Monday, May 31, 2010

Nobody knows

Koreeda, Japan, 2004

The film is based on a much publicised event in the eighties which came to be known as " the affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo". The news story has been transformed into a heart wrenching film (arguably the director's best) about childhood and the descent into horrifically primordial conditions when people without money are cut off from the sustaining grid of society. It reminds one of the fragility of what we term normal life, the shifting sands on which the fabric of our existence is based.

The four children, from different fathers and the same mother, are abandoned on a second floor flat. The mother's visits become less frequent till her final disappearance. All but the eldest are forbidden to leave the flat. At first there is money but the pennies run out fast. One by one the gas, electricity and water supply are cut off and at one stage we find one of the children eating paper. The children's longing to have a normal life and going to school recedes as a distant dream. Only on one occasion does the eldest Akira manage to smuggle the other three into the open world. Conditions within the flat deteriorate and more and more it starts resembling a garbage dump as the amenities on which urban life depends vanish. They must go out to the park to relieve themselves, but this part of the horror is only hinted by the director.Water must be filled from the public tap. And finally death takes it's toll on Yuki, one of the sisters, slumps from her chair.  Akira, responsible and caring to start with, starts to crumble under the stress of  the problems which pile up like waves, and seems to be about to give way as time passes. (The real life confinement lasted six months.)

And as the end credits roll, the children are seen on a lane with buckets of water, and hope nowhere in sight.

The director has captured every nuance of the harrowing tragedy with the utmost sensitivity and delicacy. His view is unsentimental and compassionate. Yagira as the eldest sibling touches the sublime in his restrained and mature perdormance, which earned him the Palme d'Or.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Alley and Bread

Kiarostami, 1970, 10m, Iran

This short film, one of the first by the director, is a delightful human vignette about a child in whom you might see yourself. Returning home through the mud-caked street carrying a loaf, he is interrupted by a growling dog. He is alone, the sun baked street is empty. He looks here and there and is almost going to cry. Three mules with one rider clatter noisily by. A bicycle. He follows a bald man for some time, before the man disappears into a house. The dog has a change of heart and the pair proceed homeward together. The boy goes in. The dog squats outside the door. Another boy comes along. Dog growls.

It was a one-growl dog.

Battleship Potemkin

1925, Eisenstein, USSR, 73m

Another miracle of the silent film, demonstrating it's possibilities beyond the cinema of words. There may be things which can be expressed in words alone, but silent cinema seems particularly suited for exalted themes, where script is likely to prove inadequate. The Passion of Joan of Arc was one such theme, and the present film, portraying a society in the grip of rapid violent social change, usually termed revolution, is another such. If talking cinema is comparable to drama, silent film may be like painting or dance.

A mutiny broke out on the Potemkin in June 1905. The immediate provocation is the serving of maggot infested meat, which is refused by a part of the crew. The disobedient ones are ordered to be shot, but at the last moment, the firing squad refuses to fire, and soon the ship is taken over and the officers cast into the sea. As the ship sails into Odessa, the populace joins the rebellious sailors in a mounting crest of mass emotion, followed by a bloody massacre by the Czarist forces. The Potemkin sails away, and is allowed to proceed unchallenged by a squadron of ships sailing in the opposite direction, betokening the rebellious currents which are to gather momentum.

Visceral passion, a mounting anger and the thirst for the opressor's blood are what the movie is all about. The film has a heavy sledge hammer masculine quality, a brutal realism which starts from the most elemental human need of food. The insult implicit in the serving of rotten meat sparks of anger spreading like a fire. The condemned rebels are covered with a tarpaulin before being shot. The entire drama of the mutiny is captured in a breath stopping sequence. The film has the quality of a natural cataclysm, moving with the fierce energy of a tidal wave.

Ofcourse, there is the long, celebrated sequence of the firing down the steps, the bayoneted militia advancing implacably like a roadroller, as the populace scatters in silent screams, to be confronted with the sword slashing cavalry from the opposite side.

