Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia2002Poster“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill somebody.” – Robin Williams as Walter Finch

As I come to understand it, calling Christopher Nolan’s film a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgaard is not exactly fair. As a director with a singular artistic vision of his own, it’s only fair to say his thriller set in the icy outskirts of an Alaskan fishing village is a re-imagining of the material.

His tale follows a jaded sage of an L.A. cop who comes with his partner on a reassignment, but Dormer (Al Pacino) is also running away from something — something that undoubtedly has major repercussions on not only his life but the case he is about to be met with.

Getting acclimated to Nightmute is no easy task. The town is quiet and the local police are nice enough, including Bill’s old buddy and the overly zealous but industrious rookie Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). To her, the estimable Will Dormer is a legend, the man you only read about in case files, not actually witness in person. She holds that kind of awe for him, but he just takes it in stride as he and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) go about their business

Worst of all is the perpetual daylight. It’s something we take for granted, but in this story, the sun never truly sets. It’s always there. There’s no relief and, in a sense, it haunts Dormer. He struggles to sleep, he struggles when he is awake, because he hasn’t been able to sleep, and then the title Insomnia begins to make so much sense. It’s perpetuated to the extent that we begin to feel its effects on us as an audience. The story wears us down, making us into jaded individuals like Dormer (strikingly close to Dormir) and the fact that Al Pacino half-whispers his dialogue with his methodical delivery only aggravates the situation. Our vision is clouded just as much as his.

Set pieces are relatively few, but they are used to great effect. The ones that come to mind are a chase that ensues in the thick Alaskan fog, where the pursuer all too quickly becomes the helpless victim, the paranoia leading to a lapse of judgment. Another equally gripping chase sequence takes place over floating logs and that’s the first time we actually catch a glimpse of  Walter Finch (Robin Williams).

Otherwise, Insomnia is all about the mind games, as fatigue sets in and Dormer must reconcile all he knows and does. Maybe his lapse of judgment was really his innate desire, but the dividing lines are blurring.

Moral ambiguity becomes of great interest because in some ways our main players really are not all that different. Dormer has sidestepped protocol in order for his brand of justice can be enacted — the justice he thinks the people want. And he may be right, but there are consequences for any act and he quickly learns what that means for him.

By the end, we hardly know who is in the right and I think Dormer is as confused as us — or otherwise, he’s just too exhausted by this point to care either way. Robin Williams gives a surprisingly chilling and generally subdued performance. He is our villain in the general sense, but his villain looks suspiciously like a twisted, sick little man. Perhaps a far scarier reality.

Insomnia is the story of Will Dormer and Walter Finch getting twisted up in knots, and in both cases, each man loses a little more of their sanity. It’s in the film’s climactic moments that Ellie must make a choice, and Will implores her to make the right one. She’s the purest, most innocent character in this narrative, and if she falters then there is little hope. But Will succeeds in protecting the last shred of decency that still exists. A small victory, given his circumstances, but a victory nonetheless.

4/5 Stars

Good Will Hunting (1997)

9db12-good_will_hunting_theatrical_posterGood Will Hunting is an extraordinary story on multiple levels because it is about the little guy. The trajectory of a lowly janitor being propelled to MIT genius is moving no matter how often it gets copied or imitated. It just never gets old. Then, there is the story of two young unknowns named Matt Damon and Ben Affleck who shot to fame thanks to some big dreams and a few mentors. Now they are two of the top names in Hollywood over 15 years later and they continue to be (Gone Girl and Interstellar are proof).

However, back then they were a long shot with only a solid idea for a film. It worked wonderfully though because of its core themes. It’s about friendship. It’s about romance. It’s about fear and aspirations. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about long shots making the most of their lives. Admittedly, that could be almost any film so there’s a need to bring the microscope in a little closer.

At face value Will Hunting (Matt Damon) seems like a young thug from South Boston who loves his beer, buddies, broads, and brawls. He and his friends including Chuckie (Ben Affleck) spend their days trying to make ends meet and fill the rest of their time with the aforementioned. We get glimpses of a different Will, however, a brilliant young man holding a plethora of book knowledge and blessed with a photographic memory. He’s able to philosophize rings around conceited Harvard students catching the eyes of a cute British girl named Skylar (Minnie Driver). They are a sweet couple and it seems like it might add up to something good.

