A CINEPHILE’S RECOMMENDATIONS : PLANETARIUM, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, THE OTHER WOMAN, WHITNEY, NOAH.

*****

I write firstly about three cinematic works featuring the irrepressible Natalie Portman. They denote a respectable filmography that is not necessarily a greatest hits medley but manages to bring a brave, unconventional inflection to her choices. On that count, she is a cut above the rest. So irrespective of the fickle critical ballast attached to each, I iterate here that I could personally connect with them. From a cinephile’s perspective my readers will agree as well. HERE THEY ARE, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER.

**

PLANETARIUM (2017)

We all have stars in our eyes. A yearning, an ambition to look beyond the ordinary. The spaces in which we get the opportunities to shine with our singular and often unique talents become our mortal planetariums. It’s an universe of human desires. Perhaps that’s what Rebecca Zlotowski aims with the title to her quietly beguiling, ensnaring bilingual feature film. It has the human psyche as its starting point and overarching thematic element. I found it immersive on multiple levels and for purists of cinema, it’s a treat.

The beginning of experimental cinema, avant garde, elements of the paranormal and upper crust decadence all converge here. Cross cultural meeting of the twain in American influences and French auteurism in a Second World War timeline is pertinent in the establishment of new personal / cultural narratives. This is a pre French New Wave cultural caravan addressed here in Planetarium , years before Truffaut, Renoir and Goddard burst onto the scene. A flux of transition is underway when two American sisters(Natalie Portman and Lily Rose Depp) , part of an act that summons the mystical areas of sentience through seances, summoning the dead for rich patrons, land in Paris. It’s not long before a sophisticated producer ( Emmanuel Salinger) is riveted and this unlikely professional setup is translated to the big screen by him, in hopes of bringing an experimental verve to a stagnant French cinematic canon as against the dynamism of American films . This is where the twain meets in this cross continental union. In the process, he plans to capture an actual apparition on camera with the younger sister’s abilities to conjure spirits and launch the photogenic elder one in a screenplay involving the mystique of her abilities. The idea of belief, incredulity and the works permeates the screenplay throughout. Filmmaking and magical renderings of images coalesce with the idea of fantasy and reality, where seances and the whole behind the scenes trajectory of canning scenes with Natalie in the film within the film structure probe a deeper mystery of being, of seeing and believing. A genuinely sensual, visually appealing verisimilitude is recreated of the era in close ups and beautifully lit interiors. The storytelling grips us on account of this natural attuning to the various strands that are lucidly brought together, without excess or showy theatrics as is the betokened norm in French cinema per se. Hence a sense of apprehension for these sisters in this new venture is maintained.

On the performative front, sexual passivity and avoidance is conveyed well by Natalie as also her ambitions . She has her inimitable tic to convey petulance, innocence and clever grasps.

Amira Casar(so good as the mother of Timothee Chalamet in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME ) is excellent, especially in a party scene where her insular haughtiness clashes with the intellect of a professor who enters late ;as is Emmanuel Salinger as the beady eyed gentleman who can never be trusted at face value, a man who shows an erotic charge during the seances, tracing a hidden past, and has the tides of time render him alienated when his Jewish roots open up racist tremors . This is a film beholden to the performances and the evocative mood of a slow boiling, internalized human tale of chances and changing circumstances.

One image of Lily Rose in particular, with the period specific machinery attached to her for mapping her mind in the institution, is evocative of METROPOLIS’ humanoid protagonist. That said, the production design( Katia Wyszkop) , cinematography (George Lechaptois), music (Robin Coudert) and costume design (Karin Charpentier and Anais Romand) are appropriate to the era and deserve applause.

PLANETARIUM centers on an idea of career advancement and the rootedness in kindred is ably demonstrated by a strong sisterly bond. The uncertainty of success within annals of cinema, a fledgling one at that, and craving for fame in front of the camera wrap themselves around the sombre point of this tale’s concluding minutes. Give this your time and an open mind. Yes the morbidity of death on the part of one of the sisters slows things down to a standstill but the unraveling of Salinger simultaneously paints an interiority of fickle human allegiances. The screenplay suggests more than it shows in these complex areas and I find that admirable. PLANETARIUM is much more than what meets the eye, a rendering of a passage of time where life is grasped in the chances collected by youth and how fleeting it all is, the trappings of fortune and gentrified society.

*****

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (2008)

Based on Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel, written by Peter Morgan of THE CROWN fame and directed by Justin Chadwick, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL left me stunned by the kind of backlog of our collective past that went unquestioned and has continued to negatively define our gender discourses.

Here, women are bartered, mothers and fathers make clean sweeps on the premise of societal upliftment and the men plunder their dignity and supplant them with easily endowed privileges at their disposal including facile marital unions. If you look at it the manipulations rallied across the board, on the part of the females as well, is a direct relative of this toxic sexism dividing tenets of normalcy. You wonder if there was nothing to everyday dealings back in the day than the histrionics of scoring matrimonial alliances and fielding nubile girls to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, that’s the real state of affairs. Forbidden decrees are exercised way too readily in the name of empires and kingdoms. The women hence become spoils of war, even those raised to be above a common stature, within the aristocracy.

The court intrigue regarding the pronouncement of fates for the BOLEYN sisters( in this film), Anne (Natalie) and Mary(Scarlet Johannson), who became a part of a lecherous Henry the 8th’s(Eric Bana) revolving doors of conquests – a harem, really – is a telescoping of the degradation human motives are able to conjure. History is not merely a vantage point but a beast of burden.

From the trailers viewed years ago, the sisters were painted as black and white and Anne was seemingly the victim. The picture shifts on the two when one views the film. I don’t know about historical accuracy but it’s presented well here.

The human vices are a continuum of the Tudor era, bleeding into the Me too epoch where men in power continue to exploit women at the very top echelon. You can expect the pathetic trickle down effect then. We are unnerved but the performances keep us riveted to the self destructive tendencies of a populace and foundations of a society that is skewed beyond repair.

Lastly, it boasts of some great actors like KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS, MARK RYLANCE, JIM STURGESS, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH and EDDIE REDMAYNE. THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is the opposite of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS in which Thomas More protested against Henry’s corruptible influence. Here, Henry’s male hegemony is delineated with the correct stance of misplaced pride and overwhelming power available to men to this date.

***

THE OTHER WOMAN (2011)

THE OTHER WOMAN introduces us to a twenty something woman (Natalie Portman) who has assumed the most derided role in a social scenario but it lets us in on the human trauma that truly defines her self defense : her chips are down after losing her three day old baby and yet the world feels it is obligatory for her to play the role of a wife and stepmother. The whispers behind her back and the dirty looks and stares do not go away. It could never be for the first and true anointed wife of the man. The film is compelling as it focuses on a pretty muddled knot of our contemporary times where marriages disintegrate and second innings too are fraught. A cultural conditioning is probed.

The lack of maturity displayed by adults as opposed to conventional wisdom is a prominent strain that puts it in a relatable mould .Here the child of the embittered parents has a clear view of the chaos than the adults around him. Divorce leaves a bitter aftertaste for everyone, the children grapple with the larger familial fallout and women wind up pitting their pains and fears onto others of their sex. Also, there can be nothing remotely amicable about a bitter marital bond, a divorce and the relationship henceforth between the two women. It’s morally complex terrain on which broken relationships are housed and a well represented micro world is crafted in THE OTHER WOMAN. I felt for the lead personage who has chips on her shoulders and navigates around murky waters of grief and soiled empathy. As the other woman, even plain sympathy for her period of catharsis, let alone acknowledgement within her contained society, is hard to come by.

