The Master | Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012, USA
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest venture, The Master, is closer to Anderson’s own There Will Be Blood than any of his earlier works, signifying the director embarking on a bold new venture in his filmmaking. His visual style and camerawork, combined with a hauntingly minimalist score from Johnny Greenwood (of the famous alternative rock band Radiohead), make for a cinematic experience that is more familiar to the mainstream masses flocking to blockbuster cinema, rather than to the cinephile looking to absorb an artistic experience. This is not a matter of content however; it is a matter of presentation. The Master is no doubt, an ‘artistic’ film, filled with scenes that lack any dialogue but rely more on a thumping atmosphere and pure ‘physical acting’ from its actors (whether that be contorted facial expressions, wrestling on the ground, experiencing an orgasm or the soon-to-be famous scene of Joaquin Phoenix banging his head violently on the bottom of a bunk-bed in a jail cell), as well as cinematography which infers and interprets it’s subjects through symbolism within the frame rather than through action. Yes, the film is artistic in its creation but it is an epic blockbuster in its presentation, and much like PTA’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, makes full use of its theatricality to inflict several intense sequences of transformation of its protagonists.
The protagonist of any Paul Thomas Anderson film is one who is at first, in conflict with himself, and later, in conflict with another. The transition of obstacles from within the mind or body to a force outside of one’s own dimensions is important because it helps Anderson’s narratives transmit the idea of a person being ‘a danger to society’. Everyone, from Dirk Diggler (Boogie Nights) to Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) were analyzed within their universes as destructive individuals, and their actions and wildfire effects on their surroundings was always a culmination of their own nature. The Master, thus, becomes a fascinating study of Anderson’s protagonists because in this film, for the first time, there are two of them.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in a volcanic performance) and The Master (or Lancaster Dodd, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, reliably brilliant as ever) engage in a tug of war after their two universes collide aboard a ferry at night. The most staggering revelation arrived at through their coincidental, perhaps foreseen meeting (as Peggy Dodd, Amy Adams, suggests; “is it possible he just happened to come across us?”) is that both men’s influences work in opposing directions. The Master of course, is a man of philosophy, who has a vision of the world he preaches through a creepy, cult-like following known as “The Cause” (Anderson uses this as an allusion to L. Ron Hubbard and the practice of Scientology). His intentions are sincerely, if not with the conviction of a radical, constructive. He just wants to help people. Freddie however, despite being engrossed into The Master’s world, cannot contain his erratic, borderline insane, violent behavior. His intentions are that of destruction. Unlike in There Will Be Blood where Eli was simply considered a minor obstruction to Daniel Plainview’s grand business venture (or in broader context, religion is a minor obstruction to industry), in The Master, Dodd’s alternative faith and Quell’s Godless nihilism are given an equal hand.
As all Anderson films go however, the powers that be must always culminate in a final, definitive event, usually a revelation of sorts that gives an unwavering stand on the ways of nature… sometimes fantastical (frogs falling from the sky) other times definitively hellish (the ending of There Will Be Blood). It’s that finale however that gives the journey any importance, because all things must come to a conclusion, and as The Master has shown, even in the case of two equally fairing, equally powerful protagonists, one side has to give. [Soham Gadre]
The Bourne Legacy | Tony Gilroy, 2012, USA
In a sequence early on in the film, Dr. Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz, researcher-in-distress) walks in through the main entrance of the laboratory, she uses her right hand to push open the door, the door rotates inwards on its hinges, another character inside slides through the breadth of the room seated on his swivel chair, he waves a hello to the new entrant in the room and then taps on a few keys on his keyboard causing a mail to travel electronically. The former character then opens the door to an adjoining lab; inside, a gooey blue liquid flows from one beaker to another via a tube, a lab assistant pushes forward a trolley and characters revolve around on their chairs to greet each other. In the background, there is the constant sound of a number of buttons being pressed on some sort of relay machine – digital signals being sent forth and received. Objects in this film are in a constant, unabated, incessant state of motion – as the film progresses and the canvas increases, the characters themselves become objects in the universe of the film. They assume a state of persistent kinesis and begin to chart trajectories, as opposed to mere movement. At best, and this may be true of a number of big-budget films being made in Hollywood currently, The Bourne Legacy is a thesis on modern transportation: character-objects use cars, mopeds, motorcycles, planes, boats; they also, primitively, run on their feet across snowy deserts, forest landscapes, backwater roads as also through more urban landscapes- narrow lanes, staircases, rooftops, footover bridges and abandoned factories. But therein lies the engaging paradox of the film: despite how much the characters move in the film, it is remarkable how little the plot moves forward with them; I suppose that makes it a chase film. This lack of any real purpose except to run for the sake of running itself is underlined by the bottom-line statement of the film: in the final scene, as the two lead characters travel on some boat to some place, the heroine asks: ‘Where are we?’ and the hero, folding up the map he has and disposing of it, replies, ‘Who cares?’ The act of transportation is inherently pointless – it is rendered meaningful by the fact of the destination at the end of it; with the map now folded and torn up, the travel for these two characters is without any real end. Oh, and at worst? It is Hollywood encashing a dead guy’s left-behinds. [Anuj Malhotra]
Ted | Seth MacFarlane, 2012, USA
Anthropomorphism, the projection of human attributes into the non-human (animal or non-living object), is a common stylistic effect in fairly tales and children’s stories but when utilized in the cinema, it becomes strange and interesting simply because of the more convincing illusion that the non-human is a character the way the humans are characters in the movies. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted offers us the title character, a teddy bear, a toy and so non-living but who comes to life with the help of the usual cliché’s of shooting stars and Christmas wishes, and becomes the lifelong friend of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). Everyone immediately accepts the presence of a living, breathing, talking bear who also engages in sexual relationships with women and who can apparently smoke marijuana and drink beer. What should be the main subject of the film, the “realness” of the bear and its impact on people becomes a mere lift for a fairly conventional romance/rites-of-passage story. Namely the fact that that John’s girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis) wants to settle down while he’s still used to the “good times” with Ted. The first section of Ted is a genuinely funny comedy, competently paced and ably acted by Wahlberg and Kunis and then the film becomes boring as the pathos between the toy bear and John is taken more seriously than it deserves to be. Despite shamelessly mugging in his voicework as the teddy bear, Seth MacFarlane does well to allow his actors Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, appealing performers, enough room to give deft comic roles and also allows a genuinely funny and surprising cameo by Norah Jones. Still, given the questionable quality of the ersatz-Simpsons TV shows MacFarlane is best known for, it’s very well made indeed. [Sudarshan Ramani]
To Rome With Love | Woody Allen, 2012, USA
The four stories of To Rome With Love is, like many of Woody Allen’s “tourist films”, a sample of the cultural treasure of the respective destination. So the film has one episode of a married couple much like Fellini’s The White Sheik, with Penelope Cruz’s third wheel prostitute character visibly channeling Sophia Loren. Another has Roberto Benigni, happily dialed down for most of the film, who lives in the world of the macho celebrity culture that characterizes Berlusconi’s Italy but also looks back to La Dolce Vita, the film that gave the world the inescapable phrase “paparazzi”. The episodes with Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg, old and young architects, likewise summons L’Avventura, another film about the elective affinities of human relationships.
The one episode which has the least to do with Italian cinema and most to Allen’s own work is the one with the master returning on-screen after 6 years (his last was Scoop). His double act this time is with Judy Davis, a long-time member of Allen’s stock company, who is a psychiatrist wife to her music executive husband, which in the mere act of describing itself becomes a Woody Allen joke. As does the plot of his story, the discovery of the hidden talent of a mortician who also happens to be the father of his daughter’s fiancée while also boasting great operatic talent(played by real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato) but only when singing in the shower; a discovery worthy of Broadway Danny Rose. The middle-class dismissal of opera as bathroom singing is turned on its head when the resulting performance of Pagliacci manages to be an incredibly funny gag, him being wheeled out on a moving shower panel on stage, but also allows possibilities for great beauty, above all an amazing close-up of Fabio Armiliato singing the iconic aria, “Vesti la giubba”(Put on the clothes for the performance!) while shower foam drapes over his face. It’s an incredible beautiful image.
Then there is the subtle mastery of narrative rhythm, the manner in which Alec Baldwin is both the future version of Jesse Eisenberg and a separate character in his own right. Woody Allen’s mise-en-scène in To Rome with Love is elegantly economical, many scenes and sequences are conducted in an extended take, including a strange and not entirely successful 360 degree pan. The film resembles less the classic Italian omnibus film (Boccaccio’ 70), then an ensemble film of multiple characters whose connections are suggested by several visual and narrative rhymes. A casual mastery that is indicative of how much new ground Woody Allen breaks even when he repeats old themes, his constant pre-occupations with age, relationships and the irreconcilable banality of existence.
