A YEAR OF STARING AT THE SCREEN: Part I
I am back. Have been out of touch for a while. Was busy. Was figuring out. As the year 2009 became history, I was doing a personal stock-taking: What did I do the entire year. Sadly, nothing much. I did my job. That everybody does. Apart from that? Nothing much, actually. I read three book, including Philip Roth’s ‘A Plot Against America’, and I saw an awful lot of movies. Average two films a day. That would be more than 600 movie in the year. So much so that I started hating movies.
So, here I am trying to get all those bloody movies out of my system, by making small notes. Everything I am going to write here are committed from memory. So, the list will be random, and please ignore the typos and mis-information.
A science fiction which mercifully does not take place in United States or in London. A science fiction where the aliens are not a threat, but a burden. A science fiction where the heroes fails to save the day. A traditional science fiction story which dares to think beyond what it can do, supported by an outstanding performance by first-time actor Sharlto Copley and an assured direction by débutante Neill Blomkamp. A science fiction which works as an allegory of our time without being so obvious.
After adapting Shakespeare and making children’s movies, Vishal Bharadawj attempts to give himself the title of ‘India’s Quentin Tarantino’. He almost succeeds. Almost. Bharadawj is an intelligent director to just remain a fanboy. So, he messes up everything the way Tarantino would have done, and then... Okay, it worked for some, did not for others. But, you cannot deny that the film is as original as a film involving identical twins and underworld dons can be.
ANTI-CHRIST / DANCER IN THE DARK / BREAKING THE WEAVES/ THE IDIOTS
Who is Lars von Trier? Is he a misogynist, or a champion of women empowerment? We may probably never know. You hate him or love him, but the creator of the dogma style of filmmaking, the Danish master cannot be ignored. One thing is certain, he is controversy’s favourite child. His films are discussed not just because of their inherent merit but the controversy it creates, and most of it happening at the Cannes film festival, starting with Dancer in the Dark to the recent Anti-Christ. Trier is not everybody’s cup of tea, but his oeuvre is worth a try. For one thing, he is the master of using handheld camera and extreme close-ups, both of which are popular devices for experimental filmmakers. But none can make extreme close up work the way Trier does in Dancer... and Breaking the Weaves. The first half of Dancer... was brilliant, with Icelandic singer Björk playing a factory worker with eyesight problem and a love for musicals. But the second half, when the heroine a charged with murder, the film descends to hell. Somehow, that the problem with all his films, Breaking... the story of simple girl’s marriage and the choices she makes, and The Idiots, a group of friends who decide to act as retards to find the inner idiots in themselves, and Anti-Christ where a grieving couple try to kill each other. His characters inhabit a world which, to put it mildly, is complicated.
BEFORE THE FALL: 3 DIAS
End of the world movies are a Hollywood property, who has destroyed the world over and over again, from Independence Day to the latest 2012, in the name of the end of the world. But this little Spanish movie does it better, by simply refusing to focus on the entire end of the world business. We are told through the TV that the giant meteorite is heading towards Earth and there’s nothing we can do about it. The world is going to be destroyed in 72 hours. As the inhabitants of a small Spanish town desperately react to the situation, the story stubbornly focuses on a young man, his attempt to survive the desperate situation and his attempt to redeem the past before everything comes to an end. May be nihilistic in parts, but quite engrossing, and beautifully photographed.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED
A Wes Anderson movie is like those Victorian novels, mammoth in scope, with a large number of characters mostly interacting with each others than actually being part of any significant action, for example, Jane Austen’s Emma. But unlike Austen, Anderson’s characters are not particularly likeable though they have their peculiarities, their quirks. But if you don’t like them, it may be difficult to deal with an Anderson movie, be it The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic... The Darjeeling Limited is incidentally located in India, where three brothers arrive to reconcile with each others and with their mother, who has become a nun after the death of their father. Irfan Khan make a comeo appearance as a Rajasthani father grieving his dead son. But this is not a movie that has anything to do with India, even remotely. Therefore, Anderson’s representation of India, which is exotic to say the least, peacock feathers included, comes across as quite inoffensive. It’s a fun ride, if you have a taste for silly junkies as a smartasses.
HIROSHIMA MON AMOR
Can a place define the person you are? In this black and white poetry of a film, Alain Resnais raises this question while narrating the love story that must end in a heartbreak, but it tells us what loving somebody other than you means, and the fact that you are never far away from home even if you travel to the end of the world.
