29 December 2011

END OF YEAR FILM LIST 2011

Having failed to publish a list of favourite films for 2010, I thought it best to try and come up with a list for 2011. From the lists and canons I have seen thus far it is pretty clear that the front runners are The Tree of Life, The Artist and A Separation. The Artist has yet to be released in the UK but it already seems like a strong bet for the Golden Globes and perhaps even the Oscars. As for Malick's much praised The Tree of Life, my initial reaction was a little underwhelming and the more I think about the film, the more convinced I am that I need to revisit the film and perhaps re-evaluate my judgement. It has been a particularly strong year for British cinema and I am a little miffed by the low key critical reaction from American critics and reviewers to Lynne Ramsay's latest film. Additionally, I am also perturbed by the absence of Indian films from my many of the lists I have come across. Surely you can't write off one of the biggest film industries in the world? In my personal opinion, the Indian film Dhobi Ghat was just as impressive as the Iranian melodrama A Separation or the Dardennes The Kid with a Bike. If this is the case, then why is Indian cinema so under represented in so much of the critical discourse that emerges at the end of each year on film?

The top 10 films of the year

1
The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Mark Cousins, UK

2
The Kid with a Bike
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy

3
Dhobi Ghat
Kiran Rao, India


4
A Separation
Asghar Farhadi, Iran

5
Essential Killing
Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary

6
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA

7
Dreileben: Part One - Beats Being Dead
Christian Petzold, Germany

8
Wuthering Heights
Andrea Arnold, UK

9
Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn, USA

10
Moneyball
Bennett Miller, USA

Honorable Mentions:

Neds
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Rango
Senna
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Shor in the City
Delhi Belly
Tree of Life
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Black Power Mixtape
Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster
Bobby Fischer Against the World
Attack the Block
Boardwalk Empire; Season 2 Finale
Woody Allen: A Documentary
Stanley Ka Dabba
Bol
Midnight in Paris

27 December 2011

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Dir. David Fincher, 2011, US) - Nordic Noir

Like with every David Fincher film, there is so much to say about the approach taken and also the wider context. Prolific is not a term used lightly when referencing the work of David Fincher. He is a director who works at a leisurely pace, picking and choosing film projects very carefully. This of course has been proven in the success he has enjoyed over the years. Unlike The Social Network which came as somewhat of a surprise when Fincher was announced as director, the same cannot be said of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s best selling crime novels titled the Millennium series have become some of the most widely read fiction. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo was the first in a series of books which have already been adapted for the screen by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev. The film was widely acclaimed as a successful adaptation of the novel and performed well at the box office. Larsson’s work has been pooled under a recent wave of Scandinavian crime fiction, television and cinema dubbed Nordic noir. It was inevitable that Hollywood would present their own adaptation and the dark themes at play in the story fit perfectly in the noirish oeuvre of Fincher. To be honest, I am not a fan of Hollywood setting out to remake films which have already been successful with critics and audiences alike. For many fans of the novel, this Hollywood version may seem like a pointless adaptation when the Swedish film is such a brilliantly directed thriller. However, I have not seen the original film and neither have I read any of the novels. So I approached this adaptation with a mind set unclouded by previous literary or cinematic experiences of the novel. Nonetheless, my interest was primarily with Fincher as a mainstream American auteur. The narrative is very complicated and tricky to explain without having to go into details about various plot points so I’m going to focus on thematic, technical and genre aspects which I found particularly interesting.

Before I move on, I will say that the narrative is strongly reminiscent of classic film noirs and uses the classic binary oppositional conflict between the past vs. present, the old vs. the new and faith vs. modernity. Thematically, and given Larsson’s experience as a journalist, the film in many ways offers Fincher with one of his most ideologically complex narratives involving sexual violence towards women, the perversion of the extended family, the corrupt ruling elite, history and ancestry, patriarchy, and sadism. We could label such themes as epic and universal, especially in European society, as they trace a lineage through the Nazis and World War II to the accumulation of wealth by an elite set of industrialist families. It is a fatalistic and doomed ancestry, which passes down power, only to be faced with a generation of children who are desperate to escape the tyranny of their past crimes. If the past is something many of the younger generation wish to mask then a futurist like Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is on a mission to uncover the past and hold it up to the present. Lisbeth is a modern day equivalent of a private investigator but she is someone who uses technology as a means of uncovering the truth. It is an electronic truth which can easily be erased with the touch of a button or fabricated to manifest a specific ideological agenda. Lisbeth’s morally dubious computer hacking restates her marginal position in wider society – she is a loner seeking a sense of belonging but also desperate for a human connection that would in a strange sort of way abolish her potency as a feminist icon. In many ways, Lisbeth is transformed into a guardian and protector and it is her distinctive Goth identity that pushes her character into the sphere of comic book anti-heroes who punish the male transgressors that she comes across in society.

Thematically, what also links the past to the present is that the sexual violence towards women is both continuous and brutal. The rape of Lisbeth by Nils Bjurman, a monstrous lawyer, is depicted graphically and it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable (I guess that was the intention) but I would still argue that it might have been much more powerful to have simply cut away, not because such sexual violence should not be represented in a film, but because depicting violence in such graphic details can be seen as exploitative and an easy way of manipulating audience emotions. However, I think this is a film that could have easily trimmed away such darker elements in order to maximise its commercial appeal but those involved in this project were brave enough to remain faithful to the original source material. Nevertheless, Lisbeth’s rape is not filmed in an exploitative or sensationalist way because her character has a voice and a vengeful response that controls the narrative. Her violent retribution may show her transgressing the social order but the fact that most of the men in the film are shown to be exploiting women for their own needs makes her position dubiously justifiable and sympathetic. Lisbeth’s position of self defence echoes the past, merging with the actions of Harriet – both Lisbeth and Harriet are victims of a twisted and corrupt patriarchy that seems perpetual.

If Lisbeth fits the persona of the angry young woman then journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) seems more like a traditional opportunistic middle class alpha male. Although Blomkvist hires Lisbeth to aid his investigation into the disappearance of a young girl and grisly murders committed in the past, he does purely as a means of also reeking revenge on powerful businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. In many ways, Blomkvist takes on the job of writing Henrik Vanger’s (Christopher Plummer) memoirs so he can seek redemption for his failed investigation into Wennerstrom’s corrupt dealings. Blomkvist may appear to be a noble knight with a love for old journalistic values of transparency and the truth but fundamentally he is working to restore his male pride. In the final moments of the film, Lisbeth’s judgement equates Blomkvist with the laws of patriarchy – he may have appeared to be different than rest of the men in Lisbeth’s life but his gaze is singular, linear and predictably safe. What separates Lisbeth from Blomkvist is her fearlessness – death does not come into her life equation but it does for Blomkvist who does fear his own mortality.

