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  • Capsule Reviews
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Capsule Reviews

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  BY Gautam Valluri, Anuj Malhotra and Ankan Kazi

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff | Kelly Reichardt, 2010, USA

Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff realizes that without a world to belong to, we are all ‘fish out of the water’ (the fundamental idea of the horror film). In her film, the basic battle the characters wage is against their ignorance of the landscape. They just do not know where they are. It is almost a more refined version of The Blair Witch Project, and thus, almost a horror film.

The achievement of the film, however, does not lie in just the generation or the effects of this confusion (that is where the achievement of Blair Witch ends), but in imparting a similar sense of puzzlement to its audience as well. It masterfully camouflages the topography of the landscape, not through framing it in close-ups that obscure the area outside the frame, but through wide-shots that reveal how same all of it looks (and thus, the obscurity lies in our inability to distinguish one landmark from another). In one of the best dissolves ever used in cinema, she dissolves from the image of the travelers lingering horizontally in the foreground of the frame to an image of them as silhouettes, walking in the background across the frame. There is always a sense of motion, but never a sense of direction. 

The big tease of the film is however, the introduction of the mysterious Indian into the narrative. The party discovers him, and initially plans to slaughter him, but relents when it is discovered that he might be able to lead them to water, or any sign of civilization. It is an uneasy interaction between the band of travelers, composed mainly of Southwestern white cowboys and the Indian; and convention would dictate that the exotic alien be deemed the ‘fish out of the water’ – but it is through the reassignment of the role of ‘fish’ that Reichardt achieves her second layer of confusion. As audience, you do not where you are being led, and now, you do not know who is leading you. - AM 

Source Code
| Duncan Jones, 2011, USA

Duncan Jones's sophomore film effort has one of the most intriguing premises of the year. A soldier wakes up in a man's body inside a train that is about to be blown up in 8 minutes. He discovers over his first run inside the train that he is part of a mission to find the identity of the bomber and will be sent back again and again until he achieves his objective. 

The films long opening sequence and introductory score is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and carries the same sense of urgency. It is perhaps the most exciting opening of a 2011 film so far. The 'Time Loop' narrative structure has been done to death in most films from the 1990s but Ben Ripley's script somehow manages to come out fresher than what one could've expected. Jones's direction skills start resembling the likes of Christopher Nolan from Memento (2000) and The Prestige (2006) but it would be too harsh to take this comparison any further; Jones deserves his credit for crafting a thrilling film. But as with Memento there is a large gaping plot hole which the viewers (myself included) will happily ignore for the thrilling consequences the film promises. Jake Gyllenhaal does a good job with his character, the quintessential Hitchcockian protagonist dressed in a Chambray shirt and a Tweed jacket. The supporting cast includes Jeffrey Wright in an eccentric turn, Michele Monagahan, Canadian stand-up comic Russel Peters and a very underplayed performance from Vera Farmiga.

The concept of parallel, alternate realities is a large concern in the film and not something that is fully explored considering the scale of the film which, Duncan Jones clearly well aware of. A very decent film overall, Source Code is entertaining and intriguing. - GV

Limitless | Neil Burger, 2011, USA

What is interesting about Limitless is not that in it, like in last year’s The Social Network, ‘capability’ manifests itself wholly in visible (and perhaps, audible terms) – he begins speaking at 180 words per minute without a stutter, he gets a better haircut and he develops a tan – but in the manner in which ‘capability’ impresses itself onto the world of the film itself. The tint on the film stock changes from blue to yellow, people begin existing in soft-focus, computer-generated words fall from the ceiling, the ceiling tiles itself change to word-cubes. Limitless reveals a more enduring myth of cinema, thus – it is near-impossible in a ‘visual’ medium to depict a psychological state without ‘showing’ it. Therefore, the Saint in the ancient painting will have a halo around his/her head, and similarly, when a man inside a film suddenly feels a gush of ‘hot’ capability, perceptible evidence of it will show on the screen. The film itself is a set of notions – much like The Social Network again – a man gains access to a packet of pills that give him the capability to access the unused 80% of the human brain. It is an excellent mid-19th century science-fiction premise, but thereafter, it is only a series of narrative abstractions – he does ‘something’ on the stock market that brings him in favour of ‘some’ business tycoon, due to which he gets involved in ‘some’ major business merger. And it is through the exaction of these notions, the narrative keeps moving forward till the narrative carousel reaches a pace wherein it has to crash – either into a twist or a showdown. It chooses the former and despite a really earnest lead performance, it ends as ‘some’ film. - AM

The Adjustment Bureau | George Nolfi, 2011, USA

Roger Ebert's verdict on this film reads something like "a smart and good movie that could have been a great one if it had been a little more daring." When a critic says something like that about a film its almost in the same tone as a girl tells a guy "listen, you're cute and we can hang out but sex is out of the question". Debutant George Nolfi's direction skills are too 'safe'. He takes on an impressive premise from a great Philip K. Dick short story and only gets as far as making an average film out of it.

