Sunday, May 31, 2009
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Ryan Reynolds, Will i Am
Director: Gavin Hood
Runtime: 104 min.
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Superhero
Confession. I don’t get the whole deal with Wolverine, and why he is considered so special. Or why is he loved so much, or regarded so highly in the X-Men universe. He isn’t too smart, and for a superhero all he commands is a rather bull-headed approach to matters, and an overdose of macho posturing. Magneto, the intelligent man he is, is always utterly dismissive of him and his abilities, and rightfully so. In matters as constantly endangering as the mutants constantly find themselves in, a supposedly indestructible man with only adamantium coated claws rupturing out of him feels just about as useful as an angry little termite.
But then, I never did get the logic of the whole X-Men universe either. Consider for example Mystique, who was played by the most devastatingly beautiful Rebecca Romijn Stamos, and how awesome her superpowers are, and how interesting her origin story would be. I would like to spend no less than a trilogy on her, and would want to discover how fascinating she could be. With Wolverine, on the other hand, you got an uninteresting little scenario not much different to what is presented by that other Marvel bonehead The Incredible Hulk. You got nowhere to go with these guys other than to involve in a whole lot of carnage, that in hindsight adds up to zilch.
Or maybe, there might have been an interesting way to deal with the whole origin of Logan/Wolverine, the lone and angry wolf with a certain kind of amnesia. Take a cinematic flight of imagination, reader, and think of one Leonard Shelby, used and manipulated by everyone in the world. An Australian actor played the part, Guy Pearce it was, and since Logan was once an assassin/mercenary working for the establishment, I wonder if someone down at Fox was thinking along similar lines. Since much of the earlier movies, specifically the more appreciated X-Men and X2, dealt with Logan chasing his past, could the origin story been structured as a puzzle or a mystery, where the filmmakers and directors were blessed with imaginations that would have elevated them beyond the act of merely grazing through the comic books, and instead carve an altogether new tribute for X-Men and Wolverine aficionados to hold on to. Wouldn’t it have enhanced the vulnerability of Logan, and wouldn’t his dare-in-the-face-of-Armageddon approach have endeared him to movie-goers worldwide and created a wider fanbase. I can only speculate you see, and I shall keep on doing the same as long as these movies about superheroes from Marvel have only one thing on their mind – cashing in.
But perhaps, this place here is not appropriate to discuss along such greatly interesting lines, and perhaps, we need to get along the job of more uninteresting matters such as reviewing the latest movie in the X-Men franchise. As is so explicitly mentioned in the title, it deals with the origin story of Logan, though what passes for a story here is no more than an excuse to jump from explosion to explosion. It is as enjoyable as any of the X-Men films, and it is just about as unmemorable as any of them. There’s little that one could take away from this film, there’s little by way of any stimulating thought, and after movies as complex and genre-defining as The Dark Knight and Watchmen this here feels like a minor kiddy adventure whimper. I know, dear reader, you would mock me for expecting anymore than the standard combination of explosions and kicks, but then hope as always been a good thing. Especially since the director is Gavin Hood. Never mind, as I always say.
We meet Logan in 1845, during the time he was a little kid and was called Jimmy, and watched over by his elder brother Victor. Now this Jimmy, he seems to be a weak little kid and especially susceptible to Rhinovirus. The opening scene finds him in a night when he is bed-ridden, when a petty little gunfight occurs at the household, the cause and results of which I shall leave you to discover. Jimmy and Victor run from the scene, and as they keep running through the nearby woods, the opening credits fast forwards them through every major American war. Jimmy is now Logan (Mr. Jackman), though one knows not why, he no longer catches cold, though one knows not why, and he and Victor (Mr. Schreiber) hop through life like nomads, though one knows not why. The X-Men speaks of mutants as an evolution over humans, but I suspect Logan and Victor, who eventually would grow into Wolverine and Sabretooth, actually are some sort of contradictions to that line of thought. They exhibit little thought that could be considered intelligent or civilized, but one needn’t care much about it.
