Friday, 21 September 2007

Anubhav (1971)

The beginning sequence in Anubhav surprised me pleasantly. It is a party celebrating a couple’s sixth wedding anniversary. The camerawork is more evocative of European cinema helping conjure up a candid and intimate look into the machinations of this society event. The overlapping of voices and a quick glance at each forgettable face of a guest makes you feel a part of this party. I instantly recalled all the formal parties I had been to in my life (well, most of them) and feeling a similar emotion of remoteness and false involvement that this sequence evokes.

The party is not staged for the camera’s benefit. When you consider most Hindi films, everything in a crowded scene is directed or choreographed in a way to hint at drama or passion. This might be done in the form of a song or a dramatic confrontation. These kind of scenes are entertaining in their own right but the party scene in Anubhav also works because it shows the lack of dominance that these people have. There is no spotlight on a single person and it is a little child who draws all the oohs and aahs.

Once you realise that the director is Basu Bhattacharya (Teesri Kasam), you can understand why the opening is so unusual. The married couple are Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar). Meeta likens her home to a hotel as it is swarming with unnecessary servants. Normally a person who goes through the motions of her role as an obedient wife, Meeta decides to take matters into her own hands. She sacks nearly all the servants without even consulting Amar.

When Amar complains, her response is: “Jab woh sab hote hai aur main nahin, kya tum meri kami mehsoos karte ho?” Here, a desire to be needed and loved has been awakened. Anubhav is a rather feminist film in some ways. Meeta asserts herself, not by shouting or by force, she takes the initiative to get rid of whatever is making her unhappy. She has a more difficult time later with the re-entry of old flame, Shashi (Dinesh Thakur) into her life. When Amar finds out who he truly is and feels betrayed, Meeta asserts herself once more and explains to him her side of things.

But where Anubhav really scores for me is in its celebration of life. The constant ringing of the phone, the ding-dong of the clock, the whirring fan… These are all emblems of the passage of time and a warning of how life can just pass you by. There is a lovely moment when a carefree Meeta hums in the shower (to Geeta Dutt’s sublime voice): “Mera dil jo mera hota, Palkon pe pakar leti, Hoton se utaa leti, Haathon main khuda hota.” We all have moments when we fall asleep to the routines of life but this song is about waking up and grabbing your present with both hands. Meeta takes ownership of what her heart is telling her.

And Tanuja is such a natural screen presence here. Every time she speaks and I hear her quiet honeyed voice, I find it soothing. Her warm demeanour counteracts against the desolation of the apartment that threatens to stifle her. Of course, Sanjeev Kumar is also at his natural and charming best. Both show a high comfort level with each other and make for a sweet onscreen pairing. Anubhav has its flaws and odd moments but the feeling of joy that it generates is precious to me. Go out and wake up to life. Reach out for what is yours. Go grab the sun. As Geeta Dutt herself says: Suraj ko pakar leti, sandal ki tarah malti…

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Review of "Atonement" (2007)

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy have worked in conventionally pleasing costume dramas such as Pride And Prejudice and Becoming Jane. It was only a matter of time until both would end up cast opposite each other in a period piece. Atonement is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. Austen and McEwan are two of the most celebrated authors, yet they are dramatically different from each other in terms of their work. Joe Wright’s cinematic interpretation of McEwan’s story serves for a refreshingly candid period film, a film that captures the raw blistering emotions of desperation and betrayal.

It is the summer of 1935 and Cecilia (Knightley) has just come down from Cambridge. Robbie (McAvoy) has strong feelings for her but the only thing standing in their way is Cecilia’s upper class snobbery. They can’t deny their attraction to each other but their romance begins awkwardly and tumultuously. It is in this tumultuous quagmire that Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is caught up in. Her twisted interpretation of events forces Cecilia and Robbie to part in tragic circumstances.

There is no doubt that this film has once again reignited the debate surrounding adaptation. Some fans of the book will be pleased with this filmic attempt and some won’t. Atonement is a story that is aware of the power of perception. Some scenes are viewed through Briony’s eyes and those same scenes are revisited through the eyes of Cecilia. Each time these little simple events are interpreted differently. It makes you question the function of viewing. Not just viewing, but reading, participating and taking part in life. Every person witnesses something and interprets it in his or her own way. Wright’s technique of repeating scenes acknowledges the depth of the multilayered narrative in the novel.

