Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Alexey Rozin, Elena Lyadova
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Runtime: 109 min.
Language: Russian
Country: Russia
Verdict: Could very well be one of our modern master’s best film.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        Elena finds Mr. Zvyagintsev in an intensely political frame of mind, and one might feel he isn’t pulling any punches. Punches, those seem to be coming from the extreme right. There are two crucial sequences where he almost goes out of his way to let his point be heard, and provide for a running commentary of sorts. Sequences, that work to “complete” a whole of sorts, like different perspectives in one of them hyperlink films. Around the 30 min. mark is angle-1, and it starts in a basement parking lot serving some luxurious apartments housing the affluent members of the society. Vladimir (Mr. Smirnov), the old rich guy, walks to his car. A primarily narrative/subjective/dramatic intent would’ve probably tracked his movement into the car, and fixated on him while he revved the engine, and either cut as he drove out of the frame, or tracked the car out of sight. Mr. Zvyagintsev instead chooses to layer Vladimir’s subjectivity with his own, thereby making the shot (and the ensuing sequence) morally and politically alive. He tracks Vladimir’s motion, as the old man walks towards his car and unlocks the central locking, all the while moving towards his subject, and just about the moment he “meets” his subject, who is settled in the car, the subject drives. There’s a remarkable almost mathematical precision to it all, the camera’s motion reflecting a similar optimization as that supported by the central locking. The sequence continues further in a fluid tracking shot of the car driving up the parking ramps, the view being from inside, and it feels as if the entire frame is floating. Vladimir turns the car around a corner and one of those automatic gates opens, and the entire sequence seems to be unfolding with the same sort of unobstructed, or rather “unopposed” ease as Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. Up until Vladimir finds some workers “crossing” the road seemingly taking their own sweet time. Mr. Zvyagintsev cuts to a shot of Vladimir from outside the vehicle, and here’s a man who seems to have nothing but contempt for this class. He doesn’t dwell on this reaction shot, which otherwise would’ve surrendered the emotion (contempt) completely to the subject (Vladimir), but instead cuts to the workers ambling across the road in a single file, thereby transferring, or rather inspiring that emotion within us. It is one hell of a moment from one of our modern masters, a moment that through its content addresses the motivations in the narrative and that through its aesthetic creates a rather synecdochical representation of history of a country that had its aristocrat stopped in his tracks by the working lot.

        The alternate angle comes just about an hour later, in another part of the city. It is one of those matchbox apartments, and considering the presence of three cooling towers in the vicinity, I guess it stands next to a nuclear plant. It concerns a bunch of good-for-nothing teenagers, a caricature of mindless criminal-tending anarchic youth if you ask me, and the fact that I don’t seem to have any problem of any sort with it when any caricature of the opposite kind (the establishment, the rich et al.) would have had my frothing in my mouth is probably a just reflection of the hypocrisy resident in my criticisms. My defense: we need more films that are pro-rich, and that this has come from Russia makes me very happy. Mr. Zvyagintsev’s constructs a social space whose geography reflects the desires and intentions behind any city – that of having the low-class pushed into a ghetto, where the prosperous form the sky-rises and wide roads and lush apartments representing the future, and where the decay is a representation of the past. These matchbox project apartments and the cooling towers are vestiges of the communist era, a city of Others, and the working class living within them is some sort of pest feeding over the prosperous and considering it its right to do so. I have a hunch that is Mr. Zvyagintsev’s view of things, especially considering the way he describes this alternate angle by tracking the teenagers crossing a road through a handheld camera, conveying a rough chaotic world. They hurl abuses at cars that pass by, and I have some special feelings for those who cross the road right in the middle of the traffic not even bothering to run and with that outstretched hand considering it their goddamn right. Elena reflected those feelings. These guys walk into the wastelands surrounding the plant and enter a meaningless brawl that is presented intentionally without any context and thereby becomes a caricature rather than anything specific. They all beat each other up. We don’t even know who is who, what with everybody’s outfit being so similar, and its abstractness inspires no emotion than contempt, especially in the wake of the film’s principal criminal act.

        Elena and Elena regularly travel between these two socio-geographic spaces, and judging by the length of Elena’s travel, these two seem to be pretty far away. Irreconcilably far away. That is not Mr. Zvyagintsev’s point though, but merely serves as the backdrop to his narrative. It is one killer of an opening as he reveals not merely new spaces but people and the equation between them. A montage of static shots establishes a luxurious apartment. We meet Elena. She seems to be living there all by herself. Until she opens another room and draws the curtains and wakes up Vladimir. Who is he, we’ve no idea? We wonder why they don’t sleep alone, and if they are relatives. We get the answer much later, by way of implication, of a rather young marriage between two older people, each having their own life. They sleep in different rooms, watch different televisions, have different kids – he a daughter, she her son – and yet there’s nothing apparently strained between them. Every marriage has a different logic, and this one has its own, which we need to find. Mr. Zvyagintsev sets it all up like a chain of clues, set of actions – she waking him up and walking into the kitchen, he walking into the bathroom, she coming back in and neatly setting up the bed, he coming back and getting ready and sitting on the table, and she serving the porridge and coffee. It is smooth and efficient, all working like a well-oiled clock. They talk about their kids, his daughter Katya and her son Sergey. They sit on opposite ends of the table. Elena, more than any of his two films, finds Mr. Zvyagintsev at the peak of his narrative capabilities, and he’s able to build images and sequences that support both associative and historic readings. You got to look at the train sequence later in the film and the Hitchcockian thrills that completely destroy our nerves. The apartment is an apartment, but then again one can easily read it, especially in hindsight, as symbolic of the palace (Kremlin). Vladimir and Elena come from different strata of the society. He has the money, and she provides him with sex and service. She needs some of that money for her son, which he refuses to give out of principle. Each new clue reveals something about the marriage. So much so that when Vladimir is discharged from the hospital we see a nurse set his bed right and open the window and clean the room, with just about the same degree of finesse.
        And yet, for all the specificity, Mr. Zvyagintsev’s intentions aren’t ambiguous. More than being pro-rich, he seems to stand against the anti-rich stance. He sets up standalone sequences detailing the uselessness of Sergey and his distinct lack of ethics or principles (little actions like taking money from his mother and hiding it in his pocket and handing over his wife only a portion of it) and yet corresponding complaints from Elena aren’t served with any evidence, her only standalone moment coming far later in the film and in a vastly different context. Still, one might argue that those make for the peripherals. Elena, what do we make of her? She walks into a church to pray, and she has no clue how to go about it. Not that she’s particularly religious either, as she looks through the picture at her reflection within it. It is remarkable how Mr. Zvyagintsev sets up these little daily activities and employs subtle variations in the order of focus-shift, or in behavior to reveal little nuggets of character subjectivity. You have to wonder about a woman who willingly wants to stay with a man and marry him who wouldn’t let her on his bed. Or maybe, you don’t. You don’t really need to wonder about a woman who watches reality shows, who looks at herself just as often, and one who offers different emotions (regarding her grandkids) before the husband and her son. The final sequence only confirms who her real family is, and the moral aloofness of it all. All she wants is the best for her and her kids. That is all she cares about.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Cast: Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Monica Belluci
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: An offensive often disgusting film.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        Here is a film that is about sex trafficking and capitalist monsters and the titular whistleblower, and offers more than enough to whet our appetite for lurid material. There is a glorious scene right in the middle of it all where a huge metal rod is pierced into a woman’s you know where, and it is obviously the film’s showpiece a.k.a. the “gut-wrenching and horrific truth”. Thankfully, the film doesn’t explicitly show the action but implies it, by following up the poor girl’s wailing with the rod dropped on the floor, and the other girls’ reactions thrown in for good measure. Oh yeah, the men here are brutal, and all most of these irredeemable bastards want, especially even the guys who form the U.N. peacekeeping mission, is to bang every decent-looking woman in sight. Kathy Bolkovac (Ms. Weisz) is driven into Bosnia on a military bus to serve her peacekeeping contract working for a security firm called Democra Corp, and a cursory glance underlines reveals that her colleagues seem to be all men. Oh except for one other woman sitting in the behind. A guy nudges his friends to have a look at Kathy, and she laughs it off as she would any of these schoolboy shenanigans, little aware that she’s walking into the unfinished fourth part of the stories where the men really, really hate women. And although nothing of note happens to her, by way of physical harm I mean, while the Balkan girls are raped and mauled and pierced and shot, The Whistleblower’s utter brilliance lies in the manner in which it turns all of it into Kathy’s crusade. The girls might be in danger, a mother might have little idea where to look for her daughter, but the real fight is Kathy’s alone. My blood boils, but for different reasons.
        The film’s opening shot is of two young girls having fun in the night. The film’s closing moments provide for Kathy declaring to her BBC interviewer (Tim Sebastian?) that if needed she would do all of it again. The “all of it” includes trespassing into the organization’s office and stealing the necessary files and revealing it to the media. In the film’s post-script, we learn of the guys who committed these atrocities, we learn of Kathy and amidst all this Ms. Kondracki has somehow turned the story of scores of unwitting girls into a triumphant story of a crusader. Right from individual scenes, where the film’s primary strategy is to provide for these young girls to suffer or run or die and end it all with Kathy’s reactions, thereby making it all hers, to the film’s numerous 360-degree dramatic shots, which only serve Kathy and nobody else, one gets the feeling that the trafficked girls are merely the mechanics of a plot, or rather a macGuffin, whose sufferings the film only employs to draw some valuable dramatic tension so that the real characters – the good guys represented by Kathy, Madeleine Rees (Ms. Redgrave), Peter Ward (Mr. Strathairn), the bad guys represented by the significant others (no, not the Bosnians but the Americans) – can draw leverage out of it. A girl running in the woods scared shitless for her life is found by Kathy and the tears that are focused on (thereby more important) are not the girl’s. In a witness room, when a couple of girls ask Kathy to promise them safety, it is not their situation that the Ms. Kondracki is interested in but Kathy’s conscience and her word. Every sequence with Kathy in it ends with the camera on her. What’s at stake are not the lives of these girls but the humanity of an international organization, which, the film claims, was built from the ashes of Auschwitz. I wish I had a spare arm I could throw at the film.
        But then, there’s a parallel little drama, floating unattended, with the film cutting to it only as an obligation, which unfolds between the mother and her sister, and which in its present state only serves to further anger me. Yet, I think there’s more to it. There’s a story lying in the cutting floor, and maybe it is about them and not about the American morality. I would’ve respected The Whistleblower had it taken its subject head-on and not provide us with the kitschy horror of those young girls. Or if it had blown itself into one of those hyperlink films where the mother and her daughter and her friends and the other Balkans get the same respect as Kathy. Otherwise the film, for all its preaching, is treating them much the same way it accuses an organization of doing – like objects.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Art Cinema: The Shortening of the Sight

