Thursday, April 30, 2015

Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Director: Brett Morgan
Writer:    Brett Morgan
Features: Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic

An authorized documentary on the late musician Kurt Cobain, from his early days in Aberdeen, Washington to his success and downfall with the grunge band Nirvana. As everyone knows, he killed himself when he was 27, an age at which many famous musicians have perished. Coming into the documentary; I was aware about his death, his daughter and love their music, but didn't know much about his personal background and rest of the stuff in the documentary. It is not really a normal kind of rock documentary in the sense that focus is not much on the actual band or the music but on the lead man of the band, Cobain, itself. It features numerous home videos and several animation sequences to visualize what Cobain is describing and things like his diary notes, drawings etc. There is a very cinematic feel to the whole thing.

Kurt had a difficult childhood with divorced parents and faced rejection from various members of his family because of him being very difficult. From his journals it is conveyed that he contemplated suicide as a teenager and attempted it once by laying himself on a rail track. The train missed him as it was in another track. He also had a difficult time at school and had by then introduced himself into the world of drugs through marijuana. He kind of got over it by getting involved with the band and upon the release of their first album 'Nevermind' they became an overnight sensation with Cobain finding himself as the voice of disaffected youth . Kurt was not clearly ready for it and found love in Courtney Love, another pop artist, and their relationship was defined by both of them being heroin junkies. During the time of pregnancy, both of them were haunted by the US media, who were apparently concerned with the health of their child because of the parents' drug regimen. After the birth of their daughter, she was taken away by the Child services officials and placed under the custody of their relatives. They won the custodial battle even as Nirvana released their subsequent albums. Cobain had a brush with death in Rome, when he fell into a coma after an OD, reason for which is explained by Courtney as him being depressed about her admitting that she contemplated about having an affair. Back in US, he is admitted into a rehab from where he goes missing upon discharge. Seven days later he is found shot dead in a house and there was significant level of heroin in his blood. The details about his death is not there in the documentary which just states that he committed suicide one month after coming back from Europe. *Spoilers ahead which you should not read if planning to watch*

After watching the documentary, I went and read about him and the band in the usual forums that I go and other places in internet, and it turns out like many of the celebrity deaths in US there is a conspiracy theory surrounding Cobain's death. You can read about it here and apparently he wanted a divorce from Courtney and the page is the account from a private detective she had hired after he went missing from the rehab center. There was another artist Eldon Hoke, who claimed that he was approached by Courtney to kill Cobain and was found dead two days later after getting hit by a train at midnight with no witnesses. I really don't know whether this is another one of these kooky conspiracy theories that one normally associate with numerous celebrity deaths in US or it is anything more than that. The private detective who made the allegation was never sued by the family and that doesn't prove anything anyway.

I thought it was a very good watch before coming across this whole conspiracy theory aspect. On reflection, it does seem to be a propaganda piece which is overly trying to portray Cobain as a suicidal personality from his teenage years. His relationship with Courtney is portrayed in a 'too good to be true' manner without any problems between them and the only problem shown is used to explain away him falling into a coma. Cobain's daughter, Frances Cobain, served as co-executive producer of the film and it is due to be screened via HBO on May 4th, 2015. Overall, I guess, it is good watch if you don't know much about his life and death. 

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, April 26, 2015

ഞാന്‍ ഗന്ധര്‍വന്‍ (Njan Gandharvan) (1991)

Director: P. Padmarajan
Writer:    P. Padmarajan
Cast:       Suparna Anand, Nitish Bharadwaj
Language: Malayalam

The film is an esoteric fantasy about a girl and her passion for a celestial lover, who keeps appearing from a wooden statue that she found on a beach but is invisible to others. In Hindu mythology, gandharvas act as messengers between God and humans. They are usually depicted as singers in the court of Gods and also acts as guards for the Somas (intoxicating drink served for Gods). In Hindu law, a Gandharva marriage is one contracted by mutual consent and without formal rituals. In the film, the nameless Gandharvan (Nitish Bharadwaj) tells the girl that they are governed by very strict rules of heaven. They are usually banished to Earth when Gods catch them on their flings with Apsaras, and on Earth, they are ought to take virginity of the girls that they encounter after which they are supposed to forget about each other. Gandharvan in the film is a rebel who wants to break the rules and become a human after being smitten by the human girl. 

Both the main characters in the film are non-Malayalees and I am not sure about the exact logic of such a casting decision but Padmrajan might have thought that familiar faces would get in the way of convincingly portraying what are very odd characters in mainstream cinema. Mythical fantasy set in contemporary times is not a common genre in Malayalam cinema and only other film I could think of which came before this is 'Pappan Priyapetta Pappn', which was a comedy with Yaman. King of Death, in it. To be fair, casting Nitish Bharadwaj must have been a no-brainer since he was of course famous for portraying the role of Shri Krishna in the TV series epic 'Mahabharatha'. 

When it comes to enjoying the film, dubbing involved with the two main characters do get in the way sometimes in the film. The basic story is very flimsy but you do get the typical feel that Padmarajan manages to get in his films aided by a haunting theme music. I am not sure exactly what Padmarajan is going for since the Gandharva in it is very much real as he is seen interacting with other characters in the film. Maybe what he is trying to convey is that Heaven is very much a totalitarian regime governed by strict rules to control its inhabitants. Compared to that, the Earth is miles better, and the girl's family is portrayed as a very practical one which does not mind to go by her choice. I am not really an expert on Hindu mythology and don't know whether he is giving an alternate view on things and if so, it could very well be worthwhile, but I didn't find it all that interesting. But there is a novelty factor because of the fantasy elements which makes it a good enough watch overall.

Padmarajn met with an untimely death within a week after its release. Film was not very successful at the box office but was very well received when it was aired on TV. Out of all the Padmarajan films that I have watched this one is my least favorite. Wim Wender's 'Wings of Desire' also had a story of an angel coming down to the Earth but there is not much similarity between the two films. The script for Njan Gandharvan is not adapted from any other literary work of Padmarajan and was an original screenplay for the film. The three songs in it are very good and in context but you do get the feel that Padmarajan is doing it because he is hamstrung by limited actors.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Director: Peter Strickland
Writer:    Peter Strickland
Cast:       Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, Monica Swinn

The film begins with Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) shown to be a submissive maid of aristocratic & obnoxious Cynthia (Side Babett Knudsen). This sequence is from the perspective of Evelyn and she seems to have sexual feelings for Cynthia. The next twenty minutes of the film is from the perspective of Cynthia and the Master-Slave aspect of their relationship is altered when we are shown that Cynthia is acting under the orders of Evelyn and the latter enjoys being under the command of a dominatrix. During the rest of the film both of them are shown to be quite equal in terms of power aspect of their relationship and it is one which is associated with all the strains that are common in any normal relationship. 

