Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Those were the days, when in morality plays people were wearing black hats and white hats, then came Sergio Leone and put the Ugly into the center, the human nature, unstable, treacherous, weak, until black and white faded and only gray remained in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.
Biutiful, the latest Alejandro González Iñárritu movie is in the above context an anti-morality play, set to the bleakest possible world, or better underworld, of street crime, drugs, disease, illegal immigrants, sweat shops and lowering costs, but where the costs have distinctive human faces. The creatures that dwell at the bottom of the sea. A search for empathy, solidarity, kindness, love, seems futile in this world in which Inarritu searches for beauty.
And we have a perfect anti-hero Uxbal, a middle aged man, a former street kid, who did not move far away from where the circumstances have thrown him and also seemingly failing in everything he tries to do. He has problems connecting to his son, tries to keep his wife away from his children, he fails to protect his "client" street-peddler of counterfeit goods, a Chinese young turk is trying to replace him in his business of connecting cost-lowering sweatshop owners with people who have no better options in life and the police with its overt brutality (to which no-one objects) and covert insatiable greed. Ironically he earns additional money with (again seemingly earnestly) trying to help people (for a small fee of course) to pass into afterlife, but having problems accepting his own pending death from a prostate cancer. He is surrounded with a support cast of closet homosexual sweat-shop owner, bipolar wife, non-violent asshole brother and of course crews of illegal immigrants (if they still count as human, as for example in Children of men).
We have to give Uxbal credit for trying hard to do the right thing. He tries to help everyone the best way he can, he is trying to support his family, he is being loyal to his business partners and he treats them like partners, not like faceless numbers, he tries to help those for who we usually do not care about (even if for a commission), but he fails in practically everything.
The black street peddlers are being deported to their home countries, chines workers are dead because of cheap heaters Uxbal has bought to keep them warm in a cold cement basement. His children risk to become street kids (his own fate, he really does not want them to experience). His wife ends up in a hospital. But he manages to gather some money, to provide for his kids, all of which he leaves in hands of a woman, illegal immigrant, a wife of a deported street-peddler, no relation to him.
And there we find finally some hope, some grace, skewed beauty in this movie. Walking past the green shark composed of (pictures of) 500 € bills, Ige returns to take care for Uxbal's children, passing the opportunity to return to her homeland, reunite with her man, perhaps start a business with money Uxbal has left her and most probably live a better life than the one in the portrayed Barcelona barrio.
So this cough-ball of dirt of a movie, after all the wisdom, reflection seems to be dead (I cannot find any other metaphor for a dead owl) is a morality play under all its complexity after all, the only possible for today. There were times, when there was something to fight for (or to flee from, just to die alone in a foreign country shortly afterwards, as in case of Uxbal's father) and these are times of sharks composed of 500 € notes, whose bite is not apparent, but no less deadly. And here we can compare the youthful enthusiasm, hope of a better life (even elsewhere) of our fathers, with the disillusionment of today. At the end of the movie Uxbal is heading towards abyss with his young father (Smoke anyone?). So are we.

Monday, December 19, 2011

We Have a Pope

Facing upto one's limitations is the most humble trait that man has inherited when he evolved out of apes, thousands of years back. It doesn't take much to let the world know that you're not what people expect you to be, rather you're someone who is just you. Everytime great speakers, diplomats and leaders of the world move our hearts with their great speeches and powerful presence, we often wonder how these people carry the burden of such enormous responsibility on their backs, especially when he or she is actually quite old. Beyond a point, such people transcend the layers of humanity and become something else in our eyes. We revere them when we want, revile them when we want too. They become the bean-bags of their people.
It is in this context that Nanni Moretti throws open the gauntlet to his 91 year old newly elected pontiff, the new vatican pope, head of the roman-catholic church. Even as the landscape-like processions and meticulous, traditional methods slowly uncloud to reveal our protagonist, we could feel the tension that he involuntary summons out of his heart. Michel Piccoli, in probably the most enduring performance by a nonagenarian has what may safely be assumed, the most innocent-looking pair of eyes in the world. He's scared of responsibility. He's frightened of large crowds. He's someone who spreads love not from a balcony, but beside shoulders. In other words, he shows the qualms every person bestowed with responsibility does initially. When people say responsibility spurns fear, they're mostly afraid to admit it in public. But here, father Pope doesn't set his fears aside, hold onto them for dear life and fights to save himself from greatness.
One man's fears shall not be of any relevance when the perspective of the consequences is so big, it could damage the reputation of an entire faith, something that close to a billion people believe in. Hell, we're talking about an individual to whom even presidents, queens, princes and prime ministers bow to. The enormous pressures that now rest upon the shoulders of the solitary old man, makes the church call a therapist (Nanni Moretti) at this critical moment. The therapist however is able to do little with the limited privacy he's granted with his patient. However, he's now not permitted to leave the Vatican church until his patient is cured. In the middle of this paradoxical situation, the pose goes into such a state, he vanishes from the church itself and ventures into the city, without permission. Of course this information is not divulged to anyone present, resulting in some hilarious cover-ups. Now among the cardinals still locked inside the church, we start to see a whole different side to these religious heads of state. The fact that these people are also human beings, ordinary men and women, like you and me is surely obvious, but not necessarily not too apparent. The livery, the aura, the feeling of religious peace and serenity these people exude when they're in the eyes of the world is in sharp contrast to the people who they really are. From competing in sports, to consuming tranquilizers for sleep disorders, to eating disorders, we see them as a bunch of school kids, happily engrossed in their own worlds.
Nanni Moretti has mostly cast non-actors for his small crowd of cardinals. And through these inexperienced actors, he brings out exactly what is needed out of such roles: their innocence. We see these men, inexperienced in the harsh, cruel ways of life, loitering around in groups like school children, gossiping, laughing and chatting. The therapist too isn't spared of the irony. He had recently split with his wife who also happened to be a better therapist than he is, and who's apparently now living with another therapist.
It's true the movie tries to be too proud of the fact that that they're portraying some very important characters. I'm not exactly certain whether the locations that we see are really those from within the Vatican church or not. But the effect is flawless, making full use of the architecture, backed by an excellent score. Even the crowds and their reaction seem natural and eager, there could be a chance that this project began filming a couple of years back when Pope Benedict took charge. Being a relatively unknown film at the Chennai Film Festival, there weren't too many people who were keen on watching a movie about a Pope, especially when the show was in place of the Iranian film A Separation, as an alternative. It really didn't fill in the void as much as we expected it to, but was enjoyable, nevertheless.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Another Year

 On the surface this is a movie about the day to day life of an elderly, happily married couple (Tom and Gerri), their son and friends, among them Mary and Ken. All seems well in suburban London until that very last shot of the film, a most disturbing scene, the climax of the movie.
We see Mary at the kitchen table of her friends and as the conversation passes her by she realizes she doesn't matter to them any more. Worse, we see it dawning on her that she may never have mattered to them at all in their relationship of 20 years. The comparison with her car is inevitable, a vehicle that should have brought her a sense of freedom, but turned out to be a lemon if ever there was one. As another commenter wrote, it is a scene of exceptional cruelty. (Can I nominate Ms Manville for an Oscar, please?)
How could this insincerity, this not-so-mild form of wickedness persist over such a long time ? Perhaps it has something to do with the British fondness of manners, but I think it has to do with work, more specifically in Tom and Gerri's case with having a profession, being a professional.
A professional is someone who is applying a set of rules, an algorithm to a standard input to produce a standard output. (What distinguishes a professional from a craftsman is that the input, rules and output are so complex that they defy supervision.) Tom and Gerri are professionals and what they are doing is extending their professional attitude to their personal lives. Their relationship with Mary is professional. Their marriage is dealt with professionally. Their marital bliss is ultimately based on their contentment with the standardized output it produces. Tomatoes anyone ?
Contrast this with Ken and Mary. Ken is an alcoholic in bad physical shape. He was once handsome however and has a good heart. His problem is that he questions the meaning of his job, which in his case seems to amount to questioning the meaning of his life. And then there is Mary. Her goal in life is Love, not work, thereby committing the ultimate sin (not making work your life goal that is).
Two scenes illustrate the stranglehold work has on our lives (and the importance of it for the movie's theme, I think). In the first an Asian couple is visiting Joe, an old man threatened with eviction and a young woman acting as his interpreter, her ability to help the old man, however, limited to the duration of her lunch break. In the second Carl arrives too late for his mother's funeral, having been stuck in a traffic jam. The funeral couldn't be postponed however, another one was already waiting.
So are Tom and Gerri right ? At the dinner table Tom is telling of how he and Gerri met, by chance on their first day in university. This detail hints at the internal inconsistency of their way of life. And of course right at the beginning of the movie there is this session of Gerri with the sleepless patient, an Everywoman. It shows her utterly failing in her role of counselor, her very profession.
Mary is indeed looking for love in all the wrong places. At the end of the film you realize that, despite all appearances Tom & Gerri's was such a place.

