Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

The Granddaddy of surrealist cinema directed his penultimate film at the age of 74. And, my goodness, what creativity at that age! What a grand accomplishment in cinema with one of the most radically unconventional films ever made! It is difficult to outline the greatness of “The Phantom of Liberty” in words but this review makes the most sincere attempt.

In Bunuel’s universe, expect the unexpected. So please throw out all your expectations of finding rational explanations to the events or trying to make sense of them in the logical manner. What Bunuel gives you is the epitome of absurdity. There is absolutely no rationale backing the actions or behavioral traits of the characters here. What we have is characters behaving in the oddest of manners. So a seemingly normal event becomes a reason for raising eyebrows. On the other hand, a seriously eyebrow raising event is met with lack of reaction and is deemed not worth acting upon! This pretty much summarizes the universe of “The Phantom of Liberty”.

The film puts out a series of very interesting and twisted narratives chained together in a very unique manner. A minor character of one narrative takes the film forward by becoming the main character of the next narrative.  This is how focus shifts from character to character, like in a relay race where a baton is passed on. Now that is truly amazing storytelling if nothing else! Bunuel also admits that the episodes are derived from his own personal experiences. It is almost as if Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere (co-scriptwriter) had vivid dreams based on their personal experiences, each dream weirder than the other and they penned down each dream and turned it into one feature-length script! Let it be noted though that Bunuel’s world isn’t derived from fantasy; everything is based in the real world, only the occurrences don’t follow the norms of the real world.

The events in the film take wackiness to another level; yet they range from inherently comic  to highly disturbing. The ‘disturbing’ quotient mostly comes from the display of some aberrant sexuality surrounding at least three of the major characters in a couple of episodes. There is plenty of material here to keep you glued to your seats and ensure that you have a mighty good time, sometimes cringing and sometimes smiling with glee!

Despite the insane nature of the script, Bunuel certainly had a motive to write these scenes the way he wrote them. There are multiple themes in this film, as Bunuel himself declares in his autobiography. Most notably, the importance of chance occurrences or coincidence and the essential mystery of all things, including the ambiguous nature of truth. There is a lot to be taken home from “The Phantom of Liberty”. One may also argue that Bunuel’s eccentric, exaggerated vision is a vehicle to depict how certain things happening in this world around us are simply wrong! Like a dreaded killer who should be hanged sometimes ends up being a media-created celebrity! The inherent difficulty faced by human beings to accept the truth when they finally come face to face with it is depicted through at least two episodes in the film in a hyperbolic manner. Like in his earlier film “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” there is also a fleeting satire on the hypocrisy of the upper middle class.

The actors all play their parts with conviction, and prominent French actors Michel Piccoli and Michael Lonsdale briefly appear in small but extremely memorable scenes. Bunuel, noted for his economic film-making uses minimal sets and almost no special/makeup effects; uses mostly indoor locations to shoot his scenes. There is also a prominent lack of a background score and certain apparently big events are shown off-screen and conveyed only through sound. But this is the narrative device that succeeds most. When events are off-screen and left to the viewer’s imagination, it enhances the impact. There are a number of such instances in “The Phantom of Liberty”.

Bunuel gives you quality cinema near the end of his highly prolific career. “The Phantom of Liberty” is an unforgettable film experience. Cherish this film and its maker; they are a rarity.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

The master of surrealism, Luis Bunuel was about 72 when he made this fantastic film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. It is literally a wet “dream” come true for all those film buffs who like their movies full of oneiric imagery with random occurrences that, although set in a real world, do not make much sense!

It must be clear enough now, that there is no single plot to make this film a whole. Rather it is a collection of confounding events in the life of six central characters of the bourgeois class, including two married couples, who happen to be friends. Most events revolve around their repeatedly thwarted attempts to sit down to have a leisurely meal together! The world in Bunuel’s film, although real, isn’t very logical either. Several seemingly bizarre events are accepted as “normal” with a rather straight face by the characters, which adds to the many qualities of Bunuel’s surreal vision.

Relating some of the strangest and best events in the film in this review will do disservice to the first time viewer, but assuming that a mention of a couple of other events will only entice the reader to watch the film, instead of spoiling the fun, I think I can safely mention them. The group of the aforementioned six people are walking down a long stretch of an open road on a sunny day. This scene is repeated throughout the film and randomly interspersed with other events in the film. Then in one scene, the three ladies of the group sit down in a restaurant to have some tea. The waiter later comes and tells them that it is unavailable. The cycle continues, as later, no matter what they order, the waiter comes back after a few minutes and informs them that they are “out of it”. In the midst of this, a complete stranger, a sad-looking Lieutenant in a uniform, comes to their table, relates a ghostly tale from his childhood and walks away. The ladies don’t seem to be express much disbelief upon hearing the odd tale either!

