Tuesday, September 27, 2011

La Vie en Rose - Little Sparrow of France

Edith Piaf has been the beautiful voice of France through the last century and her magic continues to enthrall the world long since her demise in 1963. 'La Vie en Rose' titled after her famous love ballad, which till this day is synonymous with the romance of Paris, is a biopic based on the personal, often tragic life of this great songstress. Directed and co-written by Olivier Dahan and portrayed with tremendous gusto and heart by Marion Cotillard (winner of the AcademyAward for Best actress), this movie flits its way through the corridors of time, moving back and forth through Edith's tumultuous life.

Born into poverty, abandoned by her mother, a street singer and her father, a circus performer, her formative years were spent in her grandmother's brothel. One of the prostitutes Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) adopts her and nurses Edith through blindness due to Keratitis. Miraculously cured by a visit to St. Therese's shrine, Edith is then snatched away from Titine and goes to live with her father. The beauty in her voice becomes apparent when she is asked to perform an act with her father on the streets. Years later, she is discovered singing on the streets by a nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) who gives her the name of Piaf, the little sparrow. At 4ft 8inches, the name became her frame.

We see the rise of that amazingly clear full throated voice, her training of the finer nuances of singing and becoming a national treasure even as her personal life is marred by the tragic loss of her one true love, middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre Martins), followed by an accident which renders her with arthritic pains, leading to morphine addiction. Even as her body fails and ages prematurely, the voice remains intact leading her to fame in America. Olivier Dahan wisely doesn't stick to a chronological rendition but flirts with events in no particular order. Piaf's rise, the tragic loss of her love, the addiction and its consequences, to her eventual demise and her final performance, at Paris's Olympia, of the great 'Non je ne regrette rien' are woven skillfully into the tapestry of a turbulent life led. The film embodies the chaos in her life by wildly flitting through these chapters.

What words do I have for Marion Cotillard's performance that have not been said before? She disappears so effectively into Edith Piaf's skin that I could trace no sign of Cotillard herself in the movie. Her resemblance to the singer is uncanny and one can imagine the rumbustious nature of Piaf from Cotillard's  take on her. The Oscar was the jewel in her performance's crown. The playback was Piaf's own voice (though some of the earlier numbers were performed by other singers), which the actress effortlessly lip syncs to. Some great names, familiar to a larger audience outside France, playing supporting roles are the very talented Gerard Depardieu (Les Miserables, Green card) and the beautiful, enigmatic Emmanuelle Seigner, who has been the great filmmaker Roman Polanski's wife and muse (Frantic, Bitter Moon).

Dahan skillfully handles the screenplay and Cotillard's performance. Especially effective are the handling of sequences such as the news of Marcel's death, the latter portions of Piaf's life and on her death bed when she has strong recollections of a buried past before the fame. When she sits as a prematurely old woman, knitting a sweater on a wonderful sunny day, on a beach giving an interview, her answer to the advice she would give to a woman, a girl, a child is 'love'. That might be the key scene of the movie as it carries the essence of a life forever in the quest of love.

Biopics have been done to death. The story mostly is the same. Overcoming of odds to become a star and then the downfall and maybe a final comeback, that is the thread common to most movies under this category. I avoid biopics for this very reason. But, Edith Piaf's voice is too great an attraction for me not to want to understand her story. The force of Marion Cotillard's rendition of Piaf combined with an exciting, at times even confusing screenplay, successfully takes us into the heart of a little woman with one of the strongest, purest voices and provides a glimpse of the love and sorrow that she so mesmerizingly poured out into making the songs that she did. I still have the melody of 'La Vie en Rose' on a constant hum in my head and my heart.

Originally released in 2007
Available on DVD
In French with English subtitles
Academy Award winner for Best Actress in a Leading Role
My Rating: 4/5

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Taxi Driver - Study of Alienation

Martin Scorsese has been around a long time giving us some unforgettable movies through the decades.  Being a huge admirer of his work, this last decade has seemed to me to be his weakest link. The past month, on revisiting some of his path breaking earlier works, I was yet again mesmerized by his keen observation of the human psyche and how the troubled and often violent characters populating his stories were astutely depicted with no glorification to their circumstances. They came 'as is' and entering their heads was Scorsese's greatest strength.

Collaborating with Paul Schrader and Robert DeNiro, he achieved his milestones in two movies, 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull'. They both decorate the annals of cinematic achievements. Revisiting them, I debated arduously on which to review. 'Taxi Driver' won for the reason that it was unlike anything I had witnessed before, this chilling character study of a man crippled by his loneliness and social ineptness descending into madness, his delusions leading to a horrifying bloodbath. Travis Bickle (DeNiro) is an ex-Vietnam Marine taken to driving a taxicab entire nights on the streets of New York, to escape his insomnia. He sees the filth on the streets, the overflowing garbage, the pimps, prostitutes and such creatures of the night all around. The cab's backseat is the scene to many a rendezvous for sex and worse. He hopes that one day a "real rain would come and wash the scum off the streets". An ominous thought!

A constant monologue carries on in Travis's head and we are privy to it. We see him as the desperately lonely man, alienated by a society he is unable to form a connect with. The few people shown to have a conversation with him are put on their guards, knowing something is just not right. Scorsese, intriguingly never bothers us with his history, the past that he comes from. In an angelic looking political campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shephard), he sees a purity that, to his eye, is untouched by the filth of the city. Managing to hook a date with her, he takes her to watch a pornographic movie in the seedy parts of the city he is acquainted with. He doesn't know any better. Obviously, she walks out on him. His anger irrationally gets targeted at Palantine (Leonard Harris), the politician Betsy campaigns for and sees as the savior.

He also encounters a 12 year old child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) who, he assumes in his warped senses, needs rescuing from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). It all ends in a spine chilling climax open to much debate. Travis has delusions of being God's lone man on a mission to cleanse the streets filled with scum, of being that biblical rain washing it all away.

The 70s was for America, turbulent times in modern history with the Vietnam war, the changing climate in politics and the sexual revolution gathering force. Cinema mirrored these themes and the cynicism of the times reflected in many a directors work. Martin Scorsese became a name to reckon with in this era, first with 'Mean Streets' and more significantly with 'Taxi Driver', which was one of the pioneers in the changing landscape of cinema. A lot of Scorsese's works dealt with the outsiders in American society often arrested in its underbelly. Another underlying similarity in his characters is the Freudian    Madonna/ whore complex they portray in their treatment of women. Scorsese went on to make greats like 'Raging Bull', 'Goodfellas' (another favorite), 'Casino' among others.

The script by Schrader is deeply moody, an internal scouting of the psyche of violence even as the viewers take an unsettling ride through the dimly lit, haze filled streets of New York and see through Travis Bickle's eyes, the grim filthiness of the lanes he carries his fares through, his complete social isolation and then his journey into being the vigilante, the cleaner of the degenerate streets.  The entire movie is from Travis's point of view and we somewhat understand, if not empathize with this lonely man. Bernard Herrmann's melancholy yet ominous music, his last masterpiece (he died soon after the completion of the film's soundtrack), has the smooth jazz of saxophone at the onset giving way to the trumpet blaring over drum beats, as Travis descends into psychosis.

With all the brilliance of the material, the thread holding it together is DeNiro's tour de force. Barring Raging Bull, this is possibly his finest work. He walks a fine line in not completely alienating the audience, given the unlikeable nature of the character. Watch him practicing with his guns in front of the mirror, mouthing the famous 'You talkin' to me.....well, I'm the only one here' monologue and the hallmark of a great actor is established.  Jodie Foster is memorable as the child prostitute as is Cybill Shephard. Watch for the two bit characters played by Martin Scorsese himself.

The degeneration of modern urban society seen through the eyes of one of its alienated inmates remains relevant over three decades into its release. Descending into Travis Bickle's warped world, hearing the thoughts he pens into his diary, his desperation for social acceptance and the confession to his absolute loneliness, it is hard not to understand to some degree what can push a man over. We needn't sympathize with Travis, but we all understand loneliness and have kept it's company at some point. Its the constant companionship of it that could eventually turn horrific.

Originally released in 1976
Available on DVD
My Rating: 4.5/5

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Lion King (In 3D) - The King Roars Again

As the screen lit up to the magical glow of the rising sun and the display of the wonderful animal forms over the vast African savannah responding to the majestic beauty of Elton John's unforgettable 'The circle of Life', my heart felt overwhelmed at being able to catch the classic 1994 Disney original 'The Lion King' in theatres 17 years later. When I heard that Disney was planning on milking its biggest cash cow one more time in 3D, all I could feel was the sheer joy of introducing my daughter to the magical tale of Simba on the big screen. Though 3D is a definite gimmick in earning some extra money with little effort, the tale itself is so rich and powerfully filled with life lessons, that every generation deserves a fresh viewing.

At its original release, it was hailed a landmark film that allowed Disney to turn a corner from animating beloved fairy tales of yore to come up with an original story that had all the essential morals of valor, determination, responsibility and did not shirk from the darker subjects of death, evil, guilt. Added to it a dose of essential humor, the voices of memorable characters helmed by Hollywood heavyweights sprinkling that extra zing, Sir Elton John and Tim Rice's award winning lifting soundtrack(Hakuna Matata, Can you feel the love, The circle of life) that never ages and a formula for the future of animation movies was successfully laid out, that carries to this day. Agreed that the times of hand drawn animation seen here have since made way to CGI, but 'The Lion King' was the new dawn of family entertainment spawning a succession of wonderful animated tales of which, in my opinion, it still remains king.

