Tag Archives: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

“THE REVENANT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The broken spirit, revived. 

The Revenant is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I never want to see it again.

The film tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an 1820’s frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, watched his son get murdered, was left for dead by his friends, and crawled 200 miles to society, seeking revenge against those who betrayed him. His story is not fictional. Author Michael Punke captured the true accounts of Glass’s life in the novel of the same name, which serves as the primary basis for this film.

At hearing about the film, you would never have guessed that this is a true story. Watching the film does little to suspend your disbelief, but as it continues on, you catch yourself slowly conforming to the film’s convictions, believing it more and more as it builds to its emotionally binding and captivating climax. Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, who won an Oscar last year for directing Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, has made a film so vivid, eerie, and compelling that it could, and indeed does, pass itself off as reality.

Look at the huge risks Inarritu takes as a filmmaker. In Birdman, he took a great risk by filming in multiple long takes, editing them together to give off the illusion that Birdman was all filmed in one shot. Here, Inarritu takes another risk by shooting everything in natural light, using the sun to naturally fill the space that Inarritu captures on camera. The result allows us to experience The Revenant’s environments as they are, rather than being artificially constructed for the film’s sake.

Beyond its practical filming and staging, Inarritu is equally ambitious in his overarching vision for the film. To pick one word to describe The Revenant is impossible. It’s beautiful. Disturbing. Shocking. Heartbreaking. Violent. Gritty. Emotional. Meaningful. Spiritual. The scope of Inarritu’s filmmaking is simply incredible, peering into this man’s loneliness, desperation, paranoia, and drive as he struggles not only to survive, but to live beyond his son’s death.

Oh, this is a wonderfully shot film. In wide angles, cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski captures the sheer scope and vastness of his environments, capturing both the beauty and danger of nature around Glass. In tight shots, he perfectly encapsulates Glass’s struggle against life, nature, and himself as he fights to keep on living. DiCaprio lends just as much to Glass’ turmoil as Lubeski does. At times he doesn’t speak, but simply reacts to the environment around him, and his grief and angst is so believable that you buy his struggle not as a character or an actor, but as a real person.

All of these elements build to embody a perfect film. Yes. A perfect film. Why then, do I say that I never want to see it again? Because it captures its vision so perfectly that the filmmaking aspect no longer seems like an illusion. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie: it feels like you’re watching life. You feel Glass’ nerves as he freezes in the cold, struggling breaths in between his slit throat and his stitches. You feel the pain stab through Glass as the bear’s claws tear into his flesh, literally ripping apart his fragile body as the blood replaces his decaying skin. And you feel Glass’ wrath and his pain, his internal torture where he knows that he will never be the same man again. The film is so convincing in its art that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. That’s what I mean when I say that I can’t see it again.

The film never tells us that it’s based on a true story in the opening and closing credits, and it doesn’t need to. We are already convinced of this through experiencing pure film.

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Top Ten Films Of 2014

Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why all of the best of the year lists have to be in the top ten? Like, what sort of critic was working on his list and thought that ten would be the magic number? Why ten and not twelve? Or fifteen? Five? Twenty? Eight? Why was ten specifically chosen as the big number? Was it chosen at random, or was it actually chosen for some relevant, significant reason?

Regardless of whatever the case may be, I’m choosing to be a little rebellious this year. For the past few years, I’ve seen enough films to make a “Top 15″ list if I wanted to, but if I had done that, my site viewership would go down by about twenty views.

So this year, to battle the preconceived notion that “best of the year” lists have to have ten movies, I’m doing two different things. 1) I’m adding an “honorable mentions” selection that while those films aren’t necessarily in my top ten, they are still significant films that have contributed to the year’s industry regardless. 2) In honor of our first full year without the wise, sometime snarky, words of film critic Roger Ebert, I’m offering a special Grand Jury Prize, which honors a film from the year which has made a notable accomplishment that fits outside of my year’s top ten.

As always, there is a few things you need to know before I get into my year’s best. First of all, I haven’t seen all of the films the year has had to offer. I’ve heard from so many people how Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild was emotionally stirring, with Reese Witherspoon’s performance being the greatest highlight of the film. I’ve also read from critics that Selma, A Most Violent Year, and American Sniper were great movies as well, but guess what? None of those movies get a wide release until after Dec. 31, so I’m not able to even see those films until after the year anyway. So what am I going to do? Release a revision to my current list, or add those films to 2015 if they’re good enough? I’ll make a decision when it comes to that. It’s the studio’s faults for releasing those movies so late into the year anyway. Blasted film mongers.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this is my list for the best films of 2014. Not yours. There has been high praise from many notable films of the year, including Edge of Tomorrow, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of those films will be on my top ten list because I didn’t deem them worthy enough to be on there. It’s nothing against the films or the filmmakers: I just didn’t think they were good enough.