Suffice to say, that this is one of Luis Bunuel’s best films in which he puts together such amazing episodes that will make you smile in disbelief! The episodes are sometimes disturbing, yet most of the times they are comic. But the comedy comes from the general irrationality of it all; the events are not “funny” in the conventional sense. The stranger it gets, the better it gets, and there is literally no end, as Bunuel subjects the audience to one great scene after other, some laced with wry humour, and some others revealing the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Fine performances come from almost all of the cast, in which their behavior reflects the eccentricity of the event at hand! They don’t really act normal or rational! Some scenes are ultimately revealed to be dreams, but there are yet others which are still off-the-wall yet not revealed to be either dream or reality. If nothing else this film will reveal Bunuel’s wide range of imagination where the surrealism doesn’t go wild all the way into another world (like in some Terry Gilliam films). Bunuel shows that twisting some reality in the real world can be just as weird and an even better experience than the outlandish, unrealistic universe in which some other filmmakers set their films.

Luis Bunuel accomplished at 72 what most other young filmmakers still struggle to do. He made a perfect film for us hungry viewers who seek uncoventional cinema! And yet at the same time, Bunuel seems to be having fun himself by subjecting us audiences to his spectacular imagination and having a good laugh at our perplexity. The Academy Award was well-deserved. The jury must have had a ball and handed over the trophy without further thought.

Go for it! Super fun and a good mind-fuck is guaranteed!

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Silence (Tystnaden) (1963)

Sometimes words aren’t necessary to convey meaning or emotion. Quiet is as effective as any spoken language or detailed text. Master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence (Tystnaden)” which shocked the audience at the time of its release goes way ahead of its time and proves just that.

Writing about the plot isn’t going to serve any purpose here. There isn’t a conventional “plot” to speak of. “The Silence” mostly explores the three principal characters and their emotional chemistry. Right from the first frame, in a train compartment we are introduced to sisters Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Ester (Ingrid Thulin). They are accompanied by Anna’s son Johan (Jörgen Lindström), a boy of about 10. Instantly we gain knowledge that something isn’t right between the sisters. We also know that Ester seems to be seriously ill with some kind of terminal illness, and Anna perhaps considers her a burden.

They halt at some huge but sparsely occupied hotel in “Timoka”. The country also seems to be on the brink of war. The language spoken there is unknown to the sisters and the locals themselves hardly communicate and if they do, in some incomprehensible language. The rest of the film follows the three characters as they spend their time in this hotel, their interactions  with the locals despite the unfamiliarity with the language at the same time, partially revealing some hidden truths about their desires, feelings, and some baffling ambiguities in their mutual relationships…..

Ingmar Bergman does an astounding job of conveying a plethora of emotions through powerful images capable of creating a tremendous impact on the viewer. As mentioned earlier, the dialog is sparse, perhaps a couple of conversations between the sisters and Johan. What  fills this canvas is the eerie and unsettling mood, the outstanding sound effects, including a particularly haunting “clock ticking” sound that appears periodically. Add to that Sven Nykvist’s flawless cinematography, with the bleak images, the ghostly shadows and partially lit halls of a near empty hotel, sometimes giving it a feel of a horror film. And then there are the characters and their interactions. Their spoken words are very few, but their expressions speak volumes about the kind of feeling they harbor about one another. Ingrid Thulin’s Ester very convincingly puts it across that she resents Anna going out and having a jolly time, including indulging in sexual encounters while she has to be confined to the indoors. But what is the real cause behind her resentment? Is she jealous of Anna’s voluptuous good looks or is she attracted to them?! And what about Johan? What kind of feelings does he really have for his mother and aunt?

A lot is said but still plenty is left unsaid. This is where the beauty of Bergman’s narration lies. And he couldn’t have handled it better. It is like partially opening the curtains of a window so you can just see part of the scenery that lies on the other side. The other half is left to imagination and interpretation. It is a frustrating as well as rewarding experience all at the same time.

Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom go all out with their bravura performances. Thulin is a clear winner here as she gives a nuanced performance of an ailing writer who seeks refuge in alcohol self-medication. Her subtle display of controlled rage of being at the receiving end of nothing but spite from her younger sister along with a couple other acts of alarming intensity, all amount to one of the finest female performances I’ve ever seen. Lindblom looks gorgeous with her bewitching good looks. But she isn’t far behind with her acting either. Check out Anna’s display of searing animosity for her more intelligent elder sister. Or await that hysterical outburst towards the end. It is a breathtaking performance worth a standing ovation. The boy Jorgen Lindstrom does a superb job too, as the innocent little tyke, neglected by his mother, who keeps wandering around the empty hotel. His scenes with the Spanish performing dwarfs and the kindly old porter at the hotel are especially noteworthy.

The signature shot of 'overlapping faces', made more famous by Bergman's "Persona" later.
With the shocking imagery and some brief but daring scenes of lurid eroticism (for the time), this could very well be Bergman’s boldest film. There was considerable controversy regarding the film’s content in Sweden and other countries at the time, leading to some heavy censorship.

“Tystnaden (The Silence)” is an intensely devastating and mesmerizing character study from the Swedish master and deserves to be ranked amongst his finest; the controversies surrounding the film notwithstanding.

Score: 10/10.