The skill with which Allen arrives at insight in each new story and with each new character is ultimately more important than whether Allen has anything “new” to say or whether it’s “relevant” to our present discourse. He always puts himself and the audience in the shoes of characters facing up to reality, always running against their expectations and beliefs. This keeps Woody Allen constantly fresh while still more or less the same man who made Annie Hall and Manhattan. [SR]
Arjun: The Warrior Prince | Arnab Chaudhari, 2012, India
It’s not really fair to lambast an Indian animation production like Arnab Chaudhuri’s Arjun: The Warrior Prince simply because it does not live up to the aesthetic that we are accustomed to via Pixar or Dreamworks. This is matter of pure technology and not one of narrative or creative input. Arjun in all regards is a landmark achievement for Bollywood because it represents a step forward in almost every category that can be linked to the art of animation filmmaking. The drawing is a crossbreed between a 2D and 3D format, most closely reminiscent of Dreamworks’ 1998 film The Prince of Egypt. At its best, Arjun is a film even more mature and well-postured than Bollywood’s live action epics, if only for the fact that it doesn’t revel in its imagery (which is something animation directors can get easily caught up with), but instead its beautiful scenery and palaces only serve as a theatrical stage for the confrontations that Arjun has with his enemies and friends. Chaudhuri beautifully manages to carve the tale with such a graceful poise, that it manages to bring out the essence of the Mahabharata, which is that the important moments in life are not made with actions, but with words and thought. The final battle scene in the film is almost an afterthought and happens so swiftly that you may miss it if you blink too often. This, for the undemanding, impatient entertainment crowd, may be a gigantic letdown, but really it is a revelation that modern live-action Bollywood cinema has never managed to accomplish; the most important moments within Arjun happen in conversation and introspection, whether it be while basking in the sunlight (for the protagonists) or conniving in the dark (for the antagonists). The final battle thus becomes only a 5 second explosion to 2 hours of a mental and verbal tug of war between greed, power, faith and dignity. We know who is going to win and we know how, but for the first time in a long time for Indian cinema, the process is actually interesting and more than worth your time. Who knew it would be accomplished by an animation film, a form of cinema India has only wet its feet in. [SG]
Gangs of Wasseypur Part II | Anurag Kashyap, 2012, India
At the end of the Capsule Review for Part I, I noted that final judgment on Kashyap’s film had to be suspended until his full vision became clear. Now that the second part is available, much has been made clear though one is still left to ponder Part I’s tangled thread to thread approach to charting out a family tapestry. With Part II, the focus is smoother and the action moves with better pace and a more consistent vision, it feels that this is the story Kashyap wished to tell all along. The film is genuinely suspenseful particularly in the attack on the hero’s house and his subsequent escape to a safe position to launch a counter-attack, but the single most interesting facet of this film is Tigmanshu Dalia’s politician character who achieves something like complexity until the film’s poorly-conceived finish. Dalia also gets the single best monologue in the entire film, which everyone reading this will identify immediately; it’s also where Kashyap’s real interest lies. He deliberately foregrounds the “movie-ness” of the setting and his character’s lives as a sign, through his emphasis of Bollywood 90s movie posters carefully placed in the landscape, the hairstyles of his two heroes imitate Bollywood stars – one is Amitabh, the other is Sanjay Dutt, and here Kashyap locates the double attraction-repulsion of Indian cinema. On one hand it allows him to present his characters as purported commoners who are played by non-stars and opposes them with movie stars far away from their reality. This leads inevitably to a sense of self-loathing and repression of their own identities when confronted with this fantasy. Not exactly Brian DePalma (whose Scarface worked on the same principle) but the idea is the same. [SR]
Skyfall | Sam Mendes, 2012, USA
What do I like about James Bond? Well the same things as everyone else. Being a man, he appeals to my fantasies of mastery over weapons and his great physical and magnetic command over men and women. I liked the title sequences, and Skyfall has a title sequence which is itself the whole film, in theme, tone and subject, making the film itself a redundant expansion. One thing Skyfall has over other James Bond films is that the vast majority of the action takes in place in England, which is rarer than you would assume. The opening of Skyfall does take place in Istanbul, with the usual car chase upsetting and damaging the local small businesses and the colonialist trampling over monuments like the Grand Bazaar as if it was a personal playground. But after that, with the exception of select detours, the film remains firmly in England and the finale moves to Scotland, specifically to Bond’s ancestral estate called “Skyfall”, which is maintained by an old gamekeeper played by the always welcome Albert Finney. Indeed, you can say, that Skyfall is very self-consciously English, even quoting a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson which is really pushing it. But then the film already crossed the lines of impossible associations when Ben Whishaw’s gadget-maker at the National Gallery hands Bond his new gun as they contemplate J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and wax poetic on the end of an age.
