Who changes?

One of the questions that’s very standard in American filmmaking is: “How does the character change?” It’s all about the character development, their arc, and how the journey through the film has changed them, made them realize something, etc.

There’s another perspective outside of this rigid definition of what makes a good film. My directing professor at NYU, Jay Anania, used to say, “As long as the audience leaves changed, that is enough.”

Pebbles (Koozhangal in Tamil), by director Vinothraj, is set in a small village in Tamil Nadu, India. The village alcoholic drags his son along on his mission to retrieve his wife and daughter from her childhood village a few miles away.

The film is an observation of that quest.

The director makes three significant choices:

  1. The film is an observation.
  2. The film is hyper-stylized. The world is scantly populated and extremely quiet. Both these choices do not reflect the reality of the world, but serve to elevate the observational element, keep the focus on the protagonists. They also result in an ever-present tension.
  3. The cinematography is stellar. I might go so far as to say this has the boldest cinematography choices I’ve seen in a long time. For example, in one scene where the father and son walk to the village, the boy picks up a broken piece of a mirror. As the boy plays with it, we see the reflection of light on a large rock and the landscape as he walks along.

Through the 75-minute movie, we learn about the protagonists and the world. There is no arc, no inciting incident, none of the characters have a realization or change.

At the end of the film, it is the audience that leaves changed. And that is what makes this film so impressive.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Passion of Joan of Arc

Passion of Joan of Arc

Can you imagine a movie comprised almost entirely of close-ups? Would you feel claustrophobic? Want to shove your elbows outward to create some breathing room? Stand up and stretch and take huge, gasping breaths? Or perhaps even hit pause and take a walk outside?

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc made me feel all of those things. And therein lies a lot of its brilliance.

Set in the last hours of Joan of Arc’s life, the movie covers her trial, how her English judges coerced her, her recanting and her eventual execution at the stake. We all know the story and we all know how it is going to end, but it is still gripping, moving and utterly consuming.

Joan is played brilliantly by Maria Falconetti. She is wide-eyed, she is afraid and she is resigned. The camera frames her face. At most you can see her face and shoulders. Her tear-streaked cheek fills the screen. She tilts her head, looks down in defeat and you want to jump up and shake her and tell her to fight or yell or scream – just don’t take what these bastards are saying so calmly!

If Joan’s face is one of innocence and acceptance, Dreyer has chosen the antagonists even more brilliantly. Every single actor has a face that could inspire a comic artist to create his evil, plotting, scheming baddie. Hooked noses, curling lips, ears sprouting hair, supercilious glances, conniving chuckles and blubbering superiority are all in full force.

In the first scene, Joan is brought into the court. Dreyer surrounds her with guards that dwarf her. And he shoots her from above, making her even smaller. The committee of jurors are placed on a slightly elevated dais and are shot from below. All of this accentuates the stress that Joan is placed in. Dreyer often has shots in the film where we see only parts of a character’s face with the background providing relevant context and meaning – for example, the image used in this post where we see only a part of Joan’s face and the cross looms in the background. The provocative camera angles continue throughout the film.

Another scene that’s fascinating is one where Joan is threatened with torture if she does not confess. She’s initially calm. Then she is shown the device on which she will be tortured – a plank over which a wheel with spikes will be rotated. The torture master starts turning the wheel and the camera focuses in on it. The whirring of the wheel gets faster and faster. Joan is afraid. It spins faster still, filling the screen and becoming a blur. Joan faints in fear and my heart was pounding. Brilliantly constructed to build tension and anxiety.

I watched the Criterion Collection DVD and it has provides interesting background information on the film – “Long thought to have been lost to fire, the original version was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981—in a Norwegian mental institution.” It also offers the movie with no sound whatsoever and with an opera score that was inspired by the film. I watched the completely silent version first – it was the way Dreyer wanted it to be watched. I then started to watch the film with the score, but having watched it silent and been so taken with it, the score felt like too much and I stopped.

