March 25, 2015

A Matter of Life and Death – Heavenly Love Vanquishes the Fog of War

                                            Right before the end of Second World War, British director Michael Powell and his longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger took on a project which would encourage the new found alliance between US and Britain. The primary concern was to convince the audiences of both nations that friendship between upstart America and waning imperialist Britain is necessary and beneficial, despite earlier conflicts and tribulations. Nevertheless, the fable “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946) directed by the British film-making duos isn’t a insipid, brash propaganda flick, but rather arose to be  a imaginative visual feast, which is still being loved and earning fresh  audiences all over the universe. This quirky wartime film also marks the feature-film debut of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

                                       The film has an exciting opening sequence for its time, where the camera tracks down through the universe (“This is the universe. Big, isn't it?”) to show our planet spinning into view, and to the stricken fighter plane of RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven). Apart from the fact that Peter’s plane is shot down, his engineer Bob (Robert Coote) lays dead and their parachutes are shredded. The other men of the crew have bailed out and Peter tries to raise his command on the radio. But, he falls head over heals after hearing the voice of young American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). He shares his last moments with her and tears wells up inside June as he feel helpless in the control tower. Even at the throes of death, Peter jokingly says, “I'll be a ghost and come and see you”. June also tells that she would loved a man like him.

                                     After the emotional exchange, Peter jumps from his plane without parachute and suddenly the images cuts over to black & white from Technicolor as we see Bob waiting in some sort of huge terminal. Bob is waiting for Peter, while the rest of crowd are signing up and receiving their wings. An entire American crew shows us and they are elated to find a coke machine even at ‘heaven’. Peter, presumed dead, however awaken on a British beach. He even that he has reached heaven, but when he learns about his miraculous survival from the jump, Peter immediately approaches June. They joyously embrace and an inconceivable romance blooms. Unfortunately, the leaders of heaven looks into the error they have made on Peter, and send an elegant French aristocrat Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to interrupt the nighttime picnic of June and Peter.

                                     The Conductor stops the time from moving and is visible only to the eyes of Peter. He informs about Peter about the grave mistake and asks him to join his comrades in heaven. Peter doesn’t relent, asking for an appeal to the higher beings. He claims that he has found a love of lifetime in this extra time. When Peter shares his experience with Conductor to June, she is alarmed and seeks the advice of friend & doctor Reeves (Roger Livesay). Meanwhile, Peter is overcome with headaches. He becomes obsessed and distraught over what the decision of heaven would be. Dr. Reeves (an expert in neurology) approaches Peter’s visions as hallucinations from his near-death experience and diagnoses that only surgery could help Peter.

                                    The greatness of “A Matter of Life and Death” is that it doesn’t give us any definite answers about Peter’s hallucination or Reeves’ diagnosis. It is left to us to decide on whether it is real or a brilliant figment of imagination. Whatever one’s take on Peter’s visions might be, no one can deny the visual treat the movie provides us with. Directors Powell and Pressburger with the help of production designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff have overturned our preconceived visions on how heaven would be. The heaven, in the film is bathed in a steely monochrome and politically the place looks like a huge, efficient bureaucracy. It is egalitarian, but still remains segregated. Even the celestial beings desire for the gorgeous, ‘Technicolored’ Earth. The other great visual ideas includes: the convening of celestial court inside a amphitheater than extends into infinity (resembling an eye of galaxy); a giant marble staircase to heaven, which moves like an escalator and on the one side of staircase, there are big statues of great men from Earth; Dr. Reeves’ camera obscura to surveil the village; the shot from the inside of Peter’s eyes, slowly closing as general anesthetic is applied.

Legendary Cinematographers Jack Cardiff (under the camera) and Geoffrey Unsworth (worked as camera operator for "A Matter of Life and Death"

                                     Apart from the stunning visual ideas, the script from Powell and Pressburger is filled with infectious humor and inoffensive wit. The script runs from being a romance to melodrama to a buddy movie and even a courtroom drama. The stylized magnificence of Jack Cardiff guides us through sleight of hand situations. The acting isn’t a bit tedious, considering the way we generally see the performances of old actors. Kim Hunter and David Niven win you over in the way they showcase their restrained emotions. Roger Livesay was terrific as Reeves and some of his lines are the quotable ones: “A weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad”.

