Friday, August 26, 2011


Cast: T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan
Director: Matt Reeves
Runtime: 79 min.
Verdict: A stunning formal exercise that turns the creature feature genre inside out.
Genre: Thriller, Horror

        Stephanie Zacharek, in her review, observes the nature of Cloverfield, how the camera and Facebook, and Twitter, and mobiles and every other sibling of our Social Network act as surrogates to our experience, and how we seem to be more interested in capturing our experience than in experiencing the experience. People tweet from movie screenings, and that isn’t an exercise that makes much sense to me. But then, I have recently been to Dublin, and to the James Joyce center, and to the Oscar Wilde memorial, and I pretty much made it a point to “share” my experience. For some, IPL matches are worth sharing and tweeting about. For others, it is usually the French Open or the Champions League. Ah, that is just the very periphery of Cloverfield’s formal endeavor. And to dismiss the film on grounds of its similarity to 9/11 is to pretty much miss the point completely.
        The point being, and that is what requires Cloverfield to be a creature feature for it to make any sort of sense for its footage-esque mise-en-scène, that there is a sort of contradiction between our voyeuristic tendencies driven by our innate curiosity, and the basic survival instincts we all possess. We wouldn’t want to be caught anywhere near a road accident, but we all would line up to see the aftermath. We wouldn’t want to ever be found inside a prison, but we all would want to know how it is to be inside of Kilmainham Gaol. We would want to run away from a terrorist fire, but we would all want to take snaps of the bullet holes in the wall. I guess you get the point. It is a tragedy alright but I’m sure there are survivors to 9/11 who claim to friends “they were there”. I do that for the Gujarat riots as I do for the Gujarat earthquake, and there is a certain pride I tend to attach to being a witness to such a tragedy. To feel this conflict, or you know clear some sand of this very fine line between our curiosity and our self-preservation pretty much needs something sensational. That Mr. Reeves, and Mr. Abrams travel largely in the fantasy land of creature features is proof enough against Ms. Zacharek’s claims against the morality of the tale.
        Oh but we might need to understand this conflict before we even begin to analyze Cloverfield’s line of attack. And here we ought to ask ourselves this question – how long does it take before the immediacy of a tragic headlines-grabbing event becomes an interesting lesson in history? Further ahead, how would the future hold this event, as an artificial memory forever to cling upon and mine and refine kitschy declarations of humanity, or as a ripper of a puzzle that entertains scores of conspiracy theories? Oh no, I don’t think so it ever plain forgets. Mr. Reeves presents Cloverfield as a piece of evidence to an event, or rather a historical document, and comparisons to Abraham Zapruder’s film ought to be drawn, where the existence of the document itself becomes as much of an event as the actual event itself, and where witnessing the actual historical event is as much of a cool thing as being in possession of this document. You see, during those riots, we would walk around every morning and to “experience” the kind of damage caused to the shops, those shops we knew, and none of us owned a camera. But a lot of folks down at Ramlila Maidan do, and what they also have is access to Facebook. And oh, pictures of the Washington D.C. earthquake were doing the rounds a couple of days back. There’s an inherent need to declare that “we were there”, if not sharing the same space, then at least sharing the same time. Such an historical event is less about what it is, and becomes more about what is shared.
        There’s Rob (Mr. Stahl-David) who’s leaving for Japan and is having his farewell party, and there’s Beth (Ms. Yustman) who seems to have broken up with him, after they had slept together only a month ago. By setting this as the “human angle” to the actual event, Mr. Reeves’s film rips through this line of conflict between our voyeuristic tendencies and our survival instincts, this “need to share”, and by setting up a little broken love story against a commercial creature attack it turns the camera on itself, thereby turning it from the observer to the observed, and making the camera guy Hud (Mr. Miller) the central character of the film, who, in a way, acknowledges our demands and against all good sense runs in the direction of the creature whetting our appetite to “witness” the event in all its glory. As is the case, the human story is interesting, sure, but is not the story itself and instead is merely a precursor to an infinitely more interesting experience, thereby explaining in one simple stroke the existence of blockbusters and more importantly the news media’s usual handling of major events, which usually aim for blockbuster results as well.
        The structure of the film couldn’t be any more brilliant, and the manner in which the romantic story of this little party, where everybody is reduced to the curious gossiping cats causing the voyeuristic tendencies to run amuck, both sets up and contrasts with the actual event, and sort of provides for the film’s central theme. In the film’s most significant development, and in Cloverfield the style is the content, the video of Rob and Beth’s warm little romantic outing (shot under the sunlight of course) a month prior to this creature attack is overwritten by this event. Whatever glimpses we find of the love story feel one of those sweet little memories tragically erased, and yet in the film’s final moment, the entirety of it is corroded by the need to witness a spectacle, causing the human element merely a ruse to follow the real deal. And herein we ought to consider the image of the decade – a plane exploding through the WTC – the image that was played long and hard on news channels and elsewhere, and which still remains the very definition of the history of this new century. Did it, sort of, “overwrite” the human element of that day? If you ask me, we all seek the sensational.
        Oh, yeah, the creature itself, right? It is completely opaque, and completely alien, resisting any attempt to get inside of it. Figuratively I mean.

