29 July 2012

MATINEE (Dir. Joe Dante, 1993, US) - Cold War Creature Comforts

The A Bomb
Joe Dante is by far the most mischievous of the filmmakers spawned by exploitation maestro Roger Corman. Unlike his contemporaries Dante has made fewer films. His oeuvre is characterised by a darkly satirical edge and his nightmarish representations of American suburbia have run contrary to the mainstream. Consider the way he smuggles a creepiness about Reagan's America into a populist film like Gremlins but all with a sense of anarchic fun. Dante's mischief did him no favours with the studios so it was lucky directors turned producers like Spielberg shared such zany and cartoonish tendencies. Both Gremlins and Innerspace were backed by Spielberg and Amblin. Dante's finest satire is his 1993 film Matinee and it is a terrific genre film that deals with three of my favourite cinematic themes; childhood, politics and cinema. The backdrop is the cold war era and the Cuban missile crisis. As tension between America and Russia escalates, a small town in Key West Florida anticipates the arrival of B movie horror director Lawrence Woolsey (a riff on Hitchcock and played by John Goodman) with his latest shlock flick Mant (a man who is exposed to radiation and an ant). A young boy Gene, whose father is part of the US navy assigned to defend American waters, is a lover of cinema especially bad horror movies. Gene prefers his movies to girls and when Woolsey comes to town Gene confesses an unhealthy love of the horror genre. Dante juxtaposes the imminent threat of the atom bomb to the way cinema offers fictional solutions and escapist diversions; it's a potent satirical combination since Woolsey's horror creation Mant is an anxious manifestation of nuclear radiation. Woolsey makes no excuses for the way he exploits and benefits from the pervasive climate of cold war anxiety, producing films that are hyperbolic and demented. The local cinema, owned by a neurotic manager, has only one screen and caters to mostly the adolescent school kids who converge on the screening of Mant turning the auditorium into a controlled chaos. Woolsey's plans of self promotion involves placing buzzers under seats, using his own state of the art Rumble-rama and getting the town's delinquent to don a rubbery Mant suit. In case you’re wondering, yes, all three succeed in convincing an observant cinema chain owner to invest in Woolsey’s taste for theatrics. Dante’s nostalgic depiction of cinema going is one to be savoured as it is the cinema theatre that becomes a microcosm of the town's various social, political and personal dilemmas. The ending is also powerfully self reflexive demonstrating with great fun the way audiences can be duped so easily by the most seductive of illusions. Also watch out for the terrific cameo by director John Sayles.

28 July 2012

DEVIL'S DOORWAY (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1950, US) - No Man's Land

Deep Focus Cinematography by John Alton.
Devil’s Doorway is one of the first western’s Anthony Mann directed. It’s also one of his least seen works and perhaps one of his greatest westerns. Closer in tone to The Furies and Winchester ’73, Devil’s Doorway is revisionist before the term came in to use in the early 1960s. Devil’s Doorway deals with race, exploring the slow genocide of Native American people and the stealing of their land. Released in 1950, the film was way ahead of its time and offers one of the earliest sympathetic representations of the indigenous people of America; the Indians. Robert Taylor plays Lance Poole, a highly decorated Indian who fought at Gettysburg. Poole returns to the land of his ancestors that he owns and realises that a new homesteading law is due to be passed. The new law states that no Indian can own land and it is not long before Poole faces a bitter and violent struggle to protect his livelihood and what remains of his people’s legacy. Mann approaches the material like a film noir and much of the action is shot using deep focus camerawork, oblique angles and chiaroscuro lighting. Much of the film’s stunning visual look can be attributed to ace cinematography John Alton who offers some unforgettable black and white imagery. A western like The Searchers deals with racial prejudices in a much more subtle way but Mann refuses to hide behind allegory, tackling race head on in an era of Hollywood cinema that rarely dealt with such controversial subject matter. A minor criticism is that Robert Taylor had to ‘brown up’ for the role of Poole yet he still manages to deliver a memorable performance. Equally brilliant is the ending, which is uncompromisingly stark and poignant. Devil’s Doorway certainly belongs in the company of Mann’s most celebrated westerns but the film’s relative obscurity is somewhat of a mystery. 

