Wednesday, January 23, 2013

War Witch (Kim Nguyen, 2012)

War Witch explores the story of a 12-year-old African girl, abducted from her village by armed rebels and is forced to wage war as a child soldier. The film is a dramatic exploration of a child soldier's tumultuous life that never becomes too sentimental or overtly sensationalistic - a familiar pitfall for a film in this genre. Instead it is a straightforward portrayal of young Komona. Despite the extreme cruelty, the film is narrated with enough sensitivity. The actors are natural, dialogue is treated with necessity, cinematography is supremely imaginative with an in-action trance while at the same time maintains calculated detachment. Apart from the above, the real gem in the movie is Nguyen's varied taste for African folk and contemporary music and their skillful use, respectfully infusing images and music to carve out memorable frames. While tough on eyes at times, it is tender at heart and exudes hope.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

In Certified Copy, Kiarostami harks back to his favorite question of the supposed divide between art and originality (divide between cinema and life, as we know them) and skillfully weaves his tale around two characters while examining his central theme that nothing is really original and that we all assume roles in our lives. This is a recall of the themes he masterfully examined in Close Up. James Miller is a British author on a tour of Tuscany where his work on originality in art has been better received than in his homeland. Binoche is the woman who comes to hear his talk, and the two are then drawn together in a discussion of his work. Once the two meet again, the course of the movie charts their discussions over the course of an afternoon, taking in the Italian countryside and engaging with a number of characters along the way who cause them to reflect on their differing viewpoints on author's work. There's a turning point as we approach the halfway mark where one of those characters seemingly mistakes the pair for a married couple. What starts as a role play, set off by the misunderstanding, takes on more and more aspects, and eventually both the pair and the audience are lost in the drama. The whole movie reveals itself to be an intricate construct on this concept, almost every aspect of the theme, the performances or the setting playing with the motif of originality versus imitation. Reflections in car windows sometimes obscure the actors themselves, point-of-view shots ask us to engage directly in the drama almost as a participant and this even extends to the leading pair themselves – The male lead is a renowned baritone, not an actor, and there is a slight but noticeable difference between his performance and that of Binoche, which almost feels like a copy of acting rather than being fully immersed in the role. While this reinforces the concept, it does prevent the audience from fully engaging, being kept slightly at arm's length by the constant artifice. That's not to say that there's not a lot to enjoy here, with the confusions and the tensions making this verge on a romantic comedy at times. Despite the differences in acting ability, Miller and Binoche make an engaging couple at times and as time wears on, you find yourself more keen to believe that the beginning was the illusion and that their relationship is real and not the copy. Much of the credit for this must be placed at Binoche's door, using the language differences to vary mood effectively, but also adding colour and emotion in all of the languages she uses. The only one here who's on familiar ground is director Kiarostami, who's explored these themes before but never to such mainstream effect – worth checking out if you'd like to engage your mind and your heart. Why see it at the cinema: There is a very literal aspect of the visuals which runs throughout the course of the film, which the cinema screen will allow you to fully appreciate. Ultimately, Certified Copy - with its unresolved loose ends - is a mystery box without a key. Kiarostami's best films are profoundly empathetic. By comparison, Certified Copy is a slighter but more ingratiating film and a chance to see a master filmmaker in uncharacteristic playful mode.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)

