Movie Project #13: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007]

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] 
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Writers: Cristian Mungiu, Razvan Radulescu (script consultant)
Country: Romania, Belgium
Genre: Drama
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Vlad Ivanov, Laura Vasiliu
Running Time: 113 minutes

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a film about abortion, but it is one that looks at it from a rare unbiased perspective. Set in late 1980s Romania during the waning years of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal communist regime, Cristian Mungiu’s film is unflinching, to-the-point and downright unnerving.

Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a young college student who desires to have an abortion (illegal under Ceausescu’s rule). She enlists the aid of her dorm roommate, Otilia (the flawless Anamaria Marinca), to contact a black market abortionist and prepare a hotel room to arrange the operation.

There are numerous flaws with this plan from the get-go. The abortionist, a domineering middle-aged man named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), provided a clear set of guidelines to follow before their meeting, nearly all of which Gabita failed to do. She did not place a reservation at his specified hotel, she sends Otilia to meet him first, and she even lies about the length of her pregnancy. This series of mistakes leads to an increasingly tense situation when all three of them are in the hotel room, raising the stakes to desperate levels.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007]

There is a sense of pervading dread during this meeting, and this feeling is only exacerbated as the film goes on. Nearly every scene uses just one shot, during many of which the camera sits stationary. These extended takes add a sense of realism to the proceedings, and they are incredibly effective at portraying the thoughts and emotions of those on screen.

There is one scene in particular that I will never forget. At one point in the film, Otilia takes a brief excursion to go to a dinner party hosted by her boyfriend’s family. Despite Otilia’s insistence that she has urgent plans of her own, the boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean), refuses to take no for an answer. When she arrives at the party, everyone there is lively, talking loudly, drinking and having a great time. As this happens, we watch Otilia sitting at the table, quiet and alone in her thoughts despite being surrounded by others. The static camera sits at the opposite end of the table, and for what feels like hours we sit there right along with her. To an outsider, this scene could appear tedious and boring. For the rest of us, it is an exercise in exhaustion. We know exactly what is going through Otilia’s mind. She is thinking about her friend alone in the hotel room, wondering if she is okay. She is remembering the abortion from just hours ago while also considering what she had to do to help her friend. These are difficult enough thoughts as is, and it doesn’t help that this is her first time meeting her boyfriend’s parents and family. This scene lasts for several minutes, and as it went on I began growing more and more restless. There is the sense that Otilia might snap at any moment, and it’s just a matter of waiting to see if it will happen or not.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007]

The entire film is set up like this, making for one of the most uncomfortable viewings I have had in some time. There is no score either, which adds even more to that on-edge feeling.

Although Gabita is the one getting the abortion, much of the film focuses on Otilia, and we see things primarily from her perspective. As such, Anamaria Marinca carries the brunt of the film on her shoulders, and she delivers a performance for the ages. There is never a moment where we don’t know what her character is thinking, even when she is there in silence.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2007 over many acclaimed films, including future Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men. Bafflingly, it did not pick up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. No matter; this is an extraordinary film that shines a light on a dark time in Romanian history, and it’s easily one of the strongest entries so far in this year’s project.

9/10

Movie Project #8: Into the Wild [2007]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Into the Wild [2007]

Into the Wild [2007]
Director: Sean Penn
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener
Runtime: 148 minutes

I was skeptical upon my viewing of Into the Wild. I have friends who swear by this movie, ranking it among their favorites, but I was worried that it would be too similar to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a similarly true tale that did very little for me. While both films have similar concepts — a man giving up everything to live in the wild — I felt that I could empathize more with Into the Wild’s lead character, much to the credit of director Sean Penn’s adaptation.

Emile Hirsch stars as Christopher McCandless, a middle-class kid who promptly gives up everything after graduating from college. He donates his savings (approx. $24,000) to Oxfam, ditches his car near a beach, and proceeds to live as a vagabond, happily drifting across the continental United States. His reason? He doesn’t agree with society, and the feeling of being trapped by its expectations. His ultimate goal is to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

This is an admirable notion, to be sure, but his lack of care and respect for his family is appalling. He doesn’t like his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt), a stuck-up couple that are abusive to each other, but his little sister (Jena Malone) adores him. He shuns all of them, opting to go on his own personal journey.

Into the Wild [2007]

Christopher’s selfishness is disturbing, but it’s hard to stay upset at him thanks to Hirsch’s fantastic performance. He is charming, intelligent and has a strong set of morals when dealing with stranger (i.e. passing up on the chance to fornicate with a 16-year-old Kristen Stewart).

On the road, Christopher dubs himself Alexander Supertramp, and he meets a wide variety of characters, all memorable in their own way. There’s an old hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker) that he develops a strong connection with. In South Dakota, Alexander gets a job with a harvesting company owned by Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn). In California, he meets an old retired veteran (Hal Holbrook, in an amazing performance) who begins to feel as if “Supertramp” is his own grandson. In different ways, Christopher makes an impact on all of their lives, then quickly goes off on his own, seemingly never to be seen again.

Into the Wild [2007]

The film is presented in nonlinear fashion, showing us glimpses of Christopher alone in Alaska, then showing us segments from his road trip leading up to that point. This connection is masterfully created by Sean Penn, who also wrote the screenplay. The cinematography is simply stunning, beautifully showcasing the glorious splendor that can be found in a country as large as the United States, even in places that might not be expected (i.e. South Dakota).

