Saturday, February 28, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas
Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 166 min.
Rating: **
Genre: Drama

        Here’s the deal. Flat out. The premise here, of a person aging in reverse, is quite simply too much for someone like Mr. Roth or Mr. Fincher. The former is merely a screenwriter and the latter merely feels an illustrator. These are professionals, and certainly not artists who can create a pondering bit of art. There are issues in the film which are staring right at us but neither Mr. Roth nor Mr. Fincher recognize them or even comprehend them, and if they do, they certainly do not acknowledge them as they leave the narrative of their film in what intends to be a fatalistic tone but instead feels like auto-pilot mode. This isn’t a profound work of art and it most certainly isn’t a film worthy of any serious intellect. Not even by a country mile. It is merely a crazy idea that snapped right into the brains of somebody and they decided to indulge themselves in posting before us an elaborate what-if question. That is it. Cut and dried. The imagination, the pondering, the fallacies all to be done by us. The film would have zero role to play in that exercise.
        And no, the film is not high on ambitions either. So let us lower our expectations, if any, and clear the table and discuss the flaws of the film, and maybe we might arrive at a better way of approaching the premise. And while we are at it, let us extend out generosity to ignoring the numerous Gump references for it is the same Mr. Roth we’re talking about. If you would want to dwell you would want to visit here, or here. But that way lay no philosophical resonance for both films really have nothing profound to say. Only that Gump was a moving film and it moved, and this is not and this does not.
        The flashback tool here is a diary. Mr. Roth, taking a cue from the biggest romantic successes of the past decade – Titanic and his own Forrest Gump­ – meshes together the flashback POVs so that when there’s a gap in Benjamin Button’s (Mr. Pitt) narration Daisy (Ms. Blanchett) pitches in. The present is a dead-smack-in-the-middle-of-Katrina New Orleans, and the place is a hospital where a super-wrinkled Daisy lay on her death bed, presumably. She has her daughter Caroline (Ms. Ormond) on her side and her reading of the diary is the excuse to kickstart the movie, which for most part is Benjamin’s side of things punctuated intermittently by Daisy’s side.
        Let me cut a brief picture of Benjamin’s early life so that I can make my case. He was born to some folks right at the dawn of WW I, when his mother died on childbirth and his father upon catching the first glimpse of his super-ugly ultra-wrinkled body immediately picks him and decides to drown him. Doesn’t turn out that way for fate has other plans, and at that very moment a cop on patrol flashes his light. The father runs the cop pursues, and the father turns into a dark alley, which leads him, as fate would have it, to an old-age home. He runs away. Everything upto this point is so mechanical and feels so written that one might be reminded of the smooth but fast flow of Amar Akbar Anthony. Some misguided soul might interpret that as a tone of inevitability. It actually is a film that is merely illustrating the page with no life in it. Evidence to my claim lay in the lifeless and scripted reaction of Benjamin’s father Thomas (Mr. Flemyng) upon seeing his ugly baby for the first time. This is where a filmmaker comes to the fore and transcends the words on the page into a moment of life, but here we see the words merely being converted and maybe even trivialized into an image.
        Benjamin is taken in by Queenie (Ms. Henson), the caretaker of the old-age house, and there he grows, or un-grows, surprising everybody who assume he is afflicted with a sickness and would die a premature death. He meets new folks, old folks, who come to the home, stay for a while and die. Death is a part and parcel of everyday life around here. You got to appreciate the poetry, howsoever amateurish it may sound. Being born around death. This is the kind of commentary on life that gives art a bad name.
        He learns words, then sentences, and he learns everything we do about life. He learns about girls, meets Daisy, expresses the usual wonder about meeting the most beautiful creature in the world, and we realize he is well of his way to live his life, and his inevitable death.
        I wouldn’t divulge anymore secrets and I don’t need to either because this is quite an unimaginative script. One given to convenience rather than honest or any measure of insightful exploration. As we realize early Benjamin isn’t exactly being rewound through time. He is not unlearning. With him we aren’t really moving in the other direction. Mr. Fitzgerald’s story was of a man who was reversing both from inside and outside. That is a profound question. Here Mr. Fincher and Mr. Roth suck a major chunk of the gravity of this what-if by limiting his predicament to the outside, while on the inside he is still aging and experiencing like us. It is a terrible shame for they aren’t even posing a good question. So, at the end of it we do not necessarily have that much of a curiosity in Benjamin for his case is rather shallow. If there exist any doubts contrary to my claim have a look at the ending and see how conveniently the film defies its own little logic and attributes the characteristics of a little infant to Benjamin.
        What’s even more significant to note is the manner in which the film has its answers all ready. Rather than understanding a life, it goes about indulging in pretentious sermonizing. Through its beautifully fulfilled images (but strangely hollow) it already is preaching us to realize the significance of living in the moment and stuff like everybody is a curious case. It is appearing to be wise when it is only evading some much needed thinking and introspection. Summarizing is another thing that gives art a bad name.
        Look, as a race we’re crippled by a significant lack of imagination. So when we envisage aliens we imagine them as ourselves, humanizing them and lending them attributes that might otherwise exist only in us. What Mr. Fitzgerald has envisaged was a condition that is not entirely comprehensible to us. By lending him the same emotions and psychological complexities (of whatever few there are) the film is only trivializing him. There’s a relative velocity at work here the measure of which is way beyond the film’s understanding. A clever decision would have been to actually make the story of Benjamin Button a case. That is, to actually alter the vantage point of the narrative from I to Him. The awe factor could have been used, and the audiences’ imagination could have been stoked no end. To position us as the curious bystander and not him. It could actually have been an intellectual experience, with the film raising questions on our behalf and searching for answers throughout, rather than pre-answering it all. Look at the way the film shoves into our faces its remark of how funny fate can be via a scene involving a car mishap. In its tone and its details it feels inspired from the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia, but it feels horribly out of place.
        It gets the episodic structure right. We don’t really notice the changes in people we meet everyday, and nor do they in us. That way the film finds an excuse every now and then to evolve Benjamin on his reverse trajectory, and escape any difficulty on showcasing gradual change. The special effects and the make-up, as well done as they are, do fall apart in places. Ms. Blanchett's skin often feels as glossy as that of a brand new DVD with its plastic cover still intact, ready to be peeled, and the wrinkles feel way overdone. You needn’t look any farther than the old Thomas and see his make-up stick out. The major problem is that of the older (young in age) Benjamin and the manner in which his eyes blink. Like a fish. I remember Gollum unsettled me, and this one here felt like that.
        And when I invoke Gollum here, I discover that I might have more reasons than the eyes. Like than Jackson creature who is obsessed only with his precious, Benjamin here isn’t interested in anything other than women and sex. During all other experiences he feels removed. There’s no sense of wonder in him, even in places like Murmansk or beautiful Paris. He is the middle of the sea where bullets are being exchanged between his tugboat and a German U-Boat and still his reactions feel strangely cold. Does Mr. Fincher want to imply that Benjamin is inherently inhuman? He is capable of love, you see, but a major part of his life is drenched in low self-esteem that seems largely unexplored. For that matter there’re weird issues all over the map that the film simply evades by restricting Benjamin’s case to the exterior. And by inherently making him like us, the film suffers from a contradiction that it cannot find its way out of. Do I sense any kind of tension in the way the scriptwriter perceived his story and the filmmaker perceived his film? Is Mr. Pitt onto something that they both have overlooked? I don’t know. Or as I said, maybe it doesn’t even know it is in the middle of one. The way I see it is only a smug quest for mediocre drama. And somehow interpreting Benjamin’s life as a sum total of the women in his life. Equating a mother and a wife that literally is kinda dull. Somebody should give these folks a sense of humor.
        It is a beautiful film nonetheless. Special effects have seldom been used for a better purpose. One sure might be reminded of Forrest Gump. A chilling night in Murmansk and an aerial shot of Paris is breathtaking. Drifting around in the open sea is serene. Who cares if it feels empty or that Benjamin doesn’t really express his wonder? Mr. Fincher sure does know how to compose and fill a frame. It is a pity there was a better material. I wonder how Kubrick would have approached this subject. And how Hanks would have played it. One of the several questions that are on my mind right now. Pity the film doesn’t ask any of them.
        Oh yeah one more. Do Benjamins dream of Scarlett Johansson?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Best Movies of 2008

Albeit a bit late here's my list of the Best of 2008. Hope you share some of your favorites too. And here's to 2009. Cheers.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

HUNGER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Lohan
Director: Steve McQueen
Country: Ireland
Runtime: 94 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama, History

