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Shutter Island

Scorcese's on a roll here
Scorcese has often been called America's greatest living director. Certainly with classics like Mean Streets, Taxidriver and Raging Bull to his credit decades ago, and others like Goodfellas and Gangs of New York in the intervening year, there is much weight in holding him in such high esteem, along with the expectations that come with it. My first impression with each new film since Goodfellas has been that its lesser Scorcese. He appears to have fallen from the lofty standards he set early in his career. The themes of the film do not have the gravitas one expects of a Scorcese film etc. On first viewing, I felt that way about both Gangs of New York and The Departed. Second and third viewings changed my opinion and I now know both films to be classics and the Scorcese magic is self evident.

Shutter Island, which is a big move away from the broad range that Scorcese normally works within, is a horror-thriller film - well, more thriller than horror and thus more mainstream than his usual fare. The only other mainstream Scorcese film that comes to mind is Cape Fear. While I was never impressed with Cape Fear, the original B&W noir classic being far superior, I readily admit to loving Shutter Island from the first frame.

People forget that Scorcese is the original film nerd and his understanding of cinema and the great masters is unparalleled. In this visually enchanting masterpiece, I saw clear shades of King Kong, the Val Lewton films of the 40s e.g. Isle of the Dead, Hitchcock's Vertigo and North by Northwest and of course the expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. However, it was all of a piece with a clear visual style that gelled and worked. There are remarkable set-pieces littered throughout the film - too many to mention. The performances are uniformly great. While, De Caprio, Ben Kingsley and Emily Watson are all acclaimed, Mark Ruffalo is less well known and shines in this, his best role since Zodiac.

I won't go into the plot details but given that this is a thriller, suffice to say that there is at least one major plot twist. I've seen several reviewers commenting on and emphasizing the big twist. Many saw it coming and disliked the film, others couldn't see the twist coming and loved the film as a result. I think that basing your opinion on the plot twist misses the point. With the large number of thrillers that Hollywood churns out each year, I don't think is a plot twist out there that hasn't been covered threadbare by multiple films. What is important to me is the visual sense and style, which is present in Shutter Island in bucket-loads!

Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut

Attention to detail
There's a point in the second half of A Man Escaped when a new prisoner (Jost) joins the central figure (Fontaine) in his thus far solitary prison cell. The new prisoner expresses amazement at the very idea of someone thinking they can escape from this prison - look at the walls, the guards, the steel bars. He is reasonable in his thinking as a newcomer to the scene, but we, the audience already know that yes it is possible to escape and how this feat is to be engineered.

The entire film leading up to that point is a clinically minute study of how one plans an escape. Short on words, although there is a regular voice-over, this is a visually arresting form of storytelling. Contrary to some IMDb comments that the film might be perceived as slow-moving or boring, I actually think its riveting. My 8 year old son was sitting in the TV lounge when I started the film. He was drawn into the film within minutes (despite the subtitles) and sat through the entire film and really enjoyed it. With the attention span of youngsters and the additional challenge of it being in a foreign language and B&W to boot, it requires masterly storytelling to engage such a young audience.

There is great attention to detail and authenticity. The real life prisoner (Andre Devigy) was a consultant on the film, it was filmed in the actual prison where the prisoner escaped from and even the original rope and hooks used for the escape were used for the film! This is almost a documentary but with non-professional actors recreating in a compressed time frame actual events. For me, Bresson's Pickpocket's train sequence is among the finest in cinema history. Its obvious throughout A Man Escaped that the same genius who made Pickpocket crafted this masterpiece.

The Naked City

Dated but groundbreaking
I'm a big fan of early film noir - stylized films like Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past etc. with their femme fatales and flawed heroes. With the end of WWII came the return of many film-makers like Producer-Narrator Mark Hellinger who had experience in shooting documentaries with all their realism during the war. Starting with The Naked City, noir saw the impact of combat photography in location shootings and gritty realism.

The Naked City, as narrated at the outset by the producer, was shot on location in New York in the apparently scorching summer of 1947. There are lots of scenes shot with hidden cameras, passersby unaware that a film was being shot. That would've created a significant impact at a time when everything was shot on set - and heavily stylized. In the present age, when nearly all outdoor shooting is 'on location', the impact of Naked City diminishes significantly. The plot plods along, the acting is generally wooden, although Barry Fitzgerald gives an interesting if over-acted performance. A lot of the authentic police procedural is too tame and dated compared to what one normally see on TV today.

Apart from the groundbreaking decision to shoot on location, the only other selling point of the film is the chase in the last 15 minutes of the movie. That was the bulk of the films outdoor shooting and its great. Its suspenseful, well shot and the narration works great. It reminded me of the great M by Fritz Lang. For serious noir fans, The Naked City has to be seen once, but its not a film to be revisited repeatedly like some of the earlier classics of the genre.

