Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan 

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category

The Run: Won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy or Musical)


Let's Put A Smile On That Face!

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is about a teacher. This is just about the surety that one can bring in when describing its central character, Pauline aka Poppy. Narrated in a seemingly coherent string of episodes, Happy-Go-Lucky unfolds as much as it conceals. Poppy is a character we could easily meet life – easy to ridicule and easier to pass judgments on. Sally Hawkins should have replaced Jolie in the big list.  

Mike Leigh does not give us easy answers and predictable characters. Look at how complex the character Poppy is. She is a teacher but is always seen learning things. She looks naïve but seems to know more than what shows. She is irritating to the core. Yet she seems to mean good. She tries to bring happiness in people’s lives, but not the momentarily gratifying one. God knows what she wants. But all this is not a result of bad writing, mind you. Leigh never allows anyone, neither the audience nor his own characters, to judge Poppy. The characters’ privacy is never jeopardized and they constantly dodge analysis. One is unable to even come to a conclusion like “Poppy is…” or “She likes…”. I can only repeat the strange man that Poppy seems to empathize with: “She is, she is, she is, she is, she is, she is,…. You know?”  But what is sure is that Happy-Go-Lucky is rooted firmly in contemporary reality like a very few films. And it does this without ever beating its chest out.

And then there is Eddie Marsan. This bloke should have been given one of those Oscar nods. He matches Poppy’s intensity and brings such unbridled energy into the most mundane of conversations that you start looking forward to these driving classes yourself.  The blink-and-you’ll-miss lines are all damn funny, all in the British way, but after a point seem to staged and more than spontaneous. But one thing, I would never want to meet a Poppy in my life!

Director: Gus Van Sant

Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score categories

The Run: Won SAG Award for Best Actor


A Bit Cheesy

Sean Penn is one of the best actors around. No other actor, save DDL, has been so prolific and so perfect. Every gesture, move and expression that he presents is an indication that the academy has to more than make it up for their gross overlooking of his directorial film Into The Wild (2007). And Sean Penn is the only thing in Milk that actually lives up to all that hype.

Milk depicts the last eight years of Harvey Milk, America’s first “openly gay” statesman. This is a clever decision by Van Sant to spare us of the emotional torture and discrimination that Harvey might have faced in his teens and twenties. He makes the film event driven instead of character driven (which the subject matter might have readily prompted to). He starts off well utilizing newsreels to depict the political drama (without further unnecessary dramatization like Oliver Stone or now, Ron Howard) and shooting only the process of revolution using the most trivial of conversations taking place inside petty buildings. He never highlights Penn’s character and treats him as any other friendly neighbourhood hero. But all is consistent only till the half way. Van Sant is tempted to stage the political rising and breaks out into the open (may be that is the bloody point, but I don’t buy it). Newsreels take a back seat and Van Sant goes Hollywood. The underdog victory, the gruesome and sympathetic murder, the cut to the past, the consequence – we’ve all seen that before. All that one takes back is Penn’s wonderful portrayal of Harvey Milk – a person much more inspiring than the film.

Gus Van Sant has always been an enigma to me. I do not know what people saw in his earlier Palm D’Or winner Elephant (2003) and I do not understand what the hype around Milk is all about. Sean Penn’s masterful performance coupled with Obama’s dream run was perhaps the catalyst required to make emotions soar for the American audience. For me, it remains one of the most disappointing films of the year.

Director: Courtney Hunt

Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay categories

The Run: Won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival

Frozen River

Of Bread And Boundary

There is always something so absorbing while watching independent films. May be it’s because of the very tag of “independent film” alone or may be because they are so honest and true to their tag. I’d like to choose option 2 and Frozen River tells you why. Debutant Courtney Hunt has struck gold here and let’s hope she does not fade away into oblivion to like so many one-hit women directors. 

