Saturday, February 27, 2010

Life and nothing more


The film is an absorbing essay on the 1990 earthquake in Iran, in which more than 50,000 lives were lost and 100,000 dwellings destroyed. A film director and his son Puya of around twelve year  set out through the mountains while relief operations are still in progress for a village named Koker to trace out a boy who acted in an earlier movie by the director. In fact Kiarostami did undertake exactly such a journey, ot which the present film is a partially fictionised  version.

Whether documentary or feature, the honesty and realism, shorn completely of any trace of sentimentality or exaggeration, is what stands out. It was next best to having been on the trip one self, and to have witnessed the response of a population to a major natural disaster. The travelogue on a car through the battered roads and villages serves also as a window on society in this part of the world. The people are gentle, courteous and trusting of each other-- civilized people bound together by a shared belief system and values.

There are traffic jams on the way; men digging through the rubble and gaping fissures slicing right across the road. The survivors have found shelters as best as they can manage--tents or the within the ruins left behind by the "wolf", as the quake is addressed. It is too early to dwell on the tragedy--there will be time enough for that--and they are too busy addressing the needs of the hour. Women wash clothes, cook and tend to their babies.  The earthquake happened at the very moment the first goal in a Brazil/Scotland match was held. A TV antenna is being re-installed so as not to miss the World Cup, which is still going on in spite of the earthquake. One child was saved by the mosquitoes, because she had to be taken out and that was when it happened. Her brother, not favoured by mosquitoes, lost his life. Cocks crow as usual.

It is an unforgettable journey through  awesome mountains of life that the director has shared in this beautiful, quiet and human film. It would be difficult to make a more perfect one on such a topic.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Shirin--the perfumed movie


This is a film within a film. An audience of over a hundred beautiful Persian women (in fact all renowned Iranian actresses and one French one) are watching a film based on the legendary love story of Shirin and Rostow.

We, the audience of the present film see nothing of the screen. We hear the sounds and score and dialogue and we participate through the reactions of the audience. The camera shifts from face to face and the substance of the film is the study of these female faces in there reactions to this apparently moving traditional drama. In effect we are being treated to a prolonged voyeuristic experience of the female face in moments of intimate emotional response. We see them smile, adjust their scarfs, we see their eyes moisten, at times the tears flowing freely right down to the mouth. At other times they are just watching in rapt attention.

Certainly an unusual and novel format for a movie, For me it was a riveting experience and I was even in suspense how it would end. The unseen film is poignantly conveyed through the incredible resonance and depth of feeling of both the male and female voices, more than making up for the absence of the visual, which in any thing could not have been anything but inadequate to express the richness and poetry of the epic. Bresson says that the ear is more profound than the eye; the ear represents the inside, the eye the outside, of things. Instead, it's spirit is perfectly captured in the carefully edited and masterfully framed mosaic of faces. Not to speak of the sounds-the neighs and whinnies, the clash of metal and the flowing streams.

In olden days in India the there were those truly learned men like Faiz, Iqbal and Firaq, equally at home with Shakespeare and Persian literature. Persian was the language of refined romantic and philosophical poetry, a step beyond Urdu. It is language which is recognizable (one can catch near familiar words here and there) even if foreign, and in that sense is less foreign than English, for all one's acquired proficiency in the latter.

The present epic is in series with Waris Shah's Heer, Laila Majnu and the like, and the device employed to transform it into a modern inter-cultural experience is entirely successful. It becomes an essay on the human capacity for yearning and desire, a perfumed garden of the heart. A conventional treatment would have given us little more than a puppet show or folk theater.
Reviews Alan Fair/Steve Tiller

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Taste of Cherry

*Abbas Kiarostami*Iran*95m*1997

Roger Ebert used the term "the emperors new clothes" in connection with this film, to express (in his estimation) the movie's lack off significant merit, it's stealing the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the director's established reputation notwithstanding. Since in movies even more than in other things, the distinction between the sublime and the ludicrous is thin, I decided to risk a viewing, to encounter a yet unknown director. All too obvious is the similarity of the movie in terms of plot, theme and even the spot selected for a contemplated suicide, to the recent movie Goodbye Solo.