Friday, November 11, 2011

High and Low (1963)

Akira Kurosawa's riveting kidnap + police-procedural drama is an absolute delight to watch. The reasons are many and this is perhaps one of the few instances of a Kurosawa film being set in the contemporary world.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a top executive of National Shoes, who aims high and plans to buy out most of the shares of the company. He feels he is the only one who possesses the wit and expertise to do good business with the resources at hand and manages to rub the other shareholders the wrong way. He puts everything at stake and amasses the means to carry out his task when things take a turn for the worse as he receives an anonymous call from a person who claims to have kidnapped his only son. The kidnapper demands a whopping 30 million yen in return for the son. Just as Gondo is coming to terms with the situation he realizes his son is still around the house and the kidnapper accidentally kidnapped his Chauffeur Aoki's (Yutaka Sada) son! Gondo is faced with a dilemma of losing a fortune and his dreams of owning National Shoes against keeping it all and being branded a cruel man who let his chauffeur's son die! What choices does Gondo make? What happens to the chauffeur's son? Is the kidnapper finally nabbed and brought to justice?

Kurosawa's film is not a run-of-the-mill Hollywood-like thriller. Like any other Kurosawa film this one also looks deep into the psyche of the characters and lets the audiences understand them. Almost all players, from the lead character Gondo to his chauffeur Aoki, to some of the Police officers involved, everyone has considerably meaty roles to play and that is a big plus. In fact Mifune's character takes a backseat in the entire second half of the film, as the cops take over in one of the most intense investigation missions I've ever seen on screen. There are some very clever scenes in the film that reflect the director's genius and you can't help but smile in admiration!

Every frame of this film is rife with suspense as you wonder what would happen next; how would this character behave next, what steps would he take? Pretty soon, we, the audiences, become part of the whole case as we feel for Gondo and empathize with him for the soup he is in. It soon becomes National news and the entire Police force is put on the task of tracking down the perpetrators!

The investigations are shown to the last detail as they unfold across the 2.5 hours length of the film and it is no surprise, Kurosawa being the man behind this! The intention, I presume, was to show the immense difficulty the police face in cracking such cases. The measures they take, the sleepless nights they spend, the way they have to cling to every little shred of evidence they get that can lead them to their man. Yes indeed, it is a time consuming and frustrating process and Kurosawa couldn't have done a better job of showing it on screen. We are led deep into the investigation and yet in a very lucid manner, without confusing the audience too much, like a magician, Kurosawa gets us audiences involved in the case! It is this wonderful quality of Kurosawa's filmmaking that takes "High and Low" to a much higher level than any other film with a similar premise that you may have seen.

The cinematography is another aspect worth appreciating. Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito capture some of the finest images and make great use of the widescreen aspect ratio! Superb frames all along and cleverly shot scenes, especially in some of the most important sequences in the film that require ingenious camerawork.
Acting is amazing as well with yet another standout performance from the legendary Toshiro Mifune! What an outstanding display of angst, frustration and anger, you almost feel that he is actually going through all the trauma. It is a superlative piece of acting that has to be seen to be believed! Great supporting acts from Tatsuya Nakadai as Chief Inspector Tokura, Kenjiro Ishiyama as the scary looking detective Taguchi, Yutaka Sada as the Chauffeur Aoki, Tatsuya Mihashi as Gondo's right hand man, Kawanishi, Kyoko Kagawa as Mrs. Gondo and finally Tsutomu Yamazaki in a short but extremely memorable performance as Ginjirô Takeuchi. The five minutes sequence between Mifune and Yamazaki is highly disturbing, yet worth a standing ovation.

Takashi Shimura also makes a small apperance as the Chief of Investigations, but isn't given much to do except look over the Police meetings and take feedback.

Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low" is perhaps one of his most under-appreciated films and one that puts most other films of the premise to shame. Do not miss this highly captivating, suspenseful drama. 

Score: 9/10.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Umberto D. (1952)

Amongst the countless films we watch day in day out (or week in week out), dealing with the same tired premises, like a breath of fresh air, once in a while, we come across a one of a kind, straight from the heart, simple yet very profound film like Vittorio De Sica’s “Umberto D.”! The master of Italian Neo-realist cinema has never failed to wow me. “Umberto D” is no exception. Although it doesn’t quite match up to the greatness of my personal favourite De Sica film “The Children are Watching Us”, it is still a very important and poignant film with a noble message.

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is an elderly man with apparently no one but his dog Flike by his side. He seems to be living on his pension which itself is not enough to pay off his back rent and his cantankerous landlady (Lina Gennari) keeps threatening to boot him out of the room if the debts aren’t settled soon. She apparently has other reasons than just the lack of payments to kick him out and maintains her stand anyway, refusing to even accept part of the payment, saying it is “all or nothing”. Soon, Umberto D. realizes the fact that she doesn’t want him to stay, no matter what. The film then relates Umberto D.’s desperate attempts at securing a stable shelter for his beloved Flike at least, if not for him…..

The sheer simplicity of Vittorio De Sica’s story-telling is astonishing! It is amazing how effortlessly De Sica executes the scenes in his film. Every scene is so down-to-earth, almost like they are real episodes happening in your neighbourhood with real people. There is no glamour here, absolutely no sugar-coating of characters or actors to make them look good and “cinematic”; these are real people; faces representing people you see every day.
It should be noted that most of the actors in “Umberto D.” were non-professionals, including the lead actor, Carlo Battisti. This was his first and last film role! Perhaps De Sica wanted as much realism as possible and hence the decision to cast non-actors!

