Friday, November 27, 2009

When Movies Trouble: 'Kurbaan'

I do not believe that movies should be responsible. Or be inoffensive. Or be historically accurate. Or that they should represent the generally perceived notion of 'truth'. A movie is simply one (or more) person's view of a situation and it is what they are choosing to show to the rest of the world. Nothing more. In a free world, every person should be free to make a movie as they please. And every viewer has a choice to either see it or not. If they choose to see the movie, afterward they can either agree with it, or vehemently protest. Anything outside of that would result in committing that biggest of offenses: censorship. Art should not only engage and illuminate and entertain. It should also on occasion provoke, offend, frustrate and enrage. How else to engender discussion about wildly opposing views? How else to reconcile polarizing differences? How else to, no matter how briefly, stand in the shoes of someone you find hateful?

All of the above may sound lofty. But I say this within the context of feelings invoked after watching the Indian movie: 'Kurbaan' (Sacrifice), written by Karan Johar and directed by newcomer Renzil D'Silva. If you are planning on watching this movie, you may be best served by stopping right here (and coming back after seeing the film). Since I will be bringing up critical plot elements of the movie, including its conclusion, please consider this your fair and final SPOILER WARNING. 

As I was sitting in my cinema seat watching 'Kurbaan', I found myself increasingly troubled by the film. Don't get me wrong; in the current climate of mind-numbindly neutral cinema, I am glad for films that have the power to elicit strong reactions, even if negative. I will rush to acknowledge that 'Kurbaan' is technically a very well-made movie. It is clear that all of the filming was conducted on location on what must have been difficult shoots. And the film boasts some of the better acting talent from the indian subcontinent. But what does it all add up to? Ask someone else. If there is an underlying message to the movie, it was lost on me. I do not believe that all movies need to have a message. But this one goes out of its way to invoke some mighty large issues: nothing less than the state of the war on terror in the world today. For a movie that comes advertised as a red-hot, topical take on terrorism and religious fundamentalism, it turns out to be oddly toothless in the end. How else to explain a movie that goes about picking on one hot-button issue after another and then decides to spend its last hour on a well-oiled but tired, conventional exercise in will-the-bad-guys-manage-to-detonate-the-bombs-or-not? 
Publicity still for the movie, 'Kurbaan'
Let me elaborate. Here is a movie about a sleeper cell of Islamic terrorists in New York who are planning on blowing up the city subway stations. A dangerous premise for sure, but also amenable to providing interesting insights if handled carefully. Instead the film indulges in surprisingly schizophrenic treatment of the material. We are asked to sympathize with the lead character; he has become a terrorist (it is explained in broad-stroke narration) because his wife and kids were killed during a bombing in Afghanistan. But we are also presented with scenes where he efficiently and cold-bloodedly kills several individuals including many local policemen in New York. So what are we to think of him? The movie has characters in a classroom debating about how so many more Afghani civilians have been killed by the joint US and UK forces than Americans who died during 9/11. It is mentioned that America has engaged in war for pursuit of oil, and we should pause before placing all of the blame for the current situation on Islamic terrorists. All this while the movie emphatically reinforces every stereotype about Islam itself; of the eight or nine male Islamic characters in the story-line, all but one are revealed to be terrorists! It has a scene where a Muslim man is asked to undergo a random security check at an American airport, and he complains afterward that he got picked only because of his appearance and his Islamic last name. And this comes not ten minutes after the movie has shown how a Muslim suicide-bomber boards a plane and successfully manages to blow it up. What IS your point, Mr Johar? Why a commentary on racial profiling when your plot seems to present a strong rationale for justifying it? The movie has the heroine recoiling from a terrible deceit and forced to live under oppressively strict Islamic code (with her head covered, and the men and women usually separately clustered, the men talking gravely about important matters and the women cooking). And then the movie has a scene where an older Muslim man (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) ruefully complains that young Muslims are hesitant to protest about how they are treated in America for fear of being labeled fundamentalists. So the movie wants us to be sympathetic toward the plight of Muslims in America, even as the film itself paints them in the worst possible light? 

