noticed and been so engaged with the music in an Inarritu film. Gustavo Santaolalla deserves great credit for both the score and rich mix in the choice of soundtrack, and has worked with the Director on all four of his films. As has Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto who shoots every varying location here brilliantly.

Starting in Morocco with a family of goat herders, to a tourist couple traversing the nearby mountain roads, to their children happy at home in San Diego and a teenager in Tokyo coming to terms with the early death of her mother. Lingering wide shots of the wide open Moroccan landscape and it's intricate and busy local village merge quickly to suburban USA before quickly replaced by the bustling madness across the border into Mexico.  But it's Japan/Tokyo that really impresses, wide crane shots of the city merge into the busy and vibrant metropolis below. The excellent score/soundtrack blends with their locations perfectly, and again Tokyo stands out with a louder, more cosmopolitan score.

"Richard Jones" (Brad Pitt) and "Sue Jones" (Cate Blanchett) are a distant and seemingly estranged couple sharing a vacation in Morocco as their two children are being looked after by family Nanny "Amelia" (an excellent Adriana Barraza). Gael Garcia Bernal returns after starring in Amores Perros as "Santiago". But the star is Rinko Kikuchi as Japanese teenager "Chieko" and is truly the heartbeat of the film. Rebellious and at odds with her Father after the death of her Mother, she portrays a deaf/mute teenager trying desperately to comes to terms with her incredible loss whilst shunned and tormented publicly for her condition with an incredible performance. Whenever she is on screen she simply draws you into the film. Growing up and desperate for her own identity, her performance borders on a quiet rage! Often only able to communicate with strangers by writing what she wants to say on a notepad and many separate scenes completely silent with Chieko centre stage, it's a stunning performance and encapsulates the film's main theme of language and communication. The screenplay was written by regular collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, however both Arriaga and Inarritu have disputed who penned the previous film 21 Grams and no longer work together. The film was nominated for seven Oscars in 2008 with Gustavo Santaolalla winning for his fantastic musical score.

English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Japanese and sign language are all present and it's no coincidence that the universally accepted language of English seems the most fractured and most difficult to convey. A nod to the title is clearly the biblical story of the Tower of Babel where God replaced a single language with many thousands, scattering them around the earth. That allegory is clear and constantly repeated throughout this masterclass of a film. Another Inarritu film that splits an audience, I truly loved this film from the moment it started. 

Biutiful (2010)

"To my beautiful old oak - My Father"

Written by the Director with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone, Biutiful (Beautiful) is a Spanish language film as we follow "Uxbal" (Javier Bardem) trying to find peace with life as he comes to terms with terminal cancer. Separated from his wife "Marambra" (Maricel Alvarez) and single Father to children "Ana" (Hanaa Bouchaib) and "Mateo" (Guillermo Estrella), his work is never fully explained and spans assisting with the illegal trafficking of Chinese workers, assisting African immigrant street vendors and (not fully explained) being able to speak with the dead. All strands are shown early in the film, but neither is fully detailed and purposely left vague. Beginning and ending with the same two merged scenes, an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu theme of looping, non-linear narrative is again used, however this is the only occasion as the remainder of the film follows a traditional time line narrative.

Javier Bardem is truly outstanding, is in every scene and commands the screen throughout. Ably supported by Maricel Alvarez as his separated Wife, her performance of a depressed, alcohol dependant spouse is as superb as it is heartbreaking. A cast of supporting actors across family/work/health support are used sparingly, but the concentration is on Bardem, as we follow his physical and mental deterioration. The only minor criticism are the few minor narrative strands that are either not fully explored, or fully resolved, but the positives far outweigh this.

Quiet, melancholic and often with only minimal dialogue and "distant dialogue" at that (we hear the conversation, but in a muted way) we follow Uxbal from his decrepit Barcelona apartment, through his daily "work", always seemingly questioning, from the profound to the basics of everyday life. He poses numerous questions "What is death?" "What is taste?" "What is sound?" against a backdrop of the humdrum nature of day to day existence. As his physical and mental health deteriorates this is depicted vividly and often distressingly so. Hallucinations on the ceiling similar to those in Trainspotting are particularly affecting. A man who doesn't want to die, struggling to come to terms with the inevitable and unable to tell the closest to him, Bardem's performance of stillness captures your heart with the camera so often focusing in on his eyes and facial features, it's a heartbreaking tale of loss and disconnection and of trying to make peace with all around you.

