BA Pass | Ajay Bahl, 2013, India
Ajay Bahl’s BA Pass is one of many new films from younger film-makers that attempt to engage with representing “the other”, the challenge of reflecting back to the audience the private fantasies and desires which has so far gone unrepresented. I speak of course of the depiction and portrayal of sex, of which there is a great deal in BA Pass. Depicting sex in a manner that is dramatically pertinent and emotional is a considerable challenge and Mr. Bahl sadly falls short in his representation. The actors show some semblance of daring but the awkwardness is visible and the comportment of their bodies and demeanor is frequently hilarious. Shilpa Shukla’s one dimensional portrayal of her character makes her little more than a sexpot vamp with her back arched, standing on display in all her scenes. While Shadab Kamal gives a more consistent performance as the naïve hero, he is frequently let down by the writing that sees him as piñata meant to be pushed and shuttled around. The film is ultimately let down by its timidity and conservatism. Despite its interesting subject and plot, the film has little sympathy and compassion for its characters, looking at them as alternately schemers or victims and for all its focus on sex scenes, the film is punitive towards any expression of desire, descending finally into a homophobic nightmare. [SR]
Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow, 2012, USA
Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps the most in-depth portrayal of the "war on terror" as it is actually fought by American technocrats. Or rather, it is the most in-depth we are likely to get at the present moment. The film has a rich sense of irony. Conventional stories of espionage and perceptions about America's military might focuses a lot on America's technology. Yet what we see in this film is that a lot of espionage work is just basic policework of tailing suspects, following leads on informants and when necessary, shakedowns of informants, suspects and when necessary torture. The film is unflinching in showing the torture techniques inflicted by CIA agents on terror suspects, which includes water-boarding and cramping human beings into a tiny boxes and other SALO-worthy acts of infamy, and Bigelow is to be praised for refusing to present Jessica Chastain's Maya, the film's hero, as separate from these actions. Indeed, after initial aversion(regarded as common and natural) she becomes a CIA thug par excelence. And yet this woman is a hero, she tracked Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. She convinced the higer authorities of CIA to order the extra-judicial hit that led to his death. Bigelow follows the same style she displayed in The Hurt Locker, the kind of neo-reportage realism that favors a process-driven narrative, the result is a disturbing film that might stick around for some time. [SR]
Lincoln | Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA
Some viewers have compared this film of Lincoln to a popular animatronic feature at Disneyland. They meant that as a pejorative. I think it's a compliment. Spielberg's Lincoln is less interested in the controversial aspects of Lincoln's life and office(for that, cf, Gore Vidal's literary masterpiece, Lincoln) nor is it interested in the nostalgia that colours other visions of Lincoln(cf, John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln). For Spielberg, the interest in this film is simply recreating an America and a Washington where the President, despite his great stature, was still within reach of the common man, where Congressional debates are conducted in an English out of the King James Bible and Jacobean drama. Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln is not really a performance rather it is a sculpture carved out of familiar aspects of Lincoln's personality, wielding a command of language and presence that is uncanny in its beauty, almost as uncanny as Henry Fonda in Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. Put it simply, Lincoln is about what it means like to see Lincoln, regarding the great historical figure with the same sense of wonder one finds in Close Encounters or in Jurassic Park. The film has very little to say about the causes behind the Civil War nor does it say much about slavery. To this end, the film's detractors have every right to complain. The film's chosen plot of the passing of the passing of the amendment which abolished slavery in the Constitution is a simple plot around which a more digressive film is made, the curse and grandeur of greatness, the sense of decay and heartbreak in the life of Lincoln, the loss of his sons, and his estrangement from his wife, the mysterious presence of Lincoln, alternatively fierce like his namesake Biblical patriarch and alternatively a wag telling anecdotes and stories that range from the strange to the hilariously funny. No Spielberg film has ever featured such a magnificent cast. Alongside Lewis, there's the underrated Sally Field in a remarkable performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as the firebrand leftist congressman(sporting a wig no less) alongside James Spader in a rare endearing role as a behind-the-scenes lobbyist who works with Lincoln. This film is worth seeing and hearing for the language alone. It's one of the richest recreations of a distant past in film history. [SR]
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann, 2013, USA
In Ye Olde Hollywood, producers would buy the rights of a popular book, convert the book into a play and shoot the play. This crude brute-force approach has produced some good films but on the whole sidesteps the great challenge of adapting the free form structure of a novel by means of the cinema. A faithful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book should ideally be smaller, more intimate and certainly, a good deal slower than Baz Luhrmann's film. His version of The Great Gatsby converts the book into Gatsby! - The Broadway Musical and shoots that instead of the book. And yet, The Great Gatsby is that unexpected rare thing, a good film from Baz Luhrmann.
