Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Wrestler

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20 years or so ago, as the eighties dispersed into nothing more than memory- so to did the acting career of Mickey Rourke. A once glorious, once rugged young talent whose forthrightness got the better of him- landing the once promising, once striking up and comer a place on Hollywood's cold shoulder and a fruitless career in the Boxing ring.

A handful of decent comeback turns aside, Rourke has long been considered a lost and wasted talent who, given the right attitude, could've flourished and seized those early day likings to late greats' James Dean, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando.

Mirrored to an extent, then, is Rourke's chronicle by the character he plays (and how) in 'The Wrestler'- Randy "the Ram" Robinson. A weary, washed-up wrestler. A has-been. A nobody. A nostalgic, runaway father who lives and breathes his in-ring pseudonym. Back in the mid to late eighties, Randy was a star. Now, 20 years on, he's a loner. A mountain reduced to a mound. A champ turned chump. When he's not roaming the rings of the weekend amateur wrestling circuit, he's pumping iron, shooting steroids, begging his landlord for time to pay his rent, playing cheap video games or hauling ass at the local deli.

All in all, Randy's a nice guy: likable, easy going and even Christ-like but after suffering a serious heart attack, the inevitable bad news is dealt: wrestle again and you could die. Now- Randy has a choice to make: go on living the only life he knows or get moral and stage one last crack at righting his wrongs: patch things up with his daughter and settle down with his favourite stripper friend.

The role of Randy is perfect, then, for Rourke. Not only does it give the 52 year old a shot at "the" lead many have been aching to see him grapple with for years, but it also allows him the substance and space to churn out the performance of his life. Beneath his unsightly exterior still stirs the wit, charm and dazzling panache that once promised so much. Mickey Rourke is, perhaps, the only actor out there who could approach this hearty part with the means, motives and memories to draw upon so effortlessly. For Rourke, this is a crossroads. A hairpin. A renaissance. A turn that sees the life of a wayward actor congregate with that of a fictional pugilist to summon something heartfelt, bona-fide and pretty dam special.

Directed by the visionary Darren Aronofsky, 'The Wrestler' is a moving and masterfully shot treatise on human nature and endeavour. The acclaimed cult director, whose former triumphs include 1998's cyber-surreal 'π' and 2000's stunning 'Requiem for a Dream', could be described as a dazzling mix of Davids' Lynch and Fincher with a generous pinch of Kubrick thrown in- and yet he is none of them. He's a budding maker of dense psychological dramas that centre on the self-seclusion of characters trapped inside their own bubbles of being.

Although considerably different in terms of visual style to Aronofsky's previous three features, 'The Wrestler' s a quite superb slice of American cinema that displays the 41 year old helmer's resourcefulness and new found maturity as a director. His 'Wrestler' is a smart yet simple tapestry of hand-held shots, moving cameras and tracks, devoid of the heavy, but impressive editing that went into his "Requiem for a Dream". Aronofsky's crafted an instant classic of the independent sphere that deserves attention. 'The Wrestler' is his most authentic film to date: a toned-down, slowed-down character piece with a big, brave heart.

Forget what you think you know about wrestling. This film is far a field from fake and a mere whisker from perfection. It's a morality-play, of sorts, but without the histrionic moralising and feel good summit that sugar coated this sport film to that. Yes, the proverbial blood, sweat and tears are there alright but this isn't a rewarding underdog tale or rags to riches yarn. This is neorealism. This is life: unfair, unfulfilling and un (bloody) reliable. Aronofsky drags cinema back onto the streets and hones in on reality. The nice guys aren't nice, they finish last and the 'heroes' keel over on their way to save the day. Yet, 'The Wrestler' emerges a flat-out winner: an often gritty, sometimes comical affair that fluctuates between the rough and the fine, the tough and the touching.

An unknown yet high-class supporting cast also come to pass- leaving nil to be desired which, ultimately, brings me back to Mickey Rourke who'll no doubt bare the brunt of the film's justifiable ovation. Darren Aronofsky steers his leading man towards a standout turn that could see the born-again thesp' land a fair few gongs this season. An Oscar?.No. I think Sean Penn's got that one sewn up but for such a question to prompt a pause for thought says an awful lot. Rourke is magnificent. Memorable, even, in this able all American gutter film that's going to give this year's best a run for their money.

