Friday, January 30, 2015

Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer:    Dan Gilroy
Cast:       Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton

When Lou Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his  own story. Aiding him in his effort is Nina, a TV-news veteran.

Going by the name of the film and the trailer which I watched a long time back, I really thought it was gonna be a serial killer film. The term nightcrawler in film refers to freelance journalists who scan police radio messages to pick up interesting crime scenes that they can reach and film in order to sell it to the highest bidding TV channel. So they are like ambulance chasers. Lou is getting by doing some thieving when he stumbles on to a nightcrawler at the scene of a car accident and feels like it is a job that could accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses. Bit like Travis Bickle taking up the job of a Taxi Driver. He footage becomes a hit with a particular TV station aided by his ruthlessness and not being restricted by a notion of journalistic ethics. At the same time he is extremely adept at giving out MBA jargons due to him doing a lot of online courses during his free time. The TV news producer Nina wittingly and unwittingly eggs him on to ramp it up more and more and in essence she is not much different from him. It can also be seen as a metaphor for the psychopathic behavior that capitalistic corporations tend to engage in being managed by people like Lou. Most of the managers are like that based on my experience though I have to admit none of them are as efficient as Lou. 

Film is laugh out loud funny especially when Lou gets into one of his many monologues. I have seen some people saying that film didn't go far enough but I think they were misled by the trailer which had that mirror scene. in which apparently he got so much into the character that he smashed it for real and required several stitches. They might not have  expected it to be black comedy. It is very much like an unfussy 'American Psycho' and another film that I was reminded of was Scorsese's 'King of Comedy'. The best thing about Nightcrawler is that we know he is a psychopath but he doesn't do anything directly that can be nailed down as a psychopathic crime. The creepiest thing is that you would actually root for him and don't mind the frustration that the detective played by Micheal Hyatt (Brianna Barksdale from The Wire) feels.

It is a very assured directorial debut for Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal is now in two films that would get into my top ten from 2014, with the other one being 'Enemy'. It seems he really likes being in films that deal with psychopaths (Zodiac, Prisoners). Nightcrawler has got an academic award nomination for Best Screenplay and it is a crime that its lead didn't get nominated for best actor category. I haven't seen 'Imitation Game' or 'Theory of Everything' but I really doubt the performances in those would be better than this.

Rating: 5/5

Pandora's Box (1992)

Created & Narrated By: Adam Curtis

It is Adam Curtis's six part documentary series which looks at the consequences of exploiting technological and and political ideas without understanding and concern for the future. The message is that technocratic-rationalism is not panacea and the way he deals with it is by being nuanced and not by being bizarrely science-phobic like many environmentalists do.

The episodes are:

1) The Engineer's Plot:  The episode is on the socialist experiment of USSR which can be called as a social engineering project with science and reason playing a key role. Lenin had declared that communism means power of the soviet plus electrification. Episode looks into how technology and rationalism was inculcated into the Soviet model even though Stalin evolved it subsequently into putting Engineers at the forefront of Russian economy after a couple of purges leading up to the World War. After the World war they played a key role in the rebuilding of Russia and began to take even more central role in Gosplan, the planning commission responsible for 5 year plans. They ran the country trusting their ability to plan everything ahead and fulfilling the needs of people by conducting surveys and what not. They used to keep a price list of 25 million items as it became more and more ridiculous with increasing complexity. It can be summed up by the conclusion that Russian consumers would conclude that a particular product to be out of fashion if they are available in abundance. 

2) To the Brink of Eternity: This episode outlines how game theorists and strategists, who held sway under McNamara, developed strategies to control the nuclear threat and nuclear arms race during the cold war. Their strategies looked ridiculous when applied to situations like Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam war since it relied very much on the players acting in a rational manner. The focus is on men such as Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter and John von Neumman , based on whom Kubrick had developed the character of Dr. Strangelove. The episode concludes that the post world war two period up to the end of Soviet Union was an anomaly in world history where it had two superpowers which influenced almost every things in the world through a cold war perspective. After the cold war, the complexity increased which is a remarkable conclusion that Curtis drew in 1992 itself and has been proven right by the events after the end of cold war. This can be seen again in his later documentary: 'The Power of Nightmares' which dealt with the engineering of fear among people to keep and exercise power which was adopted by both neo-conservatives in US and Jihadists in Islamic countries.

3) The League of Gentlemen: This episode deals with post world war England coming into terms with its post colonial decline. It documents how the Labour government which came to power in the 1960s, after a Tory driven bubble about to burst, went against the Keynesian logic of depreciating its currency out of insecurity about its  standing in the World only for it to lead into Stagflation. Stagflation was explained by the monetarists like Milton Friedman who influenced the policies of Margaret Thatcher. When she came to power in the 80s inflation was put as the only agenda for the Central Bank and began to tighten the interest rates, against the Keynesian logic, leading to the death of many of England's industries. So in this episode Monetarism was the fad which was used without proper understanding of the consequences and the conclusion that can be made is that Economics is not a Science which is something that we all intrinsically know after the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.

4) Goodbye Mrs. Ant: This episode deals with the chemical industry which was projected as capable of solving all the problems during the 50s. DDT was hailed and sprayed all over America and is another example of the danger of Corporations taking a technology to make profits without proper understanding/concern about the future. They used Darwin's Natural Selection as justification for the actions that these chemicals take and when the inevitable backlash came in the 70s with Environmentalism, they also used Darwin to justify their actions. The problem is that when both sets of people take extreme and ludicrous positions in these kind of issues what is really gonna happen is worst of both worlds. 

5) Black Power: This episode is about Ghana which after getting its independence projected Volta River Dam project as its flagship program for industrialization. Financing for dam was obtained after roping in US corporation Kaiser to build an Aluminium smelting plant using the power obtained from the dam. By the time the dam was completed the country was reeling with corruption and the ruler with good intentions was replaced by a CIA engineered military coup, with Ghana being another pawn used in cold war. I found this episode to be the most interesting since it highlighted how difficult it is for democracy to survive in a newly independent country. Made me thankful about how things played out in India, despite its democratic precariousness and the nationalist dickheads that rule the country now.

