Sunday, November 27, 2016

Arrival (2016)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
DOP: Bradford Young
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

A linguist is recruited by the military to translate alien communications after 12 alien vessels lands in different locations around the world including one in Montana. While different countries initially coordinate together to share the information they learn about aliens, this arrangement breaks down eventually when they try to pinpoint the purpose of their visit.

The monolithic space craft in the film is the very obvious but what seems a mandatory reference for every space related film to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film's treatment is quite similar to how it was in 'Signs' with the emphasis on what impact it does have on the characters rather than on the aliens or a confrontation. The tagline of the film is 'Why are they here?' and it kind of leads to a somewhat anti-climactic reasoning. Interstellar had a very cringe worthy explanation of 'Love' communicating over space and time and when compared to that, Arrival's message of countries from all around the earth having to unite together and coordinate is executed and conveyed much better. The obvious allusion is to the threat of climate change and global warming. When you come to think of it, the prevailing idea in this genre that aliens would want to invade earth is quite preposterous since them being here itself is proof of their superior intellect. I guess the easy comparison to our own history of colonialism is the reason for this narrative.

Arrival is an adaptation of short story 'Story of your life' by Ted Chiang. A major theme explored in the film is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It posits that the structure of a language affects its speakers' cognition or thought process. The film proposes that when you learn a new language, you begin to think in terms of that language. The alien language in the film has a unique feature which gives the linguist character, played by Amy Adams, a unique ability. The twist in the end would make you see many prior scenes from the film in a new light. Film had begun with Amy Adams kissing her new born baby which looks misleadingly like a still-born. That scene makes total sense in the end.

It is visually a gorgeous film in a foreboding sense when combined with Jóhan Jóhannsson's stunning background score. It sounded quite Indian at times as well. I watched the film with great expectations after the almost perfect reviews that it got and was somewhat underwhelmed by it. Jeremy Renner's character is terribly undercooked and it leads to an unconvincing ending. Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors going around now and it ends up as one of his lesser efforts along with 'Prisoners'. Still, it is a very good watch people have every reason to be excited by his Bladerunner project.

Rating: 3.5/5 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Munroe Island (മണഡ്രോ തുരുത്ത്) (2016)

Director: Manu
Writer: Manu
DOP: Prathap P. Nair
Cast: Indrans, Jason Chacko, Abhija, Alancier Lay
Language: Malayalam 

Keshu, a wayward and mentally quite unstable teenager, and his father comes to their native village Munroe Thuruthu, an island village, where his grandfather lives in their ancestral home with Kathu, the maid. Father wants to take his son for proper psychological treatment while grandfather insists that he is quite normal and some time spent in the village will do him a world of good. Things don't go exactly according to grandfather's plan.

When the grandfather takes father and son to their home on first day, they reach a point from which two roads begin. Grandfather then tells the quite famous riddle of one road going to hell and other to complete freedom and a pathological liar being the only one who could help you find which road is the correct one to take but you can ask him only one question. So the trick is to frame the question in such a way that you could figure out the road from the fact that liar will always tell a lie. The basis of the film, we come to know by end, is this riddle as the grandson claims to have done or planning to do very bad deeds and we and the grandfather are not sure how much of it is true.

Going by the initial premise of the film one would think that it is another redemptive story where the goodness of village is the catalyst for redemption. We are used to films in Malayalam where the protagonist will have some redeeming in the end no matter how bad their characteristics are. The film plays on both of these by going in the opposite manner by keeping us always guessing and without having any sort of resolution at the end. The central plot point of the film revolves around the relation of the three men with Kathu. You cannot really pinpoint the exact nature of these relationships as the only basis for us is based on what the grandson thinks and he is not a reliable figure for us to conclude anything.

This film can be considered as polar opposite to both Rajeev Ravi's 'Njan Steve Lopez' and Padmarajan's 'Moonnam Pakkam'. At a macro level the premise of the film is quite similar to Moonnam Pakkam but the treatment and reverence of its characters are truly opposite. Steve Lopez was a naïve teenager who revolted against the corruption of adults. But in this film it is the older generation who are portrayed as naïve or acting naïve while the new generation calls out on them by exhibiting some extremely bad behaviour. Again, we are not sure whether the grandfather is acting naïve.

