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Thursday, February 27, 2014

August: Osage County

I have very little knowledge of theatre in general. I think I have seen only three plays in my entire life. But deciding to watch this movie, which is based on a Pulitzer winning play was a no brainer. Why? One word – Meryl Streep. Before watching August: Osage County, I did my usual bout of research. I saw that a lot of critics constantly compared the film with the play, how a three hour play had been edited to fit into an audience friendly two hour film and how certain characters weren’t explored properly in the film. I haven’t seen the play, so it negated any possible bias that could creep up in my mind. August flaunts a stellar cast – Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Juliet Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepherd, Abigail Breslin. And let me tell you that each one of them was competing against each other to ‘show off’ their acting skills. In fact there were times when it seemed that there was a plethora of power packed acting, especially when Steep’s and Roberts’s characters interact; so much so that you might feel a little giddy at times.

August is a family movie, but it revolves around a dysfunctional one. It reminds you that family can be hard-hitting and that tempers and mouths can flow freely and just as easily as smiles and hugs. Streep plays Violet Weston, a recent widow, whose husband, Beverly a once noted poet played by Sam Shepherd killed himself. Violet’s three middle aged daughters – Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Lewis) and Ivy (Nicholson) come together, along with various other members of the family for the funeral.  As the family gets together, several skeletons comes tumbling out from the closet while the family tries its best to maneuver around them. Streep plays the drug addict, foul mouthed matriarch of the Weston family, and her bitter words smolders severely. She however calls it “truth telling’ and everyone seems to go along it for a while, till Barbara snaps and pounces on her at the family lunch after a particularly onerous session of ‘truth telling’. This scene has to be the most comic and pathetic of the movie. But I agree with Violet on one count, I would never dare to call my mother a liar to her face, something that Jean (Breslin) does to Barbara at the family lunch and even she is not spared from Violet’s vituperative attacks –“… if ever I called my mom a liar she would knock my goddam head off my shoulders”.

Meryl Streep is the very epitome of grace and poise and daintiness to a certain extent, so no, I did not expect to see her as a shrewd, drug addict matriarch, with a vicious tongue. She delves into the persona of Violet right from the word go, and it is surprisingly easy to detest her, even though we are aware of the fact that she is dying from oral cancer. It is ironic too that she is suffering from oral cancer, maybe it is because of all the toxic words strewn around over the years. The role gives Streep a record 18th Oscar nomination; if she wins it will be her fourth. I believe she moves ahead with the mantra – Outdo your previous performance.  Julia Roberts as the eldest daughter Barbara has the most screen space out of all the three daughters and it was refreshing to see her at her best after spending quite a few years on the bench. Being her father’s favourite, she is the target of Violet’s particular scorn. Trapped in an unhappy marriage that is probably heading for a divorce, with a teenage daughter who despises her, Barbara is terrified of turning into her own mother. But she shows how strong she is, both physically and mentally when she wrestles her mother to floor and yanks the pills from her and yells out “I am running things now!”

While Streep and Roberts can share the honours for the leading role, they were backed up by some remarkable supporting acting. Chris Cooper as Violet’s brother-in-law Charles Aiken, Benedict Cumberbatch as his son ‘Little Charles’ Aiken and Ewan McGregor as Barbara’s husband Bill Fordham all worked the script well, as much as the script gave freedom to the male characters, which even though wasn’t a lot, but they made it count. Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister and Charles’s wife Mattie Fae, Juliet Lewis as Karen, the second daughter and Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, the youngest daughter added to the mayhem of this dysfunctional family seamlessly.

The only thing that bothered me with the script was the lack of development of Misty Upham’s character as Johnna Monevata, who was hired by Beverly at the beginning of the movie to help look after a sick Violet. She keeps fleeting in and out throughout the movie, and is a participant in most of the critical scenes, including the climax. This is why I feel that her character should have been developed more, so that the ending could have been more attuned.

August is a ruthless and graphic film, without the blood and gore of a horror movie.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Let's Do the Hustle

The snob in me had to eat a piece of humble pie after I sat through and thoroughly enjoyed American Hustle. It was definitely not on my to-watch list, but my friend wanted to watch it and since we had decided to spend the Saturday afternoon together, lazing around, I decided to download it and watch it with her. I am so glad that I did.