26 July 2012

NASEEM / MORNING BREEZE (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1995, India) - The Past Precedes the Present

The opening title caption.
Saeed Akhtar Mirza retired from filmmaking in 1995 with Naseem. It was an unexpected departure for a filmmaker who had been a key player in the parallel cinema movement. Was it creative exhaustion or disillusionment with wider social and political dimensions that led to Mirza’s departure? Mirza says he felt like he had nothing else left to say and Naseem was made as an epitaph to his career as a director. The body of work he did produce during the 70s 80s and 90s articulated the concerns of the Muslim experience with films such as Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), a film which I have written about at length in a previous post. Mirza’s representations of Muslims living in India in a period of intense communalism were rare and distinctive in their depiction of underclass reality. Perhaps then it came as a surprise to see Mirza return to filmmaking in 2009 with Ek Tho Chance. However, the film still remains unreleased in both India and abroad, illustrating the potential problems with taking a hiatus from the film industry in a time of changing audience tastes. Naseem is one of Mirza’s most personal films and thankfully the film has finally been restored and released on DVD as part of a slew of NDFC films. Naseem is the name of a young Muslim girl who spends most of her time listening to the contemplative and poetic stories recalled by her ailing grandfather (played by lyricist and poet Kaifi Azmi in a rare screen role). Events are set in 1992, slowly leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The film has no real plot to speak except the external turmoil of the rioting which creates a deeply unsettling mood throughout. The narrative unfolds largely through the eyes of the Muslim girl Naseem with much of the action focused on her interactions at school and at home with her friends and family. The grandfather remains on his bed throughout the film, observing and commenting on the world around him. His presence is a symbolic one, representing not only the past but offering an example of a Muslim who has experienced the trauma of partition yet who has also witnessed a time when co existence was the norm. Such norms are tested by the rioting that the family witnesses on television, fearing for their lives and feeling increasingly isolated because of their faith. When Mushtaq, the oldest of the family, brings home a friend, a debate ensues about what the proper reaction should be from the Muslim community. Mushtaq’s friend Zafar (Kay Kay Menon in one of his first roles) is a symbolic contrast to the grandfather, representing the future and the emerging radicalisation of Muslim youth. When Zafar says Muslims are being butchered on the streets, the grandfather sceptically replies that it is not Muslims but the poor who are in fact being murdered. Such wisdom can do little to ease the outrage of the rioting which continues unabated. A constant threat emerges to Naseem as her movements become restricted due to her brother’s feeling that they could be attacked. The final sequence is by far the most moving with Mirza staging the death of the old Muslim secularist patriarch (the grandfather) to the nationalist demolition of the Babri Mosque. In many ways, Mirza positions the demolition of the Babri Mosque as a turning point in the history of new India, signalling the erosion of co existence, the intensification of communalism and an age of uncertainty for Muslims who live in India; it is a powerful political statement. There is no doubting that Naseem is a rare film and belongs alongside a film like Garam Hawa in its realistic and complex depiction of the Muslim family. 

25 July 2012

SHANGHAI (Dir. Dibakar Banerjee, 2012, India) - State of a Nation

Abhay Deol - one of the best actors of his generation.
Indian filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee’s latest film Shanghai is a brave attempt at the political thriller genre. The film adapts the 1967 novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, which was made into a film in 1969 by Costas Gavras, and updates the material to contemporary India. Weaving together the lives of four key characters, the narrative focuses on the murder of an outspoken social activist and charismatic leader Dr. Ahmadi. The murder of Ahmadi by the major political party, which is running for election, brings together filmmaker (specialising in porn films) Joginder (Emraan Hashmi) who was present at the time of Ahmadi’s murder, Ahmadi’s staunch supporter Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) and Krishnan (Abhay Deol), an emerging civil servant. The murder of Ahmadi, which takes place as a spectacle before the eyes of his supporters, results in the current government implementing an enquiry headed up by Krishnan into the Ahmadi’s killing. It is only later that Krishnan discovers that the enquiry was set up primarily by the current government as a way of covering up the crime since it involves the Chief Minister. Joginder and Shalini’s amateurish investigation lifts the lid on a quagmire of corrupt politics with the main political party, the IBP, using its members to intimidate and kill Ahmadi while attempting to cover up the truth. Ahmadi’s concerns seem real enough, arguing that the government’s longing to steal land that belongs to the oppressed underclass of India so that it can be used for an expensive infrastructure project is very much about corporate expansionism. Ideologically, Ahmadi’s outspoken political position makes him a target and the silencing of his voice is familiar signs of a government that cannot offer protection to those who speak out against prevailing economic and social interests. Director Banerjee succeeds in capturing the nexus of power relations that intersects amongst the people of a city in a state of unease and on the edge of self-destruction. For me the weak link in the film is Kalki Koechlin who plays Shalini. Her character seems underwritten and the role she plays in the narrative should have been more critical and dynamic. Additionally, Kalki is miscast in the role of Shalini unlike Emraan Hashmi who is effectively creepy as an unsavoury amateur filmmaker. When Shalini and Joginder finally present their audio and visual evidence to the enquiry it falls upon Krishnan to take action. At first Krishnan is coerced into accepting that the enquiry set up to deal with the murder of Ahmadi be closed due to lack of evidence. Krishnan is trying to forge himself a political career, which is expedited by the backing of the Chief Minister who appoints him as an adviser to the government. Banerjee dares to debate a very important issue in India today, that of development, and the price the oppressed have to pay so that the ruling elite can continue to rule unequivocally and with a frightening impunity. Shanghai is certainly his most ambitious film to date and what makes it one of the best Indian films of the year are the closing moments in which the juxtaposition between development and dissent coalesce into a terrifying reality.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012, US) - Death by Exile [Spoilers Ahead]