It is overall a great watch and works very well as a psychological thriller. It is the second film to be presented by Aashiq Abu after the excellent 'Ozhivudivasathe Kali' but this one got a very limited release with it playing in just two screens. That is a shame because this one could have done very well at the box office since Malayalees are quite fond of psychological thrillers/horror.  Performances from all concerned are good and at 92 minutes, the film is quite rightly edited.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, November 13, 2016

HyperNormalisation (2016)

Director: Adam Curtis
Writer: Adam Curtis

HyperNormalisation is the latest documentary from counter-historian Adam Curtis and it was released last month on BBC iPlayer. In the film, Curtis argues that since the 1970s, governments, financiers, and technological utopians have given up on the complex 'real world' and built a simple 'fake world' that is run by corporations and kept stable by politicians.

Out of all Curtis documentaries, this one I think would be the hardest to explain in rather simple terms. In the aftermath of Trump's presidential election win, we had articles pointing out that Facebook helped him in winning the election because those who rely on Facebook for news tend to be in an echo-chamber where their ideas are not challenged and they kept on being fed what they want to hear because of its algorithm. The basic point about the documentary is that we are living in a times where everyone is searching for a simple narrative and the politicians also follow that. He cites the example of West's relationship with Gaddafi where both of them cynically played the role that the other wanted them to play for the larger audience. The tendency to put blame on supervillains in search of simple narratives. The whole brooha about Saddam Hussein and WMDs after 2001 was just a repeat of how Gaddafi was portrayed in the 80s when the US really knew that it was senior Assad's Syria who were doing it in the 80s. They didn't want to take on Assad then because Reagan's forces were already driven out from Lebanon by Assad's unleashment of Shiite suicide bombers. Of course, everything came back to bite both US and West back because the concept of suicide bombers have mutated now to become more of a Sunni thing. Senior Assad wanted to unite Arab world and now the suicide bombers are tearing it apart.

The catharsis of the documentary comes up with Trump's presidential campaign and how he draws up parallel with Putin's shape shifting reality. It also focuses on Putin's chief enforcer Vladislav Surkov who sees Russia as one big reality show and the same thing is happening in Trump's USA. Last thirty or so years has greatly eroded people's trust in politicians and what it has resulted is that truth of reality is not much important anymore.

The other main strand in the documentary is about how the major movements that started with the help of social media, occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring mainly, have spectacularly failed. You can get people assembled with social media's simple narrative but they don't have an answer to the present system. Liberal left is failing and far right is filling the vacuum all over the World.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Fargo (1996)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
DOP: Roger Deakins
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi 

Jerry Lundegaard's (William H. Macy) inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen's constant bungling and persistent police work of the quite pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

I consider myself to be part of what I call 'outsourced subprime crisis generation'. Meaning that we got a lot of free time due to the fact that we graduated in 2008. This helped us in getting a chance to take a thorough look into the wide world of foreign language cinema. This and the perfect timing of BSNL Broadband (jeez that 2-8AM unlimited download plan!) taking off in a big way around that period. The rite of passage quite often involved starting off with IMDB's top 250 list. You'll learn with experience that IMDB is a crock of shit (stupidity of masses) but that top 250 list was always a good place to start. That is how I remember stumbling on to Fargo and the filmography of Coen Brothers' who are either second or third in my list of favourite directors, depending on my mood, along with Michael Haneke.

Their filmography have been quite amazing from the get go but it was Fargo's success that brought them their limelight. It won them best director award at Cannes and an academy award for best original screenplay. Film is famous for its cold Minnesota setting and very distinctive accent (Yah, you betcha!). Stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins is a given and the excellent BGM was something that I caught on to on rewatch. Events that happen in the film are quite horrific but is depicted in a comedic folksy manner. It is based on a true event but the characterisation is fictional. So you have quite contradicting disclaimers when you go from opening credits to closing credits. Performances from the cast is excellent and the film has spawned a TV series and the Japanese film  Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter.

If I were to rank Coen Bros films that I've watched, it would go something like this:

1. The Big Lebowski
2. Blood Simple
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Fargo
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. O brother, where art thou?
6. Raising Arizona
7. Miller's Crossing
8. Hudsucker Proxy
9. True Grit
10. Burn After Reading
11. Barton Fink
12. Intolerable Cruelty

Rating: 5/5

Monday, October 31, 2016

Traffic (2000)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Simon Moore
DOP: Peter Andrews (Steven Soderbergh)
Cast: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Erika Christensen

An intertwined drama about the United States' War on Drugs, seen through the eyes of a once conservative judge, now newly appointed drug Czar, his crack-addicted daughter, two DEA agents, a jailed- drug kingpin's wife, and a Mexican cop who begins to question his boss' motives.