You can go to town with all the metaphorical possibilities from the film. One could see it as a metaphor for the art of theater or even consider it is a metaphor for our relationship with the society at large and I am going for the latter. Our relationship with society and its conventions are generally submissive in nature and majority of people are quite happy to go along with it. At the start of the film, the characters are very much dressed as how they are supposed to be in keeping with the story but later on Cynthia starts wearing comfortable clothes which Evelyn objects to. We are not sure whether Cynthia is going method with her domination over Evelyn or she can't take seriously the ridiculous charade she is engaging in to keep her lover happy.  The safe word that they use for calling timeout during their role plays is 'Pinastri', which is the name of a certain type of butterflies, and both of them are engaged with research on butterflies. Butterfly is an insect which undergoes drastic changes in its appearance during its lifespan and the film is also doing the same with the audience. There is another character called Lorna, a much older maid, who doesn't utter a word or shown in close-up. She can be seen as a representative of other people who sit outside looking in making judgments (audience). 

Peter Strickland's previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, was a surreal horror and this one can be seen more of as a comedy with a kinky relationship at the center of it. Luis Bunuel is a huge influence on Strickland and my favorite film of the former is 'Belle de Jour', which also had a protagonist who sexually enjoys being submissive. One of the characters in the film is called Dr. Viridiana, which is of course a reference to another Bunuel masterpiece, 'Viridiana'. A recurring scene in the film is a punishment meted out to Evelyn behind closed doors where she is asked to lie down and we hear the her choking to the sound of running water. Over the course of the film we understand that it is another one of their exercises titled 'Human Toilet' and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what was happening. Even though I was laughing my way through the film there is always an uneasy horror feel to the film but that might be due to me being aware of Strickland's previous feature films. I was almost expecting Cynthia to turn out to be a man, which doesn't happen, and there are no male characters in the film.

Overall it is a great watch and tremendously funny. It is I guess a good version of '50 Shades of Grey', which I haven't seen yet. I was reminded of Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomanica: Volume 1' in terms of tone, both storywise and visualization.  Some of the scenes are hypnotic and the background score is stunning. It was made with a meager budget and critical reception have been quite positive. Berberian Sound Studio, which I loved, divided the audience much more. Strickland is one to keep an eye out for and his debut film 'Kataline Varga' was also very good. Sidse Babett Knudsen is of course familiar as the prime minister character in the Danish political drama series 'Borgen'. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ഹിസ് ഹൈനസ്സ് അബ്ദുള്ള (His Highness Abdullah) (1990)

Director: Sibi Malayil
Writer:    Lohithadas
Cast:       Mohanlal, Nedumudi Venu, Gautami, Sreenivasan, Thikkurisi
Langauge: Malayalam

The IMBD synopsis of the film is as follows: 'Mohanlal is hired to kill Nedmudi Venu' and that is about it. Hahaha....Nedumudi Venu plays the role of Maharaja Udayavarma, the patriarch of a royal family, who doesn't have any heirs. His other blood relatives are three of his sisters and their respective families who are after his considerable wealth. They decide to hire a contract killer to kill him off when they come to know that, according to his will, some of the property is designated for his step-daughter and, whatever that is due to them will be transferred only after his death. Mohanlal plays the role of Abdullah who masquerades as the killer as he is desperate for money and enters into the good books of the king by displaying his artistic capabilities. As he draws more and more close to the King and accepts to himself that he cannot do the deed, he realizes that he has put himself in a quandary because they can use someone else to kill the king and use him as scapegoat for it. He decides to switch sides. The quote in the poster translates as: 'Bhishma was killed using Shikhandi as a front. Don't become the Shikhandi. This is Kalyug'.

Wikipedia page states that it is a 'musical thriller drama' film. Most of the Indian films can be described as such (one could add action & comedy as well) but I think calling them cinema is bit of a stretch in most cases. But this film can be considered as one of the best example of how you can make a really good one while adhering to Indian cinema sensibilities. The plot is very much basic but people who are involved behind it elevates it to a level that is very much higher than what the plot suggests it to be. Lohithadas-Sibi Malayil combo is famous for their sentimental tragedy films but this one is more of a thriller at its core while having a thick layer of drama, comedy (non- slapstick) and music around it. Raveendran who does the music for the film is my favorite music director from Malayalam and his music which is a big feature of the film represents it best. He is best known for making what seems to be semi-classical music that are also caters to the mainstream. Normally you don't associate semi-classical music with popular cinema but he managed to hit that sweet-spot which satisfies both the puritans and mainstream. All the songs in the film are in context and most of them help in driving the story. One could argue that one or two of them are not really needed but they are so good and picturization of them with Mohanlal as the singer is so great that you don't really mind. There is no other actor who is this perfect in portraying classical singing sequences in films. 

I do think if someone try to make this film with different people involved, it won't be nearly half good as this. It is my favorite film from Sibi Malayil and probably boasts of one of the best OST composed for a Malayalam feature film. It has got a big ensemble cast and it is these exceptional supporting actors who helped in making some of the best Malayalam films in late 80s and early 90s. I really think if these films gets a re-release now, they will do much better than the shit that they serve up these days. It was the highest grosser of 1990 and ran for more than 200 days. It was the first project produced by Mohanlal's 'Pranavam Arts' which went on to produce many good artistic films as well as good commercial ones. It is ironic that his other producing vehicle, Antony Perumbavoor's 'Aashirvad Cinemas', whose first film was 'Narasimham' marked the beginning of definitive decline of Malayalam cinema and its two stalwarts (Mohanlal and Mammootty).

Rating: 5/5

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer:   J.C. Chandor
Cast:      Oscar Issac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo

In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his oil business and family during the most dangerous year in the city's history. He had acquired his business from his father-in-law who was a gangster. His oil is getting stolen while in transit, his salesmen attacked, DA is after him and meanwhile all this he has thirty days to come up with $1.5 million to complete the acquisition of a terminal which would take his business to the next level. To compound all this, his wife with her gangster family background, is questioning her husband's ability to keep her and their kids safe and wants to seek help from her family. He doesn't want to do this as he is adamant on running his business in a legitimate manner and the big question in the film is whether he can do it.

