Saturday, January 29, 2011

127 HOURS: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: James Franco, James Franco’s Aron Ralston
Director: Danny Boyle
Runtime: 93 min.
Verdict: Don’t mistake me for a sensationalist, but this is the feel good movie of the year. The most American of all movies this year.
Genre: Action, Drama

        Not ever has an actor director duo created something this fascinating, and that is a triumphant story of a triumph only because of their very presence. Faithful readers would remember my views on Slumdog Millionaire, a movie where I might have given a little too much importance to my reactions over their analysis, and yet this is what I say – in spirit, 127 Hours is a stupendous film not only for the presence of Mr. Franco, probably our generation’s Jeff Bridges, but because Mr. Boyle is making it. The very fact that Mr. Boyle is at the helm of things, a filmmaker most averse to austerity both in filmmaking and in his heart, lends 127 Hours the flamboyant soul the story of a smug superhero like Aron Roston deserves. The superhero part is the soul, and the theme. The smug part is the premise, and the criticism. The greatness of Mr. Boyle’s and Mr. Franco’s 127 Hours is that they both lend plenty of both, and some more, both to cherish and ponder over.
        There’re two levels at work here. On the surface, we’ve the love-hate trans-Atlantic relationship, of a proud and self-assured (haughty and arrogant?) American, told by a Brit who is critical of the generation the American represents and its addiction to momentary thrills, casual flirtations with nature, and a fast-food style approach to spiritualism. This is a generation that seeks thrill out of sitting in a car and removing all their clothes and bare their all against a cold snowy wind. It is their idea of standing up to nature. Aron is a thrill-seeker and he considers the canyons his second home. He walks into one, gets trapped, comes out minus a hand, and humbled. Sort of like a country walking into Vietnam (Iraq) and getting its hand burnt. Aron is the John McLane we all love, and even though we want his smugness to be taught a lesson, we love him when he’s the underdog. Aron rules, until he gets pwned, and then we get to root for the real deal. We’re basically the onlookers in a Tom Sawyer adventure.
        That’s 127 Hours on the surface, complete with the traditional Mr. Boyle flamboyance, opening to an array of split-screens and multiple angles and rip-roaring pop music (a song craving for a chemical that allows to one’s self in the moment), intending to provide for a trans-Atlantic commentary on the artificiality of this existence. And there is the movie’s second level, an almost meta-film, caused by Mr. Franco’s special performance, who is just as likable and heroic while being self-parodying as Bruce Willis in those Die Hard films. It is a truthful performance, of a performance. We’ve a guy here brought up on pop culture, on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, probably a whole dosage of superhero comics, and within him is firmly installed what I called the superhero syndrome – the intense need to come out as cool in every given situation, the intense desire not to feel mortal. It is a place where brute will takes over the instinct. It is a performance, a performance to satisfy the self, a performance to feed the self. A performance that is so genuine that actually seems to take the critical feedback provided by the turn of fate (filmmaker) in the best sense, acknowledging one’s folly and even making a joke about in the most American of ways, and then turning the criticism on the filmmaker himself.
        I’m probably talking in tangents, and I shall explain. There’s a great moment in the film, great because of its conception, which almost literalizes for us this basic performance dynamic, and great because of the performance that causes that dynamic. Aron is stuck between the rock and the hard place, a thin long crevice. He has placed his video recorder (question to be asked – why does he carry a video recorder) on the rock filming himself, and it has been more than 24 hrs. He is talking into the video, when a little dust from above falls on him, and in hope he shouts and yells for help, the moment releasing all the pent up frustration. He looks back at the recording, and sighs. This video recorder, it is a brilliant device within the film, serving as a mirror and causing the performance. Says to himself – “don’t lose it, Aron, don’t lose it.” The video is the witness, and a reminder. A reminder to Aron to what he needs to be, and to the filmmaker as to what this all is – a spectacular stunt. A stunt dear reader, not a conceit but a stunt.
        And Mr. Boyle and Mr. Franco go about it with all the seriousness that could be demanded of the death-defying daring feats, but feats nonetheless. They are like a bunch of good-natured and enthusiastic college boys, one telling the story of the other, and riffing of the tale, and in turn exchanging high-fives. 127 Hours is not about a tale but about the narration of the tale. Mr. Franco’s is not merely a truthful performance, but a truthful performance of a truthful performance. A performance to not lose it. A performance that sometimes gives away to desperate cries of “Please”, the way we intend to often summon God immediately at our service and find for us our missing wallet. This is no misguided soul in search of some spirituality, but merely a thrill seeker. And Mr. Boyle makes it one hell of a thrill ride. His split screens, edgy style, flashy movements, faux events, hip music are nothing more than an elements of an elaborate performance itself, seeking to and ending up serving the overall tone of optimism, rather than an existential crisis of any sort. Both White Material and Uncle Boonmee come to mind, and the austerity of both is given a firm kick in the posterior. While in there, we’re not worrying for the limb, nor is it an indication of a diminished life. Instead the limb almost feels vestigial, as if we’re comforting ourselves that the worst that could happen is that a limb would be lost.
        This result here is almost avant-garde as far as these out-in-the-wild survival stories go, a film that becomes a self-proclaimed act of exploitation, and an exploitation that serves the soul of Aron Ralston. Often in films based on true stories, the image/imagery of the real person at the end of it is mildly jarring, often slightly adulterating the preceding illusion. Somewhere behind in my mind this shift of identity proves to be a spoiler of some sort, a confirmation that the preceding events were artifice. It is like the illusionist claiming within the act that his magic tricks are really only tricks. But here, Mr. Boyle seems to go one step further on this little element, and makes the real Aron Ralston a character within the film, thereby completing this giant human stunt as well as honoring the man. Mr. Franco comes out of a pool, and meets him, and it is not merely wicked funny, but a greatly heartwarming moment. There’re few joys when true heroes find themselves, and it is as if George C. Scott meets and congratulates and salutes George C. Patton. Which makes me wonder, as to what kept Mr. Boyle from going completely losing his screws and including Mr. Ralston the moment Mr. Franco’s Ralston comes out. I have been thinking about this weird thing since morning, and let me tell you it feels real cool inside my head.
        Ah, the raw beauty of those final few moments, drenched in faith and humanity, drenched in the belief of the existence of goodness in all of us. The sun beats down. Vultures fly above. Aron’s is running out of energy and probably time. He sees figures on the cliff, probably of dead souls. He lets of a wry smile. Not this day folks. He wills ahead. It is truly exhilarating, a moment so true in its artifice, that you submit yourself completely. Goosebumps stuff man, goosebumps stuff. And then he sees people. Good people, who run like crazy when he yells for help, and who waste no time assisting, and who immediately cause the appearance of a chopper. The music soars. This is quite probably the defining American film of our time. In this era where Hollywood dishes out standard-issue criticism of the American way, like the defeatist The American, or complaining Green Zone, 127 Hours is the film John Wayne would’ve called a great American film. And this is, probably much more than Rio Bravo, for it believes in an individual too, while saying what is quite probably the defining movie-line of the American way – there’s no fate but what we make. I know it is a bit arrogant, but then life, for 127 Hours and for America, is not merely a sport. It is a contact sport. You see, Aron did not come out diminished. He came out triumphant. Drumroll and trumpets please. Round of high-fives on that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Runtime: 105 min.
Verdict: Underneath its slick all forward tolerant crust, is a regressively conservative mind. Not all is right.
Genre: Comedy, Drama

