July 23, 2014

Down by Law -- An Invigorating American Independent Cinema

                                          From “Stranger than Paradise” (1984) to “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), unconventional American film-maker Jim Jarmusch’ films have characters that drifts to different places, only to discover that every place looks the same. They encounter clock-work failures, besotted with irony, in an ever-changing futile backdrop. Nothing big happens in a Jarmusch movie, but his oeuvre gives us a window to observe the eccentricities of human behavior. Jarmusch has fully developed all his stylistic imprints in his third movie, “Down by Law” (1986). In this minimalist neo-noir comedy, the characters live in the moment, without any big plans for the future. The camera stays static and when it moves there are long, slow tracking shots. Those who are familiar and those who love the director’s restrained sense of cool, “Down by Law” might seem as a poetry; for others, it might be maddening.

                                    The movie starts with a sidelong tracking shot, taking us through the deserted streets of New Orleans and occasionally observes few peoples, whose eyes look as vacant as the streets. In a low-rent district New Orleans called ‘Crescent City’, we first meet a pimp named Jack (John Lurie), who conducts his business in a less aggressive manner. Then, we observe an aspiring deejay Zack (Tom Waits), who is too much of a drifter. His girl friend Laurette (Ellen Barkin) in a rage of frustration kicks him into the street. Both of them are conned by foes, who toss them deals that are too good to be true. These ignorant and bored men are framed for crimes they didn’t commit: Jack for child molestation and Zack for a murder. 

                                  Jack and Zack wind up in the same cell in Orleans Parish Prison, where they remain indolent and mutually ignore one another. Zack marks days on the wall with thick chalk lines, and when hate wells up inside him, he fights it off with Jack. The setting gets more claustrophobic with the addition of a third cellmate named Bob (Roberto Benigini), an Italian immigrant with a limited grasp of English language. Of the trio, Bob is the one to have actually committed a crime. He murdered his assailant with a billiard ball. He quotes Robert Frost’s poems in Italian and is fond of Walt Whitman. The optimistic and cheerful Bob also knows about an escape route.

                                Narrative wise, “Down by Law” could show familiarity with “We’re No Angels”, “Escape from Alcatraz” etc, but tonally this movie stands apart from the common herd. Jim Jarmusch once said, “I’m interested in comedy in a new kind of context. Not just linguistic jokes or sight gags. But humor based on small life details.” Jarmusch achieves that kind of humor in this film. The stream of artificial scenarios creates laughs that emerge from deep within the activities of characters. We chuckle because we know how they are inside and so the gags arise from our own interpretations. The script and the acting mutually benefits from one another. Jarmusch usually writes script by having a preconceived idea about who the actor should be. So, the laid-back hippiness and cheerfulness perfectly fits the actors.

                               Waits, in his first movie role, plays a lovable loser. Lurie is a small-timer, full of bravado. They are unambitious Americans, who love to stray in the decaying industrial urban centers. They don’t believe in anything, when an angel-like Bob comes in to free the jail birds. In a Hollywood mainstream movie, only the opposite occurs: an optimistic American saves a constrained European or Asian. Jarmusch has perfectly used Benigini’s liveliness. As Bob, Benigini makes us forget all those contemptible performances. The arrival of his character opens up the cramped prison space. His chatty demeanor and comic timing are very sincere and endearing. Watch him delivering that humorous monologue about a rabbit-killing mother.

                               None of the plot threads in “Down by Law” is believable. One moment Bob is discussing about an escape route. The next moment, they climb down a rope, joyously running through the sewers. The law is never even close to them, although they circle around the swamps. In the woodlands of Louisiana, the trio stumble across an Italian restaurant ran by a comely Italian girl Nicoletta. The charming and naive girl becomes excited by Roberto's sunny confessions and asks him to stay with her. All these events are too good to believe, but the way it evolves feels very natural rather than scripted. The film also averts from the usual noir expectations – no gunshots, no last minute deaths. The immaculate black-and-white compositions of cinematographer Robert Muller (“Paris, Texas”, 1984) offers a provocative experience.

                                The multi-layered “Down by Law” (105 minutes) must be watched for its use of film language (definitely not as a prison-break drama). Along with Benigini’s bittersweet performance, the movie will slowly grow up on you. 