One Colonel William Stryker (Mr. Huston) finds them during one of their numerous adventures, maybe during the first Gulf War, and recognizes their specialties. He recruits them, and alongwith many others, he goes deep within the land of Africa in search of something precious, which again I shall leave you to discover. This bunch of recruits, interesting guys they are. There’s one Wade Wilson, a chatter-machine and one heck of a talent with the sword. He is so good he can slice an incoming bullet fired from a Sten-gun and ricochet the two halves into trajectories that shall kill two unwitting bad guys standing behind him. He is so good that he has a whole two minutes devoted to display this while we stand appalled at the silly special effects. Such men invade the deep recesses of Africa, and once this little adventure gets over the morality line of Logan he decides to part ways. Victor, his brother, is hurt, I suspect, because there is no other reason to why he is so cross with Logan the whole film.
Logan meanwhile finds him a woman and lives in a rather lonely part of Canada, and I shall leave you to discover the rest of the film, though there’s precious little to save the utter predictability of affairs. The action sequences shall keep you engaged though they are terrible to look at. A worker print leaked online a month back, and Fox claimed that there was still a lot of work of F/X to be added. I see the completed film, and I think they have done an absolutely shoddy job. Not a single action scene displays any sense of vision or innovation. Random explosions, cuts, slices and growls rule the day. The earlier X-Men films, though not exactly benchmarks of action sequences, had some pretty cool effects agreeable to the eye. This one hurts.
What keeps you interested though, at least for the duration of the runtime, is the pretty neat pace of the film. There is even an interesting idea there somewhere, maybe even memorable, but nobody wants to risk a no-show at the box-office. There’s little character, and there’s little explanation for motives, and all our end of the bargain asks of us is to suspend every little line of thought, belief and logic. And enjoy as Mr. Jackman and Mr. Schreiber enjoy themselves. These are wonderful actors, both of them, bringing remarkable personality to so underwritten a characters. And while you’re at it dear reader, do relish that one single savage moment of pure Wolverine as he slices through an aisle of cages holding young mutants within them. I know that is why he is the heart of the franchise. But I wonder how much of it is Wolverine, and how much of it is Mr. Jackman?
Posted by Satish Naidu at 11:01 PM
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 138 min.
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Adventure, Mystery
Tom Hanks might be considered by many to be one hell of an actor, which he might be, but he sure as hell aint perfect. If he was so great, he would have applied a little bit of thought behind his performance, and what was to be expected of him, and he might have sought some inspiration from one of them newsreaders and the clarity of speech that is so necessary to their profession. I say so because all his character requires is to fire out exposition after exposition, and blabber after blabber. Not that it would have helped matters too much, for the human brain can only be interested in so much of a staccato of meaningless information. Consider this for example – “Did Raphael Santi ever design a chapel with an ossuary annex?” – one of the only few I could actually gather, while the rest just bypassed be harmlessly. Wait, I did seem to gather the repetitive occurrence of angels, obelisk and camerlengo. What makes this kind of dialog even worse is Mr. Hanks’ spewing it all out with his mouth in some kind of economy-mode, as if it was some kind of mannerism he thought fitting enough to be adopted for Robert Langdon. Not wise at all.
But one can’t fault him too much, when the script lands him not with a character and dialog, but only a placeholder and whole lot of knowledge. For that matter, one can’t fault the script too much either, because the source novel, a quite remarkable piece of trashy writing, doesn’t have any characters to begin with. Characters, as in people. If you wonder how their conversations feel like, you only got to remember the most dreadful time you have had at the biology class, and the most dreadful page you remember from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and imagine how they would sound sitting across a coffee table. Speaking of which, I had biology classes more comprehensible than Angels & Demons here, and I should be grateful to my teacher, Ms. Sinha, who was one heck of an orator.
