No Role for the old man Wednesday, Nov 14 2007 

Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men

[warning: spoilers]

Watched No Country for Old Men over the weekend – Joel and Ethan Coen’s impressive but ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name to the big screen.
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Light and gravity Saturday, Oct 6 2007 

Bela Tarr’s The Man from London

To describe Bela Tarr’s starkly ravishing new film The Man from London as film noir is, I think, to miss the point substantially. It’s like describing Hamlet as a murder investigation. Tarr’s film is so much more – a celebration of aesthetic possibility, a testament to the unflinching power of the camera’s gaze, an uncompromising vision of what film, as a medium, is capable of. Every shot, every frame in this film is put together with the skill and patience of a master craftsman – producing an effect that I can only compare to the best work of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Whether it’s a wizened old man crumbling bread into his soup; the same old man balancing a billiard ball on his nose while an accordion plays in the background and a man dances around him with a chair; the abstract image of a ship’s prow, the central line dividing the screen into two parts, light and shadow, life and death; the clockwork of figures descending a ship’s gangway and stepping into a waiting train, like the souls of the damned arriving in Hell; or just the image of a man standing alone in the gleaming glass cage of a railway switchbooth that becomes a metaphor for man’s fundamental isolation – every scene in this film is pure poetry, every scene combines the bleak realism of a Hopper painting with the immaculate lighting of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. And Tarr’s shots of the human face reveal a nakedness so severe, so absolute, that you almost feel like his film should be rated NC-17. Bergman, in an interview about Nykvist, says that the greatest achievement of cinematography is that is has conquered the human face. Watch The Man from London and you will see exactly what he means.
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Lust, Yawn Wednesday, Oct 3 2007 

Perhaps the most challenging thing about watching Ang Lee’s new film Lust, Caution is managing to remember that it’s not In the Mood for Love. It’s not just the presence of Tony Leung that brings the parallel to mind – it’s the costumes, the lush interiors, the slow, nuanced unfolding of an impossible relationship.

Normally, this would be high praise. Except that the plot of Lust, Caution is so at odds with the quiet mellowness of Kar Wai’s masterpiece, that the end result is an awkward, patchy piece of work that tries to be both frenzied espionage thriller and unlikely love story and is convincing as neither.
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A Country Cracked from Side to Side Sunday, Feb 4 2007 

Just got back from watching James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, which is among the nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary. A three part film, Iraq in Fragments tells the stories, in sequence, of an 11-year old Sunni boy in Baghdad, the growing Shia unrest in Najaf and Nasiriyah, and a Kurdish family in the North. It’s a visually stunning film, and a considerable cinematic achievement, combining brisk, almost chaotic editing with breathtaking use of colour and a flair for the dramatic. The last section in particular looks like every frame could be an award winning photograph all by itself.
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Babble Wednesday, Jan 24 2007 

Babel

[some spoilers]

“To be intelligible”, Oscar Wilde famously said, “is to be found out.” It’s a dictum that director Alejandro Inarritu and script writer Guillermo Arriaga seem to have taken to heart. To watch their latest collaboration – Babel – is to be desperately hustled; like witnessing the professional hokum of a witch doctor, who hopes that if he chants his spells seriously enough you’ll believe in them without asking what they mean. Because that’s all that Babel is in the end: an exercise in beautiful gibberish, a testament to the idea that no matter what language they speak, people everywhere have nothing meaningful to say. (more…)

Shaken, but not stirred Saturday, Dec 23 2006 

Casino Royale

Seeing as I’m probably the last person on the planet to watch the new Bond film, it seems a little redundant to be writing a review of it, but I’ve never been one to let irrelevance get in the way of pontification, so here goes:

Casino Royale (2006) [1] is an exceedingly juvenile film – an unconvincing mish-mash of staples from the thriller genre (I mean, please, an oil tanker fight, a high speed car chase AND a poker game!) with a plot that has the consistency of Swiss cheese, duly seasoned with liberal dollops of mush. For most of the movie, its protagonist lives perilously on the edge of the ridiculous, and for all its tortured soul-searching the film has the emotional depth of a three day old puddle. It’s an almost complete waste of time, except for one not so minor detail – Daniel Craig.

