December 18, 2014

Winter's Bone -- A Trenchant Portrayal of America that's Usually Neglected

                                        Mainstream American movies often pull in remote, backwoods people to contrive a grand slasher thriller. Naive, young, city-bred students go to Deep South and face a hostile community is the sort of storyline that has been dealt with lot of times in Hollywood. But, rarely do we have movies that show why these people dwell in such habitat amidst poverty; or why are they close-mouthed. Both the film-makers and movie-goers aren’t interested in confronting these subjects in a reflective manner. Director Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) doesn’t go Deep South, but is set among a similar impoverished, wrecked land, situated in the American Midwest. The Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri, on which the characters of this movie reside, doesn’t seem to share a piece of the American dream.

                                       The beautiful and harsh landscapes of these parts are repleted with discarded automobile parts, empty crates, and home appliances. The widespread poverty and bitter cold temperature consistently brings in despondence to residents. From the early 1970’s, drug related crimes in some part of Ozarks is said to have increased suddenly. Backwoods methamphetamine labs were touted as the best place to manufacture the illicit materials. The resulting criminal justice has only further ruined their communities. “Winter’s Bone”, however, isn’t a violent drug-opera. It is a slow-paced, emotionally complex character study. It deals its subject with tenderness and a sense of compassion.

                                      The movie’s protagonist is a tough-minded seventeen year old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence). Her mother is mentally impaired and nearly catatonic and so Ree takes care of her younger brother and sister. Her father, Jessup is a meth cooker, who has already been in prison and facing another stint. Ree knows to hunt, cook, skin squirrels, and prepares her siblings for the hard life. She is also a proud girl who dreams about joining in the army and doesn’t go around begging for food to neighbors. However, Ree is helped by a goodwill neighbor, who takes in her horse. A Sheriff soon brings in more grave news. He says that Ree’s father has put their family house and land as bond after his recent arrest.

                                      Now, Jess up has gone on the run and skipped the bail. If he doesn’t show up for the court-date, the family will lose what little they still have. Ree walks around to track down her father’s whereabouts. She meets her father’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes) and other distant cousins, but since they are all involved in some illegal activity, they are reluctant to let in on the secret about Ree’s father. Most of these people are deranged by drugs and cast over a scary presence, but Ree stubbornly hunts for the truth.

                                     Director Granik and Anne Rosellini have written the script based on Daniel Woodrell’s thin-plotted novel. They capture the characters of rural America with neither disdain nor judgement. The writers imbue enough logic behind certain grisly events, so that we don’t view these violent subjects as caricatures. At first characters like Merab and Teardrop seem like those rigorous hillbillies straight out of “Deliverance”, but later they turn out to be the persons Ree can really rely on. Granik has also showcased the vital role of women in such as aggressive and indifferent male-dominated world. The women in “Winter’s Bone” holds the key to open up the secrets. And, the film would have amounted to nothing if it wasn’t based on the experiences of a 17 year old ‘girl’.

                                    The girl here is not just brave and persistent, but also knows the limits of her bravery (When Ree says “You have always scared me” to Teardrop, he replies “that’s because you are smart”). She knows that a blind act of courage around gun-toting men isn’t going to bring out the truth. So, she is persistent enough to evoke compassion within those troubled individuals. Of course, the character sketch of Ree Dolly wouldn’t have worked perfectly if it wasn’t for Jennifer Lawrence. Although Lawrence is cherished for her later sugar-coated, eccentric roles, this is where she gives a truly remarkable performance. Initially, she wears that mask of self-command and gradually that mask disintegrates and let’s us to look at the volatile emotions of her character. As Ree, she displays exemplary inner strength but also desperately looking a guardian to take over her burgeoning responsibilities. Granik’s and Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree’s vulnerability also makes us not to view Ree as one-note young martyr.  

                                    In terms of intensity, Hawkes (as Ree’s uncle) and Dale Dickey (as clan chief’s wife) match up with Lawrence’s performance. Dale Dickey’s Merab somehow looks like the older version of Ree (the one Ree would become if she never worked her way out of this place). Beneath her hostile facial features, Merab hints at a suppressed admiration for Ree’s courage. In the final scene, Merab is the one who pays dues and finishes her man’s dirty work. The sparse story-telling method of Granik may definitely frustrate impatient viewers, but this kind of narrative possesses small moments that have an ability to astonish us. One such cherish-able little moment is Ree’s terrified appeal to her non-communicative mother. Director Granik doesn’t invite the melodrama, this type of tale inherently owns. She perfectly knows when to cut, leavening the tension. Although the landscape is familiar with violence, Granik approaches violence in a sensitive manner (attention is paid to the pain it brings), especially in the scene when Ree is beaten down.

