Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rabbit Hole - Aftermath of Loss

'Rabbit Hole' takes us down a path where most parents would dread to tread with the weight of their worst nightmare. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, based on the pulitzer prize winning play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire, we face the world of a seemingly normal well off suburban couple, Becca and Howie, played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Except that it is not. Eight months ago, they had faced the worst tragedy imaginable to any parent, the loss of their four year old son in an accident. This is the story of how parents can maybe hope to get on with life after unimaginable loss.

Every individual deals with the process of grieving differently. Howie spends his evenings watching videos on his cell phone, of their little boy. He joins group therapy sessions with his reluctant wife. She, in fact, quits immediately, but for him its a way to cope with loss. There he finds a sympathetic ear in Gaby (Sandra Oh), a fellow mourner whose marriage has fallen victim to similar tragedy. They occasionally smoke pot in the car and try for at least a while, to forget the pain.

Becca finds therapy self righteous. 'If God needed another angel, why didn't he just make one...after all he is God' she quips when another couple tries to make sense of their own loss. In fact more then Howie, it is her character which is in a state of flux. She tries to appear normal, be happy about hearing of the pregnancy of her sister. She plans on giving her son's old clothes to her, which is obviously an uncomfortable moment for her family. She tries to erase memories. Her matter of fact manner hides pain and when pain of such intensity lacks an outlet, the grieving process never truly takes off.

She has a fellow mourner in her mother (Dianne Wiest) who had lost her adult son to a drug overdose and can well see the toll that tragedy is taking on Becca. When Becca chances upon the teenager (Miles Teller,) whose car had hit their son running out of the house chasing the family dog, she tries to reach out and make a connection. All this leads to a collage of moments and emotions where the characters try to figure out how to keep moving. As Becca's mother points out in one of the high points of the movie, the pain never really goes away. However in time, it becomes a rock we carry around in our pockets, sometimes even forget about it...but it always remains and we remember it and keep it, because it is the only thing left of our child.

Being mother to a small child myself, I was wary of seeing the movie. Coming out of it, I see it as the right way to deal with such a topic. While the grief is palpable, the movie also retains the humor of the characters. It is often funny, touching, insightful and always subtle. The director and more importantly the writer, knew the dangers of falling into the pitfalls of this genre and avoid every trick. We are spared of the actual incident, the shocked heartbreak of the parents. When we meet Becca and Howie, they are beginning to come out of the numb state that often follows such tragedies and are searching for ways to cope with it. The teenager is not untouched either. Though he did nothing wrong and it was one of those senseless tragedies, he carries a burden with him. What if he had not turned on that street? Was he over the speed limit by a digit or two? In each other, Becca and the boy find an unlikely outlet to their grief.

Nicole Kidman is one of the finest actors of her generation. In spite of the big name and glamour she has in Hollywood, Nicole has managed to find those small projects where grief and despair run undercurrent. The porcelain face combined with a stony demeanor is the perfect palette for a dignified, stoic personality. There are no hysterics. What we get is the chill of pain. She embodies Becca perfectly and the buildup of her grief and its final release is so effective. Watch her outburst in the grocery store against a mother denying her child a candy. Or when she sees the teenagers heading to the prom and knows that will never be for her son. Likewise, Aaron Eckhart is good as the man who grieves but cannot relate to the bottling up of his wife's feelings. He wants to move on and even though in appearance it would seem Becca is ready, he knows she is not. A word for Dianne Wiest, Becca's mom. Her eyes speak of the compassion, understanding and sadness she feels for her daughter's loss.

The rabbit hole that Alice fell in showed her an alternate reality. Here the teenager is crafting a comic book by that name which shows one as well. Becca wonders "could there be another me somewhere, happy". Its a comfort certainly, knowing there is another us somewhere, untouched by the weight of a pain we just have to learn to bear. How easy it would be to just escape into it. As things stand, here and now is the burden we have to get through.

