30 June 2008
It would be easy to elevate the critical status of this film by explicitly underlining the truthful socialist agenda and honest commitment Woolcock has always given to people living on the margins of contemporary British society, but to take such a position would be both disingenuous and unfair in trying to be impartial as one can about Exodus as a film. Though the central idea is clearly very fascinating and perhaps even quite clever for a low budget British film, it is exactly the lack of a proper budget that hampers Exodus from fully realising the big screen potential of it’s depiction of a future British society.
The artistic aspirations of Exodus constantly reminded me of another recent film about Britain in the future, the imaginatively brilliant ‘Children of Men’; a dark and moody masterpiece. Though ‘Children of Men’ was financed by a Hollywood studio, the Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, realised that to be able to live up the dispiriting imagery of the original source material would require a significant budget, and thus the power of this film is significantly reflected in the magnificence of the technical elements like the visceral use of camerawork. Unfortunately, Woolcock struggles to bring the sense of a fractured and nightmarish British society to life on screen, and at times it becomes quite obvious how this film could have benefited with much more financial support from the British film industry.
Exodus was shown at the London Film Festival in 2007 but distribution was a real problem, and the film bypassed most cinemas, going straight to DVD and appearing on Channel 4. ‘Children of Men’ benefits hugely from established actors like Clive Owen and Michael Caine, and though their screen presence did little to help make the film a success in the US, their contribution in terms of securing a more than adequate budget was crucial for Cuaron to be able make the film he had envisioned. Such a compromise can be quite useful for film makers working within the genre of science fiction, and if Woolcock had opted to cast perhaps more well known British actors in the lead roles then maybe she would have had a better shot at finding better indigenous financing.
The idea that some groups of people within contemporary Britain are made to feel like exiles in their own country is a vitally relevant issue today, and Woolcock’s innovative approach to debating immigration is refreshing, but no such debate takes place within a film that jumps erratically from one event to another. One of the key images around which Woolcock centres her film is the burning of Antony Gormley’s Waste Man sculpture, but though this is dazzling performance art, it does very little in supporting the film, even if it is referred to as a symbol of Dreamland’s collective resistance.
Penny Woolcock’s voice as a commentator on working class socialist themes and ideologies is as equally valid and important as that of Shane Meadows and Ken Loach, however, her status as a female director means that her contribution to British cinema may need to be championed more by critics and artists if she is to stand a chance of being taken seriously as a key British film maker. Her brilliantly funny, Mischief Night (2005), cleared demonstrated her excellence as a film maker who enjoys using social satire as a way of exploring contemporary themes prevalent within working class society. Woolcock is still evolving as a filmmaker, and though Exodus is a failure, it is nevertheless, an interesting one.
27 June 2008
The Ruins is another film that builds on the recent topical success of movies in which American tourists are subjected to all kinds of persecution and violence; films like Hostel and Turista come to mind - both very bad films and not at all worthy of recommendation. The Ruins is typical of the level of contempt that affects much of Hollywood film making today. Not only is the film ridiculous in it's concept of flesh eating plants, it takes the narrative of a group of under sexed teenagers who learn that the test of survival is something that will consume them completely. The film not only ridicules once again with great vigour another group of 'foreign' people for their strange, mystical traditions, it also seems to go to great lengths to underline how vacant scriptwriters working in Hollywood have become profoundly uninspired artists, depending on novels and books for ideas, many of which are simply unfilmable and boring. The Ruins gives us ninety minutes of hysterical and obnoxious American teenagers screaming and shouting at one another whilst the audience spectator is expected to hang around and feel tense. Not only do you not want to sympathise with any of these characters, part of you at one point begins to relish the thought of hurrying to the end of the film. The performances amount to nothing than a series of earnest looks and exchanges between actors who have invested zero percentage in trying to bring their characters to life.
The overall result is absolute below par cinema and another reminder of Hollywood's fixation with high concept and the annoying teen market. Stay away from this film, and any other recent Hollywood film that thinks it is somehow using the tourist idea as a metaphor for dealing with anxieties to do with Americans abroad; this allegorical interpretation being repeated by many film critics is simply rubbish.
25 June 2008
Bertolucci’s later work in no way lives up to the brilliance of what he accomplished in the 1970s, producing a catalogue of politically complex and intellectually demanding films like The Conformist, 1900, Before The Revolution and Last Tango in Paris. The Conformist is arguably one of the great works of the modernist era and its influence on the visual aesthetics of the Hollywood new wave was most readily visible in the mahogany veil of darkness perfected by Gordon Willis in Coppola’s Godfather films. The theoretically led director of cinematography, Vittorio Storora, and regular Bertolucci collaborator would later go on to work with Coppola on lighting the guerrilla epic ‘Apocalypse Now’, a film that would in turn give Bertolucci the courage to direct his own grand spectacle and shoot one of the last great historical epics, The Last Emperor. This was the film that gave Bertolucci international critical and commercial success that he has never been able to attain again, and perhaps never will as like most film makers, he has done his best work, and the films that he makes now and again seem more like an expression of curiosity rather than passionate commitment.