6) A is for Atom: This episode deals with the rise of nuclear technology and industry. It is another case of corporations behaving in a psychopathic manner after hijacking the technology. I really don't understand the clamor for nuclear power in India, at least among those who are in power, since there is no way I could  trust it in such a corrupt and venal system. Even the developed countries struggled with it and the sector as a whole is on the decline which makes it even more dangerous.

Like most of the Adam Curtis documentaries that I have watched it is illuminating as well as depressing. He is someone who can see how things are going to get played out in the future and his prediction, at the time of Arab Spring, that twitter was going to be just an an echo-chamber for like minded people without much scope for true political impact turned out to be precise. What I especially like about him is that he is not a conspiracy theorist since there is no elaborate plan that he is revealing. It is just a case of people in power acting in a self-interested manner making decisions that leads to grave and unintended consequences.

Rating: 5/5 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Restrepo (2010)

Directors: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Features:  The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team

A year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan during the war. It is set in the Korangal valley which borders with Pakistan and the body count was 50 for US there during the entire war. It was filmed by Tim Hetherington and Sevastian Junger who were working for Vanity Fair as embedded journalists during the war. The title comes from an outpost there which was named after a platoon medic who got killed earlier in the campaign.

It is a case of a documentary being more gripping than any feature film could be in depicting such a scenario. It is not just a case of us being stumped by all of  it being real but we are genuinely intrigued by the narrative and also  the plight of the soldiers as well as local people over there caught  up in a war. Embedded journalism can be always problematic since it gives us always what they want us to see/read. The documentary gets past this hurdle by not being political at all and just showing ground level things that happen during the war. It never comes across as heroic but people just trying to get by surviving the whole thing. There is no voice over narration and the low quality of footage adds to its realness. The climax is nothing heroic in the Hollywood sense but us being relieved along with them for getting the fuck out of there in one piece at the end of their deployment.

I have no idea how the journalists managed to get all of this in between as well as during the fighting. The platoon took enemy fire almost everyday, perhaps making it the longest exposure to combat any for US since the second world war. Tim Hetherington got killed during the Libyan civil war in 2011 and that shouldn't come as a surprise for those who've seen this documentary. I was not that enamored by Hurt Locker which felt like a propaganda film for US army. Restrepo coveys more without having to spell it out for you and the message that you get is definitely anti-war.

Rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dirty Wars (2013)

Director: Rick Rowley
Writers:  David Riker, Jeremy Scahill

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill is pulled into an unexpected journey as he chases down the hidden truth behind America's expanding covert wars. It begins with a story from a remote Afghanistan village called Gardez, where US forced killed members of family of an Afghan Police Commander. Such night raids are carried out by JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) which directly reports to White-house and is shrouded in secrecy. These were the same that carried out the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden after which the secrecy was removed and they enjoyed the limelight. Now they command most of the covert operations carried out by the US in the name of so called War on Terror including the drone strikes.

Jeremy Scahill is one of the founding editors of the online news publication, 'The Intercept', with which Glenn Greenwald is also involved. He had also written the book:'Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army', which won him the George Polk book award. Blackwater is notorious for the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians for no good reason. The narrative that Scahill builds in this documentary is that immediately after 9/11, US had a target kill list consisting of 7 names. When they started the Iraq War it was a deck of cards consisting of around 50 names and now the list is endless. The actual war on terror has only helped in creating new enemies and in its current form there is no end in sight. What JSOC is doing is extrajudicial killings in non-war like scenario and since they are done on the basis of suspect intelligence and without any repercussions to those who are carrying it out, the collateral damage is only leaving fertile ground for terrorists to emerge. He takes a look at the case of Anwar al-Awlaki who was named as a prime target in Yemen and drone attacks were carried out to kill him. He was an American citizen and a preacher who was a moderate during 9/11 and its aftermath. He began to get increasingly radicalized after the Iraq War and started advocating Jihad against US. You can make a thin case against him based on this even though there is no evidence of him being a terrorist operative. He was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. Scahill is even more perturbed by the fact that Awlaki's 16-year old son was also killed weeks later in a drone strike. US authorities described his killing as collateral damage even though they didn't name anyone in particular as target for that particular drone strike, which means that the 16 year old boy was indeed the target. Scahill compares this to the Greek tragedy logic of killing someone not for what they have done but for what they could become. It is a twisted logic and will only help in growing the list. Anyone over 15 and under 70 are fair game.

The documentary is a very good watch with some great cinematic qualities to boot. The fact that he doesn't know where the story is leading and the situation evolving continuously leading to the organization that he is trying to uncover JSOC revealing itself for all after Bin Laden's death make it an intriguing watch. It also throws light on the dangerous game that US is playing with its drone program and it is not something which have got the attention it deserves so far in the wider media. One would think that it is preferable to an all out war like in Afghanistan but the reality is that the strikes will be always based on suspect intelligence and practically no oversight.

Rating: 4/5 

Bitter Lake (2015)

Created & Narrated by: Adam Curtis

'Bitter Lake' is the latest from the excellent Adam Curtis which was released last week through BBC's iPlayer. It can be best described as a documentary on US-Saudi alliance through the prism of clusterfuck that is Afghanistan. The title comes from the salt water lake in the Suez called 'Great Bitter Lake', where Roosevelt and the then King of Saudi Arabia forged their alliance close to the end of the World War Two. The alliance was built on the need to secure America's supply of oil in exchange for money and weapons with the promise that there won't be any interference from the West regarding the faith of Saudi rulers. The 'House of Saud' which formed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia drew its legitimacy from 'Wahabism', an extremely orthodox form of Islam with a longing for an imagined medieval past. The Saudi rulers have a pact with the Wahabi fundamentalists and the rulers in Saudi have made a habit of exporting the Wahabi ideas outwards so that the clergy don't interfere much with their domestic rule. This has resulted in them setting up Madrasas all over the Isalamic world to promote Wahabism and this is what has happened for example in Paksitani madrasas. So in short the 'House of Saud' has a pact with the devil of Wahabi fundamentalism and USA have the same with the devil of Saudi Arabia. It is perfect time for Adam Curtis to release his latest work considering the death of the Saudi King and dictator Abdullah this week.