The film's flaws are too patently obvious to mention. It abounds in several false-goood ideas which somehow attain charm for their sheer naivete, the literal transposition of metaphors in the book to the most obvious and direct visual correlatives for instance. What makes this film work and be truly affecting is its cast of actors, who have an understanding of their roles and an engagement with the material deeper than Luhrmann's direction. Joel Edgerton as John Buchanan skillfully etches the line between shallow hypocrisy and shrewd pragmatism that in a way improves on the general caricature in the book. Carey Mulligan as Daisy conveys the quiet despair of being a beautiful thing merely to be looked at. Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio, skilfully etch the sad friendship between Nick Carraway and Gatsby, the unexpected loyalty and sympathy both develop for one another. All of this comes together in the scene at the plaza, which is perhaps the only time Luhrmann depicts humility and restraint and simply lets his actors inhabit their roles and follow through. The great problem of faithfully following the structure of the book is that Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't get much to get into Gatsby, a romantic legend which in the book can be conveyed by characters who surround him but which when rendered on screen via Luhrmann's literal translation, ends up making Gatsby a Saint of the Roaring Twenties. [SR]
It’s always an endearing thought when a filmmaker in Hollywood decides to take on a novel like this, because amidst all the poor adaptations of tween girl fantasy kitsch, to think someone dug way back into the 20′s and gave one of America’s greatest literary classics a good hard look is a bright light in a dark cavern. So, you can imagine why it is all the more disappointing when such a great story is given the same hollow and showy treatment as low-brow fantasy adaptation. “The Great Gatsby” seems like the perfect kind of story to tell today. A marvelous masterpiece from the past written so eloquently and with such delectable detail by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, at its core, a tale of how dreams can die at the hands of destiny. How, one cannot always get what they want and how they want it, and whatever hand one is dealt in his life is his to play how he chooses it, but once the cards are folded, you can never get the same hand back. This is something Jay Gatsby wouldn’t accept. It’s a beautiful little story which would resonate lyrically with today’s audience. It’s too bad director Baz Luhrmann wasn’t as interested in this as much as he was in his editing tricks, flashy camera movements, gaudy costumes and blindingly sun-lit gardens. In all the ambitious production values and obvious fervor Baz Luhrmann put into creating a Roarin’ 20′s New York, he let Fitzgerald’s words drown the same way Jay Gatsby did in his undying wish to relive a romance from his past. [SG]
D-Day | Nikhil Advani, 2013, India
Dawood Ibrahim has become a perverse figure. He’s both a real person and a phantom, a projection of the Indian media as the “ultimate Indian bad guy”. In effect, he’s become the post-modern Ravana of our contemporary mythology. That myth contains an instance of Indians invading another kingdom and another land, to wage war on righteous grounds. D-Day is about Indian agents marching into Karachi to kidnap a gangster called Iqbal-bhai, (Rishi Kapoor) and bring him home, contravening several established statutes of international law and presumably risking the possibility of the outbreak of war between two nuclear-powered nations. Fortunately, D-Day isn't even remotely credible in its realization of this deranged scheme, a longed-for Indian remake of the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden.The opening of the long flashback segue shows RAW embedded agent Wali (Irrfan Khan) maintaining his cover and this small section which pays attention to the daily rituals of maintaining a double life, has a sense of what spy-work actually involves. This section is the best in the film. The film collapses as soon as ‘the Mission’ is ordered and the heroes behave with astonishing incompetence. They conduct open discussions of their plans in a public space like a mall food court where they don’t even code their language and only make a flimsy attempt at maintaining a cover that will not fool anyone. The characters are supposed to be veteran impersonators, who visibly stutter and react like a deer-in-headlights in awkward moments when their line of work would involve extensive preparation and anticipation for deception. On one hand the film is a “realistic” spy-film, not a James Bond film with fun gadgets, on the other hand it ignores the basic realities of spy-work. This is made more absurd when the film shows the spy-heroes react in shock to the fact that the Indian government would disavow them if they fail, the organizing principle and cardinal catch of all spy work.Why tell the story of the persecution and capture of an out-of-reach man on film when the person is not only still alive but remains out of reach for the foreseeable future? The answer, perhaps, rests in the film’s glorious reveling in the Indian government’s use of force, a longing for an assertive nation that takes a tough line and will take bold measures to protect its citizens. Is it an accident that the Prime Minister has slicked-back silver-white hair and his name is Lodhi, which rhymes with a prospective PM candidate who also has slicked-back silver-white hair? [SR]
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag | Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2013, India