Perhaps the script's biggest error was in trying to make it a romantic film. The interesting concepts introduced to the viewer end up not serving any purpose an hour later into the film. The plot just keeps adjusting itself conveniently and ends up on a very thin end. Matt Damon is a powerful actor but perhaps only under the watchful eye of a powerful director. His performance just feels lukewarm and supporting performances by Anthony Mackie, Terrence Stamp and Emily Blunt follow suit.

The film does wear a slight undercurrent of christian religious allegories and a very straightforward questioning of the concept of fate but these never move to the driver's seat. The film is a romance fiction at the end of the day and it surely does nothing to shake that off.  - GV

Unknown | Jaume-Collet Serra, 2011, Germany-USA

The film can be described in one line as "the second in the series of mediocre thrillers that have Liam Neeson taking on a group of bad guys in an exotic European city that has also generously provided part of the funding to the film". Unknown feels, moves and disappoints exactly like Taken (2008). 

The film's premise is as empty as the emotional involvement of any of the actors in the film. Liam Neeson plays a survivor of a car accident in Berlin who wakes up to find that another man has taken his identity. Whats worse is that he has no proof to show that his claim is valid and whats even worse is that his own wife refuses to recognize him.  Bruno Ganz, Diane Kruger and Frank Langella all give performances less than their full potential and the script certainly doesn't call for them to be full potential anyway. The city of Berlin seems to be more than grateful to have a few hollywood car chases and stunts being performed amidst their great city. The action sequences are nothing to write home about and in any case who wants to watch an ageing Neeson beat up his fellow Irishman, an also aging Aidan Quinn.

If there is any sense of curiosity about the film at the end of it is that one wonders where Neeson will travel next in Europe? Barcelona? Vienna? Easy, whichever one will provide the biggest tax break. -GV

The Way Back | Peter Weir, 2011, USA

There is something that is cinematically interesting about watching a group of survivors 'walk' their way to home/ freedom/ safety etc. Perhaps it is one of the best ways to illustrate the full capacity of the human spirit when put in a situation of grave discomfort and homelessness. This is also one of the best ways to illustrate the full capacity of humans to walk insanely long distances. Many have done things like this in real life and perhaps even more but with films like The Way Back and Rabbit Proof Fence (2010), the viewer is led to believe that there is something far greater to this expedition to survival than just that- to survive.

Director Peter Weir turns out a film that is less than what one would expect of him after making a film like The Truman Show (1997). For reasons unknown, critics all around the world have praised The Way Back and the performances from the three leads- Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell. Perhaps the critics are being safe here and in any case, it would be bad blood to write something bad about a bad Peter Weir film. 

The film carries the sub-heading 'Inspired by Real Events' but the inspiration is actually a fantastic reconstruction of an event which was probably not that fantastic. The people being portrayed in the film walk a long, long way across snow capped mountains, across deserts and through snow capped mountains once again and all this takes 3 years of their life. The writers, the director or the actors refuse to cut some slack for the characters and in the end this results in a film that is painful to watch not due to the performances of its actors but due to its questionable length and 'inspiration' from real events.

The Way Back is a below-average film and one that will not be remembered a few years from now. - GV

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child | Tamara Davis, 2010, USA

Tamra Davis’ documentary is a frank portrait of one of the most expressive artists in the time of rampant minimalism and snarky art criticism in New York of the 1980s. Owing to his explosive entry into the art world consciousness through funky anti-establishment graffiti, authored by his pseudonym Samo, Basquiat’s forms were complex, fascinating and immediate. It was the language of the streets, peppered with giant ambition and a thorough assimilation of western ‘high’ art. His reign was short-lived, however, as he died of heroin overdose at the magic age of twenty-seven.  

Davis, a friend of Basquiat, digs out never-seen-before videos of Basquiat giving an interview only two years before his death. Compared to Jeffrey Wright’s Basquiat, in Julian Schnabel’s film, the real one comes across as a bit more shy and reserved. A list of comparisons will only enhance our capacity to interpret his enigmatic presence. Footage of Basquiat painting in his studio while flipping through magazines with music blaring and the T.V on are delightful and will capture anybody’s fancy. Everything finds equal treatment: Basquiat’s popular association with Andy Warhol, his short-lived careers in acting and music and his debilitating drug-addiction. Basquiat’s attempts to reject, accept and assimilate categories like his mixed heritage in his art make his figure essential not only for the ‘80s, but our time as well. - AK

Memories in March | Sanjoy Nag, 2010, India

We may have won the Cricket World Cup but April remains a cruel month, as can be gathered from Sanjoy Nag’s sombre chamber-piece Memories in March. Arti (Deepti Naval) travels to her deceased son’s home in Kolkata and discovers things she never knew about her son. Like the fact that he was gay and in a relationship with a senior in his ad agency, Arnab, played by Rituparno Ghosh. Negotiating the complicated terrain of her son’s ex-social life, she meets another colleague, Sahana (Raima Sen), and cannot believe that her son was not in love with her, instead. 

