Friday, October 22, 2010

The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network is a unique film for two reasons: first, it demonstrates great ambition by taking a subject that is contemporary, factual and in fact, incomplete. The Facebook story (and that of its “co”-founder, Mark Zuckerberg) is far from over. Yet, the film dares to take the story so far, without the benefit of hindsight or retrospect and weaves it into a narrative. Moreover, it takes the complexities of the story and the enigma surrounding many of its characters and presents them in an intelligent, coherent manner and hold the audience's attention throughout. To do so, the makers, of their own admission, fictionalize certain aspects of the film but that isn't necessary a fault per se.

Secondly, it chooses to tell a story about a genius, an entrepreneur and an arrogant ass. How many movies do that? Most movies are about the underdog; they represent corporations and its creators as evil and greedy. Nobody likes the genius. One of the reasons films like Amadeus worked so well is because people identify with Salieri from whose perspective it is shown. He may be evil but he is mediocre. We relate to his mediocrity, not Mozart’s genius. However, Fincher and Sorkin dare to stray away from this practice and manage to give us one of the finest films of this year.

Pride, arrogance, insecurity and ego: these are the recurring themes in the Facebook story. We start with Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) at Harvard University in 2003. The film shows us the genesis of Facebook, the motivations behind it, the little anecdotes that shaped it and the personal casualties and legal controversies it faced on its meteoric journey from conception to a worldwide phenomenon.

The subject matter of The Social Network is explosive to put it mildly. It is edgy, powerful and let’s face it, Facebook is the single biggest phenomenon that has influenced the lives of 500 million people around the world, many of them between the age groups of 17-25. Why? Because, as Time Magazine put it, Google allows you to search, Twitter allows you to tweet but Facebook taps into the entire range of human emotions and puts it online. For this. culturally, it is bigger than the Iraq War or even the credit crisis. In a small way, we are all characters in the Facebook story; the people who have made it possible. Further, it is about a man that people would love to hate and one who seeming has it all. He is intelligent and ingenious but at the same time arrogant, difficult and basically, an asshole. Or so he seems.

Aaron Sorkin is one of the best writers in the business and his writing style serves the subject matter well. The crisp dialogue, the sharp wit, humour and sarcasm, the long scenes help set the tone of the film. Wisely, he overcomes the difficulties in portraying Zuckerberg by adopting a narrative style that is every bit as confident, arrogant, incisive and furiously paced as its protagonist. Impeccably scripted, Sorkin is definitely a strong contender for an Oscar win for his screenplay.

Fincher brings the script to life on celluloid, and how! Contractually bound to keep the runtime around 2 hours, he made the actors talk faster to cover the entire script which actually serves the film’s fiery narrative well. He keeps things straightforward and brings out the intensity in the proceedings which is only comparable to the meteoric rise of Facebook itself. Another notable thing about the film is the editing, which is impeccable and handles the narrative jumps and time transitions effortlessly. In fact, technically, this is a flawless film.

The performances are uniformly strong throughout, even from Justin Timberlake. However, the one Oscar-worthy performance that really stands out is that of Jesse Eisenberg. I have been watching films starring Eisenberg (Zombieland, The Hunting Party, Adventureland etc.) for a while now and it is remarkable how well he is evolving. He reminds me of a young Dustin Hoffman, particularly, though not exclusively in The Graduate; dorky, awkward, social outcast and yet, capable of bringing depth, passion and intensity to his performance. This is one actor to watch out for.

At the end of it all, a friend (yes that means you, Blumstein) complained that the film is premature and will age swiftly and be forgotten like Pirates of Silicon Valley which was based on the story of Bill Gates. Haven’t heard of it? That’s precisely his point. However, I think he is wrong and here’s the reason: There is a strong subtext to the film. In its portrayal of Zuckerberg, the film shows how lonely it is to be a genius, a pioneer; to be under the spotlight; how irrelevant intentions are; how one’s identity and actions are so greatly determined by who he wants to be or how he wants the world to see him; and how these insecurities dog you, whether you are a Facebook user or its creator, the youngest billionaire in the world. In doing so, it goes beyond a factual drama and taps into something universal and, with Eisenberg’s powerhouse performance, achieves something rather amazing; it humanises the son of a bitch. Because of this, it is not going to be aging anytime soon, or so I think. As one character opines, Zuckerberg is not an asshole, he is just trying really hard to be. Understanding why is perhaps key to appreciating the film. You are free to disagree with that assessment; the film gives you enough reason to. I don’t. But that is irrelevant; because either way, this is riveting cinema.

