Sunday, February 21, 2010

A SERIOUS MAN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: The Coen brothers once again spoil through caricatures what could have been a truly spiritual experience.
Genre: Drama, Comedy

        The God in A Serious Man is certainly not the kind compassionate man who walked on the earth and paid for our sins. I believe in the Baba of Shirdi, a bearded figure himself, and when I look into his eyes, I feel good. Of course, that image is our creation. To us, our God is the very definition of good. We attribute to him, large eyes with a soft gaze, a little smile, a sparkling little face, and a little hand always ready to bless us and help us. I’m not sure that is the God that exists in A Serious Man, or for that matter any film the Coens have made. The Coens God is less of a man, you see, and more of an institution. An institution that doesn’t deal in forgiveness and kindness and all that stuff we define as virtues, but is more inclined towards the evolution of man. All pass through the most arduous exam, and the tough and the virtuous survive under the vision of the Coens’ God, and those who fail are punished rather mercilessly, for that God neither is bound by nor makes any distinction between mercy and cruelty. He merely deals in right and wrong.
        Such is the story of physics professor Larry Gopnik (Mr. Stuhlbarg), a man whose spiritual stance is like that of the Schrodinger’s cat. You see, dear reader, if you’ve 0well and truly believed in the existence of somebody, a higher power, it gives you a certain strength and a certain hope. We might often doubt the existence of God, especially in trying times, but most of us would agree that within our heart of hearts that our complaints and criticisms are directed against him, in the hope that he listens. Often, our ego gets the better of us, and we start landing bets with our fate, and often even deliberately spoil ourselves just to show that we do not care. Yet we seek signs everywhere. We place bets everywhere, on every little object. Because we believe he exists, and that belief is a strength. That no matter what happens, somebody is looking.
        Larry, I believe, is another such man, who hopes. He doesn’t cross himself against God in anger. Neither does he dismiss him in utter disdain, say like Daniel Plainview, who I suspect doesn’t even care. Nor is he unfortunate like, say the narrator in Fight Club, who doesn’t even know if God is bothered about him. Come of think of it, I believe being fortunate or unfortunate in this regard is completely a matter of your opinion, dear reader. I don’t know, but if you were to choose between God’s ire and God’s complete indifference, what would you choose? You tell me. Larry though, knows he has no strength against the forces of nature, and there is not a single punishment he faces that is a result of his actions. Upto the final moments, Prof. Larry Gopnik does nothing, save receive, and receive. Receive, in all forms, and all shapes, and all sizes. His wife is in love with a slimy widower. A student in his class has stealthily slipped a envelope full of cash, and now is blackmailing him in return for a passing grade in physics. The slimy widower, Sy Ableman (Mr. Melamed) intends to move into his house, and they suggest/insist that the right thing for Larry to do is to move out into the nearest motel. His brother has moved into the house, and doesn’t show any signs of leaving anytime soon. His tenure is up for review, and somebody has been sending letters to the committee with content directed against him.
        There are plenty more issues, little ones and big ones, funny and sad, and watching Larry’s sweet face your heart breaks. The Coens construct the film as a comedy, and I didn’t laugh one bit. That would be because of the silliness of their comic tone, where they believe if you kick the clown in the posterior it automatically becomes eligible for laughs. The one thing I have learnt at movies, and on television is that people become funny when we know them better, and we like them. Chaplin was never funny, he was just a bum. Buster Keaton made me laugh, because I always cared for the little man. The A rule to being funny is be likable. Otherwise, you come out as annoying. There are several characters that the Coens reduce to mere caricatures, like for instance the hugely annoying Sy Ableman (which he is supposed to be, and not funny) and the tenure committee professor, and you do not laugh. You merely look at their amateurish jabs at being funny. I was reminded of those silly shows on Sony television where unemployed actors combine in teams to be funny, and other unemployed actors try their best to laugh. There was a time when I would want to throw something in the general direction of the television. No I just change the channel, and if the remote control is not in my hand, move out of the room. So, A Serious Man, is a profoundly spiritual film which the Coens spoil to no end. I wonder how beautiful a film Tarkovsky might have made out of it.
        So I say let us forget who made this film. Sometimes there are subjects that are so close to our existence that they have been touched and pondered over is itself a cause of celebration. A Serious Man, despite itself, is a film that is close to my heart. Troubles start piling on Larry. I feel sad. This is not a bad man, this is just a sad man getting sadder. Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant had a similar situation for its protagonist, but one feels there is fate at work there. Here it is the almighty himself pushing the buttons. And that almighty certainly wouldn’t look like Morgan Freeman. Lee Marvin maybe.
        There are two anecdotes in A Serious Man, one told in first person, and one narrated, and both of them serve as essential clues to the meaning of the film. And the meaning is that there might be no meaning. A Serious Man, much like life itself, doesn’t provide us anything to hold onto. Although the film itself isn’t worthy of its profound subject, it has several instances where it does make worthy jabs. As the credits roll, the tale’s of Larry Gopnik and his son are brilliantly inter-cut. His son is up for his bar mitzvah. Larry might be up for his, in the eyes of God. His son has it easy because it is just a formality. Larry has his task cut out, and you should see how the path gets twisted with every turn. The Coens frame it all precisely but it is their impulse to reduce their characterization to caricaturi-zation that lets them down. You should see the scene as Larry looks around his neighborhood from his rooftop.
        And then there is the last moments. All of a sudden everything starts turning well for Larry. His wife apologizes to him. Things start getting pinker. Reader, here I ask you. How many times does it happen that we turn so complacent in our times of happiness. We are people of faith, and when times are bad, we stay good because we believe somebody’s watching. But happiness and sudden ecstasy works in strange ways, and hits us back in stranger ways. When you arrive at the final moment you shall realize about one of the film’s most brilliant accomplishments that happen in the very early frames. You notice that, but you wouldn’t remember. Neither does Larry. Neither do we. You see, God always has an ace, and if we are bad, he can always pull it out of the hole. Larry doesn’t do anything wrong, but in his moment of ecstasy, he lets the guard down. And the lightning strikes, with the almighty’s complete wrath. It is a humbling moment. Seldom does that happen at the movies.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Isaach De Bankolé, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Runtime: 116 min. (really?)
Verdict: An interminable bore. A pretentious movie and a badly made one. The kind of movies that suffix artsy with fartsy.
Genre: Crime

