A History of Violence (2005): §§§§§§§§ (8 on 10)
Hmm… this year seems to be all about catching up with the flicks I had been ailing to watch for quite a while now. This movie, in particular, struck me as very interesting. Despite having an ambitious title the way it captures violence in the microcosm of a family-next-door struck quite a chord. Its nothing extraordinary, but definitely much above the run of the mill wham-bam revenge/identity-scam action thrillers. A thinking man’s thriller, the clean cinematography and awesomely real turns by the stars who are palpably sincere as a family, the movie revels and discards violence in subsequent sequences as resolution and ideals become priority. In the end though, its mostly peace and forgiveness, and the high body count re-affirms, that when it comes down to it, its not really that hard to take a life. Grim. The mafia brothers in the final sequence are (un)intentionally hilarious and OTT. But its an immensely creditworthy flick, and Viggo Mortinsen has given, what I can call, one of the most interesting and layered male performances ever. His looks, his glances, and his moves are haunting to say the least. He’s so into the character, and is so easily able to bring different edges in the character out as the movie unspools, he leaves you rivetted. Totally.
A Very Long Engagement (French) (2004): §§§§§§ (6 on 10)
This one is so exquisitely filmed that it bleeds my heart to say that it ultimately has no real flavour and not much of a heart either; just some splendidly set-up over-plotted and irritatingly lightweight romance that overstays its welcome. Surprisingly low on emotional quotient too even though Jeunet’s film-making style and the whole visual streak and humour are magnificent and do add dollops of whimsicality, but the core’s almost hollow. I didn’t flinch much at the main girl’s dilemma of whether her dead condemned-at-war lover was still alive, simply because its stretched beyond limit on rather flimsily and rapidly-cut character sketches. Plus both the whole Jodie Foster and Marion Cotillard’s subplots are tried and tested soap opera cliches and do NOTHING to the main plot, although the very presence of both the delectable beauties who perform with all heart is treat alright. Audrey Toutou looks hungover from Amelie bigtime, and I was quite disappointed by her performance but overall, I’d still recommend the movie for one watch just to gulp in the lush beauty of French villas and countryside and some stylistically graphic WW1 battlefront footage. That and of course Jeunet trademark weird touches (using the albatross, or Toutou’s character finding solution to her dilemmas in completing mini-tasks or setting some stop-watch element then and there which is something I used to do but such moments are few and far between). Could have been so much more, a shame really.
A Wednesday (Hindi) (2008): §§§§§§§§ (8 on 10)
What makes a thriller worth its salt? 2 things according to me-plausible motivation on the part of the culpable and the unravelling of different layers that’s atleast two steps ahead of the viewer- both of these call for a firm hold on the story. And A Wednesday scores on all both. I totally bought Naseer’s motivation (such a humane one-the frustration of a common man), the whole speech towards the climax comes across so felt and so genuinely pathos-laden, every Indian is bound to identify with it. And at a time when innocent people all over the world are getting killed in thousands in ridiculous bomb blasts (which normally get revisited with how well a city like Bombay’s adjusted, spirit of Bombay hallelujah only)… a reply like this from “the common man” to the gross injustice meted out to the masses is so timely and so topical, its spine-chilling. It is a knuckle-bared terrorist-cop thriller going full on with the ideology of common man being the ultimate vigilante, something which is on everyone’s lips given the dire and lazy internal policies courtesy the exasperating Home and Internal Affairs Ministeries but only now saw fruition on the big screen in a gulpable format of a thriller. It is a tad inflammatory, so its good to have the escapism of the genre and a brilliant anchoring speech as supporting braces and am glad such cinema has found itself an audience thanks to a similar albeit paler work earlier this year called Aamir.
It does come packaged in genre-staple cliches that bog down every cop thriller, the excessive background score though supremely keyed in to the proceedings is sometimes used excessively (though there’s enough motive and drama that the calculatedly cool Naseer doesnt let filter and would thus limit the film’s audience) and Jimmy Shergill contrary to popular opinion is laughably clumsy, but the breakneck pace, supremely credible performances from thespians Naseer and Anupam who literally bind your attention with their charisma and believability-right-from-the-1st-shot and incisive, knowingly balanced dialogue make for an angry, informative, entertaining yarn.
