The Grey Zone -- Unsheathed and Unforgettable Holocaust Drama

                                 Claude Lanzmann, the director of painstakingly detailed Holocaust documentary, “Shoah” once said that the Holocaust should never be re-created or dramatized for the sake of a movie. But, movies like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” or Roman Polanski’s “Pianist”, says that not memorializing those lost lives is equivalent to denial. “Pianist” and “Schindler’s List” are masterpieces in its own way, but these two and most of Holocaust movies are a ‘light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel’ kind of movies, because an accurate portrayal of a life in Auschwitz camp might be too revolting to make and too excruciating to watch. Also, repeatedly pondering over Holocaust with various hybrid drama varieties somehow diminishes the impact of those gruesome events. However, when I saw the smokestacks in Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone” (2001), it dawned on me that there are still ‘must-be-said’ events of the worst human atrocity.

                               Miklos Nyiszli is a Hungarian Jew, who served as the Auschwitz camp’s doctor. He served under the execrable doctor ‘Josef Mengele.’ Miklos’ memoirs were found buried in the Auschwitz camp. “The Grey Zone” is partly based upon the memoirs and tells the tale of the twelfth ‘Sonderkommando’ – a word corroborated by Germans to describe those Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. The ‘Sonderkommando’ have few privileges, and in return they should do the haunting act of marching their fellow Jews to the gas chambers and crematoriums.

                              Time is a trapped thing for a ‘Sondderkommando’, since there is nothing to differentiate one day from another. They pull gold from teeth, burn or bury the stack of corpses. History has judged them to be traitors and inhumane, but director Nelson’s question to those who say, "I would never have done that!” is “How can you ascertain what’d you do to stay alive?” The twelfth Sonderkommando’s, in 19944, have worked four months in their duty – considered to be longer than any previous unit. The members of this unit are planning an armed uprising, by stocking some explosives and guns. The arms are smuggled by woman co-conspirators (Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne) through the dead bodies of women, who worked at munitions factories.

                             Renegade Jews like Hoffman (David Arquette), Schlermer (Daniel Benzali) and Rosenthal (David Chandler) are planning to blow-up the crematoriums. One day, a 14 year old girl is discovered in the gas chambers, who have survived the gassing. She is revived by Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner). For the Sonderkommando’s, the girl represents their need for redemption and so obstinately refuse to let her die, even when the Nazi camp commander Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) learns about the girl’s presence, or even when it endangers their lives and rebellion.

                            Blake Nelson’s atypical Holocaust take was taken only on $5 million dollars, in Bulgaria. In there, two crematoria were re-created based on the plans used at Auschwitz. Nelson is also veracious in depicting the Holocaust by denying any possibility of hope. One of the characters enunciates, “You're dead either way. It's just a matter of how." Dialogues like these are written to remind them about humanism in this inhuman existence, rather than to provoke heroism. The film based on a play, Mr. Nelson wrote, so at times it tends to get a bit talkative, but he brings out scenes, which might make a viewer to avert their eyes. Hoffman beating t a condemned man for a watch and a vicious torture sequence are some of the graphic imagery. You don’t see shooting or torturing sequences, but those screams will fire up your imaginations. The movie doesn’t have a finale or an opinion. It makes you think about the morals and meaning of life without any distractive epilogues. 

                               The cinematography (by Russell Lee Fine) perfectly freezes the shades of grey. In the smokes of crematoriums, in the dingy uniforms and in the every surface of the camp, grey settles in, giving the film a persistent authenticity. The exigent crosscutting and uncomfortable close-up shots adds something to the viewer’s anxiety. Nelson has amassed a known Hollywood cast, but their presence doesn’t capsize the film. All of the actors have a relatively small role to play but they do their best to heavily lift the characters. Harvey Keital, who himself is Jewish plays a German officer. Arquette and Chandler’s low-key performances makes raises all manner of frankly unanswerable questions.

                              Life of a ‘Sonderkommando’ was just a footnote in history books, but “The Grey Zone” gives a face to them and makes us witness everything and leaves the morality for the viewer to decide. Don’t seek for solace or hope in this tale. It is made to remind us about the abhorrence and inhumanity. 


Rated R for strong holocaust violence, nudity and language

Russian Ark -- Embroiled Inside an Eerie Historical Mirage

                                    Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov is known for his intelligent films, which often moves in a dream-like fashion into the Russian culture. His movies are glacially paced and approach thematically colossal objects from an odd angle. The perfect example of this is his 2002 sublime film, “Russian Ark.” This movie had the longest continuous take in the history of motion pictures (95 mins.) until this year. Swedish film “7333 Seconds of Johanna” recently broke this record with a running time of 122 mins. With thousands of costumed actors “Russian Ark” seamlessly flows in a single tracking shot. But, apart from the logistical and technological achievement, this is one of the best contemplative cinemas about history and time.

                                   The imaginative film is set inside St. Petersburg’s ‘Hermitage museum.’  A mysterious man or the narrator (entirely shot from his POV) – who is of course Soukrov – finds himself inside St. Petersburg Winter Palace, in the early 18th century. He seems to be invisible to others and is baffled about how he came here. He soon meets a sophisticated 19th French Diplomat Marquis (Sergei Dreiden). Marquis is also displaced in time, but is perfectly visible. The two witness scenes from the Russian history as they take a stroll through the enormous palace: Peter the great trouncing one of his generals; Catherine III watches a play about herself and frantically searches for a pot to piss in.

                                 Few moments later, when they open a door of a museum gallery, we catch up with 21st century museum-goers. Marquis meets Hermitage Museum, director. The narrator recognizes the men and marquis has a fractured conversation about Italian painting. Later, Marquis is guided by a blind woman – identified as an angel – through the dazzling collections of painting. The blind woman was a great connoisseur, who elaborates a Van Dyck painting of Madonna and child. Each fly-on-the-wall scene takes us through massive art collections and important historical events -- the Czar’s official reception for a Persian ambassador – while meandering on the social and political issues.

                              Reading the plot, it might sound like a dry Russian historical lesson, but the opulent way in which Sokurov has shot this movie is like taking a strangest amusement park ride. Imagine making a movie inside a 150 room museum with nearly 2000 extras in period costume (including live orchestras). All of the actors should be at the exact place and must speak their lines with split-second precision, since there is no second take. But, this is not just a stunt or a gimmick. A viewer can really feel the movie’s unparalleled visuals as if they are floating about the Russian cultural cloud. Cinematographer Tillman Buttner slowly peers into each artwork, doors, and windows, delivering the treasure trove of culture. People perfectly fall and slip on cue within the slightly wide-angled field of vision. In the royal ball scene -- towards the ending -- the camera waltzes behind hundreds of dancing courtiers. Sokurov’s final flourish – coming down the expansive staircase – adds a different meaning to the long take.

Alexander Sokurov and Tillman Buttner

                            “Russian Ark” is not just an eccentric film-maker’s approach of historical fiction, by constructing a staged chronology to represent key events. Sokurov does not totally indulge a viewer with the dramatized glimpses of historical figures. He wants the viewer to feel the mystification. A traditional art film – on this subject -- would employ several long, static takes, by toying with frames, but giving in lot of context. However, Sokurov’s approach is the exact opposite. By elaborately explaining the arts and politics, he gives in many key details, but provides very little context. So, this style forces us to focus on the visions of two floating persons. This sense of artificiality and handling of history is more about aesthesis rather than explanation. A cinephile will be engrossed in this bizarre experience, even if he/she is totally unfamiliar about the Russian history or arts.

                          The final reference to the Ark of the Bible is sumptuous. It says, like the Ark, the majestic buildings of St. Petersburg have only carried a select group of inhabitants through riotous currents of tide and time. The reference also contemplates on the survived Russian culture – as the movie ends with the line, “we’re destined to sail along forever, to live forever.”  As the slightly puckish and flamboyant diplomat, Dreiden is strange enough to keep the viewer momentarily lost in time.

                         Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” draws us into the strange, vibrant world and gives an unforgettable and unparalleled cinematic experience. It has such a hypnotic intensity to behold. 


Pieces of April -- Truly Heartfelt Thanksgiving Movie

                                  Screenwriter and novelist Peter Hedges’ directorial debut, “Pieces of April” (2003) takes a dysfunctional family and makes it endure a holiday tradition (Thanksgiving). This is not an easy task, since the film has to find some middle ground between comedy and hard-hitting drama. In that way, Hedges succeeds and this Thanksgiving family reunion drama has a genuine heart and original characters. The whole movie takes place within a day, but makes us come across themes of terminal illness, nostalgic moments and the need to mend old wounds.

                                April Burns (Katie Holmes) lives with her African-American boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke) in a dismal apartment. She remains estranged from her family due to the grievous relationship she has had with her mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson). Joy is suffering through the final stages of breast cancer and so the dad and April feels the need to reconcile. She invites her family for Thanksgiving. Trouble is, April has never prepared such a feast before and the family doesn’t know about the grimy neighborhood or about her new boyfriend.

                               Jim (Oliver Platt), the well-meaning husband of Joy is willing to give April a second chance. Joy dreads all those dreadful encounters she had with her erratic daughter. Joining them in their trip are the self-righteous daughter, Beth (Allison Pill), pothead son Timmy (John GallagherJr.) and senile but affectionate grandmother (Alice Drummond) (who is picked up from a nursing home). Getting into the car, Jim declares, “We're going to have a nice time." He recalls that April has left her drug-dealer boyfriend and is trying hard to makeup. However, when April takes the turkey and puts it into oven, everything goes wrong.

                              Peter Hedges brings in the contrasting differences between two lifestyles with subtlety. April’s apartment peoples are stereotypical – which includes the usual diverse races – but the way those characters are weaved is quite an achievement. The good-humored, middle-aged black couples (Lillias White, Isiah Whitlock), in the downstairs apartment; the stuck-up ‘5D’ apartment owner, Wayne (Sean Hayes) who has a new deluxe oven; the vegetarian, who can’t stand the smell of burning flesh; and the affectionate Chinese family are all important characters, written to rise away from the conventional conception. The Burns’ family is not a perfect candidate for saints. They have also made mistakes. Even their sterile-white house looks frozen, lifeless and as if it hasn’t changed for decades. A viewer might feel for the terminally ill Joy, but she exhibits meanness to her older daughter. She urges her family to fill up on doughnuts and gives them advice on how to throw-up, so they don't have to eat her cooking.

                           Peter Hedges worked on the scripts of “What’s eating Gilbert Grape” (he also wrote the novel) and “About a Boy.” These exceptional works should have made him realize as how characterizations are important to the plot. Hedges have chosen the lighter tone, instead of dark tone – usually inherent in dysfunctional family dramas -- because he wants a high emotional payoff at the end. When the Turkey is cooking inside the oven of Chinese family, April tells them the story behind ‘Thanksgiving.’ That scene points out, how everyone needs each other and also makes us think whether Joy and April will be able to see each other. The highly satisfying final act avoids the overly sweet reconciliation, but it is filled with gratitude and magical moments. Hedges has chosen digital video medium to make this story (shot in 16 days). This adds a certain tension to the proceedings and takes us closer to this effective personal story.

                           Hedges have amassed such an excellent ensemble. Katie Holmes, in one of her best performances, has balanced her characters’ edges by keeping an indifferent composure but subtly exhibits her damaged inner soul. With smudged eyeliner and magenta hair, she makes us feel the higher stakes that is involved in this family feast. Indie favorite Patricia Clarkson anchors the dry humor in the film. Through her vulnerability and sorrow, she pushes the movie without getting into the sentimental swamp. Oliver Platt – one of the best character artist – wonderfully performs as the steadying force of the family, while tunneling in all his sadness.

                           With a running time of 81 mins, “Pieces of April” is eventually a tear-jerker, but works hard at getting those tears. It isn’t unnecessarily sentimental and contrived. It is a picture about love bringing in glimmers of hope.


Rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, drug content and images of nudity

Eastern Promises -- Cronenberg's Masterful Genre Exercise

                                  Canadian director David Cronenberg is the master of twister thrillers like “Dead Ringers”, “Videodrome”, “The Fly” and “Crash.” But, he is also an excellent film-maker who can deal with the metaphysics of violence and real-time horrors. The fine-cut artistry of “Spider”, “A History of Violence” and the surrealistic setting of “Cosmopolis” are all a testimony that Cronenberg can probe the imperfection of human beings, both literally and metaphorically. This original and provocative director’s 2007 movie “Eastern Promises” takes the parameters of a gangster genre movie and lets in something that makes it exalting and new. If you know Cronenberg, I think there is no need to mention about his movie’s violence. “Eastern Promises” is a chilling character study.

                                The ugliness of this film’s dark and desperate world is established in the first scene, which is set in a London barbershop. The gentle barber talks to a man in the chair. When his nephew comes in, the barber gives him a straight razor and asks him to slit the man’s throat. Elsewhere, in London, a teenager in labor pain begs help from a pharmacist, while blood is pouring out of her legs. The teenager, Tatiana, dies in child birth. The mid-wife Anna (Naomi Watts), who delivers the baby, is left with a diary written in Russian. Anna hopes to find the girl’s family before the baby girl gets disappeared in the system. She asks her cynical Russian immigrant uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowsky) to translate the diary. Anna also finds (in the diary) the business card of a Trans-Siberian restaurant.

                                Anna meets the restaurant’s owner Seymon (ArminMueller-Stahl). This guy has the charm of a grandfather. She also sees Seymon’s hot-headed son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his sardonic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). What she doesn’t realize (at that time) is that Seymon is the ruthless leader of the London Branch of ‘vory v zakone’ – Russian gang. When Seymon gets to know about the diary, he demands it. Anna only gives him a copy. Her mother (Sinead Cusack) warns her that, "This isn't our world—we are ordinary people." But, she has named the girl ‘Christine’ and keeps the diary to give to the girl, while she was continually bamboozled by the Trans-Siberians. When Anna finds out the secrets, she tries to extricate herself from the monster. The enigmatic driver Nikolai has a soft spot for the mid-wife. But, we are not totally clear about this guy? Who is he?

                               Script writer Steven Knight has substantially exposed the underbelly of immigrant London in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and in Eastern Promises (although his similar-themed script for Statham starrer “Hummingbird” was a tiresome exercise). Amidst this indeterminate world, Knight includes some kind of transcendental innocence. Homoerotic subtexts are all inherent, but flood the screen in an extraordinary action sequence in a public bathhouse. If there are some plot holes, Cronenberg’s assured direction entombs it. As usual, he proceeds with a magisterial rhythm and singular vision (and somewhat sick). Viewers have an intimate encounter with violence in Cronenberg’s movies, but he is so careful to make violence as a disconcerting thing. The throat-cutting execution, naked bathhouse fight lingers over to emphasize the grasping pain of violence.

                              Cronenberg’s movies serve deeper purpose than just showing blood. They all are powerful stories about right and wrong. In “Eastern Promises”, it’s Anna against Russian mobsters. In this moral struggle, he shows Nikolai as a mystery character or dark horse, whose conscience makes this story a winner. A standalone movie could be made on the character, Viggo Mortensen plays.  Nikolai is one of the best complex anti-hero. He is gentle, cynical, dark and tough enough to stub a cigarette on his tongue. There is no absolute good or evil in this guy. Naomi watts specialize in playing as a woman with flustered morals and so the role of Anna perfectly fits her. As Kirill, Cassel honestly captures the wavering moods of an entitled son who cannot please his father. Veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl displays enough elegance, charm and unflinching ruthlessness as Seymon.

                              “Eastern Promises” moves into a deeper psychological territory and at times morphs itself into a conventional gangster-story. It is a meticulously detailed work of art, which might intrigue a viewer on many levels.  


Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity 

Prisoners -- Holds You Captive

                                 Hollywood Whodunits are always wrapped inside certain genre trappings. It either becomes an unemotional police procedural or a stripped-down Dennis Lehane like tale. But, like David Fincher’s “Se7en”, “Zodiac” or Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” there rarely comes out a Hollywood crime/drama, which haunts in all the best ways – psychologically or philosophically. French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s auspicious American debut “Prisoners” (2013) belongs to that rare kind. It has all the general trajectory of a whodunit thriller, but takes its time to explore each characters involved. It is a tragic tale of violence against children, which might grab you, extracting the expected levels of grief and anger and all the while making it hard to shake it away.

                             It is another Thanksgiving Day in a small town, in western Pennsylvania. The weather is moody and chilly. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) visit their friends and neighbor, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) along with their teenage son and kid daughter. The Birch’s have two daughters, both at the same age group as of Dover’s. The kids Anna Dover and Joy Birch are playing around the neighborhood, when they come across creepy RV parked in front of a house. The teenagers Eliza Birch and Ralph Dover takes the kids away from the camper and figures that someone is watching from inside. In the late afternoon, the teenagers have crashed in front of TV. The couples are having one of their heart-pouring conversations.

