Thursday, August 6, 2015


For the past seven months or so, I have been engaged in writing weekly reviews of theatrical releases (Hollywood titles) for The Asian Age. The film society I represent and help run, Lightcube, was approached by the paper to help with the content for its Cultural Section and two of us volunteered to boot up. The initial couple of weeks were difficult and we needed to be led by-hand by the editors, since our languid, contemplative writing style – largely cultivated by the limitless geography of an online page that spoils us all at one time or the other – didn’t quite fit in with the paper’s straight-shooting strategy. We have since resolved our differences, and the assignment has remained enjoyable. Apart from the usual, natural inferences from a proclamation of this sort: absence of editorial intervention, freedom to develop a style, the privilege of an honest opinion – there are valuable lessons too. Some of these, below:
  1. In newsprint, one must write with the certainty of a glass smashing against the wall.
  2. To extend the analogy, the critical voice must function with the specific brevity of a dollar-store hitman revealing his recruiter’s name right before he is thrown off the rooftop.
  3. Criticism in the papers is a form that must function in awareness of a history that exists entirely outside of the page it is printed on, or even, of the film which is its object. As a result, the film that concerns it must exist in its eyes, ‘after the fact’, or ‘as a consequence’: cinema’s been around for a hundred years, and ‘as a consequence’ of this, the film, too.
  4. This enables the critic to employ the ‘givens’ of cinema: iconographies, genres, narrative habits, tropes, clich├ęs – to construct a lineage or even more significantly, a vocabulary he may now share with his reader, and the film to be illuminated by the light of a movie screen.
  5. It also helps the critic deal in shorthand, definitives, flourishes, etc.
  6. Since all criticism is ultimately about ideas, the real challenge of landlocked newspaper columns is not a volume of ideas, but their density.
  7. As a result, the process of their assimilation assumes grave significance - a critic (as I presume, a writer of any sort) must cultivate an intimacy with his toolkit (for me, a thick diary wrapped in flesh-coloured textured paper, a needle-point ball pen; material attributes that lend meaning to the ritual) and a strict routine (mostly: Friday morning show: sparse population, mostly lovers; a place to sit, the position of the diary, the tenor of typing, etc.)
            My only grouse is the presentation of the writing on the website (punctuation’s amiss; no real paragraph breaks; italicized content always shows up roman). I suppose this also is the perfect opportunity to mention the late Stanley Kaufmann (discovered recently through a friend’s introduction), whose clear prose for The New Republic is an extremely useful learning tool.

            Excerpts from a few reviews below; full versions here.

            The Vatican Tapes (Mark Neveldine, 2015)
            The Vatican Tapes seems to labour under a yearning for authentication; it is the sort of ghost story that must validate its own stature by prefixing the central narrative with a fabrication: ‘…this is a true story’. To this effect, it employs various tools that do not automatically belong to an ordinary, dime-a-dozen possession drama: snippets of television interviews with Vatican priests, video-replay monitors, an elaborate archive of the antichrist’s activity and straight up in the opening, an invocation of papal authority (‘Pope Francis has admitted that there is a devil.’) While these inclusions are all well-intentioned, a horror film works best when it remains unmindful of the implausibility of the events contained within it – when it seeks instead to first address an entirely presupposed criticism, it has doubled-over into the trap.

            Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)
            There is still ambition in how Reed, Russell Carpenter (his cinematographer) and the film’s VFX team imagine sequences of its super-shrunk hero negotiating different terrains up-close: there are chase sequences inside lawn-grass, a paragliding jump from a plane, a heist that begins inside a water-pipe, etc. As a result, there is a serious consideration of the physical laws that govern motion inside these diverse environments; there is also an interest in textures and surfaces, and therefore, in the level of detail with which they are rendered or recreated. This is a useful loan from Pixar’s animated films, which also feature miniature-sized characters moving through various settings – but the influence of Disney (which owns both Pixar and Marvel) writs its influence even larger on the film: in the final showdown, the hero and the villain engage in a pint-sized duel atop a moving toy-train; we witness the entire affair from the perspective of the only child present in the film, Lang’s daughter, Cassie.

            Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)
            First-timer Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2 is a teen-drama with profound life-lessons and capital-t themes: characters learn to let go; or fall in love; or grow up; or discover their voices, etc., but one that is distilled through – very curiously – a late 90s, early 00s, Anna Faris-tone of self-reflexive, absurdist parody. As a result, irony abounds, nothing is sincere. Each scene cancels itself out, each moment of sentimentality is summarily deflated and nothing is really meant to mean much. Consider a brief moment in the final third of the film: Fat Amy (written as an obviously politically incorrect stereotype; played by Rebel Wilson) has an epiphany around nighttime campfire. She is in love with a guy who she had turned down earlier in the film, so she decides to act on the impulse. She gets up, declares her intention to be with him and begins to make a symbolic, meaningless run, which is promptly cut short when – a concealed booby trap scoops her up and leaves her suspended in mid-air. This is a perfect metaphor for the writing in the film, which organises a big, dramatic event only to eventually convert it into a gag.

            Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
            Pixar’s roster is full of films that exhibit their interest in the rendering of diverse environments (a filmography which therefore resembles the studio’s animators’ personal bucket-list): there is water (Finding Nemo), the sky (Up), the space (Wall E), dusty valley (Cars) and normal, suburban houses (Toy Story). Traditionally, the greatness of Pixar’s animation resides in the photorealism of their animated universes; in the manner in which these retain the physical laws of the actual world. The reason Inside Out is a remarkable departure is because it sets itself inside an environment that is entirely imagined – the human mind – and then sets to invent a governing logic completely indigenous to it. This allows Docter and his team to create sequences of startling (and on occasion, disorienting) imagination: one such, set inside a facility that abstracts/deconstructs thoughts and therefore, causes our protagonists to lose their shape, become formless and almost disappear, is a standout. But there are others: scenes set inside Riley’s subconscious, in her imagination, atop her train of thought, or on a studio lot where dreams are produced by a movie-crew - are excellent examples.

            Entourage (Doug Ellin, 2015)
            Television, by nature, is a reservoir of mythologies – (successful) shows and series usually have a considerable run, often lasting many years (or more poetically: seasons). This allows them to cultivate an autonomous fictional universe with indigenous logic, icons, rituals, running gags and of course, personalities. I suspect the major audience for a film like Entourage – the section that it is made for – are the existing fans of the show, individuals well-versed with the rules of this universe. As a result, the manner in which the film is constructed (and therefore, the experience of watching it in a theatre) is identifiably tribal: a movie for those who can finish its lines for it – and strangely ceremonial, in that it feels like watching TV in public.

            Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)
            This single line isn’t the only instance – the film employs strategic imagery to actually extend Claire’s theory: operators in the control room watch hordes of faceless, anonymous people roam around the park’s premises en masse on multi-screen displays; or when a great white is devoured whole by a super-gargantuan water dinosaur, the same public goes silly with awe. The manner in which director Colin Trevorrow frames their collective daze is interesting: they sit in front of a giant glass-screen that causes their faces to flicker. They could very well be watching a film, much like us. It is in moments like this, when the film is self-reflexive, nearly confessional, that it is at its best.

            The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger, 2015)
            The first and the final ten minutes of The Age of Adaline – a completely whack amalgamation of b-movie science and cross-generational romance – are dense with ultra slo-mo sequences set in outer space. These are overlaid with monotone narration that declares the premise of the film scientifically plausible. It is a routine that belongs to the crudest tradition of movie sci-fi: a booming, omnipresent voice that validates the existence of the film’s universe from the outside (a technique appropriated from the newsreel).The film’s decision to adopt this method is significant, since it helps the title exhibit an age-old belief resident in American film: sequences of grand cosmic occurrence and scientific advance exist ultimately to service the littlest, most particular of human tendencies; to love, and be loved.

