Saturday, December 26, 2009

DAS WEISSE BAND (THE WHITE RIBBON): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar
Director: Michael Haneke
Runtime: 141 min.
Verdict: God I hate theory classes. Especially the ones where I am not convinced.
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Drama

If you know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it, why bother?
- Errol Morris

        Mr. Haneke is a teacher. Always been one. Self-righteousness is his currency. Mr. Haneke doesn’t so much as argue his case as much putting his foot down and raising a banner and shouting it in your face – this IS how it is, no two ways about that. He is not open for a debate. I suspect, he might not even be enthusiastic to have his point refuted. He is a teacher, I say again. That the narrator in The White Ribbon is one too, a school teacher in this case, is by no means a coincidence. Two shots betray this I-have-it-all-figured-out-buddy instinct.
        The Pastor’s two kids, Karla and Martin, have erred, and this is the day of their punishment. A set of twenty cane-whips await them. Mommy has made two white ribbons, one each for the sinful meanderers, and they shall be tied until the Pastor and his wife are sure that the kids have regained the purity and innocence, and they would stray no more. These guys are so formal the punishment is a ritual, performed a good twenty-four hours after the supposed crime has been committed. I once didn’t turn up at home after a half day, indulging in a little cricket, and my mom didn’t waste any time in reminding me the law of the land. I mean, twenty-four hours is hope. People sleep, and work, and meet new people, and the anger might subside. And if the anger still exists, and you still get the punishment, boy, your parents sure are a nasty breed.
        Which is what the Pastor is. He works and performs, not like a man, but as an institution. And I digress. I was talking about the two shots. First up, the ritual is about to begin, as mommy, with the ribbons in her hand calls out the two kids. They arrive. She accompanies them to the concerned room, and inside the Pastor stands, alongwith the other kids who perform the service of witnesses. The camera, which starts to follow the mom and the two miscreants through the hallway to the door, stops. We only know about the Pastor and the other kids because that is what has been communicated to us a day before in a scene before. The door opens, everybody goes in, the door closes, and the camera is still in the hallway. It is still. So still it almost feels contaminated by the austerity around. And since we have seen thousands of movies before, we know the camera is waiting for something to happen. You see, dear reader, if a shot lingers on, there is something that will happen. Otherwise, there would be a cut. Mr. Haneke knows that too, and since he already knows what he is saying, and the nature of his argument, he simply finds it needless to venture inside. And the script here doesn’t disappoint. Out comes the little boy, and the camera follows him, and he walks into a room, and out he comes with the cane in his hand (which I bet is sacred too), and the camera follows him back through the hallway into the punishment chamber. And this time, the shot doesn’t linger, for we hear a few despairing cries of pain. And cut.
        Shot number two. Little Rudi is out of his bed in the middle of the night and is searching for his elder sister. Mr. Haneke strategically places the camera in front of the staircase. Rudi walks down, crying out his sister’s name, and ventures to the right of the camera. The camera only turns right, but doesn’t follow young Rudi. You see, it knows where it is intended to go. Rudi then goes some other place and the camera still doesn’t waiver from its position. In our capacity as experienced movie-goers we are aware that who he is looking for, and what they are upto is something that isn’t going to pan out where Rudi stands presently. He needs to come back to the camera, and he needs to go the predetermined spot, open the predetermined room, so that the shot can cut to inside the room. And so it happens. The Doctor, i.e. Rudi’s father, and Rudi’s sister are, well, indulging in a bit of taboo. Moral codes are being broken, you see.
        So, what is Mr. Haneke professing this time around? I think I should use the teacher’s own words. You see, there’s no point in angering him. The White Ribbon, Mr. Haneke says, is about the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature. After theorizing about the nature of the mind that propagates situations like Abu Gharaib and equating them to gratuitous violence in films in Funny Games, Herr Professor ventures into the absolute root of it all. Er, beep. Beep. Wrong word. Venture it certainly is not. Mr. Haneke has built his theory on an idea, and it is this idea that is pretending to be a story on the screen. The idea is that terrorism, or fascism, or our favorite Nazism, is not something out of the ordinary but a systematic product of sexual repression and stringent moral guidelines. It is the whole society that is responsible. And blah. I think you get the picture.
        You see, dear reader, I believe it too. To put it simply, most of the world’s problems, including terrorism, would be solved or at least scaled down drastically if enough people got laid, and didn’t venture into frustration. This pent-up frustration, is more often than not, is loneliness and sexual in nature. I once again invoke Taxi Driver, that profound work of art. It is profound, and it is art, because it deals with the human nature not by resorting to broad strokes of academic and Freudian psychoanalysis, but by dwelling deep into it, and digging deeper.
        Mr. Haneke, well he is the professor, and since he is the one who knows-it-all, he constructs not characters, and since he is one of the best filmmakers we have he certainly doesn’t resort to clichés and caricatures. Instead he invokes archetypes, each representing a stratum of a society, and then presents his story as a theory. And herein lay the problem of The White Ribbon. Mr. Haneke has already pre-decided his story and pre-decided his characters. His characters do not grow, and hence the film becomes a sort of newsreel. We are never given cause and effect, or rather, we never are convinced that the effects are caused by the said events, and said practices. We just listen to an impeccably narrated and hugely involving newsreel.
        That isn’t a very convincing way of putting forth an argument, you see, because for us to be convinced, we got to feel that the effect is because of the said cause. Impossible with archetypes, although it has to be said the performances are exemplary. The script is a product of a flawed, and even a false construction. It shows the effects first, and then shows the causative surroundings second, and then reveals the whos. Now, there’s an appreciable connection to be felt between 2 and 3, but there is no connection that leads to 1. How would 2 and 3 combine to draw human nature to do 1 is never addressed by the script. It is taken in as a huge assumption within the theory. You see, The White Ribbon works fantastically as a whodunit but that is not what Mr. Haneke is gunning for. The idea had been conceived as a three-part mini-series. That might have given Mr. Haneke more time, and more space to let his characters breathe.
        Yet I understand The White Ribbon, and agree with its stance. That Mr. Haneke structures it as a whodunit is a masterstroke, and not to explicitly lay the guilt on any single party is another. Direct or indirect, the guilt is collective, and the cycle is vicious. If only the film had given us an inner glimpse of Martin and Klara. Maybe Klara. Like Elephant. Like Paranoid Park. Like Stand By Me. And shredded just a wee bit of self righteousness. Tough to ask from a Haneke film. The irony is that if there ever was a film where self righteousness was the key, this is it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

AVATAR: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Director: James Cameron
Runtime: 162 min.
Verdict: What Cameron did with CGI in The Abyss, he does with 3-D here.
Genre: Action, Adventure