        I noted in my review of Delhi-6 that pursuing cinema for the sake of rhetorical issues is like trying to push the wall. Readers knowledgeable in physics would note that the net work done in the said case would amount to zero. Politics and issues by their very nature are generalizing in nature, and generalization by its very definition leaves the viewer largely untouched, uninterested and unstirred. As Mr. Ebert observes, the more specific a tale the more universal its resonance. Cinema, as most other art forms, works best when understanding humanity, and there’s no better way to that than understanding a human. Here I’m referring to synecdoche, one of the more effective of all tools at the disposal of any art form. Mr. Nolan used it most cunningly in The Dark Knight, where he stealthily placed symbols in place of actual human beings and actually manipulated us into believing we were witnessing a story about real characters in a real world, when all we were being shown was the idea of them and how they struggle in a real world.
        And now, in Hunger, director Mr. McQueen in his first film, exhibits as masterful a command of that tool as I’ve seen in recent times. Often what we see in cinema, in films like The Lives of Others and The Reader, is that the scale has been brought down to a human level but the ambitions and the issues still linger on at the generalized level. I state this not as a criticism but as an observation and my belief that the secret to the longevity of any work of art lay in its degree of specificity. The more the percentage of issue the more the chances of its aging. I believe I’m indulging in sweeping statements and I got to stop now that I have laid before you a fair idea of how Hunger approaches the last six weeks of IRA revolutionary Bobby Sands. It is one of the year’s great accomplishments, and in its unshaken belief in constraining the frame to Sands and the inner walls of the prison lays its immense profundity and timeless understanding of the very nature of protest.
        Let us get into specifics. Of course, to watch the film you really needn’t know anything about Bobby Sands (Mr. Fassbender), or the IRA, or Margaret Thatcher. There have been innumerable films on the revolution, just as there have been on the Holocaust, and just as there will be on Africa. Hunger isn’t one of those films, and in many ways it deconstructs both – those films and their politics. The complacent assumption that a protest brings change, that a protest is the right against a system that is the wrong, and all the romantic notions alluded by it. The revolutionary has always cut such a picture in our lives, so much so that it is politically correct to be on his side. How impossibly tough it is to be such an image, how lonely any sort of real protest is way beyond our comprehension and of many such films. Hunger finds Bobby Sands in that lonely world, far removed from any political upheaval, far from any opinions, far from any voice of support or comfort, as he alone struggles through his hunger strike. There’s nothing grand about it. It is all terribly lonely.
        We meet a guard (Mr. Lohan) at his home, his bruised knuckles cooling off in the sink. He gets ready for work, opens the gate, looks both sides, and looks for something underneath his car. We meet him at the prison where he is found sharing a joke with a bunch of other guards. We meet him again, in the bathroom, his knuckles smeared in fresh blood, and cooling themselves in the sink. The man shares with himself a smoke, and when we find him again amidst a crowd – this time during the lunch – he is lost within himself. We know how those bruises come. The revolutionary does get beaten up during a protest, and in that image we often seem to forget the one who has got the job of doing the beating. He has to bruise his knuckles, his heels, his stick and maybe chips off his soul. Beating prisoners day in and day out might be an irreversible process for a man.
        We meet a new revolutionary arrive to the prison, The Maze. In the prison the revolutionaries seek political status to differentiate them from the other criminals. They wouldn’t wear uniforms. That is their demand. Nobody gives a hoot in a hell about them. They’re left naked in a prison cell stinking with human excrement. We aren’t toured through these cells, and instead the film’s first act firmly chains itself within these walls, amidst these men, so that we gain a firm understanding of their predicament, and when we turn our eyes away we realize how pointless and shallow middlebrow cinema’s exercise of leveraging our emotions by grazing through scenes of brutality and violence is. Can on-screen violence, or sacrifice for that matter really stir us?
        Here we need to understand when portrayal of misery comes around to being kitschy and exploitative. I remember having a conversation with one of my friends post Irreversible, about the need to bludgeon audiences with extended images of violence, something akin to The Passion of the Christ. By putting us through the pain do we gain a greater empathy to the man in the latter, or the indescribable anguish of the woman in the former? As opposite to these films, what of those which merely show obligatory footage of pain and suffering so that we’re never left out of the confines of our comfort zone and can sit through them and ‘feel’? Do any of these two kinds of films help us gain a greater insight? The latter, exploitative, and of course no. The former, which dwell deep within their violence, actually and unknowingly highlight that it is impossible for the viewer to empathize to any predicament involving brutal violence. Or does it?
        Hunger, by the manner in which it presents this historical event and pulls it out of its time, asks such questions. The film marks us as an observer, always. It acknowledges that fact by always presenting both the sides. As Mr. McQueen remarks – “I identify with Raymond (guard) just as much as I identify with Bobby Sands. I identify with him because it's a situation where, no matter which side you're on, you have to make choices. He was a man doing his job." IRA men assassinate cops. The political angle of the larger picture is largely avoided. And what is paid attention to is the very act of human sacrifice. The film’s fulcrum lay in its second act, one of the year’s most brilliantly written, and brilliantly acted sequences of conversation. In a film with the sparsest amount of words, this is the only place where we learn about the ideas of these men. In particular of Bobby Sands. He decides to use his body as a political weapon. He decides to go on a hunger strike unto death, and Father Don Moran (Mr. Cunningham) argues the point of the whole idea. Pay attention to the fact that they just end up talking religion and Christ. Is it possible that the idea of sacrificing himself is frozen there? One can only wonder. Now that the IRA revolutionaries have fought their battle through violence, is turning that violence upon the self the answer to it all? Here, in another nod of acknowledgement of our observer status, we find ourselves staring at the debate between both the sides of the IRA from a singular seated vantage point. It is an extended sequence, and we see nihilism (from Sands) and love (from Father Moran) battle it out on the table between. It is a remarkable debut from a filmmaker we need to keep close eyes on.
        The film’s third act is the hunger. All we see is Sands slowly being wasted away during those 66 days. We see his sores, we see him vomit blood, we see his ribs hanging out and we find him all alone. If he were stirring up a movement or something, I’m not sure he could be aware, or he could draw strength from it. All he has is his belief, that he could be a symbol of change, and we can only admire the courage. For a man to be a symbol is a great contradiction in the first place. If we seek to dwell into the mythology of Batman, it is fascinating how it goes only half the distance in exploring how a man could offer everything that is individual to him and be the symbol for everyone. Because in our world, for a man to be a symbol that catalyzes, he has to be an individual too, with all the human flaws. The superheroes are two-dimensional, and hence they can afford to be symbolic. But a man to be a leader and hope to catalyze a whole movement with his act, when that act is willful destruction of the body, is something that springs a thousand questions. It is easy to gain fame and popular respect by such an act, but can it bring about a change? Can any sort of human sacrifice really? Hunger raises all these questions. How? By portraying Sands as anybody for its entire length, right unto his death, and then appending through a post-text the effect of his act and placing it into a context and making him the somebody he was. I’m reminded of R.K. Narayan’s Guide. And I’m still not sure about Hunger, except that I need to dwell into it more.

Monday, February 23, 2009

MILK: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch
Director: Gus Van Sant
Runtime: 129 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Drama, Biopic

        As a viewer it is tough to find a stake in Milk. Oh no, it doesn’t pertain to the question of orientation at all. I’m one of the great lovers of Brokeback Mountain, and part of that film’s appeal lay in the universality of its tale. Milk, on the other hand, is so particular about its world and issues that it gets locked within its little territory – the United States. I don’t cite that as a drawback but as an observation, and hopefully as a reason for my utter disinterest in the entire enterprise. I’m not sure the issue of gay rights is nearly a pressing matter in my life, and I believe my opinion of the film ought to be considered with some amount of circumspection as a result. I admit here, when I watched Milk I was still in the grasp of Rachel Getting Married. I still am. That sure does speak about me as a viewer, but I also believe that does speak a bit about the movie in question.
        This feels like a personal project to many, and for reasons I now realize, to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black the most. I look at his filmography on IMDb and I see that one of his earlier films The Journey of Jared Price, which is about a young man’s sexual awakening. I learn it from the Plot Summary here. If it has autobiographical elements I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s Gus Van Sant, one of our best directors, and I believe the spirit and beliefs of Harvey Milk do resonate within him too. It shows in the film and its dedicated adherence to vociferously fight for these rights, and as a viewer sitting here in India I can only admire. You see Milk is a film that is so conventionally and predictably well-made that there’s nothing I can really insightful I can say. If I would claim that the film seamlessly moves from authentic footage to the movie stock, and that the cinematography employs a palette that reminds me of the 70s (shades of orange and brown to the frame and partially soft images, i.e. sharpness toned down), if I would claim that the movie employs a involving and clear narrative, if I would claim that the performances are all top class, and if I would claim that Mr. Elfman’s score is moving, I would be stating facts and rhetoric more than citing my opinion. And that kind of exercise doesn’t excite me much. Milk is the exact kind of good film that I don’t find anything worthy to discuss with you, and while I write the review it feels more like a chore than the enjoyable and learning exercise it usually is.
        See, for what it strives, Milk hits all the right spots, and I understand that for those who are concerned about the political issue this film sure would mean a lot. It seeks change, and there’re a host of liberals stung by the bee that is the current U.S. President. Thus I seek other’s opinions and I see that even those who have loved the film do not have anything interesting to say other than to fall in paying homage to Mr. Milk. And some salute Mr. Penn, which again is a performance from the man. Every bit of skill that is implied by that word is to be found in his performance. It is his best work to date, no doubt, but ultimately it feels like work. I don’t know but Mr. Penn has always felt to me as an actor who makes me aware of his craft, and that basically boils down to difference in school of thought. But there’s no denying Mr. Penn disappears into Harvey Milk, and there’re moments where you wouldn’t be able to keep yourself from clapping at his immense talent. One of the most gifted actors of the generation. Unfortunately my definition of acting sounds a bit different. Never mind. I say again this is a super well made film. The performances, from Mr. Brolin, Mr. Franco are all superb. Only that I cannot make myself care enough. Milk is an American film.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

DELHI-6: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Om Puri
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Runtime: 140 min. (citation needed)
Rating: Zero Stars
Genre: Drama, Romance, Comedy

