Saturday, September 24, 2016


Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 182 min.
Verdict: Could be argued that it is the finest movie made as yet on superheroes.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-fi, Fantasy 

Height and elevation and all their vertically aligned synonyms seem to be at the very heart of Mr. Snyder’s film. I look at my 11-month old daughter who crawls on the floor and cranes her neck up looking at us expectantly. She tries to hold onto things and stand up and gain height she doesn’t have. Height gives her control, and when we squash bugs with our foot or stomp on little palms, it could be said, height gives us power and thereby a measure of cruelty. For a reason, I guess, we have all those close-ups in all those movies of shiny leather shoes rubbing cigarette butts to the ground. Height is aspirational, and there could be a version of Mr. Snyder’s film told entirely through eyes looking up, sometimes in awe, sometimes in prayer and sometimes with pure anger running through them. 
If height and scale and superhero movies are all essentially synonyms of each other, then is it almost understandable that they are inherently about violence? I mean, is there a superhero who can put babies to sleep, and for a one-liner asks his baby daughter – “Do you bleed...You will.” Or maybe, being a superhero is intrinsically about action, about being masculine, and doing things. It is only logical then that Mr. Snyder contextualizes his film in an epoch – “Mankind is introduced to the Superman” – and turns what has been transcendent/escapist only a moment back – a young Bruce levitating (a man’s refuge to fantasy interpreted as an altitudinal exercise, and thus a synecdoche for religion et al.?) – into a matter-of-fact and often ruthless visualization of a world with Superman. 

The sky and its stars have ceased to be wonders, and Mr. Snyder seems to flatten, or reduce the distance between the land and the clouds, often framing them like a chamber, not an expansive wondrous unknown, but a cagey known. In one terrific moment, Diana Prince (Ms. Gadot) looks on as the Superman (Mr. Cavill) bursts through the sky and pile drives Doomsday, all in one shot and seemingly (but not actually) in one frame. It is a shot of the Superman’s speed, but it also seems to render the sky so perilously close to the land, like when Cloverfield burst through it and into our lives all those days back. Modern world-in-peril disaster movies do have images with both the sky and the land, like typhoons, or portals from other worlds, but they often seem to want to have a sense of awe, often going for outright scale (numbers, width), or have it look at it vertically. This one here is just flat and matter-of-fact and interestingly (okay, probably not intentionally) from Ms. Prince’s point-of-view.
Which leads me to another instance of a very interesting point-of-view shot, of the Batman looking at Doomsday wreak havoc to both Superman and Ms. Prince, and thus rendered effectively an onlooker.  

These shots, of an utter lack of control, of being dwarfed, of being effectively emasculated, is the perspective we need of the Batman (especially when everybody thinks the ending of The Dark Knight Rises is a dream), much in tune with all the Rorschachs and Nite Owls rendered inconsequential in the age of Dr. Manhattan. Batman’s Gotham is spoken of as a city that is a world unto itself, not much unlike the little villages Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes visited nearby London to solve cases. The idea probably is to have Metropolis (much like London for the two detectives, or New York City for Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow) a setting for the real world and its modern dynamics, and those little villages act as settings far removed from the reality – a place where Batman has been something of a demi-god for a good part of twenty years. The arrival of Superman collapses those definitions and associated boundaries, and Mr. Snyder’s narrative rhetoric – of stacking the narrative of Batman within the world of Superman – contrasts the scope of this contextualization quite brilliantly. Metropolis falls down as the world looks in awe and shock. Villages are razed somewhere in Africa, and Superman is credited. A senator hears the tale of a woman whose parents died in those villages. And amidst all that, Batman’s nightly shenanigans of hanging from the ceiling in a room somewhere in Gotham where Asian women are kept prisoners, and then doing the standard-issue disappearing act feel, well, childish. The point is, Bruce Wayne knows that, and to echo Alfred’s observation (we will come to it in a minute), which is one of the film’s central ideas, it makes him cruel to cause effectiveness.   

The thing about cruelty is that it is a relatively faster way of seeing a desired effect. A need for cruelty is borne out of a desire to witness fast change, and one way to go about it is to perform the desired set of actions. The Batman could break your jaw, but then the Superman could ram you through walls within a blink of an eye. There is little choice but for a superhero movie to be inherently about violence, about exhibiting the adolescent need for control when there is none, and there Alfred’s one-line explanation of the film’s central theme - about how a lack of control turns good people cruel - coming right at the heel of both Superman and Batman's exploits is a useful example of Hollywood’s pragmatic approach to show-and-tell narration. Alternately, as Armond White suggests here, it is a lovely little romance.
Parents loom large, well obviously, and Mr. Snyder draws interesting correlations here, especially between Lex Luthor (Mr. Eisenberg) and Bruce Wayne, each missing a father, and each distrusting/envying this new God. Where Bruce’s is a crisis of masculinity, Lex’s is a cousin – a crisis of identity. Lex is a millennial, his personal issues cloaked under a garb of pop culture references and academic jargon. Bruce speaks like a conservative (“the son of a bitch brought war to us”), and Lex – referencing his father’s struggles in Nazi Europe – speaks like the leftist millennial desperate to have equality across the board (meta-humans, aliens), his superpower being knowledge. Ms. Lionel Shriver has written a terrific piece down at New York Times while I write about this film, and you should forgive me if I am seeing parallels where there are none. 

