Friday, September 30, 2011


Cast: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France
Director: The Dardennes
Runtime: 87 min.
Country: Belgium
Language: French
Verdict: Wish it were real.
Genre: Drama

        Samantha (Ms. France) is driving Cyril (Mr. Doret) to meet his father, who seems to have, by the looks of it, abandoned him in a children’s home. He is a silent fellow, this Cyril, a 11-year old with a gangly sort of presence and it sort of reminds us of the younger Jack in The Tree of Life. He is tough too, not wanting to betray any sense of emotional weakness, and when Samantha cautions him that his meeting with his father might not pan out the way he dreams it would, he quite stoically replies he isn’t dreaming. The Dardennes capture this exchange through a shot-reverse-shot routine, and with Cyril sitting deep towards right the gap between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat couldn’t have been wider, seemingly tough to bridge. Or let us say, tough to get through this little kid. Samantha looks at the kid. She asks him if he needs some water, and he replies, with the same stoic formality – “Yes, please”. She picks up the bottle and extends it to him, the camera following this action, and Cyril grabs it with an obligatory “thank you”, and Samantha tries to break in through this connection by playfully pulling the bottle, and the kid responds shedding his guard and doing some pulling himself. It is all without a single edit, from Samantha to Cyril back to Samantha, and the gap has been bridged. And In times like these where Belgium is fourth in line, a fascinating observation has been made. An observation of what, one might ask? I don’t know, what do we call stuff like a soft-drink can, or a bottle of mineral water, or a bottle of peach juice, or a packet of paprika, or a gamestation’s handle, or a football, or a movie, or barbecue in the backyard. In our consumer culture we usually seek their service to serve our guests, or make new friends, right? Sort of disposable, but valuable disposables, wherein the value is directly proportional to the relationship we’re serving, or making. Like chewing gum. Or biscuits. It is quite remarkable the way The Dardennes build their film around these objects, these commodities, or let us call them valuable disposables shall we until you supply me with a more appropriate term. Everyone here has one of these valuable disposables to offer, to make an emotional connection, to show an act of kindness, or an act of affection, or an act of manipulation. Little Cyril is innocent enough and pure enough to respond to them, to believe in these gestures, and in his turn even consider a few thousand Euros just the same. The humanity in the Dardennes’ new film believes in these gestures, these gestures of a fairly pragmatic world where both the pleasant and the unpleasant co-exist.
        Starving for the warmth of a hug, or at least some contact, what other option does Cyril have? Having bunked his school to try and find his father at his old apartment, with the caretakers from the children’s home right behind him, C runs into a clinic and latches onto a young woman. It’s Samantha, but we don’t know her then yet, and she only asks him to not grab so tight. So unsurprised and yielding is she, that stranger, readily providing her body as some kind of tree trunk for little Cyril to hold on to and so pure is that moment in its humanity I wish she weren’t Samantha and we never ever got to know her, and that Le Gamin au vélo was not so much of a fairy tale, where people weren’t Leigh Anne Tuohy and were capable of love without wanting to gain some sort of satisfaction from it. A moment where Samantha is crying is telling, in ways more than one, and one might even question who has come into whose life. . But then, I wouldn’t forget Cyril finally giving in and hug Samantha.
        There’s a certain degree of ambiguity Ms. France’s (High Tension, Mesrine, Hereafter)presence lends to the proceedings, and most of it has to do with how stunningly beautiful she is, and how difficult would it be for somebody like Cyril to hold himself from going all Malena on her, especially after watching her naked body sleeping. The Dardennes, in their turn, take great care to not frame Ms. France below her hemline, and not let our attention wander. Or maybe it does, and I did wonder once or twice how long that skirt was. Oh, but Cyril isn’t no Renato, and he is way wiser. He does understand a whole lot more than he would like us to believe, even accumulating guilt, and he sure as hell does understand there are doors he better not try to open. Sure, some he can, but others he better not. He is composed, remarkably composed, almost at peace in the film’s final moment. Learnt his lesson has this sweet boy, learnt his lesson that life is not all sweet.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Cast: Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce, Morgan Turner, Brian F. O'Byrne, James LeGros
Director: Todd Haynes
Runtime: 5-part mini-series
Verdict: It’s ridiculously annoying and hateful, and that is its virtue.
Genre: Drama