        Everything is definitely not all right here. We seem to have a pretty tolerant household around here, centering around a lesbian couple who have each mothered a child, and where the dominant line of thinking is represented by a remark by one of the moms Jules (Ms. Moore) to her son Laser (Mr. Hutcherson) – “I wish you were gay, you would be much more sensitive.” I wouldn’t pretend here that I understand homosexuality, but then to each his own. What is interesting is that the prevalent order of sexuality is the straight one, and the gay ones probably represent X-Men. Or yeah, vice versa. The Kids Are All Right might be about a supposedly tolerant lesbian couple who are frank and open and treat their children with apparent respect, but what it reveals is a scenario where the prevalent sexual order is reversed. Would the homosexuals be just as kind if it is their turn, when it is their turn?
        Why I ask is because Jules and Nic (Ms. Bening) seem to exhibit the exact kind of liberal values that crack when the issue is their personal lives. As so it happens, Jules falls in love with Paul (Mr. Ruffalo), or rather Jules begins to have everyday makeout sessions with Paul. This is a predicament that is much more complex than an open and shut case of cheating, and the way the film sidetracks this very, very important issue of Jules’ sexuality and conveniently pushes it under the blanket of infidelity, and ultimately resolves it by a simple resurgence of their lesbian love is not merely surprising, but probably even objectionable. I mean, hello, it is not about being an Indian and cheering for South Africa in the World Cup, it is more like being bored by cricket and instead switching over to football. Jules represents the traditional female of the family, the mother and the housewife. It is Nic who gets to be the patriarchal figure, coming late in the evening from work, sitting at the head of the table and the one to set the mood and initiate the night’s sexual activity. Even a sequence involving licking what Jules (The Samuel El Jackson in Pulp Fiction) called the holiest of holies is not included for what it is, but to rather show the gender equation in this lesbian relationship. Ms. Cholodenko here seems to be making a statement. I guess my study of porn might be taking a toll on me here, but the position assumed in a bed for enjoying an oral session is vastly different. A woman usually is lying flat on her back, probably even clutching the pillow, while the male is doing stuff. Now, a man enjoying wouldn’t be lying flat, but rather would be sitting upright. Here is Nic at the receiving end of the act.


        One would expect that in a household as this, where two females live, or say two guys live, the marriage equation would be a lot more balanced. Not that I know anything about homosexuality, or how Mr. Elton John and Mr. David Furnish go about their daily lives, but when things have come to a place where Jules feels a lot of underappreciated, so much so that she starts to have sex with Paul who’s only way of conversation with her seems to be appreciation, I’m not so sure what we have here is anything different from a traditional patriarchal family, where the patriarch gets to be a male. I agree, my argument’s frame of reference seems to be a stereotype, but these are college bred lesbians, and even in their love story, we feel for Jules who is just not able to take care of herself. Maybe, I’m politicizing ends here, and equating lesbianism with a liberalism so far ahead it is bordering on bohemianism, but I’m find it difficult to gather my thoughts around the nature of democracy within this couple.
        What makes the situation worse is the symbolism that is loaded on to Paul. We’ve Nic and Jules getting turned on by gay porn, where super chiseled men wearing helmets do the stuff. Now, I wouldn’t have noticed anything were it not for the peculiarity of the helmets, as if Ms. Cholodenko wants to highlight in bold the resemblance. Here’re four frame grabs, with Paul flanking the porn studs.





        Now, even without the helmet a claim could be made with the motorcyclists in the porn to be a representation of the same stud Paul is with his BMW bike, as Mr. Armond White has done in his review. What is significant is the implications such a connection, if any, makes, considering the couple obviously has a penchant for these ultra masculine guys, and Jules, who’s the female (the emotionally dependant) in the relationship, falls for such a guy.
        One also ought to consider the casual jokey tone the movie assumes with the supposed cheating sequences, where any hint of any morality of conscience clearly bypassed me. Even in a obviously comedy movie like Secrets of my Success, where the boss’ wife is desperate for the Michael J. Fox’s character, we at least tend to feel the frail ends of morality being dispelled away in this upper society sexual warfare. But here, in what is a drama with witty touches, the cheating is just an act. Absolutely fine from this liberal land, but then why question Jules’ sexual choice? I agree, we’re dealing in a whole lot of stereotypes here, and not merely of this hip lifestyle but the traditional lifestyle of ours. But then, so does Jules when she fires the gardener, which is again a clear indication by the film of her double standards. What I cannot get around as to why Jules needs to be an emotionally dependent, or why there isn’t more equality between the two. There are the kids here, and they provide a fantastic contrast, tolerant and forgiving. Probably, they even justify the title. You should see how young Joni (Ms. Wasikowska) carries the hat to her college. But then, who are kids here? Nic, who’s so desperate to be the father around here, bossing around? Or Jules, who’s looking for validation everywhere? Maybe Ms. Cholodenko is drawing a contrast, and exposing the double standards. Maybe, I’m ignorant of the fact that every relationship has an arc. But then, why ignore Jules’ sexual act so conveniently?
        Oh, by way of performances, a little suggestion – every movie should have Mark Ruffalo.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Kanokporn Thongaram, Natthakarn Aphaiwong, Jeerasak Kulhong
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Runtime: 114 min.
Language: Isan, Thai
Country: Thailand
Verdict: A masterpiece. A truly spiritual experience. And contains some of the great moments of the year.
Genre: Drama

        In Uncle Boonmee, Boonmee (Mr. Saisaymar) longs to be embraced by his wife, longs to be enveloped by her arms. He hugs her bosom, seeking the peace what a child seeks in his mother. When he’s dead he only worries if we would get to be with his wife. All of us have been there. All of us long for its warmth. There’s Jai, Boonmee’s worker, an illegal immigrant from Lao. He wishes to return home to marry his girl. And there’s Boonmee son, a photographer. The province Uncle Boonmee is set in, the village where Uncle Boonmee lives, the village that caused the Primitive Project, is probably immaterial here. Should be as well. It is a village, and a world unto its own. The son, Boonsong (Mr. Kulhong), ventures into the woods, comes across strange beings He ventures into their world, finds himself a woman, falls in love with her, and for her, becomes one of them. We all know those kinds.
        Here is where I seek that filmmaker closest to my heart – Jean-Pierre Melville. And I seek his men – the famous Samourai, the titular cop in Un Flic, the ex-cop in Le Cercle Rouge, and many more – all not lonely men, but loners. Hermits. Men given to solitude. Movies, and filmmakers, often in their flight of coolness, bring us such characters. That is the fantasy they bring to us, that is the fantasy they dream of, and for you and me, with favorite films like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, that is the fantasy some of us seek, some of us want to be embraced by, some of us probably feeling safe within. As an audience, what does that make us? What is the medium then – masculine or feminine?
        I ask not the question just out of a mere whim, but because Uncle Boonmee inspires me to. Mr. Weerasethakul’s seems to be a rare gentle and noble and dare I say a monk of a film. If there’s anything like a true liberal in this world this film is that. It is Uncle Zosima. Every morning my ritual includes chanting prayers while I go about my chores, and while sometimes I truly remember God, sometimes I’m merely blurting out words while fantasizing of how Nadal would complete the Rafa slam. Sometimes, when I’m truly tired, I make a pact with God and compromise on some of these prayers, and then feel a little guilty too. But not today. I had to watch Uncle Boonmee, and for some reason I felt within my rights to compromise, for I was feeling God all about me. There is not as much as a moment, or a frame, that has anything to do with hate, or condescension, or prejudice, or contempt. Even the accidental squashing or conscious electrocution of a bug is a source of guilt just about in the same ballpark as killing enemies in the war. It seems to be made by a man who has all the faith in all of God’s creation, and humbly stands before it. And stands before cinema too for it is a God in itself. A God that makes everything – the fantastical and the real and the mystical – feel possible, existing together within the boundaries of the same frame. It is a frame of this world, and by this world, and one could be both a monk and a monster. And Uncle Boonmee is a seemingly pure devotee, a film that is grand but not ostentatious, a film that is spiritual but not preachy, a film that is liberal but not self righteous.
        But then, dear reader, all of the compassion and goodwill and humility and tolerance can be a deliberate right, a performance of the most disciplined and solemn kind? I ask because every element of our world that has the dynamics of a God – the government, the military, the society, the capitalist organization, monastery, cinema – is inherently an instrument of power and order. Power in an established order is what it seeks, and that implicitly makes it authoritarian. The government fears the military, the society fears the outsider, the capitalist fears the socialist, the religion fears the other radical belief. And most importantly, the monastery, standing probably a step above the religion on the tolerance ladder, is most fearful, or paranoid of the science, of the new technology, of the rational, of Ivan Karamazov. Wouldn’t true tolerance be above this paranoia, and instead of preaching against it, or powerlessly hoping it would vanish, wouldn’t it welcome the rationalist with open arms?
        I might be playing the skeptic here, but then Uncle Boonmee does provide me with a last hour concerned preaching that fills me a certain degree of suspicion. Till that hour, Uncle Boonmee is Uncle Boonmee, but then somehow it seems, the God is not so much concerned with its devotee as much it is concerned with him becoming a mouthpiece, or a martyr. We experience the simplicities of the rural, the easy access, the primitivist pleasures. Uncle Boonmee’s son has chosen a life that literally follows a primitive course, and as Boonmee recalls a dream, that seems to identify itself as a set of images from a light and sound machine, he sees himself as a relic from the past, and this machine as a relic from the future. It is a dream, where a man is sent to the future, and his past is recalled by the machine. The past, the present and the future converge, all at the same end. In its form, and in its theme, it is tough not to be reminded of Chris Marker’s La jetée.
        Mr. Weerasethakul has mentioned that Uncle Boonmee serves as an ode to film too, and as more and more filmmakers are adopting the ease of the digital format, the good old fashioned film projector with its reels is now an endangered species. I respect the nostalgia, but then, I am not sure I approve of the prejudice one feels for the new technology. Whenever I’m reminded of the lost Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, I tell to myself how democratic our medium as become, and with a transformation in its form (from film to digital), it no longer is the slave to the authoritarian tendencies of a capitalistic organization. Is the medium becoming more socialist? Probably. X-Men Origins: Wolverine would’ve never happened, and I would never have been writing about this film were it not for this exponential shift towards the socialist end of the spectrum. I believe, the medium of ours is getting more personal than ever before.
        For a film of faith, and Uncle Boonmee is a film of supreme faith, it is strange that it contains such a pessimistic view of the future. Can true faith work without optimism? I don’t know, and I often see this contradiction in a lot of places. Uncle Boonmee believes in its God and in its land of mystical possibilities, where the cave with its apes and constellations reminds one of 2001: A Space Odyssey and probable alien contact, where the country and the political boundaries are of no real or practical concern, and where death is not a full stop, but merely an exclamation point, and ancestors and death and the living and the past and the present all live together existing within the same frame. It takes it all for a fact. And yet, it is so glum about the future. The modern generation of e-mails and credit cards and pop music is apparently so far from true spirituality that even a night of monkhood is tough, and where the existence is restless without money or television or hustle and bustle. The spirituality of the mystic land doesn’t exist. The faith to wait for one’s son to return for years doesn’t exist. What exists is the hard facts of reality – the military rule, the political boundaries, the corruption. In that way it is a thematic partner to whatever Mr. Sorkin intended for The Social Network.
        When we were kids, me and my brother once had a wall of our drawing room swarming with little ants. It was a Saturday morning, I believe, and we pulled our slippers and went absolutely berserk with our stamping. For days after that, I remember, I felt I had seen the apparition of an ant. I thought it was the soul of it. I wasn’t feeling guilty, but the apparition was a reminder of my guilt. I have killed numerous cockroaches, and rats, and mosquitoes and flies, often in great excitement, but then that murderous rampage is the only image my memory always serves me with. I’ve been brought up in the urban world, and all I guess there’s mysticism and spirituality and optimism to be felt within the reality of our existence.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

