August 20, 2014

Starred Up -- An Unflinching and Soulful Prison Survival Drama

                                            David MacKenzie’s “Starred Up” (2013) opens with a young man, entering the confines of a prison. He is strip-checked, given new clothes and shown into his cell. Immediately after entering the cell, he melts a toothbrush and sticks a razor blade on one end, and then unscrews the tube light to hide his new weapon. This wordless opening scene makes you feel that it’s going to be one hell of a gritty prison drama like “Carandiru”, “Hunger”, “A Prophet” and “Shawshank Redemption” (without the redemption part). Such instincts don’t go wrong as the movie displays the grimness of prison life with an unflinching eye. The film hits at all the usual themes of prison drama – brawling, police corruption, sexual tension – but it does it all with a naturalism.

                                       “Starred Up” is the term given to the process by which loathsome young offenders are moved early to adult prison. 19 year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is escorted through assorted prison hallways and arrives at a solo cell in high-risk section. The little yellow room with little furnishings and high window conveys a nauseating feeling, but Eric seems to be used to it as he has spent most of his life in some state institution. Soon after his arrival, Eric nearly kills one of the black inmates and beats up the prison guards. Prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) attempts to rehabilitate Eric, but he is met with strong resistance.

                                     The only person who is able to control Eric is Neville (Ben Mendolsohn), Eric’s father who has been incarcerated for life. Neville is higher up in the prison gang and he displays unique methods to reduce Eric into a beseeching small boy. He asks him to join in Oliver’s class, where the prison’s tough cases go through anger management. While Oliver attempts to reform Eric, corrupted and dangerous elements like the warden (Sam Spruell) wants to ‘warehouse him’ or else finish him off by making it look like a suicide.

                                   The heavily accented British slang tinged with prison code words is really hard to follow, but director David MacKenzie have kept language in the secondary place as the story dynamics are played out perfectly in obvious physical terms. Every prison film has its own surrogate father-son relationship, but here it is given with a twist as the relationship becomes biological. The father-son bonding also doesn’t happen in a conventional manner as both the characters feel an embarrassment to recognize the relationship. It seems only feeling the father-son share is anger. The script is written by Jonathan Asser, who has his own work experiences as a prison therapist. So, there is authenticity in the way the therapy sessions unfold as all the alpha-males go through their emotions. The fictional therapist Oliver is shown as a guy who has his own set of anger problems. He seems to be infected by the prisoner’s problems, while trying to instill some hope.

                                   The father/son bond wavers into some scenes of melodrama (becomes a little sentimental), but for the most part it is naturalistic and soulful. The graphic violence doesn’t look exploitative. O’Connell gives a robust performance as the volatile and scary Eric. His on-screen behavior is too raw to categorize it as acting. Although O’ Connell isn’t physically intimidating like Tom Hardy in “Bronson”, he certainly looks dangerous especially in the way his character fights back without thinking about consequences. Tremendous Australian actor Mendelsohn is equally belligerent as his character tries to regain parental respect in a clumsy manner.

                                   Prisons are designed to deter the violence in society. “Starred Up” shows how hard it is to discourage violence and abuse, and instill hope inside prisons. The powerful performances and gritty script makes up for the flaws of this predictable story.      


August 14, 2014

12:08, East of Bucharest -- A Terrific Dry Comedy on the Failed Ambitions of Eastern Europe

                                      Dry comedy movies from Eastern Europe seem compatible with the damp, drab surroundings. The institutional mediocrity of the small towns in Eastern Europe brings out the best out of their cinema. Young Romanian film-maker Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08, East of Bucharest” (2006) takes place in such an atmosphere, where realism and politics echoes even in the smallest of events. The title refers to the alleged time on 22 Dec.1989, when Romania’s communist regime shattered. It is referenced as the time when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu flew from his presidential palace, as shown on live TV. Director Corneliu got the idea for making this film, when he saw a local TV station hosting a program that looked back at the events of 22 Dec. 1989. He shot this movie on a very modest budget, which went on to win ‘Camera d’Or’ at Cannes in 2006.

                                   “12:08 East of Bucharest” opens with the image of a glistening Christmas tree amidst the concrete jungle in an empty Stalinist town square. It is early morning on 22 Dec. 2005, and the street lights throughout the city are gradually turned off. Then, we are introduced to three morally exhausted men. Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic history teacher, who has spent the previous night on a bar. He owes money to everybody. His only friend is a Chinese shop owner, whom he demeans with racial slurs when he is inebriated. On 22 Dec. he is about to attend a local TV show about the 16th anniversary of the revolution. Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) is the arrogant host of local TV show. He wants to establish that the revolution somehow sparked in his town. His topic for that day’s show is: “Was there or was there not a revolution in our town?”

                                  After few troubles he scrapes up two guests for the show: history teacher and an elderly grump, Emanoli Piscoli (Mircea Andreescu). Piscoli is a pensioner, widower, and likes to wear the Santa Claus attire in the Christmas season. The old man also battles with the school kids in neighborhood, who often lights firecrackers outside his door. In the film’s second half, the hilarious live TV discussion starts with the two oddball guests and the pompous TV host’s burning question leads to on-camera squabbles.