And at this point, I felt the movie had become ridiculous in a level no other film in this franchise has quite matched since it asserts a position for the figure of James Bond that is not organically attained but reflective of wishful nostalgia for England, Empire, the Queen and ultimately nostalgia for James Bond, an impossibly delusional hodgepodge. The film’s cast of Judi Dench, Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem are excellent actors in other films but over here, the essential aspects of their personalities are subsumed into something less than their best. Bardem has the most fun as an over-the-top menacing villain channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker, his own turn as Anton Chigurh and a blonde hair-do and a modus-opperandi that suggests Julian Assange. This mixture is impossible enough to make a truly demented 60s style pop spy-film, not James Bond so much as Joseph Losey’s aggressive spoof Modesty Blaise with a similarly bleached beyond reason Dirk Bogarde. But Sam Mendes is an apostle of the cinema of no-jokes and facile seriousness, and the least that most could say about James Bond was that at least he was entertaining, to a point, now even that’s taken from him. For shame, Britannia, for shame![SR]
Jab Tak Hai Jaan | Yash Chopra, 2012, India
When Yash Chopra passed away, I was covering the Mumbai Film Festival and for three days there were “moments of silence” preceding screenings. I was sincere for about the first two or three times and not at all for the rest, where much like the national anthem, it had passed into the routine of mere form with little thought over the life of the man that has passed. So in a way I’m glad that I saw and disliked greatly Mr. Chopra’s posthumous film, because at the very least it allowed me to think of Mr. Chopra as a contemporary active voice rather than one from a supposed “bygone” age. The film is truly weird in the way it exposes with enough clarity the duplicity at the heart of Indian film fantasies. We are expected to buy a 47 year old Shah Rukh Khan as an up-and-coming immigrant living and acting like a 23 or 24 year old, sharing dorms with embarrassing room-mates and dealing with problems that are essentially adolescent. His romance with Katrina Kaif is unbelievable enough to be science-fiction and his later incarnation as a bomb defusing superhero could be mistaken as parody if it were not so deadly earnest. Even more ridiculous is Chopra’s use of English garden lawns and meadows as landscapes for melodramatic confessional scenes, an affectation for the picturesque and easy images that become a kind of compositional joke. If nothing else, the experience of the audience laughing when Katrina Kaif, seated on the edge of a park bench getting up was almost worth seeing the film.
The central plot of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, revolves around Katrina Kaif renouncing her love for Shah Rukh Khan to God, provided he survives a car accident. And it’s here that the film becomes truly demented, not for the plot idea itself but the brazenness of its theft from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and Neil Jordan’s beautiful film adaptation. Both book and film deals with faith and is set in England during the Second World War has real adults as characters and an understanding for what it means to be human. For Yash Chopra to hijack this as a mere gimmick and not engage with the ideas itself flattens the film into a stupid joke. Quite separate from the issue of “remaking” a film, it reveals a complete lack of understanding of the original material. The end result is a film that’s both grandiose and false. [SR]
Talaash | Reema Kagti, 2012, India
The plot of Talaash, in the first half (watchable at the very least), concerns a police investigation on the death of a Bollywood actor from a seemingly bizarre and unmotivated car accident. The investigation buries deep or at least looks like it wants to bury deep, into the fabric of society; on the invisible lines that bind the rich of Mumbai city to the very poor, the lives of prostitutes and pimps in the city’s demi-monde. The cop investigating the case (Aamir Khan, trying to remind people of Sarfarosh) is hurting from a personal tragedy and a strained marriage and becomes friends with a prostitute (Kareena Kapoor, unconvincing) who informs him on the happenings on the city’s brothels and its hotel fronts. The problem with Bollywood films isn’t their lack of ideas, as this mere summary alone covers several good American and French cop films and it offers excellent material for actors. The visual style is also attentive to Mumbai exteriors in a way that is a little unfamiliar even if the geography is wrong and in some cases imagined out of whole cloth. At the very least, we find a director using the elevated walking bridges outside Charni Road Station for a chase, though it was inevitable that someone would hit on that idea at some point or another. Of the supporting cast, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is compelling as a sentimental pimp, making his theatrical gimmick of a walking limp work when it shouldn’t and Rani Mukherjee is good in a few scenes. Despite this, the film is extremely silly and a failure, its visualization of the life of prostitutes is hesitant and unconvincing, suggestive of a class guilt that alas does not add up to a critical glimpse of society, a glimpse that can present us with something to learn from. Its low ambitions are restricted to tabloid fodder and, bizarrely, middle-class superstitions. [SR]