Indeed, the tale of loss of innocence in the face of guilt and wickedness, and the eventual finding of courage and responsibility to step up and take charge is a great teacher of character building that parents will want to imbibe in their little ones. Playful and trusting Simba, voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub and Matthew Broderick later, loses his father and guide King Mufasa (royal voiced James Earl Jones) in a cunning setup by his devious Uncle Scar (unforgettable Jeremy Irons), who has his eye on the throne of Pride Lands. Blaming him for the accident, Scar induces shame and guilt in the cub, making him leave his land forever.

Befriended by the delightful duo of warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and Meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane), Simba whiles away his years with the now famous 'Hakuna Matata' philosophy, even as his kingdom is in shambles under the torturous rule of Scar aided by a pack of hyenas (a devilishly funny Whoopi Goldberg among others). Finally, destiny beckons Simba to his rightful place in the Circle of Life. Loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Hamlet with deep biblical undertones, this is a powerfully relevant tale through the ages. On board the film was a total of 29 writers penning this classic. A special nod to the inspiring musical score by Hans Zimmer, which adds to the entire experience because lets face it, what would a motion picture be without music to enhance our senses.

Watching it in 3D did not add novelty to the experience. As I had mentioned, the 3D is a gimmick to sell tickets to a generation fed on it. It works perfectly well in 2D even though for a movie with hand drawn animation, the 3D conversion does not distract from the viewing experience and indeed adds to some of the wide angle shots. As the 2D version is running simultaneously, the audience can take its pick. To be able to experience 'The Lion King' in the theatres, 3D or not, is the real treat here and one that shouldn't be missed.

As we came out of the screening, my five year old had all the right questions and it has been a pleasure to explain to her virtues and character traits we all want instilled in our beloved futures. For this reason, it has resonated with millions and will continue to do so. The king roars on the big screen for just two weeks and I happily paid my obeisance.

Originally released in 1994
Playing in Theatres in 3D for a limited time
My Rating: 4.5/5

Friday, September 16, 2011

Contagion - Terror in a Handshake

Two falls ago, our population fell pray to the H1N1 virus. We are testament to how that pandemic played out. Now Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion' brings out the ghastly possibility of a far more deadly mutating virus unleashing into today's global village. One claiming millions of lives even as the officials and doctors clamor to find a vaccine. It all starts with a cough. Beth EmHoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) on her way back home to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong makes a layover at Chicago. Looking visibly unwell, she makes inevitable physical contact at the airport. The germs are spreading. Back home, in the throes of sudden seizure she dies and her son soon follows. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), surprisingly immune, is stunned by the devastating turn of events and terrified that his teenage daughter will be affected.

From this personal tragedy we are swiftly transported to China, England, Chicago where similar cases are registered. The Centre of Disease control in Atlanta gear into action with Dr. Cheevar (Laurence Fishburne) sending Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis to track down the spread of the virus.  A WHO official Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) makes a trip to China to locate it's origin, recreating patient zero Beth's movements there. As the bodies pile up, search for a vaccine is on in epidemiologist Dr. Ally Hextall's (Jennifer Ehle) lab. Even as the key players are introduced, the science of the disease and the ramifications of daily motions such as handshaking, touching our faces, making contact with fellow humans bear down on our by now hypochondriac selves.

Scott Burn's screenplay wisely keeps sensationalism out of the happenings. Soderbergh's film works as a procedural where enough thrills and chills generate from the realistic unfolding of events. Scary is the possibility of how real this catastrophe could be and that is what draws us in on the horror. It takes the exact opposite route of an earlier pandemic movie 'Outbreak' with Dustin Hoffman which had Hollywood blockbuster with superhero scientists writ all over. The players here, despite being Hollywood A-listers, approach their unglamorous roles with a sense of urgency bring reality into their characters. Especially effective is Jennifer Ehle in her struggle to jump hoops to get the vaccines tested and brought to the public.

 There are no sob inducing personal tragedies, largely seen in disaster movies, here. Tragedy strikes through this movie some million times over, but the only human face put to it is Mitch. The virus is the central character here and holds all attention moving from its outbreak to an available cure. In that journey we encounter pharmaceutical companies standing to make a profit, bureaucratic red tapes, a doctor's desperation to test her vaccine on humans, a possible scapegoat in the CDC. The politics of the disease is as frightening as its science. A kidnap in the middle of the movie is a reminder that even with a vaccine available, just how hard it could be for the ordinary person in an obscure corner of the world to lay hands on it. Where the disease can spread, the cure might not.

Also terror inducing is the internet media's role. Embodied by a journalist blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude law), with his own agenda to push a homeopathic drug, his blogs on conspiracy theories within the government and Big Pharma lead to panic and lawlessness among a population of 12 million following him. Always goes to say, it is the panic that has more casualties than the disease itself. Stores are vandalised, pharmacies ransacked, homes robbed as food becomes scarce and FEMA struggles with supplies. Bodies are refused burial and instead pile up in makeshift graves. Cities are quarantined.

Soderbergh uses similar skills that he applied for his award winning 2000 movie 'Traffic'. The massive  scale of the story is seamlessly tied together. It is a beautifully shot movie in all its bleakness and the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, a Soderbergh regular, is perfect in creating a sense of panic in us. Technically and performance wise, it is hard to fault the film. It packs in quite a punch in its 106 minutes runtime. The ending is especially chilling, where in a couple of montages, the innocent origin of the bio-threat is revealed.

Even as people, hoping for a blockbuster fight with the virus, might be dissappointed. This is no Hollywood fight with aliens, machines, zombies. We have seen plenty of those come with alarming regularity. Finally a disaster movie that could be, is now in the theaters. And if it be, what could actually happen to the world at its mercy. Purell, anyone?

Released in 2011
Running in Theatres
My Rating: 4/5

Monday, September 12, 2011

Days of Heaven - Poetry in Motion

Terrence Malick's 'Days of Heaven' has to be one of the most beautiful films to have graced the world of cinema. A collage of luminous shots of twilight hues and vast prairies. A story of love, jealousy and loss seamlessly merged with the breathtaking beauty of nature, the soundtrack indelibly flooding our senses with the emotions unfolding in visuals. Where a perfect marriage of cinematography, storytelling and soundtrack creates magic. Widely hailed as a landmark film of the '70s, conventional storytelling takes a backseat here to visual symbolism and in muted biblical tones, human tragedy morphs with the perish of nature.

In 1916's America, Chicago steel mill worker Bill (a devastatingly handsome Richard Gere) accidentally kills a foreman and escapes with his young sister Linda (Linda Manz) and lover Abby (Brooke Adams) to the Texas panhandle looking for work. Bill passes Abby as his sister to control wagging tongues. Harvest is in progress and they get work as farm hands in the wheat fields of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard in his debut). Amidst acres of farmland, stands the farmer's majestic house, alone in the face of nature, telling of its inhabitant's isolation. The farmer (we never know his name) is mesmerized by Abby. Bill, having overheard that the farmer is unwell with only a year to live, pushes Abby into marriage with him. His reason, live this farce for a year and we will finally be done with poverty. However, marriage seems to agree with the farmer and death does not knock on his door. On the contrary the painfully shy farmer blooms in the companionship of his charming wife.

The plan goes awry and Abby, slowly falling in love with the farmer, is caught in a web of deceit, jealousy and ultimately tragedy. Nature bears testament to the end of harmony and happiness when the land is plagued with swarms of locusts and fire even as human emotions reach its destructive peak. The saga is observed and narrated almost impersonally, in one of the most amazingly rendered voiceovers in cinema, by the little sister Linda. She narrates colloquially with her filtered understanding of complex emotions. The tale draws from many sources including biblical as well as Henry James's 'The Wings of the Dove'. It is singled out for the sheer beauty achieved in its visual narration mingled with overpowering emotions evoked by the brilliant score of Ennio Morricone. The visual masterpiece, created by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, was shot mostly in natural light during the 'magical hour'....the small glorious window between sunset and night when the sky is bathed in a soft orange-yellow glow. It went on to win an Oscar in that category.

The performances are perfect. A lot is implied in very little. The dialogues are sparse and drowns in the sounds of nature and machines so that we are left holding half sentences. Linda's quietly detached, world weary voice over guides us through. The emotions run deep beneath the facade of a calm almost impersonal exterior. Terrence Malick is a visionary auteur with a strongly philosophical voice, pitting  human against nature's grandiose, thus putting man's self involvement into place in the grand scheme of things. He has made five films in a career spanning four decades. This movie was his second, coming after his debut masterpiece 'Badlands' with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I highly recommend that as well.  Malick spent two years in the editing room piecing 'Days of Heaven' into an awe inspiring visual feast. Reams of dialogues were cut here in favor of his vision. Nature and its biblical scope has played an important character in every Malick film be it 'Badlands','The Thin Red Line', 'A new World'. In the sweeping shots of the quacking of ducks, bisons grazing, horses roaming the expanse of land lies a symbol of co-existance among all nature's creations.

Between the flawed beauty of the characters of Bill, Abby and the farmer and the melancholy of a child who knows that the days of heaven are numbered, the interplay of nature's violence with man, an idyllic world's abortion, comes alive a masterpiece that deserves multiple viewings just to savor the perfection that cinema can achieve.

