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