One may miss on the artistry in being swept by it's sheer power. The rippling waves shimmering in shafts of light, sail boats in joyous procession, and the naval squadron in pitch darkness--the camera delights continually.

To call it a propaganda film is to miss the epic sweep and grandeur. It's a movie that comes straight from the red heart.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Metropolis 1927

Fritz Lang (1890-76), 118minutes

The movie is made in 1927 Germany, in a lull between WW1 and the emergence of the scourge. The film itself has survived in various degrees of mutilation and the one I got to see is not it's most complete incarnation.  It is noted as the first SF, the most expensive silent movie, and for employing platoons of extras (25,000). 

The plot has little coherence and is a mish-mash of science, labor vs capital issues (which must have been burning hot in those tumultuous times with Lenin active up the street) and biblical overtones all culminating in the momentous conclusion that the heart (a savior) must be a mediator between head (intelligentsia) and hands (working classes). In proposing a messianic figure as the absurdly naive solution to the class struggle, Lang tries to assuage all shades of opinion and belief. Social issues must have been pre-eminent in those heady times of dramatic change, and Metropolis is a grand parable articulating with energy and passion, if not commitment, the concerns of the augenblick.

The theatrics are piled without inhibition and are a mixture of the grotesque, comical absurdity, at the same time riveting as pantomime, silent opera or dance. Most impressive are the sets, dark and hellish, vast spaces through which the anguished hordes pour.

Metropolis is a city created by an unscrupulous business visionary and an evil scientist. Humanity is divided into the managers who lead lives of luxury in an Eden like environment and the laborers who toil in the sub-terrains to create wealth for the master classes. Opposition to the schema emerges from none else than the top guys only son. Throw in a Madonna like prophetess who talks of the coming Mediator to remedy the state of affairs, her mechanical replica who follows the will of the mad scientist to mess up our plans, and take a zig-zag path to reach the winning post.

The film is a compulsory viewing for it's historical importance and the grand scale and cost of it's production, reminding us of the brighter Avatar. The impression that remains is one of megalomaniacal grandeur, of spaces vast yet suffocating, of leers, grimaces and bodies unnaturally contorted. But after all it is a silent movie and it's the body and face that has to do the speaking, and Lang doesn't do it by halves. It has more of the medieval than SF. Even the over sized wheels and dials (small was not beautiful yet), the boiling retorts and the lightening flashing in the laboratory are more of a witch's paraphernalia. If it is science fiction, it's science is closer to the Industrial Revolution than the information age. After all, this is the period of H.G.Wells, Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, with Dickens not far behind.

As Ebert brilliantly summarizes,"``Metropolis'' does what many great films do, creating a time, place and characters so striking that they become part of our arsenal of images for imagining the world."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Maboroshi 1995

Kore-eda (director, b.1962), 110minutes

The film is set in the quietitude and rhythms of a remote Japanese fishing village on the sea. Maborosi is about the sudden unexplicable suicide of a young husband, leaving behind the stunned widow, Yumiko, played by a prominent fashion model, and the three-ish year old son. Five years later she remarries, relocating to the aforesaid village. There is little progression of plot and the viewer has to piece together the inner journey of the woman across two marriages.

The film is a visual treat and there is a profusion of broad, horizontal, static shots in which the camera gives us time to linger over the interiors, or examine figures in muted communication. There is a prolonged funeral march in which the mourners proceed in single file towards the left of the screen. The shanties of the fishing hamlet, the trams and buses winding through the mountainside, the narrow allies where the children play, out of the way railway stations--everything is meticulously etched.

The cinematography has been compared to Ozu, but the underacting and sparseness of dialogue is also reminiscent of Bresson. An example is when Yumiko and her son for the first time meet her new husband and his daughter at a railway station in this planned marriage of convenience--like the complete strangers that they are. It is as formal and unemotional as a meeting of two executives, as the man apologises he has to rush to work immediately. The same delicacy, balance and restraint flow through the film.