                                    “Winter’s Bone” (101 minutes) is a powerful character study of a resilient girl trudging around a ragged, unrelenting landscape. It paints a depressing portrait of American Midwest (especially the Ozarks), but also provides enough hope for a better future.


December 11, 2014

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya -- Soul-Stirring 'Studio Ghibli' Anime

                                          Japanese anime studio ‘Studio Ghibli’ (founded in 1985) under the guiding hands of Hayao Miyazaki transformed animated feature as one of the highest form of art, while animation in rest of the world has been succumbed into a form of entertainment only for kids. But, with the retirement of Miyazaki and certain financial problems, the golden age of Studio Ghibli might be coming to an end. Recently it was suggested that the studio might take a break from making movies (after the release of “When Marnie was There”). Studio’s Ghibli's another prominent film-maker (& co-founder) Isao Takahata (aged 79) – known for works like “Grave of the Fireflies”, “Only Yesterday”, “Pom Poko” -- has also announced his retirement. All these news of dissolution and reality of retirements only makes the experience of watching Takahta’s ethereal “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013) more heart-breaking. It possesses the inventiveness and singular beauty we witnessed earlier in “Totoro”, “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”. 

                                        The 10th century Japanese folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (also known as “Princess Kaguya”) is considered to be one of the oldest stories in Japanese culture. It’s also got be one of the early sci-fi tales, detailing the life of a mysterious girl hailing from ‘Tsuki-no-Miyaki’ – The Capital of Moon. Under the hand-drawn animation, the story’s beauty becomes a marvel. The anime has a little different look from the usual Ghibli flicks. Director Takahata has chosen water-color aesthetic to encompass the tale’s exquisite imagery. Thematically the tale addresses Ghibli’s trademark theme: ongoing and everlasting battle between advanced civilization and nature. It depicts how a false sense of sophistication turns even honest feelings like love into hollow ceremony. Most importantly, the tale jubilantly contradicts from Disney’s or western fairy tales’ recurring storyline: every girl wants to be a princess.

                                       “Kaguya” commences with an old bamboo cutter discovering a miniature girl inside a glowing stalk of bamboo. Bamboo cutter’s wife mistakes the miniature girl for a doll, and in her hands she transforms into a healthy human baby. The childless old couples marvel at the child’s antics and call her as ‘princess’. However, the girl isn’t like ordinary human baby. Within days, the baby starts to walk and in months she starts running around with other children, singing songs. At every joyous or adventurous moment, she seems to spurt like a bamboo tree. Local children call her as “Little Bamboo”. The princess is an indomitable spirit, gleefully playing among the beautiful natural world of trees, rivers, and birds. Her special friend among the group is a boy named ‘Sutemaru’.

                                        One day, the bamboo cutter discovers gold in the shining bambbo stalk, and in another day he finds adorable silks. He takes this as a gift from heaven and tells her wife that they had to build a mansion in the town to give the real princess life for the girl. The princess is soon taken to the capital. She is overwhelmed by the wealth and palatial estate, but she greatly misses the vibrancy of life in the countryside. She is placed under a strict governess Lady Sagami. The lady teaches the ways of royal lady. At the coming-of-age ceremony, the princess is named ‘Kaguya’. From then on, she is hidden inside her chamber. She yearns for individuality, while in the outside world the news of her beauty spreads like wildfire. Noblemen treat her as a rare treasure that needs to be claimed. The story takes a surrealistic turn when Kaguya’s sadness becomes too much to bear.

                                       “Kaguya” depicts the spiritual emptiness imposed by parents on child, telling them that it’s only for their betterment. It presents how the elders force their cultural notions or false sense of happiness on the spirited children (as Kaguya tells towards the end:"The happiness you wanted for me was hard to bear"). The tragedy inherent with the tale is that the rebellious Kaguya goes along with her parents’ plan because of the love she feels for them. The obstinate father (bamboo cutter) also does these deeds out of love for his daughter. The story also indicts at the community’s very narrow-minded idea on female happiness. Although, it is a 10th century tale, these two themes may never seem outdated.

                                        The preternatural roots of Kaguya are revealed subtly in the films’ last thirty minutes. If you don’t know little something about the origin story or medieval Japan’s culture, then you couldn’t fully get the tale’s nuances. Still this last act is far away from being confusing and only adds poignancy. The animation in this last act has some striking sequences, especially the arrival of moon people with their troops, playing upbeat music looked magical, powerful, and so heart-wrenching (the dream of flight sequence is also outstanding). Takahata’s gradual shifts in visual style give an endearing experience. The muted colors and the fragile images gel finely with the tale’s main theme of loss. The impressionistic images of black lines in a dreamy sequence of escape wonderfully highlights the frantic emotions of our protagonist.

                                       “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (137 minutes) possess refined metaphors, thought-provoking observations, and breath-taking images like every other Japanese anime feature. It serves as a plaintive critique on society’s age-old idea of what constitutes to a girl’s happiness. 


December 9, 2014

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete -- An Unadorned Tale of Ghetto Despair

                                            The children growing up on the bleak, dysfunctional, wrong streets encounter defeat and disappointment more than love. So, at some point they start to hit back with hate and frustration. Alas, it now becomes a cycle, where inevitably defeated people beat each other to pulp. George Tillman Jr.’ s “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete" (2013) portrays such a tough situation in the precarious housing projects of Brooklyn. The title clearly keeps our expectations in looking for a happy ending. But, throughout the movie, friendship and dreams finely bouts with the defeat.

                                          When we first look at Mister (Skylan Brooks) he is clearly frustrated. The scrawny 13 year old inner-city kid tearfully holds an exam paper with ‘F’ which might lead him to stay another year on eight-grade. Tears once again wells up, when Mister finds some harsh words written on the school’s bathroom wall about his mom. Mister’s mom (Jennifer Hudson) is a junkie and a prostitute, who rather than spending hustled money on food, buys more drugs and gets tattoos. However, Mister holds some hope. He fishes out a card from his school locker, which calls for casting on a local TV show for child actors. Mister seems to be a movie buff and acting sort of allows him to focus away from the terrible reality.

                                          The summer has just got started and many terrible things are waiting to happen. Mister is dogged by skinny 11 year old Korean-American Pete (Ethan Dizon), whose mother is also a heroin-addicted prostitute. Pete looks more desperate and lost than Mister. Soon, Mister’s mother is arrested by the police and the two kids efficiently escape from the hands of Child Services (only worse fate awaits at the foster center). But, now they have to fend for themselves for may be the whole hot, sticky summer. The terrifying new situation may indicate the predictable despair of the title, but Mister doesn’t easily surrender to his fate. Along with Pete, he rejects to travel through that downward spiral.

                                         The script (by Michael Starburry) affords plenty of opportunities to extract sentimentality, but for the most part it resists those melodramatic ways. There are underwritten roles and predictable elements, but the script doesn’t offer any easy resolutions in the end. The weakest part in script could be Mister’s relationship with former neighbor Alice. Good-hearted neighbor with big smile and insipid words of encouragement doesn’t seem to be a part of this movie.

                                         Director George Tillman Jr. finely probes into the emotional effect on kids, who are left to cope on their own without any financial resources. Despite the pessimistic title, Tillman keeps the proceedings less woeful than movies like “Precious”. However, the director’s greatest achievement seems to be the extraction of remarkably restraint performances from two child actors. Both the kids are natural, going for credibility rather than cuteness. Skylan Brooks imbues the moments of grace amid all the desolation. His imitations from films like “Trading Places” and “Fargo” are delivered with a great zeal. In one of the film’s incisive moments, Brooks uses his crafty acting skills to concoct a story for getting groceries from a white store clerk for free. Perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of Brooks’ acting is that he showcases his characters’ sadness, anger, and confusion without being maudlin. Although, Dizon (from “Bad Words”) doesn’t have many acting challenges, he is very good at expressing the despair.

                                       “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” (108 minutes) is a raw coming-of-age story set in an unrelenting, bleak world. But, there is enough hope and resilience to outweigh the defeat faced at every turn.