One thing that is frequently neglected in Bollywood films is the consideration of professional demands, pressures and rigor. The fact that work or a chosen field requires a mindset different than the romantic dreamers and earnest schemers that populate most commercial fodder, and therefore requires a different approach altogether does not occur to the film-makers of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Milkha Singh, considered to be India’s greatest athlete, lived a life of great struggle, filled with hard work and toil. What we see on film, is a rags-to-riches story that favors the happenstances, the chances, more than actual effort or agency on the part of Milkha Singh.The film’s approach to a biopic narrative, of imposing a form over the formless nature of life, is to use a convoluted flashback structure with various inner layers that goes even further back to his childhood and early adolescence. This narrative style is interesting for privileging emotional textures over plot, it removes the chronological progression common in biopics. Milkha Singh’s army life, his international athletic career, his childhood and his adolescence is cross-cut in parallel throughout the film. The film’s formal structure in fact resembles that of psychoanalysis with the progressive stripping away of layers until one arrives at the source of one’s trauma. This is also a sound strategy in dealing with the life of a sportsman who was honored and loved by the people, who won in major tournaments but never won the glory of Olympic medals and international recognition. (Contrary to this film, Milkha Singh didn’t even break the world record for 400m). Milkha’s victory, the race in Pakistan against his arch rival, is successful on personal and emotional terms alone.
Where the film doesn’t work is the poverty of its recreation. Despite use of newsreel footage, and its use of faded, old-fashioned titles as period marking details, the film’s imagining of 1950s India, early into independence is very thin and flat. Dalip Tahil’s Nehru is a talking post-card from our textbook rather than the Prime Minister who presided over Independent India’s golden age. The late 50s involved such incidents as the Sino-Indian war as well as the aggression in Goa, incidents that are remote from Milkha Singh, assuredly but definitely worthy of a mention or two given the number of friends he counts in the army on active professional duty. There’s generally a sense of inertness on display, of the background as being theatrical and one dimensional. The film finally falters is the centre of its focus. Milkha Singh himself. Farhan Akhtar has answered all the physical demands required for the role, and the camera devotes considerable time to showing the after-effects of his workout routine. Akhtar’s interpretation of the character however is immensely simplistic, showing him as a naïve, country bumpkin struggling and tormented over his deeply traumatic past, withholding the inner strength and steel that Milkha Singh must have had if he had to get as far as he did. The film’s only moment of interest is addressing the hypocrisy of forced celibacy on Indian athletes and sportsmen. Milkha Singh’s troubled childhood has obvious effects on his sexual development and the time spent in the army, in the company of men allows for much homoerotic displays of affection leaving little in the way of meaningful interaction with women. The brief romance with a lovely Australian girl (Rebecca Breeds) during the Melbourne Olympics, whether based in fact or invented for the film, contrasts the demanding training regiment with his romantic bliss and when he finally clenches at the race, leaves it ambiguous as to whether the blame lies in the romance or his actual professional inexperience. Milkha becomes super-celibate after that, rejecting the advances of the Indian swimming team captain and focuses on his work. The film’s borrowing of the biopic formula of Hollywood movies, necessarily invites greater psychological focus than Indian films generally use, and if the film’s handling of period detail, professional life and character development is thin, the film’s handling of the character’s sexuality while timid and restrained is at least grounded and believable.
The film’s other main focus is lengthy slapstick scenes and recreation of boarding room and barrack rituals. But on the whole the film is a mess, full of different possibilities to approach the biopic and it uses all of them with expected results with the fantasy of Milkha Singh moving through history, struggle, up the social ladder the chief thrill on offer. Not unlike the fictional movie Forrest Gump (which has the refrain of “Run Forrest Run”), Milkha moves through life seemingly without agency, aided by frequent benevolence from his army superiors and constant support from coaches taking him forward, Akhtar’s flat performance emphasizing his naiveté and innocence rather than his intelligence. In other words, the film’s vision of an authentic heroic figure is one that ends up making him seem less inspiring and heroic than he actually was, focused as it is on the fantastic quality of his life story. [SR]
Bombay Talkies | Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, 2013, India
I happen to like anthology films. In fact, we ought to be making more anthology films in India, if only for the economy of narrative and formal focus it necessarily invites from film-makers. The theme of Bombay Talkies is supposed to be the centenary of the Indian film industry, with a plot that vaguely depends on celebrity and nostalgia as well as the impact of media. The result is a really weird buffett. Dibakar Bannerjee's short is the best, focusing as it does on Nawazuddin Siddiqui undergoing The Extra's Tragedy on a film set. Simple and direct. Karan Johar's story is "daring" I suppose for dealing with closeted homosexuality in India, a rich subject that it only addresses on American sitcom-level insight. The third episode, by Akhtar is so bizarre and weird that I forgot all about it. Anurag Kashyap's segment is a kind of nasty comedy about an ironic pilgrimage to the Holy City of Bombay to take blessings of the great sage Amitabh Bachchan(who manifests in human form at the end). Caught between sentiment and can-you-believe-this-crap glibness, the film's lack of invention displays either boredom or disinterest.