This is J. C. Chandor's third film after making sub-prime Investment Banking film 'Margin Call' and Robert Redford starring survival film 'All is Lost'. The first one was excellent with him managing to land a stellar cast (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany) and the story is told without dumbing down matters for the audience. I haven't seen the second one in full having turned it off after ten minutes or so with the realization that it might not be my cup of tea. I am also not a big fan of Robert Redford even though I thoroughly enjoyed both 'Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid' and 'All the Presiden't Men'. That said, I might revisit 'All is Lost' again since new releases have been quite dry lately.

Going by the title and the posters, I was expecting a gangster/mob picture, while in reality it is exactly the opposite. What you have here is someone who is avoiding the temptation to doing just that while everyone around him is advocating otherwise. It is a very unique film in the sense that legitimizing business is something that is glossed over in gangster genre pictures. Think of Michael Corleone in Godfather 2 and his relationship with his wife Kay, and in this film, Abel (Oscar Issac) and Anna (Jessica Chastain) are exact opposite of those two characters. Oscar Issac also look kind of similar to Michael Corleone and I don't know whether a conscious decision was made by them regarding that. It maybe just because of his black hair. Originally Javier Bardem was supposed to play the role but dropped out and was replaced by Oscar Issac. By the end of the film Abel somewhat compromises on his stand and justifies himself by saying that, for him, results are a constant but he always try to choose the most right path towards that. 

Overall it is a great watch dealing with a topic that is not commonly handled in the film business. You kind of realize watching it that cutting corners are kind of inevitable when you are running a successful business and planning for further growth. It is slow but never dull. You could describe the film as one which deals with loss of innocence. Oscar Issac had a breakout over the last two years with his role in Drive followed up with lead roles in 'Inside Llewyn Davis', 'The Two faces of January', 'Ex Machina' and 'A Most Violent Year'. Shame that he is gonna be in franchise films next- Star Wars and X-Men, which might be good for him in a careerist sense, but is kind of disappointing in an artistic sense. Both him and Jessica Chastain are excellent in this film and it is always nice to see 'The Wire' alumnus popping up in films and this time it is Peter Gerety (Judge Phelan) in a small role. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Director: George Miller
Writers:  Terry Hayes, George Miller
Cast:       Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence

A former Australian policeman is rescued by a tribe of children when he is banished from a desert town and sent into the desert by the desert town's evil queen (Tina Turner). This is the third installment in the Mad Max trilogy featuring Mel Gibson as the title character. Unlike in the earlier films, there is a semblance of order with the desert queen having brought a justice system in the town she had established. But the energy with which it is run is based on pig-shit and is handled by MasterBlaster. She kills Blaster with the help of Max and aims to control the Master. Max aims to help the tribe who rescued him by rescuing Master from the desert town.

The films begins with a bang and has great humor in the 'Hans Solo' mode. The middle third of it is attritional with George Miller having some fun with the idea of a backward tribe waiting for their messiah based on what they have deduced from things from the past. The last third film of the film features the obligatory kickass chase sequence and this time it involves a train. It is the only film out of the three that has a PG-13 rating while the other two are R-Rated. The fourth one that is coming out this year starring Tom Hardy, Fury Road, is also rated R. From the trailer I have seen of it, the story part seems fine with a very good cast but the action sequences seems very CGIed. What makes action sequences great in the Mel Gibson Mad Max films are their grittiness and the realism of the chase sequences and CGI won't make it exciting in any way whatsoever. Add to that it doesn't look any more realistic than the original ones. You are not going to be very excited if you know that they are doing is in front of a green Screen. To add insult to injury, it will be released in 3-D. Looks very much like a money-grab exercise.

As for Mad Max 3, it sits between 2 and 1 in terms of quality with second one being the best out of the three. The difference in quality between the films are quite large. Even though 'Beyond the Thunderdome', at 107 minutes, is not that longer compared to 'Road Warrior' but it does feel so which is never a good thing for a straight up action film. The standout feature of the third film is its humor compared to the other two even though it is a bit uneven. Like the second film, the antagonist characters are also very rational in their actions and not cartoonish. Overall it is a good watch without being anywhere near as good as the second one or anywhere near as bad as the first one. It was made with a budget of $12 million and grossed around $35 million, making it the least successful out of the three. Fury Road's budget is a whopping $150 million and I can see it being a disaster at the box office since many of the viewers will be coming with no knowledge about the franchise.

Rating: 3/5

ഹരം (Haram) (2015)

Director: Vinod Sukumaran
Writer:    I dunno and am not arsed to find out by going through the credits again
Cast:       Fahadh Faasil, Radhika Apte
Language: Malayalam

The film's IMDB page doesn't have a synopsis and there is no wikipedia page for the film at all. So, after somehow finishing the film, I have to come with a synopsis for it on my own to top it all. Basically there is a central relationship involving Fahadh Faasil and Radhika Apte who had met at work in a call center in Bangalore. She was going through a breakup and Fahadh, who is skeptical about love and relationships, proves to be a should to cry on and romance develops after initiation from her side. These are shown through timeline jumps and right now they are separated and going through divorce procedure. So we have to piece this all together and this kind of cerebral activity keeps us engaged till the intermission, despite the shitty acting by all involved except for Fahadh. In between all this, there is another working class relationship between a body double actress and her boyfriend which takes a violent turn. Fahadh kind of gets involved through an accident and that is about it.

The film does not seem to have a Facebook promotion page which means that even the makers had also given up on it. I have absolutely no idea why I went out of my way to watch it. The acting and writing for almost all the characters outside of the central two are absolutely pathetic. The second story about the working class relationship adds nothing to the film and is an unwanted distraction. If the aim of that was as an attempt to depict the protagonist as someone with communist/socialist thinking, then it fails gloriously like it did in 'Iyobinte Pusthakam', and ended up being half-arsed. I don't think the director really intended to do the film as a metaphorical attempt to relate our confusion about it to the muddled thinking of the protagonists. It is just shiite. You get all the cliches of recent so called new-gen films like- poorly Malayalam speaking 'Yo' characters, very forward thinking father of the daughter role played by Renji Panicker, pseudo-intellectualism by quoting from books that I haven't read, gritty chase sequence through narrow streets, multiple story lines etc. Music for the film is done by the band 'Thaikudam Bridge' who makes a living by leeching on Malayalee nostalgia by remixing older songs. Their attempts at coming out with something original have been atrocious and their work in Haram is no different. 