On the other hand, Lisa Kudrow expertly lays bare the cold sting of her hot headed imperiousness as the first wife so even an unintentional cruel remark is delivered with the purpose of performative exactitude. The bitter ones are always rife with more exploratory possibilities. Kudrow lets us see the cumulative poison of her personal station exceeding her grasp and going beyond her own control.

Scott Cohen as the husband is good too.

Flawed individuals are explored here, issues of infidelity too and reality of how words used in moments of despair and flying tempers cut to the bone . A family unit is never a holier than thou prefix to larger communities. THE OTHER WOMAN looks at two broken pieces.

There is instance of a casual conversation that caught my attention, regarding a pedantic idea of diversity according to Natalie’s character. It’s a glaring truth regarding her overall mental make up ( and of the majority) She is a woman on the verge of a breakdown. A lot of other qualities course through her being. She makes it possible to feel for her inner suffering as society refuses to give her closure even as her kindred make efforts. Natalie imbues her with a realistic understanding of the situations around her. She has everything stacked up against her and since she is in her late twenties there’s room for her to grow .

It’s the bond between her and the stepson(Charlie Tahan, excellent) that is beautifully etched. They are unlikely friends and allies even though there are struggles galore.

THE OTHER WOMAN, directed by Don Roos, spotlights the essential need for empathy for everyone , free from labels or just nebulously defined social straightjackets. Also while watching a scene that features Charlie Tahan and Elizabeth Marvel (as Natalie’s sister) together in an interaction , I was reminded of their pairing as mother and son in last year’s melancholic THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS.

****

Due to the paucity of time, I am unable to accommodate my writings on the documentary WHITNEY (2018) and the contemporary retelling of the Biblical epic NOAH (2014) this time around.

They will be discussed in the next post.

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PLACES IN THE HEART : ON THE UNDERRATED 1994 FEATURE TOM AND VIV.

TOM AND VIV (1994)

CAST: MIRANDA RICHARDSON, WILLEM DAFOE, ROSEMARY HARRIS, TIM DUTTON, NICKOLAS GRACE.

DIRECTION : BRIAN GILBERT.

****
I got the opportunity to view the very underrated TOM AND VIV as part of a prestigious Films and Literature paper for my Masters degree in 2015. To cut a long story short, it was an intensely revelatory experience and moved me to tears. There will be a lump in the throat for anyone who watches it.

For starters, this is a tale draped in the sombre hues of an ill fated union between literary giant T. S Eliot and his anonymous better half Vivianne Haigh Wood. Director Brian Gilbert sculpts a candid portrait of this relationship bound to invite polarized views about not just the legend himself but also the supposedly cozy institution of marriage in general; the complexity of being understood by those who claim to love us and catch our drifts through the thick and thin of life’s never ending cycle, in particular, catches our attentions hence.
It’s a fictional retelling culled from a play by Michael Hastings and supposed real life accounts, and as the tradition of semi autobiographies go, nothing shown here should be considered the pinnacle of cinematic accuracy or gospel of absolute truth as regards primary facts. The truth, I believe, lies lodged in the dead who saw it all. However, the ones recreated here carry basic principals of its weight for sure. These concerns are eventually going to hardly matter as the dramatic representation is full of pathos, charm and the beautiful trajectory of Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris’ performances ( both were nominated for Oscars in 1995) vividly catapult every mood into one of veritable urgency.

The film opens with the voice over of Viv’s brother Maurice (Tim Hutton) and diagnoses the nerve of a college genius who caught the intellectual fancy of Bertrand Russell (Nickolas Grace) and attentions of a female student, the high spirited Viv (Richardson) The genius was an American by the name of Thomas Stearns Eliot whose single desire was to be christened an Englishman and settle down in the citadel of literary buzz to further his own prospects. As an admirer of the voice that gave us prophetic poetic masterpieces as THE WASTELAND, THE HOLLOW MAN, LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK, JOURNEY OF THE MAGI and the profound poetic drama MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, I was caught off guard by how unconventional his beginnings were, facts known to me but only in passing. Unlike other figures, he’s far from a misanthrope here and his whirlwind romance and elopement with the loquacious Viv is sweet and fleetingly entertaining. The only showcase for her so far lies in her privileged background and supportive family who are willing to look beyond Eliot’s stiffneck persona and admire him for his sincerity of being. Thus, they take their vows. The gambols and initial promise of happy ever after disappears soon enough ; their bond hits the wall owing to a rare medical condition on Viv’s part which leads to wild hormonal and menstrual imbalances and, in turn, mental disintegration. This unraveling during their honeymoon invites poignancy. Eliot buckles under pressure but is avowed to a lifetime of commitment to the woman hailing his latent mastery and is an equal in literary partnership, so far as editing his famous works and even providing the title for THE WASTELAND.

With the passage of time as Viv’s impulses, reputation of an inchoate rebel and hysteria grows, so does her health deteriorate ; she gradually becomes a convalescent, threatens Tom’s burgeoning career in others’ eyes and winds up being a proverbial eyesore for a hypocritical genteel society suffering from paranoia of commitment for the mentally disabled, willing to throw them under the bus with casual alacrity. In that regard, dark recesses of human nature are unraveled and TOM AND VIV becomes a saga of two souls deeply in love, battling renonstrations of a worldly order, to beat mighty odds. It suggests and rightly so that these struggles became the blueprint for Eliot’s startlingly original portfolio and collective body of work that thrives to this date.
Miranda Richardson earns her fair share of kudos as a woman so helpless at restraining actions beyond her control and yet professing her sincerity, she breaks our hearts. Her predicaments also act as a crucible for showing us the human side of Eliot’s extraordinary personal dilly dallying, of promises that are better off being spelt than kept and fulfilled. Her only real support system through all this is her mother ( the excellent Rosemary Harris, who the world adores as Aunt May from the Spider-Man trilogy) She reminds Eliot of his tall claims and ultimate frailty, to which he succumbs, the weakness of advancing his career at the cost of the woman who championed his rise and was unconditional in her affections despite her mood swings and embarrassing displays of voluble tempers in public . I know this bitter pill will be swallowed with discomfort by Eliot loyalists and neutral audiences will embrace him as a man who gave twenty years of his life to his better half and never suffered a professional setback but fell prey to his own impulses to break free of the challenges. This is especially evocative as Eliot committed Viv to a mental institution, remarried and never looked back at her before her death. Given this gist and its heart rending depiction, it’s hard not to demonize him as a selfish opportunist who ended up personally being the ‘man’ he inherently was. But maturity tells us he was human and came saddled with the complexities of humanity.

The plot endears more so as limited medical advancements proclaimed a misdiagnosis on the doctors’ part, positing Viv’s condition as nothing more than an imbalance which science could not fathom correctly and one which was perfectly curable. By the time Viv resumed her grace and dignity , her soulmate had deserted her. This is the tragedy of her unique station in life, a woman lacking not wealth or intellect but the reserves of the era and a world to understand her, giving her a chance to be better and exactly who she is, with or without a permanent cure. It also lays bare a powerful examination of gender roles and the duality of individuals. However, let’s give Eliot his due as every man/woman is full of personal demons and he was no different. The point is, TOM AND VIV allows us to empathize with the protagonists and root, in all finality, for Viv, who emerged as the stronger individual, as admitted by her brother, and withstood her fate in her difficult years with a stoic resolve.
In fact, the beauty of the cast’s impressive output somewhat eclipses Willem Dafoe’s turn here, a personage docile to the point of being a clean slate in terms of facial transparency. For a man ( that is Eliot, in this case) who disseminated the objective co relative, a principle in which external facts correspond with the creation of immediate emotion, he was staunchly inhibited. In hindsight, I feel Dafoe did a good job of expressing Eliot’s inscrutable core. It’s always difficult portraying another human being. That said, there is an awkward see saw that pits the emotional highs against some of the unintentional spells of humour borne out of Viv’s unpredictable mania. Gilbert fine tunes those sequences with the precision and poignancy of its central premise.