Or, you could also remember the South African president Mr. Jacob Zuma unleashing byte after byte of information upon us in his thrilling speech at the closing ceremony of the IPL. Now, these guys here, in much the same way keep jabbering out information after information, all meaningless, and we feel like the unwitting and excited eavesdroppers who just fall dead utterly bored. If you have any doubts, you should just visit the Memorable Quotes section of the IMDb page of the film here, and see how strange it is to label it memorable. Roger Ebert mentions in his review of The Da Vinci Code, a single statement of observation that might offer more insight than all the cut-and-dried reviews out there – Ron Howard is a better filmmaker than Dan Brown is a novelist. I state this whenever there springs upon one of those pointless debates about the state of adaptations of the books of this author, as if any of them was great literature to begin with. And I agree, Mr. Howard has made as good a films as can be made from such mediocre books devoid of anything but exposition after exposition page after page.
But that still doesn’t cut the entire picture.
As in, the Ebert statement speaks only relatively, which might lead to spreading of some misunderstanding. Speaking in absolute terms, Mr. Howard is himself a pretty darn mediocre filmmaker, who has ever had, in his entire career, only a most serviceable visual sense, and a similar serviceable sense of pacing, one that is bound tightly to the quality of the script. Mr. Howard is not one of those filmmakers who can rise above the limitations of a script, and Angels & Demons demonstrates how awfully jarring and how confused this whole mess is. I say this beforehand, a typical book by Dan Brown that involves puzzles after puzzles after puzzles is impossible to be filmed. It is not supposed to be either, because for a potential reader/viewer anything involving a new place (in this case the Vatican) and the whole deal of revelations after revelations, the most significant need is time. Time to acclimatize to these new surroundings. While we’re reading a book, even something that is churned out by Mr. Brown, the sheer time we spend reading those pages makes us feel familiar with the new environment. We’re not just reading those pages, we’re processing it too, and that is the reason most of us start getting involved in a book in our second or third hour.
With films, the job is half done for we already have visual access to it all, but it then becomes a case of letting our senses soak whatever we’re seeing and hearing. That is the reason why to a viewer like me, who hasn’t memorized Mr. Brown’s pages from cover to cover, the film starts feeling familiar only in its final reels. Since the film offers us no structure, and no geography, assuming that we have already knowledge of that from the source, I believe that is some kind of lazy filmmaking. But then, the world of cinema is filled with hacks of significantly lesser talent, and I believe we should get over that little piece of wisdom. Rest assured, Angels & Demons shall escape your memory by next month.
Ah, the plot.
Assuming you haven’t read the book, MacGuffin has a new name – Antimatter. Rather it has two, and the other one is Illuminati. The incumbent pope is dead, a new pope to be appointed, and just before the conclave is to get together elect the most eligible for the portfolio, the Preferiti - the frontrunners for the post – are kidnapped and held hostage by a secret underground society calling themselves, well, the Illuminati, whose typical day seems to be spent devising elaborate puzzles, so that new members worthy enough to crack them are given login ids and passwords, and then they could share the workload of puzzle-making too. The society’s other task is supposedly to keep some sort of check on the Catholic Church, and let it not run away with its sermons.
Meanwhile, down at the CERN laboratory, antimatter has been created, and just about the same time, somebody has stolen it too. I don’t think the CERN will be too flattered with Mr. Howard, but then those enlightened men of science sure might have the fine sense of humor to take it in their stride. One of those scientists is Vittoria Vetra, played by the beautiful Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Munich), and she is the one who has discovered the dead body sans the left eye, the retina of which was used to gain access. The canister of antimatter is now in the Vatican, is running on battery, and in place of the countdown timer that we have all grown so familiar with at the movies, this one, probably inspired by Microsoft Windows, has one of those red bars that is slowly growing shorter. Wrong visual cue I say. A countdown timer at least doesn’t need the film to speak how much time is left. Here, someone needs to explicitly lay it down for us – 12 hours, before it shall cause the most deadly explosion since Rolland Emmerich destroyed half of the United States in Independence Day.
