Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Hard Boiled [1992]

John Woo, before set sailing for Hollywood, bid farewell to the Hong Kong film industry with Hard Boiled – often referred to by the aficionados of the director’s works as THE action movie. The male bonding between a hot-headed trigger-happy cop and a cold and seemingly corrupt undercover agent is what makes this movie special. The stylized action sequences and kinetic editing style, too, are vintage John Woo stuff. But where the movie is immensely entertaining to watch, it never manages to reach levels that would imprint the movie to one’s mind. The chemistry between Chow Yan-Fat and Tony Leung, as the two diametrically different anti-heroes, is amazing. But where the first two acts are memorable for the slow and evocative buildup punctuated with spectacular sequences, the last act, on hindsight, seems a botched-up attempt to an explosive climax. Thus, this movie would be remembered more as Woo’s nostalgic tribute to, and guilty pleasure of lovers of HK action flicks, than as a standalone work of high merit.

Director: John Woo
Genre: Action/Buddy Film/Police Movie
Language: Chinese
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Monday, 29 December 2008

Ghajini [2008]

Bollywood, in the last few years, has developed a ready-made formula for quick and easy success – plagiarize a famous/cult foreign flick, suitably modify/delete contents that viewers might find incomprehensible or controversial, ‘Indian-ize’ them by adding songs, dances, romance and comedy, and voila, your movie is ready to go for shoot. Ghajini is the latest in this crappy trend, with the source being the brilliant, mind-bending thriller Memento, but bereft of the bravura filmmaking of the Nolan classic. Ghajini is filled with inane characterizations, a complete lack of an eye for detail or rationale, filled with comic-book like action sequences that are a straight lift of B-grade Tamil movies and containing more bloopers than the makings of sitcoms; consequently we had a few more laughs (make that a lot) than perhaps was the director’s intent. And to make matters worse, the movie stars Amir '8-Pack' Khan, who, with his fame for Method acting, had created an enormous hype prior to release, thus making the show that much more ludicrous. Being afflicted with ‘Short Term Memory Loss’ can be a boon when you are watching a movie like this.

Director: A. R. Murugadoss
Genre: Action/Revenge Movie/Romance/Musical/B-Film
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Sunday, 28 December 2008

21 Grams [2003]

Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s first English feature and his sophomore effort, 21 Grams is as bleak a movie as it gets. Inarritu’s signature multiple-storyline-plot is continued in this disorienting tale of three individuals – a grief-stricken lady who has recently lost her husband, a man who has had a close shave with death, and a reformed criminal turned born again Christian – all struggling to make a life out of their existences bereft of joy, hope or solace, and striving in futility for redemption. The emotionally draining (and I daresay, extremely demanding) completely fragmented, non-linear narrative imparts an immense sense of grief encompassing the troubled souls, yet it also allows the viewers to be passive, impartial observers without getting sucked into their glum, claustrophobic and forever spiraling lives. Naomi Watts has given a truly unforgettable and emotionally charged performance (reminiscent of her superlative career-making turn in Mullholand Drive); Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro, too, have given memorable renditions in this extremely well-enacted film. Though the movie lacks the explosive punch or kick-in-the-gut of Amores Perros, 21 Grams nonetheless manages quite an emotional impact. The title refers to an experiment which allegedly determined that the weight of a person's soul is 21 grams.

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Lust, Caution [2007]

Lust, Caution is a fine follow-up to Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s much acclaimed Brokeback Mountain. It is a dark and brooding film where love and lust are just pawns in a game of cold-blooded foreplay, schemes and deceit. Set in China during World War II, the film tells the tale of a dangerous cat-and-mouse affair between a teenage girl who happens to be a member of China’s revolutionary underground movement, and a rich, powerful, womanizing political figure they want dead. Veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung has given yet another gripping performance as a cold and ruthless man who turns out to be a human being after all. The star of the show, however, is Tang Wei – her controlled portrayal of a girl-woman, whose conflicting psychological dilemmas and strong sexual undercurrents play hand in hand, deserves a huge applause. A provocative and disturbing thriller, this tense cloak-and-dagger tale is bound to keep viewers thoroughly engaged as much with its strong erotic content as with its taut narrative. As a reviewer so wonderfully summed up, whereas in Borekeback Mountain, “love is a haunting, elusive ideal briefly attained but forever out of reach”, here it “is a performance, a trap or, cruelest of all, an illusion.”