DHOBHI GHAT: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra, Aamir Khan, Kriti Malhotra
Director: Kiran Rao
Runtime: 90 min.
Verdict: A set of stereotypes interacting with the medium.
Genre: Drama

        NRI investment banker meets a dhobi (laundry boy) and flights of fantasies start their run within the latter. A young woman weds into an arranged marriage and finds her husband doesn’t even bother about her and has, in fact, another woman in the city. An old woman just sits in your standard-issue vegetable mode. An artist, a painter, lives alone, drinks, smokes, and is not really comfortable with relationships. The dhobi also doubles as a toy boy for an upper middle class housewife. His brother has connections with the underworld, and for that he keeps borrowing money, and is eventually killed providing for the climax. Or anti-climax. There’s another death involved too, probably reigning in the theme that death is a part and parcel of everyday life in the city of Mumbai. Dhobi Ghat, on the page, is no more than a set of hoary clichés, concepts and stereotypes.
        And that is probably not the point. What makes Dhobi Ghat an interesting film is the relationship it establishes between an artist, his (her) medium and his (her) audience, and our interaction with this medium. Some of us are probably watching movies, even when we’re not watching movies. We walk through life, disconnected, with apparently no personal stake, and within the lives of others we seek the same insight we do when we observe a film. Art, more particularly, the movies, it seems, are not really an alternate reality so much so that they are an extension of the reality, and the two windows only complement each other. Maybe I am trying to carve out a fancy way of describing the existence of some of us who need to get a life, but sometimes the world is the art is the life, all of them addressing each other. We all find ourselves in such a state at one point or the point, with books, with music, with movies, with television. It becomes, as Sarah Goldfarb once said, the reason to get up in the morning.
        In a wholly forgettable performance, where Mr. Khan only conveys the theory of his character through amateurish mood representations, Arun is your artist and the seeker of art, complete with all the moral self-righteousness such a role assumes by itself. He is a painter, and he moves into a new house in Old Mumbai, and the view from his house is as much of a canvas as is the one inside. He seeks the mood from outside, and paints the color on the inside. He finds a set of video tapes in one of the left over furniture, and watches them on television. We all have had many relationships with that little box, now wide and no longer a box, and the people within it are more than characters – they are extensions of the household. I do know folks who enter a void when a series is over, especially one like Friends. To Arun, that little video becomes his life’s latest preoccupation. If it is a commentary on his empty existence, I would say this is the only manner in which he can experience it. It is probably a question of courage. It is probably an answer to his divorce.
        The video is of a rather beautiful girl called Yasmin (Ms. Malhotra), one who has been recently wed to what is apparently an uninterested middle-aged man. Age difference? My guess is ten years, at least. It is the film’s most shameless cliché, so thin that it barely qualifies for a story and should be considered more as a concept. Young girl. Smiling and bubbly. Arranged marriage. Middle-aged man. Other woman. Girl thinking life is over. It is presented through videos, as letters, where she speaks into the video, often providing commentary, and slowly this video becomes her life. It is her only mode of communication, and probably her only confider. Now, reader, we’ll have our element, which begins as a medium to express ourselves, and slowly it becomes the medium that decides our expression. I blog, and I review, and I would be dishonest in saying this blog doesn’t influence the way I am. I write what I feel, and often I end up feeling what I write, and sometimes I feel because I have to write. It is a performance that becomes a reality. This is a girl, my dear reader, who would in her school have fantasies of becoming an actress, or would have been a chirpy little thing, who would have all the hope from life, who would dream of a million things on the thought of moving to Mumbai, and who I guess ought to be labeled a romantic, a dreamer, and in that way she’s the concept that reveals the heart of the film. You see, there’s little difference between a romantic and a martyr, and Dhobi Ghat indulges in the same corny ideology that distinguished Neil Perry in Dead Poets’ Society.
        Every single character in the film is in a state of disconnect, dreaming through a purposeless existence. There’s the dhobi, Munna (Mr. Bubber) who dreams of becoming an actor. There’s Shai (Ms. Dogra) an investment banker who has taken a sabbatical to while her time away in Mumbai, and get to know the city through the colonial lens. Considering the black and white snaps, literally. The medium is a participant and a reference. We, as an audience, when presented with a slice of what is being passed off as everyday life, tend to fill up the gaps with our own experiences, filling in the blanks. We fill, and we move on. This medium of ours is quite democratic. Democratic in a sort of capitalist way. When we don’t know what to do, we tend to kill characters. For impact. For plot resolution. For poetry. Rather, POETRY. Just as well, because Dhobi Ghat has little to do with reality. It is a movie by romantics, of romantics, and yeah, for romantics who are watching this reality. Sometimes the grind of life and the horror of death is so romantic, no?

