The Good Girl

Many times, a good Sunday is all about stumbling on a good movie playing on TV. Especially so if it is a movie you have never heard of. (Which also brings to mind the perils of depending too much on IMDB for movie recommendations. You end up missing some worth-a-watch movies that have not caught the user base’s fancy, or are not great enough to make into an elite must-watch list.)

My lazy Sunday yesterday became better with one such movie: The Good Girl (2002), where Jennifer Aniston plays a bored retail store clerk Justine. Justine has the trapped life synonymous with most of working class – an arid job which she has had for many years, and an indifferent husband Phil, who spends most of his time stoned on the couch, watching TV with his friend Bubba. Because she is bored, she craves for the opposite of her dull life. Thus the entry of a slightly eccentric and aloof ‘Holden’ as a new cashier in the store sparks her interest. Both characters are unhappy with the world, and this unhappiness brings them closer. Justine wants to conveniently keep this friendship as a mild distraction, but Holden is passionate, and insistent – and a flattered Justine gives in. They spend most of the relationship having passionate sex in a seedy motel. However, soon there are whispers in the store, and the Justine who is used to a quiet life, gets unsettled. Holden becomes more mercurial and demanding, sulking terribly when refused one of their secret trysts. To add to the misery, Bubba (Phil’s friend) sees the two of them going into the motel, and blackmails Justine into sleeping with him.
It is a rather well-knit story, in which Aniston slides in perfectly. It is hard to not sympathize with a girl who seems to walk limply beneath her unhappiness. She wants to escape her life, and you can see why. You can’t possibly grudge her this little romance, especially since you sympathized with a far less traumatized Laura in Brief Encounter. But at the same time, she is scared of Holden’s volatility, his youthful irrationality and even more of having to let go of Phil’s indifferent dependability. (He fixes her TV for her, holds her hand when a colleague dies – all the little things that seem to make many indifferent marriages work)
The movie is a work of contempt. Arteta/White (Director/Writer) do not seem sympathetic of the working class – they say as much in the stray characters, be it the Bible-reader Cornie, or the very-perked up Gwen, or the cretin Bubba. They even seem to regard Justine’s boredom and her distraction with contempt, looking at her as a sort of predator on Holden’s youthful passion. Yet, they depict her as a real person, and Aniston makes this person believable – regretful, indecisive, even a little evil and artful. A person, who sometimes, moved by a desire for freshness, is willing to blur moral boundaries. Arteta/White have also managed to get a comic touch in this otherwise depressive story of reality: through Cornie who curses non-believers with hellfire and the weird Cheryl, who is really ingenious in her marketing skills, but mostly with Justine’s attempts to control the situation.
If you think Aniston can best portray only the spoilt and fashionable Rachel Green, this movie will certainly surprise you.

Paranormal Activity

A lot has already been said about the movie. So much so, that my knowledge of its existence came from none other than Times of India – the Mumbai Times section – no less. A movie shot with a hand-held camera, made within a budget of $15000, raking in millions at the box-office after its delayed opening in mid-October this year. (Mumbai Times, keeping with its decorum, hardly spent any space on the movie or what it was about. It quickly moved on to compare the tremendous box office performance of this low-budget flick to those on whom millions had been wasted – Mira Nair’s mega movie a big case in point.)
Anyways, I read up about the movie, and was immediately intrigued enough to want to watch it. No better way to get through a difficult week than to scare oneself! And it worked!
Paranormal Activity is a story of a couple who have moved in a two-storied suburban house, and have been vaguely feeling a presence in the house. To confirm their suspicions either way, they get a big video camera and fix it on a tripod in their bedroom. The guy, Mikah, who seems a bit of a nerdy freak, insists on recording almost all of their lives together, and it is this footage that is presented to us as a movie.
From there unfolds a frightening but gripping tale. Every night, the camera captures some strange happenings and confirm the couples’ vague feelings about a supernatural presence in the house. The girl Katie becomes increasingly frightened, while Mikah gets excited with the ‘cool stuff’ he is recording. The fear strains their relationship, and also seems to empower the demonic presence, whose actions seem increasingly bold and unstoppable.
The reason the movie is so frightening is because it feels very real. There is no special sound effect, no theatrical accessories to heighten the senses and put you on edge. The camera silently picks up strange activities, however small and the couple mostly see it only in the morning. At first, it is more the audience which begins to dread these nights than the characters, because to see even small things happen as people sleep peacefully is uncomfortably eerie. Very steadily, the tension begins to heighten and you feel a part of it. And the fear is very real because it seems it could happen to very ordinary, undramatic people, real people, you! Both the actors look very natural in the handheld camera, and the movie does feel like a home video – just a terribly scary one.
For some interesting facts -the entire movie was shot in 7 days, in the director’s own home in San Diego. The cameraman was actually Micah (the actors’ real names were used in the movie) – who had come prior experience of handling the camera from his college days. There was no script, only a plot outline. It is to the credit of both actors, especially Katie to bring alive a story without much technical assistance.