In a startling scene, Virginia Woolf, a writer famous for giving respectable heft to the woes of distressed individuals in her novels, especially those under the pall of mental friction (as in MRS. DALLOWAY), exhibits disdain about Viv’s worthless presence in Tom’s life and bad mouths her behind her back. Tom’s defenses there take the shape of his defeat, in the final act of his inner war with principles of humanity and perseverance. These are snippets that briefly let us dust the curtains and clear cob webs about a token brand of compassion present everywhere.

Eliot was a maven on modern conscience, bore the insignia of the one who foresaw decay of civilization and vagaries of our generation much before anyone could imagine. Nevertheless in TOM AND VIV, Vivianne Haigh Wood trumps all expectations to emerge as the true survivor and Miranda dignifies her missteps and triumphs with a keen eye for playing with fire, ultimately dousing it with the sheer height of her spirit. TOM AND VIV uncovers human frailty, intellectual opposition, hard facts of life and stays with you. Like the beauty of poetry, the lilt of poignancy has no sound but tugs at our heartstrings in this betokened instance.
*****

NOTE : this post simultaneously also appears as part of my Wattpad essay collection A LETTERED SOUL: REFLECTIONS ON LITERATURE, CINEMA AND CULTURE.

A CINEPHILE’S RECOMMENDATIONS : CONCUSSION, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD and KNIGHT OF CUPS.

Here I write about three extremely refined works of art, all informed by real figures and the collective of human experiences finds meritorious traction . I recommend you watch all of these and consume the experiences for yourself. The dynamism of figures portrayed in these films opens pathways for survival, courage and truth seeking endeavors.

For the rest, my words will act as a springboard and introduction for discerning cinephiles.

****

CONCUSSION (2015)

CONCUSSION is about much more than the titular head injury as it delves into the unlikely life and times of a living legend , a legend of the public realm who is a Good Samaritan first, so simple and unassuming that he doesn’t realize he is going to script a major turn of the screw for the field of sports and the many esteemed players who lost their minds trying to make sense of their mental disintegration post retirement. Dr. BENNET OMALU is a silent crusader and he had faith in science, nothing else, no ego, no plans for a career upshot when he concluded as a coroner that the doomed deaths of former American football Hall of Famers was a result of the constant head butts they received during the course of an ebullient and often violent on – field clash. These were men who didn’t know the rationale behind their aggressive spells and complete disorientation from normal social functioning until Dr. Omalu concluded that their concussions had taken a toll on their minds. He deemed the condition as C. T. E and published his research for the same. It addresses the lack of empathy for the idea of mental health and the way outward appearances hamper diagnosis for these hulking sportstars. What is masculinity? is an implicit theme running through the screenplay, whether it is OMALU who is ridiculed for questioning this display of machismo or those authoritative figures who want to further fill their coffers and continue reaping dividends off the exclusive male club in corporate conglomerates.

Set in the year and beyond immediately after the 9/11 epoch, it also lights up a dark alleyway of the first world, showing us that the society’s real enemy is systemic racism. This rings true everywhere. As Omalu is targeted for denigrating the beloved sports and called out for being a quack (despite his exemplary degrees and accomplishments including one in ethereal music from London’s Royal Academy), the many collared reach of elitism in any professional field, the one hell bent on discrediting him owing to his skin colour, Nigerian roots and immigrant status unspools a fight to the top. The presentation is devoid of jingoism or overt dramatic flourishes.

I felt that courtesy the NFL( National Football League)’s tentacles of power, the established order of the American way is probed, to reveal its hegemonic supremacy that often alienates its immigrants. In Bennet Omalu, the hopes and dreams of fitting into the free world by dint of vocation, righteousness and belief in justice find a resonant contemporary beat.

A shout out to director Peter Landesman. He keeps it real, celebrating the fervour of sports along with the matrix of few supporters and countless detractors who gang up against whistleblowers to save their own skin. Omalu is not an intentional whistle-blower. He is simply stating the truth to save lives. Beautifully structured sequences of complexity and Omalu’s inner struggles to prove a simple point correspond with ones centring around Prema, his wife played by a wonderful GUGU MBATHA RAW and a doctor (Alec Baldwin) who ultimately accepts the cold snare of rejection by going against his life long accomplices for larger good. They undertake a lawful passage in the spirit of citizens of a democratic world. One percenters weigh them down. Towards the end, the transparency and humility of OMALU, extending to a million righteous voices, is firmly sealed. He remains non exhibitionist and restrained as he’s forced to leave Pittsburgh and relocate to Lodi, California as the higher echelons alienate him and dangers lurk for his impending family life . In Will Smith, OMALU finds a perfect representative.

Which is why I feel Smith was unjustly shut out of the Oscar race just like Chadwick Boseman was for his impeccable portrayal of James Brown in GET ON UP. These oversights help us see contradictions of racial diversity by light of day even within cinema’s haloed portals. CONCUSSION sheds the light on individuals and their faithful aides whose crusade for justice is in line with God’s true path for all of us. Compassion and constancy abound then.

***

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (2005)

‘back talking’ , ‘sass talking’ – these terms are easily associated with women who refuse to be passive sheep being led by society’s staff . These terms abounded in the African American society. Actually, it corresponds with an universal culture of silencing opiniated, intelligent females. For Janie in this tale, there is no great demand for luxury, just the wish to be herself – expressive, a constructive participant in her provenance, the right to work and the desire to be not just another pretty face bound by domesticity. She is Everywoman and the woman next door who dares to step out of the doormat that her contained life is, more so as a woman of colour / a minority denomination.

In THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, based on the classic ZORA NEALE HURSTON novel which I have had the privilege of being in the knowledge of, Janie Crawford is like a river in spate and as still in its crystalline tranquility. Director DARNELL MARTIN gives Halle Berry the virtues of her inherent sensual intelligence and beauty, making them apart from the easy commodification it can offer and acknowledging the freedom of the natural world that Janie Crawford tilts to her own , a verve to live according to her diktats and in the lap of nature. MARTHA COOLIDGE acquired the same result for Halle on the pathbreaking INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, the difference being that the personal ambit of expression was more pronounced in intimate, concrete spaces . This is a rare case of females communicating the inner world in creative collaborations, in an era where we are still bemoaning the lack of representation for female filmmakers.

**

There is historical / cultural authenticity on its side. In the foundation of Eatonville, Florida as the first integrated black town, her home in the narrative, the history of the people who dared to become settlers after centuries of servitude is touched with a legacy of egalitarian tempers. Alas, that doesn’t translate to dismantling gender stereotypes and gossip mongering antithetical to a supposed renewed culture. Think about then and now – progresses are made by legislations and worded statutes but social dogmas enbedded in the mind refuse to be swept away with the tides of time. This is a believable inner confrontation Zora made as a novelist, her literary creation Janie did, I do as a viewer and Halle Berry performs with great aptitude. In her marriage to the founding member and later mayor of Eatonville Jody Starks(Ruben Santiago Hudson) she finds riches and status that keep wagging tongues at a distance but the security of a home and prestige among the people get undercut by twenty years of second hand treatment and voiceless meanderings as also a lock on her presence and natural beauty. That is when we take her loveless and short lived earlier marriage to the old man Logan Killicks(Mel Winkler) that was forced on her by her grandmother, in the ironically grand tradition of the past where women were given off into obscurity in the name of the man’s acres and security cover. The freedom to end that relationship of absolute shambles and the transition to the romantic, ideal one with Jody shows the ups and downs of her quest for freedom.

**

Then after Jody’s death, there comes the great love of her life in Tea Cake( Michael Ealy) , who shares her passions and sensual leanings. They align themselves with a conscious passage of self discovery that had been sold out to conformity earlier .