This new Bond is as beautiful as bitter almonds. He is, quite simply, the most dangerous thing to come out of Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. He’s a thug, which is a shock in itself, but he’s a particularly lethal thug, a new species of man whose survival instinct seems to be predicated on the belief that offense is the best defense. To watch Craig explode into action on the screen is to see the true poetry of violence brought vividly to…errr…life. This is not a man who needs to be corseted in fancy weaponry to get the job done, this is someone who kills with his bare hands with the skill and discretion of a masseur; give him a handgun and he’s liable to take out a few buildings. Even walking out of the sea in nothing but a blue swimsuit (and looking divine) he has the look of someone who’s been wrestling sharks for fun.
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Not dead yet Wednesday, Aug 9 2006 

Woody Allen’s Scoop

If there is one virtue of Woody Allen’s new movie, Scoop, it is the joy of familiarity. Watching this film is like visiting a genial, if somewhat eccentric old uncle – he’s silly, he’s not all there, but you can’t help loving the guy.

Don’t get me wrong. Scoop is emphatically not one of Allen’s better movies. Frankly, it isn’t a patch on Allen’s finest. But the days of Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters, are, one suspects, long past. What Scoop is, is Allen’s funniest movie in a decade – the best piece of comic work he’s done since Deconstructing Harry back in 1997. And that, in my books, is enough to make it worth the price of the admission ticket. (more…)

Not wisely, but too well Monday, Jul 31 2006 

Omkara

“I have no spur / to prick the sides of my intent, but only / vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself.”

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth I.7

[Warning: possible spoilers]

Given the rave reviews that Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara has been getting everywhere I look (see here and here and here) I can’t help adding my dissenting voice. Not that I disagree that Bharadwaj is an extremely promising director. But watching Omkara, I came away with the same impression I had watching Maqbool – I wish he’d leave Shakespeare alone. One admires his ambition, but one can’t help feeling that he’s overleaping himself a little.

First the good bits. Omkara features some seriously good acting. Konkona Sen Sharma’s justly acclaimed performance as a down to earth village wife has to be seen to be believed, and Saif Ali Khan is astonishingly good – projecting an uncouthness and a sense of barely suppressed violence that one didn’t think he was capable of. The other performances don’t come close, frankly, but they succeed because the actors are well cast. Ajay Devgan broods and looks intense (which, let’s face it, is all that he can do) but it works because he’s Othello [1]. Kareena Kapoor giggles and simpers and gets all silly and tearful, but this makes for a surprisingly convincing Desdemona. And Vivek Oberoi already has enough practise playing the loyal second in command expelled from his master’s good graces from his Company days to play the honourable Cassio with aplomb. (more…)

The women in white Monday, May 15 2006 

Deepa Mehta's Water

May I not wed as you have wed?

may it not break, beauty,

from out my hands, my head, my feet?

may Love not lie beside me

till his heat

burns me to ash?

may he not comfort me, then,

spent all of that fire and heat,

still, ashen-white and cool

as the wet laurels,

white, before your feet

step on the mountain-slope,

before your fiery hand

lift up the mantle

covering flower and land,

as a man lifts,

O Hymen, from his bride,

(cowering with woman eyes,) the veil?

O Hymen lord, be kind.

– H.D. 'Cassandra'

The difficulty in reviewing Deepa Mehta's Water is that it's not really one movie – it's two. The first is an exceedingly silly boy meets girl Bollywood costume drama starring Lisa Ray as the fair damsel in distress and John Abraham as her tall, dark and handsome Prince Charming. Ray is Kalyani, a hapless and oh-so-innocent young widow forced into prostitution by the head of her ashram. Abraham is Narayan, a rich zamindar's son, fresh out of law school, whose overblown romantic tendencies (he quotes Byron and Kalidasa, he plays the flute!) find expression in an idealistic love for Kalyani (imagine that! the two best looking people on screen teaming up! who would have thought it), as a result of which he plans to break with tradition and make this beggar maid…errr..widow, his bride. This Narayan, we are told, is an idealistic young man, burning with nationalistic fervour. But aside from putting up a framed picture of Gandhi, Narayan's nationalism seems to consist largely of growing an artful stubble [1], and mooching about after Kalyani. There's a point in the film where Narayan (adopting his look-at-me-I'm-so-idealistic tone of voice) lectures his father on how it's wrong to quote scripture for your own purposes. But the truth is that Narayan's own passion for reform seems to consist of little more than a sublimated desire to get under Kalyani's spotless white sari. At any rate, the whole thing from start to finish is triteness personified, complete with depraved old Zamindars, and Waheeda Rehman as the quintessential Bollywood mother. There are even songs in the rain! Abraham spends the entire film looking as though he's accidentally stumbled off the Siyaram ad set, and Ray, while admittedly the most gorgeous widow ever to grace Benares's banks, never manages to rise beyond her girl next door act. Ms. Mehta should have stuck with Nandita Das.