Inglourious Basterds

A welcome return to form after 15 years
I still remember the rush I got when seeing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction for the first time. I ended up seeing both multiple times and took something new away from each viewing. The media hype around Tarantino, which I believed at the time, was that he could do no wrong. It really seemed in '94 that he was not only the greatest director in the world, but would change cinema forever. Unfortunately his produce since Pulp Fiction was neither prolific nor impressive. The primary weakness with Tarantino's three works post Pulp Fiction and pre Inglourious Basterds was his constantly parroting or paying tribute to other works he had admired instead of going out and doing his own thing, creating something original. An excess of verbosity slowed the pace as well. Viewing the trailer and reading initial reviews of Inglourious Basterds led me to believe it suffered the same shortcomings. To be honest, the trailer for Inglourious does not sell the film I saw. And Tarantino's frequent arrogance and more recent track record have opened him up to a lot of criticism - much of it unjustified in the case of this film.

Anyone who has read any review of Inglourious would know that the villain is a sinister Col. Hans Landa and that the opening sequence is one for the ages. He is a unique movie villain like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men or Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. He doesn't speak, he interrogates and interviews in a eerily calm manner. It requires nerves of steel to maintain your composure with him around! His audacity in the last 20 minutes is breathtaking. The opening sequence was worthy of Sergio Leone, whose Once Upon a Time in the West and Lee Van Cleef in The Good The Bad and The Ugly no doubt influenced Tarantino's handling of the entire sequence.

I actually liked the criticized bar sequence even more than the opening. Long yes, but it slowly builds up to a brilliantly directed climax. The twists and turns, the playful banter which turns into something deadly are among the memorable sequences of cinema history. Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus has given a performance that is almost on par with Christopher Waltz's Col. Landa. If his performance is Oscar worthy (not that that should be the yardstick!), his interview of her and her reaction when he exits is also equally worthy. I should mention here that the name star of the film, Brad Pitt, is really only one part of a great ensemble cast. His performance is superb and not the caricature that the trailer implies. A sequence where his hick officer is forced to act 'Spanish' is just brilliant comedy. He has the accent of a southerner down pat. I only wish he'd been given more time. I hope the director's cut adds something to his role.

In closing, I'll add that Tarantino's knowledge of cinema was never in doubt. His camera-work and understanding of the mechanics of film-making were always good, but he has exceeded himself in this film. There is something classical about the photography (beautiful long takes) and cinematography, which almost no director can emulate. As a former fan and later critic of Tarantino, I'm blown away by Inglourious and despite his cheek, I do think he may just have made his masterpiece!


Funny but mean-spirited unlike Borat
I was familiar Baron Sacha Cohen's Ali G character years before 2006's Borat. But, I became a serious fan of Cohen only after Borat. Sure the film has some slow moments, irrelevant subplots and some potty humor that was uncalled for. But there were many moments of such sheer comedic brilliance that I was blown up. I was very keen to see Bruno knowing it was Cohen's next project and also set in America. The ad for the film also made it look great.

Having just seen it, I confess to being disappointed. Sure my expectations were high, but most of the jokes in Bruno just did not work. There was a mean-spiritedness to the whole exercise. Where in Borat, he baited the humor coach, car salesman or feminists for laughs, here he actually offends. What he did with Ron Paul or the TV pilot previewers was just simply cheap behavior. Any normal, civilized person would behave the way they did - there is nothing homophobic about their reaction. The last moments were actually quite dangerous and he should've had better sense.

The admirable thing about Bruno is that Cohen retains his courage and audacity, which means there is hope for the future. And yes, it is good for one viewing because the handful of laughs in the movie are genuinely inventive comedy. I remain a fan of Cohen but not of Bruno the movie.

America America

Epic story of the immigrant experience
Only in the last 5 minutes of America, America is there any action actually filmed in America. The prelude to that - a good 2 hrs 40 minutes - is about one young man's struggle against the odds to reach America: the land of opportunity. This, director Elia Kazan's most personal project and favorite film, is partly biographical based as it is on the experiences of his eldest uncle Stavros.

Elia Kazan's name generates mixed feelings. According to some e.g. Stanley Kubrick, he was the greatest American director. Most others are unable to get past his "naming names" to the HUAC in the 50's. Be that as it may, his works need to be judged on their professional merit, and certainly no other film captures the immigrant experience in the early part of the 20th century like America, America.

The only negative to the film is the lengthy running time and the slow pace for the first hour. Some have criticized the acting of the central character who occupies center stage for virtually the entire film. He's certainly no Brando, Clift, Dean or DeNiro. However, his accent and looks are much more Greek and that adds to the documentary like feel of the film.

Instead of filming in Hollywood studio sets, Kazan and DP Haskell Wexler (who won a well-deserved Oscar) opted for locations in Turkey and Greece - the action being set in Central Anatolia and Constantinople. This gives the film a rougher, more realistic look absent from other Kazan films of the late 50s-60s. The tragedies and injustices meted out to minorities under Ottoman rule and the harshness of life are what really stays with you after the film is over. There are several emotional moments such as when Stavros gets engaged and his fiancée pleads to him, or when he finally lands in America and sends a letter home.