Enter crack symbologist Robert Langdon, who doesn’t have one single thought or feeling inside of him save expertise at solving other people’s indulgences. That Mr. Hanks brings so much life into him is a measure of the greatness of the man. Now, why is Mr. Langdon summoned, I don’t know, and neither does the film, because when he himself asks they don’t provide for a very convincing answer. But he has to go, and he does, and the race against the two-faced MacGuffin (Antimatter/Illuminati) begins. I remember the novel invoking the usage of Janus. Alfred Hitchcock would be mighty pleased in his grave by the Janus-esque usage of his narrative trick, one a catalyst for the pseudo-scientific side of it and the other a catalyst for the pseudo-spiritual part of it.
As a thriller, the film is pretty lame employing misdirection tricks that grew outdated approximately five billion years ago. Anyone with half a dozen thrillers in his memory would know that the most unimaginative trick in the manual is to have one of the characters flagged as so outrightly mean that he is almost never the bad guy. Angels & Demons doesn’t remember that. Still, it is often exciting and it hurls along at a decent pace. As in, it gets the job done. Often, we are confused by the casual demeanor of the actors of what is at stake here, but eventually we get the pulse. The film tries its level best to induce a sense of droll into the proceedings, one that comes so naturally to Indiana Jones and James Bond, and it always falls flat on its face.
Still, we enjoy, because these are some nice actors we are looking at. Especially Mr. Mueller-Stahl, who used to be the good guy (The Peacemaker), and then turned into the bad guy (Eastern Promises, The International), and now is probably back into the good zone. The final line of conversation between him and Langdon is probably worth the price of the admission ticket, a superb moment of actors of rising and taking control of the sheets of page provided to them.
For some strange reason I keep wondering about Robert Langdon, this modern Sherlock Holmes who seems to have volumes of the Britannia Encyclopedia instead of standard issue organs. He seems to have a trivia to share for every bit of action around, a cause for every bit of historical event. And he doesn’t seem to believe in God, both by his heart and mind. Yet he keeps using the word “jeez”. I wonder if he knows the origin of that word.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:38 AM
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek
Director: Uli Edel
Runtime: 150 min.
Language: German with little parts of English, French and Swedish
Genre: Drama, History
The best way to describe the general structure of Der Baader Meinhof Komplex is to reminisce a newsreel. Another is to reminisce anything that is absolute unimaginative drivel. Or, an absolute snoozefest. The film is utterly pointless, and as it zips through history, even the most ardent lover of history might consider it worthwhile to scratch his head. The general idea while the script was being adapted from Stefan Aust’s book of the same name seems to be to summon every which event possible. As it turns out, it is a terrible decision for everything feels like a roll call of the milestones in the life of the Red Army Faction, and interested readers might consider indulging in a little play jotting down every little event presented on Answers.com entry on the Baader-Meinhof (here), and then go on striking them off as the film religiously touches upon them one by one.
Mind you, it doesn’t turn out to be insightful like one of them History Channel documentaries either. Not one bit. Rather, in the face of increasing disinterest for the lack of any character worth investing in, it turns out to be a lackadaisical treatment of the subject. Never have I seen such unimaginative skimming through an historical event as shattering and as significant as the Munich Olympics massacre. There’s no build-up, there’s no trajectory in the film. There’re only events rushing one after the other. How else would they follow each other considering the film aims to compress a decade and a half worth of history in 150 long minutes. And it doesn’t help the situation that one of those events also includes a sex scene that zips by so fast that you wonder why it made the final cut in the first place. The film was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category, over several films I believe were a million times worthier. But then, the awards have always been little more than a year-end party, and there are no two ways about that.
That makes me wonder of the kind of audience the film has in mind. Viewers well versed in history would find nothing new to learn here. Much of the film might seem like a basic rundown. The characters, all of them, are mere placeholders with generic traits assigned to them so they might seem human. Well, since they talk and walk and smoke and shout, they somewhat do. But not too much, and certainly not enough to be referenced as characters. So I won’t be using the word no more.