A middle aged, well to do gentleman is moving around in a Land Rover van, looking around for some one willing to take up the job of burying him after he kills himself with a sleeping pill overdose. He has dug a pit to creep into and the assistant has only to cover him with earth the next morning, or to help him out if the attempt fails. The pit is on top of a bare mountain around which excavations for some construction project are in progress. There are scores of laborers amidst the grind of excavation machinery, with a haze of dust rising from the ground. The dug up mountain is itself a symbol of the grave and the mortality of the flesh.

The first person he enlists is an army recruit who listens to Mr. Badii's entreaties and offer of a large sum of money, but simply runs away in fright at the first opportunity. The second, a student in a seminary, offers various religious arguments to dissuade him. The third, an elderly taxidermist, talks about the bounties of the universe and the folly of the contemplated course, but agrees to proffer the sought for assistance.

It is a riveting, beautiful, philosophical contemplation of a movie. The car as it winds in circular loops towards the summit of the hill (mud pit would be a better term) is an ideal venue for the dialogues. Ershadi in the lead role conveys  pathos and fear, and a very worldly proficiency of persuasion.

To have supplied information about the background and reasons for his wanting to die would have been against the purpose, since it is a starkly simple meditation about suicide in all its generality, as a choice which is available to human beings. Badii does lie down in the grave, but does he swallow the pills, and if he does, do they do the job? These questions are left wisely open. Life is a zig-zag of decisions taken and their consequences. The project of suicide is a series of moves, as in a chess game, which must be negotiated before the stage of checkmate is arrived at. The many forks and turns on the mountain road as the Land Rover circulates around the hill are perhaps an apt image for the tortuous, uncertain and perilous journey of life. The film leaves the mystery at the center of things untouched.

Perhaps no one has put the issue in more lucid perspective than old Hamlet in his famous speech. The journey contemplated is a leap into the unknown, since no reports exist. Had it offered a sure escape from the undeniable sufferings of life, it may have been logically sustainable. One may know what one is escaping from but any assumption of what lies across the border is just that, an assumption. And in any case, since the fever of life is not endless, at least the ongoing installment of it, one may as well summon the courage to battle it out, and bide one's time a bit more.
Criterion Essay

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Diary of a Country Priest

*Robert Bresson*115m*1951*France*

Seeing this film for the first time, I have far less than a volume to say about it.

A young, frail and sickly priest arrives in a French countryside to take charge of a small parish. The translucent and radiant monochrome photography and the impassioned score captures the rhythms of the bygone era  (perhaps the earlier part of the century) in this verdant region of vineyards and wineries. He is immediately involved with the leading family comprising the count, his aging wife who has never recovered from the grief of losing a young son, and a daughter simmering with anger and hate towards her family. The count is carrying on with the governess. The villagers are also hostile to the priest. He is the butt of ridicule of the children of the peasantry.

Apart from the visual beauty of the film and the fluid melding of frames and sequences, it is the under-dramatized account of the struggles of a courageous young man, in the final passages of his life, in a hauntingly beautiful but claustrophobic and evil environment.

The first view can only be a preparatory one for any great movie, certainly this one.
Bright Lights Film Journal

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Iron Gate (aka Cairo Station)--a b/w beauty

*Youssef Chahine*Egypt*1958*75m*Cast: Hind Rustom, Youssef Chahine, Faris Shawqwi*Bab el Hadid*

A film set on Cairo railway station. A railway station resembles a heart, physiologically speaking. Both are hollow. The heart is composed of thick and strong muscular fibres. The railway station is an iron structure. Both are hubs of intense activity and enclose objects in perpetual motion, parts of a circulatory system. The railway station is a place of arrival and departure, where prince and pauper co-mingle with cats and dogs. It is a miniscule of the society where it belongs. Cairo station, depicted in the black and white movie, is very much like a Indian railway stations of the same period, and even now. It is a mixture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The porters and vendors seem familiar. This is indeed a powerful, muscular, big hearted film.