Welcome to the cinematic universe of Abbas Kiarostami—low scale on effects and plot, but very high on character, Iranian culture, and creative point-of-view camera work. His simple films appear sparse, but the images often profoundly stay with the viewer for a lifetime. Through the Olive Trees is a quintessential Kiarostami film—it exists between film fiction and reality. The purpose of this film within a film is to illustrate the tedious process of filming the a film while focussing in on replacement actor Hossein's romantic pursuit of the stubbornly unresponsive Tahereh, who has been cast as his new bride. The director parallels Hossein's challenges with unreciprocated love with various filming frustrations. Things just don't go according to plan for the director. Some are expected when using amateurish non-actors, while others are caused by cultural hang-ups or relationship problems. For instance, Hossein, the first lead actor stutters when talking to a girl and must be dismissed. Tahereh shows up on the set in a new party skirt instead of the required peasant dress and won't talk to the replacement. Hossein keeps forgetting his lines when he confuses his real life with the scripted one. To call the pacing of Through the Olive Trees slow would be a gross understatement. It is glacial in pace especially when Kiarostami demonstrates take after take after take of the same scene, to the point that we gain the director's point of view and feel like throwing up our hands when an actor screws up. But this hammering approach of the director ultimately achieves something unusual for such a film. We feel like we have been through the directing experience, and by the end of it many of the lines are indelibly engraved into our minds. Despite the sameness of many scenes, small detailed differences surface with each new take—pointing out skill that comes with making a piece of art that is bent on achieving perfection. The final scenes of the film are classic "Kiarostamic", profoundly philosophical and evokes intense curiosity. His camera sits perched on top of a hill, overlooking a breezy valley of olive trees, as Hossein pursues Tahereh. The long shots extend to even longer shots to the point that the two people are tiny white flecks moving across the unspeaking greens of the valley. And yet Kiarostami's camera continues to roll on its tripod for another five minutes. I am yet to come across a film that specializes on long takes and glacial pace, and yet in its culmination point invokes so much calmness accompanied by a sense of uncertainty. I guess that many arthouse lovers will find this film rewarding and memorable. On a deeper level, the film seems to be asking unanswerable questions about the differences between a movie and reality (life as art) and questions the problems faced by filmmakers as they try to tap into cinema's unexplored potential. On that level, the film was stimulating as an intellectual experience. 

Where is the Friend's Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami established his reputation outside of Iran with Where Is The Friend’s Home. Like many modestly budgeted Iranian films of those days, including Kiarostami’s earlier works, this film is a child’s story. Since then Kiarostami’s reputation soared, and he has gone on to receive considerable international acclaim for a string of uniquely stylized successes, including Close-Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1997), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and The Certified Copy (2011). All these films have been characterized by his signature contemplative and long-take cinematography, along with overt mixing of Iranian poetry and mystical philosophy – all of which render his films a distinctly intellectual air and which has drawn the admiration of intellectual critics the world over. Indeed, Kiarostami has multiple cultural inclinations that include poetry, painting, and graphical design, and these interests are reflected in those later works. Where Is My Friend’s Home? is a modest and straightforward movie, unilke his other pieces. Nevertheless, I think it is Kiarostami’s most accessible piece of work. In Where Is My Friend’s Home?, what we have is a deceptively simple little story that seems trivial: an eight-year-old schoolboy has mistakenly taken his friend’s schoolbook and has to return it to him. But this film benefits from not straying far from its straightforward goal that everyone can understand; and that is what carries the narrative along. As the film progresses, though, we gradually detect a deeper theme: this boy’s sense of “doing the right thing” is almost continually in conflict with the confusing world of rules and duties that are imposed on him by the adult world.The film narrative proceeds in five parts.  