                                         If there’s a flaw in the storyline, it only shows itself in the essential propaganda portions. In the dialogue-heavy, appeal scene, prosecuting lawyer of heaven, Mr. Abraham Farlan argues that the Brits and Americans are so different – have little in common – that such union could not exist. Dr. Reeves of defense counsel cites the relative merits of such union. The scene gradually disintegrates into abstract, loyal sermonizing. The speech goes as far as to prove the audience (at the risk of losing its focus on characters) that the Britain Empire isn’t an old relic and it’s not washed up. However, the director duos at last come to the matter at hand, devising an ultimate test for Peter and June to showcase their true love. It is a poignant ending, the one which somehow makes us to overlook the earlier conspicuous patriotic sermon.

                                   “A Matter of Life and Death” (104 minutes) is a genuine classic with a heartfelt story, innocuous humor and beautiful imagery.  If you are movie-lover, then this film is the right place to start exploring the works of Michael Powell and Jack Cardiff. 

March 21, 2015

Song of the Sea – A Magical Story to Soothe our Inner-Child

                                             Mermaid, Huldra, Selkie etc are different names of the same mythological creature found in the stories of various ancient cultures. These creatures are often portrayed as serene beings of sea, who shed their skin to become attractive human beings. ‘Selkie’ folklore found in the Scottish and Irish cultural traditions describes seals that transform to become very handsome human with great seductive powers. The story of ‘Selkies’ are often classified as ‘romantic tragedies’, especially the stories concerning female selkie.  Neil Jordan’s “Ondine” (2010) and Susan Ward’s young adult love story, “Seaward” were all few of the works based on selkie legend. Director Tomm Moore’s brilliantly animated, Oscar-nominee “Song of the Sea” (2014), however surpasses all the works of popular culture based on ‘selkie’ legend.

                                           The 2D animation and gorgeous watercolor backgrounds of Tomm Moore immediately makes us recall the transcendental works of anime masters Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Similar to those legendary film-makers, Tomm Moore has made two animated features (“The Secret of Kells” was his debut feature) which delves deeply into his own culture and blesses us with a treasure trove of imaginative visuals.  The story starts with a prologue of sorts, where smart boy Ben lives with his lovely, pregnant mother, Bronagh and burly father, Conor in a lonely lighthouse on an island off the Irish coast. The mother and son are painting the room to invite the new child. Ben’s mother promises that he is going to be the ‘best big-brother’ in the world.

                                       Six years passes and Ben, now a 10 or 11 year old plays with his giant dog, Cu on the seashore. Ben’s mute six year old sister, Saoirse, is looming in the background, but he doesn’t pay attention to her. He seems to resent her because her arrival has led to his mother’s demise. While playing in the seashore, Seals call for Saoirse and the little girl looks delighted at seeing these sea creatures. Later in the day, the children’s grumpy grandmother arrive on ferry to celebrate Saoirse sixth birthday. Ben doesn’t want to share any of his things with sister, but she is quite attracted towards his sea-shell (a sort of parting gift from the mother).

                                         In the night, when Conor goes to tavern to reel in the memories of his wife and Ben sleeps, Saoirse blows a tune on the seashell. The magical fireflies-like creatures lead her away to a stashed, white dress on top of the lighthouse. Saoirse wears the dress and turns into a selkie, happily swimming across the sea with other seals. The worried grandmother sees Saoirse wind-up on the seashore, and she compels her son Conor to send both the children with her to the noisy city. In the city, three faeries approach the ‘selkie’ and say that she is their only hope. Now, the siblings must take a journey back to the lighthouse in order to save all these magical beings. The wondrous detour is also filled with perils since the mythical counterpart ‘Macha’ is looking for the ‘Selkie’ for sinister purpose.It also develops a stronger bond between the siblings.

                                          Narrative wise, “Song of the Sea”, is perfectly in line with the classic children’s literature. But, what makes the film special is not just the plot. The vividly detailed backdrops, simple but emotive character sketches, and the stunning, water-colored landscapes are what bestow us with a more immersive experience. Tomm Moore pays a fitting tribute to Studio Ghibli anime with his intentionally flat paintings. But, apart from the gorgeous paintings, sufficient attention has also been given to light. The sunlight that streams through the windows, the floating magical particles, and the final explosive light in the sky will even make the older viewers to watch this film on a pure visual level.