Kill the Irishman

America loves the tough guy. The guy who faces the impossible odds and beats them to a bloody pulp. Examples - Rocky, Dirty Harry or Dalton ("Road House"). America also loves the bad guy. The guy that we really shouldn't support but we do anyhow. Examples - The Godfather, Scarface and Henry Hill ("Goodfellas"). In "Kill the Irishman" we are now given a new underdog, bad guy to cheer for, Danny Greene (played by Ray Stevenson). All-American tough guy.
In Jonathan Hensleigh's latest movie based on Danny Greene's life in the 1970s, we see the tough guy who works his way up from the docks in Cleveland, Ohio. Greene has it rough from the beginning, an orphan raised on Cleveland's mean streets. He takes a job on the docks shoveling grain and is soon given the opportunity to become a union leader because he is one of the only guys that reads books. So, he is also a tough guy with some intellect. He literally fights his way into his position of Union Boss. From there he leads a corrupt life assisting the local Italian mafia in robbing the docks where he works.
Does this sound like any kind of movie hero? Why are we intrigued to continue watching? Maybe it's because some of us (mainly us guys) secretly want to be Greene. The guy that doesn't take nonsense from anyone. If someone gets in your way, break his jaw, beat him down and don't worry about consequences.
Things are going well for Greene until his arrest; his bad deeds finally catch up to him. He cuts a deal with the FBI to become an informant and is back home with his wife and kids. He now needs to find work. He soon becomes a debt collector for Shondor Birns (played by Christopher Walken). Although Greene is Irish and Birns is Italian they don't let that stand in the way of their friendship, especially since there is money to be made.
Again things are going well for Greene, he patrols Cleveland with his crew collecting past due balances for the mafia. Being a tough guy he usually lets his fist or hand gun do the talking. Things soon go south for Greene and Birns due to a lost $70,000. Immediately there is a price on Greene's head.
In 1976 there were 36 explosions that rocked Cleveland therefore dubbing it as Bomb City, USA. This is all due in part to the Italian mob trying to kill the Irishman, Greene. He dodges bullets like Superman and survives explosions like John McClain ("Die Hard") then walks away with an indifferent attitude.
How does he survive all of these assassination attempts? He is an Irish Catholic with the grace of God. Greene doesn't show fear; he keeps himself believing his intent is to be a modern day Robin Hood for the community. Even after losing his children and wife, he sticks it out because tough guys never give up. Especially Irish Catholic tough guys.
Should you see this movie? Sure, if you like tough guys and if you like cheering for the bad guy. Greene's take-no-guff attitude kept his character interesting when the story seemed to lag or when there weren't any cars blowing up. He is supported by a cast of strong veterans, Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio and Paul Sorvino. The film also has an authentic documentary feel to it since Hensleigh incorporates actual footage from newscasts covering Greene's life as a local legend.

Monday, September 19, 2011

13 Assassins

13 Assassins is that big budgeted, ramped up samurai action picture in the same spirit as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, where a group of skilled swordsmen get their destiny all charted out when the people look toward their expertise to uphold justice, and the men stepping up to be counted in the face of societal adversity. It's that typical story of moral courage of a few good men chosen to execute a mission to try and reset the status quo, or die trying while at it.
Miike's film is structured in a wonderfully simple way, and it starts off with perversion in introducing the main villain, Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) who is the Shogun's brother, but earning a reputation of being a cold heated killer, rapist, and just hell bound bad guy with zero morals or respect for the sanctity of human life. This film would not have worked without this basic, powerful half hour set up where a character so vile gets luxuriously painted to get you to thoroughly hate the person, his action and his guts, while painting him to also be a formidable, skilled opponent that you wonder just how difficult it would be to get to him for a face off, but how delightful it would be to finally get that shot to take him down.
The film then launches into its midsection which played out like a typical heist movie, with the recruitment of the would be perpetrators and an introduction to what they bring to the table, coupled with the meticulous planning in preparing for an almost suicidal mission where a few men would be taking on an army, guessing and second guessing intent and what the enemy would likely react to any planted changes, in an effort to stay an extra step ahead. And there's the tense face off between the leaders from both camps, rivals once when young and now standing on opposites, engaging in barbed dialogue and scare-mongering, psychological tactics to size up a known opponent. It's a poignant scene on how each are duty bound by their orders through their honour and the usual samurai values they live and die by.
With 13 heroic characters crammed into 141 minutes meant an unequal amount of screen time getting devoted to each of them, so a tradeoff becomes inevitable, but the ones who do get introduced in depth thankfully turned out to be as varied and as interesting as can be. There's the leader Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) who got tasked to take up this mission, and in doing so assembled his team which included trusted deputy Saheita Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukata), a star pupil Kuzuro Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) whose skill is excellent par none, and various other inner circle, trusted members to undertake this secret mission, including his nephew Shinrokuro Shimada (Takayuki Yamada who also worked in Takeshi Miike twice in the successful Crows Zero series) a compulsive gambler and womanizer who's obviously in this mission on a quest for redemption.
But the character of Koyata Saga (Yusuke Iseya) served as the most interesting of the lot, not being of samurai stock, and chanced upon by Shinzaemon and team en route through a forest, before Koyata's wit and know how in navigation earned his place to be with them. Providing a fair share of comedy and critique on the ways of the samurai, I thought this chap personified a higher being for his stunning turnaround scene at the end which may leave some bewildered, as well as to provide Miike an outlet to deal with some of his more signature stuff, including Koyata's an incredibly large member and high sex drive which did stick out like a sore thumb in the more serious build up where Shinzaemon's troops got down to fortifying and booby-trapping the village.
One needs to look no further than the two Crows Zero films to know that Miike can deliver full scale assaults with balletic qualities, accentuated by an adrenaline pumping soundtrack. If it's action you're craving, 13 Assassins delivers by the loads through a gloriously choreographed 45 minute action set piece utilizing a series of weapons from bows and arrows, spears and explosives, where it becomes like a reverse Bodyguards and Assassins where every angle of the ambushed town got covered in blood and body parts, with plenty of on-screen dismemberment of limbs. It's no holds barred where the element of surprise, and the discovery of being grossly outnumbered, brings forth that sense of inevitable dread amongst those from both sides, as one seeks to cut off the head of the hydra, while the other frantically looking for a way out of being uncharacteristically cornered. Plenty of pathos got built in as well especially in that final few fights, where you will find it hard not to weep for the fallen.
It isn't easy to take down the corrupt who have power and the sworn loyalty amongst the powerful, but this film inspires in that provision of hope that so long as good and able men are willing to make that sacrifice for the common good, there is still that fighting chance to make right the things that have gone wrong under the hands of the criminal. Even Fate would also lend a hand. Definitely highly recommended as this swash-buckles its way to be amongst the best of this year's selection.

Friday, August 26, 2011


 "Longford," a decidedly British film, is a look at the Earl of Longford (Jim Broadbent) and his resolute belief that a notorious serial killer of young children was worthy of redemption first and parole second.
Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton) was convicted along with her boyfriend, Ian Brady (Andy Serkis), of murdering a string of children in 1964 and '65 -- one of the most notorious cases in British criminal history. Brady was singled out as the real killer and Hindley his accessory -- less evil by half, perhaps -- whom Brady emotionally manipulated. The killing of the children and burial of the bodies in the remote and moody moors near Manchester became a sensation in Britain and led to the pair being viciously ostracized even in prison.
The Earl of Longford -- "an unconventional politician whose liberal views courted controversy in the Cabinet and the national press," according to HBO -- is perfect fodder for Morgan, who also wrote yet another Oscar-nominated film this year, "The Last King of Scotland." What was going on in Longford's mind as he took up the cause of Hindley? It was an obsession of sorts that put him at odds not only with the public and his friends but even his family, particularly his wife, Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), though she, too, would come to support Hindley.
For Morgan, the answer makes for an emotionally unsettling, intricately nuanced story that hints at three areas of Longford's personality. First, he made a name for himself attempting to champion and rehabilitate prisoners, a socially progressive streak that lasted his whole life. With Hindley, Longford also found a fellow convert to Catholicism -- and "Longford" posits that this good and just man believed fervently that religion played an integral part in turning Hindley into "a good woman" after the fact. Last, and with judicious shading, Morgan makes viewers believe that Longford may have been falling in love with Hindley as he devoted years of his life to her cause.
At various times in the languid but always fascinating movie, these traits make the viewer's emotional connection to Lord Longford waver, then stiffen. Was he a passionately committed politician who sought justice where others feared to fight? Did his religious beliefs lead him to seek redemption and forgiveness for someone who didn't deserve it? And was his defense of Hindley blinded by love?
Morgan is a skilled dramatist and, much as in "The Queen," he doesn't want to bash viewers over the head in "Longford." This is filmmaking as character study, not straw man showboating (which a less skilled writer could have easily opted for in either movie). Aided by director Tom Hooper ("Elizabeth I" and "Prime Suspect 6"), Morgan tells his story in a way that doesn't put an exclamation point on a tidy historical story -- he opts for a question mark instead, while ultimately and satisfactorily letting the viewers in on the true-life ending.
Though "Longford" is a much smaller movie and in many ways more expressly British -- the "Moors murders" are almost unknown here, while the tribulations of the "People's Princess" are the stuff of near fairy tale -- it presents Morgan with a more difficult challenge. The isolation from a reality she didn't want to acknowledge revealed the emotional hollowness of the queen, and in the end she earned some sympathy. But Lord Longford chooses to support someone the tabloids dub "the most hated woman in Britain," a woman whose unspeakable acts are not immediately offset by her personality. So Longford the man is a tougher sell.
Credit Broadbent with a flinty, gutty performance as Longford. He's able to convey a righteousness at the beginning that's matched by a naive, infatuated wishfulness in the middle and a more sober recollecting in the end. Serkis adds a bracing, cocksure evilness to Brady that helps to unmask Longford's early beliefs. It's yet another standout performance from him.
And finally, Morton is careful not to give too much away as Hindley. The judge in the case said, "Though I believe Brady is wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption, I cannot feel that the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence." And yet Brady is steadfast in his assertion that Hindley was equally guilty. And her voice was chillingly caught on tape talking with one of the murder victims.
So was she manipulated? Or did she manipulate Longford? To his credit, Morgan doesn't make the movie about Hindley or even the crimes. He focuses on one man who tested his faith and his reputation by refusing to pass judgment.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