Vivre Sa Vie

My introduction to Godard is fairly recent. I have only in the last three weeks begun to watch his films, and have been both intrigued and a little puzzled by his stylistic approach to film-making.
Not withstanding my confusion over his films in general, I found watching Vivre Sa Vie an absolute delight. Even in its title, the movie begins to show a certain contempt with popular notions: My life to live, It’s my life – an aggrogant expression proclaiming choice. It appears that the director takes a small satisfaction in dismantling this myth of choice piece by piece in twelve parts of the movie.

The movie follows the life of Nana, in twelve short segments. We learn that she has left her husband and child, possibly to follow some vague dreams of becoming rich and famous. In the first couple of segments, her quirky nature begins to show, as does her alienation and almost complete isolation with the world. She is struggling to meet ends, unable to pay her rent – and takes up streetwalking to earn some money. While a lesser movie would have dramatized the difficulty of this decision to no end, Godard’s version only subtly shows the discomfort through Nana’s denial to allow her first client to kiss her on the mouth. Other than this single digression, she is not shown to be either in a moral conflict or in depression over her decision.
In the next sections, she meets Raoul who becomes her pander, marking her complete entry into the profession. As the scenes progress, she appears more and more alienated, robotically going through the motions. Perhaps at some point she realizes that this is not her life – she even takes a lover and makes a decision to leave the profession, again indicating that this whole track was a matter of choice, and she could leave it at will.
The movie ends in a sudden, surprising and shocking tragedy. A tragedy that was wholly unnecessary to the movie, but perhaps vital for Godard’s stylistic build-up. Also, I cannot come up with an alternative ending, except for the kind of alienated supreme ending of L’eclisse.

The film is best known for its cinematic techniques – the use of twelve different parts, each with a title, or the use of camera angles and positions with majority of scenes being captured from behind or from profiles. Except for Nana, none of the other actors have to worry about facial expressions, as the faces are shown only briefly – almost as an afterthought towards the end of the scene. There is little dialogue in the film, and most sounds are external. All techniques which were supposedly made to shock the audience. But once the shock is over, they seem to be the perfect way to show a life. In fragments, not attempting to draw conclusions, and almost exclusively focused on the central character.

Nana’s character is well pictured. She is poor, and does not want to be. She is not contend in being a wife and mother who struggles to subsist. She has dreams and is unwilling to completely give up on them. Even though she choses prostitution, it appears to her as a transient choice, without the permanence and irrevocability she associates with settling in a mediocre marriage or life. She doesn’t ever look completely disappointed with the way things move, only because she continues to believe that there is a rainbow at the end of the cloud, until, in a while, she becomes habitual to the cloud and only feels a tiredness with it.

Anna Karina puts the perfect face to Nana. I was, at first interested in the similarity of her name to Anna Karenina. (I was, and still am quite moved by the story of Tolstoy’s heroine who throws away a perfectly settled life to chase some phantom illusions and then gets trapped in the chase). I think the same dream repeats here, as it does in so many lives. Of running from stability towards another stability.

Once upon a time in America

With once upon a time begin most stories from the past. Even this one looks through a keyhole in a man’s past: a past of many complexities – friendship, crime, choices, love and guilt. And even though he is not a man easy to like, his complexities evoke a heartfelt sympathy.

 

The movie begins in the 1930’s, which is presumably the present. From there we journey into the future of the 60’s and look back into the past of 20’s. (The transition from one period to another is nothing less than poetic). In the present, Robert De Niro as Noodles is being hunted by gangsters after something terrible has happened and his partners are found dead. He first hides in the opium den of a Chinese theatre and later escapes, to return to the town 30 years later. It is here, that he begins to tumble into his childhood and then to his adulthood, his memories interspersed and often triggered with episodes from his old age.

 

A child criminal, Noodles finds a friend and partner in Max and they move on to bigger crimes. On growing up they form another gang of Jewish mobsters, earning money off prohibition and robberies. Their friendship is often marred by their ideological differences, which continue to widen. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Noodles played a role in the deaths, something which had been thus far suggested by the miserable look of guilt in old Noodles’ face. The story then comes back to the 60’s, where Noodles has been called to the town for a last job. As he tries to track the person who is trying to hire him, and to meet his childhood sweetheart, he stumbles upon people and facts that steal his past away.

