Category Archives: indie films

Hits: Satire Misses the Mark

Hits (2014), directed by David Cross, has the appearance of a low budget indie comedy, yet features some serious talent -Jason Ritter, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh and Julia Stiles even makes a cameo appearance. This is the type of film that I found on Netflix and approached with low expectations. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what seemed like a sharp and original satire. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together and derails completely in the final scenes.

Hits refers to “hits” on sites like YouTube, not contract killings, a more likely guess for a movie title. It seems that with Hits, Cross is trying to do a Tom Wolfe-like satire for the internet/reality show age. The targets, however, are a few too numerous and the tone uneven. We have several distinct characters inhabiting separate universes that intersect uneasily and in an often contrived manner.

Walsh plays Dave, the type of continually outraged populist misfit who listens to talk radio, writes angry letters to the newspaper and gives long-winded tirades at town board meetings. All places, especially small towns, have characters who are very similar to Dave, and Walsh nails this part very well. The problem is, Hits tries to tack on too many other elements and personalities. Dave’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner), is a young woman obsessed with becoming a reality TV star and who is willing to do just about anything to achieve fame, despite being rather limited in the talent department. Hagner is quite good in this role, but by now satirizing reality TV and the obsession with fame is a fairly worn out cliché. While Hits tries to be original by combining the stories of Dave and Katelyn, they don’t really mix.

Further complicating matters are a trio of Brooklyn activist-hipsters who decide to take up Dave’s cause. This is a fairly contrived and unlikely scenario, but since this is a comedy we can give the film this much. The hipsters travel from the city to Liberty and immediately experience culture shock. It’s worth noting that there is a town called Liberty in upstate NY, but certain elements are changed in the film (e.g. the real town is in Sullivan County; in the film, it’s called something else).

The most troubling aspect of Hits is that it can’t make up its mind whether the characters are misguided but sympathetic misfits we should root for or completely contemptible losers deserving our disdain. This is most true of Dave, who, for most of the film, rails harmlessly against potholes and the lack of snow removal services on his block but, inexplicably, turns into a raving racist in the last ten minutes.

There is also an implication that the whole town consists largely of ignorant racists, as when another character tells the hated hipsters to “go back to Jew York.” This comment, apart from its offensiveness, misses the mark culturally,as this is supposedly a town in New York State and only two hours from the city. The real Libery, NY happens to be located in the middle of what used to be called the Borscht Belt, with a large Jewish population. The cultural contrast between Brooklyn and Liberty is just too exaggerated to be credible, even for a satire. The conflict between rednecks and hipsters would have been more believable if the film were set in rural Texas and the hipsters were from Austin.

In addition to making derogatory remarks about Obama, blacks, Jews and Muslims, Dave says “I know its true because Alex Jones says so.” Apart from the fact that well known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones isn’t known for making racist remarks, this type of quote just makes Dave sound like a complete idiot, which undercuts the sympathy he garners in other scenes, such as his interactions with his daughter.

Katelyn is similarly ambiguous. Is she sweet and naive or a manipulative bitch? This ambiguity comes to the surface when a sleazy recording studio owner attempts to convince her to have sex with him in exchange for a reduced rate when she can’t afford his services to make a demo tape. Katelyn, like Dave, is alternately sympathetic and contemptible. As for the Brooklyn hipsters, they are mainly just over-the-top ridiculous, if amusing at times. At one point, the film is on the verge of making a valid and interesting point -that liberal, left-leaning urbanites have more in common with populist, conservative small town folk than you might think at first. However, by the end, everyone is cynically skewered, and not in a way that’s especially insightful or funny.

If Hits were a dark satire along the lines of, say, Citizen Ruth, which succeeds at lampooning both sides of the abortion argument, its cynicism would be justified. But this film manages to be ambiguous and slightly offensive without being especially insightful. It’s just funny enough to be entertaining -at least until the last few minutes -but it could have been much better if it had a more targeted objective. For a film that aims for hard-edged social satire, Hits, despite some strong performances and promising early scenes, misses the mark in too many areas.