Bane vs Batman
Nolan is no visionary and the final instalment in his Batman trilogy confirms what many already knew - that Nolan is an intelligent and accomplished storyteller. With his three Batman films, Nolan has learnt to master the essential art of ‘raising the stakes’ - a classical narrative feature that characterises many of the best mainstream blockbusters. The Dark Knight Rises is a zeitgeist film, a trend proven by the first two films, and although the affects of 9-11 have disappeared from much of American cinema, the comic book film genre has continued to use the 9-11 hangover and the threat of terrorism as a suitable social and political context. The Dark Knight Rises references a plethora of recent political events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, the greed of banks and the financial crisis as window dressing for a fantastical comic book struggle. If Batman Begins was an intimate blockbuster and The Dark Knight a treatise on the hero myth then The Dark Knight Rises is an epic. An ambitious film like Inception certainly proved Nolan’s desire to elevate storytelling to an epic and global scale. The Dark Knight Rises emulates such epic ambitions by constructing a decadent comic book universe in which cataclysmic events are juxtaposed to one another with a conviction unheard of in a seemingly juvenile genre. This final film makes a dramatic leap of eight years, locating the action in a peacetime Gotham. A virtual recluse Bruce Wayne lives alone in his mansion, wallowing in self pity and still coming to terms with the loss of Rachel. Bruce Wayne appears now as a Kane like figure and his deteriorating physical condition makes him a vulnerable and flawed anti-hero. In many ways, this damaged Bruce Wayne is the one we were expecting since it is such vulnerability that transforms him into such a tragic figure. The first half of the film is very much about the mythology of Batman and what his presence means to the people of Gotham. This is continually reiterated by Alfred and Bruce Wayne’s conversations, debating the value of myth and attempting to renegotiate new parameters for heroism in an age of austerity. Inevitably, Bruce Wayne’s mortality is another point of interest that films explores which is intertwined with yet more conventional tragic qualities such as sacrifice, redemption and most importantly the fear of failing. As an alter ego Batman is a glorified vigilante; an angry young man who just happens to be a ridiculously wealthy millionaire. Yet such a contradiction is fought out in the way he uses his wealth to combat social inequalities and ultimately eradicate crime from Gotham. 

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has become a shadow of loneliness and his last connection to reality is Alfred, his faithful butler. Interestingly, the new Gotham in which crime has been eradicated as a result of Commissioner Gordon’s terminal lie reflects a new era as symbolised in the real life election of President Obama. It is a Gotham of relative stability yet beneath the austere surface is a corrupt and familiarly unequal society controlled by a wealthy elite - in other words, nothing has changed in terms of power and class since Obama came to office. Nolan has surprisingly downplayed the different social and political references made by the trilogy and this latest film continues such a preoccupation. If this new film takes place against Obama’s term in office then the it is not unexpected to find Bane’s first targeted attack against the stock exchange, a widespread symbol of social discontent and a site of economic corruption. Such an attack against the very financial structures that have created a seemingly perpetual age of austerity and global recession may in fact be justified given the way bankers have betrayed the trust of the people. Such prescient moments underline the film’s zeitgeist aspirations, framing the revolutionary actions of Bane and his army as both sincere and realistic. However, Bane’s revolutionary stance is rubbished by the presence of Selina Kyle who by teaming up with Batman bridges a necessary social and economic divide that separates Bruce Wayne from Gotham’s dispossessed. By holding Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, Bane’s status of an ex communicated mercenary and former member of the League of Shadows changes to that of a terrorist. It is this threat posed by terrorism that ultimately unites the rich and poor of Gotham, acting as a social leveller and finally demanding that Selina Kyle surrender her ideological baggage for the greater good of the city. Perhaps then both Batman and his associates are in fact conservative agents of closure, restoring order by facing up to Bane’s terror and dismissing the more rational ideological musings of Bane as ancient demagoguery. Whereas the Joker in The Dark Knight was interpreted by some critics as a pale reflection of Osama Bin Laden and with Batman standing in for George Bush, The Dark Knight Rises locates the power struggle to the potent iconographic setting of New York, thus making clear parallels with 9-11 and exploiting audience memories of past events. Of course, films which subscribe to the dominant point of view, which encompasses the majority of Hollywood films, are not to be discussed in such political terms because they are in fact entertainment for the masses. As Nolan has said, he only sets out to tell a good story not offer any kind of social or political commentary. Fair enough but such a feeble position sounds a little cowardly given the way the film taps into current anxieties. 