Available on DVD
Nominated for an Oscar - 'Best Actress in a Leading role'
Originally released in 2010

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hereafter - Touched by Afterlife

'Hereafter' deals with three facets of afterlife. The tale of the gifted psychic, the seeker and the one touched by it. All three are believers. Directed by auteur Clint Eastwood, the movie provides a somewhat stilted study on the effect afterlife may have on its living counterparts. It sweeps off with the depiction of the Indian ocean Tsunami. Caught in its massive waves is a vacationing French journalist Marie, played by Belgian actress Cecile De France, who hovers at death's doors till she is rescued by some locals. That period of time has her privy to a world where the living are not allowed but always curious about, in their belief or otherwise. The touch of afterlife changes her perception of life.

In San Francisco, there resides a gifted man named George (played with accurate subtlety by Matt Damon). It's just that the gift is more a curse he lives trying to avoid, costing him any chance at an ordinary life. With the touch of a hand, he can communicate with the dead near ones of the living. A thriving career can be made of it, and that was the case with George till he, unlike a lot of pseudo psychics, couldn't live holding the keys to two worlds at one time.

The third tale and indeed the most touching and heartbreaking is that of the little seeker Marcus, whose world is shattered by the loss of his twin brother, his only refuge in the house of an alcoholic, junkie mother. Played alternatingly by twin brothers, George and Frankie McLaren, Marcus is desperate for a connection with his twin. It leads him to a world of psychic hocus pocus, where the intention is, more largely than not, of fleecing the grieving in desperate search of a contact with their loved lost. The tales move individually till they collide in an unconvincing climax. What else can we expect in a world where Babel and Crash have ruled. Though how Clint Eastwood, a filmmaker I hold in extreme regard, could fall for the trap eludes me especially as it is nowhere as effective as the previously mentioned titles.

This is a story with tremendous potential. The movie takes off with a shine and is believable at times. The Tsunami sequence, all wonderful CGI, is very effective. Marcus's loss and the changing of his world is sad and very real. The solemn faced boy's quest for a connection with his dead twin is palpable and a mirror to the grieving, who will go to any extents to exact some connection. The encounters are comical and Marcus senses the sham and yet, as the grieving often do, keeps looking for that one real deal.

The fact that Matt Damon's character aches for a chance at normalcy is obvious from the claustrophobically solitary world he tries escaping from, joining a cooking class. There he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) a sweet, talkative girl with demons of her own. How a budding relationship is nipped by George's gift, shows us the doomed state of his social life and the curse of that gift. But the lackluster narration eventually takes a toll. I waited to be convinced that Marie's life had indeed changed. She cannot concentrate at work and takes time off to write about the existence of the otherworld. Very plausible, however I ached for the development of this character. Nothing came except a fight to get her book published and being jilted by her opportunist lover.

My grouse with the screenplay is that once the characters are established, which is very well done across the board, their graphs don't really go anywhere except towards the end in what seems a hurried and contrived conclusion to their tales. I would have been happier if the characters had just kept sailing on their independent journeys. The seeker, the truly gifted and the one touched by it. How life holds for all three. Clint Eastwood is a director who has taken shoddy, overtly sentimental material and given them a quite dignity, making them important cinema. 'The Bridges of Madison County' and 'Million dollar Baby' are two examples of an art he has mastered. Here he somehow fails, falling prey to cliches and obvious conclusions. Marcus loses focus and suddenly becomes the mediator of a potential romance which is so apparent, one can see it a mile coming and hope against hope Eastwood walks the other direction.

The music composed by Eastwood himself, is melancholy and in keeping with the mood of the theme. The performances are subtle and the actors all slip into their introspective characters effortlessly.  Afterlife is a strong subject and in that, it gets my respect. This movie is not so much about the other world, what might it be like there as it is about the people in this world affected by it. I did wonder if Eastwood believed in his subject though. Why did he not delve deeper into the potential torture associated with too much knowledge, especially with Marie's character, which started the strongest. Even George, except for the delightful little wannabe romance at cookery class, seems at sea.