        Few films have had me in such a contradictory state of mind as Mr. Cameron’s Avatar. Let it be said outright – there is no film school in the world richer in the art and technique of filmmaking than the filmography of Mr. Cameron. On a purely technical level, I believe there has only ever been one filmmaker who could rival Mr. Cameron in efficiency, and he went by the name of Stanley Kubrick. And let us leave Kubrick out of every conversation for he always is the benchmark. Now see dear reader, I might sound like the newest passenger on the Avatar-Hyperbole Express, but I have learnt more about the art of how take a shot and bring the audience right into the illusion from Mr. Cameron’s films than any other filmmaker, living or dead. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of architecture but he was an especially mediocre shot-maker. A look at Vertigo, or Strangers on a Train and we would see shots calling attention to themselves, ham-fisted usage of symbolism and wafer-thin trickery. I might invoke other directors and I might commit the next worse sin to hyperbole – indulgence.
        Rather, I shall express the reservations I have been having about cinema, and its criticism. That a game-changer as Avatar comes to the screen at about the same time is both coincidental and fortunate. So I seek the opportunity, and ask the question troubling me – Have we figured out the medium? The Academy of Film Arts and Sciences says that films are about story telling. More often than not, our criticism seems to be concerned with story telling too. But then we aren’t analyzing literature right? We speak of image composition. But then we aren’t analyzing art right? What is cinema, and what is the little unit of cinema are we concerning us with? You see, Terminator 2:Judgement Day is never referred to in the same breath as Citizen Kane, but is it in anyway a lesser film. Cinematically? When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-101 jumps onto the road and into the iconic opening chase, in a glorious moment of slow-mo, is it in anyway a lesser cinematic achievement than HAL peeping onto Dave and Frank’s conversation? I wonder if cinema is purely sensory in nature. Filmmakers and scholars, I believe, might be committing a grave error in ignoring the fact that cinema is still evolving.
        And yes, my idea of cinema is as good as yours. But I know one thing, and I know it as a fact – the only film that is purely cinema is, and will be for a considerable length of time 2001: A Space Odyssey.
        So, the word we are searching for is experience. Cinema, dear reader, is a fantasy. It is that little illogical world running inside our brains. Pinning it down based on its politics might be a case of setting up wrong priorities. I have always believed Schindler’s List is an adolescent’s view of the world, but isn’t that view put up pretty effectively? And I might be indulging again. So I only make one observation and ask of you to ponder over it, and that is by juxtaposing two sequences – (a) Opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil and (b) The Copacabana tracking shot of Goodfellas. I believe (a) is a horribly calculated shot, inserted at the wrong time, for a shot as attention-calling as a tracking shot should never be an opening scene. The viewer feels nothing save a sense of academic appreciation of it. But in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese uses it so brilliantly that the viewer doesn’t see the shot but instead feels the world opening before the eyes of Henry Hill. Ask yourself, where does the brilliance lie?
        And while you are at it, ask yourself – if a movie, say The Sixth Sense or Memento is enjoyed the same on a television or a laptop or the big screen, where is the cinema in it? Cinema is supposed to be grand, is it not? You see reader; Kubrick made a variety of films but always know that grandness was always a hallmark of his mise-en-scene. His sets were always grand. Michael Mann. Sergio Leone. Martin Scorsese. Andrei Tarkovsky. Have these guys, consciously or sub-consciously figured out cinema?
        And so I come back to Avatar, and the contradictions that have eaten me. And Mr. Cameron, the grandest of all filmmakers alive. Here is a story that is quite beaten. Right from the days of Pocahontas to Dances with the Wolves. Mr. Cameron lends that tale a rather uncomplicated and popularly accepted political belief to the imperial nature of mankind, and the humanity that contradicts it. He has always been a believer, and here, in Avatar he might be suggesting the need for evolution. Mankind’s evolution that is. And evolution through doppelgangers. It is quite fascinating how the story plays, where Jake Sully (Mr. Worthington), a US Marine, and hence a bonehead, is thrust into a scientific mission only because his significantly more cerebral brother is dead. Humans, in 2154, haven’t developed a fix for broken spine, but have managed to invent an elaborate scientific mechanism on Planet Pandora where the local tribe, called Na’vi, have been genetically replicated and combined with human genome, and an Avatar is created. An Avatar of the concerned person’s genome, into whom the brain’s neurological bullshit is transferred via wires or something. Result the person is sleeping in a little scientific coffin while the Avatar, is out there. The Avatar is just a proxy physical representation of the person in the coffin, because the atmospheric pressure isn’t exactly suited to human beings.
        So why are human beings on this planet? Because earth is exhausted and there is an element here that could provide for as the replacement – Unobtanium. Any other doubts that Mr. Cameron never guns for subtext should be thoroughly vaporized now. You see, human beings are a naughty lot, and the unsophisticated liberal intellect amongst us would always want to believe it. Mr. Cameron has always been one, and will always be one. So he goes about his beliefs, and wonders about the prospect of our evolution. In biblical terms, going back to Eden, and returning back to the innocence and love of it all. You see, the divine intervention of destiny is what reminds humans of their true nature, is what Mr. Cameron’s belief is. All his life. I know, that is simplistic, but then simplistic is what has delivered the goods for the filmmaker. And he always uses paper supporting characters to get his deal done. To talk of paper supporting characters in his movies is quite an unoriginal and a rather needless piece of observation, lest one hasn’t seen any one of them, for he thrives on such characters. Be it Bruce Ismay from Titanic, or Dr. Silberman from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or the army pack from Aliens.
        Why needless, one might ask? Needless because, he is not Shakespeare or Picasso or Mozart. He is James Cameron. He isn’t promising you a great story; he is promising you a great movie. And movies for him are all about experiences. So it is quite a simple story actually and quite serious about its stance. If we draw parallels from our present world, and map them to his films, we would come to conclusions that wouldn’t exactly benefit the analysis of his films in any significant way, and wouldn’t offer us any new insight that we didn’t already know since The Terminator and Aliens. You see those obligatory characters we see in most Hollywood films these days? It was guys like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg who invented that obligatory character and attached a stereotype to him. Mr. Cameron, what he does is wrap his films in a layer of seriousness and good acting so that the stereotypes aren’t so obvious. Modern filmmakers have realized, and have grown campy, and they try to hide their ineptness of movie-making behind a cloud of we-are-having-fun-with-it.
        You see, you can always have fun, but the mark of a genius filmmaker is how often he can create a world and surround us with it, and create fun and fantasy for us. And what is to be learnt from Mr. Cameron is the art of filmmaking, and the almost unsurpassable and often intense fluidity he brings to his narration. Of course he amps down on the intense part according to the needs of his films. Save The Abyss, there has not been one film of his that lags at any moment. You are always in there, time flying by fast, and when the end nears, you would want more. Terminator 2: The Judgment Day is 137 min, True Lies 141 min, Aliens 137 min, and Titanic a mere 194 min. It is a wonder how fluidly Mr. Cameron constructs his movie where every scene so organically moves to the next. There are little by way of short scenes. And they aren’t long either, because for all his technology, Mr. Cameron is a genre filmmaker with the action-thriller his currency. If anyone comes up to me and calls Aliens sci-fi, I’ll bore them to death with a four-hour long discourse on why the present state of the genre is so pathetic. It is a horror film, plain and simple. So are all his movies, even Titanic, a romantic action film. More importantly, Mr. Cameron rarely believes in showcasing his spectacle by means of long objective shots in his action scenes. He always, always thrives on medium shots, shots placed at the absolutely perfect distance for us to be within the action, and also enjoy the view. That is how he frames his films, and that is why his films are always so involving.
        So, to cut an already long story from being longer, that is what makes Avatar the achievement it is. Not the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, because in itself, Avatar I believe is nothing. There is no imagination that Mr. Cameron has conjured up. While the film was happening that special tree that Neytiri (Ms. Saldana), I forgot the name, reminded me of something. Then Stephanie Zacharek helped me here , and I knew instantly that it was one of those fiber optic lamps that goes round and round and is available in any gift shop. With the Na’vi, Mr. Cameron has gone safer, rather than courageous, and he has developed an alien population that looks quite similar to us. Of course, Darwinians amongst us would say if it worked with us, it makes sense it worked for them too. I cannot argue with that. And I think it is smart, blockbuster masterstroke from the great filmmaker. He replaces the eye, the most problematic part of any motion capture event, and replaces them with little golden eyes. Since the eyes are not human, any application of a two-but emotion is registered on us, for we perceive it as something completely new. The mountains, floating or not, aren’t exactly out of the world, so to speak. Neither are the dragons, or the dogs, or the luminescent flowers, which I am sure Mr. Cameron borrowed from his numerous wanderings into the ocean. The tribes fight with bows and arrows, and the arrows now being spears courtesy the added physical bulk.
        And on top of it, the filmmaker commits curious errors so alien to him. For instance, there is this huge tree, and he doesn’t even establish it well in advance. If we dwell on it any further, the geography of the Pandora world isn’t established as clearly as it should have been. We don’t really invest ourselves in the tree before the humans attack it, and we only see a spectacle. Of course, we feel, because Mr. Cameron has made us spend significant time with the Na’vi tribe, to whom the tree is so dear, and so when we see the wonderfully conceived reaction shots, we are moved.
        And as I write this, in comes a text message from a friend re-watching the film in 2-D saying it isn’t for 2-D. And I say him I always knew that. You see reader, in there in the film, I was exhilarated. I drove my way back to home, a good 20-km drive, and I felt empty. Not overwhelmed. What does that say, I asked myself. The answer I now know is that Avatar is not a film in itself. Not a film as we know films. The friend replies back, as I said to him earlier, that the action is too close. I agree, the action might be too close for 2-D, but is nothing short of magnificent in 3-D. I don’t think Avatar is even meant for 2-D. I think a film made for 2-D can be put as 3-D but not the vice-versa. I cannot say why, because I would have to watch a lot more movies, and come up with a credible enough theory. I shall, I promise dear reader, for now I feel the need to jump away from the 3-D skeptic team. What I suspect though is that Mr. Cameron, as he discovered the means to CGI in The Abyss, only to perfect its usage in Terminator 2, has done the same with Avatar. We should wait for his next film, which I’m sure will just change the map.
        Back to the 3-D. 3-D is not about spear treatment. As I predicted in my review of A Christmas Carol, 3-D is a better way to achieve deep focus, and pull us right into the image. And that is what Cameron does, and I didn’t know the results would be this spectacular. Suddenly I find myself a believer, for films are illusions, and 3-D it seems, is better equipped to create the illusion. I say 3-D and I mean Mr. Cameron’s usage of 3-D as a narrative (cinematic) device. The other filmmakers are still playing with a fireball. Mr. Cameron, it seems, has achieved what was impossible, and demonstrated through Avatar that 3-D was indeed the game changer. He shows it how. Now I ask, is 3-D the future of films? Was cinema always meant to be 3-D? I ask because I have been reimagining every movie I have wanted to lose myself in, from The Good the Bad The Ugly to Lawrence of Arabia to Terminator 2: Judgment Day to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Dark Knight to Rachel Getting Married to The Good The Bad The Weird to Zodiac to The General to Raging Bull to The Fall, in 3-D. Of course Avatar isn’t perfect. There are times when things start floating in the foreground and you lose it. But we feel the people and characters even more, we feel the moments more. 3-D conceals severe problems of filmmaking and plot. Sully rides a dragon and it is an experience like nothing before, although several folks in several fantasy adventures have flown beasts and machines. A little tree or a little tear feels all the more, well, real.
        The thing is, Avatar is not the future of filmmaking, but I think it heralds that future. In terms of the experience, this is what cinema ought to be. Avatar doesn’t have content, and we ought not to look at the content. What we ought to instead consider is what Mr. Cameron has done with the meager and dubious content (White man amongst blue populace->Blue->Black->White man’s guilt->The Heart of Darkness). He doesn’t bring the film to us; he rather pulls us into it. We feel it all even more. A corny little moment as a bright little thing settling on Sully’s Avatar is heartfelt here. I almost cried, dear reader. If we choose to look at it in my skewed way, Avatar rightly doesn’t create or imagine anything new. It takes the generics of our films and film-world and shows them in a new, what do we say, avatar. How beautiful it all could be? Think of the opening credit sequence of Raging Bull with La Motta practicing is slow-mo, and imagine you being there. Or you being there with T.L. Lawrence in the desert. Avatar is a game changer. And I don’t think there is more befitting image to end the film with than Sully’s eyes opening. I think this is the step for a new evolved future. And it includes the opening of another dimension for us.
        Mr. Cameron, now that you have it, show us now what you can really do with the technology.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