Friday, March 27, 2009


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I am not very familiar with Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's 'Devdas'. I know that it was about a rich bugger from Bengal who drank himself to death over a girl he loved. I also know that there have been several filmed versions of the novella though I'd failed to catch any of them, save a couple of scenes from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's version starring SRK. Anurag Kashyap's reputation for art-house genius aside, it was the standout publicity hoardings, wreaking of seduction and psychedelia that pulled me in -- first day, first show. Picture's up and I am greeted with the playful camaraderie between two kids, with the little boy Dev biting little Paro's hand, followed by a scene in which the same brat argues with his father as to why he cannot address him by his pet name -- Sattu. One resounding slap later and Dev is packed off to London, where he magically evolves into a horny, pot-smoking, i-pod-toting cad (Abhay Deol). The little girl whose arm he had nibbled on earlier has now grown into a gorgeous young Paro (or Parminder, played by Mahi Gill). The childhood fondness has evolved with puberty into a teasing romance bathed in sexual innuendo. And when Paro consents to sending Dev a snapshot of herself naked, he promptly decides to head homeward (Kashyap's naughty lines are priceless in this scene). However, destiny intervenes by way of a gross misunderstanding, shattering the 'happily-ever-after' and giving us a story. In the ensuing misunderstanding, Dev shuns Paro, leading to her taking the rather severe step of getting married to a rich widower. Fraught with guilt, Dev begins to sink to the depths of alcoholic depression, as the frustrated loser begins to take shape. After one particularly violent bout with the bottle, Dev passes out and wakes up to find himself in the squalid interiors of a hotel in Delhi's neon-lit Pahar Ganj area. The third vital character in the plot, Chanda / Chandramukhi (played by Indo- French actress Kalki Koelchin) is introduced here. A former victim of a horrible MMS scandal, she now wears the persona of an in-demand, college-going prostitute who, when she is not bringing men to orgasms over the phone in Tamil, dresses up in a variety of imaginative outfits (ironically, one of them happens to be that of an 'all-American school girl') and engages in kinky role play with mama's boys. Through a delightfully slimy pimp Chunni (a fine performance by Dibyendu Bhattacharya), Dev is introduced to Chanda. In Chanda, Dev finds an outlet for his love for Paro, a comforting listener. Just as things begin to warm, Kashyap's tale veers off in a different direction from the original and... I shan't tell you more. Technically, Kashyap's 'Dev D.' is a visually delectable film against the psychedelic backdrop of sex, drugs and some Desi wedding band fare. Cinematographer Rajeev Ravi does a fine job of capturing the grittiness of Pahargunj – whether it be the grimy squalor of Dev's hotel or Chanda's lair drenched in shocking pink. The play with film speeds works particularly well in the heady drinking scenes as do the 'Requiem for a Dream'-like floating shots of a well-hammered Dev wandering back to his room in a chemical daze. Amit Trivedi's music (a bulky, multi-genre score that moves from folk to jazz to hard rock) is a solid character in itself, as it meanders through scenes, hitting the spot every time.The screaming reception his 'Emosanal Atyachar' got in the cinema hall,is testament that brassy wedding band fare can indeed be made to sound hip. The acting department is damn tight. Mahi Gill's Paro is a thrill to watch – a character perfectly aware of her sexuality and surprisingly expressive for her small-town background. Although Kalki Koelchin may run into rough patches with the accent and diction, her emotional scenes make up for it, especially in the film's second-half, as the relationship between her and Dev begins to evolve. Dibyendu Bhattacharya almost steals the show as Chunni (Kashyap's re-incarnation of the original Chunnilal) but in the end, it is Abhay Deol who takes the cake, champagne and the butter chicken home, playing the coke-snorting loser lover, with measured confidence and understated cool. The gentleman's acting chops are firmly in place and I am not surprised as to why everyone is raving about him. It would be good to see more of Mahi Gill, Kalki Koelchin and Dibyendu in the future.

So where lie the pitfalls then? For one, the film's length (a heady three hours) is overwhelming and Kashyap might have just managed to overcome this, had it not been for its extended trajectory that runs into an abrupt wall. Some might even argue that Trivedi's score drenches almost all the scenes in the film. But the pros far outweigh the cons here. For the most past, the film's characters are unabashedly honest and real. Kashyap's script-writing chops give us gems like the 'haldi' scene, the 'ticket' scene where Dev gets reprimanded by an old female co-passenger on the bus, after a particularly nasty alcoholic binge as well as Paro's delightfully ingenious solution to finding a venue for her and Dev to consummate their relationship (and the aftermath). Those of you familiar with the medical sitcom 'Scrubs', will take great pleasure in Kashyap's use of the aforementioned dancing boy trio for moments of random delight. ' Dev D.' is an important film to consume as we sit on the cusp of a more progressive Indian cinema – a sign of good things to come. You may not exactly fall in lust, as the film urges one to, but you will certainly want to discuss it, perhaps even fight over it.

Carne trémula (Live Flesh)

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`Somos un sueòo impossible' sings with her deep and almost inhuman voice Chavela Vargas in Almodovar's film `Carne Tremula'. And this is what this film is all about: a love story, which reaches and overcomes the limits of an impossible dream.

