Yes, I am back to what I do on this blog. Reviewing movies. For a change, all three movies below were experimental, fresh in one way or the other and each one of these had a powerhouse performance by a female artiste.
Garden State (2004): ****
I can’t remember the last time I did not cringe when one of the lovers went through a heart change towards the climax and finally did the inevitable kiss as the credits waited to roll. One of those generic things that’s written in stone as a formula for the perfect romcom, in Garden State, it comes across so convincingly that it leaves you all warm and fuzzy. And that’s because the film does what is actually quite a rare sight- capturing every moment of companionship with absolute honesty. No matter how flawed and over-written it remains in places, its the masterful romance at the film’s heart that haunts you long after the film’s over. Chronicling the life of a troubled twentysomething TV actor in LA, who comes home to Garden State for his mother’s funeral, the movie follows him as he meets up with his acquaintances and chances upon the quirky girl-next-door Sam while waiting outside a neurologist’s clinic. Funnily enough, Sam’s a motormouth with a gift to lie for no apparent reason. How slowly their relationship blossoms and their realisation of how right they are for each other is the stuff great romances are made of. Replace great with real-life in the last sentence and you’ll know the inspiration for all my ga-ga over this movie.Garden State wouldn’t be anywhere as good as it is had Natalie Portman, Zach Braff and Peter Sarsgaard didn’t perform the way they have. Portman is an actress to behold. Seldom do you get to see such self-aware characters played so uninhibitedly that they become a real blast to watch. Quoting her one line which really hit home with me bigtime: “OK, so… so… sometimes I lie. I mean, I’m weird, man. About random stuff too, I don’t even know why I do it. It’s like… it’s like a tick, I mean sometimes I hear myself say something and think, Wow, that wasn’t even remotely true”. And the character’s always mouthing such refreshingly real lines, and you just can’t help but fall in love with Sam. When she’s not busy lying or accusing herself of ruining some moment or wondering if Braff’s character is totally freaked out with her, she’s doing this cute and weird stuff like standing all of a sudden in her room and do these funny actions and noises (according to her, she’s creating an “original moment”). And though Sam looks forward to a good cry by laughing more on the life’s ironies, you secretly wish that she doesn’t. I can’t remember the last time (yes, this is the second time I am saying this in a review) I have cared so much for a character.
And then there’s the little master Zach Braff, who trebles here as the actor, writer and director. And for someone who’s accustomed to his over-the-top slapstick in Scrubs, his underplay in Garden State is genuinely surprising. Nonetheless, it is this very subtlity that lends immense poignance and dignity to the film’s energy. Cossetted inside the quitely troubled Andrew Largeman, the protagonist, its a performance standing on meaningful glances and commonplace lines delivered the way only a collected, deeply perceptive actor can manage. The film’s pure magic when he’s sharing the space with Portman’s Sam and their heart-to-hearts are so spontaneous and bereft of cheese, you practically wince in your couch the time when Braff decides to sort his life out and leaves Portman stranded on the airport (and no this isn’t the end).
As a second lead, Peter Sarsgaard, like a true blue thesp at his craft, manages to do his badmouthing, soft-hearted chum routine with a charm and deadpan style that’s sure to make you grin. His part is a tad over-written in the initial reels with scenes like Braff’s meeting with his old buddies stretched for no reason (or so it appears on the first viewing), but still in such a charming film, these are minor glitches you learn to like on subsequent viewings. Likewise Braff’s relationship with his psychologist cum dad doesn’t really strike the right note (that, or because its such a dysfunctional one that the lack of any seeking-out-to-each-other is deliberate).
The word note reminds me of the film’s fantabulous soundtrack that’s choc-a-block with one lilting pop ditty on another. Braff’s cherry picked some of the most moving and lyrically sound contemporary tracks and tunes and used them to splendid effect.
On the whole, even though people like to remember Garden State as a superb chronicle of a twentysomething’s angst, for me its a cheerful little tale of how uplifting true love can be. Sunshine stuff!
Closer (2004): ***
The Graduate’s director makes a comeback with this decidedly pessimistic whine-a-thon on relationships in the new millenium. By the end of it all, two of the four lead people have cheated on their partners, one of them has manipulated his partner back with him and the remaining one is revealed to have gone through the whole drama of being loved and dumped under a pseudonym. Save for two-three minor scenes, the film’s obsessed with amplifying the worst in every character which does make for an occasional uncomfortable (but interesting) viewing.
A minor road-accident acts as a starting point for a London-based obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) and an American stripper Alice (Natalie Portman). The dormant writer in Dan finally finds in Alice a muse for his first book. One year on–they are a couple but Dan starts to randomly flirt and then have a serious affair with Anna (Julia Roberts), his photographer. In some weird mindframe, an year later, Dan enters a cybersex chatroom pretending to be this hot babe called Anna, making a doc (Clive Owen) literally wet in his pants (yea, I know you got it) and alluring him into meeting at the London Aquarium. Little realising that he played the perfect cupid for the doc (Larry) and the real Anna. Anna and Larry become a couple, but not without Anna secretly dating Dan. The scene is set for some serious, expletive-filled showdowns. And the spoils are for everyone to live with.