Originally released in 1978
Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection
My Rating: 5/5

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Help - Winds of Change

Set in a time when the civil rights movement had gathered momentum in America, 'The Help' is a tale of how life was in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. A time when every white household employed the services of the black help. When white kids were raised by the help, when the food in every white household was put on the table by the help, when the help who raised a white family was forbidden to use the same bathroom as them, when there was a separate entrance at the grocers for them, when they were known to carry diseases just by virtue of their skin color. A time we can all look back in shame with. Based on Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel and adapted for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, 'The Help' is a picture of the harsh realities of the African American domestic service seen though rose hued glasses. Reality treated with a little Hollywood gloss.

Aibileen (Viola Davis) has helped raise 17 white kids. Her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. Her latest is the little girl of Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly). She tells that the child is smart, kind and important to soothe the little ones tears. It is almost as if she is reminding herself. Aibileen is part of an army of African American women who wake up each morning, to don their uniforms and leave their own homes and children behind to look after the homes and children of their white employers. Aibileen's weary eyes have tales to tell. The newly returned white college graduate and wannabe writer Skeetar Phelan (Emma Stone) wants to write the stories of Aibileen and other such women. In a changing world, she sees through the atrocities of her friends stuck with old prejudices.

There is also the sassy, smart mouthed Minny (Octavia Spencer) who works for the evil society bigot Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her mother, played with tremendous spunk by Sissy Spacek. Things go wrong over the use of the in house bathroom and Minny finds herself without a job. She extracts her revenge in one of the funniest sequences of the movie and then goes to work for the town's outcast Celia (Jessica Chastain) and an amazing bond forms between the two amidst some humorous sequences and then some heartwarming ones. Minny and Aibileen become the voices of Skeeter's book and circumstances induce a dozen other women to come open with their stories. Of their times and travails as the help.

Of course we are as aware as them that when the book comes out, though anonymous, there shall be consequences. But they will find their voice in a world where they are not accustomed to being heard. Kathryn Stockett's book, though highly engrossing, did somewhat gloss over the severe nature of life in Mississippi then, being a tad simplistic. The movie which is a wonderful adaptation, something I cannot say for most big screen adaptation of books, suffers from lack of focus of the big picture as well. But as a story about the prejudiced society ladies, their black help and the one white young woman who embodies the change needed, it is a triumph. Very few books have been well adapted to the screen, so full marks to Tate Taylor on a job well done. He brings his own vision to the movie yet keeps the author's words alive. But what truly brightens the skyline of 'The Help' is its wonderful ensemble of actors.

Spearheading the cast and the one who truly steals the show is Viola Davis. In her Aibileen, we see a face that carries a myriad of emotions, the pain of her life, the loss of her son and yet the hope to be the change much needed in a society caught up in a racial time warp. She is so real and effective in her portrayal, it is easy to dismiss her act owing to lack of any theatrics. The great Meryl Streep, her costar in the wonderful 'Doubt', had once pointed out of the gigantically gifted Davis at an award show 'My god, somebody give her a movie'. This act reinforces the talent. Acting as a superb foil is the more gallery friendly turn of Octavia Spencer's Minnie. Every member of the cast is effective. A special mention must be made of Sissy Spacek who is delightful in the limited screen time she inhabits. Equally deserving of praise is Bryce Dallas Howard who takes Hilly's mean girl bigot act to its zenith. As the main antagonist, she is fantastic. Emma Stone is good as the story's moral epicenter.

'The Help' is a high production glossy Hollywood take on a matter that is very serious and has affected generations, the rumblings of which can still be heard. In Skeetar's own story of the disappearance of her maid and often surrogate mother, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), we see a glimpse of the way it might have been even for nice, ordinary white women living in a society and time set in the comfortable old ways of the South. It did not just have to be a maniacal racist like Hilly, most well meaning people stroked its fire quietly. It was a way of life back then. Both the movie and its source material are good, but a slight discontentment stems from the fact that the tale skims the surface when it had the capability of going a lot under.

Released in 2011
Playing in Theatres

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shaitan - The Devil Within

The youth of today's India is trapped in a web of new age modernism. There's money aplenty, too much free time, a trend where the fast life of boozing, drugging is considered cool and to top it all, morals are  passe. The lines between right and wrong blur and a total disregard for life and values set in. In such a land-mine waiting to explode, circumstances can easily trigger the devil inside. Produced by Anurag Kashyap (widely regarded as the most daring film maker at this time in Indian cinema) and helmed by first time director Bejoy Nambiar, 'Shaitan' is a reflection of todays urban young India. It is edgy, shocking and at the end makes you think hard of where the new generation might be headed.

The tale begins with the new transport from Los Angeles to Mumbai, in her words while her dad still regards it as Bombay, Amy (Kalki Koechlin). A disturbed young girl, she has visions of her mother's mental illness and consequent death. Adjusting to life in the big city with a rich but self involved father (Rajit kapoor) and a new well meaning stepmother, she is quickly befriended by a group of laid back, pleasure loving youngsters. There's the rich guy whiling away life spending dad's money KC (Gulshan Devaiya), the bulimic model Tanya (Kirti Kulhari), the Parsi geek Zubin (Neil Bhoopalam) and the mysterious cocaine supplier Dash (Shiv Pandit). Life is an endless ride of partying, drinking, doing drugs till one night speeding in their Hummer they end up killing two people on a scooter. Since their conscience never really come to play, to get away they agree to come up with a huge sum of money to shut the mouth of the police officer who is wise to this incident. The problem is, how to lay hands on such a large sum.

As if killing and covering their tracks was not enough, they decide to fake kidnap Amy, secure in the knowledge that her rich dad would pay up. The dad calls the cops instead. The commissioner (Pawan Malhotra), making some wise observations on the reality of the police system calls on suspended cop with his own personal problems, Arvind Mathur (Rajeev Khandelwal) to solve the case. The case gathers a media circus and all hell breaks loose. The friends are tested and the devil in them rears its ugly head.

This is a movie which is an achievement in the technical department. The sound, cinematography, shot taking, editing all join hands to create an edgy, mad frenzy on screen. Some scenes stand out especially the shootout and chase sequence to the backdrop of a well remixed classic 'Khoya Khoya chand'. The accident itself is extremely well shot. The introduction to all the characters is superbly handled. The screenplay successfully captivates for at least half the movie. However, my grouse is that it does loose steam towards the end and the climax seems hurried and too tame for the impact, the beginning had prepared us for.

There is also the problem of connecting with these youngsters. Even though it would be hard to connect with such morally bereft characters, there is never much understanding to their worlds and the inner demons that cause them to be their selves. As such, it is hard to feel sympathy for any of them. Or was that intentional? Does one really need a reason to turn out a certain way? Scary thought that, and if society adds to it, the fibre of values and humanity might just tear away to reveal monsters. The director should be lauded for slapping the youth of today with his debut feature. To think, he could not find any producer backing him for the longest time till he hit pay dirt with the maverick director/producer, Anurag Kashyap. Kashyap has fought long and hard with an industry stuck to conventions and unwilling to take risks, emerging as a name to reckon with in a cinematic climate which is finally welcoming change and the daring, edgy cinema reflecting the new face of urban India.

The performances are top notch. The name that stands out is Rajeev Khandelwal. As a hugely popular television soap actor, he transcended successfully to become a well regarded and dependable performer with his very first movie outing 'Aamir'. In this second venture, as the tough cop, he is brilliant. Successfully carrying the weathered look of a person whose marriage is in shambles, career is in disarray yet rigidly holding on to his beliefs, he is completely believable as the cop who is stirred to action despite his own mess. He adds to even the smallest of moments, like when he kicks the errant rickshaw driver to action. The youngsters led by Kalki are all superb as well and hold their roles, never giving away the fact that for most, it is their first attempt at cinema.

Shaitan literally translates to devil. It is the horror of the deeds of these youngsters and what they are capable of that defines the movie. There is a lot derived from the real world. How often do we open the morning papers to read headlines about hit and runs by drunk rich kids, kidnappings, crimes of passion. There is food for thought here and even though it is not a perfect movie, it is a great start by Bejoy Nambiar. We look forward to more such hard hitting works from this definitive voice.

Released in 2011
In Hindi with English subtitles
Available on DVD

Monday, August 22, 2011

'The Bicycle Thief'/'Bicycle Thieves' - Reality of a crippled society

Vittorio DeSica was one of the pioneers of neorealist cinema in a post war ridden Italy. At a time when the country was crippled by the devastation of war, a crumbling economy, lack of jobs, an impoverished society, DeSica held out a mirror to the troubles of the common man. 'The Bicycle Thief' was a masterpiece from its very conceptualization. A movie that went on to win an honorary Oscar at a time when the foreign film category did not exist and was hailed by critics as the greatest film ever made at the time, this work of art needs no introduction to world cinema buffs. The tale of a father and son in search of a stolen bicycle which is essential to the livelihood of their family takes the most simple, direct approach to filmmaking, leaving the strongest impact at its closure.

Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a man like many in search of a job in post war Rome. He bags one as a poster hanger, the only requirement being that he has a bicycle. In fact he does not, as he has pawned his to provide food at his family table. But a No means loss of a livelihood and waiting for another job may take a year. There are crowds of people willing to take his position. His wife Maria, played spiritedly by Lianella Carell, pawns her dowry bed sheets to reclaim their bicycle. Their hopes rekindled, a poor but loving family smile at the prospect of good times. In the morning Ricci heads out with his young son Bruno ( Enzo Staiola in a laudable performance), whom he drops off at his workplace in a gas station and then starts with his new job. Alas, on this very first day, in front of his hapless eyes, his cycle gets stolen, the thief vanishing into the crowd. What follows is Ricci's desperate attempt to find that stolen bicycle over the course of an entire day with Bruno in tow. Realization slowly hits him that he may never recover that bicycle and fall back into the vicious cycle of poverty once more.

Simple and direct in its story and treatment, 'The Bicycle Thief' is one of the most powerful takes on the degeneration of moral values in the face of sheer desperation to survive. At one point during their futile search, Ricci almost gives up, telling Bruno that they might as well eat and forget about their state. In a restaurant scene, one of the many poignant in the movie, a father filled with false bravado makes merry with his son, forgetting for a few moments the reality of their situation, only to have his son eyeing the rich children eating plates full of spaghetti. Realization reinstates the importance of that stolen cycle in their lives. 'If we had that cycle, we could eat', he words to his son. Later, he does find and confront the thief in an electrifying sequence where a crowd gathers, defending the thief and cornering Ricci. Even after getting the police, Ricci is unable to retrieve the cycle from him.

Desperation finally cuts through Ricci who rides the cycle of morality to grab what does not belong to him. In doing so, his action becomes the image of a society driven to desperate measures in order to survive. It's a vicious cycle and if circumstances don't change, the cycle won't break. 'The Bicycle Thief' employs non actors in the major roles. A truthfulness to the trying times the characters endure shine through these common people portraying roles not much different from their natural circumstances. In Ricci, we have the desperate man trying to provide for his family and be the father his son can look up to. Bruno is the face of innocence waking up to the harsh reality of life. When the father crumples of shame and despair, it is the son who holds Ricci's hands in an ironic role reversal.

DeSica who turned to neorealist cinema with 'The children are watching us' and later won the world over with 'Shoeshine' (also a recipient of an honorary Oscar), made this masterpiece, of a book by Luigi Bartolini which he reworked with his writer/collaborator Cesare Zavattini, who had originally brought the book to him. The effectiveness of the tale lies in it being devoid of sentimentality. It narrates a sad tale of working class Italy and keeps it to the point and in consequence highly effective. A highlight of the movie is its music. The melancholic strain that follows the father-son duo's travails is the emotional string that makes the proceedings heartbreaking.

The title of the movie has been a subject of controversy. Literally translated, it is 'Bicycle Thieves' which puts the film's tale into perspective. The deterioration of the moral fabric of a society in its desperate pursuit of survival, is captured impeccably in its title. However, released in the United States, it became the more simplistic 'The Bicycle Thief', telling of a stolen cycle and the efforts for its retrieval. The Criterion collection, thankfully, released the DVD with the literal title reinstated.

Shot in Rome, I could not help compare the city with the images captured in a Hollywood movie of those times, 'Roman Holiday'. We see not a shot of the tourist attractions and the picture perfect locations here. This is the reality of the heart of a city driven to desperate measures for survival. Men walking with the weight of the world on them. And from that sea emerges one man, with his tale, only to be swallowed once more by the sea of weary faces at the end. On watching this movie, it is said Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray found his calling for making neorealist cinema, employing non actors in real world tales of the common man. Indeed, Iranian cinema and many others to this day create great cinema out of realism. Truth, after all, does resonate. As does the enduring power of a movie made over half a century ago.

Originally released in 1948
In Italian with English Subtitles
Available on DVD
My Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Roman Holiday - A Royal Adventure

There is something to be said about a romantic comedy that endures. William Wyler's 'Roman Holiday' is that rare movie that in its lightheartedness and fun sweeps us into an experience truly unforgettable and at the end, quietly melancholy. Launching the big screen career of Hollywood's sweetheart Audrey Hepburn, this movie gave us romance at its most endearing, comedy at its most hilarious and finally a waif like girl who would burn up the entire screen each time she twinkled into the camera.

The story is old as the hills. In a case of cinderella reversed, we have Princess Ann from an unnamed  country, on a goodwill tour across the European states. Her last stop is Rome and we sense a discontentment even as she meets with dignitaries and addresses them with regality and charm. A desire to escape the daily routine takes over her sedated self at night, after a bout of hysterics and she tumbles into the streets of Rome. An encounter with a charming gentleman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) leads to him taking her to his shoebox size apartment, unable to leave her on the streets in her drug induced state.

Turns out that Mr. Bradley is a reporter who now has a scoop on his hands. On discovering that the troublesome, seemingly inebriated girl is the princess, who is stated to have been indisposed of a sudden illness to hide her disappearance from the palace, he along with his partner in crime, photographer Irving (Eddie Albert), seize the moment to keep the runaway princess around them long enough to build a story around her adventures in Rome. And so we have Ann posing as Anya Smith getting a haircut where her locks are sheared into Hepburn's now signature pixie cut, riding a motorcycle to hilarious consequences, gorging on a gelato at the heart of Rome and creating some marvelous moments of fun with the two opportunists in tow. And then the day comes to an end with the princess finding love.

This is a movie with some great moments of physical comedy that have been emulated through the decades in cinema across the globe. The fun between Joe and Irving over revealing the identity of the princess is a highpoint as is the sequence at a dance where a sidesplitting furor occurs culminating in the memorable snapshot of Anya bringing down a guitar over a man's head. But no sequence of the fun on this holiday is probably as famous, indeed imitated over the years, as the 'mouth of truth' sequence where     if one is telling an untruth with their hand in the mouth of a stone image, it gets bitten off. Amidst all the fun, the tender romance that develops between the lead is aired with sadness. After all, can the princess ever fall in love and live happily ever after with the commoner?

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn have crackling chemistry. Gregory Peck was a star at the time. But for Audrey Hepburn, this movie, though not her debut, was her first starring role. To hold her own against a seasoned performer and actually at times be more effective, was no small achievement. That she took home the Oscar that year isn't surprising. Watch her slight smile with that teardrop hanging like a pearl from her eye in her final sequence. Amazing! Gregory Peck, that handsome gentleman, was extremely at ease in his first comic outing. To give him fine company was the third corner of this fun trio, Eddie Albert. His physical comedy with Peck had perfect timing. The performance of all the actors stand out, especially in the final sequence. The director takes his time with the scene, lingering over the expressions, each nuance is highlighted and the actors deliver to the moment.

The movie was shot wholly on location, thereby giving it that authentic air, studio shot movies can never quite duplicate. At its inception, the project was to star Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor and be directed by Frank Capra. However, since the story was by Dalton Trumbo, at the time blacklisted for his political activities, Capra had reservations going ahead with the project and William Wyler was brought into the picture. At his insistence, the movie was shot in Italy and to keep the budget in check, made in black and white. Dalton Trumbo was not credited for his work in the movie and Ian McLellan Hunter, who had helped on the screenplay, got the credit for which he won the Oscar as well. However, Trumbo did receive a posthumous Oscar for his work and his name has now been restored on the credits in the DVD of the film. With Wyler's inclusion came the bright young actress Audrey Hepburn, who had screen tested for him. Cary Grant had reservations about working with an actress as young as Hepburn and in stepped Gregory Peck who was by the time, ready to do a romantic comedy having worked only in serious roles before.

Roman Holiday finds its bearing in being a tale told lightly of unconsummated love. Some of the greatest love stories are of a love which do not find a happy ending. The ones that leave us wistful for what might have been. In Princess Ann's tears shining through her smile and Joe Bradley's teary eyed melancholy look, we sigh for a love that this and a life that won't allow them to be together. But out of this love, they find honor. The honor to do what is right, to fulfill their duties. To become better human beings. Love often does do that to people.

Originally released in 1953

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara - You only Live once

Ten years ago Hindi cinema came alive with a film on friendship, its delicate yet enduring bond and growing in life and love. The movie spoke to the youth, gathered a cult following and is now enshrined in the gallery of trendsetting movies from India. That movie was 'Dil Chahta Hai'.  Its director a young debutant Farhan Akhtar. Fast forward to the present day and we have another young filmmaker Zoya Akhtar who presents to us 'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara'. A film I can call a worthy successor to 'Dil Chahta Hai'. She happens to be the former mentioned filmmaker's sister. It all runs in the family.

We have a tale of male bonding where one friend is engaged and decides to arrange a road trip through Spain with his two best childhood buddies as an extended bachelor party. Kabir (Abhay Deol) wants to get his friends Imran (Frahan Akhtar) and Arjun (Hrithik Roshan) to give in to their adventurous sides and partake of sports which will test their fears and therefore set them free. So, we have three friends in picturesque Spain giving in to their wild side, playing pranks on random people, reminiscing about their college days and slowly letting us into their inner worlds. We witness the tension between Imran and Arjun and understand the reason for it, we see Arjun's love for money and understand the motivation behind it, we are privy to Imran's world where under the front of being the prankster of the group he is hiding secrets and fighting demons and finally we see the truth behind a facade Kabir has put on.