Director: Ang Lee
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Resistance Movie/Spy Film
Language: Chinese
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Herbert [2006]

Adapted from the kaleidoscopic, unabashedly provocative and uncompromisingly brilliant novella of the same name by Nabarun Bhattacharya, noted theatre personality Suman Mukhopadhyay’s debut film has done full justice to the complex psycho-analysis and tar-black humour of the story. Herbert Sarkar, the titular character, is a 40-year old crank who thinks he can speak to the dead, and, as another reviewer aptly stated, is as much a clown as he is a charlatan. However, that’s just the short of it. Vital subplots ranging from the struggle between rationalism and mysticism, to the violent Naxalite movement of 70’s Calcutta that had some of the finest students of the city embracing the intoxicating doctrines of Mao, Lenin, Che Guevara and Charu Mazundar and dying by the hundreds, make this fodder for passionate ideological discourse. Protégé of the Nouvelle Vague brand of storytelling, the director’s love for the medium and complete abandon have been expressed as much by the surreal “movie within a movie” angle, as by the exquisite pacing, the viscerally engaging narrative, terrific usage of flashbacks and dream sequences, and a fantastic eye for cinematic details that succeeded in depicting the beauty, the nostalgia, the decadence, and the shifting perspective that are all so unique to the city of Calcutta. The tragic-comic love angle and pointed satirical undertones make for viewing that is charming and disturbing in equal measures. The casting is as good as it gets. The true revelation of the movie, however, is Subhashish Mukherjee. His brilliant, explosive turn as the quixotic, irreverent, mercurial and delectably Chaplinesque protagonist is easily what one might call the performance of a lifetime.

Director: Suman Mukhopadhyay
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Drama/Avant-Garde/Experimental
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Monday, 22 December 2008

Traffic [2000]

What most critics call the prolific after American auteur Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, Traffic was the director’s grandest venture that is epic in its scope. This tour de force movie, interestingly, was made just after the much more intimate Erin Brokovich. Comprising of some of the who’s who of the American film industry and multiple inter-connected parallel plots, Traffic is a ruthlessly detailed albeit ideologically somber movie that managed to tackle the issue of drug trafficking right from its source to its end usage in the streets of America. Benicio Del Toro (in one of his best performances) and his buddy are Mexican cops fighting a self-destructive battle against the drugs; Don Cheadle and his partner are fighting a similar seemingly-losing battle in the US; Catherine Zeta-Jones (in a delectably amoral performance) has taken the onus, at whatever costs it may incur, to save her arrested drug-trafficker husband, using the aid of a crooked lawyer played by Dennis Quaid; Michael Douglas, in a typically intense role, has been appointed drug czar to clean off the mess only to find that his daughter is an addict. Making terrific use of colour filters and film stocks, exceptionally fast-faced editing, and succinct narrative that is simultaneously gripping and economical, the movie is a memorable body blow for the politicos with a simplistic view of this complex and all-encompassing monster of a problem. Unlike two other terrific movies on narcotics, viz. Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, Traffic doesn’t have black humour or psychedelic visuals; rather it is more revelatory in its intent and matter of fact in its opinion.