Whether you watch it for the first time with or without the music, I recommend you do watch this movie. This is a master at work – he takes a story that you know and makes you care, makes you feel and keeps you riveted through the whole harrowing tale.

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. is a Buster Keaton classic. At just 45 minutes, it is short, but packed with action and innovation. The stunts are astounding. At a time before CGI, I have no idea how he did this stuff. So I started digging around to try to understand it better.

Sherlock Jr. is about a projectionist who wants to be a detective. He proposes to his lady love but by doing so irks her other suitor who frames Keaton in a robbery of the girl’s father’s pocket watch.

In the first amazing sequence, Keaton follows the other suitor to try and investigate. This involves a Keaton-usual where he walks within an inch of a person he’s following, every movement synchronized. How? The detailed video deconstruction (below) reveals that they set the camera to roll at a slower frame per second (FPS) to record the action and then sped it up to normal speed (24 FPS) for viewing.

In real life, he’s a pretty pathetic detective and doesn’t get very far. But when Keaton the projectionist falls asleep at the projector, his dream “avatar” enters the movie being projected. After Keaton is thrown from location to location (Africa, the ski slopes, in the middle of traffic) at the whim of the director, he is then allowed to become the super-duper detective of his dreams (pun intended of course).

The stunts then take on a new level of cool – in an exquisitely choreographed move, he jumps out of a window, through a dress and emerges full clothed as an old woman. Unbelievable. From The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast:

Perhaps the most brilliant Keaton far shot to reveal a process (and what a process!) is in Sherlock Jr. (1924). A single far shot presents (1) a room where Buster is surrounded by thugs (Keaton has dissolved its fourth wall); (2) an open window with a paper hoop that Buster previously placed in it; and (3) the exterior of the house outside the window. In a single shot Buster dashes toward the window (1), leaps through it, through the hoop resting inside the window frame (2), somehow puts on a dress stuffed inside the hoop as he is tumbling through it in midair, rights himself on the group outside the house (3), and begins to impersonate an old beggar woman, since he is now wearing a dress. Without the far shot, it would be impossible t believe that a human being could turn himself into a beggar woman while in midair tumbling through a hoop; it would also be impossible to believe that any comic acrobat could perform such a stunt. Apart from the mechanical performance of the stunt, there is the idea behind it. Who else would think of escaping his foes in such an incredible way and with such an incredible means to an incredible disguise? Keaton’s far shot makes incredibility to the third power completely credible.

Then there’s the one where he leaps through the stomach of a vendor woman and disappears. How? Search as I might I couldn’t find the answer.

But by far the most brilliant sequence of the whole film is where he rides solo on the handlebars of a motorcycle (not knowing the driver has fallen off). This is not a short sequence – he drives through crowds, over bridges and through long stretches of road, all the while “steering” the two-wheeler from his precarious position. Undercranked or not, this is superb stuff. All of these sequences are in the clip below –

A combination of the stunts, the humor and the real life/reel life comparisons (hey, it wasn’t a cliche back then – he invented this stuff!) make Sherlock Jr. more than a fun, engaging movie to watch. And understanding how Keaton achieved some of the scenes elevates it to the realm of the exquisite.


The acting was exceptional. Across the board, every actor excelled. These are the roles that Meryl Streep was born to do. And Philip Seymour Hoffman – wow. He was so cleanly-creepy that I cringed every time his long nails were displayed.

And there were a few moments where I felt like I was a lucky fly on the wall, listening in on conversations, watching the drama in the Catholic school unfold. But overall, the movie fell below expectations, mostly due to decisions made by the director.

In a movie where the acting is exceptional and emotions run high, I feel it is best to let the camera be as unobtrusive as possible, but director John Patrick Shanley in his first real directorial effort, does the opposite. There are scenes where the camera suddenly drops down and frames the character from below, immediately snapping the viewers attention away from the conversation and onto where the camera is instead. Ugh. The one-on-one scenes between Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and between Hoffman and Adams are scenes where there is a lot being said between the lines and the actors carry the scenes – instead of cocooning the audience and making them feel unobtrusive, they are suddenly thrust into the conversation – breaking the spell the actors have cast. Unfortunate.