Red (2010): Ridiculous, but Entertaining Diversion

It is difficult not to stare in disbelief when you see the billing for Red in its trailer. Its cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox John Malkovich, Mary Louise Parker, Karl Urban, Richard Dreyfuss and Julian McMahon. That’s a whole stack of Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes right there. Even more preposterous is actually watching these actors in thae film. This is a pulpy action flick, as pulpy as they come. It’s highly reminiscent of 80s and 90s action films. It is a film that has to be seen to be believed.

The ridiculousness that is the plot: Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired CIA officer who spends his time chatting with a call centre girl, Sarah (May Louise Parker) who writes pulpy espionage thrillers on the side. One fine day, Frank’s house is attacked by ruthless assassins and suddenly, he discovers he is on a CIA hit list. He is codenamed Red (Retired Extremely Dangerous). Together with Sarah, he reunites with his old friends, the calm Joe (Freeman), the crazy Marvin (Malkovich) and the elegant Victoria (Mirren) to figure out why this is happening.

The plot is reminiscent of recent films like The A-Team, The Expendables and The Losers. However, Red is definitely the most entertaining of these films. This is because, despite its unbelievable (and fairly routine) plot, it finds an interesting mix of unexpectedly charming romance and cackling humour interspersed with some highly entertaining action set pieces. The dialogues shine in places and in others, the cast makes them shine. The action work, thankfully spares us of the headache inducing, shaky camera close ups (like those in The A-Team and most other mainstream action films in recent times) that tend to confuse rather than entertain. Although they keep it relatively simple, the action sequences work as they are outrageously entertaining in their obnoxiousness.

Of course, there are several weaknesses here: the film takes half its run-time to set up its initial characters; Mirren doesn’t even enter the scene till near the half way mark. The film should've been trimmed by at least 20 minutes. Also, one can’t help but feel that these characters deserve a better adventure much like the ones they yearn for from their Cold War days.

Nevertheless, the film is saved by some solid performances. Malkovich and Mirren get away with most of the best lines. Malkovich is riotous in his crazy act. Willis plays the action star yet again, effortlessly as always. Brian Cox is endearing as the Russian spy who loves his vodka and reminisces about the good old times. Dreyfuss gets away with a few brilliant lines despite a small role. Karl Urban and Mary Louise-Parker are adequate. Freeman is unfortunately, wasted.

However, few things, to this writer’s simple mind, are cooler and crazier than watching Helen Mirren wield a Gatling Gun, an Uzi and a Sniper Rifle among others. She is the embodiment of charm, spirit, intelligence and elegance in films like The Queen, State of Play and Calendar Girls. Yet, when she gets behind the gun, the elegance is replaced with a cold, borderline maniacal determination which screams, “You don’t want to mess with me!” She is, without a doubt, the best thing about the film.

At the end of the day, Red has its share of weaknesses. It does fully deliver on its premise. It’s just that you wish it were a better premise considering the talent involved. Nevertheless, the cast , some good lines and a very satisfying second half put it miles above many of the action films you have seen this year. This one’s yet another trifle, but an entertaining one.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Retrospective: The English Patient (1995)

This is a new column that I am starting with this post. Instead of reviewing only new films, I intend to write about older films; films I like, some are popular; others overlooked or forgotten. These are good films, or at least, I think so. Do give your feedback as to what you think of this.

Film-making is a collaborative effort. The writer conceives the film and gives it a skeletal structure in the form of the script. The production designer, the costume designer and the actors together bring the story to life and the cameraman capture it on film. At post-production, the editor takes these disjointed visuals and weaves them into a coherent narrative. The composer provides greater emotion and meaning to the film through his compositions. The director helms the affairs by coordinating all of the above and bringing his vision of the story to life on celluloid. Finally, there is an army of technicians, assistants and others working furiously to make their works possible. No major film is a one man show. However, this collaborative nature is often overlooked when evaluating a film.

The English Patient, in the year of its release, swept the Oscars with an astounding 9 awards; for good reason. It is a film I have seen and seen again several times over the years; and it is one of those rare films that gets better with every viewing. Few films offer a better example of collaborative film-making than this.