¨The difference between today and last Saturday is that for the first time in a while, I can look forward to the things I want to do in my life. Bike, eat, drink, talk, ride the subway, read, run, travel, swim, skip.¨ They say that two heads think better than one, and that might be the case with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who have collaborated in the past with films such as Half Nelson (which gave Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination), and the surprise critical hit of 2009: Sugar, about a Dominican baseball player trying to make it in the major leagues and adapting to his new life in the United States. The Cohen brothers also prove this point so there is nothing wrong with teaming up as directors. Boden and Fleck have demonstrated their directorial talents before and do it once again with It's Kind of a Funny Story. The three films they have directed are all very different from each other, and this is more or less a dramatic comedy with probably more drama to it than comedy. This isn't one of those laugh out loud Galifianakis comedies, it is much more serious, but there are still plenty of laughs (or at least scenes that will make you smile). This movie has some heart to it as well; there is good chemistry between the two young characters played by Gilchrist and Roberts. The romantic story works, the drama works, and so does the comedy as long as you aren't expecting a film like The Hangover. Boden and Fleck adapted the screenplay themselves from the novel of the same name written by Ned Vizzini. This is not your typical Hollywood film, it is different and you probably would expect that if you've seen the rest of the films they have directed.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist from the United States of Tara series) is a smart kid, who studies at a gifted school, and has a normal loving family, but who deals with depression and suicidal thoughts. He is obsessed with his best friend Aaron's (Thomas Mann) girlfriend Nia (Zoe Kravitz). Craig decides to check himself into a mental institution on Sunday expecting to spend the day there, but doctors decide he should stay a week and follow the program since he claims to be a danger to himself. His parents Lynn (Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls) and George (Jim Gaffigan) are supportive of the doctor's decision and decide to let him stay at the mental hospital in the adult ward since the juvenile section is under renovation. Craig is really stressed out with his life and about getting the Gates Application for Summer school which would look great for his college resume. His father is always focused on his job, but is pushing Craig so that he can get the application. Craig seems to be obsessed and stressed out with all these little things, and forgotten therefore to enjoy life. In the ward he meets patients with much greater problems than his own. He befriends Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) who teaches him a couple things about life, but who seems to have a lot of issues of his own. Then there is his Egyptian roommate who never speaks to anyone or leaves the room, Muqtada (Bernard White). And finally he meets Noelle (Emma Roberts) a girl about his age who he begins falling for. Together the patients learn from each other and Craig begins to find help in his therapy sessions with Dr. Eden Minerva (Viola Davis), as well as with drawing and music sessions.
It's Kind of a Funny Story might not be as funny as you expect, but it is kind of a sweet story. The film doesn't try to be preachy or anything like that at all, but it is kind of uplifting and one can find a way out of depression by watching this movie. Finding the things one enjoys in life and focusing on them instead of all the other issues can help live a less stressful life. The characters in the ward are much more interesting than the rest of the characters from the outside world. Craig's parents, his friend Aaron and his girlfriend all are left in the background since they are outshined by the patients who are way better developed in the film. Galifianakis shines in every scene he is in, Gilchrist and Roberts are really good together on screen and share some great chemistry, and the rest of the patients all share the most memorable moments of the movie. We are drawn into the world of the mental hospital and could care less about the outside world. One of the best scenes of the movie is when the patients get together for their musical therapy and they all play the song Under Pressure. It's Kind of a Funny Story reminds us that there is more to life than just study and work, it's the little things which can give us the most pleasure out of life. We can't change anything through worrying so why stress out so much. I really enjoyed this movie and recommend it although be warned it's not your typical Hollywood film. It is kind of slowly paced, but once you meet the characters inside the ward it's worth it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Secret Reunion

 At the turn of the millennium, a group of three North Korean agents led by the brutal "Shadow" (Jeon Gook-hwan) made an assassination attempt on a defected cousin of Kim Jong-il. The South Korean National Intelligence Service had turned one, Son Tae-soon (Yun Hee-seok), so Agent Lee Han-kyu (Song Kang-ho) and his team are able to get to the scene. It's a bloodbath, and Han-kyu is fired in the wake of the debacle. The other spy, Song Ji-woon (Kang Dong-won) is disavowed, cut off from his pregnant wife in the north. Six years pass, and Han-kyu is now working as a sort of very low-rent private detective, retrieving foreign-born brides who walk out on their husbands. Relying on his pair of idiot assistants gets him poised for a beating on a construction site, when the fight is broken up by the foreman - Ji-woon, living incognito under the the name Park Ki-joon. They recognize each other immediately, though don't show it, and soon Han-kyu has recruited Ji-woon to work for him. Each thinks the other's low circumstances is a cover, and that learning what is really going on will get them rewarded by their old masters.
The opening sequence of Secret Reunion is as good as this sort of spy movie stuff gets, fusing slick tradecraft with over-the-top action in a way that manages to evoke both the realistic and fantasy modes of spy cinema, set Shadow up as a villain to be reckoned with, and establish Ji-woon as a decent man without painting him as disloyal. Jang is so assured in this tense, violent territory that it's a bit of a surprise when the movie goes in a different direction.
Which it does; although the plot six years later is still a game of spy-vs-spy, it becomes something of a comedy, from the basic misunderstanding each has of the other's place in the world to their odd-couple antics: Han-kyu has become a slob and a bit of a joke, often bumbling around in ways that suggest he would have made a really terrible field agent, while "Ki-joon" is serious and compassionate. The movie takes us from gritty spy drama to what is frequently broad slapstick, but also lets the characters learn about each other as people rather than enemy agents. Jang manipulates the tone like a master, bringing whimsy and gravitas forward at the appropriate moments to prevent the movie from ever going too far in the direction of silly comedy or overwrought melodrama.
Of course, a lot of this work is from the actors, and the two main guys are brilliant. Song Kang-ho, well, you expect this from; it's just another in a long run of good performances in good movies from him. His disheveled charm fits this material like a glove, but he's not just putting on a familiar role; there's a sense of loss to it because we see him as an intense, forceful guy in the opening act, and there's always intelligence, if combined with wasted potential, to him even in his more goofball moments. Kang Dong-won plays off him nicely as the straight man much of the time, but also does well in projecting a guy clearly torn in many directions: He's a good man who hates violence but is still loyal to his country, and affection for Han-kyu does a nice job of sneaking into his portrayal. The pair never slip into practiced buddy-cop banter, but certainly grow closer.
If Secret Reunion has a weakness, it's perhaps in the end, as the spy material eventually grows more serious. A few logical holes appear, and while the film had never been perfectly realistic, it stretches the bounds it had established for itself in multiple directions. Not to the breaking point, but enough to be noticeable, especially when compared to how smooth things had been before.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