Her spirit is free and the status of being the first Lady of Eatonville distinguishes her even after she is alone. Her individuality and hard work is her own in sustaining it. By the end, she is bereft yet she has vision of GODLINESS – the free outdoors that align with her pursuit of great emotional transparency. She also has her confidante Phoebe( Nicki Micheaux) . But above all, we are alone and Janie knows her senses can never be fully nullified as her hope is succinct in the natural world. It’s an extension of her spirit. She is a woman who walks ahead of her times and reflects all concerns of her brethren of here and now.

This made for television film is a good example of book to screen adaptation and I must remind you that Eatonville is a real life location extant to this contemporary era. The cast (also comprising of Ruby Dee, Lorraine Toussaint and the heartthrob Terrence Howard) boasts of stellar names and they all succeed. THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD made me think about all of the points I write here as also about how easy it is to demonize a free soul. The beginning and ending portions have a silence, clarity that find the interior life of Janie in her state of loneliness. Berry makes us invest in her freedom, just like she can.

*****

KNIGHT OF CUPS(2015)

More than any era ever before, we tend to stretch our horizons of youthfulness to outlast limits of longevity and this current cultural conditioning leads to a discomfiting mid age crisis.We must know that longevity is not a path to predestined joy, everlasting joy at that. In life, nothing lasts forever and fleeting affairs of the heart and mind overtake mere physical dalliances. Profound philosophy still drips from the overflowing cup set at the table.

That’s the mystical, spiritual disrepair at the heart of Terence Malick’s intimately epic poem that lavishes on consistent imagery of great beauty and the ponderous legacies of a man( the great Christian Bale), his personal rapport with family and the many women who come, go but retain their interiority in his existential sojourn. They all come into their own with individual narrations to ensure an overwhelming single voice never dominates. Malick tends to decode the many set of influences that make our mosaic of experiences. Despair, regret, separation and unity all combine in the collage of an universe constituted by people like us. KNIGHT OF CUPS, named after a tarot card, is a beautifully realized mystery. In its deconstruction of modern day relationships and post modern ethos of universality, the standard of beauty in terms of the cast and a typical Los Angeles based decadence, I found the pathos coming up to the surface, beyond bleary eyes and perfectly manicured spaces at every turn. Art, as an entity, is the muse that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki utilizes to humanize what is essentially a silent film( as there are no dialogues mouthed by anyone) and a mosaic of moods, gestures, architecture, trips and a great American personal odyssey away from the madding crowd of Hollywood’s assembly line. By setting it in the city of angels, the irony reaches a fever pitch of creativity.

It’s Biblical, modern, classical in its grand design (down to the distinct chapterisation of the narrative) and polished in the vein of modern aesthetics and technical details. We wonder at the mechanics of affluence in each frame, shot and panoramic angle. The natural world is a corollary to a landscape of the soul.

In KNIGHT OF CUPS, the CONSCIENCE is personified in the narration by Sir Ben Kingsley , the interior monologue assuming a metaphysical, outer to inner form. IMOGEN POOTS, FREIDA PINTO, CATE BLANCHETT, TERESA PALMER and NATALIE PORTMAN are the anchors to the protagonist’s unraveling while WES BENTLEY, BRIAN DENNEHY, CHERRY JONES and ANTONIO BANDERAS complement the unraveling of this extended interior monologue and stream of consciousness. The focus on their faces and expressions makes this a work free of structure and reliant on improvisation and liberty for all accomplished artists here. As a worshipper of cinema, Malick’s keen eye for detail attached me to his worldview and for me this is the first monumental illustration of cinema reveling in the lack of form and reaching fruition with its superlative content. A profound humanist eulogy for our times.

We have money and power. But they are not enough to separate us from our core. The core is sought in KNIGHT OF CUPS with impressionistic clarity. It’s akin to a literary fluidity we seldom see at the movies.

*****

THEY KNEW WHERE THEY WANDERED TO FIND THEMSELVES : ON THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

I am grateful to the turn of time. Personally, I could have never imagined my writings on cinema will ever travel beyond my register pages and find such traction in a platform as liberating as this. But here it is.

This writing on THE ENGLISH PATIENT was informed by my reading of the unforgettable book that graced my Masters in English curriculum and then I turned towards the celebrated cinematic interpretation the world was in full knowledge about. Both the experiences merged to create a lasting impression on me. Human relationships are tender and straddle lifetimes, definitive of our memories of a time in life and the people and places who leave a moist imprint of yesterdays collating with wells of present day remembrance.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT is a bridge to the silent articulations of lifetimes and I am privileged to share this written example from four years back with my readers here.

***

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)

CAST : JULIETTE BINOCHE, RALPH FIENNES, KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS, WILLEM DAFOE, COLIN FIRTH, NAVEEN ANDREWS.

DIRECTION : ANTHONY MINGHELLA.
***

There are several cinematic works of art which aim to produce an immediately walloping impact on us with their scale and canvas. Some prefer the operatic brushstroke to entail the grace of an epic journey, created with the passion and delicacy of situations in which disparate people come together. THE ENGLISH PATIENT is the latter, mixing the scale and canvas of the former example with a sublime dramatic representation, luxuriating in its multiple concerns and central theme of splintered memories uniting with the company of others with a sober disposition, tastefully realized by Minghella. It’s a tricky thing to achieve but from the opening shots of the desert through to the intimate world of the people here, it lingers and tugs at our heartstrings.

At the outset, one needs to know that with its running time of nearly three hours, introspective passages of visual panorama and blistering medley of suppressed emotions, this could be a niche offering for those used to quick witted screenplays. As we settle down with patience as our talisman, the end result is one which deserves its stately sense of execution and works its trance like spell to move our hearts and minds.
THE ENGLISH PATIENT is based on the Booker Prize winning novel by MICHAEL ONDAATJE. Compassion for others and their perspectives informed by memory is paramount here. Memory aligned with pain of many contours are legacies central to these individuals.

Juliette Binoche irradiates warmth of selfless humanity as Hana, the Canadian nurse who decides to tend to the eponymous English Patient, as World War 2 draws to a close and the dance of identity grips her muddled conscience. Like the derelict villa which lodges both of them in Sicily’s stark landscape, the two are essentially broken colossi of impaired desires, the patient in body and Hana in soul. The soul has been haunted in both cases.

Thrust into this uncertain epicenter of internalized chaos and post war paranoia is the interpersonal camaraderie among them and two other men, making this a rare occasion for interaction of the two genders, with a lone woman finding her strength against the concerns of these two others . Without sexualising this trio, it is about men and women looking out for each other in the spirit of communal harmony.
One is Carravagio ( Willem Dafoe), an acquaintance of Hana and her father who has dabbled in amorality , and Kip ( Naveen Andrews), an Indian soldier with experience on his side, in the war on the ground and inside his mind. Willem Dafoe bears a hawk like precision and cunning while Naveen is at his reserved best as the man who awakens Hana’s dormant world, eventually playing the tune of a melodic lullaby on her senses to lull the pain of years of denial and regrets. Her selflessness, you see, in line of duty has become a burden of profound weight. Their relationship, sensual and enduring, is a play of equals.

As Hana holds fort for them, the script arcs are interspersed with past images of the English Patient / Count Almasy’s tryst with forbidden love that panned out in the harsh climes of Cairo. Ralph Fiennes lends authenticity to his flashback portions as the charming man put to finding mysteries of the world as a cartographer and uncovering his own while as the scarred, bandaged, bed ridden blank slate of an enigma, he is equally tuned into the everyday physical struggles and immobility. Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth are excellent as the doomed, newly married couple caught in the cross currents of a tumultuous time.

