Netflix Suggested Viewing- Mr. Nobody: All That I Am, All That I Ever Was

With a title like Mr. Nobody and Jared Leto’s androgynous handsome face staring out from the tile on Netflix, I wasn’t sure what this film had in store and upon viewing I feel that although the man himself is beautiful enough, this film deserves a more gorgeous title. Something that alludes to the depth that awaits, to the complexity and the absolute joy of what filmmaking can instill in the human heart. I don’t want to overstate or spend all day lavishing praise on something that reminded me of so much what is good but I may end up doing that anyway. Maybe Mr. Nobody as a title is meant to be something of a contradiction, a formalization of the abstract, a kind of oxymoron that puts your mind in that Zen-like moment. If a tree falls in the forest and all that. That place where you stop processing information and just receive, when, by not making a choice, all things become possible.

About halfway through Mr. Nobody I realized that this is probably the film that Cloud Atlas was trying desperately to be, like a hormone crazed teenager who lifts weights in his basement, greases back his hair, and tucks a stolen pack of cigarettes into his sleeve in an attempt to run with the tough crowd only to get his ass kicked and his lunch money stolen. Where the former is so superior is the editing and the art design. When telling multiple overlapping and conflicting narratives in non-linear fashion disorientation is unavoidable at first but when I found the rhythm writer/director Jaco Van Dormael was aiming for I never lost my place and was able to absorb the nuances and details in each branch of the story. Most importantly, I was able to invest emotionally in each setting because I wasn’t distracted by trying to figure out which actors were playing whom or deciphering made-up future patois like Cloud Atlas. The other element that makes this film more profound to me is the intimacy of the story. Rather than trying to describe how dozens of people in different time periods are interconnected it’s really only about one soul and the multitude of possibilities that one life can have. It’s fantasy indulgence for anyone who has ever played the What If game and it’s in no way a guilty pleasure because, as the film eloquently states, there is no one correct path, no perfect set of answers that leads to the perfect life with the perfect love. Just options, consequences, and an unspecified and wildly unfair helping of random chance.

There are a lot of philosophical themes discussed directly into camera, Cosmos style and where this could feel intrusive or pedantic the device used is natural and works in the overall narrative, the effect is pitch perfect. The metaphors on display are a little too obvious at points but this is forgivable because although this film has the most Unreliable Narrator I’ve ever seen it makes sense when you consider that he absolutely means to be and makes no excuse or apologies for it. This is storytelling at its most indulgent, fourth wall breaking and fourth dimensional. To elaborate on the method think of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen in exile on Mars, experiencing every moment of his life at once, without the linear restriction of time.

If I could fault this film it would have to do with Jared Leto. Although he is a massively talented actor who absolutely deserved the Academy Award for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club he felt a little wooden to me, a little too much like a passenger in a fascinating story and he is carried by the actresses around him and overshadowed by the teenager portraying his younger self. Perhaps this is the character itself in the middle of his life, bewildered by his inability to inspire, to save the ones he loves with sheer belief in the idea alone, with will in the idea that this matters and it’s worth fighting for that feeling at the cost of all else. His conflicted and taciturn reaction to his failure is appropriate, tragically so, for all its futility.

So. Love. That biochemical reaction. That response to symmetrical features, to complimentary genetic make up. That excuse to sell chocolate and Valentines cards. As science has progressed the concept has been de-romanticized. The why has been explored and dissected, and we are left with what is, to me, a truly horrifying reality to accept, that the nature of love boils down to a simple experiment: when the light comes on, we press a button and a treat appears. Dopamine is released. Repeat ad nauseam. But what makes a human being something else, what implies evidence or some mote of a soul is the ability to disregard the biological imperative. The capacity to place the wellbeing of a stranger ahead of our own. The ability to sacrifice oneself for a community. The desire to control base instincts in favor of intangible, unprovable ideas. These things complicate and obfuscate and intrude on the natural course of the Universe and this is a significant thing, it’s important to continue to ask why even if the answer is both obvious and impossible to reach from an existential perspective. If I’ve lost you, I fully understand but this is the place Mr. Nobody brought me to, this place where I can continue positing questions and theories until I’m blue in the face. Ultimately, I love this film because, as I interpret it, I have always felt like the old man on the subject. That the joy and pain that comes along with love are always worth trying for, that you can only have it when you take that chance and love without fear of the inevitable consequence. And that leaving this world knowing you believed in something intangible and unprovable makes you more than the sum of your biology, so much more than a conditioned response.

