Thursday, January 29, 2009
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Director: Stephen Daldry
Runtime: 124 min.
Genre: Drama, Romance
(The review below is an example why I believe writing and analyzing a film is as great a joy as watching the film itself. I have written the review over a period of two days, seldom does that happen, and what you would read below is my little journey to actually understand not just the film but to realize and put to words the emotions I felt. I’m not sure if The Reader is a special film, but right now it feels like one. I began in a haze that I couldn’t understand, leave alone putting to words, but I ended up clearer and nearer to a great film. For that I thank a fellow cineaste for it was the conversation with her that greatly helped me. It was a staccato of short sharp ideas, a verifiable crossfire of precise questions and implied answers, and sometimes that is all that is needed to understand your ideas, and that of the films. I guess credit ought to be given where it is due, and this is as much my review as it is hers. And I seek to thank her again.)
Running upto the awards season it was all about Mr. Scott Rudin. Probably the shrewdest brain in Hollywood, Mr. Rudin’s incredible success at pitching movies just in time for recognition and strategizing their campaigns is quite well known. The Reader was his bet this time, and the film that was ignored at its expense and postponed for next year was The Road, leading to a whimper of a protest across the internet. The Reader had a bit of a troubled production, and there were reports (citation needed) that the film might not be ready by the year end. It did, and Mr. Rudin won his bet again, and The Reader has been nominated for the Academy Award Best Picture category.
It has been real hectic for the past couple of months, often watching more than a single movie on a weekday. Such was the frame of mind with which I set myself to watch The Reader this morning, having a feeble idea of its history and a hundred or so pages of the Bernhard Schlink novel wandering somewhere deep within me. I had parted with the book midways for some reason I couldn’t gather, except for knowing that it was an intriguing tale that I rather chose to watch and feel. And I watched, and I felt. Often I find it increasingly difficult to capture the nature of the emotions stirred in words, for they themselves elude any sense of comprehension. Yet, this is the time to desperately seek a description for them in the hope it might resonate within you too. A sense of meditation? A delicate yet wrenching feeling of despair? A pure and serene sense of exhilaration? I had felt it elsewhere, and it belonged to the wee hours of the morning. A sense of elation in the face of gloom? Yes, yes, that is what I had felt. That elation, I had felt it before, and as I watched The Reader, I was feeling it all over again trying to remember where. And the end credits rolled, and I realized what I had overlooked for so long. The director was Stephen Daldry, and there was an ‘Ah! That figures’ moment followed by a lengthy stretch of ‘I knew it’. I walked outside to get the fresh air, and remembered yet again how Mr. Daldry’s previous film The Hours is one quite close to my heart. But then, you needn’t remind yourself, for these are moments in one’s film-going experience that always stay and linger there and thereabouts, always addressing and influencing the perception of other films. Not great moments in anyway, but personal moments.
I’m one who is often put off by the aesthetic glossy productions (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) from British filmmakers (Mr. Joe Wright who for sure is no genius any which way), yet I would seek to argue with anybody who believe such production values themselves make the film seem artificially tasteful and an object of sleek design, or that such techniques display an innate tendency towards end of the year award pandering. For a filmmaker as precise as Mr. Daldry, with his carefully chosen angles to frame his action, he exhibits a remarkable life in his filmmaking that does ram against you but instead seeps into you. Life in his visual style isn’t borrowed from a moving camera, whose effect often feels bullish. Mr. Daldry, much like Mr. Stephen Frears (The Queen), has a style that feels like the rhythms of some piece of music. The trick might be simple – frame static shots, and modulate the frequency of edits to the tune of the background score to generate the exhilarating momentum of montage that has an elevating effect. Mr. Daldry used it to underscore the crescendo of the desperation of the women in The Hours as he blended their tales at different junctures, and here he uses it to a swell the re-blossoming of a once broken romance. But what it needs more than anything is a deep understanding of the subject matter, and structuring it in a way so as to lend it the tone he desires. Mr. Wright, in last year’s Atonement did some fidgeting around trying to employ innovation via moving shots to the tune of the clack-clack of a typewriter, but it proved to be clever rather than conveying the emotional state of the moment and the film. Mr. Daldry, on the other hand, seems to be in possession of a marvelous understanding of emotion and its many layers, and in The Reader he has crafted quite a shattering motion picture.
Yet shattering how, and shattering why? Here, I would consider it quite necessary to mention that I have now been writing this review for two days. I have been attempting to hold to threads that have promised me a greater understanding of the emotions and ideas that are floating underneath this film, yet they have proved elusive. The Reader has been haunting me, and I have been wading through a lot of murk, with only my emotional reaction guiding me. I have read a few reviews, and they seem to be written by close-minded critics hell bent to judge the film on their pre-conceived notions. Some mention phrases like ‘Nazi Porn’ and cite arguments as ‘Do we really need another Holocaust film’, and dismiss the film on the grounds that it ‘asks us to pity a death-camp guard’. All I can do is shake my head and be disappointed. Some say The Reader is locked within itself. I ask, how many of us have faced a predicament this film poses and have lived under the burden of a past its characters carry. Not many, might be your answer. Allow me to brief you with the premise, and then let us answer it again. Of course, I’ll touch only the broad frameworks, and no specifics will be mentioned. The Reader is a film of moments that build up a tragedy, and I believe a little here and there with the plot wouldn’t necessarily spoil matters.
We follow three timeframes, but unlike The Hours where the three flowed simultaneously through a narrative and thematic logic each addressing the other, we move through the time frames here with no apparent logic. That there’s one, and an emotional one, which one might realize and feel upon close introspection of the central character Michael Berg (Mr. Fiennes) and the nostalgia that surrounds his romance with a middle aged woman Hanna Schmitz (Ms. Winslet) is something I would choose to discuss later.
It is 1995, and Michael Berg is an advocate of great repute in Berlin. We see his apartment, and there feels a sense of reticence in its smooth silent hallways so much so that a footstep echoes. The only sense of an upbeat life lay in a woman who we learn was a one-night stand. She leaves, and the apartment and Michael feel lost again. Lost in the past, as it turns out.
It is 1958, and we see a fifteen year old Michael (Mr. Kross) on his way back from school, visibly uneasy inside a streetcar. He is sick, he gets down a stop before his own, and walks and throws up on the road. It is raining, and he is drenched. It is all too much for him, and he rests inside a building, only to throw up yet again. A woman comes over, washes the vomit away, cleans him, and takes him home. She is Hanna, and when Michael recuperates from the scarlet fever he contracted, his first meeting with Hanna to extend his gratitude proves to be the beginning of a strange relationship. It begins with a harmless bath, which leads to sex, and lots of it over a span of a summer. And there’s literature in there too. Mr. Daldry, much like the relation between Virginia and Leonard Woolf in The Hours, lends this affair a rather moving blend of romance and hopelessness. She calls him kid, and for him she’s destined to be everything. For him, the relation is all about being with her, in her arms. A safe haven. For her it is more about the reading. She asks him to read books, and she listens, and she’s moved to tears or she’s repulsed by the bold passages of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The rules of the affair are all set by her, and he merely obliges. “Read to me first, kid”, she says, “Then we make love.” In that tender vulnerable age, he is all hers. And on his birthday, she vanishes from his life. He has no clue where, and fate shatters him even before he is made. Everything that will pile on now will be upon an inherently broken foundation.
It is 1966, and Michael is a law student. As a part of his curriculum, he visits a courtroom witnessing a high profile case. There’re six women in there being tried for Nazi war crimes, and Hanna is one of them. Nothing can take away from him the deep emotions he harbors for this woman, and as is revealed during the proceedings, nothing can take away from the fact that she committed horrific acts. The Reader places Michael in a deep moral conundrum here, which I leave you to discover, and where I part ways with the plot.
I mentioned above the non-linear narration might seem to be following no apparent logic. There has been criticism, labeling it needlessly complicated and choppy. But consider Michael, and for a moment consider Leonard Shelby from Memento. It could be said both share a similar emotional attachment to a past where their souls have been locked forever. Even in our minds, memories don’t age according to the rules of time, and neither are they catalogued according to the year. What catalogues them, and what distinguishes the close from the distant ones is how potently they have affected us. I remember my twelfth grade, which I completed in 2000, and it feels like a long time has passed, but the memories of the World Cup Cricket semi-final between Australia and South Africa feel painfully close and clear. In a way, Mr. Hare’s (The Hours) script could be considered as essentially following a linear structure, and in a way for Michael the past is just as present as present itself.
