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