Quinawi is a crippled, retarded young man, employed by a newspaper stall owner. He has a consuming fixation, pre-eminently physical, on Hanuma  ( so like a Bollywood star of the same period ), a girl who goes around selling bottles of aerated water contained in a bucket. (I was half expecting Johnny Walker with his wide grin to jump out from behind one of the piles of wooden crates.) This is a milieu quite a distance from the burqua-clad Arabic stereotypes we might entertain, even for the way back sixties. Hanuma is engaged to Abu Serib, a porter thinking of starting a trade union. Quinawi, played by the director himself, descends from obsession towards  intentions of homicide. The movie has moments of Hitchcock like tension, in particular a stabbing sequence similar to Psycho, which, incidentally, it precedes.

The film has elements of the Italian ( Bicycle Thief ), Indian (Ray, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor ) and Japanese (Rashomon). It is a film of  deep humanism, depicting the society where it is set with intimacy and passion. Chahine is exuberantly of his soil. For me it brings Egypt, an unfamiliar territory, to life. It's yet another reminder that the human stuff is the same. Thanks are due to Wael Khairy for introducing this movie.

Wael Khairy's review

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Exterminating Angel


In this highly verbose film I definitely felt that much was lost to subtitles. Bunuel has this to say about it's meaning: “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.”What one reads into a film doesn't have to be what the director put there and that leaves one with a verdant field to indulge oneself. And for a film like this the word spoiler has little meaning since the second view seems mandatory if you really want a grip on it.

A party is scheduled in an aristocratic residence, but at the last moments, all the servants but one disappear. As the party progresses the guests for unexplainable reasons find themselves unable to leave. Days extend to weeks and the party turns to something else as the guests and hosts feel hopelessly entrapped in an unbearable situation.  Supplies of water and food are gradually depleted and there are two suicides and a death due to a heart attack. A flock of sheep join the party and a bear clambers from the chandelier suspension. There is a move to kill the host, who is blamed for the situation. At the same time people outside the mansion are similarly restrained from entering it by an invisible force.

While the metaphors and surrealism is can be subjected to discussion, the broad theme, disintegration of human personality, seems fairly obvious. The human being is a Pandora's box and the strange and ugly creatures who reside within appear all too easily. The veneer of civilization is all too thin, surprisingly, for all our advancements since we left the jungle. The animals who appear in the film are inseparable aspects of the human psyche. The film also depicts the social barriers, in this case the walls separating the serving classes from the served. The director must also have had in mind the situation in Spain during Franco's regime.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A problem of Erdos

Consider a set of n integers such that no two subsets have the same sum. Then the sum of their reciprocals cannot be greater than

1+1/2+1/2(2)+1/2(3)+.........+1/2(n-1), brackets standing for exponentiation.

N is a number: Paul Erdos---the man who lived in a suitcase

*1993*Csicsery (director)*57m*

Erdos: a Hungarian mathematician who I met during his visit to Chandigarh in the seventies, and had the privilege of corresponding with. An emigre from Nazism during thirties, he was a prodigy who authored around 1500 papers. I remember him as a short, slight, brisk person with a refined humor and a very individualistic style of speech, of which I remember his frequent use of the phrase "for the following reason(s)" which became popular on the campus here.

Without a home or an academic position he was constantly on the move from one campus to another, a machine for tranforming cups of coffee into theorems (Erdos' definition of a mathematician).

The Seventh Continent

*Michael Haneke*1989*German*104m*

This film is loosely based on a true life episode of family suicide. In the movie we see Georg and his wife Anna and their six year or so daughter Eva, a middle class family, in the unremarkable routine of their lives. We observe them in three cross sectional views of their lives in three successive years finally culminating in their suicide. Before they die, all their possessions are sold off and they wind up their affairs, resigning their jobs, emptying the bank accounts and selling the car. Then, on the final day, they destroy all the domestic possessions, smashing furniture and gadgets, flushing down an enormous amount of banknotes after tearing them up, and even destroy the aquarium, and we see the beautiful fish gasping their last as they die.