Then, comes the necessarily fateful day when Will solves the unsolvable equation on the MIT wall, following that feat with a brawl fight that lands him with a potential jail term hanging over his head. It’s a strange dichotomy and it deeply surprises Professor Gerald Lambeux who quickly realizes the unassuming genius that is Will Hunting. He’s fantastic, but in order to utilize his potential Lambeux agrees to have him meet weekly with a therapist.

What follows is an absurd string of therapy sessions where Will, who wants none of this analysis, makes a mockery of his psychologists. When Lambeux’s former roommate and last resort Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) is called in it looks like more of the same.  But he is different. He sees something more and Sean is not about to give up on the kid. Their sessions begin as a battle of wills until Will’s defenses finally break down. They construct something beautiful, something real,  and in many ways vulnerable.

It is then that Sean teaches Will about true love and living life with no regrets. He had a wife who passed away from cancer, and he is hardly a big name academic, but he wouldn’t trade his life for anything. That’s enough for him. All the while, in between sessions, Will must figure out his life whether he wishes to work in the stuffy world of academia with professor Lambeux, continue living with his chums in Southie, or move forward with Skylar who is off to Stanford soon.

Sean doesn’t force him into one decision or another but he gives him personal advice. As a young man, he met a pretty girl in a bar, the same day in 1975 that Carlton Fisk hit his famed home run. But Sean gave up his seat to spend that evening with a girl and it paid off. She would be his wife for all those happy years before she came down with cancer. In Will’s eyes, and perhaps even the eyes of the audience, he was utterly insane to pass that up, but for Sean, there were no regrets. That’s enough.

On the verge of turning 21, there are so many choices, thoughts, feelings, and fears swirling around. Not to mention Will’s ugly past as a foster kid full of abuse and a heavy rap sheet. It’s the steady and pragmatic consoling of Sean where he finds relief. Sean will not be quelled in reminding him, “It’s not his fault.” That’s simply the hand he was dealt.

In another beautiful scene that is oft cited, Chuckie tells his friend, in the most genuine way that he can, that he doesn’t want Will to stick around. Because, the reality is, Will has been given a ticket out of Boston, and it would be a knock to all of his friends if he stayed around. On the day Chuckie won’t need a note. He’ll have satisfaction enough that his friend will be gone. To this day, it still feels a tad corny, but it works within the film so I will go with it.

Down the line, Sean receives a sincere note in his mailbox and Chuckie walks up the steps to Will’s place and no one answers. No one needs to say anything because they all know Will has gone to follow his dreams. Go west young man after the girl you love and take a chance. No regrets. It is the perfect ending for this film and at the same time the most aggravating.

Robin Williams was an obvious standout in this film, and it saddens me to think that he is no longer with us. I think I appreciate him most in his dramatic roles because he is so genuinely funny it comes out organically. He is a great counter to Matt Damon. Without that dynamic, this would be a far less noteworthy film. Also, the script is full of quips and a great balance of intellectual and laymen terms making for a unique story. It takes time to acknowledge the idiosyncrasies and pain that are a reality of human existence.  That’s why it hits home. Hopefully, Will as well as all of us find what we are hunting for.

4/5 Stars

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

4eba0-good_morning2c_vietnamGoooooooood Mooooooorning Viiieeetnammm! I’m a little late to the party I know, but I wanted to take a look at a film that in many ways personifies Robin Williams. In the last months, I have gotten to read a lot on William’s as a comic and as an actor. When I watch this film which showcases his many skills, I am especially drawn to what I call his bipolar comedy. Let me explain. On the surface, he seems like a pleasant-faced average Joe with a little twinkle in his eye. Maybe there are even moments of emotion or sadness that make their way out. Then, bing pow! The lights go on, the sirens sound, and all chaos breaks loose.