The editing, by Inarritu himself, took 14 months alone to complete and you can see why. Frenetic, fast paced during the actual scenes themselves, these often leave you unable to settle. It's also evident as the film often cuts away from a quiet and pondering Uxbal to a fast, loud and busy vastly different scene. A tribute to his late Father, it can be ponderous and slow at times but a slow burning joy all the same. Nominated for two Oscars in 2011 and fully deserving of the nominations for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film. 

Inarritu's first three films were dubbed his "Trilogy of Death" but with the addition of Biutiful above, surely this is now his "Quadrilogy of Death"? Regardless, four astounding films that are all very difficult to watch in places and all deal in basic human raw emotions. But all four are uplifting triumphs if you allow them into your heart.

Birdman (2014)

"Get that smile off your face, you're freaking me out"


Breaking the mould of the critical titled "Death" films, here are ten reasons why you simply have to see Birdman, or to give the film it's fuller title, Birdman: the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance:

(1) "All of us has a Birdman in us, saying how great and brilliant we are" - Director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

(2) Aided and abetted by his lifelong friend and regular Director of Photography collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, Editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione and a huge behind the scenes crew as well as a stellar cast of genuine A-List actors and actresses, this truly is a virtuoso triumph of vision, of daring and a complete break from the "Quadrilogy of Death" for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. A well worn cliché but this truly is the Director's "Vision" writ large on the cinema screen. The meticulous nature and attention to detail shines through in every single frame and is truly incredible and a joy to behold. A play within a play within a film, everything rolling in seemingly one long continuous shot with no discernible edits, building and expanding on an eclectic mix of characters ostensibly within the confines of a Theatre but with the "outside" world always there, and you can take the outside world in any analogous way you wish. Multi levelled, multi dimensional and thoroughly unique take on the existential crisis of a Hollywood Superstar who also happens to have supernatural powers? Only in the hands of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu! 

Part of a four man writing team, Inarritu deservedly landed an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as two further gongs for the most prestigious Oscars in 2015, for Best Film of the Year and Best Achievement in Directing. In Oscar parlance, 2015 was deservedly the year of Birdman.

(3) No discernible cuts or edits in the entire film? Well this is not strictly true (or possible) but the meticulous nature of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu partnered with long time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki brilliantly enable the film to flow virtually continuously with clever merges and dissolves that are only truly noticeable on further viewings. With the film seemingly always on the move, simple but meticulous (that word again!) use of actors and the Theatre itself keeps an already constantly moving camera in motion. Following his 2014 Oscar win for Best Achievement in Cinematography for "Gravity", Lubezki won again in 2015 for Birdman.

(4) "Riggan Thomson" (Michael Keaton) Twenty plus years since starring as Super Hero "Birdman" in a series of Hollywood blockbusters, Riggan Thomson is seemingly in the midst of an existential crisis, of wanting to be important and relevant in a world that has maybe now passed him by. Rather than embracing the clamour to reprise his previously successful blockbuster role or any of a number of spin off ideas or reality television shows, Riggan is determined to stage a Broadway Theatre show based on a short story from childhood hero Raymond Carver. This is set against funding issues and a host of strained relationships be it with an estranged wife, present girlfriend, the cast, Hollywood critics or particularly, his terse relationship with his only daughter. Riggan is in the eye of the storm, tormented by his past as well as his present and although he maybe "the answer to a fucking Trivial Pursuit question" he determinedly seeks to prove everyone wrong.

Michael Keaton was Oscar nominated for his incredible portrayal but in a year that Birdman won four Oscars he unluckily lost out in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. His sublime, fractured yet uplifting performance deserved more recognition and with the passing of time maybe it will. The Batman/Birdman comparisons are obvious, but in the Director's own words Keaton was "The Guy" he always wanted to play this role and you can see why. In nearly every frame of the film, his fractured and splitting personality is starkly and brilliantly portrayed by Keaton in a film that has truly (and finally for this particularly myopic fan) propelled Michael Keaton back into the very best roles for which he truly deserves.

(5) "Sam Thomson" (Emma Stone) Oscar Nominated for her supporting role as troubled daughter Sam, Emma Stone is captivating as the put upon daughter growing up in the glare of her Father's career. Truth teller and true heart of the film.
(6) "Mike Shiner" (Edward Norton) Narcissistic, self absorbed and objectionable, Mike is perfectly happy for people not to like him. "The truth is always more interesting" and Edward Norton plays Mike perfectly on his way to gaining an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
(7) "Jake" (Zach Galifianakis) Riggan's friend, confidant, lawyer and agent. Or to put it another way, the pebble in Riggan's shoe! And brilliantly brought to life in a most darkly and comedic way by the effervescent Galifianakis. The film's crazy and twisted soul.

