Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Woman of the Lake [1966]

Woman of the Lake, directed by Yoshishige Yoshida, aka Kiju Yoshida, an influential member of the Japanese New Wave movement, is a lyrical, disquieting and beautifully shot meditation on urban alienation, existential crisis, marital fidelity, and the complex dynamics of love and lust. Yoshida established the basic premise of the film, based on a novel by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, within the first 15 minutes or so. Miyako (Mariko Okada), a 30-something strikingly beautiful married lady, is embroiled in a vacuous extra-marital affair with a young man. Even though she brushes off his advances for marriage – her husband is after all a rich man – she agrees to being photographed in the nude for him. Unfortunately, while on her way home in the night, her handbag, containing the damaging negatives, fall in the hands of a stranger. As expected, she is drawn into a game of blackmail when she’s instructed to board a train to another town to meet him; but, in a marvelous reversal to audience expectations, she’s drawn into a complex relationship with the man, which was reminiscent of Imamura’s Intentions of Murder (incidentally both had Shigeru Tsuyuguchi in similar roles). Yoshida infused the leisurely paced narrative with themes of loneliness and sexual frustration, and complemented them with melancholic tone, haunting imageries and long moments of silence. The expressionistic yet subdued (as opposed to high contrast) B/W photography, with its share of silhouettes and chiaroscuro, was the most striking aspects of this brilliant film with a superb central performance by Okada. In a gleefully self-reflexive touch, there is a B-film shoot sequence where the body double of the heroine is brazenly exploited by its makers.

Director: Yoshishige Yoshida
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romance
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Beekeeper [1986]

The Beekeeper, the second chapter in Angelopoulos’ ‘Trilogy of Silence’, was thematically and stylistically a more apt companion piece to Eternity and A Day, along with Voyage to Cythera. Like the Bruno Ganz starrer, this was more of an intimate and personal drama than a sprawling or a political one, and had a renowned non-Greek actor as a middle-aged central protagonist who is quietly at odds with the fast-changing world around him. It began with a deeply emotional sequence – Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni), a soft-spoken teacher, internally weeping at his daughter’s marriage. Upon the completion of the event he leaves his wife and his job, and returns to his roots, so to speak – that of life on the roads keeping bees which he had learned from his father. During his journey he meets some of his old friends, and makes acquaintance with a young, carefree and promiscuous hitchhiker (Nadia Mourouzi). He initially avoids her advances because she reminds him of his daughters; yet, ironically for the same reason, he eventually embarks on a passionate tryst with her. Theo wonderfully counterbalanced the allusions of incest, self-guilt, mid-life crisis and futile attempts at personal redemption, with its broader, if subtler, sociopolitical observations on the chasm between Greece’s past and present. Mastroianni gave a masterful performance laden with restraint and near-passivity, while Mourouzi, too, was effective as the girl who briefly joins him in his physical, emotional, and ultimately, personal odyssey. As can be expected, the film comprised of exquisite washed-out photography, elegant camerawork, deeply melancholic tone, and leisurely pacing allowing for probing into the near impregnable psyche of the complex protagonist.

Director: Theo Angelopoulos
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Road Movie
Language: Greek
Country: Greece

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Kathryn Bigelow, who shot to fame with the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, has followed it up with another popular topic for the American populace – the decade-long hunt for the most wanted man on earth, Osama Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty, which refers to, in military parlance, the time at which “UBL”, as the CIA had named the Taliban kingpin, was shot down by Navy SEALs, film begins with audio footage of the 9/11 attacks. Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA inductee, is thrown right into the job as she becomes witness to Dan (Jason Clarke), her immediate superior, subjecting a detainee to torture at a ‘black site’, in a re-creation of the notorious Abu Ghraib prisons. With the talented and tenacious workaholic working towards capturing Laden, Bigelow went onto to dramatize, in documentary-like realism and detail, the long, tiring and often uneventful investigation that finally led to locating him at a mini fortress at Abbottabad in Pakistan. The curt style employed in driving the narrative was engaging for its relentless focus on the investigation, and the here and now feel on account of the constant sense tenseness; yet, ironically for the same reasons, they also would keep one at an arm’s length as the viewers are hardly ever allowed into the minds of the investigators, particularly that of its obsessed protagonist. Consequently, though Chastain gave a first-rate performance of someone, for whom, succeeding at the mission at hand becomes the sole objective of her life even when interests start flagging elsewhere, and for whom ends, quite clearly, justify the means, her character, which interestingly was a fictitious one, never received a three-dimensional treatment.

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Genre: Thriller/Spy Thriller/Docu-Fiction
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Capricious Summer [1968]

Capricious Summer was a big surprise for me. Unlike the four other films by the Czech master Jiri Menzel that I’ve watched, this wasn’t at all political, thus making it quite anachronistic with the Czech New Wave. And, more interestingly, it was sandwiched between Closely Watched Trains and Larks on a String – two of the most subversive sociopolitical satires I’ve watched. What Menzel presented here was an amusing and laidback comedy on ageing and male friendship. Adapted from a literary source like most his films were, the story was about three amiable middle-aged slackers living idle lives in an idyllic location in the countryside – a garrulous man (Rudolf Hrušínský) married to his frustrated and flirtatious wife, an uptight and puritanical priest (František Řehák), and a soft-spoken Major (Vlastimil Brodský). They spend their days lazing, drinking, fishing, swimming and philosophizing. But, the arrival of a quirky magician-cum-tightrope walker (played by Menzel himself), wake them from their stupors. And then they chance upon the performer’s coy, alluring and incredibly beautiful female assistant, and their lives don’t remain uneventful anymore with their respective hearts and loins jumping to top gear. But then, as can be expected, this detour from their mundane, monotonous lives ends in disappointment for all, thus reminding them, in no uncertain terms, that they aren’t young anymore. The film’s deadpan humour and whimsical tone made this a charming watch, though the rather simple premise and equally simple treatment made this too light to take seriously. The idiosyncratic turns by the three men was commendable, and the fools that they make of themselves sadly funny.

Director: Jiri Menzel
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Buddy Film
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Colt Is My Passport [1967]

Nikkatsu, one of Japan’s oldest movie studios, played a key role in the Japanese New Wave and Underground movements during the 50s and 60s. Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport was my first tryst with Mukukuseki Akushun (“borderless action") that the studio famously mass-produced during that era, and which have collectively come to be referred to as, courtesy Criterion, Nikkatsu Noir. A delightful mix of noir’s existentialism, and the cool and style of Spaghetti Westerns, this yakuza film had little to offer in terms of plot originality but a lot in terms of sheer visceral pleasure. Joe Shishido played the role of a laconic and highly skilled contract killer who, upon a big-ticket job where he assassinates the boss of a rival gang at the behest of a powerful and slimy gangster, is forced to go on the run. Giving him company is his loyal, guitar-strumming sidekick. While hiding in a run-down motel, he meets a pretty but lonely waitress who has wanted to escape her sordid life for a long time, which added a softer detour to the otherwise all-male world of gun-toting gangsters. Shishido, as in Youth of the Beast, overflowed with such swagger and machismo as to attain a larger than life aura about his daredevil character. Nomura infused strong homo-erotic elements between the protective lead and his protégé, which added interesting dimensions to the lady’s romantic overtures. The crisp B/W photography and the marvelous harmonica-based score added a melancholic touch to the film during its quieter moments, and, in turn, nicely complemented with the more gung-ho and testosterone fueled sequences.

Director: Takashi Nomura
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Gangster Film/Post-Noir
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan