Sunday, October 31, 2010
Everybody has heard of Helen Keller and her name is part of the lexicon. I too had never grasped the dimension of the miracle that her life represents. It is difficult to imagine the situation of an intellectually precocious child who at the pre-lingual stage of nineteen months loses hearing and sight and has only touch and smell to navigate by. It is scarcely imaginable that she became a writer, a social activist and a philosopher and even won the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The movie is only about the first step of this Odyssey. As though by destiny she encountered a teacher as committed as Anne Sullivan. We are introduced to Helen after her impairment as a violent, disturbed and unmanageable child--"a little devil". Her family, having consulted all manner of doctors and quacks (this was the 1880s) and come to the end of the tether is considering her commitment to an institution. Their dilemma, torn between love and helplessness, is poignantly etched. The movie describes the arduous process as she emerges from her isolation and learns to communicate through the language of letters of the alphabet traced by using the fingers. There s a highly allegorical sequence where Helen feels the wonder of a bird breaking the shell and opens out to the universe. The film climaxes with her learning her first word--the tactile equivalent for water-- after which her development is at a torrential pace. She was later, among the many dimensions of her achievement, to become a master of words.
The movie is a simple if remarkable story told straightforwardly and well. Hallie Eisenberg as Helen gives a phenomenal performance by an actress less than ten years old. We also have a portrait of a teacher possessed by an unquenchable commitment and faith. The film with it's simple theme of facing unsurmountable adversity succeeds with its message of hope and optimism. This is certainly a film in which the what-it's-about takes precedence over the how. I did not sit down to see this for directorial flourishes or camera acrobatics but to learn about and draw inspiration from the life of Helen Keller and this expectation was admirably satisfied. Content is certainly no less important than form, style and camera wizardry.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
A plane carrying nuclear bombs on a routine patrol near the Soviet borders suddenly receives foolproof instructions from their commander, General Jack Ripper to drop the nuclear warheads on specified targets, an action sure to trigger a war leading to the destruction of the planet. Back at the command headquarters, Group Captain Mandrake (the first of Peter Seller's triple role in this film), Ripper's second in command realizes the catastrophic situation but is unable to do stop without the insane General's help. The General is convinced of a Soviet plot to emasculate the American population by poisoning their "vital fluids" through the scheme of fluoridation of drinking water.
Meanwhile at the American war room panic prevails as President Muffley (Sellers again) debates with General Turgidson, who recommends pre-emptive destruction of the enemy before they have a chance to retaliate to the bombing by the straying American plane which is going to occur in a matter of thirty minutes.. Contact is established with the Soviet Premier to somehow defuse the crisis, but it seems a certain Soviet doomsday machine is likely to be automatically triggered engulfing the earth in a lethal radioactive cloud cover for the duration of a century. We are introduced to the third and final incarnation of Sellers in the role of the unforgettable Dr Strangelove, a handicapped former Nazi scientific genius. He proposes a solution in the form of a settlement of several thousand inhabitants, ten females to a male, to stay deep underground, till it is safe to come out. The film concludes as the turgid mushroom clouds from the detonation of the bombs.
The film is a dark comedy, which draws silent chuckles but little laughter. The fate of the world hangs on the flawed mental processes of demented leaders. General Ripper who initiates the conflagration is a psychopath. General Turgidson is a strategist for whom life has little value. The Soviets are happy to leap to death so long as the enemy is going too. The point is the deadly concentration of power in single individuals, fallible creatures subject to uncertain emotions, not to mention ego. The Soviet Premier is in the company of his wife when all this is happening and Turgidson also is thinking of his girlfriend, not to say his congenital dislike for the Soviets.
This spoof about nuclear war is nevertheless a well balanced evaluation of the risks we are living with.. In its sharply contrasted geometric black and white photography, it takes us into an eerie netherworld, where comedy serves to accentuate the bizarre reality we are living with.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
This is a movie about the "flash", the single moment when the heavens divided into two over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. While this may not be a cinematic masterpiece, it is an important film about a seminal historical event from the eyes of a great director who experienced them from very close. The movie at times tends to become preachy and sentimental, but it is at it's best as it struggles to "feel" the unholy monstrosity of the event. It has also been criticized for being politically incorrect by not stressing the Japanese atrocities. But this is a movie about the nuclear weapon, and of people fixated to the memory. It's not about Japanese vs Americans, a much worn theme anyway. Finally to blame is war itself.