  Down by Law -- IMDb                                         

July 17, 2014

Ten Best American Political Drama

                                   American politics have given us number of dramas one could wish for. From sex scandals to mass conspiracies to secret alliances, the post World War II American political world has steeped in lot of controversies. The Hollywood film-makers in these decades have brought out dark surface of the political machinery. There have also been inspirational tales, where men persistently stood by their ideals and stormed against the back-stabbers and manipulators. Whatever the type of tale it is, we feel like that we are getting a forbidden glimpse. The movies presented in the list give such political insights, although they are a little less on the suspense side. These films have managed to paint everyone in shades of grey, and mostly have avoided the Hollywood pitfall of over dramatization. 

The Ides of March (2011)

George Clooney’s gripping political drama, with few twists and turns, shows how loyalty and integrity acts as a booby trap in the political game, where treacheries constantly change one’s perception. The film weaves a clear cut view about the democratic politics and the sacrifices involved in winning elections. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, an idealist and strong believer of Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney). Soon, Myers gets involved in a dangerous politics game of sex and betrayal, when Mike’s dark side comes to light. Top notch actors and smart dialogues are the movie’s strength.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Ron Howard’s brisk and intense drama presents a complex view on one of America’s controversial politician. This film is based on the interview between David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon. The interview was mostly set to coax out a confession from Nixon’s mouth about Watergate scandal. Although the original interview ran hours and hours, Howard has cleverly packaged into a 2 hour movie that works about on every level. Frank Langella, rather than imitating Nixon and turning him into a caricature, he creates his own version of Nixon, which is as hypnotic as Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon. 

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Mike Nichols’ ‘based on a true story’, incisive political drama follows Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson in the early 80’s, who with a help of a socialite and out of control CIA man, covertly funds the Afghan resistance to fight against the Soviets. Apart from expressing indignation on the plight of Afghan refugees, Wilson spends his time with women and booze. Although the film is sanitized, it smartly looks at the geo-politics thinking of the American politicians. Tom Hanks may not be the perfect choice to play Wilson, but he gives an ingratiating performance and his fiery conversation with Hoffman is a delight to watch. 

 Thirteen Days (2000)

Roger Donaldson’s engaging politics power play displays the tensest moments in the cold war and in John Kennedy’s presidency. Bolstered by taut script and wonderful performances from Bruce Greenwood and Kevin Costner, the film makes us realize the tension and fear unfurled in the American capital state. Although the film is a glorification of JFK’s leadership, it doesn’t feel manipulative or nauseating. It’s also a fine character study that explores social psychological and political tensions surrounding the Cuban missile crisis. 

The Contender (2000)

Rod Lurie’s provocative political drama is about the character assassination politics, which took a dig into the Clinton administration. Jeff Bridges plays the genial president Jack Hathaway, who faces serious opposition when he is about to appoint the first woman vice-president. The young female candidate (played by Joan Allen) is chagrined by conservatively minded Senator (Gary Oldman), whose committee delves into the sexual misgivings of her past. Although the film’s third act, especially the patriotic speech, is very less convincing, it is worth watching for the brilliant and nuanced performances of Oldman and Bridges. 

Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone’s 190 minute take on much disliked American President/politician is a flawed yet invigorating character study. Stone mesmerizingly crafts together flashbacks and newsreels convey a real sense of empathy towards this most infamous U.S. President. Although Nixon’s conversations and subconscious rambling are contrived for dramatic purposes, it makes us remember Shakespeare’s principal characters Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, who were all destroyed by an inherent fatal flaw. Anthony Hopkins’ outstanding performance is the backbone of the film. There are several memorable scenes, especially the one at Lincoln memorial, where Nixon is confronted by student protestors.

The Candidate (1972)

Michael Ritchie’s contemplative look at the political machinery has now really become prophetic in its warning message. Robert Redford plays an idealistic young lawyer, who is involved in a political campaign, but hates to play the media games. However, when the desire for power gradually creeps up on him, he is lead to make a fatal compromise. This film carefully studies the seductive nature of power. The clear-eyed and unsentimental political look never blames the degradations of power to a certain individual. This film has stood the test of time and could even be found in the present moral dilemma in politics brought about by the role of major corporate Medias. 