The Longest Week Review

The Longest Week (2014), directed by Peter Glanz, is an unapologetically derivative comedy/drama that attempts to mimic the genre once dominated by (arguably created by) Woody Allen –the world of affluent yet neurotic New Yorkers. Glanz also picks up stylistic gimmicks from directors such as Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Walt Stillman (Metropolitan, Swingers). Unfortunately, The Longest Week falls far short of anything created by any of these directors, even some of the latter Woody Allen entries.

In a roundabout way, this film reminded me of some of the films that came out in the late 90s and early 00s. Following the success of Pulp Fiction, there was a glut of instantly forgettable Tarantino-influenced films that attempted to mimic that director’s distinctive use of dialogue, violence and time manipulation. Most of them were dismal failures. In a similar way, The Longest Week throws together many of the elements of the best Woody Allen films: impressive décor, wealthy and sophisticated intellectuals suffering from existentialist crises, wayward romances, witty banter and the inevitable sessions with a psychoanalyst -yet it doesn’t add up to anything meaningful or even entertaining.

The film opens with the lead character, Conrad Valmont (Jason Bateman) in a session with his long-suffering analyst. There’s even an Allen-esque Jazz soundtrack in the background, so there’s no doubt what type of film this one is attempting to imitate/pay homage to/rip off/satirize. Another gimmick is a retro atmosphere in the middle of an apparently contemporary New York City. People all seem to use landline rotary phones rather than smartphones.

The entire premise of The Longest Week seems contrived and unbelievable. Valmont, heir to a family who owns a luxurious hotel across from Central Park, has suddenly been cut off from his cozy and idle lifestyle. Somehow, his parents getting divorced means that at almost 40 years old, he is being kicked out of his suite and is suddenly broke. Not only does this seem unlikely, but Bateman himself is unable to convey any real concern here. When he tells a sympathetic chauffeur that this will all soon blow over, the audience cannot help but share this sentiment.

Conrad spends this “longest week” mooching off his equally dissolute friend Dylan (Billy Crudup) and a woman named Beatrice (Olivia Wilde), whom both men are romancing. Despite numerous scenes of angst, arguments and betrayal among these three, nothing is really at stake here. Dylan is a character very similar to Conrad; a successful artist who lives in a huge hipster loft. Beatrice is a model with a likewise cushy New York City lifestyle.

Much of the dialogue that is supposed to be witty is actually quite tedious. Having much of it delivered by an invisible narrator (Larry Pine) is a pointless and overused device that doesn’t help matters here. It only drives in the fact that the characters are unable to convey many things on their own. For example, the narrator has to tell us how irresistible Conrad is to Olivia. Otherwise, how can it be explained that they meet on a subway, when he merely glances at her and she hands him her phone number?

The Longest Week also uses the postmodern device of self-criticism that is designed to make its flaws forgivable. It’s as though Glanz was hedging his bets. If we don’t find the story and characters as charming as they find themselves, we can at least see that the script is clever enough to critique itself. There is even an acknowledgment that Conrad’s “pseudo intellectual” conversations are tedious. The most blatant example of this, however, is towards the end of the film, when Conrad is reading from an autobiographical novel. Someone in the audience delivers a pointed criticism of the book (and hence the film we’re watching), saying that the supposed transformation the protagonist undergoes is trivial.

On a similar note, a minor character (unfortunately) named Jocelyn (Jenny Slate) who is a student of postmodern literary criticism at one point ridicules the banality of the world Conrad, Dylan and Beatrice inhabit. The problem is that Jocelyn, while apparently dismissed as an annoying buzzkill, is actually right on the mark and is actually one of the more likable characters in the movie. If The Longest Week was created as a parody of the kind of films it’s imitating, this type of device might be effective. There’s not, however, enough humor here for it to be considered parody or satire. Much of the supposedly witty dialogue in this film, as well as its many literary references, lack any substance. It’s as though words and references are dropped just to remind us that we’re in sophisticated company.

Dylan, for example, is introduced as an “anti-social socialist.” Whether this is a clever bon mot or not, nothing in the film suggests he is any type of socialist. We meet Beatrice reading a Jane Austen novel. She is supposedly trying to model herself according to the standards of Victorian literature; yet nothing in her manner or actions lends credence to this.

