Thursday 29 January 2009

Dreams (Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) [1990]

Though often dismissed as pompous self-indulgence borne out of senility, Dreams nonetheless deserves a watch as much for its visual poetry as for the philosophical overtones of one of the greatest masters of world cinema – Akira Kurosawa. Comprising of 8 loosely connected dreams, semi-autobiographical vignettes if you will, the movie has covered a plethora of subjects ranging from superstitions to surreal explorations, from deforestation to the futility of war, from nuclear holocaust to a post-apocalypse, from hopelessness to celebration of life. Some of the best shorts here, like the one where Martin Scorsese plays Van Gogh (arguably the best of the lot), the deathly portrayal of Japan’s militaristic past, the one with the sublime animal dance, and the marvelous final short set in an utopian village, are those which manage to tread the fine line between philosophical overtures and moralizing. Things, however, get hackneyed and avoidable in the ones where Kurosawa couldn’t help being overtly didactic. On the whole this is a unique, albeit an inconsistent, experience.

p.s. By the way, is the elaborate dance sequence of forest gods and goddesses in the second short a subtle tribute to the legendary ‘dance of ghosts’ scene in Satyajit Ray’s timeless fantasy movie
Goopy Gaine Bagha Baine (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), considering the fact that Kurosawa and Ray had immense mutual respect and admiration for each other? I'd love to know if others (i.e. those who've seen both the movies) feel the same way as I do.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Adventure/Experimental/Avant-Garde
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Tuesday 27 January 2009

The Wrestler [2008]

Directed by American filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler is a gem of a small-scale movie that has the ability to endear itself to its viewers despite never attempting to be a mainstream or an overtly sentimentalized film. The movie tells the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, once a huge superstar, but now a has-been wrestler who shows his skills in unflattering rings and struggling for a regular flow of income. The greatest aspect of the movie is that, because it has a very simple premise, it manages to present an intimate and moving portrayal of the life of the physically bruised and battered man desperately trying to cling to his lost glory days, striving to mend the fractured relationship with his estranged daughter, and hoping to settle down with a stripper he likes spending his time with. Mickey Rourke has given a stupendous performance as the eponymous wrestler – a middle-aged, defeated, severely lonely man living in an emotional vacuum; the only thing he knows he’s good at is performing dangerous, gravity-defying stunts. The touching story boasts of layered characterizations, understated though extremely palpable pathos and humanism, a truly magnificent final shot, and a terrific original song by Bruce Springsteen.

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Grindhouse (Planet Terror & Death Proof) [2007]

Grindhouse is a no holes barred homage to the sleazy, low-budget, ultra-violent, Z-grade slasher films and exploitation pics (in essence, B-movies) that maverick filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino feasted on, in run-down single screen halls (grindhouses), during their days of growing up. Planet Terror, directed by Rodriguez, which forms the first segment of the kinetic double-bill, is a post-apocalyptic dystopian tale of tussle between ravenous zombies and humans. Though mercilessly gory, the movie has enough smart-ass action and wry humour to get blood racing. The second feature, Death Proof, directed by Tarantino, and arguably the far superior of the two, has a psycho stuntman (played to perfection by Kurt Russel) who loves taking down his beautiful victims while driving at 125 mph. Though the more sedate of the two, this is no less thrilling, and is filled to brim with high-octane virtuosity, pop-culture references and enormously engaging ‘Tarantino talk’, as they say. And boy, does Tarantino have a thing for dancing! First there was the chilling ear-cutting sequence in Reservoir Dogs, then the cool Saturday Night style Travolta-Uma Thurman tango in Pulp Fiction, and now the awesome lap dance scene in Death Proof. In order to get the feel right, the editing and film quality have been deliberately made to look crappy, the content is as politically incorrect and gleefully shocking as humanly possible, and to top ‘em all, the features are punctuated by some bizarre faux-trailers. Though an empty stomach is a prerequisite for watching Grindhouse, this is one hell of a fun ride down memory lane.

Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Action/Thriller/Horror/B-Film
Language: English
Country: US

Monday 19 January 2009

Chalchitra (The Kaleidoscope) [1981]

Auteur extraordinaire and angry man of Bengali cinema, Mrinal Sen has always been daringly provocative in the potshots that he loves taking at the petite bourgeoisie. However, even by his exalted standards, the incisive and pointed observations in Chalchitra are truly extraordinary, and in a way quite akin to his Interview. Made in a template that has a strong Godard-ian feel about it in terms of its irreverent style and an almost absurdist sense of black humour, the movie crackles with incredible wit, dare and energy. Anjan Dutt, long before he became a wonderful songwriter and a filmmaker, acted in a few of Sen’s movies. Here he has played the role of a young, cynical and glibly apolitical guy, who is asked by a newspaper owner (Utpal Dutt in a cameo) to write an intimate though sellable article on the ‘middle class milieu’ within two days to prove his prowess as a writer. Searching for a spark at every corner and event, a simple question asked by his brother as to how many coal burners are there in Calcutta acts as the catalyst he was frantically looking for. And then a Fellini-esque dream about repressed and deeply subconscious anger at the bourgeoisie acts as the clincher. The movie isn’t just an example of bravura filmmaking, it is also a brilliant commentary on social structure and urban life. Finely acted and aided by a terrific script and an observant camera, Chalchitra is a must watch, and not just for Sen aficionados.

Director: Mrinal Sen
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Avant-Garde
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Saturday 17 January 2009

Detective [1985]

While speaking about Detective critics often say that, after years of making films for himself, Godard once more chose to make one for the audience. However there’s a damn good catch here – the ‘audience’ in the statement isn’t an all-encompassing one, rather those accustomed to the iconic and quintessentially unique style of filmmaking that marked his movies during the heyday of the French Nouvelle Vague movement in the 60’s, i.e. those which are popularly identified with the epithet ‘accessible’. Starring the inimitable Jean-Pierre Leaud as the eponymous detective, the movie follows parallel storylines with a swanky Parisian hotel as the common link. As with Godard’s works, the plot has taken a backseat vis-à-vis the structure and style of execution. Filled with pop culture references, plethora of red herrings, witty and satirical commentaries on a host of topics ranging from infidelity to urban life to literature, Detective is a passionate blast of energy and an oblique homage to some of Godard’s favourite genres, viz. film noirs, private eye, gangster movies, etc.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Genre: Comedy Drama/Urban Drama/Crime Drama/Social Satire/Ensemble Film
Language: French
Country: France

Thursday 15 January 2009

Sex and Lucia (Lucia y el Sexo) [2001]

Sex and Lucia is in the veins of classic European arthouse movies – it has a very lazy pace, it explores deeply psychoanalytical issues and is unabashedly promiscuous. Anyone watching the movie solely for its erotic content might be in for a jolting; its mind-bending plot where the line between facts and fiction often gets blurred, and its decidedly mournful tone and gloomy atmosphere is quite likely to make the movie a not so pleasing watch for the casual viewers. The tale of a serendipitous love affair between a writer and a waitress soon turns into a fragile journey of self-exploration and desperate albeit futile attempts to come to peace with one’s relationships, memories and existence. The film has employed the use of multiple flashbacks, vivid imageries, natural lightings and complex psychological explorations to bring forth its theme of guilt and isolation. The movie might seem to drag at times, the narrative might be too meandering at occasions, and the acting might not be top-rate; fortunately that is more than made up by Paz Vega who has played the role of Lucia – her passionate performance has made this strikingly attractive lady an actress to look out for.

Director: Julio Medem
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: Spanish
Country: Spain

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Rashomon [1950]

The most famous Japanese movie and legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s best known work, Rashomon ranks among world cinema’s greatest masterpieces. Borrowed innumerable times by various directors, this was the first movie that introduced what is known as the ‘Rashomon Effect’ – contradictory/conflicting chronicling of the same incident by the various observers of the event. Set in the 11th century and employing flashbacks inside flashbacks, the movie recounts what might have transpired which led to the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband allegedly by a samurai (played with explosive unpredictability by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune). The camera work is exemplary – who can ever forget the scene where the woodcutter (narrator) is walking into the jungle before he discovers (?) the crime scene. A horde of cameras at various angles and speeds were used to record the motion of just a single character, making this one of the most unforgettable sequences in film history. At once ominous and reflective, Rashomon is most memorable for its brilliant exploration of the thin line between ‘truth’ and ‘perception’.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Samurai Movie
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Revolutionary Road [2008]

Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet have come together after a gap of over a decade for this Sam Mendes movie. The two lead actors, too, have come a long way since then. Revolutionary Road, however, is as far removed from Titanic, as the characters of the two protagonists here are vis-à-vis the James Cameron blockbuster. Mendes, who made a scathing attack on the hollowness of ‘American Dream’ in his astonishing debut movie American Beauty, has chosen marital malaise in 1950s America as his subject matter. But where the former was a mordant, black comedy, the tone here is grim and desolate. And quite like Little Children, the perfectly manicured façade of an upwardly mobile suburbia has been ripped apart with clinical efficiency. Leo is exceptional in his intense and psychologically layered portrayal of a seemingly adventurous guy who, in essence, is a closet conformist. Kate, too, is nearly as good in her restrained performance of a free-spirit woman trapped in an eventless marriage. Micheal Shannon, who made tremendous name with Shotgun Stories, has given an explosive and fearless turn in the otherwise two-dimensional and slightly misplaced character of an unstable mathematician who dares to defy societal hypocrisy. The powerful script and the assured ability of the director have ensured that the movie is never a laborious watch despite its heavy content.

Director: Sam Mendes
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Family Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 11 January 2009

Boogie Nights [1997]

This epic, ambitious, satirical and bold-as-hell comedy-drama by Paul Thomas Anderson (his second feature following his decent debut film, Hard Eight), laced with satire, fun and warm nostalgia, recounts the story of a business that everyone loves to hate and yet the world can’t seem to be able to live without – the porn industry. The huge ensemble star cast comprising of a fine bunch of character actors (including Anderson regular John C. Reilly), wonderfully brings out of the closet the actual lives of porn stars. They might have turned their bodies into commodities and sex into mechanized rote, but they have their lives, dreams and heartbreaks as well. Filled with innuendoes, a very broad scope, elaborate shots, and a fluid narrative, this is a very engaging movie. Mark Wahlberg, the latest recruit thanks largely to his generous endowment, along with the motherly Julianne Moore, the cuckolded William H. Macy, the manic Heather Graham, the patriarchal Burt Raynolds, the overtly gay Phillip Seymour Hoffman et al, who’ve all been there and done that (pun intended), have managed to present a colourful, delirious, obsessive, and a continually evolving world, that, to the consumers, is filled with clichés, and provides the outside world equal amounts of attraction, pleasure, curiosity and rabid derision.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Genre: Comedy Drama/Social Satire/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 8 January 2009

2046 [2004]

Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai continued his enthralling tryst with unrequited love and loneliness with 2046. A loose sequel to In the Mood for Love and with passing references to Days of Being Wild, 2046 could easily be one of Wong Kar-Wai’s most challenging projects. The movie has two simultaneous timelines – one in Hong Kong of the late 1960s where a young, struggling author (played with devastating effect by Kar-Wai regular Tony Leung, one of the finest actors of his generation), upon getting rejection in his first (and true) love, has become a severely detached individual and a serial womanizer, and spends the days leading to each year-end with a separate woman; and in 2046, where nothing ever changes and which happens to be principal motif of the author’s stories. Arresting cinematography by long time collaborator Christopher Doyle, exquisite production design, and a lazy yet rapturous narrative, have managed to capture the beauty and sadness lingering in dinghy hotel rooms and narrow staircases, and have helped make this existentialist romantic drama-cum-pseudo sci-fi movie an engaging poem to the lost souls of the world.

Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Genre: Drama/Romance/Existential Drama/Psychological Drama/Sci-Fi
Language: Chinese (Cantonese)
Country: China (Hong Kong)

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi [2008]

I had watched Ghajini prior to this; moreover, my enthusiasm for the movie was zilch to put it mildly. Hence, suffice it to say, I had a far better time than I had expected, while watching it. Starring the indefatigable Shahrukh Khan, Rab Ne… is a formulaic movie but with a heart. Overtly sentimental, melodramatic at the drop of a hat, brazenly sappy, filled with over-the-top romance and relying heavily on coincidences – the movie is as mainstream as it gets; yet, (though I find it too embarrassing to admit) I found the movie strangely enjoyable. The story couldn’t be any more filmic – a man, married to a much younger girl in a marriage of convenience, gets a secret image makeover, changes his identity, and starts romancing her on the backdrop of a reality-show dance competition. The part of a geeky, unspectacular, soft spoken, middle-class, scooter riding, shy man and loving husband has been played extremely well by Shahrukh. It’s when he becomes the more recognizable lover-boy, err man, during the character’s dual existence that the situation starts getting more run-of-the-mill. Debutant Anoushka Sharma has done a pretty good job as the young bride. The snap shots along with a voiceover that chronicles what happens after the incidents of the movie, shown during the end credits, are quite hilarious. This is a feel good movie and nothing more.

