Month: January 2012

The Stranger (aka Agantuk)

When Satyajit Ray died in 1992, we lost among the last of a certain breed of artist: the socially conscious classicist. Ray was influenced in equal parts by the Western artistic tradition and by the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, perfectly realized in the literature of Rabindranath Tagore. In Ray’s cinema, we find compositions at once present and detached, functional yet poetic, serving a masterful formalism absorbed from Renoir and De Sica, Ray’s cinematic mentors. Within that framework jostle themes of survival amidst loneliness, the status of women, the decadence of the rich, old-world hypocrisy and new-world corruption, all of which rattled the Bengali status quo. Like Tagore’s sensuous riverscapes, Ray’s worlds — from the downtrodden huts and tenements of the Apu Trilogy to the ornate drawing-rooms of Jalsaghar and Charulata — thrive with detail. His cinema trains us to pay attention to set design, body language, gesture, the words left unsaid, all the while guiding us with the telling close-up, the insinuating tracking shot, the long take, the play of light and shadow.

“The Stranger” was Ray’s last film. I would not place it among his greatest, nor is it a film I would choose to introduce Ray to those unfamiliar with his cinema. But as the filmmaker’s final statement, a slap in the face of an entire social class — one that Ray devoted several pictures to criticizing — it’s as direct and as graceful as they get. Here is one satirical comedy that speaks its mind and doesn’t have to feel ashamed about itself in the morning.

On the surface, “The Stranger” is about trust and identity, as the well-off Bose family of Calcutta is paid a visit by a man who calls himself Mitra (Utpal Dutt) and who claims to be the wife’s long-lost uncle. Explaining his 35-year absence to his niece Anila (Mamata Shankar), Mitra recalls how, as an arts student in the mid-50’s, he chanced upon a picture of the Altamira cave paintings — primitive stone-age art that, he knew instantly, could never be rivaled for its authenticity, its immediacy. “After Altamira,” Picasso declared, “all is decadence,” and, after journeying all over the West, Mitra would surely agree. Having roamed the “civilized” quarters of Europe and America, Mitra explains how he grew bitter with the West’s obsession with technology (and nuclear one-upmanship), while its sickest and poorest continued to suffer. He turned to living with Native Americans and South American tribes. Civilization is just a cover, a word behind which all manner of evils and hypocrisies exist. “Savage” cultures, on the other hand, may not be perfect, but at least they are honest about themselves and co-exist peacefully with their environment.

Mitra’s presence in the Bose household triggers suspicions over his motives. While Anila bids to authenticate Mitra’s identity, humoring him with conversation and Bengali hospitality, her husband Sudhindra (Deepanker De) stashes away the family’s art pieces, and snoops out whether the self-proclaimed uncle’s sudden appearance has anything to do with a decades-old unclaimed inheritance. The only member of the family most open to believing Mitra and believing in him is the Boses’ young son, Satyaji (Bikram Bannerjee) — still innocent of social wiles.

Gradually, Ray uses Mitra’s presence to get at something deeper and more insidious, namely, that tendency in our “civilized” natures to judge self-righteously any culture we consider inferior or “savage.” The idea is first treated comically as Ranjan (Rabi Ghosh), a buffoonish actor, turns up and tries to suss out the visitor. His bungling efforts only show him up for what he is: a gossip-monger, a purveyor of lowbrow and scandal, something that Mitra has tried to escape from his whole life. Later on, a tragic version of that scene unfolds, this time as a mock cross-examination in which Prithwish (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a pompous lawyer, grills Mitra about his history and tries to shame him for his affinity with “barbaric” peoples. His efforts, morally anyway, have the exact opposite effect. For all his Enlightenment rationale, Prithwish’s bourgeois values, rife with double-standards and quick-to-condemn arrogance, makes him exactly the sort of “civilized” personality Ray is railing against throughout “The Stranger.” It’s during this sequence that we begin to sense that Mitra is, to a great extent, a stand-in for Ray himself, eager now in the twilight of life to sound off against the bourgeois smugness festering in his own culture. Indeed, we find Ray’s doppelgangers in both Mitra and the innocent Satyaji (a name not far removed from Satyajit) — characters who’ve either yet to be corrupted by “civilization” or who have successfully withstood its effects.