Long shots and close ups are effectively employed here to beautifully embellish John Seale’s cinematographic polish and Gabriel Yared’s score is a boon for those looking to be immersed in ethereal cinematic aesthetes. The wail of the violin accompanies the characters’ tensile nerves as also the movement in their lives. Their lives are pitted against the crack of doom occasioned by nature, war and the discovery of companionship in unexpected crannies of human existence.

Their hearts are like moors cultivated with histories of desires and readers of the novel like me will find a deeper resonance with the shifts in moods. Let’s not forget to say that it’s faithful to the source material in all earnestness.

There is a transcendental quality to THE ENGLISH PATIENT, in paper and on screen, that channels the power of memories. These are memories deeply entrenched in our souls and they define us. They may be a burden, curse or a boon and saddle us with strings of past, present and future. Here, they are a mix of all of the above.

I believe life is a revelation when we weigh fistful of joys with a handful of sorrows. This beautiful work of art honors that credo and comes with power packed performances and the transience of life’s trajectory.

***

A VOICE OF THE OPPRESSED AND THE DAMNED FINDS AN ECHO: on FENCES, FRUITVALE STATION, THE OFFENCE and TOP OF THE LAKE.

*****

FENCES(2016) and FRUITVALE STATION(2013)

For me, the irony in both instances of filmmaking mentioned here first is in the esteemed positions of the actors enacting their parts, summoning the history of the black experience to show that a common humanity pervades ; they are still not above the collective consciousness of a community, as evidenced by Spike Lee’s acknowledgement of the passage from slavery to his own place in the cultural pantheon, as regards his familial legacy, while receiving his first proper Oscar in February 2019 for BLACKKLANSMAN’s original screenplay . In FENCES and FRUITVALE STATION, working class lives are ingrained in the African American experience, with startlingly realistic payoffs taken from real life cases. The truth is never forgotten.

***

FENCES has a lope like movement to the verbose / wordy screen iteration , especially in the case of the chatterbox that is Denzel. Or maybe it is a steady sprint of wordplay to offset darker portals of personal selfhood on his part. It is, to a large degree.

This is a view from the inside out, not a political pan at race. Talking about it is no mean feat as much as we would prefer to put it on a far off shelf. Addressing it within a community is the hard earned task cut out for participants, in an unit, the most universal being the family as is the case in FENCES based on August Wilson’s play. The scalding touch of dreams not fulfilled by systemic racism comes full circle as the protagonist here has a job in the municipality as a garbage collector – essentially a pivotal work of God but lowest in the rungs of our class conscious world. The tipping point is when his jollity mixes with his curdled rage. He swings his bat at destiny and words come out from him which everybody will identify from verbal lashings received at the hands of a patriarch.

Take the title beyond a literal reading ; the untended fence in the backyard of the family’s modest one storey flat is symbolic of the work left to perform on our personal fronts, the one we often sidestep in the name of working for our daily bread and as in here, the surface veneer of a happy family is the front most conducive to humans. The laughter is a mask, the hidden distortion is stubbornly suppressed to show only the laugh lines, not draw one’s eyes to frown lines above. A smile goes on to steady the boat of life, as you see while a frown spells out intensity by the second, sometimes excusable on the man of the house’s facial features as an essential component. FENCES traces the arch of the smile and the frown down to the resignation in an overall historical place for these and brethren like them. These are outsiders who have been undone by their identity, poverty, menial jobs, permanent mental health issues and standoffs endemic to father and son as well as between husband and wife, in that very order. Empathy is not easily detected in a minefield of tempestuous emotions. FENCES makes us achieve that for the man at its center and it’s not very remote from what we see in our own patriarchs : weight of the world and care and concern for a family all split by the side, by a greatly troubled place in the larger navel of existence. The performances are exemplary and Viola Davis shows the range of women’s lives, left to fight against men’s weaker impulses and struggling to humanize one’s own lifetime through sacrifices too many to number and preventing stiff opposition for her traditional thoughts from the new generation, in this case the son(Jovan Adepo) , himself caught in the crossfire between a beloved mother and a father he has come to detest. FENCES is so bristlingly honest, we will be left to question our foundations for defense within our own units. Like you do and I do, almost everyday. Is redemption only for the head of the family? Is a flawed personality a byproduct of too many evils visited upon one individual ? Where is the balance?

Denzel directs with genuine pathos here. The words cut to the bone. It’s a timeless rendering applicable to not just one bracket. Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Saniyya Sidney and Mykelti Williamson ( so memorable as the best friend in FORREST GUMP) are all excellent.

*****

FRUITVALE STATION is not just a random station in California nor is anything remotely one off about the shooting of an unarmed young African American man in real life. For those who think the spate of racially charged shootings began with Ferguson or as a precursor to a sweeping BLACK LIVES MATTER movement, think again. This is the truth sitting on a cold slab : the disenfranchised always receive the hard end of the berth and not a care in the name of justice. That’s the way through centuries of systemic abuse anywhere.

FRUITVALE STATION does not settle for just a confirmation of mere statistics as it takes one individual life over a day’s course and in hand held, documentary style shows us the fleeting nature of life. Nobody sees it coming. The tragedy of incoming death. An end unto itself. Fans of director Ryan Coogler and his partnership with actor Michael B. Jordan in CREED and the phenomenal BLACK PANTHER need to watch this straight from the gut retelling of truth within the community to which they belong.

It’s about a life of one too young to bear it all: a girlfriend (Melanie Diaz) , their daughter, a previous jail term for nothing other than his race and the specter of unemployment. The less than 24 hour cycle shows him being reprimanded by his mother for driving with his phone to his ear, talking about new beginnings with his girlfriend, trying to get his job back, going out of his way to help a young woman, bonding with a canine friend and calling out the rash drivers who run over him, sharing moments of bliss with his daughter(Ariana Neal) as a very young father can, attending his mother’s birthday, being solitary by the water and ringing in New Year’s Eve with his sweetheart and friends. His innate good graces are accepted by all until gang hooliganism in the subway makes authorities tear him apart and a shot is fired.

It happens in a continuous loop and the stillness of the incidence numbs the conscience, like the mother(Octavia Spencer) who had understood the threat to her son in a racially divisive modern world and cannot even show the depth of her pain. Or the girl who was the great love of his life and their child’s mother. This tale is above demographics of shootings or dynamics of basic humanity. It’s about institutionalized inhumanity per se. It ends on a solemn note, with no real conclusion and in its tone of melancholy, the continuum of lives lost to race and class structures unravels.

On the other hand Rachel Morrison’s photographic credits on FRUITVALE STATION maintain its plane of stark realism.

*****

THE OFFENCE(1973) and TOP OF THE LAKE(2013)

Still waters run deep. Nowhere does this maxim apply than in the atmosphere disseminated in TOP OF THE LAKE. This, along with THE OFFENCE and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS,in my opinion, looks incisively at policing personnel divided by age and gender and yet bound by the mysteries of human evil.

In the instances of the film and television miniseries discussed here respectively, the police officers dealing with the vile crimes of sexual abuse of minors find themselves in a trance, a melancholic state of daze that engulfs them in their living acres. I am sure that the toll of dealing with anti social inhabitants of earthly realm sure affects the human psyche of people trained to withstand the very worst. Works as these also seek to demystify the workings of a flesh and blood fellow mortal who tends to rise above the rubble to bring justice. A calm upper membrane of these personalities is juxtaposed with highly toxic nerve ends of a soul in extreme duress even though they are on the right side of the fence.

