Friday 31 October 2008

Body of Lies [2008]

Ridley Scott’s latest outing after
American Gangster, Body of Lies is a Hollywood blockbuster in the truest sense insofar as its connotation goes – it is entertaining, it has the ability to keep the viewers hooked onto the movie and the popcorn baskets in their hands in equal measures, it is more interested with the broader picture than the subtleties or nuances, and it is completely bound by the confines of the genre of spy thrillers. Leonardo Di Caprio, as an arrogant yet sensitive CIA field-man, based in the hostile and unforgiving terrain of the Middle-East (a favourite place for spy thrillers these days), is extremely effective (and at times brilliant) as he usually always is; Russel Crowe, as an obese, cocky bureaucrat, who “knows the worth of everything, but the value of nothing” is also his impressive self. The camera work and post production values are top-notch and clinical, but largely assembly-line driven. The editing is crisp, thus giving the movie a taut, tension-filled atmosphere. This is one of those movie which will never adorn your mantelpiece, but is an engaging watch nonetheless.

Director: Ridley Scott
Genre: Thriller/Spy Thriller/Espionage
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Hero (Ying Xiong) [2002]

-->It would be very easy to say something like I’ve never seen anything like Hero, and leave it at that. But let me elaborate. First of all, Hero, at only around 90 minutes, is perhaps the crispest epic you’ll ever see. It has a wonderfully nuanced and extremely engaging narrative. Through the conversation between a nameless Hero (Jet Li) and an all-conquering emperor of the Qin Dynasty, regarding the former’s alleged assassination of three feared assassins – Broken Sword, Flying Snow and Sky, where each of the two strives to attain psychological one-upmanship, and through elaborate flashbacks (each being a different version of what might have transpired), the movie unfolds like an elegant seven course meal. But the striking feature of the movie, its USP, is its electrifying and you’ve-got-to-see-to-believe cinematography by the maverick Christopher Doyle, where every frame enthralled me and left me completely speechless. Using shades of an array of colours, each signifying distinct situations and highlighting specific moods, and forming a vital aspect of the story-telling, the visual opulence and beautiful poetry that Doyle has managed to achieve is overwhelming even by his vaunted standards (and that includes his arresting work in Chungking Express). The martial arts and swordplay, freely employing the iconic Wuxia genre, is stunning. And the remarkable chemistry between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung is truly one for old times’ sake; they managed to take off from where they left off at In the Mood for Love with near flawless ease and grace. If only its length had been what is generally associated with a historical epic movie…!

Director: Zhang Yimou
Genre: Historical Epic/Adventure/Martial Arts Movie/Romance
Language: Chinese (Mandarin)
Country: China

Sunday 26 October 2008

A Bittersweet Life [2005]

A Bittersweet Life, life Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, is a lyrical ode, a bittersweet poetry and a mesmerizing study on brutal, nerve-wracking violence and mayhem. In fact the movie is so good that at time, despite the clinical (and at times unforgettable) display of onscreen fury, my heart swelled with pain and empathy. Sun-Woo (brilliantly portrayed by Lee Byung-heon with astonishing ease), is a taciturn and nattily dressed enforcer for a gang-leader who he has been serving for seven years with deadly effectiveness. But then in a momentary lapse of judgment he lets the heart cloud his brain by developing feelings for his boss’ unfaithful girlfriend. And this sets in motion an irreversible course of action. The onscreen violence might be a tad too difficult to watch for the faint-hearted; for me, however, watching this incredibly choreographed, gorgeously photographed and magnificently directed movie (with a haunting soundtrack as an added feature) was an extremely exhilarating experience. The director’s ability to pay singular attention to the minutest details and drench the movie with a scintillating dose of nihilism and understated emotions, have made this otherwise straightforward plot attain an operatic quality with philosophical overtones. Sun-Woo’s realization that he had a sweet dream which unfortunately can’t ever come true provided the movie with an ending that I won’t forget anytime soon.

