Thursday, March 20, 2014

What I really thought: Third Star

Having decided to take more time for relaxing with films and tv, and having poked around on Amazon Prime streaming, I found what looked to be a gem--and free! Third Star is described on IMDB this way:
James and his three closest lifelong friends go on an ill-advised trip to the stunning coastal area of Barafundle Bay in West Wales. What follows is a touching and comical adventure dealing with friendship, heroism and love.
Sounded intriguing, especially learning that James has terminal cancer at age 29. But I'd rewrite that description quite a bit. There are several factors that I think thwarted the movie from being touching and comical. (And if you're into them, these professional reviews said it more succinctly than I did, but I think we're on the same page.) You probably guessed, but-- SPOILERS AHEAD.

* Pacing that doesn't let you get immersed in the story. They could have cut out the first twenty minutes and several scenes and shots throughout.

* Conflict that rings false. There are several instances throughout the film where we're set up for what's supposed to be a tense situation that you know can't actually end up badly. If you've ever thought to yourself, "They can't kill him off yet! We're only twenty minutes into the movie!" then you'll recognize these situations popping up often in this movie.

They're not all life or death. And of course it'd make sense to include conflicts that show how the characters deal with difficulties. Many of the interpersonal conflicts in the film do provide that insight. But several other conflicts don't do that. Somehow they don't serve to get the audience to care more about the characters, to reveal much about the nature of the characters, or to move the plot forward.

For example:
  • James and a friend are nearly dropped down the side of sheer rock wall fairly early in the adventure. As a metaphor it works, but it seems like a lot of tension building for nothing.
  • The bag of James' meds is lost fairly late in film, as the camera winkingly reveals by showing it falling off a backpack into the tall, tall grass. James has to get through an excruciating night without meds before his friends miraculously find them. In the knee high weeds. At night. (A reviewer pointed out that this may have changed the friends' minds about James decision to take his own life, and indeed it did seem like a climactic turning point. But to have the meds be conveniently lost and then conveniently found rang false for me.)
  • One of their tents is set ablaze (this one does reveal something about the characters' natures but this, along with losing their things over the side of a cliff, felt a little too obviously about 'getting rid of baggage' since they start losing things left and right at some point. Maybe that's a pacing problem again.). Which takes us to...
* Metaphors that sledgehammer you instead of subtly contributing to the story. In one instance, a mischievous boy wearing angel wings makes off with a timepiece and throws it in the sea. (GET IT?) Later, one of the friends finds a feather left from that mishap in his pocket and sets it off on the wind. A solitary bird breaks away from the flock and flies in the opposite direction. There are many various and nature metaphors and images that back up the circle of life theme. They're very beautiful, but some are more subtle than others.

* Characters that are not sympathetic. It's not just they say or do unlikeable things, though there's that. But their motivation isn't always clear or even subtly implied. It's sometimes even hard to feel a connection to the main character, James.

And there is the relatability factor, which is a term I use with care and a precise meaning. Relatable doesn't mean likeable to me. It doeesn't mean that I would be friends with the character, am like the character, or have the same motivations as the character. I don't necessarily watch movies because the characters are just like me (or I would probably never, ever watch movies or tv).

By relatable, I mean the film communicates something about our commonalities in the human condition. It means that I can come to understand why a character does or says or feels something and why they communicate or reveal it the way they do.

The four central characters are pretty different from me. They're white male Brits who actually use the word "Chinaman" in the year 2010ish, pick fights, take dumb risks. There are important things we have in common, too: loving the outdoors, having interest in doing fulfilling work, prioritizing friends. But whether or not I have anything in common with them, they still should be relatable. I should still get a sense of who they are and why they do what they do, especially the lead. Had they been able to take characters who are pretty far from my life and still give me that sense, that would have been impressive. The fact that they weren't relatable wasn't surprising, but was still a disappointment.

I get the feeling we're supposed to be contemplating our common mortality and the way we ourselves think about death. But that wasn't enough to create engaging relatability for me.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like about this movie. There are beautiful, wild shots of nature, some interesting dialogue, and some effective emotional moments. A reviewer remarked that it makes an excellent modern retelling of "Peter Pan," and I found that to be intriguing. I don't mean to be a total downer; I know it's a lot easier to criticize than to bring together a team to pour out hearts and souls into making beautiful art. I just think there are ways this good film could have really resonated more.
At the end of the day, I think this movie wants you to care about it because James has terminal cancer. But it hasn't provided enough context about James' primary relationships with friends and with family to carry a two hour film about what his loss will mean.

There's a joking reference in this film to "Brokeback Mountain," but I would actually recommend that movie over this one if you're looking for a film featuring a male relationship that reveals deep, complex layers of humanity and emotion. Or "Into the Wild" if you're seeking a film featuring stunning scenery, a young guy's adventure, and untimely death. And if you're looking for a Benedict Cumberbatch movie that's a strong character study but that leaves you thinking rather than bludgeoned, try "Wreckers."

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