Sunday 30 November 2008

Ashes and Diamonds [1958]

Polish master Andrzej Wajda’s most famous (and perhaps his finest) film, Ashes and Diamonds was the final chapter in his famed World War II trilogy. The movie, set on the last day of 20th Century’s most acrimonious war, in one of the worst affected countries – Poland, this is a deeply anti-war movie; it is thought-provoking, but never overtly aggressive. The plot involves a young member of the underground resistance movement being entrusted with the job of carrying out an assassination. But the movie, in essence, focuses on much more – ranging from political confusion and ideological ambiguity in a mission which for outsiders and fanatics was wither black or white, to love and comradeship at times of war. Though the subtitles gave me a lot of trouble (the bit rates of the movie and the subtitles were different, and hence necessitated a lot of adjusting) and didn’t let me have a very fulfilling experience, the Camus-esque existentialism and the strangely affecting performance of the lead actor, posthumously labeled Polish James Dean for his promising career having been cut short by his tragic death, caught my attention nonetheless.

Director: Andrzej Wajda
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Resistance Film/War Drama
Language: Polish
Country: Poland

Friday 28 November 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead [2007]

Veteran American director Sidney Lumet has always been a searing critic of the “American Dream”, most notably in two of his most legendary movies – 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon. And his latest movie is a masterly study of the complex interplay between seemingly easily definable characters, on the backdrop of a disastrous jewellery store heist. The movie, through its grim and severely claustrophobic narrative, and through terrific usage of flashbacks and shifting perspectives (point-of views), presents a distressing picture of an urban landscape where dysfunctional families, misplaced loyalties, vacuous sense of ethics, unforgiving modes lifestyles, and a twisted sense of natural justice, are the unfortunate orders of the day. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a cocky and seemingly successful career-man with a sultry trophy wife, Ethan Hawke as his intellectually and monetarily challenged brother, and Albert Finney as their surprisingly dogged and ruthless father, have given remarkable performances to present a rapidly decaying social and moral structure, filled to brim with such elements as lust, betrayal, frustrations and at times downright idiocy, in this dark, distressing thriller.

Director: Sidney Lumet
Genre: Crime Thriller/Psychological Drama/Family Drama/Heist Movie
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Singin' in the Rain [1952]

I can’t say that I have seen all the great musicals that are there to see; in fact musicals aren’t my favourite genre to start with. But of all the ones that I have seen, Singin’ in the Rain has got to be my favourite (may the makers of Sound of Music, An Englishman in Paris, My Fair Lady et al rest in peace). A delightfully loving homage on Hollywood’s dream factory, the movie has provided a captivating portrayal of star system and the real people behind the makeup, though a slapstick superstar of silent movies (Gene Kelly at his enthralling, histrionic best) and an ingenue who hates the glossy make-believe world portrayed therein (played charmingly by Debbie Reynolds), at the backdrop of cinema’s revolutionary and historic transition from silent films to talkies. Hilarious, humourous, satirical, affable, poignant, insightful – this is heartfelt, nostalgic and good cinema at its best. And who can ever forget Gene Kelly tap-dancing his way to glory to the title track “I’m Singin’ in the Rain”, rendered unforgettably by the mellifluous baritone of Frank Sinatra, in one of the most brilliantly choreographed and photographed sequences in film history. Pure magic.

Director: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Genre: Comedy/Musical/Showbiz Comedy/Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Monday 24 November 2008

Paris, Texas [1984]

Paris, Texas ranks as the best film by celebrated German filmmaker Wim Wenders, and is often counted among the finest movies ever made. This is a marvelous road movie that delves into spiritual, post-modernist and psycho-analytical issues. The vast American landscape with its neon billboards, long uninterrupted highways and vast uncharted territories has been wonderfully employed to depict human alienation where communication has become a difficult parameter. Right from its lazily captivating opening sequence, where a mysterious looking man without any name or identity is seen wandering about the Texan deserts, the director keeps us enthralled. Soon we come to know that he has been missing for the last four years and has a young son who is being looked after by his thoroughly Americanized brother and his wife. But the reasons for his sudden disappearance are revealed only at the end through the now legendary one-way glass monologue. Like Alice in the Cities, another majestic road movie by Wenders, here too the complex relationship between a disenchanted adult and an exuberant child plays at the forefront of the movie. Harry Dean Stanton, as the melancholic, taciturn and deeply human protagonist Travis, is brilliant in his understated portrayal; and so is the performance of the kid who plays his young son slowly getting to connect with his father. The long, evocative camera shots and the minimalist acoustic guitar riffs play vital roles in presenting a poetic tale of loneliness, lost love and home-coming.