And so it goes back and forth, as the movie simultaneously patronizes and offends all of its characters. Let us set aside all religious and political considerations; this is just lazy scriptwriting; we have here a writer who wants to keep every faction happy even as he is impugning all of them. The snake devouring its own tail. Other Indian movies have explored the subject of terrorism in the past with varying degrees of sensitivity; 'Maachis', 'Dil Se', and 'The Terrorist' come to mind. All three movies were flawed in small measure or large, but at least those films had the courage to present their story with a single-mindedness of narrative perspective. They took a stand and stuck with it in the telling of their story. Not so, unfortunately for 'Kurbaan'. What to make of a film that indulges in self-righteousness without declaring what it is self-righteous about. 

I am not troubled by the fact that this movie troubled me. I liked that. As mentioned at the start, any movie/book/painting/art-form that can incite and provoke and lead to fervent discourse is of value. What troubles me however is how little has been said of these issues in other reviews of this movie. In fact it is the lack of discourse on the treatment of the subject matter in this film that surprises me. What does it say about the state of things that the Indian press is inclined to expend way more ink on the lead actress' (Kareena Kapoor) exposed back during a scene than on how little is ultimately heard of these filmmakers' voices for all the shouting and noise in this movie. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Five

Deliver Us From Evil  ****

September nineteenth 2009. The last movie I saw at the festival before rushing to the airport was 'Deliver Us From Evil', a film advertised in the programme as a 'smart, propulsive Danish thriller'. Tickets go fast at the festival, and I am in general pleased with the movies I had picked a week ahead of the start of TIFF 2009. And I had evidently saved one of the best for the last.

Consider a man driving a commercial truck down a deserted road as he is chugging alcohol.  One hand on wheel, he bends down to retrieve something from under the seat next to him, and then hears a sickening thud. That sound of having run over something; or somebody. Recognizing that the woman he has killed is the beloved wife of the unofficial mayor of his hometown, he decides to frame this tragedy on the one person in town who would be the easiest target. Thus starts the movie 'Deliver Us From Evil', at a brisk pace, introducing its characters through a clever set of scenes set in an idyllic little seaside town in Denmark. 

It is certain then that the film is going to be a morality play. But perhaps also a thriller. And perhaps also a keenly observed study of specific characters. And perhaps a commentary on xenophobia. As it moved along, it was not obvious to me though as to which of these it was going to primarily be in its conclusion. And then about halfway through the movie a scene comes along where the clouds build ominously in the darkening evening sky and the background music screeches to a terribly jolting crescendo that takes the foreboding visual to its full expression - and then, about half a mile further. And while one part of me could not believe how much of a cliche this was (literally, dark clouds gathering in the sky!), the other part was shocked at how effective this was. Overused movie conventions be damned, I was filled with delight. And I settled in my seat as I realized with crystalline clarity what this movie was going to be about after all. Honestly, I live for moments like this. When you realize with satisfaction that you are in the hands of a good storyteller.

Publicity still for 'Deliver Us From Evil' from TIFF 2009

A bit more about the story. The cast of characters includes Johannes, his wife Pernille and their two kids who have all recently moved from the city to a small town, a town where everyone seems to know each other. There is Alain, the child-like Bosnian refugee who has lost his family in civil war, and is employed by Johannes to do odd jobs at his home. There is the older Ingmar, who is more or less the town's head, respected by all, and his wife Anna who is liked even more by the townsfolk. Johannes' brother Lars is everything he is not: a hard-drinking, hard-living, twisted soul of a man who would be a caricature of evil, if he were not also so frighteningly real. And credit goes here to all of the actors for making these individuals akin to someone you might actually know. Lars' pregnant girlfriend is, as one reviewer put it, an open wound through much of the movie. I have not revealed anything so far that is not outlined in the first few minutes of the movie. While driving his truck, it is Lars who runs over Anna biking on the road on the day of a local town celebration. And this sets into motion a series of events that would have you thinking you are ahead of the movie. But you are not. All of the characters get pulled into the whirlpool: Johannes, Ingvar, Lars, Alain, and Pernille. And the events domino one into another in a controlled procession until the movie takes off into perfect flight at about about the halfway mark. [SPOILER WARNING: And it is at this point that it becomes evident that the movie is going to be an epic, bloody showdown between a man (presumably) in the right and the rest of the world gone mad].

I would never have guessed this walking into this film, but in terms of its theme, it has commonality with 'The Reader" from last year. Both movies I believe are about how far a person should go to turn a blind eye to what they know is completely and morally wrong. Both movies depict extreme examples of human failings in this regard. 'Deliver Us From Evil' works just fine as a rock-solid thriller. But the reason why it registers as something more is because even as it gets its feet completely wet within the conventions of a traditional suspense movie, it dares to ask unpleasant questions that most movies would rather ignore: When does the need for communal unity and preservation of tradition lapse into xenophobia ? What if your devout faith asks you to join hands with others in doing something unspeakable?  In many ways, this very well made thriller shows how easily the sort of horror depicted in this movie could happen anywhere in the world. And has actually been happening for a long, long time.  I suspect this is the reason this film will find a wider audience.

This is visually a stylish movie. The entire film appears to have been shot in a bleached, sun-burned palette, sometimes almost seeming Black and White. This complements the Danish countryside well. 

There was one aspect to the movie that I found troubling. It has to do with how comfortable the movie is with racial slurs. Perhaps the intent here was to simply be truthful about how people talk, and therefore just reflect reality. But there is a scene in the movie where a large group of people all begin to chant a racial slur, and it came off as particularly distasteful. Yes, I realize that it is eventually revealed that these individuals are truly heinous. But in the scene earlier in the film where it is repeated again and again, I worried about how audiences might take it. It is the old 'Borat' debate again. In a movie that spends a lot of time depicting hateful behavior, there is danger that some may take it at face value and not realize that the film is actually deeply contemptuous of it. I have chosen my words carefully and intentionally not brought up another issue that the film points a very harsh finger at; it is because there is no way to talk about it without giving away critical plot elements.

At the end of the day, this was a movie that made me giddy with its thriller elements, and has kept my brain active for months after I have seen it with the thorny moral questions it raises. Movies seldom deliver so gloriously on their intended promise, and it is worth applauding the director, Ole Bornedal for his achievement here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (***1/2)

Do you have a member of your extended family, a spoilt nephew perhaps, or a cocky uncle, who is incredibly annoying? He will not listen to anyone, and will blatantly disregard all norms. And most frustrating of all, he will - again and again - come through with flying colors in everything he does. The prodigiously talented insufferable. Quentin Tarantino belongs in that company.

'Inglourious Basterds', the title of the latest from Tarantino, refers to a group of American men brought together to fight back, with full militant vendetta, against the Nazi assault during WWII. This story intercuts with that of the opportunity presented to a young Jewish girl to exact revenge for the death of her family at the hands of German troops led by an unreasonably devious Nazi colonel.

The movie is many things, but to me, the one thing it seemed more than anything else was - indulgent. From the deliberately misspelt title, (I understand the film borrows only the most basic premise from the late seventies italian movie of the same name), to the mix-and-match opening credits (half in technicolor bright yellow 70's font, the rest in regular font), to characters who talk and talk and talk (in Tarantino-speak, of course), to the casual disregard for historical accuracy, it could have been terribly labored.  How indulgent you ask? The last words uttered in the movie are, "I think this might be my masterpiece". Really, Mr Tarantino? Imagine how overwrought this film, clearly a pet project, could have become. But darned if Tarantino does not make it all work. Not just make it work, but take off with giddy delight. This is a movie that does not have a minute that is not interesting

The movie is essentially a putting together of six to seven precisely structured (and fully realized) episodes that more or less tell a full story. I suspect Tarantino shot a much longer version, but had to slash off large portions for a shorter theatrical run time. [The DVD release of the movie may tell if this the case. It would not be the first time; Kill Bill - Volumes I and II, released separately in cinemas, were originally shot as a single movie]. Tarantino is as good if not a better writer than a director; nobody does dialog like him. In this film he demonstrates a particular proficiency for structuring cat and mouse scenes of unbearable tension. From the first scene, a charged, mostly verbal exchange between the Nazi colonel and a French farmer who may be hiding a secret, the movie crackles. There are scenes of particular (and sadistic) wit that follow, which show Tarantino using every trick in the book, but with such intelligent structuring, that it all comes off new. He confounds expectations beautifully; there are many developments that occur in the latter half of the movie that break cardinal rules of the film book. I would offer specific details, but do not want to give away critical plot elements. There is, in particular, a scene in a tavern late in the movie that is so smartly written, tightly constructed, and well played out, that this episode alone would make a memorable short film worthy of the price of admission.

Much has been made of the character of the acid-sharp Nazi leader, Colonel Handa. I will only add that by now, thousands of films have provided us with hundreds of legendary villains, and it takes skill to present a bad guy who is unlike anything we have seen before. Christoph Waltz, who plays this character with an impossible balance of grace and evil, has an assured lock on a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Melanie Laurent, who plays the lead female character in the movie has a face meant for cinema; Tarantino fetishizes this face with many generous close ups - for good reason. I was transfixed by her face to the point of distraction in her scenes. I am surprised that much has not been made of Brad Pitt's performance. I suspect his job was to bring the masses in, who will be surprised to find that he is not in every scene of the film. This is a true ensemble film, with memorable work by dozens of actors. But even then, Pitt does well here with lifting his role out of caricature into a believable character; I fully bought his southern accent (what is the story with the scar that runs along his neck in the film?). On the issue of accents, this is truly a European movie (made with American financing), where key plot points are built around accents. And here is the miracle: Tarantino (and Pitt?) were able to bring in millions to the cinemas to watch this movie that turns out to have sub-titles through more than half its running length. I am all for destroying the aversion to movie subtitles for good and all. And kudos to 'Basterds' for tricking the movie-going masses wholesale into seeing a subtitled film.

I also liked the fact that this is a movie about movies. The lead female character owns a cinema house in Paris. Characters talk about films often and there are many cinematic references. The climax is structured around events that transpire during the screening of a pro-Nazi film in Paris. There are critical events that transpire in the projectionist's room of the theatre. All of which allow Tarantino to indulge in his obsessive love for the cinema and to pay homages. There is a nice little tip of the hat to Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'. For the movie lover, I am sure there are endless references to discover upon repeat viewing.

The film is cleanly violent. While this did not bother me, what I did not appreciate was far too many shoot-em-ups - the kind that popped up suddenly and pretty much decimated everyone on the screen. These scenes pulled me out of the film due to acts that seemed dissociated from the flow of the story. But this is a minor quibble. Before going to see it, I had poor expectations for 'Inglourious Basterds', because the reviews had been polarizing. And I was fully ready to dislike it based on Tarantino's more recent contributions to popular culture. Imagine then the pain it causes me to say that this movie squeezed out my admiration for this director once again. To grant him, yet another time, the elusive 'g' label. Yes, this movie is genius.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Four

Love, and Other Impossible Pursuits  ***1/2
Cracks ***
Road, Movie  ***

September eighteenth 2009. I saw three very different movies today, ‘Love and Other Impossible Pursuits’, ‘Cracks’ and ‘Road, Movie’ at TIFF. 

In ‘Love And Other Impossible Pursuits’, the director Don Roos does what Pedro Almodovar did several years ago with ‘All About My Mother’. Known for his brazen, envelope-pushing movies (‘The Opposite of Sex’, ‘Happy Endings’), this is Roos’ grown up movie. To be fair, his underrated 2000 movie ‘Bounce’, starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow was a fairly serious film, and this one is a return to that tone.