Much of Bertolucci’s 90s work is hit and miss, and the ‘Besieged’ is probably the best film he made in a decade that wasn’t too friendly to him, nor to his contemporary Hollywood equivalent, Francis Coppola. Set in Venice, Italy, the story of ‘Besieged’ revolves around a British pianist/musician, Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis) who falls in love with an African immigrant, Shandurai (Thandie Newton). Having escaped from persecution in her land of birth, Shandurai lives in the basement of Kinsky’s decadent apartment block and who is responsible for the well being of the building whilst at the same time studying to become a doctor.
When Kinsky makes advances towards Shandurai, he is made aware of the fact that she is married and has dreams of being united with her husband who is languishing in some African prison cell as a political prisoner and dissident. Kinsky tries to win over Shandurai but she spurns him repeatedly until he resorts to seducing her with his sophisticated appreciation and love of music. Shandurai gradually discovers that Kinsky has been working tirelessly, using what financial assets he has at his disposal to secure the release and safe passage of her husband to Italy. His piano becomes his weapon that he uses to colonise the affections of Shandurai and does so with great impunity and moral exactness that he eventually reduces her to an object, a possession over which he finally has sexual control.
Besieged is closest in its conception to Last Tango in Paris especially in how Bertolucci uses the interiors of the apartment block to create an unsettling atmosphere of claustrophobia and sexual tension. Another idea that Besieged seems to share with Last Tango in Paris is how people can be brought physically closer together when circumstances change, and the creation of need and perhaps even love is borne out of an emotional dependency. Bertolucci chooses not to condemn the actions of Kinsky who is shown to be a shrewd manipulator of emotional affections; he lays himself bare, stripping away the possessions and trappings of the bourgeoisie middle class intellectual, and by doing so, he gives the ‘impression’ of somebody who is prepared to sacrifice all his worldly material attachments so he can please this one woman that has evolved into an obsession.
Elated at the news of her husband’s release and imminent arrival in Italy, Shandurai finally surrenders to Kinsky’s advances, and awakes the next morning in bed with Kinsky whilst her husband is outside knocking to be let into the apartment. Though her husband has arrived, part of Shandurai suddenly feels deeply ambivalent towards what she has always wanted. ‘Besieged’ by a complex set of emotions, we can also interpret these final moments in a cynical and repugnant way. Perhaps the sadness Shandurai experiences lying in bed with Kinsky is not entirely guilt, maybe she finally realises the extremes to which Kinsky has gone just so that he can have her – it suddenly dawns on her how she has been bought in exchange for her husband. The sense of worthlessness and degradation that she feels as she begins to cry is a powerful and moving gesture, underlining her vulnerability as a woman in a society occupied by men like Kinsky.
This is a minor work in many respects but the carefully stated emphasis placed upon relationships is something that repeats itself throughout much of Bertolucci's work, and in many ways, though his films are about male anxieties, they are equally revealing in how they offer a sympathetic insight into the unedifying social position women are forced to take in contemporary society.
22 June 2008
Neo noir is not so much a genre but a recognisable visual style that has been adopted by many contemporary film makers. The tradition of noir as an aesthetic and ideological set of principles is still discernible in the work of auteurs like David Lynch, David Fincher and Michael Mann. Unlike film noir that was very much a response to post war disillusionment and can be categorised into distinct phases, neo noir is much more difficult to isolate as a body of films as they have not been produced within a certain period of time. Neo noir continues to evolve. Though the 1960s and 70s provide us with some telling illustrations of neo noir, giving us brutal and violent films like Point Blank, Klute and The Outfit, it was not until the early 80s did the genre gain widespread acceptance and credibility. Blood Simple (The Coen Bros, 1982), Blade Runner (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) and Manhunter (Dir. Michael Mann, 1986) were instrumental in bringing about this critical acknowledgement. Today, David Fincher (Seven, The Game, Panic Room, Fight Club, Zodiac), David Lynch (Blue Velvet,
BRICK (Dir. Rian Johnson, 2005, US)
A low budget American independent film that was compared to Donnie Darko for it’s original treatment of teenagers, Brick is both a homage to the detective narrative of the 1940s and a contemporary updating of the high school teen movie. Clever, insightful and very, very noir.
LOST HIGHWAY (Dir. David Lynch, 2007, US)
Another totally baffling and manipulative narrative from the twisted imagination of David Lynch, Lost Highway is one of his major works, but is a film that requires an endless amount of patience. Brilliantly conceived, this is a work of esoteric darkness that really does live up to the nightmarish tone in which it is described by fans.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Dir. Bryan Singer, 1995, US)
A magnificently written script by Chris McQuarrie, Kevin Spacey at the top of his game and the storming of Cannes easily makes this Singer’s best film to date. Structured around a series of subjective flashbacks, this was a film that suddenly made noir look sexy again.