Aamir (Hindi) (2008): §§§§§ (5 on 10)
Unnecessarily over-rated, blatantly average and tiresomely repetitive thriller where a Muslim doctor from London lands in Bombay and is sent on a treasure hunt by the goons who’ve kidnapped his family. Basically they need a Muslim “brother” to meet their ends (what else?). The premise isn’t as much far-fetched as its slim to justify the running time, and the fact that the movie seldom goes beyond the obvious of the blurb makes it quite a tedious watch. Rajeev Khandelwal, the debutante, pitches in a routine performance which involves sprinting in a suit and acting scared, but what definitely works in the film’s favour is its humane message (what did you expect? There has to be one tagged along in the denouement). What doesn’t work in its favour is zilch character development which makes the whole running from A-to-B-to-C a bit monotonous to watch. And little insight into anything. Dull, just plain dull.
Across the Universe (2007): §§§§§§ (6 on 10)
As my introduction to a minefield of retro-pop-culture that is the Beatles, this didn’t disappoint. But its severely flawed in the sense it could have been so much more than the maudlin, uneven mess it becomes in the second act. The ensemble pitch in fab performances and are in spirit throughout. Being a musical, not once did I feel them arching or struggling with the movie’s language and style, and Joe Anderson alongwith the “I Want You” music video about army recruiting young men for the Vietnam war is just plain rocking and made the whole movie worth it.
The music and usage of tracks is good, but it needed to be snappier and shorter by half an hour. The visual flair too sometimes pales and douses in mediocrity all too often and one feels the need for a more imaginatively conceptualised design given the sheer ambition of the project. Still, its undeniably genre bending and as a contemporary musical telling a wartime story and doing an ode to a musical stalwart, it is refreshingly experimental and works in more number of ways than not. Worth a watch I’d say, and this is coming from someone who didn’t know Beatles’ music that well.
American History X (1998): §§§§§§§§§ (8.5 on 10)
Exceedingly well made movie that’s now achieved a cult status, and I was evading it uptil now thinking it’d be unpleasantly visceral or exploitatively gory. Far from it. A skinhead gang movie with growing-up lessons and a lensman (who doubles up as the director) keen to use and shade his lens experimentally, its an effective flick with old world lessons delivered via an inspired cast (headed by Norton’s yet another virtuoso turn) who are given sheaves of brilliant dialogue.
There are many standout scenes. Each of the dinner table scenes are testimony to the heights that can be scaled in cinema with fantastic writing, be it the one where Ed loses his rag at his mom’s “liberal hypocrite Jew” boyfriend in a conversation about racial relations which shockingly leads to him losing it and unsurprisingly assaulting a dissenting sister sitting nearby or Ed’s father’s displeasure over breakfast at Ed complimenting a book by black author. And ofcourse the key scene where Ed smashes the black guy’s head on the kerb as they try breaking in, then what he goes through when he’s serving time makes this one of the best character pieces in the genre. It boasts of a rousing classical score throughout and celebrates the normal peaceful family life as one sees through the futility of all this gang-bullshit.
Not a single false note, even if the themes and ideas render a seen-that feel and the gang psychology seems a tad simplified. Its 10 years old but remains as topical (i correct myself- even more topical) as the global socio-politico-economico-population mess that the world has transmogrified into has led to even more efflux and influx of people, and almost inevitably, more hatred and angst in home communities of developed countries. Definitely worth a watch as a sobering reminder exactly how far does carrying unnecessary baggages of “hatred” in this ultra-fragile and short existence make one go and how futile it all is-to think people devote whole lives and whole intellects to build and justify plans based on hatred alone!
Amu (Bengali/English) (2005): §§§§§§§ (6.5 on 10)
Decent semi-autobiographical movie of an NRI girl whose fascination with this impoverished family of a dhaba owner takes her slowly but surely to explore her own roots which is entwined with the murky past of 1984 riots (turns out she was a daughter of one of the victim families later adopted by a Bengali social worker). It all starts off a bit rambly and pointlessly, but there’s definitely a surehandedness and no-words minced honesty, simplicity and sensitivity when the actual “hot” issue is unfolded on screen.
The protagonist’s compelling personal need to find her lineage drives the movie ahead which otherwise doesn’t have much insight into what is not already known about the whole 84 fiasco (although the tone of some of the protagonists will make you believe otherwise) but it is a decent film with a poignant closure that of a TV screen blaring away in a present day village about Gujarat riots while the protagonist and her “bourgeois-snob” of a lover walk away satisfied that atleast they have been able to piece the jigsaw of their life’s puzzle. Konokona’s efficient as ever but its Brinda Karat’s performance that lingers with you. Toned down superfluous Bengali independent movie touches and the short length keeps the interest alive too. Overall, its a decent issue-based film.