De Sica paints a pretty accurate picture of how people react when it comes to helping others in need. Though not the whole populace, but a majority of them just speak of doing good deeds and being selfless, but when it comes to actually doing something for someone, they shy away. The kind of social apathy shown in “Umberto D” is not exaggerated. Also there definitely are people like the difficult landlady who treats Umberto, a man old enough to be her father, with such disrespect, it is not surprising that Umberto D despises her. There are other characters like the landlady’s maid Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), a young girl who really cares for Umberto and wishes to help him, but is already drowned in problems of her own, including one of her pregnancy from one of her boyfriends (she doesn’t know which!), yet both denying their role in it!

The film takes a more somber turn after the first half when the situation seems to turn utterly helpless for Umberto. That is where the real struggle starts; the most painful part of the film, and some scenes can’t help but move the viewer. It is in this part also that the most intelligent, unpredictable, and somewhat disturbing scenes of the film unfold. Most De Sica films have an effect on the viewers and tend to make them miserable by the end. “Umberto D” is no different, yet it is definitely uplifting as compared to some other De Sica films!

The acting from some of the cast is the weak point of the film but let us not forget, as mentioned above, most of the actors weren’t professionals. In spite of that, the lead actor Carlo Battisti delivers a sensitive, heartfelt performance. If I hadn’t read that he is not a professional I wouldn’t believe it, except in a couple of awkward scenes where it becomes slightly visible. As for Maria-Pia Casilio, this girl is a dead giveaway and practically exposes the fact that she isn’t an actress as she holds the same deadpan, wooden expression on her face in all of her scenes! Although she looks pretty cute with her doll-face, she can’t act to save her life, and it shows! The landlady, Lina Gennari on the other hand does a decent job.

Special mention must be made of the clever little mutt, the dog, Flike. Now how on earth De Sica managed to get the dog to do all those things is something awe-inspiring! Of course, they have trainers for dogs and I suppose this trainer must’ve been a real pro! Suffice to say that Flike is the only “actor” in this film that rivals Carlo Battisti’s performance! It is a priceless act; kudos to the team of trainers and De Sica for pulling off the job with the animal!

All you folks young and old, must certainly look “Umberto D.” up. It is a striking example of how much “substance” matters. Good content is all that is necessary to make a great film. You don’t need style, sex, glamour or violence.

Score: 9/10

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Toto Le Heros (1991)

Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael didn’t make too many films in his career which started almost 30 years ago. Mostly credited with making short films, Dormael has only three feature-length films to his credit as director. One of them is his 1991 feature-length debut, “Toto Le Heros”, a charming little film that came to my attention recently.

The story is narrated by an elderly man named Thomas (Michel Bouquet). He talks of his eventful yet ‘ordinary’ childhood, the ghosts of which continue to haunt him. Thomas believes that he was switched at birth during a fire at the hospital in which he was born, with his next door neighbor, Alfred Kant who was born on the same day. Alfred got a much better childhood, thanks to the switch, Thomas narrates. Alfred has become the object of Thomas’ hatred. Thomas feels Alfred is the reason for several problems in his life, right from their toddlerhood and that Alfred has been directly or indirectly responsible for Thomas’ wasted life!  Thomas has long since, harbored  a feeling of revenge, and swears to kill Alfred…stressing that he will be the only one to kill Alfred! 

The film then switches back and forth between timelines, randomly placing scenes of Thomas’ childhood, adulthood and old age, as some light is thrown on various important episodes in Thomas’ life and why he regarded Alfred as his worst enemy.  Thomas’ mind, however, seems to go astray, as he paints vivid fantasies, imagining himself to be ‘Toto’, a secret agent who saves his family from the evil Kant family, and also imagines him getting even with the bullies who troubled him in his childhood!

Dormael’s screenplay is absorbing and one of a kind. The scenes are tied together like flashes of memory instead of a real time narrative. That was the intention, as Dormael states in an interview. He wanted to avoid the heavy physical progression of time and rather make a screenplay that echoed or captured the thoughts of the central character Thomas.  And it is very much like that, as the scenes keep jumping timelines and sometimes two timelines come together in a single scene. Not surprisingly, we do not have long, laborious takes; rather, scenes which are constantly on the move, barring a few crucial sequences which have to have a pace to match their oneiric quality.  There are also times when certain events occurring in one timeline ‘echo’ in some form in another timeline. In a screenplay abundant with ambiguities concerning fantasy and reality, it is a product of a genuine and painstaking thought process put into the making of this film as the viewer would recognize. Thomas is an unreliable narrator, owing to his drifting away (at one point imagining shoving all the capsules of medication down the nurse’s throat, as she taunts him for “smoking again” and forcing him to take his medicine!), and therefore it is sometimes  unclear whether a particular episode in Thomas’ life is fact or a figment of his imagination. But whatever is shown is all very interesting and pleasing to the eye.