COLLATERAL (Dir. Michael Mann, 2004, US)
One of the great post 2000 American films and also by far one of the best neo noir films ever made. Vincent (Tom Cruise) and Max (Jamie Fox) loathe one another but they also appear to exist as outsiders adrift in the lonely nightscape of Los Angeles. Exquisitely shot in HD, this is Mann’s elegy to a city that has dominated much of his work.
MEMENTO (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000, US)
Nolan’s ‘mind fuck’ movie as it referred to by some fans and critics was the calling card for his shift into the mainstream. Batman Begins, Insomnia, and The Prestige could easily be labelled as neo noir, but it is Memento that showcases his love of the language of noir. A deeply moving piece of cinema with a genuinely original central concept that is executed with some real confidence.
THE UNDERNEATH (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1995, US)
Soderbergh’s remake of the classic 1940s Robert Siodmak directed noir, Criss Cross, was initially dismissed by critics but his recent body of work has meant a reassessment of his early work. Though this is very conventional in how it uses the elements of noir especially in it’s depiction of the femme fatale, Soderbergh experiments with impressive editing to create a disturbing homage to noir.
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (Dir. Curtis Hanson, 1997, US)
More of a pastiche of the best noir films than something entirely original, Curtis Hanson’s tribute to the crime genre made obvious but aesthetically pleasing uses of noir. A film that was able to bring to life the seediness of Los Angeles in the 1930s.
SEVEN (Dir. David Fincher, 1995, US)
Though Fincher has evolved into one of the finest directors working in Hollywood today, Seven is still regarded by many as the film that cemented Fincher’s commercial appeal in the eyes of the studios. Characterised by one of the cleverest endings, Seven amounts to a modern masterpiece.
U TURN (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1997, US)
Oliver Stone’s singular foray into noir territory resulted in one of the most visually exciting contributions to the genre. Though a wickedly funny performance by Sean Penn and a great score by Morricone still could not stop U Turn from failing at the box office.
SIN CITY (Dir. Robert Rodriquez, 2005, US)
Robert Rodriguez’s talents as a film maker seemed to have stalled with the Spy Kids franchise until he collaborated with Frank Miller on this brilliant comic adaptation of his famous graphic novels. Intelligently cast and taking a multi narrative approach, Sin City made evocative use of green screen technology like no other film before.
Though Bollywood’s output in terms of film production overshadows most film industries, the number of quality films released each year has had a tendency to fall severely short of competing with the kinds of much celebrated movies produced by Hollywood each year. Such a crisis of quality exists within the Bollywood film industry purely because it makes way too many films. If it was to curtail it’s output and placed a greater creative emphasis on fewer projects then it might be able to produce far more consistent quality films, films that might even be remembered by audiences and critics alike. The recent disappointing cycle of films produced and distributed by the Yash Raj factory has provoked reactions that surmount to Aditya Chopra having lost the creative impulse to make commercially successful films. Though this may be true in some cases with films like Neal and Nikki, one only has to look at the reasons behind Chak De India’s enormous success. Not only did it have the star power of Shah Rukh Khan, it was a film that connected to mainstream Indian society as audiences intelligently made the correlation between hockey and cricket instantaneously.
Many of the best films that come out of Bollywood each year are usually ones that have something, whatever it maybe, interesting and topical to say about contemporary Indian society. Recent Yash Raj films like Tashaan and Jhoom Bharbar Jhoom completely missed the mark as they were clunky concepts aimed solely at the overseas NRI market; neither had anything relevant to say about contemporary Indian society other than being ridiculously well promoted with expensive marketing campaigns.
So far 2007 has been equally disappointing as last year with high profile releases such as Jodha Akbar and Race failing to live up to expectations. Denied a UK release, Aamir, is one such Bollywood film that has exceeded expectations, receiving a warm critical reception and is currently being referred to by many as one of the stand out films of the year so far. Produced by UTV Motion Pictures under their new subsidiary company, Spot Boy, Aamir signals yet another cinematic achievement for Ronnie Screwvala’s refreshing approach to Bollywood film making.
The directorial debut of Raj Kumar Gupta, Aamir is an intelligently conceived high concept film that takes the contemporary theme of homeland terrorism and uses it as a narrative device to explore the risky proposition of individual responsibility. Though Gupta does not present the friendliest of images of the Muslim community in Mumbai, he does exceptionally well to visualise the torturous and visceral journey that Aamir is forced to make by making remarkably effective use of location shooting in the cramped and dingy side streets of Mumbai. Very few Bollywood film makers have been able to capitalise on the potential of Mumbai as a character (Ram Gopal Varma comes to mind) and Aamir like Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Parinda’, shares with it a fascination for the city as an expressionistic manifestation of the state of mind of the central character.
Anurag Khasyap also had a hand in the production of Aamir and is credited with creative producer, and his influence seems to have been a key factor in moulding this film into a clever, enigmatic and forceful piece of contemporary cinema that is unlike anything typically produced by Bollywood. UTV could have been more cautious about the release of this unusual and challenging film and perhaps thought about opening the film closer to the award season in September.