                                          Thematically, Moore recognizes the need for honoring the old stories. He insists on a belief that entwines both the old and new traditions. Like the folklore of every culture, Moore conveys a hopeful story, asking the children to face their fears and frailty. The kids don’t behave like smart-alecks and their relationship and shared trauma are nicely weaved into the tapestry of ancient myths. The predatory ‘Macha’ believes that the serenity could be achieved by only quenching the emotions of living creatures. A lot of parallels could be drawn from this ideology. I thought of domineering parents who try to turn their children to top-ranker by destroying their inherent creativity and freedom of expression.

                                         “Song of the Sea” (94 minutes) is an energizing respite from loud & popular kids’ fare of Hollywood. Its life-affirming message and splendorous images must be experienced. 


March 19, 2015

A Most Violent Year – The Chicanery and Corruption that Precedes Ambition

                                                  Statistically, the year 1981 was the most violent year in New York’s history. At least 1.2 million crimes is said to have been recorded, including 5,500 rapes, 2,100 murders, and more than 6,000 aggravated assaults. J.C. Chandor’s tough urban drama, set in 1981 New York, has chosen an understandable title “A Most Violent Year” (2014). But, the title could be misleading for many viewers because this film is neither about ruthless mob men nor a treatise on crime circle of old NY City. It is about a first-generation immigrant business trying to keep his head above the deluge of moral corruption. Although the threat of violence looms in the tale, it is more or less aimed at the protagonist’s soul.

                                                Basically, “A Most Violent Year” is the kind of movie Sidney Lumet or Scorsese made in the 70’s and early 80’s. The graffiti-covered subways and dilapidated alleyways and rail yards of Brooklyn 1981 makes us reminisce the Hollywood’s Golden era crime movies. The movie’s central theme of economic or moral survival also goes in sync with director Chandor’s previous two works – “Margin Call” and “All is Lost”. Both the films were about men who saw their world crumble in a matter of hours. However, the slow boil narrative, restrained performances, and subtly expressed character motivations may irk the casual movie viewers, who are all expecting a blood curdling crime saga that lives up to the movie’s title.

                                              The movie starts with the images of a man jogging on city streets juxtaposed with the images of a fuel truck, bearing the name of ‘Standard Heating Oil’, filling oil at the harbor. Later, we see the running man, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) arriving at a port facility to make a deal of their life. As Abel and his lawyer, Andrew (Albert Brooks) is about to propose the deal, one of his truck gets hijacked by couple of thugs. Abel is the owner of a heating oil company, who is about leverage all his savings into buying a storage facility close to a river. The acquisition of the property would give him an upper hand in this business, which seems to be occupied by many powerful, sinister men. Abel pays up $1.5 million and has to pay an additional $1.5 million in 30 days time. There are no worries as the bank has promised to loan that huge sum.

                                               However, couple of bad news makes Abel’s next 30 days, the most nightmarish ones, which could either make him or break him. First, the series of hijacking incidents due to turf war is costing him much. Moreover, his drivers are terrified, especially the anxious young immigrant, Julian (Elyes Gabel). The driver’s union leader demands to give unlicensed handguns for protection. On the other hand, Abel’s business is being investigated by an ambitious, honest prosecutor, Lawrence (David Oyelowo). The prosecutor now seems to have a substantial case that could send Abel to jail for tax frauds.

                                             Abel insists that he hasn’t done anything wrong, but he and his wife quickly stow away boxes of documents, when police come with a search warrant. The couple also finds a mysterious guy with a loaded gun in front of their house and takes it as a warning from their rivals.  Anna, the book-keeper and daughter of a small time gangster, wants to seek help from her defiant family. But, Abel values his integrity more than anything (“I spent my whole life trying not to be a gangster”). The rest of the movie is about what this incendiary situation does to Abel’s psyche.