Note: Not since Cache has the final frame of a film been so unassumingly explosive. And here, the smoking bomb, so to speak, has been concealed so tactfully it took me at least 10 rewinds to even identify it, despite knowing the fact where to look inside the frame. I find that amusing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011



Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich
Director: J. J. Abrams
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: Right from the title, it’s a strangely superficial exercise.
Genre: Mystery, Thriller


Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen (voice), Kristen Wiig, Jason Bateman
Director: Greg Mottola
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: Much like the alien at its heart, it is a warm little film. And strangely familiar. There’s a reason.
Genre: Comedy, Adventure

        For reasons totally obvious I am reminded of that little development in Mahabharata where Lord Krishna’s forces are given to Duryodhan while his presence is blessed to Arjun. Oh, no one-to-one mappings please, none intended, and none to be taken. You see, if it wants to look like a Spielberg, wants to sound like a Spielberg, has the blessing of Spielberg, then we probably need to consider the Spielberg angle first, especially considering that Mr. Abrams’ film uses a lot of mini-genre shorthand and references, and assumes we’ll fill the gaps. I’m game, I say, more or less. If a film can provide us with a ripping yarn that somehow manages to exist without a subtext, I say more power to it, although I’ve little to no idea how one ought to go about avoiding any sort of subtext. I mean, every decision out there on film reveals something, no? Leave aside the Nazis from a Spielberg for a second. The very fact that the killer shark invading peaceful waters is an antagonist that deserves to be blown to smithereens, while people are earmarked well in advance to be munched by the Tyrannosaurus is something of equal interest too. Especially when the Tyrannosaurus is not supposed to die. Times have changed. If one were to consider Super 8 as an anthology of the greatest hits of Spielberg, where the alien creature is a cross between those of CE3K and War of the Worlds, where the 80s-suburban quickly transforms into an aughties-warzone, and where the army is shorthand for evil (which roughly equates to Nazi), or Paul as a sort of Spielbergian remix, where the cute little alien is also the one who’s teaching the outsiders the ways of America, where men dressed in black have their own organization, where belief in intelligent design is a joke (any auteur-filmography which has extra-terrestrial beings and the Holy Grail co-existing is causing one, in my opinion), I might not have much reason to disagree.
        Super 8 is the more interesting one here, more interested in being a Spielberg, and it has more contradictions in it. As a narrative exercise intended in the Spielbergian mold Super 8 is fairly decent. Mr. Abrams is not an alien-filmmaker as much as he is a creature-filmmaker, which sort of gives him the ideal genre expertise to pull off a Spielbergian narration. For a frame of reference, John Mctiernan (Predator), James Cameron (Aliens), John Carpenter’s The Thing and Spielberg’s very own E.T. are creature-features, and barely muster any deal of fictional science. More than any film in this alien-creature subgenre, Predator is a film most worthy to be considered for its narrative strategies, especially considering the nature of Super 8, and the creature within, but mostly because it is a film I have watched only recently and because Mr. Mctiernan is the rare filmmaker who gives his antagonists a super personality. Mr. Abrams, much like in E.T., intends to draw a parallel, between his protagonist and the creature, something which Mr. Mctiernan did magnificently, for there’s no one on this planet who could’ve stood in front of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those are some of the great movie moments, when the predator rips apart his weaponry and helmet and roars, and when Schwarzenegger asks him who the hell it is, it replies with the same question directed at the man himself – who the hell is he? That is personality, and Mr. Abrams’ creature has none of that.