Watching our Hollywood heroes romantically break the law and make a mockery of “the system” for years, Frozen River comes as a surprise. Here we have people so much engulfed by the arms of the law that they never think about the authoritarian nature of the law and the government. Abiding by the law is a part of their morals and comes as a natural instinct. There is no cribbing about what the government has done to them but a genuine desire to survive without deliberately doing “wrong things”. And this is what brings the characters closer to us and evokes a genuine concern for them. The great American dream, that all the immigrants that the film shows sell their bodies for, isn’t much of a dream when you are in it. Like the spiritual enlightenment that foreigners seek in India being a puzzle to us residents, the great American dream is a big joke for the protagonist when she says “they pay so much, to get here?”. There is no limelight on the statement here. There is no pretense of exposing reality. And the film’s triumph lies, here, in accepting the social structure as it is and carrying on life within this structure.

Melissa Leo may be called this year’s Gena Rowlands and reminds us of the veteran too. Her performance is so independent of the camera, the geography and the macrocosm of the society. She is pitted against heavyweights and favorites ranging from Meryl Streep to Kate Winslet at the Oscars. But she can rest assured considering that her performance is one of the best by any actress in recent years. 

Director: Werner Herzog

Cast: Ryan Andrew Evans, Werner Herzog

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Documentary category

The Run: Werner Herzog’s name

Encounters at the End of the World

The Grand Inquisition

If there is only one film from 2008 you are allowed to see, it better be Encounters at the End of the World. Not because it is easily the best movie made that year, but because it is so deep in its ideas, so uncompromising in its execution and so shattering in its discoveries. Werner Herzog has been making films for years and his filmography is probably the definitive stop to learn how profound documentaries can be.

As with most of Herzog’s films, Encounters at the end of the world is not just satisfied with the content it gives us. Herzog examines how the film is so important to him as a filmmaker and us as citizens of the earth. But by no way is this a didactic documentary about the “ecocalypse” nor is it about bonding between “fluffy penguins”. Herzog takes up a theme that has always fascinated him – about the nature of nature and the inherent savagery it exhibits. Why is it that some creatures are meant to be slaves and some masters? Why do some beings digress from the rest of their species? Why can’t man leave some part of nature unexplored or mysterious? Is nature like the Schrödinger’s cat that changes when observed? Through a multi-layered approach, Herzog studies how life goes on in the arcane world of Antarctica. There is considerable humour involved when we discover the stories behind the very many faces that have arrived at this edge of the planet. All this only questions us about how much we know about ourselves while we are studying the intelligence of single-celled organisms. “Hearing the universe’s cosmic harmonies through our ears and witnessing the universe’s glory through our eyes” answers one of them.

Encounters is a special film for me as I saw it amidst a Herzog retrospective. The most relentless filmmaker of our times after Godard, Herzog is the best example of how independent a filmmaker can be. Over 60 now, Herzog is everything a traveler, an artist, an adventurer or a roadie could ever hope to be. And Encounters is a gem with the master at the top of his game, as ever.

Director: John Patrick Shanley

Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress (2) and Best Adapted Screenplay categories

The Run: Won SAG Award for Best Actress


Triumph Of Faith

When I think of Doubt, the first adjective that springs up in mind is “neat”. Yes, Doubt is a neat and clean film with no “artsy pretensions”, no unnecessary plot points and no unwarranted need to clarify itself. With names such as Meryl Streep, Philip Hoffman and now Amy Adams, the performances were bound to get your attention first and they do indeed.   

Doubt is set in the post war America at a time when the Beatles were gaining momentum and follows three individuals, all connected to a Christian school/convent. Father Flynn played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is a compassionate individual who believes that the Church must change with the changing times and loosen its strict moral codes. Sister Aloysius (the ever-imposing Meryl Streep) stands diametrically opposite to Flynn and is literally old school. She hates ball point pens and believes that the church should carefully disengage itself from the people it serves. And caught between these two adversarial ideologies is Sister James (a charming Amy Adams), an impressionable novice who struggles to come to terms with what she has learnt about the church and what she sees. Shanley’s astonishing execution deliberately does not implicate anyone in the story nor does it hint that no one is to be blamed. It cleverly places its audience in the shoes of every character, in turns. It bestows the characters’ prejudices on to the audience, never once allowing it to comfortably judge the characters. 

Shanley adapted the film from a play and it shows. His attempts to provide that extra dimension to his script fall flat at some places as his metaphors become forced. But heck, no use of cribbing about such negligible issues when a large part of the film just sweeps you off the feet. The Academy has made a grave mistake by excluding it from the best picture category this year. And the same goes for Shanley who has become the Joe Wright of the year.

