Sunday 28 February 2010

Up [2009]

Film critics and cinegoers have called Up a rousing success, and have named it, along with Wall-E, as one of the great masterpieces of modern cinema. I wouldn’t go that far; but yes, there’s no doubting the fact that it happens to be one of the most noteworthy outputs from PIXAR, the ever-dependable makers of jaw-dropping 3-D animation. The tale of Carl, a former balloon salesman, now in the twilight of his life, who undertakes the journey of a lifetime in order to fulfill a dream that he shared with his wife, that of exploring South America, is, at the end of the day, still a movie aimed principally for kids. Agreed that it contains the “adult” themes of ageing, loss, unfulfilled dreams, and broken families, but at its heart Up is essentially the kind of movie meant to engage the viewers, lift their spirits up and provide a whole lot of fun and entertainment in the process. And in that sense it is quite a success because fun and engaging it certainly is. But despite its solid, old-fashioned tale of fantasy and adventure, what would remain longest with the viewers is the first quarter of the movie which shows how Carl, as a kid, met with his future-wife, and then, through an extended and extremely poignant silent sequence, we are given a brief preview of the journey covered by Carl and his wife from youth to old age, through various moments of love, joy and grief.

Director: Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday 25 February 2010

Police, Adjective (Politist, Adj.) [2009]

Corneliu Porumboiu’s sophomore effort is in many ways akin to 12:08 East of Bucharest, his brilliant debut feature – it has captured the mundane ordinariness and ironies of life with the kind of candour that has almost come to typify Romanian New Wave cinema, has as its latent topic post-Causescu Romanian bureaucracy and hangover, and a title that doesn’t fail to catch one’s attention. And though the off-balancing humour of his first feature has been heavily toned down, the movie is certainly not completely bereft of mordant observations and commentary that are sure to incite a few chuckles despite the deliberately drab tone. This anti-thriller, so to speak, is a police procedural focusing on the pangs of “conscience” that a cop is facing while at his latest assignment. Contrary to popular genre conventions and nearly bordering on the ludicrous, “its climactic scene”, as A.O. Scott has aptly put it, “is not a chase or a shootout, but rather a tense, suspenseful session of dictionary reading”; and that, captured through long, static takes, forms the most singularly memorable part of the movie. The director, through a slow, uneventful plotline, has captured the minutest details of the protagonist’s job, thus bringing forth the banalities and absurdities of life around him. And by the way, Vlad Ivanov’s startling cameo as the police chief reminded me of his explosive turn in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Police Drama
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

Sunday 21 February 2010

Downfall (Der Untergang) [2004]

Call Adolf Hitler a genius, a few people will grudgingly agree; call him a twisted genius with the ability to mind-wash people, and a lot more will agree; but try and paint him as a human being, and, as a critic aptly observed, you’re certain to face a lot of backlash. It is nearly impossible to imagine him as a three-dimensional man of flesh and blood, but director Oliver Herschbiegel attempted just that in this audacious feature. The emotion that plays the strongest role in the movie is paranoia, as sociopaths like Goebbels, and well, the Fuhrer too, and their more practical counterparts like Himmler who are aware that the Nazi regime's downfall is imminent, are painted with meticulous detail over the last 10 days of Hitler’s life. The director covered a plethora of characters and events by broadening the movie’s scope, though personally I would have preferred the movie to remain just what it started with – an intimate portrayal of the man who, on one hand, turned Germany into a raging superpower, while on the other, perpetrated such monstrosities that make people shudder even after over 60 years of his joint suicide with his wife/mistress Eva Braun at his bunker. Any personification of Hitler inevitably turns into parody, and here’s where Bruno Ganz has succeeded in his chilling and volcanic recreation of the complex leader of the German war machine and the madman who will go down in history as one of the most hideous villains known to mankind.

Director: Oliver Herschbiegel
Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Epic/Biopic
Language: German
Country: Germany

Wednesday 17 February 2010

The White Ribbon [2009]

Michael Haneke’s latest feature, The White Ribbon, is an extraordinary work of high art. On surface viewing it appears to be a paradigm shift vis-à-vis the films Haneke has been mostly come to be identified with. The austere black-and-white appearance, combined with the somber tone and the nearly muted philosophical overtures are quite atypical of him. However, scratch deep and you’ll realise that the movie is as grim and as capable of provoking as any he has made, with themes like societal bigotry and the inevitability of violent eruptions even in the most peaceful of conditions playing vital roles. A psychologically haunting and visually ravaging film, the Austrian provocateur has attempted to unravel the cause of World War I though this complex, pseudo-mystery character study. As a series of seemingly inexplicable and unfortunate incidents start occurring in a small, paternalistic, and heavily orthodox German village, the veneer of civility and placidity that initially marked the villagers starts wearing off, revealing a snarl that is frightening in its display of hypocrisy, moral policing and repression. The movie has been presented through the eyes of a pleasant-natured and liberal outsider. The movie raises far more questions than it ever seeks to answer, and that, along with the implosive content and themes, makes for an arresting if disconcerting viewing experience.

