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Normally when it comes to movies, I generally stick to the basic blockbusters and mainstream stuff. But since I’m at the Sundance Film Festival, I’m intent on exposing myself to different kinds of films. So far I’ve seen George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a documentary called Stranded, a dark romantic comedy titled The Last Word and a foreign film called Mermaid. There are absolutely no similarities between any of the films and it is for that reason that I feel like I’m really getting a well-rounded experience here at Sundance.
My review of Diary of the Dead can be found by clicking here. Below are my thoughts on Stranded, The Last Word, and Mermaid.
Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains
Chances are, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into the Andes Mountains back in the 70’s. The survivors of the crash spent over 70 days fighting for their lives against injuries, avalanches and starvation, taking shelter in the fuselage of the plane and praying to God that they’d be rescued. The new documentary, Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed In the Mountains retells the story of their survival, which includes the extremely difficult choice they had to make with regards to their food situation. Forty-five souls boarded the plane back in Uruguay. Only sixteen made it home.
It shouldn’t need to be said that the very idea of eating raw human flesh, even as a means of survival is a pretty horrific concept. This is something that the survivors of the crash had to contemplate and eventually, they chose to live rather than starve to death. If you’ve seen the movie Alive (or read the book) then you pretty much know the whole story. Based on what is shown and spoken of in this documentary, the movie made back in the 90’s is fairly accurate in terms of how things went down. But what this documentary does include that you didn’t see in the movie was a bit more information on how the families of the people on the plane reacted when they found out that there were survivors. And through the use of old news clips, we are shown how the world reacted when they learned that the survivors fed off the bodies of the dead in order to survive as well as the speech by survivor Alfredo Delgado, explaining to the press and the world how they were able to make the decision.
What director Gonzalo Arijon has done here is retell the story directly from the perspectives of the men who survived the ordeal. In addition to getting interviews with each of the 16 men, he also takes them back to the site of the crash with their families. These scenes are extremely moving and it is clear that Arijon, who is a friend of the survivors, takes great care to encourage the men to open up and share their memories with their families and with us. Having read the book Alive and seen the movie, I didn’t expect to learn anything new about the story. What I hadn’t anticipated was being moved to tears by the end of the film and feeling a newfound sense of respect and awe for the survivors.
The Last Word
The Last Word, which stars Wes Bentley, whom you’ll probably remember as the borderline-creepy voyeur in American Beauty centers on a guy named Evan (Wes Bentley) who makes his living helping people write their suicide notes. People contact him via his website and he then arranges a meeting where he can get to know them a bit and help them decide what kind of note they want to leave behind. While Evan takes no part in his client’s suicide, he does keep an eye on the obituaries and makes a point to attend their funerals. This is how he comes to meet Charlotte (Winona Ryder). Charlotte is the sister of one of Evan’s deceased clients.
Because Evan lies to Charlotte about how he knew her brother, the relationship that develops between these two is based on a lie and therefore, drama naturally ensues. Meanwhile, Evan allows one of his clients, Abel (Ray Romano) to break through the barrier he normally keeps up between himself and his clients. While he tries to help Abel come up with a style for his suicide note, Abel in turn offers Evan advice on his romantic problems.
The film is in itself fairly entertaining. For one thing, the concept of a secluded guy earning a living writing suicide notes is pretty unique and Bentley, having that sweet but occasionally weird demeanor is a perfect fit for the role. He behaves and lives exactly as you might expect a man with his profession would. Romano is hilarious as Abel. Almost every scene he’s in involves him sharing some majorly personal bit of information about his life. As Bentley succeeds at acting like a man who writes suicide letters for a living, Romano also succeeds equally in behaving like a man who is days or weeks away from killing himself. He has nothing left to lose so he holds nothing back when talking to Evan. In a way, the humor in Abel’s character almost makes us forget that he’s suicidal.
Throughout the movie, Ryder does a decent job in her role as Charlotte but there were times when based on the dialogue, the level of emotion I thought I should be feeling was significantly dampened due to Ryder’s failure to really live up to the script. This only happened once or twice but it was disappointing enough to cause me to lose interest in the Charlotte/Evan relationship. For me, the best of the movie was when Romano and Bentley were on screen. The contrast of their characters, added to their ability to play off each other and deliver lines with perfect timing made the movie a lot more enjoyable than it would’ve been, had it been just another straight-up romantic comedy with a dark twist.
Normally I’m not one for foreign films. I’ve seen quite a few but I’m lazy when it comes to subtitles so I rarely give many foreign films a chance. But since this trip to Sundance is all about broadening my movie-watching horizons, I decided to check out a Russian film called Mermaid.
The story centers on Alisa (Mariya Shalayeva), a young girl living with her mother and grandmother. When Alisa is a child, she longs to be a ballerina and for her father, a sailor who had a one-night-stand with Alisa’s mother (Mariya Sokova) to return to them. Alisa begins to get used to disappointment though and learns to go with the flow. What sets her apart from normal people is her ability to make wishes come true. This occasionally backfires, causing hurricanes and house fires. In the end though, Alisa always means well and is really just looking to be loved. Unfortunately, her odd nature (and the fact that she decides to stop speaking for about a decade) causes her to be somewhat of a loner. One day when she’s 18 years old, she rescues a man after he tries to kill himself and shortly afterwards, falls in love with him. The problem is, aside from hiring her to clean his apartment; he barely knows she’s alive. Sadly, this is the case with almost everyone in Alisa’s life. They know she’s there but she doesn’t really matter to them.
What stands out in Mermaid, aside from the story is the look and feel of the film. Director Anna Melikyan goes out of her way to create an almost dreamlike effect in many of the scenes, some of which are actual dreams while others are part of Alisa’s reality. I also appreciated the sound in the film. This is something I don’t usually pay much attention to in movies but the noises in the background (the ocean, city noises, wind blowing, etc) were all excellent and really helped create a sense of atmosphere throughout the movie.
The only thing that I think got lost in translation was the use of the billboards in Moscow. There are a number of times when Alisa is walking or running through the streets of Moscow and we see a billboard ad for something (perfume, maybe). The words on the sign are relevant to whatever Alisa is going through at the time. The problem is that because the words are in Russian, the meaning of the sign is in subtitles at the bottom of the screen. I think the effect is lost or at the very least, lessened for those of us who can’t read Russian. Reading the subtitles instead of the words on the actual signs feels a lot less natural and seems to detach the meaning behind the words from the scene. I think at least part of the intent of the billboard slogans is to show how Alisa’s surroundings blend in with what’s going on in her life, so in this case, I felt the subtitles sort of broke the flow of those scenes. This isn’t a complaint on the movie. Just an observation, really. In the end, the problem is my fault for not being able to read Russian.
Mermaid is a charming film. Alisa is such a lovable character that it’s hard to understand why the people around her seem to take her for granted. When I was trying to decide what movie to watch, this one was recommended to me and described as “peppy.” I would say that “peppy” can describe about 90% of the movie. There’s a sadness to it that I felt on occasion because I feared that Alisa, whose life is like a strange fairytale might not get the happily-ever-after she deserves. The only problem I have with the movie is the ending and (don’t worry, I’m not going to give it away!) that’s really because I didn’t understand it. The writer of the film (Anna Melikyan) made a choice with the ending of the story and for whatever reason, it just went way over my head. I’m sure she had her reasons for ending it the way she did but it’s been two days since I’ve seen the movie and I still haven’t been able to figure it out. That said, I don’t regret seeing it and definitely think it’s worth a watch.