Fortunately, there is another film contained within Water. This one features the incredible Seema Biswas and is a heart-rending and poignant story about the shocking plight of the windows of Benares. The time is 1938. Chuiya, a seven year old girl, is widowed and left with an ashram by her family. Here she meets the other widows – ostracised by society, with no means of sustenance but the charity of others, these women live lives of abject poverty and humiliation. They are not allowed to remarry. They are not supposed to come too close to married women and brides, because their shadow is considered impure. They are to stay locked away in the poverty of the ashram until they die. It is a terrible, terrible fate.

Yet change is slowly coming. New laws, championed by reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, have made widow remarriage legal, and Gandhi's nationalistic movement is bringing a wave of social reforms in its wake. For the widows of Benares, however, all this means little. Even if they had the economic basis to turn these reforms into real opportunities, they are ignorant, often illiterate, women, mired in a world of superstition and ritual. Remarriage is a sin – the sacred texts say so – suffering is their prescribed lot and they must bear it.

In exploring these themes, Mehta's film does three things. First, it highlights the important social issue of the way widows are treated in India (Mehta claims at the end of the film that there are still millions of widows suffering the same kind of deprivation). Second, it provides a balanced perspective on the nature of this subjugation – tracing it back not only to parochial tradition, but also to very real economic issues and to the resignation of the widows themselves. And third, she converts the issue of widow remarriage into a larger symbol for a country on the brink of social change, trapped between the statutes of tradition and the imperatives of reason and personal conscience.

Seema Biswas is the embodiment of that struggle. Biswas plays Shakuntala, a stern but ultimately good-hearted widow who runs the Ashram that Chuiya is abandoned in, and is the one who, in her own unsentimental way, takes Chuiya under her wing. Shakuntala has no illusions about the future. She lives out her days with uncomplaining patience, finding what little comfort she can in the scriptures, but is too pragmatic to find any real hope in them. She knows there is no way out for her, and yet, when the time comes, and she recognises that there may still be a chance for some of the younger residents of the ashram, she is the one who wrestles with her conscience and finds the strength to guide them to their freedom.

Make no mistake, this is Biswas' film. Oh, there are a number of other sterling performances – Raghuvir Yadav is brilliant as the hijra Gulabi, and Manorama does an excellent job as Madhumati, the greedy head of the ashram. And child actress Sarala is heartbreaking as Chuiya. But Biswas is the true centre of gravity here – her very presence on screen radiates such intensity that a single close-up of her face is enough to compensate for all the cliched stupidity of the Ray-Abraham bits. The point is not just that Biswas is able to project an incredible amount of quiet sorrow, though to watch her act here is to be reminded of that Shakespeare line about sitting 'like patience on a monument'. The point is that Biswas has the ability to come across as amazingly genuine – every expression, every tone of speech is exactly right – she makes the part her own the way few actresses can. There's a scene in the film where Shakuntala playfully asks Chuiya how she (Shakuntala) is looking. Chuiya, with all the heartlessness of youth replies, "You look old". Just watching the expression on Biswas' face, the shock of the hurt like water closing over a stone, makes this movie worth watching.

This second 'side' of Water is easily the finest movie in Ms. Mehta's three part trilogy: a poetic, deeply moving piece that may be the best film I've seen come out of India in this decade [2]. I can't help wondering, therefore, why Ms. Mehta had to go handcuff it to the silliness of the Bollywood-like love sequences. Did we really need the Ray-Abraham romance? Okay, so the two stories are linked, but surely the gaps in the Chuiya Shakuntala story could have been filled some other way? I for one, would have liked to see the other residents of the Ashram explored more. That would, admittedly, have made this a more serious film – but it is a serious film anyway, and all the faux melodrama that the Ray-Abraham bits add to it seem misplaced and annoying. Water is half Aparajito and half Parineeta (my review here). If only we could get the one without the other.

