Monday, September 27, 2010

WAKING LIFE: MOVIE REVIEW


Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 100 min.
Verdict: An interesting little exercise about the fallacy of images.
Genre: Animated, Avant-Garde

        The ideas, the conversations, the long discourses which often turn into ramblings are the least interesting the challenging part of Waking Life. As is common knowledge now, the movie is a dream, or at least hopes to achieve a dream-like state of affairs. What interests me most is how the choice of visuals and the overall narrative structure almost demands of us to watch Waking Life only one way, and that way guided by two rules – (a) Watch it in one go without either a pause or a rewind, and (b) Watch it only once. I mean, if we’re intending to be honest here, and our endeavor is always to be experiencing it the way a film asks us to, and not to fall to the temptation in our capacity as a voyeur to find the overall meaning of it all. I mean, yeah, it could be argued that a lot of so-called dream films ought to be watched in that one way, or to put it better, experienced first and watched later. I don’t know, but something within stops me from watching Un Chien Andalou a second time, or Last Year at Marienbad or Stalker. Every time I do I get the feeling I’m cheating, I’m being dishonest. One could argue here on similar lines about a lot of movies that is, to avoid any debate, not “generally considered or intended” to be a representation of a dream, but certainly not for all of them since so many exist as narrative deals or representations of reality – Jfk, The Third Man, Full Metal Jacket, Politist, Adjectiv – and any argument about them being dreamlike would drown us into philosophical ramblings questioning the very nature of reality, which I seek to avoid here.
        What I instead would want to question here is our retention of the visual medium, and how our memory stores these images. I ask of you, dear reader, if your memories of movies consisting of live-action images – I take random examples (color) in The Color of Money, Desh Premee, All the President’s Men – is more pristine, more solid, or clearer than say images from an animated feature. Take for example Tom and Gerry or A Bug’s Life or Finding Nemo. I do not know, but my memories of the courtroom scenes in A Few Good Men seem to be more vivid than the sea-life of Finding Nemo. Care be taken that when I say memories I’m referring to not just the broad strokes of the images, but the color schemes and patterns. I remember images from Coraline but I do not remember neither the colors of the walls (purple? Or was it pink) and neither the color of her dresses. I would confess here that I’m not exactly enthusiastic for the animated medium (or at least what’s on offer) since my movie-going sensibilities seem to guided quite a lot by voyeuristic pleasures, and that by definition would need something real to be engaged with. More importantly I would like to discourage memories of films, both animated and live-action, where the color scheme is so prominent that our memory stores it as a different file itself, and not as part of the image itself. If I ask you what color is The Matrix, or what color is Underworld, or what color is Waltz with Bashir one would instantly have an answer. But that wouldn’t serve this little exercise. What we need is films with fairly pedestrian color schemes, and then ascertain the vividness of these images. I certainly do remember the colors of the coats and Lefty’s sunglasses from Donnie Brasco. I do not have any definitive answer here, and the only way out here is a collective response. So, yes, I would surely love to know how your memory goes.
        Now, consider the basic idea that cinema (and photography) try to achieve a sense of reality (Bazin’s cinematic reality and “Holy Moment” is one of topics of discussion, as are so many pop-philosophical tent-pole topics, and as I said are really the most banal aspect of this film) . And if cinema were, in essence, to be the approximation of the services rendered by our eye and brain (reality, memory or dreams), is it necessary on our part, as a movie-viewer to meet it halfway, and complete the approximation? I might be rambling here, I do agree, but it feels to me that with some films it is almost morally necessary on our part to experience them just the way we experience reality or dreams – once, with no pauses, and no rewinds. I often feel that the significance of memory in movie viewing is greatly under-appreciated. I mean, movies do exist on film, movies do exist as electrons on DVDs and our hard disks, but sitting there, aren’t they merely static inanimate objects? Isn’t the case that movies actually exist in our memories, where they live and breathe? We sure can watch a movie enough number of times to have our memory of it be a virtual copy, but time does come into picture isn’t it? We still would need memory, unless we would want to be perpetually watching the movie.
        So, that being the case, aren’t there a lot of movies that deserve to be watched only once, so that we feel them and experience them and remember them as we would our life, or our dreams? Waking Life instructed me thus, and I watched it one go, never rewinding even once, pausing a whole lot (I failed on this count), and even though I was lost on quite a few occasions during some of the bull-sessions ,as anybody would if one were to be exposed to a lengthy monologue, I think that is the purpose. Movies are not interactive like say a class of metallurgy, and unless someone constructs and manipulates a scene as brilliant as the opening of Inglorious Basterds where we have no free will of our own but to think the way the filmmaker wants us to think, we’re left on our own. Waking Life constructs itself as a dream, and watching it the way I did, I had little to no control. I was taking the way the film gave it to me.
        Curiously that is what suggests to me that Waking Life asks of us to watch it on the big screen and not on our laptops (where the discipline is thrust upon us). And strangely the visuals, which modern animation so painstakingly creates with so many numerous details, achieves a certain level of diffusion owing to the interpolated rotoscoping. The images float, with the different planes of action dancing around as if sitting on different points of wave, yet there is no depth to them. The different planes are all, in fact, one single plane of action. And as they shape shift and float, there is little we do remember about them, except for the fact that it happened, and an idea of what was spoken, and a vague notion of what it felt like. There’s no way the color schemes could be remembered. As in a dream we’re moving from one moment to the next, and unlike a live action film, the preceding moment except for its content immediately becomes blurred. There’s a strange tension within that moment though, unlike other styles of animation which tend to replicate reality, where these sketches tend to betray their source – the motion capture – and we see glimpses of the structures of those real faces, and it is as if reality is breaking in, or the animation is rupturing. I don’t know, it feels strange when I thought I saw the real Ethan Hawke, or the real Steven Soderbergh in there. Or maybe I remember it that way. By the way, I now remember a moment in the film where Ms. Delpy’s character has her chin resting on her right hand and in the next cut, the left hand is doing the honors. Or vice versa.