Opening against Sarkar Raj, Aamir has literally sunk without a trace in terms of box office, but it has attracted significant widespread critical acclaim, underlining the growing international influence of UTV Motion Pictures as perhaps the most creatively important film studio in Bollywood today.
21 June 2008
Robert Altman’s greatest contribution to the genre came with his 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs Miller, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. This is one of the great Revisionist westerns and Altman could only have made this marvellous film if he had a thorough and knowledgeable understanding of the kinds of representations and ideological themes that have been repeated throughout such diverse genre. This is exactly what Altman seems to attack, traditional and orthodox audience expectations and assumptions that we as an audience bring to such a deeply conventional genre like the western. However, Altman could never have been able to radically depart from the conventions of the western if the genre had not reached a point where it did require some degree of inspired reinvention.
Notoriously difficult to work with, Warren Beatty’s legendary on set conflicts with many of the Hollywood mavericks like Altman have been well documented, and McCabe and Mrs Miller was another production in which Beatty famously clashed with the director. Altman and Beatty’s so called creative differences is touched upon briefly by Peter Biskind in his recent expose of 70s cinema, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Though such a tension existed, it did little to stop two of the most creative artists in Hollywood from making one of the great westerns of the modern era. By the time Beatty worked with Altman, he had already collaborated with many of the best directors working in the mainstream of Hollywood; Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn and Elia Kazan. Not only was Altman a deeply independent film maker, he was equally dictatorial in how he went about exacting total control over the production of his films. Of course, such a statement was equally applicable to the control and perfectionism Beatty wielded as a powerful star turned film producer.
The film itself is highly unusual in how it represents the male protagonist. Of all the genres, the western is still defined by how it represents male identity, and up until the end of the 60s, the genre continued to present a vision of masculinity that was linked to violence and sexuality. No such stereotype exists in Altman’s vision of the west as he chooses to represent the character of John McCabe as a capitalist entrepreneur who is a liar, an atheist, a coward and somebody preoccupied with exploitation. Unlike traditional western protagonists, McCabe seems only interested in sex if it benefits him financially. Such an impulse never existed before especially in the brutally conservative and patriarchal attitudes espoused by the figure of John Wayne.
McCabe makes a name for himself in a small mining town when with the support of Mrs Miller (Julie Christie), he establishes a brothel (whore house) that becomes a financial goldmine, elevating him to a economically wealthy position. McCabe’s upward economic mobility brings him and his desires for expansion attention in the form of the local mining corporation. When McCabe rejects the mining corporation’s initial proposition to buy him out, outlaws are hired and dispatched to the town to kill McCabe.
Ideologically, Altman uses the framework of the western to provide a critique on modern day capitalism and offer a cynical account of corporate power that was plaguing American society at the time. That is what makes this film so fascinating in terms of genre because Altman uses the conventions merely as a vehicle to work out his own liberally inclined position on corporate power. McCabe’s brief encounter with what we assume is the only lawyer working in the town hints at the ideological conflict between the small business man and the rise of corporate monopolies that was taking place for real within American society.
The killers hired to protect and preserve the interests of the mining corporation finds intriguing parallels with the ideological backdrop of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, another film that has been seen as vehemently critical of corporate conspiracy and corruption. Though no such conspiracy exists in the town, the fact that McCabe is left to face his own doomed fate at the end of the film seems to accuse the people of the town as being somewhat complicit in the death of McCabe, but this also seems to suggest that the corporation’s intimidating methods of violence coerces the town to remain silently disengaged from interfering with the perpetuation of an unjust and unnatural corporate mentality.
What made many of the 70s Hollywood films so special and unique even today is the controlled and perfectly judged nature of the ending. The moment McCabe says no we know where this film is heading, but Altman does not just kill off the central character in a spectacular duel, he chooses to do so in a beautifully staged image of McCabe paralysed by the wintry landscape. It is a pitiful final image that is made altogether more sympathetic with the soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s melancholic lament. This is one of Beatty’s finest performances and perhaps also Altman’s greatest 1970s film he made in Hollywood for a major studio.
17 June 2008
(Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2007)
This is one of the few intimate epics that have come out of the new Bollywood cinema in the last ten years, and though the film’s running time comes in under two hours, director-producer, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ode to the faded romanticism of Indian medieval culture is beautifully captured in the heartfelt story of an aging, loyal guard played with a confident assurance by Ambitabh Bachchan. AKS, Black, Sarkar and Nisabdh are just some of the post 2000 films that have been lucky enough to secure the presence of Bachchan Sr., providing him with the opportunity to explore a moral uncertainty that went largely unchecked in mediocre films like Aditya Chopra’s bombastic and forgettable Mohabbatein. Alongside a magnificent performance, this is also intelligent cinema with Chopra showing a real eye for both the epic nature of an enclosed narrative and the emotionally entangled relationship between a troubled father and his estranged son. Vidhu Vinod Chopra continues to improve with each film he makes and he has still yet to do much of his best work, but for the time being Eklavya reveals a film maker who understands the need for a balance between populist cinema and authorial expression.