Mitra is not permanently estranged, though; there is hope at home, evidenced by Anila and Sudhindra’s final gestures to shed their urbane trappings. Their attempt to reconcile may be but a slight concession to our “wild side,” but it speaks volumes in Ray’s subtle vocabulary. In terms of its pacing and subtlety of style, “The Stranger” is arguably among Ray’s least accessible works. Those familiar with his cinema, though, will know where to look to find rewards — we find it in the cavernous corridors, stairways and antiques of the Bose household, bespeaking bourgeois indolence; in the sequence of carefully timed close-ups as the camera roves between faces masked in half-light; we find it in the extraordinary sequence in which Anila tries to impress Mitra with her sumptuous lunch of mutton, fish, lentils and Bengali “fancy crisps” — items that amuse more than awe the worldly and modest Mitra. With Ray, we’re guaranteed standout performances — whether farcical or dramatic — and The Stranger is no exception. Dutt, as the wise, gently acerbic Mitra is the film’s eloquent center of gravity, while De, Ghosh and Chatterjee are all pitch-perfect, variously flummoxed, bumbling or self-consciously stern. “The Stranger” cannot boast the lyrical energy of Ray’s 1955-1975 period; it’s the product of an artist whose temperament (and health) had since mellowed. It is, however, a beautiful valediction by a great filmmaker anticipating his own departure, whose message is as profound as any in a majestic career.

Grade: A-

Written/Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Dipankar Dey, Mamata Shankar, Bikram Bhattacharya, Utpal Dutt, Robi Ghosh, Promode Ganguly


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

Near the close of Errol Morris’ documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” the eponymous 87-year old former Secretary of Defense quotes a few lines from T.S. Eliot that aptly and poignantly sum up the documentary’s theme of moral reflection. “We shall not cease from exploration,” McNamara says, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That he chokes back tears while pondering the profound truth of that passage speaks volumes about the gravity of such reflection for McNamara and about his ambivalence for the place that he has returned to.

That place in which he now finds himself and on which he reflects, I think, is his conscience, his own sense of humanity. It has, over his lifetime, taken its share of beating and bending in the service of realpolitik, but, in the end, we are encouraged and even inspired to find that McNamara’s conscience is in good order. From his days helping to strategize the “efficient” destruction of Japan in WWII on through his tenure as Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, presiding over the imbroglios in Cuba and Southeast Asia, McNamara’s explorations have taken him through some rough existential territory, in a century split apart and scarred by moral chasms.

“The Fog of War” is more than a history lesson and a biography of a fascinating American thinker. As McNamara parses through the political events and crises that enmeshed his career, the movie becomes a deeply felt testament of a man struggling to wring meaning and redemption out of history’s hard, unyielding surfaces. He may defend or rationalize everything from the firebombing of Tokyo to the necessity of escalating tensions in Vietnam, but he is just as quick to heap criticism—whether explicitly or veiled in his troubled ambivalence—on himself as he ponders America’s complicity in the 20th century’s great conflicts, and his own involvement in them.

Morris structures “Fog” as eleven segments, each exploring a different facet of McNamara’s notions about the morality of war and human nature. As they relate directly to his life and career, they become a primer for understanding his character, his evolving thought and, indeed, his humanism. Woven elegantly around McNamara’s interview are enriching archival newsreels, photographs, taped conversations and beautifully, often lyrically, staged recreations. It is Morris’ tried-and-true aesthetic, a probing, mesmerizing style which matches up so well with McNamara’s enormous intelligence and charisma as to make “Fog” his most satisfying work since “The Thin Blue Line.”

Indeed, for more than its sobering view of warfare and humanity, I was struck by “Fog of War’s” power as an intimate character study. McNamara, with his rarefied intellect, may seem at first, above the common fray. But, in the end, he is like all of us who struggle to reconcile with our own pasts and live by our principles so that, on arriving where our journeys began and seeing that place anew, we may be at peace with what we find.

Grade: A

Directed by: Errol Morris
Cast: Robert S. McNamara

Soul Kitchen

German filmmaker Fatih Akin, noted for award-winning dramas like “The Edge of Heaven,” takes a stab at comedy and romance with “Soul Kitchen,” an experiment in lunacy and laughs for Akin but an endurance test for the rest of us. Lacking character development and clean story construction, Akin’s film subsists on antic set pieces that try to wring laughs but come up dry.