Almodovar, based on Ruth Rebel's novel, creates an imposing, intense film in his own, familiar to us, magical way. The film evolves and revolves around the lives, passions, almost Freudian eroticism and weaknesses of five different (or so they seem) people. The main protagonist is deeply in love with Helena and after a fight in her apartment he is accused of shooting one of the police officers that arrived to `rescue' Helena. Victor is sentenced to six years in prison. When he completes his sentence he finds out that Helena is married to the police officer he was accused of shooting. Victor is having an affair with the abused and desperate wife of the second police officer in order to come closer to Helena. How will all the characters react and interact with Victor's invasion in their lives?

Almodovar brings the characters together, messes their lives, crosses their paths in his own magnificent way. The way that the characters meet, react and interact is based on the principle of coincidence, which hardly is happening by mere luck. On the contrary, the coincidences seem so delicately directed and calculated that it wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that the reach the limits of genius.

However, if the primary principle upon the film is based on and evolves around is coincidence, then the second principle should be sexuality and eroticism. The whole film is diffused with intense and deep eroticism. More specifically, images of naked flesh are the primary target of Almodovar's camera. However, the direction is erotic without a trace of vulgarity. The Carne Tremula (Live Flesh in its English translation) appears throughout the film aroused, with powerful hot and warm colours like yellow, orange and red -colours that one feels that they have taken over the whole picture throughout the movie-. In addition, Flesh appears not simply as a material of which humans are made of but also as a projection of people's feelings and desires, as an extension of the inner self. The Flesh is presented so alive as if it has a mind of its own. It is presented warm and wavy, it moves and it comes together in a symmetrical, rhythmic but yet natural way. Moreover, whatever it is enclosed within the Flesh's periphery is following its erotic dance with the same colours, movements and breaths.

Almodovar is creating the profiles of five people, who look so different but then again they are developed on the same basis. All of the characters are moved by one and single thing: their strong, unshakeable and nonnegotiable desire to find and experience love. A love, nevertheless, unspoken, as it is only verbalized by the expression of the Flesh, the intense magnetizisation of two different Fleshes breathing the same air. All of the characters desperately struggle to maintain their other half whichever the means. In this way, the Flesh takes over the Mind and their desire for love becomes an obsession, a sicken passion which destroys their lives. There's no sense of logic and reality when the passion takes over. Feelings are being over-dramatized and the script focuses on the human relationships. Everyone betrays and is being betrayed. And that's exactly what Almodovar wants to highlight. Is it love a desperate voice of fear and loneliness or is it the absolute enosis of the Live Flesh?

When Victor says to Clara that their affair should come to an end she cries out `Please, don't leave me, I won't ask you anything, just let me love you.' The language used in the film is an unshameless and graceful manifest to the human eroticism. This particular modern, everyday language comes in contrast to the non-vulgar and sensual love scenes and even to the traditional erotic Spanish music.

Once more, Almodovar highlights the role of the feminine -a characteristic that is present, apparent and obvious to the majority of his films-, as the whole world seems to unfurl around women. In this movie Flesh is certainly a feminine representation. Moreover, men's actions emphasize women's personalities and characteristics.

The actors fall easily and willingfully into the director's `trap' and follow him to an endless dance of eroticism and passion. Javier Bardem shows excellent moments of talent which are going to certified on his later role choices (including the magnificent Before the Night Falls of Julian Schnabel, in 2000, which brought him broader recognition and many awards.) Liberto Rabal, from the other hand, represents the typical male, almost iconic model, of an Almodovar film, representing fittingly every woman's (or man's one could suggest) fantasy.

The desperate scream of the protagonists is identified with the tragic lyrics of the main song of the film `Somos un sueòo impossible'. We are an impossible dream.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


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How fortuitous a thing is timing. Released only a few weeks after the passage of Proposition 8 - a ballot measure that took away the rights of same-sex couples to marry in California - Gus Van Sant's Oscar-nominated film "Milk" turns back the clock to another, similar struggle in American civil rights history and to the iconic figure who helped to wage it.

Harvey Milk was, of course, the San Francisco supervisor and gay-rights pioneer who, along with Mayor George Moscone, was gunned down in city hall in November 1978. The perpetrator, Dan White, a disgruntled fellow board member who had recently resigned his seat, was found guilty of manslaughter (using the now infamous "Twinkie Defense" to get the lower charge), sent to prison for a mere five years, then released in 1984, only to take his own life two years later.

Dustin Lance Black's Oscar-winning screenplay traces Milk's meteoric rise from an obscure, still largely closeted Republican businessman in the early 1970s to the de facto leader of the gay-rights movement that began to take shape during that decade. He became the first openly gay man in the state to be elected to public office and, in 1978, he was instrumental in helping to defeat Proposition 6, which, if passed, would have made it illegal for homosexuals (and even straight supporters of homosexuals!) to teach in California public schools (was this really only thirty years ago?). Throughout all this, Milk managed to develop a large, highly charged grass roots organization, the purpose of which was not merely to combat bigotry wherever it reared its ugly head but to win over the hearts and minds of the people in their community and the nation as a whole.