Deep sea diving, Sky diving and a run with the bulls are the activities of choice and with each, the characters are liberated of their fears, their turmoils and the philosophy of 'learning to live each moment like your last' stands tall. This is our time to live and what good is it if we spend it inside a box. Laila, Katrina Kaif in one of her more natural roles, is the voice of this philosophy. A deep sea diver, she sets Arjun free of his bondage and brings love into his life. The scene where she seizes the moment to let him know of her feelings, stands out for its sheer genuinity. In the middle of their adventures with life, Kabir's fiance Natasha (Kalki Koechlin) lands up to keep an eye on her husband to be, in case things heat up on this extended road trip.

Certain sequences leave an impact but none more so than the sequence between Imran and his father. In its subtlety, this scene lends credibility to the lessons the movie sets out to impart. Pain is essential to living life fully. With each experience we open ourselves to it. And it is both the teacher as well as the healer. The sky diving sequence is a metaphor for the need to let go, to truly feel life. It is beautifully shot and stands out in capturing the essence of friendship so uniquely.

The actors all rise to the occasion and deliver. There are no false notes here. The characters are easily relatable. Hrithik Roshan, a star in India, shows the sensitivity to handle the growth of his character graph. Abhay Deol as always, is dependable as is Kalki in her slightly neurotic, shrewish character. The revelation is Farhan Akhtar. Even in his tomfoolery we sense a sadness, a weight in his laughter. The sequence where he confronts his father and the tears that rise is applause worthy. Naseerudin Shah in his lone sequence stands out. A worthy note to the poetry penned by Javed Akhtar that takes the journey forward.

Though it takes the movie a while to rise to the occasion, with an initial half hour or so where the tomfoolery might just start to get on nerves, when it gets its groove, it sweeps us along with it. There are sequences celebrating friendship and fun which overstay their welcome, an example being the tomatina festival in Bunol as also the childish pranks of scaring people. But in its depiction of each adventure sport and the life lessons associated as well as the growth in the character graphs of its leads, this movie gets it right. Zoya Akhtar shows tremendous talent in understanding the finer nuances of telling a story. There is a lot implied here, drums are not beaten. Thankfully, unlike a lot of makers of commercial Indian cinema, she does not dumb down her audience. A special mention to how she ends the movie. Most movies get that moment wrong. She nails the final sequence, draws the curtains at the accurate instant.

We usually live by the book. It is the norm and before we know, the rules have bent us and our lives have flashed by. We do not get the opportunity to turn back time, to set our lives free and soar. In that case, it makes sense to truly feel each day, each moment and breathe in life and the richness it has to offer. Few find courage to flow against the tide, but that is the only way to freedom. When you are running from the bulls, you feel death in every pore and in the face of that final eventuality, you may truly be free to dream, to feel, to live.

Released in 2011
In Hindi

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Midnight in Paris - A Tale of Magic Realism

"Oh to be transported to that world you yearn for, the times when the creative giants mingled at parties, literary salons and welcome you, caught in a magical time warp, into their midst. You gape with awe at rubbing shoulders with the masters and they are blissfully unaware of who they are to become in the eyes of a future generation" - that in a nutshell is Woody Allen's delightful new movie. We know Allen best from the times of his love affair with New York. Barely has any filmmaker captured the pulse of that enigmatic city and its inhabitants like Allen. And yet now he churns out movies set in European locales. Some are hits, a lot misses. 'Matchpoint' and 'Vicky christina Barcelona' had shades of brilliance. With 'Midnight in Paris', he gets his groove back.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is on vacation in Paris with his uptight fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her rich right wing pompous parents. He is a successful screenwriter in Hollywood who is discontent with the hack writing  he produces and longs to leave it all to wander the streets of Paris, which is filled with the footprints of literary geniuses of a bygone era, and complete work on his novel, become an actual writer. Inez, on the other hand, loves her riches and wishes to settle in upscale American suburbia. While Inez lives the night life of Paris with friends, Gil would rather catch some air wandering those historic cobblestone lined streets and at the stroke of midnight encounters magic. A vintage automobile draws up and he is transported into the Paris of the 1920s rubbing shoulders with literary giants like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald as also artists Picasso, Salvodor Dali.

Magic and reality blend as night after night Gil makes the journey into his favorite period of history and has his manuscript read by the great Stein for some valuable inputs. Glimpses into Scott and Zelda's tumultuous relationship and Hemingway's masculinity, love of adventure and all the famous salon meetings at Stein's residence of the 20s ring true. He meets the luminous Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who is Picasso's lover and muse and finds himself attracted to the rich beauty and deep mind. A man considering himself a misfit in todays times with a desire to have lived in that golden era of American literature slowly gains insight into love, desires and finally finds himself in Paris. A breezy watch, it is heartwarming how 'Midnight in Paris' leaves us with that very important life lesson - whatever we seek for, we should keep at the present else no era will be good enough. 

Peppered liberally with a host of great performances in cameos like Kathy Bates as Stein, Adrien Brody as Dali among others, the stand out performance comes from Owen Wilson who embodies the character Woody Allen played role after role, to perfection. It is safe to say he plays the best Woody Allen after the man himself. The sincerity and enthusiasm shines through in his hero worship for these greats who knew not at that time the greatness writ in their destinies. He is a revelation. Rachel McAdams is efficient as the shrewish, spoilt fiancee. One wonders what brought these two in such a mismatch of a relationship.  Maybe their shared love of Indian pita bread. Marion Cotillard is bewitching and just gazing into those enormously expressive eyes, one can believe her to have inspired great artists.

For lovers of literature especially American as well as art of the early twentieth century, and those responding to the magic of Paris, this is an exceptional watch. For those not familiar, this is an equally enchanting ride. Paris looks picture postcard. There is a brief period when time moves its hands back into late nineteenth century 'Belle Epoque' Paris which is Adriana's idyllic era. There is a certain nostalgia associated with bygone eras. For every era, there is one before it to yearn for. But time, after all, moves forward for a reason. 

Released in 2011
Playing in Theatres

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Town - Boston's crime neighborhood come alive

A movie about a bank robber who wants to walk away from his life of crime, having found love and an alternate meaning to life. We have seen it all before. However Ben Affleck's deftly directed and acted Boston crime drama 'The Town' springs a pleasant surprise in its execution for the majority of its running time. This is a movie we can predict each twist a mile away, yet it manages to hold our attention and engage us in its characters' graphs. That is no mean feat.

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) heads a four member gang of bank robbers living in Charlestown, introduced to us at the beginning of the movie, as the neighborhood of Boston that produces more bank robbers than any other part of the country. Indeed crime is more a family occupation in this Irish neighborhood. Doug's father is serving hard time for not snitching on his friends in a crime gone wrong. At the onset, the movie gets down to business with a gritty bank robbery. Hidden behind skeletor masks, they loot the Cambridge bank and then take the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) as hostage. She is let go unharmed, but the gang soon finds out that she lives right in their neighborhood and there is a chance she could point them to the FBI. Jem (Jeremy Renner), the psycho trigger happy member that every movie gang seems to have, wants to "remove her from the equation". Doug, the level headed leader, however takes matters into his own hands. He befriends her, trying to find out how much she knows. In the process, love blossoms. 

The movie takes its time to delve into the Doug's psyche. Here is where Ben Affleck shines as a director. There is in particular a scene, where he talks of his childhood, when his mother walked out on their family. Observe the leisureliness in the dialogue delivery, the correct pauses and the nuances so telling of the effect that incident probably had in shaping his persona. A recovering alcoholic worn down by the world he inhabits, Claire comes as the change he wants to make in his life. Hoping to escape to Florida with her, he reluctantly takes on one last job. And of course, things start to go wrong.

Where the story lacks in novelty, it makes up in its interesting characters and the great scenes they inhabit. There is Jem who is like a brother to Doug, but is the wild boy who needs taming. There is a scene where he walks in on Doug and Claire at a cafe. He is furious to find Doug warming up to the girl who could be a danger to them all. The way he plays the scene, striking up a conversation with Claire, all the while with Doug in tension that she might identify Jem from the fighting Irish tattoo on his neck that she had seen at the robbery, is marvelous. We also encounter Jem's dopehead sister Krista (Blake Lively) who is Doug's former girlfriend and a mother to a little girl. She is a mirror to the girls growing up in this neighborhood of crime. How she is played by FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), who knows the robbers but is unable to collect sufficient evidence for a conviction, are highlight sequences.

Ben Affleck who previously directed the solid gritty Boston kidnapping drama 'Gone Baby Gone', proves that as a director he is here to stay. The Boston underbelly plays his muse and in this minefield of crime, he has an eye for the human drama behind it. He is at his best not when filming the heists, which are all predictable yet exciting, but when he explores the people involved. He lingers on those little scenes telling us a lot more of the characters than written in the screenplay. A lesser director would have swiftly moved along to the next plot point. As an actor, he is a revelation as well. The lean, hard physique with a bang on Bostonian accent and a weary face, Affleck lives this role. In fact this movie is strung by great performances in great sequences with crisp dialogues. Chris Cooper playing Doug's imprisoned father shines in his lone scene as does Pete Postlethwaite in his role as the menacing Irish mob boss who runs a flower shop as cover. Watch him blackmail Doug into one last job, all the while snipping at the stems of roses. Chilling.

Based on Chuck Hogan's novel 'Prince of Thieves', 'The Town' could easily have ended up as another routine cops and robber thriller and in parts it is just that. But what elevates it, is why we want to watch this movie and tell the numerous makers of the genre, this is how it could also be done and maybe it will just work better. Ben Affleck is one director to watch out for. I look forward to seeing more of his work, this side or the other. Watch the movie, you will get it.