I Saw the Devil

Director Jee-woon Kim along with actors Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi are three of the most talented people in Korean cinema today. Jee-woon has done such films as A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which both starred Byung-hun and Min-sik is most recognized for his performance in Oldboy, but was also fairly impressive in the drama Crying Fist among many others. Oldboy is really the film that made me love Korean cinema. So when word broke that these three marvelous people were getting together to make a film, I knew I was already there. A little thriller called I Saw the Devil came together and became one of the most spectacularly intense thrillers to be released in quite some time.
Late one snowy, winter night, a woman named Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) sits stranded in her car waiting for a tow truck to arrive and help her fix a flat tire. She talks to her fiancé, Dae-hoon (Byung-hun), over the phone as she waits. It's Joo-yeon's birthday and Dae-hoon, a secret agent, gets caught up with work and can't be there with her on her special day. A strange man shows up and begins to pester Joo-yeon about fixing the tire himself. After declining his help, the man known as Kyung-chul (Min-sik) attacks Joo-yeon before brutally murdering her. Kyung-chul is actually a notorious serial killer who mostly kills women and young girls. As the investigation unfolds, Dae-hoon swears merciless revenge on Kyung-chul and a deadly game of cat and mouse begins. Does Dae-hoon really know when this game will end or has he already become a bigger monster than the man he now preys upon? The chemistry between Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi is what really drives the film. Byung-Hun is the broken down shell of a man when he's not in the hunt, so to speak. He has several emotional breakdowns that are incredibly heart wrenching, but the urge he has to make this bloodthirsty maniac pay for taking the love of his life away takes a front seat to any sort of emotion he once had. Byung-hun portrays the struggle his character has between sadness and revenge flawlessly. Min-sik plays the role of a lunatic incredibly well. His character seems to lack that which makes a person who they are; morals, a conscience, and above all a soul. Killing is the only thing that brings out the real Kyung-Chul. His first initial reaction to someone trying to beat him at his own game is agitation and borderline out of control rage, but once he regains control he not only enjoys himself but claims it's the most fun he's ever had. Min-sik acts level headed when his kills go well, but the way he expresses how insane his character really is when things go bad for him is what makes his performance so memorable. While the scenes where Byung-hun and Min-sik fight with each other are great for obvious reasons, there's a scene at the end of the film where they both have a heart to heart conversation that is just spectacular. Every little glimpse you have of that confrontation leading up to that point is fantastic, as well.
Jee-woon Kim certainly knows how to shoot a beautiful looking film. Lush and vibrant colors make grisly murders and spontaneous revenge tactics look much more pleasant than the blood that endlessly splatters all over every wall and floor in the film. Other than the brilliant colors, the cinematography is rather unique as well. There's a scene near the end of the film where Dae-Hoon is walking toward the camera on a deserted road. It's simple and shot like we're basically walking backwards in front of him while staring directly at his face. He eventually begins to cry; an uncontrollable sobbing. The way the scene is shot along with Byung-hun's performance made it one of the more memorable scenes in the film. There's another where Kyung-Chul gets picked up by a taxi. He gets into the front passenger seat while there's another man in the back, so there are three people in the car altogether including the driver. Kyung-Chul realizes he's going to have to beat these guys to the punch, so as their adrenaline escalates the camera rotates around the inside of the car. You get this continuous 360 degree shot of the action occurring inside this cab. It's amazing.
Leave it to another Korean thriller revolving around revenge to make an impression on me. Jee-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil is a superbly acted, exceptionally written, grotesquely gorgeous film that'll make you cringe during some of the more horrific and blood soaked acts in the film while secretly leave you craving so much more. That craving is satisfied thanks to the interactions and chemistry between actors Byung-hun Lee and Min-Sik Choi. The disturbing content in the film is more than enough to satisfy the hungriest gore hounds out there while the captivating story will please anyone looking for something more than someone being chopped to pieces. I Saw the Devil is one of the most morbidly delightful films to be released in recent years.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Simple Plan

This is one of those rare fairly recent movies in which everything just adds up perfectly. It also pleases me to see that you don't necessarily need a big budget to make a brilliant with these days and still have a great talented and acclaimed cast & crew involved in it.
This movie has always been compared a lot to "Fargo". And yes, there also are similarities; both movies involve a large sum of movie, both involve some odd but yet realistic character, both involve killings, both involve a seemingly good plan that goes from bad till worse and both involve snow. A lot of snow. "A Simple Plan" is also a very white looking movie, which provides the movie with a good- as well as beautiful looking settings and atmosphere. But perhaps the reason why this movie never really became a financial or critical big success was also "Fargo". This movie was made only 2 years after the brilliant "Fargo" and like always the majority of the public say this movie as a bad copy, trying to cash in after the success of "Fargo". And also like always, the movie is now, almost 10 years later, slowly gaining more credit and is better known and watched by more and more people.
What mainly makes "A Simple Plan" such a great movie is that it features ordinary everyday people. It makes the characters and therefor the movie as a whole, a very realistic feeling one to watch. It of course also helps that they are being played by some top-class actors. It's funny how Bill Paxton always basically plays the same guy but hey, he's good at it. Billy Bob Thornton is also always at his best playing these sort of simple minded characters. This is yet another wonderful performance by him and he rightfully so was also nominated for an Oscar for it.
This is not really the sort of movie you 1,2,3 would expect from a guy like Sam Raimi. There is also basically very little in this movie that can be described as 'typicaly Raimi'. Not even Ted Raimi is present in it! Everything indicates that his is just an in between little project for him, which all makes it sort of ironic that this is also one of his best movies.
It has a very effective story, that on top of all things is really well written and constructed. It's a character movie but also with lots of twists and turns in the actual plot. The story style reminds us of a good old fashioned film-noir. It's about ordinary people who get themselves into an ordinary situation. They form 'a simple plan' but almost immediately things start to go from bad till worse, without giving any spoilers. The story was written by Scott B. Smith, who based it on his own novel. The screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar as well.
A rare great movie, that is so great due to its realistic approach, performances and a well written and constructed story.

Monday, August 01, 2011


Oh. My. God. If you ever thought a movie twisted the fabric of your mind as to what is and isn't possible in this modern world of cinema, watch Oldboy and I'm sure it will surpass all your previous notions. Chan-wook Park is a Korean director who specializes in incredible stylistic camera work and artistic cinematography within a carefully constructed narrative. Oldboy is the second film in his aptly named "vengeance trilogy." It is about a man who is imprisoned 15 years for unknown reasons. After enduring painful loneliness for all this time, he is released, only to find out he has five days to find out why he was imprisoned. It starts off strange and different, yet don't get discouraged. Everything echoes throughout the film to end with one of the most twisted and stunning climaxes I have ever witnessed. My jaw was left wide open for the last fifteen minutes of this movie, and then about ten more after the credits finished rolling. If it hadn't been so late I might have hit the play button again as soon as I made it back to the DVD menu. It was utterly mind blowing.
I was most definitely not prepared going into this film, but it only served to heighten the experience of watching this practically perfect film. Oldboy hits the ground running and within five minutes of the film we get an incredible taste for what Chan-wook Park's filmmaking is all about. It's fast. It's fun. But it's also smart. Amidst the vibrant colors and the beautiful cinematography there is an incredible narrative. As the mystery of this film unravels we are pulled farther and farther in. And of course at the end of the film it just explodes in our faces without hardly any warning. You will be amazed. You will be disturbed. It will most definitely catch you off guard. It was all so expertly done and I just couldn't avert my eyes for one second in fear of missing the mysterious grandeur of this film. Every moment and every character serves the plot to some avail. There isn't a moment in Oldboy that felt unnecessary or overdone. It's one of the brilliantly made films which comes full circle by the end, only wanting you to rewind and watch the whole thing over again, immediately. I can't come up with enough words to describe how awesome this story is. It is definitely one of those you absolutely must see for yourself.
I'm sure it's a ballsy statement to make, but Chan-wook Park could be the next Akira Kurosawa, only this time slightly more hardcore, obviously. Every shot of Oldboy is so incredibly crafted, down to the most finite detail. The entire film is handled with such care and precaution, and the results are astounding. There are moments in the film which resonate the style of other master directors. There are multiple shots in the film which are heavily Scorsese influenced, for example. However, there is still an extremely definitive style here which belongs to Park. This style is what prevails over any of the specific influences scattered throughout the film. If Park continues to make films like this he will most likely go down in history as one of the genius auteurs of the 21st century. However, on that same note I would be amazed if he ever made anything that could top Oldboy.
Oldboy is one of those films which you will never be able to get out of your head. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to you, but to me it was a great thing. It's a one of a kind film which could never recreated in it's full glorious essence. There was once talk of an American remake of this film, and I'm not sure I could have stomached that, knowing for a fact that any American team could never top the demented perfection of the original. Oldboy is utterly incredible. Every moment is perfect. It gets everything right and goes farther than you could ever imagine. The best part is that Oldboy doesn't fall into one specific genre of film, making it an example of how practically any film should be made, in essence. It would be a crime to go through life never seeing this film.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lady Vengeance