A noted film critic, M.K. Raghavendra, about whom I had been quite ignorant until a few days back, has written a lengthy piece on the worthlessness of Mr. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation as an artistic work. I had the good fortune of meeting him at the recently concluded Bangalore Film Festival, right in front of the film’s poster while he was dissing the film and the filmmaker. stood there in disbelief, I was a little shell-shocked too, and it is probably a moment I wouldn’t forget.
He asked me to read his piece, which has been published here, and here are my reactions to it.

“An art film is the result of filmmaking as a serious, independent undertaking aimed at a niche rather than mass market.”

Should this sentence lead me to assume that The General, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather and Terminator 2: The Judgment Day aren't art? To define an art film in terms of its audience is asking for trouble even before the first word is written. Where exactly does "niche" end? Which of us audience member should be eligible to be considered as niche? Where does mass begin? How do we define mass? The author is dead smack in the middle of slippery ground and he has barely finished his first sentence.

“Film scholars typically define ‘art films’ through those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films, which includes, among other things, a narrative dwelling upon the real problems of everyday life, an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director rather than generic convention and a focus on the subjectivity of the characters rather than on plot.”

This sentence places "mainstream Hollywood films" as not being art, and anything that is different from the mainstream automatically becomes eligible for consideration. Furthermore, a narrative dwelling upon the "real problems" of everyday life is art. What constitutes as real in our everyday life? I once had a discussion with Srikanth Srinivasan on my review of Mr. Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, and although my estimation of the movie's worth hasn’t appreciated the least bit, my arguments were ultra-narrow. Can we here at least appreciate how subjective that "real" is? What exact real-life problems did Sergio Leone deal with in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West? Where does avant-garde sit here? Does seeking sensory pleasures from the medium count for nothing? I’m reminded of Susan Santog’s Against Interpretation, and although I disagree with her, her arguments carry a lot of weight here. The author cites generic convention and puts it against authorial expressivity, which represents a false dichotomy. How do we appreciate the cinema of Johnnie To? Or the westerns of John Ford? To claim that focus on subjectivity is a necessary criterion for artistic merit is to both ridicule innumerable cinematic talents (directors, screenwriters, editors, set designers) and to elevate the Hollywood machinery, the one the author indirectly represents as non-art. It is quite standard to see hacks like Ron Howard or mainstreamers like Michael Bay using character subjectivity to pass-off their “crowd-pleasers” as verifiable stories. Moreover such a differentiation renders all of action cinema positively art-less, and that would make David Bordwell very angry.

“If the art film finds it difficult to reach wide audiences, the place where it thrives is the international film festival in which films that rarely get public releases are shown to a discerning public.”

I fail to understand the first part of the sentence, and unless I'm misinterpreting, which I think I am not, it contradicts the art film's intentions as defined in the opening sentence. Does this phenomenon lead a film to be defined art, because it is "unable" to reach the non-discerning wide audience? Should this have been the opening sentence? I don’t know, but the logic seems to have eaten itself.

The subsequent few paragraphs offer nothing but plot summarization, and hence offer nothing for us to argue. We jump to the fifth paragraph, which is still describing the plot, but offers two curious, if not interesting sentences.

“A Separation works by enlisting our sympathy for everyone in it.”

I hope the author intends this sentence to be an appreciation of the film's intentions. Because if it isn't, Jean-Pierre Melville goes for a toss, and when that happens I start frothing in my mouth. It gets uglier.

“She was hit by a vehicle when she was retrieving Nader’s father from the street the previous afternoon and that actually caused the miscarriage.”

The film never ever resolves this, and although I am willing to give it to any viewer/reader to assume that the accident is the cause I refuse to accept that the film provides complete unquestionable evidence. Any such assumption on our part is rather evidence of the skill Mr. Farhadi displays in making us the judges, which for me is the film's central purpose rather than some socio-political rhetoric. The judiciary in the film has a subjectivity, much like us.

The sixth paragraph. I take the liberty of arranging sentences together so that I can tackle them a little conveniently and eliminate any redundancy.

“A Separation is brilliantly made; it has the authenticity of real life and no one in it even seems to be acting.”

Thank you very much, but should I assume “authenticity of real life" as another of those descriptions of the film as being realistic? As I have , that is quite debatable, and to plainly assume that is to look away from half of what is on display. And "no one seems to be acting"? I used to hear these arguments in my tenth grade, as a testament to a good film, or an "art film", and this underlying assumption of acting goes very much with the other binaries that seem to run through the author's arguments, which constitute the framework for a very narrow/rigid view.

“But there are some aspects to the film that cast doubt on its value as a serious work of art. While the film includes a large amount of detail – how a certain part of the populace lives and even on some legal/ social issues in Iran – one does not get a sense of how Iran’s society is constituted – its social structure, the exercise of power etc….. If Rajieh and Nader belong to different classes, the classes themselves are not in conflict although individuals belonging to them may squabble.”