The four characters – Irving, Sydney, Richie and Rosalyn could not have been more different from each other. I guess that is one reason why the movie is such a raging success. Remember all those crime-drama movies from the 90s? Well American Hustle treads along those lines lightly with a lot of dark humour attached to it. Notice my use of ‘a lot’ because it might seem at times that the comedy is over the top, but remember, it is all intentional. David O. Russell wanted it to be full of the unbelievingly preposterous characters, with wild hairdos (courtesy pink hair curlers. Sorry I just had to mention that), shiny and flashy gowns, extravagant suits and extremely plunging necklines (especially for Amy Adams). The film captured the excesses of the era magnificently.

The movie is lightly based on the FBI ABSCAM operation in the 1980s. Irving Rosenfeld played by Christian Bale and Sydney Prosser played by Amy Adams are con artists, duping people into investing in a Ponzi scheme. However they get caught by the FBI and are forced by Agent Richie DiMaso played by Bradley Cooper to continue with the scam in a bid to arrest corrupt politicians.  DiMaso wants glory for himself by catching all the proverbial ‘big fishes’ in the pond and will stop at nothing until he gets what he wants. He will let nothing sway him from his goal, not even his superior.  When his superior rejects his plan, he assaults him with a telephone! Yeah, that was not a pretty sight and in spite of the violence, there was a particular lightness in the scene. Jennifer Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s bored-at-home, unpredictable wife who refuses to heed to any instructions. For example she blatantly ignores the instruction of not putting metal in the microwave, which she calls the ‘science oven’ and the result? The brand new microwave catches fire and almost burns the house down.

From the very outset, it seemed that these four characters went about in four different directions with a four way comedy sequence, but with one goal in mind. In fact there are times when it seems that the film is a little too farcical, but then you remind yourself of the idiosyncratic ways of human behavior and make peace with the fact that Russell’s intention is to make something that is lighter in vein. There is an air of suppressed madness throughout. This is a difficult task because he walks along the lines of Scorsese’s Goodfellas with his subject, yet manages to keep the tone of narration playful.

Christian Bale makes his presence felt yet again. He gained 50 pounds to play the pot-bellied, balding Irving Rosenfeld and he does not try for laughs, he is in control throughout, just like he is in control of his hair-piece.  Well almost in control of his hair piece.  Here is an actor who would lose weight drastically for roles like Trevor Reznik and then gain weight to portray Irving Rosenfeld; such is the commitment of Christian Bale. As for Jennifer Lawrence, I think she just carried the ‘crazy’ right over from Silver Linings Playbook to American Hustle. With her piled up, golden locks, red lips, she swiftly shifts tones – from teasing to being angry to a vindictive bitch (apologies for the use of course language) when fighting for Irving’s affection with Sydney. And give that woman an Oscar!! Amy Adams deserves it! It’s getting a little difficult, just like it got difficult watching Kate Winslet every year go home empty handed.  Good thing that the Oscars are just right the corner! I am not going to mention Bradley Cooper at all in spite of his Oscar nomination for the role, because I don’t like him. The movie left me a little giddy and I ended up with a big wide grin on my face after the screen went black.

Monday, February 24, 2014

It's a Blue Valentine

You know when I started this blog way back in 2008, I used to be a different kind of writer. Wow! Did I just call myself a writer?! I guess I did! Well, I write so that makes me a writer. Does it matter that I am the only one reading what i write?! I write for myself, it feels therapeutic.

As for writing reviews, I don’t think I want to write the traditional review. I want to write about how the movie personally affected me. As I have grown older, I have gone down the path of watching more and more ‘noncommercial’ films. I have been labeled as a snob because of my tastes. People tell me I overthink when I am watching a movie. I have been laughed at for watching too many foreign films. Well, maybe I do. But why wouldn’t you want to actively participate when you are watching a movie? I like figuring out all those unsaid words and thoughts that the characters just leave out as ellipses.

I will go ahead and confess that I am not entirely blameless either. I do at times cringe my nose with distaste when people ask me to watch movies like The Hangover or Knocked Up or Sex and the City. But, but let me tell you that it is not as if I have never or I haven’t ever watched a commercial flick, I do. But I just like to swing the other way a bit more.