Conrad at one point draws an analogy between his relationship with Beatrice and Pygmalion. Another high-brow literary reference, but one that has nothing to do with the story. Beatrice runs in the same social circles as Conrad and Dylan; she’s not someone who needs to be educated and introduced to high society. Other authors, such as Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald are similarly mentioned without purpose -other than to elevate the mood. The same way B action movies throw in pointless car chases, fights and explosions, this film sticks in literary references, impressive architecture and lots of classical music.

Watching The Longest Week actually gives me more appreciation for directors such as Woody Allen. A film like this reveals that it takes more than throwing in a bunch of cultural references and self-consciously witty repartee to create a compelling story. If there is a contemporary director who has managed to take up where Woody Allen left off, it’s probably Noah Baumbach. In his film, Greenberg, for example, Ben Stiller (in one of his best performances) creates the kind of immature, overeducated, underachieving misanthropic character that is somewhere between hero and antihero.

Bateman as Conrad, though he is aiming for something similar here, never manages to pull this off. He is not particularly likable or charming, but he’s not blatantly unlikable either. He just seems like a decent actor doing his best with material that is pointless and futile.

Blue Jasmine Review

In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.

Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.

As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.

While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.

These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).

On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).

Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.

The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.

By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.

Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.

Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”


Inside Llewyn Davis Review

Inside Llewyn Davis is another compelling feature by Ethan and Joel Coen, who are among the most consistent indie film directors working today. This film has similarities with some of the former hits; it has a sullen protagonist reminiscent of Barton Fink and a music-centered theme like O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Inside Llewyn Davis is also a completely unique and original film.

The movie takes place in 1961, at the very beginning of the modern folk music revival in Greenwich Village. Aside from anything else, the set and photography of the film is quite impressive -it’s no easy task to recreate the lower Manhattan of half a century ago. The film is, however, more than just a period piece. Like many Coen Brothers’ films, it’s darkly humorous, with an almost-but-not-quite unlikable hero.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is also a musician and performs many songs in the film) is a sulky, self-centered but talented folk musician who hasn’t gotten his big break and, it is strongly suggested, never will. Although he doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, one reason why it’s hard to hate him is that he’s so poorly treated by everybody else in the film. Early on, he is beaten up in the alley of a folk club. We don’t find out why till nearly the end. He is verbally chastised by Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend and another folk singer. Bad luck and bad vibes seem to follow him everywhere he goes, including on a bizarre road trip to Chicago. We also get the sense that the only time Davis is able to show his true self is when he performs his music.

Llewyn Davis has been called a surreal film, due to the way it plays tricks with the audience regarding time and the progression of events. I can’t be more specific or less cryptic without giving too much away. However, if you start watching the film expecting some kind of magical realism or fantasy, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t really see that there’s something mysterious going on until quite late in the film. There are, however, clues. One involves the motif of a tabby cat who keeps making appearances at unexpected times.

In addition to strong (musical as well as acting) performances by Isaac and Mulligan, the film features Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Inside Llewyn Davis is an aesthetically satisfying look at the paradoxical world of music and creativity.


Joe: Nicolas Cage in Grim Southern Gothic Tale

Joe (2013)
Directed by David Gordon Green

Joe is a grim, gritty, low key yet violent drama set in modern day rural Texas, but it could just as easily have been set 50 years, or even a Western set over a century ago. Nicolas Cage plays the title character Joe, an ex-convict who struggles with alcohol, a violent temper and a self-destructive streak. He leads a group of men who, fittingly enough, spend their days killing trees (so that stronger ones may be planted later). When a teenage boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan, who also starred in another gritty rural melodrama, Mud) shows up needing a job, Joe takes the troubled boy under his wing.

Gary has an abusive, alcoholic father (expertly played by Gary Poulter, a non-professional actor who died shortly after the film was made) and a mute sister. Both Gary and Joe are targeted by a psychotic local named Willie who was slapped by Joe in a bar fight. The plot here, however, almost seems secondary. These seem like characters who are so hard up and haunted by inner demons that they fabricate conflicts with one another to have a target for their rage and disappointments. Joe can be seen as a hybrid of several genres -coming of age, Southern Gothic and violent revenge melodrama.