 

A widespread interpretation of the movie is that it is an opium dream, a theory triggered by an enigmatic last scene in which Noodles is seen smiling after an opium shot, presumably after he has discovered the deaths of his partners. In the story, through subtle and later direct references Max is shown in a negative color, which is interpreted as Noodles justifying the incident and unburdening himself of the guilt in his dreams. This is definitely an interesting and inviting interpretation, though not the one I had after watching the movie. I think the dream theory would take away some of essence of the movie, and make it less about guilt, betrayals, seduction into crime and more about transference of guilt.

 

Whatever be the interpretation, the movie is a work of brilliance. If you have the patience to sustain the first half hour, which is confusing and annoying it with its shrill telephone rings, the movie will draw you in for the remaining 3 hour 15 minutes. The background score by Ennio Morricone pulls the movie together, and says more than dialogues. It is this music which expresses Noodles’ terrible guilt and then his unspeakable sorrow, and gives the feeling of ethereality, which also could be an inspiration for the dream theory. As I remarked earlier, there is a constant shuffling between times, and each shuffle is seamless and beautiful. Despite its slow pace there is a tension in the movie, which is borne out of a strong plot: the mystery of deaths, the mystery behind Noodles’ new assignment, the friendship and rivalry between the two anti-heroes. The slow pace is deliberate, and gives space to art in the surrounding action. The photography is beautiful, especially the scene in the accompanying picture (also used on all film posters) – the old America is artfully created to make an impressive, epic image. Robert De Niro gives a wonderful performance, as does James Woods. Both Max and Noodles are not great men – they are petty criminals with no heroic qualities, people you would like to dislike for their unseemly atrocities – esp against women. It takes a stronger skill to portray such pitiable creatures than to portray heroes or evil villains. Their childhood portrayals are also as powerful and convincing as the adult ones. Everyone else has so much as not performed at all, which is also because none of them get much screen share, apart from Elizabeth McGovern. Despite the length of role given to her, she does a very ordinary task, particularly incomparison to Jennifer Connelly who plays the younger Deborah (Noodles’ childhood sweetheart) and looks angelic.

 

It is intriguing that cinema continues to remain fascinated with and nostalgic about crime. The legend of Robinhood never leaves the stories about gangsters, even when they commit horrendous crimes like rape their girlfriends. The movie and the audience continue to feel for them, to cry over them and experience their desolation with a sense of loss.

 

The edge of Heaven (Faith Akin)

From the director of Head-on, this is another perceptive interplay of lives, emotions, generations and geographies. Threading together lives of six people, Faith Akin has created a beautiful, if a slightly morbid drama of relationships and penance. His characters are drawn together by diverse relations – filial, carnal, romantic and human, each a little strained.

The film is presented in three sections, Death of Yeter, Death of Lotte and the Edge of Heaven. Each of the two deaths is sudden and unexpected, even when you already know the title of the section. At the center of all these stories is Nejat, a second generation Turk in Germany, a professor of German. Nejat’s father Ali, one day brings home Yeter, a middle-aged Turkish prostitute, with the intention of living with her. Though disapproving at first, Nejat accepts Yeter – the two form a kind bond which is looked upon suspiciously by Ali. In a fit of anger, Ali hits Yeter which leads to her death.
Nejat flies to Turkey to attend the funeral and sets out to look for Yeter’s missing daughter Ayten. On an impulse, he decides to buy a German bookstore in Istanbul, settles there and continues his search. Meanwhile, we meet Ayten, who is involved in an armed rebellion against the government and escapes police to seek refuge in Germany. She meets a fiery, idealistic girl called Lotte, the two embark on a passionate relationship which is frowned upon by Lotte’s mother Sussane. Ayten is eventually caught by the police, which leads to series of tragic events. But these events also bring together these unconnected people in an unusual companionship and inter-dependence, which even though highly co-incidental, appears natural and perfectly believable.
The story deals with many things – the alienation between generations is at the center, where each generation explores its independent life that it wants to hide and protect from the other. Each of them is angry at and disapproving of the other. Even a mild mannered Nejat is offended by his father’s arrangement and is deeply resentful of the accidental murder committed by him. Susanne tries to restrain Lotte, and aware of the hippy life that Susanne once led, Lotte resents the restraint. Ayten and Yeter are never shown together in one scene (except a crossing once), live in different countries and have no idea of each other.
The movie also explores the relationship between Germany and Turkey, which is based on political correctness and a sense of guilt. Turkey itself is shown distracted with its conflict between its tilt towards tyranny and its desire to be seen as a modern and tolerant nation that is fit to join the EU. However, the slightly angelic message that Akin delivers through his narrative is that we can overcome all these divisions with a little bit of tolerance, forgiving and penance. But with prejudices and reservations, we stay a step away from this victory.
The movie is introspective, in contrast to Head-on which was violent and extreme. The whole contrast is embodied in the differences between Cahit, who was deeply dissatisfied and unhappy , and Nejat who is more or less is at peace with his life, but still feels a vague emptiness. Even Ayten’s political discontent is muted in comparison with Sibel’s sexual discontent.
On the other finer aspects of the movie, the performances by each character are extremely good. The camera has explored both countries with a familiar intimacy, exposing them in the weight of their ages. The music is beautiful.