To sum up, it is an atrocious film that kind of keeps you interested till the intermission because of the timeline jumps. It is poorly acted and poorly written and leaves you confused about what they were really attempting to do. The trouble is that many of the Malayalam films that I have liked from recent times are attempts by debut directors (Akam, Neram, Annayum Rassolum, Vedivazhipadu, 1983 and even Munnariyippu) . This one is also from a debut director and  you don't have any frame of reference to actually decide whether to watch a film or not and only way to know is by taking the plunge. Sometimes it works out and this time it didn't.

Rating: 1/5

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Director: George Miller
Writers:  Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant
Cast:       Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston

In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, a cynical drifter agrees to help a small, gasoline rich, community escape a band of bandits. The film begins with an explanation on how the apocalypse came about, which was not done in the first Mad Max film, and how Max became 'Mad' by giving a synopsis of what happened in the first film. Funny thing is that the synopsis was all we needed instead of the shitfest that was the first film. To be fair, the success of it was what generated the sequel which is vastly better than the former. I don't think I have seen another franchise in which there is such a vast difference in terms of quality, in a good way, between the first film and the second. 

Mad Max 2 is everything that Mad Max 1 is not. It comes with vastly superior characters, coherent plot which is engagingly slow-burn, superior writing despite minimal dialog (only 16 lines for Mad Max), on-screen violence and a  jaw-dropping set-piece at the end. The much higher budget is very well used and the widescreen cinematography is exquisite. As for the title character, Max, he is not much different from the first film and maybe he is slightly more anarchic and cynical. The 'Mad' bit in his name is an oxymoron since he is totally logical in his actions considering the circumstances. The bad guys in the film is also vastly better with perfectly logical reasons for their behavior. One could even question whether they are that bad at all. They just want some gasoline whereas the people whom Max is helping are hoarding the oil at a facility that they are protecting and they want to take some of it to go 2000 miles north where it is much more inhabitable. On the way out they are planning to destroy the facility which is kind of a dick move from their part. It can of course be seen as a metaphor for the big oil companies (seven sisters) who extracts everything from places like Africa leaving the natives without anything good. 'Seven Sisters' reference is thrown in the film with it being the logo of the tanker with which final escape is made. The Feral kid who doesn't utter a single line in the film is also particularly great and he could be very much in the new Mad Max film that is coming out later this year with Tom Hardy. I am totally excited about that now. 

Film was made on a budget of A$4.5 million, ten times that of the first one, but was not as successful as the first one because of a botched up release. It still made considerable amount of money, $35 million, but that should be put into context of first film making $100 million. First one was made in 1979 but had only got a limited release in US close to the time second one got released. So they went with the title Road Warrior, dropping Mad Max from it, so as not to confuse people and underestimating its popularity in North America. So many in US didn't even realize that it was a sequel to the original Mad Max since the brief black & white shots from the first one in it is quite easy to miss. 

Overall it is a great watch and I would recommend people who are planning to get into Max Max films to skip the first film and go directly to watch this one. The third one is supposed to be not this good but I am certainly gonna watch it since it cannot be any worse than the first film. It being PG-13 is a huge turn-off though. There is a strange and uneasy eroticism to the whole thing which is also true for the first film. Mad Max 2: Road Warrior is certainly one of the best in this genre and the soundtrack reminded me of one used in Matrix Reloaded during that famous freeway chase sequence. Film is not all about Mel Gibson and rest of the cast are also good. Another great thing about Max in this is that he is not 'always right in decision-making' kind of lead and is prone to fuck-ups from his side also.

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mad Max (1979)

Director: George Miller
Writers:   James McCausland, George Miller, Byron Kennedy
Cast:        Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, High Keays-Byrne

A vengeful Australian policeman sets out to avenge his partner, his wife and his son in a dystopian setting. The bad guys are a biker-gang and as the poster says-it stars Mel Gibson and a bunch of other guys. It was made for a budget of A$400,000 and made $100 million at the box office and held the record for being the most profitable film for twenty years, which it eventually passed onto Blair Witch Project, and thus spawning the Mad Max Franchise.

It is basically the origins story of what turned out to be a franchise. The plot is laughably basic and writing is absolute cringe. I almost resorted to fast forwarding through the film by about forty five minutes but at that point it kind of became a little bit coherent and I sat through the film. I read somewhere that the Australian voices were dubbed over with a much more US accent for its US release and the former is supposed to be miles better. I am not hundred percent sure as to whether I watched the Australian version but it did sound so even though the audio was out of sync. That might be more to do with the file that I watched which was very small for a x264. The action scenes are very well done in terms of how they were shot and most of the violence is off-screen. But those things don't quite salvage the film for me as the acting is laughably bad even from Mel Gibson, for whom it was a breakthrough role. I understand it is not about acting, characters, writing etc but watching it is a real slog.

Another one in the Mad Max franchise is coming out this year titled 'Fury Road'. It is directed by George Miller, starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, and the visuals indeed look stunning from the trailer. Out of the Mel Gibson films, the second one in the series titled 'Road Warrior' is supposed to be the best and I am gonna give it a chance even though I absolutely hated the first one. Hopefully bigger budget and better writing means a far better film.

Rating: 1.5/5

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Proposition (2005)

Director: John Hillcoat
Writer:    Nick Cave
Cast:       Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Emily Watson

A lawman (Ray Winstone) apprehends a notorious outlaw (Guy Pearce) and gives him nine days to kill his elder brother, or else they'll execute his younger brother. Film is set in Australian outback of the 1880s. 

Both the director and screenwriter are known for their involvement with Western films and this one is another one of those. Nick Cave is a man of many talents and have been involved in various films as musician, composer, screenwriter and actor. As far as moderns films in western genre goes, Andrew Dominik's 'Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford' is the standout film along with Coens' 'True Grit'. One could consider Tarantino's last two films as Westerns but they are also many other things to be truly considered as a genre film. His next one, 'Hateful Eight', will be a typical Western film and when it comes out we can compare it with the other two I have mentioned earlier so as to ascertain where it stands in comparison. Knowing Tarantino these days, he might self indulge the shit out of it.

As for 'The Proposition', one can deduce from the plot synopsis itself that the story is pretty basic and it is all about the grittiness of the setting and the performances from the excellent cast that it has got. I am a huge fan of Guy Pearce and have always felt that he is quite underrated. He should have been in more films and maybe it is a choice that he is making from his part by opting out of shitty money-grab films. John Hurt plays a cameo in it and  is among the more interesting of characters from the film. The elder brother character played by Danny Huston was quite underwhelming. Film is largely told through the POV of the lawman character played by Ray Winstone.