Superman, meanwhile, sees parallels in aerial and opaque elements like the military drone (symbolic that he knocks them out in the opening act, and yet humanity at large questions his motives and the presence/absence of humanity). While some folks show the middle finger to the drones, some raise their hands and pray to the Superman.

Superman has always been an abstraction, and we never truly understand (in a quantifying sense if you will) the limits and scope of his powers, and using that as the central examination factor of the character, it very much seems to me that Mr. Snyder, in Dawn of Justice, has made the finest picture on Clark Kent. In shots of tremendous isolation, he finds Clark so terribly confused and lonely, so eager to be understood and approved of, and so easily eulogized or demonized. This is a young man here, having his own daddy issues, and so easily branded an authority, and Mr. Cavill – in our age where gritty James Bonds and dark Jason Bournes are probably working overtime to find an anchoring for us millennials – brings grace and dignity to Superman. Again, and I could guilty here of elitism and condescension, and I do beg your pardon in advance, but where a lot of Marvel’s popularity is centered around Iron Man and Hulk (again representations of the ironical generation), I believe the heart lay in Mr. Chris Evans’ Captain America. Here is an extremely likable actor playing a character from the 30s trying to come to terms with the present age, and with Mr. Cavill’s Clark Kent we have a millennial trying to live the ideology of a man from the 30s (an abstract idea again) – being confused between exercising unilateral power to respecting to seeking approval to loving and as a result always in a state of flux. In my notes on Man of Steel I had mentioned parallels to Kazantzakis’ Christ. It is a beautiful performance, of a native who has always known he is an immigrant, a pretender worried about getting caught, a wanderer desperate to find a home, or a world. Mr. Snyder has built a world where I so eagerly want to get into and which I fear will not stay the way it is for too long, and I hope I am wrong.     

Note: The “Martha-touch” is absolutely brilliant.

Monday, January 04, 2016


Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Maximiliano Hernández
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 121 min.
Verdict: The most formally accomplished American film of its year. A textbook for genre filmmaking. And I very much want to agree with its politics.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Action

Spoilers below!

              Before we go into the politics of it all, which frankly could be that it is not a country for women, and which unfortunately will send the PC police into throwing hissy fits, it is worthwhile to look at the technique employed here from an academic perspective. Mr. Villeneuve looks to be an expert director-for-hire, and Sicario is one of those rare films from around now which can be visited and revisited just to study how to capture conversations or movements. It is always fun to break down a scene, to understand why it works the way it works, so that it can be repeated. You see, capturing drama is quite similar to capturing a process – the accumulation of details – and it is satisfying (academically) when a scene can be explained not on the basis of performances but on the basis of its editing (an elitist sentiment, I suppose, or maybe a pretension of analytical prowess). A scene that is simply a sum of its parts is for me a reason for comfort, and the one I would have a jab at breaking down occurs early in the film, after an FBI SWAT raid led by Kate Mercer (Ms. Blunt) on a suspect kidnap house controlled by drug cartels ends up in an explosion killing two of her team members. She is sitting in an office along with her partner Reggie Wayne (Mr. Kaluuya), outside of a meeting room where several older men (the youngest must be only around 40) are having some sort of discussion. The office is wall-to-wall glass see-through partitioning, and we enter this setting via a news report of the explosion on a television screen hanging on one of the walls. We hear the news report, and just as it is about to end, we cut to a POV (over-the-shoulder) shot of Kate looking at the screen, and we now hear no audio.

The glass partitioning might offer “transparency” but it sure as hell isn’t revealing a great deal of information. If you see in the POV shot, there is one glass partitioning in the foreground too, and Mr. Villeneuve provides the next cut looking at Kate and Reggie in a two-shot from within their enclosure. The meeting room is behind them and they cannot hear a word of what is being said. I would want to extend you the liberty of extrapolating this whole glass setting as something of a metaphor for what happens in the film, especially from Kate’s perspective. She sees everything and understands nothing, and just as that is intended to be the disposition of the office, that is probably the objective of the smoke-and-mirrors mission she is about to get into.
We cut back again to the POV shot, but this time around we hear the discussion happening within the room, which Kate obviously cannot hear. All of this happens over a quick 25-30 second period, establishing the setting, which after the prologue-serving explosion, functions as the set-up for the whole narrative. Let us just say that Mr. Tarantino would either have Chapter 1 here, or after the intermission have a Chapter 5, attached to this, and accordingly either label it The Glass Partitioned Office or The Operation of the Glass Partitioned Office.
              Kate is called in and introduced and interviewed over a quick couple of minutes and that is not the conversation I am interested in, leaving you to discover it. She comes out and sits beside Reggie, does a quick survey of she still has no idea, and that is when the discussion is done and folks move out, and one of them asks Kate to come in. It is a terribly efficient moment, all built on following the eye-line movements from Kate, and accordingly cutting the room into close-ups (thus revealing the inherent inconsistencies), or aligning them all together (the authority v/s Kate).

Here is the video, and allow this moment to remind you of a conversation with an interview panel, or better still, when you were up for promotion (or you had the technical information required that was needed to make a decision) and you were called in to an executive meeting, where you never felt you were supposed to have a seat:

Now the first thing to notice is the layout of the panel and how Mr. Villeneuve uses Kate’s head to set up the power dynamic within it. There’s three on the left, and one to her right, sitting alone (who has had the benefit of Kate’s curious glance at his flip-flops as opposed to everybody in suits and ties, thus his complete distinction and an escalation in his authority), and just as soon the grand old man in the room Dave Jennings (Mr. Garber), her boss, introduces the purpose while the final person takes his seat towards his left, he introduces Matt Graver (Mr. Brolin) while everybody looks at him (nobody else is introduced).

