Friday, March 19, 2010


In world cinema, there is a school called New Queer Cinema, about movies which deals with the queer sub-culture openly and aggressively, and in the mainstream. There are people like Todd Haynes (Poison, Far From Heaven), Gus Van Sant (Mala Noche, Milk), Pedro Almodover (The Law of Desire), and so on. However, perhaps no other film highlights that exclusive gay sensibility as does El cielo dividido. The film is a poem on celluloid, sad and profound, and so much immersed in desire that it does not allow any other sensibility to come near it. The threadbare plot tells the story of three teen-agers, falling in love and out of it, trying to understand their own emotions, and the emotional responses they evoke. There is no story, no resolution to meet, but the languid shots of lovers’ tryst, how they respond to each other, how they make love... It’s a demanding view, but absolutely worth the try, especially when the actors are so beautiful.

Last year, Jacques Audiard’s prison drama Un Prophete made a lot of noise, and deservedly so. I expected it to win the Oscar for best foreign language film. It’s a fantastic film, not to mention the scene when the protagonist puts a razor blade on his mouth as part of an elaborate plan to kill another prisoner. But what struck me most in Audiard’s work, apart from his fascination for criminals, was his ability to use extreme close ups as part of the narrative design, not just a gimmick. Sur Mes Lèvres begins with an extreme close up, of the heroine, Emmanuelle Devos, as she puts on the hearing aid. The story here is pretty melodramatic, but Audiard treats it like a thriller, and yes, the film ends up as a thriller, through the audience expect it to be a love story from the time Vincent Cassel makes an appearance as an ex-convict, now taking up a job as Devos’ secretary’s assistant. They are both interesting characters, because they won’t tell us what they are really thinking, and now, as they meet, each try to teach the other the things they know. It’s time they fall in love. No, not so soon. Audiard has other plans...

There is a pattern. A movie based on an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic theme must always end with an optimistic note. Children of Men also end with optimism; a child is born after 18 years. But this optimism floats in dark waters; as the film ends, we are not sure if the baby will live. This feeling of hopelessness, that men finally may not be able to survive its own destruction, makes Children of Men one of the best movies made in the last decade, not to mention the bleak thriller plot the film follows, the presence of Clive Owen as man on a misguided mission, and the presence of Michael Caine as a man who refuses to give up in despair. The time is future. The city is London. Mankind has turned barren. As the film begins, the last man born on earth, an 18-yr-old youth is dead. The earth is divided into zones, a la 1984, and they are constantly at war. In midst of all these, our hero is given the task to protect a young woman, who is pregnant.

You can call it The Godfather in London. But David Cronenberg’s masterpiece on the Russian Mafia in London, goes beyond the usual gangster fare and becomes a tale of crime and redemption, and human understanding. Naomi Watts plays a nurse, who one day help deliver a young woman. The mother dies, the child lives and Watts gets a diary of the dead woman. It’s written in Russian, the language of her parents, which she cannot read. She gets her uncle to decipher the content. What she discovers is the uncomfortable truth that will shake the Mafia empire of Armin Mueller-Stahl and his son, Vincent Cassel. Viggo Mortensen, his body covered with tattoo, is their bodyguard cum driver; he may be a spy as well, the way Cassel’s characters may be a homosexual and in love with Mortensen. When the three characters cross paths, the stage is set for some tense drama, with several lives at stakes, with one deception following the other. What you see a taut drama, not to mention the dramatic climatic fight with a naked Mortensen on a bath. Fantastic stuff.

Thank god, no one is thinking of remaking this film. It has potential for a remake, but we know for sure that the film, which won the Oscars for best film of the year, cannot be remade to the modern time. Conman film is a genre in itself, and The Sting plays like the finest gem of the genre, thanks to the camaraderie between the two lead stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who will later go on to make the over-rated yet fantastic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film works solely on Newman’s charm, and a taut script where not a single sequence is out of place, unnecessary. The plot is so clockwork, yet plays like a noir thriller, taking the audience to the edge of the street. When his partner is killed and he is being hunted down, Robert Redford’s small time conman goes to Newman’s famous and now-retired con artist. After much cajoling, Newman agrees to teach Redford the rules, and do a con game for one last time to take revenge upon the mighty Robert Shaw. It all takes a little confidence.

