Gaining The Upper Hand

Austria is presently the defending champion of the Best Foreign film Oscar following its dream run last year with The Counterfeiters. However, the inclusion of its contender this year, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, has come as quite a big surprise. With the film pipping heavy-weight contenders like Italy’s (2008) and Romania’s Gomorra Rest is Silence (2008) , it does make me inquisitive as to why the Academy preferred this one. Now that I’ve seen the film, the curiosity still persists.

I’m not going to give away the plot here although I’m going to mention some interesting points in the film. But don’t worry. This is a film that doesn’t have spoilers, for it derives its glory, ironically, not from concealment of plot points.Revanche kicks off with an array of seemingly disparate sequences involving more than half a dozen individuals. We are forced to think that this is going to be one of those hyperlink films that deal with interconnected lives. But in a Hitchcockian twist to the story Spielmann kills off the central plot and steers the film, literally, into a completely new environment. He shifts a seemingly event-driven film into one that balances character and their actions very delicately.

Spielmann’s camera is reminiscent of the damn good contemporary films from countries like Germany and Romania. It takes up the position of a non-human character in each scene and captures the mise-en-scene with great detail. In most of the scenes, it is situated at a shady corner of a room, the end of a corridor or among the trees of a park. There are no unnecessary pans, hand held sequences or even drastic zooms. To use a cliché, it merely observes. A sizeable distance is maintained while documenting the characters and their actions. But what effect does all this produce? One could say that it provides us drama in its purest form.

Clearly, there is considerable drama in the character’s own lives. The ever-baffling twists of fate, luck and destiny by themselves provide enough fodder to keep one astonished. Spielmann cleverly retains it and never tries to externally dramatize it by employing soundtrack (there isn’t one at all in the film), spectacular camera movements or even by extremities of the character’s actions (although the parallel editing in the first half hour does impose itself on us). The bank robbery, that could easily have been made the central piece, lasts less a minute! Also, Spielmann never delves into the characters psychology for even a moment. He never claims to explore their motivations and intentions. Why doesAlex work at the farm at all? Why does Susanne visit the old man? Why doesAlex throw away the gun? Spielmann never intends to answer these questions though me makes all of it completely workable. Each of the characters here could be made into a complete melodramatic film. The old man, AlexTamara, Susanne and Robert are easy candidates for in-depth psychoanalysis. But Spielmann eschews from making even one.

Furthermore, Spielmann doesn’t even rely on the twists in the plot for attention. The audience can easily guess out what an action is going to result in much before it is revealed. When Alex pins the picture on the wall of his room, we know immediately that it is going to give him away. Spielmann deliberately does that. Consider the moment Alex comes to know that Susanne has found out his secret. There are no wide eyes or Vertigo shots over here! There is a long pause where Spielmann focuses on Alex’s face. That is all. Alex has assimilated what this means and what its consequences are going to be. That is the stuffRevanche is made of. The twists aren’t as important as the actions that they result in or those that precede them. And it is indeed these “actions” alone that help us piece together the characters’ motivations.

Interestingly, there are extended shots of Alex chopping the wood and his grandfather playing the accordion. What begins like an establishing technique goes on to become something more vital. The wood chopping becomes more than Alex’s work. It becomes a gesture by itself. It seems as if it is his interaction with the hermetic world. And same is the case with his grandfather. Both these characters are in complete loneliness even though they live together. They seldom talk and carry on with their “gestures” even if there is no one to receive them. There is something elusive in the presence of these actions. At times the wood-cutting seems like a token of atonement and at others, it seems like a representation of building resentment. In an case, it falls in resonance with the execution of the whole movie – Actions taking the place of words, gestures taking the place of dramatic cues.

Daldry’s Oscar contender The Reader (2008) mentions how European literature thrives on secrets to drive its characters’ lives. That how persons in power are the ones in possession of great secrets. Many a time, concealment of truth is the prime way to domination. Revanche is exactly that. Alex is pretty helpless and possibly a pawn of fate till the second half of the film. Once he knows that he is in possession of an exclusive piece of information, he is able to control his fate and of others. Susanne is very much an instrument controlled by Alex. And so is Robert. Note how the single secret can create or destroy vantage points. Objectively speaking, Alex is the one guilty of a crime. But the concealment of truth makes it look like Robert is the one. Alex is the one who is vulnerable to law. But because he has used his knowledge to suit his plan, it seems as ifSusanne is going to be the victim if everything comes to light. And this is the “Revenge” of the title – revenge without a single (well, one!) bullet fired.