 Advise & Consent (1962)

Otto Preminger’s brutal expose of American political process (based on the best-selling novel) is also one of the first American movies to have homosexual subplot in the proceedings. The array of talented actors gathered by Preminger is absolutely stunning. The film is centered on the appointment of Robert Leffingwell as secretary of state. The long, arduous process that takes for the appointment makes rival veteran politicians to play the power games. Although, the plot might seem simple, it is far more complicated and carries too many surprises. The excellent ensemble consists of Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, and Burgess Meredith. This film possesses a look of genuineness (especially the senate hearing room) that no other political movie has. 

All the King’s Men (1949)

Robert Rossen’s blistering political drama, based on the Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer novel, chronicles the rise and fall of Southern demagogue Willie Stark. Stark starts with a burning sense of purpose, but eventually fizzle out because of his uncontrollable greed for power. The dirty tricks or ploys employed in the movie aren’t outdated as we have experienced more dark things. The novel was condensed to make up for a straightforward screenplay, which proved to be a good thing, especially after considering Steven Zallian’s script for the 2006 remake. The remake that took a non-linear approach suffered from poor focus and uncertainty. Crawford’s transitioning performance as Willie earned him an Oscar. 

Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939)

Frank Capra’s classic depression era drama is a statement about American ideals, which must be revisited often to know how much the ideals have dangerously evolved. James Stewart gives a thundering performance as a young senator, who tries to expose corruption and withhold true American ideals. However, his fight against graft is constantly threatened by the grinding political machine. Capra, democrat and a humorist, has profoundly laid the morals and filled it with real emotions, where none of the exchanges become heavy-handed. The patriotic appeal is there, but there are no preachments. 

July 15, 2014

Zero Theorem -- An Uneven Sci-Fi with Intriguing Ideas

                                      For the past two decades, wackily imaginative film-maker Terry Gilliam is going through a tough phase. His famous dream project “The Man who Killed Do Quixote” ran into several tribulations and from then on never made it to a green light. Gilliam’s movies, after the start of the 21st century, became increasingly muddled and at times unwatchable (“Brothers Grimm”, “Tideland” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”). Although these movies had a great cast, it eventually became a tedious exercise. Fortunately, Gilliam’s latest “The Zero Theorem” (2013) instills some faith as it possesses some of his stylistic hallmarks. “Zero Theorem” is definitely not a superior return to form as the ideas remain half-cooked, but this mid-level return to form is admirably ambitious and quite enjoyable.

                                   The movie is set in the distant, tech-obsessed future similar to Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “Twelve Monkeys”. It starts with a very bald naked man, sitting in his home – an abandoned church – in front of console, crunching entities and eagerly waiting for a phone call. The bald naked man is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a depressed number-cruncher. Qohen has lost the ability to taste, feel and hates to go outside for work. Qohen works for a vast corporation named ‘ManCorp’ He repeatedly asks his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to allow him to work at home. Qohen also believes that the phone call will explain the meaning of his distressing existence.  

                                Qohen is eventually allowed to work at home, but in exchange, his boss Mr. Management (Matt Damon) challenges him to solve a complicated, mysterious equation called ‘Zero Theorem.’ Many others have gone crazy by trying to prove this theorem. After working for a year, Qohen finds it hard to prove the theorem and comes close to become insane. But, he is redeemed by a charming, seductive employee Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). She pops around and persuades him to wear a virtual reality suit to join with her in an erotic online encounter. The boss sends his quirky teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) to help Qohen to get back on schedule.

                               Director Gilliam, as always, takes the contemporary technological absurdities to construct a excitingly ridiculous yet horrific future. The high-decibel talking street signs; the candy colored streets littered with weirdly dressed people; the slot-machine like work station; people listening to iPad-like device in a party; a virtual reality sex site – all these visions, although doesn’t possess the brilliance of “Brazil”, it has some ragged charm. All the initial eccentricities don’t help the viewer to settle fully into the film. However, when Qohen retreats into his church/home, things settle down and themes about religion, love and free will are delicately laid. The majority of the film had to be filmed in a set because of budgetary reasons, which eventually has worked in favor of Gilliam.

