Saturday 31 May 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile) [2007]

The gritty and much acclaimed Romanian movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a marvelous slice of life from the oppressive regime of Ceausescu – one of the most hated dictators of modern times. Set in Communist governed Bucharest, just before the end of cold war, the movie captures just a single day in the life of its protagonist – a young female student whose roommate wants to have an abortion – which, by the way, was illegal in Romania. Laced with unflinching realism, and structured as part political commentary, part introspective human drama and part tense thriller, the movie is a near flawless work of art. The film saunters from the topic at hand to various seemingly inconsequential actions which play a holistic role in defining and detailing its very well-etched characters and the world around them. Minimalist in composition but profound in its effect, the movie does what good art should do – it is philosophical, disturbing and thought provoking, without being judgmental or corny. Very aptly titled (the irony of the title wouldn’t go unnoticed once you’ve watched the movie) and extremely well enacted, watch this immensely powerful movie if you are into good, serious and no-nonsense cinema.

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Slice of Life
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

Das Experiment (The Experiment) [2001]

Undoubtedly one of the most intense, disturbing and unsettling movies that I’ve seen, the bleak psychological thriller Das Experiment is a nihilistic study on paranoia, voyeurism, violence and the unleashing of the inherent darkness in human psyche. The movie focuses on a mock prison simulation to study the characters of inmates and guards – all chosen from different walks of life. However, as might have been expected, things soon start spiraling out of control as the situation gets horribly wrong and murky. The alter-egos and suppressed identities get released with even seemingly docile people getting converted to sociopaths. Sadism, brutality, rape, torture and murder abound, and an edge-of-the-seat cat-and-mouse game ensues as the extreme, volatile thriller heads towards an explosive climax. However as a footnote, I would strongly suggest viewing discretion as this movie is certainly not for the squeamish or the weak-hearted.

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Genre: Psychological Thriller/Prison Drama
Language: German
Country: Germany

No Man’s Land [2001]

A caustic and bitingly sarcastic movie, filled with lashing, black humour – No Man’s Land is one of the finest movies made on the absurdity and futility of war. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t show any live action. Rather, the entire movie is filmed in and around a trench in no man’s land between Serbia and Bosnia, during the long and ugly Balkan war. Soldiers from both sides get trapped in the trench, and the ensuing movie covers their plight, confusion, and prejudices, as well the hypocrisy and double standards of the “neutral” forces (and journalists) who are there apparently to prevent damage and impartially capture the reality, respectively. The morality espoused, especially the brilliant irony of the climax, is subtle, yet its impact is profoundly moving. If anyone ever has any doubts as to abolishment of war cry, he must begin his education with this apparently simple yet immensely powerful movie.

Director: Danis Tanovic
Genre: War Drama/Black Comedy/Satire
Language: Serbo-Croatian/French/English
Country: Serbia/Bosnia

Red Violin (Il Violino Rosso) [1998]

Red Violin is a visually arresting and emotionally binding epic tale of an exquisitely crafted violin’s spectacularly eventful journey through various times, regimes and personalities. The violin, which starts its outlandishly unique three century musical journey at a small village in Italy, travels across England, Communist China, and ends up at a present day auction at Montreal, deeply touches and changes irreversibly (for better as well as for worse) those who have come in its contact. During the course of its travel it witnesses everything – love, loss, joy, anguish, genius, apathy, virtuoso performance, devastation, selflessnessness, hypocrisy et al. Stunning cinematography, fluid narrative, deft editing, haunting score and memorable performances by the actors, especially by the incomparable Samuel L. Jackson (cast against his type), make watching this movie a memorable experience.