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Police Drama/Epic
Language: English/Spanish
Country: US

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Bow (Hwal) [2005]

Kim Ki-Duk has explored a tale of forbidden love in the serene but quietly disturbing movie The Bow. Veering decidedly towards abstract imageries and performances, it chronicles the peaceful existence of a laconic older man and an ever-smiling young girl who he has brought up in his boat and plans to marry as soon as she turns seventeen. However with the Korean director’s movies one knows peace is nothing more than superficial – first we have lecherous men making obscene passes at and attempts on the girl, and soon enough we see a sensitive teenager falling in love with her, which drastically complicates the secluded love affair of the unlikely couple. The bow, which the old man uses as a dangerous weapon, a fortune-telling tool, as well as a musical instrument, easily manages to delineate the basic motif of the plot. The movie is heavily reminiscent of Duk’s 3-Iron in particular in that dialogues play a minimal role here (a common string for all his movies I’ve watched) and the two principal protagonists’ voices are never heard as they hardly ever speak, and when they do, they do so in whispers. Surrealistic in feel, layered in content and making fine use of symbolisms, this movie is bound to keep the viewers spellbound, even if at the end they would be left uncomfortable and with a heavy heart.

Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romance
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea

Mahanagar (The Big City) [1963]

Satyajit Ray’s first of many intensely personal tributes to his beloved city of Calcutta, Mahanagar often gets lost among his more renowned works, especially Apu Trilogy, despite this being a very honest film filled with dollops of hope and humanism. Through the educated but conservative lower middle-class Mazumdar family, Ray has painted a rich vignette of a microcosm of the city they live in. Subrata, a bank employee with a meager salary, decides in conjunction with his wife Arati that it would be prudent of her to take up a job. However when the wife reaps success as a saleswoman, a strongly palpable wall starts developing between the couple, not just because of jealousy but also due to the innate conservative in him finding his wife’s emancipation a hard pill to swallow. Filled with dense characterizations, heartfelt performances and subtle social observations, this movie was far ahead of its time in its sensitive portrayal of the counterpoint between modernization vis-à-vis traditions. Madhabi Mukherjee, who would earn international acclaim in Ray’s next feature Charulata, has gave a remarkable performance as an impulsive and free-spirited Bengali housewife of 50’s Calcutta who undergoes a profound transformation into a successful but conscientious career woman; Anil Chatterjee’s restrained enacting of the complex inner conflicts of her husband, too, was excellent.

Director: Satyajit Ray
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) [1978]

-->India’s auteur extraordinaire Satyajit Ray adapted a novel written by himself for this gripping and near flawless detective movie. Though Ray translated only two of his Feluda novels to the celluloid and Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) ranks as the more popular of the two, with this he set a benchmark for every filmmaker who wishes to dabble in this genre. Chain-smoking Bengali sleuth Prodosh Mitter aka “Feluda” (starring Ray’s favourite actor, the impeccable Soumitra Chatterjee), his cousin brother-cum-sidekick Tapesh, and the writer of mystery/adventure novels Lal Mohan “Jatayu” Ganguly (the inimitable Santosh Dutta in arguably his most famous role) are on a vacation at Benaras (Varanasi) when they get involved in a case involving the theft of a priceless statuette of Ganesha (the Elephant God). Utpal Dutt, one of India’s most versatile thespians, has played the principal antagonist of the story, Maganlal Meghraj, a trader of stolen artifacts and a dangerous gangster. At the other end of the spectrum lies a respectable patriarch and an aficionado of detective novels who has given Feluda the case, and his young grandson who has taken after his grandfather where speaking in riddles is concerned. The movie has been suitably aided by a stirring soundtrack by Ray himself and exquisite cinematography which has not only added layers of realism but also has made the city of Benaras an important character of the film. Set during the occasion of Durga Puja, the movie doesn’t just have Feluda making tremendous use of his ‘mogojastro’ (the power of brain) but also enough allusions and moments of satire as well as psychological battles between the characters (the most famous of them being the amazing knife-throwing scene), making this an entertaining and an enriching piece of work.