The main narrative that is given by Curtis in the documentary is that the politicians from the West have resorted to simplifying complex issues pertaining to Islamic World as a Good versus Evil battle off late. This was done after the 9/11 attack during the ongoing War on Terror. This is a throwback to that Reagan era in which the same was done for funding the Mujaheddin against the Soviets. Everyone knows about how USA aided Osama Bin Laden in the 80s only for him to turn on them later. It was interesting to know that the opium with which he funded his operations since the 90s was also a product of US strategy in Afghanistan. The Americans had helped build a network of dams in Afghanistan in the 50s which caused the water table to rise along with introducing salinity in the soil. This made it very suitable for the cultivation of Poppy from which Opium and its by-products are made. 

The documentary gives us a complete history of Afghanistan from the 1950s and how the policies of the super-powers influenced its course as well how it influenced them back. For this, Curtis use Tarkovsky's 'Solyaris' as an analogy. Got to say it also kind of explained the film for me since I didn't understand much of it when I watched it some years ago. In it, the Cosmonaut encounters a mysterious river in the Alien planet which he thinks has consciousness. They try to influence it using X-Rays but what happens is that the river starts to haunt them by making them face up the ghosts of their past. They start distrusting everything and this is exactly what Curtis is saying happened to the Soviet and US coalition when they tried to influence matters in Afghanistan during the 80s and noughties respectively. The Russians tried to model Afghanistan as an ideal socialist country only for it to corrupt them and haunt them into Soviet breakup after the defeat. In same way the US coalition thought they could export their ideas of Democracy and Freedom only to end in defeat and face up to the fact they themselves believe in nothing and are morally bankrupt. Make no mistake, both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ended in defeats for them and you only need to see the recent state of both countries to recognize that.

Some people might dismiss Curtis as a Conspiracy theorist but I don't agree to it. What he doesn't do is assume that the events that are happening in the World is done with careful planning for a desired outcome. He portrays a World where the policymakers make decisions based on their own self-interest with some tragic unintended consequences. They are just some blundering idiots who are in over their heads to understand the complexities around issue but have the arrogance to think that they can influence such matters. Before 90s they had cold war as an excuse and now the so called war on terror. In an ideal world they should not interfere in matters concerning these countries about which they have limited understanding. Now they have the favorite excuse of preventing genocide of Good people by the evil and continue to interfere in matters when in fact they are largely driven by the defense industry and businesses. Curtis use the example of British Army's experience in the Pashtun region of Afghanistan. The different factions involved in the Civil War used British forces to crush their enemies by pointing out that they are battling Taliban and in effect everyone turned against the British there and in effect they only helped to compound the situation.

The documentary is available in its entirety of Youtube and the link has been embedded with this review. It is a great watch and there is a difference in style employed by Curtis. Rather than purely relying on narration using archive footage, he also uses rather recent footage from the war on terror times without any narration with various effects of tragedy, comedy and irony.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Green Prince (2014)

Director:  Nadav Schirman
Writers:   Nadav Schirman, Mosab Hassan Yousef (memoir)
Features:  Moasb Hassan Yousef, Gonen Ben Yitzhak

The son of a founding leader in the Palestinian organisation, Hamas, becomes a spy for the Israeli intelligence agency 'Shin Bet'. The film is a retelling of the book by Mosab Hassan Yousef, 'Son of Hamas', and is based on interviews him and his handler from Shin Bet, Gonen, describing their work together which lasted for ten years. 

The book will be again adapted into a live action film in the future. Mosab now lives in USA after converting to Christianity. He was facing the threat of deportation due to his connection with Hamas before the release of his book. When he made into mainstream news, Gonen went to USA to help him get asylum in USA going against his organization's protocols. Film is as much about their friendship that developed over the years that they worked together. It ultimately led to the ouster of Gonen from Shin Bet. It is better to watch it as a film on how intelligence agencies operate when it comes to handling their source than as one which deals with Israeli-Palestine conflict. It doesn't get into the politics of it at all and I was reminded of Anton Corbijn's 'A Most Wanted Man' from last year which had a much bleaker ending. They manage to make a thriller out of just two people recounting their experiences. It does seem that I do have a liking for proper spy films and am not talking about shit like James Bond films or ones like 'Body of Lies'. 

Overall it is a good watch but I have been kind of disappointed by the standard of documentary films that I have watched from last year. The only one that really stood out was 'Citizenfour'. 'Jodorowsky's Dune' was also great mind. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Jarhead (2005)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writers:  William Broyles Jr., Anthony Swofford
Cast:       Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Lucas Black

Based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling 2003 book about his pre-Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia and about his experiences fighting/not fighting in Kuwait. The title comes from the derogatory slang term used to refer to Unites States Marines and originates from their haircut which makes their heads look like a Jar.

