31 January 2012

RA. ONE (Dir. Anubhav Sinha, 2011, India)

The first rule of stardom - never believe your own hype. Not unless you are SRK who has not been making the best career choices of late. When was the last time SRK really made a great film that he can lay claim to? You might have to go back to Paheli, Swades or even Asoka - all respectable films which were well received. The same cannot be said for poor SRK's recent choice of films, which have not only been terribly inflated vanity projects but measured by a desire to emulate the feel easy stylisation of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Oddly enough two of his most recent films - Chak De India and My Name is Khan have in fact saw SRK come closest to his real life persona and even tapping into his ambivalent Muslim identity. Both films seem to have something valuable to say about stardom whereas Don 2 and Ra. One offer a version of romantic heroism, which is precluded on a strangely pretentious narcissism. Ever since SRK hit the gym after Om Shanti Om, his face has gone through a period of star transformation whereby the new, leaner and metrosexual SRK feels like a conceit driven to indulge deeper personal fantasies to do with body worship. The trip to the gym seemed to work for someone like Salman Khan but only because he never truly took him or any of his films that seriously to begin with. Dabaang brought Salman to a much wider audience than ever before, helping to kick start a re-interest in the masala action film genre and reconstructing the romantically infatuated male protagonist into a new age revenge machine. Ra. One was touted as a big budget science fiction spectacular on par with Hollywood productions in which the special effects play a leading role. Some critics resolutely trashed Ra. One while some were unsure what to make of it all including SRK’s wooden performance. I never expected Ra. One to be a brilliant film but given all the hype surrounding the special effects, the film never really delivers in that category either. The story draws strong influences from the Terminator films, Tron, Lawnmower man and many different Hollywood comic book films. Ra. One attempts to merge familiar science fiction concepts with comic book heroism but suffers from a highly formulaic script, strangely OTT performances, ropey special effects and a schizophrenic narrative structure. In many ways, the film is a spectacular failure for a major film star who seems to going through an increasingly public middle life crisis. Had the film been able to harness the imagination and energy that went into the brilliantly executed Bandra train sequence that sees G-One (SRK) bouncing through the compartments to stop a runaway train (one of the few points in the film in which narrative interruption via the soundtrack feels justified) then the film may have had the potential to rise above its genre trappings into moderately pleasing escapist fare. However, not even the brilliantly executed sequence can save Ra. One from disappearing into the abyss of Bollywood stardom.

30 January 2012

THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (Dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947, UK)

There are a lot of British films I haven’t seen simply because I’m always persuaded by the argument that they are not artistically profound or aesthetically accomplished as films from either France or America. Of course, such a view is totally false and rubbish. And the more I revisit examples from the past, the more clearer it becomes that over the years British cinema has produced films that not only stand up today but understand the subtleties of genre cinema. Director Alberto Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive in fact belongs to three genre categories: the urban crime thriller, the gangster pic and film noir. Set in London after World War II, ex-RAF pilot Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) becomes sucked into the criminal underworld when he takes on a job that involves narcotics. He is subsequently framed for the death of a police officer and ends up serving time in prison. Clem manages to escape from prison and sets on a narrative trajectory to avenge his wrongful imprisonment. Clem’s adversary is Narcy (Griffith Jones), a gangland crime boss who uses his funeral business as a cover to smuggle guns and drugs. Narcy is a brilliantly realised screen villain and exudes an outright nastiness linked to post war corruption and more significantly as a symbol of urban violence. Although Cavalcanti was never really an outsider especially considering his important role within the British documentary movement in the 1930s, his gaze is distinctly uncharacteristic when compared to British crime films of the post war era. His feel for locations particularly the streets of London are evocative and resolutely urban. Trevor Howard was just one of the many British film stars of the post war era and finding out more about the actor told me he refused a CBE and was predictably enough theatrically trained. The anti establishment side to Trevor Howard seems to be perfectly reflected in the way Clem is positioned as an outsider who does not fit into the new post war Britain. Trevor Howard is terrific as Clem and from the charisma he exudes it’s easy to see why he was such a popular British film star. Key to the film’s definite realism is the cinematographic contribution of the Czech D.O.P Otto Heller who was trained in the silent era. For a film made in the post war era, Cavalcanti and scriptwriter Noel Langley took a real gamble with the ending that concludes in an unconventionally downbeat manner with Clem attaining minimal personal closure. And it is in the bleak ending that They Made Me a Fugitive finds its purest expression of the film noir genre as the figure of the doomed male comes through with startling clarity.