BRONSON: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Tom Hardy
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Runtime: 92 min.
Verdict: It is remarkable how you learn nothing yet feel everything about Charles f***in Bronson.
Genre: Drama

        Michael Petersen (Mr. Hardy), after earning the moniker “Her Majesty’s Most Expensive Prisoner”, is out on parole, and is making a career out in a rather animalistic version of bare-knuckled boxing. He falls in love with a woman, and proposes to her. She says she already loves Bryan. Bryan who, you might ask. So does Michael. Bryan, her boyfriend. Michael storms into a jewellery store, and after knocking the store owner down steals an engagement ring. There is a good lady in the store too and he warns her not to call the cops for fifteen minutes. He walks over to his woman, and offers her the ring, and she wears it, and she says – Bryan and me are getting married. A raging Michael congratulates her. When you arrive at that moment in the film, you will know why I use the word raging. You would feel sorry too, for Michael. I mean, you would feel sorry for anybody, even Anton Chigurh. Being rejected in love, you see, is universal.
        A few moments thereafter in the film, we learn that Charles Bronson (Mr. Hardy), Michael self-declared alter-ego, who has been arrested for the jewellery store theft, and who has served a significant time for the crime, has shown a rather curious sense of art and has impressed his art teacher. The teacher is brimming with pride, a pride a critic or a coach feels when he has discovered a revolutionary talent. He remarks that it is just a matter of time before the authorities discuss his release. Petersen a.k.a Bronson is fuming. When you see the film, you will know why? Er, I might be wrong here. You wouldn’t know why, but you would come to expect that from him. Expect a bend for absolute destruction and hate. He takes his art teacher hostage, and paints his face, and stuffs his mouth with an apple and laughs. You feel the dread. I tell you, the dread is all around. You fear that he might punch the innocent art teacher and hurt him for no reason. You fear this man, this mad man. You feel rotten. You even pity him. This man, which only a few moments before you were sympathetic about. You not just fear him, you even hate him. I think that is an achievement for a film.
        I say achievement because till that moment in the film, you have spent the entire running time with Bronson. You have seen him steal, you have seen him smack folks, you have seen him fume in rage, you have seen him almost kill a pedophile, you have seen him fall in love, you have seen him with his mother, you have seen him cry, you have seen him laugh. You have seen him high and seen him low. You have seen him in tender moments. You have spent time, and time is something, dear reader, that sides you along even the most hardened of protagonists. Even Daniel Plainview I think. But not Bronson. He is unapologetic. The film is unapologetic. What could he/it be apologetic about if he/it isn’t aware what he/it needs to apologize for? At the end of it you’re no way nearer to Bronson, neither emotionally nor psychologically. You have gained no insight. Charles Bronson, you learn, is a freakish wonder of nature that merely exists. Cinema, and even literature, by their very nature (owing to the time) tend to take you inside a character and hence end up being, for lack of a better term, explanative. Not Bronson. Hence an achievement.
        The movie is visceral I tell you. A punch is a punch, and when it lands you wince. I shall not describe to you the mise-en-scene but I would surely tell you what it is supposed to feel like. Delusional might be the word we’re looking for. Comparisons to A Clockwork Orange are obvious, and in its broad framework you would note the influence. But Kubrick was making a remark on the society; there society was the greater villain. Mr. Refn here is suggesting the absolute opposite. There is no reason for the existence of Charles Bronson save the simple reason that god might have created him in a rather bad mood. The world is a stage, for Bronson, and the only desire he has is of fame. Fame how, he doesn’t know. What is his calling? Not acting. Not singing. It is violence. Pure barbaric violence. To what end? I don’t think even the real life Charles Bronson knows. The film wisely doesn’t pretend to be Hannibal Lecter in that regard. Oh, when I invoke Lecter I don’t suggest his eating habits, but rather his supreme gifts to psychoanalyze a character and understand what makes him tick.
        Bronson is a terrifically made movie. It has an idea, and it is clear about it, and it goes about charting it out with precision. And at its center is one of the great performances of the year. With that rumble in his voice, Mr. Hardy courageously walks into the territory of insanity. It is a performance of brutal intensity and skill. Mr. Hardy, I learn, met the real Charles Bronson for his preparation for the role. I assume he didn’t get any insight. He rather might have been wonderstruck. And clueless. How could a man be so remorseless? It is considerably easier to lose yourself in a character that has closure or a hint of humanity at the end of the tunnel. A Jake La Motta. A Trevor Reznick. A Daniel Plainview. A Joker. But to push yourself to the brink and be Charles Bronson, you really got to be considerably more than brave. Mr. Hardy is that, and what he achieves here is something so outlandishly special. It is looney, of course, and it is special. That loony is the bit why it is scary, I guess.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 96 min.
Verdict: This is the best 3-D can get, and I say it doesn’t work.
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy

        3-D doesn’t work. Doesn’t work at all. It cannot work. Reader, the screen boundaries have always been a window into an alternate world. When we speak of depth perception, it is implicit that all the action is happening inside the frame, both two-dimensionally and three-dimensionally. As long as the window is small enough to fit within the purview of our gaze, our perception simply cannot be impressed by an illusion that pops out. It is called depth for a reason. Whatever happens, the boundaries of the window need to be respected. Ask yourself, dear reader, when you watch a movie, are you going inside the film, or are you letting the film come to you? Isn’t watching a film akin going near to the window? I believe so, and 3-D and its exponents do not seem to respect that fundamental of movie-viewing at all. Mr. Zemeckis, though, seems to know this better than most. That doesn’t mean he is not guilty of throwing the occasional spear into us. Still, his 3-D tends towards my idea of how it ought to be used. That is, as an alternate way to achieve deep focus. Maybe, even a better way, for 3-D is better equipped to make us feel the effect of depth. But when things start popping out, or their out-of-focus images float in the foreground, it pulls us right out of the illusion. I don’t think there is a way around.
        As a film, I don’t think there is much to say about A Christmas Carol apart from that it is occasionally warm, occasionally funny, consistently involving and thoroughly predictable (No, I wasn’t aware of the Dickens story.) Of course, I assume that you are aware of the tale of the stingy Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him one Christmas eve. What is interesting is the imagery Mr. Zemeckis conjures up, and how thoroughly brilliant they are, even for 3-D. Scrooge is a wonder of animation detail. His crooked fingers, his crooked nose, the gaunt figure are somewhat of a masterpiece. Mr. Carrey’s voiceover is just about fantastic, capturing a character who is as close to an animated version of Daniel Plainview as this little cheerful Christmas tale would allow. The shadowy Ghost of the Christmas yet to come is a brilliant example of expressionistic nightmare. One is reminded of Nosferatu. I believe children will be scared. The movie is what it is supposed to be, scary when needed, and heartwarming when the time comes. Much discussion has been made of the eyes, something I have been listening to since The Polar Express. Yes, there is scope for improvement, but matters aren’t really that bad, considering most of the emotions and expressions are conveyed. It is the only the stock expression that creates a problem, because when the characters have nothing to show, or nothing to say, they really look blank. But I guess, Mr. Zemeckis is working around the problem, and is getting better at performance capture with each passing film.
        I am not sure I represent the target audience for this film, or this tale. It is too simplistic. I might be only interested in its formal details. But one thing it isn’t is being too Christmassy, or too cheerful, or too saccharine. I can imagine myself as a kid watching it, and I think the film might have made a very strong impression on me. The dark horse chasing Scrooge through the streets is not for one moment funny, like one of them chases we so often come across in animated fare. It is, in fact, serious and often scary. In the relentlessness of it, I felt a certain claustrophobia sneak in. The images are courageous, daring to paint something that would make the parents a tad worried. But one thing I know. If I was a kid, and I was watching this film, I would swear to all my Gods I would never ever betray the spirit of Christmas, or goodness.
        And hey, one more thing. I suffered a severe headache. Cause: 3-D. As an audience, I don’t deserve that.