The strange and forced camera angles to emphasize mood and tone is repeated at various points in the movie – in a shot where Streep walks in out of a storm and through a corridor in the school, Shanley chooses an off kilter camera angle to emphasize the emotional state of the characters. Why, why, why?? Please don’t beat us over the head with it.

I had similar issues with the screenplay too (written by Shanley) – when there is a tense scene, the setting is a storm. High winds are constantly blowing branches to the ground. It’s all a bit much. A lighter touch would have given the solid story and intense acting the space they needed to make the movie truly top-notch.

Here’s my initial reaction to the movie on twitter:

Just saw Doubt. Great acting. Don’t love some of the directing, cinematography choices. *Movies 7.5*.

Six weeks later, the only change I would make is downgrade the 7.5 rating to a 6.5.

In honor of Scorsese

Well, Martin Scorsese finally won his Oscar. Should have been for The Departed? Maybe not, but he damned well deserved it.

In honor of his win, I read a brilliant review in the New York Times for the most un-Scorsese of Scorsese’s movies, Age of Innocence. But maybe it wasn’t so far from his realm. After all, Scorsese called it his “most violent film”…

Passion, especially repressed passion, has often been Mr. Scorsese’s subject. And the organized suppression of unruly desire is the villain blighting “The Age of Innocence.” Its hero, Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the angelic blank slate of a girl his society wants him to marry. Inconveniently, Newland falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an interesting, independent woman with a complicated romantic past and a shaky position in Newland’s rigidly codified tribe — a tribe that smoothly closes ranks to keep the lovers apart. (What first draws Newland to the Countess is her irreverent honesty about the local and imported aristocracy — an irreverence that, as Ms. Pfeiffer points out, “comes out of innocence on her part. Ellen has no idea how provocative she’s being.”)

What attracted Martin Scorsese to the novel, which he was first given by the film critic and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, was, he said, “that element of repressed emotion, forced restraint and obsession.”

“I was most interested in how people in a situation like that would be happy just to be together in the same room at a dinner party. Just one look would keep them alive for another year. It’s very different from today, when rational adults can talk things over and try to change their lives. For Newland to have changed his life would have destroyed part of a culture.”

It is such a sad and depressing film. A story of “what could have been” and “if only”… I still remember the last scene of the film with Daniel Day-Lewis on the street in Paris… loss, resignation, and a feeling of helplessness. Based on a book by Edith Wharton (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921), the film won an Oscar for Costume Design and Winona Ryder was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film was clearly overlooked and under-appreciated. It deserved much more – maybe it was just too different from what one had come to expect from Scorsese?

I’ll leave you with the closing paragraph of the review, which so aptly captures why the book and the film are classics –

One measure of Edith Wharton’s greatness is that — as in all great fiction — so little of her work seems dated. But the more accurate gauge is our discovery that “The Age of Innocence” has changed our sense of the world. Putting down the novel, leaving the film, we’re newly sensitized to the tribal rituals beneath the social forms we’d taken for granted. And our vision of people and of the roles they play has been permanently altered. We look around a dinner party and just for a moment glimpse them — May Welland, Ellen Olenska, the unfortunate Newland Archer — hauntedly staring out at us from the flushed, happy faces of our friends.

The Hand

The Hand is part of a compilation DVD called Eros. It includes three movies/shorts by Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

I’m just going to focus on Wong Kar Wai’s “The Hand”, which kicks off the trio. The Hand is like a lot of Wong Kar Wai movies – it is a sad, sad love story. The Hand is about a prostitute (another favorite WKW theme), Miss Hua, played by the fabulous Gong Li and her tailor, Zhang (Chen Chang). It traces the life and the decline of Hua and the enduring love and loyalty of Zhang. That’s the story. That’s all there is to it — well, there are some details like her getting heartbroken over and over again, supporting a gigolo lover and finally falling ill and being destitute, but at the core, it is a sad, sad love story.