19 January 2012

14 January 2012

GUZAARISH / REQUEST (Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2010, India)

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali makes extravagant romantic melodramas that take place in an alternate heightened reality. With Guzaarish, mainstream Hindi cinema takes on the much debated issue of euthanasia but unfortunately Bhansali's efforts come undone by an unconvincing story, hyperbolic performances from the main leads and an overworked production design. Bhansali's fondness for romance recalls the tragic melodramas of old Indian cinema and although his visual mastery of the frame is impressive, his films including this one always disappoint largely because the script, pacing and performances are at odds with the central idea or concept. Bhansali is a commercially oriented mainstream film maker and his films regularly sweep the major award ceremonies in the Indian film calendar. He is a much adored figure in the industry and most of the major stars have or are desperate to work with him. It's odd because Bhansali's oeuvre to date is somewhat underwhelming yet he has managed to cultivate a false image of himself as an auteur. What Guzaarish proves is how emotionally empty his films really are - the romance enacted by the characters does so on a rich canvas but it is a stylisation which reeks of self indulgence. If only he could rein in such self indulgence and spend more time with the scriptwriting process then maybe, just maybe, he might one day deliver a quality film. As for Hrithik Roshan, what can I say, he is apparently a star and an actor, but in reality, he is neither. In fact, he is nothing more than a mannequin who has sadly spawned an industry of similarly unresponsive mannequins.

THE WRONG MAN (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1956, US)

If any film maker wants to understand the power of the point of view shot then Hitchcock's The Wrong Man is perhaps one of the definitive statements. Musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is mistakenly identified for a man who has been committing robberies in the local neighbourhood. The police and society are convinced that Manny is the man responsible for the crime. He is arrested, imprisoned and put on trial. He does eventually go free but Hitchcock chooses to document his ordeal through a subjective approach, completing fetishising the point of view shot so that we literally become Manny. It may sound odd saying this but this may be Hitchcock's most 'real' American film. The real is manifested in the documentary style as it also observes Fonda, studying his mannerisms and cataloguing his suffering. As for the tacked on ending in which closure is conveyed, one can detect studio interference and mainstream compromise conflicting with more genuine genre expression.

ORANGES AND SUNSHINE (Dir. Jim Loach, 2011, UK/Australia)

The directorial debut of Jim Loach is a moving social drama with a notable performance from Emily Watson. The film brings to light the child deportation scheme that took place after World War II. British children, many of whom were in care homes, were shipped off to Australia and forced to work as slave labour. In the 1980s, a social worker from Nottingham, uncovered the scandal and spent years reuniting children in Australia with their parents in the UK. Jim Loach opts for a slow moving narrative concerned primarily with detailing the emotional trauma of the children, many of whom we discover have been abused. The film is careful not to over sentimentalise the drama and also treads carefully from letting the events turn into another Hollywood 'crusade for justice' story. In many ways, Loach deliberately underplays much of the drama and thus maintains a level of sincerity that helps to consistently criticise the British and Australian government for their shameful conspiracy of silence. The film's ideological targets including religion, politics and the establishment instinctively recall the cinema of Ken Loach.

