The Man from Earth (2007)

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This viewing was a suggestion from Nicolas Poilvert.  Nicolas: Merci.


The Man from Earth is certainly no grand production.  A cast of 8, sitting round an increasingly emptying cabin.  Only a few interesting shots and angles (the image above has one of the more interesting framing and angle).  Yet the concept is fodder for the inquisitive mind.  I will not write much about the plot as I think the enjoyment partially owed to discovering it.  I will say that this is a new way to tell a very old story, and perhaps state a few observations.  I knew nearly nothing about this film going in, at Nicolas’ urging, except perhaps something about Jesus because he let that slipped once.

The first thing that struck me about Richard Schenkman’s The Man from Earth was how much it reminded me of 12 Angry Men, an excellent film by Sidney Lumet.  The entire cast in one setting for the duration of the film, and the film consists entirely of dialogue.  We observe the reactions of all characters as one man - John (instead of Henry Fonda’s Davis) - tries to logically combat the illogicality of the others.  Stages of curiosity, anger, disbelief, fear, and despondence are explored by John, and exploited by Schenkman and writer Jerome Bixby.  However, Schenkman’s direction is nowhere near the superb artistry of Lumet’s striking and claustrophic camerawork, which complemented a compelling narrative by Reginald Rose, and in concert, kept the audience spellbound in its intensity.  And the acting was not impressive, good enough for basic television.  As such, this production was closer to an extended episode of The Twilight Zone.  Yet The Man from Earth has its merits.

As someone with a background in biology and a great adoration for history, I found the concept engaging.  The dialogue was both expected and unexpected; the former because the questions raised by the inquisitors are the same ones that crossed my mind, the latter because many of the answers given by John did not.  Though incomplete, I think the decision to have a circumstantial “tribunal panel” of an archeologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, an art historian and devout Christian, a historian, and a psychiatrist is clever — certainly appeased my liberal arts college educated mind.  In my opinion, the panel would have benefited from a physicist’s pragmatic mind.  I think time and space are such central elements to this story, and yet they lacked a proper contributing expert.  Regrettably, these aspects were left largely unexplored.  Along the same vein, an academic theologian would have added an intellectual aspect to religious doctrine, rather than having a devout Christian who happens to be an art historian.  Yet, the choice to give her two descriptors, and to combine a medical doctor with a psychological specialty, suggests that the author already sensed an overcrowded quorum.  Perhaps he was right.  Perhaps figuring out “how” this could be true is beside the point.  Like John said: “I don’t want to prove it.”

I couldn’t help but smile when Buddha & Jesus intersect.  I was raised learning Buddhist lessons and “priorities”.  I think one major difference between these two world religions is the definition of “fulfillment”.  In Buddhist teaching as I understand it, each being comes from a place of “suffering” and each strive to journey away from that place.  And so one questions “what is the cause of our suffering?”  One answer lies in how the Buddhist monks live their lives.  They relinquish all titles, all properties, all family and relationships, even their own name.  Just like John at the end of each settlement.  Buddhist monks leave behind everything that could tie them to their earthly existence and human emotions as they search for “enlightenment”.  Is Christianity then a failed adaptation of Buddhism?  And is the empowerment of ecclesiastical institution the cause?  The Christian art historian was the weakest character I think.  Do all of this serve to underline the author’s criticism on Christianity and its followers?  Still, this is a motif, and at most, an undercurrent, but not the point.

Is the point, then, to offer the academics - and in extension, the audience - an existential crisis?  No, I don’t think so, because that is too obvious.  I think the more potent existential crisis is John’s.  He is the loneliest man.  Humans (of all historical genus and species) are social creatures.  We are meant to live in communities, build relationships, seek companionship, and find our place and usefulness amongst our society.  Perhaps that is why John is a frequent nomad.  Perhaps that is part of his innate nature.  It is one way for him to maintain some privacy and still integrate into a social structure.  But humans are also, by nature, suspicious.  It’s the other side of the coin.  We identify with our community, but that only holds true if there is an “outsider” to guard against.  And John is the eternal self-imposed outcast.

Skyfall

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Director: Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road)

Cinematographer: Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, Revolutionary Road, The Shawshank Redemption)

Screenplay writers: Neal Purvis/Robert Wade (previous 4 Bond films), and John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, etc.