12. RANG DE BASANTI / PAINT IT YELLOW
(Dir. Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, 2006)
Revolution, youth, apathy and Indian history; at first glance such radical sentiments and socialist ideals are not traditionally associated with a major Bollywood film star unless that star is Aamir Khan of course, the same Aamir Khan who had been a romantic pin up during the 80s and 90s, and who had post Lagaan transformed his star image from the adolescent romantic lead to a producer of politically engaged films about India’s relationship with the British empire. Rang De Basanti concerns itself with the political disengagement of the youth from the political system and how an insight into the revolutionary dissent initiated by figures like Bhagat Singh inspires similar feelings of wanting to change the status quo. Youth activism has never been a popular theme within the mainstream of Indian cinema and the pessimistic and defeatist ending did not prevent Rang De Basanti from becoming one of the biggest films of 2006. The juxtaposition of freedom fighters from the past inter cut with contemporary acts of dissent aimed directly at the Indian government works brilliantly to suggest that any change within society carries with it a certain price, and that sacrifice is a concept that has almost disappeared from the middle class youth of India today.
13. AB TAK CHHAPAAN / 56 SO FAR
(Dir. Shimit Amin, 2004)
Shimit Amin has most recently been winning great acclaim for his collaboration with Shah Rukh Khan on Chak De India, a film that he was hired to direct for the Yash Raj factory after the success of the 2004 crime film, Ab Taak Chhappan, starring Nana Patekar and produced by gangster genre master, Ram Gopal Varma. The film is about a corrupt cop played by Nana Patekar who has made a fiercely notorious reputation for killing criminals in sting operations, all at the behest of an underworld gangster who lives a life of isolation. When Sadhu Agashe’s (Nana Patekar) wife is killed at a wedding ceremony, he becomes a softly spoken force of vengeance, utilising what contacts he has left, Agashe finally confronts the underworld don who he feels was behind the assassination of his wife. Not only is this film brilliantly directed by Shimit Amin, it also features a powerhouse performance by the formidable and multi talented Nana Patekar who is probably one of the few actors working today who have an extraordinary range in how a line of dialogue is delivered. A deeply intense actor, only somebody like Nana Patekar would have been able to make us empathise with such a rotten and cruel cop as Agashe who even though achieves some kind of restrained redemption by the end, is nevertheless a violent enemy of society who cares little for the preservation of law and order. This is one of the finest crime films to have come out of the mainstream of Indian cinema.
14. BANDIT QUEEN
(Dir. Shekhar Kapur, 1994)
Having made a name for himself directing major Hollywood box office draws like Anil Kapoor in hits such as Mr India, Shekhar Kapur shift away from commercial cinema and his eventual move into Hollywood feature film making was made altogether more acceptable after his first independently produced film, Bandit Queen, achieved widespread notoriety for it’s controversial depiction of Phoolan Devi. Based on a true story, Devi was a notorious female outlaw who endured years of patriarchal abuse in the form of physical and sexual violence that resulted in her being gang raped. In one of the film’s most brutal moments, Pholaan Devi, an outlaw with a revolutionary agenda, returns to the village where she was gang raped. Now a leader of a gang herself, Devi orders her men to shoot all of those involved with her violation, and they do so with an impunity that is frighteningly captured in an outright massacre. This film truthfully deals with the male dominated inequalities of a caste system that discriminated against the rights of women and offers a damning insight into how feudalism was a fundamental means of enforcing social control. When Devi finally surrenders to the Indian government, she is greeted by a crowd of predominately low caste people who have found inspiration in her violent reprisals – too the people she becomes an iconic symbol of social injustice. Having made films like Elizabeth and The Four Feathers, this is still Shekhar Kapur’s best film to date, simply because what is said is the undeniable social truth concerning the gender inequality that exists within India. Bandit Queen also features a worthy musical contribution from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and a towering performance from Seema Biswas.