What lay in the past, apart from a broken romance? A decision was made in 1966; an attempt was made in 1988. A decision that involves conscience; an attempt that rekindles a broken romance. A decision that would decide the fate of the romance; an attempt to seek forgiveness and redemption. During the summer of romance, in 1955, Michael merely obliged and both the initial attempts and the important decisions of their affair were in Hanna’s hands. The roles are reversed, he is in possession of a secret of hers known only to him. And that secret is at the heart of both the decision and the attempt.
I speak of the decision, and I speak of 1966. And I’m reminded of lawyers refusing to take up the case of Mohammad Ajmal citing ethical grounds. The Reader poses questions of the same nature before us, and Michael and asks him to make the decision. Michael chooses to meet Hanna. And as he walks through the prison yard, Mr. Daldry in a brilliant and heartbreaking piece of filmmaking, mirrors it to an earlier scene where an overwhelmed Michael is shown walking through a Nazi concentration camp. Guilt and grief engulf him.
I speak of the attempt, and I speak of 1988. It involves the re-blossoming of the romance. It also involves the revelation of Hanna as a person. Transformation would be quite a wrong word here, just as it was in the case of Hauptmann Wiesler in The Lives of Others. I’m fascinated here by the comparison I make, because it poses one very important question. You see, through fictions of dystopian societies like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 depict a life without books, paintings, music or any form of art, and hence a life devoid of emotion. My friend is so true when she suggests that a piece of soulful art always moved Hanna. She sits in a church and a choir is singing Bach, and Hanna is moved to tears. She is moved when Michael reads to her. Emotions were always within her, yet she was never able to grasp what they meant. In a way, it mirrored how I found myself after the film. Literature reveals those emotions for her. She understands herself better.
But then, I think of The Lives of Others. Hauptmann, a Stasi, discovers himself through listening to the life of a couple. He discovers himself through life, and not through the words on paper. When I think of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and the assumption that art is the route to emotion, I wonder if that assumption is an elitist feeling. One of self-righteousness. But then where does true art come from. And then, does art make you overtly sensitive to issues which you otherwise might have brushed aside in nonchalance. I’m speaking of kitsch here. Think about it. And if you wish to discuss I would gratefully oblige.
I have been long appalled at the hackneyed manner in which Hollywood approaches its Nazi characters (Schindler’s List), pre-implicating them even without giving them a chance. An assumption is made that they are evil, which means to say they’re monsters and any shred of emotions in them ought to be looked with a deal of cynicism. But then portraying a fully realized Nazi character it is a tall order. Moralists jump the gun and start attacking the attempt at humanizing a beast. Such is the nature of many a criticism for The Reader, which believe the film seeks pity for Hanna. That is incorrect. Mr. Daldry doesn’t seek pity but asks us to understand her. Hanna is merely a person who is good at whatever she does. At the time of her affair with Michael she is working as a conductor and she receives a promotion for her good work. That doesn’t justify her. But then, morality works one way when considered for an individual and a totally different and a diminishing way when considered for millions. When everyone around you is jumping the traffic signal, we all follow suit. And this isn’t a justification.
And neither does Ms. Winslet’s performance give any. Hanna doesn’t betray an ounce of self-pity, and even though she’s vulnerable from inside, her exterior puts an altogether haughty display of self-respect, but subtly and nonchalantly so. Much of the film has her nude, but she isn’t pandered as an object of desire. The film is sensual, and real in the way it frames and lights Ms. Winslet. When she is listening to Bach we feel her welling up. It is a remarkable performance of conflict – between her insecurities and her refusal to appear weak or inferior – and it is probably her most layered. As film critic James Berardinelli mentions in his review of the film here, “In the real world, there were probably more Hannas than the demonic Nazis we are used to seeing in movies as diverse as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List.”
Late in the film Michael visits a Holocaust survivor, and admits to his strange kinky relation with Hanna. She asks him – “Did Hanna Schmitz acknowledge the effect she’d had on your life? Michael replies – “She’d done much worse to other people.” There, that reply, is a reflection of an altogether different generation from that of Hanna. One which reeks of self-pity, and is ashamed of the past. It is almost a cliché – the eternal German guilt. But then, a whole generation was in conflict with its past. Mr. Fiennes’ is a remarkable casting decision. An actor of a reserved disposition, he embodies a whole generation but without any overt signals. His tragedy feels his alone (not any ‘clever’ allusion), and that is when we feel it too. As Roger Ebert says – The more specific a film is the more universal it becomes. Young Mr. Kross’ performance is the perfect foil to Mr. Fiennes, and when we see the weak and defenseless younger Michael (Mr. Kross) we understand why the older Michael is how he is.
There occurs a great moment towards the end of the film. Hanna and Michael meet each other for the first time since she walked out of his life, and it is a masterpiece of acting. When a whole life is spent with the memories of somebody, and when the moment arrives to meet them, our eyes seek that image we have from the past. It is an odd few moments, when our mind and our eyes are coming to terms with that image we have and the real person we see. When their eyes meet each other, forget everything and just look at the acting here. See the love and goodness in the eyes of Mr. Fiennes, and the sheer astonishment in Ms. Winslet’s eyes. It is a moment of great tragedy, one this romance was destined to. He has been spent coming to terms with the shame he feels for her, and the love in his heart. She wonders if he understands her. Maybe she wants to move on, away from her past. But does he want to?
The Reader is a film about holocaust, yes, but it is also a film about a tender relationship. It is kinky, yes, but heartfelt. It is not about big moments and heavy-handed messages. Instead the film builds on its small, individual moments carefully and compassionately creating a story and then seeking to find peace for a man. And to know and understand a woman who could be anyone of us.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Runtime: 104 min.
Doubt, much like revenge, feels like an irreversible reaction. It can be as powerful a tool of motivation as conviction itself, addressing your every little thought and every little action. And how many times can we be really sure that we’re certain of our ideas? None of us are analytic machines like Sherlock Holmes and we’re prone more to whims than firm reasons. Where I work, there’s this little situation brewing. A friend of mine believes (and doubt is a belief) that one of her colleagues deliberately plans his trips to home so that he is spared some of the responsibilities that pop up on weekends. Her doubt is her conviction and she cites a few occasions as fodder for that doubt, and it doesn’t matter that some of those trips have coincided with unavoidable festive occasions. But then haven’t we all. It is the kind of thing that once seeded doesn’t let go.
And that is what Sister Aloysius (Ms. Streep) installs deep within Sister James (Ms. Adams). A seed of doubt. I will not describe the plot for you, and instead I will choose to describe this scene, and the little moment which follows it. Sister Aloysius is the principal of St. Nicholas school, in 1964 Bronx, and one with a baton. Not literally, but figuratively. The kind of woman down at school for whose kids you and your friends felt sorry about, and made silly prison jokes about their pitiable condition down at home. I’m reminded of one Ms. Kaushal from second grade. I had always had the distinction of being the favorite student of every teacher, but Ms. Kaushal seemed to have an instant dislike for my usual chirpy self. I would talk, and she would do nothing else but to summon me to the front of the class, and ask me to face the wall right next to the blackboard. And I would, for the rest of the period. Probably my system didn’t take this special treatment all that well, and after a few days I started throwing up my breakfast all over the classroom floor. Two days, consecutive. Third day, she calls my name, and I throw up. My brother is called, I am taken back home, my mom comes to school, has a little chat with the principal and other teachers, and I’m never asked to stand adjacent to the blackboard again. Neither do I throw up ever again. And I realize only later how strong a weapon fear really is.
I digress, but only to stir similar memories within you, for we all are bonded by that dread. Sister Aloysius incarnates that dread, and I have no idea where they get them from. It is another incredible chewy performance from Ms. Streep, and as all great chewy performances this works superbly without once distracting us from the character or the narrative. The sisters of the convent are all having their dinner over a rectangular table, and Sister Aloysius heads them. Sister Veronica (Ms. Alice Drummond), an old and withering nun is having trouble finding her fork, and her feeble fingers are feeling for it. Maybe, her eyesight is failing her. Sister Aloysius notices this, and without anybody else noticing old Sister Veronica’s condition, quietly pushes the fork underneath her fingers.
Sister James finds something inedible in her food, and removes it and puts it on her plate. She catches Sister Aloysius’ questioning gaze. Her eyes plead in return, pleading for a moment of compassion. She finds none, and she puts that inedible piece back into her mouth and chews it, humiliated.