If you’re not satisfied with that, then please, make your own top ten list. I’d love to read it, and if your reasonings are sound enough, I’d like to share it with others.

Now then, let’s hop to it, shall we? Here are my top ten films of 2014:

10. Interstellar 

A mesmerizing, breathtaking, and exhilarating journey that may have only slightly exceeded it’s grasp. Based on an idea by physicist Kip Thorne and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar takes place in the future on a dying planet Earth, where the only source of sustainable food is by growing corn. When former aircraft pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon a secret station that has been hiding NASA for so many years, Cooper enlists in a daring space mission to find a new planet that will be able to sustain and save the human race. A testament to the quality of film that Nolan is consistent in making, Interstellar is a brilliantly woven, thought-provoking plot, invoking the same themes of humanity and identity that Nolan exercises in all of his films. McConaughey reaches an emotional depth much deeper than past “Nolan” actors, and succeeds in making his character more human than hero. This is Nolan’s most emotional movie yet, but it’s also his most complicated and convoluted. But if Nolan’s only real flaw with this film is being overly ambitious, I don’t consider that a flaw at all. Three and a half stars.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A crafty and artsy film that acts as a homage to the early days of cinema. After being framed for a violent murder of one of his former hotel guests, Concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) teams up with his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence through a series of weird, wacky, and crazy adventures. Written and directed by Wes Anderson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a peculiar, quirky film, a fun and enjoyable ride in it’s own singular way. Anderson is very specific with the direction of the film, using practical effects and set pieces that gives the film a very distinct visual style and aesthetic. The antics Gustave and Zero go through are the stuff of slapstick gold, with these guys doing silly stunts and chase sequences that reminds me of the silent film days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s definitely seasoned for the art house crowd, and it’s definitely more difficult to appeal to the masses. But if you allow yourself to be lost in it and have fun with it, you’ll find that it is easily the most unique film of the year. Three and a half stars.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2

A wildly exciting and entertaining animated ride that appeals to both kids and adults. When a crusade of dragon-hunters reach the land of Berk and begin their hunt for the flying beasts, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) must team up once again with his dragon Toothless to stop the brigade and save Berk’s dragons and dragon riders. Written and directed by Dean DuBlois, who returned from directing the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a near-perfect follow-up. It hits on every note it needs to, from the comedy, to the animation, to the action, to the emotion. Hiccup is a much stronger, yet more vulnerable, character now, and needs to face more mature situations now as a grown man rather than as he did when he was a boy. In many ways, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to it’s first counterpart as Hiccup is to his younger self: they both grew. Three and a half stars.

7. Gone Girl

A brilliantly frustrating thriller that exercises themes of infidelity and media harassment. When Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, all eyes turn to Nick for what happened to his wife. When clues slowly surface and more details surrounding the disappearance reveal themselves, everyone is asking the same question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife? Directed by David Fincher and written by author Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a masterfully orchestrated thriller, equal parts daring, inventive, intelligent, and unpredictable. Fincher propels Flynn’s brilliant plot forward with expert direction, eye-striking camerawork, and a cast that Fincher pulls the best from. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse. There is not one note in the film that you can guess is coming. Three and a half stars.

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human/primate condition as two sides to one coin. After the chemical attack on planet Earth that took place at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leaders of the apes and the humans, respectively. As the human-primate war rages on violently, Caesar and Malcolm begin to see that the apes and the humans aren’t so different from each other, and they begin to explore any possibilities of peace between two races. Matt Reeves builds an intelligent, in-depth story around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and handles its premise with skill and precision.  It surprising that the basis of this film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. Serkis is a revelation in the movie, and deserves an Oscar nomination for both his physical and emotional performance. Four stars.

5. Birdman

One of the most mesmerizing, unique, disturbing, shocking, and darkly funny films I’ve ever seen. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu writes and directs this ingenious dramedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie actor trying to escape his image in a former superhero role by adapting his favorite broadway play to the stage. Keaton is a natural in the role, relating his own experience to portraying Batman in order to further authenticity for the character. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski contributes to the visual design of the film, shooting and editing it to look like one, continuous shot rather than multiple longer takes. But Inarritu is the most essential storyteller here, making a visual and emotional masterpiece that is so distinct in its own language that it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Four stars.