Friday, November 20, 2009

KURBAAN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Om Puri
Director: Rensil D’Silva
Runtime: 180 min.
Verdict: Trash. Absolute wannabe trash. Hateful despicable trash. This film is overflowing with a sense of inferiority complex, and a pretentious political-intellectual stance.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Romance

        Mr. Johar, I think, isn’t too happy with his existence. Nor is, I suppose, the filmmaker. These men wish they were in some other world, or in some other country. These people wish they were different people with different issues than us. That is why, I believe, they make film that deals with Iraq and Afghanistan. “Deals” is a wrong word. These folks rather display their supposed intellect and political know-how. You see, reading NYTimes, and Washington Post, and watching BBC, and having an opinion on US and Iraq, and Israel and Palestine is very much the in-thing. You see, everyone of us mediocre Indian citizens has an opinion on the Naxalites or blasts or all that related mediocrity, and when one of us makes Aamir, it is hardly pressing. Not them, for they are beyond and above us, dealing only in the real matters. The global stuff. I can imagine these people over coffee tables, in their precious accents, trying to impress the hell out of each other with their just-read excerpts from the morning online edition of NYTimes. Sorry again, not “just-read” but “just-grazed”. Stereotypes have truth to them, you see. After all, these folks hardly have an individual opinion apart from the borrowed one. They are just trying to be global intellects. You know, liberals. And you know, I hate that. I really do. It sometimes wants me to do bad things. Real bad things. Terrible things.
        But, never mind. Kurbaan is a terribly made movie. It is boring. Doesn’t take you ten minutes to figure out you are in one long uncomfortable journey. The opening scene does the trick, and presents you the choice of walking away or staying. The interaction is artificial. And ridiculous. The cheerful romantic tone is jarring, especially after a Se7en-inspired grim credits sequence. You see, there are smart ways of being a wannabe, where you don’t betray yourself through your ridiculous formal choices. Mr. D’Silva doesn’t know any of them. He instead chooses to ask the female character call the male character a swine. A swine? Really? Haven’t heard one of those in a while. Not since young college girls in stupid 90’s romantic actions obligatorily referenced our young dude. Of course they were wannabe times too. But those were stereotypical college girls, with big sunglasses, and you understood. The female in question here is a professor of literature. Still, you choose to stay, for you represent the stupid mediocrity and you are hopelessly hopeful. Twenty minutes of such absolute nonsense fly by, where the lead pair sings a song, and have obligatory erotic scenes (which qualify neither under erotic nor scenes). I have found more spontaneity and more warmth in little porn clips on the internet. They fly to New York, and grace us with obligatory New York festivities. You know how people in New York spend their vacations? By walking on Zebra crossings with ultra-wide smiles. I tried it a few times here, but couldn’t feel a thing. People must be different out there. You see, they paint their faces and make Statues of Liberties out of themselves and dance around on the streets. Life in New York must be fun. That is why our lead pair buys a house in an Indian neighborhood. You are hoping the film might metamorphose into something ridiculously sinister. There is a real terrible movie playing in your head. The trouble is, it is way more fun than what is on screen.
        You stay behind nevertheless. God is disappointed. I mean, the writing is on the wall. You haven’t felt a thing yet. Even Mr. Khan’s man-boobs underwhelm you. His over make-up and overdone hairstyle annoy you. You see, three other Khans have already graced us with theirs. You are hoping against hope, that the movie, in a fit of wannabe-ism, shrugs away everything and displays Ms. Kapoor in all her glory. Doesn’t happen my friend. Anyways, with all the talk of size-zero and stuff, it might be a case of shutting your mouth and let people wonder than to open it and dispel all their doubts. Ms. Kapoor just turns her back on us. And still you choose to stay. You know the movie is trying to cash-in on the actors’ personal lives, and marketing them, like one of those Airtel advertisements. And you let yourself get caught in that. How dumb are you? How desperate could you be? Get a room and watch porn man.
        The next warning comes. In the form of Ms. Kiron Kher, as some Afghanistani woman. You should hear her accent. Neither Mr. Danny Denzongappa (Khuda Gawah) nor Mr. Rajesh Khanna (don’t remember the film) hammed up the khabiz-ka-baccha accent this bad. Useful advice: you see Ms. Kher in a film, you run. You don’t ask, you just run. Run like the wind blows. She is easily the worst thing to happen to Indian cinema, sorry world cinema in more than a decade.
        Still you choose to stay. You deserve it, you dumb schmuck (put on your rhyming cap).
        There is rhetorical liberal politics too. Afghanistan is getting screwed. Iraq is getting screwed. Innocent civilians are being killed. You know, all that stuff. You get that here. Actors actually speak it out. That brings your attention to the writing. You wonder about the script. There is a car-action scene where a supporting actor behaves really weird. I mean, even for a dumb retard, he is weird. The cops stop a car carrying our terrorists, and this dumb schmuck (keep the cap on, I feel real angry man), for no particular reason, starts boiling with rage. You wonder what the script must have read like. What was the filmmaker trying to write? Let me imagine. For that let me name the schmuck “X” because I don’t really remember anybody’s name in here. And in case if I wasn’t clear, it is a film, if you should choose to see, you should forget in haste. Otherwise you might be motivated to join Tyler Durden’s outfit.

EXT. CAR CHECKPOINT (2100)
SUV stopped at checkpoint. Cops check the SUV. They check behind.
X is raging in anger. Y says –
Calm down man. What’s the problem? Stay cool.
X is boiling.
The cops ask them to step out.
X is evaporating.
He shoots.


        Funny scene, don’t you think? Nah, in there it was inexplicable. But still you stay. Mr. Oberoi enters the frame, and you still stay. The writing is so bad you are sure it wasn’t even written. The performances are awful. Mr. Khan is trying his level best to rein in that brilliant nonchalance of Ek Hasina Thi, but the film is forcing him to act in that binary mode Mr. Bobby Deol does so well. The motivations are non-existent. A reporter wants to take revenge over the loss of his girlfriend, and so decides to blow up the terrorist outfit on his own without informing the FBI, and joins them, and then uncovers the plan, and then informs the FBI, and I had no idea where it was all going. To the bottom of the garbage I suppose, where worms would eat the script and you wish you never ever bought the ticket and wasted your night. Life seems to go in reverse. You think about what could have been. This is such a film. I think you should run. I did. Run away.

Friday, November 13, 2009

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Director: Oren Peli
Runtime: 86 min.
Verdict: A rather instructive exercise in the infinite pleasures of economy. And yes, a still camera is unnerving.
Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Horror

        At this writing, the film has reportedly crossed the $100 million mark. Made in 2007, at a budget of $15,000, this is a fairytale alright. One might even claim Paranormal Activity is inspired by The Blair Witch Project. I would say, it emulates that success story all over again, for a new decade, and a new audience. For horror, more so than the thriller, is inarguably the most accessible of all genres. If 2012 were to really destroy our way of life, and future generations were to re-discover this medium, they would tend towards horror. It is the most natural of all genres, and one that shall never experience a lack of interest from the audiences.
        More so, a film like this, or The Blair Witch Project. Movies that create the illusion not of the magnificence or scope of celluloid, but the immediacy of reality. And that is what interests me no end. I mean, this is a home video. Watching a home video is a personal experience. How would you prefer watching a beloved’s marriage video – sitting on a couch with your family and sharing tidbits and laughs and what not, or sitting amidst hundreds of strangers with the footage splashed over the big screen? Come to think of it, how would you prefer to watch your porn? I mean, if given the choice between a shady theater and the warmth of your bedroom, I think the bedroom makes better sense. No, not because it allows you to react, but because it allows you to get involved and enjoy all the more. Alone, that piece of video is for you, only for you, not to be shared. I haven’t watched Rachel Getting Married on the big screen, and I don’t want to. You see, so much of the movie exists within me. I don’t know, maybe all the movies could be personal, or shared. Maybe both ways provide for a different experience. But I fail to understand – How a movie like Paranormal Activity, which is in essence a home video, and which depends upon the illusion that you feel what is happening inside is not just a movie wherein you can enjoy the action munching popcorn but an intense experience that has really happened in some corner of the map, can work on the big screen? It simply should not. But it does. You got $100 million to prove it. You know, is it the marketing or the story itself, I don’t know. I simply am not convinced.
        Never mind. Reader, here I declare that the rest of the review shall contain possible spoilers and I would advise you watch the movie first, and return later. I think watching this film needs you having no idea what to expect.
        Now, when I say Paranormal Activity only emulates the success of The Blair Witch Project, I claim thus based on the extremely interesting example of image composition at hand. In this age of fast cuts, and an active camera, the film represents a revolution. A camera has always been about what the filmmaker wants us to see. He arranges objects, choreographs movements and composes them with his camera so that he can take control of our eyeline and lead our eye from one part to another. This control is often manipulated for misdirection, and when done brilliantly, it surprises us, just like the best of the scary films. Of course, the genre has gone so banal that we come to anticipate every movement, and even predict what the camera is misleading us into, and to what end.
        Not in Paranormal Activity, where the nighttime bedroom sequences with a little timer on the right hand corner have to be one of the most accomplished pieces of image design in recent cinematic history. They are interspersed throughout the film, like say an action sequence in a Bond film, and they are the nigh points. Everything else is directed towards those few moments, wherein tensions heighten and there is an almost claustrophobic influx of fear. A little fade out is the red herring that one of those night sequences is next up, and all you see is an absolute still frame watching the action. I attach the image above for your reference. The camera is always there, right there, during those sequences. No obvious zooms, no formal establishing shots, the scene not following any specific architecture of shot-cycle, no obvious edits. All it does is place its camera at this strategic location in the room, where a young couple – Micah and Katie – find themselves haunted. The image is right there for you to scrutinize completely. It isn’t shying away; it is just sitting there, and making you feel helpless. The complete frame is up for grabs, and you have little to no idea where the action is going to come from, and what the nature of it would be. You would obviously look at the door, and the film shall play on those instincts too. And I shall divulge no further.
        These scenes, by their very design, are relying on absolute freedom to the viewer to imagine the worst. You see reader, the unknown and the unseen is always more fearful than what can be seen. The film follows that belief. The action is almost entirely within the confines of the household, and that in a way cuts you off from the world. It is a principle of filmmaking, or storytelling. You establish it firmly within the context of a world, and you go about creating the world in the background, and narrating the story in the foreground. And although the two actors – Ms. Featherson and Mr. Sloat – are miles away from convincing, they feel believable. You watch only them, continuously, and you get used to them. Audience behavior reader, it is a simple matter of audience behavior. Your mind adjusts. And the film there, starts to play like The Shining. You feel caged in with these people. You don’t exactly mind it, but I believe I was annoyed by both of them at various points of time. Is the film hinting at cabin fever? I don’t know. Much of the film, apart from the bedroom scenes, is by itself harmless, and contains quite ordinary pieces of footage. But as it starts acquiring context, everything inside begins to feel menacing. I think that calls for a greater study on the audience’s reactions. It would be greatly instructive. And yes, I shall share the film on the big screen, and see how it pans out.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