Now, Sister rings a little bell to address them all, and dinner is temporarily aborted and forks are rested. Something’s been bothering her, something that Father Flynn chose to speak about in his sermon. Doubt it was, doubt in one’s faith, and how doubt is a powerful bond. Sister Aloysius doubts Father Flynn, for sermons come from somewhere. She asks her fellow sisters to be on alert for reasons even she cannot seem to gather. She asks them to resume dinner, and Sister James looks on puzzled. Father Flynn is a friendly compassionate man, always in a jovial mood with the kids, and this kind of questions regarding his integrity, both spiritual and otherwise astonishes her. Sister James is naïve, and impressionable, and the contagious disease of cynicism has been sown within her. In a film filled with brilliant performances, Ms. Adams’ is the strongest and the most moving. She is innocent, and she is kind. As Father Flynn (Mr. Hoffmann) observes, kindness is her philosophy. She has a smiling face, loves her students and hopes to inspire them, and an authoritarian stand is something she can’t fathom. She does compel herself once later in the film, in a moment of heartbreaking disillusionment, at a student who cannot comprehend this sudden transformation. He looks at her, this little kid, not knowing what wrong he has done, and she understands. She is heartbroken, looking at that little face, and so are we. If Ms. Adams were to win the Academy Award, it is because hers is one of the best performances of the year.
The dinner resumes. An irreversible reaction has been initiated. Sister Aloysius looks at her napkin fluttering. The shit is from below, looking up. She is looking below. The scene cuts to an overhead angle, looking below as a door is opened and Father Flynn walks in. The unsettling calm from the last scene carries over. Father Flynn looks up and the eye on the stained glass is looking at him. His expression seems to be suggesting he’s acknowledging something. Mr. Hoffmann, one of our greatest living actors, creates a character that never resolves anything for us. There’s depth, there’s conviction and there’s great compassion to be found in Father Flynn’s voice, and there’s great wisdom too. And there’s the doubt what Sister James and Sister Aloysius have for him. This is a brilliant set of sequences, and sets thing in motion without even hinting at what the heart of the matter is. And that is all I’ll say about the plot too.
Doubt almost never presents us with an objective point of view of events. Mr. Shanley’s script, adapted from his play of the same name, never passes judgments nor does it hand us incriminating evidence of any kind. The events we’re presented are always from a point of view, and the events always are actions. Let there be no doubt about the actions, the film seems to say, but are we considerate of the intentions, the film seems to ask. Even in a fleeting moment of objectivity, when the film parts ways from its characters’ point of views, and assumes for our sake a vantage point of a bystander, Doubt only seeks to affirm the unreliability of the subjective eyes of Sister James, although her intentions are noble and her heart is full of compassion. She sees Father Flynn hug a child and the seed of cynicism sown by Sister Aloysius has corroded her for life. We are never shown the child’s behavior that has aggravated Sister James’ doubt. Is doubting a God’s man the very beginning to doubting God himself? I wonder, when you start questioning the faith of a man could you stop questioning the faith itself. And is that the crisis of faith?
This is a high-octane, powerful film of confrontation, and each such sequence is written brilliantly. Look how in each scene it starts by framing these characters individually, and than gradually proceeds to including them together. There’re no cutaways, neither the character nor the plot is having it any easy, and there’s no escaping for either the doubter or the doubted. Look how precisely these scenes are filmed. The acting is so good it is awe-inspiring. When the performances tend to be as good as they’re here, it is often criminal to frame them together in a two-shot. Criminal as in being cruel on the audience because it robs them of the pleasure of savoring such performances in their entirety. I’m reminded of that brilliant David Mamet film Oleanna and how I had a bit of trouble choosing between the talker and the listener. Mr. Shanley knows it, and his orchestration of situations is quite generous of these performances, without once slackening on the portrayal of the power-balance. Look how Sister Aloysius behaves during the first meeting between her, Father Flynn and Sister James, which transpires in her office, and how the father sits in the Sister’s own chair behind the desk. Religious institutions have always been male dominated.
Is Doubt an allegory to our times of war, where actions are taken on the basis of whims? Quite probable. As most good films, this is a product of its zeitgeist. But as most great films, this one can be plucked right out and placed in any era and it will have the same impact, and it will raise the same questions. Sister Aloysius, in a rare moment of weakness, admits to something to Sister James in what turns out to be the film’s final word. She is weak only on one other occasion, in the middle of a heated exchange with Father Flynn, and pay close attention to how she holds the cross on both the occasions and what she’s saying. And remember what Father Flynn’s sermons about in the film’s opening moments. A doubt is all about falling prey to a moment of weakness.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Director: Danny Boyle
Runtime: 120 min.
Genre: Romance, Drama, Comedy
Final question. You get to win the big one. Ready?
Guess you’re reading this you are ready.
Here’s your Best Picture Oscar question –
Slumdog Millionaire is
A. Is a socio-political critique, and examination of India. (Ha! Ha-Ha!)
B. It is a funny send-up to Bollywood.
C. It is an entertaining Bollywood-esque fairy tale of a boy who makes the cut against seeming impossibilities.
D. It is one of the worst films of the year, and one of the worst directed.
So, as Roger Ebert says, echoing what many seem to suggest, Slumdog Millionaire shows the real India. Now, I am usually a person of a rather sympathetic disposition, and I will ignore the pseudo-intellectual comment Mr. Ebert has made. I hope, dear reader, you have seen the film, and if you happen to be from India, you would understand that such pseudo-liberal opinions are so off the target they might be commenting on a film made in some other galactic system. Jot down the elements presented in the film – (1) Poverty (2) Call Center (3) Bollywood (4) Taj Mahal (5) Crime (Swindlers and Pimps) (6) Riots. And that is India, is it, the real India? As in, if you intend to make some sort of commentary, these are the points that you address. These urban points. These points, which are probably the first and the only images to condense when someone outside and far away from this part of the world begins to imagine India. Some sort of an organized chaotic society.
Maybe, these are integral elements of our society. But look at the way Danny Boyle’s mise-en-scene covers (wrong word) them, captures (very poor choice of word), or rather touches (you can do better), or scans (right on the money) through them. He isn’t portraying a country; he is merely touring through it. All of these above events/elements are just stops alongside a cinematic tour through a country of utter misery. His camera’s gaze or the manner in which looks (always gawking, and moving around), and the way he cuts his scenes is that of someone visiting from outside, kind of like a travelogue rather than someone who lives and breathes here. And of course, there’s that colonial viewpoint to it that just cannot be missed. Portraying is something really different. Like Ray’s Pather Panchali. But then, as many have said to me, it isn’t entertaining enough. Then I guess Mr. Boyle packages the miseries of the real India better, so that we can be entertained while we are feeling bad about a largely impoverished lot. I get it (Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch is coming below). He zips through them so that we are force fed every viewpoint.
So, if it is a social comment, what are we supposed to infer. Here’s the evidence. Jamal is so impoverished and his life is so out-of-luck he is literally taking dips in human excrement (Remember a similar kind of take on desperation in Mr. Boyle’s Trainspotting). He is poor, he loses his mum in some riots, he runs into the hands of some pimp of child beggars, meets a girl whom he grows in love with, is separated from her, is searching for her throughout the film, gets into the money contest Who Wants to be a Millionaire, wins it, gets the girl. As in, the money and the girl, though he doesn’t want the money. Isn’t this what the so-called American dream is all about (Forrest Gump)? So, that is what we infer. Someone making it big despite excrementitial origins. Okay. So Mr. Boyle impresses upon us that same dream everyone in the world shares. Who doesn’t want to make money and get girls? Don’t they want it in Israel? Don’t they want it in Australia? Don’t they want it in Brazil? Don’t they want it in Russia?
For that matter does he know anything about India? I don’t think so because in a scene involving the theft of car tyres, the main kid who is orchestrating the tyre-theft has the following to comment – Pit stop ka speed. Schumacher ka style. That is how Indian kids speak right? For that matter, that is how car thieves in India speak right? Their obsession for Formula One telecast on weekends on Star Sports, which by the way involves money for cable and television. For that matter, that is how a thief and a fake guide who doesn’t know who is imprinted on a one-thousand rupee bill speak right.
I heard him saying someplace use the phrase “lust for life”. My good lord. Who in the world doesn’t share that? So, the examination and inference is kinda hollow, and outright rhetorical. As in, stating the very obvious. As in, being intellectually hollow.
Inference from A – Slumdog Millionaire might not be intending to be a social examination, although it does entertain minor ambitions of that sort. And it fails at them. But I intend to concede to Mr. Boyle he isn’t dumb enough to tackle the subject of life in India over moot points. So, (A) is not the correct answer.
When most folks – critics and others in US and UK, and many others in our country whose verdicts and opinions I have access to – were citing Slumdog Millionaire as (A), one of my friends found an interesting way to describe it. She said it was a Bollywood film, and a better one than what most Bollywood filmmakers are coming up with. I found that interesting, because that is the kind of tone I find right up Mr. Boyle sleeve. And when I saw the film, she was right. The film is a part send-up to Bollywood, and many of its drawbacks make some sort of sense if given the leeway that they were intended as parody. Like a caricature of a caricature (Mainstream Bollywood is a caricature in a way. Look how the common man looks in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi).
