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Capsule Reviews

 | Capsule Reviews |

  BY Gautam Valluri and Anuj Malhotra

Javier Bardem in Biutiful(2010)

127 Hours | Danny Boyle, 2010, UK

I suppose one could direct the story of 127 Hours as one of superhuman fortitude, or as a tragedy (a man forced to pay a premium in order to sustain his intense passion for something), or as one with a great deal of inherent irony. Boyle chooses the third; he had to choose the third: it is the only manner in which 127 Hours can exist as an entertaining feature film and not as an affecting short or a depressing (even sinister) short feature (as it would, if he were to make the first or the second choices). 

Boyle looks for opportunities in Aron Rolston’s tale to evoke in the audience a situation of ironic comparison – between the nature of their own immediate existence (plush, air-conditioned, spacious, pop-corn laden) with the canyoneer’s (confined, unheeded, famished).  And it is safe irony all through – the audience has the privilege of the foreknowledge of a character’s tragedy – they are in on the enormous joke all the time, so even as Rolston is stuck in the canyon, we get to survey the entire National Park through helicopter shots, or as he struggles to move an inch, we can simply lift ourselves out of the canyon on a crane. As he casually strolls to the location of his captivation (the canyon), the film becomes a series of shots that feature his right hand – through which we are reminded of the eventual amputation, and thus, made to smile nervously at the sheer irony of our potency as prophets in the life of our wholly unaware protagonist. Even more viciously, in the very first second of his five-day adventure, as the boulder incarcerates his right hand against the wall of the canyon, a title card is superimposed over the film – ‘127 Hours’ – you know, he doesn’t. Such gratuitous peddling of irony could be a yield of Boyle’s traditional love for superficial entertainment, but also his attendance of the first duty of a filmmaker as he understands it: to tell a good story. Strangely enough, the only factor that acts as a counterpoint to the complete immorality of his method is the audience’s foreknowledge of the character’s eventual escape: cinema often permits its audience to extract cheap thrills from a tragedy if they know that everything turned out well in the end.

However, it is not enough for Boyle to make Rolston feel gratified for his own life pre-tragedy, but wants to induce a similar gratitude in the audience – therefore, it is imperative that he arranges a common set of memories (or desires) for both Rolston and us to counterpoint the claustrophobic scenery of Rolston’s situation – he achieves it through the use of imagery from traditional advertising – imagery that belongs to us all. So Rolston’s memories of his family are substituted by the image of a ‘happy family’ like a cheap American car or board game ad might show it –  family on a sofa shot frontally in a lawn; a montage of images from cola ads proxies in/informs us of his thirst. He even has the average blonde lover to reminisce about – purely by reducing his past to a typical level does Boyle generalize it to the entire audience. 

127 Hours oscillates between these two methods of engagement with its audience: evoking the irony (almost Brechtian) inherent in their foreknowledge of the protagonist’s situation without ever implicating them for it, and somehow also making us ‘feel’ what he is feeling. That is because Boyle is, in varying qualities, a cynical sadist and a hopeful humanist. In the case of this film, unlike in Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire, a bit more of the former than the latter. - AM

 Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010, Mexico

There are certain things that one can always expect from director Alejando Gonzalez-Iñnàritu: a bleak view on the nature of human existence, a principal characters carrying enormous amounts of emotional burden and mutiple character arcs that cross each other at important points in the course of the story. Biutiful (2010) benefits greatly from a great performance by Javier Bardem but for most part functions like a “The Very Best of Alejandro Gonzalez-Iñnàritu”.

The film features secondary storylines of the various immigrant communities working in the lower tiers of the Barcelona bootleg circuit. We see Chinese immigrant workers conversing in their native tongue which is shown to us in the form of Blue subtitles and we have an African community of bootleggers who when conversing are shown to generate yellow subtitles. This could be an outgrowth of Iñnàritu’s previous effort Babel (2006).