The film is full of despair, hopelessness and senseless violence. The most violent scene depicts a brutal murder committed for no motive beyond one downtrodden character wanting to steal a bottle of booze from a weaker, even more downtrodden character. When Joe, ostensibly the hero, gets annoyed that a dog barks at him, he orders his own pit bull to kill the other dog. Joe also seems intent on returning to prison as he regularly taunts and provokes the local cops into arresting him.

There are a couple of other films that Joe reminded me of. Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, is cut from the same cloth. Like Joe, that film has many amateur local actors (that one is set in Appalachia rather than Texas) and evokes the hardness and casual violence of life among the rural poor. Another film, probably even less well known, that covers similar territory is Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the 2003 documentary directed by Andrew Douglas, also set in the Appalachian region.

If Joe has a fault it has nothing to do with the performances, which are all top notch, starting with Cage, who is in everything from silly Hollywood blockbusters to fascinating offbeat works such as Wild At Heart. The darkness and grimness of Joe, however, sometimes borders on parody. This is a world where no one even seems to have electricity, as most of the night scenes are shot in dim rooms (they do have TVs, though, so apparently the darkness is to maintain the mood). At one point, Joe gives Gary a windup clock so he can wake up for work -even basic timepieces are exotic in this neck of the woods.

Joe is a gripping, well-acted film that explores an America usually hidden from view. Though it ends on a tentatively upbeat, if appropriately somber note, it certainly won’t leave you feeling very positive about the prospects of the human species.


Winter’s Bone

2010
Directed by Debra Granik

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389361/

I’m Obsessed With You movie review

I’m Obsessed with You (But You’ve Got to Leave Me Alone), the 2014 film directed by Jon Goracy, is one of several new indie films currently available for streaming on Hulu. This is an interesting, somewhat experimental movie based on a play by Genevieve Adams (who is also in the cast).

The film follows the lives of a group of college friends who meet in an improv group on a liberal arts college campus. Improv, the style of spontaneous theater where the players take suggestions from the audience, serves as the underlying theme of the entire movie. Essentially, the film is an exploration of what might happen if people refuse to acknowledge a distinction between (improve style) theater and real life.

The main rule of improve, we are reminded is to “always say yes!” As you might imagine, trying to live by this commandment could make life complicated. This concept makes for an often fascinating, though at times confusing, storyline, where it’s not always clear what is supposed to be happening and what is imagined. For example, throughout the film we hear voiceovers of (presumably hypothetical) obituaries for the characters. The film also skips around in time quite a bit. Around halfway through, it began to sink in that it would be pointless to try to see I’m Obsessed With You as having any type of conventional linear plot.

The characters, played by Adams, Rachel Broshnahan, Manish Dayal, Thomas McDonnell and Jason Ralph, get involved in a variety of romantic triangles, career related mishaps and suffer from the type of existential crises and mood disorders typical of bohemians and people who attempt to allow their lives to be dictated by art.

Movies based on plays usually tend to be dialog-heavy and this one, which is overtly about the medium of theater, is certainly no exception. Still, much of the dialogue is witty and insightful and the performances are strong. This is not a movie for everyone, but fans of improv -or anyone interested in the possibility of a life that remains true to art at all costs- should find it worthwhile.

Radio Free Albemuth: Philip K. Dick’s Prophetic Dystopia

The novels of Philip K. Dick are not easy to translate into film, but Radio Free Albemuth, directed by John Alan Simon, does a good job at conveying some of the cult novelist’s more far out (yet far from implausible) ideas. Whereas Richard Linkater’s Through A Scanner Darkly was a mostly animated, surreal movie where the line between reality and hallucination was always on the verge of collapsing, Radio Free Albemuth is closer to being a conventional science fiction film. In fact, the movie has a deliberately retro feel to it, as it depicts an alternative late 20th century America that has too many similarities with the actual 2014 America for comfort.

The story follows a record store employee named Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) who starts to receive mystical visions from a mysterious source called VALIS. He and his writer friend Phil (Shea Whigham, playing author Dick himself) try to unravel a mysterious series of events that involve interrogations at the hands of stormtrooper-like government agents and a radical organization plotting to overthrow the fascist government.

Radio Free Albemuth portrays a low tech, pre-Internet America that feels even earlier than the 1980s. The cultural climate is more like the 1950s and the enforced conformity, with the ever present threat of being hauled in for your political beliefs recalls McCarthyism, with some Orwell thrown in. It is, however, unsettling to note that, while the technology is retro, the proto-fascist political rhetoric spouted by President Fremont has an all too contemporary ring.