But then, for a caricature, it is supremely unfunny. And often, its sense of the funny tends towards what we call toilet-humor, and often it is outright dumb. I think Little Jamal jumping into a pit of human excrement for his desires is kinda tasteless. He is using misery as leverage, so that we are serious about his intentions and we start believing they’re noble, and make some sort of entertaining pastiche. That is kinda stupid, I guess. But as always I am considerate, and I give it to Mr. Boyle for making the effort.
The constable farts. That elicits some laughs.
Latika drops some chillies into little Salim’s pants. The subtitles read – Chilly in the Willy. There were such roars galore when Dostana stretched the homophobic joke to its very limit. There were even bigger roars during Epic Movie. I don’t know if any of them felt even remotely intelligent.
The Inspector passes a rather condescending remark when the video tape of Jamal’s contest performance shows him absolutely clueless about the question – What is inscribed on the National Emblem? He says – My five-year daughter can answer that. It is a question that could be answered logic, by way of elimination I guess, and since Jamal cannot, straight out inference means he isn’t good at analysis. But the film is a logical mess, and it breaks its own rules. So that rules out it is intelligent.
Now coming back to the question. Jamal is offended by the Inspector’s remark. He replies (in a manner that is supposed to be cheered at) – Do you know the price of pani-puri at
The problem is Slumdog Millionaire is too straight-face a send-up to the Bollywood way. It doesn’t involve any sharp outbursts, say like the prose of Palahniuk. But then again, what’s the point of a send-up? If it can make us laugh, then fine. If not, then nothing else is left up its sleeve. Since you’ve intended your characters to be mere pawns of a joke, they are not interesting in any way, and least of all if they cannot make an intelligent or insightful comment.
Of course, even a large part of mainstream Hollywood is riddled with unintended clichés. Most film industries are. That is something a popular form or medium of expression (radios before, cinema, television, books) cannot avoid. Speaking of which, an infinitely better film this year, and one that worked quite brilliantly, was Tropic Thunder. And then again, we have already had a hell of a lot of such films, though we tend to ignore, or probably overlook, the sarcasm in them. What’re Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om then? But then, they were bad, right? I wonder how this can be any good, especially when it is quite tasteless every which way.
Inference from B – Slumdog Millionaire probably was intended as a pastiche, but its lack of any fun save the dumb ones makes this option kinda suspicious. So maybe, it wasn’t supposed to be funny, but serious, and this was a fairy tale. An attempt to pay homage to the Bollywood way of filmmaking. And that brings us to (C), which my friend was saying all along.
First the biggest logical and narrative loophole of the film. A blunder of humongous proportions. A gaping plothole of motivation. Jamal cites his reason for going to the gameshow because he had no other way of contacting or meeting her. He had no idea where she was. But then, he had his brother’s phone number right, the only number he knew in the whole world. Couldn’t he have pursued a more practical way of finding her, using that very number? I know, if logic is applied here it might explode in your face. So let us keep away from doing that, and assume the film is just plain dumb.
Now, here is where the biggest problem with the film lay. Especially to a viewer who knows both Hindi and English. I fail to understand why the film chooses its characters to hop randomly between the two languages. Sticking to either language helps to create some sort of believability but asking the same characters to converse in two different languages makes for something utterly jarring, and an awkward viewing. Imagine how we feel when we watch a dubbed Tamil film on cable television, or a poorly dubbed English film (Speed, Titanic), even though they are consistent with their language. Here the same guys converse in Hindi, with Hindi cuss words, in one frame, and in the next one they are trying to speak a form of American English (using words like ‘man’ and ‘brother’), and often resorting to the Queen’s English. Salim offers his prayers in Hindi, but in the final moments of the film utters “God is Great” (Allahu Akbar). What kind of inane logic is that? I just cannot help cringe when I listen ‘son of a bitch’ and a Hindi cuss word in the same sentence spoken by somebody who would have never been exposed to any sort of English language treatment. The problem is the film even doesn’t explain why?
Maybe the Hindi dubbed version could have helped me here.
So keeping into consideration that I saw the original English version, I couldn’t connect with it at all. Of course it doesn’t help that the film is riddled with mind-numbing clichés and serendipitous developments, which themselves do not follow a fixed logic. It feels the story takes a fairytale-like tone because it is easier to manipulate the film then. Jamal finds the blind kid when he has to. Jamal finds his brother’s phone number on the third try (Jim Emerson here is equally appalled how often it is the third try.) The film is brimming with predictability, and we can see how it will end ten thousand miles down the line. It is a dull film, supremely so.
Listen to the manner in which these people converse. Or consider the scene of reunion of Jamal and his brother Salim on some floor at a construction site, and how tacky it is. There feels nothing natural. The acting is quite ordinary, and the dialogs are pretty artificial. In a way, it is like a film we see every other weekend, but the problem is it is worse. This is not entertaining enough. This doesn’t engage enough. There are too many easy way outs that install a feeling of inevitability. The drama, the stakes aren’t raised enough. Or for that matter, the tools that used to induce drama are all too mundane. Like a telephone ringing ala the typical countdown tension (time bombs). You know she will pick up the phone, even though she has to run a hundred miles. You know they will escape from the hands of the pimp. The structure of the film itself betrays it, where we already know he is hale and healthy since he is at the gameshow and it is all in flashback. Tough, or probably impossible to induce tension that way.
And if it is a fairy tale, who are we supposed to be in it? I ended being one of those numerous bystanders in the background who do nothing but to raise their arms and hero-worship. I’m supposed to applaud, which doesn’t interest me too much.
Inference from C – Slumdog Millionaire comes out an unimaginative cropper. Not engaging enough and not narrated well at all. With its structure, you always know when it is going to end. The structure keeps reminding you of the running time left, and that I believe is amateurish. And that brings us to the final, and probably the most logical of all options.
First things first. The film isn’t offensive in any way. For that to happen, it needs to be effective first. As in, being well made. Mr. Boyle has no idea what else to do with his subject other than to lend it a zany slick style. This is the kind of film that is zany for the sake of being zany. For instance the ludicrous camera angles Ram Gopal Varma employs. There’re tilted camera shots for no reason other than to shoot it that way. Look, here’s one of cinema’s lessons, which everybody ought to know. A shot or frame isn’t great just because it frames that way, but it is great because how much and what does it say about its images. Any photographer worth his salt will tell you that. Tilting angles just for the sake of it is pretentious, and attention grabbing. It feels like a music video out there.
One of my friends found the perfect way to describe the film – patchwork. The acting is patchwork, the direction is patchwork, the tone is patchwork, and the editing is patchwork. Look how crosscutting juxtaposition is used towards the end, and what a laughable effect it has. This is like Michael Bay filmmaking every way – cardboard characters, lame plot, and slam-bang mise-en-scene. The aesthetics serve no other purpose other than to show off. The camera finds itself at odd places, and there’s nothing more to it. As Manohla Dargis says, it feels like a calculated piece of filmmaking rather than the spontaneous eruption of joy. He is obviously trying to be clever, and he ends up being so clever he turns out dumb.
So, here is the only way to be affected by the film. By considering the apathy in the background, because there’s no plausible way to be connected by this stale tale of uninteresting characters. And that is how this film, I guess, has garnered its praise. And I invoke that profound Milan Kundera quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being -
“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."
That is everything I ever wanted to say about films that seek to grab our attention by way of tickling our humanistic instincts and entertain us by manipulating them. This is faux art. One that panders images of what it perceives to be “real” and then mistakes “real” for “misery”. And then packages it. And the worst kind of filmmaking, I guess, because it makes for pretension.
Come to your own bloody conclusion. If that is possible.
Hint (Worst film of the year? Worst film ever to compete for a major award?)
And if the review felt like too zany, that is just about how I felt when I was watching the film.
And mark my words. Slumdog Millionaire will become the international whipping boy of cinema lovers worldwide within a few years, an embarrassment leading people to wonder how the hell they liked this picture. And if this film feels like one of the best ever made, something like a life-changing experience, I guess your life ought to change more often. Try to watch some films.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Cast (voices): Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai, Ronny Dayag, Dror Harazi, Mickey Leon
Director: Ari Folman
Runtime: 90 min.
Genre: Animation, Drama, War, Biography
The opening frame is a view from a curb. We see litter spread around. We see the medium-storied buildings painted in the same shade of gray surrounding us, their uniformity betrayed only by their exposure to sunlight. And we see the sky drenched in monochrome yellow. And we seem to be already running away. Suddenly wild stray dogs start running after us. They have ferocious eyes, with the kind of gleaming yellow that reminds of something burning. Rabid is how their skin looks and saliva seems to be dripping. We run.