Anyway, enough of mindless babble back to movie talks. Yesterday while going through my home page on Facebook, I came across an update from a friend – watching Blue Valentine. I was a little surprised because this friend is not a Blue Valentine kind of a person. Can you tell how much of a snob I am just by this statement?! I have seen the movie twice but last night I went back and watched it for a third time. A fair warning to all those who haven’t seen the movie, this movie will take a toll on your emotions. And even if you don’t like thinking while watching a movie or after, you will be left thinking and wondering.

Blue Valentine to put it in the very simplest of terms explores a couple’s relationship, how two people can fall in as well as fall out of love with the same person. The movie opens ‘in medias res’ with Dean Pereira played by Ryan Gosling and Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Heller played by Michelle Williams as a married couple with their 5 year old daughter, Frankie. As the camera intrudes upon their morning routine, we realize that Dean is a house painter while Cindy works as a nurse. The movie then cuts back to the time when the couple first met. This aspect of film making is a personal favourite of mine. Because you are expected to be attentive throughout and keep in mind what is the past and what is the present. One can make out immediately the difference simply by looking at Dean and Cindy. As soon as the movie flashes back to their early days of courtship, we see a fresh faced Williams and Gosling. While in the present time, both of them look tired and fatigued. In fact this feeling is mirrored from the very first scene, when Dean and Frankie wake up Cindy. She is clearly annoyed and peeved at being woken up before she absolutely has to.

As the narrative unfolds, we see that Dean and Cindy make an unlikely couple. As a high school dropout who works for a moving company, Dean is the romantic in the relationship, while Cindy as a pre-med student has her eyes firmly fixed on having a career. However after 5 years of marriage, the relationship needs evaluating. Cindy is clearly unhappy, having to compromise on a promising career, one reason being the unplanned pregnancy. She is also perplexed at Dean’s unmotivated lifestyle, painting houses and drinking throughout the day. But she feels guilty for despising Dean because of his romantic and generous gesture of marrying her after she got pregnant. Dean however is completely at peace with himself because he likes having a job that allows him to drink during the day. He has two goals – to be a good father and a good husband. Cindy is torn inside; it was because of his spontaneity, him being the absolute dreamer and the fact that he would do anything during the early days of their courtship was what attracted her to Dean. Now these very things make him seem the weakest in her eyes.

Derek Cianfrance puts the audience painfully close to a dying relationship, so close that you will stop and introspect where you are standing in your relationship. It leaves you wondering, where is the exact moment where things went awry? Was it just bad pairing from the very beginning or was it the characters’ own doing? Is there anything the couple going through the pain and the unhappiness do anything to fix it? You cannot blame anyone directly, but it hangs in the air like stale air that is making their relationship more toxic by the day. It gets difficult to watch at times, but it is an authentic portrayal of a failing relationship. I loved the choice of topic. Because I am always the glass half empty. It gets stifling sometimes when all the marriages end with the fairytale version of ‘…and they lived happily ever after.’ Why not portray what is really happening around us? Divorces and separations are on the rise, so why not try to interpret that?  Dean and Cindy’s story is terrifyingly real, which makes Blue Valentine such a bitter pill to swallow. Both Gosling and Williams hit the right chords, first as the young couple who are so in love and then as the older couple, who are now in a dying relationship, but tries to stay put. For me the most powerful moment in the movie was when Dean and Cindy have their climactic argument and Dean asks “Do you want our daughter to grow up in a broken home?” Cindy replies, “I don’t want her to grow up in a home where her parents treat each other like this.” So there you go, there are your options, which would you choose?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The 'Highway' Less Travelled

I decided to write about the movie as long as it is fresh in my mind. Now the precursor to the movie is also important because I am in a completely new city, all by myself and I know not a single soul here. So after gallivanting around the entire day, on a whim I decided to catch the movie because sitting around in the tiny room at the guesthouse seemed too depressing.

This is my first Alia Bhatt movie, my first Randeep Hooda movie too and second Imtiaz Ali movie. While I was coaxed, cajoled and finally scolded into watching his ‘Jab We Met’, somehow this one caught my eye from its very first promotions. Maybe it was because of the ‘score-r’, or maybe it was just the name itself that got me intrigued – ‘Highway’.
I have always been a fan of the road movie genre.