This will be a movie with its share of advocates, I am sure. But it is not work that Eastwood will be remembered for. We have seen his capability and know how deep and true his cinema can ring. This doesn't, but I am willing to wait for the next one that will.

Available on DVD
Originally released in 2010

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Children are Watching Us - Betrayal at its cruelest

A child's security blanket is his family. Yank it and watch his world crumble irrevocably. Vittorio De Sica's 1944 Italian feature tells a bone chilling dark tale of the crumbling of one such little boy's world. Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) is a five year old, secure in his world of mama, papa and caring housekeeper. One fine day playing at the park, he witnesses his mother (Isa Pola) having a conversation with a stranger (Adriano Rimoldi). He senses something amiss and, as a child's instincts usually are, is correct. That night mama puts him lovingly to bed and runs away with the stranger.

Between sunset and the next morning, his life is changed. A devastated father (Emilio Cigoli) who doesn't know how to face his nosy neighbors, first deposits little Prico to his aunty's home and then with his grandmother.   The little boy pines for his lost world. A while later, the remorseful mother is back in Prico's life and his world feels whole again. Mama, Papa and Prico. The family tries to rebuild itself. But a short vacation taken at a seaside resort forever destroys Prico's world.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the premier makers of Italian neorealism, the genre made famous during the end of World War II, featuring mostly non professional actors and having a realist aesthetic, focussing on the lives and problems of the ordinary man. He went on to make textbook examples of the genre in 'The Bicycle Thieves', a movie that remains popular to this day (wait for my review on it) and later Umberto D. But many consider 'The children are watching us' as one of the first seeds to be planted, sprouting the movement. The world De Sica shows us here is oblivious to the war Italy was in at the time of the movie. It might have something to do with fact that in a child's innocent world, only his family is at peril.

De Sica carefully shows us the film through Prico's understanding and it remains that way till its tragic end. Adults, too caught up in their own romantic notions, hurt, betrayals, sometime forget that the children who are being tended, are also watching us. Caught between his mother's romantic notions and his father's hurt, and the only selfish act his father, wrapped in his own betrayal, commits in the movie's emotionally charged climax, is a boy who loses his innocence forever, too early. De Sica in his rendering of the final sequence shows that even children that young wisen up. Fool me badly once, shame on you. Fool me badly twice, the shame is on me.

The actors perform well, with the father doing a fine job as the jilted man who must remain strong for his son and later forgive his wife for the sake of family and instill romance in the relationship. A simple, staid man who tries, till he can't. But the scene stealer is that little boy whose eyes we view the entire movie through. Heartbreakingly innocent with a wide eyed wonder at the vagaries of adults, later turning into despair and hopelessness, he lets his eyes do the talking. The last betrayal and his reaction in the climax where he makes his choice, shows a maturity in performance far beyond his years.

There is a lesson here for all parents. We bring children into the world, nurture them and hopefully they grow into secure, intelligent, happy adults. What happens when we forget them, in pursuit of our own whims and pleasures? Every human has a right to happiness, but can it be at the cost of these innocent beings we choose to birth. Wounds formed so early can turn deadly, forever marking a person. I recently read Michael Cunningham's 'The Hours' which had a similar segment on the abandonment of a child by his mother and the irreparable damage it had done to the psyche of the boy and the emotions he carried through life as a result. I wondered at the end how little Prico would turn out, due to one callous act of a parent.

'The children are watching us' is timeless and important. The emotions remain relevant through the decades. This tale of condemnation of selfish parental behavior robbing a child's innocence needs to be seen, then thought about and maybe used as an example. They are small, do not understand much, do not need much. However, they are so perceptive to their family boat rocking, that the ripples can continue throughout their lives. Prico's disappearance into his solitary world at the end shows us the importance of reevaluating our relationship with these little beings.