        That way Waking Life is a film of great significance in my argument for cinema in that it highlights the fallacy of our worshipping and analysis and appreciation of the medium in terms of images. Quite often, we find our scholars, hold up an image and explain the brilliance of composition. Howsoever fruitful this appreciation of the medium may be, I think it is counterproductive in the way it reduces the medium’s appreciation and analysis to a set of images, as opposed to imagery. We’ve filmmakers today whose aesthetic is dominated by a sense of static energy as opposed to the kinetic. Their films seem stillborn, with no life other than a set of images. I myself have been guilty so many times. The microscope of appreciation ought to involve the motion into the equation, and I believe the best of composition is achieved not through cinematography but by editing. More on that later. Waking Life, meanwhile, is a film that seems to be completely aware of itself, and more importantly aware of the medium. In quite a few moments it directly acknowledged the way I was experiencing it, since there are so many topics where you would want to pose a few questions or throw in your own points. There were occasions I was bored to death, and in the film’s final moments the central figure does admit to the helplessness of it all. I was supposed to be trapped within a movie, and were it not for my indiscipline (I did pause and I did talk on phone and I did watch bits of the cricket match), I would’ve been. Now, I only have memories of it and I think that is how it will be.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

L’AFFAIRE FAREWELL (FAREWELL): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Evgeniy Kharlanov
Director: Christian Carion
Runtime: 149 min.
Country: France
Language: French
Verdict: This is your standard issue Spy film of the dramatic kind.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        L’Affaire Farewell offers a singularly curious final shot that singlehandedly calls to attention, and almost questions everything that has transpired before, working like a twist in the narration much like a plot twist would in the narrative. It, quite smoothly brings a psychological relevance to the otherwise pedestrian opening shots, and threads it all together in a fascinating arc of politics that goes beyond the mere rhetoric of the victory of democracy and the fall of communism, and into those territories where patriotism works as a route for the fulfillment of one’s desire to be glorified and ultimately approved as a hero. A man of class so to speak, a man of authority, a superhero, who stood against all odds, against whom every force in the world combined, and one who changed the tide of world events. My doubt remains if the film acknowledges and empathizes with this trait, or it merely is a tool for this glorification. If it is the former, I think this is a smart film. If it is the latter, which I’m beginning to believe more and more, I think it is no better than flamboyantly made mediocrity.
        Colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Mr. Kusturica) stands alone looking at us, his face a picture if despair. I assume you do not know the story of the Cold war spy codenamed Farewell, and I wouldn’t spoil it for you either. But Gregoriev stands in the snow, his figure towering over the screen, and he looks at us. His sad face betrays a level of smugness, self-righteous pride, and you can almost hear that song from Jagriti (1954) where the unorthodox and idealist Professor Shekhar praises his kind under the disguise of bidding an adieu. Some do earn that pride, and there’s no two ways about that. Problem is when someone starts assuming he has earned it. Gregoriev stares at us for a moment or two, and then half-swings his arm asking us to proceed, his action suggesting in verbal terms – Go on, you nincompoops. Or poops. I don’t know, you tell me.
        Sergei is KGB colonel, and an informer to the French domestic intelligence agency DST. Disillusioned by the communist he is. Doesn’t want Swiss bank balance. Doesn’t need asylum. Only needs change. Only needs another Russian revolution while old Brezhnev is wearing the country thin. He sits in such a strategically important seat at the KGB that he admittedly has all the requisite buttons at his disposal to bring the country down. His intelligence causes everybody, from then French Premier Mitterrand to then US President Reagan, to sit up and act swiftly, and when poor Gorbachev walks in, the fatal blow is dealt. In crime investigations, as in literature, as in movies, it is always considered safe if the man in question has simple practical demands. When the needs start becoming intangible, we are slowly entering unsafe territory. Curveball just needed a green card, and yet we all know courtesy him how a single source of intelligence could be a colossal disaster. L’Affaire Farewell, through its framing of Sergei, and its editing juxtaposing the poor economical state and the iron hand that is to be blamed with shots of Sergei, claims that he was that kind of an informant. Maybe he was, and there is a lot of movies and lot of novels to read and grow tired of that kind of espionage activity. What would rather interest me, especially from a film that is dealing with intelligence as caused by people and not just relay transmitters, is the level of doubt that always exists considering it is people who are part of the transaction. Reliability is not even a question. L’Affaire Farewell asks us to assume without questioning about the nature of the information being provided by Sergei, or the authenticity, except that we know he provides and the west acts and the communists fall. Oh yeah, and all that deal with family being put to the grinder and stuff. I think the family angle is just as much of a cliché, and is a more annoying one considering it has the middlebrow seriousness attached to it, and doesn’t have any of the fun we have with stuff like The Bourne films.