Director: Satyajit Ray
Genre: Psychological Thriller/Detective Movie/Adventure
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Breach [2007]

Breach is spy-thriller based on real life events showing how a turncoat spy of FBI who had been selling secrets pertaining national security to the Russians for two decades since the time of the Cold War was brought down largely through the efforts of a greenhorn agent recruited specifically for that purpose. The movie may be solely credited to Chris Cooper for his layered and restrained portrayal of Hanssen, who brought about the greatest security breach in US history, as an overtly religious, god-fearing, homophobic, strongly conservative extremely intelligent man of strict principles with a fetish for Catherine Zeta-Jones albeit a compulsive pervert and a traitor. Ryan Phillips, too, has done a decent job as an FBI trainee torn apart between his demanding job, his loving but lonely wife, the apparently ridiculous diktats of his recruiters and the complex relationship he develops with Hanssen. The treatment is fine as the end product is gripping and tense. But the greatest drawback of the film is that at the end credits it leaves us wanting for more, as the director concentrated solely on the ‘how’ without caring for the more important question, viz. ‘why’ – we are oblivious of what made an otherwise respectable and seemingly conscientious guy end up doing what he did. The inner demons of the complex character could have been attended to rather than just on how he was finally nabbed.

Director: Billy Ray
Genre: Docufiction/Psychological Thriller/Spy Thriller
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Girl in the Cafe [2005]

Directed by British filmmaker David Yates, The Girl in the Café could easily lay claim to a unique fact – this could possibly be the only romantic comedy set on the backdrop of the G8 summit (sounds an oxymoron, doesn’t it?)! This is the tale of a serendipitous romantic affair that develops between a middle aged civil servant working under the Chancellor of Exchequer of the British government, and a sweet-natured though strangely outspoken young lady with a mysterious past. Filled with delightfully oddball comic moments as well as a strong political commentary, this is one movie one can’t help but like despite its shortcomings. Whenever the simplistic (and lets face it, amateurish) political overtones bordering on naiveté, and the impractical pseudo-moral outbursts of the lady seem to come into the way of viewing pleasure, Bill Nighy with his brilliant display of situational comedy and subtle mannerisms as the mild-natured bureaucrat who thinks and thinks again before acting, and the charming chemistry between the two protagonists, manage to save the day.

Director: David Yates
Genre: Comedy/Romantic Comedy/Comedy Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Tintorettor Jishu (Tintoretto's Jesus) [2008]

Adapted from a novel written by the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Tintorettor Jishu is the third “Feluda” venture of Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s son. This is a taut, enjoyable and fun ride where private detective Prodosh Mitter aka Feluda (played very well by Sabyasachi Chakraborty) uses his enviable combination of brains and brawns to retrieve an invaluable painting by famous Italian painter Tintoretto. Though originally written as a whodunit by Satyajit Ray, Sandip has turned it into more of an adventure tale where the action packed climax takes place at the sprawling city of Hong Kong. Despite the competent handling and the undeniable entertainment aspect of the film, arguably the biggest obstacles that the director faced were the inescapable presence of his late father’s aura as well as the memories and nostalgia surrounding Feluda – one of the most popular characters of Bengali literature; and sadly the unforgettable character of Lalmohan “Jatayu” Ganguly has been reduced to petty comic buffoonery. The movie is a clear indication of the fact that it is high time Sandip Ray stopped being his father’s son and become his own man if he wants to leave a legacy of his own. The movie Nishijapon showed his capabilities as a filmmaker.