        The black assassin, his nose permanently flared, walks into a room. A petite body lay absolutely naked on the bed. Her sparkling clean posterior is facing the wall. She is even wearing those typical spectacles office women wear in porn movies to cater to our elitist cravings. She is played by Ms. Huerta and when I check her images on Google, she is a beautiful woman. He snatches the gun. No, the film is too inert too include something as kinetic an action as snatch. The black assassin just takes the gun. He puts it inside and walks out, when she says if he likes her posterior. He says yes. She wonders why he doesn’t want to have sex. He explains. The next scene cuts to him on the bed, in his dress, and her lying naked on him. He obviously is exercising control. The point is, it doesn’t feel like much of an effort because the entire sequence is absolutely un-erotic, if that is a word.
        Why else, or how else is the scene intended to work? Mr. Jarmusch references, by the posturing of the woman, by the dialog, Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt. That was a film which was about the struggle of commerce and art because it was about it. And I have watched that film. I wonder though, why should you have seen the film? Why should you have watched some obscure film to enjoy and get the point of this scene here in The Limits of Control? This is the most condemnable aspect of modern art movies, where gratuitous masturbation of cinephilia is mistaken for art. Why should an audience, who has just spent his day working 8 hours, be treated with empty cinematic references? An art film is meant to spiritually awaken. Film attempts like The Limits of Control, which are the exact equivalent of the blockbuster world’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, should be criticized vociferously, and burnt so that young filmmakers do not get the wrong notion of art.
        Now consider the kind of filmmaking at hand. Look at the manner in which Mr. Jarmusch tries to reference Hitchcock. One of the black assassins contact is a blonde (alert), played by Ms. Swinton, and she sits next to our guy, as all of them do. On a table in a cafĂ©. Behind them is a pillar with two dragons, and behind it are two taps. Hitchcock would do that kind of silly symbolism in his films, most notably Strangers on a Train, to represent the duality of a man. I hate that. A symbol itself is a reference. A reference to a reference makes me want to rip my arm off and throw at the film in absolute disgust. And just to make sure that everybody watching gets it that the film wants to discuss art, the blonde woman explicitly mentions her views on Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Suspicion. That is the scene’s point. I ask again, reader, why should you even know that some guys called Welles and Hitchcock even existed to enjoy this scene? Such is the pretentiousness of The Limits of Control. I believe that is BAD filmmaking. Mr. Jarmusch doesn’t have an idea how to involve an audience. Often, when a filmmaker doesn’t have an idea, he resorts to being “cerebral” and go all referential. And then remark, Oh you didn’t get that? Well, it referenced so and so. If I was you, I would say, Sir, please watch your own films and connect your own dots. And while you’re at it, please get a life too. Cinema is about emotion, is about self. It is not about cinephilia.
        What is the film about? For the most part it is about an assassin getting exposed to art. In all its forms. The setting is in Spain, and you know how it is there in these European cities. They are just classic settings for culture and art, and not the practicalities of life you feel in Mumbai or New York. Now, in one of the more interesting discussions I had over my review of The Reader, which is actually a profound movie over the affects of art over morality, and vice versa, I had incidentally used the example of a sniper/assassin. How would an assassin react to art? I am sure Vincent from Collateral was extremely spiritual. How does art affect a person? Does it make him human, does it push him further into the region where everything seems, well, a variable of an equation.
        But I think I should stop asking these questions, because The Limits of Control doesn’t ask them? Not does it provide any insight on them. It just exists in a vacuum of empty style, but the problem is there is no style. It is obligatorily shot, where not a single shot evokes. I remember that great film, In the City of Sylvia, which I believe is one of the greatest ever made, and I see there a camera which becomes the male eye. Here the camera is nothing. No unique perspective, not even a cinebuff’s. Just obligatory shots. Except for of course an early sequence, where the assassin lands out of the airport and gets into a cab and rides and rides and minutes turn into hours turn into days. There is no editing but blending of images, and they are so bright you feel like you are under the afternoon sun driving a car. I think I had to close my eyes once. It is a spectacular sequence, and from thereon the filmmaking gets so monotonous it feels it is on autopilot. Look at how unimaginatively Mr. Jarmusch highlights the assassin’s various contacts. They are in slow-mo, with a hand-held camera. The shot doesn’t make you feel anything. The slow-mo isn’t even grand, it is just there. Stylistic films gain a resonance, like Sergio Leone’s films, but this one doesn’t even have a heart to beat. Forget the resonance altogether. It is all just badly made. And a horrible viewing experience. People do not like normal people. The only degree of sanity comes when Mr. Murray appears on screen. It is an unbearable movie too. You want to watch the movie as an honest man with noble intentions, but your mind starts revolting after a while. Your mind insists it has plenty of better things to do. The black assassin walking across as a train passes beneath sure is supposed to mean something or refer some obscure movie, but who cares.
        I believe, for the most part, The Limits of Control exists as one of my most contemptible movie watching experiences of the past year or so. Between this, Kambakht Ishq and Transformers: ROTFL, I guess I have to hand it out to Kambakht Ishq. But Mr. Jarmusch’s film trails only by a whisker. And the Michael Bay masterpiece is lagging a distant third. For all its incomprehensibility I never did really mind it.