        One might say L’Affaire Farewell is fairly simplistic. The world leaders are little more than their popular images. It reduces Ronald Reagan to a man who talks like a B-western hero and watches and re-watches The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and essentially reduces that film to a question of perspective. Reader, I ask, what do you think of Tom Doniphon? I ask, if he were anymore than a literary (in this cinematic) character why would he let himself die all lonely, other than to drown himself in the glory of his sacrifice and self-pity, and Hallie’s knowledge of it. Mr. Kusturica plays Sergei as a smug self righteous man. L’Affaire Farewell suggests, as Mr. David Denby observes here, that men like Sergei, and his contact, a one engineer Pierre (Mr. Canet) were the real guys who shot Liberty Valance, while the governments of NATO led by Regan and co., much like Stoddard, took the credit. I wouldn’t want to talk about Valance vis-à-vis communism because behind that feeble allusion L’Affaire Farewell draws no analogy of any muscle. What I rather find interesting is how the machinery of the system comes across, as against how Mr. Denby recognizes it. While Mr. Denby’s morals are drawn from reality juxtaposed with the cinematic events, the naïve viewer who would be completely unaware of Agent Farewell, would find that L’Affaire Farewell has a most stunningly convincing monologue from CIA director Feeney (Mr. Willem Dafoe) about the pragmatics of the intelligence world, as against the ideals, and we see how it is the swift actions of the government that saves the lives of some of these people. If L’Affaire Farewell considers itself as a chronicler of history, then by definition it is a historical document, and that puts it squarely as a document that provides a completely alternate perspective of events. One in which the central protagonist becomes Sergei, and who commits audacious acts of espionage to exhibit his patriotism and his power to change the course of world events, and where the arms of the governments act pragmatically yet effectively to save not only identities but lives. They are anything but nincompoops. Oscar Wilde said a thing about patriotism. I guess Feeney and co. here knew a great deal about it and how it worked.


Note: Here's the poem the film recites. L’Affaire Farewell most surely is the narrator here.
http://www.brindin.com/pfvigmor.htm

Thursday, September 16, 2010

ONDINE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Dervla Kirwan, Stephen Rea
Director: Neil Jordan
Runtime: 103 min.
Verdict: A rather lovely film.
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance

        A woman emerging out of the water is an image that is much more than curves and assets and boners. Yes, such a moment is how much of cinema tries to achieve the many benefits of porn. I don’t know, but my childhood journeys through our mythological stories served me images that had a lot more going for them on a lot of fronts than the blandness of the Ursula Andress one. Excuse me my wordplay, but I don’t get how the cinematic form comes into picture here, or rather is anymore than a picture here. I mean, if the ultimate intent is to cause a boner there are a million ways to have one, and water dripping from the glistening body is probably the least memorable and least effective of it. Such a sight only trivializes the pretty lass, makes her just an empty nothing, and ultimately reveals the cause why modern porn is so ineffective. The fantasy is just not there to begin with. And that is a cause for concern, you see, considering that the medium here is fantasy itself. Movies can go beyond mere display of images, images that may only cause a mere visual response. Movies can create these fantasies, and memories, and often movies can cause to plant memories that didn’t even exist in the first place, and thus perpetuate these fantasies. In a bikini, where the bikini and the non-bikini is the only objective, a terrible opportunity is lost, and movies are reduced to images.
        I think there must be something beautiful, something divine, something poetic about a feminine figure gracefully emerging out of the water, something that, it ought to be said, causes a boner that is memorable. Mr. Christopher Doyle (Paranoid Park, Lady in the Water, In the Mood for Love) and Mr. Jordan create an image that is so strikingly composed and captured that it brings to mind the wizardry of the window perspective trick in Citizen Kane. Ondine (Ms. Bachleda) is neck deep in water when she is confronted by Syracuse’s (Mr. Farrell) little daughter Annie (Ms. Kirwan). Annie knows Ondine is a sea nymph of some sort. Considering the manner in which movies generally compose such shots – tedium of close-ups and mediums with the background only to serve as nothing. In Dr. No the water behind only serves as a background, and Ursula Andress’ relative position and size hardly is of any concern. It is just a whole lot of sea. But here, we are first served a medium shot. And then, with Annie’s silhouette in the foreground covering a part of the frame to the right, we’re served a long shot, as Ondine gradually emerges (not walks out) out of the water. Her arms do not move at all. Her body is as much the object in the frame, as the rocks to the left of the frame, as are the strange patterns of the ripples in the water. It is quite breathtaking, as her body gradually attains a size sizable in relation to the background, as she gradually grows larger, and there is something divine almost fantastical about that shot. As her complete figure stands on the land, suddenly bathed in a soft diffused glow of sunlight, the surrounding landscape seems strangely small, which hitherto felt much larger in size and scope. There’s nothing tangible in the shot I can hold on to, to claim quantitatively how the feel and effect is created, and such is the magic we often come across at the movies. I was in love with Ondine right there. The film is a joy to behold, if for nothing else, then this divine moment alone.
        A great aspect of this shot, as any good shot, is that it so beautifully captures the themes and the psychology at the heart of the film. What is Ondine about but a sort of deconstruction of the male version of the desire that drives the Twilight saga fantasy. Syracuse is almost the village idiot, though it is a little stretch to imagine Mr. Farrell as one. His daughter Annie is sick, and is bound to a wheelchair, and does not live him. She lives with her mother, an alcoholic herself, who is married to a Scottish guy she fell in love with during Syracuse long forays into the sea looking for fishes, and she has the custody of their daughter only because of Irish laws. Syracuse is the one who takes her to the hospital for treatments, and he always confesses to her his wish of something strange and wonderful to happening in his life. In their life probably. You know, he is wishing for a deus ex machina, and he gets one in the form of Ondine. A beautiful woman, one who likes him very much, and more importantly one who brings him luck. I mean real luck. He nets squids and salmonds when the surrounding waters are not known to offer those varieties of sea-food.