It is interesting how the cinematography differs from time frame to time frame. Thomas’ childhood era is shown quite colourful and cheerful, with music and an atmosphere that cannot help but evoke a sense of nostalgia; the joyful nature and nostalgia further enhanced with Thomas’ father’s crooning of Charles Trenet’s wonderfully apt song, “Boum!”. The adulthood era is shown in a normal tone with the camera angle clearly changed, while the old age era appears much bleaker than the earlier eras! It is the way these subtle aspects have been handled in the filmmaking process that win this film extra points. On a broad level, “Toto Le Heros” reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s semiautobiographical “Zerkalo (The Mirror)” and also Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”. In both the films, the narrator’s memories of old days are interspersed in the present, in a narrative that keeps shifting between the past and the present randomly. This is where the similarities end, of course. “Toto Le Heros” is a far cry from the art-house films that “Zerkalo” and “8 ½” are…in fact “Toto Le Heros” will appeal to both, the lovers of commercial entertainers, as well those who love thought provoking art cinema. This can be attributed to the crisp editing (by Susana Rosberg), thanks to the brisk pace, as scenes keep shifting between timelines (just like memories) and events keep happening throughout the modest 90 minutes length of the film, an intentional aspect demanded by Jaco Van Dormael, the auteur that he is.

The acting is commendable from most of the cast, particularly all three actors who play Thomas, Thomas Godet (as a child), Jo De Backer(adult) and Michel Bouquet (old man). Special mention should be made of Pascal Duquenne, an actor with Down Syndrome who plays Thomas’ brother Celestin. An endearing performance indeed!

Jaco Van Dormael clearly has talent. Too bad he kept himself limited to only a handful of movies. “Toto Le Heros” is a fascinating drama with a bittersweet and memorable ending. Definitely recommended!

Score: 9/10

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman, the man behind such interesting screenplays like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Being John Malkovich" tries his hand at directing one such outlandish script of his own, "Synecdoche, New York" (A play of words on "Schenectady, New York", and the concept of "synecdoche" itself!).


Beginning on a rather mundane note, the film introduces us to theater director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wife - a budding artist Adele (Catherine Keener) and his daughter Olive. Caden and Adele's marriage is on the rocks. While Adele isn't happy with Caden, Caden clearly is still attached to Adele and Olive. Caden's new play meets with a lot of success and critical acclaim. Soon after, Adele takes off to Berlin to pursue her art further, with her daughter Olive, promising to return about a month later. In the midst of all this, we are also introduced a perpetually stoned Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Claire, the actress (Michelle Williams) and the comely box office girl at the theater, Hazel (Samantha Morton) who has the hots for Caden. We gradually learn that Caden suffers from a variety of physical ailments including some unexplained skin lesions and a nervous disorder suppressing his autonomous functions.

The Charlie Kaufman angle to the story begins one day when Caden receives a MacArthur Fellowship that bestows upon him financial means to pursue his artistic interests. Determined to give the aid its worth, Caden begins working on his masterpiece, a larger than life stage play that would be unparalleled and honest, more close to real life than anything else. As the play and its characters begin to take shape, the lines between reality and the play script begin to blur and Caden loses all sense of time and place and so does the audience......


There are various themes explored in "Synecdoche, New York". There is a constant sense of death, decay and sickness going on right from the beginning. The TV screen shows an animation of a virus, the magazine Caden receives in his mailbox has a cover page speaking about disease and cure, the milk in the fridge seems to have got spoilt, and so on. Olive seems to think something is wrong with her 'cause her stools are green! Caden keeps reiterating too, that he "doesn't feel well". There are numerous visits to doctors, a particularly scary seizure that Caden experiences (one of the finest pieces of acting I've ever seen...Hoffman is more than convincing!). With physical decay there is also a decay of moral values, of failed marriages, extramarital stints, eventual guilt and an innocent little girl being exposed to the risqué business at an early age with her body being tattooed at the age of 10...!

There is a constant feeling of loneliness and longing throughout, as the protagonist experiences it. Then there is the delusion, particularly the "Cotard Delusion" (perhaps, hence the name "Caden Cotard" for the main character?) .

Several other motifs abound, like the "scale" with which both artists work. While Adele makes "miniature" paintings and the size of her paintings diminishes as time and the film itself progresses, Caden's work becomes larger and larger in the form of the life-size replica of New York in a warehouse! It also reflects the theme concerning bridging the gap between dream and reality, as Caden's dream begins to take shape in reality...or does it? The theme of "play within play...within play...." Is stressed upon throughout, as lookalikes brought in to play real life characters, end up having more lookalikes to play the lookalikes! Just like Sammy (Tom Noonan) is brought in to play Caden, and another person is brought in to play Sammy. It is all an endless cycle....a never-ending quest for something (perhaps an exercise in self-realization for all those involved) that seems to reach no conclusion. The stage production goes on for a whopping 17 years when one of the crew members points it out to Caden. It is only then that we, the audience, realize that so much time has indeed passed! 

Kaufman tries to do justice to his highly surreal story but does he succeed? Well, almost! It should be noted that there is a strong resemblance to Federico Fellini's masterpiece "8 1/2" as far as the main theme is concerned. Just as Guido in that film tries to build an ambitious film project brutally honest and closer to life from his own personal experiences, Caden embarks on a similar mission. The difference being, Guido suffered from a Director's block, Caden didn't! Parallels can also be drawn to David Lynch's "Inland Empire" as far as the "play within a play" motif is concerned ("Film within film" in case of Lynch's film).