THE INFORMANT: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 108 min.
Verdict: A Soderbergh special. A Damon special. I think it might be a great film.
Genre: Comedy, Drama

        I walk out of the theatre to the parking not knowing whether to laugh, or to cry. You see, I lie. All the time. It is an instinct. Even when I tell the truth, I’m suspicious of myself. That I might be convenient about the truth. I think we all lie. More than to others, we lie to ourselves. Nothing bad I suppose. Often we don’t even know we are lying. How well do we really know ourselves? I don’t know. I’m often afraid of myself, and what I might say and what I might do in a given situation. I practice so hard to do the right thing, mock situations in my mind, so that when the time comes, my habit overwrites my instinct. What is that instinct by the way? What is that thing I’m practicing? Is my instinct to lie a lie, or is my instinct to do the right thing a convenient truth? I don’t know, it is all pretty mixed up in there. I think we all are different people at different times. Or are we the same person acting differently? I really don’t know. I really don’t know if I shall ever find the answers.
        And neither does Mr. Soderbergh. Nor the great performance from Mr. Damon, arguably this year’s finest turn by any actor. Yes, that includes the genius of Mr. Waltz. I claim without a shred of doubt hat there is no other actor who could’ve played the part. Oh, I might be wrong. Maybe the brilliant William H. Macy. There is something in their speech patterns, of Mr. Macy and Mr. Damon. There is something in their eyes. I know not for sure, but the characters they etch with such layers of contradictions, that I never seem to be sure of their morality. Eyes are the windows. Most actors have a fixed pair of eyes. I know the range of a George Clooney. I know the range of an Irfaan Khan. I know the range of a Benicio Del Toro. I can read their eyes. Not Mr. Damon. Not Mr. Macy. These two seem to be something else. I suspect, for various reasons, these two might be two of the greatest actors working today. Or okay, if not that, arguably the two most fluent actors of our generation. They aren’t intense. You see, intensity is something that calls attention to itself. These two actors seem to be a chunk of our everyday lives. They just exist, piling contradiction upon contradiction.
        Roger Ebert, once again, provides a superb bit of articulation of the greatness of Mr. Damon, which might easily be extended to Mr. Macy as well. He says, ending his appreciative review here
              "Mark Whitacre, released a little early after FBI agents called him “an American hero,” is now an executive in a high-tech start-up in California and still married to Ginger. Looking back on his adventure, he recently told his hometown paper, the Decatur Herald and Review, “It's like I was two people. I assume that's why they chose Matt Damon for the movie, because he plays those roles that have such psychological intensity. In the ‘Bourne' movies, he doesn't even know who he is.”
I guess Mr. Ebert chooses to include such wonderful bits is the reason why we read him so often.

        The Informant! is about the real life corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre. The organization in question was ADM. The crime in question is price-fixing. One might be reminded of such recent films as The Insider, A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich. One might even be expecting such a tale. Since it comes from the lens of Mr. Soderbergh, it even seems to boast of the same grainy texture, and the same color palette as Erin Brockovich. Whitacre, agreed to be an insider for the FBI to bring down ADM and its price-fixing scam. But that is just half the story.
        Mr. Soderbergh, one of Hollywood’s true liberals, is looking deeper. He is looking at the simplified nature of those true stories – of Jeffrey Wigand, of Brockovich – and asking himself – Is it just that the corporate, the system that is bad all the time? I applaud that, I applaud that line of questioning, that line of introspection. One might even claim that The Informant! is a noirish tale. I would have to agree, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is cynical in any way. Because it isn’t. It is true. Much of the politics of cinema so conveniently assumes the innocence of the citizen, and the absolute oppression of the system. Even literature. Mr. Soderbergh is hoping to venture beyond that, and shed some light on a completely new facet of the equation. And interestingly every scene is lit, and every scene has an abundance of the light source. I think he is drilling his way onto the real reason behind it all. Till now, it has always been Us versus Them. But really, how different are Us from Them? Doesn’t what drive Them drive Us too? Ever heard of greed?
        He goes about unraveling his point the funny way. And boy, what a hilarious film The Informant! is. The credit goes to the superlative writing, a near masterpiece of narrative clarity and density. Not since There Will Be Blood and Zodiac has there been a script so concise, and yet so vast. It also goes to the great performance from Mr. Damon, and his enthusiastic voice-over. He is speaking to a lawyer and he is wondering about the tie. How often don’t we do that, how often don’t we find ourselves within the control of our meandering mind? Whitacre is not Jeffery Wigand, burdened by the fear of personal losses. He is smarter, way smarter, and he is sharper. And the thing is, he knows he is smarter. He likes being smarter. He has the innocence of a little child. I think there is a competition within him. He asks the FBI to code him 0014. You know why. Yeah, double as smart as you know who. I think he likes being in a situation. So does the film, in an ironical way, and it scores him with such an upbeat score of guitars and pianos, as he marches onto glory. In his own eyes, I think. I believe the trick to Mr. Damon’s greatness is that he doesn’t create so much as an arc for his character, as much as he plays it moment for moment, believing in each one of them wholeheartedly. Method actors put their methods to the whole character. Damon, I guess, believes wholeheartedly in the moment.
        But there is a revelation at the end, which felt like a betrayal. I don’t hold the film responsible, for they were merely serving us the facts. I felt betrayed by life, I guess, for I don’t feel Mark Whitacre’s medical condition had anything to do with it. The judge at the end claims that Whitacre is different from the usual thug. I don’t think so. He is the usual thug. On the emotional level behind his crime, he is no different than us. He has the most loving and understanding wife one could ever hope to have. He has a loving set of parents. But still, portraying oneself has a hero standing against the tides of life is everybody’s notion of oneself. Even if the tides never existed.