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category

The Run: Won Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Truffaut meets Almodovar

Thank god we have Clint Eastwood. And thank god we have Woody Allen. One of the most gifted people of our times, Woody Allen is perhaps the only depressing-looking guy that can induce such energy into anyone. And those scripts. And those scripts. And those scripts… He has returned with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with a script that isn’t as jaw-dropping as Match Point (2005) but fantastic in its own way.

We follow the lives of the two clearly defined titular characters – Vicky, played lovingly by Rebecca Hall, is a very conventional person. She knows her boundaries. Her morals are moderate and her opinions on love, platonic. She believes in commitment to love and nobility of the same. Scarlett Johansson’s Cristina is the quintessential free-loving European with absolutely extreme opinions on love and the restrictions it imposes. They meet Juan (Javier Bardem) in Barcelona, a divorced artist who is seeking to restore his inspiration. Both the girls find him totally wild and so different in their own way. Now leave it to Woody Allen to bring the essentially Almodóvar-esque twist to the plot. Enter Penelope Cruz. Cristina realizes how all her ideologies are no more than youth’s desperate fantasies. Now these are just a fraction of the twists and turns the roller coaster film goes through. Woody Allen elicits extremely natural performances from his stars with Cruz standing out in style.

Many feel that the voice over that Allen provides is needlessly repetitive and could have been completely done away with. But I believe it eases up the whole film a bit. Allen, visibly, loves his characters and with this voice over he provides them safety. He looks back into the past with a tinge of humour now that everything is over and done with. He does not make us believe that there are going to be serious ramifications and heavy drama as a result of these relationships that the characters get into. So, the voiceover aids the film to never put down the light-hearted atmosphere that is already being developed by its beautiful actors, its characters and Barcelona.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction categories

The Run: Won Satellite Award for Best Actress


Schizophrenia Of The Script

Clint Eastwood should have promoted Gran Torino at the Cannes instead of making so much fuss over Changeling. The Oscar probably wouldn’t have snubbed one of the better films of the year if he had done that. Perhaps he was too confident of Gran Torino. Whatever the case, Changeling definitely isn’t a glowing bullet point in Eastwood’s glorious and pretty consistent filmography.

Changeling follows one woman’s struggle to get back her lost child. No, wait. It follows a genocide case loosely based on real life incidents. No, no, no. It is a gut-wrenching courtroom drama that raises questions about the capital punishment. Whatever. Clint Eastwood is one of the best storytellers Hollywood has and it is appalling to see him failing in his first step. Eastwood’s films have always been backed by strong scripts and great performances, only faltering slightly at a directorial level. But in Changeling, he takes up a script that takes a pretty good idea, blows it up and zooms it to fantastical proportions. Not only that, when it goes it uncontrollable limits, it snaps. There is a start change in tone and plot. It is as if the film just rebooted for the better. And just when it seems like it can redeem itself, the courtroom drama comes up to give the final set of blows to the film. As a result, whatever Eastwood is able to do (no, I don’t mean the Cannes promotion!) isn’t enough to even make the film linger for a while.

Angelina Jolie’s performance is inconsistent and is perhaps the weakest contender for the Oscar this year. Perhaps Ms. Zelwegger could have done the role better. Jolie shuttles between aggression and sympathy unconvincingly. Something like a mixture of Wanted and Alexander. Having said that, I must also tell you that the period details are well captured. But then, isn’t all this usual to Hollywood?

Director: Stephen Daldry

Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography categories

The Run: Won Golden Globe for Best Supporting (!) Actress

The Reader

Slow And Steady

Everything about The Reader is ambiguous. Even the title betrays us. Does it refer to the person who is reading out or the one who is actually “reading”? We are left searching for meaning among the seemingly divergent threads of the film. Even Roger Deakins’ beautiful images eschew from providing a coherent motif to the film. Early on in the film, a professor remarks that the western literature is characterized by secrets. That people in power are the ones with secrets. Right here, he may just have talked about he Reader itself. A quiet and powerful film that vehemently opposes black and white explanation.