Director: Kim Jee-woon
Genre: Action/Gangster Drama/Crime Thriller/Revenge Movie
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean

Saturday 25 October 2008

Miller's Crossing [1990]

The Coen Broth
ers revel in the genre of crime movies. But Miller’s Crossing was their most formal gangster movie; prohibition, Mafiosi,bootleggers, Tommy guns, impeccably dressed gangsters and henchmen – that’s quintessential gangster cinema for you. Gabriel Byrne stars as an intelligent right-hand man of a volatile Irish gang leader, who upon being thrown out, plays his former boss against an equally volatile (and brilliantly enacted) Italian gangster in a manner reminiscent of the Kurosawa masterpiece Yojimbo. Throw in a dangerously cunning bookmaker (John Turturro), and a troubled lady capable of igniting the sparks, and what you get is a rounded story with enough angles, allusions and evocative character plays to engage the discerning viewers. Shorn completely of the dark humour or quirky iconoclasm generally associated with the Coens’ movies, Miller’s Crossing is a heartfelt homage to one of America’s greatest film genres. Filmed mostly using brown filters to present a somber world of crime and retribution, and aided by a well-etched narrative with some well-devised plot developments, this is a finely executed movie where, what in lesser hands might have appeared clichéd or dated, work very well.

Director: Ethan & Joel Coen
Genre: Drama/Gangster Drama/Crime Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 23 October 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]

-->This is one love story that is so unique in its content, so irreverent in its ideation and metaphors, and so transcendental in its approach, that it can be safely stated that there has never been concocted a piece on romance like this one. A surreal, phantasmagoric tale of two individuals, once deeply in love with each other, who have decided to be part of a revolutionary programme to erase each other’s presence from their respective memories to be relieved of the pain of heartbreak and separation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an intellectually invigorating, albeit complex, movie. The brilliant, quirky Jim Carrey (cast against his type) and the marvelous, vivacious Kate Winslet, who mistakenly feel that they have wiped out the requisite memory cells from their respective brains, share hauntingly beautiful screen chemistry. Confident direction, cinematography laced with vivid realism yet a dream-like quality, and the iconoclastic Charlie Kaufman’s utterly unconventional and magnificently eccentric script have ensured that the viewers will remember this funny, weird and unsettling movie as a mesmeric human drama, rather than as just an innovative sci-fi flick or a mind boggling psycho-analytical thesis, or for that matter, an audacious experimental venture.

Director: Michel Gondry
Genre: Comedy Drama/Fantasy/Romantic Comedy/Avant-Garde/Experimental
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Three... Extemes [2004]

Three…Extremes is a unique omnibus of short films in the genre of psychological terror – unique because three reputed directors, one each from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, combined forces in order to scare the viewers. The first one, Dumplings, directed by Fruit Chan (of Made in Hong Kong fame), is a well-made and marvelously eerie tale of a beautiful lady going to a mysterious maker of home-made dumplings, eating which would improve her fertility. The second film, Cut (undoubtedly the best of the trio), directed by the inimitable Park Chan-Wook, is a near poetic execution of a tale of extreme violence. The short, involving a vicious psychological tussle between a famous filmmaker and psychopath, is brilliantly conceptualized and extremely well enacted. The finale, Takashi Mike’s Box, unfortunately, is a complete letdown. The tale of a lonely writer harboring a dark secret from her childhood days, by simultaneously being too surreal and bizarre, fails to either terrify or engage the viewers. Though episodic shorts can be disorienting and/or disengaging for viewers at times, Three… Extremes, on the whole, is a decent watch – if not anything, for Chan-Wook’s enthralling piece. 
Directors: Fruit Chan, Park Chan-Wook, Takashi Mike
Genre: Horror/Psychological Thriller/Anthology Film
Language: Chinese/Korean/Japanese 
Country: China (Hong Kong)/South Korea/Japan

Sunday 19 October 2008

Made in Hong Kong [1997]

Made in Hong Kong, directed by Fruit Chan, is perhaps the archetypal art-house indie movie. In many ways it is similar to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Rebels of the Neon God – it is an ultra-low budget movie with a very minimalist approach, it relies as much on stark realism as it does on surrealism and psychedelic feel, and it is unabashed in its depiction of the crime-ridden, amoral and socially disillusioned underbelly of Hong Kong (as the Ming-Liang movie was where Taiwan was concerned). However, where the Taiwanese movie was exceedingly harrowing, this one (though still disorienting) is a tad more lyrical and evocative. The acting is good, the camerawork is fluid, and the chemistry between the three protagonists and the dead fourth character managed to present a semblance of hope in an otherwise exceedingly unforgiving and brutally lonely urban milieu. The extreme low-budget approach might be jarring at times, but the director’s intimate and personal style has ensured that the movie manages to disturb and engross in equal measures.