 Essentially, just through precise composition, Matt’s been served something of a primer for a close-up, without explicitly doing so, and he remains the power center. Not surprisingly, Kate senses this dynamic and asks a pointed question about the identity of this operation, i.e. whether is it still this (Phoenix) office that is in authority, and we don’t see her face, and thus we have no idea whom the question has been addressed to. The familiar face is that of her boss, but everybody to her left immediately looks in Matt’s general direction, while he doesn’t bat an eyelid before answering.
This is pretty much the film’s core idea that addresses and motivates its examination of motion. The explosive opening, which literally has the narrative hit the ground running, has the SWAT team move-in towards a target, which exists within a suburban set-up with something of a compound wall – a representation of jurisdictional space.  

Later on, in the film’s best sequence and one of the year’s highlights, the movement is freer, smoother and expansive. A convoy glides thorough border checkpoints travelling at a breakneck speed and the mobility here – as a representation/display of power (and old-world power dynamics) – is exhilarating. It is pure cinema.

Mr. Villeneuve hints the arrival of this overdramatic display couple of times, most notably when Kate gets on Matt’s chartered plane on her visit to “El Paso” area, where the plane seems to leave the jurisdictional disciplined and dare I say liberal urban space behind. A space where the neighborhood as all the symptoms of utter peace, and its dark underbelly (the walls of the house) is where the unsociable is repressed to. As the plane takes off, we see the topography change, and as opposed to the cut-and-dried version of demarcated boundaries – walls and fences – what we seem to have is something of a delimited zone up for grabs and where Kate’s liberal idealistic tendencies will probably be as effective as a knife in a gunfight.  
              Trivializing Kate’s idealistic politics as a variation of Winston Churchill’s or whosoever’s quote (“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain”) is not the point here, and it is not what Sicario is doing. There’s another story from Mexico – of a cop Silvio (Mr. Hernández) his soccer loving kid and his pure domestic no-nonsense wife – and Mr. Villeneuve is using to suggest what a war almost always is – our way of life versus theirs – and the inherent self-righteousness of it. A victory is not merely a territorial or a political grab, and is often a justification of an ideology. More so here, the urban disciplined space v/s the absolute anarchy of Juarez, the liberal America v/s the conservative Mexico, highlighted by a minor moment where one of the men on the mission ask Kate to finish her cigarette before presenting herself before a bunch of Mexican immigrants at a border patrol station. Needless to say, when she presents herself, all eyes are on her – an American woman amongst the authority.   To navigate this region of expanded and ambiguous boundaries, Sicario chooses the best perspective to narrate itself, that of Kate, who is like a fresher on a job, and has next to no idea what’s going on (the comic version of this scenario is how Danny Ocean and Rusty deal with Linus’ ambitions in Ocean’s Twelve).
And it is this perspective that is established here in this short conversation we are discussing, with her head (and her eyes) navigating this room and trying to make sense out of it, or at least draw some sort of narrative. The others take their cue from Matt’s succinct description of who’s in charge, and everybody else pitches in essentially reiterating that she will be acting under Matt. The script distributes them one line each, the chorus to Matt’s lead if you will, before cutting to Kate’s close-up.

              The next instruction set comes from one of the chorus members ending with a question to Matt about the rendezvous point, and Mr. Villeneuve instead of giving us a reverse shot of this, follows Kate’s eyes and her further realization of the power dynamic. Her eyes traverse the heads from her left to right and halts in the general direction of Matt’s.

Kate asks him another question before Matt tells her whom they are going to meet, which is not so much the point as much as it aligns them in a shot. Here is a shift in the dynamic, and a realization on Kate’s part where the brains behind the mission lay. The others are near to being unnecessary.
              And here’s when Kate instinctively asks him a pointed question (almost out of some sort of distrust) seemingly to test the waters – about where Guillermo is – which doesn’t make Matt uneasy but does make him spin a little web, and for which he looks at his chorus members. The next cut, which draws the first confirmation of the chasms in the panel, is to Kate’s boss Dave (he alone in the frame) and he has some sort of a disappointed blink, which is immediately caught by Kate, and which is established by an eye-line-match-cut.

Which immediately draws Kate to ask the next pointed question.
              The first cut is to a close-up of the guy to Dave’s right, but it is only to serve him as a reference point (if there were numbering, this guy would most probably be second-in-command) for Matt to spin his web, because just as soon the cut points to him he looks at Matt and we have an eye-line match and a wry smile before the big punchline comes –

              At which point, a completely new angle is chosen for Kate, a little more removed causing a medium rather than a close-up and a few degrees towards the middle from the earlier angle which aligned her from the farthest guy on her left so that we follow her gaze, and now which aligns on the straight line between her and Dave. Now, I might be guilty of reading too much into these lines or attributing them with too much weight, but Sicario is nothing if not bothering itself with a woman in an essentially man’s world. The narrative does seem to be about Kate’s dynamic with the men around her with the drug war providing the backdrop, which in the case of Alejandro (Mr. Del Toro) is almost a stand-in for a relationship.
              So before we go to what Dave has to say, let me make a few politically incorrect statements and which might cause me the dreaded foot-in-the-mouth disease. The thing with Sicario is it is more or less a narrative about Kate’s domestication (she’s divorced). We’ve Reggie, who serves the archetype of a girl’s best friend who has ambitions to be her one true soulmate and who is liberal enough to never outright propose her, or shall we sway her, but make gentle jabs at her personal life so as inch his way close to her, probably because he is too proud to be crass. But then, he is pretty much consumed by the state of her personal life and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were secretly spending a few tissues on her now and then. He questions her about her bra (in his mind, he is the closest to her) which she shrugs off, but he is too eager to get the conversation around her personal life (this is the Hannibal Lecter syndrome, if you will, where you gets aroused from knowing a person’s personal secrets and which becomes a substitute for plain sex) and later in the bar continues to go on about it.