It is a riveting film. In the first two parts, we see pieces of their routine: shopping in a mall, over a meal, the child in school or Georg in office. In fact this supposedly dull routine of their life, in it's minute details is transformed by the brilliant camera work, into a kind of slowly unfolding still-life portrait of the life of a middle class family, which, in it's intimacy, is a delectable feast of voyeurism. Of course, the cracks in their life are becoming apparent: Georg has a haggard and hunted look, Anna breaks out crying, and Eva is quiet and withdrawn at school and home. Till the decision is made and executed in the searing climax.

What drives them seems more the internal void rather than the emptiness of routine. Life without any purpose and direction and anchorages within can be an unbearable burden. One is reminded of Anna Karenina's leap to death and her insights in the last two seconds before she is run over. It is worth quoting and preserving the passage.

"She tried to fling herself below the wheels of the first carriage as it reached her; but the red bag which she tried to drop out of her hand delayed her, and she was too late; she missed the moment. She had to wait for the next carriage. A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second carriage. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. "Where am I? What am I doing? What for?" she tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. "Lord, forgive me all!" she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever."..from Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoi

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Groundhog Day

*Harold Ramis*1993*101m*

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it...Khayyam

In Groundhog day, the writ of the moving finger is erased day after day, and that is the problem of Phil Connors, a TV weather expert and announcer. He does not have to reap what he sows and that gives him freedom to do whatever he wants, like lunatic car driving and numerous fail-safe suicide attempts.

A Groundhog is a variety of over sized rat, which according to folklore can prognosticate the weather by his behavior on Groundhog Day, February 2, celebrated as a winter carnival. Connors has been sent by his channel to cover this event along with the producer, Rita and Larry the cameraman. He is a sour and disgruntled man who finds everybody and everything around him to be ludicrous and unworthy of his attention and interest, like the enthusiasm and simple warmth of the inhabitants of the small town. He may be witty but he is a pain in the neck of all who come into contact with him, specially his two colleagues from the channel. He just doesn't feel like being a nice guy.

And that is where he gets stuck in a time warp. Rather his calender gets stuck and again and again he wakes up to the same February 2, meets the same people who say and do the same things, like a replay, and he is the only one who knows what is happening. Only his own reaction to the same situation can be different each time. He is driven first to a psychiatrist and then to many fore-doomed attempts to kill himself. Perhaps the plot can be left here.

He extricates himself from the "time loop" by learning to be a better person. Various abstruse spiritual insights have been attributed to the movie but it just extols what may be termed as the simple Christian virtue of caring for others. This is not to minimize the "message".

Bill Murray's sour puss lampooning of everything in the environment, often skidding into slapstick, makes it an enjoyable, wholesome movie, a genre which needs to be more in fashion. It is probably difficult to make a film wholesome and successful at the same time, since our taste buds have been deadened by over-stimulation, so that, as for the hero of this film, we find little joy in the routines of daily life, and need destruction and perversion for their own sake to awaken us from our numbness. The adrenalin fix.
Roger Ebert's review 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tokyo Sonata

*Japan*2008*120m*Kiyoshi Kurosawa*

Ryuhei is an Administrative Manager who suddenly loses his job due to availability of cheaper employees from China. This is the beginning of a storm in this middle class family. He is unable to face his family with this news and continues to dress up and leave the house at the usual time, spending his time in long queues of job hunters or sitting in parks, and eating in a soup kitchen. He encounters a school mate in the same situation, who later resorts to a dire remedy. Ryuhei has to face the humiliation of a menial job. The drama is beautifully resolved and the family rediscovers a new dignity and happiness.

Not the least of the pleasures of the film was the sights and sounds of life in Tokyo and its suburbs: the undulating lanes, screaming trains, neat and cramped dwellings, and people not too different from elsewhere.It is like taking an aimless walk around the town with a person with nothing to do.