À bout de souffle

My high expectations were met!
Wow! I saw Godard's Bande A Parte and thought it was over-rated. But, after seeing A bout de soufflé, I'd like to revisit Bande a Parte. This is a truly stylish film and I'm beginning to appreciate Godard's abilities. A lot of what makes it ground-breaking will understandably be dated by modern standards. I mean the Tarantinoesque narrative structure and the visuals - especially the jump cuts which Ridley Scott uses ad nauseum are no longer unique. However, here they look and feel fresh.

What really makes A bout de Soufflé relevant even today is the wonderful no-rules narrative structure. A good example: smack in the middle of the film, a good 20 minutes are spend in a bedroom with Belmondo trying to get Seberg to make love and she doesn't want to. Not because she's a prude. In fact, we never really get to know the reason for her reluctance. His method of trying to entice her is by touching her bottom and her method of rejection is a swift slap on his left cheek!

There are dozens of visually arresting moments in this film and at a brisk 90 minutes, its never boring. And the musical score is great too.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Definitely a part of the series
You can't stop people from whining! If there was never another Indy film after Last Crusade, they would've regretted never being able to see an older Indy in a farewell tribute to the series. When that tribute comes, they say its not good enough! First off, it is good enough. This is no Phantom Menace or Godfather 3 where you wait for decades and get something that is far below the standard of the original.

Indy 4 is visually and thematically a part and parcel of this excellent series. Roger Ebert said something to the effect that its the same sausage but the first bite is always the tastiest. Indy 4 has corny one-liners, cheesy action and historic babble, but then so did its three predecessors. The film is entertaining from the word go and very intelligently done. It updates the setting from the late 30's to the 50's and the visual transition is brilliantly handled from the opening scene. It also pays homage to many of the classic Indy moments - the one I liked most was the motorbike scene where Ford acted like Connery and Shia like Ford.

The action scene are wildly improbable and fun to watch. I remember watching the first three films as a kid and young teenage and it was edge of the seat stuff. While watching Indy 4 in the cinema last night, I remember thinking the action was well handled but it wasn't intellectually stimulating (like Tarkovsky or Kubrick)! Then I looked at my five and a half year old son sitting in the seat next to me and he was on the edge of his seat and having a whale of a time! Honestly, the first three movies came out at a different time and age. The only thing Indy 4 can't deliver is my youth (or Connery unfortunately). It really can't be faulted on any other count. By the way, Shia LeBoeuf (who I've never seen before) is quite good. He reminded me of James Dean from East of Eden and Brando from The Wild One.

The Man from Laramie

Weak link in Stewart Mann teaming
Compared to the brilliant The Far Country and the very good Winchester 73 and Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie is probably the weakest of the Stewart-Mann pairings of the 50's.

The seven films director Anthony Mann made in the 1950's starring James Stewart (most of them westerns) created one of the most famous director-star teams in cinema history. As an actor, Stewart came across better in these films than with Hitchcock, possibly because he had a lot of creative independence as the star of the Mann films.

Mann's major shortcoming was that while he was a great craftsman, he couldn't get decent performances from ordinary actors. In Laramie, he cast Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and Donald Crisp and all three (especially Kennedy) give decent performances. But the leading lady playing Kate is just unbelievably wooden and there's a contrived subplot involving her and Stewart/Kennedy which is quite unconvincing. For me, that detracted greatly from the film. I think Mann gave a lot of independence to his actors and where they were good - like Stewart - they shone. Where they were bad, he wasn't able to do much to improve their performance. Not what you'd call an actors director! Thats probably why Kirk Douglas was so eager to replace Kubrick with him for his pet project Spartacus.

The cinematography while not in the league of Far Country is still very good as one would expect from a master craftsman like Mann. This is the last picture Mann and Stewart worked on before having a falling out. In fact, the next film planned for Mann and Stewart - Man of the West - eventually starred Gary Cooper. I feel it would have been their best collaboration, if Stewart were the star. Gary Cooper never really settled into the role.


No repeat of the brilliance of Solyaris
I was stunned by Tarkovsky's other famous sci-fi philosophical meditation Solyaris. Comparisons between Solyaris and Stalker are natural because of the genre and auteur.

Tarkovsky proves again that he is a master of the visual and each frame is preplanned with the whole flowing seamlessly from seam to seam with long and languorous takes. Like Solyaris, Stalker is a deep, meditative work and a superficial first viewing is probably not enough to understand the significant themes of the film. I have only just finished seeing Stalker for the first time and it may grow on me. However, my first impression while watching Solyaris was intense interest coupled with a longing to understand more about this marvelous, enigmatic film after it is was over. In the case of Stalker I really had to plod through it at times. It was visually stunning but not beautiful. The characters may have been more autobiographical for Tarkovsky but they did not arouse empathy.

There are may visual similarities between Solyaris and Stalker and if you've seen one, you can automatically detect the same visual style in the other. In Stalker, the scenes in the real world - first 20 and last 10 minutes - were black & white while the zone was filmed in color. The real world was cold, grey and ugly and in many cases e.g. the tunnel, so was the zone. The Stalker did not have the presence or the sadness in his eyes that the lead of Solyaris did which I see as another major shortcoming. I will want to let my viewing of Stalker sink in over the next few days and may change my opinion, so this is just an immediate reaction.