        One of the great indulgences of watching movies is to chance upon stray connections, often caused due to the presence of certain actors playing characters who seem to be psychologically or emotionally or thematically connected. One might derive a certain satisfaction from this exercise for having discovered what the cinematic universe validates as an evidence to understand the emotions in question. Ms. Winslet plays Mildred Pierce, and she played the Young Iris Murdoch in Iris. The older Iris, suffering from the early effects of Alzheimer’s was played by Ms. Judi Dench, and she of course played Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, an old spinster hell bent upon making a woman completely dependent on her. Ms. Winslet’s Mildred seems to be Barbara when she might have been young and desirable. This cheeky sort of argument should of course not be extended to the presence of Ms. Evan Rachel Wood, who happened to play the young daughter of Ms. Cate Blanchett in The Missing, who in turn played Sheba, the victim of Barbara’s monstrous manipulations. Who says one cannot torture evidence, especially when the dots are in your mind.
        Mildred Pierce, the mini-series currently airing on HBO from uber-academic filmmaker Todd Haynes (I’m not Here, Far from Heaven), doesn’t need you connect any dots though, and probably doesn’t even need you to read James M. Cain’s novel, or watch the Michael Curtiz adaptation. If ever there was a film where the term illustration could be used not as a criticism but as a virtue then this is it. Mr. Haynes’ mini-series doesn’t show as much as it tells, asking of you to read, and often even re-read every single dramatic aspect of a relation in every sequence. The compositions are so rigorously academic and the camera often so steadfastly static, one might even suppose cinema to be prose and Mr. Haynes’ Mildred Pierce a novel all by itself, more read than watched. Often, characters would be framed within a window, and separated by the panes into little blocks, or sometimes an umbrella would divide the space between them. Two characters sitting across a coffee table would be incapable of being in the same frame, despite the best of their efforts, and sometimes they are pulled together in one corner of it, making a little world for themselves. In one memorable moment, the camera virtually closes the door. The drama here, then, is not so much as felt as understood.
        We open to Mildred, a housewife seemingly in her thirties, and since the text below reads “1931” we know that The Great Depression is just around the corner. Her husband, Bert Pierce (Mr. O'Byrne), a failed real-estate developer, is revealed to be unfaithful within a matter of shots, and he walks out on her, leaving Mildred to take care of their two young daughters, Veda (young Ms. Turner, old Ms. Wood) and Moire(Ms. Quinn McColgan). Increasingly feeling the pinch of strained finances, Mildred is forced to run door-to-door in search of a job, not only to survive but to keep her daughters happy.
        The premise, if one hasn’t read the novel or watched the 1945 film, would seem a straightforward story of middle-class survival in a decidedly patriarchal world, especially in Part I, which basically serves as the set-up. Quite frequently, Mr. Haynes employs slow rhythmic tracking shots, slow pans, slow to the point of being deliberate, so slow they pull us right out of the heat of many a moment, and leaves us as observers. Not to feel as much as to see, and know, and probably learn. We observe them through windows, from behind cars, between pillars, across furniture, and by virtue of these “layered” compositions we gradually accumulate the sensations of a materialistic world, where elaborate deceptions worthy of a hard-boiled fiction are part of the bourgeoisie’s struggle not merely to survive but to prosper, and realize the great American dream.
        "Mildred Pierce is set during the Depression," observes Haynes in an interview, "but not the Depression of dustbowls and breadlines. The crises it explores are those of middle-class privilege--issues of pride and status, the struggle first to regain one's standing and then to persevere through hard work and ingenuity. This feels very much like the particular struggles of our current economic crisis, coming out of a period of unbridled consumption." In our times where many bank managers and vice presidents have been forced to accept janitorial jobs or driving cabs in the face of ever-eroding savings, the crises at the heart of Mr. Haynes’ mini-series feels especially real. Not that the significance of this naturalism is lost on him, and to a viewer familiar with Mr. Haynes’ filmography the significant departure in tone from the other ‘50s melodrama centered around woman Far From Heaven would be pretty apparent.
        “Mildred Pierce is different from traditional domestic dramas that usually explore women who are somewhat disempowered and who are more in a domestic space and don't usually trespass beyond that”, continues Haynes in the interview. Sure enough as we progress through the parts, darker truths are revealed from behind these materialistic layers, almost making a mockery of the menfolk and their banal flaws – greed, lust – through which they are manipulated to any lengths. It is a society that seems to be unknowingly undergoing an evolution, where the power seems to be changing hands ever so discreetly, and where the incumbent is only left with an empty belief that he is still in control. Mildred Pierce, at least until Part II, is about the womenfolk taking control, and just so that we do not miss this tipping point Mr. Haynes lends us a metaphorical image of her grabbing the wheels of her car. From then on things descend into a power struggle within them, within these “flawed” individuals, and the men are left to serve as mere pawns in those schemes.
        Mr. Haynes plays this struggle from Mildred’s corner. That Mildred is unlikeable is merely a description of her "flawed" character, that Veda is pure evil a decidedly pejorative stance by the mini-series. There is little to no ambiguity here, no empathy intended, and Mr. Haynes trades the virtues of these humanist angles to gain on the narrative front, cleverly manipulating us to “understand” Mildred and use Veda’s pure villainy serve as a mirror to Mildred’s more manipulative traits, thereby asking us to rethink our readiness to rationalize the actions of our protagonist just because we are privy to her side of the story. "In a weird way, she's almost -- it's almost like she's an outsider to herself”, Mr. Haynes observes in an interview. Not one character apart from Mildred has a moment of their own, relegating them to people in Mildred’s story as she muscles through with little to no degree of self- awareness. Some she uses to advance in life, and Veda whom she desperately wants to be useful to. Her desire to find love and approval in Veda’s eyes is more of a need, a purpose in life. Otherwise, there’s little motivation for her to wake up in the morning and make the bed and clean the dishes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why the chase sequence works, Jim?