For most people, the Gulf war under George Bush Sr. was an insignificant one which ended before it began. Not many films have been made on that and the only one I can seem to remember is David O'Russell's 'Three Kings', which was more of a comedy about the ridiculous nature of it. Jarhead is about a group of marines who are not very brave in a Hollywood sense getting bored by nothing happening for their platoon related to war like things. They are initially posted as part of Desert-Shield, protecting oil wells in Saudi Arabia. They spend a few months doing that and things that normally don't get covered in usual war films like-girlfriends/wives cheating them back home, the boring drills to keep them on toes, nothing really happening etc are shown in this film. As per Swofford's own words:

"[voice over narration] Suggested techniques for the Marine to use in the avoidance of boredom and loneliness: Masturbation. Rereading of letters from unfaithful wives and girlfriends. Cleaning your rifle. Further masturbation. Rewiring Walkman. Arguing about religion and meaning of life. Discussing in detail, every woman the Marine has ever fucked. Debating differences, such as Cuban vs. Mexican, Harleys vs. Hondas, left- vs. right-handed masturbation. Further cleaning of rifle. Studying of Filipino mail order bride catalog. Further masturbation. Planning of Marine's first meal on return home. Imagining what the Marine's girlfriend and her man Jody are doing in the hay, or in the alley, or in a hotel bed. "

They indeed do get deployed a part of Desert Storm in Kuwait for a sum total of four days without any kills. It was a war decided by the air-strikes and the ground troops didn't have much to do since there was no significant occupation after the war like in Iraq war of the noughties. Film can be best described as a different kind of anti-war film with its narrative driven by its boredom and what it does to the Marines in their personal lives and what is in store for their future, instead of politics. Nothing Hollywood happens to provide the characters a redemptive movement and we really want them to take the sniper shot for their sake at the end instead of waiting for the air force to bomb the place. It is a very good watch without being great and not much scope for rewatchability. The editing is top-notch and the scenes of oil-wells in flames were brilliant. One can watch Herzog's 'Lessons of Darkness' which just had that and is beautifully surreal.

Sam Mendes is someone who consistently provide better than good films without making a great one. I loved American Beauty when I saw it first and but it is something that has not aged well and loses considerably on re-watch. He also made the best James Bond film in 'Skyfall'. He is also gonna make the next James Bond one and am looking forward to it even though I am not a huge fan of the franchise.

Rating: 3.5/5 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Gatekeepers (2012)

Director: Dror Moreh

A documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets. Shin Bet is one of three principal organizations of the Israeli Intelligence community with the other two being Mossad (foreign intelligence) and Aman (military intelligence). 

Documentary follows the history of Israel-Palestine conflict post 1967 six-day war. First half of it poses the moral and ethical issues regarding their operations and techniques which I didn't find that interesting. The interviewer, who adopts the Errol Morris style of being invisible, don't ask really meaningful questions and seem to concentrate much on what seemed to be a silly issue of captured bombers getting killed by the army personnel. It seems that bus bombing incident was a big issue in Israel and to be fair the documentary is mainly aimed at the Israeli people so that they get a different perspective regarding the whole issue. The second half of documentary is much more interesting as it deals with resistance from some sections of the Israeli society regarding the peace process. They are instigated largely by some batshit crazy Rabbis (Religion, who would have thunk) who don't mind an all out war since they think it is essential for their prophet, as per the scripture, to emerge. Now the situation is such that there is no progress regarding the peace process and one of the former heads conclude that Israel is following the tragic path of 'Winning all the battles but losing the war'. Israel is at its peak in terms of relative power with respect to other powers in the region. It is for their own good to initiate the peace process and reach a solution considering their geographic location. They simply cannot keep such a large population under occupation in the long term when that population can't see a solution to their plight emerging. 

Everyone has an opinion on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the following is mine, for what it is worth. Countries are made and the borders are established always on the back of bloodshed. It is naive to think that it isn't so and Israel is no different. People go on about the unfairness regarding the formation of Israel, well that is how it played out and we cannot do anything about it now. Statehood of Palestine is almost universally accepted now and it seems the only feasible solution (despite the impracticality of it being another version of West and East Pakistan considering the locations of Gaza and West Bank). It is up to Israel  to take the initiative since it is in their own interest to do so because at some point of time in the future, the backlash against its policies will dominate over the guilt/sympathy that the developed world have regarding the holocaust. I am not absolving Palestine but they at least have the excuse of being occupied. That said, I find people comparing the body count on both sides as some proof for Israel committing genocide against the Palestinians. Its not their fault that Iron Dome is so damn effective now.

Overall the documentary is a good watch if you already have some background regarding the whole issue. To quote Yeshayahu Leibowtiz, which is used in the documentary:

"Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions.  After a few years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers.  The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police—mainly secret police.  A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.  The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel.  The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other.  There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people's army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.Out of concern for the Jewish people and its state we have no choice but to withdraw from the territories and their population of one and a half million Arabs."

Rating: 3.5/5 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Humbling (2014)

Director: Barry Levinson
Writers:  Buck Henry, Philip Roth, Michael Zebede
Cast:       Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Dianne Wiest

An aged and addled actor has his world turned upside down after he embarks upon an affair with a lesbian, in this acidulous adaptation of the Philip Roth novel of the same name. The said woman also happens to be the daughter of his friends and he was the Godfather to her. He has a slight suspicion that she could be even his daughter to make matters worse.

Al Pacino plays the weary actor in it with the screen role kind of resonating with his real life career as well. He is someone who has not been in many good films after the turn of the century and unlike his compatriot Robert De Niro, he has not taken the route of being in shitty comedy vehicles either. The film has been described as a comedy but it is far more complex than the normal ones that you expect. It deliberately leads the audience into questioning what all things we see on screen are real. Him skyping with his psychiatrist who expresses these doubts add to the whole thing. So in that sense it is a subversion of the Schizophrenia genre with the twist being that they are indeed real and it is not just happening inside his mind. Sure he does have memory issues and tendency to get spaced out but the characters in it are real or that is how I interpreted the film. Greta Gerwig from the excellent 'Frances Ha' plays the much younger love interest. It is good to see Al Pacino in a meaty role where his post 80s shouting mode is kept to minimum. 