Director: Aditya Chopra
Genre: Drama/Romantic Comedy/Musical
Language: Hindi
Country: India

Monday 5 January 2009

Burn After Reading [2008]

Rarely, if ever, would you find a volte-face such as this in the world of cinema. Coen brothers’ follow-up to the grim, violent, dark and brooding No Country for Old Men is as different from it as the proverbial chalk is from cheese. An immensely entertaining movie and an exceptional work of farcical comedy, Burn after Reading doesn’t just poke fun at the Intelligence, but on the intelligence of the average Americans as well. The brothers nearly revel at their pointed jabs and devilishly clever observations. Comprising of a motley of some of the most whimsical plot developments and idiosyncratic characters, this movie is a treat to watch, though even the viewers are a butt of their deftly construed situational jokes. And the best part of the movie is that it is never didactic or forced in its satires, cynicism and parodies; it is funny, piercing and delectably nihilistic, though, I’m sure, immensely misleading for those uninitiated to or unprepared for the Coen’s brand of humour. Fabulously enacted by its dream cast of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand, based on a plot that is oh-so-gloriously labyrinthine (a Coens’ specialty), and magnificently edited to have all the mad-cap twists played out at just over 90 minutes, the movie is a smart, memorable and deliriously funny exposition of its brilliant yet succinct caption, viz. “Intelligence is relative”.

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Farcical Comedy/Black Comedy/Ensemble Film
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday 4 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire [2008]

Slumdog Millionaire could easily have been the cinematic equivalent of ‘Slum Tourism’. However, despite the graphic detailing of the dark underbelly of Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, the movie has come out with a content that far surpasses the physical displays of poverty, slums and crime. Brimming with hope, humanism and humour, this Dickensian tale of an underdog, who, with a basketful of street-smarts and infinite love for his childhood sweetheart at his disposal, makes the incredible journey from hell hole to "hot seat", and experiences every possible kind of joy, heartbreak and horror in the process, is a grim fairy tale and an ode to life itself. Danny “Trainspotting Boyle, has shown his amazing ability to capture a place and its inhabitants without diluting the contents; in fact I can recall of only a handful of Hindi movies, like Parinda and Satya, that succeeded in painting the city in such striking detail. Boyle’s tour-de-force direction has been aided by terrific camera work, an expressionistic splash of colours and images, hyper-kinetic narrative (making terrific use of flashbacks), and a thumping score by A. R. Rehman. Right from Dev Patel’s restrained and mature performance and Anil Kapoor’s sleazy and wisecracking game show host, to every single support and child actor employed, the acting is first-rate and the characters very well delineated.

To read a more in-depth review of the movie by me, click here.

Director: Danny Boyle
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Underdog Story/Romance
Language: English/Hindi
Country: UK/India

Thursday 1 January 2009

Ek Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn) [1979]

Staunch Marxist, principal provocateur and one of Satyajit Ray’s greatest contemporaries, Mrinal Sen is famous for his political and ‘angry’ movies. But he was also equally capable of making films which were less aggressive and more eloquent; case in point – Ek Din Pratidin. Its storyline is quite simple – the sole breadwinner of a lower middle-class family, who happens to be the eldest daughter of the family, fails to return one night, only to turn up when least expected. Through this movie Sen has taken an incisive look on the parochial middle-class psyche, the fragile clash between conservative sentiments and modernization, and the question of female emancipation. When she fails to return, the family is afraid and concerned. But when she finally does returns, things turn even more harrowing – conjectures, snide remarks and silent rebukes make her return a matter of greater disturbance, albeit understated, than the more obvious one that arose during her absence. Exquisite acting and terrific sketches of the nuances of various characters’ thinking processes have suffused the movie with realism and subtle observation, while making it devoid of melodrama. That the whereabouts of the young lady, played by Mamata Shankar, has been left open to interpretation, made the movie that much more poignant. In fact Sen himself once stated, "I myself didn’t know what had happened to her that night.”

Director: Mrinal Sen
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Psychological Drama/Family Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India