Blomkvist’s investigation into the Vanger dynasty uncovers a narrative that stretches back to the 1940s and an involvement with fascism. The Vanger family and its anti Semitic sentiments that it still harbours does come to the surface on many occasions, underlining a nasty relationship between industrial wealth and right wing politics which says that ancestral power is forged on a culture of xenophobia. This may seem like a familiar theme today – equating the power of the ruling elite with racial prejudices but it works frightening well in offering a portrait of family that is decadent. However, this is a family that lives on an island owned by them. The island as a private community, separate from normal mainstream society, not only becomes a metaphor for their relative immunity but constructs an image of the ruling elite who are above the law and cannot be prosecuted for their crimes. Similarly like the gated island for the elite, the glass house in which Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) resides is another key visual motif used to brilliant effect by Fincher in the final sequences. Vanger’s domain, looking over the town, is a glass house and the wide glass panels that give the house its postmodern look point to a transparency which is nothing but a grand illusion – the truth is that beneath the veneer of transparency is a lie of quite literally torturous dimensions. Such political and economic immunity makes Lisbeth’s violent retribution at the end even more class based in its punitive response. Nevertheless, as we are in the universe of film noir, not even someone as powerful as Martin Vanger can escape his wretched past. It is the past, in the lexicon of noir, which eventually catches up with those who try to hide their crimes. And it is the puzzle of the crime that intrigues Fincher the most.

If Zodiac was a police procedural obsessed with putting together all the intricate pieces like an extended jigsaw puzzle then the same principles of micro investigation can be applied to the gradually unfolding narrative of Fincher’s latest film. In genre terms, the noir accents are readily identifiable but if the convention of the femme fatale is central to the iconographic discourse of film noir then the likely suspect may well be Lisbeth Salander. However, if we judge the femme fatale on qualities to do with her sexuality, power and manipulation of men then it makes Lisbeth increasingly unlikely as the femme fatale. Since the 1940s, the femme fatale has changed radically over the years into a much more complicated and morally ambiguous figure. In one way, Lisbeth could be a new kind of femme fatale, one who depends and relies on technology as a tool to exact her revenge. Such a claim is supported when Lisbeth records her rape using a micro fibre camera and then plays it back to the rapist. What separates Lisbeth from the traditional femme fatale archetype is that her sexuality is never overtly manifested. Given the film noir context, perhaps then Lisbeth is a new age femme fatale who is more cyber punk than retro chic. Of course, if we interpret the femme fatale archetype alternatively and reverse gender assumptions then maybe Martin Vanger might fit the mould particularly if we consider the way he uses power to manipulate those around him. It would be wrong to be right off Vanger simply as the bogeyman. For me, another significant convention of a traditional film noir is that central characters tend to be doomed from the outset, usually resulting in their death by the end of the film. In a way, I had expected Blomkvist to die, but both the hero and the heroine live to see another day. What is resolved is the murder mystery enigma of the narrative and in that respect, the ending ends tentatively rather than fatalistically. Absent then is the classical noir finale.



Resolving the murder mystery, the film seems to offer us yet more endings and this is where I felt the film seemed to falter. In the epilogue, Lisbeth is transformed into a Carlos the Jackal like figure, impersonating and emptying bank accounts. Lisbeth gives Blomkvist his muted victory against Wennerstrom but this sudden transformation is way too implausible and outlandish for me to take it seriously. Additionally, and I’m not sure if it is deliberate (maybe it is a sly postmodern reference) but Lisbeth’s blonde look at the end of the film recalls with uncanny precision none other than Lady Gaga; another gender outsider. On the most basic level, this is a superior thriller and its brilliance in terms of constructing a compelling narrative is through the way old and new media merge together to re-present a new truth and a new reality with far reaching consequences. This is a film, like many great thrillers, especially ones by Hitchcock teaches us to look, to gaze at the evidence presented before us and participate in a narrative of disclosure. Technically, Fincher is the best film maker working in American mainstream cinema today. I always pair him with Michael Mann, another visual stylist but Fincher for me has shown a greater consistency than Mann. Much of the production team from The Social Network also worked on this project and cinematography, sound design, editing and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are top notch. The digital cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, who narrowly missed out on Oscar night to Will Pfister for Inception, is the son of Jordan Cronenweth who shot influential films such as Blade Runner. The film’s visual look is a familiar when one glances over recent Fincher films. Shot using the Digital Red ‘One’ and new ‘Epic’ Cameras, the wintry backdrop and predominant use of greys gives the film a striking austere and muted look that fits perfectly with the twisted sensibilities of the narrative. The innovative opening titles is a work of art in itself, juxtaposing abstract images from the film to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ – this extends a familiar Fincher preoccupation with using the titles as part of the narrative storytelling. This is a rich, compelling and at times sophisticated noir that understands the complexities of narrative and genre storytelling. It is also a film by David Fincher.

23 December 2011

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES PROLOGUE (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012, US)

The final chapter in the Batman saga/franchise will be released in the summer of 2012. The marketing campaign has already gone into fifth gear and as part of a similar strategy to the second film, Warner Bros have attached six minutes of the film to play before the new Mission Impossible film in the IMAX format. The Dark Knight Rises Prologue looks impressive as Nolan knows the potential of IMAX but as a sequence, it was fairly unoriginal and a little confusing. I'm not going to give any spoilers but the major problem with this prologue is the garbled dialogue uttered by the character of Bane (Tom Hardy) which I can confirm is incoherent. Apparently, fans of the film have responded vitriolically on the Internet and from some of the articles I have read, Nolan already seems resistant to change or fix Bane's incoherent dialogue. Could this be a case of early hype, bad sound recording or directorial indecision? In fact, it might be all three. Warner Bros have done a seriously crap job of keeping the photographers away from the sets of the film and many spoilers have already leaked across the vast fan base. I'm not sure if this has been intentional on part of the studio but it is having a negative effect with many fans passing judgement on the film before its release next year. I'm not a huge fan of the comic book film genre but Batman has always intrigued me as an anti-hero and Nolan understands the complexity of the character more than his predecessors. However, few directors have been able to make three consecutive films in a blockbuster franchise that have been commercially successful and critically acclaimed. It seems as if Nolan has an impossible task on his hands.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL (Dir. Brad Bird, 2011, US)

The Bourne films helped to change the perceptions of the spy film by complicating the ideological backdrop from the imaginary to real world politics. Additionally, Greengrass in particular brought a documentary style to the Bourne films and fundamentally rubbished the outlandish echelons of the espionage genre. Jason Bourne may have been an antique of the cold war but the events of September 11 certainly reinvigorated the genre and signalled a re interest in the workings of government institutions like the FBI, CIA and black operations. Both James Bond and the Mission Impossible franchise have desperately been playing catch up to the realistic precedents set by the Bourne films. Although the Bond franchise has been most commercially successful at responding to the new permutations in the spy film, the character of Bond stills looks cartoonish when compared to Jason Bourne’s ideological sensibilities. Mission Impossible has spawned a series of popular films to date and the franchise takes its direction from Tom Cruise. The latest instalment in the Mission films is titled ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’. In an attempt to suggest to audiences that this film is a re-boot rather than a continuation of the earlier films, the number four is deliberately absent from the title. A film franchise is usually made up of a series of films that pool together the same cast and crew. Most Hollywood film franchises are studio based and Mission Impossible is no different. A key property of Paramount, the Mission Impossible films like most franchises has over the years cultivated a formula for success at the box office. The implications of a franchise is that for a film maker they can be creatively restrictive and the expectation to live up to the formula becomes somewhat of a necessity given the sizable budget involved. Key to the longevity and appeal of the Mission films has been the constant star presence of Tom Cruise. In many ways, most of the major top earning film stars have all found time to lay claim to a franchise and the Mission films have certainly helped to maintain the box office of Tom Cruise. One of the criticisms regularly made with Tom Cruise is that his presence in a mainstream studio film usually turns it into a vanity project. This is probably true of a lot films with big stars, not just Tom Cruise film projects. If film stars have lost their relevance over the years and the concept has taken over then a franchise like Mission Impossible suggests that star power can still be central to the way in which a film is created and then marketed.