This is the problematic part (heart) of the essay, and probably the very foundation of the author's stance. Forget that the basis of this class struggle between the middle class and the poor, between the former's belief in democracy to the latter's religious manipulation through theocracy is entirely debatable (the protests of 2009, when the film might have been made contained a huge percentage of youth), so much so that the Class wars could be argued as a false dichotomy. My point is WHY should a work of art have depiction of social constitution on its checklist? Why should a work of art try and be a representation in the first place? There's plenty of politics to be had beyond the mere socio-political equation, and the author by looking for rhetoric is ignoring a whole lot of messy stuff. He describes Nader as good in one of the paragraphs, but is that a description or just a throwaway judgment? Nader is a gentle mixture of traditional and liberal thought-process, having both a set of beliefs and a set of ideas. The author doesn’t even touch upon the gender equation, or the universality of the parenting equation, and the kind of mess it creates. My aim here is not to describe the film though; my aim here is to describe how the author's short-sighted vision is causing him to overlook matters.

“The portrayal of the court (as in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up – 1990) virtually establishes the Iranian state as the most reasonable of arbiters.”

Oh please, what do we want here? That the filmmaker present evidence of what the media feeds us so that we get a chance to exercise our kitschy political reactions? This is exactly like the situation in Dogtooth, and what we fail to understand is that there is a certain internal logic that better not be judged from armchairs. The filmmaker rather presents evidence, whether it is his belief, whether it is doctoring evidence, whether he is a right-winging orthodox cleric, does it lessen the work of art? The author himself claims that the film enlists our sympathy for everyone, which is so considerate of a filmmaker. So I fail to understand why should a film be anti-establishment, or rather conform to our beliefs and our politics and our world-view. Is our world-view a fact and the film's fabrication?

“Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran about the cause of her child’s death is also problematic, not least because it furnishes the film with a moral resolution. When we accept it in the film, shouldn’t we also wonder if we would have accepted a similar resolution in a Western film in which a lie is exposed because someone cannot swear on the Bible?”

But it doesn’t provide any moral resolution. Rather, it does the very opposite of it. The central problem with Nader is his rigidity, and his conscience is his daughter. He deliberately lies. Rajieh's conscience is her God. The film doesn’t state that she is lying; it is that she is merely unsure. To claim that she is lying is twisting the facts, and again an act of judgment. She backs out even in the face of all the financial upheavals and achieves grace. Termeh looks at Rajieh's poor little girl, ever-shrinking in the corner. Probably the money might have given her a peaceful domestic life, but Nader had to appease his own guilt and justify himself. Rajieh's decision not to swear absolves him of the crime but causes him to slip further down in the eyes of his conscience. He is corruptible as has been proven. So, where is the "moral" resolution? The author seems to be mistaking the crime for the guilt, but the film is actually using that crime to reveal moral fallibility in everyone. This, if anything, is an irreconcilable view.
What we’re accepting, and respecting, as viewers, is Rajieh’s right to her beliefs. And as for the final question, I present to you Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, where the father played by Robert De Niro is asked to lie to protect the friends. And after resolving his moral beliefs, off-screen and off-screenplay, he does that. Would that count, Mr. Author? Or The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

The next paragraph has nothing about Mr. Farhadi's film, except for the last couple of sentences.

“‘Censorship is the origin of metaphor,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges but A Separation does not even use metaphor in the service of social truths about Iran. It seems to have its eyes focused entirely on the international arena and the approval of audiences that decline to relate the film’s portrayal of Iranian society to whatever they know about politics and society in Iran.”

I believe the author ought to use "rhetoric" instead of truth. And he is looking for a film that confirms to his view of Iranian society. In all probability I do not have even a fraction of his socio-political knowledge of that country and in my ignorance I claim that the social view in A Separation felt true, and the moral truth felt profound.

His next paragraph introduces Mr. Zvyagintsev's Elena, a filmmaker and a film I absolutely love, but it is the comparison to Mr. Farhadi's film I am presently concerned with.

“Where A Separation has an intricate story filled with superficial detail about life in Iran, Zvyagintsev’s Elena is straight and flat – not because it lacks local detail but because it assumes that audiences will recognize what it is dealing with, without them being deliberately informed. Where A Separation abounds in elements which are intended to enlighten international audiences but could be commonplace to most Iranians, Elena seems, largely, to be addressing an audience inside Russia.”

Okay, here is the catch. A Separation won the audience award, and swept all the main categories at the Fajr Film Festival. Unless Mr. Farhadi's film is state sponsored, or if the film festival is being rigged by the state, I don’t think there is anything to comment upon.

I admit, I am getting a little tired, and so I lump together everything that is left and that is remotely worthwhile.

“The general sense to be obtained in A Separation was of a society knit together by universal faith, even if God hands out different dispensations to different members of the Faithful. The film apparently portrayed a simple society united by a common set of beliefs with no underlying tensions between any of the groups or classes constituting it. But even apart from the known problems facing Iran today, the issue here is whether there is not something dishonorable in presenting a society in terms as uncomplicated as those informing A Separation. The differences between A Separation and Elena cannot be made clearer than through an understanding of the single factor which apparently brings them together – their open-endedness. From my description of the film it should be evident that Nader and Simin’s divorce is not the central issue in A Separation. My sense is that it is made the central issue to distract us from the fact that the conflict between Nader and Rajieh is irresolvable – except in a trite way. If this conflict had been admitted as the central one, the film could have hardly concluded in the open way in which it does because it would have ended with Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran – and therefore affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state. By subordinating the more important issue to the less important one, the film is playing up to film festival audiences/ juries, which demand ‘ambiguity’ as a primary requisite of art.”

I again put it here – the Rajieh case is not resolved, at least not morally. It is a situation where everybody is right, and everybody is fallible. And that is what manifests itself into the film’s central dilemma mirrored through Termeh’s. The film is not being ambiguous for no reason. Amidst all the fallibility, can Termeh truly decide? How does she learn of these ethical defects? Through the Nader-Rajieh case, which if truly had been resolved, at least morally, would the ending still be ambiguous? And that's my argument.

Oh yeah, as for affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state, I again present to you ladies and gentlemen The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which actually takes this issue head-on.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Cast: Yiftach Klein, Yaara Pelzig, Michael Mushonov, Menashe Noi, Michael Aloni, Gal Hoyberger, Meital Berdah, Shaul Mizrahi, Rona-Lee Shimon, Ben Adam
Director: Nadav Lapid
Runtime: 105 min.
Language: Hebrew
Country: Israel
Verdict: For topicality alone this is one hell of a film. Comparisons to Full Metal Jacket wouldn't be misguided. And in Mr. Lapid it is some talent we have here.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

        The film opens to a bunch of cyclists, five of them I guess, peddling down a hill, and I wonder why are they even bothering when they can just glide their way down. The central guy, strategically placed within the frame, pedals his way into a close-up, and with his pursed lips and sunglasses he immediately reminds me of everything that is going on with the personality of Salman Khan in Dabangg.