Since the nuclear explosion and it's immediate aftermath are events so much from another world and impossible to adequately convey, Kurosawa adopts an indirect approach, similar to Alan Resnais in Hiroshima mon Amour. By examining the imprints on the minds of some of the directly affected he hints at the horror, grandeur and unearthliness of the event and it's aftermath..
This is the director's second movie about the atom bombs. The first, "I Live in Fear" (1955), was at a time when the memory had just begun to fade. This one is a retrospective from the point of view of the generation born after Japan's economic recovery. For them the event is a distant fairy tale which has slipped far back in the corridors of time.
Four children of different ages come to spend their holidays with their grandma (Kane is her name, pronounced Kaaney) who lost her husband, a schoolteacher like herself, in the Nagasaki explosion. The grandma is one of a large group of siblings, some of whom were close at hand when it happened. An alleged elder brother is a prosperous agriculturist in Hawaii and grandma obstinately resists this brother's invitation to visit Hawaii, even though the grand children badly want to accompany her on the propose trip.
Grandma is sometimes visited by a friend who like her was widowed by the explosion. The two sit quietly without uttering a word for an entire hour. They are reliving the memory to which they are a pair of mute witnesses. What indeed can be said which will not trivialize the days when the gates of hell must have stood agape? Quietly they sit on the steps for an hour, silently swimming in an identical pool of memory. Words would indeed be desecration. She cannot forgive America, ridiculing the argument that the bomb was to stop wars, since the killings continue.
One of her brothers "lost his mind" after the event. He cut himself from social contacts and spent the rest of his life drawing an eye. This is explained in the course of the film by Kane. At the moment of the explosion the sky ripped into two and the "flash" has the appearance of a demoniacal eye spread across the sky. The eye is a symbol of the unforgettable unearthly transcendent evil horror of that one instant. It is a surreal moment from an inferno from another universe. It is such a sight that the man cannot see anything else after that, so fixated is he on that otherworldly moment, the origin of a river of death.
At yet another moment, as her two children and their spouses parley on how best to take advantage of their wealthy American relative, Kane sits with the four grand children to admire the beauty of the full moon. This too is a shared experience of the transcendant, enveloping the five in awe and grandeur.
The Japanese version of Schubert's "Heidenroselein" runs through the movie as a refrain of forward looking hope, attesting to the remarkable degree to which Japan has assimilated the best of world culture
Youtube clip from "Hiroshima, mon Amour"(1958)
Nathan Hood Essay
Monday, October 25, 2010
This is a strange film, a disturbing film, a great film. Made in 1926, it could well have been made yesterday, so much beyond it's own time does it seem to be. You may call it surreal or avant garde, but what we can say for sure is that it is an inspired and compassionate work of pure cinema, it's strength foremost in the visual dimension. Of all the movies I have seen about mental illness, this is the most heartfelt.
Plot. We don't know the plot since the script, in the form of inter titles, has been lost. The movie itself was lost for fifty years. The film was originally screened to the accompaniment of a banshee, or live narrator. The outline of the plot can be guessed as follows. A man has taken up a job as an attendant in a lunatic asylum in order to be close to his wife who is an inmate. She is in the asylum because she has drowned her child earlier. Next to her cell lives another woman who dances like crazy most times. There are plenty of other sick folks around and the due retinue of doctors and attendants.
The film is a sequence of images and it is hard to inter relate them. What is captured through the wordless audio visual medium is the subjective experience of insanity, alternately from the eyes of the affected person and others close to her. By far the most mesmerising image in the film is of the dancing woman. Locked up in a barred cell, she dances in a ceaseless rhythmical rotation, with demoniac energy till she falls to the ground exhausted and bleeding. The woman who drowned her child is perpetually huddled up and her husband, who obviously cares for her, can't bear to see her pitiable condition. At one point he steals the keys to release her. But she is adamant in not wanting to escape. On another occasion all the inmates break out in a riot and the camera does a marvellous job capturing the asylum on the boil with great detail and precision. The score, for the most clacking sounds made by wooden implements, is purely Japanese in flavour, and is marvellously suited to the theme, doing a far better job than words could do.