An enjoyable and informative film which deals deftly and delicately with universal problems of ordinary people in a capitalistic society, with the timely background of current economic realities. The younger of Ryuhei's two children is musically gifted and this is a point of convergence of the film. In fact the film has the lightness and refined harmony of the piano performance which concludes it.
Roger Ebert's review

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Memories of Murder

*South Korea*2003*Joon-ho Bong*129m*

A riveting comedy/police procedural/serial murder film. Set in the beautifully filmed Korean country side, it is based on a series of murders with rape of women which occurred between 1986 and 1992. The killings are depicted with a minimal sensationalizion. This very distance and objectivity serves to highlight the human tragedy. Crowds of curious onlookers gather at the sites of discovery and children scamper around nonchalantly in their pastimes. We see the bodies from afar, as they lie in the sunlit wheat fields. This lack of orchestration of response and clinical approach  lifts the film far above the  horror genre.

It is a humorous and canny account of the working of police departments which seems no different in South Korea. It is in the comic aspect that the films first strength lies. In the pair of detectives, the local Park and the Seoul-imported Seo we have a pair as funny as Thomson and Thomson. First it is the village moron who is implicated and thrashed into confessing to the crimes. The second time it is a factory worker who is driven to that point. Given the methods, anybody will confess to anything. A shaman is consulted and occult means are used to identify the killer. The rivalry of  the cops leads to bloody brawls and even the police-chief joins in. The press and public maintains continuous pressure and the police ends up as a complete laughing stock and object of indignation. Meanwhile, the toll continues. A mixture of the macabre and the ludicrous, and underlying balance of realism,  gives the film it's unique aesthetic flavor.

The period in which the film is set is when a military regime was giving way to an elected government. Riots, processions, air raid drills are the order of the day. A DNA sample has to be sent to the US and by the time it comes back, the situation changes completely. It is a society in a certain stage of transition.

At the end of all the humor, improbabilities and portrayal of police crimes, we have a powerful, compressed and authentic film which keeps you engrossed even till the last credit has disappeared.

Darcy Pacquets review

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Piano Teacher

*Michael Haneke*French*125m*2001*

Erika Kohut is a woman in her forties, a respected professor at the music conservatory in Vienna, living with her mother. The father is a mental patient admitted to an asylum (we never meet him) who dies in the course of the narrative. The film depicts a "sado-masochistic" relationship of Erika and a student, the athletic and musically gifted Walter. The film veers between the beauty of the music, and the hard to watch patches of mutilation and perversion.

The core of the film is the deeply scarred, almost pathological, yet artistic, personality of Erika. Her commanding, icy, unapproachable and intellectual persona hides a depth of anguish which cannot perhaps be painted without the metaphor of blood. She injures the hand of one of her students by hiding broken glass in her coat pocket, preventing her from playing on the piano for some months. This is a punishment for being friendly with Walter. She mutilates herself with a razor blade. She has a love-hate relation with her mother, and slapping each other seems to be almost routine, followed by sobbing reconciliation. The mournfulness of Schubert, in particular the following lines, which are repeated several times, are perhaps a leitmotiv for the film:

Bark me away, you waking dogs!
Let me not find rest in the hours of slumber!
I am finished with all dreaming
Why should I linger among sleepers?

Bellt mich nur fort, ihr wachen Hunde,
Laßt mich nicht ruh'n in der Schlummerstunde!
Ich bin zu Ende mit allen Träumen.

Was will ich unter den Schläfern säumen?

She reprimands a student for her piano performance," The range of Schubert is from a scream to a whisper, not loud to soft." The film moves from the bewitching whispers of the music and the repressed screams, born out of decades of suffocation and suffering in the the prison of her family, which are not hard to surmise.

And the finale--self discovery, atonement?

Haneke belongs to the post war generation of Europe and perhaps this is a statement about the contradictions between the grandeur of culture and the realities of recent history, and the spiritual sterility of "civilised" humanity. When asked his opinion about modern Western civilization, Gandhi famously quipped that he thought it a good idea.
Roger Ebert's review
Essay: Hari Kunzru
Interview with Haneke
Im Dorfe

Friday, February 12, 2010


*Korea*Park Chan-wook*115m*2003*

Dai-su, an ordinary person, is kidnapped near a phone booth and taken to a well furnished apartment, where he is kept in captivity for fifteen years. Who has done it and why and for how long will this continue? Among the comforts he is provided is a TV set and he learns of his wife's murder and his own implication in it. As the years roll, he starts patiently digging through the wall, and as his escape channel nears completion, he is inexplicably freed and dropped in a street. He is able to identify his enemy, one Joo-Hwan, but the discovery of the cause for which he has been so severely punished forms the substance of the rest of this revenge drama, savage in the extremes of hatred it portrays. The two sworn enemies interlock their wills in a spiral of intensifying violence, often unendurable to see (tooth extraction with a claw hammer, sans anaesthesia).