He is Yaron (Mr. Klein), a member of an elite anti-terrorist squad, which we later come to learn but already seem to know, courtesy the title and the opening few frames. These guys stop to have one of them echo-sessions, and also declare the land as the most beautiful in the world. In their broad shoulders there is a certain surety, a righteousness that is palpable. You might even call it vanity, and I would agree. When Yaron comes out of the bath and looks at himself in the mirror (a marvelously precise and un-flashy moment), our perception from the opening close-up is transferred (or reflected) into the film via the mirror. We do not need a second invitation to conclude that in Mr. Lapid we have a tremendous craftsman we better keep a tab on.
        Moments later, we see him dance for his pregnant wife towering over his wife (courtesy the masterful low-angles), and provide her with a labor-helping massage – a parental action that also doubles up as a sexual interaction owing to the position (read alpha-male). The wife’s a kid to be taken care of – a classic macho (as opposed to patriarchal) behavior, and later in the film he carries her in his arms as they climb two floors. Mr. Lapid pays special attention to the numbers here – the number of floors, the number of kilometers, the number of push-ups, the number of birthday bumps, the number of catches. God knows how vital numbers are as a goal to be achieved for the macho, a virtual aim (peak) in the absence of the real. A set of five 40-set of pushups is what I need to feel good about myself. The audience is me. While in a lift, Yaron does some pull-ups. Little targets turning into little triumphs for the ego turning into little reasons to feel good about the self. That Yaron and his buddies are members of the anti-terrorist squad only fortifies their righteousness, or masculinity.
        Or, virility. Mr. Lapid seems to view this virility as an offshoot of boyish behavior. They cycle, have courtyard barbecue parties, fight out in games, wear uniforms but walk out in the sun as opposed to being hinged to the interiors of an office, sit at cafeterias and drink beers and judge female posteriors, and in the case of Yaron even flirt. They always walk in groups. One might argue some of the behavior is downright caricature-ish, and I would only reply (not defend) that Mr. Lapid’s film is intensely political. On the scale where Cristi (Politist, Adjectiv) represents the average working middle-class, Yaron and his buddies seem to be the privileged elite (he has a super-sized LED and remote-operated blinds). Not a single shot presents them doing anything like work, except indulge in "action" involving guns. Maybe, the long period of relative peace (since Lebanon), the anti-terrorist squad has precious little to do. As far as topicality is concerned, this period is Policeman’s jumping point. Yaron wants to buy a house with a courtyard for his soon-to-be-born daughter, and that gentle reminder of the Israeli housing-bubble sort of works as a hint for the film’s inclinations.
        Those inclinations formally introduce themselves through Shira (Ms. Pelzig), whose car is kicked and punched and shattered by one of them adolescent gangs whose economical marginalization has given them the certainty to carry out hate crimes. Mr. Lapid is shrewd here, immediately cutting to Shira and her friends indulging in a shooting exercise in the mountains, and for a moment we assume that Shira and her friends would seek revenge. This momentary assumption on our part is probably not unintentional, as we later learn in a bar, where Shira confesses a rather different bend to her ideological stance – much less Marxist in its leanings, and pro rich. It is an abrupt shift in the narrative, from Yaron to Shiri, which Olivier Père compares to Mulholland Dr. and Certified Copy, a shift which opens itself to a description that is a whole lot messier than a straightforward Yaron to Shiri. From the very first frame, Yaron, as a (super)hero does in every such film that has ever been made, has this uncanny ability to hog the camera, best represented in the little fight-game the buddies play. He is popular, and in the barbecue party drops in every group to resounding hi-fives and shoulder hugs. The film’s narrative until this shift is all about Yaron, and his presence in every frame of the film until then, the camera either tracking with him or fixed on him.
        Any such assumptions about Shiri being the central figure of the film post-shift is slowly dispelled by drawing parallel narrative strands for each of the members of the group, making each of them distinct individuals and despite the plot diffusing any notion of a central figure. These four youngsters, or let us just say misguided comrades for convenience, are neatly placed around the frame, or compartmentalized within the frame, and the motivations and relations are slowly drawn out, or exposed, thereby decentralizing the center of power (or distributing our center of attention). A moment in particular achieves some spectacular political connotations, where two of the comrades – one the supposed leader Nathanael (Mr. Aloni) and the other I forget the name of – walk by a street violin player and the latter is critical of his abilities. The leader dares him to take his position and play, which he does thereby impressing his leader, and at that moment this misguided youth brigade both literally and figuratively assume the responsibility of the economically challenged. It is a strange sort of music he plays (although I scrape the bottom of the barrel as far as taste in music is concerned), and I wonder what they do with the money they collect afterwards.
        Mr. Lapid doesn’t mock the ideology but the confusion and the silly roots of such a revolution. These kids are in search of an aim, a target themselves, and when Shiri reads out figures (the worth of three billionaires) it draws a stark reminder to Yaron’s need for numbers. There is an order in and around Yaron, that contra to the arbitrary nature around these revolutionaries, who in a way are themselves vying for our attention, like say Carlos. It is need to prove to themselves more than any belief or ideology. I’ve read elsewhere that slogans from the film were chanted during the , and one can easily look for motivation from what happened at Tahrir between the cops and the crowd. Yet, probably because of the numbers, because of the order, because of the machismo, and because of the pride, Israeli forces are reputed to be a different breed. In those final moments, when Shiri’s comrades fall by the wayside, and the desperation of her belief finally brings within her a surety, Mr. Lapid discovers a moment as true and fragile as anything. Looking at that non-Arab face, Yaron’s certainty is rattled. It is a historical meeting, when these two narratives collide, and a defining moment for any nation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: The year’s most unsettling film.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror

An excerpt from Mr. Ed Gonzalez’s review down at Slant Magazine:
“Ramsay both sets the film's incoherent tone and states her stale feminist agenda immediately with a shot of Eva (Tilda Swinton) being hoisted by a throng of tomato-doused revelers at Buñol's El Tomatino festival. Just as there's no sense of this artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy, Eva's unmistakably Christ-like pose makes clear who the victim is in this story about a troubled mother-son relationship.”

Mr. Gonzalez is considering the opening of the film, wherein we’re introduced to the whispering silence of, what at first sounds like a ceiling fan and later turns out to be the lawn sprinklers, and a “white” curtain gently blowing. It is dark, except for some faint light from outside. The movies have taught us over the years that when the lights are out, the door’s open, and a white curtain is at the mercy of external forces, we need to be worried. It is a slow zoom, heightening the eerie silence of the moment, and Ms. Ramsay cuts to an overhead shot of the El Tomatino festival Mr. Gonzalez is talking about. Eva (Ms. Swinton) is drenched in red and with her arms outstretched she’s reveling in it. It’s bliss. Not for a moment did Jesus ask me to consider his presence amongst all this, because that pose of his on the crucifix, howsoever iconic in our culture, is not registered against his name. I see Eva, I see a slow-moving camera, and I see a woman intoxicated with the experience. This woman is an adventurer. She is a traveler, and Mr. Gonzalez probably recognizes this aspect of the imagery when he categorizes it under the tag of “feminist agenda”. That’s his reaction, which is fine.
        What’s hugely debatable is the blunt judgment at the beginning of his final sentence when he empowers his reactions with the authority of objective truth, and claims there’s no sense of “artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy”. On the contrary, if one were to take the aid of traditional narrative techniques, like in the opening of L’Affaire Farewell, or more suitably Saving Private Ryan, where an opening burst (former) or the calmness (latter) is contrasted with the subsequent imagery, conveying a shift so to speak, we know 9 out of 10 times it’s got to be a flashback. Or in the case of The Aviator, where a similarly whispering moment of a mother warning a child is contrasted with the cacophony of Howard Hughes right in the middle of a shoot, a flash-forward. The point to note is that such a sequence, especially in the case of We need to Talk about Kevin, where neither the tension nor the drama has been resolved, provides for a fulcrum, a sort of center so to speak, and which needs to be returned to at some point of time in the narrative. Ms. Ramsay exploits this with the skill and precision of a seasoned exponent of genre. The contrast, the abrupt shift is the key. And just because we do not have a face at that moment to which we attach this flashback (memory) doesn’t mean the filmmaker ought to be blamed. As I shall claim later this strategy is intentional.
        This empowerment on Mr. Gonzalez’s part leads to further problems, and owing to his assumption regarding the film’s supposed intentions he shifts the blame further on the film:
“I haven't read the novel by Lionel Shriver on which the film is based, but in a recent article for Slate, the author speaks of pregnancy, to Eva, as "an infestation," and her world travels as a means for the character to assert her superiority over others. From this we may glean that Eva possibly did travel to Buñol at one time, that the cartographic wallpaper inside one of the rooms in her luxe manse, like the job she takes in the present day at a travel agency, expresses her search for worldliness, but we shouldn't have to look to the book to help us make sense of the film. Because We Need to Talk About Kevin fails to articulate Eva's desire to travel, it means nothing that the walls in her favorite room are covered in rare maps instead of, say, pink elephants when the malicious Kevin charges into his mother's study with a paint-loaded squirt gun in hand.”