15. BLACK FRIDAY
(Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2004)
Kashyap made his name writing scripts for vehicles directed and produced by Ram Gopal Varma, and his output as a scriptwriter is both highly intelligent and commercially successful. Satya, Shool and Yuva are just some of the diverse and challenging films for which Kashyap has been the writer, and is plainly obvious that he has shown a consistent interest in contemporary themes and issues plaguing Indian society today, namely crime, violence and contemporary politics. Though Kashyap debuted in 2003 with his instantly forgettable film, Paanch, it wasn’t until the release of his 2nd feature in 2006, Black Friday, did he make an impact as a talented new director with a great eye for visually stylish mise en scene and slick cinematography. Black Friday’s release was delayed for over two years because of complicated legal reasons and when the film opened it was received with great acclaim for it’s powerful and authentic depiction of the events, approaching a deeply sensitive subject from an alternative perspective that was both risky and controversial. Based on the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, which were carried out in retaliation to the
16. SWADES / HOMELAND
(Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2005)
It is still hard to believe that Shah Rukh Khan’s most formidable performance and arguably his greatest film to date was not only trashed by the critics but was a failure at the box office. Today, anything that the King Khan touches turns to gold, and his careful selection of films means that he has not had a flop since Swades, which suddenly feels like a long time ago. However entertaining Om Shanti Om maybe as a musical spectacle and Don as a radically post modern updating, nothing in the oeuvre of Shah Rukh Khan quite compares to the understated brilliance and magic of Swades. Building on the international success of Lagaan, Gowariker brings the same socialist agenda to the story of a middle class Indian working abroad in
17. PARINDA / THE BIRD
(Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989)
Many critics and film maker’s continue to regard Parinda as one of the key crime and gangster films, and it is a film that signaled a real turning point in contemporary mainstream cinema. Effectively a swan song to the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai, this is still one of the great city films, and is a film in which the city landscape becomes a theme, a character and a signature of authenticity. Parinda brought together a talented and popular ensemble cast comprising of Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit, Anupam Kher and Nana Patekar. A tragic story of two brothers in which the oldest brother is indebted to a local big time gangster (played menacingly by Nana Patekar), Parinda was typically melodramatic in how it used the elements of the masala film but what makes this such a radical departure from the genre is Chopra’s definitive and powerful use of locations. Great music, inventive editing and the allure of Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff in the same movie together meant this was one of the biggest successes of 80s.
18. YUVA / YOUTH
(Dir. Mani Ratnam, 2004)Mani Ratnam has never made a bad film, full stop, exclamation mark. His body of work consists of a diverse and outstanding collection of deeply intellectual but populist films, and his collaboration with Anurag Khasyap on Yuva in 2004 was another attempt to engage with a contemporary political issue, that of the youth. Yuva performed disappointingly at the box office and one of the reasons for it’s failure was the convoluted multi narrative strands Ratnam uses to tell a story about how people’s lives, even though they don’t realise it, are in some way deeply connected to one another. I guess the recent
(Dir. Bimal Roy, 1963)
Nutan gives one of the great female screen performances in Bimal Roy’s masterful prison movie that he made in 1963, bringing an end to a career that was influenced greatly by the neo realist movement in
20. PAKEEZAH / PURE OF HEART
(Dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1973)
The Guardian and British film critic, Derek Malcom, refers to Pakeezah as one of the most erotic movies ever made especially in how Amrohi choreographs the dance sequences, placing a particular camera emphasis on the naked feet of the female protagonist, objecting and sexualising the body so that it takes an added mystical dimension that leaves an unforgettable impression on the spectator. Derek Malcolm is quite right in underlining the eroticism of Pakeezah because this is a film which is all about the figure of the Courtesan who must dance to keep alive her position within society and to become somebody who desires to cut across the social barriers that exists between the courtesan and spectator. It took Kamal Amrohi nearly a decade to complete this film because the main star, Mena Kumari, was not only famously difficult to direct but was also a long time suffering alcoholic which played havoc with her ability to complete film projects. Pakeezah has one of the most imaginative and dense openings I have ever come across for a mainstream Indian film; the creative use of cinemascope, the cryptic voice over and unforgettable music elevates the opening of Pakeezah to a position of enigmatic brilliance. This is perhaps one of the defintive Bollywood statements on the figure of the prostitute within contemporary society and like Bandini and Mother India shares with it a common attraction towards feminist ideology that seems to have more or less vanished from Indian cinema today.
14 June 2008
The film's stereotypical representation of
Karloff like Lugosi in The Raven approaches the role of John Gray with a certain degree of playfulness, and the fun he has with such a despicable and amoral character who at heart is a true capitalist, profiting from the misfortune of others, comes through in the horror repertoire of malevolent facial distortions and menacing eye movements that had become iconic representations of Karloff as a studio star.
Gray has been in the services of McFarlane for a long time and his aspirations of excelling in the field of anatomy is curtailed by Gray’s existence, a casual reminder of the macabre extremes to which McFarlane has been prepared to go in the past so that he can pursue his own fascinations with the dead. Both Gray and McFarlane are men who have been pushed to the margins of a society that prides itself on reputation, but McFarlane’s attempts to distance and isolate himself from the estranged figure of Gray ends in tragedy and ultimately murder.
The fact that Gray is a working class character means that for McFarlane it becomes acceptable to take his life as it is as worthless as the lives of the dead people he operates on for his studies. The Body Snatcher was one of many low budget horror and noir films directed by Robert Wise in the 40s and 50s before he would go on to transform himself into an internationally bankable film maker with hits like The Sound of Music and West Side Story. However, it is the minor films that seemed to confirm his talent and capture his economical skills as a film maker.