There has been some criticism leveled against the movie that it is too reverential in its treatment of Milk, that it paints him too much as a saint and not enough as an ordinary human being with the requisite number of weaknesses and flaws to make him truly viable as a character. Even if one were to accept that charge (which I do not), it still doesn't take into account the very special quality that Sean Penn himself brings to the role. With obviously heightened mannerisms that he is careful never to allow to slide over into caricature or camp, Penn makes Milk both charismatically larger-than-life and recognizably human at one and the same time. Whether he's in front of a crowd rallying the troops with his megaphone or enjoying a tender moment with his longtime boyfriend, Scott Smith, Penn allows us see the many facets of this obviously complex man.

In a movie chock full of outstanding supporting performances, James Franco as Smith, Josh Brolin as Dan White, and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, a rootless young man inspired by Milk to become a lifelong activist, are the obvious standouts.

As a director, Van Sant keeps things moving at an almost whirlwind pace, beautifully balancing the "big" scenes of rallies and marches with the more intimate moments depicting Milk's relationships with those around him. At times Van Sant brings an almost documentary-style immediacy to the film, seamlessly blending actual footage from that era (much of it of Anita Bryant and her anti-gay crusade) with convincingly staged re-enactments of events at that time. Obviously wanting to end on a positive note, the movie mentions but does not dramatize the "White Night Riots" which took place in the city following the assassinations, instead focusing on the enormous candlelight march that wended its way through the shocked and devastated city. Thus, the ending, like the movie itself, is a necessary and deeply moving reminder of how the courage of one individual to stand up for what he knows is right can inspire others to follow in his footsteps - and change the world in the process.

By opening with file footage of men being arrested at a gay bar then carted off in paddy wagons to be booked as "sex offenders," "Milk" makes the viewer realize how very far society has come in the time since the events depicted in this story - and, with the recent passage of Proposition 8, how very far it still has to go.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Reader

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Author: Chris Knipp from Berkeley, California

This isn't meet-cute. Fifteen-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (David Kross) first encounters his 36-year-old future lover Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) by throwing up in her doorway. It's a dismal rainy day in a German city in 1958 and he has taken ill on the way home from school. She cleans him up and accompanies him to his family. He turns out to have scarlet fever, and is kept at home for months. Once he's well again he goes back carrying a bunch of flowers to thank Hanna for her kindness, but realizes he's turned on, and bolts in embarrassment while she's bathing. Eventually Michael returns and happily loses his virginity. A regular ritual of reading, bathing, and lovemaking develops between him and Hanna. He reads to her; she bathes him; the sex is mutual. She is a tram conductor with a harsh manner, and several huge secrets. She seems to be using Michael, but she's also enjoying him mightily, and he is reaping enormous rewards, though his affair puts pressure on his relations with family and schoolmates.

Bernhard Schlink's original The Reader was an international bestseller. A lawyer and judge who writes, Schlink departed from his usual detective stories with this novel that becomes a meditation on Nazism--the denial of the surviving participants and the incomprehension of Germans like Michael who were born in the aftermath. Michael's feelings toward Hanna become much more complicated than simply those of a youth introduced to love by an older woman--as complicated as the feelings of Germans about the demons in their modern past. As for Hanna, she seems to understand nothing and to be more concerned about how she appears than what she has done.

The book is in three parts. First there is the love affair of the schoolboy and the tram conductor, which ends abruptly and painfully when Hanna suddenly disappears. In the second part it's eight years later and Michael is a law student attending trials of Nazis with fellow students and their seminar teacher, Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). One day the young man is horrified and riveted to learn one of the defendants is none other than his long lost Hanna. She turns out to have been an SS guard at a satellite of Auschwitz and she's on trial with five other women for allegedly allowing several hundred prisoners to burn to death locked inside a church. This trial paralyzes Michael. He has never gotten over his first, interrupted love idyll with Hanna. Now he is filled with guilt for having loved her but also a sense that he should help her when he realizes he has information that might lower her sentence.

The last part, thirty years later, consists of several brief visits by Michael, first to Hanna in prison, then to the posh Manhattan flat of a Jewish woman, Rose Mather (Lena Olin), who was at the trial. She was one of the survivors and wrote a book about her experiences that was used in evidence. This provides a kind of coda.

Schlink's novel is neat and arresting, a page-turner that conceivably makes you think. Its Holocaust issues are cunningly intertwined with a sensuous--and rather peculiar--coming-of-age story told by a sensitive man still struggling to understand his experience and his country's. I read the book with interest, but found it a bit contrived. This together with Stephen Daldry's previous choice to film Michael Cunningham's The Hours shows a weakness on the English director's part for stories that are a little too clever and schematic.