            Maggie (Henry Hobson, 2015)
            In the lack of any real event (but with a runtime to fill), Hobson devotes his skill instead to genre-based iconography: overcast, dingy skies; damp-wood, lightless interiors; extreme-close-ups of Marguerite's eyes, cheeks, fingers, toes and whispered, deathly-sounding proclamations. These result in an ironical fetishisation of the very genre he is trying to lament, but atleast accounts for the relentless atmosphere of death and grief that rests heavily on the film.

            Poltergeist (Gil Kenan, 2015)
            Late into the final third of Poltergeist – a remake of 1982’s horror classic about real-estate sharks and vengeful television signals – a little boy sends a drone-mounted camera on a trek through the netherworld: a realm of lost, wronged, pissed souls lathered in ectoplasm. The camera floats through this ‘space’, relaying to the boy (and to the adults who surround him, and in turn, to us) what it sees on its merry jaunt through the ghost-world. This is a sequence of remarkable imagination, particularly in how it provides the mythical, nearly always invisible area of housing-horror movies: the actual portion of the house colonized by ghosts – a physical, material form. Therefore, characters can (and do) navigate it, jog through it, touch it and film it.

            Danny Collins (Dan Fogelman, 2015)
            The biggest, even radical accomplishment of the film is in how it resolves the crisis for its lead character. Unlike, say, The Wrestler, which features a romantic, impractical return to the ring for the rejected protagonist, Danny Collins sees its rockstar make peace with his own widely circulated, saleable brand-image, if only for the larger well-being of his family.

            Playing it Cool (Justin Reardon, 2015)
            Romantic comedies do not generally make this a point of discussion – seeing as how the old adage of everything being fair in love goes – but Playing it Cool displays a special accomplishment here: it features an excellent scene where the writer’s best friend finally dismantles his convenient cover of self-pity and helplessness to instead comment, ‘You are so self-absorbed.’ Lesser romantic films are never as truthful about their leads. They spend their runtimes valourising those in love, but the fact of this movie’s lead character’s profession: a writer, who falls in love for the purpose of research – helps it examine just how selfish and self-aggrandizing being in love can be.

            Furious 7 (James Wan, 2015)
            A group of characters who define themselves largely through martial nomenclature: ‘chief’, ‘captain’, ‘leader’; divide themselves into specialist positions: the drivers, foot soldiers, spies, technicians; drop off into ‘enemy’ territories with parachutes from choppers and finally, mutter battlefield-slogans to each other: ‘a war is coming’, ‘I don’t have friends, I have family.

            Dragon Blade (Daniel Lee, 2015)
            Jackie Chan permeates through diverse commercial arrangements – international co-productions, Hollywood funded brocoms, Chinese blockbusters – as some sort of an establishment figure; an ambassador, so to say. In his most well-known films, he plays state-figures: cops, mostly; emperor’s warrior; a fighter trained in the shaolin-traditions – and protects national treasures (sculptures, medallions, paintings, the ambassador’s daughter) from an overt threat that results from an external, foreign influence. In this, Chan’s figure recurs throughout his filmography as a political cipher – an individual that an entire country, an economic superpower uses to distill and explain its attitudes towards globalization.

            The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2015)
            Movies these days seem increasingly tailored for a younger audience: teenagers, young professionals – and therefore, there are various stories of redemption, reclamation and rebirth, but this one’s not one of them. It establishes as its central premise the terminal nature of life and the finite nature of available time, thereby making it contingent upon its ageing, elderly central characters to fulfill their wishes: of love, company, legacy and dignity – before they die.

            Chapplie (Neil Blomkamp, 2015)
            The film’s purpose is spelled out in through instruction-manual, didactic scenes (Yolandie says to Chappie: ‘You are what you are inside’, Ninja compares a dead dog and a living, eating one to illustrate how survival is difficult in the world outside), but this isn’t a problem, because Chappie is operational only as a fantasy that pretends on the outside to be a heavy-set, science-fiction drama. This is operative knowledge for a film that discusses as its major themes the difference between interior and exterior surfaces, the deceit of appearances and transhumanism (and therefore, the futility of container-bodies).