12 January 2012

SHAITAN (Dir. Bejoy Nambiar, 2011, India)

Shaitan is a mischievous film with a mischievous title. The anarchic content certainly lives up to such claims of youthful mischief but it is a mischief that turns into a tale of contemporary middle class guilt, corruption and murder. The film starts confidently enough with sequences of real visual energy and creativity. By initially taking a deconstructive approach to narrative and genre, the film appears resoundingly iconoclastic and very contemporary in its design. However, Shaitan is a film that self-destructs as the narrative of a fake kidnapping unfolds, gradually descending into a pantomime of relatively familiar cinematic tropes. I completely lost interest in the final third and could not care less of the outcome for the characters. However, unlike Peepli Live which is marred by a dependency on the spoken word, what really makes Shaitan stand out amongst the recent crowd of Indian multiplex films is director Bejoy Nambiar’s attempts to innovate conventional visual language through a prism of distinctive flourishes with the camera. Shaitan is arguably yet another multiplex multi protagonist film and although the film’s stylised visuals may point to something new, a closer look reveals some recognisable features including the jaded cop archetype. The film’s wayward narrative trajectory is more than compensated by the hedonistic camera and hyper kinetic editing style that jumps schizophrenically through the urban spaces. If one were to compare Shaitan to the current crop of Hindi films then based on one sequence alone it would surely be at the top of the list, and this is why:

O ho ho ho, Khoya Khoya Chaand, Khula Aasmaan
Aankhon Mein Saari Raat Jaayegi
Tumko Bhi Kaise Neend Aayegi

Khoya Khoya Chaand - Lyrics by Shailendra, Music by S D Burman
Originally used in the film Kala Bazar (1960)

8 January 2012

PEEPLI LIVE (Dir. Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India)

Farmers committing suicide so they can be compensated after their death by the government is the backdrop to this Aamir Khan production. The opening dilemma of two farmers, Natha and Budhia, having their land seized by the feudalistic powers that be echoes Shambhu Mahto's enslavement to the demonic zamindar in Do Bigha Zamin. Peepli Live takes the story of impoverished framers to analyse the state of the Indian media. At times, it was a case of too many characters and sub plots overwhelming the main narrative. I’m no sure why the film feels the need to work in so many narratives and although it might work to highlight the hysterical media frenzy, ultimately it detracts from the original story of the farmers. When the national media discovers that Natha has promised to commit suicide, they descend upon the village, turning the rural space into a media carnival. The film’s parasitic depiction of the media recalls with eerie precision the vicious journalism of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Similarly in Peepli Live, the media pretends to care in the interests of coverage for their respective news channels. If the media is rightly the target of this satirical critique than it does a far better job than a recent film like No One Killed Jessica in which the media is presented as flawed but still courageous in its support of those denied a voice or misrepresented. Additionally, what makes this film’s representation of the media much more convincing and complex is the attempt to include the role of local media. In this case, the indigenous and authentic voice of the media comes from a local journalist Rakesh who finds the ‘real’ story worth telling in the village. Natha and Budhia’s predicament becomes a political bandwagon, creating a media platform for ideological dogma that reduces life and death to an inconsequential meta-narrative. Director Anusha Rizvi’s film is an assured debut, which benefits from a well-written screenplay, good pacing and some flashes of visual imagination. However, it is a film salvaged in many ways by the end shot of an exhausted Natha covered in a mask of dirt working in a construction site, most probably in the city; it’s the most haunting and effective shot of the film because it says so clearly that no matter where Natha goes he will be always be part of an anonymous invisible mass.

The final shot - Natha as exile, worker, migrant and part of the invisible underclass.

7 January 2012

ESSENTIAL KILLING (Dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 2010, Poland/Norway/Ireland/Hungary)

Essential Killing is an impressionistic masterpiece which has a silent protagonist or should I say cypher who journeys across a wintry landscape to achieve a transient spiritual death. Claimed as an apolitical film, which seems mightily impossible, the episodic narrative imitates an odyssey of sorts that plots an existential trajectory while referencing a recognisable post 9-11 political context of nightmarish imperialism. Like Klimov's Come and See, this is a visceral and very physical film that revolves around the actions and reactions of Vincent Gallo's ideologically symbolic protagonist. Such a film is dependent solely on the visual image and returns cinema back to its purist silent origins and argues for a simplicity which is curiously scoffed at today by much of the mainstream. What Jerzy Skolimowski demonstrates is that all you really need to make a great film is an actor, scenario, dedicated crew and of course Jeremy Thomas. In many ways, by humanising 'the other', the film observes without passing any kind of moral or ethical judgement.