Director: Wim Wenders
Genre: Drama/Road Movie
Language: English
Country: Germany/US

Sunday 23 November 2008

Away with Words [1998]

Away with Words has nearly everything that could be there in the cinematography section – from point-of-view shots to flashforwards, from subdued blue filters to bright natural lightings, from standstills to motion blurs; and they are all a treat to the eye. Of course, coming from world’s most famous DOP Christopher Doyle (of Chungking Express and Hero fame), this was expected – more so since he had complete carte blanche given that this is his directorial venture. And one cannot deny the fact that his exceptional usage of visual montages has created an intensely surreal feast for the viewers. However, it can’t also be denied that Doyle’s directorial debut is an exceedingly curious, psychedelic and experimental movie devoid of any narrative, despite the theme of loneliness and alienation trough the tale of its two protagonists – a Chinese guy with the ability to associate physical dimensions with abstract words, and a hard-drinking Australian (undoubtedly Doyle’s alter ego). Too many liberties were taken where more restraint was necessary principally because Doyle the cinematographer strongly overshadowed Doyle the filmmaker. Hence the end product is a visual delight for the eyes but a bizarre jumble of undecipherable sequences for the mind.

Director: Christopher Doyle
Genre: Psychological Drama/Ensemble Film/Experimental
Language: Chinese
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Friday 21 November 2008

3-Iron (Bin-Jip) [2004]

Controversial Korean director Kim Ki-Duk’s 3-Iron is a uniquely beautiful and an immensely contemplative movie. The movie is filled with deeply existential and philosophical undertones, thanks in large parts to its sparse dialogues, beautifully choreographed imagery, and the hauntingly surreal narrative. In fact, the two principal protagonists of the movie – a strangely psychotic drifter who surreptitiously moves in unoccupied houses only to spend some serene time and do some unexpected philanthropy, and a fragile and bruised married lady living a torturous existence under complete domination of her volatile husband – are never seen conversing with each other, and yet develop a profound, platonic relationship where eye glances, facial expressions and soft touches take the place of words. Despite being punctured with displays as well as implications of brutality and violence, the movie is filled with layers of symbolisms and a lingering sense of sadness where dreams and reality are juxtaposed to an extent where they remain hardly separable.

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

Tuesday 18 November 2008

California Dreamin' (Endless) [2007]

I’m really falling in love with Romanian cinema (Romanian New Wave if you will). There is a distinct and instantly recognizable flavour to their movies (be it 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 12:08 East of Bucharest or this one, my last movie at 2008 Kolkata Film Festival) – grim and compelling realism, bold take on troubling socio-political issues, minimalist in composition and often deadpan satires. The first and only film of Cristian Nemescu (he died in a car crash while the movie was in post-production) California Dreamin’ (Endless) is an exceedingly enjoyable yet bitingly cynical fable set during the infamous Kosovo War. Brilliantly enacted by its ensemble cast, the movie presents a small Romanian village community and a group of American soldiers carrying NATO equipments, where each of the principal protagonists are driven by their own agenda (selfish or otherwise) – the Captain of the army group whose only concern is the deadline, the soft spoken Sergeant, the servile local Mayor striving to attract investments, the stationmaster who hates anything to do with America, his physically captivating and rebellious daughter, and the school nerd secretly in love with her. Despite the jerky camera motions or scrappy editing in the last third of the film, this is a powerful movie suffused with sharply observed insight, dark but enjoyable humour, a deep sense of pathos, and masterful interjections of satire and irony. The director’s untimely death is indeed a great loss for the world of cinema.