12 June 2008
Beginning with ‘Eternal Sunshine in a Spotless Mind’, each of Gondry’s films are uniquely imaginative and his latest feature, Be Kind Rewind, is a nostalgic trip back to kitsch cinema of the 80s, paying tribute to films like Ghostbusters and Robocop without being too complementary. Mos Def plays Mike, a dimwitted Video store clerk who works at a faded old video store that is owned by the aging but respected figure of Mr Fletcher (played exceptionally well by Danny Glover). When the store is threatened with closure as the building in which the store is located is due for demolition so it can make way for a new set of swanky apartments, a resilient old Mr Fletcher is determined to reinvent the lacklustre commercial revenues of his store by making a speedy transition into DVD. The situation is made much worse when Jerry (Jack Black) accidentally magnetises the entire video store, erasing all the films, and forcing Mike and Jerry to become experts in guerrilla film making by shooting their own ‘sweded’ versions of Hollywood classics like Driving Miss Daisy, 2001, and Rush Hour 2?
The plot of a community store threatened with destruction is nothing new and finds a sympathetic parallel with the mushy narratives of Frank Capra, and at times, the film does feel like a throwback to the films of Capra especially in the sentimental representation of the community. What prevents this film from becoming just another ordinary, conventional comedy directed by a more than competent director is the final sequence. Having come together as a collective group of local artists, Mike and Jerry organise and help a disillusioned Mr Fletcher make a documentary film about the life of Fats Waller, a famous Jazz musician.
The power of community action is illustrated comically through the haphazard but sincere intentions of everyone involved, and the collective spirit of creative invention is something that Gondry seems to uphold as a significant part of cinema today. When the final film is screened before the community in the video store, without them knowing so, the film is reflected onto the window outside, bringing people into the streets so they can watch this silent spectacle.
What Gondry seems to capture so magically in this sequence is the power of cinema, past and present, underlining how film can still provoke a collective, public emotional response today within even the most apathetic of audiences, and that though it can offer escapism as an opium for the masses, film can also be sentimentally truthful in revealing the disillusionment and despair that has slowly eaten away at communities by the forces of corporate annexation.
It is a perfectly judged moment in the film, and seems to suggest that art cannot live without people just as people cannot live without art.
7 June 2008
Last year, the Indian domestic Top 10 film box office chart was dominated by indigenous film talent, and the only
The brilliance of Sarkar Raj certainly confirms the importance of Ram Gopal Varma as a key figure within mainstream Indian cinema, but he is a film maker who has been unfairly and grotesquely dismissed by contemporary film criticism ever since he came to prominence with his breakthrough feature, Rangeela (1995), an enjoyably entertaining critique of both the film industry and petty small time criminals. Unlike Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra, Ram Gopal Varma has been treated by many as somewhat of an outsider and a marginal figure within the wider industry but such a problematic critical position seems to undermine his remarkable contribution to Indian cinema today especially with the exciting, bold and daring approach he has brought to the crime/gangster genre.
Why Varma’s contribution to Indian cinema has not been acknowledged by a widespread consensus of critics is mystifying when you consider he has singularly kept alive the gangster genre and is also largely responsible for reinventing the cinematic language of the contemporary crime thriller so it is palatable for today’s disenchanted youth driven markets. His exploration of the underworld in his loose trilogy of powerful crime films; Satya (1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005) are not only beautifully executed illustrations of genre innovation but should be considered some of the best cinema to come out of the industry in the last ten years.
His unofficial Mumbai underworld trilogy uncharacteristically sympathises with unscrupulous and heinous criminals that are not only romanticised but represented as flawed anti heroes who seem almost righteous in their criminal intentions. Almost all of his studies of crime find some connection to contemporary social reality, and this is where the authenticity of the politics of his films become genuinely convincing and dangerously controversial.
His 1999 crime film, Company is supposed to be based on the real life exploits of the Indian mafia organisation, D-Company, which was run by the notorious Indian gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, who had direct links to the Bollywood film industry. Not so much a traditional rise and fall gangster narrative, Company focuses on the self destructive male relationship between a ruthless, charismatic gangster Malik (played by Ajay Devgan in his best performance to date) and a young outsider and novice to the underworld, Chandu (played with real energy by Vivek Oberoi in his debut role). Company is considered by some to be Ram Gopal Varma's best film, and such a statement may hold some weight as Company is characterised by a perfect summation of key authorial themes like the underworld, power and violence which reoccur throughout much of his films.
So I think it is safe to conclude that there is no doubt that Varma is by far the most exciting, dynamic and versatile film maker working in Indian cinema today, and his understanding of genre film making has benefited him greatly with his own successful production company, (K Sera Sera) that he quickly helped to establish after the critical success of Satya. Venturing into different genres he has become a formidable producer, having made a number of critically acclaimed films like My Wife's Murder, D Company and Ab Tak Chapaan. What has become apparent over the last few years is that Ram Gopal Varma's future seems to clearly lie within supporting and producing edgy, dark and risky mainstream Bollywood film projects which do not see commercialism as a priority or as a measure of success. This is unusual in an industry that has become self obsessed with mediocrity.