Dear reader, you would observe here how Mr. Gonzalez realizes that “Eva possibly did travel to Buñol” only later, and that the film, by not presenting a face establishes a fact about Eva’s presence there at the very beginning. Had we had a face, a question of fantasy might be worth a consideration. But at that moment during the narration, because of a lack of any hinge, because of Eva’s introduction within that moment, it comes across as a fact. The narrative is framing the subject and not the other way, and we audience respond to that accordingly. Mr. Gonzalez’s confusion is probably a result of the ensuing shift in time, to the present day, where a ragged looking Eva lay on the bed, in which case this edit firmly installs the preceding moment as memory or fantasy. Personally, it was a bit of both, and that is how our most pleasant memories live within us.
        But, again, what’s wrong is Mr. Gonzalez’s conclusion that we need to read the book to make sense of those images and connect them to Eva’s love for travelling. Again, on the contrary, it is pretty obvious, and had Mr. Gonzalez shown some flexibility in reading the El Tomatino posturing beyond the symbolic Jesus-on-the-crucifix, he might have left some space to let the joy of the moment affect him. I haven’t read the book either, and yet I would want to claim that We Need to Talk about Kevin quite economically and quite magnificently articulates Eva’s desire to travel. This little tomato moment is as much a synecdoche for Eva’s free-spiritedness as much as it is about a woman’s worldly desires beyond the household stuff. One can label it feminism, sure, but I would want to resist the presence (explicit or implied) of quotation marks around it. The mere presence of Ms. Swinton, who is too specific to be a stereotype, discourages any such intention. So yeah, when Kevin squirts colored-elephants all over the rare maps in “her room”, it really boils your blood. The skillful framing of our frustration through Ms. Farmiga’s in Orphan sure comes to mind. And Mildred’s. So yeah, when Mr. Gonzalez suggests that the film is a snide art-house take on The Omen, I begin to question where the boundaries of “art-house” end and mainstream Hollywood fare begin. I mean, the modern horror film has been known to adopt mainly medium shots and close-ups and shallow focus, and the present tense here contains shots that show only a portion of the action. Such framing, like the close-up of a hand using a brush to wipe the floor, of eyes blinking behind the shades, of fingers taking egg-shells out of the food, is too claustrophobic for comfort. There’s a certain manic energy when we see an act this closely, when it fills our vision, and we probably perceive it an excess. Obvious comparisons to Roman Polanski’s chamber films further serve the point that Ms. Lynne Ramsay is using the tropes from the horror-genre. Everything around Eva, every eye around her, the walls, the confines of her car, everything that the camera manages to frame, every inch of space around her is her own personal chamber. So yeah, I guess “snide” is a little uncalled for, because this film here, much like a film like Mulholland Dr., is what distinguishes horror from scary.
        This here is the problem with some of the criticisms being leveled against the film from various quarters, a recurrence of what one might label as award-season bash/backlash, and I pick Mr. Gonzalez’s review only because it at least presents itself as a criticism worthy of being analyzed, and which acts as an example for the assumptions and a reluctance to engage with the image other than in its symbolic form, thereby categorizing it under the same section as that of hack-jobs like Black Swan, films which not only strip their images of everything else, but move ahead with little sense of respect or consideration for the moment, rendering themselves absolutely lifeless.

        We need to Talk about Kevin, with its reds and yellows and blues and sauces and jams is not symbolic but expressionistic, and Ms. Ramsay imbues its each moment with such specificity and narrative energy, much like There Will Be Blood that each of them – the literal, the narrative and the symbolic – co-exist within the same frame and support corresponding interpretations. Let me take three examples, each related and building upon the other, and each of them easy targets for the “in-your-face-symbolism” accusation. We begin with the interiors of Eva’s house, the walls and the panes all smeared in red, and when Eva moves out of the house to see the cause, we see red splashed all around. Including the car. The narrative has barely begun so much so that this moment is part of it, and we’ve no idea what’s in store. The way Eva drags herself out of the house suggests she is some sort of crazy wanderer, or lunatic, and that the red has been sprayed by external forces. Who? Naughty children? Some festival? No idea, but its presence is foreboding. We fast forward to a moment where Ms. Ramsay provides for one of those extra-tight close-ups, as Eva is cleaning bits out of her hair, and we not only draw connections to the red sprays and the El Tomatino festival, wondering where the residual bits have come from, we also draw conclusions that Eva’s life is, in a general sense, haywire, and that her perspective of the world around is skewed. The red is residual for guilt of some sort, a symbol for blood, and an indicator of a messy/crazy way of life. And when we find Eva in the aisles of a superstore, hiding from a woman, with cans of tomato soup filling the background, both the symbolic thread and the narrative thread have accumulated to support their own little threads. We’re not merely thinking of those soup cans, but also the woman beyond the frame, and who could walk into it anytime and confront Eva. Within that frame, the soup cans leave no room for any air whatsoever for us, or Eva, to breathe, transforming what is technically medium shot into a super-tight close-up. As I said, the frame is the chamber.
        The big question – what does the film have to say about parenting? As much as easy answers are being provided every which where, there’re two specific moments Ms. Ramsay provides us with, which when contrasted with the third would obviously account for those easy ones.

        And yet, as much as those moments are synecdochical, presenting a very specific image as shorthand for parenting problems, Ms. Ramsay is shrewd enough to fog this moment with tension and ambiguity. We first hear the sound of a wailing child, and we see Eva holding him. The narrative until here, especially the preceding moment, where she lay in bed in the hospital, in a state of shock more-or-less, considering this abrupt shift in life, and her husband holding her son, impresses us with the notion that Eva isn’t too good with kids, and that she’s holding a time-bomb.

Yet, the kid is crying when the father is holding him in the hospital and his wailing pierces two time-shifts so as to present at least the notion of a demonic child and a helpless inept mother. As with most things in the film, it is a bit of both, and it is this ambiguity that lends the film its structure.
        I’m a plausible, and when a film (ca)uses a temporal fragmentation I need a dramatic/thematic justification. It is probably a reflection of my need to find logic, and when I demand a reason from a film, it is more to appease to my narrow view than to analyze/criticize a film, asking of it to shred every bit of gimmickry and exercise subtlety. There’s also the contentious issue of morality, the presence of which greatly relieves me, and I ask myself if the film’s central structure, with its opening moment setting up the big reveal at the end is some sort of money-shot, one of those twist endings horror movies need to have. I want to like the film, and don’t want to feel betrayed by something sensational. There is the big scene at the school, which is merely another event and not the film’s focal point, for Ms. Ramsay conveys to us, through those horrified kids and Eva’s stunned reactions and the slaps and broken eggs, its foreboding presence well in advance. I wonder to what dramatic end the narrative would structure itself thus, and the final moment, where I felt the tension between the mother and the child finally giving away to tenderness, I could not help but recollect the one preceding moment, where the child is sick and the mother is taking care of him, and the father comes in and the child asks him to get the hell out of there. As in a good suspense film, the ending is not what it is about, but what it represents, and how it surprises our assumptions. For all its running time, we feel that Kevin has robbed her of her worldly desires, and that her decision to give birth to a daughter is merely to pad herself from father and son. And because of the fragmented structure, where camera eye movements in the present are mirrored in the camera movement of the past, where both of those places merge together to make one continuous quest for Eva to come to terms with her loss, like that of White Material, we learn layer by layer, up until the final reveal, how Kevin’s killer blow is to wipe out that personal life Eva has accumulated for herself. Until then, it is only the angry eyes of the without that she needs to escape from, and that she is probably safe inside the walls with her guilt as the antagonist. But as she hugs her son and walks the corridor at the end, all those moments inside the walls of her house present a life destroyed from within. Where does Eva go, other than to be caught up between both? Could she run to France, or another country? The early parts suggest her financial life is a mess. But more importantly, she probably cannot leave her kid, that they share a unique form of affection, and that they are the only ones closest to each other. This is the sort of unresolved stuff horror movies are made of.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella
Director: George Clooney
Runtime: 101 min.
Verdict: Thoroughly gripping. And one hell of an acting show.
Genre: Drama, Film Noir