The Parallax View

Dated and not quite All The President's Men
Was The Parallax View a trial run for Pakula's brilliant All The President's Men which came out two years later? The visual style of both films is similar and one can't fault the mechanics of either film. But there are significant differences between the two that make ATPM a classic and Parallax dated.

All The President's Men was based on an actual historic incident and tried to portray it as authentically as possible while maintaining a thriller feel to the piece. Parallax was certainly inspired by the unfortunate assassination of Robert Kennedy which was recreated in the opening set piece. But, while the opening is genuinely interesting, the rest of the film goes off on tangents that are unexplained and don't really add any value.

The Parallax View has no real characterizations of the various players in the piece except Beatty. With ATPM, you had Redford, Hoffman, and the their editor, all characterizations rooted in real personalities and their interplay was fascinating. Here Beatty was made to look scruffy looking to cut down on the glamor boy image, but he's no Dustin Hoffman and can't really carry the film.

The whole conspiracy theory in Parallax was over the top and not at all convincing. There are sub-plots that lead nowhere. All in all, helmed by a solid craftsman with two good set-pieces and good use of the score but the basic script was weak. The funny thing is that after seeing this, I thought Pakula made it to capitalize on the success of ATPM. I saw surprised to see this was made two years earlier.

Tôkyô nagaremono

Waste of time
After seeing some Kobayashi films that blew me away - specifically Kaidan and Seppuku, I was in the mood for some more Japanese cinema. I'm not any more. Tokyo Drifter and Seijun Suzuki have something of a cult reputation. I failed to see the appeal. The direction was static and Suzuki simply doesn't know how to tell a coherent story.

Some people liked the colors. I personally found it to be as garish as anything from 60's-early 70's Indian cinema. There was no sense of style, little action and no characterization. I can't recall one set piece or moment of even moderate interest. The only unique thing was seeing the title character singing the title song several times during the course of the film. I believe it was a lame attempt at pathos.

In short, no style, no substance, no plot or characterizations and no action. Waste of time and vastly overrated. I won't be 'exploring' Suzuki's other works.

There Will Be Blood

Flawed masterpiece
There Will Be Blood was a memorable viewing experience and like Apocalypse Now, I'll remember this as a classic epic but ultimately a flawed masterpiece. A gripping film from the start although the first words aren't spoken until 12-15 minutes into the film, this is essentially a character study of a greedy prospector sacrificing everything for money and power and in the process losing any vestige of love or humanity that may have existed in some dark recess of his soul.

Visually, the film is stunning. The attention to period detail in the dusty oil towns, the clothes, the oil derrick is perfect. Daniel Day-Lewis, great actor that he is, gives his career best performance as Daniel Plainview - a charismatic, conniving and determined man who we find at the start of the film (1898) working alone in a silver mine. The film charts his rise (and fall) over the next 29 years and his many clashes with Eli Sunday, a evangelical preacher who to Plainview is simply a false prophet, God being merely a superstition for the materialistic oil-man. Daniel Day-Lewis's performance holds the film together and the closest film I could compare it to is DeNiro in Taxi Driver, another fascinating character study.

There Will Be Blood has its fair share of violence and amorality with lives lost in oil wells, a blow-out deafening Plainview's son, and of course Plainview's clashes with Sunday. The first physical clash is completely unexpected and shocking as Plainview becomes increasingly drunk and nasty through the course of the film. The second is almost comical and Lewis' best piece of acting in the film - when practicality has to bow before the church. The last, in the end, is what destroys the authenticity and gripping power of the preceding two and a half hours. Plainview's coldness towards his helpless, damaged child is one of the most affecting and disturbing things I've ever seen in a film.

There were many ways to end the film. The one chosen by Anderson was perhaps the weakest. Throughout the lead up to the film, its obvious that the craftsman of the film is a genius. Why he chose to end such a magnificent film this way is a mystery to me. However, I think comparisons to Citizen Kane and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are valid, because this is a film that will be remembered for a long time.

Show Boat

Dated and better for it
Show Boat has virtually slipped into oblivion and any recognition of it would be as a splashy 1950's Technicolor big-budget production. This film version, a true American treasure even if its not recognized as such, is based on Edna Ferber's epic novel of 1926. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein turned it into a musical which was filmed first as a mostly silent version in 1929. Show Boat, as presented at Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies, revolutionized the musical. In fact, the starting point of the modern Broadway musical is Show Boat. The epic story spanning 47 years covers the lives and loves of three generations of a showboat family. The play was a very frank depiction of race relations at the time and included an important sub-plot (entirely omitted in the 1951 film version) around miscegenation (white-black marriages).