The next edit, and the subjective viewpoint shifts to an objective one, and we are now seeing the action rather than enduring it. The pack of dogs is running through the street and everything that stands in its way. Chairs, tables, people. We witness this stampede from every which angle, from up close to a bird’s eye-view. The dogs stop below a window on the second or third floor, and start barking. They seem to be dogs no more but wolves. We see a man looking down from the window, and we learn it is a recurring dream of Boaz Rein-Buskila (Mickey Leon’s voice), a soldier of the IDF during the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Why we are provided with angles that seem to align alongside a descriptive third-person tone (like the ill-advised edits above) is what reined in the first signs of disappointment within me.
Never mind. Mr. Rein is in conversation with Mr. Folman himself, sitting in a bar, and he says he has been having this nightmare for 20 years now. And it seems this long a time frame hasn’t lent any sort of healing effect. It is a cold windy rainy night and Mr. Folman, who was himself involved in the conflict, leaves his good friend to himself. The conversation though stirs up repressed memories of a traumatic event he was involved when he was still 19, and he sets out to heal his own recollections by making a documentary on it.
The problem is it isn’t a documentary in the first place, and that is not even the fundamental flaw here. Waltz with Bashir is being described as a documentary of some sort, and if Mr. Folman intended it that way I guess he made a bloody mess out of it. The goof up sticks out like a sore thumb within the first ten minutes, with the staging of a conversation at a bar and a conversation at a shrink friend’s place at 0630 feeling highly awkward. You see, these scenes with their quiet emotions are intended to be real and natural, but if we describe the film as a documentary, than all this is being staged and that kind of drains the emotion out of it. As if we’re watching a role-play, where the artifice can never draw our feelings. That is why I wish to concede it to Mr. Folman by citing it isn’t a documentary per se but an autobiography employing the style of one. We see interviews with soldiers, and we see conversations with friends, and it is quite apparent that what Mr. Folman intends to narrate is the making of the documentary rather than the documentary itself. I convinced myself with that and I was able to move on.
But only upto a point. As I said there’s a deeper flaw that the film just doesn’t recover from. That’s the choice of the medium, as in choosing animation as the form of expression, which feels gimmicky for the most part. I kept debating with myself during the entire length over this choice, with the film’s imagery and mise-en-scene providing fodder for the argument. I sought to convince myself that it indeed was the right choice but I just couldn’t find am argument worthy enough. Right after the film I rushed to find the reason from Mr. Folman himself and this is what he says, which is more or less what he has to say considering I have poured over three separate interviews –
Actually, there was no other way. We had to do it in animation, or not do it at all. I had some experience with animation in my previous show, which was a documentary called The Material that Love Is Made of, a five hour documentary, which was basically about love… So I was having ideas about making this film [Waltz with Bashir] and I wanted to explore what I did in the previous documentary. From the very beginning, when I imagined the characters, I imagined them drawn, and animated.
Source: GreenCine – Ari Folman: “Animation, or Not at all.
As I suspected, no reason at all. It is more of a gimmick than the actual utilization of the potential of a medium, and the advantages it offers. You know, like a fancy idea. Now, I believe the basic principle of animation, or cartoons for that matter, is irony. Satire, for which cartoons are so often used, works on the principle of irony. Drawing the apparent power of an image isn’t necessarily animation’s premier forte. For that we have photography, as in live images, because real images have much more gravity to them then cartoons. Animation is sought to draw caricatures, and hence manipulate the inherent meaning of an image. Of course, the animated form is spectacular when it comes to painting other worldly images, like the Grave of the Fireflies, which draws its magic from its medium of choice. Persepolis, the film to which Waltz with Bashir is being likened to, worked on that very principle. That is, not stating the apparent.
Consider the predicament the film states here, and the message at its heart. It is a typical middlebrow film, mind you, and much in the tradition it seeks to spread the politically correct message that war is hell. There is a video interview of him at the New York Film Festival right here. Now I guess we ought to admit this much we have been desensitized to standard issue war images of mayhem and destruction. There have simply too many of them. It is quite a challenge to make us feel the dread and disgust that an anti-war film intends, though it is made easy by the ready usage of kitsch. Now, there’re only two effective ways of going about it. Either challenge yourself and say something new, or take the easy way out the say it in a different manner. The way Waltz with Bashir works is to pull an aesthetic layer on these images – of bombed buildings, of wailing women, of mutilated bodies, of pools of blood. And in the process it somehow loses the gravity.
Now there’s another reason the film is in possession of. Much of it deals with the nightmares, hallucinations, dreams and fragmented memories. And some of them, like the 26 dog chase, or a mermaid-esque larger than life woman might not be possible in live action, probably due to budgetary considerations. Though I’m not sure where Mr. Folman stands, and I really have no idea if he was under budgetary constraints. But look at what Tim Burton does, and Terry Gilliam. Or even David Fincher who seems to be dealing with something similar in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I remember Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and how magnificently fantastical it was, at a cost of only $15 million. See, it is very easy to create the contrasting effect between dreams and live action. Often filmmakers employ soft focus techniques, but there are other more creative options too. What I intend to say is I’m not at all convinced that Waltz with Bashir wasn’t possible in live action. Okay, a few images might have had to be compromised, but imagine the beauty that would have been brought by those live version of some of these high-contrast images here.
This is a beautiful film to look at, and there is some truly awesome imagery at work here. But I think of that cold rainy windy encounter with Mr. Rein, and it feels something straight out of a noir tale, with its hugely expressionistic palette. You see the film, and imagine it in a live action feature, and try convincing yourself that this isn’t an opportunity lost. I believe you would fail. Why am I so certain? Because there’s an image of young Mr. Folman floating in the water, with his face half-submerged, reminding us of that iconic image from Apocalypse Now. For all the artifice and contrast, this one here isn’t nearly as mystifying. Moreover it kinda undermines the present, the interviews and all, so that everything – hallucinations, nightmares, dreams, and reality – are all the same with only variations in the tinge. Why not use a contrast between live action and animation, as in presenting the present as is real and do the flashbacks and other stuff as it has been done, and actually state your ambitions, rather than merely pretending. Watching animations do an approximation of the real-life people, right down to the little mannerisms, made me cringe the same way (though to a lesser degree) I do when I see those puppets of every which body on NDTV.
The actual content, the human story, is pretty much rhetorical and often feels artificial. I’m not sure the film has any political statements to make, other than to state the politically correct. But of course, the script and its structure is simply unconvincing. What the film intends to do is to use the excavation of repressed memories to learn the truth behind a horrible historical event, so that learning it and piecing it together, bit by bit will present the complete picture as a revelation. A personal memoir leading to an historical truth. And the problem is it feels like a strategy, a clever ploy, rather than an honest introspection. Every soldier spoken to seems to be exactly at the desired vantage point to further the story, and unlike most successful documentaries which successfully conceal their artifice with a good script, this one doesn’t.
As I speak of the structure, I am reminded of Rang De Basanti, which also was a film that drew some sort of leverage from the past to further the present. The brilliance there was that both the past and present felt immediate. That was an ambitious film, and importantly drew a clear contrast between the past and the present, and with astonishing genius and craft blended the past and the perception of the past. With his choice of animation, the director has taken the easy way out, in the hope that it stands out. Stand out it did. And I’m sitting here unconvinced ruing the opportunity lost.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Cast: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Chris Messina
Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 96 min.
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama
Ms. Johansson seems to have become a caricature of herself. More and more I see her playing variations of the kind of image that films like The Spirit spread around. Michael Sicinski down at The Academic Hack remarks how “Vicky Cristina Barcelona inadvertently displays her as a parody of her image – the thinking man’s sexpot”. Sexpot? Oh yes. Not too sure about the thinking part though. She adds exactly the kind of vitality her physical presence is expected to, and whatever depth is intended of her escaped me. I believe Mr. Allen deliberately constructs her as a caricature on the kind of pseudo free-thinkers (maybe even intellectuals) a society and culture like America is so very prone to. I’m no expert in these matters, and my social science index might probably be lingering around sub-zero levels. But I observe, and perceive that we aren’t much different either, in that our tastes generally tend towards the middle-brow. Radical, free-thinking, and open-mindedness is something we aren’t naturally inclined to (we’re conservative), and when we do seek such tastes, we essentially tend to follow than to lead. Often we’re shocked, often we’re surprised. Derivative might be an apt word here. Genuine nonchalant and unpretentious free-thinkers might be so rare they could be found on the map.