Anchorman: Legend of Roy Burgundy (2004): §§§§§§§§ (8 on 10)
Okay, so finally I strike upon the original Will Ferrell-Judd Apatow-Paul Rudd guy-flick which started the stream of Talladega Nightses and Knocked Ups and Blades of Glorys. And am not at all surprised why it is so popular and so loved. Its just too funny. It is super-lame, oddly retro, it switches between spoof and satire and slapstick and physical comedy sometimes in one scene, and its amazing to everyone take it so seriously and yet having such a ball doing it. Laugh out loud and super-lame in a guy-sort of way, you have to watch for the constant stream of expletives Christina and Ferrell’s characters hurl at each other on the news desk and the Jack Black-kicking-the-dog scene which is pure comedy gold. “I’m Ron Burgundy. Go fuck yourself, San Diego.” A Howl!
Apocalypse Now Redux (1979): §§§§§§ (6 on 10)
Another of those ultimate elephant “classics” that I couldn’t come to like totally. Coppola’s cinema simply fails to agree with me, touch me, affect me, yet again, but this war saga is definitely right up there with the first Godfather. The opening act, as always, is spectacular, the scale is applaudworthy but the way it meanders and meanders in the second half into a collection of listless, pretentious, self-consciously symbolic scenes made me impatient (I am told this is exclusive to the Redux version and the theatrical cut is snappier).
Especially the denouement and some scenes leading to it-the parallels drawn or felt by Willard with Colonel Hertz seem absolutely forced and as the ending credits get nearer, the characterisations become more and more abstract, and this vague phrase of “the horror, the horror” is thrusted on you with such grinding regualrity, its just unbelievably unsubtle and totally undoes the movie for me.
But yes, the opening hour has shades of brilliance for sure. I totally digged the romanticised opening sequence with the Doors playing in background and the legendary napalm speech and the brilliant theme-park ride camera effects in the opening war scenes when Willard’s with Kigmore. But the second half’s mis-direction is just irritating. Actually somewhere deep down, this madness and the bizarreness of the whole affair does salvage the movie from being an absolute stinkbomb and gives it some repeat value. So, pardon me if I sound a little ambivalent, the sheer length of 3.5 hours overwhelmed me a little and I got impatient towards the climax. Am optimistic that a second viewing with lower expectations might yield some unforeseen edifice of real felt emotion and not choreographed manipulative drivel it felt at first.
Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford (2007): §§§§§§§§ (8 on 10)
A supremely classy and quirky Western (a genre seeing a post-modern revival like no year). Rivaling Road to Perdition and 3:10 to Yuma, the mood and the feel of the whole enterprise coupled with such an unusual character as centrestage for a western make it a delectably interesting watch. Totally loved the lingering shots, the fantastic character study of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck has so been robbed of an Oscar, makes my blood boil) a boy who’s like a living embodiment of every awkward teenager breathing out there who wants to be like his idol, impersonating and becoming this person they are not right down to their reactions if by some godforsaken coincidence they share living space with the idol- the testiness, the clammy obsession as one comes face to face with the icon- its all here captured with such amazing candor, it makes you uncomfortable. That and then the anguish of Jesse James himself, the legendary bandit (Brad Pitt in another feather-in-the-cap performance) and the simple yet undercurrent-laden psychological politics between the Fords and James’s brother. Could have done away with that all-revealing title though, but there’s absolutely no faulting the vision and the care with which the bravuro performances have been extracted, and a breathtaking visuo-acoustic mood is set up to realise this unique, genre-bending epic for the big screen. Quality cinema.
Away From Her (2008): §§§§§§ (6.5 on 10)
Somewhat over-rated, self-consciously serious movie about a man coming to terms with old age, his wife’s institutionalisation and her relationship with a male inmate at the residential care-home she’s placed in. The point being drilled across doesn’t call for this long a movie, especially when the tone is so monotonous and character development and insight is near-nil. Plus the whole media and awards have totally shrugged off Gordon Pinsent in the husband’s role as if he never existed. Julie Christie’s performance is no great guns, but I guess she’s reaping the benefits of nostalgia attached to an erstwhile Hollywood icon. Its really Pinsent’s movie and its his performance and dialogue delivery that keeps you glued all the way through. Its got class, but there’s a nagging feeling of it being self-awaredly so (especially in those sometimes-gratingly softened frames). Stiffish and dare I add, a tad pretentious, its an okay movie.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004): §§§§§§§§ (8 on 10)
Sean Penn delivers the performance of his life in this movie and he was bloody robbed of an Oscar for this! Its so courageous, and heartfelt and so emotional, its made this movie one of my all time favourites (really, at times his scenes reach the tragic peak of Requiem For a Dream) Such a tour-de-performance in a movie that IS a one man show essentially, really lifts an already well-written, supremely well directed movie to another level.