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In short phrases: (and spoiler free)

action-packed, suitable character development, well-acted (but not everyone), nice shot compositions (Deakins), good writing (Logan etc.), artistically directed (Mendes), great theme song (Adele & co.), though the rest of the soundtrack isn’t superb.

Just ridiculous enough that you know it’s a Bond film.  Deeper than Quantum of Solace (oh the irony).  Smarter humor than Casino Royale.  Not terribly preposterous as Die Another Day.  Better filmed than The World Is Not Enough.  Stronger character development than Tomorrow Never Dies.  Superior villain to Goldeneye’s (even though the plot is slightly similar).  Highly recommended to watch in theaters (so don’t settle for pirating a CAM version).

**************Full review with spoilers below**************

Bond is an institution.  With this 23rd installment at the 50-year mark, it is the longest continually-running franchise in the history of film, and at $12.9 billion (after inflation adjustments), it is also the most financially successful powerhouse.  Bond is so integral to the British cultural heritage that Daniel Craig’s 007 escorted the Queen to the opening ceremony of 2012 Olympics in London.  Bond is that enduring icon of an English gentleman, always perfectly dressed, charming glamorous women in exotic locations, and never without a dangerous undercurrent.

Ian Fleming’s 007 has stood unchanged and untransformed… until now.

The eternally mid-to-late 30s secret agent is finally aging on screen.  The inevitability of time is the obvious motif that runs through Sam Mendes’ Skyfall.  And rather aptly, at the turning point in the film, the final lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” are recited to illustrate a desire to reach beyond one’s limit even after the passing of our golden age.  So perhaps, lurking beneath the surface, the deeper message is how do we and our old allies confront the new enemies in an ever-evolving and dangerous world that exists today.  The main battle is the struggle between the old and the new, with Bond’s emotional center driving the film.  In one particular scene, Mendes and scriptwriters Logan/Purvis/Wade piled on the symbolism: The Fighting Temeraire by Turner; the young Q verbally sparring with the aging 007; the biometrically personalized PPK next to an old-school radio transmitter.  Then, the modern skyscrapers of Shanghai and the ancient architecture of Macau’s casino.  The advanced cybertechnology housed on an old, deserted island.  And of course, the ultimate juxtaposition: Bond and Silva.  The last two rats.

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Javier Bardem is delicious as Silva.  In each of his scenes, Bardem delineates another aspect of this villain.  He’s been compared to Sir Anthony Hopkin’s (Oscar-winning) terrifying Hannibal Lecter, Heath Ledger’s (Oscar-winning) menacing turn as The Joker, and Bardem’s own incarnation (Oscar-winning) - the soulless Anton Chigurh.  That’s very high praise indeed, and the deserved praise has been unanimous.  Bardem enters with a monologue that establishes Silva’s character in one of the most memorable sequences of the year and, very likely, of the entire 007 franchise.  In a well-written, well-acted, scene-stealing 90 seconds, and all captured in a single shot, Silva’s entrance could easily have been on stage.  Mendes’ reputable background in theater likely lent itself to the choreography of each scene and the composition of each frame.

After winning the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Director for his debut feature film, American Beauty (1999), Mendes went on to win British theater’s highest directorial accolade, the Laurence Olivier Best Director award, for a third time (having already won in ‘95 and ‘96).  Mendes’ style is predominantly static shots that are superbly framed.  And when you have a good script, a great cinematographer, a well-fleshed out storyboard, and talented actors, static shots elevate a film and even enhance an action sequence.  Namely, the audience is not distracted by over-caffeinated, half-second frame amalgamations.  For example, the hand-to-hand fight sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper is nearly 30 seconds long and the camera was stationary for its entirety.  A slow zoom centers on two shadowed figures until the end of the choreography, at which time the camera quickly and smoothly moves over and above as the men shift to the ledge.  It is visually striking, and again, framed for a theatrical stage.  And with a supporting cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, and Ben Whishaw, it really is a theatrical bill.  And as fate would have it, Mendes made his splash onto the theater circuit over 20 years ago when he directed The Cherry Orchard with none other than M herself, Dame Judi Dench. 

