DIVERSE VOICES, COMPELLING STORIES.

As the title makes it clear, here are some honest artistic statements on the state of adult lives that realistically adhere to its full trajectories, be it in Frontier America( True Grit) or the monochromatic ebbulience and tensions tossed into the always unpredictable terrain of New York( The 40 Year Old Version) or even a morally complex landscape merging past and present, to exercise a civilizational tale of connectedness and humanity reaching out for a blemish-free community( as created notably in The Village).

So here they are, for viewers, cinephiles, for a more holistic understanding of human endeavours at their complex best.

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45 YEARS

This film not only introduced me to the smouldering intensity of THE PLATTERS’ evergreen song SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES but kept me invested in its tell-tale signs of a rocky unraveling of a marriage of four decades and more. This was just by the reaction to its trailer alone five years ago.

When I finally watched it few weeks ago, I was devastated emotionally by how realistic and even-tempered it was; in its diagnosis of lifelong relationships that sustain their longevity even without a sign of endurance or guarantee of whole-hearted integration, it very clearly shows us the passage of time and the bitter fact that compatibility among strangers who do not share a prior bond and then decide to settle down to create that all-encompassing marital status over years comes with some dense realizations.

45 YEARS is one that beautifully illustrates its protagonists’ dotage and settled rhythm of everyday routines within a week before they ring in their anniversary. But the past comes by to sweep away all this accumulated sense of normalcy and mutual love and takes it to a place where both man and wife find themselves lonely and resentful of communication gaps that mostly social norms impose upon us. The man’s honesty about a previous lover prior to his marriage with his life partner opens up a portal of unrequited grief within him when a startling discovery about the same woman ,whom he lost almost fifty years ago, gnaws at his stricken consciousness. We see how youth and its mysteries never truly leave us nor does the agency of our first love. Tom Courtney accesses that uneasy truism and its overwrought burden with such poignant melancholy.

It’s Charlotte Rampling, however, who is the anchor not only to this marriage like thousands of women, but whose unraveling is more reserved but truly heartbreaking. At the end of the rope, she finds the knots have all opened up for her deception, as if these years were all a big fraud and she was merely filling in a model for a deceased beloved, for the man she chose to spend her life with. Her eyes become, truly, windows to her soul and in a memorably affecting scene where she accesses photographs from her husband’s trove of memories, she exhibits her understated brilliance at reaching at many fundamental truths about her bond with her better half. As also the reasons behind some of its glaring missteps, like their childlessness, his temperament and the way he always posits ‘he’s tired’ when the pressure-point comes in between conversations.

The ending stays true to that fabric of betrayal and keeping up appearances that define social compulsions, the biggest of which sums up marriage. But something snaps in the lady of the home and amidst the revelry of an anniversary party, unseen by anybody else, she stiffens up and refuses to play bait to her husband, taking it to a devastating finale. It is true to the way most marriages reach a point of reckoning. That brutal honesty is the hallmark of 45 YEARS in all respects. Ms. Rampling gives us a performance and a portrait so haunting that we will begrudgingly accept all faults within our own bonds when we watch her but ultimately reconcile that her face is a mirror reflecting all we know about the state of interpersonal relationships. Her eyes communicate every emotion. The silence within this screenplay attests to that. THE SMOKE GETS IN OUR EYES AND ENGULFS US FULLY THEN.

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THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ is a statement that comes with its plethora of emotions in this eye- opening documentary, about three adopted boys,who at 19, discover each other through the intervention of fate and turn out to be identical triplets separated at birth.

From that heady rush of joy and years of togetherness, even celebrity, their collective tale plummets to depths of melancholy and a haunting sense of loss orchestrated by the foster system, the moneyed class, larger ethical issues pertaining to a horrifying experiment concerning twins in post war America and conflicts between dual entities of ‘nature and nurture’

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS opens us to the very real presence of human corruption robbing youth and society, in general, of its innocence. It reminded me of the sibling dynamics of TELL ME WHO I AM, as chilling and sans resolution.