But it is so much more when you are watching it!

What I love about watching a Wong Kar Wai movie is that it is like watching thousands of frames of art. Every shot, no, every minute, no, every second, no, every single frame is unbelievable. WKW worked with cinematographer Christopher Doyle again and again, they are phenomenal together. The colors are amazing, the framing is phenomenal, the camera only moves when it absolutely should, the shot is held and held and held (no fast action cutting here), the details of production design ares stunning. I could go on and on, but the visual package is just mind blowing.

There is a scene where Zhang comes to Hua’s apartment for the first time. It is shot from inside the stairwell and the camera is static. We see Zhang through a distorting green glass, outside the building. The stairwell has very striking railing and the whole image is stunning.

There are so many of these. Like the shot when Zhang is waiting to meet Hua for the first time. He’s in the living room while she entertains a customer (the gigolo). We see a shot of the living room and the back of Zhang’s head. The customer leaves in the foreground and Zhang just sits there motionless, unsure of what to do. The shot is beautiful – red living room, dark suits, the sounds around Zhang, people talking, Hua calling him in, but he’s rooted and the camera is rooted to him.

And like the scene where Zhang visits Hua in a rundown motel. She’s trying to give it one last try to make her lifestyle work and she needs a new dress. Zhang takes her measurements with this hands. He runs his hands slowly over her shoulders and then around her waist. The moment is drawn out, Hua is crying, the cinematography is fabulous and I am crying with them. The acting is very good. The sheer emotion when Hua realizes that Zheng loves her. Loves her the way she deserves to be loved. But there’s too much of her life that has gone by, too many bad decisions made that she can’t change. That everything is just too late… too inevitable… None of this is said. It is the acting and the visuals.

Why is it called The Hand? Because the first time Hua meets Zhang, she gives him something to make him understand why she’s important, why the clothes he will make for her are important, a feeling he can carry with him every time he makes her a dress. She gives him a hand job. I know what you are thinking, but it is done with class. Hua is in control – she is showing Zhang who’s in charge. And there is a final hand job at the end, when that is all Hua can give. She’s not in control. She’s open, giving, finally when it is too late. That one is emotional and sad. A sense of desperation, of finality. And beautifully shot and cut together.

The Hand like any WKW/Doyle collaboration is a visual feast. The images evoke the emotion. The images can make me cry. While it is only 43 minutes long, this movie like 2046, and Happy Together will stay with me. The visuals are burned into my brain.

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Three One-Minute Reviews

One minute review: Royal Tenenbaums

Directed by Wes Anderson, I LOVED this movie. I’d heard mixed reviews, but this film really got to me. It is a mix of happy and sad, touching and quirky. It does an amazing job of using humor and sarcasm to lighten the mood about life’s difficulties and failings. This messed up family of over-achievers deals with love, death, marriage, breakups, addictions and recoveries in this film that will stay with you for at least a little while. I keep thinking back to it and every time I do, I smile. The acting was phenomenal across the board – Angelica Huston, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwenyth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson – all amazing. If you haven’t watched it, do!

One minute review: The Queen

I was really keen to watch The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears because I’d heard such great things about Helen Mirren. And after watching it, I have to agree – she is phenomenal. I felt I was watching the actual Queen (MI-6 should get in touch with her. She could be a great double). Michael Sheen who played Tony Blair and James Cromwell who plays Prince Phillip were also good, but the rest of the cast was average. It is the view from the inside of a week we are all familiar with – a very interesting look at how a monarch learns about how the world has changed, re-acquaints herself with a new generation and the new expectations of her subjects, and emerges as strong as ever. Worth watching for Helen Mirren.