In the small northern village of Koker, Ahmed Ahmadpoor and Mohamad Reza Nematzadeh are two boys sitting in the local schoolroom and listening to the stern admonitions of their strict schoolteacher. Mohamad Reza again hasn’t written his homework into his school workbook and is warned that one more such violation and he will be expelled from the school. When the school bell rings and the boys run outside, Mohamad Reza drops his workbook, and in the ensuing commotion, Ahmed mistakenly goes home with both his and his friend’s workbook.At home Ahmed’s mother, busy with housework, continually gives her boy menial jobs and refuses to let him go outside and return Mohamad Reza’s schoolbook. Among the chores, though, is to go fetch some bread from the local bakery, and Ahmed seizes this opportunity to rush outside with the schoolbook in search of his friend’s home, whose location he only knows to be in the neighbouring village of Poshteh. First trip to Poshteh seems to be a couple of kilometres away from Koker, and Ahmed runs all the way there to look for his friend’s house. As Ahmed runs across the countryside, the viewer gets a feeling for the pastoral life in this locale. Once in Poshteh, Ahmed asks around, and we see that the adults have little time to pay attention to the questions of an 8-year-old boy. But by luck Ahmed happens onto a classmate who lives there but who only knows where Mohamad Reza’s cousin Hemmati lives. When Ahmed finally finds that house, though, he learns that Hemmati has just gone off to Koker. So now Ahmed has to run all the way back to Koker. As he runs past a storefront in Koker, Ahmed passes by his grandfather, who sternly questions why the boy has gone outside the village. Afterwards, when Ahmed is out of earshot, the grandfather tells an elderly friend that all young people need to be continually disciplined in order to grow up properly. In fact, he says, it is generally good for a boy to be beaten every two weeks, come what may, whether he has misbehaved or not.A tradesman shows up at the storefront, and during a bit of rural local color as the man tries to hawk his iron doors, Ahmed overhears the surname Nematzadeh mentioned and tries to talk to speak to the man. But here, as elsewhere, the adults pay no attention to the boy other than to give orders and recommend punishments. The tradesman brusquely gets on his donkey and heads off to Poshteh, with Ahmed, thinking that he may have found Mohamad Reza’s father, in hot pursuit. Back in Poshteh, Ahmed finally finds the tradesman’s son, but it is not Mohamad Reza. By this time is has become dusk, but Ahmed does manage finally to find a man who will talk to him and who promises to show him his friend’s house. But it turns out that this is an old man who just seems to be looking for anyone to listen to his tales about the virtues of his former craft, making traditional wooden doors, which, he complains, are now everywhere being foolishly replaced by the more “modern” iron doors, even though the traditional wooden doors (a symbol for the traditional Iranian ways that are being replaced by imported modernity) are more beautifully crafted. Although this old man is friendly, Ahmed begins to suspect that the man just wants a listener and doesn’t really know where his friend lives. He finally discontinues his quest and runs all the way back to Koker in the dark. Back at home, Ahmed’s parents are occupied with their own routines and again pay no attention to him, and he still hasn’t done his own homework or managed to do the right thing by his friend Mohamad Reza. But a schoolboy who has spent the whole day trying to solve a problem is not just going to give up just like that. You can see the film, yourself, to find out how things turn out the next day in school.Kiarostami’s cinematography is straightforward and intuitive in the film. The focalization is almost entirely that of the boy, Ahmed, and we see everything from his anxious perspective, where things that may seem trivial for adults can have considerable magnitude. To maintain this sense of immediate involvement, Kiarostami doesn’t employ the long, fixed-camera takes that characterize his later films. Here instead, the visual continuity is well motivated, and even the many shots of Ahmed running across the countryside are smoothly and naturally executed.There are some interesting moral issues in Where Is The Friend’s Home?. Ahmed is always utterly sincere and instinctively honest towards everyone. But sometimes there are higher principles than literal honesty. His ultimate goal is one of compassion: to help his friend. This is not just to expunge his own guilt, but represents a continuation of his sincere concern for his friend’s vulnerability of expulsion from school. Adherence to this higher goal trumps more mundane and tyrannous rules that one follows or obeys. So although he is instinctively honest, Ahmed, in pursuit of the higher good, does hesitantly make compromises with literal truth at several turns. Initially he is supposed to get bread and pretends to do so, but instead rushes off to Poshteh with his friend’s schoolbook. Later, he effectively lies to the old man by implying that he has found his friend’s house and returned the book. And there is still one further lie to come. In Where is the Friend's Home?, on one level Kiarostami paints a society rooted in authoritarian demands, but on another he reminds how us kids get lost in the grown-up world of business and responsibility.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