When it comes to vengeance movies, "Kill Bill" is the most immediate and most "pop" representation. Although, before the first chapter of Tarantino's bloodbath (2003), Chan-wook Park had already began his Revenge Trilogy, releasing "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" in 2002. The second part, "Oldboy", was an instant classic, winning the 2004 Great Prize of the Jury in Cannes. Now, "Lady Vengeance" comes to America, ending the trilogy in grand fashion.
This story is about Geum-ja Lee (Lee Young-ae). She went to prison for 13 years for kidnapping and killing a young boy. Without telling anyone the truth, she knew she was innocent. With her awaited freedom, she can put to work her long-term plan of avenging the real criminal, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi), with a little help from people she met in jail. She gets a job in a bakery of a former volunteer in prison, Mr. Chang, asks Woo So-Young's husband to build her personalized pistol and talks to her case's detective, Choi, (Il-woo Nam) to achieve her dreamed vengeance. Meanwhile, she must find her long-lost daughter in Australia, where she was adopted.
Since Lee spent 13 of her years in a female prison, almost all her acquaintances are women. Many jail companions told her their stories, which are shown with rich details in the movie. These numerous subplots are told in the slow first half of the film, with little impact on the main plot, but, at least, are told with style and sharp black humor. This is the most stylized Vengeance installment, full of colors, surreal effects (which exaggerate only in few scenes) and elegant visual metaphors. For an example, when Geum-ja is described as a "girl whose face is enlightened", director Park literally puts a bright, almost divine light in her expression as she prays at night.
Geum-ja's strong character asked for an even stronger performer, found in Lee Young-ae. From an apparently sweet person in jail to a cold-blooded killer in her revenge path, the beautiful actress plays complex Lady Vengeance with fierce and sensitivity, achieving her climax when she shows a weeping, raging smile. Kim Si-hu is Geun-sik, a young and naïve baker, who achieves a shallow proximity to Lee, and his sweet performance is fundamental in key-scenes. Nam is also great, having a difficult role to play and restraint to keep Detective Choi as little emotional as possible, and Min-sik proves himself as a standard of excellence. In the final third of the movie, 8 new characters appear, almost all gifted to great actors as well.
Director Chan-wook Park is also responsible for many of the movie's assets. His aesthetic vision is wonderful, presenting a beautiful cinematography and some interesting scene compositions. He also imprints an unbelievable amount of pain on the story – helped by the melancholic and sublime score. When Mr. Baek's crimes are unraveled (and shown), the scene is so unbearable that it rivals to the twist in "Oldboy", determining the Revenge Trilogy as a study of how excruciating the bitter truth can be.
"Lady Vengeance" has almost all the assets that represent the Oriental cinema – it only lacks some graphic violence. Even without much blood in its hands, this is a poignant tale of hate, lost innocence, redemption and revenge, and the painful beauty of this work is enough to hypnotize viewers.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

If you've ever been poor if you ever had to work by a dirty machine for minimum wages just to be able to stay alive, you'll appreciate that director Chan-wook Park knows something about the pure desperation such conditions can bring about. And if you've ever lost somebody that you truly loved more than yourself, the most emotional scene in this film will probably make you cry.
Vengeance is one of humanity's more lamentable instincts, and one we'll have to overcome as a species one day. When one acts out of vengeance one seeks only to hurt, and when people start hurting each other because they're hurt themselves, everybody ends up hurting and nobody really gains anything. That's what happens when the main character's lack of one sense drives the film, both form and function wise. Occasionally, we lose one of the two ways in which we interact with the film (sound, sight). The loss of one sense adds value to the other. It makes the normally assumed other seem all the more there. Unlike most Hollywood takes on this particular sense absence, we get a bit of a glimpse into what the absence means to the character, and not just what it means to us looking at the character as third person. What results are some very nice moments that are film using itself as a medium to one of its potentials.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a very original and well-done film. It takes a very common theme(especially for Asian films...) - revenge - and turns it on it's head. Usually in a revenge-style film, there are clear-cut "good guys" and "bad guys". The good guy is wronged and seeks vengeance against the bad buy - end of film. But SYMPATHY is very different, as there are several people wronged in one way or another, and the only clear-cut "bad guys" may be the shady organ dealers (explained below), but are really just bit players in a much larger and more complex picture. SYMPATHY is really a sad film of desperation, and the lengths that individuals may go to for family.
This is the story of Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin). Ryu is both deaf and mute. He has a sister (Ji-Eun Lim) that needs a kidney transplant. Ryu lost his job, therefore he has no money to pay for a legal transplant. So he tries to buy a kidney from the black market, but he is fooled by the smugglers and loses his own kidney and the little amount of money he had. Then his girlfriend, Cha Yeong-mi (Donna Bae), gives Ryu the idea to kidnap his former boss', Park Dong- jin (Kang-ho Song), daughter, Yu-sun (Bo-bae Han). What follows then is a series of events, all evolving acts of revenge and violence. Being a part of the 'Vengeance Trilogy', you would expect that the script is about revenge, but the story Park and his crew created is truly amazing. I'm not gonna spoil it here, but the script takes a few terrific, mind-blowing turns. The characters make weird but real decisions, which provokes a chain of events that you won't believe. The dialogs are also quite well written, so is the rest of the movie. There is also quite a nice share of touching scenes, and also lots of violent and bloody ones. In my opinion, the screenplay is for sure the strongest point of 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance'.
The film is comfortably uncertain of its genre and impartial to the characters it follows on such a subjective journey as a mortal vendetta. Think of how contrived it would have to be though, in order to submit to more widely accessible conventions. Watching this film, we realize why it's difficult in some revenge tales to make one character sympathetic and the other rotten to the core. No matter what impression we get of them, there are still certain things that could happen to them that require a kind of justice society is not made to allow. If the film remained purely within the confines of a thriller, it could not have seize and squeeze all the dramatic, comic and voyeuristic possibilities of each scene. 

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Quiet Family

 Remade as The Happiness of the Katakuris by Takashi Miike, The Quiet Family may lack that film’s zombies, claymation sequences and The Sound of Music parodies, but has much which Miike held on to. Essentially, the plotlines are the same – a family buys a mountain lodge; a number of guests are killed off either by themselves or by others; the family attempt to cover them up – whilst Kim Ji-Woon’s original is a similarly odd concoction. After all, it features one of the more eclectic soundtracks to feature in a Korean movie, from the mariachi-flavoured hip-hop of Tres Delinquents, which accompanies the opening credits, to the likes of the Partridge Family, the Stray Cats and long forgotten eighties goth band Love and Rockets elsewhere. Indeed, The Quiet Family may best be regarded as an acquired taste.
That said, this is a film which is likely to travel well. The cast members’ subsequent credits include the likes of Joint Security Area, OldBoy and Shiri, which is likely to attract interest, whilst director Kim went on to make A Tale of Two Sisters. Moreover, The Quiet Family possess a fine, mordant wit; it’s not so much a black comedy as bleak comedy. Certainly, anyone expecting something a little more madcap owing to its subject matter may very well come away disappointed. Rather the humour is decidedly deadpan, a situation which serves the film to a better degree. There are no noisy attempts at winning the audience over, simply an acceptance that those with a taste for such comedies – and The Quiet Family is primarily a comedy – will find the film on their own terms.
Yet in being so low key, Kim does have a problem in sustaining momentum. The bodies may pile up soon enough, yet it’s questionable as to whether he has anywhere to go. From the opening scenes we get nods towards the horror genre (ominous crane shots and aural rumbles à la The Evil Dead), yet these are never truly latched onto. Likewise the thriller elements – courtesy of the arrival of a gangland hitman as well as a police officer in the latter stages – are never developed as fully as they could be. As an aside consider Shallow Grave or Les Diaboliques which both gained more mileage from a single corpse – perhaps Kim has simply bitten off more than he can chew?
Indeed, The Quiet Family has a ragged quality which is perhaps unsurprising for a debut feature. It succeeds in the quieter moments (many of the film’s delights come through the petty family antagonisms as opposed to the bigger set pieces) and more than gets by on them, but there is a continual feeling that in order to be more than just a good film it needs something a little extra – most likely a dash of suspense or a greater sense of direction. Certainly, the latter element can be detected during The Quiet Family’s conclusion as rather than build to a finale, it simply peters out.

In The Beginning

In the Beginning is the story of a small time crook who falls into a big con and thereby becomes both a hero to the locals and a mensch in his own eyes. The con and the project are doomed, but both are sweet while they last.
This suspenseful and curiously moving film includes a virtuoso lead performance by François Cluzet, was in competition at Cannes, and received eleven nominations at the French César awards. Director Xavier Giannoli (of The Singer) has again made a picture that's a sensitive study both of in individual and of a region. He also succeeds, like Lucas Belvaux in Rapt, in turning a news story that might seem on the face of it rather trivial into psychological and philosophical thriller. It makes you think, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and it shows once again that the French really know how to make movies.
Paul (Cluzet), who uses the fake name Philippe Miller, is a petty con man who travels all around France Xing off construction projects on his highway map of the country. Taking down names and phone numbers from roadside signs and making deft use of product catalogs, he steals and resells parts and equipment from suppliers by pretending to be a project manager.
Miller hits pay dirt, and ultimately gets in much deeper than he plans, when he comes upon a highway project abandoned two years earlier due to its invading the habitat of a protected beetle. Faking involvement with the parent company in the project, he collects money and starts it up again.
Miller meets the eager, energetic Monika (Stéphanie Sokolinski, the singer known as Soko), who works at his motel, and her fresh-faced, sensitive boyfriend Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers). Before long he also meets the local mayor, Stéphane (Emmanuelle Devos) and becomes her lover.
Miller gets a local bank to issue him checks and advance funds for payments to suppliers that demand immediate payment. The bank wants a piece of the action too. But they will require authentication that Miller can never provide.
As the project takes off, Cluzet, as Miller, at first seems to be imploding. When asked embarrassing questions, he has a dozen ways of deflecting them. If all else fails he just says he has another appointment and runs off. The situation is too tempting for Miller to resist. He knows he's getting in way over his head. But isn't it the nature of the con man to seek bigger and bigger deceptions? Actually nobody loses much here.
The whole thing that terrified Miller begins to delight him. For once he is somebody. "I have wasted a lot of time" is one of his saddest lines to Stéphane, in bed. Of course ultimately Miller is going to go to jail, but he starts desperately trying to get the segment of highway completed before the time limit on payments ends and many bills become due. He's now paying out in salaries to the workers all the many thousands he accumulated at the outset. The money doesn't matter to him any more. He becomes a worker himself, pushing a broom to spread the asphalt in the rain. It's winter and the project is becoming more and more difficult to finish.