Note Added (11-Nov-2009): I think I might have finally understood the precise belief that drove a guy like Whitacre - that he was too good for most places, and most people.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

AJAB PREM KI GHAZAB KAHANI: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Darshan Jariwala, Smita Jaykar, Zakir Hussain
Director: Raj Kumar Santoshi
Runtime: 150 min.
Verdict: A rather amusing and largely charming cinematic comic from the house of Raj that doesn’t quite earn its title
Genre: Romance, Comedy

        I should admit. Of my preconceived notions about Mr. Kapoor, who I so conveniently and ignorantly assumed was no more than an annoying face. With ever watching only a single film of his. And who I declare now a stupendous actor. There is stuff he does inside this film which I imagine only Mr. Shah Rukh Khan pulling off. Or Mr. Amitabh Bachchan. Or his dad. This is a fine young talent who has the rare gift of making the absurd work. With great charm too I might add. And absurd is what he has to dish out in spades. And boy what a joy he is. I had mistaken those perennially raised eyebrows as the over exuberance of a silly kid. Exuberance it is, but over the mark it never is, just like it never is with Ms. Amy Adams. And silly he certainly is not. I wonder what a treat Mr. Kapoor would have been in one of them black and white silent comedies of Buster Keaton.
        And I wonder about Ms. Kaif, a walking and talking showpiece. You get down to the processing room, you pick up every frame she is in, you remove her from them, and you insert any random object. Any. A mannequin. A poster. Of anyone, even Ms. Kaif. A bush. Even thin air. I daresay the results would be positive. It has to be. You see, Ms. Kaif gives this false hope, whenever it is you look in her general direction, that there is a real flesh and blood person standing there in her slot, only to dash them. Anything else wouldn’t do that. I don’t know dear reader, but how much does hollow beauty work for you. Please note that I haven’t used dumb. Dumb equals to something. Hollow tends towards nothing. And hollow doesn’t work for me zilch. You see, I don’t mind a bad actor. A bad actor, I can at least enjoy a chuckle at his incompetence. With Ms. Kaif, I don’t even know where to start. Ah, she isn’t that beautiful anyway. We human beings, by our very nature, cannot stare at an attractive couch for too long. But if you can, God bless you. You shall enjoy this film even more than I ever shall.
        The film. Mr. Santoshi had a notion of making something two-dimensional like one of those Bankeylal comics we would read when we were kids. Reader, two-dimensional not as a limitation, but as an intention. Every emotion, every narrative strand, and every character right there on the surface. There is supposed to be no narrative build-up. Tones are supposed to change at the drop of a hat. Often literally. In my years as a film viewer, I’ve learned that such kind of a narration is the most difficult one to convey. You see, it is all about feeling a particular scene. How well does a scene work? How much have the preceding scenes amused you? You need to in love with the characters for this to work. You need to believe in the place for this to work. There needs to be certain innocence for such filmmaking to work. The good-old 70s entertainer would pull it off with élan. Remember Hera Pheri, where a comic scene (Mr. Bachchan gambling out Asrani) runs into a mystery (Mr. Bachchan running after the man).
        Mr. Santoshi, for the most part, makes it work. Hell, he makes it work all the way. Right down to the climactic fight, which is amusing and often hilarious. Mr. Kapoor makes it work. That fantastic actor, Mr. Hussain (Johnny Gaddar, Sarkar) makes it work. These guys have the chops to pull of the screwball. And, intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Santoshi starts with them. The opening frames, and little balloons immediately put you into the land of comics. A bandit (Mr. Hussain), dressed in black and white stripes, is robbing a bank. And he encounters the goofy Prem (Mr. Kapoor) sliding downhill on a brake-less bicycle. The town is no place familiar. It has no reason to be either, for it exists solely as fantasy. And Mr. Santoshi is wise. He doesn’t oversell it like Mr. Bhansali did it so foolishly in Saawariya. He does it, economically, through small moments, and always pays attention to keep it firmly etched in the background. And it stays there, in our minds too, that place, magically cutting us off from the reality of the rest of the world.
        But no, the film doesn’t quite earn its title. It is not your next great love story. It is clichéd and stupid, and I didn’t mind that at all. It is about this nice young chap, and the nice young people around. Except for a politician and his son, and some stupid parents pulled right out of one of those fairy tales, everyone else is good. Even the baddie is good. I loved him. God appears, and I was moved. Almost to tears. Such is the honesty and purity with which Mr. Kapoor prays to him. This is not a hilarious film, reader, this is an amusing film. You shall smile, just as you smiled when you read all those silly drawn comics as a child. You shall enjoy a light hearted fare. This should be a time well spent. No more, and no less. And my dear ladies, you should be prepared to fall in love with Mr. Kapoor all over again. I wouldn’t know, but if I was you, I think I would come with my heart parked in my car.


Note: To cynics, like me - Hey buddies, I don’t think there is much problem in including Jesus and excluding a more Indian god in the run of things. I know, I’ve wondered about it, but I don’t want to dwell on it too much. Might spoil the joy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

ANTICHRIST: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: An alright film that has gained notoriety for something we shall find again this Halloween. In Saw VI. And no, Trier is not the biggest filmmaker on the planet. He is far from it.
Genre: Horror, Drama

        I never do this. It is against my principles. It is beneath me. But I shall. For I’m greatly disappointed. And disgusted. Not because of the goriness of Mr. Trier’s infamous graphic images, which frankly are ludicrously funny. In a dismissive sort of way. They seem to be appended with obvious calculations to perpetuate pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo, to what could have been a deeply spiritual film. The final forty minutes betray what I dislike most about the filmmaker. His rather perverse sense of showmanship. And although the entire film itself is tending towards an imagery that leaves little room for life to breathe, they still evoke a sense of emotion that is absolutely non-existent in the film’s second half, and which is quite frankly Saw material. No more, and no less. Okay, maybe less on a gory level. But not more on any artistic level.
        So I shall. Describe to you everything that happens in the final forty minutes, so that, my dear reader, you’re in full knowledge what loony sadism you’re signing up for. Sadism that is pandered as symbol embellished imagery. So here it is –

              He (Mr. Dafoe) retreats into a cabin, slowly realizing the extent of the depth of She’s (Ms. Gainsbourg) beliefs, beliefs I would leave to discover. She fears he would leave her, and attacks him from behind. She slams what seems like a heavy slab (or a block of wood) into his groin, and renders him momentarily unconscious. Yet, surprisingly, he manages an erection. She masturbates him until he squirts blood, after which she drills a hole through his left leg. She pulls out a grindstone, and by using a spanner bolts it through his leg. So that he is anchored to base. She then throws the spanner somewhere below the house. Sometime later, he wakes up, throws out screams of pain (which, by the way, don’t feel even remotely convincing) and drags his way onto the nearby woods, and into a foxhole. He hides. By the grace of almighty he has a match in handy in his pocket. He lights. She is screaming for him outside, searching. He digs. Finds a crow. Buried. It caws. Loudly. She hears. He beats it a thousand times with a stone. It still caws. She finds him, and tries to pull him out, and fails, and ends up covering the foxhole with a boulder. She then starts digging. Night falls. She digs him out. They drag to their little house. There she waits for the Three Beggars (The Fox, The Deer and The Crow) and then lies beside him, reminisces the tragedy in a melancholic flashback, and cuts off her clitoris. This severance supposedly designed to be the crescendo. While she lay in pain, he manages to unbolt the grindstone, and then he strangles her.
        Now, this is the unnecessary and flaunty part of Antichrist, which in no way benefits the film. At least not from where I see it, and how I perceive it. For the first hour or so, Antichrist witnesses a near brilliant display of formalism, at least tending to if not reaching, Tarkovskian heights of metaphysical portrayal. There are manifestations all around, yet Mr. Trier, as he has done in all his films, plays safe. He doesn’t put himself on the line, something which Tarkovsky and the early Martin Scorsese would always do. When one puts himself on the line, art is born. When filmmakers like Mr. Trier indulge in pseudo-academic hollow-talk, pretension is born. Mr. Trier dedicates his film to Andrei Tarkovsky, and when that piece of knowledge appeared on screen at the beginning of the end credits, I would be lying if I do not say I was furious. I still am. Apparently Mr. Trier also had The Mirror as essential viewing for the two actors. In hindsight, it is mildly insulting. Mr. Trier might have gained command over the technical usage of capturing the life in nature, but he sure as hell doesn’t have the least bit of idea to what ends he use it to. He deals in symbols, his images built around a specific ideology, which he intends to hammer into us not via emotion or experience, but through a design which overexplains itself. That is why they do not have much room to evoke any response from us, and they end up being informative. Tarkovsky, on the other hand, always dismissed the usage of symbols, and more importantly believed in the purity of an image, and the emotion it evokes. Not it’s meaning. An image is nothing if it has only a meaning, for we all have our own experiences and our own cultures, and we bring to image different personalities. Mr. Trier does capture the menace of nature, quite brilliantly, but only for shallow ends professing mock ideas.
        I say brilliantly. And I speak of the very first shot, captured in slow motion, and black and white. I believe, aesthetically, it is the perfect choice, to capture that moment of carnal temptation, which He and She are indulging in fulfilling, whilst their little child, Nick, manages to walk out of the crib with his soft toy, fascinated by the snow outside. He climbs a table, and in his attempt to grab a snow flake, falls off the window. Him first, and several moments later, the soft toy. Yet, I do not feel anything. I do not feel any emotion. Let us, for sake of references, invoke Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman from Notorious and their most charmingly erotic kissing scene. Now, Hitchcock’s film worked, because – (a) He gave his actors room for breathing space, wherein their act was not the focus, but the people were, and (b) shot in black and white, and lit flatteringly, it was just about the most romantic cinema can ever hope to get. But Mr. Trier focuses on the acts, rather than on the people, for his people are no more than puppets for him. And we as audiences start churning out ridiculous jokes or hollow ironies, all of them ham-fisted. I’m not sure that is how Tarkovsky’s vision of cinema was supposed to be. As little Nick is falling off the window, the carnal pleasures reaches its crescendo. He falls to the ground, and She reaches her climax. That is horrible hammering of ideas for you, none subtle, and none too insightful. And what was I thinking the whole time. That the sequence might be wrong on physics, because you know, as Galileo proved from Pisa, things fall together to the ground. And yeah, the toy isn’t soft enough to enjoy a free float in the air. The problem is – why was the film letting me have these thoughts while such an obviously tragic scene was unfolding. And make no mistake – there is no truth in those images, all edited with great calculation, and a smug degree of cynicism. It is, as if, Mr. Trier is so drunk in his illusions of greatness, that he believes he is nailing all the various poetic facets of life – irony, fate – and he is making sure you don’t miss that. As an audience, it is uninteresting, because these facets always seem to be quite obvious.
        Now, the movie is structured into three chapters – Pain, Grief and Despair – and an epilogue, though it is not so much as structured as segregated into these three slots, the segregation between two slots inserted during the course of a scene, and often during the same shot. It is during Grief that Antichrist comes into its own, where the preceding film has had some kind of a psychological and emotional impact on us, and as the couple experience therapy during long nights, or they walk through the woods, we feel a menace creeping around them. And here I seem to disagree with everybody’s reading of the He character, for the way I see it, he represents everything that is good around us. Or everything in us that God deems agreeable. In many ways He represents a Nietzschian notion, where he is able to overcome his intense pain. Cue: He is distraught as they walk behind the coffin, and She faints. It is an interesting moment, because this is where He assumes the responsibility and rises over the confines of his own emotions, for the sake of himself and his wife. Roger Ebert, in his blog entry here, seems to have interpreted the tone of his character quite differently when he states –