        Later on, she resolves his more significant problem too, and in a manner so convenient that it is so blatantly honest and might even seem offensive. It involves a matter of death, where the little party-pooper is plucked right out, courtesy an accident. Somebody’s fantasy is somebody’s nightmare. Maybe, the fantasy you desire for might not be the fantasy you get, but what you get might be a fantasy nonetheless. The little Irish town is a quite little place, probably even banal, and Ondine’s arrival quietly changes the equation for Syracuse. There’s remarkable performances from the three actors, especially from Ms. Kirwan, who superbly tightropes the character of a smart little girl. We all know how annoying one of those can be, especially in the wake of one Ms. Dakota Fanning. Mr. Jordan has always been generous with his actors, and the soft play between Mr. Farrell and Ms. Bachleda is so subtly romantic, and dare I say sweet. Ondine is a sweet film, though there are elements that question the general sweetness of fables and fantasies. And when Ondine walks out of the water, it has got to be one of the movie moments of this decade.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella, Javier Godino
Director: Juan José Campanella
Runtime: 129 min.
Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina
Verdict: Underneath the schematic design of its drama lay an ugly little monster. Ugly and revolting and morbid.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        Life really is strange and fascinating. I wonder if there are a couple of dimwit writers contriving situations for me, just around the time I watch a film, so that I manage to bring the experience of those situations home, and are finding it real difficult to be subtle about it. Or maybe, I am hollow inside, all the time filling myself with everything around. You are watching movies even when you’re not at the movies. Maybe, I want to live life two or three or four times over and the only way to do it is to watch movies even when, you know, I’m not watching them. It’s eerie that the thread that unmasks the disturbing psychology of El Secreto De Sus Ojos happens to be one of those conversations you have when your roommates and flat-mates gather on a night after the office, and when dinner is done. There’s this flat-mate of mine, we’ve known each other for a month now, and he sees me writing one of my reviews, and starts displaying his own passion for writing, and brings out his pen drive that is loaded with stuff he has dished out, and he asks me to read it and comment over it. This said situation quite resembles that little space between a rock and a hard place, and I’ve been there many times, and I’ve learnt over the years that the secret is to call a spade a spade, and shit, well, rotten shit. Pretentions in writing bug me, and prose comes secondary because, you see, the prose really got to be the natural extension of the heart, just like the aesthetic of a movie.
        Bear with me dear reader, and I change my paragraph only to cause assurance that I am not rambling, that we’re indeed going somewhere, and that this little anecdote of mine is indeed worthy of your attention to understand this movie here, this movie which Roger Ebert calls a “real movie”, and to understand the nature of my anger with it. And probably revulsion too. I read his stuff, which is about his experience watching a butcher at work on a couple of hens, and the compassionate juices that overflow. And I comment, and when he asks why, I advice. You all know the only line of thinking I’m capable of. He tries his best to take it in good spirits, and in one of those attempts confides what his next little writing exercise is going to be. One of his cousins undergoing some kind of training at some institute had to watch a woman’s dead body, and my flat-mate remarks the utter “disgusting” nature of that situation. He wonders how he would have reacted, and stresses to us how revolting and saddening it would be – a naked woman’s dead body. I ask – why the fascination darling? He says – this is such a strange predicament. I ask – what is the nature of that strangeness? He says it is sick, and essentially repeats himself like a tape. And I ask – given a choice, would you or would you not pass a chance to have a good look at it, because hey, it is a naked woman’s dead body, who, if your luck holds that day, could well be pretty? He is sort of challenged for words, but he knows and the other guys in the room know where I’m getting at. You see, kitsch and guilt and curiosity and feeling good about one’s conscience are all step brothers from the same father. Or mother. I don’t know which.
        Beneath El Secreto De Sus Ojos’ calm and aesthetically graceful exterior is that morbid curiosity and melodrama that has an almost romantic fascination for these darker elements. It wonders how nice it would be to have such events that transpire in the movie to happen so that it could display its humanity and compassion and its eye for what constitutes as tragedy or horror or tragic horror or horrific tragedy. Benjamin Esposito (Mr. Darín) is now a retired man, and a lonely man, and he’s contemplating writing a novel. We meet him and his notepad, him scribbling and scrapping, trying out viable options for a superb opening that will knock an emotional/poetic punch. It is about Ricardo Morales (Mr. Rago) and his wife, newlyweds, and their last morning together. One of the openings is a super glossy, saturated romantic moment. He scraps. Starts writing again. Remembers, or rather imagines, the crime that separated them. A brutal rape of the wife Liliana Coloto (Ms. Carla Quevedo), where we see her naked and struggling and the perpetrator imposing. That paper he doesn’t scrap and throw, but instead folds neatly and keeps it aside. You wonder why. Removes his reading glasses, closes his eyes, and sleeps. You wonder why he tears all those pages that offer an image of corny romance, but not the one that offers brutal images of rape. And then you wonder if that is because it is brutal. As in, what corny is to lowbrow, kitsch is to middlebrow.