STATE OF PLAY
There was a time when a newspaper office on the screen meant rows of rows of desks filled with papers, and people behind it, a flurry of activities, and telephones constantly blaring somewhere. Compared to these clichés, the newspaper office in State of Play where Russell Crow works is quieter. The time is now, and nobody reads newspapers anymore. At best, they will probably check the online edition than buying the printed version. The owner wants to shut the show and the editor, played, by the usual ferociousness, by Helen Mirren, wants something big, as close as to a miracle. The chance comes when a Congressman’s alleged mistress is found murdered. The Congressman, Ben Affleck, happens to be a college friend of reporter Crow. The editor wants him to find an exclusive. Enters young Rachel McAdams, who takes care of the internet edition of the paper. Soon, clash of ideas. Why McAdams job demands blow-by-blow account of the happening, Crow wants to verify the truth before he can commit it on the computer screen. A smart, grown-up, almost restrained thriller, partly written by Tony Gilroy (of Michael Clayton, Duplicity fame) based on a BBC series, and directed by Kevin Macdonald, who directed The Last King of Scotland, and the pulsating documentary Touching The Void.
EL TOPO/ THE HOLY MOUNTAIN
A film relies on its visuals. The stories and how they are told are important, but more important is how the film is photographed. There are movies were the central thrust is how is film looks, like Peter Greenaway films, like Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love, like Terrence Mallick’s Days In Heaven. In this context, Alejandro Jodorowsky is a class apart. If you can compare his visual style, it will be the surrealism of Luis Bunuel. For one thing, both have a strong Mexican antecedent. Again, both are strongly inclined towards spirituality. But it will be unfair to compare Jodorowsky with Bunuel. Bunuel is class apart. So is Jodorowsky. He made El Topo is Spanish all by himself before John Lennon saw it, loved it and persuaded his manager of buy the rights to make one of the earliest cult hits in the history of cinema. It’s difficult to explain the cinema of Jodorowsky in a few sentences. What is obvious is how he subverts the traditional cliches though cinematic imagery and action. While El Topo begins as a classic Western, with the nameless rider (later popularised and prefected by Clint Eastwood) in the deserts of Mexico, as the film progresses, it turns out to be something else. The Holy Mountain is essentially a quest film, only that there is no goal. You don’t care much about the narrative in a Jodorowsky film, but how the episodes are presented in a time and space zone of its own.
BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLVES
It’s a rare occasion when you combine and mishmash so many different genres in a single film and still make it a blockbuster. Brotherhood does exactly that. It’s an achievement, whatever the critics may say. It’s the French movie, but behaves exactly like a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a costume drama turned into a monster movie, turned into a Western, turned into a standard horror fare turned into a buddy film turned into a family drama, and everything else, in between. Two man visit a remote outpost in 18th century France years before the French Revolution; one of them is a American Indian with skills in Kung Fu. They are here to investigate the appearance of a mysterious wolf who is killing young girls from the locality. You don't worry about the historical accuracy of the fare. Seeing is believing. And what you see is the stuff blockbusters are made of.
LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE
There are books which are written with the express hope that one day it will be turned into a major motion picture. Then there are books which are not filmable at all. If you are a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you will know, his novels are not movie material. So, it was with horror you waited for the release of Love In The Time Of Cholera two years back. The film itself wasn’t bad. But in the context of the novel, the film could not even reflect ten percent of the grandeur of the novel. It’s a shame if you compare Love... with another magic realist text turned into motion picture, Like Water For Chocolate. Like Water... works in most parts mostly because the narrative maintains the magic realist elements of the novel and weaves it almost logically to the story of the doomed lover — like how heroine cooks the chicken in the rose petals given by her lover, like how she continues to weave that long, long shroud... This goes to show that you can sell any story on screen as long as you have the ability to tell it with conviction.
MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE / TABOO/ IN THE REALM OF SENSES / IN THE REALM OF PASSION
Alain Resnais went to Japan to understand the meaning of love and in the process learn the meaning of identity. A few years later, Nagisha Oshima went to France to understand the meaning of sexual obsession. You may or may not like In The Realm Of Senses, the tale of a former prostitute and her landlord master who descend into the hell of passion where they cannot do anything but have each other and nothing else, but you have to admit, Oshima is honest. Financed by a French producer, Oshima wanted to make a pornographic film, and he does make one, of such intensity that as the film progresses pornographic titillation gives way to obsessive body horror, which only Oshima can achieve. Behind this facade of titillating body horror lies a few unsettling questions, which are never answered — especially, the man-woman power struggle (for an update on the same question and lack of answer please refer to Trier’s Anti-Christ). But the last image of the film, which will leave you drained and exhausted is perhaps one of the most horrifying scenes ever committed to cinema. Unfortunately for Oshima, In The Realm Of Passion was unfairly compared to Senses. Both are different like D H Lawrence and Shakespeare. In fact, Passion can be considered a variant of the Bard’s Macbeth, passion leading to crime leading to guilt leading to downfall, told in the tradition of Japanese horror tales, a la Kwaidan, and paving the way for future horror fare, like the ring. Remember the well? In Merry Christmas and Taboo, Oshima returns to sex and sexuality again, asking the same question again - sex as power, and passion as personality, the weight of guilt and lack of redemption, in a all-male space, among soldiers, during the World War and the Samurai era...