        Jim Emerson has, in a wonderful and now famous dissection job here, analyzed why the big chase sequence in The Dark Knight doesn’t exactly work. But more than that, he does what a film critic ought to do, he inspires us to see and ask ourselves questions. Joseph Kahn has provided a fantastic and mostly technical rebuttal here, rightfully called Analyzing Action, and it has only made us smarter. Another essential read: Matt Schneider’s thought provoking essay on the same, titled in true IMDB-generation’s style – Malick versus Nolan.

        And being someoneone who loved the chase sequence, I would want to borrow some arguments from Matt Schneider, some from Joseph Kahn, and some from The Tree of Life, and document what my reactions were. I distinctly remember the first time I watched the chase sequences. Images have been burnt into my memory, and maybe some have been added. I would want to seek the liberty of drawing extensively from that experience, and my memory of it. At the same time I would want you to summon your memories too.

        The Dark Knight has been assembled like a juggernaut. Innumerable sources have stated that in different ways – some saying they get two movies at the price of one, to some saying it is extremely rushed and not pausing enough. I would say to both, fair enough. The thing is we need to bring that into context, and understand why the sequence works. As much as Jim's opinion that the sequence is mostly lazy and messy is to be respected, the very fact that it is mostly loved is something to be looked into. As in, despite all the apparent grammatical mistakes, we still have a chase sequence that is probably the most celebrated this side of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the champion in this category for me, followed closely by The Road Warrior).

        The sequence occurs at a time in the movie (middle) where the audience has already gone through the dramatic rigors of a standard feature length blockbuster. I wouldn’t waste our time on those details.

Cut to, the Chase:
First question: Where, and when does the audience get the memo that a chase sequence is right around the corner? Not when the Harvey tosses the coin, and that mushy music plays in the background. That is just the final dramatic moment, the dramatic contrast before the actual scene is about to come. We’ve seen that sort of contrast many times.
        So yes, as much as I can say, the viewer does not take that as the reference/orientation point. We’ve been trained to do that. An action sequence comes with its own establishing shot, and any changes made from a previous set-up are automatically digested.

        The action scene is established, and the viewer receives the memo with the shot of the convoy. A lower angle, and Nolan and DP Wally Pfister use a hell of a lot of low angles here, and the city leaves a distinct impression. Blue sky, blue van, blue buildings, it all is so striking, and yet there is no exhibitionistic streak on display. The cue, is the convoy on the move, which as thriller-genre convention has taught us is that whenever we’re a witness to a process that process is fraught with danger. And if the music goes silent, and the process (chopper sounds) takes center stage, we know for sure.

Cut to: The cop and a reverse angle of Harvey Dent. As I have said earlier, it is not a two shot as Jim suggests but two static shots, “confronting” each other. Had it been a two-shot, it would’ve provided for a sort of harmony between Harvey and the Cop, since they’re in the same image, and towards the same side. Two static shots with two human figures looking at each other strike a classis confrontational position, and this is how I felt even when I watched the movie for the first time. This is quite important, in fact very important, considering that Harvey distrust of cops is one of the film’s major points. Now, I wouldn’t claim that Nolan’s editing installs that idea within us at that moment with that shot-reverse shot routine; rather, what it does is plant a little feeling (idea?) in the subconscious that these guys are at the opposite ends of the imaginary table and not on the same side. That is what Harvey’s look suggests too, and here the film is working with classic montage, crisp carefully planned images and editing doing the thing for us. And yeah, it also sets up the space within.