This time the screenplay by the British playwright David Hare does damage to the book by altering its chronology, chopping it up and muddling the original linear three-part structure. Hare has said in interviews that the interpolated device of Michael's telling his story to his grown daughter was necessary to make sense of his voice-over. (That,however, is debatable.) Having settled on this device, Hare felt obligated to keep interjecting the mature Michael, played by Ralph Fiennes, at points throughout the film. The omnipresence of Fiennes' glum face undermines the sense of the young Michael's eagerness and, later, shock and confusion.

Fiennes as Michael revisits a cosmetically aged Kate Winslet as Hanna three decades later when she is about to be released from prison. Michael could never bring himself to visit her, but sent her tapes of himself reading the same books he read to her during their affair. Fiennes is a cold fish, hard to relate to the lively and sweet personality of young David Kross.

The film is hampered from the outset by its use of the outmoded artifice of dramatizing a story that takes place in another country and another language and yet having everyone speak English, with several of the main characters played by Brits (Winslet, Fiennes) putting on German accents. Bruno Ganz speaks with less of a German accent than they do.

There is much of interest in this glossy production, beautifully photographed on location by two of the best DP's in the business, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins. Ganz's professor is an ambiguous, subtle characterization. But since the drama of the unfolding story has been destroyed by breaking it up into pieces, the only thing that remains alive and beautiful and strange are the love scenes between Kross and Winslet. There is good chemistry between the 18-year-old Kross and the 34-year-old Winslet, and their nude scenes are bold and intimate. It's only when the machinery of what Schlink and the filmmakers are trying to tell us about German guilt and denial goes into action that things begin to be clunky and cold. Unfortunately, that is a big part of the picture.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984 Documentary)

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Harvey Milk was too good to be true, too unaffected as a debater, too approving of silliness, too capable of laughing at himself, too serious about equality, too angry about inequality, to endure on this plain of existence as a leader. Time has thanked his bravery in running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and becoming California's first openly gay public official. Why was that so brave? Because that conquest may well have been at his own peril.

Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary illustrates the life and death of not only Milk but odd one out Mayor George Moscone, who both were killed by Dan White, one of Milk's fellow supervisors. It also depicts the political and social atmosphere in San Francisco, which throughout the 1960s and '70s began to be a magnet for emergent quantities of gays owing to its customarily accommodating viewpoint. Milk was one of them, and in old photographs we see him in his beatnik days before he ultimately shaved and opened a camera store in the Castro District. It was from Castro that Milk ran for office and was beaten three times before at long last winning in the same election that placed the first man of Chinese extraction, the first black woman, and the first declared feminist on the board. Milk was a virtuoso self- promoter, and this Harvey Fierstein-narrated opus embraces first-rate TV news footage showing him campaigning on such matters as people not picking up their dogs' poop, and stepping, with accurate measure, into a tactically located pile of such at the culmination of the interview.

There is a whole heap of great footage of Milk, Moscone, and White, who disliked gay people. It is interspersed with later interviews with many of Milk's loyal comrades, including a seasoned leftist who confesses that he was bigoted against gays until he met Milk and began to appreciate the political concerns implicated. There is immeasurably touching, volume- speaking footage of the two demonstrations motivated by the deaths of Milk and Moscone: a noiseless, candle-lit procession of 45,000 people on the night of their deaths, and an outraged night of rioting when White got what a compassionate sentence.

This is an enthralling piece, as the light it casts on a decade in the life of a great American city and on the lives of Milk and Moscone, who made it a better, and unquestionably more appealing, location to live.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

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The most exciting aspect of Synecdoche New York is that Charlie Kaufman is attempting greatness. The only real criticism you could level at this movie is that Kaufman tries to do too much. One should never fault a filmmaker for too much ambition. This is a first film by an untested director. For a freshman effort it is absolutely stunning in it's bravery and refusal to placate a mediocre, consumer audience. This movie is unabashedly an art film first and an entertainment second. You must meet the work halfway and join Kaufman on his spiraling, absurdist journey.

In an era of artistic timidity this movie is like a cleansing breath of fresh air. Charlie Kaufman is not afraid to explore topics that most other filmmakers would rather not touch. I sense an almost Bunuel influence in Kaufman's obsession at pushing bodily decay in the audience's face. Make no mistake, this film is about mortality and the end of life. A light, date night at the movies this ain't! If you want to watch a true work of art that you can really engage with intellectually then you should definitely watch this picture.

When Charlie Kaufman introduced the film at the Toronto Film Festival he described it as a conversation between himself and the viewer. That description is very apt. The piece has the exhilarating feel of a late night college bull session. It is a movie about everything and is not afraid to ponder the big questions while still employing a great deal of subversive and wry humor. If you like movies that take real chances than you should watch this picture. If you enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, you will savor this film as Kaufman going for broke. This movie is like a cinematic Rorschach test.