Revanche opens with a shot of a placid lake followed by a startling fall of an object into it. There are ripples and then back to an unperturbed state. But what is buried into it now will be an object of tension for ever. This sequence is whatRevanche mirrors in the rest of the film. What the intrusion of the third personAlex into the peaceful life of a countryside couple has resulted in. The issues may be buried and done with amicably. But its consequences, the tension thatSusanne is thrown into and the fear that Robert is nudged into will echo for eternity.

I’m not sure if the Academy really considered Revanche as a contender or did they just use it as filler. It neither has the political grounding or the moral righteousness or even the emphatic statements that it looks for. Perhaps Waltz with Bashir already has the Oscar it in its kitty.



Director: James Marsh

Cast: Philippe Petit

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Documentary category

The Run: Won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival, BAFTA for Outstanding British Film

Man On Wire

Audience On Wire

The much talked about documentary Man on Wire is about a man who breaks into rooftops of tall structures only to perform his ropewalking act on them. Specifically, it shows us Philippe Petit’s attempts to fulfill his cherished dream of walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a wire. The film cuts to and fro between three time lines – Philip’s biographical history and his induction into this “crime”, hours before the actual event that is to occur, and the present year at the studio – and provides a seamless documentation of one of the most shocking moments in history.

Mr. Marsh, the director, crosscuts facts presented as interviews with fictionalized forms of the same, shot in B&W. Man on Wire carries the tagline “The artistic crime of the century”. And in retrospect, each word of the tagline seems to resonate loudly. “Artistic” because of the discoveries it can make – of one’s own unlimited physical and mental strength and of one’s own limitations. “Crime” because how it all happened. More than the event itself, the preparations of the event are so dramatic that they can pass of as sequences from a top-notch heist film. And the last word of the tagline is a subtle tribute to the famous twin structure that the new century could never retain. Interestingly, the film never laments about the destroyed structure and sticks to what happened with Philippe alone. And that is a move of great confidence.

As such, Man on Wire makes a great watch primarily because of the content it provides. There are pretty decent insights too into Philippe’s mind with respect to the death-defying act he performs. But I guess, even though it is lovingly directed, it may not go on to win the Oscar. True, that it throws a shiver down the spine but not more than the event itself. And kids, do not attempt this at home!

Director: Thomas McCarthy

Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Leading Actor category

The Run: Won the NBR Spotlight Award

The Visitor

Overstaying The Welcome

The Visitor released in 2007 but Richard Jenkins is nominated for this year’s Oscars, making it a close race between three great performances. He may lose out, but not without this massive fight. His timid performance reminds one immediately of Gene Hackman’s in The Conversation (1974, not to mention the penchant for the musical instruments) and this perhaps may make the voters a bit skeptic.

The visitor follows an aging professor whose wife has just passed away. He seems to be the perfect loner. He teaches world politics and affairs, but is soon going to learn what he truly knows. He writes books on his subject and can never take credits for something he hasn’t done. He tries to learn the piano, in vain. Things turn for good when he discovers an African couple staying in his apartment located in another city. What begins as a sympathetic gesture by the professor turns into a deeper relation and goes on to become thick friendship. There is some great writing at work here and that doesn’t take away the credits from the production design team. As the film nears its end, one begins to question thoroughly who the title refers to after all. The Visitor is a film that knows its cultural identity and, along with Gran Torino (2008) and Frozen River (2008), is the kind of film that should define contemporary American cinema.

Save the last 20 minutes or so, The Visitor is decidedly an achievement of great proportions. The climactic portion of the film, so very unfortunately, takes side and tries to gain sympathy for its characters. What it did with its quiet brilliance, in the larger part of the film, is put under threat with this needless change of tone. The question it handles is a very sensitive one – not only bound by individualistic morals but by the rules of the law, economy and society. Sadly, The Visitor tries to simplify it all.

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?