                                First-time director Corneliu first subtly sets up the personalities of the three primary characters through small conversations and expressions. Like in many Eastern European films, the personal flaws of the characters reflect the larger failings of the system. The dry humor comes from the reactions of these characters, when phone callers in TV show frantically swear that the revolution never came to their town. On one hand, Manescu tells his patriotism; on how he and his deceased friends sparked the revolution in the town square, while on the other hand, the phone callers constantly debunk Manescu’s telltales. Meanwhile, Piscoci obliviously tries to build a paper boat. The deadpan tone reaches its peak in these scenes.

                                 Director Corneliu’s minimalist comedy establishes that in many ways the town hasn’t changed than it was under the communist regime. It tells that the 12:08 on 22 Dec is just a time stamp that no more holds relevance for young Romanians, as August 15th, 1947 does for young Indians. The new regimes might proclaim, theoretically, that it’s a dividing mark between tyranny and freedom, but from a practical perspective, nothing much changes. The director also tries to indict the entire Romanian community for reeling in passivity.

                                Corneliu silently poses a most important question within the TV show’s question: "Was there a revolution or not in our town?" He tries to ask: ‘what the so-called revolution really accomplished?’ The director also hints at the circular structure in history or in our personal foibles. The movie starts with lights turning off at the dawn of 22nd Dec and the end with the street lights getting turned on. In an early scene, history teacher Manescu angrily remarks to his failed students: “You can’t even cheat properly”. During the live TV show, Maescu becomes the guy who can’t cheat his audiences well. Eventually the film suggests that history is itself a joke because its inherent circular structure makes people to face the same problems that disrupt progress.

                                  “12:08 East of Bucharest” (85 minutes) isn’t a laugh-out loud funny movie. It uses deadpan comedy to amply reflect on history, people’s short memories and people’s perceptions. 


August 12, 2014

Belle -- A Thought-Provoking Period Drama on Racism and Sexism

                                       In the opening scene of Amma Asante’s “Belle” (2013), a British Naval officer (Matthew Goode) enters a dingy place and shockingly takes his hats off to pay respect to a black woman and a girl. He remarks, “How lovely she is. So much of her mother”. This scene conveys us that it’s not just another period piece about 18th century racism. And our beliefs are not ruined until the last image of film, where a portrait (drawn in 1779), shows two young women standing side by side in a garden. This period drama uses concepts that are familiar from Jane Austen books and also laces it with an anxiety-filled historical episode. As in many of the ‘based-on-true-story’ movies, ‘Belle’ also has fictional enhancements, for the sake of providing dramatic tension.

                                    Dido is the child of a slave and a British naval officer John Lindsay. After the mother’s death, the young girl is snatched from the slums by her father and left at the care of Lindsay’s Great Uncle Lord Mansfeld (Tom Wilkinson) – Britain’s Chief of Justice. The Lord and Lady Mansfeld (Emily Watson) are initially reluctant to raise a mixed-race love child in their aristocratic world, but they eventually accept her, although she isn’t allowed to dine with family when guests are being entertained. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows alongside another castaway child, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Elizabeth is like a surrogate sister to Dido, but when they both reach a marriageable age, complication arises.

                                 Dido’s father dies at sea, leaving her a sizable amount of dowry, but the prospects of finding a husband  remains slim. Elizabeth has a status, thanks to her color, but not a penny to her name. A wicked Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) comes with her sons – James (Tom Felton) and Oliver (James Norton) and possible suitors for the girls. Lady Ashford is a shameless social climber, and her younger son Oliver woos Dido, partly because of her dowry. But, Dido is smitten with John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic young man, studying law under Judge Mansfeld. Through Davinier, Dido also comes to know about the case of Zong slave ship massacre, on which Lord Mansfeld is soon about to pass the judgment. The case also opens Dido’s eyes about slavery, which she experienced from a distance.

                               ‘Belle’ is not about being black in the 18th century; it is also about state of women era. Although, in the environment of status and property, these white women lead a rich life, they are eventually auctioned off to the highest bidder. A beautiful woman without dowry money is eventually cast off from the rich people’s social circles. The script by Misan Sagay shows how men of that era used women to climb socially and slaves, in terms of wealth. However, the script has enough restraint to not show that every man is incapable of love. Tom Wilkinson’s Lord Mansfeld is created with such complexity. His character legally tries to evaluate the value of human life, while at the same time he is portrayed as a kind and loving uncle. Another charm of script is the way it portrays the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth. The only defect in the script is that it creates a filmsy antagonism, at the start between Dido and Davinier.

                              Amma Asante, unlike Spielberg’s ‘Amistad’ (1997), never shows a ghastly flashback to what actually happened in the slave ship, but the director creates the terrifying, sickening effect in a subtler and more powerful way. Some might feel that the movie is very mild in matters of slavery, but such regular depictions would have only given us one-dimensional characters that can be easily judged. The movie obviously has its share of weaknesses. Nonetheless, these flaws overcome to an extent by the gifted actors. The luminous Mbatha-Raw gives a delightful performance as Dido and Tom Wilkinson elegantly walks through the various shades of his character. Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson have less to do, but they inhabit their characters with telling nuance.  