        Delhi-6 lies a million miles beyond being mere awful. It is offensively awful, so bad that a legislation ought to be passed and all patrons be refunded their money, and the time. And the experience, in particular, so that the movie is somehow unwatched in our minds. It is a horrendous miscalculation, just a step below a sin, to envisage that there will be audiences willing to consider this flimsy excuse worthy of their weekend night out. For that matter any night out, or noon or morning. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to burn the prints altogether. A lot of trouble and pain will be saved. Not a single moment of it is worthy of a movie. For that matter, pulling out your own mobile and spinning it crazily all around you capturing everything in that little video camera would be a more worthwhile exercise. Repeat that ten times, watch them all at once, and I assure you that what you would watch would be considerably more fun that Delhi-6.
        For one Mr. Mehra seems to have been conveyed all the wrong messages post his success from Rang De Basanti, a film I hold in high regard but not for its ideological stance, which I believe is a mess. Its politics is utter rhetoric, self contradictory and just doesn’t hold up to any sort of examination. Where its unquestionable strength lay was its emotional power, which was often raw, and often downright manipulative. What else could be made out of the obligatory killings at the end, which make perfect sense during the film, but reveal the inherent strategy once the film is put under the scanner? Such ambitions lay at the heart of Delhi-6 too, one which feels silly and adolescent than anything else.
        So Mr. Mehra indulges himself in political and sociological grandstanding once again, and this time at the expense of characters, which are nothing more than caricatures uttering supposedly-funny one liners. There seems to be a streak of filmmaking that seems to be paying more attention on message than anything else, and it needs to be understood that there’s no replacing a story. The story, the narrative is paramount, will always be. Of course, Mr. Mehra’s messages are stupid, and embarrassingly dumb and simple-minded. Often I meet people, who during a conversation, ask me – Why do countries wage war? And I make it a point to laugh in their faces. This film is worse.
        But there’s another dimension to Mr. Mehra’s films and sensibilities that kinda bother me. I call it the post-westernized Indianization, where the concerned afflicted turns his eyes towards his own surroundings out of some guilt. I’m not sure I understand the reason for that guilt, but the symptom to be sought is that the concerned after years of doting on things he loved (songs, films, literature) from the west now decides that India is the place to be discovered, so that he is less of a hypocrite and the credibility is enhanced? I don’t know, but the westernized mise-en-scene of Aks, the western element (Sue) turning up and catalyzing meandering youth, and now the western returned Indian discovering his country and falling in love with the strangeness of it does give me ample evidence. Indians make it work is one terrible line, but it needs to be heard again and again for what it says about the speaker and the writer than for what it is actually saying. There’s a wealth of inferences to be had there. That ‘India is special’ gaze that is so peculiar to westernized viewpoint runs through Mr. Mehra’s filmmaking, and it shows in quite a lot of places now. Not just in this film, but around you and me. We just cannot be nonchalant, can we? Never mind, for I do not intend to bother you with discourse now.
        The thing is I do not want to say anything about the film or its plot, and my reason is two-fold. First it would be punishment revisited, and two if I told you wouldn’t want to go. Of course the latter, if I achieve, would be a service to mankind. But then I stand selfish and do not intend to bring pain upon me again. See, there’s nothing worthwhile anybody can really say about the film apart from finding novel ways of saying awful. That word said a thousand times might create an apt description for a potential viewer, and hopefully install within him the dread. Not just to stay away but spread the good word and be a noble neighbor. It is awful filmmaking, with often no sense about it. We once knelt before Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost to honor the incalculable degree of its awfulness. Were it not for the odd positioning of our seats, I believe Delhi-6 more than deserves our bow. So Delhi-6, and Mr. Mehra, take a bow. I cannot fathom how a film can be any worse.

Friday, February 20, 2009

VALKYRIE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp
Director: Bryan Singer
Runtime: 120 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Thriller, History

        Valkyrie is the kind of World War II thriller we no longer seem to make. It is a movie about men taking matters into their own hands, and director Mr. Singer honors those men by making it feel masculine. It is a movie given to swift sure strokes, one that is given to action than to ponder over it. There’s a reason it is a bare-bones genre thriller rather than a more dramatic rendition of history. Because dramas, by their very structure, are feminine in nature, always depicting and often highlighting the weakness (feminine) of the soul. Given the context, i.e. WW II, we’ve been increasingly prone to making somber reflections so much that every film based on it seems feminine by default. In its relentless tension, breakneck pace and eruptive narration Valkyrie is pure macho filmmaking. One should remember that the director-screenwriter combo here, Mr. Singer and Mr. Christopher McQuarrie, created one of the more masculine films in The Usual Suspects.
        Time is of essence here. For these men. The Nazi Army is on the defense and if Germany is to be saved from humiliation not a moment is to be wasted. That is why I maintain there’s no other way the film could have gone other than being a thriller. That it is one isn’t incidental. And that it is one is imperative. The objective is to get rid of Hitler, and his cronies. We’re already aware they failed the July 20th briefcase bomb attempt, and if one’s a lover of history the details of the attempt would be part of the awareness too. The film follows these facts closely, as much as I can say, dramatizing only occasionally. But in doing so it never does betray a sense of inevitability, a sense of fatalism to the proceedings. It believes it can alter the course of history, just like its men, it harbors the ambition of a juggernaut and it is purposeful to that effect, and we are intrigued and engrossed.
        I’ll not lay out the details of the plot, both of the film and the attempt, and instead I’ll hope you’ll figure them out for yourselves. From the film that is. And marvel at how these men almost willed the tide to change its direction. They do not speak anything other than the plot because there’s no time to digress. No time for small-talk. To ensure that they are men, and not machines, they assure themselves by citing to each other that their action will ensure history will not pass blanket statements and opinions over an entire generation. It isn’t designed to present history, it is designed to try and be the minds of these men. Any attempt to understand these men would be wrong. No time for that. Certainly not the place for that. This is one of the best thrillers of the year, one of its most well made, and that is a fact as plain as the history in question here. And it is one of its most stylish, a taste for which Mr. Singer seems to have in spades.
        Consider how forceful the film is shot. The film almost pushes close-ups into our faces, and often pushes us into the middle of the action. There’s a sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings, a sense of headrush. There’s a palpable sense of daze through which the film marches with breakneck pace. There are individual sequences given to silence, maybe to provide calm, but they’re caught up with each other in a mesh of events so thick that everything around feels turbulent.
        One of the film’s great secrets is its robust editing, which goes a long way in setting the overall tone. Scenes ram into each other. Every which way. Not a moment feels fluid. It feels like the parts of a machine, which once powered on, move ahead to get the job done. The job almost is when Claus Von Stauffenberg (Mr. Cruise) plants the briefcase bomb in Hitler’s meeting room. It is a sequence worthy of the best of Hitchcock, and it is executed so brilliantly that one viewing isn’t entirely enough. I’ll be watching the film again and that particular scene will be part of what I intend to study. I hope to gain a firmer opinion of matters.
        There aren’t many actors who can stare into the face of apparent danger like Mr. Cruise and not blink an eye. Mr. Cruise stares back. He might even appear resolutely dispassionate. We’re never aware of the weakness inside the man. It is as steely an exterior as there has ever been. And in many ways he embodies the film, and they both lend each other their characteristics so that the two blur beyond any recognition. It is one heck of a performance. I’m reminded of Lee Marvin and The Dirty Dozen. I believe Valkyrie is what we need. Now that Mr. Tarantino is indulging himself in Inglorious Basterds I think I have reason to be hopeful that the good old glory days of the World War II thriller are back. A world where the professional male is both professional and male. And God I love that.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The 81st Academy Award Predictions.

My predictions for the 81st Academy Awards is right here. Just check if your crystal ball is any good.

Monday, February 16, 2009

THE STONEMAN MURDERS: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Arbaaz Khan, Vikram Gokhale, Rukhsar, Veerendra Saxena
Director: Manish Gupta
Runtime: 100 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Horror