Taste of Cherry comes close to being a great film. Its much discussed ending that breaks the fourth wall to reveal what has just been witnessed is all a film, is one of the worst conclusions for a film of this high caliber. The basic problem with the ending of Taste of Cherry is that the big revelation that intentionally alienates the viewer from the medium comes after we have been emotionally prepared for more than ninety minutes to probe a question of deep philosophical nature. The unfortunate ending emotionally deflates the whole story. Many claim that in 
Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami consciously renounces the role of a preacher, rejects formulaic tearjerking plots, or he wants to embrace indeterminacy as the film’s major motif. Yet, before the ending of the film, it is not preachy, jerks no tears, is clearly fictive, and the penultimate scene spells out indeterminacy far more powerfully and cogently than the ending does. The fact of the matter is that Kiarostami did not believe enough in his film to let it end at its best point. The narrative is rather simple. A stony Mr. Badii drives about the outskirts of a small Iranian desert town in a Range Rover. Mr. Badii is looking for a help, of course, in exchange of a princely sum of money. The job is to check up on him the next morning, in a grave that he has dug. They are to see if he is dead or alive, after he has taken a bottle of sleeping pills. If alive, they will assist him out of his grave. If dead, they will heap dirt on his corpse. Kiarostami makes is to never reveal the source behind Badii’s suicidal anguish. Manifestly, Badii does not really want to die. If he wanted to die he would kill himself and not care what happened to his corpse. As Badii drives, he picks up is a young Kurdish soldier, barely out of his teens. When he is driven to the freshly dug grave he runs away as fast as he can. He is similarly rejected by a young seminarist from Afghanistan, whom he meets when he arrives at an abandoned factory. Finally, Badii finds the man and Kiarostami consumes several minutes before we see the man’s face, which shows Kiarostami building tension. We want to see what sort of man or monster would assist Badii. He is just an old Turk taxidermist, Mr. Bagheri, who needs the money for his own child’s medical bills, and regales Badii with a joke and a tale of how he was prevented from suicide, himself, in 1960, by the taste of cherries from a tree. It is worth noting that the three would be executioners Badii picks up are all not ethic Iranians or Persians, but minority groups from other countries, a point that no published critic I’ve read seems to have noted. As the film ends, Badii seems to have second thoughts, for after dropping off the old Turk at his job, he pursues him and asks him to make extra sure he is dead before heaping the dirt on him. He then walks off, satisfied, and watches the sun set. He then makes his way to the grave, gets in, then the screen goes black for a while, and we seem to hear rain, the sign of life’s renewal. Then, the fourth wall is unfortunately, and superfluously, broken. While most critics have picked up on the rightness or wrongness of suicide as being a theme of the film, the deeper question is really whether or not a person will violate their own ethical and moral codes to help another person in immense pain? The latter question seems to have itself answered in the affirmative, even if it takes some effort to find a human being. Some critics claim that the film’s ending is anti-escapist, when in fact, the ending is the ultimate escapism, for all that the viewer has been asked to emotionally invest in beforehand is revealed as nothing of deeper consequence than a philosophical posit. Some may claim, though, that Kiarostami wanted to dispassionately analyze the broader question at hand, much like a philosophical question dipped in logic. Taste Of Cherry has moments of pure cinema where images speak for themselves, and indeed do last longer than the lesser parts of the film. The ending does not completely ruin the film, but it makes it fall short of achieving greatness. Taste Of Cherry’s resolution is a startling one; Kiarostami has had to defend its seeming illogic and eeriness in several interviews. He usually does so with another shrug: "I did think this was a really big risk, but it was a risk worth taking. Even when I hear people arguing about the ending of the film, I like it because it means the movie hasn’t ended. . . that the film has a life in their minds." Many of Kiarostami’s films, such as 1987’s Where is The Friend's Home, feature children on  metaphorical journey whose real ends are not made clear. It has been a struggle, but Abbas Kiarostami has found a way, even under the eyes of the Iranian regime, to say exactly what he wants to say. That many of his films seem like elaborate, essentially wordless, parables is not coincidental. For all their seeming Otherness, believes Kiarostami, post-Revolutionary Iranians are walking a universal path. Theirs is the same slow, painful trudge across the forbidding mountains and into an ever-receding middle distance that all modern souls have to make. Thus, the journey of Taste Of Cherry is less an Iranian one than a human one. And by taking it, we may find commonality with a culture whose ways Westerners have yet to come to grips with.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