                            The kids want to get a whistle from Dover’s house. After getting the permission from their parents and without the help of their siblings they have gone outside. Keller, the bearded survivalist, first realizes the girls’ absence. Soon, panic and fear sets in. After a quick neighborhood search and recon, Keller gets to know about the RV and he calls the police. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a tattooed lone-wolf cop, who never failed to solve a cast. He is sitting in a diner when he gets a call about the missing children and the RV. In his pursuit, Loki finds Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who at first hides inside the rotten RV. However, it soon comes to light that Alex lacks mental capacity to successfully to do a kidnapping.

                            Keller incites Loki not to leave Alex. When Alex gets released (after 48 hours), Keller confronts him in the parking lot in front of the media. In a hushed tone, he says, “They didn’t cry until I left them.” Alex goes with his reserved aunt (Melissa Leo), who has raised him. The wounded Keller becomes a vigilante when he kidnaps Alex. He brings him into his old, desolated house and intimates his friend, Franklin. On one side Loki is considering all the possibilities, whereas Keller resorts to brutal torture methods to extract a confession from Alex. The trauma brings a venomous stress on the families as the clock is ticking away. What happened to the girls? That will not be the only question in your mind, when watching this hand-drawn puzzle.

                            “Prisoners” is not a “Taken” kind of story, where a rogue father saves his daughter. The characters etched out by screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski are down-to-earth people. They don’t have enough mental strength to cope with the tragedy. Although, Keller is the leading man, he is not a hero. He succumbs to darker inclinations and justifies his torture methods without confirming whether Alex is guilty or not. When Keller lashes out unimaginable violence on Alex, the horrified Birch confronts him asking, “Have you lost your mind?” He replies, “Do you have a better idea?” So, as a viewer we feel sympathetic to this man and at the same time we can’t approve this man’s wrath. Aaron, not only interweaves the families’ agonies, he also brings in an enigmatic police figure, Loki. This slick haired, tattooed investigator suggests that he also has come from a dark background. The writer alludes that the police work is Loki’s way of exorcising the demons of his past. The script also has biblical imagery at every corner. The snakes and mazes are written in to show the movie’s main theme – rebuking God. The layers of social allegory are not hard to uncover. I can’t talk about the way the film has ably handled the child abuse because that would spill some important plot points.

Dennis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins

                               Dennis Villeneuve’s 2011 drama, “Incendies” is about the terrible legacy of a sectarian war. It was definitely robbed of its Best-foreign film Oscar. Now, he makes his Hollywood debut with a star-driven endeavor, which might force directors to certain changes. But, Villeneuve’s astute directorial methods take a good leap from the last movie. He cleverly mends the serial-killer genre tropes without totally relinquishing them. His deft direction is evident, when he makes the character’s torment to enter into our bloodstream. Each and every frame conveys the feeling through a menacing wintry landscape. Veteran cinematographer Roger A. Deakins’ grey and brown palletted cinematography brings takes a viewer into the setting with a charge of free-floating fear. The rain never looked so miserable as in “Prisoners.”

                              The five members of this first-rate cast have previous Oscar nominations. Hugh Jackman’s Keller gives the most noteworthy performance of all the members. As a builder, hunter and grief-stricken father he shows more depth with his characters than he has ever done in his career (including the Oscar nominated “Les Miserables”). Like Ryan Gosling, Gyllenhaal continues to power through the darker roles. His performance reminds us of characters from classic noir films. Maria Bello and Viola Davis heart-breakingly show us how broken woman deal with emptiness. They are underused but amply convey the overwhelming despair. The moon-faced Paul Dano’s underplay makes us ask whether he is a villain or not?

                            “Prisoners” raises moral questions about vengeance, vigilantism, innocence and guilt. It resists many of Hollywood’s dogmas. If you have the patience to get inside this dark, sleety vision, you might feel that this is one of the best vivid, unsettling and unexpected thrillers of this decade.  


 Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout

What Time Is It There? -- A Phenomenal Psychological Study of Grief and Loneliness

                               “Le Boucher”, “Mon Oncle d’Amerique”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Blue Velvet” are some examples of a category of films in which you feel that there is something to grasp among all the obscurities. They might fill your heart and mind with awe and suspense by choosing pace over delivery, even though we can’t get all the metaphors and in-jokes in the first viewing. Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang’s fifth feature film “What Time Is It There?” (2001) is the perfect contradiction: it is completely sealed at times and is expressively open at other times. Is this an existential comedy or an underplayed melodrama? It is both. In fact, this surprising minimalist drama possesses lot of characteristics.

                               Alienation and loneliness are the most important themes of this movie. The director has incorporated heterogeneous methods of Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson and Yasijuro Ozu. He unleashes shock waves of comedy but the laughs never come at the expense of a deeply moving situation. Ming-Liang’s previous feature “The River” had the same cast and more or less similar roles. It also focused on the mundane activities and suggesting mystical links between seemingly uncorrelated events. “What Time is it there?” was shot without music and through its pace it proudly wears the art house credentials.

                             Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a young watch vendor. He sells his watches in a suitcase at the long stretch of open level ground near downtown Taipei. He is one of the world’s victims of the repetitive activity. He hardly sells a watch and looks out for whatever interaction that comes his way. The film starts with trapped, lonely scene of Hsiao-Kang’s father, whose face sags with misery, while exhaling plumes of cigarette smoke. The patriarchal figure soon dies and so Kang’s agitated mother (Lu Yi-Ching) is convinced that the spirit of her dead husband will soon return. Meanwhile, Hsiao-Kang is afraid to go to bathroom at night thinking that he might bump into his father’s spirit. He turns plastic bags and bottles into urine depositories.

                           One day he is approached by a young woman Shiang-Chyi, (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who wants to buy a two-time zone watch (she is about to leave for Paris). She is not impressed by the watches in suitcase but insists on having the watch Hsiao-Kang is wearing. He explains that she can’t buy this watch because it might bring her bad luck, since it comes from a house of mourning. However, Kang’s reluctance dissolves and eventually he sells the watch. For selling the watch, Shiang-Chyi gives a cake as a sign of gratitude and Hsiao-Kang’s world changes at the point. At home, the grief-stricken mother is plunging into insanity. She protects cockroaches in the kitchen thinking, it might be her father’s incarnation. She plaintively asks the fish whether it is her husband.

                           To escape from his mother’s indisposition, Hsiao-Kang starts roaming around Taipei setting the Paris time in clocks all over the city. He starts this ceremony by resetting the time in his house. The mother thinks it is a sign from her husband that she should cook him some dinner. In Paris, as an alienated tourist Shiang-Chyi similarly embarks an odd journey. Her adventures brings close some kind of revelation, but exactly what? – That I’m not sure.

                           Director Tsai Ming-Liang pays a lot of homage to French cinema. In the movie, Hsiao-Kang hunts for French cinema and is intrigued by Truffaut’s “400 Blows.” The cameo of “400 Blows” star Jean-Pierre Leaud in the Parisian cemetery is the perfect example for surrealistic moment in cinema. There are also references to Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Tsai’s predilection for stillness owes a lot to Robert Bresson. The solitude based on geographical dislocation reminds us of the European directors Wim Wenders and Kieslowski. Tsai’ directorial techniques hardly rely on dialogues. His austerely economical expressive framing tells a viewer that Tsai would have been a legendary silent film-maker (there is homage for Harold Lloyd too).

                            Tsai’s every frame is captivating. He and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme plants the camera somewhere and allows the action to unfold in its own meditational pace. The camera traps the actors and their tension within the frames. All of Tsai’s movies are known for the limited set of characters and for their fundamentally similar characteristics: isolation, frustration and sense of loss. Although Tsai ponders on limited subjects, he is not the repetitive kind. He takes all those similar elements and recombines them in a new way to give varying emotions and meanings. All the actors – professionals and non-professionals – embellish this movie with their contemplative performance, which remains open to interpretation and can be decoded by any cinephile with a patient mind.

                           Tsai’s morbid view of human nature also includes the burst of sexual activities that shakes the movie’s frigid characters. Yi-Ching’s self-pleasure (with the picture of her departed husband), Hsiao-Kang’s comfort with prostitute and Shaing-Chyi failed homosexual love session with a fellow Asian woman in Paris are all shown as an additional burden that the characters can’t seek to control. The ending is hopeful or can be explained as ‘spiritually cathartic.’ It is more dream-like, contradicting the film’s restrained tone. The surrealistic, wandering climax reminds us that human beings, not aware of their own existence or their looming demise are somehow similar to ghosts.

                          “What Time Is It There?” may not be easily loved when it is on screen, but it will definitely work its way around once you contemplate about movie’s theme after it is over. Great rewards and pleasure are waiting to be reaped, if you have enough patience. 

Interview of Tsai Ming-Liang & Lee Kang-Sheng:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi -- A Pursuit for Perfection

                                  Masters of a particular art show you how they work or how their tricks work but in that process they would still leave you with bewildering thoughts. In that way, Jiro Ono, the 85 year old Japanese chef (now he is 88 years old) is a master and his art is making sushi. David Gelb’s monomania documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011) isn’t about the preparations of ‘sushi.’ It adds various layers and contexts, which touches upon the aesthetic and culinary traditions of Japan.

                                 When Jiro prepares the dish, it seems very simple. A fish is sliced, cooked, stuffed with rice in perfection. After painting it with a swipe of sauce it is placed in a tile-like plate. It is eaten in one bite, while Jiro gets busy working on the next course. In Jiro’s restaurant alcohols or other main courses are not served. There is only 20-piece sushi from mild to complex tastes. Speaking of the restaurant, it has a three-star Michelin Guide rating (the highest rating). However, his restaurant holds only 10 seats with a full meal costing starts at 300,000 yen. Early in the documentary, an out-of-towner comes into Jiro’s, wondering if they have any pamphlets. “We only have business cards”, he is told and was kindly advised to make reservations at least a month in advance. Yamamoto, a food critic claims that, Jiro’s is the best sushi restaurant in the world and he says: “No one ever has a bad experience there.”

                                 Jiro is a lean, ascetic man with a smiling face. He left home at the age of 9 (2 years after his father’s death) and has joined as a sushi apprentice. At that time, the dish was sold in the streets of Tokyo. The dish achieved international fame in the 1980’s, when it was introduced as ‘California Roll’ in USA. Jiro shows many photos about his youth and in the later part of documentary, he meets his old friends. The images and views show Jiro’s rebellious nature. He served in the World War II, but has always dreamed about ways to improve sushi. In his youth, Jiro was much obsessed with his work, which even made his kids to ask, “Who is the stranger sleeping in our home?”

                               Jiro relationship with his sons is a bit complicated. At 50, the elder son, Yoshikazu still remains as his father’s apprentice and is in line to take his father’s reins. The younger son, Takashi is charged with taking care of second restaurant, in the tourist-friendly Roppongi Hills. Jiro admits that he wasn’t much of a father and feels bad about not letting his sons to go to college. These negatives are also the result of his obsessed, traditional nature. Jiro has also comprehended about his mortality and so lets his elder son to buy fish at the market (after the heart attack at the age of 70). However, the master is most precise even in buying the fish. They can’t just buy any fish. He has passed his wisdom of how to buy a fish to his son, who now participates in a tuna auction in order to procure the ones he wants.

                             Inside the kitchen, the master always makes sure to taste the dish, his son and other apprentices prepare.  Although Jiro works without rest even at this age, he was amply supported by his son and three other apprentices. They strive hard to meet their boss’ lofty standards. Their dedication is beyond detail, like the massaging of octopus by hand for 40 minutes to bring it to the ideal texture and release its flavor. One of the chief apprentices has tried the restaurant's sweet omelet 200 times before perfecting that dish.

                             David Gelb excellently portrays the discipline through the sheer detail with which he observes his processes. Gelb’s slow-motion montages of chef’s cutting and massaging fish or Jiro’s preparation of sushi are shown like the performance of an orchestra. Gelb doesn’t simply make this as a hagiography. He points out that Jiro’s sacrifice has taken its toll not only with him. He briefly ponders over the Japan’s overfishing problem. The camerawork is at its best when it follows inside Tsukiji fish market, where only the finest specimens of seafood are offered for inspection.

Yoshikawa (the elder son)
                             “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” might intrigue any patient viewer, since this is not just about sushi. It is about an artists’ personal search for perfection. “I don’t think I have achieved perfection, but I feel ecstatic every day.” You really have to admire this man’s modesty.


Rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief smoking

Heavenly Creatures -- Peter Jackson's Murder Story about Love

                                   He was once known for his inventive splatter, sci-fi movies – “Bad Taste”, “Brain Dead” – which gained the status of cult classics among his fans. His foray into the digital film-making era was a grand success. He perfected the expansive vision of J.R.R. Tolkien and bathed our eyes with exuberant landscapes of New Zealand. But, apart from these polarized visions, the New Zealander Peter Jackson, made the startling “Heavenly Creatures” (1994) – a re-telling of the 1950’ tabloid murder. It is the story of an exceptionally powerful love and explores the explosive world of high-hormone adolescence, capturing its characters' chilling detachment from reality.   

                                "Next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing." “The deceased had been attacked with an animal ferocity seldom seen even in the most brutal murders.” The first quote was from Pauline Rieper’s diary, a miserable 15 year old girl. The other quote is from the police reports. The 1954 infamous matricide in New Zealand involved two ninth-grade girls – Pauline and Juliet. Peter Jackson’s movie is doled out from the court transcripts, interviews and from the extensive diaries of Pauline and Juliet Hume. The film-maker observes the event from the fantasy-filled world of those two girls. Surprisingly, “Heavenly Creatures” is even-handed and never judges the films’ lead as some kind of monstrous sprouts.

                              In the beginning of the film, we get to see Pauline’s (Melanie Lynskey) photo of her class at a girls’ school in Christchurch, New Zealand. She sticks out among all those blond-haired girls. She is the fat girl with unruly black curls. Her mother (Sarah Pierse) runs a clean boarding house. Pauline snapped out of her shell when Juliet (Kate Winslet) arrives from England. Juliet is an imperious, beautiful girl, who shares Pauline’s disdain of parochial Christchurch society. Juliet provokes hostility with her French teacher by merciless correcting the teacher’s grammar. Pauline is curse with a bone disease and stays from the athletic life of her classmates. The fairy princess Juliet’s curse was tuberculosis. The girls’ curses add another common status as the ‘invalids.’

                             By constructing an elaborate fantasy world, derived from the myth and pop culture, both Pauline and Juliet live in the land of ‘Borovnia’ – creating stories of bloody revenge and sexual escapades. Pauline’ working-class parents and Juliet’s cosmopolitan parents eventually decide that the girls have been spending too much time together. Juliet’s parents make a decision to cure her ailment by sending her to aunt in South Africa. In the face of a inevitable separation, the two girls head down the insane, murderous path.

                             Peter Jackson and his co-writer Fran Walsh have painstakingly established the weird trajectory of the girls’ friendship. They didn’t turn the girls’ romance into what someone would call as ‘lesbian film.’ The 50’s were the time, when homosexuality was seen as pathology. The murderous instincts of these girls could have been easily remonstrated with the words ‘homosexual.’ The script views that theirs is a great romance, which falls into unclassifiable territory, neither misconstrued nor innocent. On the directorial level, Jackson sends his camera racing, feverishly following the girls as they run breathless through the woods. The aggressive shooting technique leaves no stationary movements. Jackson’s usual tongue-in-cheek humor is evident in the films’ first frames. He registers Christchurch as a peaceful, well-ordered place through a 1950 newsreel and immediately cuts to the brief glimpse of murder scene.

                            Melanie Lynskey in her first film remains quietly smoldering as the delicate Pauline. Both Melanie and Winslet (her first movie too) never turn their characters into monsters. They play them with utmost sympathy and their chemistry carries the movie from its stagnant moments. Sarah’s guileless performance as Pauline’s mother brings an emotional heft to the movie. The script shows her as a frightened woman, who has made lots of mistake in the past. So, somehow her character sees the wrong steps of Pauline but remains incapacitated to correct her daughter’s mistakes. “Heavenly Creatures” leaves out the objective facts of the crime, since the viewpoint is objective. This may irk viewers who expect a crime/murder story.

                         “Heavenly Creatures” doesn’t give any answers to the girls’ crimes: Whether the fault lies with the girls, or with the cramped morality of the time? However, this powerful, wide-open question is what makes this movie an unforgettable experience. 


Rated R for a chilling murder and some sexuality