My Blueberry Nights

No, no, no Mr. Kar Wai. In flirting with Hollywood, please do not forget what you are loved for. We love the mood you create. We love your lights, your fleeting characters who do not speak, the ethereal music. Just because you are in America, please do not give so many words and tasks to your characters. Especially when they are played by actors who understand none of your romance. You have told us before that it is hard to say goodbyes, and you have said it much more beautifully. Please do not repeat it in the form of a common American romantic drama.

Norah Jones has a presence on the screen, but she has no softness which the (as it is weak) screenplay demanded of her. And there was so much focus on a story which was unimpressive to begin with. The only favorable impressions are created by Natalie Portman, who reminded me of the gambler played by Gong Li in 2046.

Festen

Thomas Vintenberg’s Festen has been on my watch list ever since I watched Breaking the Waves and Ubermensch introduced me to the concept of Dogme95. Finally, I found the movie on Quickflix (the DVD rental portal of Australia, which has a reasonably good collection, significantly better than seventymm and bigflix of India when it comes to titles from World cinema). The movie was well worth the hunt, more, in fact. It is one of the most impressive movies I have seen in sometime.
Dogme95 is a film-making movement initially drafted by Thomas Vintenberg and Lars von Trier, in opposition of the Hollywood enchantment with special effects and expensive sets. They drew out a manifesto and took the vow of chastity, resolving to make films as per the rules of the Dogme. Some of the more prominent rules were to shoot on location using a hand-held camera, abandon props, lighting and sets and make the whole movie in present time.

Though von Trier’s Breaking the Waves was heavily influenced by the idea behind this manifesto, that movie was not a strictly Dogme movie. Festen was the first movie to follow the movement, though I suppose even this deviated from the rule of giving no directorial credits.
The Dogme rule appear very stringent at first, almost unnecessarily ascetic . It is only on watching the movie that one can appreciate how connected you feel when the peripheral effects and cleverness of filming is removed from the narrative and you can focus on the performances and the story.
Of course, the plot of the film is quite appropriate for a Dogme film and lends itself excellently to filming with a hand-held camera. It is a variation on the much-used theme of a happy family union becoming explosive and ugly. With the slightly awkward and shaky camera shoot, it feels like watching a home video of a birthday party. At some times you feel that you are the ignored guest on the show (like Harry in Dumbledore’s pensieve) doing the shooting yourself.
The reunion is slightly tainted from the start, with the recent suicide of a daughter. It gets uglier when the elder son Christian makes a drastic accusation at his father. The fact that the most dramatic moment of the movie is so undramatic is what instantly made the movie so lovable. Hardly anyone in the party reacted at all to the speech. In a minute they went back to their festivities and chatter. Confused with the reaction, I had to replay the scene to make sure I had heard it right.
The movie is about exposing a dysfunctional family, but it also expresses the tenuous connections of families and the dilemma of hating your dear ones. When the film begins, Christian and his father still seem to share an affection despite what Christian knows he is going to say. Throughout the movie, passionate reactions and denials spurt out of the family, to protect their own despite their repugnance. The wife continues to shield her husband with generous claims of love and happiness – it is very hard to understand her stance and as Christian puts it – her hypocrisy is disgusting. But for someone who has accepted an ugly truth, it also seemed like the only way to react – to continue that acceptance.
Christian’s character is singularly impressive. His dilemma and discomfort with the confrontation is plainly evident. Ulrich Thomsen is a brilliant actor, and his intensity shines through even the dull print and a simplistic hand-held camera.
I have come across wide criticism of the movie, which is more the criticism for sincerity of the Dogme95. I do think that it is overly dramatic to lay down a manifesto with drastic rules and take a vow of chastity, if all you want to make films without external hogwash. Also, it can be argued that the extensive editing done post-shooting is an artificial step too. However, the manifesto is only background information. There are different ways of making a movie and the technique used in Festen serves its theme and purpose well, making it a very compelling movie.