One minute review: Backwaters

Backwaters, by Jagmohan Mundhra, closed the IAAC film festival. It was the worst movie I have ever seen. The entire movie was dubbed poorly (why not use sync-sound??), the acting was, at best, average, the screenplay was TERRIBLE and the lines were the worst I’d seen in a long time. If the director thought some T&A action would save the film, puh-leeze think again. Most people were pissed at having wasted their time. IAAC embarrassed themselves by closing with this film and it didn’t do justice to the better films in the festival. As someone sitting next to me said “A film student would have been embarrassed to have made this”.

Babel – releases Friday

BabelBabel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu(for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes) and written by Guillermo Arriaga, has gotten press for the controversies surrounding the director and the screenwriter. But the focus should be on the film itself. The movie that completes the trilogy started by Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Babel intercuts between four interconnected stories, often jumping time periods.

It is riveting. And bloody stressful. Once it sets the tone that nothing is going to go well, I sat the edge of my seat knowing bad shit was going to happen at every turn.

Warning – some spoilers ahead

At the core, Babel is a story about communication and the challenges we face due to different languages, different perspectives, in-built biases and different expectations. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on a vacation in Morocco. At the same time, two young goatherds are given a rifle by their father to keep the jackals away. Hmm, let�s see — two young boys have a gun. They have to test the gun. The tourists are in a bus. The bus passes by under the hill the boys are on. Of course, bad shit happens.

An injured Susan is taken to the closest town with a doctor (a veterinarian) as they wait for the US embassy to extricate them. At the same time, the boys are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions (read – bad stuff is going to happen).
In parallel we see the story of a Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who takes wonderful care of Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Elle Fanning, who has the same gamin vulnerability as her sister Dakota). Amelia is desperate to go to her son’s wedding, but the parents of the kids are held up as the mother has to undergo surgery. So Amelia, after exhausting all other options, decides to take the kids with her to Mexico for the wedding. Bad, bad move, as we all know.

Goddamn it. I didn’t enjoy the wedding at all since I was waiting for the inevitable bad shit to happen. Fortunately for me, the wedding passed off fine, but then of course, bad shit does happen. The kids and Amelia are stuck wandering the desert. When Amelia is finally picked up, the immigration officers refuse to believe her story, refuse believe there are kids somewhere out there and they arrest her.

Also in parallel, we see the story of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl, who lives with her father. Chieko is an emotional wreck after the death of her mother and she struggles with the fact that most normal guys will not make any effort once they discover her communication challenges. She is desperate for attention, for love, for validation. The need to feel worthy gets expressed sexually as she flashes boys at a restaurant and tries to french kiss her dentist in a desperate attempt to feel wanted.

As Chieko returns home, two police detectives are waiting for her. They want to talk to her father about a hunting rifle he may have gifted to his guide in Morocco. Much later that evening, after yet another rejection, Chieko calls one of the police officers. When he visits, she strips down and begs him to make love to her. Her eventual breakdown is quite heart wrenching.

There were three scenes that stayed with me

  • Richard and Susan have a difficult relationship. We don’t know why (at this point), but they are not very nice to each other. But once she gets shot, all that changes. There is a scene where Susan is in a hut in the village and she talks about dying. Then she talks about how she peed because she couldn’t hold it and that she has to pee again. Richard gets a pan, sits her up and holds the pan under her while she urinates. The intimacy of the moment, the history needed between a husband and wife to do that and emotion of what’s happened breaks down all walls and they kiss. The willingness to help another human being with one of the most private things, and the willingness to be helped, with no shame, with no disgust, with no apology happens so rarely and is perhaps one of the strongest bonding moments between a couple. It was mind-blowingly believable.
  • Amelia’s relationship with the children is beautifully constructed. You can see the love they have for each other. When Amelia is arrested, she asks about the kids and officer brusquely tells her they are not her kids. In tears, she talks about how she fed them and looked after them since they were kids the officer brusquely cuts her off and threatens to deport her. Barraza did a brilliant job. I felt most sorry for her situation.
  • In the final scene of the movie, Chieke is standing at the balcony, completely naked. When her father comes home, he discovers her there. He walks up to her and neither of them says anything as he hugs her and she weeps. The camera keeps drawing back from their embrace – flies backwards into Tokyo, keeping the building and Chieke and her father at the center.