The restless, ever disintegrating, eternally forlorn and hopeless universe of mental illness has been captured in this energetic, dynamic, film. It is one of the great silent movies. It is nothing less, and surely something more, for being silent. I did not even miss the absence of subtitles or the narrator. The film gains through this austerity in it's tight minimalistic character.
At it's 58 minutes, it is a highly absorbing, enjoyable and watchable film.
Once again, it's a pleasure to acknowledge Nathanael Hood's contribution in introducing me to this fantastic film.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
This is the first Tarantino film. It is a highly engrossing non linear crime thriller with plenty of lively conversation for conversation's sake. In movies, as in life, talking is an end as well as a means.With no female character the movie is an interesting picture of male camaraderie and bonding, liberally sprinkled with four letter words. A diamond robbery turns into a fiasco and the plot skids wildly in a mixture of the tragi-comic and the violent. Each of the crooks is an interesting character and one can relate to each one of them, including the prisoner on parole turned torturer. The movie zooms to an abrupt entirely satisfying pathetically tragic Bonnie and Clyde type resolution with a Shakespearean heap of corpses. Tarantino's plumage as a film-maker is yet to emerge in it's full glory but he has already hit the mark in his first assay.
Friday, October 22, 2010
This is a dark, steamy, cynical noire thriller set in post WW2 Vienna. It is based on a novel by Graham Greene. Orson Welles is Harry Grimes an American expatriate who over the years has changed into an inhuman criminal, making his fortune out of spurious drugs. Orson Welles excels at portraying the dark side of human nature and here gives a charismatic portrayal as the leering, indifferent and hardened villain.
It is the extra-ordinary cinematography that remains in the mind. Another is the haunting musical score, comprising nothing beyond the strings of a zither, whose blunt strains perfectly capture and comprise the alienated world of this bizarre film. The camera tilts and veers and the off vertical streets and walls totter in a process of fragmentation. The film is shot on location, largely at night in a city where the scars of the air raids remain like sores on a body. The film climaxes in an iconic drama in the underground sewers which the Welles character has made his habitat and where he gives his pursuants a long run for their money. The last is a stylish scene of bitter separation on a lonely road lined on either side with avenues of decapitated trees.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
This is a film in the tradition of splendor of visual imagination that reminds us of Lean and Attenborough. From the lush greenery of Scottish highlands to the hallowed halls of Caius College of Cambridge University and the pomp and ceremony of 1924 Olympics attended among others by British and Japanese royalty, it is feast likely to linger in memory.
The movie is about two British runners and their training and participation in the games. More than about sport it is about self transcendence and the wellsprings from which heroic efforts emerge. Harold Abrahams is the son of a Jewish financier of Lithuanian origin. His commitment to win the gold medal springs from the antisemitic prejudice he has been exposed to all his life and which is even present in the echelons of Cambridge faculty. Eric Liddel is the child of Christian missionaries working in China and for him winning is an action to proclaim the glory of his faith. Both make considerable personal sacrifices and overcome opposition to fulfill their goal. In one interesting incident, Liddel adamantly refuses to run on a Sunday, being the sabbath, even when entreated by the future sovereign.
Those were different times and the shattering tragedies to follow were yet in formation. It's a picture of the upper strata of British society and their ethos, the old-fellow bond centered around the titular head of state which perhaps provided part of the inspiration for the achievements of this small nation on the field of battle and elsewhere.
It is a film full of light and hope, youth and idealism. This is a world where life is full of great possibilities. Here is an uplifting movie which bears you up on it's wings and makes the heart soar.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
A mordant satire about humanity, and comedy of the kind which leaves you depressed and disgusted. Shot on a dark surrealist palette it depicts the seamy lumpen layers of society--a ragged crowd of beggars: maimed, leprous, blind, pregnant. Mayhem breaks as the restraints are withdrawn, and the goodies of life spread out before them, asking to be looted.
A bacchanalian feast of beggars with a lavish spread and the liqueurs flowing turning into a bawdy brawl is topped by a composition mimicking Leonardo's Last Supper, which drew the opprobrium of the Vatican and the Franco government. A score of Handel's Messiah recurring through the movie is a somewhat over-obvious satire.