"Synecdoche, New York" is all well-intentioned...there are quite a few terrific scenes embedded in the script. There is a sense of despair and sorrow throughout that works in the film's favour. Kaufman really got himself involved in this project and it shows. Only there is such a thing as being too involved! It almost seems that just like his lead character Caden, Kaufman got too engrossed in making his dream project that is this film and got lost somewhere in the maze of delusion himself, so what could one say about us audiences! While the film maintains considerable coherence for almost the first 80 minutes, it seems to spiral out of control after that. Lynch's "Inland Empire" suffered from a similar syndrome but Lynch, being Lynch, managed to make up for the muddled script with enthralling imagery and intriguing surprises along the way! Alas, not everyone is David Lynch and hence, making a surreal film isn't everyone's forte. Kaufman tries very hard, makes a strong attempt and almost gets close to making a winner, but falls a tad short, nonetheless!
That doesn't take away Kaufman's credibility though, and praise must be showered where it is due. Some of the themes/episodes in "Synecdoche, New York" ooze brilliance and are quite unique. Like the house that is eternally on fire, is one awesomely bizarre idea! And for some strange reason that particular part reminded me of the Coen Brothers' underrated flick, "Barton Fink"! Kaufman directs really well, until the last few minutes when he struggles to maintain the tautness in the script 'til he finally takes to the film's bleak conclusion. The editing by Robert Frazen is commendable. Chronologies are shuffled but the timeline is lucid enough to comprehend.

The performances are spectacular. Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves a standing ovation for his magnificent performance. Only one wishes he didn't mumble his lines as much in some of his scenes! Amongst the ladies, it is Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton that emerge clear winners. Robin Weigert and Jennifer Jason Leigh impress in their respective miniscule roles but don't get much to do, unfortunately.

Charlie Kaufman's efforts are noteworthy and "Synecdoche, New York" is not a film that should be ignored. Yes, it is self-indulgent... yes, it is somewhat incoherent. But that said, yes, it is also essential viewing. Give this film a chance; it is worth your time, simply because it isn't something you get to see every day. Oh...and regardless of the comparisons, don't go in expecting another "8 1/2"! 

Score: 8/10 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” could very well serve as a public service film in some support groups akin to Alcoholics Anonymous! I mean rarely have I come across a film that that is solely dedicated to chronicling an alcoholic’s drinking binge over a trying weekend, as he recalls the period of time during which alcohol got the better of him.

We are introduced to Don (Ray Milland), a down on his luck writer in New York struggling with his alcoholism. Apparently he is attempting to recover from it and has weaned from the stuff for ten days, which is when he and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are planning to take a vacation over the weekend as a further attempt to take Don’s mind off alcohol. Don conveniently evades this outing plan by sending his brother with his girl Helen (Jane Wyman) to a concert and agreeing to take the later train. Ensuring that there is no bottle hidden away in one of Don’s many “secret places”, Wick reluctantly agrees.  

A penniless Don frantically seeks out alcohol when opportunity knocks in the form of the cleaning lady, who he successfully manages to con out of her wages, all for whiskey! And thus unfolds Don’s disturbing story of alcohol addiction, told partly in flashback as he pours his heart out to Nat (Howard Da Silva) of Nat’s Bar, Don’s favourite hangout and partly in the present as the weekend turns deadlier by the minute as Don’s alcohol craving gets desperate…

The above summary may seem wafer-thin but you will be surprised at how much material Billy Wilder packs in this 100 mins film that just drifts by…! Ray Milland, in his Oscar winning portrayal of Don, the alcoholic, delivers a scintillating performance. Practically the whole film rides on this masterful performance, for if the performance hadn’t been as effective, the film wouldn’t be as effective! As Don guzzles down shots of Rye Whiskey, we come to know of his past, his involvement with Helen, his embarrassment at being a writer who isn’t able to get a breakthrough and his increasing belief that he is inspired to write only when drunk!

Wilder paints a very frightening picture of what happens when one clings on to the bottle.

I, personally, am a whisky lover too, but I would hate to be in Don’s position. For Don, alcohol becomes the one and only solace. It becomes a way of his miserable life! It becomes the sole goal and drinking appears to be the magical cure for everything! Wilder shows it all…the desperation, the depression, the helplessness at not finding a bottle, the penury that drives Don to even try and pawn his livelihood…his typewriter! And then there’s the hallucinations! On one hand Wilder shows some superbly surreal scenes depicting Don’s thirst for alcohol. Check out that wonderful scene at a stage show, when, while watching a song depicting drinking, Don develops a strong desire to drink and all the performers on stage appear to be a row of raincoats to him, ‘cause his raincoat which he has checked in before entering the auditorium, contains a bottle of rye! And then there are the hallucinations which result from alcoholism going overboard…as a character in the film, Bim (Frank Faylen) says “alcoholics usually imagine seeing small animals rather than pink elephants”!

It is sufficient to say that as far as the deadliness of alcoholism are concerned, Wilder makes sure he covers all the grim effects it would have on a person. A significant part of the film plays out with perfection. The crisp editing and super smooth narrative of the engaging screenplay are some of the winning aspects of “The Lost Weekend”.

It is only towards the end that Wilder decides to go “Hollywood” with his ending!