Overall it is a great watch without being compelling enough to be termed as a great one. Maybe it was an intentional subversion of genre by taking away any humor, set-piece scenes or larger than life characters from it. The songs that are used in the film are like ballads and the film was commended for highly accurate portrayal of its aboriginal characters. Australia really did seem like a hellhole and the outbacks maybe still is. It was shot in Queensland. Guy Pearce starrer 'The Rover', which can be called a post-apocalyptic Western, is a better film than this and is highly recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Loin des hommes (Far from Men) (2014)

Director: David Oelhoffen
Writer:    David Oelhoffen
Cast:       Viggo Mortensen, Reda Kateb

A white settler teacher (Viggo Mortensen) in a small Algerian village during the Algerian war forms an unexpected bond with a convicted murderer (Reda Kateb) as he is ordered to take him to the authorities in a different town. We later on learn that the teacher is of Spanish descend and the Algerian he is entrusted with had killed his cousin for stealing grain from him. The law states that his other cousins are supposed to kill him unless he gives them blood money which he does not have. If they kill him, then his younger brothers are obligated to kill their cousins in turn and thus spiraling the violence. To avoid this, he has found the solution of turning himself to the French authorities who will kill him for the crime. So in effect he wants to turn himself in even as the teacher advises him against it and insists that he will set him free. So the whole film is about whether the Algerian will change his mind or not. 

The teacher consider himself as a son of the land he was born into but the Algerians consider him to be French while the French does not consider him to be one of their own. He comes across as a humanist and could be considered as the metaphorical representation of neutral intermediaries who try to resolve conflicts in the modern world. Since the film is set in 1954, such people didn't have any clout and rather than treating it as a war for independence, French attitude is to treat the rebels as Terrorists which worsens the situation. The Algerian war for independence started in 1954 and ended with independence for Algeria in 1962. It is a dark chapter among all the Colonial withdrawals that took place after second world war  and the French guilt about it was metaphorically portrayed in Michael Haneke's 'Cache'. 

The film works as a road film with Western like settings. The characters in it are very anti-Western (genre I mean) who are caught up in a situation about which they can't do much and they don't stand on either sides of the conflict. It is beautifully shot with solid acting but some of the writing and situations in it seemed a bit cliched. It is based on Albert Camus' short story 'The Guest', which reflected his own non-aligned stance towards the conflict. Overall it is a good solid watch without being anything more than that.

Rating: 3/5

The Trip (TV Series) (2010– )

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Features: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

Steve is asked to review restaurants for the UK's Observer and is joined on a working road trip by his friend who fills in at the last minute when Coogan's romantic relationship falls apart. This was the premise for the first season where they visits places in North of England. In the second season they are visiting Italy, from Liguria to Capri, following the footsteps of the great Romantic poets.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon plays fictionalized versions of themselves by exaggerating aspects of their real selves with some fictional inner turmoil added in. In the first season Steve Coogan's falling relationship with his girlfriend, who was supposed to be in the trip with him, was the overarching theme. In the second season focus on a personal level is more on Rob with him being involved in a fling with a girl they meet during the trip and also trying out an audition for a role in a Michael Mann film, which makes Steve slightly jealous of him. He is supposed to play the role of an Italian mob accountant which brings out all the impersonations based on Godfather from both of them.

Both the seasons were edited to bring out films of them and my first experience of 'The Trip' was through the film with the same name out of the first season. I saw the TV episodes after that and haven't yet seen the film made out of the second season and I guess I will catch up on it after a while only. I thought the first film was better than the first season's TV episodes with the personal story of Steve coming across better with a very powerful ending which conveys his loneliness. On TV it felt a bit inconsistent with each episode dedicating what felt to be a premeditated time for Steve's troubles. This kind of feel was less for the second season and so I don't think there will be much difference between the film and TV season. The two seasons comprises of six episodes each.

What you get with 'The Trip' is two friends who wants to make it seem as if they can't stand each other and are jealous of each other in some sort of way. Steve Coogan is of course the more successful of the two but he holds resentment for being not that successful in his film career. He looks down upon Rob Brydon' material and is on the whole quite condescending to him. There are plenty of references and impersonations all of which you might not be able to get. The most recurring ones are Michael Caine, latter years Al Pacino, Brando from Godfather and other usual suspects from Britain like Sean Connery, Jimmy Saville, Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore etc. It is a very unconventional comedy that is quintessentially British, also playing up their modern relationship with America which is essentially a combination of condescension and inferiority complex. It is great watch and I am also a fan of Michael Winterbottom, which I don't know whether is a precondition to love the show. Along with 'The Trip, my favorite works of his are '24 Hour Party People' and 'The Killer Inside Me'. 

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

വെള്ളിമൂങ്ങ (Vellimoonga) (2014)

Director: Jibu Jacob
Writer:    Jibu Jacob
Cast:       Biju Menon, Aju Varghese, Nikki Galrani
Language: Malayalam

A happy go lucky politician is smitten by a girl half his age and tries his luck at winning her hand. This girl is also the daughter of a lady with whom he had romantic relationship with during his teen years. Over the course of the film he tricks people to achieve the goals he had set for himself in both his political career and personal life. 

It is a genre that was revived by Sreenivasan with the film 'Katha Parayumbol' which was written by him. You get a picturesque village with its own politics and supposedly 'interesting' sets of characters. The story is told as a comedy and almost all the people in it will neither be overly bad nor overly good. I don't know whether such a reality exist in Kerala anymore and perhaps it is this nostalgia that makes such films work for a typical Malayalee. It was remade into three languages (as Kusela in Tamil & as Billu in Hindi) and as far as I know all those didn't do well at the box office. As for me, I didn't like that film very much and thought it was very overrated by an audience who are prone to fall for simplistic feel good films. Still it had a writer who can still shame younger generation people who masquerades as writers in Malayalam film industry these days. It also boasted of a very good set of supporting actors who can elevate what is written into a superior output. 

So Vellimoonga is another film that tries to tap into this space and it managed successfully, at least in the commercial sense, by becoming a huge box office hit grossing close to  INR20 crores. It was a sleeper hit helped by the fact that there weren't any good competition when it came out. As a film it is really poor and just about watchable. The comedy falls flat and the supporting village characters turn out to be one dimensional irritating ones without being interesting in any sort of way. Biju Menon as the protagonist didn't work for me and it sort of cemented the value of second tier leads held in Malayalam- Jayaram, Mukesh, Siddique & Jagadeesh- who plied under the shadow of Mohanlal, Mammootty and to a smaller extent Suresh Gopi intermittently during the 90s & noughties. Might not be fair of me to judge Biju Menon just based on one film mind.