        Next morning he visits his former office, where he used to be a federal justice agent 25 years ago and meets Irene Hastings (Ms. Villamil), his former boss and as is apparent a good friend. He declares to her his interest on writing the novel, and admits he has a problem with his opening. She advices him something about starting with memories. You roll your eyes and wonder about the screenwriters who thought of this poor excuse to cause the narrative flashback, which obediently obliges and henceforth in the film doesn’t even bother for any excuse to shift the time-frame.
25 years before. The department receives news about the brutal rape and murder of a woman in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. Benjamin visits the scene of crime. The dead body, the naked dead body, is on the floor. It is a ridiculously funny sequence in the way the very aesthetic the film is using to explain the “ugly” scene unmasks its ugly nature. Benjamin looks at her, with compassion and sadness writ all over his face, and yet he looks at the body. The body, in its turn, is most carefully positioned too, with the legs on the bed, and the woman on the floor, so that we’ve a complete panoramic view of the woman. And then, there’s a solemn close-up too. I describe it as solemn because the background score advises me thus. You would want to slap the film there and ask why the hell it is being solemn if it is showing it all so generously in the first place. You would want to slap Benjamin too. Later, he visits her grieving husband and looks at their pictures and pays special attention to the beauty of the woman. I don’t think I remember a score there.
        Manohla Dargis writes in her review -
“…her naked body, as is too often true of movie corpses, was decoratively arranged on her death bed. The culprit, at least when it comes to aestheticizing this particular horror, is the writer and director Juan José Campanella, who has a tendency to gild every lily, even a dead one.”
        She then adds –
“…Benjamin doesn’t fall in love with his dead woman, though the way he looks at her corpse and then her photographs suggests more than he can admit.”

        Reader, I’ll go only a little further in my description of the plot so that I’ve sufficient evidence here to argue my case. El Secreto De Sus Ojos, for more than hour, is essentially about learning the identity of the rapist and nabbing. The clincher clue for investigator Benjamin turns out to be those pictures, those wedding pictures, where almost every one of them conveniently has one guy staring at Liliana. Benjamin has the identity right there. You might start thinking this is a crime of passion. Maybe. But when they do nab him, and when they interrogate him in his office, and he so ridiculously stares through Irene’s buttons, and the way they extract a confession out of him by attacking his manhood is utterly silly, and you might suspect the rapist here is an imbecile. I don’t know, but it just doesn’t scan with everything in the film. So yeah, that happens.
        But, in what is the most curious moment in the film, the present day Irene and Benjamin have a look at past pictures from their office days, of a little gathering celebrating her declaration of engagement to her lover, and every one of those pictures has Benjamin staring at Irene. Is the film in the process implicating Benjamin too? And that is my central dilemma. Where does the film end and Benjamin start? Or are they cut out from the same moral fabric? The question one might pose is if the film distancing itself from Benjamin, placing itself on the highest level of morality. Does it acknowledge its own guilt or does it look at Benjamin’s own ugliness with the same kind of argument that Benjamin in his turn uses for his condemnation of the rapist? And where am I here in all of this? Am I, by morally condemning the film, stupidly mistaking content for intent, and revealing my own ugly version of self-righteousness?
        I watch the movie again. I recognize those close-ups which had put me off, close-ups which bring home the relevance of the title, and I think most films should stay away from taking their titles too literally. More often than not it works against the illusion, and undermines the craft. Or better, think of a real good title. There’s a fair degree of melodrama to the technique here, with the past colored in a golden hue and the present in white, with canted angles or handheld camera to convey the jarring nature of the situation, and with those close-ups. And the solemn score. You almost know what the film wants to tell you about what it is thinking about what is happening in it. The narrative is Benjamin’s flashback, sure, but the film is not merely about Benjamin. The film begins to an extreme close-up of Irene’s sad eyes, and it ends on her happy face. Ricardo is given his own private space, and his own scenes, and that establishes him as a primary player in the narrative. Mr. Campanella frames his shots with an eye for grace, and yes, flamboyance. There’s little that is messy about it, there’s little that feels spontaneous, and everything feels so carefully choreographed. He is almost patting himself on the back. You should look at the plot too, and there is not one, I repeat one piece of insignificant detail (plot visual or otherwise) in the film. I almost jumped in joy when Benjamin accidentally rips out a button off Irene’s shirt, and you should see how the film designs its plot around that little “accident”. Oh, but there’s one and only one, and it involves Benjamin walking into his old office 25 years after, and along the way passing two young women, and passing a little impish remark. I think we all now know why it is there. There’s even what the film and many critics consider a virtuoso shot where the camera swoops from over a soccer stadium and comes to these characters, and the ensuing chase sequence involves a curious bit of overenthusiastic camerawork. The rapist runs, with two guys pursuing him, the camera pursuing them and as he runs down a few steps the camera stays there, and you know that the guy is going to come back. And come back he does, and the camera follows him again. I never get the point of these flamboyant shots and what purpose they serve other than to undermine themselves. There’s always a simple bit of principle for every chase sequence – any camera movement or positioning that betrays its knowledge of what is going to happen next is a big no. and no, I wouldn’t want to buy the argument that film is mirroring Benjamin’s memory through its inevitability. There are at least a couple of startles in those memories I can easily recall.