Friday, January 21, 2011

MARŢI, DUPĂ CRĂCIUN (TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Mimi Brănescu, Mirela Oprişo, Maria Popistaşu, Dragoş Bucur
Director: Radu Muntean
Runtime: 96 min.
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania
Verdict: One of my year’s favorites. A gripping, real gripping, superbly acted film.
Genre: Drama

        Often standing against tends to be in itself a political and a philosophical stand. Politist, Adjectiv one of the most remarkable accomplishments in recent times (a movie which I’ve been planning to write, and which I would after this 2010 completion spree), a completely modernist piece of art finds Romanians use prosaic cellphones, work on typewriters and CRT monitors. It feels like a Romania not of the colorful Gheorghe Hagi (my only point of contact to Romania outside of Nicolae Ceauşescu and Count Dracula, both unrelated) but one given to pessimism and dullness. Yes, Cristi’s wife does fancy YouTube, but then life in Romania seems to be modest. One could argue that in its shallow focus shots there’s a sense of claustrophobia, of helplessness, of nowhere to turn to, of suffocation from conformism to the establishment. It is a modernist film, and one that contradicts its own existence. Or probably, with its existence, it provides a source of optimism validating at least the existence of an idealist spark. Corneliu Porumboiu, one of our most interesting filmmakers, made also the witty 12:08 East of Bucharest, a film that didn’t merely allude but actually went ahead and revisited the Romanian revolution of 1989. The regime and the revolution seem to be the Romanian New Wave preoccupation (it is not so much a theory as much as it is a feature).
        What’s most interesting about Mr. Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas is its deceptive references to this preoccupation, that not only brings to it a sort-of postmodernist outlook, but also the manner in which it provides for a Romania that stands so different we’ve come to perceive from the recent RNW award winners brings to us a country that is facing a wholly different set of problems. Mr. Bucur’s character shares his name from Politist, Adjectiv (Cristi), and if this in-joke managed to beat your memory, Mr. Muntean casually has Cristi (again) refer to a DVD of 12:08 East of Bucharest, and the way they toss (and the timing too, it is late inside the film) the DVD feels as if the whole preoccupation of the RNW is trivial in the light of the realities of the Romanian present. Here, the characters do shop in malls, do buy snowboards, use not Cathode Ray Monitors but laptops, use fancy watches (that gift was a watch, right) with ringtones, use shipping to buy products from outside the country. This is the urban world you and me know, and these consumers are more the people we identify with. The iron hand of establishment is a theory to us, but the feeble nature of the moral fabric in the urban world is probably a thing we experience so much so that it is a part and parcel of our day-to-day existence. It is a depressing film about the rather casual nature of matters, and the microcosmic manner in which Mr. Muntean goes about his stand, through a couple and their daughter is just about the year’s perfect synecdochic device. Perfect because it is a wholly identifiable state of affairs we’ve here.
        I hear about friends who are in perfectly committed relationships yet find the intent to venture into other affairs. We all do. Some of us are those friends. I wouldn’t want to sound pompous or idealist or the leader of a socialist outfit but there’s a whole generation there that’s merely fooling around. We meet Paul Hanganu (Mr. Brănescu) and Raluca (Ms. Popistaşu) indulging in playful post-sex talk. It is an establishing sequence, innocent and sweet. They fool around the bed, rolling over and all, until Raluca mentions a name. The mood suddenly changes, and wisdom suggests that she would be the elephant in the room, a.k.a the wife. Mr. Muntean is something of an accomplished realist not merely in the thematic sense, but in the formal sense, one with a sense of realist staging but given to authoritarian (supreme craftsmanship) flourishes guiding our vision through frequent shifts in focus, and deliberate framing. This conversation is a frame of reference to the contrast Mr. Muntean will draw to cinematically evoke within us the nature of the relationships.
        He composes Paul and Raluca together, in tight medium-shots, their bodies barely leaving any vacant space in the frame. It is a little fantasy you see, an excursion into the romantic world. But with Adriana (Ms. Oprişo), Paul is found in relaxed medium shots, bringing into perspective the reality of the situation. It is fascinating how, in the light of this composition technique, the framing of the Paula-Raluca scenes goes from tight to relaxed, to tight back again during the course of the film. It is a reality check for Paul, and I say Paul because Tuesday, after Christmas is his story. He appears to be a smart witty man, often quite forthright in his conversations, and the kind you wouldn’t refer to as the sneaky bastard. On the contrary he is the one I would probably trust to be a guy with a clean heart. I know this friend of mine in Baroda, a friend through a friend, married for quite a few years, and who desperately fell in love on the internet and was passionately in love with this woman visiting her every now and then in Delhi. He was a fine guy, witty and gentle and with a squeaky-clean heart. I do know he considered all the options available, and I guess we all know such guys. Paul is no schemer, and he is only helpless as he cheats. It is quite funny (in a serious way as well) Mr. Muntean keeps his camera still all the time except for the occasions Paul moves around, and when he does Mr. Muntean follows him. That camera catches Paul in focus shots, blurring everything. The authoritarian incriminating finger-wagging camera? The immoral popcorn eating voyeur? The internal conscience? I honestly can’t make up my mind as to which of these roles Mr. Muntean assumes. While Paul and Adriana, or Paul and Raluca have a conversation on the phone, he only remains besides Paul, only hearing their voices. He often blurs Raluca in the far end of the frame, or going all the way and pushing Adriana out of it completely. Except for her leg seeking a foot massage. He obliges. I think it is the finger-wagging option. I don’t know.
        Oh but reader, one might even wonder if the role the camera assumes really matters. I mean, this is not a rape or genocide or a murder victim being framed, or a dictator being hailed, right? Nobody’s dead. This is just an affair we’re talking about. Note a really world changing event, right? Nothing significant like a revolution, no? Or the Holocaust? By the camera, dear reader, I do imply the audience too. In a trivial affair as a cheating by a husband, the camera’s role isn’t crucial, or probably doesn’t matter, right? So the camera, and the audience can afford to casually watch these events unfold. And that, right there, is the theme of Tuesday, After Christmas. What starts off as a casual affair and flights in romantic fantasy land ends being a life breaker, and a despairing event. What starts off as a casually watching, and enjoying might later become sinister. What started off as a casual tryst with power, was probably the reason why 1989 is a significant year in the history of Romania.
        And, so, yeah, I guess Mr. Muntean is probably the moralist, the finger wagging one. And I say that requires courage, and conviction, as against most films that simply observe. He is quite understanding, mind you, not judging Paul or mocking him, or intervening like Haneke and punishing him, but feeling for him, yet scolding him like a parent, as if saying – Paul, son, you cannot escape my sight. You’ve done wrong, and you’ve to deal with it. Maybe, it is the conscience too. Or maybe the society’s finger wagging morality is what eventually becomes a generation’s conscience.
        Ah, but in my indulgence in thematic significance of the film might cut you a false picture of a solemn film, of a boring drama, which is of course wrong. Tuesday, After Christmas is one of the year’s most gloriously shot pictures, and one of the year’s most engrossing. It barely contains 20 sequences, and I wouldn’t categorize this as minimalism or economy, but rather as a sign of cleverness and supreme craftsmanship. We observe more, watch more, and are involved more. There’s one of the most accomplished sequences here, a showdown of all the concerned parties down at the dentist – Raluca being the dentist – and the supremely assured manner in which Mr. Muntean guides our vision and our mind, orchestrating the entire scene so brilliantly and like a true master anticipating our mindset and putting that particular character into focus, reminds me of the genius of the opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds. I know, I’m throwing hyperbole left, right and center, but then this is a film that finds me at my most involved. It is filled with superb performances, none more so that Mr. Brănescu, who so brilliantly and subtly shows his guilt. You see, I watched Uncle Boonmee (next review) the other day and I was confused, for it is not what I seek at the movies, although it is a special one. And then, I watch Tuesday, After Christmas, and I am so clear about myself. My dear reader, this is what I seek at the movies. So I would beg you to discover the brilliance.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

RABBIT HOLE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Runtime: 92 min.
Verdict: A keenly observed leftist drama. It is a moving film, and every inch of it is earned.
Genre: Drama