With Alejandro though, it is Kate who is drawn towards him and the mysterious air around him. It is an extremely conservative view of things (there is a reaction shot for Reggie just as soon as Alejandro asks Kate about her well-being after the attempt on her life was made), but then Sicario is something of a Stanley Milgram obedience experiment, by the end of which Kate has been systemically broken into submission. It is a complex character, an idealist without a hook half-understanding the pragmatism the authority claims, and this is a great performance from Ms. Blunt whose mere reactions are one of the highlights/pleasures of the year gone by. The authorities, in their part, are not husbands or boyfriends but straight up father figures, none more so than Mr. Del Toro’s Alejandro, who at the end asks her to leave and make herself anonymous, just like her counterpart – Silvio’s widowed wife. The point is that this is not an ideological war and that their way of life isn’t too different from ours, and when Alejandro leaves Kate in her balcony, she is an almost helpless captive – to her own fascination directed towards him, and that her idealistic tendencies is what ultimately tie in with her domestic tendencies. She is a little girl, and if we come back to the line, Dave demonstrates his protective instincts first right after Matt’s punchline.

 To which Kate responds in atypical fashion, i.e. breaking away from the umbrella of paternal protection and seizing control by asking a question (mostly rhetorical, from a obedience perspective), underlined yet again by her moving gaze, which starts from Dave and ends with who else but Matt.

And here, we see for the first time the camera up-close with Matt, and the negative space around him vastly reduced. He is committed, so to speak, and the contrast between his laidback attitude up until now to the solemn response here is a pretty good example of the kind of kitsch authority employs.

              No wonder Kate volunteers, for she now feels in control, and I am reminded of Elizabeth Swann from Mr. Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Here is an equally strong character, living under her father’s protective umbrella and curious about another world so as to provide a series its narrative perspective. Those films were Liz’s story just as this is Kate’s, but between travelling with the left (pirates) to eventually becoming a lord and marrying one, the former was essentially liberated from her conservative background. Kate, on the other hand, seems to be charting the opposite route – in Alejandro we might have somebody similar to Jack Sparrow. Which begs the question – is it so morally intellectually and emotionally crippling when one starts to see and understand the conservative perspective? Also, is there anybody who leans more heavily on the frame than Mr. Del Toro?

Friday, January 01, 2016


Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, Demián Bichir
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 167 min.
Verdict: A lazily structured first-draft. A chore to get through.
Genre: Drama, Western, Mystery

(Spoilers below!)

              The overriding feeling at the end of it is of being unsatisfied. A lack of closure, maybe, because every time a secret is revealed in any mystery the relationship the viewer (or reader) shares with the people in the narrative becomes the primary factor. If a detective were to find a killer in a room full of people, there better be enough people in the first place, because they serve as the audience for whom the secret is being unraveled. If there were none, and if the detective were to simply turn towards us and indulge himself in a monologue detailing his methods and discoveries, I’m not sure we will be half as satisfied. Why? Because the percolation of the information serves as some sort of justice, an identity that has been revealed, and rightly so. That everybody in the audience knows isn’t enough, but what is important is that everybody in there knows and we have the closure that justice has prevailed. We cannot affect that world in there, except for instance, when Robert Langdon learns the true location of Mary Magdalene’s sarcophagus, and it is something of an interesting scenario because at that moment it (the illusion of the narrative) very much blurs the boundaries between fact/fiction providing for a real-life place, which serves as the bridge. So, either the mystery provides us with that bridge, an object of some sort that has travelled through time, or it provides the necessary proxy.
              That is a major reason Ms. Christie’s Death on the Nile has always left me cold, and feels at best to be an academic exercise in overturning an archetype – that of the innocent but sure-to-judge audience – and if everybody is either a victim or a murderer, the world becomes a pretty cynical little place, like you know No Country for Old Men. Still, and until the secret is revealed, the very prospect of a significant (subjective, and the crowd presents assurance with the potential of providing closure) audience is cause enough to be excited by the mystery at hand. Gosford Park did follow that prescription, and surprisingly (read: disappointingly) Mr. Tarantino, who has pretty much internalized the theory around shock v/s suspense, just doesn’t give us enough by way of the prospect of an audience. There is Team A, consisting of a couple of bounty hunters, one of whom is black, a sheriff-in-waiting and a woman waiting to be hanged, riding on a stagecoach. There is Team B – consisting of a Mexican running the inn, an overelaborate Englishman (I’m confused whether Mr. Roth was doing a version of his character from Four Rooms, or if Mr. Waltz simply wasn’t available because of Spectre), an overelaborate Michael Madsen lookalike, and a Confederate General – whom Team A meets once they arrive at a haberdashery. Now, one might claim that Team B isn’t really a team, and I might want to argue back saying that between the title and the laws of suspense, any collection of people is a cause to be suspicious about, especially when an outlaw is being taken to be hanged to some place (a standard trope) in a western. So essentially we have set who walks in to a bar, and a set waiting in the bar, and were Ms. Christie the writer here, I suspect she would have had folks walk in at different times. A murder mystery is never about teams and always about individuals. The very prospect of an innocent bystander unsuspectingly walk into an established scene of tension doesn’t merely align our concerns for his well-being, it relieves himself from all suspicion while also providing him the opportunity to assume the role of a moral authority (Mr. Mangold’s Identity). No such luck here in Minnie’s haberdashery, and between all the chattering and cursing Mr. Tarantino writes himself into a corner while dealing with the false identities, the reveal around which isn’t merely unremarkable it is downright lazy. This is the problem – someone from team B says they are X. Alright. It is not Mr. Pink or Mr. Yellow, but just some overelaborate name. Then in the end, they say they are Y. The audience naturally is distrustful because we have no hook to hang on to – we don’t have any clues like the bottom of a coffee mug, or clippings spread around a cop’s wall – and Mr. Tarantino simply has someone from Team A do a “Ah, yeah!” routine every time someone from Team B reveal their Y identities. It is meaningless, a confirmation and a what-if-it’s-hot at the same time, and thus a cop-out.
              So, when things reveal themselves we aren’t really surprised. We are waiting and more importantly we do not have the closure of justice being served. It is an interesting proposition at first hand, especially when the film ends with an event that serves as moral justice – the hanging of the woman. Now, before we have the PC police start frothing in their mouths, it is useful to highlight that none of these folks are really “hateful”. They are more like mildly annoying, and to be offended by their racial slurs and woman-beating is just about as kitschy a reaction as wondering how Mr. Coppola made such immensely “morally corrupt” individuals so likable, or be “horrified” at the evil that Mr. Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter presents. It is a middlebrow reaction at best and a self-congratulatory reaction at worst, and it ignores that morality within a narrative is relative and more importantly contextual. Hateful/Despicable is that wonderful psycho in Mr. Miike’s Shield of Straw, or those serial killers in some of those Korean films. I might argue that honor overrides all other negativities, more so in a western, and one might argue then that even the hierarchy of morality has been shaped by patriarchy. I don’t know, and let us do a roll call. Major Marquis Warren (Mr. Jackson) is a bounty hunter (an anti-hero at best), and to be fair what does he do – excite a Confederate General into drawing a weapon to kill him by recounting to him how he raped the General’s son (a symbolic act more than anything, underlined by Warren’s hint towards the images being created and thus a reality, a notion that ties in with fantasy history from his previous two films), which importantly was a reaction to the righteous son’s action of trying to kill him. There’s no standalone action (cause-effect) at any level, and the Major feels morally justified, because on both the counts he has a reason – the Confederate General denying him his identity, and his son wanting to deny him his life. The bounty hunter John Ruth (Mr. Russell) punches a woman alright, but then she is a dreaded criminal (imagine a man in her place). We can go along, but the point is that nobody here is despicable, just people acting self-righteously.
              So, when the woman is hanged at the end by the two remaining folks, within the moral framework of the film, it is justified, because she has always been the antagonist – she has no stakes, and her identity is that she is merely a criminal (as opposed to say a woman who has been exploited all her life and thus been pushed to choose this life, and the expected self-congratulatory blah-blah), and she spends the narrative being the antagonist (knowing a secret and letting folks suffer and die). If you agree with me here, her hanging (an exercise designed for its theatricality) has no audience, apart from the hangmen. We have travelled a long distance for only to have her hang in private, which is just about the same as John Ruth hanging her just as soon he caught her. Not quite, as a matter of fact. You see, the two men in the end are the two who are indeed the innocent bystanders, and who represent the history/politics Mr. Tarantino is most interested in – the simple binary of the black man and the racial white man. As all binaries, it is a reductive representation of history, and under the now-annoying idea of Abraham Lincoln as a representation of all that is great about America (and world? Is this newfound fascination with Lincoln a highlight of the Obama presidency?) a simplistic fantasy. Having Lincoln treated less like a man and more like an idea (we have our own in our current Prime Minister) is just about the same as having him hunt down vampires, and I hope we get less of it in the future. Also, maybe, a little less of allusions to Jesus Christ, mostly because I’m not sure Daisy is some sort of innocent lamb slaughtered to give the folks a notion of justice.      
What bugs me though is how lazy the film feels. The entire first hour is essentially folks howling dialogues at each other and long shots of the stagecoach running through the snow serving as filler. Everybody is in the same room, and when Major Warren tells elaborate tales about “black dicks in white mouths” you wonder what everybody else is doing. Where the hell are the reaction shots? Two folks are vomiting blood right after and we have no reaction shots from Major Warren, who is quite essentially our protagonist here. Isn’t everybody sharing the same moment? It is a strange choice, and I wonder what purpose it served, because for me, it only provided a convenient mystery around who drugged the coffee. There are meaningless foreboding shots of the outhouse, couple of them in fact, and all they serve is some cheap horror movie atmosphere. And the flashback chapter? Would we have been better served with a placard instead?
Most importantly though, I wonder why I am left unimpressed with Mr. Tarantino’s scores. For e.g. the harmonica thing in Kill Bill Vol. II when she walks in the desert, and here the opening. Is it because out of several choices he simply picks the most obvious one, so that rather than being captivated by the score at hand I am reminded of the likeliness? I don’t know, but the opening horror thing felt completely disconnected from the imagery (imagine The Shining’s opening score and its synthesis with the movement on the screen), almost as if I could go ahead and score the same images with Old Turkey Buzzard and lose out on nothing. Maybe, on his eighth film, Mr. Tarantino was just plain uninspired to make one, and is rather interested in making a contribution to theatre. If he does it sometime in the future, I hope this film will serve as a first draft.  