        So yeah, I guess it is fair to assume that the film indeed distances itself from Benjamin, and indeed is assuming the moral responsibility of an objective narrator. I really think that is a most difficult position to be in, a real thin tightrope to balance both the narrative and the narration upon. But doing that, and while suspecting its own protagonist, the film better acknowledge its own little monster when it so gloriously chooses to position the corpse thus. I mean, it could have had Benjamin walk up and move the body to have a good look, and the film could all the while have had observed only Benjamin, and thus leave some of us in the audience fascinated by the object of his vision, and thus implicating us too. One really doesn’t need the solemn score there either. And in fact, as I think over it, that the film chooses Benjamin as its protagonist is its route through this difficult position, because by following Benjamin wherever he goes, it is conveniently getting all the details and all the closures it needs to provide narrative satisfaction. And at the same time, by condemning him, it is getting to be morally righteous too. I find that quite a big problem. The film, in its turn, fashions itself as a romance, as some sort of a lost love resurgence, and the manner in which it causes its protagonist to realize the moral of nothingness of his novel to finally confess his love for the woman is one big load of nonsense. How a film that is trying to be as solemn as this one here, append a love-proposal love-acceptance sequence at its end really bothers me. A Luis Bunuel film often earns the right to do that, because it doesn’t overplay its solemnity in those kitschy moments. You see, you wouldn’t want to have Alfred Borden go and find Olivia and propose and hug and kiss at the end of The Prestige.
        And so you would want to ask – why didn’t he propose to her then, when it was all too clear to both of them? He talks about the nothingness in his life, and that has taught him something. Something I don’t know. Benjamin toils hard for the victim’s husband, and he pursues the case with more passion than he usually would’ve done (Clue: the flashback’s opening moments where he asks to pass the case to somebody else). Why is that? When he looks at the dead body, you could see a hint of pity in his eyes. I mean, a woman. A dead woman. A pretty woman, raped. The poor thing suffered, and it really does boil your blood. But then, is she poor because she is beautiful? The film places such a woman in Benjamin’s fate, and it is unbelievable it then has the gall to take the moral high ground. As I see, there’s a whole lot of mess that the film I guess is unaware about, or doesn’t acknowledge. The film is about the ugliness, but in my eyes, inspite (or because of) itself, it is the ugliness. It is surely not what it wants to be, or what its central protagonist wants to be, and in that maybe lay its importance. Much like Donnie Darko, here’s a film that reflects us, because it itself is part of the irony. The rapist is the Lou Ford, you could say, and how we perceive his monstrosity, as Benjamin does, is us. We all believe we are high minded, but maybe our actions reveal differently. You know what? I think I would have admired the film had it been messy and honest and owned its own secrets, but then, somehow, I prefer for it to be the way it is, secretly revealing itself, as it sees Benjamin, as he sees the rapist. You know what the real secret might be? The self righteousness that causes the reluctance to acknowledge the ugly little monster within.

Monday, September 06, 2010

UI-HYEONG-JE (THE SECRET REUNION): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Kang-ho Song, Dong-won Kang
Director: Hun Jang
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Runtime: 117 min.
Verdict: A political obligation. Generic and schmaltzy alright, but what’s disappointing is that the grit in the action sequence feels designed.
Genre: Thriller, Action

        Ui-Hyeong-je has two guys, one a South Korean agent and the other a North Korean spy-assassin, one who is divorced with his wife married to a Brit and the other away from his family, one who eats only burgers and the other who can catch a rooster and slice it and make chicken broth out of it, one who essentially does anything for money and hence is conveniently and likeably immoral and inoffensively selfish and the other high on principles and morals with his spine straight as an arrow, one who goofs his way through smartness and the other utterly humorless in his efficiency, one who has a paunch and the other a lean-mean machine, one who is a stereotype and the other who is, well, a stereotype too. The film follows a prescribed path to achieve its preset goal of sending a “let us unite and be brothers” message, and contrives its way to have them turn into stock characters for the buddy genre. I don’t need to tell you that it is superficial. I don’t need to tell you that you would be rolling your eyes so much you would count it is as calorie-burner for the day. And just when you think that the film is at least trying to be coy about its message, the South Korean agent invokes the word capitalism, and gives a stock definition of it, and the situation unfortunately is not even bad enough to cause a chuckle.
        Surprisingly I wasn’t annoyed all that much. That the South Korean agent is selfish (ah! goddamn! capitalism!), and during the opening assignment he refuses to inform backup because, hey, they might take all the credit was just, well, a cliché. And that several agents get killed. And that he still has the gall to shout back at his boss for terminating him would’ve been interesting had the film not presented the agent as a poor scapegoat/victim and the boss as a, well, standard-issue boss. It might even put you off, or leave you clueless and witless. I didn’t mind. I shrugged.
        What disappointed me most though, is that Ui-Hyeong-je is a visual bummer, choreographing its sequences just about like most Hollywood films these days. In The Chaser, Mother and The Good The Bad The Weird the Koreans have given some of the most striking visual imagery of these past few years. It is just not the images that do the talking, but quite often it is the camera that is cause for bravado, and often the editing. Faithful readers will remember my discussion on Mother, on how the mise-en-scene establishes a lie, and how a simple dissolve into one of the strangest sights of this decade causes absolute disruption to this lie, and reveals the darker truth lying underneath. You know, maybe I’m biased towards Korean cinema, and I confess I expect too much, and when an obligatorily shot product comes along from them I should rather move on than crib about it, but then I cannot help cribbing that Ui-Hyeong-je is just a whole lot of images strung together. I know, we get that from Hollywood all the time, and Hollywood that I often praise, and maybe I’ve come to expect that visual blandness from them. But here, when scenes don’t organically move on to the next, where one feels as if the movie isn’t moving and instead it is just images coming one after the other, where the images seem to run into each other, I cringe. You see reader, good editing always follows a simple principle – there needs to be a line of action in the first frame that causes it to move to the next frame, and so on. Not here. It’s like A chasing B in a car, and rather than the chase moving like they used to in the good old times, we have almost static images of A then B, then A, then B, then A and then B and so on. There’s just no flow and no rhythm, and it’s boring. The camera just doesn’t talk. There’re close-ups when there ought to have been medium-shots, there are edits when there ought to have been a continuous unedited pan, and it’s all just uninteresting. Even the humor the Koreans bring out of grit feels like self parody here, when the cop car chasing the bad guy runs through several turns barely making them (remember your first stint with those race cars in NFS) and eventually runs into a wall, the cynic inside of you sort of wonders.