        If Shortbus is anything to go by Mr. Mitchell is a complete non-conformist. A non-conformist not merely for the sake of it, but probably an instinctive one. I dig that. I dig questioning a whole lot of accepted set of practices and beliefs around me. The dead-child genre has been done to death so many times most of them are dead-on-arrival. I remember Reservation Road, I remember Antichrist, I remember Don’t look Now and I remember how schematic those films were, having absolutely nothing to do with the way you and me deal with grief, but how high art should be dealing with it, providing not for insight but for poetry that you and me could discuss over or write huge passages about. These movies are not about the grief in the first place, only using that kind of an event has leverage. It could be called pretentious, or one could ignore it altogether. That being the case, let’s not dwell on it too further.
        Rabbit Hole, meanwhile, is delightfully and instinctively leftist, and unabashedly elitist. That might sound quite surprising for a film about everyday people, but then, that’s what we all are. I don’t think most of us have an eye or mind for the bourgeoisie melodrama, and any of that theatrical wailing and subsequent nonsense (forests, metaphysical, psychics) quickly relegates the work in question to the realm of fiction, at once making it “profound” and useless. Oh, but in my enthusiasm for its politics if I’m introducing it as one consciously adhering to an agenda, rather than a remarkably observant story of a couple in a period of distress, I apologize.
        Let me backtrack a little. The most significant detail that Rabbit Hole gets right for itself – its tone, its aesthetic, its characters, its overall arc – is the time. Eight months. Eight months it has been since Becca (Ms. Kidman) and Howie (Mr. Eckhart), lovers from college days, now married and into their thirties, have lost their young son to an accident. Eight months on page is fine, but eight months in tone is so uncharacteristic it grazes the realm of the revolutionary. Eight months, dear reader, eight months since a tragedy. I’m in the middle of buying a house, and my builder lost his mother only forty days ago. Melodramatic cinema would have him colored in gray, with a beard, still locked within the emotion of the event. Such cinematic characters do not display emotion affected by time, because they haven’t moved at all. For them, it might as well be eight years. But my builder is doing fine. We all do fine. We adapt, and we move on. That is who we are. Ask Darren Aronofsky to make a movie that deals with events post the eighth month, and chances are the project will be completed by a different filmmaker. It requires observation dear reader, requires understanding, requires subtlety, requires restraint, requires compassion.
        But then, eight months is clever too. Yes, it is a time period that demands a film to show something other than bourgeoisie theatricality. But at the same time, it is not a period so far-off from the tragedy that we lose almost all sight of it and have to develop a different story altogether only remotely affected by the tragedy. Rather, it still equips the filmmaker and the writer to use the grief as the fulcrum to the plot. It is a transitory period, but it is still that period. Rabbit Hole is most interesting because it is film that finds us in the fag end of that transition. Or probably in the beginning of it. You tell me.
        In my turn, I would love to tell you a thing or two about Becca. Ms. Kidman is again, no Angelina Jolie, but then she is no Isabelle Huppert either. My wife is this remarkably strong woman. I mean, it is remarkable how she reacts when minor upheavals upset her course, and how she attempts to completely ignore them. Not take them in her stride mind you, but ignore. As if they never happened. It might have to do a thing or two with ego, but then it is impossible to let her talk on any of these upheavals, or reversals. She would go shopping, she would watch a movie, she would plain cook, she would read, she would work, she would do everything that she is supposed to do, but not offer you the slightest of reasons to hold her shoulder. She hates melodrama. One might call it a resolve to indulge in everyday activity. One might call it a resolve to move on. Or one might call it a fear from appearing weak. I respect that. Damn, I applaud that. If you understand and feel what I’m trying to convey, you know Becca. And you would know that there’s probably no other actress who could convey that everywoman feminine composure and pride better than Ms. Kidman. If I were to draw analogies for you, poor stupid analogies, this is how one would be – Angelina Jolie is Superman, Isabelle Huppert is the Batman, and Nicole Kidman, no she’s not Spiderman, but simply a strong woman. But a woman nonetheless.
        Becca and Howie attend a group therapy session. There we find couples all wanting, or not wanting, to move on, instead wanting to re-experience the pain. I don’t know, but for some people this pain might be a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to feel different from your neighbor. We all feel the need to be special. The couples there shed tears and reiterate their faith in God’s will. I will not reveal anymore, and leave you to discover this remarkable moment in the film, leftist by politics by emotion by religion. Ms. Kidman’s is one of the year’s most remarkable performances. A performance which might easily be mistaken for cynicism, but is at heart just about pure honesty and a lack of will to be diplomatic.
        What’s most interesting is that Howie, is just the kind for that group therapy session. He doesn’t have the courage to move on, as if by doing that they might be offending or not fulfilling their responsibility. It might appear to be honesty, and Mr. Eckhart’s Howie is as unassuming a guy as you would have a chance to meet. But then, is it honesty? I doubt it. The word that is coming to me is obligation. I don’t know. It is a contrast to Becca, and a contrast that is testing the marriage. A loss is a loss, but how we cope with it might often test the mutual respect in a relationship. It is a remarkably restrained performance. And in a remarkable moment, captured by Mr. Mitchell with fine subtlety and compassion, and just about the perfect reaction from Ms. Kidman, Becca finds Howie watching his son’s tape, and she closes her eyes in disappointment. It is, I tell you, one of those moments we come across at the movies that bore through your heart, and linger around long after you’re done with the movie, and several others. Here is a frame grab.


        And that is something Mr. Mitchell achieves, by asking his camera to simply follow the couple. Rabbit Hole is as much a love story as it is a family story, and by contrasting them within the same frame, or contrasting them through the script, he keenly asks us to observe this emotional distance. Of course, he is siding along Becca, and that is who he shares his politics with. Frame after frame after scene after scene, the orchestration of the sequence finds at its focus Becca, and tends to push Howie to the periphery. One might even claim that Rabbit Hole is about Becca, and more about how she perceives Howie than the other way round. The film focuses on her reactions (for they are uncommon in a world of standard-issue), brings to the fore in key frames, while asking of Howie to be merely offer the politically correct – weep at his son’s video or listen solemnly as others recount their four-year old grief or cut a concerned face.
        But then, amidst all this, there’s a slow-mo of the actual event. I wonder, aesthetically, if it makes sense in this film. I would leave you to discover it, dear reader, and argue about if it is slightly obligatory. Does Mr. Mitchell, for a moment, assume Howie’s heart? Is it an ill- conceived moment, out of tone, and terribly out of place, in a film that is otherwise devoid of all those Hollywood-poetic flourishes of fate? I mean, there’s a remarkable character within it whose comic provides for the film’s title, and yet the comic is nowhere about the central events. It is just another detail, of many other details. It is not a metaphor, as were rampant in Black Swan, but maybe an insight into these people. And when the final frame comes about, and a character’s voiceover speaks to us, we know which of the two have realized their folly. Rabbit Hole might even be called a stand-off. Pay close attention to the final contact made, and who initiates it, and the reaction. I think a special bond has been made.

Monday, January 17, 2011

WHITE MATERIAL: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Isaach De Bankolé, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle
Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 105 min.
Language: French
Country: France
Verdict: A truly autobiographical film, where the movie is its protagonist.
Genre: Drama