Iron Man 3 | Shane Black, 2013, USA
I like the last line of the film - “You can take my house, my tricks and toys. One thing you can’t take from me, I am Iron Man”. This is true. This third Iron Man movie keeps the hero character out of the costume that in fact separates the costume as a separate figure from the hero, and which at the end doesn't even get to be used for its purpose of defeating the bad guy. The fact is Robert Downey Jr. is the hero and the character is nothing without him. This is a bracing fact to acknowledge on the part of director Shane Black and Downey since these characters are being re-re-booted every time we look away. The film’s special effects sequences are serviceable as always, though less grand than it was in The Avengers. The film works best when it makes you forget that it’s a superhero film, and this is easily done when it focuses on Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow and with Ben Kinglsey in his two hilarious scenes. Iron Man 3 ideally ought to have been a cheaper film and a funnier film. These stories are comedies since it deals with a character with nothing much to complain and one who is mature to accept it. This makes this film, more pleasing than Christopher Nolan's sub-adolescent retarded mock-angst works. Not to oversell it of course. Take away its fancy effects, expensive sets and other tricks and toys and all you are left with is an expensive B-movie you spend four times you would see for a real work of cinema these days. [SR]
Man of Steel | Zack Synder, 2013, USA
It's ironic that the best adaptations of the Superman mythos have been in popular music rather than films. I am thinking of Laurie Anderson's O Superman and Wish I Could Fly Like Superman by The Kinks. Both songs capture the double aspect, the former a dark look at Superman as post-modern Uncle Sam and the latter, locates the story in the working-class world of neuroses, doubts, fears symbolized by Clark Kent. Indeed Quentin Tarantino's exegesis of Superman in Kill Bill (a re-appropriation of Jules Feiffer's essay, without credit, naturellement) goes far in describing the essential sadness of the character, which was previously touched on in comics like, Harvey Kurtzmann's cruelly accurate attack, Superduperman! and Alan Moore's wonderful tale, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Namely that Superman is at heart a person without a real sense of self. As for the movie Man of Steel (by the way, in Russian, Man of Steel translates as, you guessed it...Stalin!), it has nothing to do with the Superman I discuss so far.
It's a boring, flat, unimaginative work with very little visual invention and skill. The myth it tackles is simple and appealing but stripped of wit and humor, it becomes ugly. This Superman is a God who is more human than the average post-human, whose angst is not real angst. The villains are utter bores. About the only attempt at logic is a half-assed acknowledgement that godlike beings using Earth as a playground for their tribal fight isn't as exciting as it sounds. Since this is naturally a problem we will confront in our lifetimes, the fiilm should be credited for this. The hallmark of a Superman story is that he and his supporting cast were always the real story, an elaborate domestic comedy magnified by adventurism. The film trades domestic and screwball comedy (despite the presence of Amy Adams) for false religion and phony philosophy. A sad trade-off, at least for this viewer. [SR]
The Conjuring | James Wan, 2013, USA
Mostly, the horror film is inert and self-sufficient – while it is possible for a number of other genres to converge within a single film, a horror film is just that: a horror film. This entails that the genre itself has developed over the years an almost hermetic, untampered and self-contained set of pre-requisites, criteria, and rules – as well as the corresponding responses to these. Wan’s latest film is a very interesting genre-entry – it attempts no revisionism, no meta-inquiry and no self-consciousness that seems to float over and above his material – his film puts on proud display all the symptoms of the genre. This means that the film is constituted by all that is typical in a horror film - its effectiveness lies in the qualities of acceleration, thrust and violence with which it applies its tropes – as such, it is a film whose accomplishment is entirely textual (vertical) as opposed to structural (horizontal). Wan’s narrative is distilled through a combination of the realistic (the special effects, gore, close-ups, bits of found-footage, photographic evidence) and the fantastical (the haunted house looks like a miniature, the grotesque make-up on the ghosts, peculiar curse-laden artifacts) – in effect, mimicking the dynamic between the lead couple; one uses scientific equipment to register evidence of the supernatural, the other’s clairvoyant. This is an interesting genre-reinforcement, because in the era of the digital image, where possibilities of manipulation necessitate suspicion on the part of the audience, recent horror films have all attempted to simulate authentic circumstance (found footage, locations proximate to the actual lives of the viewers, characters who look/talk like them, etc.). Wan, however, is not afraid to situate his horror film in a distant setting or a bygone era – going to the extent of consciously reproducing the 70s horror film aesthetic (the title of the film that appears in a downward, large yellow scroll is a giveaway). The great triumph of the film is in using this remote tale to evoke instead a dilemma that is still immediate to a lot of viewers – that between skepticism and belief – in that, it is a contemporary film that sets up the Great Classical Doubt by putting forth a strong argument in its own favour. [AM]