The film is representative of the rot Malayalam film industry is in. A thoroughly below average film becoming a box office hit helped partly by the space generated since plenty moved into the supposed 'new generation' films. So when a film gives you a simple story without any of the indecency associated with new-gen films, it is a welcome relief for parents who can take their children to a film that is not of 'Koprayam' actor Dileep's. So Vellimoonga is a compromise film-simple enough with a catchy title tune to lure children in and not as shit as Dileep films which is a relief for their parents. Doesn't make it any good though.

Rating: 2/5

Monday, April 13, 2015

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Director: James Cameron
Writers:  William Wisher Jr. , James Cameron
Cast:       Arnold Schwarzenneger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick

A cyborg, identical to the one who failed to kill Sarah Connor, must now protect her young son John Connor, from a more advanced cyborg, made out of liquid metal. So we've got Arnold back, but this time as a hero, and it is explained away as: John Connor from future was able to reprogram it and sends it back in time to protect a young John Connor.

In the first terminator film, the terminator and the human soldier comes back in time using a time machine which was supposed to be destroyed. So that was the last chance for the things from future to affect the outcome by tweaking the events in the past. In T2, it is not explained how they were again able to come back in time. Only possible explanation is that both machines and humans have a set of time-machines each with which they are trying to affect things in the past. That kind of sucks because why can't they just go back to 1984 and try to kill Sarah Connor again. Things happening in T2 will be just one such attempt of many meaning that at the end of the day it doesn't amount to much in the large scheme of things. 

The version I watched was about 154 minutes long while the theatrical one was 137 minutes. The extra 17 minutes includes among other things a dream sequence involving the father of John Connor. The film can be divided into three halves: first one with Arnold saving John and helping John save Sarah from the mental institution she is in, second one in which they are on the run and goes to south where Sarah and John had stayed earlier training to fight, and the last sequence involving the assault at the cybernetic corporation who were developing the Skynet technology out of the things recovered from the terminator in the first film. Basically the first and last are kickass action set-pieces while the middle third is painfully boring stuff linking the two. Cameron tries to pull of some humor between John and Arnold which doesn't always work and Sarah is a nagging presence throughout. Sarah decides that she is supposed to alter the nuclear war fate, logic of which is presented in the film in a very underwhelming manner, and decides to kill the scientist who is developing the chip that will lead to Skynet and details about him are provided by Arnold. 

Overall it is a good watch but the film as a whole is uneven. They could have done away with the melodramatic parts and decided to go for all out action. I don't know whether the shorter theatrical cut might have changed this a bit. The story was anyway not going to be as interesting as the first. You do get a very early 90s vibe in the way it was filmed and I was kind of reminded of Natural Born Killers, maybe because of the desert. The kid playing John Connor is not very good, partly due to script,  and Home Alone vibe doesn't go well with The Terminator franchise. All that said, the action sequences were great making use of the whopping $94 million budget and the CGI was cutting edge stuff for early 90s. Shame that Cameron got a hard-on for CGI and went on to make thoroughly average films like Titanic and Avatar since then. I haven't seen 'True Lies' which came after T-2. As for the Terminator franchise, two other films came out both of which were supposedly crap. Another one, titled 'Terminator Genisys, featuring Arnold is slated for release this year and I have not interest in watching that. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Terminator (1984)

Director: James Cameron
Writers:  Gale Anne Hurd, James Cameron
Cast:      Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn

A human-looking indestructible cyborg is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a waitress Sarah Connor, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against the machines, while a soldier from that war is sent to protect her at all costs. The situation in 2029 arose after the machines decided to wipe out mankind so that they may not destroy everything in the future and the way they went about it was by launching a nuclear war. 

I have seen Terminator 2 like when I was in school and don't remember much about it apart from the famous chase sequence and the last thumbs up shot of the film. Those who know their onions often claim that the first film in the Terminator franchise is the best out of the lot. It is understandable because the first one often have the best story as the audience don't know anything about the universe the film is set in and the director can reveal little by little throughout the film without it feeling like a sequence of action sequences just for the sake of it. This is indeed how 'The Terminator' turned out to be, a great action film with an interesting story line. It is a very enjoyable watch even though the whole idea about the film is from a very basic story about Man Vs Machine & Time Travel. Like all time travel films, it also features Bootstrap Paradox. Paradox here is that it is the soldier from future who impregnates Sarah Connor leading to the birth of John Connor who goes on to become the leader of men in their fight against machines. John had used information given to him by his mother to send the soldier back in time, while Sarah got the information in the first place from the soldier himself. So the information is circular without an origin but it is done in an interesting way since the time travelling soldier doesn't know that there is an extra motive for John to send him back in time. He could have seen John being named as a Connor, after his mother, as a possible clue. People often cite Bootstrap Paradox to chide time travelling films when in fact they are a recurring feature in almost all such films and it is what make them interesting. Same was used to criticize Interstellar when in fact that film had so many other problems that you could beat it with. Presdestination is an excellent film from last year which celebrated the paradox in such a way that I still can't get my head round all the paradoxes. 

Overall it is great watch with some solid chase action sequences. The time travel aspect of the film and the paradox must have been novel when it came out in 1984, much before the 'Back To The Future' franchise. Towards the end you do get a feeling that Terminator is just a turd that refuses to be flushed down and we can totally relate to Sarah's words: 'You're terminated, fucker!'. They could have very well ended the film with that tanker explosion scene. Arnold's Terminator character is listed in AFI's lists of 100 best Heroes and Villains in both categories with the only other one such character being Al Pacino's Michael Corleone. Looking forward to watching Judgement Day again. Hast la vista, baby!

Rating: 4/5

Starry Eyes (2014)

Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Writers:    Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Cast:         Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

A hopeful young starlet uncovers the ominous origins of the Hollywood elite and enters into a deadly agreement in exchange for fame and fortune. Sarah (Alex Essoe) is a struggling actor who works in a hooters like food chain to pay her bills. She gets shortlisted for an audition in an Astraeus Pictures production. The audition doesn't go well and she throws a hissy fit, involving pulling her hairs out,  in the rest room which one of the Casting director inadvertently hears. She is asked to replicate that again during the audition and she is selected for the next round. She flies through the second round of audition and is invited to meet the old producer for the third round. He informs her that what they are planning with 'Silver Scream' is to portray the people like her in Hollywood itself , who are ambitious and are doers prepared to make sacrifices. This is like a meta-sequence with the producer describing what 'Starry Eyes' is all about. Things get complicated as he makes sexual advances against her, telling her that she is at the gateway and she just need to open the gates to transform her life into one of fame and fortune. Meanwhile all this, we also get a glimpse of her life in LA surrounded by friends of her roommate whom she can't stand and thinks stand in her way. They are also involved in the sacrifice that the producer is talking about.