        Self righteousness is its own reward. And its own punishment. You get to stand away from the cross section. The general masses. And you end up standing alone too. It is probably the best and the worst places to be in, as a person, constantly proving once mental and emotional strength, while constantly feeling the need to prove. It is a feeling of being both superior and inferior at the same time, a constant reassurance of one’s might pushing that niggling feeling of insecurity somewhere into a dark corner. But it always is there. It is a circle, I guess. I have read quite a number of criticisms against White Material’s deliberately disjointed structure, most notably from David Denby of The New Yorker (one of the best critics out on print), and I wish he had written and explained more than a little meaningless, and in my opinion superficial, blurb. He questions the discontinuity. I ask – how else could it be? Where does one start with self righteousness?
        White Material, my first film of Ms. Denis (a filmmaker born in France and raised in Colonial Africa), is remarkably autobiographical in its very soul, and that is what addresses its structure. It opens, more or less, to the slender figure of a woman running through a dusty patch of land, covered here and there by dry bushes. The wind is flowing, and this slender woman (Ms. Huppert) is walking and running trying to get out of this middle of nowhere. She waves down a car, that doesn’t stop. She is wearing a dress, and I don’t know, but the sight of a woman wearing a dress in a tough terrain makes me feel uncomfortable for her. A pair of denims is fine, probably safe. One might remember how Ms. Angelina Jolie running from her office in a skirt gets to her neighbor and changes into a pair of trousers. Feels safe, and makes us at ease. It is remarkable how Ms. Denis pins her slender body to this tough terrain. And since it is Ms. Huppert, a woman who isn’t merely stoic but so aggressively intimidating and headstrong, with her head always slightly pushed back and her eyes so strangely calm, that it immediately cuts the picture. She manages to find a bus, packed full. Instead of riding the roof with a lot of men she decides to hang on to the back of the bus. The bus rides on bumpy little track, her dress is still fluttering, and she is hanging onto the ladder. You fear if she would fall down. She probably doesn’t. Or probably, she does, but that act of proving her toughness against the grind this moment is putting her through means much more to her. She is not Angelina Jolie, a masculine fantasy draped in a female attire, but Isabelle Huppert, dear reader, probably our finest living actress, and the very height of self righteous resolve. And through this remarkable image, at once specific and symbolic as Ms. Manohla Dargis mentions in her remarkable review here, Ms. Denis captures, and probably creates one of the striking cinematic moments from the year gone by.
        But our question remains. Where does one start with self righteousness? Continuity is not the answer. Neither is it the question. In fact, it is not even the word. Realization probably. Gradual and constant realization of one’s actions. Conscience? I guess conscience is a by-product of realization. The woman, Maria Vial, is a coffee plantation owner, or something to that effect, since her father-in-law (again, something to that effect) was the owner before falling sick and rendered largely immobile. Her husband Andre (Mr. Lambert) doesn’t look much about the plantation, and it is Maria who is taking care of the coffee production. All of it. She is managing everything, right from the labor force to the procurement, to probably the selling as well. The place we’re in is an unknown country in Africa, and since it is unknown, it has all the features you look in a typical African country. Poverty, check. Nincompoops, check. Rebels, check. Children with guns, check. I don’t cite these checks as a deficiency, but as a characteristic of the self-righteous white. We all saw the arrogant Avatar, with its arrogant hero Jake. White Material, by way of implicating itself, ends up as a criticism of that delusional arrogance. That white material here is represented in all its glory by Maria, who, despite repeated requests from the French army, who, despite watching several natives flee, is staying at her plantation. To produce coffee. To make an example. She wants to hold on this land, and let neither her ex-husband, or her deranged son, or anybody else leave this place. Just as she held onto that ladder on the bus on the bumpy ride. Only that the bus-toughness is later in time than the civil-war-toughness.
        You see, time matters. A mistake we learn from because it’s probably a by-product of ignorance. Arrogance, or ego, is a different ballgame, considering most times we already are aware of the probable consequences. Ms. Huppert has no peer, not now, not ever, when it comes to showing resolution even if personal destruction and loss is staring in her face, or causing a volcano inside of her. And Ms. Denis, in her part, frame after frame after frame, pins the slender figure of this woman against everything this place has to offer, causing developments that basically prove the meaninglessness of her resolve, and to plain break her. The camera follows her during her standoff, a goat head in the coffee beans, a bandit gun pointing to her head, managing a bunch of male laborers. A part of Maria is probably relishing this opportunity. Even where local populating is running away, she is the one literally standing her ground. Everything about this place, the tangible and the intangible, is her element. Outside of this there is nowhere she can prove her worth. Ms. Denis, herself being a white material, is involving in a very specific instance of this very basic of emotion found in all of us, an element we all need.
        I was explaining the structure, and the emotional sense it makes. We meet Maria on that bus. She is terrified, and on her face is a strange sense of surrender and weakness, desperately trying to get concealed by the anger and arrogance of defeat. Ms. Denis studies her face, and not since Ma mère have I seen such a defeated Ms. Huppert. I seem to be using White Material and Maria and Isabelle Huppert interchangeably, and it makes sense of me. I have always found her mysterious. Maria is looking out of the bus window, realization probably dawning on her. Ms. Denis cuts to the past. We meet Maria riding high and free on a bike. I was reminded of the opening of Lawrence of Arabia, another figure who found his element in a land of others, and I wonder if Ms. Denis was thinking the same.
        And then we meet others. Her ex-husband. Her workers. Her son. The patriarchal owner of the land. Local women. Men. Rebels. The Boxer. Her step-son, or someone to that effect. Her sandals. Her purse. A radio and its announcer. But all of them strictly backdrop material, parts of the terrain so to speak. There’s a civil war out there between the militia and the rebels, and yet we’re not entirely clear on what’s what and where and how. We don’t know these parts, other than basic information. They all possess certain characteristics, but then we’re always looking at them from a distance. Variables might be a word we’re looking for. We feel like an outsider, and Maria probably feels the same. She doesn’t know the local politics, or probably doesn’t feel it. She doesn’t belong here; she cannot feel the pulse of this place. And yet, through her stubborn resolve she is standing on this land. Her land. It is a structure that makes sense.
        I would leave you to discover the tragedy. The film opens to a striking image, a wall-piece lit by a flashlight. We see fire. We see a man choking. The film would come full circle. There’s the strong white, there’s the weak white, and there’s the timid white. But then, things are not so clear cut, and stereotypical. There’s a white who becomes a black. Or something to that effect. I was reminded of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a messy little world that Ms. Denis throws at Maria. Or probably, Maria came seeking for it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

BLACK SWAN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 108 min.
Verdict: A rather poorly made film. A slugfest.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller, Horror

        Black Swan contains a lot of material that demands the presence of Adam Sandler in Mr. Cassel’s role. And the presence of Anna Farris, in Ms. Portman’s role. This film is ridiculous over-the-top camp, and yet Mr. Aronofsky plays it as if it is the most serious and profound examination of the nature of an artist and her relationship and desperation for the art. I wonder how the film, in its present state, hasn’t one any of those Razzie awards, because the way I see it, it is just about in the same ballpark as Paul Verhoeven’s much better self-consciously campy Showgirls. Black Swan represents how a pretentious hack of a filmmaker like Mr. Aronofsky actually reduces the cinema to little more than a poem illustrated on to screen. He has no idea how to give a cinematic image a life of its own. He has no idea how to rise above simple stereotypes. He has no idea how to go about establishing a psychological horror film. I hope that all those people comparing this film to Polanski’s Repulsion or Lynch’s double feature of Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire are only joking.
        In an Aronofsky image there is only one and one meaning to it, and no ambiguity at all. Still he will hammer the meaning and poetry until every last one of us gets it. I mean, Ms Portman is wearing white. And everyone else, her mother, her competitor’s, her predecessor, her boss and everyone else is wearing black. It is maddening and suffocating where a filmmaker leaves no room for personal interpretation and instead weaves along such an authoritarian narrative filled with adolescent jabs at Freudian psychological mumbo-jumbo. There are mirrors everywhere. Nina (Ms. Portman) is traveling in the MTA. She is WEARING WHITE. It is dark outside. She is looking at herself in the GLASS. The REFLECTION IS DARK, OR BLACK. She sees Lily (Ms. Kunis) in the other compartment through the GLASS. Lily is WEARING BLACK. Lily fixed her hair with her right hand. NINA FIXES HERS WITH HER LEFT. I say enough of the goddamn mirror metaphor. It has been done to death buddy, and I tell you I see one more of those from Hollywood, I dare I doubledare, I am going to format my Windows XP and install Windows 7 and upgrade my RAM and even get the windshield fixed on my car. Probably get it even serviced. All of it in a fit of rage. I hate it. I might even spit somewhere.
        The filmmaking here is plain suffocating. Mr. Aronofsky goes medieval with his metaphors, so much so that he has to show us a scene where Thomas Leroy (Mr. Cassel), the ballet director, is the MONSTER WITH HORNS AND A BEAK AND IS ACTUALLY A REFLECTION OF THE EVIL DUDE INSIDE OF THE BLACK SWAN PLAY AND IS HAVING SEX WITH LILY WHO IS ACTUALLY THE BLACK SWAN. I get that the film is from Nina’s perspective. I get that she is a little loose on the screws. What I also get is that, IN HER EYES, Lily HAS ALDREADY BEEN ESTALISHED AS THE BLACK SWAN WHEN SHE GIVES HER THE BLACK BRASSIERE AND ALSO HAS A BIG BLACK SWAN TATTOO ON HER BACK DURING THE HUGELY INERT SEX SCENE. Oh yeah, what I also get is how fantastic the movie’s central theme is. I mean, Nina’s crazy because hey, a girl has to let out her sexuality. I get how Mr. Aronofsky inserts the now clichéd act of a woman masturbating, and then showcases his aesthetic – a double zoom startle shot of her mother sleeping on the couch. The filmmaking is seething with sensationalism, with little to no hint for compassion, or consideration of a person’s private moment. Meanwhile, the background score is eagerly waiting for even the slightest of reasons to rush in all horns blaring.
        Not that the filmmaking is of any high caliber. Case in point: the scene where Nina is standing right in front of the Eagle statue. A filmmaker like David Lynch would have seen the opportunity to insert the surreal. The scene starts with an establishing shot of Nina in front of the statue, and no one else is besides her. We see her back. (Frame grab below). Of course, you are also free to notice that EVERYONE ELSE IS IN BLACK WHILE SHE IS IN WHITE.