Another significant feature of Iñnàritu’s films is the occurrence of unexpected and highly guilt-inducing accidents that change everything for everybody in the film. Whereas in Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) it was a central car accident and a misfired gunshot in Babel, in this film it is the unfortunate death of several Chinese immigrant workers due to a defective gas heater. The earlier Iñnàritu films had their existence in a strictly gritty and realistic world but with Biutiful, he takes his first step towards the hyper-real.

For all its old tricks, Biutiful finds fresh new life in some areas that Iñnàritu decided to explore. From the surreal opening (and ending) of the film to the focus-racked shots of people’s souls clinging to the ceilings to a flock of eagles making patterns in the twilight, Biutiful creates a haunting atmosphere around its central character. The film is just very beautifully shot and set to a blindingly original score by Gustavo Santaolalla. 

The film is definitely the most personal film that Iñnàritu has made with an obvious dedication to his father and perhaps, references to the relationship he shared with him. There is also a focus on the need for legacy as Uxbal (Bardem) tries to discover more about the father he never knew and at the same time shares a sometimes-warm- sometimes-cold relationship with his own children. His spiritual sensibilities are also portrayed very subtly as sometimes his own reflection shows a different movement to his own and shadows of spoons defy logic. 

Biutiful is a very good film at the end of the two hours that one invests in it and it is rewarding to only those who have patiently followed the finer details of the film. - GV

The Fighter | David O'Russell, 2010, USA

The title of the film may seem quite straightforward but it is hardly so. ‘Fighter’, though a direct reference to the lead character’s persona as a boxer, it is more of a reference to his need to ‘fight’ his way towards his dream of becoming world champion. Early in the film, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward explains to Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) that “fighting is fighting but boxing is like chess, you gotta have a strategy” and thus the title of the film is more of a reference to the larger ‘fight’ in general.

Then again you have Micky Ward’s half-brother, Dick Eklund (Christian Bale in a terrific performance) and his arc in the film that shares as much of importance as Ward’s. One can easily argue that ‘The Fighter’ could also refer to Eklund’s ‘fight’ against his addiction to crack cocaine and his reformation for the better of his family. It is Eklund and not Ward who has a deeper character arc. Around the start of the second act of the film, one can see where Eklund’s character is headed but there are ever so subtle clues left by Director David O’Russell which later become the seeds to Eklund’s unexpected transformation.

In effect, the film works somewhat as the reverse of Raging Bull (1980). It is almost impossible to make or review any boxing film without the obvious traits that it owes to that film. The super-titles, explaining the participants and the venue of the boxing matches being fought, the difficult and inseparable relationship shared by the brothers, the downfall of a great boxer and the opening shot of the film where an interview is conducted- all these are descendants of the legacy laid down by the great Scorsese. The fact that there is a reformation in one of the brothers and there is a happy ending of sorts is where the film functions in reverse of Raging Bull.

Another great boxing film from which other great boxing films have risen is Rocky (1975). Tedious training montages set to uplifting pop music, the heroes dressed in grey marl hooded sweatshirts with sweat patches running across their town in the early hours of the day punching the air and the actual fights shot on television-quality broadcast cameras are all owed to Rocky

The film triumphs purely through the deep performance of Christian Bale who doesn’t play out his drug-addicted character as superficially as DiCaprio does in The Basketball Diaries (1995). Bale gives us a sense of the care he puts into capturing the ‘rhythm’ of his character who also happens to be a real person. His body language, his accent and his ad-libs are all influential in sketching out his character into the third dimension. O’Russell on the other hand, known for the great hard-heartedness he painted his previous film Three Kings (1999) with, somehow settles for a mushy, feel-good sports story. -GV