Now, I certainly do not belong to the school of thought that religiously upholds character building as an indispensable tenet of filmmaking (I would seek to invoke the Italian crime masterpiece Gomorra in my defense here), I do believe that they need to be given an arc when they are to share most of the screen for well over two hours. Andreas Baader, played by Mr. Bleibtreu, smokes and shouts and curses and passes random anarchist rhetoric. Gudrun Ensslin, played by Ms. Wokalek, seems like one of them typical high school mean bitches from one of those typical high school Hollywood churnouts, who almost invariably find a cake slammed in their faces at the end of the film. I could go on, and on, but I believe the point has been made, which is that most of these historical figures have no personality whatsoever. A moment as significant as Meinhof (Ms. Gedeck) deciding to leave her kids forever is given to us as news too. There is not one decent conversation between them, conversation that might hold these folks in a light of reality and humanity, and instead all they do is exchange rhetoric after rhetoric, or plot details after plot details. When Baader, hiding in Rome along with Gudrun and a couple of other associates, teases the Counselor – Can’t you speak normally, do you think the Interpol is after us? – you sincerely feel that the film might be turning over a new leaf. The film though smashes any such hopes by having Baader add on – because those jerks in Frankfurt rejected our appeal? The script seems to serve no other purpose than to deliver news as events hurriedly spin on and out.
Now, there is a way to compress history into a feature length film, and it doesn’t run through events but through people. Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece Goodfellas, one of the greatest achievements in scriptwriting, shows us that and how. Filmmaking, for the most part, is storytelling, and especially that part which deals with showcasing history. A viewer needs to feel the passage of time. There needs to be a feel of the journey, so that we feel what we learn at the end of it. It is necessary to ascertain the kind of themes the film intends to deal with, the kind of ambiguities and contradictions it intends to highlight within a person or a set of persons, and then widen its area of introspection (a terrorist organization here). Throwing everything into a grinder and hurling at us the resultant mess, and then hoping that it might stick wouldn’t necessarily do the trick.
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex does know some of its ambitions, in that it knows what and how the Stefan Aust book deals with the outfit and the kind of ambiguities it presents. The film portrays an unflinching image of the violence that the Red Army Faction reigned in, and often we feel that some of its members are clueless trigger-happy chimps. Characters come in and go out at random. In one scene we find a lad, who might be in his early twenties, sitting alone in his room and pointing a revolver at the television (ala Travis Bickle), which has a news item on anarchist Rudi Dutschke (Mr. Sebastien Blomberg). We wonder about him, but only to later learn in a separate scene that he is right wing extremist Josef Bachmann (Mr. Tom Schilling), and that he tries to assassinate Dutschke. There’s a little gunfight that ensues, and we longer see anything about him. My gripe isn’t about how the historical figure or his placeholder is dealt with. Rather I am clueless as to why he is in the final cut, and what does he represent. What does the film highlight during those moments? It also tries to present the romantic effect the faction had, the kind of effect that makes every revolutionary supposedly an example worth looking upto, and when it does that it feels no more than sentimental garbage. But then again, such elements need to be felt by us, and for that to happen a film ought to build it so that we invest ourselves into it. Otherwise, it remains mere rhetoric.