 Hemmingway points out that Huckleberry Finn is the basis of all American Literature. I would also like to say that Huckleberry Finn is the reason why we have the Road Movie genre in the first place.

I am a sucker for Road Movie and it all started with Huckleberry Finn.

It is exhilarating to see Ali experimenting with this genre in Bollywood. His bold choice of certain issues is applaud worthy.  In a way all his other works might be termed as road movies in a lighter sense, barring Jab We Met, which we can definitely categorise into a Road movie, but Highway falls into the category right from the beginning, starting from its name.

So here goes the disclaimer warning because spoilers are included here. Let us talk about Stockholm syndrome. How many of us know what it is? Apparently not very many, because the people in the hall found it hilarious to the point that they started laughing and making jokes when Veera was talking about her deep dark secret to her abductor, Mahavir. Apparently, child sex abuse is funny as well. Well, the syndrome very much exists and it was first recorded in Stockholm when some of the hostages at the bank that was being robbed where they were kept prisoners started empathizing with their abductors after being held for 5 days.

While I admire Ali’s bold choice of portraying such a ‘road less travelled’ issue in Bollywood, I do think that his portrayal could have been better. Once the movie was over you could feel that he was scrambling to establish the Stockholm Syndrome early on in the movie. The introduction left me wondering a bit. Or maybe it was Ali’s intention to make the viewer’s participate actively and make up their own versions as to what it was that made Veera feel stifled and feel all choked up. Scientifically the Stockholm Syndrome can be established when the abductor and abductee spend quite a few days in close quarters. In this case Ali leaves it unspecified, but we can put it at an estimate of two days from the action. This is where I think Ali took a little too much liberty.  He tries to cover it up by making Veera talk out loudly to herself when she is wondering why is it that she is not feeling very tensed and talking a lot, more than her usual self. But we can also defend this portrayal if we say that this is the result of the shock of being abducted and being in a situation that Veera never dreamed of being. Shock can affect people in various ways, some people just stop interacting, while some just keep on talking.

The imagery of choking and suffocation is very frequent and is recurring in the movie.  We know that Veera in her life feels clogged and throttled in her uberous glam lifestyle.  As we delve into Veera’s dark secret, this feeling becomes much more intense and maybe is the trigger of her feeling so. While being abused, her screams were stifled and subdued by her perpetrator; even when she spoke about it to her mother she was made to hush it up.  This feeling is mirrored when she is literally gagged and tied up, first at a safe house and later at the back of the truck.

I would not term it as a romantic movie, because both the abductor and the abductee going through the Stockholm syndrome, experience an emotional bonding, which is not necessarily romantic. I felt the relationship was based on having found someone who understands the other rather than a romantic one. Like when Mahavir lashed out at Veera when she refuses to let go of him and clings on to him ever more strongly asking her if her plans included him marrying her and have kids with him. To this Veera simply answers that she has no plans in general and instead thanks him for taking her away from a place that was suffocating her. The scene before the climax, we see Mahavir choking with emotions for his mother; he even calls out to his mother when Veera holds him and takes him in her arms. There is nothing romantic in this scene. Mahavir calms down when a female body embraces him, maybe he connects the embrace with the familiar form of his mother. We could say that Veera is the object of his transference.  And Veera’s infatuation, I don’t even know if infatuation is the appropriate word with Mahavir, is only because she thinks she has found someone who will let her be herself; who found her a house in the hills. She feels free from all the obligations and responsibilities that were crushing her soul in her home. When she first embraces Mahavir, it was to say thank you from taking me away from that suffocating life, something that she admits in the family drama scene, that she had never felt freer when she was kidnapped.

The cinematography by Anil Mehta is breathtaking and as a road movie it fits the bill perfectly. Highway takes you all the way from Delhi to Kashmir, via Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal. So keep your eyes glued for the breathtaking beauty that India is.

The ending was very dilute for me. At best Ali should have finished with Veera breaking down on her way to ‘nowhere’ after leaving home. Instead he chose the road always travelled by showing Veera as a self-sufficient ‘free’ woman, working somewhere up in the hills as a supervisor in a canning factory. It’s as if Ali takes you to this great height with great care only to let you fall in the end.

I might have been a little harsh but I will not write off this movie. I would give it a 3 for effort and I think overall Ali came up with quite a ‘hatke’ script for a Bollywood movie.