Note: This is essentially an overelaborate MOM of a discussion I had with Gaurang Joshi.   

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Money Harris, Lea Seydoux, Monica Belluci, Ralph Fiennes, Andrew Scott
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 148 min.
Verdict: The best Bond film since GoldenEye. Mr. Mendes’ best film. And one of the best of the year.
Genre: Action, Thriller, Mystery

              There is the old and there is the new. The gloriously stylish opening sequence, which gives way to a vertiginous tussle in a chopper over what looks like old Mexico, has James Bond fly over shiny new urban skyscrapers into the title sequence. It is the Day of the Dead, and the ease with which it establishes the narrative’s rhetoric around spaces – the old and the new, the new coming out of the old – had me rethink my stance on the worth of Mr. Mendes as a filmmaker. He has always felt sterile to me, and here he makes me realize why the best of James Bond might represent the absolute gold-standard in action-adventure cinema, which Spectre certainly is, and why Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas chose to describe Raiders of the Lost Ark as “a James Bond film without the hardware”. I will not want to put down the competition offered by the Mission Impossible franchise, or the Jason Bourne who-am-I quest, but neither of them understand spaces as well as Mr. Mendes does here, or Mr. Spielberg almost always does. Maybe, it is unfair to even ask of them – the Ethan Hunt films are exercises in stunts the spaces scarcely meaning anything more than a set-up – but Bourne’s version of memory represented by a what (plot) so much so that the hotel in Berlin almost doesn’t seem to exist on its own other than to serve as a place where events happened is certainly disappointing. Mr. Mendes understands the value of spaces, as a site of the conflict between the old and the new, as a site where history is shaped, and as a site where somebody like James Bond can find his past. That both history and James Bond’s past are inter-linked are not a matter of coincidence at all, and when we will have the luxury of a hindsight of fifty or so years, we might want to look at him just as we would look Dante or every such poet/academic ever since (say Mr. Todd Haynes’ I’m not There or Mr. Lech Majewski’s Field of Dogs) who has positioned himself at the center of the world.
              There is a meteor in the middle of a state-of-the-art information gathering-processing center, like Google’s World Brain project center, that itself is in the sort of middle of nowhere that reminds one of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the stagey showman that Mr. Mendes is (and not always in a good way) he has the antagonist literally materialize in the light from the darkness around. Mr. Waltz is one of our absolute treasures, and his Franz Oberhauser is the kind of character you are really curious to get into the head of. The guy written on the page is standard-issue, but between Mr. Mendes’s close-ups and Mr. Waltz reactions, we almost always seem to have a bit of a mystery before us who’s not quite Silva (The Joker, refreshing to have a bad guy not in it to just watch the world burn) operating in a I-have-no-value-for-my-life mode but he’s not entirely Hans Gruber either. The cut through this eye only intensifies the mystery, and Mr. Mendes chooses to concentrate on his reactions, giving us ample time to wonder what exactly is going on inside so much so that one can conceive Spectre to be an origin-story for him as much as it is a revelation for James Bond. But that is beside the point I’m trying to make here, because Mr. Mendes and Mr. Hoytema indulge in liberal usage of the long shot with so much to see, which is a delight when you wonder how somebody could have walked into a mountain-top alpine snow set clinic only to see a runway towards the top-right corner of the screen making one realize this must be a rich man’s place only to be rewarded with James Bond making an entry into a chase in a small plane. All spaces reveal, or it is almost their purpose to reveal (as any mystery has to) so much so that the plot almost seems subservient to these spaces. Mr. Mendes, surprisingly for a modern action picture, spends so much time in each of them because that is where he almost deriving the plot from, or at least manufacturing it around them. The spaces are not merely rhetoric, as they were in Skyfall, and have a terrific immersive quality to them. Of course, that is just my opinion – the old intelligence building versus the new intelligence tower across the river, which is definitely an agenda much in tune with the insecurities at the heart of Skyfall, or the glossy new Aston Martin against the old one (Aston Martin? pardon me, not much into Bond trivia) – but then there’s James Bond’s house, which feels less of a statement, like say Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho, and more like a den with its shadows and lights. When Moneypenny (Ms. Harris) visits him, there is an air of intrigue, and the space is set-up for reveals. They are unknown and the atmosphere tangible, not yet shaped into a narrative until Bond arrives on some of them, and this is the very structure of an action-adventure film, walking from one mystery into another – the mystery being the spaces and not the plot. They are in a hotel in Tangier, and if ever there is a filler shot for passage of time that in itself is memorable – a pan from the seas to the hotel, almost as if we were in a different time of archaeological pursuits – it is this one. Bond wakes up, the midnight air so palpable as if in a dream, and the room obliges to reveal its secrets as if it were a treasure hidden in a canyon. And once they are revealed, and the mysterious past known, these places hold no intrigue and for obvious reasons. A lot of it is about the pure temptation a space holds (as if one could psychoanalyze the imperialist need to explore and conquer), its seductiveness if you will, and what is James Bond if not fetishist. You could wave your Marxist cards and thunder about an argument about the usual, and I would rather direct you to the moment where Lucia Sciarra (Ms. Belluci) asks Bond not to go to the conclave to which James Bond replies – I have to. This temptation, this curiosity, is irresistible you see, almost like death drive, and Bond staring at the events around the roundtable is an exhibition of nerve-wracking tension. You see, it is plain and simple, and the secret to the whole of action-adventure genre are the locations, not beautiful but mysterious, not factual but historical. No wonder they arrive at the station with nowhere to go, and waiting for that desert to reveal itself, and there is this gradual reversal of the trend – from Bond confidently navigating us through the spaces as in the glorious opening walk over the terrace to the room in Tangier to the station in the middle of the desert – and the narrative is sort of built around it. It is as if he were discovering a whole new world, and it is glorious, just as is the bird’s eye-view of a train calmly moving through the desert.  
              So when Bond chastises Oberhauser for his screens and his overelaborate voyeurism, you got to chuckle, and I’m not sure if it at the film or with the film, and you got to ask if what James Bond is doing hunting down places is so very different from Oberhauser’s cameras every which where consuming spaces into data and consuming it, or as a friend recently asked, is cinephilia so different from other forms of consumer activities, like travelling. Bond might seduce women, and Keith Uhlich in a rather wonderful review here calls it out for what it might be, but from Mexico to Rome to Tangier the spaces seduce him. Which might lead one to brand him, as Mr. Uhlich does here, an agent in perpetual forward motion, probably contributing to the dichotomy between the “serious” Bond (always looking at his past?) and the ridiculously amusing Bond (jumping to one adventure to the next), and when Oberhauser starts drilling through his brain in the middle of a super-white anti-septic room, you wonder if he will hit anything. You see, I wouldn’t want to make an overelaborate connection to Leonard Shelby (and Memento had a terrific feel for spaces), but Bond is the sort of character whose past has little meaning and the history around him is his identity. Reducing that past, or reducing that history, to a set of events carry little weight, because, and I might sound extremely corny here, Bond’s identity is not inside him it is around him. The trick is to deck up the surroundings, and let Bond be himself (whatever that is, a placeholder maybe?), and if that involves a stunning shot of him and Madeline (Ms. Seydoux) walking down the villain’s den as if on a ramp, so be it. Not that a moment as tender (Oldboy tender) as Bond asking to stop the screens from revealing to Madeline what happened to her father is not welcome, but Mr. Mendes, maybe rightly, chooses on both the occasions, the event and its echo, to close in on Bond. Maybe there is a little bit too much hullaballoo around the assassin’s morality thing, or maybe the point is that an assassin (when he arrives at Madeline’s desk I was reminded of Anton Chigurh visiting Llewyn Moss’ wife) is still more of a human than a drone dropping bombs. Or maybe, when the secrets are revealed the Bond I like loses all interest in it, and rather chooses the girl, and the car, and everything else that is material and an extension of him. Bond is his world, and before I go all Charlie Kauffman on you, I just have to talk about that walk. It is a punk walk, like Kevin Bacon’s, and I should have never been impressed by it. But here I am unable to remove it from my head.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Director: Jona Gerlach
Runtime: 34 min.
Genre: Documentary, Short