In Italian with English subtitles
Originally released in 1944
Available on DVD

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Citizen Kane - The Elusive Rosebud

Can a single word ever explain a man's life? Perhaps but most likely not. And yet it can be a clue to an enigmatic life led. Heralded to be the best film ever made, by AFI, 'Citizen Kane' is a lesson in the fine amalgamation of the various tool of film making. Orson Welles, a successful radio and theatre actor and director, got complete artistic control by RKO Radio Pictures to make a feature and thus came about Citizen Kane in 1941, written, acted, produced and directed by him.

The movie opens at the deathbed of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper tycoon in his palatial estate 'Xanadu', uttering arguably the most famous word in the history of cinema 'Rosebud'. A sensational obituary is then paid showing us who Kane was. An enterprising millionaire, he bought a dying daily 'New York Inquirer' at the age of 25 and went about establishing a media empire and more, becoming the world's richest man. His personal life held marriage to the president's niece, Emily Norton ( Ruth Warrick) and then after a divorce, a second to a singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). He pursued politics harboring great dreams only to have it all thwarted due to scandal in his personal life. The great depression brought about the  eventual downfall of his empire and his last days were spent as a recluse in his unfinished palace.

All these facts are laid bare within minutes into the movie. What we the audience set out on, is a journey to find the meaning of 'Rosebud', his last utterance. We follow a journalist as he attempts to uncover the mystery behind the word, interviewing all the people who were close to Kane at various stages of his life. We peek into a childhood snatched away too soon as he comes into big money and his mother has him sent away to a boarding school for tutoring, befitting a rich man. We see his rise as the ambitious  idealist, how heady power makes in way to his psyche and his subsequent downfall as a lonely old man the world has long ceased to pay heed to.

His love for two women, the first, Emily where coldness befalls their marriage. The scenes depicting their growing distance are brilliant. Over breakfast through the years, we can actually see a marriage disintegrate. Later the love he finds in Susan turns almost maniacal in which he takes it upon himself to turn her into an opera singer. The fact is naked to the world, to Susan and to Kane that she does not possess such talent. Yet, his pride and money prod on to get her platforms showcasing her non talent. Is it love or does he have to prove a point to the world. Did Kane ever really understand love. More importantly did he let anyone get that close to feel love. Or had a shield formed around him since childhood abandonment. He wants love on his own terms, says a former friend.

Citizen Kane is said to have been based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Indeed a great many parallels can be drawn of both their professional and personal lives. However, citizen Kane also paved the path of Orson Welles's own life to a great extent. The radical rise of Welles so early in his career and then a slow descent, the man that Welles was to become eventually, makes many see the similarities in retrospect.

Citizen Kane is remarkable in more ways than one. With a story always topical, the content is as fresh today as it was 70 years ago. The acting is top notch, the cast members all part of Welles theatrical group fresh to the big screen, including Welles himself in the title role, aging magnificently through a period of 40 odd years. What leaves a stunning impact is the technique of filming this movie, on a low budget. It broke new grounds in cinematography. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer and Welles used innovative methods such as deep focus, contrast between light and shadow, lots of silhouettes, low angle shots of Kane, showing the stature of the man. Clever setting of scenes and camera angles give the frames an opulence, the shot taking always relevant to the significance of the scene. Also impactful is the non linear narrative. As every character talks about their interaction with Kane, the movie runs in its own circle of time.

Watching the movie 70 years after its arrival, I am blown away by how near perfect a movie this is. As I saw the movie a second time on DVD, with the commentary of the great film critic Roger Ebert, I appreciated how critical this movie was for the future of modern day motion picture as we know it. Several scenes are etched in my memory forever. The scene where Susan gives her opera performance and the focus on Kane's face and the applause that follows, the immaculate filming of the scene where a mother signs away her son with him innocently playing in the snow visible clearly in the background thanks to deep focus lenses. The initial shot of the film where the focus goes in from the gates of Xanadu to its palace and inhabitant in almost a gothic shot, and then the closing shot which after showing us Rosebud takes us out of that palace and gates, same way as we entered it. On the gate is the sign 'No Trespassing', a giveaway of the man Kane was. The movie comes full circle.