In this cyber age when we are bombarded with people ready for a no-strings-attached physical relationships and one night stands, monogamy does seem a suffocating concept. To add to the fun, there’s always the one-look-and-you-are-wiped-off-your-feet kind of infatuation which, married or otherwise, just has to be answered to. So how the hell does one expect an institution like marriage to work? Its a brave statement to make, but Closer’s gung-ho about forcing this bitter syrup down your throat.
The characters are quite a mixed bag with Natalie Portman’s Alice having to do with the clunkiest of lines and a love-story with Jude Law’s Dan that even at its lightest moments feel rehearsed (which makes it quite a pain to sit through the time when they cry, scream and pout dialogues like “you don’t love me”). To give credit where its due, Portman does make a credible stripper and her interaction with Owen at the strip club is quite a sight. The true stars of the enterprise however are Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Owen’s totally convincing as the self-confessed hypersexual Larry whose first concern when her wife reveals her extra-marital affair is whether the guy she’s dating is a good f*ck. This very scene where the husband and wife spit venom on each other is one of the best confrontational sequences I have seen in a film. Julia Roberts, as the depressive, confused wife Anna gives the film the only bit of warmth it has.
Its hard to take in anything positive from a film that resolves itself as cynically as Closer does. But in a weird reverse-psychologically-kind-of way watching so much going wrong does bore in two-or three things one ought to do right when in a relationship. Its also not a film that everyone’d easily take to (my friend who watched this with me halfway through pleaded me to see the DVD on my laptop and free up his TV) so watch this at your own risk.
PS: On a sidenote, I had always found the film’s publicity design to be quite something. After watching the movie I realised how misleading all that serenity and whiteness really was. The tagline “if you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking” still manages to sum up one of the themes succinctly though.
Hard Candy (2006): ***
I have lost count of the number of times I have found myself flipping through the newspaper pages, coming across some headline on the lines of “paedophile filming young girls jailed for 13 1/2 years” and then thinking out loud “these b*stards should all be made to stand in a line and have their balls slashed off”. And here is a film that goes straight after the balls of one such sexually depraved character. Yes, you can’t get more direct and literal than Hard Candy (web-slang term for an underage girl) which tells the story of a14 year old girl out on a daredevil mission to teach a fashion photographer cum web-chatting paedophile the lesson of his life by castrating him with a pack of ice (as local anaesthesia for the genitalia), some sharp instruments, cotton bandage and her untrained hands. The whys and the hows of this girl’s actions never quite filter through convincingly (read this as “are not bothered to explain”) which means that within 30 minutes she descends from an unusually brave girl to a sociopath in your eyes, and there really does come a point when you are forced to think where exactly your loyalties lie. With this horrendously sicko teenager or the now-suffering paedophile. Just for this intelligent and seldom used style of manipulation, Hard Candy deserves a pat.
This, plus the fact that its made with such queasily close shots of characters (more like demons) and some amazingly unpredictable sequences–you’ll wince and twitch to the point of even wondering why you spent your money on the ticket. As a debut work by a music video director, a hell lot of suggestive imagery and sounds are used to mess up with your mind and one look at the performances by the leading two actors and you know this man is talented. The actors playing the two principal characters (Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson) might be lesser known, but deliver gut-wrenchingly real and nuanced performances. The camera loves them to the point of never leaving their visages for a single second and despite that, the experience of watching these two monsters interact for a good two hours is quite overwhelming. More than half of film’s tension and unpredictability is thanks to Page’s ability to do a split-second whirlwind in her voice and expressions. And Wilson’s character graph is so masterfully done up that you’ll be finding yourself changing your opinion more than once every thirty minutes. Kudos to this actor for bringing up every single layer of his character’s vulnerability and deception to the surface. Add to all this the crackling dialogues throughout.
And yet, its not quite the ultimate movie as somewhere down the lane you realise that its actually too much of the same thing after a good one hour. Its different and its shocking yes, but the second half and the climax do a grave disservice to Wilson’s character. His giving in to Page’s threats about exposing him to his girlfriend is a tad quick and quite out-of-sync with his ultra-cautious and hideous nature. The castration scene is one brilliant sequence alright but there’s a twist immediately after that which kind of ruined it a bit for me. And as there really never was any buildup plus the attempt to explain the motivation for such extreme action by Page’s character isn’t convincing enough, after a point of time you detach quite easily from the characters. Which is always a bad thing.
Still, give it a try if you are hunting for something experimental and uncomfortable with some sensational acting.
Until my next batch of reviews, ciao!