Spoilers Ahead

                                           Visually, “A Most Violent Year” (cinematography by Bradford Young), pays a fitting tribute to the aesthetics of Gordon Willis (cinematographer for rich sepia-toned “Godfather”). The dirty and bleak urban landscape plus the ugly industrial corridors are as psychologically piercing as those movies of Alan J Pakula, Coppola, and Scorsese. Although the film comes under the crime, Chandor has constricted it as a nuanced character study of a man, who is about to shed his cocoon of morality. Abel Morales is totally opposed to criminal behavior and deceit, but he gradually realizes that he needs to make his hands dirty to achieve the American dream. While corruption and lies may pave the way to Abel’s rise, what he eventually learns is to possess self-deceit. Abel transforms from being an ideal ethical man to a man with his own warped sense of ethics. The character trajectory is very much like that of Michael Corleone’s rise.

                                          Chandor constructs each sequence to make Abel confront the reality of being an honorable businessman. Couple of scenes tests Abel on whether he would make his hands dirty. In an earlier scene, Abel hits the deer at night, but he is unable to put the deer out of its misery. In the later-half of the film, Abel chases down his truck’s hijackers in a superb car and foot-chase, literally and metaphorically dirtying his hands. The chasing scene confirms to us that the Abel is a changed man; that he is ready to change his ethical dimensions in order to survive. Oscar Isaac, who plays Abel, is also the reason for making this character work. His controlled speech and intense gaze makes us recall the quiet, powerful performances of 70’s Al Pacino. Isaac unravels the delicate changes and the character’s many layers without making it so boring. 

                                        Jessica Chastain as hot-headed Anna gives one of the understated performances in her career. Many might feel that Anna’s slush fund as a kind of contrived inclusion to bring the narrative to an end. But, I felt that the slush fund very much attests to Anna’s demeanor. Anna’s background of being a daughter of a mafia family plays a vital role in her character’s decisions. When things are closing in, she isn’t reluctant to take the easy approach. Her easy way is to employ violence and stealing or cheating. Anna immediately acquiring an unlicensed gun and the way she puts the deer out of its misery only intimates us that she would have planned an easy path (“You (Abel) have been walking around this whole time thinking this comes to your  hard work, your good luck, your charm”). Of course it is a dramatization to bring out that fund, but nonetheless a compelling one.

                                        The subplot involving Julian and his relationship with Abel is laced with irony, since Abel’s empowering advices only brings bane to Julian. Julian’s suicide in the end may be viewed as stupid as he is only facing minor changes. Julian, an immigrant like Abel Morales sees his employer as a role model. He wants to succeed like him, but most importantly he is eager to create a lasting impression on Abel. Despite his hard work, Julian’s temperament only damages his employer’s reputation. Furthermore, Abel doesn’t seem to care about Julian as he thought, and hence he is driven to suicide. Abel’s reaction to the suicide brings his transformation to a new threshold point.

                                     “A Most Violent Year” (125 minutes) is a purposeful, slow-boil crime thriller about a man struggling to maintain his moral principles in a cutthroat, unprincipled business environment. 


March 17, 2015

’71 – A Naive Soldier in a Nefarious War Zone

                                              It is often considered coarse or exploitative to imbue white-knuckle entertainment into harrowing real life historical events. We have had movies like “Black Hawk Down”, “Peal Harbor” and “Lone Survivor” etc, which are set in a real, vehement historical context. But, these Hollywood products with great action set-pieces usually exploit the history to fit within the confines of American propaganda. These films don’t delve deeply into historical context, but rather weaves a central romance story or a character of trigger-happy, patriotic hero for the sake of cutesy mainstream entertainment.  But, of course there are few film-makers, who make an effective thriller without compromising on the events’ political and moral ambiguities. Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday” “Bourne Series”) is one of the recent film-makers to keep us on the edge-of-the-seat by paying enough attention to the gritty realistic background (shaky-camera aesthetic and broad characterizations). Yann Demange’s feature-film debut, “‘71” (2014) is one such intricate period-piece, whose thrills and suspense are genuinely earned.

                                            ’71 is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The conflict usually called as ‘The Troubles’ started in the late 1960’s between loyalists/unionists (protestants), who wanted Northern Ireland to remain as part of UK, and republicans/nationalists, who wanted to leave the UK and join a United Ireland. The presence of British Security Forces only escalated the conflict to a three-way guerrilla warfare (conflict lasted for nearly three decades (1969-1998), claiming more than 3,500 lives). The movie starts off as a character drama, where in 1971 (a year before the ‘bloody Sunday’ massacre) a new recruit gets shipped off to Northern Ireland.