The title refers to the comfort-food restaurant owned by the oafish Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with director Akin). With his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) on assignment in Shanghai, Zinos throws out his back while attempting to lug around a dishwasher in his restaurant kitchen. Too injured to cook, he hires a passionate but ill-tempered chef, Shayn (Birol Ünel), but his sophisticated concoctions turn away the restaurant’s regulars. Meanwhile, Zinos’ convict brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) weasels his way onto the wait staff so that he can get extended parole. Tensions mount when both tax and health inspectors show up with ultimatums, and the cutthroat realtor Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) turns up the heat on Zinos to sell his restaurant

While Zinos and Nadine’s relationship goes the way of the Skype end-call button, Illias falls hard for Soul Kitchen’s sexy waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke). As word of the restaurant spreads to area hipsters, business starts to boom and so do the dance beats as Soul Kitchen takes off as a culinary and nightclub hangout. Akin saturates the soundtrack with the obligatory soul, funk and hip-hop for no good reason except to justify the film’s title, and to punctuate his themes of youth, fun and freedom. Zinos himself demonstrates no special connection with music or, for that matter, with cooking or running a restaurant.

Endless scenes of young people partying float along on semi-clever gags and generic good cheer, and do nothing to punch up the plot or enrich the central characters. As the object of Illias’ attraction, Lucia is a stock bohemian: She’s got the sullen pout, the exotic dance moves and the cigarette dangling from her lips. Both she, with her frumpy rebelliousness, and the waiter Lutz (Lucas Gergorowicz), who’s a garage band musician with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, represent not characters but ideas for characters. Then there’s the unamusing curmudgeon Sokrates (Demir Gökgöl), a freeloading tenant of sorts in Zinos’ building. He’s a contemptible fly-on-the-wall type, hovering in the background, amounting to nothing. Indeed, Akin’s entire roll call of characters is comprised of ciphers and social clichés.

Blame “Soul Kitchen’s” script for the mess. Every joke, sentiment and set piece (one involving a Honduran aphrodisiac has predictably raunchy results) strains for effect, each falling flat. Zinos comes off as a clueless tool in whom we invest our total indifference, and his cohorts are largely throwaways forgotten no sooner than we leave our seats. Structurally, the script tangles together multiple strands, as the personal and professional pieces of Zinos’ life smash together, and it hasn’t a clue how to take its characters through the requisite beats of what is allegedly a story about a man’s search for self. Just as “Soul Kitchen” is allegedly an attempt at bright, witty comedy.

Grade: D

Directed by: Fatih Akin
Written by: Fatih Akin, Adam Bousdoukos
Cast: Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Anna Bederke, Pheline Roggan, Lukas Gregorowicz, Dorka Gryllus, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Demir Gökgöl

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

In 2003, Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski shanghaied Disney’s ride into a madly popular swashbuckler. The movie made a boatload of booty, and made Johnny Depp a bona fide movie star. Its sequel, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” takes all that was so charming about the first “Pirates” — its resurrection of a classic Hollywood genre, pirate-talk humor and Depp’s fey mincing as Capt. Jack Sparrow — and amps it up to the wattage of a Looney Tunes cartoon. “Dead Man’s Chest” hails from the “Bigger Is Better” school of filmmaking, whose dean is Jerry Bruckheimer. By “bigger,” I mean in all its dimensions: the movie is the original’s louder, faster, more effects-crazy twin brother. It’s also snottier and more spoiled — a Bruckheimer spawn, after all. What did you expect?

Once again, scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio shunt Sparrow and the ever-hapless lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) through another treasure-hunt storyline, and tangling with yet another crew of preternatural villains. The latter are captained by the squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) who, after a thwarted romance, secrets his broken heart into the titular chest and commences to terrorize the high seas. Because Jones and his shipmates’ fates are entwined with the seas’, they’ve anthropomorphized into various icky-looking sea creatures. What’s more, Jones’ possession of the chest also lends him the power to summon the Kraken, that ship-destroying sea monster of ancient Norse fables. Who let him in here is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, when news of the chest reaches tight-assed seaman Culter Beckett (Tom Hollander), he blackmails Will into recovering it, holding his spunky lass Elisabeth as ransom. For help, Will seeks out pirate-at-large Jack Sparrow. Sparrow’s got the dirt on Jones’s curse; he’s himself condemned to share in Jones’s fate if he doesn’t figure a way to break it. Elizabeth escapes Cutler’s custody, and, in her wedding gown, hotfoots it in pursuit of Will. By now, Elliott and Rossio’s script resembles a big-budget clusterfuck, crashing towards the inevitable throwdown with Davy and the Kraken. A superfluous plot detour on a cannibal island is but a clumsily staged send-up of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” complete with Sparrow outrunning large rolling objects and hungry natives. “Dead Man’s Chest’s” climax involves yet another instance of antics atop and inside rolling objects, proving the old adage: Why settle for one when you can have two for twice the cost?