Tom Cruise is arguably the key ingredient to the success of these films and whether or not his creative presence has affected the shape of the films, what is conclusive is that with Ghost Protocol, he restates his claim to the franchise that has kept him in going him internationally. This fourth film in the franchise comes off quite well when measured up against the previous entries. Ghost Protocol is a late summer blockbuster but its appearance in the winter release schedule points to the declining box office of Tom Cruise. The previous film Mission Impossible 3 saw the involvement of producer J. J. Abrams who injected a much-needed realism into the politics of espionage by creating a villainous turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman. The first film, directed by Brian De Palma, is considered by many to the best in the franchise, but I’m not so sure if it is a film that stands up today. The second film, directed by John Woo, underwent extensive reshoots and while it was commercially successful, the film was merely a stylistic exercise. Ghost Protocol might in fact be the most entertaining entry in the franchise and this is undoubtedly down to director Brad Bird’s involvement. Bird reinvents the franchise by returning to the cold war origins of the TV series and reclaiming the Russians as the nuclear obsessed villains. Narrative wise the Mission films are structured around the action set pieces and Ghost Protocol certainly delivers in terms of such a convention by maintaining a relentless pace throughout the first half. However, the final third is somewhat disappointing as the finale is played out in absurdly bond like fashion, tipping the film into postmodern clique. The real star of this film is the extended sequence in Dubai, which sees Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) climb the Burj skyscraper with delightfully vertiginous effects. Dubai has the potential of becoming a future film location for a lot of Hollywood blockbusters as it provides a tantalising cinematic landscape that looks great on the big screen. Ghost Protocol seems to be the first major Hollywood film to tap into such a potential and it does so with some real excitement and energy. Thirty minutes of the film was shot using IMAX cameras and I would second the argument that IMAX should be the future of spectacle-based cinema, not the headache inducing 3D bandwagon. Ghost Protocol is being touted as the comeback for Cruise at the box office and the film certainly demonstrates the notion that star power can still draw in audiences.

19 December 2011

MONEYBALL (Dir. Bennett Miller, 2011, US)

We are drawn to films for all kinds of reasons, be they personal, political or just genuine curiosity. Moneyball is a film set in the world of American baseball but what drew me to this film was the presence of Brad Pitt. Over the years, Pitt’s reputation as an actor has solidified and his name has become synonymous with quality American cinema. However, films like The Assassination of Jesse James, Babel, Tree of Life and Moneyball are neither mainstream nor art house but carve out a cinematic space in the middle. Moneyball does a similar thing. The film uses Brad Pitt’s star presence merely as an anchor for the wider commercial aspects but the style adopted by director Bennett Miller is altogether restrained and even theatrical. Although the camera does move, much of the action is dialogue based and many of the key sequences are shot using long takes, simple edits and a pared down approach to mise en scene construction. Scriptwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian repeat the trick of The Social Network by turning a potentially alienating aspect of popular culture (especially for the general spectator), and in this case an American tradition, into an emotionally involving character study about confidence, luck, stardom and most poignantly, personal failure.

Based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, the story revolves around general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who puts together a slate of baseball players based on statistical analysis. Actor Jonah Hill plays the economics graduate from Yale who becomes intrinsic to Beane’s gamble. This unorthodox method allows Beane to build up a team but on a budget several times lower than many of the top Baseball clubs. The method results in a record breaking twenty win running streak for the Oakland Athletics. Unfortunately the club comes undone at the last hurdle. The flashbacks in the film take us back to a time when Beane as a young teenager was discovered by Scouts and offered a major contract to play in the major leagues. However, Beane chooses baseball over a scholarship and fails to live up to his potential. It is this early personal failure that perpetually haunts Beane and when he decides to quit the game to become a scout, it sets him on the path to becoming a manager. The intrinsic connection between the past and present transforms Beane into somewhat of a noirish figure. He has never come to terms with the trauma of his past and the lack of self confidence that resulted in his departure from the game at a relatively early age impacts on the decisions he makes as a manager. By taking a statistical approach to sport, what Beane attempts to demonstrate is that confidence and winning are elements that can be manufactured, and are not inherently detectable in the personality of an individual. Beane’s calculated approach also proves another valid point in the world of sport, that spotting talent may be intuitive and the traditional means by which individuals are discovered, but if the risk of failure could be pre-determined then this would mean talent becomes somewhat irrelevant and it all becomes about the competency of a player in the context of the whole team. Beane discovers that personal failure is an aspect of the game which cannot be solved mathematically, that it is a real human emotion that must be confronted no matter how hard one tries to repress such failure as a romantic affliction.

What makes Moneyball even more unconventional as a sports film is the open ending. Goals are typically fulfilled at the end of a Hollywood narrative but given the fact Moneyball occupies the precious middle ground in American cinema, rejection of such rules or traditions becomes an expectation. Such an expectation is validated in the final moments, which sees Beane literally driving away from a potential new future as general manager of a major baseball club. In the previous sequence, Beane rejects an offer to manage the Red Sox because winning would mean a new set of expectations, a new philosophy and in a way, redemption. The painful reality is that Beane is not searching for redemption – his preference for a flawed past and wallowing in loss is what defines his very existence and to go against such a personal ideology would mean his destruction. In a tragic sort of way, the ritual of loss becomes the passion for Beane when in fact it should be the ultimate goal in his life. Moneyball makes for a riveting social drama and in my opinion is one of the best American films of the year.