**

TRUE GRIT

This 2010 version of an original Western classic starring the legendary John Wayne is given the usual Midas touch by Coen Brothers who clearly specialize in period pieces. The authenticity and eye for detail here is strikingly their own hallmark.

Hailee Steinfeld in her breakout as Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as Marshal Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon as ranger Labeouf are personalities that I had known through the years via perusal of reviews, writings and popular culture but watching them create a tale of settling scores with a blackguard (Josh Brolin) entails a ride one is willing to take with them.

The Coens’ dialogic dynamism, naturalistic progression of events without reliance on big set-pieces successively revives the hard edges of Americana. Like all their works, it ends with a more nuanced take on humanity. That is the real triumph.

**

THE 40 YEAR OLD VERSION

Radha Blank is a fresh new voice who juggles writing, directing and performing duties to curate a bittersweet autobiographical portrait of an artist, in an era that will only act as a welcome gateway for such multifaceted and original mavericks.

Shot in evocative black and white, it’s a familiar tale of artistic pursuits and moving ahead in the world, all the while negotiating a family legacy of personal integrity and racial stereotypes. What injects it with life is its lack of bitterness or overt cynicism, strokes of natural humour, musicality in the written word and the fact that it realistically hones in on the flowering of one’s true talents when at the periphery of middle age. Its characterisation of Blank playing herself, her students, her kindred artistic soul D and best friend Archie are all memorably etched. They stayed with me after I watched it on the third day of its release on Netflix. That’s a feat in itself.

THE 40 YEAR OLD VERSION is one of the least showy and positive tokens of original content to embrace 2020. Thank you for the smiles, Ms. Radha and for showing the true indomitable Spirit of artists that refuses to buckle under sundry pressures. It’s instantly relatable.

****

THE VILLAGE(2004)

This is one of those intellectually stimulating motion pictures that deconstruct the way civilization has tried to hoodwink human capacity for monstrous deeds and rationalize a core of purity for self-preservation. Like all Manoj Night Shyamalan features, its ambition is to strip the foundations of horror but its final destination and biggest concern is with generating empathy.

THE VILLAGE cues a love story and a man’s path to recovery parallel with a visually impaired young woman’s quest for individuality given the dangers galore in venturing beyond the forests, to prevent the wrath of those ‘who shall not be named’

The treatment is fascinating, emotionally resonant and the performances by the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Judy Greer, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and others inspire us to look beyond the obvious. On the other side is Adrien Brody’s arc as a mentally challenged young man whose condition becomes a point of reckoning for the way similar individuals are equated with a kind of monstrosity, that the community here utilizes to achieve its poignant but tragic outcomes. Harking back to an elemental time in terms of practices, customs, dressing sense and lack of technology, it is very reminiscent of the Amish community. The ending particularly comes as a knockout when the supposed period setting and almost mythical conflict comes in contact with the contemporary, ‘outside’ world.

As complex and unbelievable as it sounds in its premise, THE VILLAGE is a powerful allegory of the way we construct mores and worlds to advance betterment of society. Its final use of the word ‘kindness’ by Bryce for a security official she encounters unexpectedly captures this work’s tryst with empathy. Roger Deakins’ photography further adds to the mystique, complexity and ideal of purity it aims for.

***

THE HALL OF FAMER OF 2020

FATHER OF THE BRIDE – PART 3(ISH)

Amidst the worst phase of our modern lives, we are blessed to beckon the easygoing charm of this surprise reunion that pays tribute, in its loveable and innocent way, to communicating over Skype and Zoom chats. Socially distanced conversations never seemed so sweet or pure in its familiarity on screen than this, the third in the pantheon of FATHER OF THE BRIDE films from the 1990s that I personally loved watching back in the mid 2000s.

As an unique wedding gets solemnized over computers, old reigning guards of the franchise like STEVE MARTIN, DIANE KEATON, KIERAN CULKIN, MARTIN SHORT and the original bride KIMBERLY WILLIAMS PAISLEY return to spread cheer while newcomers include blazing current stars FLORENCE PUGH, ALEXANDRA SHIPP , BEN PLATT and the ‘father of them all’ ROBERT DE NIRO joins festivities.

