Monday 30 March 2009

Underground [1995]

Rarely does one get to watch a movie with such a fascinating blend of irreverence and nostalgia like Emir Kusturica’s imperious masterpiece Underground. Through the absurd exploits of its three unpredictable protagonists – the flamboyant Blacky, the intellectual Marco, and the beautiful Natalija, and a host of other colourful characters, Kusturica has painted a whimsical, outrageously farcical and deliriously exuberant recreation of the erstwhile Yugoslavia’s devastating history from being a Nazi-occupied territory during World War II, through Communist regime during Cold War, to the ugly Balkan Wars that resulted in the disintegration of the country along ethnic lines. On the surface the movie might seem like a vaudeville with its surrealistic images and carnival atmosphere, but scratch a little and you have a movie of epic proportions with a deeply tragic statement on the ludicrous and destructive nature of war where “brother kills a brother.” The acting is gleefully over the top, the trumpet-dominated score is brilliant, and the screenplay an original and freewheeling expression of artistic freedom. At once a black comedy and a grim tragedy, Underground begins with a thumping procession, twists and twirls through madcap adventures, and ends spectacularly in the land of Utopia. As an afterthought, the "underground" aspect of the movie might have been the inspiration for Goodbye, Lenin.

Director: Emir Kusturica
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Black Comedy/Political Satire/Avant-Garde/Experimental/Historical Epic/War
Language: Serbo-Croatian/German
Country: Serbia/Bosnia

Saturday 28 March 2009

The Pledge [2001]

The basic skeleton of the movie is a very simple one, and something tried and tested innumerable times – a veteran cop getting involved in a nasty investigation when he’s on the verge of retiring. But Sean Penn’s third feature behind the camera, The Pledge, is far more profound than that. A cop’s pledge to the victim’s mother turns into a deeply psychological exploration of themes like honour, justice and dogged obsession, rather than being just another tense police drama. The movie boasts of splendid visual beauty, a soundtrack that is moving and apt in equal measures, a languid yet introspective narrative, and a number of attention-grabbing cameos by the likes of Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro and Mickey Rourke. But at the heart of this quietly disturbing movie lies yet another bravura, you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-believe kind of performance by Jack Nicholson. Instead of the inimitable devilish grin and the explosive, anti-establishmentarian turns that have made him a legend, here we see him as a world-weary man fighting against a nemesis nobody believes in, and slowly walking down the path to insanity. His intense, implosive and incredibly nuanced portrayal has managed to add that extra layer of melancholy and underrated philosophical worth to this compelling character study from Penn.

Director: Sean Penn
Genre: Drama/Police Drama/Psychological Thriller/Mystery/Americana

Language: English

Country: US

Friday 27 March 2009

Fat Girl (A Ma Soeur!) [2001]

Fat Girl is an ultra-feministic movie by, you guessed it, a female director. Catherine Breillat is one of the most controversial filmmakers working today; watch this daringly provocative movie and you’ll know why. This is a grim and disturbing coming-of-age story of two adolescent teenage girls – an obese 12-year old girl who is desperate to lose her virginity, and her infinitely prettier and narcissistic older sister who loves all the attention she gets from the boys. Unsurprisingly, none of the male characters in the movie are likeable. Further, the ‘surprise’ psychobabble of a climax was a shocker in its lack of subtlety. On the flip side, the love-hate chemistry between the siblings has been very well portrayed. The two girls’ performances, too, are extremely noteworthy thanks to their audaciously frank, uninhibited and matured turns. As is perhaps evident, my views about this movie are very ambiguous. However, like Sex and Lucia, anyone watching the movie solely for its near pornographic content, will be in for a complex, deeply discomfiting, and at times a tad pretentious exploration of the psychosis of relationships and sex.

Director: Catherine Breillat
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Coming-of-Age
Language: French
Country: France

Thursday 26 March 2009

Taken [2008]

Coming from the same guy who made the ultra-hyperkinetic action flick District B13, it’s no surprise that Taken is a slick, fast and a downright enjoyable movie; but surprisingly, unlike the former, it isn’t a no-brainer show. It does belong to those movies that may require what is known as ‘suspension of disbelief’, but the execution is so damn engaging that I ended up quite liking the movie despite its oh-so-predictable skeleton of a father fighting against all odds to save his daughter from the bad guys – the murky world of flesh trade in this case. The packaging is very stylishly done and the action sequences are fabulous. And in Liam Neeson, as a former agent who hasn’t forgotten his exceptional trade skills, the so-called genre of mindless action movies gets a rare dose of intelligence and warmth. Taken might not be the best forum for portraying acting skills, but Neeson has infused a dose of believability and roundness in his character, thus taking the movie a notch higher than other such genre films. And boy o boy, did he kick some butt! Never ever piss off a movie dad, especially one who once worked for the 'Government'.