Overall it is a fun watch if you manage to watch with right kind of expectations. To be honest you don't expect much from Pacino-De Niro these days and anything half decent would be a pleasant surprise. 'The Humbling' was more than good and is a welcome twist to the Schizophrenia genre still retaining its ambiguity.  Barry Levinson is famous for directing 'Rain Man' and the only other film I have seen from him is 'Sleepers', which had an ensemble cast consisting of Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon. The former was a great film which I have seen only once and the latter was a half decent film without being that good.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Елена (Elena) (2011)

Director: Andrey Zvyaginstev
Writers:  Andrey Zvyaginstev, Oleg Negin
Cast:       Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Elena Lyadova
Language: Russian

When a sudden illness and an unexpected reunion threaten dutiful housewife Elena's potential inheritance, she must hatch a desperate plan...

Vladimir is a rich widower whose estranged daughter is a hedonist. He lives in his plush home with his nurse/wife who was originally a nurse from the hospital where he had a surgery ten years back. The nature of their relationship is not made explicit till late into the film with her acting very much like his nurse but also engaging in casual sex with him. She has a good for nothing son whose family is dependent on her. Vladimir doesn't want to get involved with their affairs in a financial sense since he believes in responsible parenting despite how his own daughter turned out. He is portrayed as someone who lived for money leading to what looks like an unhappy retirement depending on one's point of view. When he suffers an unexpected heart-attack, his daughter (Elena Lyadova from Leviathan) kind of mend ways with him. While recovering at home, he informs Elena that he is planning to make a will where almost all his wealth will go to his daughter leaving only an annuity for her. This shakes her up leading her to use Viagra to create an induced heart-attack leading to his death. She kind of justifies herself by quoting Bible even though she doesn't wait for divine intervention. It can be classified as a stripped down noir film.

The basic story is very predictable but what makes the film different is the lack of sentimentality after the major event in it. Elena carries on without much remorse and there is no immediate consequences to her actions. Director does indeed make the case that whatever she is doing for her family is gonna be futile since money is not gonna make any meaningful difference to their lives in a good way. It is the age old morality concepts like 'Greed is not Good', 'Blood is thicker than water' and 'Being rich won't make you happy' that are being retold  without hammering our heads with it. Does it say anything about modern Russian society? I don't think anything in particular since it is anyway applicable everywhere irrespective of geography. Crows are used in a symbolic way to mean as a foreshadowing of bad things to come.

Philip Glass' music is sparingly used but with great effect like in Leviathan. Film was premiered at Cannes in the 'Un Certain Regard' where it won the special jury prize. Overall it is great watch without reaching the heights of his other works that I have seen: 'Leviathan' and 'The Return'. Got to say parenting is a running theme in his films.

Rating: 4/5

Everly (2014)

Director: Joe Lynch
Writers:  Yale Hannon, Joe Lynch
Cast:       Salma Hayek, Jennifer Blanc, Togo Igawa

An action/thriller centered on a woman who faces downs assassins sent by her ex, a mob boss, while holed up in her apartment.

Film is getting distributed by 'Dimension Films' who specialize in B-Grade grindhouse genre films and were also involved with films like Planet Terror, Deathproof and Machete. So you expect the typical titillating exploitative stuff with cheesy one-liners and over the top action sequences. Problem with the film is that it is severely lacking in the humor quotient and the action is also not that great except for a few innovative stuff like grenade inside a lift with spraying blood. The whiny portrayal of the protagonist Everly by Salma Hayek also doesn't help along with her Spanish accent. Can't really compare it with Tarantino's Kill Bill since the tone and the character are totally different in all sorts of way. Having a protagonist who is not up for cold-blooded action doesn't help at all. One can look at 'John Wick' as a perfect example of a film that is just straight up action with bare to bones plot to speak of. Even with a limited actor like Keanu Reeves they pull it off. Salama Hayek is famous for her memorable cameo from Robert Rodriguez's 'From Dusk Till Dawn' and it is difficult to believe that she is 48 years old.

Film was released on itunes ahead of its limited theatrical release next month, which says a lot. I won't be surprised if it actually does well after-all. It is one to avoid unless you are in the mood to watch a 'It is so bad it is good'. I just fast forwarded the last 15 minutes of it.

Rating: 1/5

Friday, January 23, 2015

Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night with Maud) (1969)

Director: Eric Rohmer
Writer:    Eric Rohmer
Cast:       Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault
Language: French

The rigid principles of a devout catholic, Jean-Louis (Trintignant), is challenged during a one-night stay with Maud (Francoise Fabian), a divorced woman with an outsize personality.

The film begins with Jean, an engineer and mathematician by profession, in a church noticing a blonde woman to whom he is attracted to and follows her into the streets. Later on that day he meets his philosophy teaching friend with whom he has not met for almost fifteen years. The friend takes him to Maud's house where the three have a conversation on religion, atheism, morality and Blaise Pascal's life and writings on philosophy, faith and mathematics. Jean ends up staying at her house for the night proceeding to have further conversation on his his catholic views on marriage, fidelity and his obligation for already proclaiming that he is in love with a young woman whom  however, he has never yet spoken to. 

This is the third one in Rohmer's 'Six Moral Tales' series and all of them have the  protagonist in love with a woman, but falls in love with another woman leading to a moral conundrum whose other side always will be the former one winning over the latter. In this film the morality is related to Jean-Louis' Catholicism. For him the ideal woman would be a blonde catholic but the second woman in this film is Maud, a brunette libertine. She is perturbed by Jean-Louis' lack of spontaneity and pre-conceived notions but nevertheless become great friends over the twenty-four hour period since they are not weighed down by expectations regarding the future. We later on learn that the catholic blonde woman  with whom he gets married to later was responsible for Maud's divorce. The final sequence of the film takes place five years later at a beach resort with Jean-Louis, happy with his wife and young son, meeting a visibly unhappy Maud who has married again without much success. It can be seen as another interpretation of the famous Pascal's wager but this time in relation to earthly happiness instead of heavenly redemption. The wager is as follows:

"It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or not. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming an infinite gain or loss associated with belief or unbelief in said God (as represented by an eternity in heaven or hell), a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.)."