The actions scenes it does well. There’s a certain immediacy to these scenes, scenes involving riots and arson and bombings and gunfight, and one feels the film makes it a point to get to these scenes. Somehow. They are staged well, and shot well. The fact of the matter is that Dar Baader Meinhof Komplex feels like a politically charged film, a film that is hell bent upon to make some points against the present state of international affairs. It probably isn’t even interested in people, and the human aspect of it all. Ideologies drive it. Germany supported American invasion of Vietnam providing military bases then. This time around, during the Iraq invasion it didn’t. Yet, the antagonist the film has in mind is the United States, which it probably feels is the dictator of the world. A totalitarian regime ruling the state that is the world. The first bombing of a superstore in the middle of the night is immediately succeeded by footage of large-scale American bombing of Vietnam, where the collateral damage is highlighted. Well, no harm in saying what you believe in, but only if you could make a cohesive argument. Dar Baader Meinhof Komplex doesn’t. It says a lot but it means nothing. Stefan Aust, having deep insider information, had superbly balanced his treatment of the whole Revolutionary aspect of the book. The film, as I said, tries to do that too, with its portrayal of violence to probably signify these were mad men with triggers in their hands. I respect that, but I seek arguments. One might even argue that the film is offering an objective viewpoint of events, facts as they were. But that kind of misguided comment wouldn’t cut much ice considering the silly way the principal characters, er, placeholders operate. I respect the film’s ambitions but I seek that rare film which actually speaks against this culture of Revolutionary worship, who I believe offer no more to the world through their silly ideologies than to enhance the sale of millions of T-shirts. And I want that film to have a human face, not a political one.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 6:36 AM
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Aaron Stanford, Bruce Dern, Jayce Bartok, Elizabeth Ashley
Director: Mary Stuart Masterson
Runtime: 86 min.
Genre: Drama, Romance
As breezy and pleasant to the heart as a featherweight pineapple cake, The Cake Eaters has its title right on the money. Pardon the corny analogy. There’s young Kristen Stewart, a beautiful young actress whose talent I hope we gradually learn more about in the years to come, who is both the crust and the cherry topping of this sweet little film. She might have appeared to be all confused in Twilight, a movie I liked but not sure for what reasons, but here we see how gifted she might be. And together with a cast that exhibit some fine acting, and often some unnecessary acting, she makes more of a film than what would have seemed probable on the pages of the script.
The Cake Eaters is a simple film, about simple people and their simple dreams, which might seem trivial to us but might mean the world to them. Ms. Masterson understands this, and rather than embarking upon some kind of a profound examination of these lives, which might have even been a trifle beyond her depths, she presents a compassionate and a cheerful film, and whose greatest triumph is that it doesn’t turn saccharine even for a moment. There’re moments of warmth here that feel so organic, and that ever so slightly touch us, often without us being aware of it. In times like these where drama at the movies is much a product of a bleak outlook, or even a cynical perspective, The Cake Eaters offers itself as some kind of a rarity, where the people do not spend their entire lives drooling over the cake on the other side of the glass, but instead walk into the store and have a bite of it whatever may be the cost, and probably never ever regret it.
Now, there’s young Georgia (Ms. Stewart), whose one wish is to have sex before she dies of the terminal illness that has afflicted her since her birth. The disease is Friedreich’s ataxia, and for whatever it is it causes her to walk with a crooked bent on both her knees and speak with a slur that might make Sylvester Stallone seem the epitome of crystal clear oration. This is a marvelously understated performance mind you, and yet Ms. Stewart renders her fascination for the act palpable in her conversation with Beagle (Mr. Stanford) at a flea market. It is fascination mind you, not desperation. She wants to feel love, not much in its emotional form but rather in its physical form. Beagle works at the canteen in her high school, and at twenty is at least four years older to her. He has just lost his mother due to prolonged diabetes, whom he served for a whole of three years. As a son, and as a man. He takes care of his widower dad, Easy (Mr. Dern), and his brother has gone to New York chasing his wild goose of a dream of being some kind of a singer.
Beagle, for all the courage which he so nonchalantly musters while dealing with his responsibilities, is shy of girls. He has never had a girl on him, and when Georgia calls him home under the pretext of helping with her homework, it is a wonderfully sweet moment. Georgia doesn’t want somebody to pity her, and Beagle seems genuinely interested in her. He comes home, gets into her room, and he does a bit of writing as she provides the dictation. She approaches, very near to him. For anyone else, no other word and no further invitation would have been necessary. But Beagle has had his whole of twenty years restraining him, and Georgia, a bright kid I believe, immediately realizes this. Beagle only musters a what. She says – You can kiss me if you want to. Those twenty years are too much for Beagle, and he still cannot shirk them away. He considers, but she doesn’t, and she kisses him. It is a sweet moment, a greatly satisfying one. One of those true and pure moments that spring out of the spontaneity and innocence of two lives that ought to be considered good.