December 5, 2014

Blancanieves -- An Invigorating and Stark Retelling of a Renowned Fable

                                               The prospect of seeing a live-action re-imagination of fairy tales nowadays gives the viewer a daunting feeling. The recent Hollywood offerings like “Hansel & Gretel”, “Red Riding Hood”, “Snow White and Huntsmen”, and “Mirror Mirror” ransacked those classic fables to quench the thirst of Hollywood’s money-demanding machinery. But, rarely do we see director like Pablo Berger, who not only has the guts to ground a fairytale with reality, but also chooses a different, risky mode to retell the story. Spanish film-maker Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” (2012) is the sensual reiteration of Grimm fairy tale, “Snow White”. It’s filmed as a black-and-white silent film, using the camera effects and tricks of that era. “Blancanieves” doesn’t get pulled down by the commercial hoopla and stays authentic in re-creating the glories of the silent-era days.

                                              The 2011 five Oscar winner “The Artist” proved to modern audiences that they can love black and white film with no dialogues. “The Artist” paid a perfect and affectionate homage to the silent cinema, but when it was touted as heavy-weight contender in the Oscars, it fittingly earned the title ‘over-rated’. Perhaps that happens all the time, when Oscars choose heart-warming, sentimental flicks over an enigmatic, thought-provoking movie. “Blancanieves” possesses the cuteness and corny visual elements of silent movies, but at the same time faintly imbues the grim imagery of Luis Bunuel or Todd Browning. In short, it finely balances between Disney sweetness and Grimm’s bitterness.

                                            The film is set in the province of Seville, in the 1920’s. In this energetic retelling, a revered matador, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is fatally wounded at the end of a bullfight. Te accident is witnessed by the matador’s beloved, pregnant wife (Inma Cuesta), frightening her to go into labor and dies in her childbirth. She leaves behind a beautiful daughter named Carmen, but the child is disowned by the now quadriplegic father Villalta. The heartbroken, wheel-chair stuck former matador marries a scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu).

                                          At the age of seven, Carmen’s (played by Sofia Oria and Macarena Garcia) grandmother passes away and she is now forced live with her domineering step-mother. Encarna keeps Carmen away from her father. Carmen stays in a dingy coal cellar and forced to perform menial tasks. However, fate unites Carmen with her father. Apart from finding love, Carmen also learns few secrets about the art of bullfighting. The series of twists in “Snow White” stays the same, although the stepmother doesn’t have a mirror and doesn’t turn into a witch. However, her personality has a kinky side (like putting a dog collar and leash on her lover’s neck). The movie’s take on ‘prince charming’ and its portrayal of the dwarfs is also quite different from what one usually expects.  

                                       The dark turns, offbeat undertones, and a feminist take makes “Blancanieves” more engrossing than a glossy Hollywood fairy-tale retelling. Of course, the same elements could deem the movie unsuitable for kids. It’s not as outrageous as Czech film-maker Jan Svankmaker’s “Alice” (1988, a surrealistic adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland”), but there is a bit of black humor (involving step-mother), little violence, and a bittersweet, ponderous finale. But, still many have pointed out that “Blancanieves” isn’t as dark as the original ‘Grimm’ story.

                                      Director Pablo Berger gives us a pure cinema by conveying a lot through exquisite framing and facial expressions. Like a true silent-era film-maker, her doesn’t rely heavily on the title cards, but finely advertises the actor’s various emotional through rich use of close-ups. Apart from concentration on the various ranges of facial expressions, Berger also sets up wider shots of the barren landscape and the towering mansion, displaying the solemnity hovering over Carmen’s world. The speedy montage in the early bull-fghting sequence and the passage of many years expressed by fluttering of a bedsheets in a laundry line (where the child Carmen becomes a young lady) were all some of the splendidly edited scenes.

                                        The finale sort of chucks out the word ‘happily’ and embraces the ‘live ever after’ word. It is unforgettable and un-gimmicky, but it’s also the movie’s little flaw. There is nothing wrong with the ending itself, but the events unfold before the final act doesn’t prepare the viewer for ‘Grimm’ tale ending. Despite, the aforementioned black-humor, when the amnesiac Carmen joins the dwarfs’ troupe the movie’s dramatic quotient steps-up a bit, showing all signs of a Disney ending. Thematically, the ‘prince charming’ interpretation was wonderful and insightful, but the obscure change would appall a viewer expecting something pleasurable like “The Artist”.

                                         “Blancanieves” (104 minutes) offers a transfixing movie experience. This silent ‘Snow White’ tale with a delectable black-and-white cinematography achieves a lot more than the other recent, CGI-laden fairy tale re-telling.