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

Director: Cristian Nemescu
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Political Satire/Black Comedy/Ensemble Film
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

Monday 17 November 2008

Samaritan Girl (Samaria) [2004]

Samaritan Girl, the third movie I watched at this year’s Kolkata Film Festival, is a somber and serious drama directed by Kim Ki-Duk. Even though this is my first experience of the South Korean director, it wasn’t hard to understand why he wins appraisals at international film circuits and courts controversy at his country in the same breath – his nonchalance in tackling subjects that most would want to carefully avoid. Told in three chapters, the movie tells the tale of a young, sensitive girl who leaves aside scruples to earn a quick buck with her close friend, he strange U-turn on her friend’s tragic death, and her final confrontation (a subtle psychological) one with her loving father when her dark secret gets accidentally revealed. The subject has been sensitively handled, and has been infused with a sad, morose tone that acts as a means of juxtaposition for the girl’s existence. However, what could have been a very dark and troubling film, didn’t really have that extra bite to really move or disturb us. This strange tale of lost innocence, redemption, two lonely souls’ attempts at connection with each other and with strangers which were destined to fail from the beginning, and a father’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the shocking revelations about her daughter, is saddening though lacking in profundity.

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

Sunday 16 November 2008

I Served the King of England [2007]

There were two principal reasons for deciding to catch a movie (at the ongoing Kolkata Film Festival) with as unattractive a title as I Served the King of England – the movie has been directed by the Czech master Jiri Menzel, and the huge buzz it had generated here at the festival circuit. This is a pitch black comedy and a socio-political satire marvelously disguised by its bright picturization and infectious narrative. Covering genres that range from bittersweet fable to slapstick and vaudeville, this picaresque tale managed to make me laugh and think in equal measures. Told in elaborate flashbacks by a diminutive old man recently released from prison (having served only 14 years and 9 months of his 15 year sentence), the movie follows the meteoric rise of an ambitious waiter whose sole dream is to be a millionaire. Told in the form of a farcical comedy, and punctuated with heavy doses of absurdism, wry humour and bleak ironies, but with strong overtones of pathos and humanism, the movie succeeded in painting a rich and vivid picture of the troubled history of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia. The two things that especially stood out were the director’s audacity to tackle this extremely tricky subject with such bravado, and the high-voltage performances by the two actors who essayed the gleefully amoral and dangerously detached protagonist in his younger days, and the reminiscing, introspective and strangely captivating older patron representing the present, respectively.

Director: Jiri Menzel
Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/Absurdist Comedy/Period Film
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic

Saturday 15 November 2008

A Lost Man (Un Homme Perdue) [2007]

A Lost Man is the kind of movie the only way of viewing which is at film festivals, where one often ends up watching movies which are stranger than what one might have bargained for. Ditto for this French movie; this was the first film that I saw at this year's Kolkata Film Festival. The movie, in the form of a loose travelogue, follows two protagonists – a trigger-happy French photographer with a lewd fetish for ‘live’ photography (if you know what I mean), and a mysterious, laconic and world-weary Middle-Eastern wanderlust who is running away from one thing that no one can ever escape – past. The movie is unabashedly artsy in nature, but hopelessly hollow in its intellectual content. The biggest failure of the movie is that it fails to add layers of these two otherwise enigmatic and deeply existential characters; in other words, the director, by stubbornly refusing to delve into their pasts and their thought processes, ends up presenting two characters who remain as two-dimensional and unknown to us during the end credits as they were when the movie began. And what happen in between seem inconsequential in hindsight.