The Bicycle Thief is a gem attributed to the Italian Neo-realist movement. The film shows the creative bankruptcy of today's filmmakers. The film is slender and poetic. It tells a story that has universal appeal and is sure to touch hearts of all who have suffered misfortune and misery in a treacherous world, even once in their lifetime. By the measure of that metric only, the film is applicable to all. The beauty of the film lies in the simplicity of its screenplay. It shows how simplicity can achieve greatness, save the obfuscations of most modern day crap. The screenplay is not charmingly witty, not philosophically deep, not characteristically complex, not contemplatively silent. It is intensely emotional (without overdoing it) and fiercely personal. The story is rather simple: in post-World War Two Rome, Italy, jobs are scarce, and Antonio Ricci finally gets a job offer, as a billboard sign man, posting billboards about town, after waiting for months in front of the downtown labor office. One catch, he needs a bicycle. He has one, but it’s at a pawnshop. His wife, Maria, sells their good bedsheets so Antonio can get back his bike. The job is apparently a good one, as other workers anxiously vie for the job. Antonio suddenly feels human and dignified again, wearing a uniform, and being able to make money. Yet, on his first day at work, while pasting posters, his bike is stolen by a young man. Antonio has the weekend to get the bicycle back, so he can report to work on Monday with it. He gets his acquaintance, Baiocco, a garbageman, to help him look for the bike the next morning, along with some of his pals in the garbage company. But it is to no avail, so they keep on searching, and Antonio and Bruno have a number of encounters, such as seeing the thief with an old man, whom they track down to a church, but the old con man gives Antonio the slip, by saying he wants some of the free soup the church is offering. They do get a tentative address of the thief, and eventually Antonio catches up with him, and forces him back to his apartment, where his mother and neighbors declare him a good boy, an innocent. The vile wolfpack mentality closes in, and the thief plays his false innocence to the hilt, like the true professional grifter he is- likely having sold the bike already to another pawnshop, as a policeman is powerless to do anything, after they search the thief’s apartment. Antonio and Bruno eventually end up outside a soccer match, where hundreds of bikes are parked. He sees one in an alleyway, and, in a scene that shows a human desperation and honesty that are too often overlooked in art, Antonio gives Bruno some money to take a trolley home, and decides to steal the bike in the alley. Of course, he almost falls as he tries to pedal away, and the bike’s owner raises alarums, and this man’s neighbors chase and quickly capture Antonio- who is now pilloried as a bicycle thief, and a low man. He is so ashamed and without that he cannot even say a word. He is totally humiliated- all his honesty, honor, and playing by the rules have forced him into doing something wrong, and Bruno, who stayed behind, witnesses his father’s capture, runs to him, and weeps. The old man, whose bike it was, decides not to press charges, possibly out of pity for Antonio’s humiliation in front of his son, and Antonio walks away with his son, both weeping, yet hand in hand, having been defeated inside and out. Reputedly, none of the film’s actors were professionals, at the time. Antonio comes across so realistically, and wholly believably. Bruno is magnificent. He is wisecracking, but not in the annoying way Hollywood smart aleck kids are. There are numerous scenes that pinpoint the director's keen eye for details and highlight his tendency to maintain a desired balance between personal loss and humor, which relieves the viewer. Many critics have concluded that in The Bicycle Thief De Sica has tried to show that good and evil are relative. But nothing can be farthest from the truth. For instance, we know, all along, that the young professional thief would likely be a con man regardless as all of his neighbors are cheats and liars, and even his mother lies for her clearly guilty son. De Sica wants us to remind that sometimes evil can be born not out of pure evil, greed, and compulsive characteristic flaws, but can be born of different circumstances like desperation and poverty, as with Antonio. The Bicycle Thief is great art. It is not a political manifesto as many critics have vehemently suggested.The Bicycle Thief tells a simple tale, but it documents the crushing of the human spirit at the hands of poverty, indifference and misery.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Laptop (Kaushik Ganguly, 2012)