The effective enhancement of sound takes us into the world of each character. The clack clack of the typewriter and the roar of the buzzing bee is unquestionably the soundtrack to the young Briony’s perception of the world around her. On the other hand, the lovemaking scene between Cecilia and Robbie is accompanied by an uncomfortable silence. No romantic soundtrack here. The silence acknowledges the unspoken name of their relationship.

Such flourishes make it a strong first half. The second half almost abandons the perceptive technique established earlier on. I half-wished that there would be no war and that we could go back to that hot summer in the mansion. But it is this almost unwanted change of direction that succeeds in creating a sense of longing for those hot summer days of comparably uncomplicated youth. The main sequence of the war segment is a hugely impressive lengthy one-take shot showing all the soldiers and other people vulnerably trying to be strong and just, well, dealing with it. In his letter to Cecilia, Robbie speaks of clarity of passion. Well, this whole one-take sequence shows the clarity of passion, as well as the clarity of vision, and the clarity of filmmaking. You see everything at once. And you understand everything at once.

It is splendid to watch a film tackle the theme of ambiguity with such clarity. For that you can thank McEwan, Wright, Christopher Hampton (screenplay) and Seamus McGarvey (photography). James McAvoy gives a powerfully quiet and commanding performance. Keira Knightley suits her role immensely and seems more comfortable here than in her previous films. The two young actresses who portray the role of Briony, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai, stand out with their subtly expressive faces. Ronan, in particular, has the kind of face that you can write any kind of emotion on.

The epilogue makes for a weak and rather wishy-washy ending. It can be forgiven though as the ending is more for Briony’s sake rather than ours. Through her childish error, she finally faces some sort of redemption. As she carries on clacking away on her typewriter, she admits that she changed the ending in her latest novel to make herself feel more at peace.

Which brings me to end this piece with a question: Is what we see, always true?

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Review of Heyy Babyy

The premise of three men and a baby will be familiar to anyone who has seen a movie called, um, Three Men And A Baby (or its French original). To throw Akshay Kumar into such a story is an inspired piece of casting. He has a screen history of playing lecherous but adorable romeos, playboys who deep down still have ‘values’ that save the day.

You would assume that after casting him, everything else would take care of itself. With a fairly strong story at its base, the screenplay should flow naturally and result in a sweet little film. Sajid Khan in his feature film debut (he previously directed a segment in Darna Zaroori Hai) has the unfortunate tendency to overegg the pudding.

Set in Sydney, Aroosh (Akshay Kumar), Tanmay (Ritesh Deshmukh) and Ali (Fardeen Khan) are three crazy brainless bachelors who try to bed every beautiful girl they meet. This fast lifestyle is rudely interrupted by an abandoned baby girl left at their doorstep. Whilst between them they try to figure out who the father is, they bond with the tiny girl and soon learn all the responsibilities of parenthood. In comes Esha (Vidya Balan) who demands to have her daughter back.

A more natural acting effort from Akshay would have made for a more engaging film. His facial gestures and gurning is something that I couldn’t stomach after a while. There is something about his performances in Jaaneman and Namaste London that fit the bill. His sincere charisma adds an exciting watchable element to these films. You can’t imagine these films without him. And then there are Bhagam Bhag and Phir Hera Pheri where the poor actor is made to just pull faces. You can guess which category Heyy Babyy belongs to.

The bachelors appear as caveman-like morons with complete disregard for anyone’s feelings. The story itself is manipulative enough already but it seems that Sajid Khan wasn’t satisfied with the manipulation quota. It is understandable for someone to get tired of a crying baby but the three men’s reaction strikes me as callous and rather vicious. Fardeen Khan is made to mouth lines like “Is saali ko phenkh dete hai” and then it is followed by a rather unnecessary sequence of a baby almost drowning in a rainstorm.

I would say that this is the problem that I had with the film. I am fine with emotions and sentimentality but you get the sense that Sajid Khan is clutching at straws to make it deeper than what it actually is. The baby survives but with the added miracle of religious intervention. Ali takes to reading namaz to pray for her life in the midst of the Christmas season. It is an interesting throwback to Manmohan Desai’s films where such a prayer (by a Hindu, Christian or Muslim) would end in someone’s life being miraculously saved. Yet, here, it doesn’t feel right. You can hardly believe that someone stupid enough to abandon a baby in rather dangerous circumstances would suddenly find the spiritual depth to move the cosmos into performing a miracle.

Crying and laughing reaction shots of the baby’s face in the middle of every dramatic scene do further to create the feeling of being manipulated as a viewer. She has a sweet little face and she is bound to make your heart melt. And boy, does the director know it! I didn’t quite catch the little actress’s name but she makes a lovely debut.

Despite my reservations, Heyy Babyy does have its moments. There is a lovely tribute to the old classic Chupke Chupke. Fardeen’s reincarnation of a character from the film is hilarious. There is also a nod to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge but not a very friendly one (apparently Raj and Simran never did end up together!). A truly funny scene is the sight of Ritesh as Eddy the Teddy being beaten by plucky little kids. It is always a pleasure to see Ritesh be slapped by anyone.

As a director and writer, Sajid Khan has the wherewithal to create these bright spots out of, what is at best, another functional comedy. So, the film is not entirely a complete loss. Still, there are more minuses than pluses. I do hope to god there won’t be a sequel.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

For Your Consideration (Guest, 2006)

Sometimes, it’s good to have a few laughs. And these ‘laughs’ are the most satisfying when they turn out to be unexpected. Not the kind of ticklebelly you get when you watch The Simpsons Movie (because there you are expecting it) but the kind of ticklebelly you get when you watch For Your Consideration.

Sure, it’s written and directed by the team of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy (Spinal Tap, Best In Show) but since satire is such a hit and miss genre, you can never be sure whether they’ll hit the target or not.

The film goes for the obvious figures of fun in the world of acting and show-business (two elements that equal Hollywood). These are vain has-beens, over-eager method actors, anal film critics, shallow producers and cruel celebrity reporters. And in a way the predictability does stop For Your Consideration from reaching that level of brilliance that you would normally expect from Guest and Levy.

But the redeeming factors far outweigh the slightly stale target of satire. There are some wonderfully po-faced one-liners especially from Jennifer Coolidge as the eccentric producer. She has a natural comic talent that ought to be put to use more often. Considering the kind of deadpan humour, it is not a surprise to see Ricky Gervais make an appearance.

There have been complaints that this movie effort lacks the realism of previous mockumentaries such as Spinal Tap. Aside from the fact that For Your Consideration is not a mockumentary, the lack of realism in this comedy is precisely the element that ends up creating much of the humour. There is a queer delight in seeing an overblown kitsch melodrama be publicised as a potential Oscar winner. And this melodrama is none other than “Home For Purim”, which seems to be an underwhelming tribute to the homoerotic subtext of Douglas Sirk films. There is a perverse delight in seeing average TV movie actors get above their station. And there is also a twisted delight in seeing Hollywood actors talk about the Internet as if it’s some recently invented foreign planet.

It is Catherine O’Hara who lends the story a warm human touch. Even as she deforms into an unrecognisably botoxed media star, she reminds us how misplaced optimism can turn into pathetic despair. Yet, she still manages to be funny. Figure that.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Danny Boyle's Sunshine

Watching Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, I realised that I hadn’t watched a new sci-fi film in a long time. Maybe the genre just does not appeal to me. But that can’t be true as I am an avid fan of films such as Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Popcorn movies such as Armageddon don’t pose any deep or philosophical questions (and neither should they have to) and in that sense, they do not appeal to me.

It’s such a vast universe, a universe that has the might to quieten, to frighten and to awe the human spirit. A sci-fi film set in space could at least acknowledge the beauty and the horror of being away from earth.

Sunshine, therefore, is a ray of sunshine. And no it is not about love, money or even the moon… It is about the sun (I think you’ll agree that this is not a character featured in many films). Set somewhere 50 years into the future, a team of astronauts are sent to restart the dying sun by throwing a bomb into it. An extremely high-risk task considering that the last batch of astronauts did not survive on the very same mission. The team of eight members (with Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans and Rose Byrne in the strongest roles) struggle to cope with the psychological aspect of isolation as well as the dangerously decreasing levels of oxygen.

I’ve already mentioned Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and Boyle gives a gentle nod to all these films. He did say in an interview that it was hard trying to match up to the standard of these filmic landmarks set in space. He may not entirely succeed but he does give an impressively good try.

Sunshine creeps up on you without saying anything. The moments of silence reveal so much about the feeling of isolation and panic that such a mission would trigger in a human being. And accompanied by the silence, each sound effect becomes a shattering drop in the ocean. The orange-tinted lenses, the blurred shadows and the shaky point-of-view shots add up to provide a claustrophobic atmosphere. The many reflections of the characters in windows and screens are a constantly unwanted reminder to them of what they are and where they are.