The women in Bond films largely serve as “disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits”, with few exceptions.  In Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd was the love that broke and, to an extent, made James Bond.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Teresa di Vincenzo became Mrs. Tracy Bond.  But, the woman that borne Bond was M.  And Skyfall is her film.  From Goldeneye, 7 Bond films ago, Dame Judi became the woman holding a powerful job in a man’s world.  She is one of the greatest actresses, ever.  As such, M’s role has been severely underplayed for 17 years.  She has largely been a background facilitator for Bond’s excursions; a folder is passed here; a mission is outlined there.  In Mendes’ vision, M is integral to Bond’s refinement.  As head of MI6, she makes the hard choices.  She sends her agents to their deaths.  She stands over their coffins draped with Union Jacks.  She fights for their continued existence and their relevancy.  Her scenes with Bardem highlight her talent for subtlety.  She is M, with a sharp tongue, steel eyes, and a stiff upper lip that are all very quintessentially British.  Only a remarkable woman like that can authoritatively deliver this line with pride and regret in equal parts: “Orphans make the best recruits.”

Daniel Craig is the orphaned Bond, and now with a wider range to express.  This Bond is not just a blunt instrument.  His job as an MI6 officer is all he knows and all he cares about.  He carries out M’s orders dutifully, but not unquestionably.  Craig’s Bond shows off his physique (and at times, his brain), still emotes, and delivers fantastically funny lines.  The scene where Bond meets Silva, Craig shifts smoothly from stern to intrigue to sarcasm to deadly and right back to being cheeky again.  Craig’s scenes with Dame Judi Dench brings out the wide range of his talent.  In brief moments, his cold, hard eyes betray what his easy smiles hide: a damaged soul.  A man who never really had a happy childhood and never deals with his losses.  Under Mendes’ direction, Craig has carved himself a distinct image as 007, separate from all other predecessors.   

Skyfall satiates with dozens and dozens of beautiful shots.  It is critically acclaimed.  Roger Deakins will likely receive another Oscar nomination for this gorgeous cinematography.  In fact, there are also rumors of a campaign to become the first Bond film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  It is “cinematic eye-candy”, to borrow from my friend Scott Mason, who also opined that Mendes’ choice on Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire was likely a suggestion by their mutual friend Geoffrey Humphries, a renowned Venetian artist.  (And I was fortunate enough to have stayed with Geoffrey and his wife Holly during my Venice trip last year.  They are splendidly interesting and wonderful people).  Skyfall pays homage to the origins of Bond films (the DB5 immortalized by Sean Connery in Goldfinger was a nice touch).  And then, there’s the theme song.  Slow-boiling and languid, richly performed by Adele’s soulful vocals and a 77-piece orchestral accompaniment, it is infused with melodies that transport us back to the Bond films of the 60s.  With minor key notes echoing, it goes beyond nostalgia to evoke melancholy, foreboding the heartbroken (but not heartbreaking) tone of the film.


Bond kills.  Without a thought, he would sacrifice countless others for Queen and country.  Beneath all that style and savoir-faire, Bond is an agent of destruction and death.  There’s a hardness to Fleming’s 007 that Daniel Craig holds true.  By anchoring Skyfall on Bond’s emotional focus and his relationship with, arguably, the most important and influential woman of his life, Mendes adds a privateness to Bond, and that intimacy compels great isolation and detachment.  For at his core, Bond is a man.  He bleeds.  And with the passing of every woman that has ever mattered to him, Bond emerges, as expected of a secret agent, as a creature of solitude.  Some say that this is Mendes’ new direction for an old franchise without discarding the Bond familiarities.  I would take it one step further.  By touching upon Bond’s origins, Mendes seeks to destroy the mystique and charm of the old Bond and replaces it with a fresh iconography that befits 007 in this modern era.  Beneath this English gentleman’s armor of a Tom Ford tuxedo lies a deadly Walther PPK, right next to his beating heart.

Cross section of human olfactory tract.  This is the nerve that sends signals to your brain and then you “smell” cookies, or lavender, or chili, or curry, or fresh cut grass, or spoiled fish, or any other scent in the world.  Up until very recently, this ‘tract’ is traditionally thought of as bundles of axons.  But, this image, as a part of the recent work by Sanai and Nguyen, shows that this tract also contains many young brain cells.  So there’s more to the story.  Interestingly, the number of young brain cells in this tract diminishes substantially during childhood and is just about gone by adulthood.

The scale bar on the bottom right represents 250µm, or 1/4 of a millimeter.

michaelbaca:

Women in the kitchen

(Reblogged from michaelbaca)

buttermilk waffles on Christmas Eve morning

michaelbaca:

anddddddd…. amazing.

(Reblogged from michaelbaca)