Laptop, written and directed by Kaushik Ganguly, is an odd film. It is not a remotely great film. It is a bad film. It is thematically untenable, ethically ambiguous and condescending, technically ill conceived, and art-wise artsy. Period. There are four stories in the film that have been transplanted from various echelons of the modern day Bengali society and the stories are made to cross over with each other with the intervention of a stolen laptop, a symbol of emotional connectedness among characters and vacuity thereof. Lets start with the narrative. A laptop, a trove of confidential medical information belonged to the owner of an infertility clinic, is stolen by a taxi driver to pay for his wife's treatment at the clinicThe driver concocts a story and sells the laptop to a hotel manager, a languishing father who works in a dingy, musty low-scale hotel so that he can afford his engineer son a laptop. The boy discovers on the hard drive of the laptop a number of pictures of a good looking girl who is the daughter of the infertility clinic's owner. The boy chases the girl's car, traces the physical address of the girl, and is finally appointed as the computer teacher for the girl. They instantly develop a liking for each other.But the girl discover's the stolen laptop at the boy's house and dumps him (and her own bike for apparently no rhyme and reason). The laptop then travels to a visually challenged author (and his typist), as a debt-clearing-device by the manager, who resides in the house owned by the author. Subsequently, the machine ends in the hands of a divorced publisher, who is in search of the kid born as a result of his sperm donation. As the laptop traversesit touches lives only to change them in some inexplicable ways. I have hardly known a “good” film that works with a bad script. The problem is that this film loses focus when it centers on lesser-written tales, which Ganguly does not make better, and on some tales which he actually makes worse. The director has little regard for character development. So we never know why a particular character engages in an immoral act. For example, we are not shown what causes the driver to engage in an unethical activity. Is he intrinsically immoral, unethical? There is zero information. The character of the driver comes and goes with the blink of an eye. Consider the character of visually challenged author, the most righteous and saintly figure in the film. Despite knowing the background tales about the laptop, he suffers from no moral scruple when accepting the laptop from his renter. The manager’s character also displays the same nonchalant sentiment towards a laptop, which has been supposedly left behind by an amnesic passenger. The manager reveals to his family that the laptop was mistakenly left behind a forgetful passenger in the taxi. But being a typical middle-class family, they decide to ignore the episode and the film jumps forward. These characters come from various socio-economic classes and all of them exhibit the same apathetic behavior toward the stolen laptop; accept without any compunction. Ahem! So, in a nutshell, as if, the whole gamut human species have submitted to complete moral corruption. That is just to difficult to swallow even if one hails from the most corrupt nation from the earth. But, Ganguly marches on because the laptop is the driving force of the plot. There are also a few other minuses there. The film fails to devote enough screenspace to characters that occupy central roles and, erroneously focus attention to plot points or characters that disappear without no apparent rhyme and reason. For example, the character of the divorced publisher occupies the last 20-30 minutes of the film, but we have no clue to his psychological dilemmas, pains, and aspirations. As a result, we are never emotionally invested in the character. On the other hand, the director spends considerable amount of footage on the understated chemistry between the visually-challenged author and his typist, but the whole episode ends with no major dramatic culminations. The same frustration grips us with the story of the young boy and girl or the hotel manager. They end too abruptly. It seems that the director was trying to connect stories that are apparently disconnected and one story lends its way another by the way of a laptop. Ganguly fails miserably on this front as well as the transition from one to another is either too haste or too sporadic for a cohesive plot. In this connection, an