        Yet, there’s a little moment of the bravado I always respond to, and that involves buddies fighting a whole lot of bullies. Shot from sideways it zooms into the action as the two guys wade into the streaming horde, sort of like 300 minus the slow-mo, and scored with a disco tune, and it is a little moment of ecstasy. Of course even that is visually uninteresting. I think it has everything to do with the heart and mind behind this film, and they way it pans out, one shouldn’t be faulted to wonder if this is a state-sponsored film with a politically correct message to spread among the masses. Which brings us to my point. That is, it might not be possible to create art without offending someone at some level. Of course, if you go and inverse the statement and try to pin it down as a corollary, then no sir, it is not true.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

THE KILLER INSIDE ME: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas, Tom Bower
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Runtime: 109 min.
Verdict: The movie merely explains the title for its running time. That is tedious.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        The Killer Inside Me seems to provide us with a rather interesting predicament. Trouble is I suspect it might be significant only as an experiment in understanding an audience’s reaction, and it really might not hold any merit whatsoever if we expect it to explore any aspect of human nature. What the film is about is suggested in the title. And not for a moment does one feel even a shred of compelling evidence that the film is in anyway alluding to that nihilistic bastard who resides somewhere in every one of us, or that dormant killer who might explode when circumstances tip him over the edge. I would of course explore that option the first thing, but nothing suggests to me that this is a movie about a regular guy (The Reader). Rather one feels the narrator, the me, might be in the same hall of fame as such literary fabrications as Anton Chigurh or Hannibal Lecter or his nearest cousin Patrick Bateman, guys who felt compelled to kill just for the heck of it, or for the psychologically impenetrable reason of eating them. The movie suggests, through Lou Ford (Mr. Affleck), the narrator at our service here, that punching and kicking and killing is merely an impulse, or maybe even a sickness he cannot simply prevent. I think that with the number of serial killer movies we’ve seen, and books we’ve read, and cases we’ve learnt about, such a psychological scenario is fodder only for a short film, and everything that exceeds the prescribed running time is merely stating rhetoric. Rhetoric, you see, no matter how repetitive, and how violent, and how sadistic, and how keen on proving a point through that repetition, is essentially boring and a waste of time. And I want to understand if there’s a deeper method at work here, and nature and essence of that method.
        Now, the title suggests The Killer Inside Me is declaring itself as a perspective film, a subjective film, much like Fight Club, or Memento. A standard practice of cinematic narration is often to open the film with the central figure in the film. Often he is the first to appear on the frame (Fight Club) or it is his voice that we first hear (No Country for Old Men). This practice, subconsciously, sends a message to us and we immediately feel who the central figure in the film is. Look at Shutter Island, a film that is pretty secretive about its subjective nature. Of course, there’re many examples to the contrary. I suggest Mr. Polanski’s The Ghost Writer because he is one of the great subjective filmmakers, yet it is the narrative of his films that I realized this practice from. Strangely, neither the first voice we hear in The Killer Inside Me is that of the narrator, nor is he the first to appear on the screen. We meet Bob Maples (Mr. Bower), the town sheriff, and he is the first to speak as he asks Lou to ask Joyce Lakeland (Ms. Alba), a local prostitute, to vacate the town in lieu of the concerns raised by local priests. Lou visits, narrating to us on the way about the conservative traditions of the town, and demonstrates some of it when Joyce’s absurdly ugly behavior puts his politeness under fire. And when I say absurd, that is because we just do not feel any reason for her to behave that way, other than to imagine about information about motivation that might have been supplied in the source. Within that frame though, it just feels, well, a written line of action that needs to be executed so as to cause the protagonist’s reaction, which happens to be undressing her on the bed and whipping her butt cheeks with his belt. It is a pretty prolonged scene, she cries and he whips, and then he stops and apologizes and she asks him there’s no reason to, and they indulge in passionate love. Within my capacity of a 28 year old man, I would have to admit I’ve no idea what sort of human behavior that was, except for an obscure idea that it represents two people who get turned when the going gets violent. Normal stuff doesn’t do it for them. Sort of like those folks in David Cronenberg’s Crash, or the fascination for vampires. Point be noted that in that film I felt that idea, and here I sort of hit upon that idea because of my knowledge of such behavior from other sources. The Killer Inside Me, I believe, uses that behavior as a setup and I do not necessarily have any problems.