This film version has many of the original stage actors reprising their original roles and apart from not compromising on the themes explored in the original and controversial production, it does not compromise of the authenticity of either the show boat or the look of the Mississippi towns through which the show boat passes. Charles Winninger, a forgotten little actor, is sensational as Capn Andy, the father of little Magnolia. He is the moral epicenter of the film and gives a fine comic turn. Little Noli is played by Irene Dunne and she is lovely and carries the bulk of the film. Her little dance in Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man is celluloid magic. I've rewound and watched that song a dozen times in the past 24 hours!!! The tragic Helen Morgan, a front-runner to Judy Garland, died a few short years after this film which was to be her comeback vehicle. She had cleaned up her alcoholism to get this role and she is a lovely singer and true entertainer. There is a tragic beauty to her that is quite haunting.

Finally, there is Joe, played by Paul Robeson. Almost no Robeson films are available and he spent many years outside the US so his film roles were limited. Like The Manchurian Candidate, many of his films were suppressed deliberately because he was 'undesirable'. In fact, his passport was canceled and he wasn't allowed to leave the US for several years. Exceptionally handsome and educated, Robeson was a true scholar (scholarship to Rutgers University as the third African-American to be accepted, Columbia Law graduate, student at SOAS in London), a noted athlete, fluent in 12 languages, a recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize and a leading civil-rights activist. A front-runner to Martin Luther King and Sidney Poitier, he had it tougher and fought harder. Its because of the barriers that he brought down that Sidney Poitier even had a chance at being a leading man and Denzel Washington is a star today. Under surveillance for over two decades because he openly supported the Soviet Union for giving him full dignity regardless of his skin color, his passport was revoked because of "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries" — it was a "family affair." Till after his death, his recordings and films were simply withdrawn from circulation which makes his small role here all the more valuable.

The songs in this musical, while not to the standard of a My Fair Lady or King and I, are uniformly lovely. The two stand-outs for me were Ol' Man River (Jerome Kern's finest moment) and Can't Help Lovin Dat Man. Ol' Man is performed by Robeson in the beginning of the film and its enough to hook you till the end. Can't Help, a lovely tune, is performed by Helen Morgan with some support from Hattie MacDaniel and Paul Robeson and a lovely dance from the enchanting Irene Dunne.

Its funny how this ground-breaking musical is today criticized for being racist! The argument is that the depiction of blacks and the way they speak is inaccurate. Show Boat had a pivotal role to play in the early years of the civil rights movement and its sad to see how some people have forgotten that. Some of the criticism just doesn't make sense to me. For example, in Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, Queenie sings:

My man is shiftless, An' good for nothing', too. He's my man just the same. He's never 'round here When there is work to do, He's never 'round here when there's workin' to do.

That's apparently unacceptable since 1966 and has been replaced with:

My man's a dreamer, He don't have much to say He's my man just the same Instead o' workin, He sits and dreams all day, Instead o' workin', he'll be dreamin' all day.

I appreciate some aspects of political correctness, but others don't make sense. True, Show Boat is dated, but this is the only case I know where being dated works to the films advantage. We do get a true perspective on an era instead of a glossy, modern-day interpretation. A cinematic treasure, Show Boat is one for the discerning viewer.

Dare mo shiranai

Tepid tale of abandoned children
Regardless of the high ratings and many awards, Nobody Knows is not a very good or well-made film. In fact its something of a mess. There are a number of basic flaws that make make this watered-down and tepid filming of horrifying real-life events a missed opportunity for great cinema.

The real story broke in Japan in 1988. Tt differed from the movie in some crucial aspects. There were five children to begin with and when the youngest died, while the mother was around, she stuffed the dead child in a cupboard where she stayed for over a year. A second daughter was killed months after the mother left. She died not die in an accident as depicted in the movie. The eldest son's friends killed her in a rage because she ate something they wanted to eat. Her body was buried with the help of the friends. The mother turned herself into the authorities two weeks after the story broke in the Japanese and international media and caused a sensation. Why were these crucial plot elements missing from the film? Nobody Knows!!! The writer-director spent 15 years tinkering with the script. I think he killed it in the process. The cinematography was really poor. In the first half, the neighborhood looks respectably middle-class, in the second half a slum. The visual continuity and transition is just not there. I never got a feel of the building or the apartment which was so crucial to the impact of the story. An unnecessary love interest is inserted in the last hour, but the director doesn't even know what to do with that and adds a bit about enjokosai (underage dates) without bothering to elaborate. What a mess it became in the second half. The first half was boring but at least it was coherent. And the film is over two and a quarter hours long which adds to the tedium.

The only positive element I saw was that the child actors gave fairly decent performances. But, I'd suggest watching My Life As a Dog instead of wasting time with this mess.

No Country for Old Men

Relentless evil
A lot has been written about the Coen brothers's new crime thriller No Country for Old Men. Nearly all the reviews have been ecstatic and touched on the many qualities of this masterpiece so I really have nothing new to add. But, I just saw it two hours ago and it has left me reeling. So, I really have to get my feelings off my chest and touch on some aspects of the film that immediately come to mind. This is not a plot synopsis.