To really enjoy this film you must have a high tolerance for metaphor and symbolism. Kaufman constantly plays with the narrative to bring forth subtext. This is a movie that cannot even be deciphered in one viewing. There is an accumulation of detail in this movie that is staggering. I defy the most eagle-eyed viewer to catch all the important details the first time they view it. This film is such a rich construction and the constantly roving eye of the camera mirrors the anxiety of the protagonist as well as the anxiousness of the viewer as one tries to take it all in.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman's minimalist performance as Caden Cotard will be unfairly derided in some circles as lazy. These unfortunate critics are not paying attention. Hoffman's character is so ground down by life that he barely has the energy to lift his head. His character is really just a fulcrum that other less neurotic characters spin around. The more Cotard tries to dramatize his life, the less sense it makes to him. Time ravages his body as he keeps trying to encapsulate the whole of his experience in a massive work of art. The whole movie is about an act of creation. Cotard's need to make sense of his life through art mirrors the audience's need to understand Kaufman's complex layers of symbolism. Kaufmann is doing the most important job of an artist. He is asking questions without providing the answers. It is left to the audience to figure out what, if any, grand statement is being made by the piece.

When the movie ended, the strongest feeling I came away with was one of melancholy tempered by a certain sense of hope as well. Kaufman is a secret romantic and that ultimately is what I love about him. As bleak and full of despair as things become within the narrative, the movie is ultimately comforting. The main character finds solace in another character that was not previously important to him. The final truth is that there is no truth. The fact that we die is what gives life meaning. As you get older everything is taken from you. Life is simply a transitory process. However, that transitory quality gives it urgency and meaning. There is real resonance to be found in our connections with one another.

I walked out of this picture in a sort of trance. It is one of the most important and exciting films to have been released this year. This is not a movie that you can like easily, but it is possibly a film that you will come to love. I know it is a film that I will watch many times in an attempt to catch all the small bits of nuance and detail. How wonderful and thrilling it is to discover a work of art that defies easy categorization. What you take from the piece may be entirely different from what I take from it. This fluidity of meaning is it's power and Kaufman's artistic triumph.

Monday, March 23, 2009


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'Changeling' has a lot going for it in the eyes of the public just being directed by Clint and starring Angelina. Moreover the little-known but true LA story it tells is heartrending. A hard-working single mother in 1928, Christine Collins (Jolie) is forced to work on Saturday in her job as an assistant supervisor at Pacific Telephone and she leaves her young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) at home. When she comes back he's gone. Five months later the police produce her son, found in another state--only she denies it's her son. The LAPD's reputation is on the line, and they force Christine to take the boy home. Then they try to discredit her as a lazy and unfit mother when she keeps insisting the kid isn't hers. Eventually she tangles more and more with the LAPD, who're going through an especially lawless period under a corrupt chief. They've shot down a lot of criminals in cold blood and swept away the bodies--just so the Force can control all the crooked dealings in town. Their arch-enemy and leader of the public outcry against cop corruption is crusading minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who seizes upon the Collins case when it becomes public, smelling a rat. After Collins has repeatedly opposed the cops and refused to accept the boy delivered to her--who's three inches too short and circumcised, has different dental work and is unrecognized by his schoolteacher--a willful Irish Captain assigned to this case (Jeffrey Donovan) orders her locked away in a psych ward. A lurid story of child abductions emerges.

'Changeling,' in the screenplay written by J. Michael Straczynski, is based on contemporary press accounts of what are called the "Wineville Chicken Murders." The mystery of Walter Collins' disappearance vies with the story of police corruption and the secret of the murders for attention, but Strazzynski wisely tells the tale from the viewpoint of Collins' mother, a kind of feminist heroine, since at a time when women tended to keep their mouths shut, she will not be silenced and never gives up. Some of the more gruesome details of the Wineville story are omitted, but sequences that go there still have a horror movie cast to them. The rest is a thriller-cum-police procedural with distinct period sociological elements. But there is skillful handling in the way a far-reaching story begins and ends with the intimate experience of a bereaved mother.

Eastwood seems to have looked for a story on the order of Fincher's even lengthier 'Zodiac,' but the melodrama and focus on cop-crime in the material relate it to the James Ellroy-based films 'L.A. Confidential' and 'The Black Dahlia.' The psych-ward incarceration sequence takes you straight back to Samuel Fuller's 'Shock Corridor'--at which point things are beginning to seem pretty lurid, and the film almost as manipulative as Fuller's. Nonetheless the style has Eastwood's usual current elegance and clarity. Oxymoron it may seem, but this is lurid, yet (mostly) restrained. After all, this is a tale in which manipulation is being consciously looked at. In an interview at the NYFF, Eastwood pointed out that there was a link with movies like 'Gaslight' that deal with people trying to bend the minds of others: this is what the crooked cops try to force on Catherine, and they win to the extent that she takes the other boy home. And this is the most interesting and unusual aspect of the story.

