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