18 December 2011

THE BLACK POWER MIXTAPE 1967 - 1975 (Dir. Göran Hugo Olsson, 2011, Sweden)

Olsson's documentary on the black power movement uses footage that was shot by Swedish film makers between 1967 and 1975 with new audio interviews from prominent Black artists including musicians and political leaders. Co-produced by Danny Glover, The Black Power Mixtape is not a polemic nor is is poetic in terms of the documentary medium, but what it does so effectively is make us think differently about a certain period of time. So, perhaps it is revisionist in one sense. The footage was discovered in a basement in Sweden where it had remained for over thirty years. Given the sophisticated approaches now evident in so many documentaries, this one keeps it simple by juxtaposing interviews from Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael to the contemporary reflective voices of figures including Talib Kweli, Errykah Badu, Robin Kelley who offer tangible proof of the inspiring legacy of the black power movement. The interviews themselves shot by Swedish film makers offer some of the most eloquent, articulate and revolutionary voices of that turbulent era. Perhaps most complex is that of Angela Davis who we hear commenting over her own interview. Ideologically, the chosen period of 1967 to 1975 concerns itself with an urgency in terms of black militancy that was shaping the attitudes of the black community in America. However, as the black panthers enter the political arena it is clear to see that the emphasis shifts radically. No longer does it become a struggle about black and white but transforms into an international Marxist class struggle between the oppressor and oppressed. In many ways, this is exactly what struck fear into the white establishment and J Edgar Hoover responded with the now famous reply that the black panthers program of offering breakfast to impoverished black kids in the community represented the biggest threat to capitalist hegemony. The black panthers ideology seemed to make sense though, suggesting that for revolution to take place, the mind and body must be healthy and be equipped to use intellectual violence as well as self defense as primary tools to take on the establishment and challenge the powers that be. This is a powerful and revelatory documentary that reaffirms the vitality of the critical discourse on the black power movement.

Here is the first part of an interview with Danny Glover:

17 December 2011

A SEPARATION / JODAEIYE NADER AZ SIMIN (Dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2011, Iran)

Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian melodrama is currently appearing in many critics’ top ten lists. The set up is domestic and middle class; an Iranian couple are separating and their eleven-year-old daughter is caught in the middle. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to go abroad with her daughter while Nader (Peyman Moaadi) is trying to come to terms with his father’s Alzheimer. When Nader employs a pregnant woman to look after his father, a moment of neglect results in a tragic situation for both parties. Although the subject of marriage provides the central narrative conflict, Farhadi takes his story into the realm of class politics and lifts the lid on the void between lower and middle class Iranians. I can see why the film appeals to so many western film critics because it deals with universal middle class anxieties including parental guilt, social apathy and perhaps most strikingly, marital discord. A Separation is an impressive work.

14 December 2011

SARAH PALIN: YOU BETCHA! Including Q & A with NICK BROOMFIELD (Dir. Nick Broomfield, 2011, UK/USA)

This Cornerhouse event in Manchester was a real delight and pleasure. After the screening, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield appeared on stage and offered a candid insight into the process of making this expose on Sarah Palin. After the interview, the floor was opened to questions from the audience and there were some really terrific questions especially the final one which focused on the relationship between Broomfield’s latest documentary and Tracking Down Maggie. This look at Sarah Palin signals Broomfield’s return to the documentary medium since his highly personal Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer in 2003. I was amazed that Broomfield only spent ten days on research before setting of to Alaska to begin filming. Given his influence in the evolution of the performative documentary mode, Broomfield’s approach bears strong parallels to Tracking Down Maggie in that Palin proves to be an allusive and resolutely inaccessible figure. Thematically, Broomfield’s interest is not really with Palin but with what she represents in terms of ideals, namely Evangelical Christianity and its hold on the Republican Tea party movement. Broomfield spent three months in Alaska, visiting Palin’s hometown and getting beneath the media construct by interviewing her so called enemies. In Tracking Down Maggie, Broomfield’s initial aim of securing an interview with Margaret Thatcher gradually transforms into an investigation about her son’s illegal activities. Although Broomfield tries his best to confront Palin he ultimately fails and this failure to fulfil the original aim of his documentary is painfully transparent. Morgan Spurlock, Louis Theroux and Michael Moore have all been influenced by Broomfield’s on screen presence and his interaction with his subject matter makes much of his work both highly subjective and interpretative. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is equally entertaining as the rest of Broomfield’s work and his recognisable charm and wit are evident throughout the narrative.

13 December 2011

NOTES ON DVD VIEWING 3

Yet again I am struggling to find the time to respond in length and detail on the films I am watching. As the year is drawing to a close, I thought it might be useful to offer another round up of recent films I have watched on DVD and Blu-ray. Last year I didn't get a chance to post an end of year list but I am hoping to make amends for that this time round, perhaps in the form of a video essay (if I get the time).

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2011, Spain/USA) - The opening montage brought back wonderful memories of Manhattan but it also swept me away as it plugged into my romantic affections and love of Paris. The montage of Paris is one of the best moments of 2011 and the film is one of Woody Allen’s finest in years, despite the fact that it is hopelessly romantic in every possible way about modern relationships. The secret to this film’s success belongs in director Woody Allen’s fondness for old Hollywood. It is also a very magical work that recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo.



THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Blu-ray) (Dir. Coens, 1998, USA/UK) - This never gets old. Repeat viewings recommended. Looks and sounds even better in Blu-ray, not that it really makes a difference to the brilliant comedic writing and performances on display. The dude abides.

LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2011, USA) - Apparently Martin Scorsese directed this documentary on George Harrison but I felt it missed the mark in many ways. Harrison was undoubtedly a key figure but I’m not so sure if I found his life that interesting. Using interviews and archive footage, Scorsese leaves no stone unturned but the narrative is somewhat overworked and too long. Unfortunately, the material needed some brutal editorial decisions and it is easy to see that Scorsese was carried away the passion he felt for Harrison and his music. Unlike the brilliant No Direction Home, which challenged many of my perceptions of Dylan, the same cannot be said for Living in the Material World, which left me unconverted by the end.

SUBMARINE (Dir. Richard Ayoade, 2010, UK/USA) - Both Submarine and This is England end with a sequence on the beach. Both films are also interested in youth identity and the coming of age narrative. Submarine takes an entirely different approach to Meadow’s film but it is wonderfully evocative in its homage to the tricks of the French nouvelle vague. Ayoade’s bittersweet love story makes him one to watch in terms of British cinema.

FALLING DOWN (Blu-ray) (Dir. Joel Schumacher, 1993, USA) - I revisited this one purely because it’s a film that has stuck out for me over the years. The theme of white middle class angst is not unfamiliar to American cinema and D-Fens, played by Michael Douglas, may recall Travis Bickle but he is a figure lurking in the midst of many western societies today. Key to the ideological fervour of Falling Down is the slogan ‘not economically viable’, which still makes it a prescient film given the recession today. Falling Down is an American film that has a rich subtext to its ideological agenda. In an interview that comes on the disc Douglas says that it would be impossible to get a studio to finance such a film today. He might have a point given the current apolitical state of American cinema.

COHEN & TATE (Dir. Eric Red, 1988, USA) - A violent, noir that works perfectly with the pairing of Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin. Written and directed by Eric Red who wrote the scripts to Blue Steel, The Hitcher and Near Dark. What makes this film of particular interest is the iconography of the road movie.



TROUBLE IN MIND (Dir. Alan Rudolph, 1985, USA) - A neo noir set in the future. Directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Kris Kristofferson, the narrative is conventional but the notable visual style makes this an idiosyncratic work. What kept my interest other than Kristofferson was ultimately the melancholic mood sustained throughout by the emphasis on classical noir themes like fate, death and the city.