To say that The English Patient was a difficult film to make would be making an understatement. Based on the complex (and celebrated) novel written by Michael Odaantje, it is a sprawling epic spread over 7-8 years with several jumps, back and forth, in the narrative. It has two major love stories as its base with countless little subplots and details to fill the canvas, each giving invaluable insight into the characters. It was a writer’s and editor’s worst nightmare. With its elliptical narrative of the film (it starts and closes with the same scene of a plane flying in the air), the editor claims to have made at least 40 time transitions in the film on the editing table while maintaining consistency in the narrative. When seen as a whole, the film is a remarkable achievement in editing, a department that is often denied its due credit.

Even if one were to overlook the difficulties of craft that the film posed, logistically also, it was a nightmare. 20th Century Fox was to initially produce the film. However, they backed out at pre-production due to casting issues and it seemed for a while that the film would not be made. Miramax stepped in to save the film. However, it was to be shot on a tight budget and the producer Saul Zaentz put $ 6,000,000 of his own money to fund the film. Tourists stood in as extras due to lack of funds. The first draft of the script to final cut took four long years. It was a labour of love for all the people involved in the film. The results were for all to see.

The plot: a mysterious man thought to be English who has been burnt beyond recognition comes under the care of the nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche). He is dying and they find shelter in a partially destroyed Italian church near the end of World War II. Hana is afraid to love anyone as she fears she would lose them to the War. She is haunted by ghosts from the past. Her fears are tested when she meets Kip (Naveen Andrews), a young Indian soldier who she instantly feels attracted to.

The patient, she learns is Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian Count who was a part of an international map making team in North Africa in the pre-war years. He got into a torrid, passionate affair with a colleague’s wife, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Now, at the end of the War, a former spy Caravaggio (Willem Defoe) is looking for Almasy for betraying Allied secrets to the Nazis which led to his capture and torture. Who is Almasy, really? Did he betray Allied secrets? What happened to Katherine?

The English Patient is an epic love story; one you rarely get to see these days. If the perfect epic romance is ever made, I suspect it will closely resemble this one. What is remarkable, though, is that the reason why the film works so well is the collaboration of certain very specific people. It isn’t just the script or the performances or the direction. At each stage of filmmaking, effort has gone into the film and these efforts together help make the film what it is. The script does a remarkable job of adapting the book into a complex but fulfilling film. The sprawling length of the film actually serves the story exceedingly well as the runtime is used well to develop the characters and their relationships, in both the stories.

The look of the film is perfect; the costumes, the production and last, but not least, the camerawork. The loneliness of the desert and the quiet Italian countryside is beautifully captured on film. The detailing in the costumes and the art work is breathtaking to behold. A good deal of research has gone into the film with many of characters and settings being based in historical facts.

The performances are, of course, superlative. Kristin Scott Thomas was cast after she wrote a letter to Minghella saying “I am K in your film” (a reference that people who have seen the film or read the book will understand). The studios wanted Demi Moore instead and it is hard to imagine a worse casting decision. As Katherine, Kristin Scott Thomas brings a rare mix of passion and enigma which is intoxicating. It is not difficult to see why anyone would fall in love with her. Ralph Fiennes gives a deep, powerful and resonating performance as the Count, a man who knows five languages but doesn’t speak much. Juliette Binoche is lovable as the young Hana and brings out the vulnerability of her character exceedingly well. Defoe is fantastic as Caravaggio, as always.

However, this film would not be half as good if it wasn’t for the lilting score provided by Gabriel Yared. One of the great original soundtracks in my opinion, the score is influenced by American, Arab and European music and lends amazing depth and poignancy to the film at several moments. It would be worthy to watch the film again simply to note the music at specific places.

At the helm of all this of course, is Anthony Minghella who brings the efforts of all of these people together and with his vision creates one of the great love stories of our time. The English Patient is a powerful film that evokes that sense of romance in a way few films have. On each viewing, a long time after the film is over, the words spoken by Katherine remain in my mind:

"We die, we die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we have hidden in...We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men."

A film for every movie lover. And every romantic. 