        This frame barely lasts for a second, and immediately cuts off to the rhetoric Aronofsky close-up. You see, geographically, we are between the eagle statue and Nina. (Frame below).

        And immediately we hear Thomas’ voice from behind us to the right. Even Nina looks to the left.


        All of these shots actually last for barely 3 seconds. Three cuts in probably under 3 seconds. Now, what I felt while I was watching this scene during her close-up was that the eagle statue suddenly disappeared from behind her. Why? Because of the shot-making. You see shot-making and editing are incremental, because we basically add the whole picture and create that world within our brain. So when a filmmaker establishes from a vantage point as in frame grab 1, and quickly cuts to frame grab 2 and also has a voice from behind, our brain within that confined time period ignores the shift in the vantage points. Instead had Mr. Aronofsky chosen the other side, with the eagle statue between us and Nina, I wouldn’t have been geographically confused. More importantly the heavy dosage of metaphor that the eagle statue provides could have been used as a surreal device with it appearing and disappearing rather than just letting it be. I cite this sequence to show the rather rushed nature of the filmmaking at hand. It felt as if Mr. Aronofsky was working out of a checklist.
        Oh yeah, I also get how Mr. Aronofsky wants to insert a plunger deep into our posterior, and reach all the way to the eyes, and suck any sort of tear, by killing off the character for no particular reason other than to create a tragedy. I remarked how immoral Kites was. I say, Black Swan is morally bankrupt. Of course it doesn’t help that the ending shot is just about a ridiculously inept piece of filmmaking. Nina drops, in slow-mo, the shot intending to rouse us or something, and the framing is so bad that we don’t notice her falling as much as the CGI below gliding for some reason and the background changing. No, it is not surreal. The thing is Mr. Aronofsky has no idea how to establish. There is no frame of reference. We’ve no idea who Nina really is, and we have no idea what Black Swan means to her. Mr. Aronofsky assumes that we already understand what the nature of an artist is, which is fine, except for a little fact that this assumption is nothing more than a pact between the audience and the filmmaker that this here is a cliché/stereotype we’re working on as a premise. I am not sure that an artist’s devotion can be stereotyped. It is a highly specific emotion. Of course, Black Swan doesn’t know that. What it also doesn’t know is how to engage the audience on a intellectual and emotional level with such a psychological predicament except for resorting to sensationalism – sex, masturbation, envy and metaphors. All emotions right off the Hollywood shelf. I wouldn’t have cared, but then I wonder how the sense of humor has been lost on the land. Facepalm dear reader, facepalm.

Friday, January 14, 2011

AKMAREUL BOATTDA (I SAW THE DEVIL): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Runtime: 145 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: The best film of this year. A great film. A masterpiece. A work of pure genius.
Genre: Thriller, Horror, Comedy