The King's Speech | Tom Hooper, 2010, UK

The King’s Speech is not a small achievement – it transforms a speech impediment into a political struggle. The contents of King George VI’s speech, as England prepares to engage a rather sinister (Hitler is never scarier than in newsreel footage) enemy in combat, are ‘broadcast’ in the film over a montage of his ‘people’ listening intently to their monarch’s address. Secretly, all of them know that he stammers like hell, and in these times of crisis, it’s crucial they have a leader who is not ‘impotent’ in any regard. Therefore, the montage features shots of families hurled up in British proletariat houses, unfurnished industrial quarters, rich palatial mansions and strictly middle-class apartments – all of them listen, as the King grapples and gropes, but never stammers; thereby supplying England with its potency. At its core, The King’s Speech is about the struggle of King George VI to match up with the oratory skills of his rival, Hitler (and he is a really cool orator). Which is good too, because in times of such broadcast-proliferation, the war is won not by the one who fights better, but who speaks better. The King’s Speech is particularly British in its central method: it is a rather standard film. Standard performances written in a standard script that is shot in a standard way. One might fault it for its lack of any particular ambitiousness, but why miss the point: it is in its unwavering devotion to the standard that its noble ambition lies. -AM

True Grit | Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2010, USA

Jeff Bridges has a surprisingly characterstic way of disappearing into his characters and still seem very Jeff Bridges. There is no doubt about him deserving the accolades he's received for his work on the latest offering from the Coen brothers but the biggest surprise of the film is a brilliant second-fiddle performance given by Matt Damon in a role that one could easily have imagined William H. Macy in.

Hailee Steinfeld gives a great performance in a very well cast supporting role to Bridges and Damon. The film features a 'Private Ryan' late appearance from Josh Brolin who picks his strong barrenness up from where he last left it in No Country for Old Men (2007). Also gone unnoticed is a fantastic turn by Barry Pepper.

The film's climax features one of the most exciting shootouts in modern westerns. -GV

 | Takeshi Kitano, 2010, Japan

Kitano is sometimes a circus comedian, sometimes a yakuza gangster. The eventual ambitions of the two vocations vary a great deal: the first makes people laugh, the second kills them. But the method(s) they employ to reach that end are very similar – both of them are primal, direct and confrontational. The practitioners of circus-comedy or yakuza-crime don’t precisely employ subtlety; the success of their performance depends on how much they overwhelm their audiences. As such, there is an element of the bizarre in both, of a certain type of outlandishness that can bludgeon its receiver into submission. Both are also marked by a pressing need to project a particular effortlessness in their performance, regardless of how strictly they have to adhere to a specific list of rituals to sustain the vitality of their performance. It is in these zones of overlapping between crime and comedy that Kitano’s filmography lies. A lot of viewers misunderstand him as a director of unrestrained violence, but that’s only a critical cliché, and one that obscures more than it reveals. He is essentially a director of performance, and as such, likes to put on a show all the time. Therefore, much like anyone else with a thing for showiness ( like the comedienne or the criminal), his first target is to elicit a response; he doesn’t care if it is a loud guffaw or an extended grimace as long as he provokes some sort of a reaction. He is vulgar, because he is gunning straight for the most pedantic of human tendencies, i.e. to enjoy humour or perversely, enjoy violence. In Outrage, violence is funny precisely because it is so exaggerated. It assumes the form of a vaudevillian, Grand Guignol performance – with chopsticks piercing ear-cavities, dental drills ravaging through disagreeable mouths and necks getting snapped. Like the circus comedian or the yakuza gangster, Kitano’s idea of cinema is to batter the audience into immediate capitulation, even while feigning decency through it all. Therefore, the images of a Kitano film is always very strong and provocative, and all of them pass by with great urgency (even when characters stand on beaches, they await a shootout). Which is why, Takeshi’s is the most prototypical Kitano film (imagery at varying levels of vulgarity) that passes by quickly, and Zatoichi (except the ending) is the least. With Kitano, crime and comedy are no longer acts of any implicit moral value – so there is no immediately evident difference between killing people and making them laugh. Both are just performances, meant to be carried out at amplified levels of intensity. Outrage is actually the best Kitano film title, because it so briefly sums up what each Kitano film is. Crime and comedy are interchangeable quantities in a Kitano film, because he shoots his crime like others shoot their comedy, and he shoots his comedy like others shoot their crime. - AM

Black Swan | Darren Aronosfsky, 2010, USA

Aronofsky has a continuing interest in the human body. But it is interest akin to Poe’s, and not to Allende’s. As such, he is not fascinated by its perfect symmetry, but intimidated by it. Therefore, it is imperative that he employ, in each film, a human body whose symmetry undergoes a devastating transformation, more or less to assume a form that Aronofsky can endear himself to more easily. Good-looking (in the traditional definition of the phrase) actors must populate an Aronofsky landscape, because it is corporeal perfection that he wages an artistic battle against. It is easy to categorise his cinema as ‘body horror’, also because he easily sacrifices metaphysics for materialism.