                           “Belle” (103 minutes) is a touchingly old-fashioned drama that gracefully studies about love, slavery and justice. It uncannily amalgamates Jane Austen’s themes (secret longings, courting rites) into a horrific chapter in history. 


August 9, 2014

Babette's Feast -- A Subtle and Heart-Warming Banquet

                                        Gabriel Axel’s Danish drama “Babette’s Feast” (1987), which won the ‘Best Foreign Film Academy Award’, was adapted from the short story by Isak Dinesen. It is a food-centric movie that paints the unbreakable, but pliable, human spirit in broader strokes. It is easy to take a cynical approach with this film and write it off as a ‘feel-good dally’, but I felt that this is one of the rare movies that treats human flaws, like narrow-mindedness with munificence. It exhibits people’s good will without belittling their sentiments and beliefs. ‘Babette’s Feast’ is also a lovely film to look at. Its beautiful compositions and sublime images compel us to ponder over the themes of friendship, hope and gratitude.

                                        The film’s first-act tells the story of two sisters – Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer) – who have lived all their lives in a remote Danish fishing village. The story is set in the 19th century, and a series of flashbacks reveals the details of the past. At the young age, the beautiful and gorgeous sisters Martine and Filippa lived with their, extremely devout father (Pouel Kern), a Protestant minister. He keeps his daughters so close to him and runs off two potential suitors. Lorens Lowenheim (Gudmar Wivesson), a fine-looking cavalry officer, sees Martina and enamored by her beauty he often attends the minister’s prayer to be close with her. But, soon Lorens realizes that he will never be accepted and leaves the village. A year later jovial French opera star Achile Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) comes to the village to find some solitude. After hearing Filippa’s soulful voice, he offers her singing lessons. But, she gets frightened by his unbridled attention and passion. Soon, she decides not to continue the lessons.

                                      Years pass on, the sisters remain unmarried and their father is long dead. They lead a simple life, leading prayer meetings with their small sect and tending to the needs of poor. One day, a woman named Babette (Stephane Audran) arrives on the aging sister s doorstep with a letter from Papin. The letter says that Babette has fled from Paris, where her son and husband have been killed in the French uprising. The sisters take her in and the gentle Babette works as a housekeeper for the next 14 years, until one day, a letter arrives, informing Babette that she has won 10,000 francs in a lottery. Babette might soon leave the sisters, so she requests to cook an exquisite French dinner for them and their religious sect, in honor of the revered minister’s 100th birthday.

                                     Veteran Danish film-maker Gabriel Axel takes a very subtle and observant approach in ‘Babette’s Feast’. He showcases that the villagers’ moral uprightness have resulted in small-minded fights as they bicker each other, but he never parodies the town folks. He doesn’t use their religious piety to tag them as ignorant and mean-spirited people. In a way, we feel for these parochial elderly people, who in their pursuit of spiritual knowledge haven’t lived the life to fullest. On the other hand, we see two young men from the rational world. They also have a feeling of emptiness, since they couldn’t embrace the spiritual elements. But, Babette is rich in every manner, although she has lost people whom she treasured “Artists are never poor” says Babette). She is portrayed as a Christ-like figure and her feast (a Last Supper-like dinner where there are 12 at the table) slowly erases away the disgruntled feeling of towns folk and others. They renounce the human shortsightedness and pettiness over the course of the feast.

                                    The film’s third-act (the feast) could be enjoyed to the fullest, even if you ignore the Christian symbols. The feast scenes might put a gentle smile on your face. Earlier, when Babette brings in bottles of wine and large turtle, Filippa has a nightmare and proclaims to her religious sect that the dinner is a ‘witches sabbath’. She asks them not to react to their sensory pleasures at the dinner table. However, over the course of feast we gradually see the stern-faces of these folks reacting to the culinary tastes. They eventually realize that a fine food and wine doesn’t endanger one’s spirituality (“Righteousness and bliss have kissed each other” says the dinner’s special guest General Lowenheim). Once again in these scenes, the film-maker only makes us laugh at these good people’s silliness and fear, not at themselves.

                                   Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel as the aging sisters subtly bring out all the melancholy, pain of loss and love they have experienced in their lives. However, Stephane Audran dominates the film with her restrained performance. As Babette, she exudes gentleness as well as authority that undercut all the rigidity. Cinematographer Henning Kristiansen gray visuals of humid Danish coast seems like a nod to Ingmar Bergman. The camera work in the titular dinner scenes travels closely to etch out the joy in the characters’ face. Some of the sweeping rural vistas are framed like a renaissance-era paintings.

                                   Although the movie’s feel-good nature have earned the name, ‘award-bait movie’, “Babette’s Feast” (104 minutes) is a truly nourishing cinematic experience. It is a timeless parable that depicts how food is important to enrich our soul.