Trivia about the film is available (and sourced from) here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Brief Encounter: Five Favourites

Many of the greatest romantic movies of our times are about brief encounters. People meet and fall in love. And then their love is punctuated, or even ends, because of fate, chance, or in some cases, choice. What is it about a brief encounter that is so magnetic? Is it the sense of buoyancy it provides, both to its characters and the viewer? Or is it the futility of it? A cynic would say that its appeal lies in its romanticised view of love; or its convenient sidestepping of what happens proverbially on the morning after. But, for me, and I guess any romantic, it is the possibility, the mere chance that one could stumble upon a beautiful romance at a place and time when one least expects it; on a train to Vienna, in the middle of a War, or on an unsinkable ship. It is the promise that such a premise holds that enchants us. We want to believe in such a romance.  We want it to take us by surprise. A life is made up of countless brief encounters and we hope one of them amounts to something. more. It is for this reason that the Brief Encounter is my favourite sub-genre within Romance. There are several films about brief encounters. Here are my five favourites:

Brief Encounter: Probably the most iconic film in this sub-genre, Brief Encounter was a British film way back in 1945 about two married people, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) who fall in love over a series of brief encounters. Directed by David Lean, who would later go on to make epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, it is a quiet subtle film about an unconsummated affair. What sets it apart from most films is its time setting. Set in a time of propriety where a friendship between two married people was enough to attract suspicion, Brief Encounter may seem too outdated to many. However, it’s a great film of love and the moral conundrums it puts people in. It is also a powerful reflection of the times when brief encounters were commonplace and, as Frances Gray argued, the upper class could be silly, the working class vulgar but the middle class at the time considered itself as the moral backbone of the society. The intensity of their romance is in their words and expressions. It is a film frozen in time and is very worthy of appreciation as such.

Casablanca: When one sees Casablanca, it is hard to believe that neither Ingrid Bergman nor Humphrey Bogart or Paul Heinreid wanted to be part of this film. Undoubtedly one of the greatest films of all time, in any genre, it is the tale of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) who runs a café in Casablanca, a gateway for Europeans on the run to America. One day, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the café (and his life) with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid), a Czech revolutionary on the run from the Germans. She and Rick were having an affair in Paris when the Germans invaded and she left him without reasons. Now, passions reignite and Rick finds himself in a unique position as the only person who can secure an exit visa for Ilsa and Victor to the United States. Casablanca is a stunning film in every way. It is intimate and yet, has an epic feel. It has one of the finest scripts ever written embellished with unforgettable lines. The actors leave a lasting impact in their respective roles. It keeps us guessing about their fate just as the writers kept Ingrid Bergman guessing about her characters' till the very end. It is a timely romance, and yet, a timeless one; one that underscores the universal themes of love, loyalty and heroism.

The Bridges of Madison County: Clint Eastwood is perhaps the most versatile director of our time. Adapting Robert James Waller’s novel of the same name, Eastwood plays Nat Geo photographer Robert Kincaid who gets into a heated affair with Francesca (Meryl Streep), an Italian war bride with a quiet existence as a Midwestern housewife and mother. After a passionate week, they are hopelessly in love and Francesca faces a difficult choice between her love for Robert and her responsibility to her family. What could have been pure soap opera is elevated by Clint Eastwood to one of the most deeply resonant romances of the 1990s. It may be too slow and dull for some. However, few films are as emotionally rich and move beyond the spoken word to find meaning in body language, gestures and silent glances. This is one of those. Meryl Streep gives one of the most delicate and controlled performances of her highly illustrious career. For the patient viewer, this is one of the most rewarding romances ever.

Before Sunrise / Sunset: What can I say about this film that I haven’t already said before? One is a delightful fairytale and the other is painfully real. Both are about the brief encounters of two people, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). First, they meet in Vienna in their early 20s and spend a night together walking around the city getting to know each other. They part at the station with promises to continue their relationship. 10 years later, (in Before Sunset) they meet once again, in Paris and the viewer learns of what happened between them and what could have been. The greatest source of the enduring appeal of these films is the writing. Never has conversation been more engrossing or attractive. On listening, one will quickly find him/herself immersed in these characters and as the film progresses; it is hard not to fall in love with them. Like I said in a previous post, this tale of chance meetings is a modern day fairy tale romance that achieves something rare: it not only makes us long for such a romance but actually almost convinces us that it is possible. While it may be too talky for the half-brained, for me, it is not only a stunning romance, but also, in my humble opinion, the greatest of our times.

Once: Another favourite of mine that has been discussed before, Once is a very unique musical in that it has that rare feature of mixing a quiet story and some soulful music into a surprisingly powerful whole. One of the biggest surprises of 2007, Once is a story of a musician (Glen Hansard) in Dublin meeting a rose seller and piano player (Marketa Irglova) and together they embark on a journey collaborating on recording an album. She is married with a child and he is hopelessly in love with her. A bittersweet romance, it is that rare musical that is personal, intimate, raw and therefore, a highly effective depiction of a brief encounter. The music contributes immensely to character development. The emotions are real, the people even more so and all this is beautifully encapsulated in the moment where the two sit at a piano and begin their musical relationship together.