With so many marriages and life-decisions finding a foothold through digital networks, this nearly 30 minute capsule is pithy and maintains the compactness of relationships and a yearning for joy. I loved it. In this festive season, FATHER OF THE BRIDE -PART 3(ISH) is like a magical interlude. Thank you Netflix!

****

WHY WE NEED TO REASSESS NARRATIVES AROUND CRIME IN POPULAR CULTURE.

In 2020, a lot has transpired for collective humanity and while cooped up in our own private nests, we have undergone internal transformations. The time at hand has given passage for some of our irreconcilable differences of opinion to be mused about and clarified. Deep thinking always does exactly that so we are able to separate the majoritarian consensus from our own personal train of thought. What I am telling you here is very simple. As an admirer of the creative medium, I always looked to it as validating the best, worst and broader aspects of our lives with an unmatched accuracy.

However, I tend to think that the way it sometimes puts narratives of crime and underworld activities is not always in the best interests of the larger social discourse. Most of these enterprises are intermediaries negotiating between the realism of the medium and money- making shares. The profits coming from a juicy story and society’s hypocritical, contradictory and unhealthy ( also male-centric) obsession with the exploits of charismatically presented men who have their own rules and regulations to run a lop-sided world, participating in violent and amoral/immoral means to settle scores and whipping up a body count, is so far away from the commonalities of the everyday that it becomes mythic and peddles an anti-hero honorific to them. There’s nothing wrong in being captivated by a well-told story and those that go into the dark alleys of human behaviour or the antipathic subcultures operating within genteel society ultimately mirror the subliminal truth. Evil operates in ways we don’t always notice. Power gets equated sometimes with such brazen means and ends that it produces more anti- social elements than law and order agencies can handle; and mind you, it is a male-dominated, dog eat dog tussle for power that makes criminals elevated to party leaders, politicians and several key players constituting votebanks. That truth is very much a reality in our current climate, whether it is the nexus governing our own national politics or the nebulous ‘leaders’ running the most powerful country in the world ( cue the stars and stripes)

I am noticing that several productions seem to glorify the overblown antics of such figures, giving their acidic, volcanic temperaments a glamorous avatar, atleast to grab initial eyeballs and casting actors who can bring their best in terms of performative ability. But by cuing slow motion cuts, wind-blown treatments and rock- tinged musical cues to people who are malevolent and a clear menace to society, aren’t we cheering them on, in the most twisted, human way possible? As I see it, when we watch an image on screen, we don’t just cheer the brilliance of the performer but the real-life or fictionalized figure he portrays is inextricably linked to our understanding. So when Zac Effron portrays a serial killer complete with his good looks and charming presence, it is adjunct with the way the real-life man he plays used his prowess of physicality to entrap victims. Now here, there’s nothing about the performer. He is just delving into a malevolent personality and adhering to his craft that cannot only be relegated to a high-school heartthrob( in Efron’s case); or take the case of the squeaky clean, titular teenage star of Disney show AUSTIN AND ALLY wearing the robes of a spiteful, monstrous young man in MY FRIEND DAHMER. Even the way we hold THE JOKER (as in THE DARK KNIGHT, 2008) in high regard leans towards those impulses. I am not here to fault the stories, the actors or directors. But whenever we end up saying a line like,’ God, isn’t he just too good looking to be a murderer’ (as in the case of Ted Bundy) or ‘just a hippie prototype trapped in the image of a cult’ ( as in the Manson family’s mastermind) or obsess over these violent images and the perpetrators’ so-called ‘enigma’, we end up creating an admiration for the wrong kind of toxic culture to promote some kind of validation for a misdirected youth.

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It’s actually very simple to grasp as a cultural point of reference: when we defend a misogynistic protagonist, the one who stalks a girl, doesn’t take no for an answer, chainsmokes and drinks away to glory and still hoot and clap at the ‘suaveness’ of the characterisation, we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with where we are headed in terms of mindsets. Male behaviour in its permutations of sexism, criminal undercurrents and conformities of hot-headedness, finding representation through the prism of able-bodied, Adonis like male actors, just cannot be the norm anymore.