In the Beginning is a nail-biter all the way through, and in the end you will react as the local community did to the real con man in this story: some of you will take him for a real S.O.B. Others will believe him to be a pretty nice guy. Environment and action create identity. We are what we do. Here, Miller is what he makes happen. Workers don't always care about the utility of their employment. They don't much care about beetles. (What happens to them is barely mentioned. In fact they were transplanted to a forest.)

Cluzet, an extremely busy and popular French actor most recently seen by American audiences in Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (another hit thriller), is a neutral Frank Capra everyman, an individual who can seem shut down, but with a twinkle in the eye, a grump with a jovial chap hiding inside waiting to be let out. The film gradually lets out that chap, and then, when the big corporation comes in and the police descend, the highway project lit up at night like a film set, Miller is a little man who's strangely triumphant in defeat, waving the battered flag of his fake company.
This is another marvelous French film that transcends genre, turning a crime thriller into celebration of work. Judging by this and Giannoli's The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur, he has great sensitivity to solitary wanderers and paints rich psychological portraits in a complex social environment. He doesn't know so well how to end things. There is a little uncertainty whether we can take À l'origine as a mood piece about economic desperation (as Up in the Air partly is; but this is Down on the Ground), a process picture, or a crime thriller. But it achieves success in each genre, because of the energetic world the director creates, the rich moral ambiguity he preserves. The secondary characters are of course a bit schematic, a bit obvious, but with such actors, they never seem that way. Like Laurent Cantet's study of a strike and of class conflict within a family, Human Resources, In the Beginning is about the human need to be doing work.

Chris Knipp, Berkeley, California

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Torture-Chamber files: Maapilai

I know. I'm probably the last person in this forum and most certainly the least qualified fool amidst a roaring crowd of eight hundred plus inside a packed cinema hall to even comment on a movie such as this, let alone review it. My eight year old niece sitting next to me (upon whose insistence I ventured to come along) is so much more enthusiastic, let alone being accustomed to the so-called Indian "masala" genre of movies than me, and it frightens me to think that someone as young as she actually enjoys watching movies that have such lethal force and relentless assault on the senses, both moral and virtual.. that it feels like trying to hold a lighted candle in your hands while attempting to stand beneath a fully opened dam, leaving you senseless, reviled, angry, disillusioned, helpless, yet… deeply hurt. I never even needed to get myself inside a movie-hall to know that this was going to be a fish-out-of-water experience for me. Though Tamil movies aren't new to me, the mere look at the poster itself gave me the shudders. But this.. This one went a step further. I was a fish out of water on a hook-string, mishandled, scaled, skewered, fin-clipped and nearly dunked into a frying pan, before I hit water again. All this while my dear niece whooped and squealed all eyes and ears to a systemic deluge of insanity that ensued during the next three hours.
Still, while I watched Maapilai, I realized that this is perhaps the most important movie I've watched, long since movie-watching for me, stopped being a mere source of entertainment and turned into a form of therapy. Like applying polish to the insides of a wax-tin, most movies in Tamil Nadu have established some sort of a chassis-like framework for which wear & tear does not even seem like a matter of concern. Every time the system looks like it's slowly evolving into modern ways with modern directors like Venkat Prabhu, Mani Ratnam, Baala and Mysskin to ride the momentum of popular support, there come movies such as this one, to wipe away the few advancements we've seen in it's stride, and take us back to the stone-ages. And when we talk about wiping away, I'm thinking about a chalk-coated slate being furiously scraped clean, with the sharp end of a pitchfork. Ever since I started watching art films by the truckload, I also inculcated the habit of forcing myself to watch from time to time, a notorious, purposefully vile and horrid film, not simply for the torture-value and unintended laughs, but mostly for the pain. Pain numbs the senses and when your emotional quotient feels like it has touched such a low so as to hit a reset button within yourself, even slightly happier things in life feel far sweeter than you could've conceived. That was the reason and agenda behind me agreeing to watch Maapilai. This was its noble purpose.
Hero, heroine, villain ("villi", in this case) and yes, a comedian. That's pretty much everything that the masala template needs, say to start from scratch. To cut a crappy story into a rubber dinghy, a relatively poor, seemingly well brought-up fellow marries a daughter of an insanely rich, super-aristocratic empress, automatically falls into the Mom-in-law's bad books, and proceeds to teach her lessons on altruism. For this purpose, he has a convenient flashback: He's a rowdy in disguise. So it's gonna be a clichéd tit-for-tat battle between the 'high-class' and 'low-class'. Mind you, the producers want you to conceive a clash of titans climax. So here's the still-gawky Dhanush trying his best to puff as many cigarettes and bare as many teeth as possible, simply to look macho, with the required "pattai" on his forehead, when the script calls for him to look baby-good.
The heroine's purpose in the movie is still a blur. Her job is to simply appear coy and giggly while our man slithers his rubbery, lizard-like hands around every square inch of her body. Perhaps this was the director's revenge for her not conceding to dance for the film's mandatory item number. What's most obvious is that her act here looks quite desperate, yet sufficiently infused with lethargy, while she's trying to gain a foothold in the industry, mainly with the help of her fair, glossy skin. As far as the Item number is concerned, the alternative was to bring in a lady ODed on rape-pills, make her look like a purposefully provocative, towngirl-cum-pornstar and let the choreographer and composer freak out.
I have no clue as to what kind of potential the director would've looked for when he chose Manisha Koirala for his negative role. If a floating buoy in the middle of an ocean could channel emotion, even that will beat the competition with "Raaja Raajeswari" and her fixed, walk-on-the-clouds look, stoical facial reactions and an emotional quotient ranging anywhere within those of a mosquito.
I have profound respect for Vivek as an accomplished comedian. He is one of the last few talents in the industry who can make even a murderous goon roar with laughter. But for his role in Maapilai, I'm guessing the poor man must have been given a roll of toilet-paper for his script, and simply act-out his outraged reaction to the insult. His antics and attempts at humor are both disturbing and depressing, with an accent so fake, you might think he's trying to portray a vocally handicapped person. But even that possibility is ruled out, when he doubles as a clown pretending to be a rich-rich-RICHer fellow than our villi herself, to aid our hero's sinister plans.
The traditional six-pack dance sequences don't add much to aid the story. So do the enormous fight sequences. But is that deterrent enough to keep our producer from spending more than half his budget on them? Chaansey illa. Doing away with these elements in a masala movie is tantamount to sacrilege. It's an industry, after all..let everyone, even the extras have their portion of the cash-crop. The masala-genre to Indian cinema, is after all the exact opposite of what junk food is, to the vegan diet.
I haven't had the chance to watch the much talked-about predecessor to this movie, which is what has been copied into this film. Apparently the older film was a runaway hit and had garnered a lot of acclaim for the superstar. And since Dhanush is now on a mission to copy-paste whatever his father-in-law has accomplished, he's probably under the impression that his career trajectory is on a preset path. All he has to do is to pick out any one of the superstar's hits, add some "low-class cheri" element to it, and consider himself re-invented. He is either everything his father-in-law hoped for, or every single shred of his worst fears, very neatly compiled.
In spite of the fact that Maapilai fully matched up to my expectations and ended up being a tirade that will forever aid as a negative low-point in my experience with movies in general, it couldn't match-up to what my previous torture-chamber inside a screening of golmaal-3 could provide. Still, the purpose was achieved and I came out of the hall feeling satisfactorily emaciated and unnerved. And to prove my point, I went back to the same hall the very next night, to watch Liam Neeson in Unknown and Mysskin's Yudham Sei back-to-back. Words couldn't describe how pleased I was with both, insomuch that I felt like I was watching something as epic as Inception. As for my lovely niece, roaring with laughter at my shell-shocked face, while walking out of the cinema hall, I'm just happy she isn't being judgmental about me for having let her watch this load of crap.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elite Troop 2

