Friday, March 30, 2012

Sideways - Of Men and their Wine

I have seen Sideways before, more than once. The movie has, like aging wine, opened itself for new meaning and interpretation with each viewing. It has remained one of my personal favorite films depicting the quirkiness of human nature, the sadness and longings of the human heart and the celebration of life even in its failure. Truly a slice of life in itself. Directed by one of America's most consistent filmmakers, Alexander Payne, Sideways takes a road trip in Southern California's wine country and makes the life of wine an allegory to aging and discovering oneself on life's long and often twisted road. Unlike wine which only grows richer with age, life hands out a lot of wild cards.

Miles (Paul Giamatti in the role of a lifetime), a middle school English teacher and writer waiting to be published, picks up his best friend since college, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) for a week in wine country. Jack gets married the following week and this is their last getaway. Lots of wine and golf is on the menu but Jack is looking for a detour in one last fling before the shackles of matrimony bind him. He hits it soon enough with a pourer in a wine tasting room, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). To arrange a double date, they find Stephanie's friend Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant that Miles frequents. He has liked her from afar, her knowledge and passion of wine finds a kinship with him. While Jack gets going with Stephanie weaving lies of love and relationship in the process and playing daddy to her little child, Miles is hesitant, shy and unable to bridge the distance with a wise, openly warm and lovely Maya. Except for their shared love and knowledge of wine.

There is a scene in Sideways which I have carried with me through the years and even on my recent viewing realized that its charm has not diminished in any measure. On a double date while Jack and Stephanie indulge in the pleasures of the flesh in Stephanie's trailer home, Maya and Miles open a bottle of wine and talk. They talk of Mile's love for Pinot. He starts to describe Pinot and after a while he is talking about himself and the understanding is so lovingly reflected in Maya's eyes. The growth, complexity and maturity of wine has a lot to do with life. 'A bottle of wine opened today will taste different than it will taste on any other day'. Kind of like life itself.

Sideways is about middle aged people for whom life is passing by too quickly. You either grab every moment you can seize to live before its all up, like Jack does. Its interesting to see a man so easily cheat on the girl he is to marry in less than a week, weave a fantasy life with a pourer from Buelton, with whom he may share nothing in common and be absolutely guilt free. And yet he is not unlikeable.  Selfish yes, but I somehow understood him. And then there is Miles, our center of the movie, disillusioned, cynical, battling depression and divorce, downing alchohol and zanax, edging towards steady decline. 'I am so insignificant, I cant even kill myself', he says. The man with the resigned, world weary eyes. He finds a surprising steady hand in Maya, of the kind, understanding eyes. These are flesh and blood people, not just characters populating the screen. That is so rare. The performances are tremendous and real, all across the board. It was in fact, a criminal act leaving Paul Giamatti out of the Oscar race for this one.

Alexander Payne, who had made 'Election' and 'About Schmidt' before and 'The Descendants' since, is arguably the best maker of character studies of these American men who have seen better days and lost that zing for living. His characters are seldom successful, happy and have it all figured out. He has an affinity and understanding for the average middle aged American male and humanizes them in these lovable human comedies he creates. They are funny and yet sad and so lifelike. A filmmaker with the rare ability to pause and truly take in human nature. A word, if you are watching 'Sideways', look deeply for the pauses and reflections of the characters, study the silences and see how true they ring.

Originally released in 2004
Available on DVD
Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay
My Rating: 5/5

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kahaani - What a Story!

Hindi films in the past have not been known for its mysteries. Blatantly making half baked copies from Hollywood cinema or sometimes looking to East Asian countries for inspiration, original plots have not been explored for decades in this terrain till a movie like 'Kahaani' arrives to change all that and how. Sujoy Ghosh, who debuted with the thoroughly enjoyable 'Jhankaar Beats' before meandering to commercially viable fluff, has regained his soul to craft a gripping story of a heavily pregnant woman landing in the city of Joy, Kolkata, in search of her missing husband. And in that lies a tale.

A chillingly crafted sequence of a biochemical gas attack in the busy Kolkata Metro sets off a chain of events when 2 years later Vidya Vekatesan Bagchi (Vidya Balan in her usual fine form) emerges from the Kolkata airport, to hail a cab to the police station and file a missing person report of her husband, Arnab Bagchi. Having come on an assignment for the National Data Centre(NDC) from their London home, he has disappeared into thin air such that the rundown guest house he stayed in has no evidence of his stay and neither does NDC own up to any employee of that name. However, the lone photograph of Arnab's that Vidya carries, points to a strong resemblance with a former NDC employee, Milan Dhamji. The case starts getting murky when the HR lady at NDC who points to the resemblance, is bumped off and the Intelligence Bureau get involved. From here, its a joyride of twists and turns with moles in government agencies, contract killings, dual identities, suspect motives. Nothing is as it seems as we race with Vidya on her dangerous mission.

Amidst the chills the plot keeps throwing at us, what stands out are the performances of an extremely competent cast, for most of whom Hindi movies is virgin territory. Predominantly Bengali actors rule as they get the nuances of their characters pat with the language, the expressions, the mannerisms. Parambrata Chattopadhyay's Rana as the mild mannered, infatuated rookie sub inspector is the perfect foil to Vidya's fearless, headstrong woman on a quest act. Together they ignite the search with equal amounts of urgency and sweet relief. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's short tempered, foul mouthed bureau officer Khan who regards a couple of human lives lost as collateral damage in the the larger scheme, is pitch perfect. Especially worthy of mention is the seemingly bumbling, mild insurance agent Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) who greets with a smile and moonlights as a contract killer. Positively chilling! Apart from these supporting acts, the police officer at the local station who says 'in Kolkata Vidya, Bidya all is same' loving pointing the inability of bengalis to pronounce the alphabet V, the zero star hotel owner, the little boy who runs with hot water at the beck of the hotel guests are all memorable.

But carrying the movie on her very pregnant gait, is Vidya Balan, a consistently fine performer who improves with each role. The recent National award winner, the last legitimate film awards in India, brings to her character a mix of dogged determination, vulnerability, strength and motherhood all culminating to a fascinating climax where the layers are peeled and Durga (the Hindu Bengali mother Goddess) is revealed. Take a bow, Vidya. She safely joins the annals of fine female performers like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Tabu and their likes. The other hero of the movie has to be Kolkata, the city that is captured in all its hues. The goodness of the locals to the spine chilling of the bylanes and dilapidating buildings, the lit Howrah bridge, kumartuli idol makers and the joyous burst of the celebration of Durga Puja all come alive under the extremely able cinematography of Setu. Sharp editing by Namarata Rao keeps the movie running at nail biting pace.

And 'the mother of stories' indeed has a fine tale to tell. Scripted meticulously by Advaita Kala and Sujoy Ghosh, the movie is akin to reading a layered mystery where the audience is always running to catch up to the author's game and when the explosive climax occurs, the steps are traced back and we are all too happy to have been outsmarted. 'Kahaani' is the finest original thriller/mystery to have come out of the Hindi film industry since the black and white/ early color era of chills that Hindi cinema had mastered with 'Woh Kaun Thi', 'Teesri Manzil', 'Bees Saal Baad' and 'Mera Saaya' to name a few. After decades we are back in business with Kahaani. This atmospheric mystery indeed stands tall in the tale it renders.  

Originally Released in 2012
Running in theatres
In Hindi with English subtitles
My rating:4.5/5