These are larger than life characters and situations, which may justify the improbably convoluted and macabre(almost artistic) schemes of vengeance, since the two lives are almost symbiotic in their single reason for existing. Joo-Hwan's final lament, after he has accomplished his goal, is "What will I live for now?"

One can see in the film aspects of Shakespearean or Greek drama, martial arts movies or "Korean-horror". Whatever the case, the desire for revenge is a deep seated, consuming and insatiable human lust, whether one thinks of Shakespeare or 9/11, and the logic of an-eye-for-an-eye is not easy to refute, as history is a witness. In that sense, the improbabilities of plot are of secondary importance. The past century has shown us far more diabolical, cold, premeditated evil. The film is consistent in it's internal logic, and illuminates extreme's of the  human heart's capabilities for suffering.

No family flick, this. Also my first (not last) exposure to Korean cinema, courtesy blogger Seongyong Cho.
Roger Ebert's review
NY Times review

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mulholland Drive

*2001*David Lynch*147m*

Mulholland Drive is a scenic road running along the ridges of mountains in the vicinity of Los Angeles, offering panoramic views of the city, and along which are located  mansions including those of some Hollywood celebrities. The title of the film is perhaps an apt and alluringly feminine euphemism for a nightmarish roller-coaster through steamy subways of the mind.

The film opens when the intended murder of a woman on this road is interrupted by an accident in which she is the sole survivor. It closes with a suicidal gunshot, as if the confusing phantasmagoria which constitutes the bulk of the movie has to culminate in a reality too starkly real for ambiguation. For the rest, it does not seem worth the effort to go into the plot details since it is a loosely strung together patchwork of dreams and illusions, which is able to grip our attention by the violence, unexpected turns, fine acting and even a kind of nausea in this  freudian netherworld.

A romanticized, impressionistic, gloomy, jazzily poetic essay on life set right in the middle of where things are supposed to happen: Hollywood.

Film directors have no more answers to the verities than most of us, so it it is a fruitless labor to search out the meaning of something which is not meant to have any. Which is why they generally are wise to refuse to risk interpreting their own work, as in the present case. Which is by not to suggest that something comes of nothing. For art is supposed to make us deeper, broader, more caring, empathic and understanding rather than wiser.

Roger Ebert's review

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)--ages of man

*Coen brothers*97m*Michael Stulbarg*

Why are all these problems happening to me? What have I done to deserve this and what is the right thing for me to do? What's it all about? These are the large never answerable questions which the directors, or at least the harried hero of this film, Larry Gopnik, would have answered as life confronts him with a series of never remitting fiascos.

 His wife wants him to move out of the house to make place for his best friend, who, as Hashem ( a Hebrew appellation for god ) would have it, is killed in an accident, after emptying out the joint bank account of  Larry and his wife. His tenure confirmation as a teacher of physics hangs in uncertainty. A Korean student bribes and blackmails him to give him passing grades. This is only a partial list of the miseries of this contemporary Job. He has problems with his children and brother in law, to say nothing of the nightmares. He seeks "enlightenment" by consulting an ascending hierarchy of clerics.

The film concludes with the good news of confirmation of his tenure. This is followed by a bill for $3000 for legal expenses, and an ominous phone call from his doctor seeking a face to face meeting to discuss the result of an X-ray examination. And a storm is brewing afar as the credits begin to roll, and we leave our Larry, beautifully enacted, in the merciless lion-pit.

A fair enough picture of our existence while we are alive. There is a local saying " life is a carnival of those yet alive"(jag jeoondian da mela ). The carnivalesque is notably missing in this take on life. The supposedly grand drama of life fizzles into the bewildering, meaningless and excruciating experience of a young, intelligent and sensitive academic.