Originally released in 2010
Available on DVD

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eat Drink Man Woman - Marriage of Life's Elixirs

Most of us know and respect Ang Lee's works. His deep understanding of the fragilities of the human heart have been ably showcased in movies such as 'Brokeback Mountain', 'Lust, caution'. Delving into his filmography I chanced upon one of his earliest works from his Taiwanese roots which was later adapted by Hollywood as 'Tortilla Soup'. The movie - 'Eat Drink Man Woman'. And it was a satisfying discovery indeed. A tale of a father and his three grown daughters living together in Taipei, it looks at the paternal bond between a strict, emotionally distant father and the daughters who are at the wings of taking their owns flights into love, life and liberty.

Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is the best. His culinary delights have feasted the very important personalities of Taiwan. However, somewhere along the way he has lost his sense of taste. Ironical for a head chef. He cooks out of habit and relies on his longtime associate Wen to tell the quality of his lovingly prepared masterpieces. Indeed food plays an exquisitely important part in the proceedings and to see them being crafted from the ground up is a delight to our gastronomical senses. Where Chu so successfully brings balance in his profession, he flounders to maintain his relationship with the girls.

The eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is an emotionally repressed chemistry teacher who was thwarted in love nine years ago and has yet to recover. Seen as an old maid by her family, her suppressed desires flutter back to life when she meets the new volleyball coach. The middle sister Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) is possibly the most successful, working as an airline executive in the process of a promotion to their Amsterdam office. Focussed and work oriented, she comes across as the hardest of the sisters till the layers peel to reveal a sensitive, mature personality. She is also an excellent cook whose dreams of following on her father's heels had been shattered by him. Girls don't make chefs, so she was sent to get an education that mattered.

The youngest Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) studies and works at a fast food chain. Her track involves finding love at the cost of her friend's struggling romance and some lies. Alongside runs the track of a family friend, a divorcee with a little girl for whom Chef Chu prepares elaborate lunches to take to her school. There is also the mother of the family friend, a widowed garrulous, borderline rude  woman who has her sights set on the chef. Holding an observant hand with a smattering of comedy, Ang Lee makes us understand the characters. The father who belongs to an old world, is unable to communicate with his offsprings who are no longer his little girls. He prepares elaborate Sunday dinners for his daughters which they must not miss and the process is painful, as a dinner table laden with his lavish cooking worthy of a party, sees the girls pushing around the food unenthusiastically in their plates over stilted conversation. The easy camaraderie and joy of gathering at the table is missing. Hence, maybe his delight in feeding the little school girl and her friends their daily lunch.

The sisters all caught in their own webs, play out equally well. The elder daughter's cautious approach towards opening her heart is especially interesting and rings true. Though the conclusion seemed too comic, for the depths the characterization had provided. The youngest daughter's ironical work place is a sign of the winds changing. From the times of crafting elaborate meals from scratch, where food and its preparation was an art, to the world of fast food. We see both worlds. Finally it is the middle sister's sensitivity that stands out.

The performances all work, the characters are all interesting because they could be any ordinary person we bump into in our worlds. Every life carries a story and when a film maker makes the effort to carve a story around ordinary lives, that is hardly dramatic or climactic, he achieves a 'slice of life' cinema. Ang Lee went on to make a mark in Hollywood and  has made some big movies. This was a very promising beginning from a man who is still growing from strength to strength. As a character says "'Eat Drink Man Woman' which is Food and Sex - Basic Human Desires, cannot avoid them". A marriage of the two, that was dealt with utmost sensitivity and a little humor in this small movie with a big heart.

Available on DVD
Originally Released in 1994
In Mandarin with English Subtitles
Best Foreign Language Film Nominee at the Academy Awards 1995

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Inglourious Basterds - A Tarantino Delight

Quentin Tarantino has to be the most daring filmmaker of significance today. Crafting a career out of bold works such as 'Reservoir Dogs', 'Pulp Fiction', the dual volumed 'Kill Bill', he has mastered every aspect of filmmaking and storytelling through the ages and genres and then devilishly twisted them all, to blaze the film scene with an originality hitherto unseen. We know him as an autodidact whose position as a video store clerk served a fertile learning ground. 'Inglourious Basterds' is a glorious continuation of Tarantino's mad mix of genres and styles of film making. Let's face it, who else would have dared a setting as sombre and disturbing as the Nazi infested World War II and then made a spaghetti western of it, throwing historical events for a toss and concluding the most significant chapter of 20th century history as only Tarantino can. History has been writ all over.

The movie plays out in five acts in occupied France between 1941 and 1944. It opens in French country when a dairy farmer is greeted by german troops led by Col. Hans Landa, played to amazing accuracy in a career defining performance by Christoph Waltz. The scene is of a typical western complete with Ennio Morricone's soundtrack, which plays out through a good part of the movie. What follows is one of the most thrilling interrogations that movies have seen. The farmer is suspected of harboring Jews in his dwelling. Needless to say, the Jews are discovered and slaughtered with a lone escapee, Shosanna (French actress Melanie Laurent ). The scene moves to a band of American Jews formed for the purpose of massacring the Nazis, called the 'Inglourious Basterds', the reason for the misspelling never clear. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt in superb form) they scalp the nazis, pulp them with a baseball bat and what not.

Everything comes together when a nazi movie is to be premiered in a local Paris cinema owned by Shosanna, who has managed to change her identity, the details are not important. On one hand the basterds have a plan to annihilate the nazis attending the premiere and then Shosanna has revenge up her sleeves. And thus Tarantino changes the course of WWII. The plot is intelligent of course. But what is typical of a Trantino film, 'Inglourious Basterds' being no exception, is the playing out of the individual scenes. Each one is lovingly fleshed out, with detailed, multi layered, sinuous dialogues, delivered and played out by talents chewing on their parts, knowing the relevance of each line rendered, every movement made, into making a scene worthy of individual glory.

Three sequences stay in mind. The opening interrogation being the first. There is then an elongated sequence in a basement tavern where a plan is to be laid out only to result in bloodbath. It is brilliantly played out with Diane Kruger portraying a German actress, who has now changed sides to help the basterds. And then there is a Kill Bill like sequence with Shosanna getting ready for her big revenge. Filmed in typical noir, we have the allusive lady in red with the red lips and an automatic in her purse to the strains of David Bowe's 'Putting out the fire'. Memorable! A good movie is when the entire story works with good performances, technical soundness. However, it is when you can take back individual sequences and carry them with equal verve, great cinema is made.

The performances all carry weight. Brad Pitt as the southern accented Nazi hating leader is brilliant and gets the comedy in his dialogues and delivers them with sly fun. German born Diane Kruger shows a side of her which is a departure from her big hollywood eye candy roles. Laurent's lead performance of Shosanna comes out trumps especially in the final sequence showing off the maniacal revenge hungry side of a bottled up, wary heroine, on film. In a movie where every performance big or small is nailed accurately, only peans of the highest order can be sung for Austrian born Waltz's tour de force as Col. Landa aka 'The Jew Hunter'. The impeccably polite, gracious nazi with hidden steel and cunning is a charm and evil act unmatched and is worthy of every award garnered, starting with the Cannes and ending at the Oscars. In my view asides from Uma Thurman's spirited bride act in Kill Bill, this is the best written part in a Quentin Tarantino film, which is saying a lot because I am picking from a plethora of memorable characters.

Inglourious Basterds is not another world war movie. Nor is it just a western revenge drama. Tarantino doesn't believe in formulaic cinema. As I had started out with, his is always a delightful, mad mix of genres, styles that transcend the staid diet of movies we are fed on. It tears the moral fibre leading to vastly unpredictable, ingenious characterizations. Even at its lengthy two and a half hour runtime, we crave for  more delicious scenes to stretch out. This is a movie best seen a second time. The first time, you want to do away with the plot and then revisit it, to linger over each scene, enjoy the effects of razor sharp wordplay, meticulously crafted characters. And then sit back and take in the fact that this is a piece of the best, cinema will have to offer in today's time.

Originally released in 2009
Available on DVD
In English, French, German with subtitles
Oscar award winner for Best Supporting actor (Christoph Waltz)
My Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Dead Girl - Intricate web of Pain

What could have been just another ordinary story about serial killings, instead turns into an experience deep, profound and ultimately very sad in writer-director Karen Moncrieff's 'The Dead Girl'. That is not a turnoff. But to be fair, this is not a movie for the thrill seeker, possibly misguided by the genre the movie falls under. Nor is it for the viewer seeking a pleasant, fun evening at the movies or on their DVD players. This movie takes you on a journey into the lives of people touched by the discovery of the rotting dead body of a girl in the fields of outskirt Los Angeles. It features five vignettes starting with Arden's (Toni Collette) discovery of the body behind her house. The spinsterly caretaker of an abusive invalid mother (Piper Laurie), Arden's life has stopped ticking in a while till this incident brings her to the forefront and attracts the attention of a creepy grocery clark (Giovanni Ribisi), who wants to date her. Arden must make a choice if she wants her life to start, out of the shadows of a cruel mother.

From Arden, we get transported into a forensic graduate student Leah's (Rose Byrne) world. For fifteen years, her family's life has been at a standstill since her sister had gone missing. Her parents never gave up looking. Leah is clinically depressed seeking closure which comes in the form of the dead girl on her examination table. Certain evidences lead her to believe it is the body of her missing sister. She gears up the courage to seek life again with a fellow student (James Franco) only to have it put to a rude stop.