Why, a film that builds up to such great promise, has to end with a whimper is beyond me. I mean it could’ve been the ultimate picture of inevitable doom and destruction suddenly does an about face and closes with a proverbial “where there’s a will there’s a way” ending full of hope that simply did not fit in the scheme of things in the major portion of “The Lost Weekend”. It would still be convincing if there was a gradual buildup to that ending, but so is not the case. There is a sudden reversal from an obvious point of no return, and that becomes one of the major flaws of “The Lost Weekend”. One only wishes Wilder had revised the ending.

While not a masterpiece like Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd” is, “The Lost Weekend” is most definitely worth taking a look at.

Score: 8/10.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Oscar winning director George Stevens produced and directed one of the most popular films of our time, “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Liz Taylor and Shelley Winters.

Based on the novel “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, the screenplay written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown tells the tragic story centering around a young, ambitious yet financially poor man named George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) who leaves behind the religious missionary work his parents were a part of and moves out with the hopes of seeking some decent employment with his business tycoon distant uncle Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes). Initially perceived as socially “misfit” amongst the Eastmans, George is given a menial packaging task on the Factory floor. Early on, George seems to have developed the hots for a beautiful socialite and wealthy family friend of the Eastmans, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). But she hardly even notices him in the beginning, and believing her to be way out of his reach owing to his social status, George probably decides to leave it aside.

Meanwhile, breaking one essential rule of not mixing with the female co-workers, George gets romantically involved with one Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters).  Their romance heats up quickly enough and George also finds himself steadily climbing the ladder in the Eastman industry, thanks to his hard work and last name Eastman! Soon enough he finds himself shoulder to shoulder with some of the who’s who in an Eastman party and Angela Vickers finally notices him and predictably enough, falls for his boyish charms! George seizes the opportunity and gets involved in a passionate affair with Angela.  Things however take a turn for the worse when Alice declares she is pregnant with George’s child…….

“A Place in the Sun” is one of those rare motion pictures which unfold in a predictable fashion, yet manage to hold our attention, thanks to the riveting performances and the superbly written scenes full of exciting drama. So we all know how it’s all gonna turn out…at least initially! The romantic relationships build up most predictably and you know very early in the film how the love triangle will eventually take its shape. We all know then that there is bound to be some turbulence when Alice gets pregnant. Now it is post this point that the protagonist starts to take drastic decisions and we immediately begin to sense the outcome for his every action!

Yet George Stevens manages to give us a highly watchable film. A film that starts with sugar-candy-floss romance, soon turns into a bleak noir-like drama! The quality of the film is only enhanced by William C. Mellor’s Oscar winning cinematography and William Hornbeck’s crisp editing. Stevens takes the helm of this project and ably delivers a solid drama. Only one wishes the romance wasn’t as cheesily portrayed and the dialogs weren’t as excessively sappy! I mean how many times have we heard “I've loved you since the first moment I saw you”!! And this is said by the protagonist to Angela not long after he has confessed his “everlasting love” to Alice! It is only human to behave like that…succumb to ravishing beauty (especially when you have the likes of Liz Taylor eating out of your hand), but Clift’s portrayal of his character looks calm and gentle with a discreet charm, a far cry from being a suave, yet sly womanizer who would two-time two beautiful ladies. 

Clift was nominated for an Academy award for his portrayal, yet I felt something was certainly lacking, especially in later scenes where he is required to emote, more so for a person or character who finds himself in the sticky situation he is in! He has done a far better job in some of his other films.

Taylor looks ravishing enough as a high society girl, whose every move makes headlines in the local papers. So even if she goes on a boating trip somewhere, she is captured by the paparazzi and it appears in the morning papers! For a girl spoilt by the media like that, it is quite surprising that she turns out to be such a fool for love, falling for a man whom she hardly knows about and even being ready to marry him! One would think such a girl would have a jolly time with several young men dying to woo her and get close to her!

The only character that is the most realistically portrayed, then, is Shelley Winters’ Alice Tripp. It is a spectacular performance that deserved the Academy award nomination. Winters clearly understands her character, that of a poor girl working in a factory; one who’s afraid to bring boys to her humble rented apartment, for fear that she would be in trouble if her landlady found out. One who gives her everything to the man she loves; one whose angst is visible when she begins to sense betrayal, just as her lover gets a taste of the rich and famous (read Angela Vickers!). It is a solid performance that deserves most accolades.

Of the supporting cast, it is Raymond Burr’s portrayal of the limping District Attorney R. Frank Marlowe, that holds our attention, although he has but a few scenes to his credit.

“A Place in the Sun” is definitely worth checking out. The sappy romance and some unconvincing character traits notwithstanding, it is one of the most accomplished works in American cinema.

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Klute (1971)

With a strange name like “Klute” I wondered what’s in store, considering all I knew was that this was an early Alan J. Pakula film and the first of his informally known “Paranoia trilogy”.

Things start to happen immediately as the credits begin to roll, and we soon come across the situation around which “Klute” is centered. Tom Gruneman, a Pennsylvania executive has disappeared without a trace, under mysterious circumstances. It is after six whole months of wasted efforts and no outcome on part of the police, that Gruneman’s friend and colleague Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) entrusts the responsibility of investigating the disappearance to Tom’s family friend, John Klute (Donald Sutherland). All he has, to start with, is an obscene letter, apparently written by Gruneman to a New York prostitute named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). With the Bree Daniels link, Klute begins his investigation hoping to reach Gruneman.