Director: Fruit Chan
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Crime Drama/Coming of Age
Language: Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin)
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Saturday 18 October 2008

Being John Malkovich [1999]

Spike Jonze’s remarkable directorial debut, Being John Malkovich, would rank among the most irreverent, whimsical and weird movies of recent years, along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and could easily be clubbed along with such classics as 8 ½ - movies which revel in deliberately distorting human perception to incredible levels, and achieve a surreal impact in the process. Parallels to such movies in literature would be nonsense verses of Louis Carroll and Sukumar Ray. John Cusack (I hardly remember having ever seen a bad movie starring him) is exceptional as a semi-crazy puppeteer, who along with a fellow employee (he’s thoroughly smitten with) of the seventh and half floor of the building he’s working at, chance upon a portal that leads to the mind of John Malkovich (played by Malkovich himself with astonishing quirkiness). In fact every actor has done commendable jobs here, including Cameron Diaz (in a weird hairdo) as Cusack’s wife confused with her sexuality. Charlie Kauffman’s brilliant, heavily satirical and absolutely bonkers of a script, with subtle injections of pathos, humanism and existentialism, is a near flawless work on absurdism.

Director: Spike Jonze
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Fantasy/Existentialist Drama/Avant-Garde/Experimental
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 16 October 2008

Kidnap [2008]

– the tale of a mysterious young man kidnapping a wealthy guy’s daughter to exact a very personal revenge – has the kind of plot that had a dark, moody, psychologically stimulating thriller written all over it. Unfortunately director Sanjay Gadhvi messed up beyond salvage point; hence what we have is nothing more than a formulaic, song-and-dance, run-of-the-mill Bollywood thriller more intent on pleasing the audience than disturbing them. Sanjay Dutt, as a hulking but sensitive alpha-man, is good; Imran Khan as the brooding kidnapper is still not ready to play a role as challenging as this; Manisha Lamba as a silly, perpetually midriff exposing, fashion-obsessed nymphet cum hostage (whose mother looks same age as her with slightly lesser cleavage to offer), is truly terrible. And if, like me, you have watched Park Chan-Wook’s acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, you’ll indeed do well to keep away from this one and save yourself the blushes.

Director: Sanjay Gadhvi
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Revenge Movie
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Tuesday 14 October 2008

12:08 East of Bucharest [2006]

12:08 East of Bucharest
is a satirical and bitterly funny look at one of Romania’s most historic momentsthe violent overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu. The movie, though, isn’t a historical fact-based documentation; rather, it is a mordant look at how the present rarely keeps track of the past, however important might they be insofar as the country’s historical determination is concerned. On the occasion of the sixteenth anniversary of the fall of the dictator, a small-time television channel owner attempts to find out whether the revolution ever took place at their town, with a Santa Claus dressing senile elderly man and a school teacher who is infamous in his community for his hard drinking, as the guests for the show. To make matters more ludicrous, every member, from the host and the guests to the dubious callers, have things other than the “revolution” on their minds. Filmed on a shoe-string budget and brilliantly enacted by the three protagonists, this is a movie that delights with its wry, deadpan humour and piercing insight. Though Ceausescu is a central theme for both, it hardly bears any resemblance to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; yet in their unflinching realism, audacity and bravado, they both represent the unheralded glory of today’s Romanian cinema.

Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Farce/Slice of Life
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

Sunday 12 October 2008

Three Colors: Red, White, Blue (Trois Couleurs: Rouge, Blanc, Bleu) [1993, 1994, 1994]

Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski’s greatest achievement, undoubtedly his magnum opus (along with Decalogue), the Three Colors Trilogy is an astounding episodic journey where each film is based on the theme propounded by the corresponding colour in the French national flag, viz. liberty, equality and fraternity. Blue (Bleu) is a deeply philosophical exploration that portrays the protagonist’s attempt at liberty from her deceased legendary husband’s inescapable presence; White (Blanc) (on a personal note, this being my favourite) is a mordant black comedy and a neo-noir where a divorced and humiliated husband attempts to get even with his former wife; Red (Rouge), often considered the best of the venerable trio, follows the unlikely friendship between a young girl and a retired judge, and their heart-rendering commonality. Evocatively composed, hauntingly photographed, exceedingly well enacted - especially by the three female actors, and passionately directed, the trilogy is a marvelous demonstration of a visionary director at the pinnacle of his artistic and philosophical prowess, and will forever be glowingly referred to as one of cinema’s most profound achievements.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Romantic Drama
Language: French/Polish
Country: Poland/France

Thursday 9 October 2008

Jarhead [2005]

American director Sam Mendes’ third feature, Jarhead is in parts biting, in parts harrowing and in parts heartfelt look at the dumbness of war and the ludicrous bureaucracy of the powers that be. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a recruit in the US Marine Corps. Born in a family of war veterans, he is proud to don the green uniform. However, it soon changes to discomfiture at the Boot Camp (which is heavily reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), and utter disillusionment during his manic stay at Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The movie contains a strong political commentary in the garb of a farcical satire, and laced with enough black humour to drive home its point. Even though numerous movies have been made on the utter futility and absurdity of war, the marvelously construed narrative and the impeccable eye for detail here truly separate this out. Add to that the brilliant cinematography that is mesmerizing and disturbing in equal measures, the intoxicating score, and a host of fine performances, and you have one extremely well made and crisply edited war movie that nearly managed to transport me out of the comforts of my living room to the insane and ultimately lousy act of protecting the god-damned oil fields. “Fuck politics! We are here; the rest is all bullshit”. Touché.

Director: Sam Mendes
Genre: War Drama/Political Satire/Black Comedy/Docu-Fiction/Biopic
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Trees Lounge [1996]

Steve Buscemi is without doubt one of the most brilliant and versatile character actors of his generation, and has enacted some truly memorable roles (one needn’t look further than Reservoir Dogs and Fargo for proof). But who would have thought that he had a talented director in him as well. His impressive debut feature Trees Lounge presents the endearing and bitter-funny tale of a guy, played immaculately by Buscemi himself, who spends all his day doing, well, nothing. He is the quintessential slacker, a serial barfly, recently fired from his job, has lost his girlfriend to his former best friend, and more often than not ends up doing silly foibles that puts him into more trouble than he is in a position to bargain for. All he loves doing is spending most of his time at the local watering hole Trees Lounge or hang out with his equally loser buddy. This heartfelt, lazy tragi-comic tale of a guy who has unfortunately failed to conform to the demanding norms of the society or be just another regular Joe, is clearly indicative of the reasons that have made Buscemi an icon in the indie circle and a legend among the discerning movie-goers.

Director: Steve Buscemi
Genre: Comedy Drama/Americana/Slice of Life/Tragi-Comedy
Language: English
Country: US

Monday 6 October 2008

Shotgun Stories [2007]

Shotgun Stories is the kind of independent movie that makes one sit up and take notice. Set against the harsh and rustic cotton fields of Arkansas, the movie is as much a tale of repressed hostility and violent eruptions, as it is an honest account and a lyrical ode to the sons of the soil. At the forefront of the movie, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, lies the story of three poor and closely-bound brothers, and the bitter feud that develops between them and their half-brothers, taking self-destructive proportions, following the death of their father. The feud (the seeds of which were sown long before the beginning of the film) doesn’t involve money or personal glory; rather this is one of pride, especially that involving their respective families and their individual beliefs. Shot brilliantly against the bleak and unforgiving landscape and set at a lumbering pace that grows onto the viewers, this well-enacted story might just have introduced to the film community a very promising director, and hopefully ensured wider recognition for an extremely talented character actor (Michael Shannon), who with his simmering anger, brooding presence, and a plethora of shotgun wounds indicating a frightening side to his character, is indeed the heart of the movie.

This is my 100th film review. Miles to go before I sleep.