The son, Siddharth, never appears in the film but he narrates his letters to his mother. So the voice of Joy Sengupta floats like a dark cloud over the soundtrack. As Arti tries to familiarize herself with the empty apartment of her dead son, a touching scene indicates how Arnab has done the same before and this could be interpreted as a journey into the real, intimate space that defined Siddharth. Unfortunately, most subtle symbols in the film end up a bit overcooked by repetition and undue emphasis. Clunky English dialogue makes it difficult for the audience to get into the moment, like when Arti interrogates Sahana about the true nature of her son’s relationship with Arnab and Sahana replies with exasperation, “Must you know?” Or when Arti tells her how girls in Delhi would drool over her son and Sahana replies: “But did he drool back? - AK

 | Q, 2011, India

Quashiq Mukherjee’s (Q) film on a down and out loser in the back lanes of a seedy neighbourhood in Kolkata or Howrah is already a raging underground success. Frustration and hopelessness find utterance in angry rap and lurid sexual fantasies that are very creatively panelled, making great use of cheap independent film techniques. The film is a caustic mix of teenage rebelliousness, a childish fascination with subversion and arty postmodern double takes.  The lyrics, penned by Q himself, talk about losers dreaming of nubile Bollywood heroines, masturbating and a man called Harihar to whom most of this is attributed to. The music is the centre of attention but it must be said that it is very ably supported by the acting, Q’s energetic direction and the smoke-coloured frames that push us into a seemingly unreal narrative that can only rely on its own unreality for survival. - AK

Scream 4 | Wes Craven, 2011, USA

The universe of Scream is caught in a state of eternal recurrence – it is a quarantined world with no punctures or leakages – so in each subsequent sequel, the same set of characters, caught inside the same situation, set inside the same city, are all knocked off one by one by the same killer, who uses the same weapon. The ‘sameness’ of it all is what fuels the series’ iconic status. An icon is before all a force not subject to the inevitability of change – it is an icon because of the manner in which it is instantly recognisable, in which its eccentricities are easily predictable. This inert nature of Scream is manifest most potently in the ‘ghostface’ costume. Despite how clearly inconvenient it is for the killer, and sweaty, the series never updates it. 

Scream 4, the latest in the series, confesses to its own iconic status – it has a film-within-film series of the slasher genre called ‘Stab’ and in a sequence within which it celebrates its own celebrity, ‘ghostface’ masks decorate the entire city. Craven’s attempt is clearly at a lesser philosophical plane though – by consciously telling the same story repeatedly and by going for the similar baloney cheap scares – he is essentially pointing at the unassailability of the slasher genre. No matter how many times you hear the story of a murderer on the prowl in the middle of a residential area, it can never get boring. And though Craven’s film does touch a few potentially explosive profound ideas about celebrity and does incorporate a discussion on the found-footage phenomena that proliferates the horror genre today (‘all you need to be famous is to have a fucked-up thing happen to you’ says a character), it is basically about novel ways in which teenagers can be stabbed, knifed and gutted. Craven does have the last laugh, because with the fourth film’s persistence with the cause picked up by the first three, Scream is no longer a discussion on genre; it is genre. - AM

Zero Bridge | Tariq Tapa, 2010, India-USA

There are obvious social overtones to Tapa’s film. The two leads are individuals unable to escape the larger framework of a ‘norm’, captives of an existence that transforms them into appliances of subsistence for people that immediately surround them (ravenous family members). The hero of the film, much like the film itself, begins by running clueless on a bridge (eponymous) in Srinagar, and ends in the same way. It is to point at a circular existence – one which keeps moving, but never actually gets anywhere. In that regard, one achievement of Tapa is its clever title, with an explicit suggestion towards the ‘back to the first square’ syndrome. There are also political implications, in both the last and the final sequences featuring the lead on the bridge, a soldier stands, looking at the boy run this way and then that, interfering only rarely. This is to point at the eternal presence of the military in lives of the citizens in the valley.

Despite these ‘relevant’ details, however, the most pressing affair that Tapa’s film seems to have at hand is how the hero and heroine will reconcile to the possibility of a life together. They do, finally, in one of the most affected scenes committed to film (or the tape) – the hero walks upto the heroine, looks at her, she looks at him, and in non-committal, hesitant tones, both of them discuss the travel plan for the next morning. They discuss how they can make the great escape together. It would be an exaggeration to state that they love each other, because at best, they accept each other – but perhaps, that is a tougher thing to do. Needless to say, the escape is still pending when the film ends. - AM