6 January 2012

THE EXORCIST (Dir. William Friedkin, 1973, US)

If genres reportedly work in cycles how is it possible to accommodate for the misdeeds of a film such as The Human Centipede. Neither am I convinced by the recent spate of films dubbed torture porn. Is this another vain attempt to account for genre aberration or are such films really saying something ideologically profound? The state of horror cinema in general has ironically stripped itself of any cultural credibility and artistic validity by embracing sensationalism as a postmodern mantra of audience tastes. The absence of ideology is a characteristic long associated with postmodernity and the evolution of the horror genre has meant parody and pastiche are favourable accents with which to extend any critical discourse. Essentially, the appreciation for genre and its possible dynamics has more or less evaporated into a mass of creative redundancy. Recent horror films including Paranormal Activity and Insidious are two just examples of films that grasp little of the intricacies of genre conventions. Both films lack a sincerity which is absolutely necessary for a genre that continues to be ridiculed and contested. My current disillusionment with the horror film genre has drawn me back to classic horror films which I greatly appreciate in the way they have been crafted. Director William Friedkin's The Exorcist was one of the first horror blockbusters, but in many ways, it has also been one of the most widely discussed films of the American new wave. Nevertheless, given its status as a horror film it still never garners the critical praise and reverence afforded to films like Jaws, The Godfather and Taxi Driver, which were also produced in the same era. Perhaps this is largely down to the horror genre's critical reputation. Jaws, another 1970s horror film, escapes such categorisation because of its reputation as a film by Steven Spielberg. Friedkin never achieved the consistency of his contemporaries, damaging the critical reputation of his oeuvre and underlining the discrimination and snobbery inherent in auteur studies. The Exorcist is one of the key films of the American new wave and although we can bring auteur into the question, when appraising the film's many achievements, we must not overlook what is really essential to the film's popular appeal, which is its intelligent understanding of the horror genre. Interestingly, the first wave of American directors in the late 60s and early 70s comprising of Bogdanovich, Coppola and Friedkin all made their names in genre cinema; the western, gangster and horror film. Much has written about The Exorcist, mostly passionately by Mark Kermode, who has also published a riveting monogram (BFI) and a documentary on the cultural impact of the film titled 'The Fear of God'. I want to highlight some visual and ideological points of interest to me:

1). The opening of the film is signposted with the Muslim call to prayer, known as the Azaan. This not only establishes the settings of Iraq but universalises the concept of Satan as common amongst Monotheist religions. Additionally, the call to prayer is sacred in Islam and it's acknowledgment is a recognition of the fear of god. Such a fear is central to the film's convincing and frightening treatment of demonic possession.

2). The lucid dream sequence experienced by father Karras taps into a prescient western guilt with abandoning parents to care homes. The dream imagery is potent, merging the medallion, dog, dead mother, demon and Karras into a truly nightmarish montage.

3). Father Karras is one of the most benign heroes I have come across in a horror film. Not only does he repeatedly question his faith but even when he finally meets the possessed Regan, he does so without any sort of trepidation. It is only later does he become convinced of the demon's powers and makes a decision to intervene. Although Karras meets with a grisly death, the exorcism martyrs him and his soul. Regan is saved yet ideologically Karras has already damned himself by the guilt he harbours about his mother.

4). Lee J. Cobb as lieutenant Kinderman investigating the death of Burke Dennings is a strange anomaly and his sudden appearance in the film, without any kind of formal introduction, positions him as a symbol of old Hollywood. Kinderman is a traditional figure of authority who would show up in old Hollywood thrillers but given the metaphysical nature of the dilemma, his investigative rational thinking is rendered obsolete.

5). The Georgetown Steps is a visual image that for me is the most frightening in the entire film. The steps become the setting for the death of Denning's and more importantly Karras who is violently thrown down the steps in the final climactic sequence. The image of the steps are used sparingly by Friedkin and their eeriest magnifications occurs through the point of view of Kinderman.