            Love, Rosie (Christian Ditter, 2015)
            Take, for instance, the scene where Rosie, an eighteen year old holds her newborn against her chest for the first time. There is a shallow-focus, advertising-imagery montage of her smiling, feeling her maternal urge rise, but instead of granting its audience the experience of witnessing the transformation of its lead character, it places a convenient text-super: ‘five years later’. This is meant to represent change, and evolution, but the real challenge, I suppose, is to actually show it – to let your actor perform it, to let your story tell it.

            The Boy Next Door (Rob Cohen, 2015)
            It is nimble and interesting – a tract-housing drama conducted through the most traditional, classical event in film: people looking at each other through open windows. The lead pair talks about The Iliad (campy dramas always aspire to high-art; a character may be a painter, or there is a murder in the museum). There is shared curiosity between the leads, temptation, the film gets racy – but then relents too easily by letting its leads consummate their stillborn relationship.

            Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton, 2015)
            A lot of the film, for instance, is really about Bryan Mills (but really, Liam Neeson; the actor-character split hardly visible, considering Mills is all physiognomy, not performance) wading like a specter through an urban jungle - concrete roads, parking lots, glass office buildings, high-rise penthouses, shopping mall toilets, elevator shafts, CCTV camera images, hi-fidelity microphones – all booby-trapped, placed to ensure his capture. Neck strained out, as if he slept badly last night; back erect like a wooden plank; the weight of his overly long upper body balanced by two feet straddling outwards; face in a constant lament – much of the pleasure of the Taken series comes therefore from Neeson and how he is filmed walking, turning around quiet, suspect wall-corners or casually slapping a tango to get a word or two out of him.

            Saturday, January 18, 2014


            In Kenji Misumi's Sword Devil (1965), the lead protagonist, Hanpei ('Han' for spot; 'pei' for the lower social class he belongs to) becomes a practitioner of Lai (a draw-sword art; his teacher's only lesson: draw, kill, put back) midway through the film. Towards the end, a change in the lordship of the clan he belongs to means that his earlier performance of his duty towards the clan, which constituted murders of his fellow clansmen themselves, is now seen as a grand crime that must be avenged. He is tricked by various other members of the clan into coming alone to the flower-garden he has himself sowed; they propose his murder, he tells them it's on. In a grand sword-roulette that follows (and that predicts Kenji's later masterpieces with the Lone Wolf series), Hanpei takes them all one by one. This sort of a one-against-all within the same two-dimensional plane is an idea that must have inspired later manga, as well as, in no small measure, the famous side-scroller brawl in Oldboy (2003). Anyways, most of them get murdered by Hanpei's sword, but then he is wounded himself, and it is at this point that the brawl breaks down into a splendid formation within the frame: Hanpei places his sword back and bends over, his hands to his knees, to regain breath and just rest for a little bit. His opponents see this as an opportunity to gain on him, they move closer to him in scavenger-circles with much ill-intent. But as it goes with most Kenji Misumi fights, the protagonist will never accept a graceless, crowded brawl; instead, he prefers a series of dignified one-on-ones. And so the stage for a near-perfect demonstration of the sheer speed of his prowess is set. As he rests, one of his opponents makes a quick advance and Hanpei responds with great ferocity.

            Saturday, January 11, 2014

            2013, Logbook

            Following are the best films I saw in 2013(not of 2013), ones that were first-time watches. In alphabetical order:

            Eligibility: Those not included in the PH Almanac 2012; features


            Act of Killing, The (2013) / Joshua Oppenheimer
            Blow Out (1982) / Brian De Palma
            Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) / Jean Renoir
            Casque D' Or (1953) / Jacques Becker
            Cameraman, The (1928) / Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
            Chienne, La (1931) / Jean Renoir
            Conjuring, The (2013) / James Wan
            Flying Circus, The (1912) / Alfred Lind
            Go Go Tales (2008) / Abel Ferrara
            Gladiator, The (1986, TV) / Abel Ferrara
            Klute (1971) / Alan J. Pakula
            Kummatty (1978) / Aravindan
            L. 627 (1991) / Bertrand Tavernier
            Long Goodbye, The (1974) / Robert Altman
            Man There Was, A (1917) / Victor Sjostrom
            Marnie (1964) / Alfred Hitchcock
            M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) / Jacques Tati
            Ms. 45 (1981) / Abel Ferrara
            Ordet (1955) / Carl Th. Dreyer
            Passion of Joan of Arc, The (1928) / Carl Th. Dreyer
            Tanner '88 (1988, TV) / Robert Altman
            Throw of the Dice (1927) / Franz Osten
            To Be or Not to Be (1941) / Ernst Lubitsch
            Two Lovers (2008) / James Gray
            Underworld, U.S.A (1953) / Samuel Fuller
            Unspeakable Act, The (2013) / Dan Sallitt
            Yakuza Papers, The (1973-74) / Kinji Fukasaku

            Sunday, January 5, 2014

            The Wrestlers

            The Lonely (1999) / Jean Paul Civeyrac

            The Wrestlers (1905) / George Luks

            Saturday, September 28, 2013

            Suffering of the Devoted

            In a remarkable scene typical of Bauer's filmography, as Lily recovers from her operation and slowly opens her eyes to discover that she has gained sight, she sees Gregoriy in front of her and mistakes him for Vadim, the doctor who actually operated upon her and is in sincere love with her. Seeped in gratitude and happiness, she gives her heart away to Gregoriy, while poor Vadim lingers in the background, distraught at this peculiar undoing of his love. Characters apart from Lily all choose to preserve this error in recognition - Lily's only recently recovered from an operation and the mental trauma of a correction may send her into relapse. This sounds convenient, but Bauer is convinced of a universe where the devoted with suffer - this is visible in almost all his major films; his is a poetry of a world not fair or just in anyway, but open instead to the arbitrariness that is a yield of an irony-filled circumstance and often inexplicable forces of human impulse and feeling. The scene in question is a perfect example of Bauer's cinema - a microcosm, if you will - because it is full of two particularities. The first, the utter irony of the situation, wherein a man helps a woman regain physical, sensory sight which results, instead, in blinding her to his love. The second of course is inherent in Bauer's direction of scenes. Major moments or twists-of-fate in Baueur are not as much a result of events transpiring or similar apocalypses, but of the unpredictability of human movement: a posture, a brief strut across the room, a minor shuffling of position or a wrongly placed limb. 

            In the scene, as soon as the operation is complete and Lily slowly begins to open her eyes, Vadim quickly moves from besides her to his apparatus in the background of the frame to fetch a comforting lotion for her; Gregoriy on the other hand moves quickly towards Lily to comfort her, replacing Vadim in his original position so to say. This movement across the floor where Vadim (literally) recedes into the background and Gregoriy is summoned to the fore leads to the central misunderstanding of the film: Lily opens her eyes, sees Gregoriy and falls in love with him. But the eccentric dance does not stop here. Vadim, grief-stricken and a loser in love, slowly saunters to the side of Lily, takes her hand and kisses it in resignation. Lily, so much in love now, is completely oblivious to the tragedy that her newly acquired sight has woven. Gregoriy, equally saddened by his inadvertent usurping of his brother's position, recedes back into the background, where he stares into a void that exists behind the frame, with his back towards us. Lily's mother, sympathetic to Vadim's situation but helpless nonetheless, attempts to comfort him but failing, turns to leave the scene, perhaps unable to bear the misfortune that resides within it. It is at this point that Bauer causes his actors to arrange themselves in what is a truly remarkable pose: Lily, seated on the sofa and in love, is exulting with happiness; her mother is exiting the frame from the right - slitting the frame right in the middle are the two brothers, placed in a two-dimensional frame to appear as if they are the same creature, mirror-images of each other, tentacles of the same organism. Their heads are bowed down in grief but it is Vadim whose face is visible to us; the insinuation is clear: it is he whose suffering will be evident to us and it is he whose physical being will become easily replaceable by that of his brother - the blocking within a frame presenting a clear account of Lily's confusion.