        I’m reminded once again of Keith Uhlich’s examination of criticisms that accuse movies of anthropomorphism, and Mr. Abrams’ two mostly opaque creatures, one because it has been designed so (Cloverfield), and one because it is largely hidden from plain sight (this one here). What is emotion in E.T. (the creature’s longing for home and stuff) is exposition here, and is partly justified considering that Mr. Abrams mostly adopts a tone of mystery rather than adventure. The creature is mostly a device to trigger fear, a device to let Mr. Abrams construct jumpy set-pieces and show them off, where the creature announces its presence in a fashion more akin to a scary film, like in the reflection of pool of petrol in a gas station, or in the background of a shallow-focused shot, and its function is to direct the narrative, much like Cloverfield, inwards rather than outward, unlike Mr. Spielberg, who in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and CE3K caused the inward to look outward, where the outward was more or less a reflection of the inward (classical fable stuff). That leaves Super 8’s creature more or less a placeholder. Not exactly the way to go if you’re channeling a Spielberg. Matters are complicated further if the creature in question is not easy on the eyes, and with its gigantic size and its complicated contours and virtually indistinguishable eyes, Mr. Abrams seems to be consciously discouraging emotional identification of any kind.
        Stack it up against Mr. Mottola’s Paul, who wears shorts, is considerably shorter (short enough to be the inspiration for ET’s height), is more James Franco than Seth Rogen, and who’s design is more or less simple, who doesn’t need a whole lot of visual aid from the filmmaker to get his point across, and who more or less acknowledges his role to be a R-rated validation to a couple of Apatow men. If Spielberg has always been about a little kid’s awe for adventure and his refusal to grow (most gloriously confessed in Catch me if you Can), the Apatow men and their buddies here represent a celebration of arrested development. Paul and Paul exist to encourage this good-natured nerdy innocence by causing a world that believes in the simplistic values and emotions of a Spielberg. This is an American roadtrip movie that is more about a ride through geekdom (or pop-culture’s definition of it). It is a fantasy Hollywood land (and by keeping the San Diego Comic Con in loop there’s a clever joke I think is funny but not know why), and yet it is just as much “real” as the largely unspecific middle-of-anywhere suburb of Super 8. It is a fictional town called Lillian, somewhere in Ohio, and if it were Manoj Night Shyamalan at the helm of it, he might have supplied us with The Town.
         And no, that wasn’t intended merely as a joke, and as a matter of fact I suspect there’s an underlying cynicism in Mr. Abrams’ Super 8 that, unlike Paul, cannot seem to fully embrace the characteristics of a Spielberg, and instead consciously tries to shy away from them. His kids are not the least bit innocent, and the principal trio here does not exhibit the readiness we ascribe to the cycle gang in E.T. or the Rowling wizards (Spielberg was one of the frontrunners to adapt the books). The other ones are traits more or less, with the pyromaniac lent an especially annoying one. There is an uncomfortable blend of horror and familiarity to the proceedings wherein we know that the principal characters would come out all happy and warm and yet people filling the background might die. And they do. The alien does kill them. It is all sort of peeled, wherein the cheerful innocence of the opening half lit generously by the sun gives way to a mostly dark latter half, and wherein the intention seems to be shifting the blame of the monstrosity from the alien on to the humans. We all remember the reception that was given to War of the Worlds. The army (US Air Force here) is especially ugly starting a forest fire and all, and even going ahead and murdering a few citizens. A few of the weapons, including tanks, start malfunctioning and start firing in every which direction. Spielberg’s Nazis feel cartoonish before this bunch, and yet they were Nazis, not the Army within, which here becomes the enemy within. Or maybe, if we consider both the Army and the alien as outsiders in this “innocent” town, it is the former that causes cold destruction, while the alien is merely “seeking revenge”. And just to make things a little spicy, the alien creature does relish human meat. Oh yeah, I’ve never ever seen a bleak Spielberg film so devoid of humanity, and as far as the army is concerned he made the great Saving Private Ryan.
        This whole fictional universe compares starkly to that of Paul, where there’s bright sunlight throughout, where the night only serves to provide an atmosphere for the truly awesome to happen, and where there is a sense of optimism around. The stakes are remarkably low, just a few folks involved, and Paul’s gesture to invite the one person whose life his arrival screwed is genuinely warm. It is a hilarious film, human and harmless, and where humanity is not just limited to humans. Three tits find approval across the board. And when two comic-book geeks masquerading as cops die, one in an explosion and the other driving off a cliff, it’s all in good spirit. The thing is they were not bad enough. And that was the only bit that bothered me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Duncan Jones
Runtime: 93 min.
Verdict: Since I can’t really think of anything, let us just say it is a good film and an interesting film.
Genre: Sci-fi, Action, Thriller

