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Posts Tagged ‘minimalism’

Cast Away (2000)


In this day and age, it seems that we have become too connected. We can communicate instantly with people all over the world, and we live and die by the whims of the clock. As a result, we often lose sight of what it is to really live. Chuck Noland is about to rediscover his own humanity, courtesy of Federal Express.

Cast Away is a drama film directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Tom Hanks, a remote island, a volleyball, and Helen Hunt.

Chuck Noland is a time obsessed systems analyst, in charge of improving the efficiency of Federal Express hubs all over the world. Although he is in a long-term relationship with the love of his life, Kelly Frears, whom he plans to marry, his demanding hours often interfere with his social life. When Christmas with relative is cut short by a Fed Ex emergency in Malaysia, Chuck leaves Kelly with a wrapped ring box, telling her not to open it until he returns on New Year’s Eve. However, it appears fate has other plans for him, when his plane crashes somewhere in the Pacific Ocean while trying to navigate through a violent storm. He is saved by the inflatable raft, but the emergency transmitter breaks off. Clinging to the raft, he floats all night and eventually washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island. Good news: Now Chuck has all the free time he could ever want. Bad news: He has nothing else but the clothes on his back, the contents of a few Fed Ex packages that wash on shore, and whatever else the island has to offer. Chuck must embark on a journey that mirrors the development of the earliest humans in order to survive, and in the process he learns what is truly important in life…

Tom Hanks is a great actor. There are very few people who can carry the bulk of a movie like this essentially on their own, and Hanks nails it. Add to this the directing chops of Robert Zemeckis, and you have the formula of a dramatic example of minimalism done right. The first half hour sets up the character of Chuck Noland, a tightly-wound corporate analyst who hardly has time to breathe, let alone develop a social life. While he lives by the clock and demands nothing short of the best from the employees he oversees, he does lend some sympathy to the character, so that he comes off as efficient and analytical rather than an obnoxious bureaucrat (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play an unsympathetic role in his life. Then the plane crash tears away everything he thought was important, and he is forced to learn how to survive with virtually no knowledge. Basically, he’s rediscovering what it is to be human, but at the same time he is determined not to forget what it is to be Chuck Noland.

Of course, the huge chunk of movie that takes place on the island is at once maddeningly quiet and terrifyingly loud. It lacks the usual noises of civilization (and a musical soundtrack), but possesses unexpected noises of virgin wilderness. It is not only the setting for Chuck’s personal journey but also a character in itself. It offers no advice, only the barest essential things he needs. He has no companionship save for a volleyball, with whom he has one-sided conversations to stave off loneliness. The plot is boiled and distilled and concentrated down to one thing – Chuck trying to survive. There is no antagonist except for the trials of scraping out his own existence, and you will either find it engaging or boring as hell, depending on your opinion of Hanks’ skill in this movie. Personally, I am in the former camp, and any actor or director that can make you cry for a volleyball deserves any awards he gets.

If you’re a fan of Tom Hanks and you’re in the mood for a modern-day take on Robinson Crusoe, absolutely check out Cast Away. You will soon find yourself journeying alongside Chuck into the heart of his own humanity, brought to you by Fed Ex.

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Die Hard (1988)


New York City Police Detective John McLane wants to have a Merry Christmas. He’s travelled to Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife and generally enjoy a lovely office Christmas party there. Unfortunately, a group of international terrorists have other plans, but they’re about to learn a hard lesson: don’t mess with a New York cop’s Christmas.

Yippie-ki-yay.

Die Hard is an action film directed by John McTiernan, based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever. It stars Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, and Paul Gleason.

When John McLane arrives in Los Angeles, all he wants to do is relax and make things right with his wife Holly. However, while he’s in her office in Nakatomi Plaza, freshening up for her office Christmas party, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber take over the building, taking the other guests hostage, including Holly. McLane’s Spidey senses start tingling almost immediately, and he eludes Gruber’s henchmen as they search for any stragglers. Gruber presents his little band of merry men as working towards various extremist goals, but it is soon revealed that their goal is more local in origin. However, McLane isn’t going to stand for their shenanigans. He might be technically off-duty, but being a cop is in his blood, as Gruber & Co. learn as they find themselves matching wits with this unknown variable.