Director: Michael Haneke
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Mystery
Language: German
Country: Austria

Sunday 14 February 2010

Yi Yi (A One and a Two) [2000]

Yi Yi, the final film by legendary Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, is a masterful exploration of the mundane details, foibles and moments of personal disappointments that often come to define one's life. Yet, conversely, it is also a moving celebration of the very act of living. This multi-generational saga and layered human drama starts with a bumbling marriage ceremony which doesn’t just set the film rolling, but also forms a subtle metaphor for the slowly disintegrating middle-class Taipei family it is based on. Each character is grappling with both familial and personal issues that make the older members reminisce of their heartbreaks, while educates the youngsters to come to terms with the fact that life is rarely fair to all. Every single person has been so meticulously delineated with soft, fine strokes, and brought forth through such naturalistic performances, that they literally jump out of the screen and present themselves before us as vividly human and devastatingly real people of flesh and blood. The lush photography, the meditative (and melancholic) tone, the unhurried pace, and the profound depth of the rich storyline make the film unfold as an epic piece of literature while covering the entire spectrum from the simple nuances of quotidian life to complex examination of the universal themes of guilt and loneliness.

Director: Edward Yang
Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Ensemble Film
Language: Taiwanese
Country: Taiwan

Thursday 11 February 2010

The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) [2001]

There’s often a trend among filmgoers to dismiss a movie like Bad Timing, Antichrist or The Piano Teacher simple because they are unabashed enough to present matter which is difficult and challenging to sit through, without really giving the movies their due. Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke’s sixth directorial effort, The Piano Teacher, like his Funny Games, forces the audience as well as the characters to take a trip to the very edge of sanity and reason, through such dark and disturbing by-lanes as obsession, sadomasochism, voyeurism and repression. Erika, played unflinchingly and brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert, is a frigid middle-aged classical-piano teacher at a music conservatory. She loves Schubert, but she also has kinky obsessions, which, when spelt out to her much younger student who has become infatuated with her, leads to shocking, catastrophic consequences and an incredibly bleak climax. In the meantime she lives with a domineering mother whose presence in her life might have been the reason for her being what she is. The movie is elegantly shot, and has its fair share of Schubert renditions, that are in direct contrast to the psychological tussles that define the complex mother-daughter and the destructive older woman-younger guy relationships.

Director: Michael Haneke
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: French
Country: Austria/France

Sunday 7 February 2010

Mystic River [2003]

Okay, just for the record, Mystic River didn’t endear itself to me as much as it did prior to my having read the brilliant novel by Dennis Lehane it is based on. But once I realised that its well nigh impossible to compress a dense 450-odd page book into a 2-hour movie, and stopped comparing, I agreed to the fact that this is a damn good movie all right. Companionship of three Boston buddies got silently torn apart when one of the boys got picked up by two strangers; and now a couple of decades later, Sean, a police detective, Jimmy, a former convict, and Dave, a recluse forever scarred by his past, are forced to come together when Jimmy’s teenage daughter is found brutally murdered. The movie boasts of two awesome performances by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, as the devastated dad and complex man-boy, respectively, with competent supports by Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney and Laurence Fishburn. The relentlessly dark and brooding movie, with its fair share of fatalism, and disturbing albeit compelling references to the vicious cycle of violence, guilt and retribution, has been given a shot in the arm by the ominous tone of the script, arresting cinematography and narrative pacing that has defied genre conventions with gutsy bravado. Agreed, the movie isn’t without its flaws and omissions; nonetheless, this will rank very high among Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre.

Director: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Urban Drama/Mystery
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Hunger [2008]

-->Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen), is based on the last few months of IRA (Irish Republican Army) member Bobby Sands’ life in a British prison. He and his fellow-members demanded political status, and when denied despite several efforts, he decided to go on a hunger strike unto death. The most interesting aspect about the movie is that, despite never taking sides with either the British government or the IRA, or for that matter, the camera hardly ever leaving the claustrophobic prison setting, the movie has the ability to evoke strong reactions from its viewers – it is that lacerating and passionate a portrayal of the brutal struggle between the two sides. This stark, moody, intensely visceral, superbly paced and thoroughly engaging movie has made exceptional use of silences and long takes – in one brilliant maneuver, there is one single, static take where Sands and a priest engage on a lengthy dialogue over a plethora of cigarettes, which lasts a staggering 20 minutes! The movie, which doesn’t really have any plot per se, received a shot in the arm thanks to an absolutely terrific performance by Michael Fassbender (in the role of Sands), and great editing which managed to ensure a languorous pace while at the same time retaining the raw edge of the powerful script.

Director: Steve McQueen
Genre: Drama/Prison Drama/Political Drama
Language: English
Country: UK/Ireland