Pascal formulated this wager on a Christian framework and it was published posthumously in Pensees. I enjoyed the film very much even though I don't care much for Pascal's wager. The main distinction in it lies in the pleasures being finite on Earth and heaven/hell being infinite after death. It is all well and good but he  doesn't consider the possibility that most religions in the World have a vengeance fueled ego-maniacal and demanding asshole as God and even if you do live a 'Good Life', there is no guarantee that you would please the dude according to different scriptures about him. So I would rather live a life of freedom up to my death, after which there is nothing with a probability of 99.9% rather than live a life full of fear with a slight 0.0001% hope for heaven. He doesn't consider the fact that zero* infinity is also zero and if there is no life after death, then the freedom I get becomes infinite.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Citizenfour (2014)

Director: Laura Poitras
Features: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Julian Assange

The documentary film features Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras as they break the stories related to the 'Snowden Leaks' on NSA. They met in a hotel room in Hong-Kong and the film is more about the process through which they broke it and their reactions to it rather than about the underlying politics or the technicalities around it. 

Citizenfour was the code-name used by Snowden to refer to himself during his communications with the documentary maker. It sort of feels like a thriller with very cinematic qualities despite being a documentary film. The issue of privacy is related directly to the idea of 'Freedom of Speech', which is essential for a democracy to function properly. Surveillance is an essential tool for dictatorships to survive and even in a democracy, surveillance without adequate oversight is dangerous to its citizens and is something that can undermine the democracy itself. The whole idea behind whistle-blowing is to bring out some inconvenient truths about the organization. The natural reaction to it would be one of hostility and that is why there should be strong whistle-blowers protection guidelines and even rewards. Snowden was a whistle-blower against the government itself and the whole reaction against him from the establishment was like he was a traitor. Unlike the Bradley/Chelsea Manning leaks, there wasn't an indiscriminate publishing of materials without any regards to security issues to warrant such a reaction. The way Snowden leaked, learning from the Wikileaks issue, was through journalists  with a public interest angle. It is telling that some pre-world war one espionage act was used against him by the Obama administration.

One can listen to Dan Carlin's Common Sense podcast episodes from those times to go deep into the ideological issues behind the whole affair. I guess there would be again some people that come with 'Surveillance is fine as long as we are protected' after the Charlie Hebdo issue. The thing is that NSA's PRISM program was not very effective in the security sense since they collected too much data to make any actual sense of it regarding security. So what we are left with is a state and its agencies who are free to use this trove of data as they please.  The documentary informs us that Britain's GCHQ's  surveillance program is much more invasive than PRISM since they are not bound by constitution like NSA is. 

The ending sequence of the documentary showing Greenwald and Snowden communicating using paper and pencil is a little corny but leaves us on tenterhooks. I haven't seen any other documentaries from Poitras but she is supposed to have done another two prior to this dealing with post 9/11 USA. It took some time for USA to deal with the backlash against its torture programs and the introspection on it was done only recently. Hopefully they don't take as much time to deal with NSA. But I am pessimistic on that regard since the sentiments are not as strong on this issue among the general public.

Rating: 4.5/5 

Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) (1964)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers:  Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra
Cast:       Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti
Language: Italian

The film is about a woman trying to survive in the modern industrial world of cultural neurosis and existential doubt. It is another one of those films which deal with alienation, the overarching thematic link that connects all Antonioni films.

Giuliana (Vitti) is married to Ugo (Chionetti) with a kid in an industrial town Ravenna. According to her husband, she is suffering from PTSD after a car accident. Ugo's boss Corrado (Richard Harris) become fascinated with her as he sees things that her husband has not realized yet going on in her life. We later on learn that her accident was a suicide attempt. Unlike other Antonioni films, I didn't find the film that interesting despite the exquisite visuals and inventive soundtrack involving industrial sounds and ship horns. This is Antonioni's first film in color and it is a seamless transition for him. The thermal power plant is not used to paint a bleak atmosphere but an attractive one despite the pollution and the wastes that it leaves behind. The level of enjoyment that you get out of the film will depend on how convinced you are about Vitti's portrayal of her role. I didn't find the unsubtle way of her acting in it to be too convincing. 

It is the fourth and last one of Antonioni's collaborations with Monica Vitti, the other three being what is now known as his Alienation trilogy-L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse. To be, fair all of his films can be described as one which deals with alienation, un-satisfaction and general unhappiness. I don't know how Richard Harris, Dumbledore from the initial Harry Potter films, ended up in this but he was fired before the completion of the film for punching Antonioni in face. He was not satisfied with Antonioni's response of:'You don't ask me why, you're an actor. You just do it', when asked why he needs to walk diagonally in one of the scene. Tough shit.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Le Genou de Claire (Claire's Knee) (1970)

Director: Eric Rohmer
Writer:    Eric Rohmer
Cast:       Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Beatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan

On a holiday, a conflicted man lusts after beautiful stepsisters despite his betrothal to a diplomat's daughter. As the testimonial in the film's attached poster says, any attempt to explain the film with words will just diminish it just like the previous sentence did.

Jerome is spending his last holidays as a bachelor at Lake Annecy where he meets Aurora, an Italian writer and old friend. She tells him that her landlady's youngest daughter, Laura, has a crush on him and talks him into flirting him with her just to prove that he is interesting enough to be a subject for her in her writings. He claims that he is doing it just for her like a guinea pig but eventually falls for Laura's half-sister Claire and develops a desire to caress her knee. All this to give his writer-friend some interesting ideas and source material. All this is interspersed with chatter on love, friendship, importance of friendship in love, which comes first or should there be an order, analysis of feelings etc. 

Eric Rohmer is not for everyone but if you like Richard Linklater's 'Before Trilogy' then this should be right up your alley. Unlike Linklater films, there is at the same time a rawness as well as artificiality in some of the dialog which might sound contradictory. It had to do with the writer character but after I saw the film I came to know that she is supposed to be Italian which explains her French accent and the slow way in which she delivers it. Jerome might very well be using her as an excuse to push the boundaries. Film has got lots of subtle humor which can be contrasted with Kubrick's Lolita which is another one that dealt with similar kind of relationship at least in terms of age difference. I can't see a film like Claire's Knee coming out these days since it treads a fine line between teenage crush and pedophilia and this ambiguity will attract criticism if it was released now. The conversations between the writer and Jerome reminded me of Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' even though the subjects are very different.   