Yet, Ms. Masterson chooses to cut away to one of the film’s other threads, and only later return to Beagle and Georgia, who by now are on top of each other, the innocent moment long overshadowed by physical and adolescent lust. That is why I claim the examination of these lives would have been way too much for Ms. Masterson. I would have wanted to know how that moment of that first kiss would have panned out, and how the ensuing silence would have been felt by both Georgia and Beagle, and by us. It is difficult, very difficult, and I don’t hold that as a criticism but merely as a reflection of the limitations of the film and the filmmaker. Such a moment of silence makes great films, and this certainly is not by any stretch of the imaginations. What the film is more concerned with is just portraying these people, rather grazing gently through a short span of their lives, provide some eventful occasions, and conceal them under a rather thin layer of Indie restrain. The presence of that thin layer I speak of is courtesy the actors.
As I mentioned there are other threads too, and most of them are triggered by the arrival of the elder brother Guy (Mr. Bartok) from New York. One involves the father, and one involves Guy and there’s a bit of intersection and overlap that feels largely organic. I would leave you to discover all of them, all romantic in their own ways, and I only say that not a moment of this film is uneasy, and almost everyone feels heartfelt. There’s joy and there’s warmth and that’s because these are nice folks. Not much interesting that you would want to spend your time with, but interesting enough to spend a film for. This is a film that was made two years ago, and hasn’t seen much of a theatrical run. Pity it is. In times as these where films are a rarity, forget good films, The Cake Eaters is somewhat of a blessing. More so for that final moment that the film shows us of Georgia and Beagle, in the hallways of the school, and how much is said with not much being spoken. She sought love in all its physical glory and stumbled upon something so special that we feel happy and good. For any film to be able to do that is something of an achievement, I guess.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:53 AM
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Gael García Bernal, Alice Braga
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Runtime: 121 min.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Sci-fi
Much like Darren Aronofsky, Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) wouldn’t want to cite subtlety as a strong point of his. One always reminds me of the other, it has always been the case, and the reasons aren’t too hard to fathom for both these filmmakers love their films to vomit on the screen with their visual excess. It wouldn’t take more than the initial few minutes for one to realize that here’s a director dealing in an excess of formal indulgence, with a film that is quite ugly to look at. More than that, I’m forced to use a word that I try and use to a minimum – the entire visual style is just plain wrong.
Now, here’s the deal. The film begins much to the same predicament as the source – Nobel laureate José Saramago’s book of the same name – and it finds a young Asian, probably Japanese, and maybe an executive in a firm, stranded smack in the middle of the afternoon traffic, horns blaring from every which angle. The light’s green. The man has lost his sight. He cries for help. Onlookers, pedestrians mostly, walk across and one of them offers to help him out and take him to his home. He takes him right down to his doorstep, leaves him inside, tries to have a look around the luxurious interiors, at which the man gets alarmed and quite harshly asks him to leave. The Man closes the door, instinctively peeks through the peephole and realizes his folly, er, blindness.
To his wife walking in, finding a vase broken on the floor, remarking that she isn’t any nurse around. The man is lying on the couch, eyes closed, and his hands bleeding. He must have stuttered his way to the couch, but we don’t know, because this is a film that chooses to cut through this situation. Nothing too wrong about it, if one were only narrating a story from a strictly third-person vantage point, trying to gauge this painful predicament through an objective eye and drawing some kind of intellectual or philosophical observations out of the exercise. Of course, the answer to that would be negative, for Mr. Meirelles is a fundamentally shallow filmmaker when it comes to the depth of his themes. And nor is he trying to present a third-person view of the proceedings, for he drowns every frame of his in white. Absolute milky white. Absolutely ugly milky white, and often blinding us with ultra brightness of images while he cuts his way to next scene and jumps his way through time.