BLACKTHORN (Dir. Mateo Gil, 2011, Spain/USA/Bolivia/France) - What if Butch Cassidy wasn’t killed and lived a reclusive second life in the mountains of Bolivia? Well, this is exactly what director Mateo Gil’s film Blackthorn proposes with the aging Butch, played magnificently by Sam Shepherd. Mateo Gil wrote the screenplays for Spanish films including Open Your Eyes and Tesis (both directed by Amenabar). Blackthorn is a confidently directed film and it works best as a character study of the aging outlaw. The western genre has always proven to be perfect for exploring the notion of growing old. What really caught my eye was the stunning cinematography – this gem of a western features some of the most beautiful imagery of the year.

SHAGHIRD / DISCIPLE (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2011, India) - A largely perfunctory crime thriller, Shaghird is salvaged by a surprisingly wry finale in which the cop, played by Nan Patekar, comes face to face with the elemental greed inherent within most people. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has the potential to emerge as one of Indian cinema’s most intelligent genre filmmakers.

THE OUTSIDERS (Dir. Coppola, 1983, USA) - Filmed with a wide-eyed affection for the classic teen rebellion films of the 1950s, Coppola’s adaptation of S. E. Hinton’s novel is very ordinary and somewhat underwhelming if one compares it to the masterful Rumble Fish. Although it is clear to see differences in tone and style between the two films, The Outsiders lacks a convincing emotional core.

BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD (Dir. Liz Garbus, 2011, USA) - One of the year’s best documentaries. Bobby Fischer was a genius, icon, anti-Semite and a troubled figure in the chess world. Utilising a tragic downward spiral for the narrative, the documentary humanises a seemingly impenetrable figure to the changing ideological backdrop of world politics. Additionally, producer-director Liz Garbus is one of documentaries unsung heroes.



THE LION KING (Blu-ray) (Dir. Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff, 1994, USA) - A re-working of Hamlet that saw Disney regaining its creative mojo, The Lion King is extraordinarily conservative and formulaic but its charm comes largely from its attempts to bring the epic genre to the animated form.

MY BROTHER'S WEDDING (Dir. Charles Burnett, 1983, USA) - Charles Burnett’s follow up to his masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977) is a funny and observational study of class in the milieu of the Los Angeles African American community. Thankfully Burnett’s work has been saved from the dustbin of American independent cinema and many of his films underline a distinctive social realist style that only a handful of black filmmakers can call their own. It is so tragic that Burnett was never allowed to work consistently as he was robbed of his potential.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Blu-ray) (Dir. Sergio Leone, 1968, USA/Italy) - ‘You brought two too many.’ – Harmonica (Charles Bronson)

BOL / SPEAK (Dir. Shoaib Mansoor, 2011, Pakistan) - Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor’s study of contemporary Pakistani society is a savage melodrama that indicts religious patriarchy and hypocrisy as the root causes of sexual and gender discrimination. Bol deserves to find a wider audience and marks out Mansoor as one of the few cinematic voices who is not afraid of speaking out against the state of society within the confines of the mainstream melodrama.

DEEP END (Blu-ray) (Dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970, UK/West Germany) - A film very much of its time, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski brings the eye of an outsider to London at the end of the swinging sixties and similarly like Polanski offers a compelling psychological foray into sexual adolescence. Deep End is bold, daring and iconoclastic filmmaking. This BFI release comes highly recommended.

MEEK'S CUTOFF (Blu-ray) (Dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010, USA) - Is this the closest we are likely to get to a neo realist western?

RED STATE (Dir. Kevin Smith, 2011, USA) - Although I like Clerks, the rest of Kevin Smith’s films I don’t really appreciate because they seem infected by an over emphasis on the written word. He has managed to etch out a career for himself by extending the universe of Clerks so it has taken on a life of its own through the Internet. In many ways, Red State is one of his best films. A polemical response to rise of Christian fundamentalism in America, Red State fuses horror with social realism to create a narrative that references most explicitly the Waco siege of 1993 that resulted in the death of 79 people. Smith made Red State outside the normal Hollywood system and shows clearly in his uncompromising ending.

OUR HOSPITALITY (Dir. Buster Keaton, 1923, USA) - Keaton’s masterpiece (one of many I suppose) blew me away in its use of sheer pantomime and artistry. It’s simply genius stuff and one of the most innovative films ever made.



THE FUGITIVE KIND (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1959, USA) - Lumet’s film is an odd mix of southern Gothic traditions and Hollywood melodrama. Brando’s in fine form as the troublesome drifter while Anna Magnani appears totally out of place as the tormented housewife. One of Lumet’s early films, The Fugitive Kind fails to escape its theatrical origins but Brando’s magnetic screen presence delights.

9 December 2011

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN - (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2011, UK/USA)

One of the best posters of the year.

To say that director Lynne Ramsay's third feature is a bit special would be a tragic understatement. This is certainly one of the best films of the year. Of all the films I have seen this year We need to talk about Kevin is visually superior by quite a margin. Some critics have labelled this a horror film and it is certainly full of dread and anxiety. Although Tilda Swinton's performance has been much praised, it is Lynne Ramsay's eye catching framing and compositions that steal the show. She has a very strong eye for detail that supports the elliptical and fragmented narrative structure. It has been a while since a film made such bold, expressive use of the colour red. The presence of red seeps into every frame, threatening at times to spill over and consume the entire film. Aesthetically, the symbolism that Ramsay attaches to the colour red becomes a concrete iconographic link to the horror genre. The red in the film merges the present with the past and takes on a much larger metaphysical dimension. It got me thinking about films which I have seen over the years in which the colour red is used creatively. Here are a few thoughts in the form of a (very quick though - hit space bar to slow down) slideshow:

A brief slideshow of films that make expressive use of the colour red.

7 December 2011

THE DIRTY PICTURE - (Dir. Milan Luthria, 2011, India)

Based on the real life exploits of South Indian film actress Vijayalakshmi, who took the screen name of Silk Smitha, Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture sees Vidya Balan dance her way through an uneven look at the female film star in the context of the Indian film industry. Although Vidya Balan is perfectly cast and carries the film with what is surely one of the highlights performances of the year, her sincerity is undermined somewhat by an overwrought screenplay, messy narrative and underwhelming directing. The central idea is undoubtedly fascinating, that of the Indian film actress who is eroticised and exploited for her sexuality by film producers. Such exploitation taps into Laura Mulvey’s feminist proposition that women are sexualised by the camera for the pleasure of the male spectator. The major problem with this film is the way in which the narrative disintegrates and loses its focus, glancing over the demise of Silk and reducing much of the drama to montage. Although Vidya Balan and Naseeruddin Shah are perfectly cast, both Tushar Kapoor and Emran Hashmi lack both the acting finesse and weight to carry off their roles. Emran Hashmi is seriously mis-cast as the disgruntled director who is critical of cinema’s increasingly superficial obsessions with using sex as means of titillating audiences. The Dirty Picture is a mainstream musical melodrama, which means obvious artistic compromises have been made at the expense of the film’s more interesting ideological aspects. The analysis the film presents of the state of Indian cinema in the 1980s and even today is not revolutionary or revelatory in any way – that men and patriarchy dictates the exploitation of women while remaining more or less immune from the problems of aging, career longevity and success is nothing new and most likely still exists today. Nevertheless, Vidya Balan’s magnetic screen presence shapes and controls the narrative and the strong feminist agenda, no doubt a manifestation of Ekta Kapoor’s interest in female narratives as demonstrated by her television work, makes a refreshing alternative to the way in which most films are still male dominated. Overall, there are some imaginative touches throughout including some wonderful tributes to South Indian cinema and Vidya Balan proves yet again she is one of the few actresses who has exceptional range and grace.