But Klute soon realizes that things aren’t gonna be easy, as it becomes difficult to get the reluctant Bree to talk. Bree is a call-girl but is clearly not enjoying it. She wants to be an actress, but doesn’t seem to be getting a break. In the midst of all this she is haunted by the constant feeling of being stalked. She feels she is being followed around, even gets blank calls in the wee hours of the night! Obviously in a troubled state of mind, she visits a shrink from time to time and reveals her deepest fears to her.

The film then delves upon Klute’s investigations and Bree’s personal problems as it moves along its steady and gripping screenplay. Does he finally uncover the mystery of Gruneman’s disappearance? Is there more to it than he can ever handle?

Klute” reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s terrific psychological drama “The Conversation” on many levels. Although “Klute” came out before “The Conversation”, one can’t help but notice the astounding similarities in the “atmosphere” of both the films. The film is slow-paced, there is considerable focus on surveillance and the use of tape-recorded voices, the constant paranoia of being followed and watched all the time, along with other things. Of course, that said, the two films are completely different in terms of plot and central theme.

This is only Pakula’s second film as director and he does a fantastic job with the material at hand, the screenplay written by Andy and Dave Lewis. It is great to see Donald Sutherland underplay his character of Klute, thus making his performance quite memorable. Jane Fonda is superb in her Oscar winning role as the troubled call-girl wanting to quit. The always dependable Roy Scheider appears briefly in an important role as Frank Ligourin, Bree’s former pimp and makes sure he makes a mark in whatever little screen time he gets! Michael Small’s enigmatic music is creepy and at some point reminded me of some B-horror films but that is actually a compliment as the music suits some of the more nail-biting moments shot in the dark.

However I must admit that while the film is built up in a pretty solid fashion up to its climax, the final few minutes are a tad disappointing…but maybe it’s just me; perhaps I was expecting a bit more from this film and hence ended up feeling somewhat underwhelmed!

Nonetheless, credit must be given where it is due, and this film is surely a must-see for lovers of old school mysteries and whodunits!

Score: 8/10.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Girl by the Lake (2007)

It was a weekend well spent for me for having watched yet another hidden Italian gem that is “The Girl by the Lake”.

Toni Servillo stars in this intriguing whodunit set in a picturesque, quiet little mountain village somewhere in Italy. The film opens with great promise of a finely crafted film, as we see a little girl named Marta walk down the road in her neighbourhood exchanging sweet hellos, when she is stopped midway by a man in a truck whom she calls Mario and seems to know well. What he says isn’t audible to us, but she accompanies him in his truck and he drives away.

But there are other things happening elsewhere in this little obscure place that is sparsely populated and everyone seems to know every other person! So it is no surprise that everyone knows a beautiful girl in her late teens who turns up dead by the nearby lake. She is left there naked by her killer, but strangely enough there isn’t much evidence of physical abuse on her body and she seems to have died of strangulation. Inspector Sanzio (Toni Servillo) starts pursuing the case with the assistance of his loyal fellow officers Alfredo and Lorenzo Siboldi. As he begins unearthing evidence based on his clues and starts rounding up suspects who all happen to be locals and those who have seen Anna alive not more than a few hours before her death, we also learn that the Inspector is dealing with some personal problems of his own. Battling his own personal demons, the inspector begins to realize that every one of his suspects has a secret which may or may not be directly related to Anna’s death…

The Girl in the Lake” is surprisingly overlooked, possibly because it had limited release outside of the Italy and only recently was released on DVD in the US by IFC Entertainment. It is a neatly made film and ensures it doesn’t stray from its focal point, even though the proceedings are a tad slow. It steers clear of cheap gimmicks and instead relies on intricate characterization, slowly introducing us and getting us acquainted with all the individuals that Anna interacted with. Like any standard mystery, of course, there are red herrings, but not to the extent of seeming forced. The cinematography is spectacular as the camera pans and lingers on some of the most amazing locations you may have seen. Everything is so beautiful and cut away from the rest of the world, it will make you wanna go there on a weekend getaway trip! Adding to the merits of the fantastic camerawork is the fact that even the most ordinary scenes seem out of the ordinary as they are shot in a way as to please the viewer’s eye! The film also avoids the use of gratuitous gruesomeness in the form of excess violence or nudity. In fact this is a surprisingly clean film as far as such ‘visual’ devices in a murder mystery are concerned. 
The performances are all genuine and convincing, but of course, one that stands out belongs to Toni Servillo as he impresses yet again with a brilliant act after his “The Consequences of Love” which I saw last. Also watch out for an interesting cameo by Valeria Golino (“Hot Shots!”, "Rain Man").

For first time director, Andrea Molaioli, “The Girl by the Lake” is quite a commendable debut, even if the conclusion may seem a tad underwhelming to some. I, on the other hand was quite impressed as it took me entirely by surprise and I couldn’t help but think how well it distances itself from the usual conclusions that most films of the genre typically resort to!

For all its worth, “The Girl by the Lake” definitely deserves to be seen and is worth the time invested, rest assured!

Score: 8/10.