Director: Pierre Morel
Genre: Action/Thriller

Language: English

Country: France

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Once Upon a Time in America [1984]

Legendary Italian director Sergio Leone achieved world renown thanks to his irresistible “Spaghetti Western” trilogy, in particular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But the general consensus is that his final film, Once Upon A Time in America, was his greatest masterpiece. An epic tale of loyalty, camaraderie, lost love, and life on the streets, this is a gangster movie of tremendous power and vision. The nearly 4 hours running time might act as a deterrent, but given a choice I would have wanted the movie to go on forever – such is its breathtaking scope and beauty. The story revolves around four Jewish kids growing up in New York’s Lower East Side during the era of Prohibition and their rise through the ranks in the world of mobsters; but in essence it is, in equal measures, a tour de force statement and an elegiac poetry on American Dream. Robert De Nero, as the chief protagonist Noodles, was terrific in bringing forth the character’s emotional complexity despite never showcasing the manic outbursts he is famous for; James Woods, too, was great as his volatile comrade. The movie also boasts of a haunting score by Leone’s iconic collaborator Ennio Moricone.

Director: Sergio Leone
Genre: Gangster Drama/Ensemble Movie/Buddy Film

Language: English

Country: US

Saturday 14 March 2009

Into the Wild [2007]

Sean Penn, like a number of his contemporaries, is a sterling example of a revered actor who has effortlessly managed to make the transition to the director’s chair, and Into the Wild is arguably Penn the director’s magnum opus. Based on real events, the movie is an attempt, and an astounding one at that, to recreate the complex, eventful and life altering journey of a young wanderlust who leaves his dysfunctional family and hits the road in his search of truth and bliss – those magnetic yet eternally elusive things that are supposed to lie at the end of every great odyssey. Aided by a terrific soundtrack comprising of an array of beautiful country songs, and soothing camera work that lovingly explores beauty in America’s vast wilderness and her colourful locals, the movie manages to make an immediate impression. Add to that Emile Hirsch’s astonishingly “real” portrayal of a journey that isn’t just excruciatingly physical but also disturbingly psychological, and equally memorable turns by the supporting cast, and you have a movie that isn’t just exhilarating to watch, but also has the ability to make one ponder over issue ranging from life to death, and all that lies in between.

Director: Sean Penn
Genre: Drama/Road Movie/Psychological Drama/Adventure/Docu-fiction/Biopic
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 12 March 2009

The Reader [2008]

As a number of critics have so aptly pointed out, The Reader has the distinct feel of a European arthouse cinema to it – lazy narrative, low-cost look, natural lighting, unabashed nudity et al, despite being an American movie. Narrated by a German guy (Ralph Fiennes) reflecting on his past, the movie is about a naïve teenager who gets into a torrid affair with an older lady, who, as he comes to know later, is hiding an explosive secret that that is bound to have devastating implications on their lives. Covering topics ranging from sexual to psychoanalytical, this is a deeply thought provoking movie, and quite surprisingly for its slow pace, is an engaging watch. The movie boasts of a very sensitive treatment by the director, and a superb, implosive turn by Kate Winslet – one of the finest (and need I say, boldest) actresses of her generation. Even though the director didn’t delve too deep into her though-processes, thus leaving quite a few of her actions curiously unexplained, this is however a minor glitch in an otherwise highly commendable larger picture.

Director: Stephen Daldry
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Bishh (Poison) [2009]

Bishh, like Dev D, is a fascinating indication of the fact that a few Indian directors are willing to take risks that were inconceivable even a few years back – earning the wrath of puritans being one reason, presenting tales that are far removed from ordinary sensibilities being another. Bishh isn’t anywhere close to being a great movie, I concede – it sags a bit in the middle and the characters aren’t very well developed; but what makes the movie darn interesting lies in the director’s dare in having a hard look at the taboo subject of sexual emancipation and everything that comes with it, his courage in taking the experimental route rather than the popular one – the initial few scenes of the movie are quintessential Godard, and his ability to maintain the movie’s credibility despite a few cheesy as well as soppy sequences. The dark story revolves around three girls who, over a cup of coffee, decide to be ‘bad girls’ for the ensuing night. Splashed with psychedelic images and striking visuals, comprising of a laudable new-age soundtrack, and boasting of a daringly promiscuous turn by anchor-turned-actress Rituparna Sen who I found an extremely alluring combination of wild beauty and raw sensuality, the movie deserves a watch, even if it’s only for its bold content.