If an image speaks more than thousand words, then surely an Andrei Tarkovsky image speaks nine thousand words. His films are not overtly difficult, but they surely deal with issues and human psychology. But the highlight of a Tarkovsky film is the images, the ruins in Stalker, the house in fire in Mirror, the sequence involving the making of a bell in Andrei Rublev, these are only but a few examples. Each frame of a Tarkovsky film is filled with extraordinary images, which takes the art of filmmaking to a different plain. Solaris was remade in English by Steven Soderbergh, an able director, and the film is good. But if you compare this film with Tarkovsky’s original, you understand the genius of the Russian master. Where the English version ends in a posh, modern and bleak kitchen, the original ends in a farmhouse, where the film had begun, with something extraordinary happening, it’s raining inside the house while outside, it’s dry. That scene alone solidifies Tarkovsky’s place in the history of world cinema. Among his film, my favourite is Stalker. This is probably the most religious of all movies without even uttering the word god for once. In the interior of Russia, there is a place called zone, where something mysterious is going on. Nobody knows what it is, and the authorities have sealed off the place. Yet, there are who come to visit the place, for rumour has it, there is a room inside the zone where your wishes come true. Our hero is the Stalker, a local whose job is to guide visitors to the room. It’s a dangerous task, but he does it for a fee, but also with a purpose we are not very sure about. The film recounts the journey of two men, known as the writer and the profession, and the series of events that unfolds in the zone. The film questions the importance of belief. It’s not a horror film per se, yet the film is fearsome.

Perhaps the word versatile fits no other director as it does to Stephen Frears. He has been a prolific director for the past 20 years or so, and no two films of his are similar, in theme, content and style, and each film is soulful. If he focused on the Pakistani minority in London in My Beautiful Laundrette, in Dirty Pretty Things the focus on the illegal immigrants in the city of dreams. The characters here are presented with such clarity and in such closeness that their struggle and their plight becomes the fodder for a thriller. And thriller the film is. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian who drivers cabs in the day and works in the hotel in the night. He shares an apartment with Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish immigrant. They are both illegal immigrants running away from the law. And the manager of the hotel where they works can give them passports, for a price of course, a kidney to be precise. He is especially interested in Okwe, since he is a trained surgeon. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a revelation. He is the British Danzel Washington, with the same charisma, same screen presence. As the film progresses, Okwe is thrown into a situation where he must act heroically, and he does, but the way Frears and Ejiofor present these scenes, this heroism resonates with a tragic pathos. And thankfully, its does not adhere to the Hollywood ending, despite coming very close to it.

The Hangover was a certified hit, with even critics going ga-ga over it. The film is a buddy comedy, a sort of ‘bromance’ and somewhat a ‘stonner’ comedy. It’s all of these, but what clinches it for the film is how the plot is treated and how the actors, especially Zach Galifianakis, make even the most offensive statements funny. Four friends go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, and inadvertently takes some potent drug. The next morning they wake up in the wreck of their suit, with the bridegroom missing, one of them missing a tooth, and with a baby and a tiger in the room. What the hell is happening? They have no memories of the previous night. They decides to retract their steps. This is where the film scores. Instead of the routine what happened flashback, our unwitting heroes actually land into the results of their misadventure of the previous night, of which they have absolutely no memory. So appears Mike Tyson, and Heather Graham as a pole dancer, the baby’s mother, and so on. In the midst of all these, our friends have no idea what’s happening. A classic comic situation.

Neo-feminist fairy tale, anyone? It sounds trite, but that’s the what the movie is about, and surprisingly, at most places, it works, thanks to the actors, namely Dakota Fanning, on the verge of adulthood, and remarkably poised. and Queen Latifah. Roger Ebert said if anyone deserved to be called Queen, it’s Latifah, with her sheer presence. She can do anything and you believe her, and in this movie, he epitomises female empowerment as a way of life. Feminist fable, may be romantic, and too sweet, but then again, what’s wrong with that?

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