The grubby, noirish, dimly lit claustrophobia of THE OFFENCE, directed by the masterful SIDNEY LUMET, does not give out its exact location so it could be in certain sections of a big city in the U. K or a small town. In TOP OF THE LAKE, an idyllic lakeside haven is overrun by the insularity of male ruthlessness(Peter Mullan and David Wenham) operating in slow boil and an objectification of women that does not spare even young girls ( and males too as we discover ; the venal roots run deep) In the passage of six episodes, trauma associated with rape unfolds in psychological crevices of human actions, conflating elements of the past and the present for the detective (Elisabeth Moss) investigating a case involving a 12 year old girl(Jacqueline Joe)

The limited populace seems to take cover under the beauteous expanse of the land they occupy, in this open sky country, thinking that maybe their isolation has made them aloof from the larger world’s moral codes.

THE OFFENCE is more of a double duel between the policeman(Sean Connery) and the suspect. The latter ( Ian Bannen) taunts and verbalizes his toxicity and a lid to the former’s own inner violence spills out in a tense standoff where the naturalism of the exchange is maintained through close ups and nil musical effects. It’s visceral and elemental, bringing human interaction to a dangerous meeting point until the rule of law implodes, just like in a previous instance the officer shares a moment of unbridled tension with his wife ( Vivien Merchant) at home, implying that separating his public and private spheres is a mammoth task. A burden is always hanging on their shoulder blades. Shrugging off evil and the other side of the spectrum is impossible.

In JANE CAMPION’S screenplay for the miniseries TOP OF THE LAKE, the ironic insularity of a feminist commune headed by Holly Hunter is a world apart from the wheeling dealings around town but the mystic beauty of nature and the community’s own beliefs never reach fruition. The bare realism of these world weary facts lend it gravitas as also the oft repeated idea of appearances being deceptive. Man makes hell a paradise and a sanctuary a netherworld.

The depth of the performances haunt me, Elisabeth Moss as the cop taking centrestage, a brave performer who never flinches from the truth ; so do the images and the cyclic pattern of abuse in a place with few avenues for anyone. It hurts, it bristles the insides of the mind. The young girl’s plight constantly mirrors the officer’s own from her teenage years and the dual identification is more powerful in the parallels of generational exploitation, perpetrators getting raw deal in the quantum of punishment and the victim being in a loop for a lifetime. The real sharp objects here are the denials of justice and the inability to confront seething truths. It’s utterly universal in the sense of us failing survivors. TOP OF THE LAKE is immersive and enters the skin, like all great artistic representations of TRUTH do.

As for THE OFFENCE, well ever since I have seen it on the MGM CHANNEL, I just couldn’t remove the images of the officer discovering a young girl in the bushes, the horror of the unfolding case, the domestic discord and the two way explosion of the suspect and the cop, ending with Sir Sean Connery saying, “oh my God”; it’s the call of a damaged soul who has seen too much and is now complicit in this culture of crime and infestation in the innards of being. Both these works find echoes of the oppressed and the damned with grave urgency, never shortchanging reality for cinematic bombast. The integrity of the subject addressed in both works demands such an unflinching output. They achieve it.

*****

WE ESSENTIALLY SPEAK IN THE SAME TONGUE : on ensemble films BABEL, THE BURNING PLAIN and 20TH CENTURY WOMEN.

I’ve wondered about the nature of interconnectedness. There is no one explicable point of distinction that makes human bonds resonate , whether in the rough and tumble of hardships or the great realizations that well wrought power of companionship comes to extract from our everyday interactions.

Ensemble works, where a host of people’s narratives intertwine even when they don’t meet each other, point at the personal journeys that are shaped by destiny and which bring each personage closer to the inescapable truth. The multiplicity in intimate unravelings are straight out of the sudden, sometimes transitory and storied bonds that define us all as we undergo odysseys of great import. The memory claims each encounter as especial. No matter what the outcome of the encounter , our minds record moments where we saw, felt and ingested events commonplace and beyond our grasps. Conflicts, epiphanies, unlikely friendships and authoritarian strictures make or break these relationships and in the hour of desperate need, emotions come into their own. Language barriers break down or camouflage progress. Distances melt and sometimes become wider. Human agency, above all, constantly makes efforts to inch closer to an understanding where body language and sustained looks support a global construct for effecting real change.

The three cinematic works that grace this post allows viewers to keep ears and eyes open, view the whole length and breadth of human endeavour in sometimes very darkened halls of consciousness whereas in others the soul is alighted by bitter revelations with life altering pronouncements. The final work discussed here, a love letter to the retro timeline where fundamental social change seeped in like fresh rays of sunshine, celebrates the frictions and frissons of an era, suggesting the particularity in universality of our shared wavelengths. Hence the tapestry of life unfolds.

*****

BABEL(2006)

When I think of Babel(2006), I think of the first time I was fascinated by the titular word, about the cross continental quartet it addressed in terms of the delicately connected threads of these human narratives, back in the day when not just blockbusters were heavily advertised on movie channels, with full features dedicated to each film that mattered and was released worldwide. Having seen quite a bit of it on telly previously , I was as fascinated by the humane manner of delineating the universality of experiences here as the rest of the cinephiles. BABEL was indeed highly praised and watched.

The title also exposed me to the hard hitting Biblical myth about the Tower of Babel and how human ego had made it impossible to communicate in a common tongue hence leading to chaos borne out of different languages. Babel means a chaotic unraveling in which clarity eludes us.

In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ‘s carefully constructed world of multiple voices, some of the people never meet but a moment in time dictates the trickle effect of their distresses, hopes, humanity and revelations in foreign lands. The moral weight of encountering events beyond the people and places they already know comes with the pathos and poignancy intrinsic to each chapter as the back and forth juxtaposition draws parallels to the fact that ultimately we all share the same language, age, gender, nationality no bar. For these are tales conditioned by cultural / universal traits, xenophobia, disability and the dance of life and death, make or break situations. It affects me profoundly because I believe that one person’s life is being shared by another somewhere in this vast global panorama, not in its exactitude but the circumstances and particulars.

A young boy ( Boubker Ait El Caid) and his brother toy with a gun given to them by their father and a power play of premature and inherited masculinity leads to a reverberating shot, in a remote mountainous terrain of Morocco. Reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s short story FLIGHT, this event leads to chaos in a tourist couple ( Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) when the lady receives a bullet in her shoulder and its perilous journey revolves around imminent death even as the locals rally around with limited sources and traditional cures to support them before medical aid reaches their destination . On the other end of this duet is a lonely young girl ( Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo, distanced from her father (Koji Yakusho), who had used the gun in Morocco for hunting(hence connecting him to the unraveling), suffering the pangs of her mother’s suicide and inability to hear along with her teenage awakening. Her world of silence is dealt with the pain of solitude and joy and wonder of sensory experiences to go with her desperation for approval that the Oscar nominated Kikuchi is able to extract from her inner recesses. The sting and the hope of her station is a masterclass in expressive transparency; it’s performative alchemy of the highest order, relying on the absence of words to prove what performance truly rests on: pure instinct and nothing else, to draw on the same pain, ire and desperation of millions like the anonymous girl here.

Then there’s the beloved nanny(Adriana Barraza, also Oscar nominated for her great performance here ) of the kids of the couple stranded in Morocco, who herself, is away from home, family in order to raise another. Her chance journey to Mexico for her relative’s wedding in her native place , across the border from San Diego where she works, leads to a harrowingly transformative experience in the journey back home where her trusted aide ( Gael Garcia Bernal) deserts her after a heated exchange with racist authorities and she has to run for her life with the kids in tow across the burning plain. Contemporary instances of cross border xenophobia are reflected in this instance where the cost of humanity is stretched to render her own individual status dry. Those moments where she searches for a way back home, is arrested by authorities and then deported back to Mexico are heart shattering.

It connects each tale with the state of affairs in the here and now. The connections are absolutely essential and never on the nose. The subtlety of the thematic presentation unlocks sudden ways in which we are rooted in commonalities.

Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score further has been imprinted in my mind, bringing the pathos of its unpredictable, unexpected stakes closer to a viewer’s skin. The modern world needs to watch BABEL to understand its urgent predicaments.

*******

THE BURNING PLAIN (2008)

The interconnectedness between BABEL and THE BURNING PLAIN rests with Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the former and has done the same as well as fulfilling the directorial duties here. His penchant for diverse voices and shared lives is a beacon of commonality, making the ensemble piece one of profound agency in both instances.

This underrated 2008 feature film is about a sense of physical awakening as three women ( one being a teenager) find past and present overlapping. These are bodies in flush of post coital weariness, tenderness, bodies that don’t feel beautiful owing to surgical incisions as on the part of a harried housewife who had undergone a mastectomy (Kim Basinger). Here as in real life, physical intimacy embodies variables of lust, salve for emotional wounds or numbing the conscience against waves of uncomfortable memories .

In locating a shared pain for all the people and addressing a soul sapping mood, Arriaga evinces a cracked earth sensibility, a melancholy fueled by this backwater’s remote location and the secrets that get exchanged in mortal whispers. These are secrets that unwittingly get passed down from mothers to daughters, gape open eyed at one’s reflections in the mirror and reduce individual point of views and self definition to an extremely lonely endpoint. As per the locations then Portland’s sea side town in which a loner( Charlize Theron) fills up her void by dint of her beguiling beauty and drawing unwanted attention to her body and the desert town in New Mexico where the mother (Basinger) and daughter ( Jennifer Lawrence) stay are correlated by this insularity of being that the people choose for themselves, embalming themselves against not just great personal tumults but, it seems, the scorching surroundings that they seek respite from, whether in terms of clandestine lovemaking or asylum away from one’s past in a lone housing space. All indoor spaces.

The bordertown here is a link to the similitude of weary souls residing in neglected shells of their own because it is the main center for bringing these three women (and the men in their lives) together . True to the title and the opening image of a burning trailer van, with the dry backdrop of the New Mexico desert, simmering angst informs the screenplay. These lives are hot to the touch. Tenderness still percolates in the silences teeming with meanings.

The performances have been lodged in my mind and a shaft of hope comes after a period of distance has rendered life lessons to each and the burden of personal history has passed . Realism is the key in ensemble works at large and THE BURNING PLAIN is effectively intimate.

*****

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

The interconnectedness in 20th Century Women, set in the final year of an epoch making 1970s, is about an enduring sense of community that is propagated by a middle aged woman( Annette Bening) , giving birth to an extended family that includes a photographer ( Greta Gerwig) who is a tenant occupying her upper floor, a teenager ( Elle Fanning) who also happens to be the best friend of her son ( Lucas Jade Zumann) and a man Friday (Billy Crudup) This is a tale focusing on a strong mother and son bonhomie and currents of social churning owing to which (inclusive of the teenager’s rebellion and coming of age apprehensions) she lets the two ladies create a matrix of good influence on the young boy’s overall awakening. I know it sounds quirky but the charm of this Oscar nominated original screenplay is as ‘original’ as it comes. Director Mike Mills was literally raised by this formidable consortium of women with individual outlooks in spite of the age differences between all and it is transported with the same novelty as the original set up was in his youth.

The storytelling uses a mosaic like structure to unveil a cultural collage of the people corresponding with the times in which they lived, using little instances of it literally for interesting exposition .
The monologue by the young adult protagonist makes sense .
All these are employed to characteristically express the lack of impersonality of the events unfolding here.
Most importantly, it adopts a gender inclusive approach.

The scene where the young male protagonist gets roughed up by a schoolmate when he enunciates basic feminist ideas which the other is bewildered to listen to, owing to the sheer, abject absence of such worldly wise words that sensitises women’s issues, is strikingly original. Set in the last year of the epoch making 70s, it beautifully shows an integrated household where bonds are not glued by blood lines but the very real change or progressive imprints of it happening in the era. It’s about mothers and sons, the other figures who become friends and guides for life owing to the informality of not being related to you and coming of age that the director culls from his impressionable days where structure and form of life flowed with the liberation of discovery. What a wonderful world he possessed. What an impressive ode to life has he recreated here. Such is the passion, detail and universality of his images where rebellion coincides with confusion, era specific ideas run the gamut for each yet interdependence is made possible.

I have to say I thought the mother (Annette) to be totally bohemian and she is indeed a free minded woman but being from the post World War era, she has her beliefs and tastes. The generational difference is there as an integrated mesh of influences in the whole. The younger girls too must have seen voices of yesteryears impinge upon their present and this confrontation of ideas among the three women creates a memorable dinner scene . So the fifty plus senior prefect is in a flexible flush, with a forward looking attitude without betraying that she is from an earlier time. She is assertive and maintains vigil over her only child. Yet she has reserves of self dependence to evince, having fended for herself always and still thriving as a single working woman, giving him the chance to separate truth from fiction.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN is a film for all age groups and eras. It is intimate and particular and I reiterate universal.

It also has the universal thought that leave it or cling to it, the levers of change start with the young. Passing the baton takes real courage, foresight and wisdom. In short, a good, flexible upbringing is what made Mr. Mills a filmmaker, raconteur and person of great transparency.
The climactic flash forward narration, of possible future events, is absolutely novel as 20th Century Women draws to a close. It is about the rite of passage that marks a growing up for everyone. Everybody will be interconnected to its universality.

****

THE 2018 TABLEAU – HALL OF FAME PART 3

I’ll admit it : I will write very briefly here owing to a paucity of time, something I usually don’t face. But the show must go on and certain important cinematic milestones – each actual benchmarks in their individual standings – will be written about, revived for those unfamiliar and rejuvenated for cinephiles who appreciate their qualities.

I also recognized a commonality in all these cinematic works. They all addressed some kind of internal, intrinsic darkness of the human soul and the people portrayed here inhabited morally cramped spaces in deeply skewed corners of the mind, unencumbered by era, place or history even gender.

** a still from THE MASTER (2012)

The pendulum always swings to and fro and the basic idea of human endeavour is put at the thrust of the narrative in all these films, traversing the classic epoch and modern classics. For me, life unfolds in all hues in them.

So here we go.

** a still from TOUCH OF EVIL(1958)

*****

INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE (1999)

A life in freefall when it should have scaled true heights- that’s the tragic gist of Dorothy Dandridge’s story . She was a woman ahead of her times. Yet she was a woman/ individual of her times. I bet a present generation still hasn’t been able to recognize, let alone know much about this pathbreaking actor who worked at the peak of the classic movie era and became the first African American actress nominated for an Academy Award for her lead performance in the musical CARMEN ROSE. Hattie McDaniel had won an Oscar for GONE WITH THE WIND, marked by a ceremony in which her racial identity made her sit in a segregated portion of the room. It was a breakthrough, fur sure. A deeply entrenched sense of colour prejudices marred true progress in that moment in time. Until this possibility beckoned with Dorothy Dandridge . She didn’t win on the final night and still her star had crested.

So there’s a valid, hard earned sense in the casting of Halle Berry here as this great figure , almost an ironic ring to it. She’s a historic figure in her own right, a right she earned by dint of her talent alone so it’s a profound trajectory that post her award winning streak for this role courtesy Emmy, Golden Globe among others, she stunned the world with her turn in MONSTER’S BALL (2001)and became the first African American actress to triumph with an Oscar. It seemed her moment of glory was aligned with the real life figure she had brought from shadows of anonymity. Both their dreams had aligned and no racial barrier could come in the way.