What defined Charles Foster Kane? When does idealism and integrity give way to power and meglomanism? And at the end of it all, does any of it matter. Does Kane pine somewhere for that little boy who lost his innocence too early. The scene with him holding the snow globe after Susan leaves, with resignation and sad longing in his eyes, is evidence. Might a simple life have been better, or does it only seem better because he doesn't have it. Isn't what eludes us, hold us forever in its grasp? Isn't 'Rosebud' always the one thing we don't have, that we long for.

Available on DVD
Originally released in 1941

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Day I Became a Woman - Flight of Womanhood

Depicting the different phases of a woman's life, Iranian director Marzieh Meshkini's debut feature is a triptych signifying the oppression of women in a strictly patriarchal society. Based on a story by her husband, one of Iran's premier filmmakers Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 'The Day I Became a Woman' is a lyrical tale of the status of women in a country where their relevance is relegated to the suppression they are subjected to.

The first story 'Hava' is the tale of a young girl on her ninth birthday, when her mother and grandmother are ready to don the black chador on her, as her time has come to embrace womanhood according to Islamic law. From this day on, her world of innocent play with boys has to meet an end. Hava seeks one last playtime with her best friend Hassan and is granted that as she was born at noon and till the shadow disappears from a stick planted on the ground, she will not officially turn nine. The camera follows her last moments of freedom where she shares a lollipop with her friend. An impending sense of doom hangs in the air where a child will be removed too soon from innocence and her life of subjugation will set in. The black chador signifies forever the loss of free play.

Hereon we are transported to the second powerful tale of 'Ahoo'.  A man on horseback is chasing a group of women in a cycle race. His wife Ahoo, is a participant. At first the man pleads with her to stop cycling with her bad leg and then threatens her with divorce if she doesn't get off the devil's mount immediately. There is very little by way of dialogue. Ahoo is mute to the threats. Her reply is in the fierce determination which shines on her face and in her furious pedaling. The husband gets the old priest who had married them and later her family members to put a stop to her disobedience. The priest performs the dreaded verbal divorce on horseback itself. The sad plight of womanhood. With the desert on one side and the sea on the other, a bunch of chador clad women pedaling away ferociously, the segment is a visual feast. The lengthy dialogues and emotional clutter are done away with. Ahoo's expressions are enough of a glimpse into her assumably miserable married life.

The final part 'Hoora' talks of an old woman who gets off the plane and finds a group of boys to wheel her into a glittering mall and then proceeds to buy all the materialistic things she has been deprived of her entire life. A refrigerator, TV, furniture, cookware, all things to beautify a house, are carted by the group of boys into the beach where they wait for boats to carry off the goods. The sequence thereafter adopts  a surreal dreamlike state. Two young woman approach the old lady asking for all the worldly goods, to give as dowry for their marriage. But the old lady's fierce attachment to the things hint of the way of women in her society, being deprived.

'The Day I Became a Woman' sends out a strong message, of the treacherous journey of women in a terrain of subjugation at the hands of men.  The stories are set in the southern part of Iran, on the idyllic Kish island. The focus is on the tribes settled there. Ever since the reign of the Islamic fundamentalist Khomeini, the women in Iran have being relegated to the background. The most basic social rights have become a battle being fought for to this day. The worldview of the Islamic fundamentalists describe women as a source of sin who must be controlled at all times. Hava, Ahoo and Hoora embody the victims of this warped belief.

Meshkini uses a unique voice for her debut. Each tale is punctuated with very few words. There is none of those lengthy dialogues, debates and explanations which often plague this genre. The visuals are stunning with the scenes taking on tones of magic realism. The sparse emotional landscape of the movie makes it all the more effective. We don't know the back stories, where these women come from to occupy their brief time on film, and what shall eventually become of them. Yet we are well equipped to make an educated guess. Some thoughts don't need to be spelt out, their implication is chilling enough.

Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play
In Farsi with English subtitles
Originally released in 2000