Cut to: The serene image of the convoy through the city, taking a turn. The Joker’s theme starts playing in the background, and everything is silent. We know that music is a sign of danger, or The Joker, because it has already been set up in the movie. I think this, and the next cut are one of the most brilliant images in the film, and rein in one of Mark Twain’s tenets – Say the exact word. This image has the exact angle, and it could be read as The Joker’s POV (in the final sequence, The Joker is watching the two boats from the top floor of a tower, and in Speed Dennis Hopper’s character is basically “looking from above” through his monitors.). The Joker is established here, even before he arrives. The background score is a monotone, like a note stretched. On a monitor, it would play a single line. And we cut to one of The Dark Knight’s finest pieces of filmmaking, and as I have said before I shall say again, the edit here has a terrific rhythmic quality here, Jim. This is, for me, one of those cases of pure cinema, the kind the aughties’ viewer responds to. Like departure from the predictable. This sudden spike is just pure joy, and that is my defense. As a matter of fact, Christopher Nolan uses this kind of sudden-tonal-shift quite a lot in the film. One might remember the volatility of The Joker torturing the Batman-impostor on television and its feverish tonal high is suddenly contrasted with a serene camera gliding towards the Wayne tower.
        What these few little moments also do is perform the function of a little breather, a respite, from the relentless information overload from the film, and as it turns out this serene convoy shot is the last moment before The Joker and the narrative engine take over.

Cut to: The next overhead shot sort of prepares us, and establishes the tension ahead. From here on, there are no overhead shots. It is a superbly designed reveal to, carefully taking us from serenity to explosion. It maps that journey. This simple overhead tracking shot with the fire at end of it reins a contrast, and as thriller mechanics go, it heightens our state of mind. Had the camera stayed with the convoy from the time of its establishment and tracking it to here, it wouldn’t have provided for any contrast, and we might have entered this action scene in a battered state of mind (caused by the relentless narrative engine), already looking around. The “action”, so to speak, would’ve started earlier. But with these two overhead shot, Christopher Nolan dissipates any resident exhaustion, and clears the air for any immediate action, thus providing for suspense rather than tension. With the truck-on-fire reveal, he reins in tension, and we directly cut back to ground level. The action scene has well and truly started. The information flow is on. We sit back in our seats, or for others, sit forward.

Cut to: This is the part Jim “edited” and analyzed out of the entire action sequence, but then THIS excerpt is itself not the action scene, and it is clearly not the one the audience or we viewers love so much, or thought was awesome. Its actual function is that of a primer of the set up for the little “battle” to come about. There’s no Hans Zimmer background score, and as much as I believe we viewers, at least for the first time, take a whole lot of mood from the tone and pitch of the score. That has been the traditional device, right from Raiders of the Lost Ark, to The Road Warrior, from the late 70s (blockbusters) to now. I mean, the background score has a most interesting distancing functionality, and the way the films do it is keep us at a safe distance where we are shown as well as given cues on how to feel. Without the score, we’re smack bang in the middle of the scene, with no aid, and we’ve mostly no idea “which direction” this all would go. The score gives us our bearings, without it we don’t very much to hold on to other than pure visuals. Nolan removes that cue, and we’re more or less in no man’s land, trying more to figure out what the hell’s happening. That is why Jim, most viewers are describing it as chaos. It sure as hell is, and just the same way we’re constantly latching on to pure visuals in The Tree of Life, accumulating moments and sensations without actively dissecting the composition, here we’re merely capturing movements. It is chaos, because it is intended to be chaotic. But not The Bourne franchise chaotic where we don’t even know what happened. Many other detractors are taking the chaos-filmmaking most literally, and that kind of chaos-making is very unimaginative. Because, even when we’re in the middle of such an event, like say a football match in a stadium (as opposed to in a television with commentary where the commentary is the cue), we know what’s happened but we don’t immediately register or index the chronology. We merely register the events, and our brain takes care of it later on, creating a completely new memory.
        Which begs the question – would Jim undertake a frame by frame analysis of The Tree of Life, where the whole movie is practically this, to understand it step by step. It would be something you know.
        This particular segment, which clocks around 3 min. in an action sequence of 10 min, is a stunner in that sense. It might not be a triumph as far as principal photography is concerned, but the way it has been edited does betray a certain strategy. What we register, and it all happens so quickly that we don’t even get to assimilate all the details is that we see -> truck crash car, crash another car, semi hits van, van into the river, The Joker makes an appearance (this is one impressionable image), The Joker shoots the car, shoots the van, Batmobile comes in between, explosion, tires screeching, bang, bang. We react to movements and register impact/shock. To people who claim that The Tree of Life would be the way movies will be made, here’s news for you – they’re already being made that way. It is the drama our decade of Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass deserves.