exemplary film that pulls it of gracefully is Jafar Panahi’s The Circle. Another minus is the film’s lack of cohesiveness. Some scenes are juxtaposed with one another to evoke emotional responses, but their placement is too arbitrary in nature, which can be attributed to bad editing. The music is suitable for the mood of the film. The camera movements are slow, in keeping with the underlying sensibility of the film. But Ganguly must know that slow-moving camera and heart-wrenching music are not the only property of a good film. That way a film can be artsy, but no further it can progress. Actors have very little scope to perform. Bose is artifical or does not know what to do. Ganguly’s character is too self-congratulatory, the actor playing the role of the wife of the tea estate couldn’t touch the nerve of her character. She is the weakest link in the film. The climax is utterly ridiculous. Overall, this is a Laptop that performs its best when untouched.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

There are ten stories and two dozen characters that fill Short Cuts, and a plenum of human melodrama, drama, and darkness that fill the screen: joy, sadness, jealousy, fear, reconciliation, pain, infidelity, and death-accidental, murder, and suicide are among them.To reproduce the episodic and multi-narrative entanglement would be an unproductive exercise here. In a nutshell, it is a modern-day angst movie, with people misunderstanding, begrudging, beguiling, disappointing -- and even killing -- one another. In a work this pervasive, some plots will be inevitably weaker than others. But the overall feeling is that Altman, maker of Nashville and The Player, has pulled off another ensemble coup, with commendable assistance from Lily Tomlin, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Waits, Bruce Davison, Fred Ward, Robert Downey Jr. and many others. Altman's movie is a harsh, almost fatalistic overview of modern-day sufferings in the less-exotic suburbs of California. After all the various plots have been introduced, developments (usually negative) cause many of them to intersect. The unfolding of events between Ward and wife Anne Archer who are invited to dinner for the first time with bickering spouses Julianne Moore and Modine is utterly mesmerizing. You watch enrapt, as these people experience the unrelenting tragicomedy of being alive. Although the omniscient design of Short Cuts is enthralling, it's indistinct. That indistinction leads us to believe we are watching something telling and profound. Short Cuts is a film almost wholly devoted to the written word, as all great films are, but its ‘little above average’ goodness, rather than greatness, stems from the fact that the words of Carver-as hit and miss in prose as Altman is on film, are never allowed their full power nor poesy.

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

The story of Brokeback Mountain a familiar one. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are two cowboys who are hired by Joe Aguirre to shepherd sheep up on a Wyoming mountain named Brokeback. After a half hour of lushly scenery, Jack takes Ennis seduces Ennis and within seconds, Ennis is inexplicably battering Jack. Inexplicably because, a few scenes earlier, Jack was cooking and Ennis stripped naked to bathe, and neither man takes mind of what the other is doing. This gives an impression of instant gays, which is utterly absurd. In one of the reuniting scenes later, they practically bite off each other’s lips, indicating the extent of passion. Is this real? In the film, neither actor emits chemistry with nor eros for the other. Decades go by, and these two men marry, use, and abuse the women in their lives. Ennis is the worse of the two, for his wife Alma actually seems to love him, while Jack’s wife, Lureen, a former cowgirl, accepts the fact that he’s queer, and is romantically involved with Ennis in Wyoming. The wives are mere plot points in the film, not worth developing, especially since the leads are left in emotional utero even longer. The two male leads, however, look ridiculous in their poor makeup jobs. Aging, for them, consists of growing sideburns, it seems.  