Adrian Cronauer is the perfect embodiment of William’s quick wit and off the wall antics. He has a constant supply of new voices and old reliable ones, not to mention cultural and political jokes. It all gets thrown in so fast you hardly get to bat an eye, and he does it all with that rye smile and one defiant attitude.

This is yet another nostalgic 1980s classic directed by Barry Levinson. The story begins in 1965 with the jockey getting shipped in from Crete, and soon he is the hero of all the underlings especially his young compatriot Private Garlick (Forrest Whitaker). Immediately the power dynamic is rather odd. The General overseeing everything loves his zany, sometimes crass, take on comedy. His two immediate superiors are less than pleased with his early showings of insubordination. If the General is any indication, Cronauer’s mix of humor, (censored) news updates and groovy rock n’ roll prove insanely popular.

In his spare time, Cronauer pursues a young Vietnamese girl while teaching an English class to locals. They soon enjoy his more slang-based approach to English, and he befriends a boy named Tuan. He also has some time to start a brawl at a local hangout and eventually see it blown to smithereens. It’s after this one occasion where he gets fed up with the censors controlling what he says because it doesn’t seem right. It seems too regular army, and he is certainly not that. Cronauer is suspended but during his hiatus, he gains a new found zeal performing for the boys in the field.

Due to popular demand, he gets reinstate,d but his superior, who has always had it in for him, connects him with a wanted South Vietnamese terrorist, and Cronauer soon gets the boot with an honorable discharge. The former disc jockey realizes Tuan lied to him all along, but after confronting the boy he fulfills one last commitment with his English class. Cronauer flies off into the wild blue yonder, but not without leaving a gift with Garlick for all the boys. Gooooodbyeeee Vietnaaaam!

This was a grade A performance by Robin Williams and the soundtrack was absolutely superb, full of big and small hits alike. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” was especially impactful due to the images that were juxtaposed with it. Furthermore, just as much of what Cronauer was lost to his students, I feel like many of his cultural quips might get lost to newer generations. I sincerely hope they do not and his political commentary will always swirl around like any of the controversy surrounding Vietnam. The magic of the character is his ability to make men laugh despite their circumstances. The magic of Robin Williams is that he was a man who made us laugh in all circumstances.

4/5 Stars

The Dead Poets Society (1989)

24bb0-dead_poets_societyDirected by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams in a career-defining role, the film opens with the commencement of a prestigious all-boys school. There the boys say tearful goodbyes to their parents and get reacquainted with their chums. The strict and disciplined class regiment soon starts and everything is business as usual for these driven boys. 

However, their new English professor John Keating (Robin Williams) was a former student of Welton, and his teaching style is far from ordinary. His pupils first find him strange and then come to admire his methods. He instills them with the phrase “carpe diem,” has them rip out the stuffy introduction to their poetry textbooks, gets them to see the world from on top of their desks, and encourages them to call him “O Captain, My Captain.” Above all, he leads his students to seize the day, and think for themselves in the process.

 A group of his students re-launch the illegal Dead Poets Society that Keating himself had been a part of as a lad. There they share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas freely in defiance of the school. Charlie (Gale Hanson) for one puts an illicit article in the paper only to follow it by an audacious act that receives retribution from the Headmaster. Knox (Josh Charles) somewhat accidentally meets a girl who he immediately falls head over heels for. However, she already has a boyfriend, but the undaunted Knox will not be deterred, and he keeps seeing her. Against his father’s wishes, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) takes up acting in a play only to receive his father’s immense disapproval later on. The outcome of this is tragic, and it ultimately leads to an investigation of Keating. Everything seems bleak for the boys as they either rat on Keating or risk expulsion. 

Keating is released and English returns to the same monotony. However, Keating’s impact cannot be destroyed that easily, and in one last act of the defiance the boys stand up for their Captain led by the formerly timid Todd (Ethan Hawke). I must say that although the film’s ending was inspiring, it left me wondering what the consequences were. Also, I did not really understand the point of The Dead Poets Society. The title would seem to be more aptly Carpe Diem. Putting that aside, there are some good performances here, and Robin Williams is truly a pleasure to watch. He could be my English teacher any day. There are some good lessons to be learned here too. Take note boys. 

4/5 Stars