        Dr. Rutledge (Mr. Wright), the brains behind Source Code, is crippled. Captain Colter Stevens (Mr. Gyllenhaal), the subject of Rutledge’s live experiment consisting of iterations and explosions, is stuck inside what seems like a crashed helicopter, which we later learn is sort of a manifestation of his real physical state, and which seems to land him in the same ballpark as Rutledge. Captain Colleen Goodwin, Rutledge’s apprentice, seems to be locked inside the little monitor in Colter’s chopper. They seem to be “confined” within the premises of their office, although there is bomber out there, and they’re just as helpless as their ancestors who’ve sat in front of giant screens and hoped for miracles in every major disaster movie you’ve seen over the past couple of decades, as opposed to their brethren in other movies, say Speed, or say Independence Day, where they themselves venture out in the open. The office itself seems to have no windows. Oh, and the experiment itself is called Beleaguered Castle, and I believe the players of the game would immediately acknowledge the space constraints as opposed to Spider Solitaire, or even good old Solitaire.
        Let us talk about the chopper for a second. It is dark and seems to be burnt, yet its audio-visual stuff seems to be functioning somehow. We meet Colter and he is upside down in the frame, and it is one of those one-to-one mappings most movies seem to relish. More on that later. The only source of light is the monitor, a little window of sorts, and the only other reprieve from the dark interiors are some good old-fashioned LEDs. Shot-for-shot, with the close-ups on Colter, one might feel the chopper is only marginally better than being trapped inside a coffin, and at the same time wouldn’t be sure of the space around except for the familiarity (and it does calm our anxieties a little) with a standard chopper.
        What Captain Colter Stevens (Mr. Gyllenhaal), or Dr. Rutledge (Mr. Wright), or the train, or the downtown Chicago expressways jam-packed with cars, or for that matter the film itself suggests is the love-hate relationship we share with motion in our life. Motion through time, motion through space. We yearn to belong to a place, emotionally and physically. To settle down, so to speak. Be part of a routine, and live under the illusion that we are in control of the pace of our lives, and do not have it dictated for us. We also want to get out of a traffic mess just as badly as we are prone to getting bored of our daily routine. Captain Stevens, during one of his iterations, literalizes this aspect of his predicament, which also happens to be the film’s core sci-fi gimmick, where he pulls down the lever for the door of the moving train and after the most momentary of thoughts jumps straight out. Mr. Jones has made a film that his protagonist is desperate to escape from for around 75 min of its running time. Yup, escape from the constraints of its primary space and time. I know, I might as well have been describing Moon.
        Or, since I was constantly reminded of them through its generation of space, I might be describing one of those video-games where a choice in any direction would expand the game accordingly. Mr. Jones, via his opening shots, charts a sort of map of the space, with what turns out to be the only time the camera (and us) doesn’t operate through the filters of any perspective other than its own. All the threads, fulfilled and unfulfilled, shall remain within the confines of this space. What happens during the iterations is that Colter explores a different area of this space each time, causing cinematic time to extend and cinematic space to expand. We’re never again shown the rest of this space, and that is the sort of decision I might come across in a game like Max Payne II (), or say The Tree of Life, where the consciousness constructs the space around (Inception is an obvious example, I guess). And just as Mr. Jones is letting Colter to ever expand his space constraints, he also rewinds him through time and sort of breaks a barrier. Or maybe, it is Rutledge himself, or source code itself (Programmers: For loop->If condition). A case of pre-programmed eventualities might not be ruled out, and I guess that might be the stuff we can discuss on forums. What I was rather interested was it acknowledges the DVD-style of movie watching, where the most enthusiastic followers of it end up watching a feature length over 4-5 hours. It is sort of an investigative process, or at least a process driven by curiosity, where every frame that catches our attention is a clue to be pondered over and reveal new ones, and where each of the clues manifest themselves as possibilities and our own personal memories of that movie. Alain Resnais might disagree. I imagine an experimental where a ten-minute plot is stretched over a feature length.
        A crucial aspect that adds a whole lot more of emotional claustrophobia to the proceedings is the time frame of an iteration – 8 minutes – that is considerably shorter than the 24 hours Phil Connors had. Colter is running against time to identify the bomber before he blows someplace else, which causes Source Code to become a full length ticking-bomb feature with a tension-filled background score amplifying the lack of time. This contrasts starkly with the office, where Rutledge and Goodwin sit, and the urge around there feels considerably more subdued. Of course, this goes right into the film’s anti-establishment sentiments –the common man doing everything he can, while the establishment is taking cold calculated decisions – even more so in these times of revolution. It might be worthwhile to compare the mood around the office here against that of other such ticking-bomb/asteroid/disaster features where the whole bureaucracy is sitting before giant screens and is wearing their emotions on their sleeves.
        I say subdued, but then in there, through those performances from Ms. Farmiga and Mr. Wright (who seems to be aiming for a caricature) one can easily feel a conflict within the establishment. Goodwin is more concerned with the bomber and Colter’s questions about the peripheral aspects of the mission cause her to be impatient. Rutledge on the other hand doesn’t seem all that bothered with the experiment, and his absence from the interactions indicates an academic interest in the outcome of the situation, and probably least regard for the human toll. The plot, in a neat touch, underlines this dynamic via the opposing interests of Colter, who displays human interests and failings, and Rutledge, who speaks to him in terms of textbook concepts. Colter is no superhero, he is selfish enough to be more interested in getting his own questions answered (absolutely nothing to do with the mission), and Rutledge criticizes this “unpatriotic” behavior and claims there would be many other soldiers who would gladly put the nation before themselves” and would always choose this “opportunity to serve their country”.
        I say cold and calculated. Source Code has a kitschy little image tagged at its end to declare its humanity (a total relaxation on the intensity and rush of the entire film with a camera not moving as purposefully), and a kitschy little message about everyone living happily with each other. Let us just say the film is not exactly enthusiastic of what it believes are the “selfish ways of an urban world”. And yet, its literalization of its protagonist’s predicament reducing it to a one-to-one mapping – from the condemned remains of the chopper to the audio-visual interaction with Goodwin – and the explanations of the mechanism of the whole experiment suggests a mathematical deduction of the process of consciousness. Our estimation of ourselves and how we might perceive a little failure in brain activity resembles that of a robot (remember T2 and his alternate power), or a computer (reboot with audio and video drivers), and for Source Code the human brain is a processor, complete with such words as “charged” “circuitry “ and comparisons to CCTV. It would be safe to claim that in Rutledge’s office there is not much room for the intangible, and sometimes I guess that is what makes for a sci-fi.

