Thursday, 31 December 2009

Antichrist [2009]

Antichrist might not be Lars von Trier’s best movie, but it might just be the one he would like to be remembered by. This movie has world cinema’s enfant terrible at his most unapologetically and unflinchingly provocative – a movie that has divided the house right down the middle. Technically the movie belongs in the horror genre; but any work by the Danish provocateur never really sticks to any genre conventions, in the same way that he gives the feather to the fact that moralists love to scorn him, as here, for his disturbing, often shocking, and at times even outrageous display of explicit sexual content, violence, nihilism, and misogyny (the latter, quite inappropriately, always seems to be stuck to his movies). Yet, for all its detractors, the movie is also an audacious, angry, disturbing wildly inventive, and even deeply poetic exposition and unraveling of the darkest corners of the human psyche. In fact, the movie’s prologue, shot in slow-mo black-and-whites, was to me filmmaking at its most ravishingly beautiful and devastating. Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a woman inconsolably grieving her infant son’s death, and William Defoe, as a psychotherapist and her not-so-grieving husband who takes his wife on as his patient, are fearless and brilliant. As a reviewer rightly put it, Antichrist is a movie that is to be experienced rather than explained. And that, had Alfred Hitchcock been alive, he would have loved to make this movie himself.

Director: Lars von Trier
Genre: Horror/Psychological Drama/Religious Drama
Language: English
Country: Denmark

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Barking Dogs Never Bite [2000]

The refreshingly offbeat movie Barking Dogs Never Bite, by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, has all those thematic and stylistic aspects, quirks and trademark tar-black black humour that would reach memorable heights three years later in his Memories of Murder. Like the latter, this darkly funny movie managed to make me laugh and cringe simultaneously by gleefully throwing sharp, pointed jabs at the darker aspects of human nature and society. With an aptly discordant yet snazzy Jazz soundtrack as accompaniment, the movie presents the ordinary-as-hell lives of a dog-hating university lecturer married to a nagging wife and hoping to someday find enough money to bribe his way to a long overdue promotion, and a neurotic young girl who spends all her days doing tidbits of community service in the hope that someday it’ll earn her fame and recognition. The director, through his whimsical comic placements, ironies and searing observations, has made these two otherwise utterly mundane characters – in essence fringe personas of the society – unique, distinctive and utterly commendable through generous interjections of idiosyncrasies in their personalities and in their interactions. And like Ameros Perros, I'd strongly advise dog lovers & PETA activists to stay away from this one too.

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Talk to Her [2002]

Pedro Almodovar, who is oftentimes referred to as a women’s director, has for once made a movie for their male counterparts with Talk to Her. Almodovar certainly knows how to turn a tale of offbeat, curious relationships into a stirring, even haunting ode to love, longing and loneliness. The movie follows the development of an unlikely friendship between a male nurse and a journalist – the former in silent unidirectional love with a comatose patient he is taking care of with singular devotion and the latter in a burgeoning relationship with a famous female bullfighter which comes to a screeching halt when she gets maimed on one not-so-lucky day at office. The movie is difficult to explain, especially in the kind of concise reviews that I write, as it is less about what transpires on screen vis-à-vis what goes within, unsaid and implied. Hence, though we may be able to seemingly distinguish between the real and surreal, the two, in essence, blend and get juxtaposed quite fluidly, thus creating a dream-like world, albeit comprising of undeniably physical people. The acting is natural without going overboard, thus ensuring that the complex emotional quotient at interplay between the characters manages to be powerful in its silent impacts. And thanks to the classical structure of the movie, the pathos in the characters and their interactions are all the more somber and perceptible.

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Spanish
Country: Spain

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Royal Tenenbaums [2001]

The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s ode to oddball characters and a surreal poetry in motion. Quirky, irreverent, whimsical and mordantly witty, the movie’s humour content is remarkably intelligent and darkly funny, but it never borders on cheap parody. Rather, by infusing in subtle yet palpable layers of humanism and pathos at just the right places, Anderson has shown his remarkable gift at entertaining and insightful storytelling. The movie, which is about a dysfunctional family comprising of an outrageously idiosyncratic bunch of members (played with deadpan brilliance by its ensemble cast spearheaded by Gene Hackman, and including the likes of Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gweneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, with able supports from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Danny Glover), which breaks apart, almost irreparably, when the family’s patriarch Royal Tenenbaum announces his separation from his wife. Now, 20 years later, he decides to do some damage control, resulting in hilarious gags as well as moments of soul-searching beauty. The movie, like the equally oddball The Darjeeling Limited, also boasts of a terrific, nostalgic soundtrack.

Director: Wes Anderson
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Black Comedy/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, 21 December 2009

Avatar [2009]

Despite returning from a long hiatus – 12 years to be precise since he made Titanic, James Cameron has yet again shown his unsurpassed ability in making larger-than-life blockbusters with Avatar, a project that had been gestating for quite a long time. The movie is of epic proportions, and it screams to be seen (and preferably in 3-D), though it should not be taken as seriously as the director perhaps intended it to be. Cameron certainly hasn’t forgotten how to enrapture his audience, even though the visual extravaganza and technical virtuosity of the, well, preposterous end product, surpassed its intellectual or artistic merit or the pseudo-emotional content by a very long distance. This Matrix­-meets-Last of the Mohicans­-meets-Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World-meets-Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Avatar, which is about power-hungry plutocrats trying to colonize a far-off plant named Pandora and its indigenous inhabitants called the Na’vi, and which could easily be seen as a political allegory to George Bush’s annexing of Iraq for oil, albeit in the name of ‘war against terrorism’, is a stupendous spectacle that one will enjoy despite its wafer-thin plot and shallow script.