Jim, your question - How do these choices make it so good?
        If we remember the action sequences of Bullitt (where suspenseful music again becomes silent to take us in the middle of the chase) and The French Connection, where cameras mounted on cars, and cars colliding into cameras were done with the precise intention to remove all theatricality and rein in realism. The motivations here are basic Jim, to make this centerpiece feel real. But then, those chases had two cars, and here we have 3 cars, two vans, one garbage truck, one semi, and one tank. Again, how can so many vehicles feel realistically crystal clear and precise? I can see these motivations hanging in front of the filmmakers, and their adherence to basic clarity where audiences know what happened.
        In fact, to Jim's point regarding 2/3 cars, I distinctly remember being confused, not consciously, but merely getting the sense that, something is not right. What I was asking wasn’t why the car is behind, or why there is an extra one, but I rather asking why there seem to be more vehicles (simply, more vehicles) than the one that started the chase, and I remember getting the feel that there might more stray cars here over and above our convoy.
        And regarding the van in the river. It does obey the 180-degree rule, as Joseph Kahn suggested, when it takes the impact and moves to the right, and then the driver is pushed to the right, and then the van dives into the river right-ways. It is the question of plausibility here, and yes, I would agree that another cut of the motion would’ve made it clearer. But in there, in the moment, it doesn’t feel wrong. I distinctly remember this image from my first viewing, and on the big IMAX screen, there is a depth to it that is lost on a computer monitor. My memory is of a camera angle 30 degree from the bridge towards the incoming chase (facing south, north being the direction the convoy’s headed). That is because the screen is wide enough to envelope you, and because the length of the bridge goes beyond, a quick cut as this feels (and it can only feel) that the bridge is towards us, and the angle is more acute than even 30 degrees, and the truck is falling perpendicular to our vision.
It makes it good because it feels quick and frank without any theatricality. It feels dangerous because The Joker’s end of the bargain seems to terribly effective. I mean, Tuco said – “when you shoot, then shoot, don’t talk”. We don’t talk here. Just plain bang bang. Not that The Joker gang is successful and efficient, but that, in those three minutes, where cars and vans are eliminated within a couple of moments of each other, we get the feeling that we’re in a spot of bother. The film has already killed Gordon, and we’re in a heightened state at this moment. And precisely because things accumulate so quickly, we feel this could be it. Until the Batmobile shows up.
        So this primer Jim, and it reaches an end where the Batmobile explodes. We also get a visual aid here, when The Joker stops the truck and wants to drive. There is a “change”. The chase sequence will start above. All the vehicles exit the bridge.

        And that is when we get a bearing, where The Batman sort of comes and saves us, and provides clarity to the proceedings. The score is precisely started with the arrival (or birth) of the Batpod, and it suddenly gives us relief, and is also an awesome moment. As Stephanie Zacharek said, a movie being awesome doesn’t necessarily mean it is great. But then, action sequences have always relied on such a moment, a wow moment, where audiences would be stunned, united and forced to applaud. I think everybody cheers when the Batpod is born. From here on, the sequence acquires the theatricality, the exhibitionism we tend to associate with blockbusters, thanks to The Batman. We know he is control, as he rams through glasses and walls and traffic. He is the hero, and through clever usage of contrast, Christopher Nolan and team have created the illusion that a great chase sequence has been experienced.

        I hope that explains our viewpoint, and why we find it engaging. I thank Jim, because now I have gained a greater appreciation for this particular sequence. But more importantly I thank him for asking us such questions, and making us better viewers. I guess a great film critic is one who inspires us to answer interesting questions, and after this exercise I say he's one. Thanks Jim.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Cast: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim
Director: Na Hong-jin
Runtime: 140 min.
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Verdict: Savage, brutal, pessimistic and aggressively cynical. And yet, deeply humanistic.
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Action, Drama