        The Stoneman Murders is what few films based on serial killers are – it is scary. Debutant filmmaker Mr. Gupta along with director of photography Mr. Srikant Naroj, who is a first-timer himself, creates a densely atmospheric thriller, one which unravels mostly during nighttime. It is mostly set in places that are secluded, in a Mumbai which seems barren and lonely, and the street lights providing a hazy cage within the surrounding pitch black darkness. That he provides some daylight in between, and an item song for that matter, work as some sort of a welcome relief from the tension that is strung around, and I believe any such digression of the latter kind ought not to be mulled over very much.
        Set in the 1980s, almost two decades since Raghav Raman bludgeoned over 40 pavement dwellers to death, The Stoneman Murders finds the Mumbai in the grip of another such prowler. This is far removed from the dense overcrowded Mumbai we have come to see of late in Hindi films, lit bright in high noon sunlight. This is a dark city, prone to creepy forests, and there aren’t too many people around either. In a way Mr. Gupta’s Mumbai is much like Christopher Nolan’s Los Angeles in Memento, rid of any crowd, and rid of any sounds. We feel alone, and in the orange halo of the streetlights (and artificial lighting) we feel kinda locked ourselves. This is quite a smartly shot film with tight frames making quite a commendable usage of close-ups. So tight that on more than one occasion we find ourselves reaching out to see beyond the edges for we fear the unknown lurking around, in the dark, outside the light, outside the frame.
        In such a world we meet inspector Sanjay (Mr. Menon), who seems at first to be the proverbial bad cop. He is much more, in a way, and the film subtly highlights this truth by juxtaposing a custodial death at the hands of Sanjay with the first of the Stoneman murders. Pay attention to how the dead bodies lay, flat on the ground. The film doesn’t merely stop at questioning the difference between the two men, Sanjay and the Stoneman that is, but it goes a long way in blurring the lines between the two. Quite a few such hints are provided along the way, which seem to allude to the nature and success of these crimes. You might apply what Mr. Ebert calls the Law of Economy of Character Development, which teaches us that when an important actor is used in an apparently subordinate role, he's the villain. But even then the film has more than one trick up its sleeve to keep you involved and on your edge.
        We meet Sanjay’s wife Manali (Ms. Rukhsar, Sarkaar) and I heard a collective jaw drop amongst the audience. She is gorgeous, so gorgeous that it could be cited as a flaw. I mean, you don’t have a glowing Madhuri Dixit cooling her heels in a hut unless it is a fantasy sequence from Dharavi. For no particular reason we’re even shown a sequence where she walks out of the bath and changes here dress. I believe there might be a deeper reasoning for this. A smart manner to manipulate its audiences. It is a minor role, and if an actress looking more the part of a common woman, or even if Ms. Rukhsar herself had such make up applied on her, I’m not sure many in the audiences would have noticed. Ms. Gracy Singh’s minor turn in Gangajal does come to mind. Here, by making her visible everybody was more than aware of her, and what she loses in time, she gains in effectiveness. So when the time comes, the film draws leverage from this very fact and we as an audience shudder at the prospect of any sort of harm falling upon this beautiful a creature. We care, and here I speak of every member of the audience I shared the screening with, we really cared. I believe that is a major success for Mr. Gupta and a trick damn well played.
        But of course, some elements of the script could be classified under the term “loopholes”. And there’re quite a few. What is of paramount importance is that the film involves us so much that we feel engaged and each and every move it makes registers against our scanner, and is processed. The narrative is always clear, precise, and it schemes out quite a predicament of circumstantial evidence. I will not divulge matters here but I would like to observe here that the film isn’t one prone to stupid last-minute tricks. Instead it believes in carefully constructing a trick so that we’re always aware, but we’re engrossed because the characters in the film aren’t. I believe such kind of work calls for respect.
        Mr. Menon is flat out superb. That uneasy smile he so often uses to evade is fascinating to watch. It is a film that essentially revolves around him, and that for many I believe is cause for relief. He runs around in narrow shirts, sleeves folded, and a bell bottom – just enough to cut a picture of the time. Often you might think that the film is trying too hard to shove its era, with a thousand posters and often a Digjam board with a young Shekar Kapur, but it ought to be considered that the film is only trying to compensate for what it is trying to build through the color palette, which isn’t remotely alluding to the eighties in any way, and effective for that very reason. Often by archiving the film in its time period, filmmakers tend to lose the gravity of its present. Here, that trap is wisely avoided.
        I want to keep coming to the lights, providing the very feel of those erstwhile bulbs which emanated the yellow light rather than the present street lights lit white. I am reminded of Byomkesh Bakshi, and I believe such kind of lighting provides for a sense of claustrophobia. White lighting feels like a sense of safety, especially when it diffuses so neatly into the night. Not here, and that is why you dread the fact that such a man does exist outside the perimeter of your vision. Speaking of which a sequel, Byomkesh Bakshi style, wouldn’t be a bad idea in anyway.

Friday, February 13, 2009

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George
Director: Jonathan Demme
Runtime: 114 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Drama

        What I’ll start with is a recommendation. Wait, maybe I’ve already done that when I consider Rachel Getting Married a masterpiece. But then, just in case, and for insurance I say again - you should watch even if you don’t watch movies. For some odd reason I’m not aware of, I feel complete. I don’t know if that is to make sense but I loved Rachel Getting Married way beyond all sense.
        Let us do try and make some sense out of what I feel anyway. So, Rachel is getting married. That is the big occasion. A celebration of a lifetime. But then, when are weddings not. I have seldom found myself in weddings, except for my brother’s, and yet I believe a wedding is a more special occasion for a woman than a man. Bear with me before you raise your argumentative spears, for I only speak relatively. It is special for both but more so for the bride. I guess that is one of those notions I carry around within me. And from where I look, there’s not a more eventful place to be in the wedding than to be in Rachel’s camp. That is where the film places us, along with Kym (Ms. Hathaway), in a home teeming with folks from everywhere. Kym arrives from drug rehab, several months into her treatment, and this short visit to her sister’s wedding is a minor homecoming for her. Maybe minor’s not the word, not for Kym at least, and when you do watch the film be considerate enough to supply the right one if you do happen to come across it.
        Rachel is doing a degree in psychology. She is marrying the love of her life, Sidney (Mr. Adebimpe) a lover of music, and he hails from Hawaii. Ms. Hathaway has been nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Actress category. That information might lead you to believe the film is about her character, despite the title. At an apparent level that is true. This family – Rachel, Kym, their father Paul (Mr. Irwin) and their step-mother Carol (Ms. Smith) – they all are dealing with their lives. We all are. Most of us have the proverbial elephant in the room staring at us. Even minor ones go a long way in leaving an indelible impression on the collective experience of a family. The problem is here the elephant is larger in size, so large that it isn’t the elephant no more.
        A friend of mine whose opinion I often seek and respect much was bothered a bit by the extended detailing of the marriage, which like Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, or Robert Altman’s A Wedding (Mr. Altman is paid tribute in the end credits) is indeed set during the course of a wedding ceremony. Here, the movie almost reinvents the usage of the hand-held first-person camera. It plays out like a cross between a marriage video and, as Mr. Ebert points out so rightly here, an experience at one of those weddings we all have visited at some point in our lives. Not since Janusz Kaminski masterwork in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan have I witnessed a more judicious usage of such visual style, where we do not feel our head spinning but instead feel the rush of life and energy all around us. There’s remarkable application of shallow focus, and rarely have I seen such accomplished direction of our view through means of angles and alternating the focus. We see folks, we meet folks and they feel real. As in, not characters filling up the frame, but one of flesh and blood. We’re in a crowd, you see, and how to make some sense out of it is left to us. The film does it on our behalf, by including us as a member of the bride’s family. It has a big warm heart and that flows through every vein of the film and every choice it makes.
        I believe the marriage and the celebrations involved are the film’s great strength. This is a joyous occasion. The most special one. One of those for which a chunk of a lifetime is spent working towards, in quite a number of ways. This is where the humanity of the film comes in, with all its vitality, and for this moment, it reduces the size of the elephant. Because this is Rachel’s day, and only hers. And the family’s. These folks deserved it. Most of us do. That is why I believe this film, at its heart, is all about Rachel.
        I’m deeply affected by Rachel. It is the morning of her wedding, and there’s a deeply moving sequence where she bathes a hazmat Kym, and dresses her even before she dresses herself. In its purity and raw power I was reminded of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. I’m also reminded of my brother and a little incident that happened at his wedding. It was big, my brother in another world, I’m one of those who reveres his elder sibling, and I was more eager for him than he was. Our relatives were all there, so many of them. It was the night before the big day, we were sleeping, and the phone rang and one of our older uncles from the maternal front, who had a bad medical past, was having trouble with his health. Everyone was alarmed and we feared the worst. The doctor came, checked him and asked him to rest, and mentioned it to both the father’s it had the potential to be serious, and that a hospital was the place for him. He slept, we all returned to our homes, it was three in the morning, and in a moment that I’ll always regret I cursed him. For turning up and potentially ruining my brother’s wedding. My brother heard, and he took me inside, sat on a bed and spoke to me at length, not mentioning once about how wrong I was, but how generous it was of my uncle to turn up even in this state of health. I’ll always remember it for the rest of my life. That moment when I was selfish because I felt I had the right to be selfish. I believe Rachel, on this day, can afford to be selfish, and reason is her wedding. That she does, and doesn’t, fascinates me no end. She is one of those characters I would love to know, and it is one of the great performances of the year. It is no common feat to use smile to express anguish. And I wouldn’t want to dwell any further and speak of in terms of such techniques, except to say almost every performance is truthful, and anything that comes their way couldn’t have felt more deserving.
        Mr. Demme presents this predicament with amazing compassion and understanding. He doesn’t take sides, not even a moment of his film resorts to judging any of the sisters or for that matter any of other the characters, and he gives them a free rein. His people seem to have been etched out of life, and once we get to feel them and observe them, it really doesn’t matter who they are or if we know them at all. That they are there alone is reassuring. There doesn’t seem to be a single false moment in the entire picture, and even the potential ones are handled with a feel of reality. I wondered if the film was autobiographical, and I set out to research a bit. Before that I happened to cross to Mr. Ebert’s review, and there I see his own acknowledgement of that doubt. I well up, I read on, and I learn that the screenwriter Jenny Lumet, who is the daughter of the great Sidney Lumet, does have an elder sister Amy, who is a sound editor. How much of the film is based on Ms. Jenny’s I have no idea, but I choose to believe such truth that drips from every moment, each of which seems to have been felt, cannot be a product of mere writing. Rarely have sibling relationships found such deep reflection at the movies.
        With Rachel Getting Married, Mr. Demme finally displays again that immense depth of understanding he has for his characters, which he displayed in his early films. Melvin and Howard does come to mind. He is one of those rare filmmakers whose liberal sense doesn’t feel contrived in any way but an inherent part of him. They feels honest and truthful when he makes them. This might be his greatest work to date, and I say that because the way he chooses to end his film. It is a special sequence, one which I believe the great Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky would have been proud of, one which combines music and visuals to create life and its moments. One which mean nothing except that they exist, and that alone is a cause for celebration. The film is too, and as it end credits passed along, I felt a strange feeling of vacuum, as if a special moment was past us. I cried like a baby, and I was so scared I watched the film again.
        What I’ll end with is another note of recommendation. If you have planned one film for this weekend, or for the month, or even as much as the whole year, make it this one. If you intend to watch just one film from 2008 I believe this is it. Yeah, yeah, I know that other elephant in the room. And chances are, you would have watched that flipping truck thing with one freak inside and one freak outside. So let it be cast aside, for this day this hour is all about Rachel Getting Married. It is so good, and here’s where I am out on a limb and beg, that you owe it to yourself to watch this film, because it is so good, because its bond of love is so pure and because you deserve it. In every which way. And some.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