Its too early for me to collect my thoughts and say this is their best film. I've been a fan of the Coen's since I saw Blood Simple in the early 90's. But, I suspect that this is their best film. Yes, better than Fargo or Lebowski, both of which I loved. The first thing that makes it special is Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. He is certainly one of the most resourceful, remorseless and evil characters ever committed to celluloid, on a par with Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. There is a conversation between him and a over-friendly gas station owner towards the beginning of the film thats up there with the most chilling scenes I've ever seen. And they're just talking.

The supporting cast is of a very high caliber, Josh Brolin being a revelation and Tommy Lee Jones playing a role only he could have done justice to. Woody Harrelson has an excellent cameo role. He plays one of many unfortunate souls that cross paths with the deranged Chigurh and can only say "you don't have to do this". The way his face turns red, he knows he's going to die and the calm exhibited by the monstrous Chigurh will remain in my mind for a long, long time.

The Coen's have always been strong on the technical aspects of film-making i.e. cinematography, sound, editing etc. but this is by far their best work. The action mostly takes place in motels and a dusty desert near the Mexican border where the drug deal went south. In both cases, the visuals are perfect. That is exactly how you would expect a motel to look and smell. That is the perfect secluded place in the desert to make a drug deal. Both locations/sets stick in the mind. The sound too is really important to this film and perfectly done without having a soundtrack. The editing is extremely taut in the few action scenes between Chigurh and Moss such as when Chigurh comes to visit him in motel #2. The tight editing really gives the action and suspense a greater punch.

While there is much humor in the film, especially in Tommy Lee Jones's banter, you can't relax while watching this. It grips you from the first moment and you're on a horrifying nightmare journey that you hope is going to end well. But it isn't!

Raising Arizona

Early Coen comedy
Roger Ebert recently called the Coen Brothers an American institution. Their latest film, No Country for Old Men is out in cinemas now and is widely expected to win a handful of Oscars in March amidst a hail of critical praise. I tend to agree with the view of critics about their high standing in American cinematic history, especially during the otherwise largely barren 80's. Their films can be divided into two categories: crime and comedy.

Their earlier crime films, movies like Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing and more recently Fargo are hailed as classics and justifiably so. Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing may have aged with time, but they are still very stylish and intelligent films and will, I believe, stand the test of time like the B&W classics of film noir.

Their comedies however, have been a hit and miss affair. They haven't received the critical acclaim of their crime movies even when they were among the very best of the genre such as the brilliant The Big Lebowski. Where you can see a strong noir influence in their crime movies, the comedies are heavily influenced by Preston Sturges whose Sullivan's Travels inspired the title of O Brother Where Art Thou! I didn't much like O Brother or the recent The Ladykillers. The primary problem was with the script and the heavy duty homages to Ealing and Sturges.

Of their comedies, Raising Arizona is probably the best after Lebowski. It does not take itself seriously and can get surreal at times but combines reasonable characterizations with a zany plot and good writing to entertain. Nic Cage gives a good early performance, before he went the way of the blockbuster, as an incompetent thief who falls in love with Holly Hunter's police officer. They decide to kidnap a child when they can't have one of their own. The child is one of several (5 or 6) born to a millionaire businessman. The Coen's milk the setup for all its worth in both the kidnapping attempt and the aftermath when assorted criminal elements try to take the child from them. A good humored and good natured film, this is decent viewing for fans of the Coen's. Others not accustomed to their style and work may find it a bit dated.

The Thin Blue Line

If there was ever a hell on earth...
I grew up in a society that strongly believes in the death penalty - a religion injunction based on the Islamic code of justice. I remember being told a story (don't know if its true) of how the US President visited Saudi Arabia and on the last day of his visit he was treated to some public be-headings. When he questioned the morality of it, his host informed him that the handful of criminals punished represented the entirety of the criminal population for the past one year. The moral being that harsh punishments prevent crimes and caring too much about the aggressor leads to high crime rates. I personally lost faith in the prison system many years ago after reading about the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiment findings. A harrowing Australian movie, Ghosts of the Civil Dead made me detest the prison system even more. In recent years Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have left a bad taste in the mouth. So, is the answer really the death penalty and other physical measures that can't be reversed? After seeing The Thin Blue Line I just don't know. This film has really affected me.

An innocent hitch-hiker, and from what I saw in the documentary a decent man, is caught at the wrong time in the wrong place - a former sundown town called Vidor, Dallas County. He is implicated in the murder of a cop and is obviously innocent of the crime. The entire legal system of Vidor is bent to prosecute him. The reason: the real killer is a 16-year old and there's no benefit in finding him guilty because he can't be given the death penalty. Randall Adams, in his 20's, can and must be punished because he's a stranger to these small-minded bigots and someone must pay! Shocking that people can think that way. It makes The Ox-Bow Incident and issues it raised 70 years ago valid even today. This was no more than a judicial lynching.

Fortunately, in this case Randall Adams' case was reopened and he was acquitted and released, in large measure due to this documentary and the scandal it caused. The story is exceedingly well told and the end with the tape recorded last interview with David Harris is chilling. I can't say that after watching this I still have a clear opinion of what punishment should fit a crime, but it has certainly made me question the validity of the mentality present in so many Muslim countries. Who is to say there can be no similar travesty of justice there?