Notes

[1] To be fair, this does seem to occupy a lot of his mental energies. There's actually a dramatic moment in the film where he lathers his face with shaving cream, presumably in preparation for a shave. Then, at the last minute, he thinks the better of it and washes the foam off. One wonders what would have happened to the history of the British Raj if he had in fact shaved his beard off that day.

[2] Not that I watch enough of Indian cinema for that to mean much.

Raymond Chandler High Friday, May 12 2006 

Brick

We all know the story. Sociopathic tough-guy loner finds himself involved in inexplicable mystery. Someone has disappeared. The only clues are the words from a garbled phone call. Our hero taps into his connections on the street, kicks a few butts, and discovers that he's onto something bigger than he suspected. But that doesn't faze him. He's determined to get to the bottom of it all.

What follows is a descent into a seedy underworld of crime, complete with gorgeous women (who come onto our hero), diabolical but half-crazed villains, muscle-bound thugs, corrupt and clueless authorities and a brainy sidekick. It's a tough crowd to be playing games with, but our hero is more than up to the challenge. Along the way a few other side characters get killed, a lot of other people get beaten up or hurt, but through it all our hero never loses his cool, eventually proving himself smarter, tougher and more ruthless than everyone else. By the time the movie ends, all the bad guys are either dead or in prison while our hero has come out of it scot free, and can go back to his miserable meaningless life. No one's particularly happy, but at least justice has been done.

The fact that all this action takes place not in the gritty alleys of John Huston's suffocating cityscape, but in and around a high school, and that the hero in question is not a snarling private eye but an over-intense school kid bunking class, makes little difference. You would have to be blind and deaf not to see the film noir influences here – Brick is a straight up Humphrey Bogart flick, and the ghost of The Maltese Falcon haunts this movie all the way through, even down to the tacky little bird statuette on the villain's mail box.

To say that Brick leaves you unmoved, that its plot is full of holes and its acting has a plastic, hammy quality about it, is to miss the point entirely. Great film noir is entirely about the formula – no one got emotionally involved with character of Sam Spade, or watched The Maltese Falcon for the intricacies of the plot – the whole point of that movie was the attitude. It's the uber-coolness that we craved, the smooth-talking tough guy-ness, the aura of casual menace. We knew the good guy was going to win out, despite the odds; what's more, we knew he was going to pull it off without getting even slightly flustered or putting in more effort than it takes to have a drink. The thrill was seeing how. And if the intensity seemed over-the-top in a comic book kind of way, so much the better. We weren't looking for realism, we were looking for the vibe.

And for all of Brick's many flaws (the street-slang is distracting, the violence seems a little overdone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, but he's no Bogart) that vibe is the one thing it gets mostly right [1]. There are a lot of ways in which the movie is (I suspect unintentionally) funny – you have only to step back from the action and remind yourself that these are high school kids we're talking about and the whole thing begins to look like caricature, despite its frenetic attempts to take itself seriously (and there are a lot of those). But the genius of Rian Johnson's script and direction is that it keeps you involved enough so that you don't notice the preposterousness of it all until you step out of the theatre. And that's really impressive.

If there's one thing that doesn't transfer well, it's the main character. Sam Spade was anti-social and screwed up, but he was never needy, never vulnerable. Brendan, the hero of Brick, is frequently both, and the result is that he comes across as more creepy than cool, more desperate than dapper. You very rarely get the sense that Brendan is in control of anything, and the few times that he does come through the effect is more of someone who's a tad psychotic rather than a hard-nosed professional trying to get the job done. It's a weakness in the script that seems unavoidable, given the high school staging, but it's a serious weakness none the less.

Bottomline: Brick is a fascinating tribute to the genre of film noir, and a truly delightful conceit that's well executed and interesting to watch. If you're the kind of person who never saw the point of those old Bogart films, then this is certainly not the movie for you. If on the other hand, you're someone who can mouth along to the dialogue of the Maltese Falcon, you probably should watch this movie. It won't blow you away. But it'll entertain you.

Notes

[1] Right down to the old-fashioned misogynism that is so central to the Bogart myth. Men, it seems, are always fine, upstanding chaps – even when they're trying to kill you. They're the kind of guys who read Tolkien and fall helplessly in love, and when they hurt someone it's only because they're confused and don't know what to do with their emotions. Women, on the other hand, are all scheming vixens who use their sex to get men to do exactly what they want. The fact that our hero is able to resist these sirens is the real proof of his supremacy.

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