        A car drives in, while another stands astray. It is morning, from the looks of it, mostly because the preceding sequence was during the night, and partly because there’s no sunlight. A morning without sunlight often feels a little glum, don’t you think? Two men, not exactly impressing us with the tidiness of their looks, climb up a rather narrow staircase. The color palette of the actual frame is might be different, but owing to their black leather jackets and a generally dull morning, the memory of the scene is mostly washed in grey. A sort of washed out black and white. The apartment they walk into doesn’t have any windows open. The doors seem to have caught a lot of moisture. There are stains everywhere. The general state of the apartment could be best described by the word mess. Cigarette butts and bottles and heaps adorn the place. One of the guys walks into the toilet. The toilet is like one of those where you hold your breath and try to pee as fast as possible so that nothing out there latches onto you. He pees and doesn’t flush. And walks out to the room where our man is sleeping. They slap him and wake him up. And ask him to leave pronto and get started on the day’s earnings. He wakes up to…and instead they hand him his jacket without letting him, you know, fresh up a little and do the general unloading. Cut. He is driving his taxi. It is not so much a stubble on his mostly soft face as it is a few bits unevenly distributed. I wouldn’t want to be him. It is quite uncomfortable to be doing your daily stuff without doing your morning stuff, and although I was watching Hwang Hae after I had had my daily dose of workout and bath and breakfast, I could feel the stench in the air. This is what I would call a real dirty filthy unclean film, the kind after which I would want to take a bath or watch a Johnnie To, and it is remarkable how Mr. Na Hong-jin (The Chaser) conditions us for this depraved world, a place where you wouldn’t be surprised if people start eating other. And not one such word is spoken.
        The beards are interesting here, and it is fairly amusing to see how Mr. Hong-jin lends his “uncivilized” characters (the Joseonjoks) a beard, while the “sophisticated” a.k.a bourgeoisie South Koreans are clean shaven. They have their hair nicely combed too, each sporting a distinct style, as opposed to their “savage” axe-wielding counterparts who have everything prickly and haywire upstairs. One might even find grounds to suspect a certain primitivist leaning to the proceedings. Here, I wouldn’t bother you much with the plot, where a Joseonjok, Gu-nam (Mr. Jung-woo Ha), in order to get rid of his debt and to find his wife who he thinks is having an affair in South Korea, accepts a job to enter the country and kill a man. That is the basic premise, and if we were to think of Mr. Soderbergh’s Contagion, this here could be read as the virus. Or say, the rat with the plague.
        It is something of a juggling act Mr. Hong-jin seems to be pulling off here at first, with his narration, something like what Mr. Soderbergh has done so effectively in the past, moving across calmly and most assuredly, from the murderer to the men who sent him to the victim to the cops to the South Korean mafia, always wanting to stick to the details, to the process rather to the result. Here would be a good moment to link you to Matt Schneider’s insightful essay on A Bittersweet Life, and Mr. Kim Ji-woon’s concern with the physical act of movement. Mr. Hong-jin shares a similar concern here, and its nature is more personal than interpersonal, reflected in the physical act of landing a blow, or in the physical act of being locked inside a ship, or in the physical act of climbing the steps, or in the physical act of running away from the scene of crime, or in the physical act of driving a cab, or in the physical act of jumping into the water and then swimming to the pier and pulling one’s body over and running to a truck. There’s incredible physicality to the film, and that makes Hwang Hae an extremely visceral experience. The shaky camera aesthetic here, especially in the action sequences, is vital, not merely to the experience but to the overall narrative, which could be read as a deadly plague savaging the city. Which brings us back to the macro, and what Mr. Hong-jin actually does with his narration is pile things (events) on top of each other, accumulating mess until it all gives away in a primal instinct for survival. Everybody is running after each other. Mr. Hong-jin has made a zombie movie, or a deadly-virus movie, with neither the zombies nor the virus.
        The interesting thing here is, Mr. Hong-jin attaches a greater significance to this concern by linking this physicality with “intention” and often overlapping it with necessity, or need, thus establishing a complex moral predicament. Gu-nam’s needs the money, needs to find his wife for himself, and yet he reads his target’s movements for days, and repeats it for himself, moving in and out of the house. It is not an emotional reaction but a methodical process he indulges in. This is not a man engaging in self-defense or running around killing to find his daughter but a man who is planning a sort of perfect murder, and by charting this gray area between the need (emotion) and the intention (action), Mr. Hong-jin morally implicates him, albeit sympathizing with him.
        He further tinkers with our sympathies by doing the reverse – causing the need to be borne out from an act of intention – exemplified by Myung-Ga (Mr. Yun-seok), thus making everybody human and revealing the survivor within them. Myung-Ga gets into this with the intention of wanting to make some fine profit, and once he gets into this mess, the survivor he is, he goes full throttle. In a land of dogs, Myung-Ga is the top dog, and when found without a weapon he picks up a dog’s bone and bludgeons everybody in sight. In a chase sequence that is not exactly pretty to look at (and nothing should be in such a film), but incredibly effective in the way it reins in its themes, Myung-Ga and Gu-nam engage in incredible and intentional physical contact, by way of their cars, the latter the predator and thus with his intentions and the former victim and this with the need, and it is beautiful to watch the way Mr. Hong-jin maps out the mess here. Rarely has the face played a more vital role in a car chase. If ever there was a film that needed cars bashing each other out then this is it.
        It is tough in a film as this to cling to innocence, for we audience always start off innocent, and the only place we find some sense of right is the law, which in turn is human but helpless. It is remarkable how a simple thing like a cut to the random police guy chasing the protagonist reminds us of the fallibility running in the uniform. A cop mistakenly shoots one of his own, and through his reaction Mr. Hong-jin suggests tremendous humanity. And yet, the law seems to be more or less helpless here. Mr. Hong-jin takes this depravity even further by suggesting that his women are bitches (thank the lord the kids are spared!). But then, they are merely suggestions, and although these women seem to exist around the periphery of the film, they are revealed to be integral, all of them, one by one. This mess, this sort of deadly plague, seems to have been caused by helpless savages, and when the dust settles on the rubble, a deadly sucker punch awaits us, virtually turning the tables on our predisposition towards the source of the virus (which is always third-world), and revealing a greater sadder belief. Hwang Hae is an incredible film, brutal and epic, and I probably shall never watch it again.