Director: Danielle Arbid
Genre: Drama/Road Movie/Existential Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: French/Lebanese
Country: Lebanon/France

Thursday 13 November 2008

Quantum of Solace [2008]

Based on a little known short story by Ian Fleming, Quantum of Solace could have easily become a great spy movie – what with the inner turmoil of an otherwise brilliant agent, and a fair share of megalomaniacs and red hot damsels in distress. Unfortunately, while what the director perhaps wanted to make was an unglamourized spy thriller in the same veins of maybe something like Munich or The Conversation, where the human story is more important than spectacular car chases, the money-crazy monster of Hollywood and big production houses refused to bulge. So instead what we have is a bit of hotch-potch – a little of this and a little of that without one complementing the other. Thankfully, the day was rescued to some extent by Daniel Craig, in his follow-up to Casino Royale. I won’t go into the longest running debate among the aficionados of Double-O-Seven regarding the greatest Bond ever, but suffice it to say that what Craig has managed in accomplishing is quite exceptional. Bond still loves his Martinis, babes and fast cars all right; but in place of the suave, wise-cracking gentleman-agent who could beat all those goons without having a crease develop in his dinner jacket, what we instead have is a bruised and battered spy who’d rather avenge the death of his love than follow procedures in the line of duty.





Director: Marc Forster

Genre: Spy Thriller/Action

Language: English

Country: UK

Monday 10 November 2008

Little Children [2006]

Little Children, adopted from a novel of the same name, is an intense psychological exploration of the residents of an upwardly mobile Boston suburbia inflicted with issues ranging from paranoia and prejudice to downright hypocrisy. On the surface they look just as any other rich and ostensibly cultured society; but scratch a little and you realize absolutely no one is perfect, rather far from it. The principal protagonist is an educated woman (played with incisive wit, remarkable confidence and a very palpable undercurrent of repressed sexuality and rebelliousness by Kate Winslet), trapped in an eventless marriage to a man with an addiction to web porn, who gets drawn into an adulterous affair with a married man whose life is overshadowed by his successful and extremely attractive alpha-female wife. A parallel (extremely disturbing and brilliantly enacted) subplot involves the personal crusade of an ex-cop against a recently released convicted pedophile. This is an exceedingly dark but gracefully executed movie, unsettling in its frank depiction of what actually happens inside the houses and minds of people who all revel in their otherwise perfectly manicured picture-perfect façades.

Director: Todd Field
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Ensemble Film/Slice of Life
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday 8 November 2008

Masculin Feminin [1966]

Made during the end of what is now considered the First Phase of French intellectual and iconoclast Jean Luc-Godard’s filmmaking career, Masculin Feminin lies just within the borders insofar as accessibility is concerned. An impressionistic, freewheeling, and wildly satirical take on the Parisian youth culture of 1960’s France, Masculin Feminin, as Godard so brilliantly put it, “is a film on the Children of Marx and Coca Cola”. The movie comprises of a series of disjointed, free form abstracts on a world where the young people participate in discussions and dialogues ranging from Bob Dylan and anti-Vietnam War protests, to love and the Pill. Devoid of any intellectual confines, formal technicalities and linear thought processes, the movie is as nonconforming in its digressions, non sequiturs and formless construction (the memorable acting, for instance, is unrehearsed), as it is in its avalanche of ideas and opinionated musings. The movie is as much a diary of ideologies presented in the form of casual banter, as it is a pointed jab at a society where only a few dare to live while others just continue existing. 

p.s. This is an earlier review. My latest review can be found here.





Director: Jean-Luc Godard 

Genre: Urban Drama/Social Satire/Avant-Garde/Experimental/Romantic Comedy/Existential Drama

Language: French 

Country: France

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army [2008]

-->Dear Mr. Guillermo Del Toro,

It seems you truly have the Midas touch. Doesn’t matter if you are composing a profoundly haunting poetry in motion like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, or a fun summer blockbuster like the Hellboy series or Blade Trinity. I know everyone needs a break once in a while. And one also needs to be practical; after all Hollywood is where the money is. But c’mon, if Scorsese decides to make a sex comedy or Tarantino a romantic tearjerker, wouldn’t that be unnecessary even though we know, with their colossal skills, they would still find a way to make a decent movie at the end? For Hellboy II: The Golden Army is exactly that – I agree it is a fun watch with its deadpan comedy, well orchestrated action sequences and impressive CG; but it also is a no-brainer assembly-line popcorn stuff that surely doesn’t need an enormously talented auteur like you taking orders from producers who can't think beyond dollars and dimes. Further, where the first part was at least unique in its ideation and had some psychological stuff like the horned red superhero’s struggle against his dark alter-ego, the sequel is a film that wouldn’t linger in one’s mind beyond its run time. Guillermo, kindly reconsider your choice of films, as the cinephiles really want more of the visionary Mexican genius than the fun Hollywood popstar.