The reason why the first husband killed himself or why Yumiko's grandmother even furthur back walks into the night never to return are left unanswered. The point of the story is not why the suicide occurs--it is enough to know that it happened-- but how the woman responds to and copes with the event. A big question mark hangs over most suicides, and the suggestion offered by the husband that he was following some mysterious light seems to be begging the question, ignoring the deepest human instinct for survival. As is written, even horses and cattle fear death, how much more a man in his prime. The film is a sensitive study of the "hollow" of  bereavement and guilt. The scars of the mind take long to heal. A suicide, more than a natural death, leaves behind a permanent pall of gloom, feelings of worthlessness and failure to love, making a mockery and superfluity of existence itself. There is never a tear or a sob in the movie and it's only the camera and composition that narrates the festering process. "Your silence spooks me," says the husband at one point.

And the mystery is not why the particular event occurred but why life is the way it is. Or rather to realise that it is.
Ebert's review

L'Age d'Or

(The Age of Gold) (1930, Luis Bunuel (1900-83)) (Almost silent)

The young director's second film, following Andalusian Dog, and on comparable lines. The fifteen minute montage of sombre, disturbing, violent images of the first film are expanded to an hour and we are treated to another series of bizarre visuals (in case the first left left you hungry for more). A colossal cow snores on an opulent double bed. Scorpions  fight to the death. Cardinals loom large as mountains, then dissolve into skeletons. A huge public gathering disperses like a hornet's nest struck by a stone. One of the initial sequences closely resembles the Gold Rush and that's presumably where the title comes from. The recurrently aborting erotic encounters of a couple runs like a tragi-comic thread through the film. The final section parodies Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Sexuality, violence, society, survival, clergy, perversion--an anguished and bleak view of  human nature and society from the enfant terrible. So much, so tightly packed.

Presumably the artist has tried to gather his vision of life and times into a compressed symbolism giving us an "uncarbonated" movie, well worth the hour long watch from a director who is to going to give us so much more.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Shining 1980

One may have expected a horror film from Kubrick to have something more than just shrieks but this is purely in the horror/ghosts/insanity genre and reasonably scary and suspense laden even at it's marathon two hours and a half. It is as though the director is saying, look, I can do these too. A couple and their psychic son are isolated in a large hotel cut off by snow from the world. Insanity and spooks take the field and "redrum" (murder) armed with knives, axes and baseball bats spills through the corridors and over the staircases. There are deluges of  blood (literally) and a pair of spooks (see picture), former murderees, invite the psychic Dan, "Come play with us, for ever and ever and ever." Jack Nicholson is at home playing himself with leers, grimaces and speech mannerisms and extracts a few laughs along with the fear and suspense. Duval in the female lead does a competent job as a perpetual shivering jelly. Certainly not in the class of  Exorcist, Silence of Lambs or Repulsion. But good enough to pass an idle afternoon and excellent if this happens to be your chosen brand of caffeine.

Tokyo! 2008

Three separate movies set in Tokyo by three non Japanese directors--Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Joon-ho Bong from the US, France and South Korea. If you have any corner for the city you may discover something new about it's soul through these rather fantastic (except maybe the first, Gondry's Interior Design, about the torture of house hunting in a big city) portraits. Carax's Merde, the center piece, is about a subhuman Caucasian who emerges from his habitat in the sewers of Tokyo to terrorize the populace. I would hesitate to smell any racial implication here. He is arrested, tried, condemned, and disappears. The Korean contribution, Shaking Tokyo perhaps the most interesting, relates to the recently widely pervasive phenomenon of hikikomori, people who isolate themselves by remaining indoors for years or decades. All by acclaimed directors, with a sentimental attachment to the megapolis, allow the camera to wander over it's contours. The film is sure to strike a nostalgic note if you are so prone.

