Saturday, December 26, 2009

DAS WEISSE BAND (THE WHITE RIBBON): MOVIE REVIEW


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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

AVATAR: MOVIE REVIEW


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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

BRONSON: MOVIE REVIEW


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

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