Film is fifth one in Rohmer's 'Six Moral Stories' series. The only other film I have seen from Rohmer so far is 'A Summer's Tale' and I thought that was great as well but is more ambiguous. One thing I have noticed in the film is Rohmer lingering the camera on the character who is listening with a delayed attention on one who is talking. I intend to watch his other major works. He was a prolific director and made his last film in 2007 at an age of 87. He died in 2010 at the age of 90.

Rating: 5/5

Gitarrmongot (The Guitar Mongoloid) (2004)

Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer:    Ruben Östlund
Cast:       Mikael Allu, Bjarne Gunnarsson, Erik Gustafsson
Language: Swedish

The film marked the feature film debut for Swedish director Ruben Östlund and it is about different people living outside the norms in the fictional city Joteborg which not much different from real-life city of Goteborg. Even though it is not a documentary, most of the people seen in the film are non-actors more or less playing themselves.

Östlund has directed four feature lengths film so far and I found the other three to be great. So I watched this with pretty good expectations and was really disappointed with it. I found it totally uninteresting. The film is supposed to be a criticism against the boredom of normal Swedish films and all I did watching it was getting bored. I think it is more of a case of making a mockery of the audience which is suggested by the last scene. The boy in it connects several bin bags filled with air and let it fly from a cliff. As it passes over the streets,  several onlookers speculate on what it is with some suggesting it could be an advertisement or some sort of weather balloon. It kind of disrupts their otherwise normal looking day for just a few seconds. Maybe Östlund is speculating that viewers of the film would give more meaning than it deserves to make their time watching it worthwhile, when in fact it is just a waste-filled bin bag of a film.

Östlund trademark like long takes using static camera is already present in the film which shouldn't surprising since he already had considerable experience as director of skiing videos.Overall it is one to avoid but people might want to watch it if they are fans of his other works like I am.

Rating: 1/5

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Play (2011)

Director: Ruben Östlund
Writers:  Ruben Östlund ,Erik Hemmendorff
Cast:       Lisbeth Caspersson, Kevin Vaz, Johan Jonason
Language: Swedish

Inspired by actual court cases, the film portrays a group of black boys aged 12-14 who rob a smaller group of white boys by means of psychological bullying tactics. Their modus operandi is to ask the victim to show his phone which they claim resembles the one that was robbed last week from one of their brothers. They insist that they should confirm the identity with the said brother and proceed to bully them further. 

The film takes a look at the modern Scandinavian/Liberal society's attitude when it comes to dealing with immigrant issues. The film is not really about bullying even though it is based on an actual case of the same. The director, in a totally genius fashion, makes the liberal left confront their own usual selves where Political Correctness gone mad and nanny states have produced what can be called as reverse-racism. We have all faced bullying in our lives at some point or the other and the hate that it generates towards the one who is bullying can be of epic proportions. There is one scene during the film where a group of people confront the bullying boys and intimidate the shit out of them. At that point I really wanted them to beat the shit out of those boys. I have seen people justifying ragging by seniors in college as a process which will help in reducing inhibitions, but in practice it is just a form of bullying where all the insecurities of people who does it come out of woodwork. It is indeed a big issue in India.

In parallel to the bullying story, the director inter-cuts into a train in-between where the conductor is worried about an unattended cradle in the coach. He makes announcements alerting the passengers of its existence which is against safety standards and asks the owner to come and claim it. When no one shows up, he again makes further announcements and finally tells them that it will be removed at the next station. When he is about to remove it, his colleague tells him something which prompts him to take it back and again make the announcement but this time in English. A bemused passenger quips that the next announcement will be in German. Director is using this plot-line to show the nanny-stateness of Scandinavia which might be an explanation for their softness and political correctness. The film would be of much relevance these days especially after the Charlie Hebdo incident. In my opinion the policy of multiculturalism is madness. All efforts should be made to integrate the immigrants into your country so that that they will uphold the same values like Liberty, Free-Speech etc because otherwise it will breed resentment. What you are doing through multiculturalism is delaying your own confrontation with the issue of racism and class struggles and when the confrontation happens inevitably it will be much more difficult than if you had gone for integration.

In the last sequence of the film, one of the parents of the bullied confronts one of the bullies who is sitting in a bench with his brother and the cradle. The encounter become physical even as the father tries to explain the situation to him. A by-stander takes exception to this and accuses him of racism at which point he accuses her of reverse-racism. The father would represent most of us in the audience. Some will interpret the film as very racist but that would me missing the point completely. The film triggered havey debates in Swedish press with some from the liberal left accusing the director of racism, completely missing the irony of it. The film is not a mirror on immigrants but one on the native Swedes. How and when the cradle end up in the train is not explained.

Film is characterized by the director's trademark of extremely long takes with a largely still camera. We get to look from a distance what is happening. Ostlund's 'Force Majeure' is among my top three from last year. All three films I have seen so far from him have been great and I am gonna finish his filmography soon.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, January 16, 2015

Возвращение (The Return) (2003)

Director: Andrey Zvyaginstev
Writers:  Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksander Novototskiy-Vlasov
Cast:       Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko
Language: Russian

In the Russian wilderness, two brothers face a range of new, conflicting emotions when their father- a man they know only through a photograph- resurfaces. The three of them take a vacation to a remote island on a lake that turns into a test of manhood of almost mythic proportions. The older brother is kind of taken to his father whereas the younger one is suspicious and hostile with him which is not at all helped by his tactic of being a tough parent.