Publicity still for 'Love And Other Impossible Pursuits' from TIFF 2009

‘Love And Other Impossible Pursuits’, (based on the novel of the same name by Ayelet Waldman) is what you might be forced into categorizing as a romantic comedy, but it has a deep underlying sadness. Natalie Portman plays Emilia, a twenty-something woman in New York City trying to find stability in her life. She is married to the man who used to be her boss and his life is still occupied in large parts by his son (Charlie Tahan) and wife (Lisa Kudrow) from a former marriage. The movie begins soon after Portman’s own infant daughter has recently died. She seems to have adapted, but she has not. This may lead you to believe that the film is a look at grief associated with the death of the very young. However Portman’s character defies the sympathetic stereotype; she certainly does not make life for anyone around her easy. She is quickly bruised, needy in her demands from her husband, hostile to the attempts from well-meaning family members and friends to empathize with her loss, and uses her grief as an excuse to lash out at those closest to her. She finds herself having to spend increasingly more time with her precocious teenage step-son and their relationship is fraught from the start. The majority of the movie is about Emilia coming to terms with her situation, not always in the expected ways.

As an actor, Natalie Portman, has always had that mix of poise and intelligence about her. And she acts her heart out here. But ultimately the role seems a little wrong for her, because it requires a certain amount of darkness about it and Portman can’t help but glow (not in a physical sense, but by way of her sensibility) even when she is miserable. And the role also calls for, in my mind, someone a bit older. But these are petty quibbles in a movie that otherwise hits most of the right notes. There is fine work here also from Charlie Tahan, the young actor who plays her step-son. Lisa Kudrow (a fixture in most Don Roos movies) however walks away with the film; she has few scenes, but she owns them. She plays a shrill shrew of a woman, maddening in her nastiness and ability to singe with words, and Kudrow does not once succumb to the temptation to make her nice or likeable. But somehow, through the meanness of her character, the humanity peaks through. This is what good actors can do; she deserves recognition for this role.

I harbor disdain for films that are specifically aimed to tug at the heartstrings; the slightest whiff that this is what the film is up to and it usually turns me off. But I will admit that this film moved me. Also, well cast ‘romantic comedies’ made by well known directors are always playing a losing battle for me. This is one of the hardest genres to make a movie in and my expectations for mainstream romantic comedies are very high and they almost always disappoint. This one did not. It is sincere, and well made, and well acted. It is definitely worth seeking out when it has a wide release.

‘Cracks’ made by first-time director Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) appears to have been more than a little influenced by “Picnic on Hanging Rock”, that great Peter Weir film of epic tension and foreboding (and also, resolute refusal to provide answers at the end). It has the same sense of impending horror in the midst of the mundane. It also has a similar setting.

Publicity still for 'Cracks' from TIFF 2009

Eva Green (‘Casino Royale’, ‘The Dreamers’) plays a teacher, Miss G., in a prestigious all-girls British Boarding School in the forties. She is a free-spirit and unconventional in her methods of instruction. Young, beautiful, and confident, she is adored by the girls who look up to her as a role-model. Some are stronger drawn to her than others. Miss G. makes no qualms about playing favorites with some students who she believes worthy of extra attention, and this inevitably has resulted in a delicate political structure amongst the girls. The arrival of a new girl from Spain disrupts this shaky balance of power. The new girl, Fiama, rumored to be a member of royalty, carries about herself with even greater confidence than Miss G., and refuses to bow to either the other girls or her teacher. Her seeming arrogance eventually reveals as being simply a manifestation of her knowing more (and being athletically better) than the other girls. Fiama starts making it evident to the other girls that their adored teacher is perhaps not who they have thought to be all along. And may be not worthy of their adulation. Pretty soon a tug-of-war for power erupts, between Fiama, Miss G., and the other girls (led by the previous leader of the pack, Diana).

This is where the movie goes suddenly very dark, delicious even (at least initially), in the hard-boiled tightness of its well-laid plot. It becomes evident then that the movie had all along intended to descend to sinister places. Like ‘Picnic on Hanging Rock’, this film began with a tone of foreboding and approaching maelstrom, but when it got there, I was still unprepared for it. And therein lies its success. I will say no more.