The Hangover III | Todd Phillips, 2013, USA
If anything, the film is of much interest for the first fifteen minutes. A group of middle-class, gentry-material, impeccably dressed friends try to assimilate their socially awkward friend (Alan) into their civilized circle. They forge a scheme to secure an intervention for him and gather around a table to inform him of their rather well-intended collective decision. He resists. How? By purposely toppling over their regime of civility by giving a glass of water a faint push and letting its contents drench the table-cloth underneath. This causes chaos and makes them drop their rehearsed avatars - a perfect act of casual anarchy that ties this film with that great anti-conformism masterpiece, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). Boudu spills over a glass of wine to soak the salt from the cloth that spreads over the dining table – thereby rendering his hostess’ scientific logic and bourgeois good-manners useless. Unfortunately, The Hangover III doesn’t extend this thought – instead extolling on virtues standard to a film of its type – clique-loyalty, brotherhood, crisis-solved-through-unity and other such comfortable messages of hope/humanity. In the middle, the film reveals itself to be a perfect example of a post-blockbuster movie: a film that is cultivated in the shadow of other commercial successes. In that, it evokes at various points during its narrative sensory responses that one may associate with, say, Mission Impossible 4 (the pre-finale consists of death-defying stunts atop a top building), The Dark Knight (there are vandals in masks who work for a nasty, casual murderer) and the Fast and Furious series (high-speed car chases, vehicular stunts). This is a feature of the film that points directly to a prevalent belief in the mainstream film-producing communities of the world – that each subsequent product (film) must now exist in careful synthesis with the products that precede it, in effect, extending a popular trend till its logical breaking point – a giant super-franchise within which each film must be a memory of the film that released before it, thereby ensuring that audiences can only now see variations of what is familiar, comfortable and known to them already. As a corollary, anything that is uncomfortable or a little puzzling, such as the idea resident in the first fifteen minutes of the film, must be weeded out immediately or truncated, before it begins to take proper shape.[AM]
The Place Beyond the Pines | Derek Cianfrance, 2013, USA
In this sophomore feature, Cianfrance is still flexing his skills as mood setter, but his skills as a storyteller have noticeably gone “Hollywood”. No longer do we have a muddle of emotions and complex situations where characters can do right and wrong, act good and bad. Everyone in The Place Beyond the Pines is too fleshed out and easy to decipher, they all have a trajectory, which, is too conventional and ends in a finite resolution rather than bittersweet compromise. Avery (Bradley Cooper) especially is a total righteous cop, ready at the drop of a hat to turn his corrupt cop buddies in, and finds himself in and out of trouble through very simple means (simply blackmailing a lawyer for judicial assistance and of all things, a major promotion that he really isn’t even qualified for). Unlike in Blue Valentine, where emotions were palpable and almost tangible, and the relationship struggles were a helplessly real and raw battle, in this film Cianfrance’s characters don’t relate to each other at all and his play between husbands, wives and children suddenly falls out of the frame when he’s preoccupied with such a riveting story to tell.
Still, The Place Beyond the Pines features some great moments, one of the most intense being when Avery is asked by his superior officer Deluca (Ray Liotta) to follow him, and the sequence takes us through a rugged road surrounded by thick pines and as the scenery gets darker and the road winds and twists, the lights on Avery’s car start to point to an endless abyss, like a timid flashlight in a cave of horrors. The sequence is played with such mastery of suspense, it was more terrifying than the hundred “pop-out” scares in all the horror movies that have come out recently. It is the type of directing talent one should expect from Cianfrance, and his film, be it of lighter weight and of shallower depth than his debut, is still “entertaining” for what it’s worth, and marks a consecutive success with the camera that makes him a director to look out for. [SG]