On another level, we find that the reactions of the better to do, are not so different beneath the veneer.
A consolation is the cinematography, but then you would have to return again to relish that. The first view is an exercise to absorb the dense and layered film which does not yield itself easily. The film is in turns provocative, titillating, disgusting and shocking.
The plot. Viridiana, a nun (Silvia Pinal), takes a few days off from her convent to see her rich uncle. The uncle is attracted to her and proposes marriage, and even schemes to take advantage of her after drugging her. When she refuses, he hangs himself. Viridiana decides to give up the cloth and instead turns part of the vast villa which she now owns into a hospice for the poor and indigent. This charity rebounds and climaxes with an assault on her by a leprosy victim, one of her chosen beneficiaries. The movie concludes as Viridiana knocks at night on the door of her cousin, presumably ready to take on life on new terms. Bunuel clearly prefers the earthiness of ordinary people with it's wart's and stinks, to clerical pretension.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Seeing this for a second time after many years the first impression is the solidity of construction. The humor interlaced with adrenalin pumping violence is sustained and the length the movie has is the only length it could have had and one leaves off with satisfied but not satiated.
It ends where it started on a most poignant note as the just converted Jules frees the novice robber couple, now trembling in their shoes, and affectionately sends them off with a rich haul of loot. The maestro, the samurai warrior, with his confidence and control, is set off against the fumbling and jittery dilettante crook. There is a perfect symmetry to things and all turns full circle. Everything is in a process of resolution, not just neatly, but with delirious abandon, as Tarantino's engines of creation churn. Butch retrieves not just his watch, but his security and happiness. It is a series of joyfully concluded situations. The violence and gore seems just a convenient peg to secure the joie de vivre. The first discovery of the frontal view of the dreaded Marcellus's face is a pleasurable moment coming early on in the film. He is a fat jowled pig not a patch on his subordinate Samuel Jackson where intimidating appearances are concerned. Uma Thurman as the unlikely moll of the unlikely gangster in her brief role introduces just the right measure of sensuality, as her hilarious drug trip gone haywire ends on a note of secret intimacy, tenderly capped with a parting joke about three tomatoes.
Perhaps Tarantino's great discovery is the joy of talking. The characters live on dialog and anything and nothing are a good enough subject to make the sparks of interaction fly-off. Even the violence is more in the talk. In fact, the talk is the real action of the film. Memorable also is the concluding lecture about the nature of superheroes delivered by the vicious Bill (David Carradine) delivered with regal gravity.
Samuel Jackson as the enigmatic fun loving hitman gives an electrifying performance--the only time he smiles is towards the end as a philosophic dialog on the demerits of pork is in progress. Travolta complements him perfectly as the cool and suave Vincent--he is there at the end with a broad smile though he got bumped off in the middle proving that the middle is not the middle nor the end the end. But these complexities are of little consequence as we join this joy ride in the company of Tarantino. Some may justifiably call it an over violent film. That it no doubt is, but as my friend Seongyong said, never has violence been served with such applomb and style.
There is more than one reason for recommending this film. Not the least is the vibrant yet restrained cinematography, which recreates with wistful and nostalgic realism the Japan waking up from the shock of defeat. It's a kind of ashen yet luminescent black and white, vibrating with the energy of Tokyo streets humming with surging multitudes. In the process of telling his tale, Kurosawa gives an incredibly lucid introduction to a society at a particular time. It is camera-poetry which touches the sublime in it's simplicity, unaffectedness, faithfulness and utter ordinariness. It is in fact the grandeur of ordinary life.
Yet all is not ordinary. This is a movie about living with the new reality of the Bomb, and 1955 Japan is the right time and place to talk about it, neither too early nor too late.
Nakajima (played by Toshiro Mifune) is a prosperous aging businessman scared out of his wits by the H-bomb and utterly convinced about the imminence of nuclear attack. Not satisfied with constructing an underground dwelling, he takes concrete steps to dispose of his assets and invest in a farm in Brazil, where he wants to move with his entire family including the offspring of his mistresses. But the family petitions the court to have him declared mentally incompetent since they all see no reason to be running away from their comfortable lives in Japan. The story, which starts of on a low key, takes grim overtones, as the depth of the old fellow's fixation emerges, and it becomes clear that he means business.