Monday, May 17, 2010

After Life

(1999, Japan, Kore-eda (director))

The mundane and somewhat decrepit building where the film is set is a half way station where the newly dead are processed for their onward journey. They must select within a day or two the best moment of their lives which will be the only memory they will be able to preserve. A momentous decision and the ever courteous staff helps the inductees in interactive sessions.

The film, in it's muted naturalness, becomes a retrospective on the lives of different people, including the staff of the center. There is no hint of otherworldliness anywhere in the movie and it's only through the hushed tones of speakers and the melancholy play of light that the solemnity of the situation is conveyed. The absence of a musical score is another strength.  A delicate, compassionate film which more than theorizing about the life ahead, conveys the intensification of our daily life which can only be brought about by the awareness of death, awareness of how limited is the duration of our stay. Underlying the film perhaps is also the conviction that life does continue. By setting the film in a very ordinary place which could easily be the office of a small and slightly old fashioned company (maybe like the one in the recent Departures (Okiribito) , the director wisely refrains from taking any stand on the nature of the after world, more than to express his conviction, or at least premonition that death is not extinction.

A profound meditation on the brevity of life. The conspicuously this-worldly nature of the setting chosen serves as a powerful metaphor for the unknown. It is as though the artist is conveying " I have no way of knowing what lies beyond nor are the details important. What is important is that death is certain, a fact we mostly overlook, consequently failing to value life enough and to live fully." Ikiru is another Japanese film that expresses how the awareness of death imparts meaning and momentum to life.
Ebert's review

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quick reviews

Departures (Japan):
A film about the varieties of grief. A newly unemployed returns from Tokyo with his young wife and lands the unusual but well payed job of encoffinment--dressing up and otherwise preparing corpses for cremation or burial. One part of the story is about how the couple come to terms with and even take pride in this socially lowly occupation. Another is about the inhibitions, pretenses and the feelings (or their absence) surrounding bereavement which are meant to be given a measure of acceptable dignity by the ritualism. Like the rituals of marriage or eating, for that matter. Subsidiary plot lines culminate in a climax bordering on the sublime.

Walkabout (Australia, 1971):
A film about the aboriginal custom of casting a coming of age young man of sixteen into the wilderness for months, to survive and perish. In this case it is two white Australian children, a girl of sixteen and her much younger brother who find themselves in this situation, after their father, with whom they came for a picnic, commits suicide and ignites their car. As they stumble around the desert, parched and tired, they are saved by an aboriginal boy of the girl's age. The film is about the failure of communication between these human beings from different universe--or are they?

Primal Fear (1996):
A young altar boy is accused of killing a priest. A lawyer takes up the case, and the defense is based either on the presence of a third person in the room where the crime occurs or the possible insanity of the altar boy. Doesn"t quite live up to it's reputation as a court-room drama.

The Battle of Algiers (Algeria 1961):
A film about the Algerian war for independence from the century old French occupation. It is a study of urban guerrilla warfare and the film has been used as a case study by various intelligence agencies. The feel of the film is partially documentary like and the Algerian landscapes are captured in a melancholy panorama. The phenomenon of a population on the boil, united for a season or few by forces of history, channelized by individual will. The upsurging masses are like a river in spate and the interrogation methods of the French have more surgical calculation than malice.

Madadayo (1993):
Akira Kurosawa's last film. An aging professor is tended by his doting ex-students over the decades as he celebrates one birthday after another starting with the sixtieth (which in the Japanese tradition is a second coming of age). It is the relationship of the teacher and his student's which is portrayed with stunning clarity. It is a link of teacher and taught which is difficult to imagine in any other context. They build him a house, spend months searching for the teacher's lost cat, and year after year the birthday celebration is marked with bonhomie and jocularity as the wine and food flow deep into the night. It's a relationship of the deepest respect, admiration and affection, as to one who has taught them everything about life. It's different from the parental bond, in ways far purer. Utterly devoid of obsequiousness, it is filled with friendship, a grandeur of communication, and equality yet with deference born of gratitude. From the professor's viewpoint, it is akin to the director's Ikiru, in the guy's refusal to buckle under the onslaughts of time.