Director: François Girard
Genre: Drama/Epic/Period Film
Language: English/Italian/Chinese
Country: Canada, Italy

Friday 30 May 2008

Who's That Knocking At My Door? [1968]

If anyone has any doubt regarding Scorcese’s place in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest directors, one need not look any further than the American auteur’s first feature after graduating from film school. A low-budget, deeply experimental New York-underground docu-feature, shot in grainy inexpensive black-and-white film stocks, and relying more on ad-libs, improvisation and pulsating sound track than on a well-defined script, the powerful human drama has managed to achieve high artistic value and realism. The movie comprises of themes that would recur in many of his later masterpieces, viz. religion, moral ambiguity, guilt and redemption. Hervey Keitel, as the Italian-American protagonist and the director’s alter ego JR, who has clear moral demarcation between "broads" and the girl he wants to marry, has given a sterling performance in his one of his earliest efforts. Despite the dream sequence containing graphic nudity that the distributor forced the director to include, for cinephiles like me the movie will always remain special for kick-starting Scorcese’s fascinating cinematic odyssey.

Director: Martin Scorcese
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Experimental
Language: English
Country: US

The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette) [1948]

One of the most heavily laurelled movies and of high historic importance, The Bicycle Thief, directed by the Italian maestro Vittorio De Sica, ushered in a new era in filmmaking – Neo-Realism. Shot in natural locations, enacted by amateur performers, and portraying the simple joys and tribulations of human existence, the movie inspired a generation of filmmakers, including the great Satyajit Ray, bent on depicting life and realism at its purest. Set in the impoverished post-War Rome, the movie is a near-poetic chronicling of a man’s frantic search, along with his young son, for his stolen bicycle without which he would loose his job. The movie is a lyrical commentary on father-son chemistry and the mundane emotions of an everyday man, told with brutal honesty and painted with a subtle concoction of humour and pathos.

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Genre: Drama/Neo-Realism/Slice of Life
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

The Asphalt Jungle [1950]

The Asphalt Jungle wasn’t just one of the most definitive films of the crime genre, it remains a landmark American movie and one of the greatest film noirs ever made. It was one of the earliest movies to show crime from the perspective of the criminals, who have been presented here as otherwise decent people – a thing that was severely prohibited by the draconian Hayes’ Codes. The plot revolves around Doc (Sam Jaffe), a veteran thief, who upon his release from prison, gets together a team to execute one last caper. John Huston, who was a master in depicting the seedier and darker sides of the society, hit bull’s eye with this moody, bleak and deeply nihilistic presentation of crime and the various ironies of life, where the smallest of deviations can separate freedom from incarceration. The Doc, a professional in his field, finds his brilliant heist go awry courtesy some minor blemishes in the characters and actions of those involved, including the mastermind himself. Marilyn Monroe, as a sultry blond seductress, made one of her earliest appearances in this iconic film noir.

p.s. My recent review of this film can be found here.

Director: John Huston
Genre: Crime Drama/Thriller/Film Noir/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Utsab (The Festival) [2001]

The Bengali auteur Rituparno Ghosh is famous for his sensitive portrayals of simple human relationships, and this great skill of his is at its pinnacle in Utsab. The auspicious and happy times of the Durga Pujas is chosen as the apt occasion for the congregation of family members at their once aristocratic ancestral house. The feelings of celebration and gaiety, however, are ensconced by a lingering sense of doom and simmering tensions because of a carefully wrapped secret that is trying to burst through the otherwise façade of geniality and joy. Meanwhile a beautiful but dangerous love story is building, evoking memories of a similar event that happened many years back that had nearly broken the family into fragmented individuals. Terrific performances by Mamata Shankar, Rituparna Sengupta, Prosenjit Chatterjee (in a wonderful cameo as an alcoholic underachieving husband) et al, and an unhurried, mesmeric narrative have established this unforgettable film as the highly talented director’s most personal effort.

Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Ensemble Film/Romantic Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Thursday 29 May 2008

Ace in the Hole [1951]

One of the greatest movies ever made on journalism (yellow journalism to be precise) and also perhaps one of the most scathing attack on it, this Billy Wilder masterpiece paints an acerbic, caustic and exceedingly bitter picture of news hungry journalists and the public’s insatiable desire for sensationalism and circus at the expense of others. Kirk Douglas plays the complex role of an unrelenting, heartless cynic and opportunist, who has a knack for creating news out of thin air, with supreme ease in what is regarded as the greatest role of his endearing career. The protagonist’s belief, that “there’s no news like bad news”, neatly summed up the morality, or lack thereof, espoused by the film, much to the chagrin of people who feel that the world is a good place and life is beautiful after all. A classic anti-hero movie where evil triumphs over good, and where hopes and niceties are thrown out of the window like garbage – this is a world that evokes memories of Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., and forms a perfect counterpoint to the world we live in.