Director: Kaushik Mukherjee (aka Q)
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Psychological Drama/Existential Drama/Psychedelic Drama/Experimental
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Monday 9 March 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008]

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is proof enough that David Fincher and Brad Pitt make an excellent hunting pair. But, like me, if you were expecting a gritty and disturbing piece like their previous collaborations, Seven and Fight Club, you’ll be left a tad disappointed. That, of course, is in no way an opinion about the movie per se – the visually sweeping love story of a man who ages in reverse, does attain epic and heart-warming proportions. At best, the movie is captivating with its unique subject matter and stunning special effects, but at worst, it does at times take the form of an effusively sentimental melodrama. What saves the movie from going overboard and ensures that it is watchable, is that despite never even being close to Fincher’s best work, its heart does appear to be at the right place. Moreover, the acting is first rate. Brad Pitt is especially note-worthy for his nuanced and moving portrayal of a man at odds with fellow members of his species. Hence, in short, Benjamin Button’s Forest Gump-like journey through contemporary American history is captivating in parts thanks to its technical virtuosity, but doesn’t really have the bite or brilliance to leave the kind of lasting impression that some of Fincher's earlier works have.

Director: David Fincher
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Epic/Fantasy
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday 7 March 2009

Malena [2000]

She is every man’s wettest fantasy and every woman’s biggest envy, she is so impossibly beautiful, voluptuous and enigmatic that when she saunters out of her house, the whole town comes to a standstill, and yet, her jaw-dropping beauty becomes her greatest curse, making her an extremely lonely and a heavily misunderstood woman – yeah, that’s Malena for you. A bittersweet coming-of-age story of an adolescent Sicilian boy, who gets hopelessly enamored by an older woman during the turbulent times of Mussolini’s Italy, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena is reminiscent of another wonderful coming-of-age movie of his, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. Some critics have been irked by the so-called objectification of Malena’s character – but one must remember that the narrative is through the thirteen year old Renato’s eyes, and hence our perception of Malena is directly related to his; in that perspective Malena’s character has been developed exactly as it should have been. Monica Bellucci (she's one stunning beaut!) has done full justice to the role by balancing the character’s electrifying charm and sexuality with her fragile life and vulnerabilities. The director’s fine portrayal of inner workings of the kid’s mind (filled with vivid, erotic fantasizing) and the hypocritical, self-centered nature of society has been superbly aided by luscious photography, and the legendary Ennio Morricone’s evocative background score.

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Genre: Comedy-Drama/Coming-of-Age/Romantic Drama
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Dahan (Crossfire) [1997]

Adapted from a novel of the same name by a Bengali novelist whose work I like reading, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Dahan is one of Rituparno Ghosh’s best works, along with Utsab. The movie chronicles the lives of two women whose lives get entangled following the occurrence of a terrible incident. A complex, layered and brilliantly explored tale of relationships – marital and otherwise – and the various hypocrisies and double standards therein, on the backdrop of the urban milieu of Calcutta, Dahan is anything but a date movie. Ghosh, an exceptional women's director and one of the finest explorers of dysfunctional families and relationships surviving on the garb of saccharine outward veneer, didn’t mince words while presenting a pointed insight into the minds of the characters in particular and the society they live in, in general. Despite the subject matter being heavy, the exceptionally well crafted narrative managed to make the viewing experience both engaging and disturbing. The acting, as in most movies by the talented auteur, is good; Rituparna Sengupta, however, stands out in her devastatingly real and emotionally wrenching portrayal of a lonely housewife’s desperate attempts at surviving with dignity – in a way reminiscent of Naomi Watt’s equally searing turns in 21 Grams and Mulholland Drive. Though the basic theme of the tale falls in the domain of “bra-burning feminism”, in the expert and sensitive hands of the director, the movie has managed to rise well above narrow diktats.

Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Family Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Sunday 1 March 2009

The Killers [1946]

The Killers starts off with a now legendary opening shot which lets us know instantly that we are in a dark world from which there’s no escape, and forms a terrific preamble to this definitive film noir. Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story, the movie follows a zealous insurance agent uncovering the mysterious bumping off of an ex-pugilist. Making amazing use of a series of temporally disjointed flashbacks he uncovers a murky tale of robbery, false love, cold blooded betrayals, double crosses, and murder. Burt Lancaster is astounding as a doomed man – the classic noir anti-hero – walking the path to destruction. Ava Gardner is absolutely sizzling as a sultry, duplicitous, drop dead gorgeous vixen – one of the most unforgettable femme fatales every seen on screen; boy, with those magnetic looks she sure could to lead any man to his grave without so much as battling an eyelid. The Byzantine plot has been given a life of its own courtesy assured direction and sublime screenplay. And as for the visually arresting cinematography – with those smoky vignettes, dimly lit rooms, brilliant use of shadows, oblique camera angles, iconic silhouettes, moody high contrast shots, and a mesmerizing mixture of screeching long takes and paranoid close-ups – it raises the viewing experience to dizzying levels. If this stupendous noir masterpiece doesn’t grab you by the collars, nothing really will.

Director: Robert Siodmak
Genre: Film Noir/Crime Drama/Mystery
Language: English
Country: US