 

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier- The Way We Win Matters

This is what I’ve been waiting for. In earlier articles I’ve mentioned a trend towards anti-heroes, towards villains as protagonists in House of Cards, Breaking Bad and the like. It’s entertaining storytelling but I’ve lost track of what a hero is supposed to be and, for lack of use, my vocabulary on the idea is limited. Which is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier refreshed me on the experience. Man of Steel was a blip on the radar, I liked the film but it was missing heart and relatability in terms of scale, which is where the character Steve Rogers has significance. Chris Evans, to me, has never really been a leading man up until this point but not for lack of talent. I have kept my eye on him since his performance in Sunshine where he first displayed the qualities that are important to sincerely portray the ultimate Boy Scout, the jingoistic poster boy born out of the Greatest Generation without coming off as campy or absurd. It’s the gravity of leadership, the composure to take charge in dire situations, and the thing that makes this character a real hero: belief in the better angels of our nature.

In the first film I was not sold on the concept. This scrawny gung-ho patriot smacked of generic platitudes and hokey World War 2 stereotypes. I like the idea of a guy who stands up to the bully, who dives on the loose grenade without hesitation but this is a person who believes without question, a soldier, yes. A leader, no. Being a leader means knowing someone else will dive on a grenade and trusting them to do so. It’s being a strong enough example that this never needs to be asked because the cause is worth it. It’s the courage of conviction and the faith in others, and here is where I was absolutely thrilled with Captain America: Winter Soldier. All spoilers aside, people trust the man, I’d trust the man, I’d follow the character, not because he told me to but because he asked. It’s a clever and effective dynamic combining his character with Black Widow, it’s her conflicted nature that perfectly contrasts his stalwart courage, his pained idealism. She is drawn to him and stands by him, his unflinching morality finally inspiring her to confront her past and the fear that has ruled her throughout the Iron Man films, and The Avengers, it’s extraordinary to see a consistent character arc across multiple films directed and written by different people.

Winter Soldier also achieves something that The Dark Knight did years ago in extraordinary fashion: mask a politically relevant allegory with a solid action film. Mass unwarranted surveillance, prosecution without due process, and the inhumanity of drone warfare used in an attempt to diffuse terrorism before it happens are subjects that should be discussed with much more urgency than they are. If a few people walk away from this movie thinking about the cost of liberty in the Digital Age, that’s great. If everyone else enjoys a cool action flick about a real good guy, all the better. I’d offer that the rallying speech Cap gives in the climax of the film is underwhelming but it made sense that the good people listened because, well, it’s Captain America. You know a good person when you hear them, you know who to go to the mat for. When the time comes, the right choice is rarely the easy one which makes it all the more important, which is why the final showdown in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters was a particular thrilling finale. And although a knock down drag out fight with the Winter Soldier would have been exciting I loved how Cap decided to handle him. By giving his enemy a choice rather than beating him into submission, I like the idea that America’s eponymous hero was willing to trust someone to do the right thing, willing to risk his life in that belief; it’s an idea that I wish would pervade our culture and foreign policy. It’s great to be American or whomever, we can try to be the best example possible but in order to lead the way it’s important to have faith in everyone else, and ourselves, to do the right thing without holding a gun to anyone’s head. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I’m willing to bet I’m not.

I stumbled across an article that suggests that Captain America would be more interesting if he were a jerk. This irritates me, because like I mentioned, there are enough morally questionable heroes out there, like Jack Bauer or Bruce Wayne, characters who fall under the category of vigilante more often than not, so I’ll take my Boy Scouts when I can get them (that sentence came out wrong, rephrasing). I’ll take my morally sound conflicted heroes dealing with a society that is less and less morally black and white and increasingly shaded with grays whenever I can get them. Superhero films have been edgy and noir-esque for a while now. It’s a welcome reprieve from the moodiness and it’s good to have a superhero who knows what they are doing and believes in what they believe in, even if this kind of hero may only exist in the Marvel Universe.