4 December 2011

DEV ANAND (1923 - 2011) - A Legend Passes Away...

Dev Anand has passed away at the age of 88. Film was the lifeblood of Dev Anand and he never stopped working in the Indian film industry. At the age of 88 he was still busy directing films and released his 19th feature in September of this year. During the 1940s and onwards, Dev Anand emerged as one of Indian cinema's most popular film stars and with his brothers (Vijay and Chetan) he set up a production company that made some notable and influential films. To celebrate his work, I am re-posting an entry on Dev Anand and Navketan from February of this year. Perhaps his greatest achievement was Guide (1965, Vijay Anand).

NEECHA NAGAR / Lowly City (Dir. Chetan Anand, 1946, India)

TAXI DRIVER
(Dir. Chetan Anand, 1954, India)

Dev Anand in one of his many publicity poses - one of the overlooked stars of 50s Hindi cinema.

Trapped amongst the ideological sincerities of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt was Dev Anand - the suave, sardonic and gentlest of screen heroes who came closest to perfecting the charismatic yet unpredictable persona of Hollywood noir film stars like John Garfield. It was in 1949 that the Anand brothers got together, establishing Navketan Films, an independent production company. Between the creatively enriching period beginning in 1952 with Afsar and reaching its artistic zenith in 1965 with Guide, Navketan helped ttransform Dev Anand into one of the most popular Indian film stars of the 1950s whilst offering a slew of great films which attempted to and largely succeeded on occasions to bridge the sacred gap between art and commerce. The Anand brothers were comprised of Chetan, Dev and Vijay. Chetan Anand, the eldest, was also the most political and his deep ideological involvement with IPTA during and after partition led to him directing one of the earliest examples of an emerging social realist style imported from theatre. The film in question was none other than Neecha Nagar, the first Indian film to be screened at Cannes and the first to win a prize. It’s not surprising that Chetan’s strong socialist beliefs would leave a lasting impact on both Dev and Vijay Anand.

Released in 1954, Taxi Driver, is perhaps their best known film of the 50s period and whilst it takes much of its aesthetic influences from film noir, the combination of all three brothers – Chetan as director, Vijay as writer and Dev as main lead produced a semi realist tale about the proletarian imprisoned in a new urban dystopia of broken dreams and class divisions. In principle the vision of the city as a hostile landscape in which the anti-hero (though romantically inclined) must struggle to preserve his moral integrity was shared amongst many of the major film makers of the era including Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Zia Sarhadi. The accents of the angry young man as personified by the Vijay persona of Amitabh can be traced directly back to films such as Awaara, Boot Polish and Taxi Driver in which the proletarian must come to terms with his lowly position within the grand scheme of things. In many ways, the repeated thematic pronunciations of the family coming under attack and the corruption of the innocent rural woman was common place in the narratives of melodramas, indicating strongly popular cinema’s subservience to the ordinary dilemmas that plagued the mainstream.

Dev Anand as the hero in Taxi Driver (1954) with comic actor Johnny Walker.

Here is one of the cabaret noir style song and dance numbers from the film, performed by the femme fatale:



Taxi Driver
came about as an economic necessity rather than a committed political dictat. With Navketan under pressure to deliver a hit after two consecutive commercial disappointments, Taxi Driver was quickly put together and shot on a low budget almost entirely on the streets of Mumbai. Released in 1954, the film was a resounding success story with audiences and seemed to continue an interest in film noir first initiated with Baazi in 1951 which was directed by Guru Dutt, one of Dev Anand’s many exciting discoveries. Interestingly, the period between 1949 and 1965 is generally considered to be one of the richest creative periods in the history of Indian cinema, explaining why Navketan flourished in generating new cinematic ideas. Hailing from Punjab, Dev Anand started his career as an arts graduate at the University of Lahore before making the decisive journey to Bombay. Alternating between his own production company and the illustrious and commercially successful Bombay based Filmistan Studios, Dev Anand cultivated a gentler and more romantic persona than those of his contemporaries like Guru Dutt who embraced a vein of fatalism and tragedy. Mixing comedy with heroism and largely rejecting the Devdas complex, Dev Anand’s naturalistic approach can still be detected today in contemporary Indian film stars including Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan; in many ways along with Shammi Kapoor it has strangely become the dominant star persona, though few would like to admit so preferring to point unashamedly to both Amitabh and Dilip Kumar.

Chetan Anand’s directorial debut Neecha Nagar (Lowly City) was released in the same year as its counterpart Dharti Ke Lal, directed by K A Abbas, another advocate of the IPTA cause. It is important to bear in mind that Chetan Anand later broke away from Navketan citing creative differences only to re-emerge after an extended hiatus in 1965 with the seminal war film Haqeeqat. Whilst Dharti Ke Lal was an official IPTA production, Neecha Nagar aligned itself more with a Gandhian ideology of passive resistance. Director Chetan Anand had in fact left the IPTA before embarking on Neecha Nagar, criticising the organisation for exploiting its position to propagate leftist dogma. Film critic and journalist Rajiv Vijayakar offers a detailed overview of Chetan Anand’s career in his piece for Screen India. Inspired rather than based on Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar represents an almost dystopian vision of Indian society in which rampant class divisions are extenuated by the clear geographical demarcations that exist between the wealthy, ruling elite who reside in the mountains and the poor, oppressed workers in the lowly city below. Such an acute political and economic dichotomy echoes that of Lang’s Metropolis. Similarly the figure of the corrupt industrialist despot attempts to placate the worker’s revolt, buying influence and openly breeding disunity. A thematic recurrence of the rural village as a place of utopian socialist ideals struggling to counter the corrupting weight of modernity would eventually become a defining ideological characteristic of the Hindi realist melodrama.

The despotic landowner is indifferent to the concerns of the poor villagers.

The leader of the village revolt and voice of the oppressed.

The story of Neecha Nagar sees the landowner, representing the forces of elitism, approve of and build a sewage system that cuts through the village of the poor oppressed farmers. Indifferent to their plight, the sewage corrupts the water supply, destroys the crops and spreads disease leading to a shallow attempt on behalf of the landowner to construct a hasty makeshift hospital offering free treatment to the sick. The politicised face of the villagers represented in a secular and transparent manner view the hospital as yet another extension of the landowner’s hegemonic grasp and openly instruct all of the villagers to resist by refusing free treatment. For the hard liners of the village, to get treatment and use the hospital would in fact be giving into the rule of the wealthy elite. It is a defiant stance and one that claims a number of emotional sacrifices but most significantly it develops into a resistance openly rejecting violence and relying on dissent. Whilst the film does feature some songs and dance sequences with music by Ravi Shankar, the raw aesthetics offer one of the most striking examples of early neo realism. Interestingly, Neecha Nagar’s achievements at Cannes were shared amongst a number of films including Rossellini’s Rome, Open City – both films were fashioned on similar humanist sensibilities.