Such are the ideas the two titular characters installed within me – Vicky (Ms. Hall) and Cristina (Ms. Johansson) – both caricatures of a culture that is torn between the essentially conservative (but fascinated by the grass on the other side) and the pseudo. In a way, they are both pseudo. And they decide to spend the summer in Vicky’s relatives’ home down in Barcelona. They’re fast friends, these two, people who understand each other. The former is in love with a guy called Doug (Mr. Messina), who in all probability works in a 9-5 job, and offers the kind of stability in life Vicky has always sought. She is the kind of person who thinks she knows what she wants, and comes across as somebody who appears to be wise and mature, someone who vehemently despises an impulsive act. Curious it is that we are often vehement about the thing that might be our weakness, and having such a deliberate form of indifference is often a strategy to convince the self more than anything else. Cristina is the opposite. She has just finished breaking off for the umpteenth time. She describes herself as someone who has no idea what she wants from life and love, but is sure what she doesn’t want. She is prone to impulsive flings, and such a predicament arises when Juan Antonio (Mr. Bardem), an artist, walks across to their table and asks them out for a weekend in his hometown Oviedo, where they can eat, drink, roam, see and have sex. Antonio doesn’t miss a beat, and he is absolutely forthright. Cut to the chase. More appropriately, cut to the bed.
Now, Vicky is a student of Catalan studies, and is here to learn about the culture. Cristina, on the other hand, has just completed making a 12-minute short on why love is so hard to define. And she hates the finished product. Why is she here then? For a change of scenery. Apparently, she despises the ‘puritanical’ and ‘materialistic’ way of American life, and thinks of herself as more of a ‘European soul’. She sees herself leading a Bohemian way of life, and the romance such a notion holds. Is she cut out for it? We learn the answers in Oviedo, and much more. For starters there is Maria Elena (Ms. Cruz), Antonio’s volatile ex-wife. They’re an odd couple, these two, in a fascinating love-hate relationship. So much love that she tries to kill herself. So much hate she tries to kill him one time. By pitching this couple against its two titular characters, Vicky Cristina Barcelona draws an interesting little story out of causing severe introspection on their part. And often, the poor old fiancé working the 9-5 shift is invoked too, just to drive home a joke or a point.
Now, let us be sure of one thing here. This is a minor entry into Mr. Allen’s illustrious filmography. Of course, a minor Allen film has more to say than most films. But then, we aren’t watching most films, and for an Allen films there’re uncharacteristic pitfalls that have become so characteristic of him of late. For one, Allen at his best always develops all his characters, and lends them a certain depth before laughing at them. For instance Cristina here, who is dumb by most if not all means, and the film even makes fun of her on her face. One of the major characters likens her to ‘salt’. Maria Elena cuts a more apt metaphor, by describing her as that tint when added to a palette makes the color beautiful. Ms. Johansson is blond, mind you. Look how the film cuts to Vicky’s husband Doug when Cristina is describing her chance moment of passion with Maria, and how his jaw drops down. As if saying, you wish. Make no mistake, Cristina is merely an object of desire. The film still exists from her point of view, lends her feelings instead of just making her the rear end of a joke, and that is why feel for her and laugh at her at the same time.
Mr. Allen doesn’t exhibit the same intelligence with some of the other characters. Say for instance Doug, who is given no chance at all. Look, when a filmmaker is citing an argument or an opinion what I seek is a fair treatment to both the sides. That is when I hail the intelligence and intellect of a film. Vicky Cristina Barcelona pays a lot of attention in romanticizing the European bohemian way of life, but pays scant regard to the stable more mundane lifestyle of the conventional. He etches a deep character out of the former and draws a cliché of the latter. Maybe, he even acknowledges the same when Doug remarks this contempt for normal values pretentious and a boring cliché. But he doesn’t necessarily do anything to rectify this cliché. Doug and his likes are given overtly dull dialogs, as if they’re simply incapable of an intelligent or an interesting conversation, and often mutes the scene when they’re speaking. Is it condescending? Hell yes. Is it a fair chance? Hell no. I understand that the film is about Vicky and Cristina and their view of themselves and the world around. But intelligence is when one paints a fair enough picture of that world before causing introspection. Clichéd kinda takes the easy way out. Razor sharp cynicism is fascinating, but a shallow one feels kinda tasteless. After the premiere of Match Point, Mr. Allen once observed that cynicism is an alternate way to spell reality. Guess Vicky Cristina Barcelona fails on that count.
And that is not the only count. In a horrendous miscalculation, Mr. Allen decides to use the voice-over of the actor Christopher Evan Welch to narrate large passages of the film. It would have been a nice little Brechtian trick, if the voiceover and its tone and its content had been used for an insightful and cynical read into these lives. That isn’t the case, and more often than not, it performs no other function other than to state what is apparent and obvious. It isn’t witty either. We seem go out sightseeing, and the commentary supplies that very information. We see them on a boat, and the commentary supplies that very information. After a while, it becomes a straight-out nuisance, dumbing down the proceedings. It is an utterly stupid mistake, one I still cannot believe Mr. Allen is capable of making. And yet he did. And it almost brings down the house, were it not for the beautiful performances. Of course you expect that when it comes to a Woody Allen film. Be it Javier Bardem as the charming European fantasy, or Penelope Cruz as the temperamental ex, they both ignite the screen. Ms. Cruz’s performance is one of the best of the year, and it should be a worthy contender for consideration come awards season. The soul of the film though rests with Ms. Hall who gives one of the year’s finest in a supremely nuanced performance. She is the heart of the film just as Ms. Johansson is the face of it. Quite a few emotions are stirred on her part, and she is one whom we end up feeling for the most. Ms. Hall is steadily turning into a terrific actress (the only positive I could draw from Frost/Nixon). She feels like someone who is naturally charming, and with her wide eyes vulnerable at the same time. It is interesting to note that she co-starred with Ms. Johansson in The Prestige, and even there I was greatly drawn towards her.
Look Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn’t a ha-ha funny film, and neither is it intended to be. Light might be appear to be better term. And light it feels when juxtaposed against Mr. Allen’s oeuvre of heavyweights. But there’s a certain sadness to the unrealized fantasies here. This is his fourth consecutive film outside of the United States (Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra’s Dream the others), and like most filmmakers worth their salt has let the new world bring a whole new beauty to his films. There is so much infusion of brightness and warm colors you might want to bask in it. I was watching the film in the wee hours of the morning, and as the first of the morning rays broke in through the windows, the lush colors of the film brought in a separate nostalgic feeling within me, a yearning for a dreamy little place. There are three beautiful women in that place too, and you would want to savor them too. Only that you expect a little extra when it is a Woody Allen film. Problem is you can’t expect a man who has been so prolifically consistent over the years to deliver every time.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Donovan
Director: Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 141 min.
Genre: Crime, Drama
For a Clint Eastwood film, Changeling is a misfire with huge structural problems. I stress on the structural part because Eastwood is one of the finest and smoothest filmmakers of narrative cinema. If not anything, the least we expect of his movies is a fine little engaging piece of story. But that is the very aspect of his craft that fails him here. Part of the blame surely ought to be shared by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, whose filmography on IMDb suggests this is his first stint for a feature length film. That it is engaging, often riveting and often moving is a testament to the craft at Eastwood’s disposal.
As I moved out of Changeling, trying to pinpoint why the film worked for a while and then began to un-work, I was reminded of Zodiac. The David Fincher film is a masterpiece of construction, the likes of which have seldom been witnessed. It is a film that ought to be poured over and over just to learn how to approach a subject matter of such magnitude and lend it the gravity it so very deserves. Now, why am I invoking Zodiac here, you might ask. I will reply with a little bit of plot, mix a little bit of history into it, and hope you get my explanation why Changeling fails.
It is 1928 Los Angeles. Christine Collins (Ms. Jolie) is a single mom taking care of her nine-year old Walter Collins. She returns home from work one evening to find her son missing. She calls the police, who in turn reply that nothing can be done until the kid has been missing for more than 24 hours. She waits, and the she calls again, and the police pursue. Three months fly by, during which Christine has been incessantly making calls to the cops and praying to them for any possible leads. No avail. And then, one evening, she is paid a visit by a charming young LAPD cop Captain Jones (Mr. Donovan) to deliver her personally the news of her son’s discovery. It is quite a scene, where Ms. Jolie for once exhibits the kind of truthful emotions which seemed to have escaped her of late. But more than that what’s satisfying is how Eastwood chooses to pay as much attention to the smile of satisfaction and relief on Captain Jones’ face as he looks at Christine coil under the immense joy. It is a form of basking, one that feels earned, a pleasure that is all yours when someone has been helped and cannot thank you enough.
They rush to the station where they await the grand return of little Walter. A huge press contingent is already waiting and the police department, which we learn was the city’s premier whipping boy during those times, is wasting no opportunity in garnering good rep for once. The train halts, the boy comes out, Christine looks at him, and she declares that is not her son. Captain Jones, in a remarkable turnaround towards the contrived, turns into one of those two-dimensional villains we all can expect from time to time in an Eastwood film. Remember the family in Million Dollar Baby, and how shamelessly caricatured they were. And that, there, is the first sign of the troubles that are in store in plenty as Changeling gallops, and then rambles towards its end.