I had to honestly write about all that I felt while watching INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE as it charts the promise, sting, glory, personal travails, hope and ultimate subsuming factors of her life script that ended in a premature death. I was particularly heartbroken by that one instance in which a whole pool is drained after she sets her foot in it owing to a racially charged decree for non whites. Her pain had been buried with her. Till Halle commissioned a revival and chose to use her own wattage as a consummate performer to bring the pathos of a young lady who was every bit talented, passionate, optimistic and beautiful as a conventional ‘white’ performer. These are all characteristics Halle continues to uphold to this date, as an individual first, in charge of her singular gifts . The undertow of survival for actors of minority communities has today led to the blossoming of great talents like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Angela Bassett, Taraji P. Henson, Jennifer Hudson among so many, so much so that they commit to their roots and yet transcend narrow blocks of their skin color or ethnicity.

History doesn’t always serve some individuals / communities well. INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE befits its title as we still need to unveil her life, twenty good years after this HBO movie premiered. It’s a showcase of the cutthroat entertainment world and the personalities that cut her short of real breakthroughs. Kudos to the team behind it and to the gradual winds of change that recognizes talent sans myopic considerations in current times. Still, real progress is far, far away.

*****

THE MASTER (2012)

The tension within placid beginnings and stunted progressions in a post World War 2 America is sought here in Paul Thomas Anderson’s insightful, highly internalized THE MASTER.

This tale of a battered soldier who tries and fails to integrate himself to life after wartime is a potent, intimate study of the dramatic effects of alienation. With nobody from his immediate kindred to turn to, he seeks the enigma of a religious cult that is not unlike what we presently know as the Church of Scientology. The push and pull of his emotional center or a lack of it, the hushed whispers and moral corruption within this organization that exploits his rage and then discards him and the sexual currents that merge with his passive aggressive mindfields are dealt with a quiet melancholy for the man and an unfeeling world that actually has nothing to do with his post traumatic stress disorder. The continuum of it all leaves him bereft of a real core.

As the titular master, the great PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN taps into reserves of distance, authority, some kind of unchecked myth and along with AMY ADAMS goes for the sheer absurdity in detachment that never allows humans to be fully transparent to their fellow beings. Above all there’s Joaquin Phoenix. His broken spirit, feral degradation and directionless mound of insular existence has stayed with me. As has the serene music by Johnny Greenwood. Also check Rami Malek in one of his early performances here.

THE MASTER haunts us by the very improbability of its silent unfolding. It holds an emotional storm within, pointing at the fragility of human contact in the wake of life changing events.

*****

DRIVE (2011)

The jagged edges of urban spaces – whether in neon drenched buildings, palm lined boulevards or the seemingly tranquil face of a no name stunt man- make DRIVE worth a trip down the underbelly of human values. NICOLAS WINDING REFN is an excellent technical wizard, as is evidenced in THE NEON Demon, which I saw, and he handles the implicit violence of the human mind with a masterful trick of focusing on beautiful imagery and pumping out the latent blood and gore – in short human depravity – that occupies the margins of those painstakingly manicured outer lives.

DRIVE has that on display to full effect and I loved how desperation and organized crime has a slow burning implosion here not unlike real life as a host of L. A residents get tweaked and twisted emotionally to arrive at a point of no return. There is the poignancy of an incomplete love story between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, bitter ends for Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks and the deceptively simple but complex tangles of the mastermind that is Bryan Cranston. We never doubt the beauty and the ache of love or the simmering dangers of underhand activities. You see, crime here is much more underrated and hence unexpected in the resolutions it offers. The chain reaction bears on everyone’s souls.

Ultimately, the darkness creeps up on us and the silent stakes feel more biting on the conscience. DRIVE is wonderfully structured, revealing down and out individuals without much artifice ; essentially trapped in a whirlpool of intrinsic goodness and the evil of circumstances. The images, performances, cinematography and music are just spot on.

*****

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

This is a tale and human document of the highest order, one which graced my history books as we went through the motions of English monarchy. The battle of ideologies between Sir Thomas More , a man of religion, duty, intellect and righteousness and Henry the 8th,a lustful, self serving, brutish monarch who upended rules at every step for the sake of his own transgressions, has raged on far beyond those pages. This is no dog eared, archaic moral lesson belonging to one definite time line. In a predominantly man’s world, this tale tells us of the grave stakes that individuals on the side of constancy and moral eptitude like Sir More find themselves in, irrespective of a particular era and their gender which gives them no upper hand.

Fred Zinneman’s cinematic recreation, culled from an important play that imagined the power play in the Tudor court of yore, is leaden with tension from the opening frames where a group of men travel by boat in the middle of the night, carrying a missive to higher authorities. The feel, look and apprehension of the period is held firmly intact with the stark frames and candle lit interiors. As Sir More safeguards the soul of England by refuting to grant permission to King Henry(an excellent Robert Shaw) to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn(Vanessa Redgrave ) , thereby incensing the ruler who turns up against his loyal aide and institutes his own laws, a larger storm brews. Integrity is met with derision, corruption and the idea that one man cannot change the course of the world. Still Sir More( a wonderfully sage Paul Scofield) perseveres even as his wife ( Wendy Hiller) doesn’t fully comprehend his decision and actually wants him to be spared of any further danger.

What I found interesting is how rigid moral mores within the formal structure of courtesies and mannerisms create an uncomfortable interplay. Every move is restrained because it has to be in the line of decorum within the church and monarchy and many faces of humanity rear heads. Leo Mckern as court leader Thomas Cromwell opts for boot licking and undue corruption while John Hurt as an impoverished underling takes a safe spot rather than listening to his conscience, learning the ropes of survival from the others before him and going against his mentor More. The great Orson Welles is here as well, as a Cardinal questioning More’s beliefs and his own. Of course there is Susannah York as More’s ever supportive daughter whose clear conscience and fearlessness mirrors her own father’s brave example.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is about the soul unbending to authority, even the privilege and status of one’s own which could be twisted and emboldened for corruption. In this case, Sir More doesn’t use his own clout to summon clemency as his conscience is above all the primary motivator. He is summoned in court and plied with falsifications, from plaintiffs who know the absurdity of their own lies and yet they prevail. The word of truth towers way higher even as More is ultimately executed.

Paul Scofield, to me, is Gandhian in his composure here. An epilogue reveals how all opposing players self destroyed themselves soon after his death. So above all, this photoplay is riveting in its unadorned ring of truth, seemingly static but effective in its entirety, just like the life it portrays.

*****

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

In TOUCH OF EVIL, Orson Welles’ directorial swansong( before THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, released in 2018, was rediscovered), the formal aesthetic of film noir is at its most exemplary. I’ll agree, I didn’t warm up to it immediately but I waited for a point to arrest me and slowly and steadily the whole made sense along with the form, the carefully rehearsed manners of the actors and the play of smoke and shadows so integral to this sepia toned landscape.

It’s a riff on cops (Orson Welles and Charleton Heston) versus unruly players, a border town between Texas and Mexico where local residents and the idea of a gringo ( outsiders in principle) rule xenophobic tempers, a newly married couple’s unexpected unraveling and a criminal record that is as obvious as the sweltering heat of the place. Something truly damp and dangerous, loaded with apprehension, is here . To the policing fraternity here as in anywhere, corruption is a finagled foe and the most explicit functionary of our living world dictates choices . The men call shots, commodifying women as wives(Janet Leigh) or ladies of the night ( Merlene Dietrich) and mind games keep us on the edge.

TOUCH OF EVIL operates like a snare till the end and effectively paints a cloistered world where the ‘evil’ is truly internalized. The performances are good and the mood sombre, exhausting, delving into the nature of things in a hazy moral sphere. Give it a shot and you will be rewarded.

***

So I see. I have been able to write more than I had intended to and suffice to say that the restorative power of cinema made me commit to my vocation and turn this into a well fleshed out article.

**