        So, Lou and Joyce make passionate love, and by what seems quite contrived, they fall in passionate love too. Joyce especially, who’s already planning for growing old with him. I do not quite get that, just as I do not get the fascination for vampires. Has it merely been a literary cliché, or does there exist anything that psychologically explains women and vampires? The same patriarchal psychology is at work here, where Lou beats two women mercilessly, Joyce and Amy Stanton (Ms. Hudson) his girlfriend, and yet they deeply love him. I do not quite get that. I suspect it’s a cliché. Roger Ebert writes in his review here, and I want to agree with him -
Ford pays the visit, has some words and soon the two of them are urgently having rough sex. Why? Because this is the pulp universe, where a woman may be a prostitute with other men but she finds you irresistible. Female psychology is not the strong point with many pulp writers. Psychology in general is sketchy, based on simplified and half-understood Freudian notions.

        Later, Lou lands so many punches on her that her face is literally reduced to pulp. It is an exercise in relentless violence, much like the opening face-smash of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, the point being actual violence is not fun but absolutely bleak and sick and repellent. My instinctive reaction is that such a practice only grows banal with age. I mean, what was shocking forty years ago, in Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange, scarcely manages to evoke a meh. So, Lou punches her, and kills somebody else. We think he has a plan, but he doesn’t, because he’s killing merely on impulse. That is his bend. Those thought occur to him and he succumbs to them, and later regrets in his own way. I think the character is mostly an imbecile. But that is just me.
        So, my first question was to understand if this movie, in any way, is our reflection on the screen. I mean, that killer within us. Despite that being the film and book’s central motivation, I’m not entirely sure. There aren’t too many frames that are directed outwards. As we noted in Shutter Island, and The Ghost Writer, films that edit and frame its protagonists in such a way that we automatically trust him and in turn he becomes our proxy. We learnt how through careful editing the focus could be driven away from the protagonist onto everything around him, and through carefully places reaction shots we could see everything just like him, in the process becoming one. I don’t think that is the method here, and even if that is the objective, I do not believe that is way to make a philosophical statement about humanity. Most of the frames and most of the scenes observe Lou. He walks into a room, and the suggested practice is first an establishing shot of it, followed by the person inside, and then a medium-to-closeup reactionary shot of him. Here, it is a medium shot of him entering the room, and the shots of the guy inside the room are just to service the narrative. I think we could assume fairly confidently that The Killer Inside Me considers Lou as the subject, and keeps looking at him, and keeps mistaking for subjectivity. Which reminds me of Politist, Adjectiv, a great film I hope to write about the method in the not distant future. Now if you direct too many shots at him, then he becomes the subject,
        At a cursory glance that the film considers Lou its subject and frames and edits him thus seems quite obvious. And I guess that assumption, or that maxim of filmmaking is what confirms the superficiality, of the filmmaking in question and the morality behind it. But then, shouldn’t it be titled The Killer Inside Him? I mean, this is supposedly a character study, not an exercise in audience identification. We keep looking at him, and his actions take him farther and farther away from us, and he reaches a point where it all becomes the obligatory finger- wagging we all indulge in when we talk about the “shocking” and “barbaric” Nazis, or “the failure of civilization”, and feel good about ourselves. It is called moral kitsch-land.
        You see, at that moment, anybody could punch a loved one, and I once again invoke Session 9. We’re all equally capable, and although that being the film’s central motivation, the way it goes about it causes exactly the opposite reaction. We’re judging Lou when we shouldn’t be. That Lou is an empty vessel hardly helps Mr. Winterbottom. Patrick Bateman at least had a film that was commenting about the greed of a whole generation. Here, there’s just no escape for the filmmaker. That I kill people as an impulse is a statement. What I fail to understand is the need to keep repeating that statement over and over for 109 min. Why I kill requires introspection and would’ve reflected upon human nature. You see, dear reader, a successful character study or a discovery is often one that positions us in the protagonist’s shoes, makes us feel what he feels, and then gradually makes us realize the nature of those feelings. The key to everything is realization.
        But what do I gather from here? IMDb states through the plot summary that the film’s protagonist is slowly unmasked as a serial killer. We already know that from the title. We already know the driver, but walking into the film, we hope to learn the nature of his drive. Beyond the very obvious, I don’t think so we do. The film curiously even shies away from a potential shocker set inside the prison. It works against the film, since the film is about a man and his violence, and to edit out any instance of such an act is probably taking a decision against the narrative. In such a film which so obviously intends to condemn violence, leaving one act solely to the imagination of the viewer only leaves room for fascination, and which I believe is wrong. We still wonder how Anton Chigurh killed Moss’s wife, or how Lecter managed to convince his neighbor to swallow his own tongue, and you would see how that runs counter to our objective here. Who is this guy and why does he do it? What makes him tick? The answers are blanks, and I suspect that having this kind of motive-less man trying to reflect the beast inside all of us is pretty darn ineffective. We can identify with revenge (Memento), and we can identify with mass murder (The Reader) provided we are shown a flesh and blood human being we can identify with. There are brief glimpses of his naked mother asking him to beat her, and I consider such half-baked psychoanalysis downright immoral. You either go full monty and explain what you think is the cause or you just shut up. Showing such material is a cause to suspect sensationalist behavior, and judging by Mr. Winterbottom’s career and his usage of unimaginative practices (pornography in 9 Songs) and violence here, I would want to stick to my earlier judgment that this filmmaker here has a bit for sensationalism. As for Lou Ford, he is merely a monster, albeit an imbecile monster but a monster nonetheless, and he seems to be so far away from us he probably exists in the realm of literature. And as for the film, after it ends, you merely want to ask – Ah the killer within him? What about him?