Ram Gopal Varma’s latest film, Sarkar Raj, deserves to find a mainstream audience, and it deserves to be a commercial success because it would be a real confirmation of Verma’s viability as a film maker. Interestingly, the film has been reviewed by the mainstream British press who have given the film an uneven set of reviews – this is unusual because not many Indian films are shown to the Western press before they are released in cinemas. Much of the criticism of the film has been misconstrued, unnecessarily focusing on the stylised nature of the film. The problem with such a critical position regarding the aesthetics of the film is that not many of the critics seem to situate the film in the oeuvre of Ram Gopal Varma’s body of work, nor do they acknowledge his status as an auteur, which suggests a general misunderstanding about the different contexts that have shaped his latest film. This is not surprising considering the bias that exists towards
Sarkar Raj has been referred to as a sequel by the critics but this has been refuted by those involved in the production of this film, which is a fair rebuke, as the film is not so much a sequel but more of a continuation of a similar theme – that of power and it’s beguiling nature. The political firestorm that is generated by the proposition of a new power plant to be built in Marahastra that will see the displacement of 40,000 people leads to the vilification of both Shankar and Subhash Nagre. Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) feels that the establishment of the power plant will be a progressive step forward for a region in need of inspiration and future prosperity. Though Subhash sympathises greatly with his son’s idealism, both of them overlook the oppositional challenges posed by Sanjay Somji, the Grandson of the benign man of the people, the ageing village patriarch who goes by the name of Rao Saab. Dissent in the form of violent attacks against the men of Shankar Nagre quickly spirals into a tale about political corruption and the abuse of personal power.
Abhishek Bachchan does his best work as a performer when he takes on challenging roles and portrays characters who are morally ambiguous. Both Guru (2007) and Sarkar (2004) do prove that if Abhishek remains committed to intense and complex character studies he is likely to evolve into a brilliant actor. Up against his father, still arguably the best mainstream Indian actor working today, he acquits himself confidently as the idealistic and determined Shankar, a son who has inherited a legacy of patriarchal responsibility that becomes a privilege than a burden.
Varma’s male protagonists tend to steer close to becoming monsters, but they are very much products of the social fabric, and Sarkar is a contemporary anti hero who seduces us with his charismatic style and interconnectedness with the down to earth values of the working class. Sarkar Raj is a testament to the magnificence of Amitabh Bachchan who as Subhash Nagre in the last 30 minutes of the film undergoes a radical transformation, morphing into a menacing figure of hate, becoming a force of absolute vengeance and destruction, turning in one of his nastiest and most devastating works for a long time. Sarkar Raj truly is a film about power, the power of performance.
3 June 2008
Climates, the title of the 4th film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a melancholic one as it seems to suggest that relationships are as temperamental as the weather, and that emotions shift with the climate. Such an explanation may seem superficial but the final sequences in the snow capped landscapes attempt to make a visual connection between the characters as if to imply that the choices we make depend greatly on not only instinct, but in this case, mood.
To want somebody and need somebody are two very different things in a relationship and Ceylan’s film explores how men in particular seem to want both things when in essence a woman would rather have the man make a choice and emotionally commit to the sexually and emotionally limiting puritanical prospect of monogamy. Such a perspective seems to hold a degree of moral currency within mainstream conservative society but this relevance is what Ceylan questions throughout a film that suggests liberal sexual politics is deeply convenient but at the same time breeds loneliness.
Climates is not solely about gender relations but also investigates a familiar and common thematic motif that greatly concerns Ceylan as an auteur, that of loneliness. Both Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) are lonely people who do not merely want to be in a relationship because of the pressures to conform but are also duly absent from the thoughts of emotional co existence.
The first half of the film situates a modern professional middle class couple on holiday in the Turkish resort of Kas. The selfish and obstinate Isa is a University professor completing his PhD and finding it difficult simply communicating with Bahar (played by Ceylan’s real life wife) who is an art director working on trashy TV dramas. The film opens with a close up of Bahar gazing off screen lost in contemplation – this is the first of many awkward glances and silences exchanged between people who rarely acknowledge each other’s presence. Communication seems to be a burden rather than a natural process.
The thematic motif of gazing is deeply reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni who manipulates the clinical framing and composition to expose an uneasy tension between individuals and architecture, foregrounding alienation as a secondary thematic concern. Ceylan shows the gradual estrangement from one another and eventual break up which occurs after a moment of unexpected anger that nearly leads to a fatal accident.
Climate’s is also a film about the study of landscapes. Ceylan is a notable photographer and his eye for shooting landscapes is both poetic and stunningly rendered in the luminous HD cinematography. Another familiar cinematic technique representative of some of the greatest film makers working today is that of the long take. Though this has traditionally been associated with realism, Ceylan uses it to capture the boredom that marks the relationship between Isa and Bahar, and to extenuate natural diegetic sounds that serve as aural anchors for an emotional discontinuity.Ceylan’s new film recently premiered at the