The film starts very much in David Lynchesque fashion, then becomes a David Cronenbergesque body horror and finally into slasher horror category. Horror films works for me only when it is made in a way that you can really relate to what the character is going through and Starry Eyes does that without relying on cheap jump scare tactics. Being a struggling actor in Hollywood comes with the prospect of facing numerous rejections as you go through audition after audition. She is not handling this well and this is exactly what attracts  the producer in the first place as he suspects that she is prepared to do anything for the role. The transformation she is supposed to make requires her to do shed any humane qualities in her and all of this is a metaphorical allusion to people who are successful in the Hollywood hellhole. To be fair, you can say the same about 'successful' people from many other lines of work and in that sense almost all can connect to this film. Success mostly comes after selling your soul to the devil and question for many becomes whether you are prepared to do so. We all can look at the managers we had in various jobs to see people just like that. Film will remind you of Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive' and Cronenberg's 'Maps to the stars', both of which were Hollywood stories, and may even see Starry Eyes as a sort of prequel to both. After a very stunning first two thirds of the film, I feared that it will peter out towards the end as it became a slasher film, but the ending surprised me again as the directors didn't resort to 'it is all in the head' routine. That can work only when you are sympathetic to the character and in this film she is portrayed in a somewhat negative light from the beginning. I really liked that they went all way in with the 'castigating Hollywood' routine.

Overall it is a great watch, even without taking the budgetary constraints into consideration. It was made on a meager $50K budget and was partly funded through Kickstarter. I didn't notice the soundtrack that much- in a good way- till the end credits rolled, set to retro music and in cool red fonts,  which I sat through and that is always a good thing. The makeups looked convincing and  the slasher part of the film was especially hard to watch and blanket was very close to my eyes. Pulling nails out always gets me. It is probably the best horror film I have seen from recent times and I consider 'The Babadook' as more of a psychological thriller rather than horror. The name of the fictional production company, Astraeus, is the name of the God of Stars in Greek mythology.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Иди и смотри (Come and See) (1985)

Director: Elem Klimov
Writers:  Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov
Cast:       Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Luibomiras Lauciavicius
Language: Russian

After finding an old rifle, a young boy joins a Russian partisans group (Russian resistance in Nazi occupied lands) and experiences the horrors of the Eastern front during second world war. Despite his protests from his mother, he joins the partisans with boyish glee but is left behind in their camps in the woods along those who are not ready to march on. He remains unharmed, along with a girl with whom he gets friendly there, as the Germans bomb the camp. He finds out that his whole family was killed along with many villagers due to German reprisals for aiding partisans. By then he is fully aware about the horrors of war but he is still not ready to see what comes next as he witnesses a village and its inhabitants gets torched by Nazis as part of their scorched earth policy during retreat.

The films begins in a Belarusian village in 1943. So by that time Germans had faced decisive defeat in battle of Stalingrad and in effect had lost the war. The film is from the view point of a boy who is in Nazi occupied parts of Soviet Union and were among the most affected people in the war as they became victims to the brutal fight between the occupying Germans and Russian partisans. They were looked down upon by the partisans for not joining the resistance and used to loot them for their supplies. They also became victims to German reprisals for supposedly aiding and abetting partisans. When Soviet Union finally won the war and Nazis began to retreat, they suffered even more as their villages were scorched by the latter. I had been watching some documentaries on second world war and the eastern front recently and was fully aware about the horrors that happened in that front. Western Front was child's play compared to the brutalities committed in the East. The film gives a visual depiction of the same with an excellent central performance from Aleksey Kravchenko, who plays the role of the  protagonist. If you want to get the full picture regarding Eastern front you may watch: War of the Century: When Hitler Fought Stalin. Come & See is more of a micro view but it is essentially what you want to see, through the eyes of a foot soldier, since most films want to depict a story which is of strategic significance to the outcome of war. It is a shame that we don't get more films based on Eastern Front and the films done by the Hollywood machinery will live you with a blinkered view on the war. It is laughable that some people put films like Saving Private Ryan as a candidate for the greatest war film. 

I had been meaning to watch this film for a long time but couldn't manage for some reason or the other. Am glad that I procrastinated because in the meantime I had seen those documentaries that were  refereed to earlier. I was kind of prepared to see what the film depicts and could make more sense of it. The title of the film comes from Chapter 6 of 'Revelation of St. John', in which 'Come and See' is said in the first, third, fifth and seventh verses; as an invitation to look upon the destruction caused by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Towards the end of film, we see the boy firing at a portrait of Hitler, while the archival footage go back in reverse through the events of war, Hitler'r rise, first world war and finally to a picture of a baby Hitler in his mother's hand. At that point the boy refuses to shoot and it kind of solidify the Russian bias in the film. But you can't really fault them for it and at the end of it you do see some perverse justification for the atrocities committed in Germany by the Red Army as they marched to Berlin.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, April 10, 2015

ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ (Like Someone in Love) (2012)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Writer:    Abbas Kiarostami
Cast:       Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase
Language: Japanese

In Tokyo, sociology student Akiko moonlights as a high-end prostitute while her relatively cruder boyfriend is suspicious. One night she is assigned to Takashi, a very old university professor, who is more interested in companionship rather than sex. The next day, while he drops off Akiko at the university, he meets the boyfriend who mistakes him for her grandfather. He offers some advise for the young boy which he thinks will help them both in their relationship and all three of them have a bonding like session in the car.