When this movie was first released, it was innovative for a number of reasons. First, John McLane was more or less an average guy. Yeah, he was a cop, and yeah, he took a lot of punishment, but he got injured. He got tired. Second, up till this point, Bruce Willis had been known as a comedic actor, and the switch to action raised a lot of eyebrows. Fortunately, he took well to the role, offering wisecracks as half the people in the building were trying to hunt him down, in sharp contrast to Rickman’s wily Hans Gruber, who is all business and comes to hate this particular monkey wrench with the burning intensity of a thousand desert suns. McLane is resourceful and crafty in addition to being a trained bruiser; the ability to solve problems with his brains rather than shooting everything to pieces is a skill that not many modern action heroes possess. The other terrorists appeared to only be there to add more menace to McLane’s plight, but Holly Gennaro-McLane had a number of scenes that indicated that either she and her husband were made for each other, or someof his attitude had rubbed off on her.

The plot was well-crafted as well. While Die Hard established a template since used by a number of action movies throughout the 80s and 90s, here it is chock full of twists and turns that keep even seasoned action fans on the edge of their seats, as McLane makes his way through friendly territory turned enemy territory, trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys who would just as happily kill him as kill any of the hostages, if it would remove more more obstacle from their plan. It’s a simple plot, yes, but a delightfully twisty one.

If you want to see the movie that kicked off Bruce Willis’ long, well-earned journey into badasshood, pick up Die Hard. It’s the movie that kicked off a hundred “Die Hard on Whatever” plots, and it remains the best out of all of them.

Moon (2009)


Having an existential crisis can suck. Having an existential crisis when you’re 240,000 miles from home can be even worse. Being virtually alone on the far side of the moon for three years with a computer as your only conversational partner can do that. Just ask Sam Bell.

Moon is a British science fiction film focusing on a man who experiences a personal crisis as he nears the end of his three-year contract mining Helium-3 on the far side of the moon. It was directed by Duncan Jones stars primarily Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey. The film was nominated for two BAFTAs in 2010, and Jones won the award for “Outstanding Debut by a British writer, director or producer”.

Lunar Industries employee Sam Bell (Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year contract to work on a largely automated lunar mining base, overseeing the automated harvesters that extract Helium-3 and periodically sending the filled canisters back to Earth to be used for clean-fusion energy. Chronic communications issues prevent him from establishing live communications with Earth, but his wife, Tess, sends him periodic recorded messages updating him on her life, especially the birth and early years of his daughter Eve. Two weeks before his contract is up, Sam begins to hallucinate, his solitude having caused him to start going mentally sideways. During a routine trip out to collect one of the filled Helium-3 canisters, Sam sees a figure on the lunar surface. Startled, he crashes his rover, managing to get his helmet on before losing consciousness.

He wakes in the infirmary, and the base’s computer, GERTY (Kevin Spacey, channelling Douglas Raines) asks him if he remembers the crash that landed him there. He doesn’t, but Gerty reassures him that this is normal. However, Sam suspects that something is not right when he overhears a live communication between GERTY and Lunar Industries executives, and learns that a rescue team has been dispatched, and GERTY has been instructed not to let him outside. Sam is forced to find his own answers about what is happening at the Lunar Industries base, and what he learns will shake his world to its core…

I was genuinely surprised by this movie. I’d previously seen Sam Rockwell playing psychos or obnoxious twerps, but Moon demonstrates that he is a genuinely skilled dramatic actor in his own right. Like many movies where a single character carries the bulk of the action, Rockwell had his work cut out for him, as the only other characters were GERTY and… himself. Onscreen, he is funny and heartrending in turns, as he tries to come to terms with the truth behind his situation. Spacey’s choice of the HAL 9000 “calm and reasonable” voice was well-done, as it immediately had vintage sci fi fans on their guard, expecting calm sociopathy later even as GERTY seemed to want to help Sam solve his problem. The set design was beautifully sterile, offering beautifully empty lunar vistas and a possible glimpse into near-future mining operations. The story itself unfolded slowly, with a well-paced patience that allowed the audience to get to know and care about Sam Bell, and want to stay right there with him as he came to terms with his own existence on this sterile ball of rock.

If you want a quiet, contemplative hard sci fi film without a lot of action and with a lot of introspection, try Moon. It’s an unexpected treasure that will probably become a long-lasting classic.

Cube (1997)


You wake up to the sensation of metal pressing against your cheek. You have a slight headache, and you can’t remember what happened last night.

>look

You open your eyes to find yourself in a 14-foot cube crafted of cold metal, lit with blue lighting. There is a door in the center of each face. You see a pamphlet lying on the floor nearby.