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto was excellent. Different styles were employed for each story. Morocco was desolate, vast expanses, lots of wide angles. In the Mexico story, you could fee the heat and dust and in Tokyo, the techno-city comes to life. And the music was brilliant. Gustavo Santaolalla is to be highly commended for the guitar track that underlay the film. Exceptional.

Did I enjoy it? I guess I did. I was so damned stressed that I didn’t feel happy at any moment during the film. But I was glued to my seat, glued to the movie, praying that bad shit doesn’t happen, at least to the kiddies. Did I get my wish? You’ll have to watch the movie!

Note: This review is pre-release. I saw the film tonight (Wednesday) and it releases in the US on Friday. There was a discussion with Jon Kilik, one of the producers, before the screening. Read about it here.

Flags Of Our Fathers

Flags Of Our Fathers is the widely acclaimed film by Clint Eastwood. The now famous picture of the American flag being raised in Iwo Jima was a simple act – an order being carried out by six men. In fact, it was a replacement flag since the first flag that was raised had to be lowered to be provided as a trophy to some muckety-muck. But the picture taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal has become part of American lore.

Iwo Jima FlagFlags Of Our Fathers takes a realistic look at the events that led to the raising of the flag and lives of the men who were enshrined as heroes for cynical, marketing purposes.

In the film, the raising of the flag itself was a humdrum affair, like it probably was in reality. The men find a pole, tie on the flag and a motley crew who are present help raise it. The fact the film gives it passing importance reflects how the men involved thought about it. But when the photograph is seen in America, the press and the politicians see an opportunity to reignite Americans behind the war effort.

The flag was raised on day five of a forty-day war, clearly not the a sign of victory that it came to represent. By the end of that battle, three of the six men who raised the flag are dead. The other three, John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are termed heroes and shipped back to the US to help raise money for the war by encouraging the public to buy war bonds. Phillippe, played the role very understated, but also very powerfully. Adam Beach was excellent as the Native American who, despite his bravery in the war, despite being a “hero”, is faced with overt racism.

Eastwood did the following things really well.

  • The movie cuts from present day, when Doc Bradley has just died, to their money raising efforts to the battle itself. While nested flashbacks have been done before, here it works really well.
  • For the scenes at Iwo Jima, he didn’t shoot in black and white (which is what we’ve come to expect from World War II films). Instead he shot in color and then drained the color from it, leaving skin tones in. Very powerful way to demarcate those scenes.
  • The music was excellent. The music didn’t hit the audience over the head, it was subtle, almost a lullaby. And it made the film much better. A lot of the music was composed by Eastwood himself.
  • He let the acting be subtle.
  • He used a light touch. One of the underlying threads of the film is a scene where Doc Bradley leaves his friend Iggy in a foxhole to go tend to an injured soldier. When he returns, Iggy is gone and he searches frantically for him with no luck. Late in the movie, Iggy is finally found. Eastwood shows us only Phillippe’s reaction to what he found. The profound shock, the sadness at how Iggy was treated. He does not show us Iggy’s mutilated body. He didn’t need to. By not showing every gory detail of the war, but instead protecting the audience, Eastwood makes the film more powerful.

Overall, a very good film. An honest film that does not dress up the reality, either of the war or how poorly the “heroes” were treated after their usefulness was fulfilled. It calls out how it is the media and politicians who need to create heroes out of ordinary people doing their jobs. Ordinary people who don’t want the burden or the benefits that the title bestows.

And it is timely. Makes you wonder which of the rah-rah pictures we see today are marketing gimmicks.


The Departed

The exceptional acting is what makes this overtly violent film exhilerating. Di Caprio and Matt Damon were great, but for me, the best actor by far was Mark Walhberg. His character was was so well written and the foul language flows off his tongue so smoothly that you truly love the character after the first 5 minutes.

Go watch it, but be ready for brutal, in your face violence, Scorsese style.

Good reviews here and here.

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