                           “Zero Theorem” mostly deals with fear of death and humans’ nihilistic attitude. Although, Gilliam haven’t expanded on his wonderful ideas (especially the ending was very abrupt), he has boiled down basic philosophical questions about human existence into relatable series of sequences. Christoph Waltz as Qohen exhibits the mannerisms of a bullied kid – always expecting a beating. He transforms from being a madman to a warm person, who even stops referring himself in third person. The supporting is equally strong, especially Hedges, who provides quite a relief from the clogged ideas.

                           “The Zero Theorem” (105 minutes) is not a robust return to form for Terry Gilliam, but it is his most stylistic and layered film in the last two decades. His dark dystopian vision manages to express something powerful and thought-provoking. 

July 13, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes -- Mesmerizing Apes and Boring Humans

                                    Matt Reeves “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) starts with a tight close-up of Caesar’s furious eyes, and as the camera slowly zooms out we see army of hyper-intelligent simians, readily waiting for their master’s command to jump on a herd of deer. In the last shot, thousands of befuddled apes stand in front of Caesar, and the camera zooms into his caring eyes, as he contemplates his tribe’s future, who are about to face an unwanted war. Those expressive eyes in these two shots pay a fitting tribute to the “performance-capture” technology and to Andy Serkis, who has brought an impressive artistry to this process. Each facial and physical gesture of Caesar, bestowed by Serkis, never makes us think that we are watching a digital creation. Plot wise, this sequel doesn’t offer any big ideas and it is fairly predictable, but as long as Caesar is on-screen, there is no problem.

                                  The original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” is a wonderful allegory of xenophobia and about our fears of nuclear annihilation or end of world. The ‘Dawn’ also delivers an allegory about racism, where few stupid and violent xenophobes bury the lives and efforts of good ones. However, I don’t feel that this is the ‘Dark Knight’ of sequels or superior to its predecessor. May be I feel this way because of the stretched inconclusive ending or underwritten human roles. There were lots of Hollywood bland elements in the origin story (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), but it resurrected the story of apes, after that awful remake by Tim Burton. The ‘Dawn’ comes close, but doesn’t deliver the popcorn greatness of ‘Rise’.

                                   The film starts ten years after the standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge. In these 10 years, Caesar – the visionary ape – has brought his tribe together. The escaped chimps, gorillas, and orangutans are living peaceably Caesar’ rule as the group is slowly honing its intellectual ability. A circus Orangutan is now a teacher; gorillas act as perimeter guard. Caesar’s endeavor to develop a just ape society is stricken by two things: a pocked Bonobo ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell) vows to make war on humans, who tortured him as a laboratory animal; a trigger-happy man, who wants to finish off the savage animals. The human crew, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) comes into apes’ territory to restart a dam and bring power back to the ruined metropolis. The few human survivors of Simian flu are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The mission to restore power, however, powers up a inter-species warfare.

                                The boiler plate dialogues, heavy-handed anti-gun and inter-species tolerance themes are just an addition to the pseudo-intellectual charm. For that matter, ‘Rise’ also possessed such charms, but the all-ape havoc in the final minutes didn’t gave us a chance ponder on such things. ‘Dawn’ also has battle scenes, where a chimp, on horseback, fires two assault rifles, but this time we are not rooting for neither apes nor humans. ‘Who to root for?’ – That dilemma is deliberately made up; as Caesar learns murder and treachery are part of both the civilized societies. However, this question keeps us a bit away from enjoying the film on a pure action level.   

                              Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman struggle with their under-written roles (a problem recently faced by “Godzilla”). An irony could be found in the way these big-budget, CGI Hollywood movies are made. The human behavior, their characteristics looks like something conjured by a machine, whereas the computer-generated, melancholy gazes of apes look so real (than flesh-and-blood men). The CG and the motion-capture suited actors are a delight to watch. Serkis and Toby Kebbell’s performances redeem the film, whenever it lurches into mundane proceedings. The Shakespearean splendor of Serkis is what saves it from being tedious. The scenes where Koba fools a couple of gun-tottering humans and the one, where Caesar leads thousands of apes to human colony were all excellently visualized.

                           “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (130 minutes) isn’t a photocopied sequel like “Transformers”. Although it falls short of greatness, it moves the story in new directions. I just hope that the human elements would be honed well in the inevitable next film.