 In 2008 at the Berlin International Film Festival, a Brazilian movie that depicted the work of Rio de Janeiro’s special police force BOPE won the prestigious golden bear award for best film. The police unit, which often shows up in Human Rights Watch reports and is considered one of the toughest and most professional urban warfare units in the world is the spearhead of the crime-ridden city’s law enforcement policy and has a reputation of being comparatively non-corrupt. Jose Padilha, the director, originally wanted to turn fact accounts from the book of the similar name into a documentary but they changed course and subsequently made one of the most successful Brazilian movies ever.
Tropa de Elite (aka Elite Squad) tells the story of BOPE Cpt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) who is looking for a promising recruit to succeed him at the force. He has marital problems and panic attacks, it is time for him to step down and give way to fresh blood in the ranks of the elite squad. The next round of boot camp, which to North-Americans might look familiar to the Navy Seal BUDS camp, churns out Neto and Andre. Andre is a smart, idealistic and ambitious guy who wants to save the world. Despite the social inequality in Brazil that makes it hard for an unprivileged, colored man like Andre to succeed, he takes up studying law, and he enters BOPE. Neto meanwhile works himself through the corrupt local police before being fed up, being discovered and joining BOPE. He is a short tempered, impulsive guy, who tends to get himself into trouble. The two quickly form the new BOPE class’ top troopers. Andre falls in love with Maria, a co-student who heads an NGO in one of Rio’s slums (favelas), but she does not know he is a cop. While Rio prepares for the Pope’s visit and steps up the daily raids into the slums to capture (and kill) drug traffickers, Andre’s involvement with Maria gets more and more complicated, as her NGO can only operate with the drug gangs’ blessing. Things get out of hand quickly, with Neto losing his life…… and Nascimento and Andre set out to track the gang down…
In 2007, footage of Tropa de Elite got leaked and pirated, which however made the movie all the more famous. It is a compelling story of the Brazilian boom city’s social tensions, and the horrendous violence perpetrate on both sides of the law. It is a shocking movie, shot with an eye for detail and a convincing cast. The movie keeps its documentary-style feel and the grittiness of a front-line report. The movie will not only satisfy those hungry to see a realistic action movie about special forces, or those wanting to see top of the line Brazilian cinema, a glimps of this great country’s life on the big screen, but also those looking for an on-the-edge-of-your-seat social drama – with a great soundtrack to boot.
Three years later, it is Berlinale time again here in frosty Berlin. I have secured tickets to watch the sequel to Tropa de Elite, which is titled Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro (the English title is: Elite Squad 2 – The Enemy Within). The much anticipated second part had to live up to high expectations and promised to be a lot more controversial – and with a bigger budget. It is not easy to make movies in Brazil I was told, that is why the opening credits are preceded by a whole series of logos, the movie however is already the highest grossing Brazilian movie in Brazil to date. But let me cut to the chase.
Tropa de Elite 2 takes place today, and Nascimento has lost both his wife and custody of his son. War is a drug, he says, so he went back to his old job, commanding a BOPE squad led by Andre, as ranking Lieutentant. When a riot in Rio’s maximum security prison Bangu 1 breaks out, his squad is at the helm and Andre’s men are facing an armed gang bound to slaughter the rest of the (rival) inmates. A law professor and human rights activist the gang leader (played by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge) trusts is called in to defuse the situation, but Andre does what he was told in BOPE boot camp, and all hell breaks lose, with BOPE walking out having massacred the rioters.
The city has a scandal on its hands, with the human rights activist publicly denouncing Nascimento, Andre and BOPE, the blunt weapon of the governor. Nascimento however is at the same time called a hero by the conservative electorate, and the governor promotes him to deputy secretary of public security, while Andre has to bite the bullet and gets demoted. Rio politics, fired up by the conservative media, lets Nascimento lose, and he uses BOPE to clean up slum after slum. But the vacuum left by the drug cartels is quickly filled by corrupt police militias, who won’t be as easily driven back as the drug dealers. The human rights activist seizes the wave of sympathy and runs for the local parliament…. Nascimento is confronted with a dilemma. The net of corruption, and BOPE’s role in the corrupt schemes of the politicians and police chiefs are about to be uncovered with the help of the parliamentarian, an integral crusader almost, and a courageous journalist…. Nascimento is right on the front line – and in the line of fire….
Where Elite Squad was something of an introduction to the world of favelas and BOPE, Tropa de Elite 2 is an advanced study of the country’s complex crime problem. Brazil, which is one of the world’s fastest growing economies and Latin America’s economic and political powerhouse, has a huge inequality problem, which is on heavy display in a metropolis like Rio de Janeiro, where beautiful and expensive beach penthouses can be seen before a panorama of slum dwellings on the surrounding hills. That stark contrast fires social conflict. BOPE is right in the middle. The news reports of Rio police backed by federal military forces invading some of the most famous slums of Rio only this last fall illustrate, how “real” this movie is, despite its fictional nature. The political subtones of this sequel and the quite open criticism of the roots of the problems, make it an especially controversial movie that is sure to have an enormous impact considering its huge success. I was enormously entertained by the film, which offers a number of climaxes and had me sweating in my seat. A movie that is as intense as it gets, without laying it on too thickly. A smart, brutal, beautiful tour de force, a brilliant showcase of Brazilian cinema and an action-packed crime adventure which I hope will win over audiences around the world – the pounding gun fights will stick with you.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Nakashima's visually stunning "Kokuhaku" is a tour de force of emotionally charged drama and engrossing visuals. Its thought-provoking and often times controversial storyline will haunt one's senses and challenge your notions of morality.
In fact the story's ambiguity is cleverly represented in its title "Kokuhaku" which in Japanese can be defined in two ways - not only to confess one's sins but also to confess one's love.
The story inventively starts in the middle with pretty Middle School teacher, Moriguchi Yuko (wonderfully realized by J-Dorama favorite Matsu Takako) announcing to her homeroom class that she is retiring. Of course, her apathetic and unruly students snidely celebrate her departure with laughter and high-fives. Yuko proceeds to then tell the students of the reason of her departure. In flashback we see the devastating and tragic loss of her five-year old daughter Manami (cute Ashida Mana), who drowned in the school's pool one night. While authorities label the death as an accidental drowning, Yuko discovers to her shock a more sinister explanation. Her daughter was intentionally drowned by two of her own students - the emotionally troubled "mama's boy" Shiomura Naoki (Fujiwara Kaoru) and the emotionally distant yet intellectually gifted Murakawa Shinya (Amami Juri), whom she just calls "Boy B" and "Boy A" respectively. Knowing that the authorities will not take any serious action given the fact that the two are just 13 year old minors, Yuko nonchalantly explains that she has already taken her revenge on the two by tainting their lunch milk with a syringe containing blood from her ex-husband who has HIV (she is also HIV Positive). Thus begins the story proper which examines the shattered lives of these two students as well as the tragic aftermath of this "confession" and of the cruel horrors that transpire from it. Like "Pandora's Box" Yuko's revenge unleashes an evil more darker than she could have ever imagined.
"Kokuhaku", based on the best selling 2008 Japanese novel of the same name by author Minato Kanae, is a blunt indignation of Japanese society and takes particular critical aim at its increasingly apathetic and narcissistic youth. Nakashima's screenplay drives this hard portrayal in by showing us that despite the unspeakable crime committed by the two students, the true evil lies in the resultant bullying and social ostracizing that results at the hands of their classmates. Despite all the information that has been distributed by the media on AIDS and how it is contracted, the ignorance and social stigma shown by the students is truly horrifying.
"Kokuhaku" is not a standard revenge movie and Nakashima masterfully deviates from the norm by focusing not on Yuko's rage but rather on the "monsters" that Yuko holds responsible for her daughter's death. As the movie unfolds, I unexpectedly found myself actually pitying these two poor souls as they were more-or-less victims themselves of unfortunate childhood traumas. While it doesn't excuse them of their crime, it does go far at explaining their motives and forces audiences to feel sympathy towards their plight.
The story's emotional impact is very much due to its extraordinary cast headed by the wonderful Matsu Takako (Long Vacation, Hero). I can understand now why Nakashima insisted on only having Matsu Takako portraying the part of the vengeful Yuko as she brings both a sense of tragic sadness and darkness to her role. Her quiet and understated portrayal is very effective (almost similar to Kaji Mieko's "Jyoshu Sasori" character) and if fact makes her character even more effective in a sense as it's almost like a slow, seething anger. Fujiwara Kaoru and Amami Juri are also quite good as the two juveniles. While Fujiwara tends to overplay his of part Naoki to the point of hysterics, Amami is the one who stands out as the intellectually brilliant Shin whose anti-social persona is just an affront to hide his need for his scientist mother's love and approval. Amami plays Shin as both a tragic and frightening character study. Hashimoto Ai is also great as Kitahara Mitsuki, Shin's only friend and kindred spirit who develops a compassion for the troubled youth and who foolishly believes that her love alone can change him. She is absolutely beautiful and is a definite star in the making. Kimura Yoshino is also wonderful as Naoki's devoted mother. Her performance is very unnerving and showed the unyielding love that her character had for her troubled son (a nice mirror to Matsu Takako's devotion to her character's daughter). Likable actor Okada Masami gives a good performance as the hopelessly optimistic and naive substitute teacher Yoshiteru Terada who attempts to reach out to both Naoki and Shin but whose general concern and good intentions soon become another destructive instrument in Yuko's revenge scheme. While only a small role Yamada Kinera's portrayal of Shin's estranged scientist mother was touching.
The cinematography compliments of Nakashima regular Ato Masakazu and Ozawa Atsushi are breathtaking and beautiful. They add to the emotional impact of the story and are absolutely stunning. Even the gory bits were beautifully rendered and shot (which seems almost strangely ironic).
"Kokuhaku" shatters the perpetual foreign stereotype of Japanese students as polite, docile, overly respectful and timid children and shows us that like in any other countries, some of today's youth have succumbed to the stresses of peer pressure, sense of self worth and purpose and have become selfish and disillusioned. The film is a cautionary tale of those dangers and also challenges the audience's notion and senses of morality. Are Yuko's a actions justified or has she become even more despicable, irresponsible and reckless as the students she holds response for her daughter's death? Does the ends really justify the means or does society really create its own monsters?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