In cinema, especially in a cinema harboring ambitions of a compassionate tone, the use of time is of paramount significance. One cannot cut through time and shorten the pain without enough reason. Every material needs to have a feel of its time. Cinematic time that is. There’s stuff that audiences see, and there’s stuff that audiences feel and realize at a sensory level. As significant as is the visual atmosphere that many filmmakers take so much pain to get right in letting the audience know what to see, this time that is ignored on so many occasions is one that goes a long way in not just what the audience feels but how they feel what they feel. Not once does Mr. Saramago commit this kind of shorthand in his book, for he uses the length and breadth of his medium to thoughtfully and considerately explore the white blindness that has struck this unnamed cosmopolitan out of nowhere. Mr. Meirelles, on the other hand, is just content to present the events so that all his blind characters are all ready and stacked up in a quarantined zone – a verifiable Noah’s Ark with people of all races thrown against each other – and this is where he intends to unleash upon us his hypothesis on the whole of human nature and the whole history of its evolution into his present civilized form.
Of course, Mr. Meirelles’ vision isn’t exactly state of the art. Rhetoric seems more like the word. Cruel, used by critics like Mr. Roger Ebert and Mr. Kyle Smith would be another, but I guess that seems a trifle harsh, for to be cruel a filmmaker ought to know what he’s doing. Saramago’s Blindness finds the filmmaker fishing in waters way out of his depth, and with all due respect to him, Mr. Meirelles is simply – let me use the word again – the wrong filmmaker for this subject. I’m not sure here, but I believe he doesn’t have the necessary expertise in the formal elements of cinema to attribute to this kind of a film.
A little moment in the sequence I have described above throws the herring that this is a highly superfluous exercise, something that doesn’t have any humanistic tone to it, but instead his relying on trickery to try and gain the audience’s attention, and maybe even manipulate it. The Good Samaritan who drives the Asian drops him in front of his house and asks him to stay there for a moment so that he can park the car and come back. For no particular reason the Asian is left in the middle of the road, panic-stricken by the sounds of traffic around. Any film would have had the Asian standing on a curb, but this film chooses to derive thrill, and probably entertainment, out of this little situation, until the Samaritan comes and lays his hand on his shoulder and pulls him from the road. Such moments drain the respect with which you enter the premises of a movie theater to watch a film, and instead rein in disdain.
Enough with the structural failures I say. Let us talk of the characters, who are played by some of the finest actors working today. There’s Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac, We Don’t Live Here Anymore), a great actor in the making, and there’s Gael García Bernal (Babel, Amorres Perros). Then there’s Julianne Moore, one of our more underrated actresses. And Mr. Meirelles puts them through an absolute grind, in ugly situations. There’re rapes, there’re murders. And for what end? That humanity is ugly? That humanity, drenched in the urban world, is cruel and inhuman? That the face of that evil is manifested in our lust for sex and money? What ridiculously juvenile interpretations does Mr. Meirelles draw from the book. Interpretation would be a wrong word here for the filmmaker is basically cutting and packing the book under a couple of hours. You feel pained for these actors, not in the least because you care for their characters but for the honest effort they’re mining out and putting into every frame. Every bit of dialog given to them is crippled, and every bit of relation seems artificial.
But then, why am I indulging in analyzing this film? Blindness, for all its worth, is an ungainly exercise in cruelty. Much more than that, it is an assault to the senses, especially the eye. Mr. Meirelles obviously hasn’t yet encountered restraint in his life, and I wish to the almighty he does in haste. And may the almighty present him a script that has been written well, and is more up his alley. Otherwise these filmmakers, who might rather be termed illustrators, would keep squandering potentially great films.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 1:04 AM