4. Whiplash

One of the most edgy, thrilling, and provocative films of the year. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, an upcoming college student who is majoring in music and dreams of becoming one of the best drummers in the country. A series of events lands him in the top jazz orchestra of Shaffer Conservatory and under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but harsh and antagonistic instructor who is known to go very hard on his students. Andrew and Fletcher both develop an intense rivalry that both hurts Andrew, angers Fletcher, and yet equally compels them both to become the very best they can be. Writer/director Damien Chazelle conducts both actors through his sophomore effort, and does a great job in producing a tense, electric vibe consistently throughout the film. Teller and Simmons’ chemistry with each other is equally perfect, with the both of them bouncing off of each other’s words and emotions as perfectly as a drum beat. This film is about more than just music. It’s about the human desire to be great and what sacrifices we’d make to get there. Four stars.

3. Boyhood

The most revolutionary film of the year, ambitious in both production and vision. A twelve-year project pioneered by writer/director Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, chronicling his entire life from when he was six years old, up until when he turns 18 and leaves for college. The movie isn’t so much a story as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is pulling each photograph out of it just to show it to us. When he is younger, Ellar isn’t acting but living, behaving like any other child would in the moment because he is in the moment. As he gets older, his performance gets more stagnant and Coltrane becomes more of a surrogate for us to express our emotions through, rather than experiencing his own. In this day and age, it’s rare to find a film as real and honest as Boyhood is. Four stars.

2. X-men: Days of Future Past

The best entry out of the X-men franchise, and the best superhero movie of the year. Serving as a sequel to both 2011’s X-men: First Class and 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, X-men: Days of Future Past is set in the apocalyptic future where mutants are being exterminated by humanoid robots called “Sentinels”. Having only one chance to go back in time and stop this future from ever happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) through time to their younger selves (Portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) so they can stop the triggering event and save the future. Directed by Bryan Singer, who formerly helmed the first two entries in the franchise, X-men: Days of Future Past is a game changer. It is not only a visually-dazzling and highly climactic sci-fi blockbuster: it is a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that focuses on its recurring themes of racism and xenophobia, once again bringing the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. X-men: Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the superhero genre. Four stars.

And finally, my number one film of the year is —

1. The Fault In Our Stars

Surprised? I’m not. The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical, heartbreaking, and genuine films you will ever see, and is more than worthy of being called the most emotional film of the year. Based off of the novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the love story of two Cancer-stricken teenagers: the shy and book-loving Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and the optimistic amputee Gus (Ansel Elgort). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Josh Boone, The Fault In Our Stars is one of the best stories ever translated from book to film. I initially was skeptical on seeing this film, considering how much it seemed to have been doused in rom-com syndrome. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Boone adapts Green’s story perfectly to the big screen, retaining everything in the novel from the visual details to the words that were written. But its Woodley and Elgort that sells it so well, their chemistry that vibrates so wonderfully with each other and leaves such an impression on you. Trust me when I say this isn’t your typical rom-com: it’s a heartfelt drama disguised as a tween movie, and it is the best of it’s kind. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s first Grand Jury Prize appropriately goes to Steve James’ documented biography Life Itself. Following Roger Ebert’s life and career from him growing up in Chicago, to when he got his first reporting job, to when he won the Nobel Prize for film criticism, to when he lost his best friend, to when he got Thyroid cancer, this film is everything that Roger Ebert is: funny, honest, heartfelt, unabashed, unflinching, and real. It doesn’t give you a peppered-up look at his life: it’s whole and accurate, as genuine as any of the reviews he’s written. I’m probably biased towards this subject, but the subject doesn’t count as long as it is handled well. James’ handles this story with respect and humility, and ends up telling a story about life itself rather than just limiting it to Roger’s story. It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and it brings me great pleasure to award my first Grand Jury Prize to this wonderful film tribute.

Honorable mentions include the creepy and morally ambiguous Nightcrawler, the funny yet stylish Guardians of the Galaxy, the humorously innovative The Lego Movie, and the quietly thrilling The Imitation Game, featuring the year’s best performance from actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Not all films can be honored at the end of the year compilations, but this year I was glad to have seen so many films and give each of them a chance to shine in their own way.