Christine runs from pillar to post, and the evil arms of the law create impediments at every turn. She is helpless and is forced to keep the little kid at home. She is told she might be imagining stuff, despite the fact that this boy is three inches shorter than her son and is circumcised. Most definitely not her son.
Now, reader, you would do well to learn about the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. For starters, you could visit here. Mr. Straczynski’s script never seems to wander away from what I believe are the facts, and that I believe is commendable. But what is dumb is the way he incorporates them. It has been close to 45 minutes, and we’ve been totally immersed in Christine’s story, when the film introduces us to the Wineville case. Imagine this. A film that has been following only one thread, where every conversation and every word in it has no other function other than to advance the plot. And all of a sudden we’re made privy to a call to the police headquarters that speaks of some Chicken Coop place. And that is amateurish.
Therein lays my explanation. Changeling is structured as a single thread for much of its initial part and we’ve almost been conditioned to a film that deals with the story of a mother who has lost her son. All of a sudden, the film grows wings and ambitions and it starts digressing into other threads, specifically those of a serial killer. It is a mighty interesting little story, mind you, and the understated way in which Eastwood deals with the parallel story of Sanford Clark demonstrates why he is such a great filmmaker. Eastwood’s sensibilities lie towards a matter-of-fact narration, and whenever his melodramatic instinct take over he tends towards the horribly contrived. Eastwood is at his best when he shows the action and leaves us to grapple with its undertones. And little Sanford Clark’s tale is much more reminiscing of the shattering power of an Eastwood film than Christine’s, which feels false.
Consider Zodiac, which announces its ambitions upfront and kind of exposes all its threads in the initial part. As an audience, we’re already looking at the bigger picture and that allows a film to smoothly traverse even to the more personal needs of a character. Zodiac’s genius is in how it makes a character out of the collective whole, and then chooses to visit each one of them. It is both an epic and a personal story. In a way, it is a hyperlink film (film which deal with multiple threads – Magnolia, Crash), and a single thread film at the same time. Zodiac starts as an epic and ends like one. Changeling does the opposite. It starts as a personal story, where it is at its most effective, and decides to add threads as it moves along in its hope to being an epic. And that feels as if someone’s straying of the path, and that induces restlessness and boredom.
Eastwood’s visual style oddly artificial too. In that classic old-school style of his, we’ve always found a lingering grimness, a sense of danger that is unsettling. But as I mentioned before, Eastwood is good at personal stories that focus on the moralities of a few individuals. He isn’t an intellectual, or one to philosophize. He is a man who can ask difficult and often impossible questions, and not one necessarily comfortable making grand statements. He is a man of great experience, someone who possesses life and its many sedimentary layers. He can perform introspection, and when he is doing that here (with little Sanford’s story), his calm style (one which is partly influenced by dark noirish settings) feels profoundly tragic. A movie made on that subject (like Frailty) is an idea that fascinates me to no end. But when he employs the same style for making feminine statements, or anti-establishment statements, he loses the plot. There’re court proceedings shown in detail which add nothing but impatience, and we wonder if the film would have been served better if he chose to portray them through footnotes that appear at the end of films. After a point of time, the film falls into the rambling mode and simply loses us. A similar problem was felt at the heart of Flags of our Fathers too. That was pretty mediocre, save for its intentions. Ditto here, where once we’re done feeling for Christine, the film carries on when it should have ended. And if it didn’t, I believe a thing or two ought to be learnt from Zodiac, on how to linger and why to linger.
On an interesting note, there’s Amy Ryan in the film. Last year, she played a character who loses her daughter, and the whole police department is embroiled. The film was Gone Baby Gone, and that was a film Clint Eastwood would have been mighty proud of.
Cast: Ayca Damgaci, Hama Ali Kahn
Director: Huseyin Karabey
Language: English, Kurdish, Turkish
Runtime: 93 min.
Gitmek is a special one. One of those little films that do not sweep you away while you’re in there, but gradually settle and register themselves. I sat nervous and fascinated for 93 minutes as I saw chubby little Ayca make an impossible trip into the war-torn Kurdish region. And often, a little scared. In the hope of a loved one. It was only later that I realized, as I walked to the parking lot, how easily the film could have walked right into overblown drama. I drove, I wondered, and I realized what a sweet, simple and profoundly moving film this is. So sweet one might be tempted to label it cute. And I was astonished, for the true events upon which the film is based could be considered anything but that. May be shattering. I ran the movie again in my head and the word traumatic started to condense. That the film wins you over in that remarkably subtle way in which does is a testament to the fact how compassionate Mr. Karabey and Ms. Damgaci (the screenwriter) are. And how honest.
Consider the events. Ayca, playing herself, is a Turkish actress. She fell in love with Hama Ali, a Kurdish B-movie star, on the sets of a film they were both working in. Now, these aren’t Greek gods and goddesses we’re talking about. Hama Ali looks like he is in his 40s, with balding hair and a rather obvious paunch. If you intend to describe him, a more helpful name to get the job done would be Alok Nath, or for that matter numerous other unremarkable-looking folks. At that time, I learn from the Press Kit (link mentioned below), Ali was married and a father to three kids. He is popular for a Superman character he plays that feels utterly goofy, like our own versions of Zorro (Navin Nischol I believe). Ayca, is in her 20s, and with her chubby cheeks and a rather plump disposition, she is hardly the lead actress material we all envisage. She is naïve and every simple-minded thing that comes with the territory. Like having preconceived notions of folks beyond the border, of events like war. She believes an U.S. invasion into Iraq might possibly result in the annihilation of the Turkey. She lives in the heart of Istanbul, and he lives in a small town called Suleymaniye in Northern Iraq (Kurdish region) near the border to Iran. For a common language they have English, and their degree of fluency limits them to such rhetoric as – I want to kiss you millions, or I want to kiss you billions, upon which the reply comes, I want to kiss you hundred thousand millions. How deeper feelings are mined and expressed is something I would leave you to discover, whenever it is you find this film. Suffice to say it involves the answer to all your questions regarding the title, which might suggest a comedy from a distance but when looked from closer quarters reveals a rather desperate form of love.
He sends her video cassettes which perform the function of letters, and he shows her his town and the folks he knows, and the places he frequents. He often inserts a clip from one of his films, and she laughs. How that video cassette finds its way across borders and tensions is for anyone to imagine. Only that it isn’t through FedEx. This happens for over a year, maybe two. I’m not sure. But it is long enough to plant seeds of doubt in Ayca’s mind. You look at her live her everyday life, and when she announces she is going to meet Hama Ali, you almost want to applaud her folly. Does he even love her? She is no longer sure, and neither are we. And she embarks on her little odyssey to seek the love of her life. Across borders, across wars. The way I sound may make it seem a grandiose saga of lost love, and Gitmek is anything but that.
Consider the people Ayca meets along the way, and how nice they really are. It so rarely happens that we meet nice folks at the movies who seem real, and most often what we see are caricatures. But Gitmek works on the age-old principle of observation of everyday life and everyday people, and among many others, we meet two cab drivers who seem the most genuine of people. One of them is Iranian and he speaks in a manner that feels soothing and reassuring. He speaks of cable television and music with Ayca, who is all alone and at her wit’s end, and we laugh not because he is funny but out of the realization and satisfaction he is a good man. A friend of mine recounted how it reminded her of a cab driver in Singapore who was so warm so as to share the details of his family. Cab drivers, more than most of us, meet a lot of people and often there exists an exuberant streak to them. That they are genuine nine times out of ten ought not to be doubted. Some of the best conversations I have had with total strangers have been the auto-rickshaw drivers. I don’t know, but maybe life has been very kind to me.
And that is why I say Gitmek is compassionate. And if it is a little simple-minded, and you know a bit utopian at its heart, so be it. The backdrop is war (Gulf War II) and the hotbed is the Northern region of Kurdistan. Add Iran into the mix and you got dynamite ready to explode. The film though argues against that, by putting forward its characters as arguments. It is not a film where dialogs are spoken to that effect, and in fact almost nobody speaks about the war (and its effects) per se. All we see is people and we feel we almost know them. Ayca does too, and when she listens to an old woman talking at the Iraq border, she is captivated. I was, and for a moment I didn’t pursue the subtitles. Instead I chose to relish a rather fleeting moment of brilliance, where the camera does what it does best – capture a part of life. The old woman is talking about her missing son, and a little girl, probably her granddaughter, is looking at her. It is a sight we see everyday but never pay attention to.