“Dead Man’s Chest” taps into our need for air-conditioned escapism, and, to be fair, it’s effects are a marvel of digital realism. But Bruckheimer’s effects-makers go to gratuitous lengths to force a gee whiz out of their audience, especially in the case of Jones and his gnarly crew, whose slimy deformities don’t so much amaze as repel, and expensively so. This leaves Depp and his cohorts to mug, pose, and caper through Verbinski’s frenetic telling. Depp, rather than stretching his characterization of Sparrow, is sadly limited to playing up his cartoonishness; more than once, Sparrow’s panicked face is the punchline to another in a minefield of effects-rigged comic setups. Right from the get-go, there’s an unsettling immodesty about “Dead Man’s Chest,” a presumption of its own charm and popularity without bothering with anything as unsexy as story craft, character development, or a cleanly defined narrative arc. No, it pummels us into submission. And if you’re going to mutiny, matey, then you can just walk the plank.

Grade: C

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Written by: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook

Open Water

Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are your typical work-obsessed couple drifting apart in the American suburbs. But, when left to fend for themselves in tropical, shark-infested waters, they cling to each other so desperately, it’s almost sad and touching. That is, until those fins break the surface again, triggering panic on the screen and setting our nerves on edge. “Open Water” is a textbook example for how to build and sustain tension, develop character and even sneak in wry social commentary over a tightly wound eighty minutes.

Gutsily made by husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Open Water” disarms the viewer (à la “The Blair Witch Project”) with its no-frills, home-video ethos, but, make no mistake, this is shrewdly calculative filmmaking. The story is straightforward, opening in Susan and Daniel’s leafy, SUV-appointed home as the cell phone-toting couple pack up for an island vacation, wondering if they’ll still get email where they’re going. In a few deft strokes, the filmmakers establish their couple and whisk them off to their tropical getaway.

Kentis and Lau assuredly develop the couple’s close-knit but none-too-romantic routine, intimately conveyed by actors Ryan and Travis. To soothe away workaday stress, they embark on a deep-sea dive. From the movie’s premise, we know that this is an ill-fated outing, that the couple will be left behind by a bungling boat crew. But we watch anyway, uneasily but riveted, as the movie puts its pieces into place. Then, from their initial petulance at finding themselves abandoned, through their spasms of antagonism, their attempts to cope and overcome and, finally, their realization that all is futile against a menace largely unseen, “Open Water” becomes an expertly modulated horror movie.

Perhaps the greatest irony in “Open Water” is the claustrophobia of its setting. The sea that looks so limitless and wide-open eventually feels so confining, availing the characters with the barest hopes for survival, not least of which is that its predators simply stay away. The water’s lapping and splashing sickens us as much as it does Susan and Daniel, and the predators most definitely do not stay away. Kentis and Lau know that horror can never be fully realized till the lights are out, and they gain maximum fright wattage out of the all-enveloping darkness of night with only flashes of lightning to orient us. At this point, the filmmakers teasingly cross-cut to scenes of island revelry, but the festive music is muted, faraway, thereby punctuating the ever-growing distance between Susan and Daniel and the lives they’ve left behind. It is here that the absolute meaninglessness of the material world, one of comfortable jobs, SUVs and cell phones, is most keenly felt, pitted against the cunning and merciless forces of nature.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Chris Kentis
Cast: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein

The Motorcycle Diaries

Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” is about the eight adventurous months that Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his lifelong friend, Alberto Granado, spent traversing South America in 1952. Adapted by playwright José Rivera from both Guevara and Granado’s memoirs, the movie charts their journey and, as it does, tries to use its awe-inspiring physicality to mirror young Guevara’s inner political awakening. That the movie is about one of today’s most revered revolutionary icons proves to be both its saving grace as well as its unmanageable burden, owing to its script’s inherent weaknesses.