THE WOLFMAN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving
Director: Joe Johnston
Runtime: 102 min.
Verdict: A shoddily put together film on a psychologically interesting premise.
Genre: Horror, Thriller

        I mean, what are the odds? Lawrence Talbot (Mr. Del Toro), the prodigal son returns, to investigate the brutal slaughter of his brother, only to become a werewolf himself. So, now, two monsters exist, one the evil one, and the other the antihero. Like in all good superhero films, here the archenemy has created his nemesis. Young Lawrence, creates mayhem at first, and then is shipped to London into an asylum where he creates mayhem again, and then heads back to his village to slay the archenemy and end this madness. Guess what? The ending happens on a full moon day. Granted Lawrence walks back to his village to avoid being captured. But not one day before, or one day afterwards. Bang on full moon is when the climactic monster wrestle-mania is scheduled. Dear reader, wouldn’t it be something if a movie would just let loose the two men against each other, and not the obligatory monster versions? I ask this question not as some silly contrarian response, but because, here, in this upgraded version of The Wolfman, where the whole monster thingy is just a metaphor for oedipal issues, it makes sense to let the calmer, saner versions bring out the real monsters to the table and settle all the guilt and accusations once and for all.
        Now, that doesn’t happen. The Wolfman has had several production problems, and a CGI showdown, it seems, is a business requirement put down by studio executives. Not that my ending would be a terribly anti-climatic either, but still, a risk is hardly worth taking in this climate. Never mind. This is still a solid film, shoddily made, but several redeeming factors in it. Take for instance, the absolute monstrosity of Lawrence when he is a werewolf. He isn’t the sulky kind, like say The Incredible Hulk, who upon the mere presence of Jennifer Connelly’s beautiful eyes shrinks down. The Wolfman is an absolute monster. He is irredeemable. He doesn’t care who stands before him. Whether it is a wife, a lover, a trusted friend or a son. He has no morality. He just rips apart people and buries his face and pulls out their intestines. It doesn’t matter if the victim is one of those smug annoying supporting characters or some innocent bystander. It is laudable how the film manages to portray violence and drives home that there is no way out for this monster but death. Or kill your conscience, become a complete monster, even when you are not the werewolf. The only thing the film stops short of showing is having some nice little kid being butchered.
        So, when in the end, the Wolfman is confronted by his love, Gwen Conliffe (Ms. Blunt) as he is about to attack her, and all the monster movies, from The Fly to The Incredible Hulk run in our minds, and we wonder if there is hope for this monster, the argument you hit upon is what would happen if these two end up marrying each other. How much can she really calm him? For how long? When does her patience run out? When does his patience run out? And you know what happens is what should happen. That your feelings for the protagonist run along as prescribed is quite something.
        By every other means, this is a well made standard creature feature. The plot is all over the place, and at some places makes no sense. I don’t mind. What you mind is your choice. Still, the film is clearly narrated, with no apparent over-eagerness to jump to the CGI. There are good performances, yet the relationships amongst the characters make more of a literal sense than emotional. Mr. Weaving, I need to mention with a special note. He has an almost Bond-esque presence about him that is almost unnerving. I would like to see him as a monster.