Note: There’s a sequence after the credits, or before the credits, depending on the version you’re watching. It involves a train. It undercuts the tragedy and probably reduces everything to a joke, and I wish it weren’t part of the film. In fact, I’ve convinced myself it isn’t.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: Seems like it’s a product of a resolve to be aggressively anti-Emmerich. Genre: Drama, Sci-fi, Thriller

        A virus running amuck is probably the least of the concerns here, one might feel, considering that Contagion diffuses the virus just about as simply as it introduces it. There’s a certain inevitability to the proceedings, which the melodramatic could very well interpret as helplessness, and Mr. Soderbergh manages to extend this finitude to the virus too. You might even remember Gita here – what comes into this world has to go – and the whole epidemic-o-rama is witnessed by us with this very same insularity. Not once, not even when the salesgirl in the Allen Solly section coughed on our way down to the parking, did the contagion jump out of the screen and threaten to enter our lives. Believe me, I was terrified after reading The Cobra Event, and Lesch-Nyhan syndrome was the topic of most of my conversations for days. I mean, for a film that is an epidemic procedural, Contagion is not high on details but exposition, with characters explaining each other’s reason for existing in the narrative, including that of the virus in our lives. Everybody talks, talks a lot, there’re hell of a lot of conversations, and yet there’re no details. There’s no process, or no events colliding into each other, just a series a series of obligatory milestones – the establishment keeping the thing under wraps, left wing forces trying to uncover it, people panicking, dying – on the roadmap to eventual vaccinestation and our eventual exit from the theatre premises.
        I know, I am reacting to the reactions rather than to the film here, and in fact, considering its temporal aspect, I suspect even the film encourages that insularity. There’s a certain inertness, or indifference if one might interpret it thus, to Mr. Soderbergh’s film, and although my singular viewing doesn’t fill me with authority, memory aides me with images of evenings seeping in through glass panes and rooms filled with them yellow glum lightings, the sort where you almost want to summon an extra bit of lighting and knock some brightness in. Not in the casino, not in the airport, and even when the lighting is not yellow, like in Mitch’s apartment, where it’s one of those greys that again seeks a little bit of illumination. Point is, the situation is bleak in America and that every Roland Emmerich is blinding bright. And what catches our attention in Mr. Soderbergh’s film is this effort – right from Mitch’s dry interaction with the doctor who has overseen his wife’s death – to try and be an anti-Emmerich film, almost making that its main objective, and serve us a film that is pretending to be completely devoid of cheap-thrills.
        And yet, the film itself might not be all that insular, although the film’s score might want us to believe thus. Adultery on the part of a dead wife (the micro) is as much a part of the tragedy as the viral epidemic reducing the death toll to a speculative statistic (the micro) uttered by newsreaders like, well, news. A virus spreading like crazy is as much a threat to the citizens as is a blogger spreading false rumors and installing himself as a prophet within them. A teenage girl’s yearning to be with her boyfriend is as much a part of the struggle as the race to the anti-virus. One ought to consider here that a major objective in the disaster-porn genre is to try and find an organic way of intertwining the micro with the macro, thus creating what we refer to as stakes, and finding a way into getting us hooked onto the proceedings. An academic exercise here would be to find out if Mr. Soderbergh’s film is also aiming for a similar sort of commercial prospects. A cursory glance at the nature of the characters, and one might realize that apart from Mitch (who probably “represents” the “gullible” citizenry), each one of them exists to serve either of two agendas – (a) to reveal something about the process of an epidemic, or (b) to cause a political statement. A stray human appears, in the form of a woman seeking forsythia, and her death is supposed to reveal a “darker” secret. Everyone exists to further the narrative, so to speak, and considering all the anti-Emmerich posturing, I don’t think that is going down my throat any easily. I mean, a C.D.C. doctor Ally Hextall (Ms. Jennifer Ehle) sitting by her infected father, whom we’ve never met before, explaining her inspiration to try the vaccine on herself to be her unselfish father who took to nursing the infected is as much a moment of melodrama as Mr. Emmerich’s films are capable of. The camera, or the film itself, seems to have as much as access to the virus as its characters provide it with, learning it all like a documentary, gaining information through surrogates like video footage, and one might suspect there’s a certain degree of “plausibility” Contagion is attaching to its formal choices. And yet it obliges us with a last minute revelation whose convenience completely destroys the narrative integrity it promised upfront, feeling like an appendage borne out of commercial necessity. It is strange, for such a “realistic” film, to be in the right place at the right moment with an unnerving precision. Aha, I know what you’re thinking. Convenience. Same pinch.
        But as I said, the virus is the least of the concerns here. It is people like me, hacks like me, bloggers you know, or rather opinion disseminators, whose main objective is to gain readers and followers and validity, and that proves to be Contagion’s most interesting thread. In keeping with cinematic traditions, Mr. Alan Krumwiede is a video blogger, and the left-winging of his kind is an epidemic is a million times more dangerous as any virus imaginable. You wouldn’t need to look too far into the past to find evidence – right from Egypt to the “intelligentsia” right here. Mr. Soderbergh’s biological virus is almost pushed to the background by the topicality achieved by Alan and his little thread. It did for me, and that is probably the only part I felt. You, sir, are the vermin.