Kurosawa's intention seems to be clear and the hero is in fact meant to be a blend of sanity and insanity. A world whistling merrily atop a lethal heap of nuclear weapons is not entirely sane. Neither is the person who sees this reality to be easily dismissed as paranoid.
In 2010, we know that the disaster feared by the protagonist in 1955 has not yet happened but the realities are the same. The fact remains that the Japanese in 1955 seemed to have already forgotten what they alone had experienced.
There does to be some clumsiness in the delivery of the "message", and it is not clear whose side the film-maker is on . Neither was it easy for the legal intercessaries who had to decide the issue of Nakajima's mental competence. And nor, for that matter, is it for us. Blindness seems to be a fundamentally inherent human defense mechanism.
Thanks to Nathanael Hood for suggesting this movie.
Review by Nathanael Hood
Sunday, October 17, 2010
The second part lives up to the promise of the first, even outdoing it in terms of it's magnetic hold. It doesn't take off exactly where the first one left, but fashions new fragments so that the two fit together into a coherent whole. It deserves to be called a sequel rather than merely part two, since it followed a year later and Tarantino must have had time to let his creative energy ferment and to take inspiration from the huge success of part 1.
We are taken through a series of absurd situations, and served with a dish which melds humor with melancholy violence in unflagging innovation. The dialog lines are delivered in a mock-serious literary monotone which makes clear that something or somebody is being imitated--it could be the queen herself, so naturally do the lines and situations flow. We are in fact driving through a universe of stereotypes, more enjoyable since we know that a mirror of parody and ridicule is being held forth. The Bride undergoes hilarious training in kung-fu under a Chinese guru; a poisonous snake is hidden in a suitcase containing a pay-off of a million dollars in return for a sword crafted by a legendary craftsman now turned restaurateur; Thurman is buried alive; the only eye of a one-eyed woman warrior is clawed out and trampled underfoot; truth-serum is injected by means of a pistol fired dart, and arch enemies turn into drooling parents. The ground rule is: anything can happen anytime. Even murder is delivered with a smile and full force of logic.
A dish of lavish entertainment, delivered effortlessly without the trace of a smile. Uma Thurman lives up to the goddess status conferred on her by Tarantino.
NY Times review
Saturday, October 16, 2010
This is a blood splashed revenge drama. Blood spouts like a fountain from a toppling headless torso, or like steam from a locomotive from a back that has been pierced. It rains blood. But is it really blood? It's all sport, bordering on the ludicrous. It is a spoof on movie violence. The director is in command and knows what he is doing and it's actually a roller coaster of entertainment.The dialogs are tongue in cheek imitations of the various stereotypes found in popular genres. It is a satire on cinema and cinema audiences. It is a movie about movies.
One of the high points is the heart-rending, melancholy opening title song.
A O Scott
A suspected murderer is on the run with police at his heels and who should come to his rescue but the daughter of the police officer in charge of the investigation. We have a long chase drama taking us around the countryside in search of a raincoat, the vital piece of evidence which would establish the innocence of the hero of the film.
This is a light, delightful and simple story and we enjoy the leisurely journey through the cottages, lanes, abandoned barns, woods, pubs and even a mine in this very English post Victorian world. Cars need perpetual cranking and occasional pushing and are jolted to a stop by passing steam locomotives. There is something of Toy-land here.
Hitchcock in one of his much later interviews humorously observed that people were surprised to find him not quite the unpleasant kind of person they expected. The present film conveys the director at his most civilized, an acute observer of the ordinary details of life and human behavior, and a great sense of fun. A highly enjoyable film with the innocence and idealism of youth.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
German expressionism is the way the German's expressed themselves specifically in the aftermath of WW1 and what they felt doesn't seem to have been very pretty. Other movies that could slide under the generic label are M (1931), Faust (1926), Metropolis (1927). All these films share an element of perversion and a disoriented imagery projecting a process of disintegration, decay and despair.