The film is a bit confusing when it comes to the time frame and how it relates to historical events. Dick wrote the novel in 1976 and it was published after his death in 1985 In the book and film, the Soviet Union has collapsed and America is run by the right wing President Fremont (Scott Wilson), who has been in power for 15 years. So Dick foresaw the end of the Soviet Union some 20 years before it actually happened. It’s worth noting that in the late 1970s, when Dick wrote the novel, the Soviet empire hardly seemed to be falling apart and the Patriot Act was still far in the future.

Dick’s vision can be seen as prophetic in a number of ways. Not only did he foresee the impending end of the Soviet Union, but his pre-9/11 foresight that the U.S. government would use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties was eerily prophetic as well.

Singer Alanis Morissette provides the musical talent for the story as Sylvia, a woman who also has visions and whose family is connected to that of Fremont in a mysterious way. One of the subplots involves inserting a subversive revolutionary message within a pop song.

Those not familiar with Dick, or with conspiracy theories and/or metaphysical ideas regarding parallel realities might find this material inaccessible and farfetched. The film also turns rather dark towards the end. Whereas it starts out with Brady being hopeful at accessing a higher intelligence, gradually the power of the Orwellian state overshadow the other elements. While Dick’s visions are metaphysical and hopeful on the one hand, they definitely tend towards the dystopian as well.

Radio Free Albemuth is certainly full of interesting ideas about consciousness, metaphysics, politics and what it might take to become free in the face of widespread oppression. These are themes that have universal relevance.

Radio Free Albemuth is currently available on Netflix Streaming.

Do Movies Still Matter on Netflix?

A recent article on Yahoo Finance attempts to explain “why movies on Netflix just don’t matter anymore.”

As the article points out, Netflix is now becoming more popular for its original shows, namely House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, while its selection of streaming movies is sadly limited. The article goes on to allude to the “decreasing importance of film in pop culture.”

One thing that this analysis leaves out is that some people don’t seek out Hollywood blockbusters on Netflix. The site, for all its limitations, can be a good source for finding smaller, lesser known indie films. Granted, some of these are direct-to-video, low budget (and in many cases low quality) flicks.

There are, however, also quite a few good ones that deserve more attention than they receive. Just to name a few recent examples, while the average person may not have seen or heard of The Institute or Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, some Netflix customers subscribe to the service mainly for the pleasure of finding such hidden gems.

There are also plenty of in-between films -not quite mainstream yet not obscure or art house. To give an example of such a recent release, check out Mr. Nobody, which was released in 2009 but only recently became available on Netflix Streaming.

It’s a little sad to see people equating movies with mainstream movies.

Movies That Make You Question Reality

Question Reality” was always one of my favorite bumper stickers and some movies actually provoke this reaction in viewers.

Lots of movies of recent years can be said to be “consciousness expanding” in one form or another. In trying to put together a brief but meaningful list, I decided to exclude certain types of films -specifically documentaries and movies whose action or special effects aspects outweighed their mind expanding qualities, at least IMO.

This list is obviously incomplete and highly subjective! I will publish more lists of this kind in the future.

Some of these films have already been reviewed on this site, in which case I’ll include a link to the review.

Dark City
(1998)

The premise is that the reality we experience is a false construct, created by an alien race. This has some of the same concepts covered in The Matrix, but I believe in a more thoughtful and less hyped up manner. This basic idea goes back to Plato and Gnosticism and is at least as relevant today as in ancient times!

What the Bleep do We Know?
(2004)

Ok, this one is at least 1/2 documentary (though skeptical critics say it’s pure fiction, naturally), but since it also includes many dramatized sequences, it can’t be said to be a true doc. Whether you agree with its interpretation of quantum physics or not, it’s certainly extremely thought provoking.

Waking Life (2001)

Richard Linklater’s animated exploration of philosophy, consciousness and the perennial question -“How do I know I’m not dreaming right now?” This will be of particular interest to anyone fascinated with lucid dreaming. Waking Life has recently been added to Netflix Streaming.