Mutiny on the Bounty(62) & The Bounty(84) (US):
Both movies are about the events surrounding this most famous of mutinies in the eigteenth century, when Fletcher Christian took charge of a ship commanded by Bligh. In the first movie Brando as Christian is pitted against the sadistic Bligh, mesmerically played by Trevor Howard. The second film is more nuanced, and the focus is on Anthony Hopkins as Bligh with Mel Gibson as Christian but an insipid shadow. I would vote for the Brando film because of the charismatic portrayals. There is another 1930 award winning Charles Laughton movie about the same episode, but two seems enough

The Caine Mutiny (US):
Another mutiny which occurred during WW2 aboard an American warship, wherein a captain who seems to be mentally unstable ( Humphrey Bogart) is removed by his second in command. The film concludes in a riveting court-martial drama.

Save the Green Planet (South Korea):
Serial killer or savior of the planet, about to be taken over on the next full moon by Andromedans, who have assumed human shape and infiltrated society? The protagonist and his half demented ex tight rope walker wife kidnap an executive, take him to a mountain shack and give him the works to extract a confession (about his being Andromedan). A Seoul detective who stumbles on the shack is given the "sweet" treatment--honey is poured all over him and then a swarm of bees does the rest). Add a few gruesome doses of hacking, not to disappoint expectations from Korean fare. From comedy to horror to science fiction to spoof, the film doesn't stop to breathe in it's roller coaster. The Koreans have struck a vein in sheer entertainment. And meanwhile, as a bonus, you are treated to the natural splendor of the land.

Mother (South Korea):
A young man of marginal intelligence is charged with murder. His single mother, an unauthorized practitioner of alternate medicine, takes up the challenge to establish his innocence. The plot has many twists and turns, but never flags in it's momentum till it's completely satisfactory resolution. Another spell binder from this freshly discovered cinematic oasis.

Quick Gun Murugan (India):
Fresh from Bollywood. Murugan, the first Indian 100% Vegetarian Cowboy is set against the villainous Rice Plate Reddy, who dreams of becoming McDosa King, with the world's No 1 purely non-vegetarian dosa. He also has designs to force all vegetarian restaurants to turn non-vegetarian. En route we are treated to duels where mantras counter bullets, a duel in a traffic jam, the kidnapping of a load of mothers to extract ancestral dosa recipe secrets, blood streaking from fresh wounds, and string upon string of unsubtle improbabilities, which manage to hold your attention well through the movie. Pure Tamil humor for you, and more than a different film, here's a brand new genre

The Dirty Dozen (US):
This is WW2 and a dozen death row prisoners are sent on a mission to parachute in Europe to penetrate a chapeau where top Nazi's are luxuriating. The first half of the movie, where the ugly heroes to be are being trained provides far more laughs and thrills than the actual mission, which seems a monotonous rattle of gunfire, rope climbing and up and down running in the premises.

The Magnificent Seven (US):
Seven wild western samurai are enlisted by a Mexican village seasonally terrorized by a a horde of bandits. If you are in an escapist/nostalgic frame, the dish will serve adequately.

Battle of Britain (UK):
The redeeming feature of this part propaganda film is the historical information of one of the first victory scored by the allies above the British skies. Memorable for the aerial display and dog fights but little else.

Out of Africa (US):
This is a 1987 much awarded Meryl Streep starrer, about a Danish adventuress who comes to Africa to make a fortune in coffee. Add romance, Africa and lots of beautiful shots of animals, and we have a very dated concoction which is far from the must some may feel it is.

Sword of Doom (Japan):
A conscienceless samurai, who kills for pleasure, like the character in No Country for Old Men, sets out on his spree by slashing a senior citizen whom he overhears praying for an early death. The sword itself is the centre of interest and we are treated to a macabre dance, executed with grace, speed and skill, as the victims slump successively. The film ends with the sword still mid-air in it's downward swing.