Salles starts his story off in Buenos Aires as Guevara (Gael García Bernal), a bright-eyed 23-year-old medical student, bids goodbye to his family and climbs onto a ramshackle motorbike with Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a 29-year-old biochemist. Both are giddy with wanderlust, hungry for experience. Being free-spirited idealists, the young doctors make for a leper colony in the Amazon where they wish to volunteer their services. Along the way, the horny Granado cavorts with local girls, Guevara nurses his aching love for the daughter of an aristocratic landowner, but, most of all, they observe, with horror, the social injustice and poverty that pervades their continent.

Sadly, “Diaries” does little to vindicate the legacy of Guevara, who, since his death, has largely become an abstraction, a pop commodity. As an examination of the forces that shape a man’s destiny, the movie is unconvincing. Rivera’s coming-of-age script takes on a by-the-numbers feel which Salles handles with gracelessly staccato-like pacing, if only to race over the movie’s insubstantial surfaces. As a result, we know too little about the sensitive young Guevara at the movie’s outset, apart from his privileged family life, to truly feel for what he becomes—and what he’s on his way to becoming—at the movie’s end. Remove the ennobling specter of Guevara from “Diaries,” and you can hear its script’s creaky legs giving way.

What does prop the movie up are its intimate moments, those in which Guevara converses with the poor with the urgency of a social worker. Here, Salles adopts a documentary-like virtuosity, a wonderfully employed device, especially as Salles contrasts it with the more epic grandeur of “Diaries’” open spaces. Indeed, as the adventurers wend their way through South America’s richly varied terrain, the movie becomes a soul-stirring paean to the continent’s beauty. Cinematographer Eric Gautier and Production Designer Carlos Conti masterfully evoke the textures and colors of early ’50s Latin American culture, creating images that move to the indigenous rhythms of Gustavo Santaolalla’s lively music. Garcia Bernal and de la Serna offer heartfelt, charismatic performances which, combined with Salles’s poetry of majestic landscapes and poverty-worn faces, give “Diaries” its simple, enduring appeal.

Grade: B

Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mercedes Morán, Jean Pierre Noher, Lucas Oro


With her performance in “Monster,” Charlize Theron charges down the gates that have confined her to typecasting limbo and sets a new standard by which to measure her future work. In Patty Jenkins’ writing-directing debut, Theron plays Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute who killed six men in the ’80s before she was caught and, in 2002, executed.

“Monster,” at heart, is not a slasher movie but a tortured love story between Wuornos and her teenage girlfriend, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Their relationship is a refuge from the despair in their separate lives: Wuornos’ lifelong degradation at the hands of men draws her to the affections of a female partner; Shelby, a lesbian, clings to Wuornos because she allows her the financial and sexual escape from the conservative stranglehold of her family.

The manipulative and desperate nature of their relationship is what kicks “Monster’s” narrative into gear. To ensure their cash flow, Selby cajoles the reluctant Wuornos into continuing to ply her trade. One night, in a fit of rage, Wuornos shoots the man who has just tortured and raped her. The trauma of this event takes her already dubious attitude to men into the realm of full-blown murderous hate.

Jenkins’ direction is assured throughout, but her opening scenes are the most powerful, depicting that sad, provincial America of trailer parks and roller rinks—that trashy, seedy outpost of frizzy hair and Journey ballads by which we are just as fascinated as depressed. As it goes, “Monster” gets increasingly bogged down in its more literal-minded melodrama, as Wuornos kills and steals, and the couple tries frantically to dodge the law. Jenkins’ ethereal early scenes are trampled over by hardworking but labored episodes of escalating tensions.

Between the two leads, Theron handily dominates. With the help of some weight gain and Tony G.’s masterful make-up effects, Theron’s transformation, down to her cocky strut and countrified twang, is startling. More than that is how confidently and naturally Theron humanizes a woman long-branded in the media as a monster. For her part, Ricci cannot reconcile Selby, the dreamy-eyed adolescent with Selby, the manipulative black widow, into a cohesive characterization. As a result, she stumbles along to Theron’s beat. Adding his salty, flint-eyed presence to the mix is Bruce Dern who graces the movie briefly as Thomas, Wuornos’ trusty father-figure.

“Monster” is a workhorse of a character study. Its plodding, sporadically effective script may not entice much, but it finds a haunting eloquence thanks to Theron’s lacerating, career-defining performance.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley