January 23, 2015

Whiplash – A Riveting Drama with Nagging Questions

                                             Damien Chazelle, the 29 year old writer and director, has suddenly become this year’s award season sensation. Chazelle’s second-feature film “Whiplash” (2014) has earned a Golden Globe, five Oscar and BAFTA nominations, and numerous other jury awards. The movie belongs to drama genre, but the electrifying script and performances gives us a feeling of watching a blistering action/thriller. “Whiplash” tracks the experiences of a young wanna-be Jazz legend, who is broken-in as well as broken-down by a furious, tyrannical teacher. Chazelle has written the script based on his own experiences with an abusive mentor during his brief stint as high-school drummer.

                                           The film has a simple storyline and plot structure, but provocatively twists the way the relationship between student and mentor is usually portrayed in Hollywood movies. It also questions how a genius is born and limitations of control that influences the mastery. Movies like “Goodwill Hunting”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Finding Forrester” etc, had mentors who positively influenced their pupils to achieve greatness. But, what would happen if that mentor is a despot, who is ready to wreak all kinds of havoc until he pries out the genius out of his talented pupil. “Whiplash” is also one of the rare films in the teacher/student genre that’s truly contemplative. It genuinely raises many questions about the nature of teaching and the sacrifices made by legends without zeroing in on a simple answer.

                                         The movie starts at one end of a hallway, and on the other end we see our protagonist Andrew Neyman (Milles Teller) fiercely drumming. The camera moves slowly and at the doorway, the camera turns around reveal Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). This guy is intrigued to see what Andrew’s got. He asks to play the double-swing. Andrew attempts and the camera spins around, showing us a slamming door. That opening sequence mildly showcases the Andrew’s desperation and Fletcher’s abusive nature, a theme which runs throughout the movie. Andrew is a talented Jazz drummer who wants to become a legend like Buddy Rich. He is freshman at an elite, prestigious music school called ‘Shaffer Conservatory’. Andrew’s dreams are little skeptically supported by his middle-class father (Paul Reiser).

                                         Terrence Fletcher, a senior-level instructor at the school, invites Andrew to sit in as ‘alternate’ with his prestigious core band. He asks Andrew report at 6 AM, although the rehearsal starts up at 9 AM. In the class, Fletcher plays sleazy mind-games and is impossible to please. During the interval, Fletcher softly asks about Andrew’s background. Andrew says that his mother has left him when he was a little boy. Later, Fletcher gives him a chance at the drums, and immediately starts praising him.

                                        But, gradually the smile vanishes from the face of Fletcher, and stops Andrew at every turn, repeatedly saying “Not my Tempo”. Andrew desperately tries to pick up the tempo, but out of nowhere, a chair is hurled, and then comes the barrage of verbal abuse from Fletcher (“You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn't Eugene O'Neill and who's now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a fucking nine-year-old girl!”). He shows enough flashes of humanity to draw in his subject, and suddenly uses profane electricity to jolt the dazed student to see whether he snaps or gives his best. From then on, Andrew become more determined to succeed and forms a complex, symbiotic relationship with Fletcher.

                                       “Whiplash” basically has the structure of a sports film genre. Like a boxing movie, there‘s a young prodigy, hot-headed mentor, a big game etc. Director Chazelle takes this trajectory and adds enough subjectivity to give us that ambiguous feeling. As the movie ends with a furious, complex drum solo, we don’t see applauds, praises or resolving statement that states “Playing music should be fun” or “Greatness could be achieved only at great cost”. Many might feel that this movie makes an unusual or objectionable statement in the end. But, Chazelle doesn’t give us any conclusions as he himself has said in an interview that “I guess it’s still something I’m not sure about” (Q: Do you think the talented should be pushed to the edge in the pursuit of excellence).

                                         The movie’s ambiguity could be best experienced if it’s seen from the characters’ subjective point of view. According to Fletcher, fear is the biggest motivator. So, he uses it at every turn bringing in doubts on the talented. Fletcher has single conversation with Andrew grasping in the boy’s back-story and uses it against him to raise his inherent fear. He says Andrew’s drumming talents is similar to his father’s writing talent or that he deserves his mother’s rejection. Those basic dreads combined with Andrew’s obsessive nature puts him in the path of achieving greatness. Fletcher’s argument is that to achieve such a stage, you can damage or sacrifice anything. He is happy to crush thousands of students’ musical dreams, if he could just find one legend (or one Charlie Parker). In the end, Chazelle neither condones nor condemns Fletcher’s conduct. We don’t know whether Fletcher final insult to Andrew is a plan to bring out his talents or just pure revenge. It could be both. The director also observes in the climax that Andrew, by not giving into Fletcher’s abuse, kind of gets drawn into the teacher’s web. There’s a tight close-up shot in this scene, where both the characters laugh, but we are once again left ambiguous on whether it’s a happy or sad ending. 

                                      Women in such male-dominated films are either shown as supportive figures or like pitfalls. Chazelle break the romantic sub-plot at very earlier stage, and uses it to show how Andrew’s state of mind is affected by Fletcher’s influence. The shy Andrew approaches a pretty girl (Melissa Benoist) and goes on one or two dates with her. After experiencing the abuses, Andrew gives this weird speech to the girl, where he talks as if he knows everything about her – her hopes, dreams, and ambitions. He cites that he is breaking up because she’s going to pin him down with this relationship. It’s basically Fletcher talking through Andrew’s mouth. It’s a little scene that powerfully depicts the cyclic nature of abuse.

                                           The energetic jazz rhythms and exuberant drum solos are as engrossing and tense as the film’s thought-provoking ideas. The unbridled energy in the music itself dictates the shooting and editing styles. The questions raised by this film wouldn’t have reached our eyes & ears if not for the great performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. As Fletcher, Simmons is cloaked in black, tight T-shirts, and the camera itself focuses on him as a daunting guy who’s hailed from the Scorsese universe. His characterization would easily draw comparisons with R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, but I felt Fletcher is the most sinister one. Hartman was only putting on a face to turn those guys into a killing machine. Of course, he is sending them to die. But, take Fletcher, who puts on a deceitful, humanistic face to get details to wreak more havoc, psychologically. He uses the demise of his former, prized student to create the myth of a prodigious talent taken too soon, but neglects his part in that young man’s untimely death. Simmons also enacts all these psychological violence with an elegance and swagger that’s just more terrifying. Teller is best known for his smart-ass roles in “That Awkward Movement”, “21 & over”, “Footloose”, but with this film he is pushed to showcase all his acting capabilities and he is wholly convincing too.

                                       “Whiplash” (107 minutes) deconstructs the inspirational teacher genre, offering no easy resolutions. You don’t have be Jazz fan to view this movie, since you can take the film’s fundamental thesis and use it to address any art form or sports that involves immense hard-work and sacrifice.


January 21, 2015

Raining Stones -- The Indomitable Spirit of Working Class

                                            British film-maker Kenneth Loach is best known for his compassionate portrayal of the British working-class. Right from the 1960’s (“Kes”) he’s been making movies about poverty in a Neo-realist style. With his low-key film-making style, Loach has influenced a generation of film-makers like Neil Jordan, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Dardenne Brothers etc. “Raining Stones” (1993), a strong addition to Loach’s oeuvre, offers a bittersweet portrayal of proletariat family struggling against the recession in Northern England. The film’s title is an expression that offers a sympathetic view of the underclass, as one character in the film states, “When you are a worker, it rains stones seven days a week”.

                                          The movie starts in a comical fashion as Bob Williams (BruceJones) and Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) try to rustle a sheep to sell it to the local butcher shop. Both these middle-aged guys’ families are barely making end meet. Bob is an unemployed plumber who roams around social service offices and carries home assistance vouchers to put food on the table. Religion (Catholicism) offers Bob and his wife Anne (Julie Brown) hope, but lately that too has become source of a problem. Bob and Anne’s seven year old daughter Coleen (Gemma Phoenix) will be soon celebrating her first communion. And as per the custom, the little girls undergoing this rite need to wear a pretty, expensive dress.

                                         Bob doesn’t even have a quid to pay the gas and electric bills, although he promises his daughter that he will buy a beautiful, new dress. He and his buddy Tommy plan various schemes to earn a few quick pounds. But, misfortune follows him as his van gets nicked. He goes door to door offering to fix faulty drains, but gets covered up in excrement, cleaning out the toilet of local Catholic Church, and that too for no payment. He becomes a bouncer in a local pub, only to get bounced in his first day work. To make matters worse, Bob also borrows from a loan company and gets embroiled with a dangerous loan shark.

                                       Director Loach and script writer Jim Allen finds the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. In the opening scene, we see the primary characters repeatedly fail to catch a sheep, and towards the end we see a loan shark threatening Coleen and Anne. One is played to a comic effect and the other is shockingly menacing. These polar opposite scenes makes an equal impact on us because of the three-dimensional characterization and dialogues. When Bob goes to buy an old van, the owner insists that the van had only one owner previously. To which, Tommy cracks up, “Who was it? Ben-Hur?”  The unforced comedy in such painful situations prevents the movie from being bleak or pessimistic. At the same time, Loach and Allen never chucks the painful reality to get some more laughs.

                                      Loach and Allen also create a sense of realism for every character in the movie. When Bob goes to social services office, we hear the struggles of a single mother in bringing up her children. It’s a character that’s there on-screen for few seconds, but it’s conveyed with a sense of realism. Director Loach has expressed his political views less explicitly than his other works. Jimmy (Mike Fallon), Bob’s father-in-law, working in the Tenants’ Association office, is the only overtly political character. Jimmy highlights how their society is affected by crime, booze, and drugs. He states that religion is only a distraction as it doesn’t allow people to get-together to make real changes. These words express the Loach’s view towards the Capitalist system and religion. Nevertheless, Loach has approached religion in a more ambivalent manner. Father Barry (Tom Hickey), who plays a significant role at the plot’s decisive point, has been portrayed in a sympathetic manner. In fact, by making the priest condemn at the social forces that result in hardships, Loach attests that religion could support communities. Even the lawmen, who never find themselves to help under class people shows up at the door of Bob, bringing some good news.
                                      Ken Loach may be little uncertain about religion’s value in the society, but he is very clear about his views on conservatism. In one of the comical scenes, Bob and Tommy steal turf off the lawn of a Conservative Social Club. It’s like a rare moment where the Conservatives denote the working class establishment. Barry Ackroyd’s naturalistic, grainy cinematography keeps up with the movie’s mood and setting. The cast is full of little-known actors, who all have given a remarkable performance. Bruce Jones as the rumpled protagonist imbues the much-needed hope into the proceedings. Julie Brown showcases her characters’ frustration and anger without ever playing like a victim. Jonathan James is so terrifying as the thug Tansey (it’s hard to believe that this guy is a comedian in real life). If you had to point-out one problem with the film, it’s the thick Manchester accent, which makes it difficult to entirely catch what’s being said (even with the use of subtitles).

                                    Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones” (88 minutes) is one of the overlooked works in the British kitchen-sink sub-genre. It stays away from being dogmatic and offers humor even in the most despairing situations. 


January 20, 2015

Seconds -- The Fretful Nature of Human Soul

                                            Paranoia, deceit, shame, and tragedy haunted the American politics from the 1960’s to early 1970’s (from Kennedy’s death to Nixon’s resignation). The ensued bundle of political gossip and public drama gave us one of best sub-genre in movies, called ‘paranoid thriller’. From Coppola to Roman Polanski many great directors gave cinematic rendering to the fears and distrust of that era. John Frankenheimer was one of those prominent film-makers, whose movies were drenched in paranoia. He targeted the delusions of the powerful politicians and media barons in “Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “Seven Days in May” (1964) and got loads of critical acclaim. However, his bold and downbeat flick, “Seconds” (1966), which was a commentary on the social excess and suburban existence of the 60’s, didn’t get much attention as viewers failed to connect upon its theme in the initial release.

                                        “Seconds” is a cautionary tale about the perils of wanting too much or dreaming the wrong dream. The cult classic is simply based on the saying, “be careful what you wish for; it might come true”. The film’s credits run in a backdrop of stark black-and-white close-ups of different facial parts that are twisted and pulled to create a hypnotic feel. The musical score (by Jerry Goldsmith) is also brooding and little harsh. Then we see a middle-aged Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) trudging through the metro station with a feeling that some is watching over him. When he hops inside the train, he receives a slip of paper from a mysterious stranger. Later that night he gets a mysterious phone call from a friend, who had long been dead.

                                       Arthur is a banker and could be termed ‘successful’ in terms of wealth, but he has grown distant from his wife (Frances Reid) and the life he has created for himself. The bored Arthur follows the voice of the caller and goes to meat-packing plant, where he is escorted to a sinister company that specializes in giving the wealthy men a second chance. Arthur is offered a re-birth. His death is faked by the Cadaver Procurement Unit, and he goes through extensive, radical plastic surgery. After the operation Arthur emerges as a much younger Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). By exploring his dreams, the company gives him an identity of a wealthy painter. He was set up with a beach-side home in California and with a faithful servant (Wesley Addy). Tony even finds a free-spirited acquaintance in Nora (Salome Jens). But Tony’s new wild life starts to battle with old Arthur’s conscience.

                                      “Seconds” demands some suspension of disbelief to fully understand its themes. It rises a ‘what if?’ question, and so the procedures involved with surgery and giving new identity may be riddled with plot holes, if it is closely scrutinized. It hauntingly explores an individual’s conscience amidst a culture that dramatically changes from one era to another. Director Frankenheimer powerfully displays the cultural divide between the liberated youths and their conservative parents in the beginning of American 60’s. Arthur, the protagonist, once dreamed of being a liberated youth but his job and marriage has given him a conservative life. But, he still holds to his early dreams of emancipation. His new identity, which is filled with radical art and free love, is a dream comes true. However, it turns out that our old Arthur hasn’t dreamt the right dream. The reality of his fantasy only makes Tony/Arthur more uncomfortable.

                                        Only during the aggressive sequence of wine orgy, Arthur/Tony lets his old-self and enjoys the seditious things, but soon after that scene he goes back to being a man stuck in mid-life crisis. Sexually voracious women and free-spirited artist eventually turns into a nightmare from which he can’t awake. This whole identity-changing procedure gradually showcases restless nature of human soul, which is constantly in pursuit of something unattainable. It’s a perfect choice from Frankenheimer to cast the handsome Rock Hudson in the role of Tony Wilson. Although John Randolph (Arthur) and Hudson has no single physical resemblance, the choice once again stresses the point that even when you polish your external identity, you can’t escape from your own internal persona.

Title Sequence by Graphic Designer Saul Bass

                                        Rock Hudson, who has known for his roles in melodramatic and romantic comedies (“All that Heaven Allows”, “Pillow Talk” etc), has taken a vital acting departure in the film “Seconds”. He was a matinee idol whose success was highly dependent on the perception of him as a clean-cut, traditional male. As Tony Wilson, he perfectly displayed the inherent frustration and dullness of alter-identity, Arthur because he has really experienced the wearisome routines of an uncomplicated man. Through Rock Hudson, the director has finely explored the surging desperation behind good looks or star persona.
                                      Apart from the impressive on-screen performances, the talking point of “Seconds” is the flawless, unique visual style created by John Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe. The black and white cinematography constantly employed various tricks and stylistic flourishes to adjust us to the primary character’s subjectivity. Howe was one of the first to use snorricam devices in the scene where a nervous Arthur moves through a crowded train station (and later when Tony goes through mental breakdown). Scorsese used a Snorricam shot in “Mean Streets” and the shot was extensively employed in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (in the walk of shame sequence) and “Pi”. All these hand-held camera work and weird tracking shots (for that period) immediately created a sense of paranoia and dread even among the not-so dreary atmosphere.   

John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe

                                       The script from Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely, slackens a bit in the second act. The relationship between Tony and Nora also felt too contrived, but the compelling ending firmly brings back the feeling of unease.  The ending may be one of the bleakest in Hollywood cinema, but it’s a thematically perfect one.

                                       “Seconds” (107 minutes) is full of slippery, paranoid energy that’s infuriating as well as honest. It is one of the underrated classic of American cinema which showcases the diabolical goings-on of the era it was made. 


January 14, 2015

Winter Sleep -- A Vibrant Cinema on Human Superficiality


“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”

                                                                                                            --- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

                                             The new magisterial film, “Winter Sleep” (2014) from the masterful Turkish film-maker Nure Bilge Ceylan explores one such unhappy family, whose dilemmas and lives rings true and universal. It is a meditation on a marriage and human soul that’s as honest, intense, and brutal like an Ingmar Bergman movie. Ceylan’s previous masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” earned the adjective ‘Chekovian’ for the way he incorporated the issues of class, history, property into a simple crime scene investigation. Now he has written the script for “Winter Sleep” based upon two stories of Anton Chekov: “Excellent People”, and “The Wife”. Shakespeare also inhabits the movie in those elaborate, complex, and powerful dialogues. In fact this is the first time Ceylan employs challenging long dialogue scenes, but the brazen, intimate framing keeps it from looking like a play.  

                                          “Winter Sleep” is set in the chilly, mountain desert of the remotest Cappadocia, a land of cave dwellings, situated in Central Anatolia. The grey boulders, mushroom-shaped caves, rocks, the snowfall, and wild ponies thundering across land scream the word ‘picturesque’. But since this being a Ceylan’s work, the beautiful, isolated landscape serves to symbolize things (not for panoramic shots), like that of the first snowfall that represents a change of atmosphere. A baronial grey-haired former actor and local landlord, Mr. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is the story’s protagonist. He has converted the cave-dwellings into a trendy hotel ‘Othello’. As winter is arriving, most of the tourists depart from hotel and something familiar to Aydin and his family comes to haunt them: vanity, self-deception, and yearning.

                                          Aydin seems to have returned to his home village after his retirement. He spends most of his time in the study, surrounded by books. He writes a column on art and social morality for the local newspaper, and also doing research to write a book on the History of Turkish Theatre. Aydin also fancies himself as a small-time philosopher, but his inherent self-deception and arrogance is picked up apart by two women in the family; his younger lovely wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and cynical, recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin and his wife live separately in their own part of the house. He ridicules her charity work and she hates his hypocritical insights.  

                                         But, all these unpleasant conflicts rise to the surface due to an unconnected event. A free-spirited traveler and a hotel guest ask Aydin whether he has any horses because he has seen some in the hotel’s website. Aydin replies, “It’s just to decorate the website”. But the little conversation incites Aydin to buy a pony. He takes his driver and enforcer, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) to make a deal for a horse. And as they drive off in their land rover, a stone lands off in their windshield which nearly leads to an accident. The stone is thrown by a small boy, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), whose father was an ex-con Ismail (Nejat Isler). Ismail is one of Aydins’s deadbeat tenants, who was beaten and humiliated by the debt collectors. Aydin captures the boy and sends Hidayet to have reasonable talk with the father. However, Ismail angrily rants and accuses them of deliberately humiliating him. That unpleasant event makes Aydin to retreat to his solitude hotel, but more figurative rocks are hurled at him there.

                                      ‘Why should I care about a group of Turkish elitist and narcissist?’ was one of the things that may come to our mind after reading the plot and Olympian running time. Patient movie-viewers must watch it because Ceylan makes us care, like any great literary artist, by keeping the characters multi-dimensional and honest. Their awfulness and awkwardness are portrayed in a manner which makes us compare it with our own character traits. Failing marriage and cynicism of rich towards poor are the two vital themes that run throughout the movie. But these themes aren’t driven home through convenient good/bad human forms. There’s a pivotal scene between Aydin, who sits at his desk writing a column, and his sister Necla, who sits behind him in a sofa and starts discussing about her brother’s columns. She rips apart at Aydin’s irritating and hypocritical values towards their dead-beat tenants. Necla condemns him for cynicism, which as it turns out (through her not resisting evil speech) she also possesses.  

                                      Aydin replies to Necla using strong, hurtful words and also turns onto his wife, who also is enshrouded in hypocrisy. For Nihal, the charity is an outlet for her passions and dreams. Its one area where she has full autonomy, but that too is threatened with Aydin’s intrusion. In another lengthy scene, Nihal and Aydin bicker back-and-forth about their contradictory nature, but the conversation is once again relevatory and hits on targets. Nihal perfectly analyses her husband’s behavior, but she has her own faults: like thinking that philanthropic gifts would solve every problem; or holding immense animosity towards Aydin, but isn’t ready to get a divorce, fearing that it may uproot her from the luxurious life. Ceylan perfectly calibrates these two crucial, verbose scenes without making it seem theatrical or laborious.

                                       Another interesting aspect of the movie is the way Ceylan tosses up the characters and lets us know how they react in different places. We could empathize with Nihal as her husband threatens to take away the only happiness she has left. But, later she somehow insults Ismail by offering him a wad of money to solve the debt problems. Ismail’s shocking reaction makes her to face her own ignorance and places values like pride over the power of money. Rationally, Ismail’s act may seem stupid, but it liberates him from all his past humiliations. On the other hand, we hate Aydin for his obnoxiousness and derisive laughs. Nevertheless, he is like the Shakespearean hero, whom we can’t help but pity him.

Director Ceylan after winning Palme d'Or in Cannes

                                    Although the landscape plays a key role, Ceylan and his cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki keeps a tight rein on showcasing the backgrounds. The firelight interiors and the intimate, artistic compositions deserve a separate, full-blown analysis (it would be a futile attempt for me to do such analysis after viewing the movie only once).  The long dialogues would have never had such a great impact, if not for the professional actors like Solzen and Bilginer.

                                  “Winter Sleep” (196 minutes) is the kind of rare cinema that interweaves various forms of art and makes observations that have a more universal appeal. It provides startling epiphanies without any tidy resolutions.