        The general word is that this here is film is about loss of innocence, about Steven’s (Mr. Gosling), a young and bright Junior Campaign Manager, shift from the pink of idealism to the gray of realism, from being a patriot and a gentleman to being a manipulative asshole. Can one notice a general movement in the above sentence, a gradual shift that seeks to collect the blame from everyone around and land it on the protagonist? I hope your answer is yes, and I love indulging in a simultaneous critique of myself. The thing is, Mr. Clooney’s film serves as a, what can I say, a depressing antidote to his ’05 masterpiece Good Night, and Good Luck. It is not so much about Steven discovering lies and treachery and deceit in politics as much as it is about him discovering, or unleashing, those necessary (apparently) qualities lying dormant within. Coming from Daniel Ocean, whose team member gave us an adolescent and cheesy “Yes, we can”, I find The Ides of March strangely reassuring.
        The question though, in an expressively (read awesome) acted film as this, if Mr. Clooney sets the chain of events so as to justify (if not glorify) Steven’s actions, i.e. his vengeance, or should one read them as a condemnation, and hence a classic implication of the viewer’s own desires. (Aside: It might practically be impossible to not view Mr. Gosling as an incarnation of The Driver, and when he walks into Duffy’s (Mr. Giamatti) office late in the film, I couldn’t help myself from remembering the hammer.) The thing is, there’s a petite young lady who almost opens the film, offering, at least in hindsight, a narrative counterpoint to Stephen. She‘s the archetypical blonde bombshell, and she’s played by Ms. Rachel Wood, who seems to have the very demeanor that makes me entirely suspicious of her intentions. I might be out on a limb here, but she comes across as a, how do I say it, uhm, a manipulative bitch. In her glossy but pursed lips, through those cold eyes, there’s a certain silken smoothness that makes me instinctively wary. Hitchcock would’ve had a field day with her. She’s not all-out Marlene Dietrich or Tippi Hedren, and by God I would’ve had been comfortable with that. She plays Molly, a young intern in Mike Morris’ (Mr. Clooney) campaign, and when she brazenly “invites” Steven for drinks over to her hotel, one cannot help but wonder. I know I know, I’m aware of the orthodoxy in my arguments (remember I’m on a limb), that numerous actresses have been “out there”, and that includes Ms. Naomi Watts in Mother and Child. Yet that bouncy “cat-walk” and the confident smile (arrogance?) through which Mr. Clooney introduces her to us, and which eventually leads her to Steven’s door, both office and hotel, I perceive her as a threat. Makes me want to label her a schemer. Especially in the light of Mildred Pierce, and it is often tough to look at an actor past their previous role, and more so when they seem to intertwine. Ms. Wood’s facial features are very economic, very terse, and that probably reflects in the way we perceive people. Sizable features (big eyes, pouted lips, chubby cheeks) probably feel accessible. Oh boy, I don’t know if all this is speaking about me, or the film, or the way we draw a pattern, or if the film is drawing leverage out of it? I wish I were writing about a Martin Scorsese picture, I could comfortably shift the blame. Best to change the paragraph.
        In bed, Steven learns of her secret. It is one of those spectacular acting moments, with Mr. Gosling’s split wide open, and you want to applaud. We learn a little later she has been at somebody else’s “door” a while before, and that initiates, or highlights, a thematic parallel. There are hell of a lot of these parallels caused, both by way of screenplay and intercutting, to drive home the point – what goes around, comes around. The order is important, I suspect. When it goes first and comes back, that’s karma, when it comes first and goes back, it is justification. The trouble is, courtesy the film’s masterstroke, its central contrivance is both the cause and the effect, is both what “goes” and “comes”. Steven walks into his campaign office, sits in his cabin, and scans the breadth of the room. It’s shattering. His cabin suddenly becomes a manifestation of his inner disillusionment and the detachment that brings. In a film of several authorial masterstrokes, this finds Mr. Clooney at his classical best – a simple pan drenching what seems like objective reality with expressionism. One ought to be reminded of Martin Scorsese’s slow pans in Goodfellas, and here Mr. Clooney uses his to color the surroundings in a character’s inner turmoil. Morris belongs to the public, right at ease when surrounded by them, and when he gets a call on his phone late in the film, it is another master pan. Jaime N. Christley speaks of Mr. Clooney’s methods as that of pitting a conventional movie (Lumet) against an observational one, and this is where one derives a hell of a lot of pleasure from The Ides of March.
        The question, about the nature of the film’s manipulation, still remains, and if it is implicating us in the way some of those revenge films do. Or, is it about the frailty of our untested morality? Steven refuses the invitations of the opposing camp’s campaign manager Duffy, and yet walks first thing when the tide turns against him. There’s one Senator Thompson in the mix too, the plot throwing him for maintaining the flow of parallels. The thing is we all rationalize, and that’s how the conscience is assuaged, and that’s probably how a realist is born. It’s often a cliché in most films, but by stacking his characters one behind the other in a circle and asking them to pull the trigger, Mr. Clooney both implicates and absolves. The final moment finds us looking at Steven into his eyes, while words like “integrity” are heard in the background. As we zoom closer and closer, are those words fading away? As melodramatic as it sounds, are those words being heard from within him? Is the conflict still raging? When asked if he would run for office, Mr. Clooney says – “No. I've slept with too many women, I've done too many drugs, and I've been to too many parties.” I imagine if this here is an autobiography of sorts.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates
Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 95 min.
Verdict: Metaphorically speaking, it is neither about midnight nor about Paris.
Genre: Comedy, Romance

        The principal failure one might attribute to Mr. Allen’s film is that he doesn’t manage to convey a cinematic city that is a product of time, or rather a period. His temporal space, which is Paris in the 1920s, is more a product of figures rather than the city itself, and in a way it probably reveals that the nostalgia shared by Gil (Mr. Wilson), his proxy here, is not that for a phenomenological space frozen in time (which in fact is timeless), but for a rather loosely sketched era which doesn’t seem to offer much other than a few set of names. There’s a lack of details, which in the case of an era of a city amounts to a lack of character. The thing is, a period is rarely defined by its people, I guess, and more and more of that definition is better served when it is strung around an order of objects. Here, 1920 is only defined as when Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Dali and Bunuel and Gertrude Stein and Picasso moved around each other, and sometimes about each other, within what feels like a sector/block.
        One ought to argue that Mr. Allen is doing it out of intention because, hey, how difficult is it really for a man with a camera to give a city a context and a history? I mean, I could pick my camera and take a picture of a few houses with “For Sale” boards, or a few office complexes with “To Let” boards and lend a context for Dublin (believe me, one finds such boards every few meters), or pick the same camera and run it around the hoardings in Bangalore and give a context to the sustained momentum to the real estate here. Which makes me realize that the space here, i.e. Paris in 1920, is merely a manifestation of one’s own fantasies, fantasies whose nature I wouldn’t want to judge, although when critics remark upon the film’s central conceit as some new concept or a product of charming imagination, I might have to shrug and lend a clichéd observation of my own – this is what cinema has been doing all its life a.k.a a metaphor for cinema. Case in point: another film Mr. Wilson starred in, which roughly travelled the same time period, missing it by a couple of decades, and introducing us to not merely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but a rather young Charlie Chaplin. I mean, movies do it all the time (I almost want to use “duh”). So yeah, one could very well label Mr. Allen’s escapades here Gil’s midnight show, and that show has less to do with a city and has more to do with a generation.
        Here it would probably be beneficial to consider the extended opening montage. The images, deliberately shot without any depth, deliberately still, truly establish this Paris as a city not of details, a city that doesn’t seem to lend any influence to the people walking in the foreground, a city that seems to be a part of the sky and the clouds and the trees and content to be pasted to the background, a city that’s not standing the tides of time but that is dead and beautiful and just as kitschy as mountains and meadows. Picture-postcard stuff. Neither do the streets feel designed, nor are they a lively system of modernization; they merely exist. One might even go as far as to claim that Mr. Allen has tried his very best to create the feel of a two-dimensional city. The montage creates a city that exists out of context, out of history, that conveys nothing, whose only purpose is to create a fantasy. One would assume that nostalgia for a space and time is a direct variation of the information one possesses, because, hey, nostalgia needs to be about something, right. In Bruges is a simple example that conveys a place, or rather the feel of a place, and whenever it is I happen to be there, I would be searching the Bruges that exists within the frames of that film. So, if one were to assume that Mr. Allen’s midnight show is merely a reflection of one’s notions and not an actual space-fragment (and Gil’s are understandably built around writers and filmmakers and painters), then Mr. Allen exhibits a rather curious indifference, or rather a condescending distrust towards any form of information and any pursuit of intellect. His camera focuses on Gertrude Stein while she makes her opinion about Picasso’s new painting known to Gil, and we only get momentary reaction shots of the painting itself juxtaposed alongside Mr. Wilson’s very own “what the hell”, thereby rejecting it all as formal (meaningless?) “nonsense”, or at the very least bracketing it all as the interest of “art groupies”. David Edelstein mentions the absence of a Kubrick fussiness, which makes me feel that somewhere Mr. Allen is rejecting such “nonsense” from his filmmaking too. He is a lot less kind on Paul (Mr. Sheen), outright mocking him while he provides information, or context, using that same time-tested strategy of “focusing on the blabber”, which sort of aligns him with the shallow (and very much Hollywood) idea that everything, including art and intellect, ought to be calibrated as per the proletariat, and that the artistic or the scholarly form the oppressive establishment. Such a belief assumes that the intellectual are somehow detached, and fantasizes, much like Cinderella, that they would be the chosen ones. Other analogies – (a) fantasizing about an alien abduction, which rarely happens to astrophysicists or scientists (b) fantasizing about a visit from God himself, answering one’s “true prayers”, while the local priest, who is a false prophet anyway, is busy making a fool out of himself.
        The problem with Gil’s fantastical experience is that the Lost Generation could’ve existed anywhere and in anytime without being a product of their times, just as Adriana’s (Ms. Cotillard) folks from the Belle Époque didn’t necessarily have to live during a period of cheap labor or technological advancement. They’re free floating entities, and owing to scenes that for the most part contain partying, the space around them seems to have no historical or cultural significance. It is probably equivalent to, well, current vernacular would call it names-dropping, and I suspect that makes Mr. Allen every bit as guilty of “pseudo-intellectualism” as Paul, one of those stock characters he has always wanted to punch. I mean, I would understand Mr. Bertolucci feeling nostalgic about the 1968 student riots (a real historical era), or even Mr. Abrams for a fantastical world (Super 8). But Gil’s I find pretty meaningless. Not even Crocodile Dundee. Or at the very least, not worthy of the right to label Paul pedantic. I’m wondering now if I missed any details.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Sarina Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 123 min.
Language: Persian
Country: Iran
Verdict: A movie that puts our judgmental nature on the anvil.
Genre: Drama