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Lesser Morris but still masterful
Errol Morris is arguably the greatest storyteller alive today. He saved an innocent death-row victims life with the harrowing Thin Blue Line and created a historic document of the lifework of one of the most influential figures of the 20th century Robert S. MacNamara with The Fog of War. His documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control dealt with a subject matter I was not so interested in but which I began to have some appreciation for when I finished the film. The entire credit goes to his superb storytelling skills.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (I still don't get the reason for the title???) tells the story and professional interests of four disparate people, none of them rich, famous or successful in the parlance of today's society. Workers, not Managers, all four have a passion for their chosen calling, are very good at what they do and share a common thread. They are: a lion-tamer at a circus; a mole-rat expert; a topiary gardener (did you know it takes 15 years to make a bear!); and a robotics expert. In some way, all four are dealing with and admire the wonder that is the animal world.

The subject matter is quite distant from my experience and life and frankly I didn't think there was anything in a mole-rat or the construction of a robot and how it moves that could interest me. But I did find the enthusiasm of the four subjects under study infectious and I remained interested throughout the documentary.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

History & art in a potent mix
The Fog of War is a valuable record of history and the life of the brilliant and controversial Robert S. MacNamara. The documentary, brilliantly told, recounts the life of MacNamara from his middle-class beginnings to Harvard, his role as an aide to General LeMay in WW2 in the aerial bombings of Japan, his rise in Ford Motors during the 1950's culminating in him replacing Henry Ford for all of one week before resigning to join President Kennedy as Secretary of Defence. The bulk of the documentary deals with the next seven years of the cold war and MacNamara's recounting of the Cuban missile crisis and gradually sinking into the morass that was Vietnam. MacNamara eventually resigned or was asked to and headed a little organization called the World Bank for about a decade. He was well and truly the stuff leaders are made of.

He is quite candid and does admit to errors made in assessing Vietnam without fully apologizing or calling it a mistake. He describes the horrifying aerial bombings of 67 Japanese cities and confesses that if they had lost the war, he and LeMay would have been tried as war criminals. MacNamara also elicits some sympathy and almost seems human when he breaks down while describing Kennedy's assassination and his responsibility in choosing an appropriate burial spot. MacNamara was close to the action in some of the defining events of the 20th century. A brilliant mind and eloquent speaker even in his mid-80's, he communicates very effectively and is interesting to watch as he recounts historic events.

Errol Morris is the greatest documentary film-maker of our times or possibly ever and knows how to present the vast amount of material he worked with (apparently over 20 hours of interviews with MacNamara over a two year period). There is none of that Michael Moore style personal interference in the narrative. Its all told dispassionately, yet Morris's anti-war message does come through quite clearly. Morris has dug up a lot of historic footage, created some footage to help the narrative along and made a brilliant decision to use Phillip Glass's minimalist score.

This documentary left me reeling for a few days and it really expands the mental horizons and gives a vivid perspective on various historic events. Its also very entertaining and fluid viewing. Cinema doesn't get much better (or informative) than this.


My first Bresson
Pickpocket is the first Bresson film I've seen. I knew he was considered a master by many and pretentious by some. I can understand both reactions. His mastery of the craft of film-making, the mechanics of it, is obvious. The famous train sequence is for me one of the greatest pieces of direction I've seen. A group of pickpockets work a train together and they show complete audacity in emptying pockets. In one instance, they return an empty wallet back to the owners pocket. The camera-work and editing are simply marvelous - a real treat compared to the 'high-concept' junk currently littering cinemas.

Bresson liked to work with non-professionals. The results show and I don't mean that as a compliment. The acting is wooden at best. When the lead character is angry and shouts, that scene is as embarrassing a case of bad acting as that notorious Snakes on a Plane scene with Samuel Jackson. Bresson could have used unknown actors instead of people with no acting experience or interest. Acting is an integral component of the collaborative effort that is called film-making. I also found the film to be emotionally cold. That is my single biggest gripe with Stanley Kubrick as well - cold and distant.

Pickpocket is obviously influenced by the Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment. That doesn't become completely obvious till the anti-climactic end of the film. I remember reading Crime and Punishment as a teenager and that novel scarred me for life. For over a decade, I lived with the guilt that I had killed someone and would eventually be caught. That's true! So keep that book away from your teen aged kids!

The film was itself a major influence on writer-director Paul Schraders Taxi Driver and American Gigolo. I plan to see Bresson's other famous films as well, but as an initial impression I would say that had he also paid attention to other aspects of film-making like acting and audience involvement, and not just concentrated on brilliant mechanics, he would have been in the pantheon of the greatest directors.

Les enfants du paradis

Definitely a contender for greatest film
As a film buff for well over 20 years I've seen pretty much all of the acclaimed classics of cinema. So, the odds of adding another classic to my top 10 or 20 or 50 all-time favorite list are slim. I had completed little more than an hour of Les Enfants last weekend when I knew that even if the rest of the film went downhill (which it didn't!!!) it would be in my ratings alongside other favorites like Lawrence of Arabia, Double Indemnity, another great French film Le Salaire de la Peur, The Seventh Seal and a handful of other classics.