Special mention must be made of the movie’s soundtrack, performed by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. I am not a big Pearl Jam guy, but damn if this score doesn’t hit all the right spots. A perfect fit for the vast, expansive nature of the movie’s central theme.

Perhaps Into the Wild runs a little long, and yes, the main character is decidedly selfish, but this film is emotionally stirring in ways that I was not expecting. I felt a connection to this young man and his idealistic beliefs. He had a great message (and could have redeemed himself), it’s just a shame that he took it to such an extreme.

8/10

Video Game Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune [Playstation 3, 2007]

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune [PS3, 2007]

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
System: Playstaton 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: November 16, 2007

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a hybrid action/platforming game that plays out as if it were a summer blockbuster movie. High production values, top-notch voice acting, over-the-top cinematics — its got it all. The game has a similar storyline to Indiana Jones movies and Dirk Pitt novels. You play as Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter who claims to be a descendant of English explorer Sir Francis Drake. Nathan is on a quest to find the famed artifact known as El Dorado, a giant golden idol hidden somewhere deep in the jungle. As any good fortune-hunting movie would have, Drake is accompanied at times by two supporting characters: Victor Sullivan, a grizzled cigar-chomping veteran who has a penchant for telling old travel stories, and Elena Fisher, a snarky reporter trying to land her next big news story. The plotline is hardly anything groundbreaking, but it is entertaining enough, especially since it is aided by some strong fleshed-out characters.

As mentioned earlier, Uncharted is a combination of an action/shooting game and a platformer. Since the game was created by Naughty Dog (Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter), the platforming sections are designed rather well. While some platforming games get beyond frustrating due to touchy controls and mistimed jumps, Uncharted really excels in that department. Nathan is able to make some pretty incredible jumps, and the game is more forgiving when you are off by just a little bit since it usually allows him to desperately cling to the edge and pull himself up. The platforming areas are genuinely fun, as Nate traverses some large rooms by jumping along the walls, using vines, ledges, chandeliers and whatever else he can land on.

The combat, however, is where the game could use some work. The main enemies are pirates who are racing to get the treasure first, and they are all over the freakin’ place. The enemies themselves are not the problem, although some more variety would have been nice. I was more disappointed with the actual shooting aspects. I couldn’t tell you how many times I emptied a dozen rounds of an AK-47 into a pirate just to see him stumble around like he was drunk. Really, it should not take more than a few shots to down an enemy. Not a huge problem, but an inconvenience nonetheless.

Where Uncharted really excels is in its presentation. It is no exaggeration when I say that this game truly feels like you are playing a movie, and it is helped greatly by its impressive visuals. Even for a relatively early PS3 title, Uncharted’s graphics are stunning. The jungle comes alive with lush green colors, the animations are virtually perfect, and the attention to detail is just remarkable. One neat aspect that stood out to me: if you end up in the water, Drake will emerge with his clothes soaking wet. Cutscenes are interchangeable from the regular graphics, as the same engine is used for both. Throw in a strong musical score and high-quality voice acting and you have a memorable experience.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is simply a blast from beginning to end, even with the occasional repetitive combat and agitating shooting mechanics. You are going to have to suspend disbelief with this one — which shouldn’t be a problem if you enjoy Indiana Jones at all — because Nathan Drake does a lot of things a normal guy couldn’t do. But hey, this is a video game, and playing games is all about having a good time. Uncharted is a fun ride and doesn’t require much thinking, just like a good summer blockbuster movie. I greatly enjoyed playing through the game, and I can’t wait to play its allegedly even better sequel.

8/10

God of War II [Playstation 2, 2007]

God of War II

God of War II
System: Playstaton 2
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: March 13, 2007

WOW, now THIS is how you do a sequel! God of War II takes everything from its predecessor and increases it tenfold. After conquering Atlas in the first game, Kratos has taken over as the new God of War. Kratos’s bloodthirsty ways have not been kindly looked upon by the other gods, and the almighty Zeus has finally had enough and strips Kratos of his power. Now a down-and-broken man, Kratos sets off on the ultimate quest: to murder Zeus. A lofty task, to be sure, and the journey along the way is nothing short of incredible.

The original God of War is a great-looking game, but GOW2 is just beautiful (well, as beautiful as gory non-stop violence can be). The textures have been cleaned up admirably, and everything looks sharper as a whole. While I was impressed with the original GOW’s visuals, this is easily one of the best-looking games ever created for the PS2.

The game’s mechanics are largely the same. This is still a prominent hack ‘n slash brawler with platforming, puzzle and RPG elements. There are a handful of new traits that Kratos can acquire, such as the ability to glide and to fly atop the famed horse Pegasus, but the same principles remain. One of my biggest concerns with God of War was its lack of boss battles. This issue has been dramatically improved in GOW2. At the very beginning of the game, you are inserted into an epic battle against the massive Colossus, a boss fight that was forever immortalized by Penny Arcade. Boss battles are everywhere in this game, and some of them rank among the most memorable fights I have ever experienced in a video game. Some people complained about the first God of War’s length (about 8-10 hours). This has also been improved in GOW2, as now a typical campaign will last closer to 12+ hours. These enhancements really show that SCE Santa Monica listened to their fanbase, and you have to respect that.

God of War 2 has accomplished what sequels should do in the first place, and that is to improve upon as many aspects as possible. While I hesitate to say the game is “perfect” (there are still occasional camera issues, and some of the puzzles are absolutely frustrating), I would still consider GOW2 one of the best action/adventure games I have ever played, and it is easily among the best in the PS2’s gigantic library. Highly, highly recommended!

9/10