Director: Sandip Ray
Genre: Thriller/Action/Adventure/Mystery/Detective Movie
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Friday, 12 December 2008

Joint Security Area [2000]

Park Chan-Wook, famous for his brilliant, visceral depictions of violence in the now legendary Vengeance Trilogy, directed this otherwise sentimental anti-war movie prior to his ferocious Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The movie starts with two alternate presentations of what might have led to shootouts and two murders at the highly brittle DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between the two Koreas – the result of which could be renewed hostilities and worse, full-scale war. A neutral Swiss citizen of Korean origin (charmingly played by the lady who would later reverse conventions with devastating effect in Lady Vengeance) is asked to unearth what actually transpired; what follows is an unlikely but doomed tale of friendship and camaraderie that dared to defy synthetic man-made borders and barriers. Though the irony of the climax could have been more subtle and understated and the plot at times overtly borders on the maudlin, this is nonetheless a well-enacted tale dealt with enormous sensitivity and a good mixture of humour, satire and pathos by the director.

Director: Park Chan-Wook
Genre: Drama/War/Mystery/Political Drama
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea

Thursday, 11 December 2008

A Wednesday [2008]

Directed by debutant filmmaker Neeraj Pandey, A Wednesday is an assured thriller with a subject matter that is very relevant for today’s India (and more so, ironically, for Mumbai – the city this film is based on). Based on a fateful Wednesday afternoon, the movie chronicles the sensational attempt of a “stupid common man” to make a powerful statement to those concerned. At less than 90 minutes, this crisply edited and whirlwind of a thriller could easily qualify as one of the shortest outputs of Bollywood. The acting, too, is spot on, with the brigade being led by the iconic character actor Naseeruddin Shah at his most powerful as well as nuanced and identifiable. Though the message at times borders on the rhetoric, and the resources that the “stupid common man” calls upon and the precision with which he operates might seem too fantastic to believe, they might easily be ignored for the sake of the basic intent of the director and originality of the plot. This is a smart effort with an even smarter final twist.

Director: Neeraj Pandey
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Chaturanga (Four Chapters) [2008]

Noted theatre personality Suman Mukhopadhyay, who made a name for himself with his brilliant debut feature Herbert, chose one of Tagore’s most famous novels for his sophomore film. This is a complex psychoanalytical tale on love, friendship, socio-religious beliefs and inner ideological conflicts. Though I haven’t read the novel, watching the film was evident enough that translating the work into celluloid must have been a very tough act; consequently the director's conviction and courage deserve appreciation. Set in colonial Bengal, this is the tale of Sachish, who experiences radical swings of personal beliefs from positivism (atheism) to mysticism to finally disillusionment, coupled with his complex relationships with Sribilash, a cynical man of the world, and Damini, a passionate lady albeit a widow. Though the director’s presence is undeniable, and the acting, art direction, etc., too, are good, the movie does end up leaving one a tad disappointed. The reason for that isn’t really the director’s fault; rather it could be attributed to the difficult (and extremely) philosophical subject and sheer depth of the characters.

Director: Suman Mukhopadhyay
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Existential Drama/Religious Drama/Romance
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring [2003]

Often considered to be the finest work till date of Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-Duk, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is an intensely philosophical work of art. This dream like fable is set at a small Buddhist monastery located at somewhere in an unbelievably serene landscape of remarkable natural beauty. The movie follows the life of a character through the various seasons of nature as well as life – from childhood through adulthood to old age, and covering a plethora of experiences including joy, sorrow, lust, jealousy, rage, tranquility and bliss. In essence, it has captured the cyclical journey of life, and ironically a vicious one at that. The movie is lyrical in content, comprises of very few spoken words (a common link for all the Kim Ki-Duk films that I've seen), and is embalming for those with a philosophical bend of mind; however, scratch the surface a little, and you’ll notice a very palpable and disturbing statement on the inherent violence in human nature. The acting is good, managing to capture the various nuances of the story. Interestingly, the director cast himself in one of the seasons (winter), and did a fine job at it.

Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Proposition [2005]

The Proposition, in the modern tradition of revisionist or (as some fellahs like to put it) deconstructionist Westerns – a sublime example of which is Unforgiven – is a disconcerting and unforgiving work of astonishing visual clarity and fascinating storytelling. The movie has covered the entire spectrum, ranging, as a reviewer neatly summed up, from the beautiful to the brutal, and from the mesmerizing to the menacing. At its heart lie the themes of loyalty, revenge, justice and redemption. Set against a harsh and turbulent Australian landscape, the movie starts off with a bloody gunfight following which a weary British cop gives a proposition to an Aussie outlaw – he must kill his deranged older brother in order to save his naive younger sibling from the gallows. Aided by a brilliantly laid out script, stunning photography, and a melancholic soundtrack that manages to lend an evocative air to the moments of chilling carnage, the movie is an explosive masterstroke where terrific acting performances have coalesced with a very potent message of hope amidst lawlessness and desolation. This harrowing yet profoundly lyrical tale, with its barely concealed simmering rage as well as its exceedingly disturbing depictions of loneliness, brutality, honour and conflicting conscience, is a visceral poetry on violence; in that sense another brilliant movie of recent times comes to my mind, Cronenberg’s “mainstream” masterpiece A History of Violence.

To read a more detailed review of the movie by me, click here.

Director: John Hillcoat
Genre: Western/Psychological Drama
Language: English
Country: Australia

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Cronos [1993]

-->Cronos was the movie that didn’t just introduce Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro to cinegoers, but also his freakish story-telling skills. Cronos is more of a psychological horror movie than a physical one. It is a unique and innovatively concocted reversal of the classic vampire tales. An elderly owner of a curio shop chances upon a device that grants one of mankind’s greatest desires – eternal life to those who use it. However, it also has its cons as the benevolent Mexican soon discovers after his ‘death’. To complicate matters a dying megalomaniac, too, is after it, with his thuggish nephew in tow. Having earlier watched his two masterpieces The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos is an indication of an extremely talented director’s fast growing maturity and signature touch. Be it through the subtle ironies of human existence, the pathos of the curse that is immortality, or the undying devotion of the little girl towards her grandfather even through his pathetic after-life – this is a tender and imaginative movie that forms an important preamble to Del Toro’s subsequent works.

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Genre: Horror/Psychological Horror/Vampire Movie
Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico

Saturday, 6 December 2008

13 Tzameti [2005]

Shot in grainy black and white, made with a tight leash on the economic aspects, and eerily minimalist in composition, French filmmaker Gela Babluani’s debut feature 13 Tzameti is a sparse yet effective thriller. It is an austere tale of psychological terror, at the heart of which lies a subtle and intelligent variation of Russian roulette, where the players and members of an underground society participate in a deadly game of highest possible stakes. The director’s younger brother, in his (you guessed it) debut acting performance, has done a fine job in the role of the protagonist who realizes in the worst possible manner, as a critic so aptly put it, that “there’s no such thing as free lunch.” This low budget arthouse movie with a deceptively calm and mundane opening, allows a steady buildup of tension. Though neither greatly nerve-wracking nor filled with any remarkable character study, this ingenious low-budget movie nonetheless points towards a promising career for the director.

Director: Gela Babluani
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Language: French
Country: France

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Closely Watched Trains [1966]

One of the most outstanding products of the sixties’ Czech New Wave movement, Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains is a black political satire presented in the garb of a delectable and farcical comedy. Like his latest work I Served the King of England, at the heart of the movie lies a charming and deceptively innocent fable (with a diminutive protagonist) that is as much an absurdist parable as it is a sharp political critique. The movie follows a soft spoken but seemingly apathetic young guy, Milos, who has gotten the safe job of a railroad worker during the turbulent and draconian Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. What follows is a curiously funny coming-of-age story, but with enough allusions and indications that his safely ensconced existence is surely on the path of experiencing a tragic turn of events. Filled with unforgettable incidents, fascinating characters that could easily be called parodies, and moments of wry black humour and farce, this universally acknowledged masterpiece and deeply human anti-war movie deserves far wider recognition in popular circles.

Director: Jiri Menzel
Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/War Drama/Resistance Movie/Coming of Age
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)