EN LA CIUDAD DE SYLVIA (IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA): MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Xavier Lafitte, Pilar López de Ayala
Director: José Luis Guerín
Country: Spain
Language: French, Spanish
Runtime: 121 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Avant-garde

        Back in the city where I did my graduation from, there was this little South Indian joint that used to have this beautiful girl frequent for a breakfast or a lunch. She was from another college, and we never got around to know anything about her, not even her name, but during that time she was one of the more pleasant constants of our world. We would pass the joint, and we wouldn’t slither at her one of those lustful gazes males are often prone too, but a gaze of the respectful adoration she seemingly deserved. She was beautiful, and none of us friends, even now, would choose any other word to describe her. College passed, cities elapsed, and four years kinda zipped by us. Now that I recount all of it, I observe her presence in our lives was so feeble she didn’t cross any of our minds even once. I visited the city this October, after all those four years, and as I pass the joint, guess what flashes in my mind and what my eyes seek instinctively? I elbow my friend, look towards the joint and he approves. In that city, and in that joint, she has been locked in our memories forever.
        In the City of Sylvia persuades me to share this with you, not because the film is some romantic quest in some obscure European town lit bright in the ten o’clock sun. It sure does start off with such a promise but loops and spirals into something infinitely deeper, and maybe a bit scary. I wake up this morning, and overnight the film seems to have infested itself within me, like experiences so often do. They grow beyond their memory. The film reminded me of this little brushing incident, and then pushed me in a corner. What kind of corner, I’ll explain.
        The narrative is separated into three sections, rather three nights, whose arrival is announced by means of placards. But almost all of it happens during the day. Upon the announcement of the first night, we see a man sitting on a bed with large dreamy eyes lost in reverie in broad daylight. He notes something in his little notebook, which we learn later is a record of sorts of his young bohemian life. We see him next sitting on a bench in one of those European outdoors café with the ten o’clock sun bouncing off everything. Sitting alone. In a corner. How often does the loner assume the role of an observer in a crowd, position himself in a corner, removed from it and exercise his voyeuristic instincts to see and pry? The young man observes with a searching glance, until the sound of a broken cup shakes him from his little indulgence.
        The next moment announces the arrival of the second night, and we see the man sitting in the same café, indulging himself in the same little voyeuristic exercise, and this time the crowd is thicker. He finds himself another corner, creating a neat little personal space, and he addresses his little indulgence again. Is it just a light little exercise for passing his time? We learn the answer, and much more in what is an extended sequence, and Mr. Guerín here creates a masterpiece, both at a philosophical level and how that philosophy guides each and every formal element. Not a word is spoken, for that matter hardly any is in what is at its heart a silent film. Why is it silent? Because it is about the gaze, it is about seeing. From a removed vantage point.
        There are two frames, or POVs, at work here. One’s the cinematic third-person objective gaze, and the other is the man’s subjective romantic gaze. The word romantic ought to be considered in its larger context, for all subjective/imaginative views/gazes are inherently romantic where we append our own notions and fantasies to faces and people we never know. You would appreciate here your own memories of such fleeting voyeuristic indulgences. For a moment be reminded of the day in the mall, or at the movie theatre, where you strolled leisurely, but always positioning yourself for that removed (both horizontally and vertically, and by vertically I mean both in the literal and figurative sense) vantage point. You notice people’s little habits, you notice them talking, you notice their little mannerisms, you notice how they see, you notice how they look, you notice what they wear, and you judge (both positively and negatively). But for most of us it is just a fleeting moment.
        What about the man who indulges himself with a sense of interest? Rear Window sure does come to mind, and that is not the only Hitchcock film that one is reminded of. Those gawking observations when stretched too far might fill your life with those of the crowd, so much so that it might become a purpose, an obsession. Here, we might find ourselves removed physically, but no longer is that the case emotionally. That is what cinema is after all, a gradual transformation from that detached gaze to one seeking purposeful indulgence into other people’s lives. When that happens, how that happens one doesn’t realize, but we always seek such pleasures, and how we try to find a way around anything not eye candy. The young man’s gaze find the more attractive younger woman in focus, and the older women are evaded by casting them out of focus. How masterfully Mr.Guerín orchestrates this little predicament is one that can only be discovered. Words often fall flat.
        The young man’s gaze catches a young woman, and as she leaves the café, he pursues her. He believes she is the Sylvie he has been seeking, the Sylvie he met six years ago in this very city. He starts following her. Streets pass, curve, loop and the following becomes a case of stalking. But here, one ought to consider who the victim is. In our real world, when a female is being stalked, it is she who’s the victim. For a moment consider the guy who indulges in such activity not to mean any harm but to merely embroil himself more and more into her, and his frame of mind, and how arrested it might be. Mr. Sicinski, of the Academic Hack, in an insightful observation in his review here notes how Mr.Guerín turns the tables in the male-stalking-female (literally and figuratively) equation over the mastery of space. There is the world in cinema where the female being pursued desperately tries to hide in corners and veer into blind alleys but she always ends up being caught by the male, who she is never able to shirk away. But here, in this world, which seems to be speaking for some modern feminist (as against a gender-equal) society, the male loses her in those labyrinthine streets. Why it is not gender-equal is because it cannot be, because it might be fundamentally impossible. There always comes the question of the male gaze, and all he brings to the table as an observer. Especially his desires. In the City of Sylvia is a film, I believe, would be appreciated by the male viewer, and all I ask of them is, are we looking at the man or with the man. But I wonder how the female viewer might perceive it. What I fear the most is the “I was bored” reaction.
        The casting choice for the man is one immensely interesting. Mr. Lafitte, with his feeble presence, his lost eyes and ridiculously thin framework is almost completely feminine, such that it immediately draws around itself an air of vulnerability. He stalks, and one might be remembered of Vertigo. It is important to consider where that kind of obsession leads to. The casting of the woman is some sort of a masterstroke too. Ms. Ayala, with her earthly glow, is one of those beauties who immediately command a degree of respect as against a degree of lust.
        The final sequence at the tramway stop is another thoughtfully conceptualized insight. Women, lots of them, are almost hurled at the man, and us. In that moment we seem to be one with him, and we are caught in what is a whirlwind of mostly attractive women. So many of them, and as the wind blows their hair, the pages of the man’s little notebook, with all the sketches and notes, flutter too. You should see what’s peculiar to all the sketches. You know what? That girl I talked about, I don’t even remember her face. What I do remember is the idea of her. For some reason that is what scares me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

REVANCHE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss
Director: Götz Spielmann
Country: Austria
Language: German, Russian
Runtime: 117 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama

        It is pretty hard to describe Revanche. There’s so much precision here that it is disconcerting. And when a film is so stubbornly determined not to take a stance but merely observe and record, it gets all the more unnerving. One would need to go back to No Country for Old Men territory to witness such masterful filmmaking, and even there, in that 2007 Best Picture Oscar Winner, one could feel the Coen brothers’ showing off their awesome technical prowess. No such thing here, and Mr. Spielmann is so precise he doesn’t even want to get noticed. If someone were to come up and tell me Mr. Spielmann was quite brilliant is mathematics, and especially loved deriving formula and theories, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit. The writing is perfect, the framing exact, and the editing clean as a whistle. I don’t remember when extended scenes of wood being chopped have been so powerful – both in its observation of the emotional content and the narrative motivation. Just about every genre item is checked, but it is all done with so much thought and rationale behind it all feels new. You might wonder where the flaw lay. I feel it might lay in its flawlessness.
        The film is matter-of-fact, so to speak, but then it isn’t indifferent. How on earth it maintains its compassion and respect for its characters without once lending a shoulder of artifice (a melodramatic score, an easy way out for emotion) is quite astonishing. It is patient, yes, very patient. So patient that even though some of its developments are predictable, the detailed and gradual manner in which the narrative unravels itself ends up feeling anything but that. Not even a moment in the film is standing on thin ice, and everything is firmly based – one leg in narrative logic, the other in human motivation. Revanche is so masterful, and yet so removed than most films of such kind that you might actually feel helpless. You would want to seek some sort of emotional catharsis, and the film doesn’t intend to supply you any in any sort of easy way. The film, one feels, has earned it all through exacting devotion to its story, and intends that its audience not fall prey to any easy sentiments, but instead earn it too by continued devotion to contemplating the various lives on record here.
        I say Revanche is a wholly imaginative rendition of Hollywood thrillers, and some other genres. And it is, by quite a country mile. The thing to observe is it isn’t having it any easy on the character front either. By basing them in unusual situations and backgrounds, at least to me, it provides them with motivations that feel all the more organic. Consider Alex (Mr. Krisch), who works for Konecny (Mr. Pöschl), a prostitute dealer in Vienna. He hails from the village, and is a pretty neat worker. He is in love with Tamara (Ms. Potapenko), a bright young prostitute in that brothel/hotel, and it is remarkable how understanding they are towards each other. It is the kind of relationship with the kind of dynamics that you ponder over the complexities of, and juxtapose against it the overt simplification provided by most other generic films. The Wrestler, with its simplified generalizations, sure does spring to mind. There sure might be a subtle streak of restlessness to Tamara and Alex’s relationship, but Revanche never does suggest anything. All it does is observe. It is we, with our pre-conceived notions and limited understanding of how practicalities of life co-exist, who apply questions to it.
        Now Tamara sounds like one of those Russian names. I believe she hails from Ukraine. All she wants is smoothness in life. Konecny offers her a promotion, from a prostitute on the streets to a call-girl working out from a posh flat among high profile clientele. She isn’t interested, and Tamara and Alex take a decision. Alex, on the other hand has plans. You ought to see how unassumingly the film reveals the road map of this plan even before Alex lays it down before Tamara. I now feel it might be the one moment where Revanche actually suggests, but I might be wrong. The camera follows Alex riding a bike through a lonely road amongst the woods before it stops just for the briefest moment to consider a little Jesus crucifix made out of a couple of planks, and I still haven’t been able to understand if that one moment is of suggestion or observation.
        There’s another couple who live in the village Alex hails from. There’s Robert (Mr. Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ms. Strauss), and they both haven’t been able to have a baby. She has just had a miscarriage. He works as a cop down in the city, she is a housewife. He is athletic, and a competent marksman. She is a regular visitor to the church. These lives intersect, and much in my usual manner, I leave you to discover how, with the same hope that you would, for this is one of the year’s best films. I believe when I use the word ‘intersect’, it might have conjured up images derived from a million movies, where storylines feel tweaked. Revanche is whole different filmmaking.
        Much acclaim has been laid over Mr. Reygadas film Silent Light, and it supposed deep spiritual undertones, and I suggested how pretentious and dull that film was. Here’s the deal, straight out. Revanche is spiritual without once mentioning God, without once raising obvious questions, and without once stating its themes explicitly. It seems to have lived life, and its pace suggests that. The conundrums in which the characters and we find ourselves in aren’t one for an easy description. We’re always aware of all the equations, and in that way we’re forced to observe with no hint of bias towards any character. I use the word equation very carefully, because the film earns that little word as a virtue. Look how it stages its scenes where its characters are not alone in the frames, but almost always in pairs in a film almost exclusively given to two-shots. This is remarkable filmmaking we’re talking about here, and when the whole story is laid bare before us, all we, as jury members, can do is ponder endlessly. You might not feel much for any character, but you sure to understand them. The former, I believe, most films manage, the latter, some films, but ones which accomplish the latter without the leverage of the former are rare. Understand the depth of the motivation behind their actions, for not one of them is uni-dimensional.
        The tagline on the IMDb page for the film reads – Whose fault is it if life doesn’t go your way? – and it is one of those question marks you would be forced to consider for quite a long while after the film is over. Come to think of it, it might be a wrong question for it isn’t about anybody’s fault either. It is just, well, what it is. Mr. Spielmann creates such a multi-layered and complex equation here that it requires more of an intellectual approach than an emotional one, but both nonetheless. Who does what, and why, might have been answered by the narrative, but there are larger questions, or rather observations on life that it is just all too ambiguous. And when I say ambiguous, I do not mean at the narrative level for that is as sparkling and clear as a crystal. What we do, and why, we always know. But why stuff happens is always the question, isn’t it?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

DEV D: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Abhay Deol, Mahie Gill, Kalki Koechlin
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Runtime: 160 min. (Citation needed)
Rating: **
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical

        Dear reader, I might have said it before but I wish to admit it again just for the sake of the moment – I cannot stand ghazals for their self-important tragic ramble beats me. The previous versions of Devdas I have seen (Mr. Raghavaiah’s in 1953, Mr. Roy’s in 1955 and Mr. Bhansali’s in 2002) but not enjoyed much, for they follow that same tired arc, which I either manage only to be repulsed by or end up snickering at. I never could manage to be caught up in the objective passion with which those filmmakers narrated the doom, and instead I would be left standing outside half-clueless and half-amused, not feeling for the guy but instead judging him for the pathetic and stupid loser he was. For that matter I admit, I happen to judge most of the guys inside and outside of ghazals. So for sure, I believe now I might not be the ideal kind of audience for any sort of rendition of the Devdas universe. So that is the kind of slate I would like to start our discussion on.
        What does Mr. Kashyap bring to the table? The same tired third person condescending view which I share for the character but don’t make a huge fuss about. The film does, and I choose to believe that is a problem. Devdas, in all his forms (I haven’t read the book and I hope I never do either), is a man as much blowing in the winds of his fate as he is singing to the tunes of his own self. We all do, and he does too. The difference is we take it in our stride, he doesn’t. Guess he’s too full of himself for that, and this kind of loss to fate brushes him the most wrong manner possible. So, puking on him, and making a jab at deconstructing one of Indian culture’s long-standing piece are the only things up the film’s sleeve? As a matter of fact, yes, it is. Does it trivialize him, subjectively, which I believe is the film’s main ambition? Oh yeah.
        Dev D isn’t as much about narrating a tale as it is about asking you to observe how it derides him, and in the process slide in some kind of messages for us. (The previous films were narrations). Now, why do I find myself so sure here? For that I would have no describe for you not the plot but the structure itself. It is like the hyperlink movie you see, where multiple fates meet and intertwine. It involves placards upfront mentioning whose tale it is – Paro (Ms. Gill), Chandramukhi (Ms. Koechlin) and Devdas (Mr. Deol) in that order. In Paro, we are given a glimpse of Chandramukhi even before her tale is narrated, and later we see how she arrives there for our glimpse when her tale is being narrated. So it is the kind of game filmmakers like to amuse themselves with. The game where they get to be God, or a puppeteer any which way you look at it. You would remember that Yuva was a script penned by Mr. Kashyap, and that is the basic template that is referred to here. If reader, you had watched that film you would have a very fair idea what I’m referring to here.
        So the film is intended to be artificial, to begin with. The object of focus of the initial length of the film is to somehow arrive at this intertwining. To an extent, it does provide a rather convincing portrayal of the little affair involving Paro and Devdas. But only to an extent. And the script is what fails the film here, but what saves it is a rather judicious usage of the music and imagery. The music is the soul of the film, and along with Mr. Deol the film’s biggest strengths. Paro stares into the mirror for a considerable stretch of time, and the song plays behind, and we realize she is gone from Devdas for good.
        But let us speak of Chandramukhi’s arc, which involves the usage of one of those MMS scandals that caught the imagination of the urban populace not so long ago. What happens, is for you to be discovered. Why that happens, is because the film had to get it done with so that she could end up as one of those call girls in Delhi. Why her mother does what she does, is a question I am not in the possession of an answer of, and I choose to believe it is a perfunctory development just as her entire tale is.
        The movie, here, I believe, is making a statement upon the sleazy hypocrite us. It is quite common knowledge how girls in MMS-porn are referred to, and what Mr. Kashyap is suggesting here is that it is not her but us who are the morally wrong, who cause the demand of such material, who download and enjoy it. Point taken, Mr. Kashyap, but isn’t that kinda rhetoric? I didn’t happen to follow the DPS-MMS scandal any closely other than a cursory glance at the headlines, but I believe nobody judged the girl but the boy in question. So, kind of a moot point here, it seems, Mr. Kashyap is hurling on us. Oh yeah, just in case you were wondering, he is using it all to amuse his audience too. But never mind.
        The thing is, and here I quote from whatever I have read about it over the years, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s book was drenched in social realism of those times. The latest by Mr. Bhansali was kinda hanging in between with nothing to say on that front, and what Mr. Kashyap intends to do is score there, any which way. Of course, I really didn’t learn anything, or get a single insightful opinion on any matter other than that times have changed and a woman can stick it up to a man and repay him in spades. Dear reader, the film seems to stand up for feminist issues, or any other, which I might have overlooked and if you did find any kindly let me know. I would be indebted.
        Anything else on the table? Oh yeah. But I would choose to mention the two films that kept circling in my head the whole time. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Beowulf. A major source for the humor in these films is the protagonist’s private parts playing hide-and-seek behind all sorts of objects placed in the foreground. I chuckled in the latter, when the sword obscured the part and then somebody’s arm, but I’m not exactly the biggest fan of such humor. Sex is an important part of lives, and I wouldn’t necessarily stand in line to encourage chuckling at the expense of it. Marlene Dietrich, the great German actress, once commented that In America sex is an obsession, in other parts of the world it is a fact. I concede it to her that she never really got around to know India, because sex to us is still the thing. Not to talk about it, but to refer to it in whispers so loud they end up being more audible than actual conversations. Dev D is laced with such humor, where we are supposed to laugh when Paro is aroused during a phone conversation with Devdas. There’s exaggerated innuendo when Paro is drawing water from a pump, and the sequence has been included for no other purpose than what it alludes to. We would burst with such references in our school days, specifically in our eighth and ninth grades where we never would run out of steam. I ask, does it reflect our attitude towards sex, both male and female? Oh yeah. Is that supposed to be an insightful remark by the film? Get outta here. Mr. Kashyap is making no such thing on the topic except for being amused by it, and trying to amuse us in the process. All such moments received huge laughter from the audiences and Mr. Kashyap has used it for that very purpose. Remember No Smoking, and the fate that poor film met? This is insurance folks. The film is smart, but so were we in our eighth grade. Any other kind of humor is rare, though a special mention ought to be made of the moment when the pimp introduces himself.
        I should choose to speak about the film strictly from a formal point of view as well, for Mr. Kashyap seems to have had invested so much of his effort in that direction. Occasionally the film does explode into a fit of energy, through slam-bang background score, but any general flow the film has is only intermittent. There’re scenes quite stunning, sometimes moving, and sometimes interesting but they feel assembled, and not properly woven together. The editing, I believe, is a major sore point. The film feels as if it is running in the moment, where scenes often feel strung apart, and any fancy notion that Mr. Kashyap intended it is giving him too much credit. To me at various moments in the film, it felt like he cut a second too early from a frame, rather than soaking it. Devdas and Chandramukhi embrace each other, and as soon as they do, the film jumped elsewhere a bit too early for my liking. Such cuts left me largely underwhelmed. It is amplified even more when the thin blanket of humor under which the film conceals itself wears off, and it kinda dries up draining all the energy. Here’s where the film’s twin strengths keep it running – Mr. Deol and the music. This is an infinitely subtle actor, someone who is not readily decipherable, and whose depths of emotions always have that touch of ambiguity we feel when we come across folks in our life.
        Mr. Raja Sen of Rediff.com does employ a word – trippy, which I would seek to borrow. We all are individuals and we love trips of our minds, and we all love living there. It is so warm and cozy. Dev D has taken it too far, the film seems to say, and that is a problem. But we all know that, don’t we? We do strange little things with our lives, and fantasize that they would envelope everything for the rest of it. But we end up on track. The film suggests to its protagonist, at the end, Grow up you have loads of time. Is it talking to the teenagers of our country, just like Yuva? I don’t know, and I suspect I’m desperately clutching for messages where they do not exist, and if they do they elude me. I look back at my eighth grade, and I’m not sure I’m too proud of that me. Of course I have grown up. I hope for all the teenagers to whom Mr. Kashyap has directed the film towards do grow up too. And while everybody’s busy growing up, I hope Mr. Kashyap, the fine filmmaker he is, does return to making better films for films as this one here might be beneath him.
        Speaking of messages, the film ropes in the incident of the BMW mishap. That reminds of me of the poster I saw of a film titled The Stoneman Murders. It is one of the more fascinating cases in our crime history, and the tale of how the guy was nabbed courtesy serendipity is quite something. Whatever they make of such a promising premise, I hope they don’t make a bloody mess of it too.
        Oh a final thing. Mr. Kashyap ends Dev D on just about the perfect note, and I applaud.