Mr. Nobody (2009)

I just saw this recently, so it’s fresh in my mind. This film explores the fascinating possibility of multiple timelines. Rather than wondering about the road not taken, imagine if many roads are taken, but in different realities!

The Stunt Man (1980)

I’m listing this one partly because it’s a great film that’s not very well known. While many movies have dealt with the boundaries between movies and real life collapsing, none does it better than The Stunt Man, where an egoistical director played by Peter O’Toole orchestrates events that have life or death consequences.

Mr. Nobody Traverses Multiple Timelines

Mr. Nobody (2009), directed by Jaco Van Dormael, is a long (140 minutes), ambitious, fascinating and sometimes confusing film that is both highly original and reminiscent of a few other experimental films of recent years. Whereas many movies deal with the question of decisions and how they impact our fates, none does so in a way that’s more thorough and deep than Mr. Nobody.

The film starts off with a premise that’s quite perplexing, even by the standards of science fiction. The protagonist, whose actual name is unknown, is an apparently confused 117 year old man who is publicly recognized as the last mortal human, in an age when medical advances in stem cell technology have conquered death. This brings up the question of why this man has been singled out for this fate and how, if he’s unknown, they even know how old he is. The film may or may not answer these questions satisfactorily.

The film then focuses on flashbacks, dreams and/or hallucinations that Mr. Nobody has about his past, where he experienced (or imagined) several mutually irreconcilable lives. Not only was he simultaneously married to different women, in certain “lifetimes” he actually died at a young age. We are first taken back to his childhood, where he is compelled to choose between his parents when they split up. The pivotal moment is when his mother is riding away on a train and the boy chases the train and either does or doesn’t -or, rather, does and doesn’t- catch up to it. From this point onwards, the boy’s life starts to branch off into different timelines.

Fans of fantasy, science fiction, and even certain alternative news and conspiracy websites, will be familiar with the concept of timelines. This is also related to possible worlds theory in the realms of academic philosophy and quantum physics. The premise is that every possible reality actually exists in some dimension. Yet Mr. Nobody isn’t content to “merely” examine the notion of timelines. It takes us even further afield, invoking the Butterfly Effect, a future when humans visit Mars and, as alluded to, the technological defeat of death itself. If that wasn’t enough, there is even a sequence with angels and a unicorn, to portray the alleged moment before babies are born and choose their parents.

What can we make of such a complex and seemingly over-ambitious film? I actually found it more enjoyable and accessible than this summary probably indicates. While it is overly complex, convoluted and, ultimately, indecipherable, it is also thought-provoking and philosophical. It also manages to avoid being overly dry and cerebral. Indie actress and director Sarah Polley, plays Elise, a bipolar (or perhaps borderline personality) love interest of Mr. Nobody, and one of the women he marries. Their tumultuous relationship is one of the factors that gives the film some emotional weight. His other two wives are also aptly portrayed by Diane Kruger and Linh Dan Pham.

The film it most closely resembles is the better known Cloud Atlas (2012), which, at 172 minutes was even longer, had the advantage of some big name stars such as Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry. Both movies deal with long periods of time and individuals living out multiple lifetimes. Although Cloud Atlas, which was based on a book, got more attention and, in general, better reviews, I actually preferred Mr. Nobody. I found Cloud Atlas overly long and somewhat sanctimonious. Mr. Nobody, despite what could be called its flaws (but which I’m more inclined to simply call its style), was more an open-ended exploration of some fantastical (but not implausible) theories and possibilities. For what it’s worth, both Cloud Atlas and Mr. Nobody envision a future where guys with intricate face tattoos are prevalent.

Other films that Mr. Nobody can be compared to include Richard Linklater’s exploration of lucid dreaming (among many other things), Waking Life, the reverse aging saga, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and a number of David Lynch films that deal with issues such as multiple identities. Finally, anyone who saw the quasi-documentary What the Bleep do We Know? will recognize the rather farfetched interpretations of quantum physics, such as multiple dimensions.

Mr. Nobody combines philosophy, science fiction and drama in a way that is difficult to reconcile. It’s probably better if you just watch it without trying to understand exactly what it’s all supposed to mean. If nothing else, you should take away from it that life is more complicated and multifaceted than most of us realize most of the time.