Of course, there are several other great films in the sub-genre: Roman Holiday, Titanic, Kisses, Harold and Maude, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Brokeback Mountain, It Happened One Night and others. But these are my favourite films about the sub-genre in romance, the brief encounter.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Am Love (2010): An Exquisite Film

There is a scene half way through the film where Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) is served prawn and ratatouille for lunch by the chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). So entranced is she by the look, the aroma, the flavours of the dish that she soon is lost in her meal, as if in a passionate, erotic exchange with Antonio himself. So palpable is the sexual energy in the scene that you can almost experience her agony and her ecstasy. The camera alternates between her eyes, her mouth and the dish itself. The food here as a metaphor for sex is used so beautifully, it would qualify, according to me, as one of the best sex scenes in cinema in recent years.

Every once in a while there comes a film that challenges your assumptions about films. After writing about movies for 3 years, I firmly believed that, in any great film, the script was paramount. A film I Am Love makes me rethink such axiomatic beliefs. Its story is pure soap opera and its script is only so-so. However, the distinct visual style of director Luca Guadagnino and the performance of Tilda Swinton elevate the film to an insightful meditation on life, identity, loss, love and relationships.

The story is of the Recchi family, an Italian business family that has made its fortunes in manufacturing textiles, set in Milan at the turn of the 20th century. On his birthday, the patriarch of the family appoints his eldest son, Trancedi and (unexpectedly) his grandson, Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) as his successors. Trancedi’s wife is the Russian Emma who plays the part of a good wife and loving mother. Emma struggles with her daughter’s homosexuality and a strong sexual attraction she feels for Antonio, a chef and her son’s best friend. Meanwhile, Edoardo struggles with his father’s decision to sell the family business. These forces threaten to tear the family apart and force Emma to rethink her roles.

As a story, the film appears like pure formula and reminds you of several similarly themed films from Bridges of Madison County to the more recent Private Lives of Pippa Lee. However, the similarity ends here and I Am Love could not be more different from the aforementioned films. For director Guadagnino treats the film in a unique manner by using the visuals to convey the emotions and the complexities rather than the dialogue. In doing so, he manages to provide unexpected depth and gravitas to the film. He treats the viewer like an outsider and gives a whole lot of visuals to interpret. It is a love letter to the city of Milan and the retro feel to it from start to finish fits the film's mood and tone perfectly. To fully understand these characters and appreciate their world, you need to watch the camera movements, the angles and the editing carefully.

Take for instance, the opening scenes. These are crucial to understand Emma and the people who inhabit her world. Italian family lunches, I have on good authority, are a long affair worthy of sociological study. Here, as the camera cuts between the preparations for the lunch, the interiors of the house, the people who inhabit it, you see the cold precision of the preparation, the high fashion, the bourgeoisie attitude and the condescension. The icy inhabitants are juxtaposed beautifully to the warm, lush, maroon and mahogany interiors. The customs, the traditions and the hypocrisies are all on display. A glance here and a gesture there is enough to reveal this. But to notice, you need to give your undivided attention. This visual style is what sets the film apart.

Coming to the performances, has there been a more exquisite, delicate and powerful performance than Tilda Swinton’s realisation of Emma this year? I don’t think so. The film would have very easily collapsed into a montage of amazing but disjointed visuals without her strong central performance. It would not be incorrect to say that if the director provides flamboyance to this film, Swinton anchors it. How many English speaking actresses can feign ignorance of the language on screen and look completely natural? Definitely my favourite performance of the year so far, she brings a quiet force to her elegance. From start to end, you see her character undergo a transformation from a good natured trophy wife enslaved by the norms of high society to a passionate, free woman choosing life over all else. Swinton embodies that transformation effortlessly. She chooses wisely by trading outbursts for simmering emotions beneath that calm surface. Sure, there are good supporting performances. But the enterprise rests on Tilda Swinton; and she delivers the most natural performance of the year.

Swinton and Guadagnino combine their styles to give a richly textured drama with multiple layers. As you peel away layer by layer, you realise that this film is not just about infidelity. It is a comment on class, social standing and the claustrophobia that comes with it. This is what great cinema is about. It isn’t just about the words. It is about the visuals. It’s about giving that unique insight even in the most routine stories. And that is where I Am Love succeeds greatly. For the patient, this is emotionally one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences you will see this year.