Note: A friend of mine made a terrific observation. The first frame after the intermission is an obscure shot of a monkey walking on a bridge, and it serves no other purpose than to provide a buffer for all those viewers who’re just returning from the break, and need time to settle in their seats. I concur, and I intend to give a high-five both to the movie and my friend.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

MAN JEUK (SPARROW): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Ka Tung Lam, Hoi-Pang Lo, Wing-cheong Law, Kenneth Cheung
Director: Johnnie To
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin
Runtime: 87 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Comedy

        When it comes to choreographing a scene, enlivening it through a spectacular tracking shot, and rendering it by the most perfect editing, I believe Mr. To has no peer in modern cinema. On a purely formal level, his effortless mise-en-scene is one of the great pleasures of movie going. Man Jeuk is a film, where it feels, the technique is driving the narrative rather than the other way around. Such is the control the audio-visual style commands that you might choose to shut the dialogs off altogether and it might make no difference at all. Such is the finesse of the craft on display that you might wish there existed no plot in its way. Mr. To seems to oblige, and arresting us with the aid of his most delightful self he liberates Man Jeuk into sheer poetry.
        This is the kind of film where you do not describe the plot, but instead describe the scenes. How gracefully the pieces are set up, and how precisely Mr. To seems to have it all figured out. Not just in the individual scenes, but all the frames as a whole. But then, they are no longer frames for there’s nothing static about them. Even something as banal as an establishing shot is a moment of great wonder here, with the camera gracefully moving over the dolly and zooming out or in. This is the kind of film where the filmmaker doesn’t let the plot stand in our way. He isn’t going through the motion, but is instead wonderstruck by each and every moment of it. Look how smoothly everything flows here. To believe how expertly this has been crafted take a simple test. Pause the film anywhere, and walk away, and come back after a while. Pick it up again, and you’ll feel as if you’re walking into something incomplete. You would want to rewind, just to feel the tune from its very first note. That is how you listen to the most special of music. That is how you’ll end up loving Man Jeuk. What makes me so confident? I believe there’re things of such beauty the human sensory perception just cannot escape.
        Consider the opening pickpocket scene where the gang of four pickpockets, or sparrows as the Cantonese slang refers to those who are good at this (Courtesy: IMDb), slide through four victims on one street and smoothly unload the whatever. It is one single take, three unaware victims and the skill is highlighted in the way there’re no edits here. One single shot, with no edges but only curves. It moves to the tune of some exotic Oriental belly dance, and we feel the grace of the arts, filmmaking and pick-pocketing, at the same time. Look how the set-up is introduced, not through a tired establishing shot but a poetic show-off. The fluidity of the filmmaking here betrays an almost feminine feel to proceedings. It goes to show how a slightly staggered style, with edits employed in place of one single take floating through the action, lends a feel of the masculine. When I say masculine, I mean a certain distance of austerity. Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is hard to be ignored here.
        I say, the aesthetics and technique drive the narrative and its feel. The feminine then isn’t limited to the filmmaking here. In a sense, Sparrow is an invasion of sorts into the traditionally macho-style of the Johnnie To universe, both literally and figuratively. I remember Mr. Bozon’s La France, but that was a somber contemplation. This one is a joyous celebration of the invasion, which occurs in the form of Chung Lei (Ms. Lin), and her four-pronged seduction of the gang doesn’t feel like the tentacles of a femme fatale but the warm arms of an angel. Not to be wary of but to cheerfully submit, and not just to the pleasure but to the great joy of this magical occasion. Mr. To’s film wants to be liberated from all the coldness of the tough guy pretense and instead wants to be locked in here forever.
        But then, it is impossible to curb your instincts, pretense or not, and the film ends with one of those elaborate set-piece showdown that you would want to applaud. It is pickpockets versus pickpockets, and if you guess who is at stake here, I believe your first guess does have a mighty great chance of landing right on the money. Rain falls, the night is lit in neon, umbrellas all over the frame and what the pickpockets indulge in is nothing short of a ballet. Gloriously shot in slow-mo, every single frame every single movement every single look is worthy of a Kodak moment. Not just in the style but in the substance too. This is To-territory folks, and honor is a necessity. And Mr. To, the great and compassionate filmmaker he is doesn’t resort to any conventional win-lose climax to this finale. It is original, and it honors each and every one of its characters standing on both ends. In these times of heavy and dark themes, Man Jeuk feels like bliss, as light and floating as the sparrow itself. And if it proves to be influential in the years ahead folks, do remember where you heard it first.

Monday, February 02, 2009

THE WRESTLER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 115 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Drama