The acting is confident, if varied. There are a bunch of young boys who turn in strong, convincing performances, and as manipulative police captain and his chief, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore are reasonable, and Michael Kelley appealing as the good cop who unearths the kidnappings. Newcomer Jason Butler Harner gives a distinctive performance as the wigged-out killer, Gordon Northcott. Amy Ryan is typically strong as another victim of the cops' psych ward incarceration scam. Less successful is John Malkovich in Marcelled wig as the crusading religionist Rev.Briegleb: he just seems too mannered and creepy. Jolie is good, though her appearance is a bit strange: that huge mouth goes oddly with 20's hair styles. At one moment after she was out of the psych ward, I thought she might be locked up a second time--for overacting. Harner gets his chance to chew up the rug himself in his final scene. A little holding back would not have hurt.

The film is outstanding in its period look; and good, if not perfect, in its period feel. If nothing else you'll remember Catherine Collins quaintly gong back and forth along the lone line of phone operators she supervises--on roller skates. Whole neighborhoods were restored by the filmmakers and streets filled with Model T's and, best of all, old trolley cars. The attempt at period lingo might have been more consistent; but that's a goal rarely achieved. Since the time scheme runs from 1928 to 1935, more mention of the Great Depression surely would also have been in order. Since the screenplay sticks to known facts, there is nothing about Jolie's character before or after the events. This is a good and watchable film, but not up to Eastwood's terrific 2003, 2004 and 2006 efforts. Presented as the mid-point film of the New York Film Festival, already well-publicized at Cannes, 'Changeling' opens nationwide October 31st. Eastwood has already directed two more films, one of which, 'Gran Torino,' he stars in. Even at 78, the man still seems virtually unstoppable.

For more info, check out: Wineville Chicken Coop Murders

Sunday, March 22, 2009


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The relevance of this film today may be sadly overlooked. As the current President of the United States (George W. Bush) ends his tenure with his country disillusioned, in debt, at war, and in disarray, one cannot help but compare him to the late Richard Nixon. Strangely, the older politician, now dead and buried for over a decade, seems much more the intellectual statesman. Nixon has always seemed the darker man, the loner in the Oval Office, as compared to Bush, the happy-go-lucky Texan. While the former suffered from the same malady of self-importance, at least he would ponder positive foreign affairs decisions before creating his political enemy's list. The latter would rather snap celebrity photos with endearing fans than answer tough questions about foreign policy. Leave that to Cheney. Both Nixon and Bush seemed to suffer from the same kind of self-aggrandizement that put the country and the world at tremendous risk. One lost the presidency for his flaws, the other lost nothing personally, except the well-being and respect of his nation.

Frost/Nixon, filmed in semi-documentary style by Ron Howard, is about the elder statesman Nixon revealing himself and his enigmatic heart of hearts to his country and the world via a relatively lightweight British interviewer, David Frost. Overnight, Frost has to remake himself from a chatty interviewer like Jay Leno into a tough interrogator like Mike Wallace. Both men have a lot at stake. According to the film, Frost's career has stagnated and he desperately needs a large breakthrough in media to be taken seriously. And he has shoved most of his personal capital into the project. Nixon was never tried for Watergate and therefore never had a platform from which his case was heard. The Frost interviews becomes Nixon's witness stand, and the television his courtroom.

The acting in this film is some of the finest of all the Oscar contenders of 2008, probably because Sheen and Langella re-prised their roles from the Broadway and London stage-play of the same name. For well over 30 years, Frank Langella has been quietly forging an acting career that has had sparse recognition for the quality of his work. In short, he is one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated talents in Hollywood films, until now. This film has allowed Langella's acting range and versatility to glow into THE performance of 2008. Langella literally becomes Nixon, shaping his subtle mannerisms and guttural tone. And yet, Langella does even one better. He somehow shapes Nixon's attitudes as if he understood who Nixon was on the inside as well as the outside. Good actors can mimic facial expressions. It takes a superb acting of uncommon ability to portray the inner qualities of his/her subject. Langella brings forth the inner Nixon in the same way that the real David Frost did 30 years ago.

Equally superb is the portrayal of David Frost by Michael Sheen. Similar to Langella, Sheen also brings forth the inner Frost, the sort of sexy rock star interviewer who must turn into something he has never been: a tough journalist probing the inner meat of his interviewee. The film very slowly shows us the transition of Frost into the kind of journalist he had to become in order to face Richard Nixon. No American president is easily knocked down and left bare by the likes of a journalist, and Nixon was no exception. Frost had to have an arsenal of not just tough questions but tough responses if he was going to be able to bring out the inner soul of Nixon. Frost had to discard the chatty sensibility of a Jay Leno or David Letterman and transform himself into the passionate journalist of a Mike Wallace or Christiane Amanpour.