The refusal to negotiate with terrorists is an echo from the Bush doctrine and yet by placing such rhetoric within the context of the new administration suggests a natural continuation of attitudes to the Arab as the demonic Other. Given that Bruce Wayne was trained by the League of Shadows, his battle with Bane is in fact a battle with himself. Nevertheless, by locating the myth of Talia al Ghul in an unnamed country, most likely India, and with the comic book telling us she and her father are of Arabian descent, makes the threat posed by the Other an altogether conventional, if not xenophobic, one. However, the trilogy seem to downplay the Arabian lineage in fear of yet again labelling the Middle East as fanatics who dream of bringing about the end of western civilisation. Of course, the great conundrum in all of this is that The League of Shadows led by Ra’s al-Ghul trains Bruce Wayne to become a formidable warrior. The Dark Knight Rises really comes alive in the third act, something which many recent blockbusters have failed to get right, and weaves together numerous narrative situations to create an ambitious conclusion to a hero’s quest started in Batman Begins. What makes Nolan’s conclusion audacious is the way he leaves the final moments open to interpretation. He does so by drawing on the ending of his most recent film Inception and by throwing in the wish fulfilment of Alfred, closure becomes a complicated affair. It is a film richer in terms of social/political subtext and scope, and equals the emotional resonance generated by the first two films. However, the score by Hans Zimmer is not as good as the first two films and the absence of collaborator James Newton Howard is telling in many respects. The two greatest assets of the film are Bale’s understated performance as Wayne/Batman (by far his best of the three films) and the magnificently noirish cinematography of Wally Pfister. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it a visionary work? No. Is it a great mainstream blockbuster? Yes. And for that alone Nolan should be praised.     

10 July 2012

KILLER JOE (Dir. William Friedkin, 2011, US) – Family Values

William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Lett’s 1993 play ‘Killer Joe’ gives us things which a lot of American films tend to avoid these days; sex and violence. I’m not sure if Friedkin ever ventured into the territory of fantasy or the child’s point of view yet most of his contemporaries including Martin Scorsese have done so. Does that mean Friedkin’s oeuvre in terms of serious, adult content (not in the pornographic sense) has remained more consistent over the years than his contemporaries? From his latest film Killer Joe it certainly feels as though it has. The last time I witnessed audience members exiting a film screening was last year’s Tree of Life. Whereas the reason for audience polarisation with Malick’s transcendental work was largely religious or theological, Killer Joe was good old fashioned revulsion – oh shit, I can’t handle this! Or this is surely in bad taste. I guess the sex and violence in Killer Joe is in bad taste but of course, that’s the real point of the film – an attempt to gauge audience opinion on the way taste has become an indicator of the way we lead our lives. It is easy to read the duplicitous, amoral killer played devilishly by Matthew McConaughey as a collective projection of sin. The white trailer trash family that hires Killer Joe to murder their mother so that they can claim the insurance payout is an aberration of the American dream – a grotesque and perverted statement on family values. In terms of genre, Killer Joe could be categorised as a neo noir but the unsettling mood created by Joe’s violent temperament also invokes the horror film. Joe maybe a monster but he is a monster who seems to be conjured up the deepest anxieties of the family and his mysterious persona adds to the argument of his unworldly presence. The noirish accents are familiar enough to us including the act of betrayal, the doomed male protagonist, the femme fatale and a crushing fatalism but it is the sexual corruption of the youngest member of the family, the affable Dottie (Juno Temple) that gives the film a discernibly nasty edge. Friedkin finds it difficult to shake off the theatrical nature of this piece yet with the final sequence in the trailer he delivers a memorable, if not repugnant, dinner table sequence involving one of the most innovative uses of fried chicken ever seen in an American film. Killer Joe certainly suggests that Friedkin is still a provocative filmmaker.