It is Kiarostami's first feature film in Japanese after his foray into making a French film with 'Certified Copy'. I guess he is doing it so that he could express himself better by handling subjects that Iranian films won't entertain. He might have chosen Japan so that he would get a quite Westernized country, where there is legalized prostitution, while at the same time holding traditional Asian family values at least outside the big towns. Akiko's grandmother is visiting Tokyo that day and wants to meet her. Akiko is reluctant because she knows that her grandmother is also suspicious about her activities having seen posters of her in the railway station. Her handler forces her to attend to her next assignment and she is quite surprised to see a very old person waiting for her. The film proceeds at an elderly pace and because of that the ending can seem very abrupt leaving you scratching your head wondering what exactly was the point. The ending kind of reminded me of Michael Haneke films, especially Cache. The point I guess would be the generation gap between the grandfather like figure and the couple he encounters. The boy is somewhat patriarchal, harking back to older times, and he is kind of caught up between the two Japans. His idea of marriage is to have the right to have more control over her. Akiko seems quite adept at playing the Metro girl after moving there from her small town. Professor seems estranged from his family and has opted for Akiko because of the similarity in appearance to his family. All of them are under some form of alienation.

I encounter Tokyo mostly through Japanese films from Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike and both of them portray the seedier side of the city. So it was quite a refreshing change to see the beautiful side of it in Kiarostami's sedate film. It is a great watch and very beautiful to look at. Language can get in the way when directors handle a foreign language film and it did seem that the Japanese sounded bit different in the film, slower and less shriller. Since I don't know the language it didn't affect me in anyway but it would be interesting to see how it was received in Japan.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Lost River (2014)

Director: Ryan Gosling
Writer:   Ryan Gosling
Cast:      Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Matt Smith, Ben Mendelsohn, Saoirse Ronan

A single mother is swept into a dark underworld, while her teenage son discovers a road that leads him to a secret underwater town. Mother is facing the foreclosure of her childhood home where she currently lives with her two sons, one of them a teenager while the other being a toddler. The newly appointed bank manager gives her a new job, which is essentially a degrading one, in a club where people come to find solace while watching gore tricks. The manager claims that this is his sixth lost river town and he knows how to get things done for the bank. Meanwhile, as more and more people leave the town after getting their houses foreclosed, her elder son Bones goes house to house to collect whatever scrap copper he could get to earn some money. It is a dangerous business as those properties are owned by the local gangster, Bully, and this can be seen as an unholy alliance between the bankers and the shady underworld. Bones also learn from his neighbor friend that their town borders several towns that got submerged when a dam was built in the area. 

I think it is safe to make a guess that the aftermath of sub-prime crisis in America is the theme that Ryan Gosling is going for. There is nothing being done for the borrowers, which is justified in the name of moral hazard, as their houses are getting foreclosed. Meanwhile the bankers, who peddled loans to unqualified borrowers with no means to repay them, are bailed out and nobody is concerned about the moral hazard in doing that. It is a blatant case of following capitalism when it comes to private sector profits and socialism in distributing the private sector losses. The scenes showing foreclosures are not far removed from what happened in several American towns after the crisis. The metaphor of dams submerging towns can be seen as about grand things being planned ultimately benefiting none leaving trails of destruction in its wake. 

All these things described above are established within first forty or so minutes of the film. The problem is that what comes after doesn't amount to much.  It is atmospheric invoking the likes of David Lynch and neon-lit Refn films. Chromatics, who were also involved with the Drive soundtrack, contributes to the music along with Glass Candy, Desire and Symmetry. Couple of songs are also from Saoirse Ronan and Ben Mendelsohn. Film was screened at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, inviting boos as well as cheers from the audience. So I was thinking that it will be one that would be in 'Either Hate it or Love it' category but I enjoyed watching it without considering it to be all that great. The last thirty minutes of the film is immensely atmospheric but what exactly happens on screen in terms of plot is kind of tame. Overall it is a good watch and an interesting directorial debut for Ryan Gosling. 

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers:  Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Cast:       Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
Language: Italian

Jep Gambardella has seduced his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades, but after his 65th birthday and a shock from the past, Jep looks past the nightclubs and parties to find a timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty- i.e. underneath all the blah, blah, blah....

Jep moved to Rome after writing his first and only novel, Human Apparatus, which is considered as a masterpiece. Since then he has lived the high society life in a prolonged semi-retired state writing cultural columns and interviewing arty-farty people for a lifestyle magazine. You can obviously draw comparisons with the Fellini masterpiece 'La Dolce Vita', but Jep is someone who is much higher in the food chain when it comes to Roman socialites. As he states in the film, he didn't just want to attend parties but wanted the power to make them fail. The shock from the past comes when a man, who was his first love's husband, comes to him and informs him of her death. He also tells him that Jep was her only true lover and she considered her husband just as a great companion. The incident serves him to reflect on his own life which seems unfulfilled. Being a self-aware person, one would think that it is something that he would have already thought of but it does seem to trigger something more. 

Sorrentino gives us a series of scenes through which we get a glimpse of Jep's lifestyle, which very much involves him attending many art events most of which are pretentious and hollow. Jep is at a stage in his life where he can see through all the bullshit. In a scene where he verbally undresses a socialite who masquerades as a writer, he states:

"We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little... Don't you agree? "

He is also contemptuous of people around him including himself and he sees things like funerals as a high society event where you need to hit all the right notes to appear nobly sorrowful without stealing the bereaved's thunder. He also proceeds to quiz people from religious institutions but one senses that he already know that they are also similar to how his friends are.The final encounter is with a Mother Teresa like nun who celebrates poverty which her PR bandwagon amplifies tenfold. She is 104 years old, the same age Mother Teresa would have been if she was alive at the time when  this film came out. She is also portrayed as someone who pushes the agenda of institution she belongs to and is evident when she claims to know the Christian names of migrating birds who are taking a rest in Jep's balcony. That said, she is not put down to the extent that others were. There is no big epiphany for Jep, but a gradual sense of enlightenment as he reflects on things. He tells her that he didn't write a second novel because he was looking for the great beauty which he was not able to find. The film ends with him reminiscing about the first sex he had with his only true lover and stating:

"This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah... It's all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world, blah, blah, blah... Beyond there is what lies beyond. And I don't deal with what lies beyond. Therefore... let this novel begin. After all... it's just a trick. Yes, it's just a trick. "

This was my second viewing of this film which I considers as the best one from 2013. You do get the feel that director is taking us into Jep's shoes, who is basically the director himself, and see the world through his eyes. So it is basically an observational film with an anthological feel rather than one with some plot revolving around a protagonist. Stunning visuals/cinematography and soundtrack are a given in Sorrentino films and Tony Servillo is great as always. Sorrentino can really film a party scene with the first one in the film lasting close to eight minutes or so. I have't seen the Sean Penn starring 'This Must be the Place' and didn't enjoy 'Il Divo' that much. 'Consequences of Love' and 'Family Friend' were both excellent but 'The Great Beauty' is indeed my favorite Sorrentino film.

Rating: 5/5