Director: James Cameron
Genre: Sci-Fi/Action/Fantasy
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Head-On (Gegen die Wand) [2004]

The epithets that might closely define Fatih Akin’s Head-On are, in my opinion, grimy, brooding and bare-assed. Akin completely stripped off any sugar-coatings while displaying human frailties and loneliness at their rawest and most naked – both literally and otherwise. The movie concerns the unlikely emotional connect that develops between two severely self-destructive Turkish immigrants residing in Germany – Cahit, an angst-ridden, hard-drinking 40-something widower living in a state of perpetual disarray, and Sibel, a suicidal young girl whose free, rebellious spirit is at complete odds with her restrictive and conservative family – both roles passionately and fearlessly performed. Despite its content of intense emotions, the movie never plays out as either sentimental or exploitative; rather, it is disturbing, downbeat, provocative and unabashedly erotic. In fact, by using a Turkish folk-song as a motif and to loosely divide the movie into various chapters, it seemed to me structurally quite similar to Lars von Triar’s devastating masterpiece Breaking the Waves. And by mixing punk and grunge rock tracks with exotic Turkish numbers in the score, Akin has managed to be unflinchingly brutal yet surprisingly humane in nearly every frame of the movie.

Director: Fatih Akin
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romance
Language: German/Turkish
Country: Germany/Turkey

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Squid and the Whale [2005]

The Squid and the Whale is one of the most incisive looks into the breaking-down of a marriage and its various repercussions. Yet, despite the topic being a ready-made recipe for a deadly serious tone, or a pungent black comedy for that matter, Noah Baumbach managed to do the near impossible by seamlessly traversing a fine middle ground. The prime reason for his being able to do that, and in managing to infuse sensitivity and humanism and not just sharp wit, might be the semi-autobiographical nature of the story – the director’s parents too went through a similarly acrimonious divorce proceeding when he was in his teens. The movie revolves around the gradual disintigration in the marital relationship of an erudite once-famous writer and his wife, who, to his dismay, has grown in popularity as a budding writer (they are the intellectual equivalents of an aristocrat and a nouveau riche, respectively), and the damaging effects on their two kids – a teenager who has taken after his intellectually-inclined father, and a 12-year old who, declaring himself a “philistine”, (not so subtly) sides with his mother. The standout performance in the movie belongs to the surprisingly brilliant Jeff Daniels, while the kids and the ever reliable Laura Linney, too, are quite exceptional. The movie also boasts of an exquisite pop-soundtrack.

Director: Noah Baumbach
Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Coming-of-Age
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Fulltime Killer [2001]

Fulltime Killer is Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To’s unabashed expression of his love affair with the action genre. In fact the movie abounds in scenes and sequences that pay homage to a range of thumping contemporary action flicks like Terminator I & II, Heat, Desperado and Assassins, as well as earlier-era masterpieces like Rear Window. Further, it is a decent blend of stylish action sequences and fast-paced editing, and Adrian Lau’s turn as a psychotic killer is really fun to watch. However, despite the plethora of references and the reasonably entertaining watch, the movie certainly falls short of any lasting impact. By trying to aim at too many things, the director has failed to make any of the subplots of this kinetic take of one-upmanship between two assassins (a laconic, unparalleled hitman, and his younger and brasher rival) and their vying for the attention of a shy, beautiful girl, anything more than just about moderate. The movie, quite unfortunately, has followed a downward curve – it starts off really well with the look of an existential and fatalistic tale of contract killers, perhaps something like Le Samourai or A Bittersweet Life, but by the time it ends, it is hardly any better than the over-the-top, farcical climax.

Directors: Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai
Genre: Action, Thriller
Language: Mandarin/Japanese
Country: Hong Kong (China)

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Son (Le Fils) [2002]

Dardenne brothers’ The Son is a difficult movie to classify, and hence assess in a few words as I do here. A complex and quietly unsettling character study, the movie is about revenge and catharsis – only that, like Revanche, the revenge never happens, and the catharsis is muted to the point of silent implosion. Oliver Gourment, a regular in the Belgian siblings’ movies, has given a deeply layered and restrained, yet undeniably breathtaking performance as Oliver, a middle-aged and laconic carpentry instructor who, incidentally or accidentally, comes in contact with a young apprentice who in turn, many years back, was responsible for his son’s death. The fist half of the movie is about his growing albeit fidgety obsession with the boy, while the second lies in his trying to come to peace with his own mind, once and for all. The camera movement, which continually follows Oliver from his back, makes watching the movie a deeply disorienting and onerous experience; yet, strangely, it paves way to a feel of immediacy and passive attachment to the withdrawn protagonist who might not have been as accessible to the viewers otherwise. This arthouse movie might thus be relentlessly bleak, disquieting and demanding, but the end product is a powerful, layered and enriching work of art laced with grim realism, religious symbolisms and metaphors.

Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: French
Country: Belgium