The sun is a daunting character and it envelops you in its unforgiving heat. The story begins immediately in space and the sun follows the characters (and you) all the way from the start to the end. I felt as if the spaceship was already trapped into the arms of the sun and that there was no point of return. This feeling is conveyed through the people who slowly begin to lose their humanity. At the end of one scene, there is a shot of Curazon (Michelle Yeoh) sitting on her own after a shattering near-death experience. None of her colleagues make an effort to comfort her. Death is a difficult reality that everyone has to face up to at some point.

It is the third act that really does let you down. As a sort of homage to Alien, an enemy sets out to sabotage the spaceship. Who survives and who dies becomes the main point of focus. The change of pace, from the tense atmosphere of forever waiting to running around the spaceship like maniacs, makes for an uncomfortable leap. The introduction to the twist itself is hazy and could leave some viewers completely confused (as I could see by the reaction of some people in the cinema audience). Thankfully, with a least starry cast, you cannot predict which character will save the day.

And the ludicrous twist doesn’t detract from the film’s powerful ending. There has been a lot of criticism for naming the spaceship Icarus II. Jonathan Ross sarcastically commented on his chat show that it’s not a sensitive name to use in a hypothetical situation like that. And Peter Bradshaw (from the Guardian) also commented that the name is “tactlessly chosen”. My take on it is that it perfectly compliments the mythological undertones in the story. Deep down, every character wants to fly as close as possible to the sun unaware that this fiery planet doesn’t take everyone into its confidence that easily. And the name also symbolises the greedy and needy optimism of the people back on earth who are acting in full belief that they can control the sun.

The cast are wonderfully believable as the people sacrificing years of their lives for what seems like a hopeless mission. Cillian Murphy (who was also in Boyle’s 28 Days Later) stands out with his piercing eyes that are just as striking as the sun. Chris Evans is a pleasant surprise as the calm leader close to breaking point. The rest of the cast provide strong supporting turns. And, considering the low budget, the special effects and the make-up are fantastic.

Whatever its faults, Sunshine is a rich treat worth devouring.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

Yes, I admit it. I went in and watched Mr. Bean's Holiday. I felt a certain sense of loyalty to this character as watching the TV series is one of my many happiest childhood memories.

There is an unspoken rule that movie versions of popular television series are just not meant to be the same (the Ben Stiller-Owen Wilson version of Starsky and Hutch is playing on my TV set right now, ahem). Watching Bean on cinematic celluloid you do become aware of how hard the makers are working at trying to not be an extended TV episode. I just about remember the last Bean movie that I saw ten years ago but in all fairness, I think this movie version is more rooted to its character than the 1997 film.

Add to that, there are certain changes. Not huge earth-shattering changes but little ones where the humour seems more oriented towards children (perhaps from being influenced by the belated but popular cartoon spin-offs of the sitcom). Having said that, I do notice that Mr. Bean's teddy, which is a popular fixture in the animated series, seems to have vanished completely.

Plot- Bean picks a winning raffle ticket and jet-sets his way to France. In England, he has always been a fish out of water and in France he gets to be the fish out of water landing onto a hot dry desert. There are some entertaining comical moments. My personal favourite is the scene where Bean pretends to be grief-stricken nun and mimes along to a melodramatic opera. This is a curious moment where Bean stops being Bean and is now someone else. The funny nun, if you like. It is a wonderful reminder of the versatility of Rowan Atkinson's comic flair and it proves his range as an actor. The watchable climax, set in Cannes, may go over the heads of some young kids but it is funny to see the way that arty and thoughtful films are ridiculed. It is obviously a two-finger salute to the critics that have panned Mr. Bean's Holiday.

I was a fan of Bean as a child, but watching him here from a new adult perspective, he appears to be quite an unlikeable character. That he is a loser is no doubt true. But is he a likeable loser? M Hulot, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy had more charm (and they are Rowan Atkinson's comedy heroes). Bean is a beany meany. He asks a stranger to hold his video camera and to record a shot of him walking down the platform. The train starts to go off and Bean jumps on just in time but cares little for the stranger who can't make it.

This is where Bean loses its shine for me. He is selfish with a capital S. "Oh, big wow", I hear you say. Laurel and Hardy cared for each other and I can't picture either of them willing to leave the other one behind on the train platform.