The brilliance is how effectively Gitmek manages to convey all this, and how subtly it registers deep within us a sense of thought we realize only later. Srikanth, who blogs down here (quite an awesome site), comments on my review of Gran Torino ‘how Eastwood has created a truly anti-racist film without much ado about it.’ That is the kind of folks we meet in Gitmek, nonchalant unfussy people. These people know their lives, know their world and making a brilliant job out of living it. Ayca is gobbling her dinner in an Iranian restaurant and her head isn’t covered. A couple on the table nearby merely smile, charmingly, like the way we do when we instantly recognize somebody new to the place. We don’t mean ill-will, but we don’t want to lose out on a smile either. It is a smile of acknowledgment. This is a film that reminds you stuff.
In his native Turkey, Mr. Karabey has been known to be involved in lot many movements supporting democracy, and he has made lot many documentaries to the effect. And here, in his first feature films, Mr. Karabey takes Ayca on a journey through a world she has only seen on television, but never experienced. I saw Gitmek on the last day of the recently concluded 7th Pune International Film Festival, and didn’t happen to remember it as well as I would have liked. As in, to remember details concerning the visual style. Still I could always go back to what I felt during the film, from its initial moments to its final ones. And I distinctly remember perceiving Ayca’s world as a little hole. One that is confined within limited boundaries, as most of our lives are. I’m not sure here but I feel Mr. Karabey chooses to shoot it with its tight close-ups, and employs faster cuts. We move on the journey as Ayca starts exploring the hitherto unknown world, and the film neatly shifts to medium to wide shots, and longer cuts. I felt a real world was being discovered, as if Mr. Karabey intends to imply that the world Ayca is not the real world. Do I agree with that? Nope. Not one bit. But there’s war somewhere out there, and Ayca only knew about it and the world what she saw through her television set. It is strange to relive one’s traumatic memories by making a film like this. And I believe it speaks of a courage that might be absent in most.
Note: Here is the link to Gitmek’s press kit from the Ghent Film Festival 2008. Mr. Karabey speaks of his film at length, and his visual concept. I believe it is an interesting read. You might want to save the MS-Word file, and savor it.
Soona has been kind enough to supply these two links to the trailer of this film, which I intend to share with everybody, alongwith the information that Mr. Karabey might be making a film on the little Kurdish girl I speak of in the review. It is heartening. Thanks Soona for that.
The links are -
Monday, January 19, 2009
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley, Ahney Her
Director: Clint Eastwood
Runtime: 117 min.
Ingrid Bergman sure is one, and Clint Eastwood sure is another. You get down to chalking the reasons why cinema was invented and these two names pop right out. There are very few experiences out there that might hold a candle to the sheer awe writ large on our faces when these two legends radiate everything around them. Ingrid Bergman represented everything that is so divine about a woman so much so that we feel the whole world around in that frame in love with her, including the furniture, the walls and the lights, which always seem to emit the exact amount of light so that we celebrate her beauty. And when Clint Eastwood is on screen, with that larger-than-life aura, we worship. Of all the great influences I have imbibed at the movies there has not been one that has been installed deeper than what everything that Clint Eastwood stands for. When someone as esteemed as Roger Ebert cites that he wants to grow up to be like Eastwood (Mr. Ebert is in 66), you don’t wonder what he is talking about. You say, who doesn’t?
A sound wakes up the old man in the middle of the night. There’s a light flashing in his garage, where a 1972 Ford Gran Tarino rests. Son of a bitch, he growls, walks across the room, picks up his M1 Garand rifle, fills in rounds and walks across to the garage. He quietly opens the door, and thunders inside, aims his rifle at the thief and rocks the garage lamp hanging from the roof. He walks around to the thief, the gun pointing at the thief and the face behind having the fiercest set of squint eyes and the grittiest teeth of them all. The lamp is swinging and that face is moving between light and darkness. It is awe-inspiring imagery composed with breathtaking lighting, one right up there with anything that has been filmed all year. And the secret to Clint Eastwood is that he improvises with the scenery around.
The man is one of cinema’s greatest artists ever, and one of its most precious shining jewels. And of all the actors whose work has relied on the aura principle (John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart), there has not been one who understand and realize their iconographic presence we feel as an audience as deeply and as clearly as Eastwood does. It requires a great understanding of the art of cinema to capture first of all that kind of presence in every scene without falling into parody-goofy territory. Martin Scorsese did a terrific job in The Color of Money with Paul Newman. But Clint Eastwood goes beyond most filmmakers, almost all, because he has the cinematic understanding to not only capture but control and manipulate his every moment on screen in a way so as to directly influence that image we all have registered deep within us. And give us new ones to marvel at. There’s not a singular moment of imperfection I could register in Gran Torino, and it is as much a celebration of the Clint Eastwood of old as we could ever hope to have. It is a return of sorts for the man, and not since Unforgiven has there been such a masterpiece of filmmaking. I use the word masterpiece because I consider making us all feel that cool searing intensity in its entirety as one of cinema’s toughest challenges. Outside of Eastwood, only Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and Sergio Leone (The Dollar trilogy) have managed that. Someone as Wolfgang Petersen failed (In the Line of Fire). Even Eastwood himself has (Bloodwork), and more than once.
There’s another great scene late in the film, a masterpiece of how subtle lighting and subtle shifts in angle and subtle motions of camera can affect us. The old man is sitting on the couch, contemplating on the tragedy that has just occurred, and there is only sparse low-key lighting provided by the table shades. He has just finished smashing the panes on the kitchen racks in a fit of rage, and his knuckles are bruised. The tragedy has completely overwhelmed us, and if it were any other time, any other film, or any other character and had we been pushed straight into action driven by that rage, we wouldn’t have felt a thing and would have applauded. But Eastwood here chooses to ease for a moment, and take a toll of things. He is alone there in the dark, and a little tear finally escapes. A character walks in and tries to talk to him, and here look how the scene flows. How good the acting is from Eastwood. Look how, in an Eastwood scene, when tuned to the Dirty Harry mode is all about him, and everything around is merely in his service. Pay attention to those eyes, and to the voice. I am reminded of that magnificent scene from Unforgiven, where Little Sue sitting on a horse is recounting to Munny (Eastwood) how Little Bill (Gene Hackman) mentioned that he was William Munny from Missouri and that he had killed women and children and all. William Munny is listening to it all cold-blooded, staring into the open space and drinking. The shot is from her angle, up on a horse looking down, kind of like a reverse dutch-angle, and it is surely one of the greatest scenes in cinema history encompassing every thing about Clint Eastwood – the man, the legend, the icon, his films, his characters and the entire western genre. The scene here in Gran Torino would have been just as iconic had the editing climbed down a bit, and focused squarely on Eastwood, and only occasionally cut to the other character. But then, there’s more at work here.
Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran, and a disgruntled old man. He hates everything in sight and abuses everything that is not American – from people to Toyota SUVs. A whole book could be made out of the adjectives and slurs he uses against Asians, blacks and every other non-American race. He is much like Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, a man beyond salvage. In a certain way he is the quintessential male, not a liberal pandering to everybody’s opinion but a man who says what he believes in and doesn’t hold opinions close to his chest. The community he is living in has been encroached by members of the Hmong community, and one day a boy from this neighborhood tries to steal his Gran Torino. What happens afterwards is something I believe I should not reveal, even if I have described only the first few minutes of the premise. One of the great pleasures of Gran Torino is the surprising manner in which unfolds. It is a film where Eastwood plays with his image more than ever before, and lends it a crescendo we have long sought. It is an ending that might seem contrived, and I have nothing to say about that.
Eastwood’s performance is more than worthy of its place as a stage in the evolution of his characters – The Man with No Name, Harry Callaghan, The Mythic Unknown from High Plains Drifter, William Munny, Frankie Dunn. Much of the film is spent floating around that face of his. And it is an astonishing sight, like watching a monument that has stood against everything that time has thrown at it. He growls, he snarls, and he pukes at everything in its face. And often he points a finger at it and tries to nail it. He gradually opens up, from a grumpy sight to one capable of emotion, and when he smiles at somebody it feels earned. If he never would act again, as he says now, I say with a devastated heart and tears fighting hard to escape, I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell.
Eastwood has created an unassuming masterpiece of genre here, and in its washed-out sleepy urban color palette, he renders as much a Western town as anybody could hope for. The antagonists are new, gangbangers and ruffians, and the film quietly assumes a nostalgic tone too, throwing at them the last of a dying species. Along with him is his Gran Torino, a product of a time when the company would produce cars people actually bought. It no longer does, and no longer do we see that mythic larger than life hero walking down all alone, someone you shouldn’t be messing with. And if this indeed is Eastwood’s last performance, God bless him. And God bless himself for bringing him into our lives.