#373. Life

We all have one life to live. What we do with that life is mostly up to us. Sure, circumstances may limit our opportunities, but how often do we celebrate those who broke through those limitations and lived a full life because of their perseverance? Even in the realm of cinema, most characters only have one life. Unless the plot is more like a video game, or there’s a “reset button” motif, most films will have a certain amount of impact when a character dies. It has been suggested that people should live for their eulogy, and not their resume. Audiences are inspired by those individuals who lived a full life, especially when compared to those who do nothing more than pass through this existence with no impact to those around them. How then, should we define our lives? This week’s two films examine the lives of two different individuals.

Life of BrianLife of Brian
Year: 1979
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours

Regardless of your opinion about Jesus Christ and whether or not he died for our sins, most people agree His life was the most influential existence on the planet. After all, our whole calendar system is pinned to the year of His birth, even if it’s not referred to as anno Domini (AD) any longer. Many films have been created about Christ’s life, some even touting it as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Consequently, there are also many parodies of this Biblical story. Some might consider these films sacrilege, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Others, like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) take a more comedic approach in their parody. After all, it’s easy to make jokes when a person’s life is so well known that audiences will understand the references, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Born in a humble stable in Bethlehem, Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) lived a life adjacent to Jesus Christ (Kenneth Colley). While Jesus would go on to speak about love and forgiveness, Brian focuses his life on getting the Romans out of Judea. To impress a girl, he joins the People’s Front of Judea but ends up arguing with the members more than accomplishing the group’s ultimate goal. When the Romans finally pay attention, Brian has to blend into the crowd and does so by mimicking some of what he has heard from Jesus. Suddenly, a devoted following springs up and finds everything Brian does as divine, even if most events are pure happenstance. Unfortunately, because his disciples won’t leave him alone, he sneaks away and is captured. Despite being crucified, Brian is reminded to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

The Secret Life of Walter MittyThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Year: 2013
Rating: PG
Length: 114 minutes / 1.90 hours

One of the strongest forces on the planet is inertia. In terms of physics, Newton’s first law of motion states that an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity until it is acted upon by an outside force. This can apply to our lives as well. How often do we find ourselves in the same rut, day after day and year after year, with no ability to break out of our routine? If we let life slip by in repetition, how much of our experiences will be relegated to the mundane? When it comes right down to it, inertia is comforting. If we never break out of our comfort zones, we’ll never learn what life has to offer. Sure, we may be tied down to a job or to a family, but if we can break away every now and then, maybe we can experience life in its fullest capacity. After all, “to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) spends an unreasonable amount of time in his head, daydreaming about a life much more exciting than his own. In his visions, he is confident and action-oriented enough to woo his office crush, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). Both Walter and Cheryl work at Life magazine as it undergoes a transition into the digital age. Walter is in charge of the photographic negatives for the magazine but is unable to find the desired negative for the final cover. This picture was taken by elusive photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), so Walter sets out to use the remaining negatives as clues to find the cover photo. Along the way, he bravely takes on whatever life throws at him, no longer living his adventures via daydream. After locating Sean, he learns where the negative is, only to realize he accidentally threw it away. Returning home, Walter has a new perspective on life as the negative is found and the cover is printed.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 lived lives

#372. Few actors, many roles

For the most part, each individual who acts in a movie only has one character to play. To understand the amount of emotional depth of a single character, these actors will often devote themselves to this singular role. But what about those actors who portray more than one character? Furthermore, what if the whole cast needs to take on multiple roles? There could be many reasons to go this way, including funding limitations, comedic purposes, or thematic motifs. Whatever the reason, when a few actors take on multiple roles in a movie, it can either be a distraction or a fun treasure hunt as the viewer tries to identify all the roles these actors filled. This is even more pronounced when famous and well-known actors are taking on these multiple roles. This week’s two films highlight some examples of a few actors taking on many roles.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

When it comes to a specific character who is seen during different parts of their life, the standard way to show this growth is via different actors playing the same character. This has been done in many movies, including the 2016 Best Picture, Moonlight. Sometimes, a single actor may play the same character throughout the lifecycle, like Brad Pitt did in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). However, when it comes to portraying the same character archetype over centuries, the same actor can be employed to show the link between the timelines. During the silent era, Buster Keaton did this in Three Ages (1923), mostly because he was the star of the film. In a more modern context, Cloud Atlas (2012) chooses to use the same set of all-star actors in multiple roles throughout multiple timelines as an artistic technique to show the interconnectedness of the characters.

While most of the members of the ensemble cast of Cloud Atlas only have one segment where they’re the lead character, they do appear in most segments. The timeline starts with Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an abolitionist from 1849 who wrote a journal during his near-death experience. Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) read this journal while composing “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” for the elderly Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) found this piece of music in a record store in 1973 before surviving an assassination attempt due to the exposé she was writing. Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) would eventually read the novelization of these events in 2012, which would inspire him to write his own story. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) would be inspired by the movie version of this book in 2144, starting a revolution in the process. Finally, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a post-apocalyptic 2321 created by the revolution.

Life of BrianLife of Brian
Year: 1979
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours

Years after I saw Dr. Strangelove (1964), I came to the realization that three different characters in the film were portrayed by Peter Sellers. The acting was so superb, I hadn’t even noticed they were all the same actor. In general, comedies are more likely to use a small group of actors in multiple roles, especially if they’re known for short comedy sketches on television. Sure, you can have a small set of actors portray multiple characters through their voices, like in The Simpsons Movie (2007), but when it comes to live-action films, the guys from Monty Python are the de facto comedy group when it comes to multiple roles for individual actors. This is likely due to their success in the realm of sketch comedy. Even though there is a narrative thread that runs through movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), they’re essentially just a series of sketches.

Living life in parallel to that of Jesus Christ (Kenneth Colley), Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) was born just one door down from the stable where Jesus was born. Years later, he would attend the Sermon on the Mount and become inspired to join the People’s Front of Judea to stand up against the Romans’ rule. Through his exploits, he tries to blend into a crowd by pretending to be a prophet, repeating some of Jesus’ teachings in his own words. This leads to Brian developing a devoted following which eventually takes everything he says as a lesson or parable. Even random events are seen as miracles in their eyes. After finally escaping his following, he is captured by Roman guards and brought before Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). Pilate offers to release a prisoner, and Brian’s name is offered, but someone else claiming to be him is released while he is crucified.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 many roles with not as many actors