There is nothing I can criticize about the film. If the length of three hour sounds excessive, I would say that the three hour flew by. This is a marvelously entertaining film with varied art forms - the theatrical, the mime, poetry - seamlessly combined to make a complete story. It alternates from love story to tragedy to comedy and at each moment the mood it captures is never false. Only superlatives apply in describing the acting. I had heard the name Arletty before. Now I'll never forget it. And she was the third best actor in the film. For me the actors playing Baptiste and Lemaitre (both based on real historic characters of the 1840's) gave among the greatest performances in cinema history. I could appreciate the magic of Baptiste's mime and Lemaitre's theatrics even though I can't speak french and had to rely on subtitles (not for Baptiste though!).

There are many magical moments in the film. The first mime by Baptiste reenacting to the police and the crowd is great cinema. Lemaitre first seeing and flirting with Garance is another. Oh, there are too many. I've just mentioned two from the first 20 minutes of the film! The entire film is a joy from beginning to end...

Das Leben der Anderen

It's for me...
Not too many films get full marks from me but The Lives of Others does. Its one of those rare films that lives up to and exceeds the hype, creating fascinating characters you will always remember and has moments of great power and beauty.

The Lives of Others is set in communist-ruled, Stasi controlled East Germany. A powerful politician wants to bring down a popular 40-year old writer who is respected by his peers and recognised and accepted by the intolerant State apparatus. The politicians motive is a woman who he lusts after and who loves the writer. The film is a fascinating insight into the way the Stasi operates - the wiretapping, secret camera, phone-tapping etc. that fascist regimes used against their own citizens. The sober nature of the subject matter, the authentic look of East Germany created by the director and the excellent cast were enough to make this a very good film and well-deserved Oscar winner. But what makes this a classic is the end. I won't reveal it and I know its drawn criticism from some IMDb users, but I found it to be very intelligent and subtle in the way the film closes. It reminded me of another lovely film - Majid Majidi's Baran.


Beautiful cinematography
Tsotsi is the well-deserved winner of the 2006 Foreign Film Oscar. Its a crime story set in a shanty town on the outskirts of Johannesburg and is similar to City of God but (in my opinion) better for showing us a world of real poverty and crime. Based on a novel, Tsotsi is a tale of one individual, a petty thug, who finds 'decency' through an unintended child-napping. The film shows his transition from a criminal without a soul to a person who begins to care for humanity. We get helpful flashbacks which give insight into the childhood scars that shaped his life and turned him into such a vile being. And it is another child without a mothers love that brings hope and redemption.

The only real criticism of Tsotsi would be that the change in his nature over a 3-4 day period is too extreme to be plausible, but I thought the transition was intelligently scripted. It could also be argued that it is too stylized and could have been more neorealistic in approach. It is stylized but the style worked really for me. In fact, the single thing that I liked most about the film was the cinematography. The director has an amazing visual sense. The mise en scene is perfect and he handles night scenes, which are predominant in the film, really well. I could really see him making a neo-noir or Gothic horror and employing his visual talent to brilliant effect. The acting is uniformly good and the Tsotsi we see at the start of the film, a tough as nails criminal, evolves wonderfully into a lost child looking for a mothers love. Even his voice changes over the 90 minute duration. I thought the violence was very tastefully handled as well. I'll be keeping an eye out for the director Gavin Hood's next film.

Mitt liv som hund

Coming of age in Sweden
First off I loved this film! I've seen Lasse Halstrom's English films after reading the novels and wasn't impressed. I think The Shipping News especially did not capture the atmosphere and humour of the novel. But, I love Swedish cinema starting with one of my favorite directors Ingmar Bergman right up to Pelle the Conqueror. I think the Swedish language, landscapes and climate lend themselves to a distinct flavour. I'd say I went into My Life as a Dog with mixed expectations.

What I found was probably the most intelligent coming-of-age films I've seen. I'm sure American's have their soft spot for Stand by me and other coming-of-age films they can directly relate to but for those with a broader perspective, this is a very rewarding film. The acting by all the 10-13 year olds is superb. The story, based on a semi-autobiographical book is tender, touching and realistic. There is an element of fantasy but nothing off-putting or tedious like so many French films (Amelie and A Very Long Engagement being two films I especially dislike).

The film is set in the late 50's and apart from the coming of age theme, it deals with boxing - Ingemar something or other beat Floyd Pattersen! -; dogs - apparently the Russians sent a dog in space without enough food and young Ingemar's dog is cruelly taken away from one at a particularly vulnerable time; and a budding sexual awakening guaranteed to rile up prudish Americans even if its innocent and unerotic. I won't elaborate on the plot but would strongly a recommend a viewing for those who appreciate intelligent coming-of-age movies from a different culture. You can decide after first viewing whether or not its appropriate for your children to see. I personally see nothing inappropriate in the themes or the treatment.

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