Note: David Bordwell, as usual, as a wonderful post on the narrative technique here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Cast: Priyanka Chopra
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Runtime: 149 min.
Verdict: If ever there was a movie that needed to be Brechtian, this is it.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Comedy

        Susanna (Ms. Chopra) declares to the world, although it is only us and our surrogate Arun (Mr. Vivaan Shah) who’re listening, and with her licking tongue and her protruding upper lip and her dry decaying skin she intends to drink the blood of Jesus Christ. Not since you last saw Ms. Rakhi Sawant have you had an actress from the Hindi film industry look so ghastly. She feels so rotten, her laugh so repulsive you cringe. You ought to thank that garish make-up as much as that lip job to achieve this terrific cinematic effect, and with its voice-overs, and its title, and its mostly inevitable structure, you would’ve have to wonder why Mr. Bharadwaj didn’t go full-on theatrical on us. Say, amping up on the make-up, or say employing a lot more camera tricks than the obligatory wide-angled distorted compositions, or say have a placard declare upfront “what else” each husband has to offer, or say have the same guy play the different husbands.
        One might be reminded of Spider Baby. Or Se7en. For different reasons of course, but primarily for the theatricality associated with the proceedings. The wife reads Anna Karenina, a book I haven’t read and what Wiki suggests is a novel on hypocrisy in the society and that sort of stuff. The seven husbands are nothing but bad-husband archetypes (you might be reminded of Ms. Kiran Bedi’s show as well), much like John Doe’s victims who in turn were examples elevated to archetypes. Sort of like drug-addict (alcoholic), or greedy, or lusty, or insecure, or someone who likes to go medieval. None of these are in any way redeemable, and they don’t really need to be redeemed, considering Mr. Bharadwaj has caused them to exist only to let his feminist impulses go berserk.
        The problem lies not in the concept, and frankly I can’t make much sense of it except at a very, well, conceptual level – Wife loses father (biological), seeks father (husband), and ends up with father (J.H.C.). It is the filmmaking and the narrativizing impulse that actually makes the film more tedious and less amusing, and reining in fractured time frames and flashbacks and misdirections, I guess Mr. Bharadwaj makes his task only harder. He tries to explain the woman when he ought to ask us to accept her and the premise as a given, and he tries to convey time by actual historical events (clever, but wrong place), when he ought to shun reality and embrace the artificiality of it all. More importantly undermines his film’s great strengths. That would be its texture, like choosing a madhouse, or like Susanna herself whose skin is baby-soft and innocent upfront, and with its red layers and lumps of artificial skin later on looks a creature that has been cursed to rot, not a punisher but the punished. I imagine a film, at least an hour shorter, and which unleashes many more aspects of the madhouse (like Bruno, one of my favorite movie characters), and symbolism (like the twin Buddha idols, although I wonder if he was considered before we settled on J.H.C.), and the morality of Mr. Bharadwaj’s morbid world that finds this decaying specimen desirable. Or one-half hour longer, but secrets being peeled and not just thrown bluntly. I imagine that the intention might have been to juxtapose this madhouse against outsiders, who appear to be clean but are concealing their own version of a madhouse deep within them. The problem is, Mr. Bharadwaj’s structure diverts attention from this aspect – both the madhouses (Susanna’s and her husbands’) are almost underplayed, and much is made of the actual sin, providing for a thriller which happens to mildly amusing to what should’ve been a predominantly amusing film that is thrilling. This is a society where the cops use the word “lay”, and I haven’t heard that in a really long time. I’m trying to arrive at a Bunuel film, you see. And trust me I’m loving it
        There is a shot quite later in the film, where we see Susanna and her fifth – the Intelligence Bureau officer Keemat (Mr. Anu Kapoor) – exchange marriage vows and as Susanna reads, or recites her end of the bargain the shot pans to Jesus on the cross. It pans back, and we see the dead fifth. It is a nice little touch, and in the immediate cut, Mr. Bharadwaj’s narrativizing problem obliges him to explain the death, which completely spoils this preceding moment. Never mind the voice-over. Most importantly, Mr. Bharadwaj should’ve sought this freedom from narration. And go completely ugly on us.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler
Director: Terence Malick
Runtime: 139 min.
Verdict: Your senses might not be entertained any better all year.
Genre: Drama

(Opening note: The film is quite literally a sensory overload, and to sort of experience the consciousness of another is positively overwhelming. I might err on details. I have surely forgotten a hell of a lot of them. I would have to say, that this might hardly end up being a review at all. Just a few notes, maybe, and maybe the feel of my experiences might inspire you to experience Mr. Malick’s, and then feel your own. It is that kind of a film.)