After this peek, we are taken into the lives of a middle aged married couple where the husband (Nick Searcy) remains absent for long intervals, earning the wrath and suspicion of his neglected venom spewing wife (Mary Beth Hurt). When murder is indicated, she must decide on the course of action, whether to turn the evidence in or be the good, protective wife.

Next we meet the mother of the rotting body, who comes from Washington to claim her dead daughter. Here a glimpse into the corpse's life lived is finally provided. Marcia Gay Harden has come to seek answers of the life and violent death of a daughter who had run away from home at the age of sixteen. What she gets from her daughter's roommate and a fellow drug addict and prostitute Rosetta (Kerry Washington) almost shatters her cocooned world and oddly provides her an anchor to maybe put things right this time.

And now its time to meet the dead girl herself. In this final segment we view the last day in the life of a hardened, foul mouthed drug addicted prostitute ( Brittany Murphy) who wants to hitch a ride from one of her johns (Josh Brolin) to keep an important appointment. What she gets instead is a date with destiny.

It is hard to come out of the world Moncrieff creates for us unshaken. The world we have seen is not beautiful, the characters that inhabited it are probably not going to live out rosy lives, these miserable, haunted souls. There is so much never ending pain and ugliness that the visual of the rotting body at the onset of the film serves only as a preview. However, these are real people, not cardboard characters dressed up for our entertainment and thrill. The movie scores here and how. I cared for their miserable lives, shared their pain and hoped things turn out well for them on the departure of an almost voyeuristic glimpse into their worlds.

The performances are pitch perfect, with the names of solid actors sprinkled liberally through the 93 minutes of its runtime. Toni Collette and Giovanni Ribisi  are some of my personal favorites, who I always long to see more on screen for the sheer strength of their acts. But favorites aside, every performer sank their teeth and lived their characters' complex lives. A brilliant ensemble piece.

I repeat, movies on serial killings are dime a dozen. But taking a serial killing and completely humanizing the characters surrounded by it's ugliness is rare. This movie will take you by the gut and not let go. However, there is a certain beauty derived from reality, no matter how harsh, in how much pain it is steeped. It is cathartic. And when I saw the final sequence knowing the fate of that miserable girl, a tear came into my eye and I saluted the director who knew just how far to go and where to leave off this tiny gem of a movie, which has been criminally deprived of the vast audienceship it richly deserves. Go watch this one!

Originally released in 2006
Available on DVD

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers - Of Parental Bondage

In Chinese, there is a saying that 'It takes three hundred years of prayers to cross a river in a boat with someone and it takes three thousand years of prayers to share a pillow with someone'. Wayne Wang's quietly introspective movie is a study in human connections and the nurturing that relationships require to blossom. In the opening shot, a daughter Yilan (Faye Yu) receives her father Mr. Shi (Henry O) with little enthusiasm after his long flight to the United States from China at the arrivals gate. There is no hugging or excitement, an awkward welcome is all he receives. At Yilan's nondescript apartment in an equally nondescript suburb, there is further awkward silence filled in almost desperately by Mr. Shi. He thinks she does not eat enough. He has taken a cookery class back home and tries to warm the house by arranging elaborate home cooked meals.

Yilan leaves for work in too much of a hurry to eat his lovingly prepared breakfast. He idles away his days reading the newspaper, trying to strike a conversation with the pool guy, shopping and preparing meals that father - daughter will partake over stilted conversations. He also has no qualms in snooping around his daughter's room trying to get a feel of her life. He meets a persian lady at the local park who he refers to as Madam (Vida Ghahremani). Between two languages (mandarin and Persian) and an extremely broken English, they manage to form an understanding and bond that Mr. Shi obviously lacks with his daughter. Madam lives with her elder son, a doctor, who is about to have a baby. She feels America is a wonderful country that has given so much to her sons. She hates communism. Mr. Shi tries to explain that only in wrong hands can the power of communism be misused. He shares that his daughter is divorced from a chinese man who returned to China while she stayed back in the United States. He is here to help her get better, as if divorce is a disease that needs a cure. And maybe it is for him. After all he belongs to a generation and culture where couples stick together.

Nothing much happens in the movie and when it finally does towards the end where skeletons stumble out of the closet and explain the cause of Yilan's distance from her father and her resentment at his overt interest in her life, it jars. It jars because then the explanations come pat, tie up swiftly to form a neat resolution and makes us remember that we are after all watching a movie which has concluded its running time. I say this because this movie can almost make us forget that we are watching characters play out on screen. We feel privy to this father - daughter world. They are so real. The tiny situations seem so true to life. Being a south Asian making a life in America and having a visiting parent, I could relate to the cooking of the food, to the need of a parent to fill their progeny's stomachs and then their lives. I could understand the need for Mr. Shi to find another mate for his daughter, to snoop into his daughter's life and make it well again. I understood his palpable loneliness, his inability to understand a culture so alien. His friendship with Madam who despite language barriers, he understands better than his daughter.

'A thousand years of Good Prayers' is appealing to the section of audience who like their movies to reflect quite lives lived. There is a certain charm in watching mundane things play out on screen, a comfort derived from knowing that life for most function on similar grounds. There will always be the cultural differences, the generation gaps, the want of privacy in individuals and the inherent need for parents to reach out and protect their children at every step. Wayne Wang had made a movie on Amy Tan's superior book 'The Joy Luck Club' which I had seen years ago. It was a much more ambitious project, but at heart it centered a similar theme of parents and children dealing with cultural and generational differences. It is a topic he handles well with much sensitivity. He understands the silence this movie needs and respects it, not creating awkward fillers to make noise. It is only in it's final resolution, I felt a sense of drama this movie could have been above.

Communication or the lack of, can distance the strongest of bonds. In America, we are encouraged to speak, share what's on our minds, in our hearts. In lots of other cultures, silence is the way. Yilan is silent, closeted from her father. As she points out 'If you grew up in a language in which you never learned to express your feelings, it would be easier to learn to talk in a new language. It would make you a new person'. Yilan's silence to her father could be her cry that got stifled through the years. For relations to be cemented, it takes a lot of effort and time, maybe even a thousand years.

Originally Released in 2007
Available on DVD
In Mandarin and English with English Subtitles

Friday, May 20, 2011

Casablanca - Where Intrigue meets Heartbreak

We have all heard of 'Casablanca', if not seen this movie which upon its release, was just one of the many movies by Warner Bros. Even with its A-list cast and direction by Michael Curtiz, it was made on a tight budget and harbored limited expectations. That, almost 70 years after its release, it is considered as the second best movie by AFI, is a matter of everything falling in place, just so perfectly. From the romance which till date raises a thousand sighs peppered with enduring dialogues like 'Here's looking at you kid' to 'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine', from the passion for a higher cause in a war inflicted world, an exotic locale called Casablanca in the northern coast of Africa, immaculate shot taking with memorable closeups of its lead pair and their inner turmoil so vividly on display and finally a pulse pounding climax, this movie tied up to a perfect, emotional viewing experience which hasn't dimmed through the passage of time.

Of its famous story, we all know some. In the turbulence of World War II, in the port town of Casablanca in Morocco, at a time when travel to neutral Portugal and finally America was stringent, the French occupied city is a pit stop for the thousands seeking transit permits to travel out of war zone. In this city is the famous 'Rick's Cafe Americain', a hub for people to while away their evenings in drinks, conversation and gambling. The owner is the strong, silent, ruthless Rick, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart. He sticks his neck out for no one. Life is strictly business till one day in walks the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) with her partner/husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) to his cafe and emotions that Rick had kept buried, threaten to overflow.

Ilsa was his one true love in pre-war Paris, who leaves him stranded at the train station in the rain, the day the Nazis march into the city. By way of explanation is a letter begging him to forget her and that she will always love him. And thus, an embittered, cold man surfaces in Casablanca only to have jealousy, betrayal and anger threaten to blow the lid off his carefully crafted front by the arrival of his ex-love. The story takes an interesting direction as Laszlo is a resistance hero and former concentration camp escapee, who needs to leave for America to continue his work. The Gestapo in Casablanca have made it their business that he not leave the city.

Ilsa and Victor's only hope lies with Rick who has two exit visas in his possession. Can Rick be trusted to part with them for the girl who broke his heart. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were at the top of their games in the movie. Bogart is the quintessential cynical, macho man hiding softness and extreme hurt under his veneer. His eyes speak his pain and to see his tender side in the flashback sequences of those happier days in Paris is heart breaking. Ingrid Bergman was rightly hailed as one of the classic beauties of her time. As the woman who betrays for a higher purpose and torn between love and duty, she is perfection. In this tale of lost love, intrigue and redemption, every actor plays his part. The local prefect of police, played impeccably by Claude Rains, deserves special mention as the self proclaimed corrupt opportunist who has a change of heart. 'Round up the usual suspects' is his final punch line.

The scenes that remain engrained in the minds of its audience are plenty. The scene where Ilsa asks Rick's friend Sam, the cafe's piano player, to play the song they shared in those golden Paris days 'As Time Goes By' and when Sam renders it, Rick's reprimandation only to come face to face with Ilsa is almost heart stopping. The night when Ilsa comes to explain her betrayal only to face Rick's drunken wrath, the request and then battle for the exit visas by Ilsa leading to an emotionally charged sequence are memorable. Arousing in its patriotism is the scene when Laszlo drowns the Nazi singing in the cafe by a powerful rendition of the French national anthem. The movie is blessed with a perfectly choreographed climax where action meets thrill meets love and ultimately sacrifice.