Roger Ebert aptly describes it as a "wince-wince" movie. One could regard it as a description of the contemporary human beings confusion about life and reality. Larry is suspended midway between the sterile certainties of science, in terms of which he has moulded himself, and the equal impotence of religion and clerics in the face of the hurricanes looming at the end of the film.

Deserves a second view, not foreseeably.
Roger Ebert's review

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Up in the Air

*Jason Reitman*109m*2009*

Ryan (Clooney),  a graying bachelor, is a corporate executive, living out of a suitcase, his home the airliner at an altitude of ten kilometers. His ambition is to log ten million kilometers of flying which will entitle him to a badge of recognition from the airline and an interview with the chief pilot. His social circle consists of the airline and hotel employees he encounters as he moves from one hotel and air terminal to another. His job profile is that of a Termination Facilitator, or hatchet man, in a company whose line of business is "down-sizing" of companies. His job is to fire people.

The film gives a picture of the current spate of unemployment  in the US. As the script says, loss of a job is a trauma similar to a death in the family. People react in different ways to the shock of leaving a job, and are known to be suicide risks. Loss of one's livelihood is loss of one's dignity as a contributor in society. And you wake up the next day with no-where to go, facing a horrifying succession of Sundays. One's work is what gives structure and sequence to time and loss of occupation throws the pattern of life into disarray. Anger, disbelief, grief--the film captures it all well.

It's a film as perfect as the same director's Juno, and like that film, provides an authentic window to  present day US. In spite of a grim theme, there is a lightness, optimism and even joy running through the movie. As Clooney says in the movie, " Living is moving." On a canvas of blue sky or seas of cloud, with two romantic side-plots to add substance to the story, it is as enjoyable and educative as you would like.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Three Idiots--message(s) from Clark Kent

*Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Boman Irani*160m*Hindi*

It had to be seen because it was there, it's omnipresence, like Avatar and Titanic. Everybody I meet has seen it, and apparently enjoyed it, as I myself on the whole did.

But then it is a difference in points of view. Why, after all, does one see a film? For the majority, I assume, it's to soothe the nerves at the end of the day when the hurly burly's done, in the company of close ones, a packet of corn, or a drink if at home. Legitimate enough. But for better or worse, I tend to regard seeing a film as a more serious investment of time, for it's power to bring about an inner transformation, exactly the same reasons for taking up a work of literature. This time it was more out of social obligation.

It is a light hearted effervescent movie which reaches out to the heart by addressing, however clumsily, concerns that most of us NNRIs ( non-NRIs ) have to painfully confront. The impossible is a staple ingredient of mainstream Hindi cinema, and you will find the content beyond this obstacle. Aamir is Aamir because he knows how to tug at our heartstrings, even as he doesn't address our higher intellects, assuming we have time in our harsh little world to entertain such an organ. The film is one of the biggest grossers in recent times and this surely tells us something about the audience, since cinema, the most wide reaching of art media, is a barometer and mirror of it's society.

It's a story about the young and young hearted, the customers of the great dreams of capitalism, consumerism and virtual unreality-- bubbles which implode when experienced from the other side of the counter. The film is particularly addressed to students in a particular age segment, on the brink of the vast forbidding seas of adulthood. (The  box-office success in recent times of films addressed to this segment shows where the bulk cinema audience is presently situated, or at least it captures where and what they aspire to be. Gone are the days of Mithun Chakraborty, when youngsters aspired to be gangsters or their converse.) There is  a great hunger for education, and the pressures and heartbreaks of being young and middle-class are well presented even in caricature.Perhaps it will leave some imprint on the collective mind about the inadequacies of the educational system of which this film could be a symptom more than a cure.

In it's somewhat exaggerated depiction of male camaraderie in the late teens, the humor tends to be scatological, which is perhaps a step in graduation towards the openly sexual expressiveness of the west--our mad rush to catch up with their madnesses. We are treated to  a generous displays of male buttocks, and several urinary performances. For men will be men. Aamir of course is centre stage as the paragon, and his main strength, accounting for his popularity, stems from his projection of a mixture of traditional virtues, patriotism and super-heroism--a safe mix which would seem to be viable approximation, at least temporarily, towards the role model we seek in the sterile vacuum of our time. Cardboard idealism has long been a staple of Hindi cinema, hopefully heading for swansong. We are stuck on supermen.