My Name is Tilda Swinton, and I Am Love

It is one thing to be an accomplished actor and appear modest while appearing to share, even allude your personal success over those around you; it’s a whole different paradox to be an acting phenomenon like Tilda Swinton and say you don’t deserve it, for frankly she hates her profession and loathes what she does best. As far as Swinton’s concerned, she’s not even really an actor. She could give up her whole career for something like poetry, as easily as she had switched into the profession from writing prose. “I’m a complete fraud,” she claims in an interview on her college life. “I was accepted as a poet. And I got there and I stopped writing. I started performing very half-heartedly.” In fact, Tilda sees herself as not an artist, but an artist’s material for art, an unmoulded lump of clay that takes form under the minstrels of an artisan. She is the artsy equivalent of an untethered, suicidal, mountain-climbing expert, who wants to lose his life while the very skill he possesses protects him from doing exactly that. Media-hogs might call her a weirdo. Celebrity gossip-mongers hate her for her defiant, indifferent attitude towards public gossip. Contemporary art-lovers might remember her as the woman who slept as a piece of installation for a whole week, in the middle of a gallery. Connoisseurs of the film industry know her as the famous actress who doesn’t employ a publicist. Those who live on the glitzy couture ramp might recall a strange fashion show, where every model resembled Swinton, and the only music was her own voice, reading poetry.
So here we have a born Prima Donna, who doesn’t know how to be conventional even if she wants to, playing one of the most conservative, modern roles that could be offered, to a modern actress for whom, bohemianism is something akin to a philosophy. And the fact that she delivers even such a role with steadfast grace is what makes I Am Love so great.
I Am Love was conceived over an extensive period of eleven years, not necessarily daunting for Swinton, considering her loyalty towards all those she’s worked with till today. Luca Guadagnino, the director couldn’t really have asked for more when his close friend and favourite actor agreed not only to act as the lead, but also co-produce his film.

I Am Love opens with a birthday party that has been so meticulously prepared, that it almost readies you for the important role that food will play in the next one and a half hours of the story. We see Swinton in control of the preparations, speaking fluent Italian, with a Russian accent that she learned to genuinely fake. She’s the lady of the household, giving commands to the staff and having the final say in home keeping matters. The household that we behold is not exactly large; large is where you’d start describing it. Every single aspect of the huge residential palace is meant to invoke an overwhelming sense of intimidating grandeur. Every furniture, wall and chandelier look like fragments of one large rock of crystal, and so do those who inhabit this massive space. And today, everyone in the family has assembled for the royal birthday feast. The birthday-boy turns out to be the extremely aged patriarch of the family, Edoardo Reicchi (Gabriele Ferzetti), who has finally decided that the time has come to hand over the reins of the Reicchi family business empire to his son and grandson. Now the older Reicchis have an almost imperceptible, dare say even arrogant sense of pride and aristocracy that almost immediately seems outrageous, in stark contrast with the more liberal attitude that characterizes the grandchildren. Like when the grandson loses a simple betting game in a horserace and the whole family takes it upon themselves as a dent in their own personal pride, berating him endlessly on how it’s impossible for a Reicchi to have lost. Therefore, when so much pride is at stake, it makes sense when the whole family is tense and apprehensive as soon as the old man announces the bequeathing of his business empire to his son and grandson, Edo.
Now Emma, (Swinton) is the maître‘d of the house, she is the wife, mother and daughter-in-law of the house. A character manufactured by circumstances, there’s absolutely nothing in her repertoire of duties that’s more important than fulfilling what the three above-mentioned roles of the household require her to do. She is the feeble, yet nearly non-existent (but not invisible) balance that holds the three generations together, though very nearly a non-entity when it comes to matters involving business. She’s a trophy wife, imported from communist-era Russia, unable to return, and who has learned not to feel repressed, suppressed or oppressed over the years within a family that has made her change her customs, her way of dressing, her language and even her very name in order to blend in. She is in every way, the perfect mother, wife, housekeeper, and the perfect embodiment of a rich Italian’s wife. She knows and accepts the demands of the role of her place in the Reicchi family. She is smiling, gracious, beautiful and very taut and controlled without being cold. And judging by the general mood in the banquet room, it’s pretty obvious that the evening is a grand success for Emma, save for the occasional hiccup when the grand-daughter disappoints the old man with an abstract photograph instead of the regular artwork in paint. As defined, aristocratic and controlled as these initial sequence of events may seem, everything that follows afterwards is a meticulous and rather total deconstruction of whatever had struck you as awesome.

Midway through the party, Emma chances upon a man called Antonio, who turns out to be the guy who tied with Edo over the betting earlier that day. He happens to be a simpleton, with some amazing culinary skills. Emma is intrigued by the man right away, but quickly shies away and rejoins her party.
A couple of years later, Emma discovers through a letter, addressed to her son, about her daughter’s relationship with a girlfriend. Though a fact like this, about a daughter’s sexuality could make a parent go raving mad, under conventional circumstances, we see Emma become quite curious, even holding the letter, re-reading it like as though it’s some talisman. In more than one way, this incident acts as a catalyst, a trigger of sorts that set forth a chain of events that inevitably, but swiftly snowballs into tragedy. Edo is by now sure of the fact that he’s in love with Antonio (now appointed as a cook in the Reicchi’s household), and is trying to get the message across with shy, subtle hints. But Emma, unaware of her son’s feelings and curious about her newfound sexual freedom, also falls in love with the same man, indulging in a secretly contrived, yet passionate affair which under the circumstances, is almost like firing a loose cannon at a dam-wall.
With subtle hints and a heavy feeling of romanticism, Luca Guadagnino’s story unfolds like an Opera in five acts and a cinematic aria to the bourgeoisie with a suffocatingly gaudy sense of opulence and magnitude. Tilda Swinton has described it as “Visconti on acid” which captures something of the sumptuous luxury that the camera captures: pale carpets so thick that footfalls become mute, corridors as highways of marble, interiors designed with a glacial, restrained eye. The men dress-up in bespoken shirts and suits; the women in Jill Sander, Prada and Hermes. This is the feudal nobility of Visconti’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) relocated from the Sicily of the Risorgimento to the salone of the haute bourgeoisie of modern-day Milan.
Not since Peter Greeenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover has food looked so sensual and provided an exact metaphor for power and sex. The eating of a succulent langoustine becomes a moment of erotic epiphany for the main character, Emma Reicchi. Every element on the plate is erotically charged, a kama sutra of flavours for the sensual appetites. Meals in the Reicchi dining room become acts of power politics or carnal seduction. The rituals of the table define this class. And, in the end, a sip of translucent soup will play a part in the collapse of the House of Reicchi.

There’s a surprisingly surreal sort of form factor that John Adam’s minimalist music commands, one that might seem perfect for the moment, in a soundtrack, but vibrant and overpowering when listened to on a record. The heavy use of non-amplified duct and reed instruments make it sound really powerful, like a grand ceremonial concerto in the middle of a church, filled with sunlight and apprehension.. Musical geniuses like Adams and Michael Nyman rarely come out of their den-like confines of symphonies and other chamber music. But when they do, this is what results. Adams never even had to do original scoring for the movie. Infact, the entire soundtrack has been wrought out of his well-known operas, Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, both politically charged and heavy on the grandeur, still not quite out of place in a passionate love story such as this, also the reason for bringing the theatric feel.
I Am Love is a melodramatic riff on the Lady Chatterly/Mellors narrative: aristo, in oppressive marriage, falls for gardener and finds sexual liberation. In the case of I Am Love, Emma Ricchi falls for a cook and upstairs meets downstairs in flagrante delicto. The description of this coupling (like so many of the couplings in D.H. Lawrence) is devoid of joy and humanity. An act of supposed emancipation, feels peculiarly corseted and straight laced. As a consequence, the passion at the heart of I Am Love is reduced to torrid metaphorical gestures that left me rather cold. We learn that if you marry for money or status or power you will get money or status or power, because love cannot be bought but that’s the limit of any moral insight. There is, for example, no exploration of the morality, motives or consequences of Emma Reicchi’s adultery. The audience is simply expected to be unthinkingly swept along by her act of rebellion.
I Am Love is a film of immense pleasures, every one of them beautifully designed, framed and hallmarked. It evokes a social milieu that, while aesthetically rich, is inhabited by economic elite who are emotionally and spiritually infantile. As Tilda Swinton, reflecting on the Reicchi dynasty, admits, “no unearned income is fair, after all; it costs the soul eventually.” For all this melodrama’s sensual delights, I Am Love left me hungry for characters and plot with more psychological and moral depth and flavour. Perhaps, that will come with Guadagnino’s next film. I can’t wait to see how this impressive talent develops. Until then, I will have to live with the delicious memory of that langoustine and that bowl of deadly Russian Oucha soup.

By Fazil, for Passionforcinema.com
To read the original article, click here