        If one were to ask me the greatest script ever written, or the most astoundingly structured film of all time, pat might come the reply – Chinatown. I might not be right, but then it is that rare thriller, probably the only thriller, that scene for scene doesn’t feel like in motion. It is the present moment that leads to the next, and as in most movies, that present moment is merely a means to go the next. Even a brilliant thriller like The Usual Suspects doesn’t feel like living in the moment (and it has all the reason to), and the feel is that the film is already preparing for something surprising that is just lurking somewhere around. I think it has something to do with the length of each scene, but I don’t want to come out stupid. So never mind, and we’ll leave that analysis to a later date. Convenience abounds.
        As against most of these movies, the good ones and even the remarkable ones, where one gets a sense of the movie’s general direction of motion even though we’re in the middle of a scene, where one feels that movie is more attached towards its overall arc than the moment in question, where one feels the filmmaker is in a state of constant departure while always arriving, I Saw the Devil feels like a celebration of the moment. Celebration might be a very wrong word here, although I believe Kim Ji-Woon’s films believe in the celebration of the moment. Unlike Mr. Chan-wook who lays out a schema of bloody violence masquerading as poetry, Mr. Ji-Woon’s films aren’t about exploring an overbearing arc of symmetry in life. They are deeply committed to the moment, and moment after moment, they always let go of themselves in it. His are films that live and revel and ultimately destroy themselves in the emotion of the moment. It is now that counts, not the past, and not the future. It is the secret to the ecstasy of his films. Yoon Tae-goo in The Good The Bad The Weird was the goofy lovable kind hiding a rather monstrous past, and yet, even when the mystery is revealed Mr. Ji-Woon doesn’t alter his tone and interpretation of the character. Tae-goo remains the Tae-goo we’ve known for the past two hours or so. The past is different, and despite the presence of A Tale of Two Sisters, I feel like claiming with a certain degree of authority that Mr. Ji-Woon is probably indifferent to it. I say despite because the horror genre, by its very nature, is rooted in the present, and even its most average offerings are constructed out of moments. How else, you see, one can be scary other than to build a moment and provide a pay-off. What’s actually interesting to note that in A Tale of Two Sisters, much like Memento, the protagonist is locked inside a version of the past, and that version is her present. That present is not a layer but the truth. That seems to be the nature of most of Mr. Ji-Woon’s films. The future, well, I don’t think his characters think too much about it. And that is what drives his movies, formally and thematically – the revelation of the moment. I think revelation might be a word I was looking for.
        Of course that being the case, one might infer that thematically, Mr. Ji-Woon might be a fantastic choice for the horror film but the wrong choice for a revenge film. I mean, there is all that bull about revenge being a dish that is best served cold, and countless movies – from the brazen Death Wish movies to the immorally solemn The Secret in their Eyes to the downright ugly I Spit on Your Grave – try their level best to make the audience watch a “horrifying” crime and then set on their path of manipulating characters and story to achieve that payoff at the end. I’ve always maintained that a revenge film is probably one of the easiest genres to tackle, and one of the easiest to manipulate the audience into. Once you’ve a naturally revolting bit of crime on your hand – a rape of a “beautiful” girl (innocent lamb, and beautiful mind you) – it is just pure genre mechanics to have the avenger go all rage and then find the guilty and punish him to our satisfaction. The satisfaction is the key here, and any morality that these movies get into is little more than washing your hands and walking away. The best (or the worst, or the most interesting) part about your revenge picture is that we walk away from them having the satisfaction of the culprit getting what he deserved. What is revenge, moment for moment, the suffocation and the temptation and the ecstasy, is hardly anything our movies explore.
        And so, Mr. Ji-Woon is your person. And I Saw the Devil is probably the answer to the last paragraph. It might just be the ultimate momentary examination of the cinematic revenge, which in many ways is no more than how we imagine our personal revenges to be. It offers no poetics. It is just revenge gone bloody and dirty and filthy and wholly satisfying. A man’s beautiful and innocent wife is hacked to death by a psychopath. That is the premise for you. In fact, that is the plot for you. That, and how the man gets revenge. Revenge movies generally dwell in the what. They are about the content. Events happen there, characters get introduced and one actually feels a narration doing the rounds. Not here though. The film is completely about the how. It is about the process. You want evidence? In a 145 min. movie the man has the psychopath pinned down at the 51 min. mark. But then, it is your wife right? You wouldn’t want to go easy on him.
        So yeah, I Saw the Devil is a surprising film, filled with surprising aesthetic choices, surprising events and surprising natures. It is what I call pure cinema, and not Hitchcock. It is a movie and Mr. Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who is never tied down by a genre or tone or content. They are children of pure cinema, as the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson are, where wit and sadism and genre and style and cinematic fantasy and plot and virtuoso shot-making and violence and dialog and action and everything else you cherish at the movies freely flow in and flow out. It is a movie where, in the middle of it all, the psychopath (Mr. Choi) meets two silly-looking petty criminals, probably harboring ambitions of being the next Hannibal Lecters but instead achieving the distinction of the two gentlemen upon whom Marcellus Wallace’s men go medieval in Pulp Fiction, and it forgets everything and descends into a maddeningly brilliant 360-degree shot-run where the psychopath repeatedly stabs both the men. I am not someone who cherishes movie violence, but then it is exhilarating. Not the violence, not the content, but the way Mr. Ji-Woon goes about the film. There is a screwdriver that makes an appearance and provides for the single biggest laugh for a movie moment since Harrison Ford simply shot the goon. It is the kind of movie where you imagine Quentin Tarantino watching and crying and probably running around naked in the room jumping and shouting about the sheer awesomeness of it all.
        The title reads the word devil, I can only expect Kim Ji-Woon to deliver on it within the opening act. It is a masterpiece of establishing the tone, and the plot, and the general equation. As I noted with Shutter Island, the opening act here does what it is supposed to do. But unlike there, where the only purpose achieved was of establishing, Kim Ji-Woon immediately puts us in the necessary state of emotion, and once that is done, delivers what is probably the scariest moment I have experienced at the movies since the birthday-video alien in Signs. That was an innovative shot, and this is a clever shot, taking the help of cinema and the leverage it provides by ways of editing and framing, and then building upon the leverage (supernatural) to actually establish the word – Devil! You see, if everything felt logical, like a Christopher Nolan picture, then there would be no devil. But then again, leave it to Mr. Ji-Woon to be firmly ground in the real world and still unleash a momentary flash of the devil. Reader, I know, I might be running around the periphery but I really don’t want to spoil it for you. I want you to jump in your seat, and scream, and want you to rewind and then watch it again and still be startled, and then again. It happened to me, and I am not easily affected by the boo-scary films. So yeah, that is the brilliance of the shot.
        The establishing of the equation though is a stroke of genius. And when compared to Shutter Island, the enormity of the chasm actually comes to the fore. Both use a stereotypical, but whereas the Scorsese film becomes an archetype a picture postcard, here it blossoms into a moment. A little romantic moment having a life of its own. Everyone of us has such sweet little anecdotes, a couple deep in love, and it doesn’t matter if we know them or not. A woman is trapped in the snow. She is awaiting the tow truck. It is her birthday. Her fiancé, the man, his name Soohyun (Mr. Byung-hun Lee), is busy elsewhere. He is a secret agent. They are talking on the phone. He is surrounded by his men. He walks into the restroom to gain a little privacy so that he can sing her a song. Mr. Lee is a great actor, probably Korea’s answer to Alain Delon. You watch the scene, and the movie, and you would know why. Mr. Ji-Woon establishes the beauty of the relationship so effortlessly, and so when the crime happens it is so easy for him to draw leverage from the emotions that have been held collateral by this opening act.
        And it is these very emotions that cause Mr. Ji-Woon to have even a close-up act as a perspective shot. It proves, as the best of Korean cinema does, that a shot by itself doesn’t signify a specific reaction from the audience. It is the way the shot is employed that drives us, and here when Soohyun walks out of the burial deeply shattered and crying in fits, the close-up tracking shot is the perfect aesthetic and formal choice to explain his state of mind. In such a moment of utter grief or shock, we often do not know where our legs are carrying and our navigational senses aren’t exactly functioning, the close-up mirrors in our emotional state that of the man.
        Then again, Mr. Ji-Woon is not merely a master craftsman. He is, first and foremost, a filmmaker whose aesthetics by compassion, belief in the goodness of men and fearlessness of the politically incorrect. All these I like. And I seek. A greatly moving sequence in the film, constructed with mathematical precision and a heart, is the one where the police find the body of the dead woman. I love these sequences at the movies, where the whole force is searching for something in the night, and there are floodlights all around. Seldom do filmmakers provide the attention these sequences demand, invariably cutting and presenting the principal characters only establishing the action around as merely a backdrop. That is sad because when the whole force is established and presented as a character, there seems to be a certain feel-good factor to it. You see, in school punished alone was not as fun as being punished in a bunch. I admit that I’m certainly sentimental to the whole brother-in-arms thing, but such sequences – in Memories of a Murder, in The Chaser – and now here, where a whole lot of people are involved feels that much more optimistic towards the nature of us all. Compare it to Mr. David Fincher, and Se7en, and Zodiac, especially the latter, where there are little to no such scenes and how bleak and lonely it all feels. Except for the one time when the whole SWAT team finds the drug peddler. In Zodiac, Mr. Fincher isolates these cops from various precincts and unites them through their individual isolation. But when we see them as a whole, as in here, we at least don’t feel lonely. There’s always a certain reassurance when strangers come to the rescue. I guess, thematically, I’m a Rio Bravo guy than a High Noon-er (although the latter is a greater film).
        The scene is a work of beauty in the way it simultaneously brings both the individual and personal concerns (the woman’s father and her fiancé Soohyun) and the collective (the force) to the fore. And it presents the force not as a collection, but as a set of individuals. There are three arcs going around in that sequence and it is fascinating how I Saw the Devil develops and provides the emotional punch to all of them. The sequence is authentic and professional and personal and chaotic all at the same time. It is important to know that the personal make the professional and when one the former is upset, the professional becomes chaotic. It is a great scene, in what is a great film. I have watched the film 6 times already, and that sequence – with its construction and the performances (Mr. Byung-hun Lee has the camera all to himself) – has made me cry every single time.
        The sequence that follows is even more fascinating in the way it ends itself. The father and the fiancé are sitting on a bench. I leave you to discover what the nature of the conversation is, but what is fascinating is how the final composition of that scene is. Let me grab you the frame.

        The woman in the frame is never shown. She might be anybody – right from the supernatural to the very real. Both the options are provided within the film, and it is just pure genius how Mr. Ji-Woon doesn’t show who the woman is. What is interesting to note is that the sequence directly cuts to the picture of the dead woman. The interpretation depends upon which part of your brain is more dominant and how poetic one is, and how much into the Nolan camp one is. I could go on, and describe to you the brilliance of each shot. But then again, I would have to write a whole lot more than a review entertains. I Saw the Devil is love revenge and fear all packed in there struggling with each other. It is a product wholly of the heart, and the way it guides the thought process. It is often bloody and disgusting, often frustrating but then always visceral. It takes its time with the revenge and structures itself as an elaborate climax. I wouldn’t want to divulge any further.
        Apart from mentioning a funny little thread I Saw the Devil indulges in, which in hindsight, as I review the film, neither appears to be funny nor little. I seem to be getting more and more convinced that this thread is quite probably the thematic backbone of the film. You see, the film structures itself into an on-the-run chase film, which in turn has elements of the road movie genre. That ways the psychopath meets various other people, who turn out be other varieties of cinematic serial killers – right down to the petty rapist to the Pulp Fiction freakshow duo to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre dumb cannibal. It felt funny then. Even the psychopath is a variation of The Joker. It is fascinating how Mr. Ji-Woon makes him so cool (of course, one does not have much of an option with Mr. Min-sik Choi). So yeah, it feels like a referential freakshow. But then, somewhere in there, the movie’s protagonist assumes quite rightfully his self righteous nature and begins punishing each of them – with a hammer on the testicles a pervert, ripping apart the mouth wide open of the cannibal – one might start to imagine Se7en’s John Doe. Or probably the Batman. The psychopath does feel pain at first, but once he gets to know the score, he starts to enjoy it and the more Soohyun beats him the less satisfying the revenge tends to get and the more desperation one feels to inflict a satisfying enough suffering upon him. It is the arc the Batman and The Joker ought to share theoretically. That they feel like doppelgangers might feel cool, but inherently it is nothing more that boyish fascination. The true emotion must be of mutual hate, a hate that we feel. We feel for Soohyun, and we hate the psychopath. And therein lay the ending. It is one of the great moments in the history of cinema, formally (one of the best shot-reverse shot close-up that I have ever seen so brutal and primal in its impact) and thematically, and it is quite surely one of the great endings in the way it doesn’t provide closure but provides satisfaction and yet asks more questions than any resolution. The feeling is ambiguous. It has much to do with origin (cue: The Joker has no origin). I still don’t know. It is strange let me tell you. But not empty. I tell you the revenge has not been empty. And has not been any sort of dive into inhumanity. But then it is haunting. And yet satisfying. It is something enormous that Mr. Ji-Woon has come up with. I tell you, this is Kim Ji-Woon’s second claim in a row to being the best genre filmmaker alive. Ah, what the heck, let me throw it in - probably the best filmmaker alive.