              Mr. Gerlach’s 14 Homicides settles down at the intersection of geography, of society, of language, of statistics, of memory, of journalism, and in my case media – or new media, I was watching the film and googling its events, which I would suggest is probably unadvisable – and suggests how history and maybe even rhetoric could be give some sort of shape. 14 Homicides feels like an alternate way of narrativizing a haunted place, and come to think of it what is the difference between a haunted and a historical place after all? Maybe the latter is a document of change, while the former has an event stamped on its very identity forever, and if we were to extend that logic, will be entering the area of difference between history and rhetoric, between memory and ideology? Mr. Gerlach presents 14 locations by way of static shots, all places with terrific immersive quality to them so much so that I would love to live in some of those and be around the others – suburban houses, superstores, apartment complexes – and the fact that haunted locations are more often than not spaces where domestic bliss has been overturned is not entirely lost.    
              There’s these static shots, and there’s a calm voiceover reading text (a lot of which I was able to find verbatim from different news sites) that intends to be a factual narrative of the events that occurred, all of them involving accidental cop shootings. These shots do not linger too long after the voiceover, linking the facts to the space thereby affecting their identities, and when the spaces start piling up with respect to the months of 2014, we enter the not-so-apolitical zone of statistics. Spaces where you or I could live a lovely little life almost seem to become hostage to a stream of events that feel more like an epidemic, contextualized and re-contextualized, by the time around them and the geography around them (all of them occur in Utah), and a clear enough rhetoric emerges even without the depiction or staging of an event. There are no people, just spaces and facts, and the grey areas that the initial text around the law governing a peace officer’s usage of deadly force merely alludes to is opened so wide these spaces seem to exist wholly and solely within them. Experts often refer to the disposition of any man-made structure – societies, SEZs etc. – and by the end of the year, these localities seem to assume the sort of disposition Mr. Lynch was not so subtle about in Blue Velvet. Mr. James Benning sure does come to mind, but while his landscapes are variables of time, Mr. Gerlach seems to suggest domestic places as hostages of their milieu.  