>read pamphlet

Cube is a Canadian psychological thriller movie directed by Vincenzo Natali, presenting a Kafka-esque situation: seven strangers separately find themselves trapped in a cubical device made of thousands upon thousands of identical rooms, some of which are rigged with deathtraps. It stars David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Nicole de Boer, and Nick Guadagni. Despite its minimalist plot and simple premise, Cube was a successful product of the Canadian Film Centre’s First Feature Project and achieved minor critical success upon its initial release.

I first saw this movie on the Sci Fi Channel one afternoon, and while I expected the channels usual fare of bad acting, stupid plot, and shitty special effects, Cube was actually a damn good little movie. Its cast was primarily obscure unknowns, through Stargate SG-1 fans will recognize David Hewlitt as a proto-Rodney McKay. (He gets the crap beat out of him. Twice. You’re welcome.) The plot is presented only in its broadest strokes, and while the outside is referred to, it is never shown except as fathomless darkness between the rooms and the outer shell, or as white light when the exit is found. Later installments in the film series do little to clear anything up, and instead the storyline raises more questions than it resolves. Instead, as the movie progresses and their situation starts to look hopeless, the inevitable happens: one of the prisoners snaps out. If you’ve seen any of the Saw films, you will expect this to happen. The acting is decent, given the distinct lack of details they have to work with, though I have some minor issue with Holloway’s non-profanity of “Cats! Holy, holy cats!” Not because I was offended, but because it was a damn goofy way to avoid swearing.

Now for an issue that would be minor were it not a plot point. Leaven, one of the two resident math experts, must figure out whether the room coordinate numbers are prime, indicating “safe” rooms. Some of the numbers are obvious non-primes, like two numbers ending in 5 and 2 – very simple. Also, figuring out powers of primes is apparently not as “astronomical” as Leaven claims, though probably only the bigger math nerds would have known the methods of figuring out three-digit primes or the powers thereof without a calculator on hand. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract too much from the movie.

Cube is an obscure little treasure from Canada that will probably please fans of Kafka-esque plots or sci-fi thrillers. Keep an eye out for this one in your local video store.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)


People most likely to attract nasty spirits:

  • Young children
  • Mediums
  • Fake mediums
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is fake
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is real
  • Amateur documentarians

Three high school students are about to learn this last item the hard way…

The Blair Witch Project is an American horror film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, presented as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage. It stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, with the supernatural talents of the rest of the production crew trying to freak them out.

In 1994, high school students Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard), and Mike (Williams) set out to film a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. Travelling to Burkittsville, Maryland, they interview the locals about the legend, and learn of a hermit named Rustin Parr, who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered seven children, afterwards claiming that the spirit of a witch who’d been hanged in the 18th century had been terrorizing him for a while, and that she’d promised to leave him alone if he killed them. Another Burkittsville woman, Mary Brown, tells them of an encounter she’d had with the Blair Witch as a young girl, describing the specter of a woman covered in coarse hair.

On day two, the young filmmakers hike into the woods in search of evidence of the Blair Witch’s existence, despite a fisherman’s warning that the woods are haunted (sh’yeah, right!). After filming a piece at Coffin Rock, where five men were ritually murdered in the 19th century, they camp for the night. The next day, despite feeling slightly lost, they hike further into the woods and encounter a cemetary with seven small cairns, one of which Josh accidentally disturbs, to be repaired by Heather. That night they hear strange noises in the dark but decide it’s just animals or something. Their tune changes the next day, however, when they realize they can’t find their way out of the woods, and now something unseen and angry seems to be stalking them…

When The Blair Witch Project was first released, it brought with it a small boatload of mythos, trying to hammer home the idea that the Blair Witch story was real and these three filmmakers were genuinely missing, presumed dead. The result of this is that the real-life Burkittsville in Maryland experienced a small influx of people looking for stories of the Blair Witch, only to be disappointed when told, nope, it was all made up for the movie. The whole movie was largely ad libbed, with the three leads being chosen for their improvisational abilities and given only a brief outline of the story ahead of time. Their “interviewees” were planted in strategic locations around the filming area, and clues to the next plot point were hidden on site, to be found with GPS tracking. And of course, in the scary woods scenes, none of the actors knew what was going to happen when; they were given brief notes for plot elements that directly involved them and that was it.