        Razieh (Ms. Bayat), panic-stricken, is standing on one side of a road. She is pregnant, four months in, working as a housemaid, and the old-man of that house is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He stands on the other side, seemingly having the comprehension of a wooden plank, trying to cross the road as vehicles run left and right. She is new on the job, has a little daughter, and if something were to happen to him hell would probably break loose; humanity comes a little later. Such situations make me cringe, make me cover my face and open a little slit to check if everything’s alright, or in desperate situations exercise my rights as a viewer and even do a little fast forward. I did, only to find that Mr. Farhadi cuts through that moment, cuts through that tension, and rams straight into a happy game of foosball. “All’s well”, says that cut, and greatly relaxes the body. That it is lying, that it is hiding information only to reveal it later and further complicate the “reality”, is a narrative strategy that bothers me greatly. Numerous voices are describing A Separation as a “realistic” drama, which in some ways is true in that whatever happens on-screen is a documentation of that event, and that these events are unfolding in plain sight. Yet, the organization of these documents, i.e. their presentation, especially the “invisibility” of some of these cuts as they jump through time, may not exactly conform to that description. On the contrary, Mr. Farhadi seems to be willfully distorting the reality, and causing deliberate obtrusion in our understanding of this drama.
        Madeo caused me similar troubles a couple of years back, and I might be tempted to label such obtrusions reductive, or maybe even dishonest. But then, I need to, at least for my sake, understand the nature of this obtrusion and ascertain why when a film like Memento distorts the truth, I do not feel offended. Is it because of the integrity of the very structure, or a film’s strict adherence to rules it lays out upfront? Is it because of the aesthetic here, involving traditional notions of reality – a mobile camera, real settings, no background score – a sense of life as it is, although most frames, if not all, offer a shallow field of view? I don’t seem to have an answer at the moment, yet such a cut makes we question a film’s integrity, and seeking justification in the intended ends. A consideration of A Separation’s opening might provide some relief here. Nader (Mr. Moaadi) and Simin (Ms. Hatami), a married couple, are facing us in a two shot, and the very composition shouts “Brechtian!” Having been conditioned on numerous previous occasions, such a shot, asks of us to assume our moral responsibilities of a listener (Alfie), or a judge (Rashomon). Yet, the first words are spoken by the judge, and the words spoken are inferential/judgmental in nature, thereby rendering any authority we have null. We are merely an audience, and the film is constructing for us what I would call a false moral dilemma, these dilemmas seemingly judged from various perspectives exercising their authority as our surrogates. These judgmental figures (moral/ethical/religious) are introduced, or rather deposited in like sediments, one on top of the other. We judge Simin through the eyes of Nader and Termeh (Ms. Farhadi), as she leaves her house, her husband who has an invalid father, her daughter Termeh, to find a future in another country. She is the cause of a feminine rebellion within the harmony of this patriarchal system, and the film gradually traverses the road – from Simin through the teacher through Termeh through Razieh – to lend credence to this movement of questioning this system, if not outright rejecting it. The principal patriarch of the film, a judge looking over the central case of possible homicide, is, not impassionate, and yet while he sips his tea, he seems to be wise and mostly gentle, not susceptible to any moral corruption. He doesn’t seem to share either the condescension on the lower financially-challenged class, as might be suspected of the teacher, or the envy for the more privileged class, as is the case with Houjat (Mr. Hosseini) and some of our judiciary systems. The justice system as personified by the three judges, who feel efficient and personal, and a verdict feels subjective rather than processed through a set of inflexible rules, primitive and accessible, not a symbol of a distant and aloof establishment. There’re several such fatherly judgmental figures – through Nader, through the two judges – and the film doesn’t really undermine their credence as much as it examines their pragmatism and seemingly understands their fallibility.
        In many ways, the judge’s job seems to be what the film probably intends ou of us – to look over the various pieces of reality from the various perspectives and arrive at the truth, a truth that is unprejudiced, fair, reasonable and honorable. Srikanth does an estimation of the visual technique Mr. Farhadi uses here, employing glasses and separations of all kinds – tangible and intangible – and the fact that we’re watching these folks through our very own separation makes us all the more mindful, and in turn implicates our imperfect vantage point and our need to judge. Before judging we’re to question the veracity of the documentation itself and our instinct to take the situation in plain sight (on-screen) as the truth, keeping in mind that two of biggest lies happen out of the sight of the camera – one off-screen, and one that’s been cut. The distortion on Mr. Farhadi’s part then becomes quite reasonable in that regard, and probably even necessary, considering an outright distorted structure might draw attention to itself. As it is, the film is being hailed as a screenwriter’s triumph, to which I only hold Srikanth’s frame grabs as evidence to the superficiality of such claims.
        It is quite interesting the way Mr. Farhadi chains all of these events together, often using jarring jump cuts to sort of pull the events to around this house. Razieh and her daughter are waiting for the bus and the scene cuts to them running and climbing the stairs to the house. Nader looks at his father and goes for the door, and as the camera cuts to the other side we’re in a different day and time. Events smash into each other and pile the complications on. It is all continuous, caused by the principal object of the film, and in many ways its MacGuffin, the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather, who is behind almost every event and every decision within the film, a sort of sacred monolith against which sins are committed and guilt confessed, and he seems to take everything in. Is he the conscience, a sacred relic to be protected, or is he the vestige of a gradually failing present, to be done away with? The film’s final moment has Nader, Simin and Termeh dressed in black, and obligation that is observed for 40 days after the death of a principal member of the family (although Mr. Farhadi says nothing to that effect but his film has made us wiser), and yet the separation goes ahead. Would the past always remain, you know, as a separation between the orthodox (conservative) and the rebellious (utilitarian)? Maybe it does, and Termeh is asked to choose between the two. I suspect even Mr. Farhadi cannot make up his mind.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Cast (voices of): Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 107 min.
Verdict: An amusing yarn. The real story is that 3-D is a bother.
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure

        I guess I’ve to do an about turn and finally admit that 3-D is a mistake. I still am optimistic, and Mr. Spielberg’s experimentation only fills me with hope. Yet, this exercise of declaring a film as the next 3-D champion is getting a little tiring, especially when tracking shots filming the action feel as if the camera were “outside” this holographic frame. The action itself feels like a projection, or a reproduction of the action, and the figures in the foreground feel especially translucent and hollow. I guess you’ve all had enough of those complaints, but they are true. The colors render the picture slight. The unfortunate thing is the movie in my memory is feeble and silvery like those 2-D holograms our textbooks had, the only brightness being caused by a two-dimensional portrait of Tintin Mr. Spielberg winks at us with (the painter is a look-alike of Herge). He winks at us a lot actually, nodding almost every Indiana Jones film, and embedding within the material the relation between Herge’s Tintin and his own treasure-seeking adventurer. A critic once compared Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin, and Mr. Spielberg’s intention is to not merely to nod in approval but to re-present the lad as Indiana Jones for kids. Not surprisingly, The Adventures of Tintin is one big chase sequence, effective and efficient. From start to finish a big amusing ride. This, in some ways, is a problem. A set of scrolls, like the infamous crystal skull exchange hands, and even claws, and after you had an exchange too many you just stop caring. The characters, and as a result the frames are in constant motion, not even for a moment taking the time to soak in the atmosphere. Adventure films usually have a quite moment of reflection, a moment where the motion simply stops, a moment that provides contrast, a moment that acts as a delimiter between the set-up and the climax. It is an odd world here, made of real benches and buildings and desert, and yet the bulged noses do not feel like an oddity. A study of the nature of the pact we sign with the animated film and the way we start to assimilate these oddities as norm would be a hugely interesting exercise. The motion capture, though, way better than the ones rendered in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol still leave a character eyes feel as if they were suffering from cataracts, or really drunk. One is not sure precisely where the focal point of Captain Haddock’s eyes really rest, while Tintin’s eyes seem to be looking far and beyond. I suspect it is this inability to reflect upon, an inability to savor the moment, that causes most of the animated fare to be constantly on the move, to overcompensate.
        Mr. Spielberg seems to be liberated by this foray into the animated medium, probably a trifle more than one would like him to be, the camera literally taking impossible flights of imagination, swirling and gliding and floating and swooping around the action, but never, not even for a moment, inside it. His intent seems to be to use the technology to create continuity through space and homogeneity through time, his on-the-run camera performing the function of the moving red line in the Indiana Jones films, the 2-D map becoming a 3-D globe here, a grand marriage of Herge’s ligne caire and the motion capture 3-D, the straightforward nature of the pencil lines drawing the plot being reflected in the continuous nature of the events. A climactic sword fight, fought by the clashing arms of two cranes, between the descendents of foes from a time gone by, is otherwise a bland little exercise, but when looked at through this prism of nostalgia achieves thematic substance. It is this “holographic” prism, steeped in the nostalgia of a different time and place, that Mr. Spielberg’s camera seems to be swooping and swirling about, these movements suggesting Mr. Spielberg might as well be the co-creator of Tintin. David Bordwell here analyzes the economy of Herge’s illustrations, and when one looks at Mr. Spielberg’s multi-planar action, where seemingly innocuous and amusing events in the foreground lead to an important lead later, it is tough not to imagine Mr. Spielberg working out his holographic “frames” as Herge’s panels, packing them with detail after detail. And while working that out, one feels, his brother from another mother liberates him from the compulsion to include the Nazis while picking up on storylines that were published around their time, and to play around with an antagonist who, more than anything else, is merely a madman driven by a need for vengeance. That makes him and his bumbling henchmen a little cute. And when Tintin and Captain Haddock do not dispose them off, but are considerate enough to pack them at the back of the plane, allowing them the opportunity to a sweet escape, it is, well, sweet. I guess Herge would’ve been relieved.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Cast: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, Stephen Dorff, John Hurt, Isabel Lucas
Director: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar
Runtime: 110 min.
Verdict: On the pleasure scale there’s been nothing like it for a long time.
Genre: Fantasy, Mythology, Action, Drama

        Immortals is overwhelming. It is the exact sort of movie I would want to buy and watch at home while thanking technology for the pause and rewind buttons. It is quite remarkable the way Mr. Singh flushes all attempts at motion to create exclusively static frames. Often he uses motion to complete his compositions, and we chuckle at this exhibition of flamboyance. Often there’s no aid, no lines to aid the perception of depth, and his frames almost recede into painting. The Priestess Phaedra (Ms. Pinto) wakes up from a nightmare, and since she’s the Oracle the nightmare ought to be promoted to a vision. I’m incredibly bad at this, but she is wearing a silken red garment of some sort. Behind her on the wall is a mural depicting the Titans locked inside the Tartarus. A figure from the left of the frame wakes up, and then one from the center, and then one from the right, and although I might be wrong with the order each of them feel like the petals of a flower. There’re dozens of overhead shots, considering that the Olympian Gods Zeus (Mr. Evans), Athena (Ms. Lucas) and others of their ilk are looking at the action from above, and not one of them is as awesome as that of a boat belonging to King Hyperion’s (Mr. Rourke) army is made out of the same shape as his jackal headgear, which, in a medium shot, for a moment or two against that backdrop of calm waters, feels like his headgear itself. You see, his stamp is everywhere, and these folks here are not without an appreciation for the manifold virtues of theatricality. Neither is Mr. Singh. Here’s that rare film that has been made more with the camera and less with the scissor, which, when it comes to a fantasy picture, is more often than not a good thing.
        Not that the kinetics is completely sucked out of Immortals. The Titans, for some curious reason rendered as a mummy version of the guys we’ve come to know over the years with charred bodies and savagery flowing through their veins, are swift. The Olympians are quick. Their battle is a clash of the immortals, and Mr. Singh, for all his fantastic escapades, seems to be building an oeuvre that examines the tensions between the real and magical. I even suspect, Mr. Singh might be a borderline plausible. His ultimate action sequence clearly draws the line of demarcation between the mortals and the immortals, and while the former are shot through natural and often preternatural (slow-mo) action sequences, the latter are battling entirely through supernatural imagery. While 300 merely played around with the speeds of the frame, Mr. Singh lays out multiple planes of action at different speeds leave me convinced to declare it a game-changer. A sequence inside a tunnel against Hyperion’s rampaging army reminds one of Oldboy. Mr. Singh uses exclusively classical composition, even during the battle sequences, and not even a single action shot is a result of an edit. In its grand-standing and violence it feels more like the marriage of those 60s Biblical features and our post-Gladiator sword-and-sandal world, which it saves from all those Saving Private Ryan influences that had got a bit out of hand.
        The genre had lost its belief in its mythology, intending to make the proceedings “grittier” and “realistic”, sort of like Mr. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood film. The Gods were completely cast out of Troy. Here, the mortal kings and peasants do not believe in the existence of such beings as Gods, or any mythical creatures, and when Zeus and Aethra and Poseidon and the other Gods land on the earth, it is not merely here but within the genre where Mr. Singh has summoned their presence. What’s more, with The Cell and The Fall, and now Immortals, he seems to have completed a trilogy of sorts, where two clearly demarcated realities freely intermingle with each other, and affect the outcome of the other. One might not be stretching matters if he were to coin the term “The Dual-Reality Trilogy”.
        The fact of the matter is I feel completely inept at the moment. The silken robe flowing over Phaedra squatted thighs, inwards whilst her legs are gracefully arched is as simple and as erotic a set-up for a love-making scene as there can be. The pleasures here are that of pure cinema and I suspect if one hasn’t watched Immortals twice or devoured each one of its frames over a long sitting, one hasn’t watched it at all. More so in my case, where the first viewing of the film has been more or less spent masturbating to those pleasures. So I shall wait. For my second viewing. Consider this an instant reaction.