Boman Irani is a natural comedian and he is ever innovative in his succession of performances, his face fluid and rippling in a chain reaction of expressions, antithesis of Chaplin and close to Raj Kapoor. Omi Vaidya as the Silencer also extracted many laughs with his mimicry of an NRI, which is a very original act. Aamir portraying Aamir is his usual self and manages to act convincingly as half his age but since we already know better it's rather pathetic to see him prancing around with a sling bag. But then in the immortal words of  Deng Xiaoping, the color of the cat is immaterial so long as it catches the mice.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The White Ribbon-"roots of evil"

*Michael Haneke*2009*135m*German*Das Weisse Band*

This 2009 film is a retrospective narrative of events in a German village in the year preceding World War 1. The narrator is a man of advanced years, who in the film is a teacher of around thirty years. The year of the movie is 1914 and the film concludes with the voice-over informing us of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke and heir apparent while on a visit to Sarajevo, the event which triggered of the first war. The unprecedented events which swallowed Europe in the following decades form a kind of silent backdrop of the movie. Whether or not the movie metaphorically examines the "roots of evil" ( Haneke's expression ) which bloomed as Nazism can be debated but I for one could not refrain from seeing it in the context of the looming future which has already happened, even though the dramatis personae are innocent of the knowledge we the audience posess, unless we regard the film as a play-out of the narrator/film director's memory.

This is a German village of 1914, and it might as well be 1814, since it is the world of horse driven carriages, oil lamps and manual agriculture. The era is re-constructed in exquisite monochrome. The fields, the streams, the barns, the rectangular grey stone houses with their gabled entrances, the weathered faces of the working class are all meticulously etched in a canvas of  bewitching beauty. The world of the early twentieth century resembles the sixteenth more than the present resembles the world fifty years ago. The other Germany, of music and intellect and Goethe is very much here, along with the  sordidness which is our universal karma as humans, and religion when it stretches to morbid extremes. It is as though the director is searching out in this world of noble music and harmonious seasons the roots of the evil which was to come about. The roots are slender indeed and need a good deal of searching.

Ah yes, the plot. It's a closed and rigid society, patriarchal and authoritarian, and a swarm of children wend around in the hushed isolation of their private world . There is the Baron, the first citizen of the dorf. The widowed lecherous doctor molests his own daughter, The doctor's assistant, midwife and mistress adores her mentally retarded son Karli. The pastor's love for his family has been transformed into sadism by rigid religosity, and he tyrannises his children, wreaking severe punishment for minor transgressions. The farmer struggles to feed his large family, as he and his children react to the loss of the mother and wife. The good natured teacher blends comfortably into this idyllic if somewhat demon-infested environment. The teacher's  courtship of  the shy and gentle milk maid like Eva, Gretchen like, forms a lighted center in this sombre drama.

There is a series of mysterious and unexplained occurrences: the doctor is the target of an engineered accident, the farmer's wife is killed when the floor of a mill gives way, children are tortured, a barn is set to fire, a field of cabbage is "beheaded", the farmer commits suicide. Who is responsible for the accidents or crimes? The teacher plays Sherlock Holmes and the movie starts with the narrators statement that all this may have had something to do with the events of subsequent years. However,  that does not seem to be the point of this delicate jewel of a movie indigo in mood , reminiscent somewhat of the 1972 Cabaret.

One may ask what quality in the German society led to the rise of hitlerism? What are the "roots of evil" which Haneke talks about which herald later events? The answer must be "Nothing." The society depicted in the movie could equally well belong to any other part of the world. The roots of evil, as of goodness, are universal attributes of the human make-up, not distinguishable by race, gender or education.

One can best enjoy and admire the movie as an especially delicate description of a time and a place, with melodic strains to evoke a sense of the ominous. The then unwritten but now sinking towards oblivion, future, suspends over the film like a  heavy, still and invisible cloud.
Roger Ebert's review