Friday, September 02, 2011


Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Runtime: 120 min.
Verdict: An interesting light and sound show.
Genre: Romance, Drama

        The opening shot is almost everything here. We read the title, written in a feeble font, and just for a moment we’re greeted with absolute darkness. A figure opens a door, Jane Eyre (Ms. Wasikowska) it is, and rather than let the light wash away most of the frame, it is strictly kept outside the door. Jane stands right on the edge, between the light in front of her and the darkness behind her, and she looks behind. She seems to be probably considering something, almost wanting to turn back into the darkness, and Mr. Fukunaga cuts most bluntly to Jane running away. It is a most appropriate formal choice, reflecting Jane’s predisposition for conscience over emotion.
        Jane and Edward (Mr. Fassbender) could be the principal star-crossed figures in Jane Eyre, but quite a lot of their relationship is borne out of a fascinating and sometimes amusing interplay between light and darkness caused by Mr. Fukunaga, and sometimes the viewer might be led to wonder if this photoplay were the one deciding the fate of this romance. It is light (and all the stuff it symbolizes) that Jane seeks all her life, and Mr. Fukunaga seems to make that somewhat of a motif. Candles and lamps are often discreetly placed, and figures arranged around them so as to provide for a natural affinity to light and heighten the spooky nature of the proceedings. And at other times, characters sit around the fireplace to reveal the real person behind each other’s façade, which is so conveniently worn around in the softness of daylight. Oh, truth be told, all this peripheral darkness provides for a fantastic blocking device, ratcheting up the tension, and then contrasting it with the daylight where all of it is mostly diffused.
        Yet, for a most meticulously designed film as this, where the lighting mutes the colors to provide for a more modest period, and where the figures often seem to be compromising their three-dimensionality and receding into a painting, there’s a curious aspect to these opening few frames. We see Jane running and there’s a little red bag in her hands. We notice it mostly because it pretty much stands out against the dullness of the colors.

Strangely in the subsequent images the bag is gone, and never do we see it again. Not until Mr. Fukunaga revisits the same situation. And it is not for the first time Mr. Fukunaga plays around with the temporal nature of his situations, letting the photoplay cause the story and its themes. He employs cuts from scene to scene just as he would within a scene, and that sort of merges the time within a particular event, say for instance Jane’s stay at St. John’s place. In fact, he restructures the entire thing in a way so as to let light (projector? Monitor? ) disperse the darkness, the personal demons as Edward puts it, and guide (rekindle) the romance. Back to the case of the missing bag, though. It is jarring, and its implications as far as a character sketch (another motif) is concerned are probably immense. Leaving with a bag often displays a sense of maturity, a sense of what one needs, and if one runs away with nothing, it mostly comes across as some sort of a misadventure on a kid’s part, or something far more sinister. Maybe the bag has been left someplace, and we never know. We never get our answers, and a continuity blunder seems like the most obvious explanation. My reading? Let the bag be.
        Sound is intended to play a supporting character here (a shorthand for emotion), unnecessary for the most part, and in a sequence of great artifice where Jane and Edward meet for the first time, we do not hear the horse steps as they arrive but we do as they leave. Jane Eyre would have been a terrific silent, and Mr. Fukunaga’s endeavor to spook us with sounds of whispers and laughter are no more than useless distractions. It is light that Jane seeks, her principles and always her principles, and in a moment of utter convenience intended to resolve the plot and provide for the obligatory warm ending, Mr. Fukunaga unleashes another of those ridiculous whispers and let Jane follow them back to her Edward. There are the remains of fire having played its part and resolved the dilemma that was hurting Jane’s conscience. All ends well, beautifully warm and romantic, caused by some super performances that are sure to be forgotten when we are at the year-end party. My eyes were a little moist too. And a little thought was nagging me. Nagging me, because the fire resolved it all far too conveniently. Maybe my thoughts would be better served, or too better served, in a Christopher Nolan picture. Meanwhile, Mr. Fassbender is my choice to be cinema’s new Alain Delon. He is pure class.