        The mother (Ms. Chastain) receives a telegram. Her son’s dead. We don’t know the age, we don’t know how, we never shall. Mr. Malick has stripped every bit of content a.k.a plot from his film, leaving only the emotions as residue, and probably telling a whole lot of us that specificity doesn’t equate to plot details. The father (Mr. Pitt) receives the news too. Via phone. He looks at his son’s stuff. A guitar is one of them. We know that it is the dead son’s guitar because movie-grown associationism has conditioned us into believing that when a shattered father stands around frozen looking at stuff in a room, it is either that the kid has left to join college, or the kid’s dead. We later see R.L. (Mr. Eppler) indulging in art and music (guitar), and being a much gentler soul than his riskier elder brother Jack (Mr. McCracken/ Mr. Penn). We know that is him, or maybe the objectivity I am associating with “knowing” here, and the usage of a plural pronoun, quite conveniently assuming, in one sweep, a collective conscious driven by similar sensory perceptions, finds me standing one-legged on a slippery ground. A whole lot of folks are wondering as to which brother’s dead. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, whose review is a masterpiece in observing detail and then analyzing its status as a piece of evidence (is Mr. Vishnevetsky, a most keen observer of objects and their life cycle, a phenomenologist?) is arguably the most brilliant piece of writing on the film, and it questions this little piece which I readily assume as evidence. The Tree of Life, with its blink-efficient shift of perspectives (achieved mostly by our reliable old friend close-up) and its super-detailed designed random time-jumps and movements leading you into prematurely describing as “stream-of-consciousness” filmmaking when a little thought would make you realize how the stream’s flow has been so elaborately mapped, is a virtual pitfall of such intersubjective assumptions. But a pitfall that deserves its pit.
        We meet a kid in Jack’s neighborhood who has had the rear end of his scalp accounted for by a fire accident. He doesn’t look ghastly you know, not Eraserhead-ghastly but different enough to cause reluctance in being friends with. The kid hangs about the neighborhood group. I had a classmate in my fourth grade, Sandeep, who was the obligatory polio-stricken kid we used to have in our schools, and he had big teeth and his legs were always dry and scaly and during conversations his mouth would always have excess strands of saliva, and I don’t know if I ever felt hanging out with him. Even though he was one of the group. We were kids and godly compassion came a bit difficult to us. But sympathy came easy. And there was always this paranoia that it might happen to us. Like a skin ailment, or blindness. Every one of my first days in school, my bonding had a pattern, and time was usually a factor. Eyebrows, or a lack of them, are a factor too, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to list all of them here. It is human behavior, to align, and Jack’s instincts towards that burnt kid are perfectly natural. That he later puts his hand around him, becomes good buddies and shares a smile is another experience Mr. Malick slips in stealthily, through his stream-of-consciousness, making us realize a boy has come of age and has discovered grace. Either that, or the elder version of Jack is suffering guilt pangs and wishes he could change time. There’s surely an arc there somewhere, an arc stringing these images ever so delicately and precisely, and Michael Sicinski was bothered with these “storytelling values”. It is storytelling, surely, but the thing is there’s no story. Keith Uhlich calls it “evolution of narrative through reverie”, a reverie that hardly contains any semblance of the past and is in fact so firmly rooted in the now (with its ever gliding camera almost giving the impression of a free-willed reminiscing device), it creates the most immediate of experiences for the viewer, except for that its texture, which is quite soft with a little hint of green in everything that almost gives the feel that the sun comes out less and when it does it is easy on the folks and that a little drizzle is just around the block, is radically opposite to the harsh lighting providing for what seems like a very dry urban world that the older Jack (Mr. Penn) walks around in.
        The Tree of Life, via Jack, relentlessly bombards us with sensations. If you happen to be a viewer hardly concerned with the filmmaker’s intentions, and primarily harboring voyeuristic desires, the film is a treasure. Jack sees disfigured men, he sees arrested criminals (criminals who would have a terrific career in a Sergio Corbucci film) forced into cars, he sees his mother helping one of the bearded criminals with a glass of water (I think I saw a ray of light, or at least the sun, and one cannot help but be reminded of Christ and his thirst during the crucifixion), he sees a man having a seizure and the mother covers his face. She is an angelic presence, Ms. Chastain, with her golden hair and pale skin (what Mr. Vishnevetsky refers to as Pre-Raphaelite, although I would have no idea) and a slender figure. Was I reminded of Ms. Claire Danes, ehm, I don’t know. One ought to see the difference in the camera movements and the attitude it assumes when filming the Mother as against when filming the father. We see her as a kid, and by God I tell you I often wonder what kind of a girl my mother was in high school and college, and what would she dream of. Most of us do, just to understand what’s behind that façade whose purpose and dreams otherwise seems to be only the kids. Mom’s a mystery, and Dad’s Clint Eastwood. The thing is Mr. Malick sets up an arc, a solid Freudian arc, right from the very first moment we see the mother, and what’s bothering me is he sort of delivers on that set up. I am reminded of Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo (note: Mr. Malick earns every one of his image and drawing any resemblance to Tarkovsky’s might be a bit reductive; Tarkovsky deals with time and lets the image acquire its own life, while Mr. Malick, at least in The Tree of Life is being more of a montage player and as we shall see ahead his strategy, and yes there’s a strategy, sort of pins him more towards horror guys. I think Brakhage was a horror guy. And boy does he set us up.). Tarkovsky showed Margarita Terekhova, who also played the mother, running…er…bouncing through a slight drizzle and then having a bath, and then later on as an angel, suspended in mid-air. His images and their emotion were straightforward and complex, and they never gave the feel that they were setting us up. Mr. Malick catches her running, the wind blowing her gown and her hair, climbing trees and hanging from them and these are powerful enough moments/images to convey a growing kid’s Freudian wonder for his mother, more so when they are hardly any girls around the neighborhood. But then subtlety has never been Mr. Malick concern, just as brevity has never been mine, and after an episode with a neighbor’s negligee (think Malena without all the pop-stuff), he sees his mother inside her room, I guess a little underdressed, and he sees her just for a moment. It is a painfully honest moment, a sort of self-incrimination, but then it sort of made me interpret all the preceding images as a tease, and it doesn’t help that this incrimination comes towards the later stages of the film. One might even be tempted to ask if the reverie was addressing the filmmaking, or if the filmmaking is addressing the reverie.