Caligari is about a mad scientist (alchemist would be a better word) who is carrying out weird experiments on somnambulism, or sleepwalking. He has set up a stall in a fair in which he displays Cesare, who has been sleeping for twenty three years, and who momentarily wakens to his command, and tells futures. He predicts the death of one young man the next day, and this young man is murdered as foretold. Meanwhile a series of murders shakes the town. Caught in this sorcerer's web is the beautiful Jane and her two suitors.
Most notable about the film are the sets, which seem to be two dimensional drawings depicting interiors and streets across which the actors move with exaggerated actions, as usual in silent cinema. Everything is acute angled, as though the surroundings are in a process of shrinking and crushing the hapless manikins. The lanes are a zig-zag sawtooth and even the placards to display the inter titles are lightening strokes in tune with the bizarre angularity of the film.
We are in a restless, hope starved world of fearful impermanence and uncertainty, prescient of what was about to befall the ill fated continent.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Cary Grant is John Robie, a former high profile burglar specializing in jewelry. He was nicknamed the Cat, due to his stealth and prowess in scaling upper floors and moving along rooftops. He lives in his picturesque villa on the French Riviera with a housekeeper who bakes cakes "light as air" and who in another time "strangled a general without a sound". He is no longer professionally active but a series of jewelry thefts again puts him under suspicion and he resolves to catch the new Cat to clear himself. To this you can add an American millionairess and her daughter (Grace Kelly) to fill the comic and romantic slots respectively.
The film's unforgettable-ness lies in the ravishing picturization of the Riviera, with it's châteaux and ageless villages and vineyards, a locale where even crime cannot but be sport. Two chase sequences are a good enough excuse for some magnificent aerial photography and we peer down the dizzy colorful ravines with the Mediterranean Sea stretching away from the coast. Everything is a pretext to frame a travelogue through what could be some of the loveliest vistas on the planet, and this dazzling feast for the eyes is what makes this film well worth it's pennies. After all, a Hitchcock movie is primarily about Hitchcock and his cinematography--cast, character and plot are but props.
An American physicist defects to East Germany, taking us back to Cold War days. The curtain in the movie's title refers to the Iron Curtain which fenced off the world of communism, a term with to the present generation is unlikely to mean much.
Hitchcock in his last phase seems to have lost his taste for the macabre and gruesome. He is done with the psychotic worlds of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). With these two films (Marnie (1966) can also be included) he had exorcised his demons and was to provide us with entertainment of a more wholesome sort.
This is another espionage romance set in the beautiful environment of Copenhagen and Berlin. It is a delight to visit these places in the company of the Hitchcock camera, which lends beauty and life to everything. The movie is a feast for the eyes. One of the nicest sequences is a chase through a museum, and we travel over the marble floors with the figures in all those paintings watching the action in grim amusement. Of course everything is subordinate to the action of the narrative and beauty after all is best enjoyed when it passes by, rather than when one goes after it in a self conscious way. The romance of the physicist-lovers played by Julie Andrews and Paul Newman is the binding thread.
The film is over long and the pace of action and suspense cannot hold one's attention. Beyond a certain point the momentum of the urge to see it to the end and find out what happens and to tick off one more Hitchcock is what carries one through. We are glad when it is over. Hitchcock is there with his craftsmanship and talent but the inspiration is missing. Perhaps it is because I have just seen Topaz, a riveting movie of similar genre. This is not the best Hitchcock, but neither by any means it is the worst.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
This espionage thriller is built around the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Russians are secretly setting up an array of nuclear missiles aimed at American cities. A Russian diplomat has defected to the US and the hero, a French diplomat, is sent to Cuba to confirm the information. Add in the right proportion of sizzling romance, and a racy script, and you have all the ingredients for a hit. The comparison to James Bond is inevitable and it is likely that Hitchcock put his monumental talents as an entertainer and artist to cash in on the then popular genre. The film must have been extremely topical.
One of the yardsticks that can be applied to a movie is it's ability to suspend the sense of passage of time. This one is precisely the right length and leaves you with a sense of contentment and none of fatigue. Easy to follow plot wise, the lush shifting locales and the bright daylight scenes are meant to lull you into a relaxed stupor, coming to a somewhat abrupt end when you could have taken a bit more.
If not a masterpiece, this is one of the sunniest of Hitchcock films.