All the same, if you feel differently about some of the films on my list, or you have seen another film that deserves to be recognized, please comment about it. Or make your own list. Movies are deemed as great films not from individuals, but from the masses, and the only way you can tell if a movie has truly accomplished something is if it has the same effect on all its viewers.

On that note, my fellow moviegoers, I end with a classic line from my favorite film critic: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

– David Dunn

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“BIRDMAN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The artist’s struggle, all in one take. 

Birdman, or otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is one of the most mesmerizing films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most unique, disturbing, shocking, and confusing films I’ve ever seen too. That’s okay. This film was reaching for a specific vision, and director Alejandro Inarritu has expanded beyond it. I admit I don’t know what to expect as far as the public reacting to this, and I also don’t know how accessible it is to non-film aficionados either. But I have seen the movie frame by frame, and I think it’s one of the best films of its kind. On the surface value, it’s about the struggles of Broadway theatre. In deeper insight, it’s about ego and the obsessive human condition.

The film stars Michael Keaton as washed-up actor Riggan Thompson, who has been forgotten by his adoring public after portraying the lead role in a series of superhero films titled Birdman. This is ironic, because in real life, Keaton portrayed a superhero in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. Desperate for a comeback, Thompson sets out to write, direct and star in his favorite Broadway play: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver.

Things immediately hit the fan during the week of their first preview. One of Riggan’s actors gets a head injury from a loose light on the set. His replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is a talented but brash and arrogant actor who sees himself as Riggan’s superior. And, as he faces personal problems with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan begins to feel the closing pressures of Broadway when a malicious theatre critic tells him she’s going to “kill his play.” Now Riggan is trying to keep the play and his sanity afloat, and he will make whatever sacrifices he needs to make sure both happens.

Written, directed and produced by Inarritu, Birdman is the first black comedy made by the filmmaker, his most successful films to date being Oscar nominees Babel and Biutiful. Now he has made Birdman, and I am tempted to say it’s the best film he’s made yet.

What worked so well with the film? The first thing is the editing and the cinematography, which was shot so wonderfully by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki that it places you in the moment, in the reality of the film, not making you watch it from a cushion seat on the eighth row of a dark movie theater. Lubezki, who worked with Inarritu on short films in the past, decided to shoot the film and edit it into a continuous fashion, giving off the illusion that the entire film was filmed in one take. Even though the movie wasn’t filmed in one shot, the feeling it gives off makes it feel alive and moving, not unlike the world of theatre that Riggan is trying to prove himself in.

I wonder how much effort this takes, not just from the cinematographer and director’s point of view, but from everyone else involved in the film as well. How many hours did the actors need to rehearse their lines in order to get their roles right? How much pressure was the tech and lighting crew under while they were filming, knowing that if they screwed up, everyone would have to start back to square one? How many hours did film editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione have to sit in front of a computer, making sure the shots transitioned so well that you couldn’t even see the transitions? The illusion not only worked because of the idea that Lubezki and Inarritu offered, but because of the commitment it received from everyone involved with the film. In many ways, their efforts were all worth it: the camerawork here expresses more of the story than the character’s dialogue does.

The parallels in this movie are also ingenious. How does Keaton feel playing as Riggan Thompson in the movie, knowing that he reached international fame as Batman earlier in his career and having since then never been able to match a more recognized role? How does Inarritu feel, going through all of the production pressures Riggan did in making the play as he himself did in making the movie? Did he intend this movie as self-reflection? Is he telling the audience what he goes through daily as a filmmaker? Or is he using his struggles as a platform to tell a much deeper, more important story to the audience?

For me, I don’t get as much joy out of interpreting as much as I do out of experiencing. And make no mistake: Birdman is an experience, surreal, tantalizing, and thought-provoking all at once. I’m still sitting here, hours later, not quite fully realizing what exactly Inarritu was trying to portray in this film. Is he commenting on the artist’s struggle? Commercial vs. independent film? Fatherhood? Friendship? Family? Lost love?

I think it’s all of the above. Or maybe none of the above. I honestly don’t know. In the movie, Inarritu battles labels that are placed on artists and on the art that they produce. Is Riggan Thompson a superhero, or an actor portraying a superhero? Is he a former shell of who he is, or a flower that has yet to bloom? We see in this film how these labels influence his life and how much stress and anxiety it presses upon him. To put labels on the movie would contradict Inarritu’s intentions. It would be offensive to the film.