        The camera moves briskly and the edits are blunt when we seek the nature of the Father. He leaves for work with big long strides, pushing the door open and it doesn’t close as much as it shuts behind him, and the camera thunders past him. He is a force of nature, or at least intends to impress that upon his kids. We see a whole lot of him walking, in the home, at the factory, wading against the wind which lets his tie fly in every which direction. Mr. Malick cannot control his urge to elevate his characters into symbols/archetypes/representations, and for his life cannot trust his characters, or for that matter us, to understand the nature behind them. But then dad and mom were archetypes through my childhood, a sort of ideals who always did what was right and who defined right. Jack always looks at his dad, helping the man having the epileptic seizure, jumping first to help a drowning child (the child drowns though, I believe) and the point is Jack always seems to find his dad at the center of the action. I would never forget my dad push through a queue to get two tickets for Mein Khiladi Tu Anari and that was for some odd reason an image-breaker for me. Mr. Malick’s impulse is what re-creates that indelible impression – an amalgamation of both the specific and the archetypical – our parents leave on us through our childhood. It would sure be shattered one day, revealing two very real people, warts and all, and we see a mask sinking in the water at the end. I wish Mr. Malick hadn’t resorted to that symbolism, but then that is who he is.
        And so I question my initial assumption, about the shift of perspectives, and the question of point-of-view? Is Mr. Malick talking and seeing through his protagonist(s) or are his characters living and breathing within and for him, their memories serving nobody but Mr. Malick himself. It is convenient to assume, and even rightly so, that The Tree of Life’s setting is a straightforward intersubjective dream/memory-scape of Jack. Jack (Mr. Penn) is meandering through an urban landscape towering over him, with only a solitary tree in the mix, and he is found, or rather lost amidst a dry rocky terrain and his own memory. We are served with what ought to be the most elaborate establishing shot ever, not merely with respect to space but right at the beginning of time. The big bang, which my science lessons concluded was an explosion, is merely a dancing cloud of fire here, which has no sound, and yet there’s music. The explosion was beautiful enough for me to realize it only later that it was The Bang. And then we meet the dinosaurs, a most archetypical moment. An elasmosaurus with a fatal wound around its abdomen is lying at the beach, looking at the sun, probably contemplating its life, you know like King Kong. Elsewhere a troodon gently places its foot on a wounded parasaurolophus, and we are served with the former’s point-of-view. Keith Uhlich argues on this incident, and I cannot help but think of Cloverfield, which unlike most other cinematic creatures is completely opaque. And right towards the end, after Jack crosses an imaginary door frame in the middle of the terrain, and he sees his younger version, and we see him on the beach. Maybe he is wounded just like that elasmosaurus, and maybe the final few moments where everybody living and dead are walking on that beach is an internalization of that creature’s state of mind. Neither Mr. Malick nor his filmmaking can enter the world of the animals, but they can seek some success in that enterprise through the lens of the human consciousness. He might or might not be attributing human emotions to those dinosaurs but he sure as hell is generalizing every living and breathing human being. We see, just for a fraction of a second, an old wrinkled hand, and my plausible bent has led me to believe that it is Jack at a much later stage of his life, a stage where both Jack (Mr. Penn) and Jack (Mr. McCracken) are past enough to be considered in the same timeframe i.e. now (the only time Mr. Malick’s world feels), and a stage where, life stops giving and is well past into taking.
        Does the film deserve the cosmic stuff, where the residues of the explosion expand and move in every which direction, and well past the frame, and through which Mr. Malick probably wants to explain why his film has the “feel” of randomness? My good friend Srikanth Srinivasan says there is more to feel in one single crane shot of High Noon than the entire cosmic overload, and I cannot disagree. But then, is there anyway we can extend our phenomenological understanding of our world to the entire universe? Can we imagine about dinosaurs through Jack and his family. Solaris slapped us with a firm no. But isn’t that our basic nature? You should experience and feel The Tree of Life and have your memories fingered and your own questions kindled. Anything, but don’t look towards Mr. Malick for answers, for he has his own questions and his own confessions. Meanwhile I wait for my second viewing of the film, and the six-hour cut, and find the answer to my two biggest questions – (a) how in the lord’s name did Malick achieve that precise effect through what is extensively a montage, and (b) what kind of memory-enhancer the editing team is on?

Sunday, August 07, 2011


Cast: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Frieda Pinto, Brian Cox, Tom Felton
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Runtime: 105 min.
Verdict: A thunderous awesome blockbuster. Easily the best ape film ever.
Genre: Sci-fi, Action, Horror

        Caesar looks at the outside world from the circular window of his little house his human father Will (Mr. Franco) has built for him. Caesar is a chimpanzee, and a smart one at that. Genetically so, albeit accidentally. And he loves looking out through that window, so much so that when he is jailed later in the film he draws a little circle on his prison wall. Everybody needs that sunlight, right, be it Charlie Bronson or Caesar. That window is a fundamental right of the consciousness. Mr. Wyatt’s objective is to highlight its presence in Caesar, the super-chimp that is exhibiting a basic human need. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which on general principles I shall refer to as Rise of the Apes, is basically celebrating humanity. Which is pretty fine by me. The right to say no. Free will. Stuff like that. The anthropomorphism we so readily attach to most other species, and to speak of anthropomorphism in reference to Rise of the Apes would be an act of stating the obvious even Ravi Shastri would think twice before committing.
        And then, Rear Window comes to mind. Caesar is standing on top of a tree in the Muir Woods, and looks down below at his father and his girlfriend sharing your standard definition of sweet love. But then, is that look merely a glance? He looks below, and the film edits to them, and Caesar keeps his eyes on them only for the most fleeting of moments. But he does. It seems as if such behavior, you know not the act of looking but the temptation of it, is quietly seeping into Mr. Wyatt world and without his knowledge. Or maybe not, because this is where James Stewart confronted Kim Novak and the ocean is where they kissed. Ms. Pinto is far from being a Caucasian blonde, and in keeping with our times, is a beauty from “another culture”. King Kong, falling for Ms. Naomi Watts, was positively retro. Caesar seems to be neither. We used to look at dogs making out in front of our school compound. Caesar seems to be too classy to indulge in such cheap stuff. It is evolution you see, evolution of the apes, and the bourgeoisie is the first to make its presence felt. And he looks away, at the Golden Gate Bridge. You realize at that moment that Rise of the Apes is not dealing with consciousness as David Cronenberg would, or as Alfred Hitchcock would theorize (I haven’t seen Splice, but then considering the subject matter I’m not so sure it would contribute much to the discussion).