Head-On (Gegen Die Wand)

Every country bears a lot of weight on everyone who is born to it – all the history, the beliefs, fears, errors, successes and a lot more. When you chose to leave it, you also in a way try to offload all these weights and go out empty-handed to adopt something new with more openness. But no country is a new country. There are people already living there, weighed by the being of their nation. You can shed your weights, but it takes years before you can adopt theirs and become equal. That is the dilemma of emigrants – trying to lose and gain different weights at the same time, and stuck somewhere in between. A dilemma often propounded upon, but not always as well depicted and lived as the characters of Faith Akin’s German-Turkish movie Gegen Die Wand.
Both Cahit and Sibel are Turkish emigrants living in Germany. Both of them are unhappy, disoriented and sick of their lives, on which they have given up. They meet in a clinic after making failed suicide attempts, and end up in a convenient marriage on Sibel’s crazy insistence as she desperately seeks to move away from the dominance of her family and have an independent ‘sexual life’ as she puts it.
Both live as roommates, and slowly, even through their random and disjointed lives, a semblance of attachment begins to form between them, until they begin to fall in love. But just then a fit of anger lands Cahit in the prison, and Sibel disowned by her family. She moves to Turkey, and Cahit hangs on in the prison with only the thought of Sibel keeping him alive.
Sibel’s disorientation in Turkey is almost complete, and it is such a vivid description of how she is more comfortable in the foreign land than in her own country. Even Cahit, when he finally lands in his country, seems to be so out of place and puzzled in being there. There is a scene when he tries to speak to Sibel’s cousin in halted English to explain himself, because neither his German and Turkish appear adequate enough for expressing his emotions. That single scene says a lot about the emigrant’s confusion.
What I liked about the movie is that even with many dramatic turns, it is a very non-dramatic film. The listlessness and the slow resurrection of both people is subtle and very natural. They are reticent people, never truly giving in to emotion, but more susceptible to anger and depression. There are some very good scenes – Cahit’s Head-on in the beginning of movie being one, the English dialogue another. The last scene too, which reminded me of the last scene of Antonioni’s L’eclisse in a way – though of course the latter was far more powerful and poetic. The movie is tied together with powerful acting and little dialogue. I found myself both disgusted and sympathizing with the two people who seem to have come unhinged.
Recently, I was also reading Sebald’s Emigrants, which is such a subtly depressing but powerful book (as I have found each of Sebald’s works to be so far, because he is an incredible writer), and it takes us through the lives of four emigrants. I have only read two yet, and neither of them are dramatic lives, but each life feels so uprooted and restless and unhappy that you could only imagine them waiting for the end.
Also, read a quote recently which sums it up a bit:

we all suffer in our different ways from being prisoners of birth..

Spanish Cinema

Just getting into it – what better way to begin then to sink into the exceptionally beautiful and poetic Spirit of the beehive. To question the evils of the world through the silent eyes of a very pretty child.

And then watch the very beautiful Penelope Cruz play again the Sophia from Vanilla Sky in Open your eyes. This was certainly a far better version than the English one, though I have to say I had loved the English one a lot as well.

Annie Hall

Once I had little patience with Woody Allen – he always seemed to play a self-obsessed neurotic character who just couldn’t stop talking. I suspect that I may have grown out of my short attention spans now – and that is perhaps the reason I am able to appreciate his movies far more. That could be a possible explanation of why I liked Annie Hall where Allen plays another of his neurotic characters. It was a very perceptive, if funny take on relationships and how complicated they are.
The movie is about the relationship between Alvy Singer, an ‘anal’ Jewish comedian and equally neurotic singer Annie Hall, who go through the usual mess of relationships – issues in bed, levels of commitment, dating blues and finally the problems of fundamental differences which makes them go seperate ways. (Literally). At every point you are wondering why they split up since they do love each other and are quite happy together. But as Allen puts it bluntly:

“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

And how often is it true that people are unable to feel safe and nestled in relationships that make them happy. Perhaps we are so insecure about the fading away of that happiness that we would rather see this death earlier than live in a dreaded anticipation for a long time. Is it that fundamentally we believe that we do not deserve true love or happiness? If we dread the end, the end already has landed on us and the relationship cannot really move forward, and thus in a way we bring about the end of our relationships ourselves.

The movie has a lot other things that make it a great film of wit – flashbacks in Bergman style, Alvy often speaking to the camera directly, Annie’s spirit rising from the bed – everything that make it worthwhile to watch. But its brilliance is in its recongnition of the fundamental truth of the above lines.