        Dear reader, ever experienced a moment so flat out brilliant, so profoundly moving, so visceral in its impact that you felt the rest of the film just didn’t deserve it? That you wish you could chop everything off from around it so that it stood alone stripped away of all the mediocrity that was trying to pull it down? Stood alone as a great and pure moment of cinema? Cinema as it should be, honest and truthful, so much so that it was poetry of life. Such moments bring out tears in your eyes because you no longer have it in you to applaud. The distance between you as a spectator and the spectacle before you has been melted. When I’m moved at the movies, it usually involves me welling up. I do remember the last time my cheeks were wet – Diwali night 2007, in Tarkovsky’s Solyaris, and for reasons I only slightly comprehend, Kelvin embraced his father and water fell all around them and tears streamed out of my eyes. And I’ll remember the next time around.
        Late last night, the Australian Open semi-final between Nadal and Verdasco found me in the kind of ecstasy sport often manages to conjure up. The sight of two warriors giving it their all, and I was only watching the repeat telecast. And then, I walked right into The Wrestler. The final few moments of the film had me in tears, tears flowing out and then down. I was crying, and I had no idea how to react other than to wrap myself in a bedsheet and clutch my forehead. It is a shattering moment of truth where every artifice cinema appends has been overcome. It is not reality as much as it is a bare poetry on reality. Lit gloriously, crowd chanting, and in that moment I felt I knew everything there was to know about Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Or maybe, I didn’t need to know anything. Mr. Rourke doesn’t seem to be acting here anymore. The skill and the craft has been completely shed. This is the kind of moment where you feel you know the actor as much as you know his character for they are one and the same. It is a towering moment in motion picture history. What we have here is an artist so passionately willing to give it is all for the sake of his art. It is so pure, so forceful, so broken, so full of self-pity, so tender, so raw that it shatters everything in its way. And as I write this I seem to have tears building again, though I have no idea if they intend to applaud Mr. Rourke or his character. I guess I need to take a little break.
        And I return. And how I wish I could chop everything off The Wrestler except for the last 15 minutes or so, and leave it to be applauded. As someone who values each and every tear of his, and believes a film got to really earn every drop of it, I wonder if one or two were shed in disappointment of the film that is in service of such a great performance and such a great moment. It is heartbreaking how nothing much is made out of it except for the some tired old jabs at the lonesome male indulging in self-destruction. The director here is Darren Aronofsky, a passionate young director drenched in the audacity that passionate young directors often possess. The problem is, for all of Mr. Aronofsky’s talent, he is prone more to shoving his ambitions in our face with utter seriousness than to actually be honest and passionate in asking vital questions. His previous films are ambiguous because they do not have much to say. In ways more than one, he is essentially a filmmaker with narrative instincts, and what’s most revealing in his films is the conflict between those instincts and the slew of bold brave auteuristic ambitions he adorns (or conceals) them underneath. I’m succumbing to summarizing a career because I believe that’s important to understand what fails here and why. Mr. Aronofsky, I believe, is much like David Fincher, a filmmaker enormously talented but more attracted to artistic and technical bravado than actually mining something from deep within and putting it on screen. It kind of lends their filmmaking a distance of forced objectivity, from where they seem to be observing their characters. The distance is so large that their attempts to reach out to their characters end up as external decisions on their lives. I’m reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson, the rare and probably the only filmmaker who is able to bridge this gap – the narrative/objective auteur (Kubrick, Hitchcock, Nolan) and the more subjective/personal/autobiographical one (Tarkovsky, Bergman, Scorsese). Most other auteurs seem to fall in between.
        I think now we can answer why. A little bit of plot first.
        Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mr. Rourke) is an aging professional wrestler whose best years are behind him. His abused body lives on a trailer, alone and lonely. His daughter Stephanie (Ms. Wood) hates him for having never been there for her. There’s this strip joint he frequents, and there’s this stripper Cassidy (Ms. Tomei) he hopes to make an honest woman out of. There was a time when he was the darling of chanting crowds, when he was the biggest name in professional wrestling. Not anymore. And one day, after a rather gruesome fight where his body is stapled, he collapses to the ground. He wakes up, and he learns all the chemicals and steroids have weakened his heart, and the choice is between professional wrestling and life. He wisely chooses the latter, and decides to get a job and adopt the everyday life he has never been in touch with.
        Like most guys my age, I had what Mr. Aronofsky calls the eight-month long affair with the sport and guys like The Undertaker and The Ultimate Warrior would fascinate me, though I sure learnt the odd name courtesy my elder brother. There was Chris Jericho, and there was this guy whom my brother really liked, Chris Benoit. And I learn about Mr. Benoit’s fate only now. This article here mentions the staggering number of pro wrestlers who die young. Names? Big Boss Man, Yokozuna, Owen Hart, Hercules to name a few. And names I never heard. It is deeply saddening.
        But it also begs a question of the choices that The Wrestler makes. Convenient ones. I understand Mr. Aronofsky is kinda burnt after the production budget The Fountain was cut from $75 million to $35 million, and the poor response at the box office. I also understand what making a picture with Mr. Rourke means, and how circumspect financers get when his name’s mentioned. No one believed Mr. Rourke could be sympathetic. That they got this picture made for nothing through financing from a French production house is a wonder. That they have turned it into this well-made a picture is minor miracle.
        But, think of these. Randy “The Ram” Robinson was the biggest name, the top dog, the people’s choice. In the world of pro wrestling that means he did beat everybody, and got beaten only for some dramatic change. I wonder why wasn’t Randy a lesser name, like Mr. Benoit and Mr. Hart were. Randy hasn’t met Stephanie in an awfully long time, and he doesn’t have the courage either. Yet, at Cassidy’s behest, he goes and pours his heart out to her. I say again, this is one of the great performances of all time, more so because it not only overcomes but lends a huge amount of respect to some impossible writing. Stephanie forgives. I was moved by how understanding this little girl is. She knows her father, and she is compassionate enough now to accept him for what he is. They decide to go for a dinner, and when Randy forgets, and arrives a couple of hours late, a devastated (?) Stephanie shouts at him and decides to break their relation once and for all. The manager of the deli counter where Randy gets his day job is mean just as most managers are – they’re either mean or they’re good, but never people. Of course, there’s the obligatory scene where an old woman keeps irking Randy to fetch just the exact amount of potato salad, and he ends up making numerous to-and-fro trips to get it right to her satisfaction.
        I could go on, and it would end up being rhetoric. You get the point. These are all sources for easy emotions. The Wrestler is too convenient, too much of a movie, and that is a great shame. In numerous interviews Mr. Aronofsky has mentioned how he pushed Mr. Rourke. Here’s what he says –
The thing with Mickey is that he’s lazy. I think that’s because he’s one of those kids in school that could just coast through without doing any work, getting B+s and driving you crazy. That’s Mickey! He could easily put up his feet in any movie and I think that’s what he often does—he just coasts through—so my major job became to challenge him and dare him to do better and to do his best work. Working with him became about pushing him to go deeper and deeper because he’s got an infinite well of possibility that he can summon up.

Here’s an excerpt from another interview –
Probably my greatest conflict with Mickey on this film was the fact that Mickey Rourke doesn’t wear any sunglasses through the entire film. [Laughs.] Every day he brought a new pair of sunglasses to the set and I was like, “Mickey, no sunglasses today. People are paying money to look into your eyes. They don’t want to look at your face behind mirrored glasses. They want to look into your eyes. That’s the gateway. You gotta let ‘em in.” The thing about Mickey is he’s got all this armor on and he’s a big guy; but, he’s really jelly inside, he’s really soft and tender, and that’s why he’s always wearing sunglasses, is to hide that. He’s afraid of the world. He’s very afraid.

        This here is the source of all my qualms. Mr. Aronofsky does a terrific job in capturing the performances, all of them. The problem is he doesn’t mine himself enough. What such a brave performance deserves is a filmmaker too who is ready to give it his all. Someone who doesn’t play it safe. What the script and the film are concerned with is providing contrasts and poetic flourishes, which feel amateurish in the way they rhyme. Consider for instance Randy’s first time at the deli counter. He covers his head and walks through a lonely, echoing hallway before stopping at the entrance. As anybody would understand, it is supposed to draw a parallel to Randy’s lonely walk upto the fighting stage. But Mr. Aronofsky ruins the moment when he adds the chanting crowd, as if to show Randy’s state of mind. This is a severe flaw. For one, silence here would have been the pure and the correct contrast. The fighting stage has accepted him and cheers him. The real world doesn’t recognize the man behind. Randy, as we all are, is a man hungering for acceptance. The moment should have rather highlighted this predicament. And for two, great moments are when we, as an audience, realize and not when somebody impinges it on us.
        It is worth noting Mr. Aronofsky is working from somebody else’s script, that of Mr. Robert Siegel. This kind of an external hand kinda mirrors Mr. Aronofsky’s style. As I said earlier, he is prone to making broad, sweeping spiritual or poetic statements than to making personal ones. Here he seems to draw a segment connecting Randy the wrestler and Cassidy the stripper. The film seems straining to make them objects of sacrifice at the altar of our male desires – one catering to the lust for violence and one to the lust for sex. The problem is, again, twofold here. One, in a personal story as this, it makes for an uneasy and ultimately artificial way to think. Randy is likened to Jesus Christ, and he is also impinged with staples just to drive home the point. Not a problem at all, because violence is an essential ingredient and the way it is filmed has a heavy emotional bearing on us. The problem arises when the film starts to focus on the stripper, and we’re distracted away from Randy and we’re forced to think of in terms of Cassidy. For a movie as this, that might be a wrong vantage point. The film intends to drive home the fact that these are flesh and blood people behind these constructed bodies that whet and fulfill our animalistic fantasies. That might very well be a correct statement, but what is incorrect is that the filmmaker is portraying such a line of thinking at all. Personal stories ought not to venture outside the one vantage point, and any such theme (of the sex & violence) ought to be left to the audience. Of course, if the filmmaker would choose to explore it that would instead turn into a strength. Not here, and this is the second problem. The Wrestler is content to just hang that little theme in the air as a statement. All we end up with in our kitty is a rather simple minded parallel between what the man feels when his woman panders before other males, and what the woman feels when her man gets hurt by other males. I know some elements of society suck, but such a film might be the wrong place to be passing such comments.
        It is simple. What Mr. Rourke’s performance deserved was not Rocky, but a Raging Bull from a kamikaze Martin Scorsese. Of all the personal stories, that film is the most searing personal masterpiece ever put to screen. Not a single external social comment is made, and instead every moment of the film is spent in understanding Jake La Motta and his predicament. Why does society even have to come into picture? When randy enters the stage, Mr. Aronofsky goes as far as flashing the same blue light that was the cause of so much pain during the orgy sequence in Requiem for a Dream. Even the crowd seems to be chanting something that sounded similar to what was being used to pulverize Sarah Goldfarb. The way I see, The Wrestler is, or is supposed to be, about every man’s great glory. To some it is sport, to some it is science, to some it is art. But every man, deep within himself, has constructed a field in which he believes he rules, or where he intends to rule. That is a safe haven where he intends to retreat, a cocoon if you might call it. Pull a man out of what he has been doing all his life and what you’ve is a little child scared of the new world. Does it really matter to Randy how society views him? He doesn’t desire to be a big shot manager or anything, and it is not the case that he sees his profession as anything disrespectful. It is Mr. Aronofsky and his film that sees him thus, as something that ought to be pitied. Pitied why? Randy needs our understanding. The entire film is drenched in self-pity, when such an emotion only ought to be internalized. Raging Bull is all that comes to mind.
        The Wrestler is not a bad film by any means; rather it is a good film. The tragedy is it is all just a movie. The sincerity, the searing honesty, the give-it-my-all that characterizes every frame of Raging Bull is rather what Mr. Rourke deserved. Not a filmmaker or a film that resorted to narrating a story and found its way into easy emotions, but someone brave enough to show life and left it all to us is what Mr. Rourke deserved. There’s no shame in saying it again, this is one of the great performances of all time. Through what now seems like a great miracle, the film appreciates the monumentality of this performance, and leaves the last few moments to Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Such moments are seldom experienced at the movies. It is a leap into cinema history and the hearts of cinema lovers worldwide. It deserves every accolade. And in the same breath I say, it deserved so much more.