Eventually, Ennis divorces his wife and Jack goes ‘full on’ in his quest for sexual quest, which eventually gets him to death at the age of thirty-nine. The best scene in the film is when Ennis calls Jack’s wife, after a postcard comes back marked deceased. Gyllenhaal is ok as Jack, but Heath Ledger totally butchers ‘cowboy’ lingo, constantly letting his Aussie accent seep through his near constant mumbling. On a social level, I am tired of films like this that indulges more gay stereotyping by making gay characters dying, murderous, depressed, deranged, victimized, or victimizer. And, ethically, the film does a lot of dancing around the ethics of adultery and lying in a marriage. For example, if this film were about two men who cheated on their wives with other women, would the film have portrayed their encounters so favorably? But, adultery is okay if gay, and letting your ‘true’ self be revealed. So, it’s ok to be a liar if queer, but if you lie and use women in your straight adultery it’s not ok? Brokeback Mountain is not a love story for the ages, but a tale of simple sexual obsession. This film simply subordinates whatever good artistic impulses the director may have had in favor of the Lowest Common Denominator import of the ‘message’. Were this a film whose leads were straight, the critics would have torn at it for being every bit as kitschy as the abominable Love Story was. Bad writing, and dubious moralizing, makes Brokeback Mountain every bit as bad a film as any other bad film. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997)

Some films embrace style but lack substance and life. Others fumble by believing they can make an audience care for a character just by having a traumatic situation beleaguer him early on. The Sweet Hereafter by Canadian director Atom Egoyan suffers from all of the above syndromes. The Sweet Hereafter is not a bad film, but it certainly is not a great film. The film also suffers from some other minor flaws, as well; primarily an anomic screenplay by Egoyan, who adapted the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The film follows the aftermath of a 1995 schoolbus crash that killed many of the children in a remote Canadian mountain town. A big city lawyer named Mitchell Stevens jumps on the case to extract compensations for the victims. His reason, other than greed, is that his daughter, Zoe is a drug addict who has been using him emotionally. Stevens is a small devious man and he gets a number of the local families who lost children to take up arms against the government. The film is non-linear, and herein lies a major problem. Not that linearity is the main problem of The Sweet Hereafter, for many films excel at non-linear structure. The film does not stay with Stevens, but jumps about to a host of characters who, after first viewing, we are left wondering who they are and what relation do they bear to the other characters. The Sweet Hereafter is plagued by script and character development problems. Then there is the unnecessary complication of a PC theme-incest, in which one of the older girls, Nichole Burnell hurt in the crash to the point of possibly being paralyzed for life, is being incested by her long haired dad, Sam. This leads to the culmination of the film, wherein the girl ultimately destroys Stevens’ case by lying about the crash being an accident, and blames the schoolbus driver, Dolores Driscoll, for speeding on an icy mountain road. The film leads us to believe via the theme music and lighting, that this lie is somehow a good thing, for it helps prevent her dad from getting a large settlement from the class action lawsuit Stevens is deposing her for. But, all it does is make her as bad as the rest of the greedy townsfolk, for she blames an innocent woman for the accident.Yet, just as the force-fed tale of Stevens and his daughter induces any empathy, neither does the incident of incest really move the viewer. Partly this is because the girl clearly engages in the fantasy element of the ‘romance,’ but the daughter’s receptivity to it (which seems forced, even though there are abused females who feel no ill will toward their abusers). These tales resolve themselves, but not in a realistic fashion. The girl is also hamhandedly used as a symbol when she recites the poem The Pied Piper Of Hamelin, by Robert Browning. The idea of lost children is so manifestly obvious in the film that the reason Egoyan adds this is puzzling, except that he bizarrely felt the loss aspect is not evident enough. It is. The opening scene of the film, where Stevens is in a car wash, heading out of the darkness and toward the light, is equally embarrassing in its condescension. The use of the non-linear structure also fails for a primary reason, it ruins the whole dramatic structure of the tale. Since we know what happens early in the film (save for a few minor details), because of Stevens’ reactions and body language, there is little drama in the girl’s testimonial lie. The whole flashback within the flashforward does not work for the lighting and dreaminess is so gauzey, saccharine, and so, ‘This is the big moment of the film,’ that the viewer almost feels embarrassed at Egoyan’s cluelessness at the inappropriateness of it all. The Sweet Hereafter simply is not that deep of a film, and had it gone a more standard route, it actually would have worked better. Simply put, a tragic subject matter does not automatically make for a deep film. The Sweet Hereafter does not rise to the heights of a film by a master like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, nor Yasujiro Ozu.