Bean gets his 'redemption'. He follows the man's kid (left behind on the train) around like a shifty pervert. When he meets Sabine (played by a natural Emma de Caunes), the unlikeable qualities in Bean become clear and stark. The woman is a breath of fresh air. Giving and kind, she is the complete opposite to Bean. And she brings something else to the picture too - English subtitles for the French dialogue. It's nice to see that the producers didn't think that their target audience was too dumb for subtitles.

Rowan Atkinson is a wonderful comic actor but the gurning and mumbling does get a little too much. Please give this actor something else to do. Doing Bean is not easy and he must be praised for bringing it to life so believably but deep down, I feel that Mr. Bean is not the kind of comic caricature that is worthy of Atkinson's stature. All good things must come to an end and I feel that there really are no mileages to be brought out of the Bean creation.

Let's see the rebirth of another iconic character in comedy. Blackadder is more like it.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Claude Chabrol's Juste Avant La Nuit

Image from Fremantle Home Entertainment

The last Claude Chabrol work that I viewed was Nada, an uninteresting and confusing film about terrorism. In order to get over that, I found relief in visiting a far superior Chabrol work, Juste Avant La Nuit (Just Before Nightfall). With themes of lust, deceit, murder and redemption, Juste Avant… is more a psychological drama rather than a thriller.

Charles’ (Michel Bouquet) kinky affair with his best friend and neighbour’s wife, Laura, ends violently with him strangling her. The early post-murder sequence of Charles attempting to act normal in front of Laura’s husband, François (François Périer), is very misleading. You are lulled into a false sense of security that the rest of the film will revolve around Charles trying desperately not to be caught. But the plot, based on the short story The Thin Line, follows a different line of thought.

The characters are zipped up and buttoned up. Emotion is a potential threat and there is a secret battle to stop it rippling to the surface. Charles drags his hand along the hedge as he walks up the street. This is a rare spontaneous action crying out for help. Another striking scene is where he mimes his confession on the way to Laura’s funeral. He speaks but no sound comes out. There are emotions and feelings that dare not be expressed.

Hélène (Stéphane Audran as Charles’ wife) is more successful in controlling her feelings. Her reaction to her husband’s confession – sex, murder, warts and all – is as cool as a cucumber. She calmly chooses to forgive him and carries on with the façade of that thing called life. The constantly cold weather represents their state of being – beating hearts packed in frozen ice.

The detached performances by Michel Bouquet, Stéphane Audran and François Périer convey this rather chillingly. Bouquet is especially outstanding as the man in danger of listening to his conscience amid the awkward rehearsals of everyday life. A young woman who recognises him from afar as Laura’s lover stares at him and refuses to let her glance drop. Let’s admit it, we would do the same thing. You have to study this man in the hope of seeing a glimmer of truth behind that stony act.

The structure of the sets (particularly in Charles’ house) evokes an acute sense of being trapped and hidden. Curtains are drawn to conceal the cracks in relationships. They are opened when Hélène wishes to cast an eye on what is happening in the next room and beyond. In a macabre and mischievous way, the gate to François’ house looks exactly like prison bars.

There are some arresting shots of the married couple walking along the beach. It’s meant to be a getaway, a ‘break’, but it can hardly be what you call a holiday. The cold hard wind is still trailing them. The only difference is that they have escaped from the white walls of their houses just to glare at the black silhouettes of their estranged figures. The photography sums up the state of their souls by capturing them in complete black (in one shot with minimal light) as they stroll up the rocky beach.

Another interesting sequence that plays with the idea of black and white is when Charles confesses to François. This crucial night scene is directed with very little light and we can barely see the actors’ faces. But it soon dawns upon us that seeing their expressions is really not that important. François’ reaction is similar to Hélène’s, he decides to opt for forgiveness and pretend that the whole thing had never happened.

The twist comes from Charles feeling uneasy with all this peace-loving forgiveness and wanting to be punished for his sins. He is exposed to the apathy of a society numb to the feeling of moral outrage or shock. As Charles contemplates his predicament, the opening becomes that much clearer. Laura whispering, “If you knew what I’ve done, if you only knew…”, as she begs to be strangled. This is one consequence of the bourgeois society that wants to pretend that nothing really hurts.

What Juste Avant La Nuit is trying to say is that we do need judgment, we do need redemption. Or else, our sense of self-worth is in danger of crippling away.