Director: Billy Wilder
Genre: Drama/Film Noir/Social Satire/Americana
Language: English

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Film Appreciation

It would be very easy, and need i say tempting, to say something as hackneyed and inane as "I've been in love with movie for as long as i can remember", but i have decided to refrain from doing so. That's because, the statement is not true. Not that I'm upright or puritanical; rather i remember quite well since when this love affair kick-started its journey. In fact i wouldn't be prevaricating if i state that the year was 2001.

There are two kinds of movie lovers. I like to call them movie buffs and film aficionados, respectively. The former prefer to watch run-of-the-mill mushy oh-so-cute rom-coms or histrionics-laden melodramatic tear-jerkers or hyper-macho dialogue-deficient blockbuster action flicks or intellectually-handicapped pokingly unfunny two-dimensional comedy trash or something as devoid of art as these, over a handful of popcorn and a glass of cola. I'm not saying its right or wrong, its only that these so-called movie buffs are missing out on the real thing. And that brings me to the second group. Now, its but appropriate that i qualify myself to this latter camp having uttered all the above acerbic statements, which i will. In fact i like to call myself a cineaste as well, though that's open to debate.

Coming back to what I had begun in the first paragraph, but was cut short due to some phony intellectual gibe - let me elaborate on what transpired in the year after the 21st century came into being. That was the year i went to high-school; that was the year some personal upheavals occurred; that was also the year i devoured a book called "Our Films Their Films". Comprising of a number of essays written by Satyajit Ray, who i like to call the greatest genius of post-independent India, the book is a lucid and fascinating treatise on cinema and its various players. Having being written by someone who had dedicated his life and love to the captivating world of movies and with a terrific hold over the queen's language, the book covers a host of luminaries, from Chaplin to Ford to Godard to Kurosawa to the great man Ray himself. I've read the book twice since. But it was the first read that sufficed in changing my complete outlook towards cinema, or to be more precise, film appreciation.

I wouldn't be fabricating if I utter the bold statement that I've watched more movies (the good, the bad, as well as, the ugly) than most. You might say the statement was a tad on the boasting side, but what the hell, I'm not saying I belong to the echelons of Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott. Its just that I'm a cinephile; I love Quentin Tarantino's hyper-kinetic and devilishly wacky motion, Coen brothers' quirky off-the-cuff humour, Billy Wilder's acerbic portrayal of life, Wong Kar-Wai's style, surrealism and visual implosion, Chaplin's farcical take on the bitter side of humanism, Ray's lyrical narrative and cerebral explorations, Scorsese's devastating depiction of brutality and alienation, Godard's iconoclasm and redefinition of idiom, David Fincher's convoluted depiction of loneliness, Gus Van Sant's quiet minimalism, Park Chan-Wook's deliciously dark storytelling, Rituparno Ghosh's sensitivity and underrated genius, Mrinal Sen's strong political attachments, and so much more.

So let me stop blabbering and come right to the point. I present to the world (provided any damn soul cares to be presented with something... anything) short critical analyses of films that have ingrained themselves into my mind and my conscience. The main criteria for selection for analysis would be the film's unchallenged artistic credibility. Consequently the chosen films would comprise of universally recognized classics, brilliant independent efforts, underrated masterpieces, fascinating out-of-the-box pieces, even some acclaimed mainstream films, as well as some not-so-acclaimed pieces which have nevertheless managed to endear themselves to me.

Enough of story-boarding. Its time the curtains are raised and the reels started rolling.

p.s. the summaries provided would be in no particular order.
Ratings would indicated the following:
5 - Masterpiece
4.5 - Brilliant
4 - Very Good
3.5 - Good
3 - Decent
For now I've decided to include movies which have the propensity to at least get a rating of 3.5 or 4 out of 5.