(Click on image for full size version)

However, the cinematography of Neecha Nagar articulates expressionism imported from German cinema which is very much absent from Rossellini’s historically determined canvas. In a way the expressionistic vein jeopardises the validity of the realist agenda so emphatically stated through the overt political symbolism of the ideologically sentimental characterisation. Despite the criticisms concerning expressionism and realism invoked by Chetan Anand, a third and perhaps more pertinent stylistic tendency emerges in the form of documentary. This may in fact be the common link between Rome, Open City and Neecha Nagar as they both claim to be realist texts because there are sacred moments when both films blur the line between fiction and reality reminding us of an actuality being embraced. Take for example the moment in Neecha Nagar when the villagers realise the landowner has cut off the only clean water supply to the village. A montage is used, documenting the gaunt figures of the poor villagers – we know these are not actors but real people who are photographed without any sense of romanticism. Their existence in neo realism terms is declared by their perpetual gaze and marginal status – rendering them visible makes them doubly political. The ideologue of Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray were all formed in the spirit of such moments and it is not hard to see why Neecha Nagar continues to occupy such a privileged position in the realist trend that would only really come to fruition in the 1950s and beyond.

Here is a fantastic interview with Dev Anand who talks at length about his illustrious and at times brilliant career:

3 December 2011

THE IDES OF MARCH - (Dir. George Clooney, 2011, US)

George Clooney has been steadily building up an impressive body of political work and The Ides of March certainly continues a personal interest with exploring the limitations of liberal/leftist ideology in a climate of pervasive conservatism. If Good Night, and Good Luck was about communism and the media, Syriana examined international terrorism and Michael Clayton was a convincing dissection of corporate hegemony, then The Ides of March takes its aim squarely at the complex ethics of the American political system. It is well known that Clooney is generally well liked and respected by his peers in Hollywood and it is not surprising that he manages yet again to bring together a terrific ensemble cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright. The central idea of a presidential candidate hoping to make it to the Whitehouse on the basis of winning the primary elections is nothing new to American cinema and especially mainstream television. In many ways, American cinema over the last twenty years has produced a body of work that is primarily interested with the machinations of the American political system. Notable films have included Warren Beatty’s Bullworth, Mike Nichol’s Primary Colors, and Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog. One can even go back further to cite influential films like Redford’s The Candidate. Although Clooney continues to be compared to Redford in terms of a like minded liberal outlook and socially engaged films, I’m not so sure if Redford’s films are as ideologically engaged. Clooney has certainly used his star status as a platform to campaign on a range of issues and although Hollywood film stars and their long relationship with political causes has been questioned routinely by the media for its pretentiousness, Clooney has been able to translate his personal political interests into much of his cinematic output. At the centre of the narrative to The Ides of March is Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager, played brilliantly by actor Ryan Gosling. Meyers becomes caught up in a dirty political conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties. One of the major problems with many films about the American political system is that they can be somewhat inert and therefore should belong on the small screen. I’m not arguing that The Ides of March would have been more appropriate for a television audience, but the film seems much more concerned with making a wider political point than trying to do something innovative or different with the elements of film. Although Clooney is a film star and important producer, he is not a great film maker and works much more effectively as a catalyst for film projects. Nevertheless, this is still a superior political thriller given the prescient tone it strikes about the hypocrisy at the heart of democratic society.

1 December 2011

GUNGA JUMNA - (Dir. Nitin Bose, 1961, India)

The following quote from the entry on Nitin Bose taken from Rajadhyaksha & Willemen's Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema underlines his hugely important role in the history of Indian cinema:
'A key figure in the New Theatres organisation and maker of some of its most successful films. He later introduced a 'realist' element (Didi/President; Desher Mati/Dharti Mata) foreshadowing the films of his own student and cameraman Bimal Roy (Udayer Pathey, 1944), and probably Mrinal Sen's early films...'
Many would argue that the auteur theory has led to a process of canonisation and discriminates against the contribution of so many peripheral artists. However, auteurism did wonders in helping to excavate and salvage the careers of those invisible directors who worked tirelessly to perfect their craft as filmmakers. The same authorial approach has been applied to Indian cinema but with less rigour and authority. The 1930s witnessed acceleration in quality output, permitting filmmakers to refine their style and with each year it was clear to see their evolution. The films of Nitin Bose are often under discussed and although his status as a pioneering figure is not in doubt, helping the evolution of Indian film language, his authorial status is conflated with the triumphs of the studio system. Revisiting Gunga Jumna after so many years it is transparent to see that in 1961 Nitin Bose was a director working at the peak of his creative powers as a classicist. Gunga Jumna was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s and demonstrates a capacity to merge classical film elements with vivid stylistic flourishes. Produced, starring and written by Dilip Kumar, the story of two warring brothers on opposite sides of society (bandit vs. cop) transformed into a moralistic narrative template for many other populist social melodramas including most strikingly Deewaar. The powerful narrative momentum is often the way in which the film is referred to in wider critical discourse but we shouldn’t let such conventional readings get in the way of numerous visually inventive and memorable accompaniments that Bose brings to the film. Firstly, the camerawork possesses an infectious vitality conveyed through the notable dolly and tracking shots, which are used sparingly, at key points in the film’s narrative. Secondly, the use of Technicolor and rural landscapes, offers a strong connection with the Earth and village that is realistically presented. In a way, the authenticity of the rural milieu is also dystopian when it comes to the terrain of the bandit and here the film echoes the iconography of the Hollywood western. The intrinsic relationship between the bandit and the rural landscape was a direct influence on films such as Sholay and most recently Lagaan. Towards the end of the film, the landscape takes on a will of its own and Bose lets us see nature’s mystical powers through the smoke from the funeral pyre that billows into the air, shrouding the villainous figure of the despotic landlord. Lastly, and most influentially, the melodrama nurtured by the narrative conflict of two brothers on opposite sides of the law is a brilliant device for exploring family and the apathetic way in which society criminalises the most vulnerable. Although Gunga Jumna is recognised as a classic and the contribution of Dilip Saab is much celebrated, it is equally critical to extrapolate the brilliance of a film maker like Nitin Bose in the history of Indian cinema.