A Concerned Admirer.

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Genre: Action/Comedy/Superhero Film/Comic Book Film/Fantasy
Language: English
Country: US

Monday 3 November 2008

Days of Being Wild [1990]

Hong Kong New Wave maestro Wong kar-Wai may easily be called the unofficial spokesperson for the lonely hearts of the world, thanks largely to his staggering trilogy on unrequited love and broken hearts (the brilliant Chungking Express, the psychedelic Fallen Angels, and the poignant In the Mood for Love). But before them, he made this largely unknown but aesthetically beautiful semi-autobiographical film Days of Being Wild – a tale of loss, missed moments, unreciprocated emotions, failed attempts to connect, and loneliness. No one gets what he/she yearns for and ends up with regret, disillusionment, and finally, acceptance. It is marvelously enacted by the protagonists, especially by Leslie Cheung as the severely detached and existentialist protagonist, Maggie Cheung as a soft spoken regular girl, and Carina Lau as a wild, boyish and vibrant dancer. Further, Kar-Wai joined forces for the first time with his famous collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and the result isn’t just visually engrossing in its imagery, but also nuanced and haunting in its understated beauty.

Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Existentialist Drama/Ensemble Film
Language: Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin)
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Sunday 2 November 2008

Fashion [2008]

Fashion, the latest outing from Madhur Bhandarkar, the self-proclaimed maker of “realistic cinema”, is a behind the scene look at the glitz and glamour of the high-flying fashion world. The grimy, ultra-competitive, and at times ugly dog-eat-dog world presented with unflinching honesty is commendable. Even though the time-line seems disjointed at times, the dialogues in a few scenes borders on the clichéd and formulaic tracks, and the character developments and transitions aren’t always smooth, Bhandarkar deserves kudos for holding his own against Bollywood’s dream factory by not sugar-coating the uncomfortable elements and the dark underbelly of life on the fast lane which comes tagged with the industry of size-zero figures, mercurial fame and quick buck. Priyanka Chopra has given a sterling and extremely believable performance as Meghna, an ambitious small town girl who experiences a meteoric rise to fame and an equally spectacular fall from it. Kangana Ranaut (Woh Lamhe) is alluring, though a bit over-the-top, as a coke-snorting, emotionally fragile queen of the ramp, whose complex by-the-sword life is a sort of déjà vu for the audience vis-à-vis Meghna; however, her denouement is far more brutal and sad. The theme tune of the movie, too, strikes a chord.

Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Genre: Drama/Showbiz Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Saturday 1 November 2008

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) [2006]

-->Directed by the maverick New Age Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a surreal, sweeping, visually stunning and emotionally enthralling pseudo-fantasy fable set in the backdrop of the turbulent post-civil war Spain. The theme propounded by his previous film The Devil’s Backbone, viz. the juxtaposition of the real world horrors vis-à-vis the fantasy world ones, attained mind-numbing and spectacular proportions in Pan’s Labyrinth. The tale of a young innocent girl Ofelia, who is given three dangerous tasks by a mythical faun Pan to prove that she is indeed a princess of the magical world, is told alongside the violent and profoundly distressing war between Franco’s brutal army and the guerrilla rebels. The movie is as arresting for its astonishing cinematography and the director’s incredible eye for the detail, as it is heart-rending for its delicate poetry and lyricism that manages to affect the viewer’s sense of being. Though universally praised on its release, its graphic violence and disturbing plot developments have ensured that it is not for the squeamish. Stirring score, outstanding special effects, and stellar performance by the cast including the young protagonist, have made this refreshingly unique and absolutely brilliant movie one for the ages.
Note: My recent review of the film can be found here.

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Genre: Drama/Fantasy Fable/War Drama/Epic
Language: Spanish
Country: Mexico