              I suspect many of the reviews will focus on the physical violence She inflicts upon He in the next act of the film. It is important to note that the earlier psychological violence He inflicts is equally brutal. He talks and talks, boring away at her defenses, tearing at her psyche, exposing her. Listen to Dafoe's voice in the trailer linked below. It could be used for Satan's temptation of Christ in the desert.

        I disagree, but I wouldn’t want to argue, for this is tonal interpretations we’re talking about. He, from my vantage point, isn’t cold, and his therapy for sure isn’t anti-septic. There is genuine warmth in those scenes, and one feels some kind of true love in there, where he is trying to clear the muddle of her thoughts, is trying to truly help her, and is not falling to petty or adolescent or liberal temptations and trying to band-aid her trauma. He is going about the true way, and the hard way, and that requires a pain and a sacrifice of much greater proportions. I think most people might be mistaking sincerity for arrogance. That is why I believe, He is a representation of God, or in biblical terms, The Christ. I think the drill through his leg, indicating some kind of crucifixion, might be a symbol Mr. Trier is hammering on us. But then, I have never been good with symbols, you see.
        And they don’t matter much either, in my view of cinema. It is the themes that do, and in many ways, Antichrist is a reflection on the same themes that film noir so gloriously drill down and package in so fascinatingly layered films. Chinatown, for one. Memento, for another. It is important to note that Mr. Trier’s film is a product of a severe depression, and he wants to draw our gaze upon the idea that humanity, by its very nature, is evil. If not in reality, at least cinematically. I kinda like that, for this where I believe the film at least earns the catholic prefix of its title. It is anti to every film of hope and goodness that has been made – from Schindler’s List to you name them. I might be making Antichrist sound as some kind of great film, and it is not. It is a minor film, very minor, and I re-iterate – just about on the same level as those Saw movies, for it goes about proving its themes in just about the same artificial way, and its inferences sound just as hollow, as those celebration-of-human-spirit movies. What it does portray – that we all have evil amongst us, and we’re capable of actions way beyond what we intend to acknowledge – is although a true thought, falls terribly flat because of Mr. Trier’s ambitions of grandeur – not to make a true work of art, as much as make a work of art. His courage is all so calculated. Antichrist, in many ways, is Mulholland Dr. stripped off its more contradictory and personal human emotions, and twisted into revealing some false monotonic spiritual ones. And when I say contradictory, I mean that in the best possible way, for we humans are no more than a bunch of contradictions. Look no further than Martin Scorsese, and Taxi Driver, to discover an honest film, from a filmmaker who is ready to put himself on the line and is not scared to expose himself and confess. That is a true film, a real film, about the Christ and the Antichrist, in all of us, and how one affects the other. It is simple you see. You have a depression or not, I don’t care. As long as you are making some kind of commentary on humanity, don’t try to make a great film. Make a true film. Greatness will then take care of itself.
        Ah yes, one last thing. Even during these scenes during the woods, where He is walking around, and we feel the menace around, Mr. Trier isn’t seem to be convinced that his film is working on its own, and commits the cardinal sin of hammering the supposedly haunting score, and we’re pulled right out of the illusion. That is a filmmaking failure right there.


Note: Jim Emerson, at Scanners, seems to have captured the precise problems I’ve with Mr. Trier as a filmmaker. His piece on Antichrist is the best criticism I’ve read on the film thus far. It is here –
http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2009/10/viff_antichrist_a_pew_in_satan.html

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

THE SOLOIST: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 117 min.
Verdict: A film conflicted between the middle-browed pretentious aesthetics of its filmmaker and the quite compassionate story at the center. And no, a conflict that is not in the least fascinating.
Genre: Drama

        This is the problem when a Joe Wright tries to be a Gus Van Sant. It just doesn’t stick. As was the case with that atrociously out-of-place Dunkirk single-shot, Mr. Wright, who harbors great ambitions of being heralded as a modern artiste, doesn’t seem to have found yet a seamless enough blending of his artistic cinema-flourishes and his rather predictable structuring of narratives. So much so that sequences, which otherwise seem to be having great meaning and great life in them (courtesy two great actors), are reduced to evoking emotions from a rather shallow spectrum. It is jarring as Mr. Wright’s middle-browed aesthetics conflict with the much deeper story that is unfolding.
        When I describe a particular film as drama, what I seek from it is essentially a two-fold question – How much more does it know about life than me, and, How good is it portraying that richness? The Soloist, adapted from Steve Lopez’s book, does contain positive answers to the first part, in that, there’s a wholly truthful portrayal of a medical condition, not pandering to manipulate audiences into false emotions (A Beautiful Mind). I applaud Mr. Foxx for a magnificently courageous performance. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to be inspired by it, instead indulging in images of false poetry, false humanity and above all else, false artistry. Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Mr. Foxx), a musical prodigy and a Julliard dropout owing to schizophrenia, is mesmerized in the illusions of an empire where Ludwig Van reins supreme, yet Mr. Wright deems it worthwhile to cut away from the magnificence of that face, and instead gaze, with an eye dripping with faux compassion I might add, at the kitschy image of countless homeless of the streets of Los Angeles. When Ayers is so completely immersed in playing the new cello gifted by an old woman who has been deeply moved by Mr. Lopez’s articles in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Wright deems it worthwhile to indulge in another one of his faux artistry as we literally see parakeets flutter their feathers (clap), and fly out through the tunnel into the world above Ayers. Reader, imagine, how beautiful it would have been had the filmmaker resisted his shallow temptations, and instead relied on the talent of his actor, and only showed us the emotions on him, and his lone audience. Mr. Wright seems to be under the impression that virtuoso shots alone evoke emotions within us audience. As an audience, for the record, I state again –
                1. In a drama, the composition of an image ought to come from the heart, otherwise it isn’t a drama no more.
                2. Manipulation of audience can be deemed worthy of respect and applause only when it is a thriller. Manipulation based on emotions is cheap.
                3. There is no shorthand to emotions in a film. That is the job of a film, and a filmmaker – to carve out the journey for the audience to reach the emotional state of the characters within the narrative. Otherwise, I daresay, there isn’t any point to the whole exercise. No Country For Old Men might be a mighty fine exercise in audience manipulation but it is a pathetic failure when it comes to charting the emotional journey of Ed Tom Bell. The audiences just never got there.

        With regards to point # 3, The Soloist does cover a whole lot of distance in understanding the true emotions that might be faced while dealing with paranoia. Steve Lopez, played quite brilliantly by Mr. Downey Jr., is no Alicia Nash whose character was given frustrations only to register melodramatic effect, and to cause plot propulsion. He is helping out a mad homeless man, but in quite a lot of ways, he is helping himself out. There are occasions he is frustrated, but neither the actors nor the film make any deal of fuss out of it. The treat it as part of the daily routine, as moments and not as events, and I find that quite commendable. Yet Mr. Wright, behind these scenes of natural beauty, seems to be harboring a hidden agenda, wherein he is cutting the film from one such scene to the next for no apparent reason other than to feel something specific when the sequence is ready to offer a lot more. Just like his fellow filmmaker from the U.K. Sam Mendes, Mr. Wright seems to have a penchant for beautiful/striking images, which have absolutely no emotional resonance. During one sequence, in a concert, we also witness the filmmaker’s ambition to emulate Stanley Kubrick’s stargaze in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and actually visualize to us the music that is playing within Ayers’ mind and heart. Unfortunately, it looks and feels as inert and as out of place as one of those visualizations in the Windows Media Player. It is simple, Mr. Wright’ camera isn’t truthful enough. A Gus Van Sant, and we would be talking of Academy Awards for both Mr. Foxx and Mr. Downey Jr. And a film, where there would be no need of the clichéd final few moments of closure, for this is a tale where every moment together for these two soloists was about closure. I got to say this – Van Sant and Mann are blessings to us from the almighty.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingstone
Director: Robert Schwentke
Runtime: 107 min.
Verdict: A most beautiful love story. An instant classic. A masterful narration. The year’s sleeper genius.
Genre: Romance, Drama, Sci-fi