        Which sort of disappointed me a little. It was a single image, of an ape staring harmlessly, in the middle of the night, at a couple sleeping peacefully, warmly together, that struck me so strongly and provided me the sole source of inspiration to wait eagerly for a Planet of the Apes film. A series that indulges in your standard-issue text-subtext reversal-of-fortune kind of rhetoric, and one that I don’t necessarily consider up my alley, just as I don’t the X-Men universe. But here, an ape we don’t know looking at a couple, who could be anybody, the movie not merely rises above its franchise, but provides for an incredibly provoking image. Everyone, from Travis Bickle, to L.B. Jeffries, to John Doe, thundered into my mind. To show love, to have revenge, to show anger is probably a very shallow level of consciousness. The true rise in intelligence, I guess, is when the id, the raw instinct, the core of the consciousness tries to pursue our temptations. You know, those temptations that draw Jeffries to be drawn into that world outside his window, or for John Doe to seek the charms of a married life. The temptations that exist below the charms of the bourgeoisie. I imagined a film where the id was being evolved and unleashed. The image though, within the film, is of Caesar and the central couple, and it serves only to convey the plot point that Caesar is within the premises to do his stuff. But then, the idea seeps in somehow, only to be looked away from by way of an edit. It is back to the rhetoric of intelligence and problem solving and, well, what I sought was not humanity, but something about the temptations of being human.
        I had left this review midway to catch a show of The Tree of Life with Srikanth Srinivasan, and by God my little experience there stands as an argument to Terence Malick’s view of the universe that everything in the universe is anything but pre-ordained. I see Rise of the Apes, and the very next day I watch Malick’s beauty (a film about a kid making sense of the world), and I immediately know that this is what I wanted the story of Caesar’s and his brethren to be. I could live with that though. The movie prefers to follow the identity crisis Caesar has, and there is a wonderful Frankenstein sort of moment, when he jumps to save his grandfather, played by Mr. John Lithgow, who has had previous experience in having intelligent ape-like creatures stay at home in Harry and the Hendersons. Caesar discovers the violence in him, but also discovers that the very neighborhood he loved from the window seems to be frightened by his very appearance. You could, if you choose to, consider the allusions to Israel’s birth, and their arguments, and coming from Hollywood, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised.
        The movie reminded me of Un Prophet, and felt more compelling. It doesn’t matter if it is not much of an examination, because that doesn’t stop it from being an awesome blockbuster. And an intelligent and funny one, with numerous visual references to evolution, right from images, to movement, to the whole structure. Consider this classic pictorial representation of Darwin’s evolution, variations of which we all have come across at various points in our lives.

        The apes here are always, or almost always, moving from left to right of the frame, and even their eventual destination is traversed from left to right. They use spears once. The most obvious one, and a hilarious one at that, has them literally running through walls and shattering glasses, running home the fact these apes are not walking through Darwin’s path, as the folks above are, but sprinting. It is a terrific sight, full of adrenaline, so much so that the King Kong of the group is mightily in the revolutionary zone. The last 30 minutes or so, where the apes, much like their evolved brethren in Egypt and Libya want to retrieve their home, is pure motion and momentum. Visually and emotionally. There is a reason why revolutionaries seldom walk, and most often end up running. Rise of the Apes contains so many references, or nods – from the ending where the virus spreads much like the revolutionary bug spread all across middle-east and here in India to the Godfather-style hand kissing – it often feels like an evolution where both cinema and real-life are equally worthwhile contributors, you know much like most revolutions where art and life combine.
        I spoke of Un Prophet. A film that speaks of an African Muslim’s rise in a prison controlled by someone named Cesar. That was a film full of genre archetypes that via a feature length tried to convince us that it was a real story dealing with specifics. Not so much here, which for quite a while becomes a similarly Jungian gangster film, but deals with it far more efficiently and swiftly for my taste, providing for far greater blockbuster moments. In a remarkable scene which builds up visually, which in these days is quite a thing, cookies are distributed across the prison. You’ll see. It is the sort of awesome moment we rarely experience at the movies these days. And what has already reached an iconic status within me is a moment where Caesar throws gas cans in the prison. Some of the compositions are just incredible here. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you, because Rise of the Apes works to surprise. And so I would leave you to discover a most awesome one, right before the end, on the Golden Gate Bridge, a thunderous image that seeks to establish that the establishment has been overthrown. You got to see it.
        And yet there is one, and my reaction to it made me curious. Caesar stands up against his prison guard Dodge (Mr. Felton), and you know Dodge in an arena squared up against an ape is a no-contest. Dodge is one of us, a human, and Caesar is the other with whom our sentiments lay. But I wasn’t rooting for him maul Dodge, and instead I was flinching in my seat. A word is spoken, and sound in cinema scores a point. Ah a hundred points. Rise of the Apes often becomes a silent film, and that is when it is most awesome. Subtitles appear sometimes, when two apes speak, and one feels its purpose is not to provide a way of dialog but to provide for a shift in perspective. Until then, we’re with the humans, and from then all of them seem to be on the other side of the field. And there’s Mr. Franco, playing the father to Caesar, and he hardly even qualifies for an elder brother. They do meet at the end, and you would see that the son has clearly outgrown the father. And yet Caesar looks towards him, seeking permission. And Mr. Franco nods. I didn’t like that one bit. All hail Caesar.