Note: As I said, dear reader, if you happen to watch this film on your laptop rather than at a screening it might be advisable to refrain from seeking further context and information than is being already formulated, for it only adds to the rhetoric. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Cast: Salman Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Deepak Dobhriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Armaan Kohli
Director: Sooraj Barjatya
Runtime: 174 min.
Genre: Drama, Romance

              From what I remember, the impression I was provided by elders around was the Ms. Bhagyashree was the focal point of Maine Pyar Kiya. And if memory serves me well history Hum Aapke Hain Kaun was a complete Madhuri Dixit show. I have Raja as evidence. I wouldn’t vouch for its authenticity but I do remember Mr. Salman Khan complaining about not winning the Best actor award for it in 1994 and his reasoning was that since it was the biggest hit of the year he had to be the best actor. Don’t ask me, because I even remember Mr. Pramod Moutho using the same weird-ass reasoning to claim his right to the Best villain award for Raja Hindustani. And that is not the point. The point is that, for whatever reasons, Mr. Khan was almost never the focal point in his two biggest collaborations with Mr. Barjatya, and the whole Prem thing is something that has been cooked ages after the fact. Now, I do not want to go all meta on you and this film, but Mr. Barjatya, who, if not anything else, is pretty alright crunching emotions on a large-scale, seems to be least concerned with run-of-the-mill dramatic events and corresponding closures. See, there are spoilers and I don’t think so you need to be warned either. Read on, I say.
So Mr. Khan is in a double role here, one a Prince by the name of Vijay and another a small time stage actor Prem, and Maithili (Ms. Kapoor) is engaged to the former and over the course of the film falls for the latter. When the time comes for one (Vijay) to do the obligatory right thing and hand her over to the other (Prem), Mr. Barjatya seems to feel almost too cool to go all melodramatic on us, say like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and end it all with a grand embrace. Rather, right before the cut away from the scene (it is as a matter of fact the last moment of drama before the obligatory closing song), she is still in the same frame (a sideways shot) with Vijay, who now looks exactly like Prem. That’s it. No movement from one post to another. Either is alright, Mr. Barjatya seems to tell me. And when I think of Mr. Khan’s character in a palace full of mirrors trying to find a way out of his own reflections, the film seems to practically beg for a meta-reading I do not in the least want to oblige it with. But I guess Mr. Barjatya is not providing us with that option because I think he is quite unhappy with Mr. Khan’s present larger-than-life image. He probably doesn’t like his moustached avatar (Dabangg) and all the alpha-male antics around the women he is courting. Maybe Prem is an extension, a sort of compensation, a character who in his overall moral framework completes him, and he doesn’t like the fact that what ought to be the actor’s defining character is being overwritten by several others so different in their essence. I don’t know, I might just be pulling stuff from my posterior, but the set-up, a variation on Bawarchi formula, is painfully simple – a patriarch’s dysfunctional domestic set-up needs glue (Mr. Barjatya and his marketing team probably missed an opportunity to have the Fevicol/Fevistick brand in there somewhere, thank you very much). The variation is that the patriarch is played by Mr. Khan, and the glue is played by Mr. Khan too, and in moments when both of them are on screen the latter feels as if he were some sort of a spirit, so feeble in his presence, so devoid of the narcissist streak, so single-minded in his purpose in the narrative. As opposed to the popular understanding, Mr. Barjatya’s films don’t uphold conservative values – his thought-process is probably too run-of-the-mill to do that – and instead what his narratives do is undermine (I wouldn’t want to go as far as subvert) and hopefully reverse traditional customs and rituals. More often than not, Mr. Khan’s Prem has been the agent – in Maine Pyar Kiya the whole Mere Rang mein Rangne Wali is as close to an agreement to full-blown pre-marital sex you are going to get in Mr. Barjatya’s films, which has an interesting parallel here, once again closely linking the not-so-much outdoor-but-not-so-much-indoor space with moral frivolity (don’t almost all this flirtatious activities happen in such sort of spaces), and the whole act of wearing a favorite revealing dress be some sort of response I can’t sink my teeth into; in a world where the parents would meet-and-greet before proceeding with a match, Mr. Khan’s Prem courteously went ahead and decided to find his own in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. The point here is that Mr. Barjatya’s films, as were many others’, are essentially liberal and we don’t have to burden him with the task representing family values and traditions. For him they are just the framework within which he can carve his romance and be naughty. What is a strict no for him though is for somebody to woo his women by the size of their masculinity, ala Jeevan (Mr. Mohnish Behl in Maine Pyar Kiya) shooting pigeons and exercising a display of control, and I guess I can suspect that is how Mr. Barjatya sees his alter-ego’s distortion into the present larger-than-life image. So he gives that image an impersonal palatial complex, rigid traditions, dysfunctional family and everything else we cannot really afford to connect with, and proceeds to introduce the alter-ego he believes as the catalyst of change. A sort of supporting member in his own narrative. Which is alright, except for the fact that the whole film feels distinctly like a concept trying its level best to have the vigor to metamorphose into a story, whose cause is not helped in the least by the half-written dialogues. Mr. Barjatya could be outrageously gifted in profiling walking figures under the light, his compositions consisting of vertical lines supplementing the slender figure of Ms. Kapoor still make the half-screens in multiplexes look tall, but for our generation at least, the sound of the convenience of an English word within a predominantly Hindi sentence quite simply breaks the illusion. The residual feeling here though is of something that is slight, or maybe light, and the melodrama just does not have the heft. Maybe by design, or maybe Mr. Barjatya was running through the motions. Or let me put it this way, if this were the 90s then Mr. David Dhawan would be feeling little to no compulsion to make a comedy out of this premise.