My bottom line: Birdman is a masterpiece. It is so distinct in its own language and style that I think it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Critics will applaud it for it’s technical and emotional achievements. It will definitely garner some Oscar nominations. It’s a sure contender for visual effects, cinematography and editing. It is also sure to confuse certain people, to which I would recommend stop trying to understand it. Birdman is not meant to be understood. It is meant to be experienced, and if you can help it, interpreted.

Post-script: A thought I had after seeing the movie that I think viewers will also have. Because of how profoundly his role as Birdman affected Riggan, is Inarritu attacking the superhero genre of film? I believe he is, but I choose not to acknowledge that. After all, for every time a superhero film was called too simple, couldn’t you call any art film too complicated? I quote Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad.” 

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An Afternoon With Alejandro Inarritu

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

– Raymond Carver

These were the words that director Alejandro Inarritu (Babel, Biutiful) chose to quote at the beginning of his meticulous film Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. It was also the first words that came back into my head minutes before I was to interview him.

This weekend, I had two great experiences happen to me. Firstly, getting to see Birdman, a viciously unique film that tackles it’s characters and themes with pinpoint precision: a masterwork by a master director. The second you already know. If you don’t, you didn’t read my first paragraph.

Alejandro gave myself, along with about ten other college journalists, the privilege to talk to him about his upcoming limited release. After seeing the movie, this surprised me, because there was a moment in the film where a journalist accuses the main character of injecting semen into his pores to maintain his young features. I suspect Mr. Inarritu hosts a very guarded spirit while being interviewed by the press, and I certainly don’t blame him for that if that is the case. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why Inarritu wanted to host the interview over the phone in the first place.

Anyhow, I had 20 minutes to listen to the director’s innermost thoughts, and while I only got to ask him one question, I enjoyed the experience as much as any other college journalist who participated in the call. While all of these aren’t my questions, these are the ones I found the most relevant to the film, and the ones I believed Inarritu would have preferred to be answered in the first place. So without further adieu, here is Alejandro Inarritu on the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

Question: Your film is unique, hyperactive and full of energy. How do you communicate to your cast the complex tone you’re wanting to portray?

Answer: I always try to be very specific, help them to clarify and simplify things by having a very clear objective. I think every scene has an objective, and every character has something they want to achieve in each scene. When you have cleared your objective, and to try one or two possible ways to get that done through an action verb, I think that would simplify the work not only for me, but for everybody.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced while making the film? 

A: It was a very short shooting — 29 days. We rehearsed a lot before arriving to the set, so basically it was a very intense and meticulous work of precision with actors, camera and crew. Everything was designed and matched the needs of the film that was basically predecided in rehearsal.

Q: You have a big role behind your scenes in producing, writing and directing all of your films. What is it like taking on all of those jobs at once? 

A: I have been lucky to have been the producer and be involved in all of my films in a very personal way. I think there is no other way to make it. I think if you have a film that is personal, if you are doing your own film, there is no other way to not produce it, because I think it’s a part of the film. Producing means a lot of decisions that will impact your film one way or another.

Q: In the movie, Riggan Thompson is overshadowed by a superhero role he played earlier in his career. In real life, Keaton is overshadowed by his role in Tim Burton’s Batman. Is that an intentional casting decision that you made?

A: Keaton adds a lot of mental reality to the film, being an authority and one of the few persons of his work that pioneered the superhero thing. But at the same time, he has the craft and the range to play in drama and comedy, and very few actors can do that. He plays a prick in this film, and I need someone who was adorable, somebody who you can really like. He has that likeness, that likeness that was required. All of these things made him the perfect choice for it. I think he was very bold in trusting me with this role.

Q: One of the things that is particularly interesting with the film is the long take. Can you talk about why you made that visual choice?

A: I wanted the long take to make the people really feel the experience of this guy. I think it’s important for every director in every film to pick the point of view, and in this case I wanted radical point of view, and the people were in the shoes of the character to experience his emotions. I felt that was the most effective way to do that.

Q: Why did you choose to portray mental illness in a film that is at least extensively a comedy?

A: I think ego is a part of our decease as a society. I think the ego is a necessity, but I think when the ego takes over and we attach our personalities to the ego, and he domains a person absolutely without being discovered or controlled. That’s mental deceit, and I see in a way Riggan Thompson suffering from that illusion of ego that’s distorting him. He thinks he does things that he does not do, he’s in like a manic state of mind. He’s an extreme case of ego.

Q: Is that part of the commentary?

A: Everything is part of the tone of the film. That’s why it opens with a guy meditating in tidy whites.

– David Dunn

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