As a result, the finished film has a visceral, “you are there” feel to it, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, the building dread of being hunted by something unknown feels genuine because the actors really didn’t know that something would attack the tent at night, sending them running and screaming into the night. They didn’t know that the production crew would be making noises in the dark. Additionally, Heather’s much-parodied tearful apology and accepting responsibility for what was very likely to be a grim fate for all three of them really brought home the level of despair that the three of them were feeling by that point.

On the dark side, this was one of the first modern uses of the in-universe camera, and the result is often chaotic and slightly nauseating, particularly towards the second half of the film. Theater audiences reported motion sickness as a result of watching footage filmed by someone running their balls off while toting a handheld, and while it may have helped with the immersion, it turned off a lot of people. Additionally, you never actually see anything menacing the characters. Any manifestations of the Blair Witch or whatever the hell is chasing them always happens outside the camera’s eye. I liked this detail, as it let me use my imagination to dream up what was chasing them, but it might frustrate others.

In total, The Blair Witch Project probably boasts the most elaborate viral campaign of that decade. The mythos is well-detailed, and the sense of “what in the raging hell is out there with them” paints a terrifying picture of our heroes’ collective fate, but the filming style is dizzying and the lack of a concrete monster or known fate for the leads will turn many people off to this film. If you like scary ghost stories that let you scare yourself silly with your own imagination, though, I recommend you give it a shot.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)


Okay, so there’s these two guys, right? They’re both just out of prison, and they’ve got this plan to get a whole pile of dosh and start a new life somewhere else by kidnapping this girl and ransoming her for 2 million pounds.

Guess what? You just met the entire cast.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a taut, minimalist British thriller written and directed by J. Blakeson, starring Gemma “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” Arterton, Eddie “Sherlock Holmes” Marsan, and Martin “Doomsday” Compston. Set almost entirely on three or four sets, Alice Creed manages to take a basic kidnapping plot, drill it down to its most basic elements, and rebuild it into something new.

The movie drops up right into the story, with two guys stocking up on supplies from a hardware store and outfitting an apartment to imprison their intended victim. There is no dialogue at all in the first ten minutes or so, not even when, clad in ski masks they bring in a screaming, struggling woman, tie her to the bed, cut off her clothing, and take pics of her with a digital camera to send off. It is only after this brief intro (which in a more innocent time might resemble the opening of a particularly gritty Columbo movie) that we learn that the men are Vic (Marsan) and Danny (Compston), and their kidnapping victim is one Alice Creed (Arterton), the heiress of a stupidly rich family. Vic quickly establishes himself as the dominant one in this partnership, but as the movie goes on we see that this plot will be anything but a vanilla kidnapping story.

With three people in a small set, this movie has plenty of opportunities to establish the complex web of relationships, both pre-existing and newly developing due to the situation. See, Danny already knew Alice. They used to date. He thought she’d be okay with getting kidnapped because she hated her dad. He tells her that he will double-cross Vic and he and Alice will bugger off somewhere with the money. Problem: Danny also knows Vic. They’d met in prison and became gay lovers (any port in a storm, it seems), a relationship that apparently continues throughout the scheme. Vic doesn’t know that Danny knows Alice – which raises the question of whether Danny is cheating on Alice with Vic or if Danny is cheating on Vic with Alice. As the web of lies and counter-lies builds, and a chain of betrayals and counter-betrayals becomes more and more imminent, more and more questions come up until the audience is left unsure of who will escape from whom, or if any of them will be left alive to collect the ransom, let alone spend it.

I will admit that I got this movie more or less randomly out of a Redbox machine because I was in the mood for something suspenseful and thrilling – and it mostly delivered. It is hard to build a unique kidnapping plot anymore without just taking the basic premise and just changing the details, but by taking a different approach and largely ignoring the “cavalry” end of it, Alice managed to explore a tired plot in a new way.

Between the three characters, it was nearly impossible to pick out a “hero”; the gray and gray morality inherent in the betrayal pileup towards the last third of the movie didn’t leave me with much of anyone to really root for, just an eagerness to see who, if anyone, would survive. It came close to the sort of ending I’ve come to expect in the Saw franchise, but I still wasn’t left with any real sense of a “winner” in this game of cat and mouse. Though none of the actors were well-known names, I did have a spooky moment of recognition with Marsan, having seen him previously as Inspector Lestrade, but he is effective as a dangerous ex-con here, without being over-the-top (which made the reveal of Vic and Danny as lovers surprising, but relatively believeable).

If you’re looking for a kidnapping movie with a twist (and, really, more than one), check out The Disappearance of Alice Creed.