THE GREAT CINEMATIC POOL OF VERSATILITY

Once again, this cinephile unveils a number of significant works of versatile quality.

*****

THE HOMESMAN(2014)

This astute recreation of the great American frontier circa the 1800s centers on the pursuit of the titular designation holder. The rules of this unique passage and simultaneous moral journey are twisted as instead of a male, it’s the fierce spinster (Hillary Swank) who is respected around town and has held her own in a sparsely populated yet mostly male dominant milieu amid harsh weather and undulating terrain . She boldly takes up the task of escorting three mentally tormented women of the town to a missionary haven in another state where they can recuperate. She is equipped with the self defensive skills and grit to challenge laws of nature and gender at every step. Also her companion on this perilous journey is the tough, experienced, rough hewn lout ( Tommy Lee Jones) who is as much of a buffoon as a trustworthy counterpart.

The sense of its period, dimensions of the physical space traversed and the passage of time crystallizes in accurate details while the behavioral patterns and matters of pertinence in a journey of such proportions is maintained with effective agency, in a languid movement specific to the era. The three women who are being taken on the carriage too make us look at the interiority of their losses. Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) and Sonja Richter play their parts very well.

However, an absurd twist that suggests the overreaching effects of such trails on the people and a logical opening to their mental disintegration comes after an hour and a half and abruptly eliminates Hillary from the narrative. This is somewhat opposed to the constructive, joint momentum between the two leads. It’s as if the ultimate aim for director – actor Tommy Lee Jones was to carry the final stretch of slow building bravado on his own. But as a filmmaker, he does a fair approximation of the concerns addressed here , also enlisting Meryl Streep’s expert craft for a highlighting cameo.

THE HOMESMAN has a scorched earth sensibility and even though modern audiences may notice the irony of the male appendage accompanying a level headed, steely woman although she is self sufficient , the many hued purpose of the THE HOMESMAN as a title is not lost on us since the times it portrays were such. It hasn’t changed much even today, especially in isolated locations. Watch it to be immersed in its atmosphere and period pitch.

*

MILLION DOLLAR BABY(2004), BOYS DON’T CRY(1999)

Talking about the towering inferno of talents and physical prowess that is two time Academy Award winning actor Hillary Swank, this generation cites her film P. S, I LOVE YOU as its personal favourite. For those who still haven’t watched her landmark performances, begin with her emphatically charged, resilient turns in BOYS DON’T CRY and MILLION DOLLAR BABY where the very concept of ‘blood, sweat and tears’ gets a whole new life with her classic presence.

As Brandon Teena, a young person struggling to be accepted for who he is in BOYS DON’T CRY to the unlikely champion in MILLION DOLLAR BABY punching above the weight of her drab existence and a largely sexist culture that trains only males in the boxing arena, the progression of her good natured personalities in both is put through the wringer owing to divisive social rules. Steely and determined, she is definitive of dreams lost and found then challenged by several roadblocks. Watch her eye expressions, her stance, the movement through personal realizations and the final heartbreaking moments of deliverance, all informed by real life figures.

***

LOVE STORY(1970)

This is one title that will almost always pop up among classic popular culture fixtures. I know I had been hearing all about it and reading on its ubiquity for years and so the final encounter was bittersweet. I use that oxymoron (bittersweet) because this tale of passionate love between two people who come from differing social classes and mindsets is actually a muted tragedy that announces its end point of premature loss in the first solitary frames featuring a distraught lad and widower ( Ryan O’ Neal)

The storytelling is simple enough and to good effect while the spirited nature of the beloved (Ali McGraw) acts as a foil to the reserved tempers of Ryan whose glint in the eyes profuses great love for her and also expresses the intensity of loss in the final stretch. Their moments together have a distinct charm since they don’t seem to be swept away by the finality of their union but keep it natural and warm as two lovers will. For me, it’s Francis Lai’s landmark theme music that beautifully captures its emotional impact. The simplicity and raw emotions at the heart of LOVE STORY, based on Eric Segal’s all time bestselling novella, make it worthwhile.

***

THE BEGUILED(2017)

Like THE HOMESMAN, Sofia Copolla’s THE BEGUILED is an effective and often claustrophobically penetrative study of a particular period ( the Civil War era of the late 19th century )

It achieves its finest moments of slow burn authenticity as it probes the internal characters of a limited group of people, within an estate, where a wounded soldier’s rescue by a close knit band of females of various ages creates headway for psychological impulses. Every one has a stake in this isolated sphere and a dance of desires replenishes their dormant world that had been separated from the mere presence of the opposite sex.

Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell are all exemplary as are the young teenagers. THE BEGUILED lives up to its name as it coils itself around its plot and sustains a mood of unpredictability that’s almost Shakespearean in effect . It’s a chamber piece with wily tempers.

***

OUT OF AFRICA(1985)

Beautifully photographed with sweeping views of the grand old continent, an incredible outer and inner journey on a baroness’ part informs Sydney Pollack’s OUT OF AFRICA. It is essential viewing for all Meryl Streep aficionados. She is an individual who chooses a marriage of convenience with her friend ( Klaus Maria) and then sculpts an intensely sensual love story with the free spirited adventurer ( Robert Redford)

But nobody, least of all flippant males who make their entries and exits as they please or even the fear of proximity with lions and other ‘wild’ beings , come close to her free spirits and the zeal with which she opts to chart her singular course in a continent she makes her home of the soul, getting in the thick of its culture and even working in her own land to sustain her coterie of loyal companions. She is truly liberated and sustains herself .

The colonial era camaraderie among her and the natives is then appropriately handled. She defines integrity and lets loose an epic saga coloured by episodic structures of her incredible life. Based on an incredibly diverse real life journey, OUT OF AFRICA manages to ultimately peak at the panorama of the soul. Its imagery is breathtaking, like a map of one’s personal universe.

**

THE WITCH(2015), THE HUNGRY(2017) , ROSEMARY’S BABY(1968)

Horror, as I’ve said earlier, is not a sole associate of ghouls and levitating bodies. It’s a state of mind in which fear compounded by human corruptions takes over our greater sensibilities. These three works honour that deeper understanding of the term by means of images and suggestive evil that is never necessarily in your face.

**

Set in the Puritanical era whose iconography graced Nathaniel Hawthorne’s greatest literary works, THE WITCH is an unholy mix of religious fiats, isolation, settlement blues and superstitions that feed on fear of the unknown or the unseen. A young girl (Anya Taylor Joy) gets to be in the thick of all this irrational mumbo jumbo and to the film’s credit until the last sequence , the pall of doom is maintained well. Irrationality has no virtue but director Robert Eggers, whose recent film THE LIGHTHOUSE is earning rave reviews, leads us to the inner chambers of this myth of witchcraft by his restrained images so that our beliefs in the horrifying representatives of our culture gets destabilized and then reinstated. In the end, the nightmare of seeing and believing is open ended in the best possible way, given its mythic foundations. Also I appreciate that the cockney English accent is maintained here to illuminate the life of settlers in America of yore.

**

The nightmare of internally feuding families with immense fortune and clout gets a highly nuanced, almost operatic treatment in its build up in Bornila Chatterjee’s 2017 TIFF(Toronto International Film Festival) showcase THE HUNGRY, one of the most criminally underrated films to emerge from India’s independent scene. Additionally it’s one of the most befitting Shakespearean adaptations, based as it is on the bard’s play TITUS ANDRONICUS.

Sayani Gupta, Tisca Chopra, Antonio Akeel, Suraj Sharma, Neeraj Kabi and the titanic Naseeruddin Shah all rise to the fevered heights of its retributive tempers and amoral conclaves to point out at the funk of human degradation multiple generations operating in a single space seems to be caught in. It’s brutal and no holds barred in its depiction, evoking pity and fear, two components of every Shakespearean work, for those at the heart of this familial warfare. Images of a severed head on a platter, a brutalized young lady barely able to speak and the dazzle of an ill fated wedding continue to haunt me as much as the musical score matching its drone of gloom.

Ultimately, it is about the very real ruthlessness of business empires and how every inflection of it spills over to the personal realm as well.

**

Finally, there’s the uniquely intense, unsettling dissection of burgeouis society and the very genuine fear of bringing a child to an already Godless world, allegorised in ROSEMARY’S BABY via the discovery of sinister undercurrents within her domestic sphere by a pregnant young woman ( played memorably by Mia Farrow)

Till date, there hasn’t been a more propulsive presentation of paranoia than this work as it will always carry within itself a timely legacy of its own. Mia Farrow’s expressive arc emboldens the fear to break through conventions and burrow into our collective consciousness. She’s brilliant here.

***

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