Director: Jeff Nichols
Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Psychological Drama/Americana
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 5 October 2008

8 1/2 (Otto e Mezzo) [1963]

-->Had Sigmund Freud ever decided to make a film, it might have been something akin to 8 ½. This deeply autobiographical movie wasn’t just the legendary Italian New Wave director Federico Fellini’s magnum opus, but also one of the landmark movies in the history of cinema. So-called superficial elements like plot, chronology and the literary equivalent of space-time duality have been completely done away with. Instead what we have is a series of montages that blur in and out of reality. Guido, Fellini’s alter-ego and gloriously played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a famous filmmaker; unfortunately, on the eve of his grandest venture thus far, he starts developing a terrible case of director’s block. Further, he is at the cross-roads of his material relationships – be it with his wife or his mistress, he feels trapped in a world filled with buffoonish intellectuals, and his complex sense of guilt (especially those concerning his Catholic belief) are tearing out of his finely managed façade of existentialism and detachment. Thus what we have is an extravagantly surreal and immensely psycho-analytical thesis filled with elaborate dream sequences, flashbacks and the present, which are all ultimately brought together in a jangled and phantasmic mass of “what could have been”, “what ought to have been”, and “what is”. I would however be very cautious while recommending this movie for the simple reason that very few people would have the openness of mind and, I daresay, courage to actually sit through and enjoy it. The movie is slow, it is quirky, it is illusory, it is fantasy-laden, it is delirious, it is philosophical, it is disconcerting, it is even disparaging at times, but it is also unique and splendid.

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

Director: Federico Fellini
Genre: Psychological Drama/Social Satire/Showbiz Comedy/Avant-Garde/Experimental
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Friday 3 October 2008

To Die For [1995]

Insofar as cold, drop-dead beautiful, blond seductress is concerned, who casually manipulates the love-lorn other man to murder her rich husband, we sure have seen ‘em all – from Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece Double Indemnity to John Dahl’s delicious The Last Seduction. Or have we? Suzanne Stone, a super-ambitious and ruthless bombshell, played with inescapable coquettish charm and wily aplomb by Nicole Kidman, is simply one of her kind. She isn’t after fortune, rather she wants fame and stardom in the world of media and television; and if that means employing three local, fractured teens – an easily manipulated half-witted youth who dances to her tunes (Jacquin Phoenix), his buddy whose other name is profanity (Casey Affleck) and a hero-worshipping young girl – from a strata of the society that is far below her own, to get rid of her loving, restaurateur and family-man husband (Matt Dillon), who she feels would be a deterrent in her path to glory, so be it. A black comedy with a wonderfully innovative narrative style which has the idiosyncrasies, subtleties and the strong social commentaries of Gus Van Sant written all over it, this otherwise mainstream effort from the indie-specialist is a finely executed farcical social satire and parody, albeit in the finely executed guise of a modern day noir.

Director: Gus Van Sant
Genre: Post-Noir/Black Comedy/Showbiz Comedy/Social Satire/Crime Comedy
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Bande a Part (Band of Outsiders) [1964]

Bande a Part is one of French auteur Jean-Luc Godard’s most accessible films – a film that even non-Godard aficionados would easily enjoy watching. It is often considered as a companion piece of sorts to Godard’s revolutionary first feature A Bout de Souffle (Breathless); Bande a Part, though very much a Nouvelle Vague movie, was comparatively far more traditional in its approach. The plot involves two Parisian buddies, Franz and Arthur (straight out of American B-movies), convincing Odile, a lovely but naïve young lady, to help them in robbing her place, which inevitably leads to disastrous consequences; in the meantime both would-be criminals try all their tricks to seduce Odile. The movie crackles with its delectable charm, deadpan humour and the memorable chemistry between the acting leads. It also comprises of two iconic scenes – an impromptu dance sequence at a café and the trio running through Louvre (which was later paid homage to in Bartolucci’s Dreamers). Quentin Tarantino paid the ultimate tribute to Godard and this movie by naming his now defunct production company Band Apart.

Note: My recent review of this film can be found here.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard 
Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Romantic Drama/Comedy/Gangster/Avante-Garde 
Language: French 
Country: France