                                              Gary Hook (Jack O’ Connell) is a young soldier from Derby-shire, who was first seen boxing against a fellow soldier. The instructor in the background says “Take it and give it back”. It pretty much resonates as an instruction to British soldiers on handling the Northern Ireland issue. Later, a commander announces that Gary and his unit are about to shipped to Northern Ireland (“You’re going to Belfast. You’re not leaving this country”). Gary doesn’t say much about himself, but we could guess that he had grown in an orphanage, and has a younger brother locked up in the same orphanage. Technically, they might traveling within their country, but in 1971, Belfast was the violent outpost of Britain Empire, whose locals welcome the British soldiers by literally flinging feces and piss. On their arrival, Gary and his unit are garrisoned on a local schoolhouse. The unit’s next day assignment is to search the nearby Catholic neighborhood, for weapons and such.

                                             The soldiers take all the precautionary weapons that might come handy in a riot. But, their friendly and little inexperienced commanding officer (Sam Reid) asks them to chuck the riot gears (“We need to reassure people. We need to look them in the eye and tell them that”). The British wanna-be peace-keepers, wearing berets and carrying a gun is met by the most hostile lot of Northern Ireland. The search operation quickly escalates into a riot and Gary Hook finds himself caught in the enemy lines with a fellow soldier as the panicked commanding officer leaves them. Gary’s comrade is shot at point-blank range by the IRA, but somehow Gary manages to escape by running into labyrinthine streets of the city. Now the Private veers between protestant and catholic neighborhoods as he is hunted by IRA gunmen. The British plainclothes intelligent operatives also search for Gary, but they carry a more sinistral agenda. 

                                            The visual elements of ’71 are inspired by entertaining nocturnal thrillers of the 70’s like “The Warriors” and John Carpenter’s “Assault of Precinct 13”. The pulsating soundtrack and director Demange’s claustrophobic, street-level look of Belfast perfectly puts us inside the unpredictable, volatile situation of the conflict. Demange steadily builds the dread as his protagonist walks through narrow brick alleys. The break-neck chase and stand off between the two factions could have been easily turned into popcorn thriller elements, but the director never leaves out the gritty realism. He makes us feel the shocking violence without taking a political grandstanding. ’71 is also one of the rare modern action/thriller that tries to portray the scarred psyche of men, who are forced to kill for some political ideology. When Gary Hook kills a pursuing gunman by plunging a knife into his chest, he sits by his side and feels for what he has done. So, we know that he is not a regular action hero, who is hell bent on killing the bad guys to survive.

                                             The script by Gregory Burke presents us with a lot of nuanced characters, who couldn’t be categorized into good or bad. The teenage IRA member, Sean (Barry Keoghan) is very determined to kill the British soldier for a larger cause, but when he comes face to face with Gary he just stands still. Amongst all the explosive happenings, the script takes little time to show us Sean caringly teaching his young sister. There are also ample situations that showcase how the innocent civilians are caught in the middle: a woman stop the youths from the beating up the British soldier; an ex-army Medic treats Gary’s wounds, despite knowing that it could only bring trouble. The guy even provides a different and universal insight on army & war (“Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts”). Of course, neither the characterizations nor the visuals are very original, but the diffusion of such elements within an action/thriller framework is a little miracle. 

                                            In reality, the different factions inside Belfast and their goals, conflict aren’t easy to comprehend, but here, Demange simply establishes the dispute by only demonstrating the factions’ immediate plans. The even handed approach of the complex politics behind such conflicts were all wonderfully approached by Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece “The Battle of Algiers”. Demange and writer Burke doesn’t try to emulate the emotional or ideological complexity of the classic (it’s not such an easy task), and so the scope and achievement for ’71 is little limited. Despite its lack of political bias, the movie’s third act remains predictable, and never gives us than encompassing feel. However, within this limited compass, a lot is achieved and transcended. All the performances pack a punch (including Sean Harris’ shady operative). Jack O’ Connell as Gary wonderfully conveys his dread and confusion only through expressions. He is quiet touching here than he was in “Unbroken”.

                                         “’71” (99 minutes) is a tense, ‘behind the enemy lines’ thriller, which is inter-weaved with intricate and grim realism.