        Mr. Bana has the sort of eyes that ask to be cared. A woman might never feel even the least bit of apprehension around him. Doesn’t matter if it his wife revealing a pregnancy, or a stranger on a train, or a little girl having a little picnic by herself in the meadows. He is not a Clint Eastwood, or a Christian Bale, or an Al Pacino, someone in whose arms a woman might feel safe. Rather, he is the sort of man a woman would want to care for, and embrace him as a mother would a child. There’s that sincerity in his eyes, an almost winning earnestness. I believe he is a triumph of casting here, more so for the fact that this is one of our best actors. And in The Time Traveler’s Wife he delivers an undeniably great performance, and one I believe that will surely be forgotten within no time. So would the incredible turn by Ms. McAdams. And yes, so would the film, which I daresay hail as an instant classic, and a masterpiece of architecture.
        Roger Ebert observes in his review of Memento rather precisely the idea behind the general structure as a narrative device, or a contrivance, rather than the eventuality of an emotional state. Although Mr. Ebert, a huge admirer of Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious and Vertigo exist among his favorite films), doesn’t recognize the genius of Mr. Nolan, he sure as hell nails the problem. He mentions Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and as I watch the subtlety and clarity of The Time Traveler’s Wife’s narration for a second time, and feel the emotional truth behind it, I realize now what he intends to convey. Yes, it is true, Mr. Nolan does harbor intentions of reigning in some kind of emotional sense in the spiral structure, yet, in many ways, it is quite obvious, and maybe even gimmicky. Okay, I take that back, it isn’t gimmicky. But one has to agree, it does betray the blatant trickery of a master craftsman trying to provide his audiences for a thrilling experience, rather than using the time-manipulation as an emotional reaction. In that way, The Time Traveler’s Wife might quite possibly be the most brilliant and commanding usage of time-manipulation ever committed to the screen. Yes, more so than Chris Marker’s sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée.
        There’s nothing obvious, nothing confusing about the narration. It is sure, it is clear, and it achieves the purpose of a superior narration – making the audience reach the desired emotional state. It feels linear, and disjointed, and non-linear, all at the same time. We walk out of the screen having the satisfaction of watching a uniquely moving love story between good folks, yet we are not entirely sure of the timeline. It is all subtle, not sticking its hand out and claiming its brilliance like the Nolan brothers’ Oscar nominated script, but quietly seeping itself into our hearts and our minds at the same time. That is something I deem worthy of a standing ovation. I applaud, for The Time Traveler’s Wife is what I seek from a clever film – not flashing its intelligence, but quietly and assuredly using its intelligence to understand the emotional truth at the narrative’s center, and then try and structure the film so as to make us feel that truth, and that emotion. This is that rarest of the rarities, a film where every shot is so brilliantly taken that we aren’t figuring it out, we’re rather feeling every bit of it. Every shot is an eventuality, or a metaphor, or a synecdoche to the whole. With films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento, the “clever” structure, I believe, is more of a conceit, a rather shallow (adolescent? amateurish?) jab at the workings of the mind and heart. One might even go so far as to say that the trickery in the above films probably betrays a lack of emotional understanding, and hence they are reveling in their ‘cleverness’. The Time Traveler’s Wife, on the other hand, is where and how cinema and narrative ought to be with this ‘cleverness’ – not flashing it but using it. It feels as if this film knows how it must feel like to be disjointed in time, and it is absolutely and nonchalantly crisp and clear and considerate about it. I find that most admirable, and masterful.
        How does the film do it? By shunning the typical clever film’s hierarchical teacher-student relationship, one that it seems to so naturally assume from the screen above, and by taking us audiences into confidence. Time-travel has always been a paradox, it always will be, and the best movies with the best narratives have been the ones which do not make a big deal of the logic behind it. The Time Traveler’s Wife does not sit and try to figure out an explanation, it instead takes it as a given, as an absolute, as a law of nature just about as there as gravity. A film like Memento seems to feel an obligation for time and its structure from the protagonist’s perspective, always a noble thought, but the results are a trifle amateurish. Not this one, it instead structures itself more organically, with emotion driving the narrative. It is curiously exploring the emotional consequences of such a life. In that, it can be deemed a world of alternate reality. A reality wherein Henry DeTamble (Mr. Bana) has a rare gene which causes him to travel through time. I stress on causes, for Henry doesn’t know when he might disappear from a particular time frame, and where he might appear, and when he might return. We go through life linear, he goes through life non-linear, often even encountering an alternate instance of himself. Clothes do not travel, he turns up naked in a new place, and he got to steal. He is a biological first, and like our ancestors many thousands of years ago were nomads through space, Henry might be a nomad through time. He has been one, all his life. Up until he meets a beautiful young girl in a library, Clare Abshire (Ms. McAdams), and their journey begins. I leave you to discover their love, the most beautiful and moving one I’ve seen in quite a while.
        But I shall not miss the opportunity to describe to you the beauty of the imagery, not composed through inert picture postcards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) but with love. Every frame drips with poetry, yet it never is sugary, it never is melodrama. The irony, which in any other lesser film might be heightened for the sake of faux-art, is here underplayed, and almost taken as the work of fate. And the film is a strong proponent of fate and the unique ways of destiny. After all, what is destiny but a philosophical synonym for time. It is fascinating how so much is conveyed so subtly, and the kind of questions that are raised in such calm a manner. What are we but instances of ourselves separated through time. Does that make our instances separate persons? When we love a person, do we really love the person, or love our perception of her, a perception guided by an instance we fell in love in the first place? Not many films do that to me, but here I am inspired to buy a novel and read it in a hurry after having fallen in love with its adaptation. Such is the beauty.
        None more than the exhilarating final sequence, a masterful shot capturing the beauty at the heart of this paradox. You will know it when you watch it. And while you do, ask yourself who has been waiting for whom, and who has been coming to meet whom. Yet such questions wouldn’t distract you, in any way, from the purity of the imagery. It is, quite undeniably, the year’s best cinematic moment yet.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SURROGATES: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Ving Rhames
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: Is just about as puzzled as me about that little extra thingy on Harsha Bhogle’s scalp. I like that.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller, Action

        Now don’t tell me you didn’t cringe when you saw Mr. Bhogle’s new avatar? I know, vanity does work in mysterious ways. And reader, I never did get the point of it. You see, when it comes to you and me we’re a couple of unknown faces, and if we have a little paunch hanging by our waistline, or a little patch of barren land we wish we could do away with, that is fine. I can understand that. You work out, day and night, and if you’re desperate you go to a clinic and pay for a little extra hair. And you turn up in a new place, with new folks, and it is like no one even knew you from before.
        Now I don’t get it when folks, about whom the whole world knows, turn up in a new avatar. Not that I wouldn’t desire a new avatar. I do, very much do, and I wish I looked like Lee Marvin or Jacques Kallis. But at the same time I would want to wipe off everybody’s memory of how I looked like before, and replace it with the new image. Getting me? With folks like Mr. Bhogle though, everyone knows it is artificial. Then why take the pains? I don’t seem to get that at all.
        Neither does Surrogates, a simplistic jab at the temptations of vanity. Based on a graphic novel I hope to read now, it is the kind of mediocre fare you should visit once in a while. You know, just to be in touch and all. Inside of it is a world where every human in the world, which is a roundabout way of saying every American, has grown so vain that a technology called surrogacy is the lifeline of everyday life. Folks stay down at home, reclined on chairs and beds and couches, with some kind of thingy attached to their eyes, while their surrogates, or avatars, or servant machines, which are nothing but the manifestations of the controller roam around. So it is not the actual person that goes to work but the surrogate. I don’t quite understand the logic. Surrogates might claim this as an invention to make its case against society, but I don’t quite buy it. You see, no invention goes against the human nature, and I don’t buy any line of thought that tells you humans will go so lazy so as to spend the rest of their lives within the confines of a room. Not Wall-E. Especially not with its reasoning. One can claim Surrogates has a stronger human emotion to back up its futuristic vision, and I’m still not convinced. You see, the way we work, we might not possess a quality but we sure as hell demand it from the folks we meet. Like say honesty versus pretension. I might be a smug pseudo-intellectual but god forbid any person speaks to me even with the slightest bit of air of pretension. Now if Surrogates really portrayed a plausible scenario, there is no chance of dating, no chance of love, and no chance of any degree of human interaction.
        So safe to say the film is a satire. Or at least the source is. Which I’m absolutely fine with. Only if it had the good sense not to pour in so much of melodrama. And family loss bullshit. There’s a murder mystery in there and the mystery part is stupid. The performances are uniformly embarrassing. The premise has a great movie within it, but one shouldn’t blame Touchstone for not finding it. When every major studio is busy minting money with hollow blockbusters, I guess it is only fair for the movie executives to try their bit too. Still a budget of $80 million is just too much. Touchstone, somebody out there is not worth their pay.