There are three main storylines in three different geographical locations and the threy are differentiated for the audience by three different colour tones adopted by Steven Soderbergh, who himself handled the camera for the film. I had seen this film many years ago and was hugely impressed by it. I went in for rewatch with some premonition as every War on Drugs films/TV series suffer from post 'The Wire' syndrome as you tend to compare everything with this gold standard. Wire had 60 hours to develope its world and story while Soderbergh gets only less than three hours. Considering that, Traffic matches its ambition and still stands the test of time. Then again, you cannot really compare the two as Traffic is from a white perspective while Wire from a black.

The huge ensemble cast does a terrific job and Benicio del Toro got his Oscar for best supporting actor for this Spanish speaking role. Soderbergh also won the academy award for best director. Film is an adaptation of Channel Four Brirish drama 'Traffik'. Soderbergh cited 'All the President's Men' as an inspiration for the film and I also got reminded of Michael Mann's 'The Insider'. Multiple storyline were quite in vogue during those times and Soderbergh's effort is among the best if you consider it as a genre onto itself.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Director: Martin Brest
Writer: Bo Goldman
DOP: Donald E.Thorin
Cast: Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell, Philip Seymour Hoffman 

A prep school student needing money agree to 'babysit' a blind colonel, over the Thanksgiving weekend,  but the job is not at all what he anticipated.

Scent of a Woman was the film where academy made amends for their past mistakes and gave Al Pacino his first and only Oscar. He is my favourite English language actor of all time and should've already won it for either Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon. His career can be classed into two phases- the initial one characterised by quite subtle performances in films like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon & Godfather and the latter 'Hoohah' years characterised by films like Scarface, Scent of a Woman, Devil's Advocate etc. This division is also quite chronological with the dividing line being his serious illness in the late 70s. He did quite roll back the years for 'The Insider' and 'Donnie Brasco' and gave a mix of the two eras in 'Heat'.

The only other film that I've seen of Martin Brest is the excellent 'Midnight Run' which is a comedy road film featuring Robert De Niro. Both these films are ultimately feel good ones where everything is tied off too well at the end. Midnight Run is the better one in my opinion and how much you like SOAW would depend on how well you take to Pacino's performance. It is not among my favourite performances of his but I still like the film on the whole. Hoo-ha... Philip Seymour Hoffman once again steals everyone's thunder.

My favourite Pacino performances goes something like this:

1. Dog Day Afternoon
2. Godfather
3. Insider
4. Donnie Brasco
5. Heat

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Director: Anthony Minghella
Writers: Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Minghella
DOP: John Seale
Cast: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman

In the late 1950s New-York, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a young underachiever is sent to Italy to retrieve Dickie Greenleaf, a rich spoiled millionaire playboy. But when the errand fails, Ripley takes extreme measures.

Talented Mr. Ripley was the follow-up film from Minghella to 'The English Patient', which won numerous academy awards. That one was a typical Oscar bait film that you like watching it for the first time but have no intention to revisit it ever again. While this one is the exact opposite, with a truly dark story which won't make it a favourite during the awards season and tremendous performances from all concerned. Matt Damon is a favourite of mine more because of the films that he is involved with than because of superlative acting turns. He is someone who has played too many Matt Damonish roles and you've trouble seeing him as the character that he is playing. Ripley is an exception to that and it is in my opinion his best performance.

The errand that he is assigned for by the millionaire father is as part of a misunderstanding and there is the obvious class difference between Ripley and those he acquaints with on his trip.
Ripley is good at impersonating others, forging signatures and lying comfortably. He begins to long for the lifestyles of his rich new friends. There is also some homosexual undertones to the whole deal.

The greatest thing about the film is that he gets away with (physically not mentally) which is in stark contrast to the usual 'Crime doesn't pay motif' from Hollywood. We also want him to get away with it. Overall, it is a great watch and works as a psychological thriller. The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel with the same name and it was also earlier adapted as the film 'Purple Noon'. I do like to check out Alàin Delon's performance as Ripley.

Rating: 4/5