(8) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted a continual drum beat to accompany his film and in long time friend Antonio Sanchez he received this in spades. Sanchez even occasionally pops up on screen as the camera passes by him simply sitting behind his drum kit playing along to the film! This quirky idea has drawn criticism from some quarters and but the drum beat is in parts uplifting, often unsettling but a perfect accompaniment to our Hero's emotional torment and angst.

(9) The film constantly, often comedically, sometimes wryly and nearly always surreally breaks the fourth wall between the film and us as the audience. From subtle nods to camera to referencing reality TV show opportunities to luring Robert Downey Jr to the production of a fictitious play from a real Hollywood film such as Iron Man. Ryan Gosling is another actor referenced (amongst many others), as is an anecdote about dying in a plane with George Clooney on board through to repeatedly passing Antonio Sanchez playing the drums in the film's musical soundtrack, the film cleverly and ironically breaks the fourth wall to us as cinema goers.

(10) He's Birdman! He's a Super Hero! He's a faded Hollywood star going for broke in a path of acting passion. He's an estranged Husband and a bemused boyfriend, a Hero to millions yet full of existential angst. But he's Birdman! And if you've truly gone along for the surreal ride when Birdman takes flight, you'll cheer our Hero to the rafters!

The Revenant (2015)

"I ain't afraid to die any more"


Fresh from watching this magnificent epic for the first time, and keenly aware of my own non-spoilers rule, I'll simply state the obvious: This is one of the best films I've seen in a very long time and not simply because I'm an unabashed fan of the Director. The Revenant (literal meaning: to return from the dead) may in fact be Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's finest cinematic work to date and with twelve Oscar nominations this may well be Inarritu's Oscar year again. If you're reading this before the coming Oscars then the film will still be showing at a local cinema and I'd urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible as long term collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is a joy to behold, from the wide expanse of the wilderness being traversed by "Hugh Glass" (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his fellow fur pelt hunters, to the tight enclosures of forests and fields as they seek refuge from, and engage in bloody battles with, native American Indians. All captured in extreme close up at times and often in one seemingly unedited shot, the camera always moving, rotating and capturing the film's opening battle brilliantly. The opening battle between the pelt hunters and the native American Indians captures the film's heart immediately, intense, brutal, harsh and unsettling, with an ever moving camera right in the heart of the brilliantly choreographed action. The intensity and harsh reality of the wilderness rarely lets up and only when the film's spiritual heart is presented, that of Glass' desperation to be with his wife and son, the ethereal quality brings light to an otherwise relentless tale of struggle and human survival.

Based loosely on Michael Punke's "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge", Glass is one of many fur pelt hunters in the American wilderness of 1823 hunting and killing dear for their pelts headed by "Captain Andrew Henry" (Domhnall Gleeson) and with Glass, two vocal elders of the group, "Bridger" (Will Poulter) and "John Fitzgerald" (Tom Hardy). Glass is left for dead following a vicious bear attack but as you will have already gathered from both the title of the film and the book upon which it is loosely based, he returns to seek a righteous revenge. DiCaprio is Oscar nominated for an Actor in a Leading Role and rarely can that be more apt as he portrays Glass with an unbelievable human side despite the mounting odds against him. Severely debilitated and ravaged from the bear attack, he manages to survive on raw instinct, raw emotion and often raw ingredients in his pursuit of both his family and his need for raw revenge in a role of such magnitude that I doubt he will ever repeat again. Supporting roles abound in a large scale film such as this, but particular mention must be made of Grace Dove's quiet and gentle performance as Glass' wife and Forrest Goodluck's portrayal of Glass' son "Hawk" supporting the wonderful performances from Domhnall Gleeson and an Oscar nominated turn from Tom Hardy. Gleeson, fresh from his brilliant and eerie performance in "Ex Machina" is superb as the stoic Captain Andrew Henry whilst Hardy chews both the scenery and his dialogue as rough and battle hardened John Fitzgerald.

A short and brief review of a long film! Go see it! Go see it now whilst it's on at your local Cinema! A fuller and more detailed review will follow in the coming days when I've seen this beautiful film for a second, maybe third time. It's Inarritu's most accomplished film and even more meticulous than Birdman, and that's saying something!

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