No matter how profound the topic of the film, Aronofsky can only discuss it at its most literal. There is no subtext, or the image is its own subtext. Thus, Aronofsky is the filmmaker whose aesthetic is the most rooted in ‘pop culture’ – because what you see is the only artifact. If a guy abuses narcotics, he must have his arm amputated sooner or later/ if a wrestler with a condition cannot stop fighting, he will die of a heart disease eventually/ if a dancer becomes the black swan, she really will sprout wings. There is no place for philosophy in an Aronofsky film, because for Aronofsky, a film shows and philosophy is read.

Both The Wrestler and Black Swan sprout the notion of personal art, i.e. art whose definition might be constituted differently for different people; which is to say – ‘to each his own art’. The films, however, are not about obsessive pursuit of art, but obsessive pursuit of art as a getaway route. Art as a refuge from the dreariness (in case of The Wrestler) or suppression (in case of Swan) of ‘real’ life. Both the ‘performers’ thus, treat performance as a means to escape from ‘reality’.

There are instances in all of his films of physiognomy. There are close-ups, both in The Wrestler and in Black Swan of ‘additions’ to the human body that enhance its owner’s performance in their respective vocations – in the former, his skin gets impaled with weaponry of the primal sort; in Swan, feather follicles emerge from her scars. The ‘body’ takes precedence over all else (as point a) says), but only in Black Swan do the effects of such precedence manifest in Aronofsky’s aesthetic. There are perhaps (excluding the final on-stage performance) six long-shots in the entire film. Most of it is conducted in close-ups or mid-shots, done, presumably in long lenses. Such proximity to the human body is uncomfortable, and psychologically disorienting, because of the inherent claustrophobia of the arrangement, but also because it makes us more privy to a character’s physicality than we should be. This aesthetic is very similar to Polanski’s first, Knife in the Water, which sacrifices (like Aronofsky) any discussion of metaphysics to focus, instead, on the human body as the setting of the story.

Black Swan is about a girl ‘transcending’ her mother’s supervision of her and growing into a fully functional adult – the moral crisis also at the heart of another very similar film, The Exorcist (Max Von Sydow does Cassel’s role in that one). The film also employs Bergman’s idea of the colour-coded morality. Ofcourse, Aronofsky’s not one for sophistication, and he is a frequent prey to his own pedantic sensibilities – so going for ‘effect’ becomes the first goal and the film suddenly becomes a horror film with much too many ‘boo-moments’. The relevance of the aforementioned Polanski-inspired aesthetic steadily dwindles as it is used in the most generic manner – because everything is in the close-up, not much of the area is accommodated. Which in turn means, there is a lot to hide; as soon as the camera pans, something new enters the frame, accompanied by a loud swoosh – alas, a ‘boo-moment’. Aronofsky can’t but help induce a lot of this nonsense into the film.

Regardless, Aronofsky really is ‘dark’. He was slated to reboot the Batman series. If he had, we would’ve probably been ashamed of how easily we term Nolan’s comic-book accomplishment ‘dark’. Aronofsky would really have made Batman dark. He would’ve shown how it is really done; which is why the studios would never really let him do it. -AM

VihirUmesh Kulkarni, 2010, India

Marathi Cinema prodigy Umesh Kulkarni’s latest festival-circuit-tourist film Vihir is the kind of film no one can easily make anything out of. It begins as a dreamy children’s film about a summer vacation spent in the backwaters of Maharashtra, with a seemingly magical well in place; but by the time the second half arrives, one of the two leading child-protagonists has drowned in the well. Death in cinema is a trigger usually of all the sentimental tragedy that is an easy association with the event, but Kulkarni is not concerned with the corporeal nature of death (you never see a dead body) or even its religious nature (there are no rites of custom performed in the aftermath of the death; infact, a marriage follows), but with its purely philosophical nature – what does the event of ‘death’ entail?