Film is tremendously intense from start to finish summed up by the hard running during the opening credits. The reason for the father's 12 year hiatus is not explicitly given but there is some shadiness to his activities. It is used primarily as a tool to misdirect the audience's thinking as to where the film is going. He is taking the kids to the remote island where he anyway needed to go as part of doing a job. Later on, it is shown him digging for something in the island and recovering a box which he does not open. We keep thinking that it is that which brings about the confrontation between them but it happens in a different manner. The boys also discover a boat wreckage near the island and those things might be related to each other. All these remain ambiguous throughout but are secondary to the film which primarily deals with the range of emotions going through all the three characters. The father is as tough on them as the younger brother is tough on him. You can find fault in both the parties as well as justification for how they behave. It is interesting that there is no blame game between the brothers after the unfortunate event. 

Film won Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and marked the directorial debut of Andrey Zvyaginstev, whose Levithan is the favorite for winning the academy award in the foreign film category this year. He is someone who uses background music sparingly but with maximum impact. The print of 'The Return' that I watched was really poor and I wish I got a better one since the cinematography and locations seem stunning. I don't know whether the dark greenish tint to it was because of the quality of print or intentional. The performances are excellent especially the younger brother Ivan, who reminded me of Haley Joel Osmont in 'The Sixth Sense'. The director described the four characters represent the four elements: 'earth is mother, water is father, the elder brother Andrey is air and the younger brother Ivan is the fire'. In the original script Andrey was supposed to die. The actor Vladimir Garin, who played Andrey, died shortly after the film  was completed in lake not far from where the film was shot.

Rating: 4.5/5

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

A documentary on the late Vivian Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one of the most accomplished street photographers.

Film starts with explaining how John Maloof came across her work initially, through an auction of a box of undeveloped negatives which he grabbed in search of old photographs for a project he was doing. Even though it was not useful for his work, he recognized that the street photographs had great quality and the lack of information regarding the photographer intrigued him. He went on to buy all other boxes that were up for auction as well as Vivian Maier's leftover things. Turns out she was a secretive but caring nanny with possibly a fake French accent who born in 1926 New-York. Documentary pieces together her personality based on testimonials of people for whom she worked and children for whom she did the baby-sitting.  He also goes to a French village after finding it through her photographs and there he meets her last surviving cousin. The interaction with a photograph developer there suggests that she was aware about her own greatness in photography but her reclusive nature might have prevented her from reaching for a wider audience. She seems to be quite an intelligent woman who might come across as eccentric to others. I don't care anyway for what society deems as normalcy when it comes to behavior. All of us have our own eccentricities and plenty takes huge care in hiding them from others. 

John Maloof's attempt at getting her work into a museum or art establishment was met with resistance. He went on to hire art galleries to display her work and let the public decide. They have been a huge success which in itself questions the whole subjectivity that is associated with arts as well as the circle-jerking involved within the established art community. I am not really an expert but I found her work to be of value and I have always found street photography in black and white to be great. Black and White has the property to elevate even mundane looking things. Film has a voyeuristic quality and it does kind of tail off and become less interesting towards the end after it had established how Vivian Maier was. It has been shortlisted for the academy awards. This is the second documentary that I have watched from last year dealing with the art world, with the other being 'Tim's Veneer'.

Rating: 3.5/5 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Левиафан (Leviathan) (2014 film)

Director: Andrey Zvyaginstev
Writers:  Andrey Zvyaginstev, Oleg Negin
Cast:       Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov
Language: Russian

In a Russian coastal town, Kolya is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished. He recruits his old army friend who is now a Moscow lawyer to help, but the man's arrival brings further misfortune for Kolya and his family.

It is a modern retelling of Bible's 'Book of Job' which is used as premise for films numerous times prior to this. It is staggering to think that Russia's 'Ministry of Culture' actually funded this film when it actually deals with things that should be uncomfortable for Putin if you go by the Western media's portrayal of him. I can bet that it will win the academy award for 'Best Foreign Film', for which it has been shortlisted,  just for the fact that it will aid Western propaganda. Even without that it would deserve all the recognition that comes its way since it may well be my favorite film from 2014.

The word 'Leviathan' also originates from the old testament where it refers to a sea monster. In modern culture, it was used by Thomas Hobbes as the title for his work on the social contract and the origins of creation of an ideal state. From there it has been used to portray the power of government in a negative way indicating its tyranny. In the film it is used to indicate the authority of both the government and the church over people and all of this comes as subtext. By doing so the director keeps it ambiguous what he is attacking and whether he is attacking at all. One can say he is using the attack on religion to mask the attack on government. 

The arrival of lawyer gives some hope for Kolya initially but soon enough it leads to problems in his marriage because of his wife, Lilya, starting an affair with the lawyer. The initial problems he has with the authority is compounded by the problems in his personal life. The mayor is shown having talks with the powerful priest from the church and the priest tells the mayor that they both occupy similar positions in the society. As more and more problems are introduced into Kolya's life he has an encounter with a lowly but a pious priest who explains to him the story of Job with the conclusion that Job went on to live till he was 140 years old. To that Kolya dryly asks 'Is that a fairy-tale?'. Being an atheist, I can totally understand his question since it is nothing but a story to make people reverent to the authority/God. How the fuck can anyone get comfort from that story, I don't know. Film ends with a scene from church where the cunning priest gives a sermon on why people should take comfort from God in stead of striving for freedom. If anyone missed the subtext so far, that should make it clear.

The reason for death that happens in the film is kept deliberately ambiguous which is a good thing. Even though it is a plot-driven film, it happens in an understated fashion and the same can be said of the acting. Elena Lyadova, who plays the role of tragic figure Lilya is hauntingly beautiful in it. Cinematography and the locales are stunning as is the soundtrack which is sparsely used with good effect to indicate its grandeur. I haven't seen any other films from the director but his debut film 'The Return' is in my watch-list. I will expedite that on the strength of Leviathan. Leviathan won the 'Golden Peacock' at the International Film Festival of India last year.

Rating: 5/5