It chronicles a normal 9 to 5 guy absolutely losing it thanks to his own moral high ground which has absolutely no relevance in the cut-throat world of sales or just normally, life. You cannot take things too seriously and put every small interaction or occurrence on a moral scale- life becomes impossible if you do, just as Penn’s Samuel Bicke degenerates into an imploding, confused and finally, a chillingly erratic psychopath. The transformation is bone-chilling (the denouement where he hijacks a stationary plane) simply because on many levels you root for the guy from the start just for the mere reason he appears to be warmer and more thriving than the cold, going-through-the-motions mortals around him. But then, as the line between moral sanity and insanity blurs, it just transmutes into powerful cinema. Don Cheadle as the best bud and Naomi Watts as the separated and frustrated wife were class personified, and each of Penn’s scenes with them resonate.
Infact there are so many scenes I want to write about. The final hijack sequence: the tension’s just right till that moment, and when it actually transpires it is quite gruesome. And then scenes like the one where Samuel enters his flat to find his brother sitting to have a chat since he’s just committed a fraud of having tyres delivered for his new business at his own address (the brother says “I wash my hands off you”), then the scenes where he goes to this black union Panthers and says he wants to do something for the country as a common man, but he’s white… so no one understands his moral dilemmas and suggests they rechristen their organisation’s name to Zebras, then his own explanation about moral business ways when he goes to the bank with his loan application (such dark humour permeates all these scenes, as a viewer, you are all the wiser of his perspective but can’t help smirking at the haplessness of the people dealing with Samuel).
It is that sense of amazing empathy that chillingly remains, right uptil the last scenes where he blatantly starts shooting (you kind of still side with him for his panicked paranoia and helplessness in making things change, its that good a character sketch).
And then right after he’s shot dead, there are two more scenes… one of his voiceover (oh yea, all through the movie, he’s taping his thoughts and sending it to his favourite musician Burnstein: its all supremely heart-rending and such a clever cue to have wonderful classical score in the background and a voiceover) as he’s just dying, he actually does think he’s made a difference and when his story is played on the news channels, the way his wife and best bud just go about their chores around nonchalantly made for an interesting, pathos-laden climax. The movie is so persuasive and forceful and so relevant even today (psychology behind home-grown terrorists anyone?), that I was elated of having watched this on a whim. Unmissable!
The Air I Breathe (2008): §§§§§§ (6 on 10)
Another hyperlink movie close on the heels of Crash and Babel. The fact that this experimental mixture of interlinked stories is attention grabbingly shot with a lot of anger and explosiveness doesn’t hide the sheer ludicrousness and the slavish choreography of it all. Focussing on 4 cornerstones of human emotions- happiness, pleasure, love and sorrow, the 4 interlinked stories even though bordering on insane conveniences do have moments of genuinely captured exhilaration. The cast’s phenomenal, and yes, overall, it seems I will invariably over-rate this as am a sucker for these “webbed-narrative” movies.
The Plusses: The first story of Whitaker, this by-the-numbers guy who totally screws himself up by betting away all he has and then attempting a bank robbery–the way he feels liberated on the rooftop as a 100 guns face him, was very interesting a sequence. Then, the next story about this guy who could see future–the power that for all its hype, actually sensorily and psychologically numbed him, and released its grip in the exact same moment he gets pulped by the villians was again interesting. The way this assassin being carried on a stretcher soaked in blood is laughing away simply because a whole vista of unpredictability now lies open to him everyday resonated with me. The next story about this pop-star “with issues” who gets ripped by a smartypants reporter and the very next one where the best man-cum-doctor tries to save the bride aka bespectacled-overworked-researcher Julie Delpy’s life from a snake bite by getting exceedingly-rare-blood group blood from the, (cue: hold-your-breath!) pop-star who reveals it on the same interview she’s getting slated in was not that bad either.
The Minuses: Problem is its all done a bit too often. And towards the end it totally belies credibility, but I guess its one of those movies which drives home the point of connection between human beings in “the small world” by slavishly suffocating a manipulative script down our throat, BUT it has noble intentions, moves at a breakneck pace and somehow despite the stories written as standalone paeans to the stated 4 cornerstones lend more importance on implausible co-incidences its a curiously amusing watch.