A superb film and relevant to the current state of American politics. Nixon had to come clean and Frost was both his judge and his confessor, partially because the former president had resigned. The current president (as of 1/07/09), despite eight years of abuse of power, leaves the office without the stain of impeachment. He will probably never have to answer to a David Frost or a Mike Wallace. What a pity.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Just when it increasingly appears the wells of Hollywood's creativity have dried up, continually resorting to reworking tired cinematic and narrative clichés, films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button emerge to unexpectedly rekindle faith in the industry. Intriguing enough by its mere storyline core (a man is born a senior citizen, and 'ages' backwards throughout his life), what could have resulted in an overly gimmicky excuse for a melodrama is seemingly effortlessly transformed by the delicate directorial touch of David Fincher into something far less contentious and volumes more poignant and lyrical. A haunting, resonant exploration of time, life, death and the transition from one to the other, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button miraculously manages to be sombre and emotionally draining without once becoming excessively dour, with sublime bits of charm, humour and hope peppering the profundity and making it a true cinematic experience for the ages.

To call The Curious Case of Benjamin Button close to a contemporary masterpiece would hardly be overstating things, and yet such praise feels out of place, not because the film is not deserving of it (far from it) but that it makes no claims as to aiming for such heights - were it not for the enormous budget and stars, the film could easily have been a small, independent production. Few films prove so enormously ambitious and yet ultimately unassuming, with such vast scopes, and yet such simple aims all things considered, and Fincher toes the line between the grand and the intimate with remarkable precision. Moreover, it is interesting to see perennial cynic Fincher tap into such unbridled emotional resonance (the film is unlikely to leave a single dry eye in the house), and yet such moments are pure sentiment trimmed of all sap and Hollywood tear-jerking cliché, making them all the more gently genuine and lasting. If his past films such as Fight Club and Seven appeared to be expunging hidden depths of suppressed rage and bitterness, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button appears an attempt to tap into more tender feelings, and the result is in no way less magnificent.

While on very first impression the film might be sized up as overlong, rambling and full of extraneous subplots, over time it becomes increasingly clear the film's intent is not merely to tell the story of Button, but, to the best of Fincher's considerable ability, to live alongside him, complete with all the highs, lows, and little bits in between. This not only provides incredible empathy and pathos for Button's unconventional situation, but allows the story through the character to extrapolate and explore deeper existential themes, reflecting upon the notions of time and its fleeting potential, the overlap of life and death and the importance of living life to the fullest regardless of adversity. While it can be argued that despite this the script still has the occasional clunky bit of exposition, with storytelling so operatic yet paradoxically quiet and unassuming, such concerns only register as rare minute breaches in the film's incredible quality.

Fincher's flair for stunning visuals also carries through in fully force, from the luscious period costuming and sets to the bold visual contrast between the exhilarating (a tense second world war sea battle) to the amusing (boyhood/elderly man Benjamin discovering alcohol) to the heartbreakingly dramatic (Benjamin's quietly horrified meeting with his father) and the seamless flow between them. Alexandre Desplat's luminous musical score and Claudio Miranda's grandiose cinematography ably reinforce the lyrical content. This all, of course goes without even mentioning the film's most central hook, the visual effects and prosthetic 'reverse aging' effects. At first startlingly convincing, the greatest testament to the incredible visual talent on display is how near immediately the viewer forgets about it, remaining so engrossed in Button's bizarre story to extract one's self from the narrative enough to properly appraise the incredible work put into it - a sign, if any, of masterful film-making.

As the titular Button, Brad Pitt is simply a marvel, delivering a performance which is quiet, ego-less, unshowy and all the more supremely effective and credible for it, perfectly convincing no matter what age or contrasting physical appearance. Infusing unassuming heart and unspoken pathos into a character stoically resigned to 'unusual' circumstances rather than milking them for all their emotional worth, Pitt's Benjamin Button becomes an unforgettable underdog for the ages, all the more effective from Pitt's continual refusal to adhere to cliché or Hollywood showboating. Cate Blanchett proves just as marvellous, also essaying a character over the course of over 70 years of her life and proving completely convincing and heartwarming every step of the way while delivering a tremendously emotional performance with the utmost precision and grounded care. Rather than delivering a typical female romantic lead type, Blanchett's Daisy is a fleshed out, enormously credible human being, making her romantic struggle with Button all the more achingly affecting. Supporting the lead duo and their simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking relationship, Taraji P. Henson gives an enormously powerful yet understated performance as Button's surrogate orphanage mother, and Jason Flemyng proves a perfect combination of quirky and hauntingly credible as Button's estranged father. Finally, Tilda Swinton delivers a performance layered with emotional volumes and nuance as a fleeting romantic interest of Button's, managing to both capture the audience's heart and contempt simultaneously.

Despite demanding nearly three hours of the viewer's life, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button makes every last second more than worth it, its power and incredibly uniform quality made all the more appealing by its lack of pretension and vehement avoidance of cliché. While the story or length may not appeal to every last audience member, it is all the more of a shame, as such unanticipated cinematic mastery deserves to be enjoyed and reflected upon by as many as possible.