I do want to comment on one aspect of the movie that surprised me. There is a part late in the movie about a transgression that Miss G commits that is surprisingly, not implied, but visibly depicted. And the movie gets away with it, I suspect, because the teacher happens to be a woman. If the setting had been changed to a boy’s school and the teacher played by a man, this would have caused outrage. I had a similar issue with “The Reader” last year, which depicts a very sexual relationship between a school boy and a much older woman. Switch the genders (young school girl and man old enough to be her father) and the movie would have been a hotbed of political fury. Switch the gender in ‘Cracks’ and the movie would possibly not have been made. There is something about the way that sexuality is depicted in “Cracks” that made it unsettling for me. But perhaps that was the intent all along, to make the viewer uncomfortable and therefore somewhat complicit in the dark places it gets to. Consider me spooked.

I had purchased my ticket for “Road, Movie” not realizing that the screening was the North American premiere for the film. I enjoyed the premiere rituals prior to the screening (introduction of the movie by the director and bringing out of cast and production team to the stage) for that air of electricity and caged nervousness that they carried.

Premiere of "Road, Movie" at TIFF 2009. From left, Cameron Bailey (TIFF Co-Director), Dev Benegal (Director of movie), Satish Kaushik (Actor), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Lead Actress), Abhay Deol (Lead Actor) and Susan Landau (Producer).

Directed by Dev Benegal, [son of the legendary Indian film director, Shyam Benegal], whose two previous movies ‘Eyes Wide Open’ and ‘English August’ are unseen by me, this movie surprised me by its maturity, and its determinedly indie sensibility. Heck, the second half of the movie even goes for outright surrealism in one or two places.  For Indian cinema this is quite the road not taken.

The protagonist is a young man in contemporary India who wants no part of his father’s hair-oil business (you read that correct). He gets conned into delivering a large consignment across the country. His mode of transportation is a beat-up truck that has seen better years. And so our hero sets out across the arid landscape of northwestern India (Rajasthan) characterized by harsh deserts and nomadic locals. As indicated by the title of the movie, on the way, he meets the expected motley cast of characters who accompany him through the expected misadventures. This includes a young kid looking for adventure (Mohammed Faisal Usmani), an avuncular mechanic (Satish Kaushik) who may also become his roadside/spiritiual advisor, and a nomadic woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) with whom he shares an unexpected connection. I will grant that all of these characters are well developed; they all carry a well-lived authenticity about them, an unscrubbed hard-earned rootedness to their characters. There is thankfully no concession to any fast-talking, glib, side-kick characters.

The road trip is made in the kind of truck that used to serve as a mobile movie theatre across rural towns in the near past, the sort which had an antiquated movie projector in its back and a make-shift cloth screen that enabled pit stops from village to village to show movies and generate some income along the way. This neat conceit allows for some of the best scenes in the movie. It also lets the filmmakers indulge in a bit of nostalgia about the power of movies, and to show yet again, people universally falling under the spell of moving images. And how so many in India are making do with so little.

In the latter portion of the movie, there are some scenes filmed in a seeming mirage in the middle of the desert, where the world suddenly comes to life. The teeming of people living there, the music, the food, the reckless abandon with which some characters consummate their lingering attraction - all appear to be an exercise in surrealism. Did this occur really or is it all imagined; I suspect you are not meant to know one way or another. Also, while Tannishtha Chatterjee does very convincing work here as a wandering tribal woman, her character appears out of nowhere and (perhaps intentionally) is oddly without context. Abhay Deol, the lead, is that rarity in Indian cinema, a lead actor who does not feel the need to behave like one. His understated, ego-less, but not passive role serves the movie remarkably well.

I had some complaints. Some scenes veer dangerously off tone from the rest of the movie. There is a bit about bandits who go loony that are from another farcical film. There is some commentary thrown in about the corporatization of water and the abuse that comes from its terrible need in a dry land that does not fit with the rest of the movie. Also, the movie could have used some judicious editing; there are too many long pan shots of the truck moving solitary through desolate landscapes. The endless, sandy, dry landscape began to grate on me a bit after a while. I wonder if this movie will play well in India, particularly in the multiplexes. But I hope it does because it has moments of great humor as well as heart. 

Publicity still for 'Road, Movie' from TIFF 2009