 In ensuring that the event of death is not the trigger of greater annihilation - as it often is in lesser films where it is followed immediately by feelings of vendetta, nostalgia or remorse – but of a refreshed perspective on life itself, Kulkarni adopts a braver, and perhaps, a stance incompatible with the general perception of death. Death is, as his film believes, the end of only one incarnation, and thus, the beginning of the new. As one of the protagonists drowns in the well (no one sees him drowning though), his cousin, the second protagonist, embarks on a journey to discover what being ‘dead’ means – in essence, is it the total end, or merely another event in a greater continuum. His discovery of the answer marks the point of revelation in the film, the point at which Kulkarni’s film adopts the aforementioned stance.

‘I am invisible’, Nachiket (the one who drowns) says, ‘because you are looking for me in dark corners. I am right in front of your eyes, but you don’t expect me to find there’ – the line that eventually serves as the biggest clue to his wandering cousin at the end of the film. -AM

Cerified Copy |Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, France-Iran

Legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is known for films that transcend their space on the silver screen and leak out into the real world. He draws his inspiration from historic Persian paintings that leak out of their ‘frames’ and fall over their surroundings. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell occupy the center of the film and hold Before Sunrise kind of conversations on art and the nature of copies as compared to the originals. The film turns on its head about halfway through and the viewer is left wondering what really is happening. Kiarostami masterfully executes his trademark cinema into a very European setting but somehow it lacks the atmosphere of a traditional Kiarostami film. In saying that, the film is an excellent piece of work and leaves the audience pondering long after it is done. -GV

Deep in the Valley | Atsushi Funahashi, 2009, Japan

The film's theme about the existence of an object being subject completely to its documentation is interesting, if not wholly original, having been explored before in films such as Night and Fog, Cinema Paradiso and Inglourious Basterds. At its very core, Funahashi’s film is also about scepticism that brews within the members of a younger generation regarding the truthfulness of the history that their elders have passed onto them. They find their immediate history fascinating, but dubious. They are ready to believe in it as fascinating verbal traditions that they will pass down the generations themselves, but not necessarily as what truly happened. Therefore, the two protagonists (the film association girl and the swindler), piqued by the mystery of the pagoda, instead believe in replacing a mere verbal document (as told to them by an elder), by a tangible one ( a photograph, a film), and thus, go around looking for an elusive film about the five story pagoda, in order to subjugate the ambiguity over its existence for once and for all. The conflict between what is ‘said’ and what is ‘shown’ – between a verbal account and a visual one is pronounced even more when residents append photographs with their descriptions, as if to assure conviction in their ‘listeners’. Funahashi seeks to pronounce this conflict even more through the inclusion of inter-titles at specific moments in the film, which provide the viewer with ‘written’ accounts of history. He then proceeds to extol on it visually, and challenges the audience to observe the differences between the written account and the filmic one.

Funahashi claims that film is thus, the definite proof. Anything captured film, has to have existed. It evokes legendary French critic Andre Bazin’s ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ wherein he conveys an idea about the cinema essentially being a mode of preservation of a historical truth, and thus, a means for its immediate user to ‘defeat time’. Therein, Deep in the Valley makes another statement about the permanence of film itself – or its capabilities of immortalisation. -AM

World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles | Jonathan Liebesman, 2011, USA

This is perhaps one of the most average films of the year. Liebesman seems like he is trying very hard for his film to join the ranks of District 9 and The Hurt Locker but cannot understand what it is that makes those films better than his own. Aaron Eckhart is the only reason the film reaches 'average' status.

The handheld camerawork is just painful to sit through and the emotional moments of the film fail to move audiences because let's face it, Los Angeles has been destroyed so many times in Hollywood cinema that it feels like a chore to 'take' it back.  - GV