What begins with a Truffaut-like tone shifts gears to become one of the best character studies of recent years. The plot follows the surreptitious affair between a teenager Michael and an ex-Nazi prison guard Hanna. Hanna is illiterate and seems to be indulging Michael only because he reads books to her. She is extremely inarticulate. Inarticulate because she does not know words that conceal her true thoughts. Inarticulate because she does not know words that express these feelings either. She is fascinated by things that verbalize or visualize those. Ebert mentions in his insightful review on the film that the movie is all about decisions. Damn right he is. Each decision one takes is a resolution of the conflict between one’s own conscience and others’, especially if the latter projects as a mass sentimentality. Daldry sticks to the cinematic proverb “show not tell” till death as he deliberately keeps all the vital points of the film low-key fearlessly.

The Reader was a very difficult film for me to come to terms with. They say a great film begins after the last frame. As the end credits rolled, I was furious for the Academy to have selected five unworthy contenders for the biggie this year. But it was a matter of days before the film began revealing itself. Everything began to make sense. And it became clear that Daldry may just be the man of the year at the Oscars.

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Make-up, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction categories (phew!)

The Run: Won National Board of Review Award for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay

Fast-Food Cassavetes

Life is still the same Box of Chocolates!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a phenomenal idea. One that could have eternally made us rave about the magic of cinema. Only if Eric Roth had realized what the idea of a man who ages in reverse means. Only if he had not been so straight faced and stiff about it all. Man, why don’t they leave these things to Tim Burton?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great joke. A joke that could have generated an endless series of gags and surprises. Instead, Fincher goes in for the kitsch. Look, we have a man who ages in reverse. Quite extraordinary indeed. I hear that in Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, the lead character never learns of his plight and that he ages both mentally and physically in reverse. But in Roth’s version, Benjamin ages backwards physically and forward mentally. Also he becomes perfectly aware of the ramifications of his plight as he grows up. Great move by Roth I must admit. But it is never capitalized upon at all. I mean, there is no conflict between contradicting states of growth. Benjamin could have been replaced by a normal character (a la Forrest Gump) and the script wouldn’t have to change much at all. As a result the film becomes nothing more than a coming of age (or going!) tale of a normal mind. The physical state of Benjamin Button is never seems to be a concern for anyone in the film except the CG department.

Hollywood seems to have perfected the craft of storytelling without even letting the storylines catch up. Yes, Benjamin Button is eye-popping all the way, gorgeously designed and fantastically executed. But all this is like those high profile food items – mouth-watering when looked at, but never ever filling. I would have wanted to love the film. Only if the film hadn’t taken itself too seriously, sigh.

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Rebecca  Hall, Kevin Bacon

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor,  Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing categories

The Run: Won the Satellite Award for Best Adapted Screenplay


Not Exactly A K.O.

Ron Howard returns after his much trashed film The Da Vinci Code (2006) and he returns quite well. He takes up the iconic face-off between David Frost and Richard Nixon following the latter’s impeachment and churns out something that could have been only possible in Hollywood. Seen Rocky? Seen Mudhalvan (Nayak)? Now cross them and voila!

Riding on two striking performances (well, Sheen’s is easily questionable), Frost Nixon is yet another underdog story from the industry that is surprisingly riveting until the third act. There is a sense of balance among the characters. The interview is the last chance for both of them to redeem their lost pride. A lot is at stake for both of them. All this is quite subtly done. Oh yes, please add a clause “till the phone call” to all the statements above. And after this notorious phone call comes the fear of all ordinary directors of Hollywood. The fear that their effort may go unnoticed by the audience. Ron Howard is no exception here and verbalizes and over-determines whatever he wants to say in the final act as if pointing out to the audience his directorial skills. It’s downhill all the way from this point. The showdown is so dumb to the point that it contradicts the point of the whole film so far. And Sheen’s cool attitude sums up to nothing at all. How I wish the film was handled by some veteran. 

But a few points do stand out in the film including Langella’s confident performance of the American president. Frost/Nixon does not pretend to delve into the truth or offer a fair trial to Nixon. It assumes that Nixon is guilty and concentrates on his conviction alone. And I feel that this is a good move. But best movie of the year? Come on, this must be the joke of the year!

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