Here are the final shots to Gunga Jumna, which I found to be both moving and unusually abstract for what is deemed a populist, mainstream and conventional Indian film:

make an avatar

29 November 2011

BULLET IN THE HEAD - (Dir. John Woo, 1990, Hong Kong)

John Woo is an innovator. With his Hong Kong action films of the 80s and 90s, Woo helped to transform the style in which action sequences were shot. Although the explicit, if not celebratory, references to the world of Peckinpah, Leone and Melville plugged us right into the cerebral strata of postmodern cinema, Woo’s sensibilities occupied, dare I say it, a realm of existential melodrama that echoed the eternal heartbeat of his nocturnal Hong Kong city-scapes. It was somewhat inevitable Woo would be tempted by Hollywood and his time in La-la land produced a disparate body of work that paled into creative insignificance when compared to the measure of striking visual aesthetics he had cultivated in Hong Kong. It is not difficult to pin point why such a creative void existed between Hollywood and Hong Kong – it was all to do with budget in my opinion. In any country, in any context and in any time, directors work better and much more creatively when working with limited resources. Subsequently, innovation becomes a necessity rather than just an accessory. The only exception of Woo’s Hollywood work is claimed to be Face-Off, which may possibly stand up as a film that is of equal quality to his Hong Kong output. It is somewhat reassuring that Woo has returned to his roots and with Red Cliff, he certainly demonstrated that he has lost none of his operatic signature moves including slow motion ballet. The other striking aspect of Woo’s Hong Kong actions films including Hard Boiled, The Killer and Bullet in the Head is the level of emotional involvement with the characters. Woo trained as an assistant under the populist commercial director Chang Cheh who was a key figure in the Shaw Bros film studio. Cheh developed what became known as the ‘heroic bloodshed’ film that incorporated the Wuxia tradition with a heightened emphasis on violence and masculinity. Woo expanded upon Cheh’s work, helping to refine the heroic bloodshed film and with Bullet in the Head, described by David Bordwell as Woo’s ‘most anguished work’, familiar themes to do with friendship, loyalty and violence merged with the real politics of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Bullet in the Head was one of the first films Woo directed after his split with producer Tsui Hark and the project was difficult to finance given the script’s bleakness. Woo ended up financing the film himself but the gamble didn’t pay off as the film was a commercial failure at the box office. Nevertheless, Bullet in the Head is one of Woo’s richest films. The central storyline of three close friends, Ben/Ah Bee (Tony Leung), Frank/Fai (Jacky Cheung) and Paul/Little Wing (Waise Lee), growing up in a 1960s Hong Kong only to leave for Vietnam and become embroiled in a world of guns, gold and violence recalls most extensively the narrative trajectory of The Deer Hunter, in which war traumatises friendship and causes the loss of identity. What distinguish Woo’s film from the Hollywood lexicon are themes of individual capitalist greed and social mobility intrinsic to Hong Kong in the consumer driven 1980s. In many ways, the box of gold that becomes a central motivating element of the narrative recalls the study of greed in Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre. The cast also impresses and it would be almost impossible to get Tony Leung and Simon Yam in the same film today, given their popularity as two of South Asia’s biggest film stars. The title of the film refers to the bullet that becomes lodged in the head of Frank when he is shot and betrayed by his friend Paul. Paul becomes consumed by greed and during their time in Vietnam, he jeopardises the lives of those around him so he can achieve his goal of social mobility and achieve an exalted place in a new Hong Kong capitalist society. The film’s tone gets much darker in the second half of the film. In one of the most ‘anguished’ moments, Ben confronts Paul over his betrayal by bringing the skull of their dead friend Frank into the boardroom. The image of the skull is iconographic of the horror genre and is transformed into a metonym of corporate greed that finds certain validity in today’s ethically bankrupt society. What Woo demonstrates with the action genre conventions is the capacity to move beyond ideological limitations and merge the personal with the political.

26 November 2011

COME AND SEE / IDI I SMOTRI (Dir. Elem Klimov, 1985, Soviet Union)

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Belorussia (now Belarus) was occupied and ethnically cleansed of its Jewish population. Elem Klimov’s Idi I Smotri / Come and See (1985) is one of the most visceral films I have come cross. Klimov uses the point of view of a young country boy Florya Gaishun (Aleksey Kravchenko) who joins the Belorussian resistance and witnesses at first hand the horrors of World War II. Klimov covers the gamut of war from occupation to resistance and also the destruction of villages. This is a journey film so plot is irrelevant and the narrative is led by the movement of Florya across the Russian landscapes. As the level of trauma increases around Florya and the more brutality he witnesses, the more he ages. His face seems to paralyse, aching with a lifetime of unspeakable horror. The range of shocking imagery, raw and resolute in its clarity, is deeply affecting and moving. Klimov’s trajectory for Florya is relentless as the boy’s gaze transforms into a marker of historical truth, recording reality around him which he cannot transcend or prevent from unfolding; Florya is both a witness and victim of war. The most gruesome chapter in the film, which takes up a third of the film, depicts the complete destruction and ethnic cleansing of a village by marauding Nazis. Florya’s final gunshot and gaze that is directed at the audience is a complicated one as it attempts to unravel a history that cannot be undone. By journeying backwards through Adolf Hitler’s life and ending the sequence on a photo with Hitler as a baby, Klimov emphasises simplicity and universality about our lives, that innocence is both momentary and premature in the face of history.

19 November 2011

SILENT RUNNING (Dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1972, US)

Following the unexpected commercial success of Kubrick’s mind trip of a science fiction film, visual effects wiz Douglas Trumbull, who had been central to the special effects achievements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed his own take on the science fiction genre with the ingenious and under stated film Silent Running in 1972. Long available on DVD, the Masters of Cinema DVD label has given the film a much anticipated Blu-ray treatment including a gloriously new pristine transfer with suitably appealing extras. At first Douglas Trumbull did not envision directing the film. With a budget set at one million dollars, many directors were reluctant to take on a screenplay loaded with ideological sentiment, and so it eventually fell upon Trumbull to take on the role of director. The film was shot on a disused aircraft carrier, which was due for the scrap heap, and the production team converted the claustrophobic interiors into the spaceship Valley Forge. Having worked with Kubrick, Trumbull felt that science fiction cinema and space in particular was a lonely place but this didn’t necessarily mean humans had to be emotionless. Trumbull approached Silent Running from both an ideological and emotional point of view that echoed the growing concern in society towards the erosion of the environment. The narrative focuses on the character of Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a hippie care taker and staunch environmentalist, who has been assigned the task of cultivating plant life which are housed in large domes. Set in the future in which all plant life on Earth has become extinct, the spaceship Valley Forge is an experiment initiated by the government to try and preserve the last remnants of plant life. However, given the cost involved of such an environmental experiment, the company and effectively the establishment decide to terminate the project. Incensed, Lowell kills his crew mates and with the help of the droids, he takes control of the ship. Trumbull mixes science fiction conventions with melodrama to create a genuinely moving plea for the preservation of the environment. Silent Running is a film that makes no cryptic or ambiguous existential statements or ruminations on the human condition, but by being so transparent in its message, the film’s honesty doesn’t feel contrived or pretentious. Trumbull doesn’t just want us to see the cost of our self destruction but feel it too through the time he devotes to the relationship between Lowell and the forest. Everything is spot on including the songs by Joan Baez, which haven’t dated in the slightest given the prescient lyrics, and the terrific performance by the sorely overlooked Bruce Dern. Masters of Cinema have to be commended on bringing Silent Running to Blu-ray because it is a science fiction that continues to grow in stature but unfortunately is still eclipsed by other generally over rated science fiction films. It's of little surprise that two of the best recent science fiction films, Moon and Wall E, have both been influenced by the film’s retro dystopian aesthetics and humane representation of robots, singling out Silent Running as an obvious classic of the genre.