Rarely do things fall so perfectly in place as in the case of Casablanca. Perfect casting shook hands with a tight script sprinkled with timeless dialogues and emotions. The direction, music, editing, cinematography are top notch. The time it captured, when the world was in the throes of threat from a totalitarian regime, and the emotions it evokes are right on. 'Casablanca' remains one of the ultimates in motion picture history and a worthy addition to any film connoisseurs library. Love, heartbreak and intrigue never joined hands to create such magic again.

Originally released in 1942
Available on DVD
Oscar Award winner for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Amores Perros - Interwoven tales of loss

'Amores Perros' loosely translated into English as 'Love's a bitch' heralded the glorious debut of Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has since gone on to make path breaking cinema such as '21 Grams', the hugely popular 'Babel' and one of my personal favorites this year, the brilliant 'Biutiful' whose review you can find in one of my earlier posts. Ambitiously scripted by novelist Guillermo Arrianga, the movie tells us three separate tales of people belonging to different socioeconomic strata in Mexico city, their lives connected by one accident, loss and the relationship they share with their dogs.
First is the story of 'Octavio and Susana'. Played by the ever talented Gael Garcia Bernal, Octavio is in love with his brutish brother's young wife Susana (Vanessa Bauche). Belonging below the poverty line, theirs' is a world where meagre income is supplemented by performing hold ups at convenience stores or fighting dogs. Octavio needs money to run away with Susana, who succumbs to his ardor in the face of a violent husband. Money comes unexpectedly and how from his dog Cofi, who accidentally proves himself to be a dog killing machine. Octavio invests this ability of Cofi's in the murky world of dog fights and all seems to be going great till one day a rival dog owner turns his gun on Cofi.

The second tale is that of 'Daniel and Valeria'. Valeria (Goya Toledo) is a supermodel whose face is plastered on the billboards all over the city. She is in a relationship with Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero) who has left his wife and children to be with her. Together with her dog Richie, they are starting out in a luxury apartment when the hand of fate strikes a cruel blow. An accident leaves Valeria in a wheelchair sitting at home all day looking at her own billboard outside the window. To further this blow, her dog while fetching a ball disappears in some open space under the floorboards. There are rats living down there and Valeria is scared for him, imploring and then fighting with Daniel to get him back. It is almost as if by rescuing him, she can somehow undo her own tragedy. But fate is not quite finished with her.

The last tale is that of Chivo, played by Emilio Echevarria, an aging vagabond pushing a cart and living out of trash cans. Accompanying him is a motley of stray dogs he cares for. A former professor who had given up his job and home with wife and baby for his guerilla cause and then spent decades in prison, he now performs the odd hit job. He also pines for his daughter who has grown up thinking her father is dead.

The three tales, on their own, would make for wonderful introspective cinema. Here these rich tales are entwined by an accident at the very beginning of the movie which hurtles us into a non linear time play. One tale sets off a chain of events that leads to another tale and the third, lurking in the shadows of the first two stories, comes to life towards the end. I have seen most of Inarritu's works to be aware that it is a technique that he has used with much success over time. This trick of time play and interconnected stories, now known as hyperlink cinema, is never as daring as in '21 Grams', a tour de force he followed on the heels of 'Amores Perros'.
Inarritu's characters are strong manifestations of the tragedy of the human heart. No matter the  socioeconomic level, there is pain in every tale. A boy who loves and loses everything, a woman who had the world at her feet only to literally lose it all. An old man who has lost everything and is now trying to find redemption. Running common is their immense bond with dogs. Chivo has lost human contact and forms a bond with stray dogs, also whom the world has forgotten. For Valeria, the only faithful companion of a lonely woman tied to her wheelchair, is the lil pooch always ready to provide the  time and attention she craves. For Octavio, his dog becomes his passport to a better life, a fresh start. A word of warning to the viewers, especially dog lovers like myself, the scenes of violence towards dogs can be quite stomach churning. It is a good thing they put a disclaimer at the onset that no dogs were hurt during filming. But the love between dog and his master is at the core of each tale. Where the human touch may fail, there are these ever faithful companions.

'Amores Perros' was the beginning of the wonderful cinematic path Inarritu has carved for himself in the last decade. He understands the pain in relations and in solitude as well as the human ability to live with that pain. The movie takes off to a gritty, thunderous start, reminding one of a Tarantino film, only to slow down and linger over its characters and their world, letting the viewers intimately into their longings and has their stories wash over us. This kind of quietly detailed observance of lives and emotions lead to great human drama. These are characters that continue to intrigue long after the end credits have rolled. A hallmark of remarkable moviemaking.

Available on DVD
Originally released in 2000
In Spanish with English subtitles
Oscar Nominated in 2001 for Best Foreign Language Film

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Black Swan - The horror of perfection

The pursuit of perfection has never been so scary. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a sometimes over the top, yet always attention grabbing take on the toll that, honing of talent to its ultimate level, might take on a person's psyche. A ballet company in New York city is the stage and the focus is on its central ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She has replaced the long time central dancer Beth, portrayed hauntingly by Winona Ryder, to play the lead role of the twin swans in a new stripped down, visceral production of Tchaikovsky's classic 'Swan Lake'.

This is the opportunity Nina has been waiting for her whole life. Living a claustrophobic life in a small apartment with an overbearing mother who is a former corps de ballet dancer, played by Barbara Hershey, Nina had been honing her craft to perfection except for one vital overlook, the savoring of the many experiences of life, so important for her art. Life means the company's grueling hours and practice, a home where the child in her is preserved in the stuffed animals and the pink of her room and the subway commute in between.  The company's director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is quick to point that though perfect as the virginal white swan Odette, Nina would have a hard time bringing the seductive, alluring evil black swan, Odile to life. She has the technique down pat, now she needs to feel the emotions.

There is then the new import from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis) who is the antithesis of all Nina represents. She would be a perfect Black swan, fearless, confident, the joy of experiencing life writ on her face. She is the understudy. The pressure to perfect the role, feel it, begins Nina's spiraling to madness. The lines between reality and role play blurs. Trapped inside the sweet, unsure, dominated Nina, the black swan flutters to life. The dark side emerges leading us through a maze where Nina rebels, experiences pleasures of the flesh, lives life a little, hallucinates her doppelganger, before envy and insecurity threaten to kill the white swan in her forever.

Though set in the world of ballet, the subject could find any profession, especially in the performing or athletic world where competition reigns and age is a bar, and be as effective. In order to perfect her craft, Nina loses herself in ballet. A world where it takes years and many injuries to hone one's talent and reach the coveted position only to have it taken away all too soon at the hands of age or competition. It is merciless and we see it in Beth's rude dismissal and her tragedy. Nina is headed in that direction. She sees it and yet cannot stop her own descent into madness, in trying to possess her character.

There is a sense of claustrophobia running through the film. It is in the cameras that focus on Nina's face and actions, not wanting us to miss a detail of her change. It is present in her daily commute, the camera always looking over her shoulder. It is dominant in her home and in the behavior of her mother. Mummy's little girl. Mummy cuts her nails, mummy watches over her in her sleep. Mummy is always there, smothering. Think 'Carrie'. Their bond is a testament how Nina never had a chance to grow her own wings. It is also present in the crammed spaces of the company studio and the domination and manipulation of her director, Thomas, in order to extract the perfect Odile out of a frigid Nina.

Natalie Portman must have waited all these years to showcase her abilities as an actress. The achingly lovely child artist turned haunting beauty, has shown sparks in 'Anywhere but here', 'Closer' and other titles. But this was the role she could sink her teeth and psyche into. The sweet girl pushed over the edge by her own ambition and insecurity and the swift descent into paranoia is captured in closeups and mid shots. There is no room for error here. Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel are all highly effective in their roles and lend able support to a downward spiraling Nina.

As a director, Aronofsky has always pushed his characters to their darkest limits. His previous work 'The Wrestler' almost acts as a companion piece to 'Black Swan'. Both movies have the leads pushing themselves beyond human limits perfecting their art and then some. The dark recesses of the mind are what Aronofsky loves playing with. Its capacity to be driven to delusions and hallucinations through inner turmoil compounded by external factors was as evident in 'Requiem for a dream' as in 'Black Swan'. By the end, we are no longer sure of what we see. Is it real or are we a part of Nina's elaborate hallucinations. The scope of a movie like this is in being anything but subtle. Staged in the ballet world, notorious for its fierce competitiveness and arduous work, Aronofsky,  reaching into the locked dark side of Nina, takes us into semi horror mode as the demons unleash. It is somewhat over the top and to some  might appear cheesy, but it works, aided by some marvelous camera work and extremely gritty cinematography.

The closing line of the film has its lead mouthing 'I felt it and it was perfect'. But what a journey to have such perfection and at what cost. Treat it as a part horror flick, the study of the formation of paranoia, but what I take with me is the hidden price of perfection, of becoming a part, which is a side effect common to many top players of the performance world. When does reality blur into role playing and how deep should performers make that connect with their character. Add to it cutthroat competition and obvious manipulation, isn't Nina's shoes easy to fill? And that for me, is the real horror.

Available on DVD
Oscar award winner 2010 for Best Actress in a lead role
Originally released in 2010