            The Happiness of Eternal Night (1915) / Yevgeni Bauer

            Saturday, July 20, 2013

            Three Dead Bodies

            Often in Robert Altman's films, characters who die submerge into a neighbouring water body: it's as if they dissolve into liquid and lose their material nature, significance.

            McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) / Robert Altman

            The Long Goodbye (1974) / Robert Altman
            The Player (1992) / Robert Altman

            The Revival of the Dead

            Obsession (1976) / Brian De Palma

            One is not prone to discussing the class-consciousness prevalent in De Palma’s work; the excitement of his films seems to derive as much from the perverseness of his directorial design (particularly; in terms of the central plot, the mood of the piece and the various rhythms/double-rhythms), but also, from (what seems like an) inevitable, and yet, unforeseen engagement of societal classes. In Obsession, for instance, De Palma revises Hitchcock’s Vertigo by entirely severing the original story’s connection with dreams, magic or enigma at-large, and re-depositing it instead in a world of open manipulation, schemers and hustlers – where the reincarnation is no longer the result of one man’s obsessive fantasy, but of his business partner’s (unbelievably) elaborate plan to annex the protagonist’s mind, and through it, his money. In short, De Palma airlifts Vertigo from Hitchcock’s private architecture and places it, as such, in America. Two great achievements of Obsession: the first is De Palma’s recognition of the plausibility of the central plot itself; a man obsessed with a dead lover/wife spots another woman who looks just like her and aims, through his own set of eccentric and aloof habits, to reincarnate the deceased in the alive. While Hitchcock’s film’s working class detective can hardly, in a ‘real’ world afford to devote most of his life to the peculiar pursuit of this young girl who bears an uncanny resemblance with his lost love, De Palma corrects this technicality by rendering the same plot as a holiday film. The rich businessman goes to Italy for a business meeting and spots this replica (what’s more, she works as a restoration artist, how cute!) – tells his partner to trudge on along to America while he will stay on for a few more days. These ‘few more days’ being the point of De Palma’s larger awareness (which he posits in Blow Out as a complete theory); that only a multimillionaire on a holiday can savour the luxury (as opposed to the hope-agony of Scottie in Vertigo) of rediscovering, perhaps, a lost love. In finishing therefore, this triumvirate (with Laura, and of course, Vertigo), De Palma’s point is made, i.e., only three types of people can spend their lives obsessed with the dead: detectives, rich men on a holiday and of course, at a larger level, cinephiles.

            Obsession’s larger achievement is in the final shot of the film, when De Palma paints the final stroke over his Vertigo restoration – he dispenses with the wonder inherent in the circular tracking shot that captures the resurrection/reunion in Vertigo and replaces it instead with the bottom-line reality of such a complex affair: when the man and the woman enter the world-ending embrace in Obsession, she overdramatically and in a high-pitched voice, squeals: ‘Daddy! Oh daddy!’ And this is really how De Palma summarises for us the whole Hitchcock film; as some sort of a modern variation of the old Frankenstein-legend, wherein the reproduced girl is no longer a myth, and she does not see the fanatic whose obsessiveness makes her existence possible as her lover, but as her father, her progenitor and her creator ( of course, this is a terribly sentimental moment; imagine the Monster calling Frankenstein his father, but also a bit of a joke on ol’ Jimmy’s age in Vertigo) . Two other significant facts about this scene; it is set in the symbol of concrete, real and practical contemporary existence, the airport, and is thereby relocated from the dreamy, neon-lit hotel room of the Hitchcock film, and lastly, this scene ends the film (unlike Vertigo, where Scottie must suffer till he can exterminate this agent of recurrence herself). This is because the larger irony of the project – the story of a man restoring an object from the past being filmed by a man restoring an object from the past – is not lost on De Palma, and therefore, just like Scottie, he must end eternal recurrence with his own piece. How? By ensuring that the reunion scene is the final scene of his story, so that by the time the end credits begin to roll, the ghosts of an unhappy past are entirely exorcised.