The same keenness to glamourise mobsters and their molls needs to retire from the silver screens. Facts can always be presented, the aesthetics of that kind of world be integrated to storytelling that duplicates the grit, grime and unpredictability of being enmeshed within such a set-up, with the ultimate consequences of such choices also getting highlighted with the validation being destruction, death; life imprisonment and death sentences, in the service of justice for the wronged and unnecessarily marginalized lawful agents of society. But by showing the ones toying with justice getting free, riding into the sunset and appending these scripts with mindless blood and gore, sexual dissipation, language verging on the psychotic and of course the use of female actors as objects for titillation and manipulation, or as mere props and secondary fixtures, makers give the wrong signals. By consuming these gratituous works for the sick thrill of it all, we end up creating an unhealthy business model for producers to back one rehash of the same story after another.

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Ultimately, entertainment is a commercial marketplace and more vices get into its fold of stories than those of simple, constructive individuals. ‘To spice up the proceedings’ is unfortunately the mantra that financiers swear by. Even when we know that some sections emulate heist tricks from films/ series, we tend to look the other way when celebrating reckless narratives becomes the ‘it’ thing. Clearly, it has nothing to do with false modesty or moralistic posturing but I feel that in this advanced age, we need to have a penchant for stories of industrious individuals who make a difference rather than lionize underworld figures and gangsters because we know how they have complicitly destroyed lives ( whether in the Bombay blasts or terrorist activities, with no particular religious affiliation occupying this strand of thinking)

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You know what, I have felt all of these long-abiding issues bubble to the surface after going through one of my earlier writings of THE GODFATHER (1972), the first in the trilogy, written five years ago. As I see wheels turn and previous structures of convention demolished and razed to the ground, I felt that now is the time to revisit some narratives and assess them accordingly. I am still awed by the brilliance of the trilogy vis a vis its cast and crew and overall slow-burning unravelling as well as moral wrestling with hard truths and by its scales being tipped towards one of damnation and no return for the protagonists battling complexities galore, especially the third part. But for now, I will not share that original appraisal of the film with my readers. Not in an environment where violence has become an ironic buzzword and men of ill-repute occupy corridors of ‘power’ while corruption rules the roost even amidst a global pandemic.

The only concession I can give in this regard is to THE IRISHMAN(2019) in the way it weaves in the alienation, social ostracization and hatred from one’s family that ensues for an ageing man(Robert De Niro) involved directly and indirectly with the mob in New York of yore. As are the brutal deaths for several key facilitators, justifying the lifetime of crime they signed up for. It’s an important meditation on the price one pays and is ready for once the stakes pass on to the hands of devil. Its pacing too greatly underlined that slow, rotting passage of time for an individual who can never make amends and has perpetually been locked out of heaven’s gate within his lifetime, awaiting a death that can come anytime in an isolated old age home’s room. That is a work that truly shows the after-effects of one’s bad choices. Or take the case of Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) which in its comic, mocking, irreverent style shows the Manson family cohorts for the delusional, idiotic savages they are, positing the sheer brutality and absurdity of their post-modern legacy through their actions (and the ends they meet). The two best friends at the story’s core ( Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio) and the large-hearted filmstar ( Margot Robbie) ultimately get saved from the carnage and reunite. It’s a work that justifies the consequences for all, on polarized sides of behavioural patterns.

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So for now my assessment of THE GODFATHER will not be limited to its realism, iconic status or its original prose material’s coherence by Mario Puzo. It will remain shut out of my writing’s dominant centre.

So have I ever watched a work with an anti-hero or negative personage and enjoyed it, you may ask? The answer is a resounding no. As I appreciate constructive real-life dramas based on the arcs of people who have something positive to provide us, I can never program my mind towards that direction. But that’s arising out of my preference and not some moral high ground. Horror narratives are ultimately analogies, animation works are approximations of truths that we choose to ignore or sidestep in our everyday wanderings but crime sagas are in your face and enlarging their footprint of blood, gore and ultraviolence in the name of commerce is a disservice to the world and we as audiences need to refrain from such examples. That is why I can never look at A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and not tremble uncomfortably at its content. Take due note of that, now more than ever.

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