I've Loved You So Long -- Restorative Power of Love

                                  Philippe Claudel's "I've Loved You So Long" (2008) tells a tragic story of a woman, without inhabiting a hint of melodrama. Kristin Scott Thomas ("English Teacher", "Gosford Park"), with red-lidded eyes plays the central character, whose transition has been so subtle it's impossible to point to where or how it happens scene by scene. The protagonist's past is used as an element of mystery. The curtain of mystery slowly reveals us to the central tragedy, which might make us connected and enthralled.

                                   Juliette (Scott Thomas) nervously smokes, sitting at an empty table in airport lounge. She looks drained, physically as well as spiritually. Minutes later, a woman arrives to take her home. The woman is her younger sister, Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), with whom she is reuniting after 15 years. Lea, with a sense of love invites Juliette to live with her. Lea is a university professor and a mother of two adopted Vietnamese girls. Her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) remains polite to Juliette, but has good reasons to be uncertain. Juliette finds a little solace in the company of Luc's elderly father (Jean-Claude Arnaud) -- a stroke victim, who lives among his books. 

                             When Lea's eldest daughter confronts Juliette about her sudden appearance, she is quickly answered by Lea that she’s “been away for a long time, and in England.” 30 minutes into the movie, we hear the word "prison", and we know that all these awkward euphemisms about long trips are just excuses, since there's no doubt that, prison is where Juliette has been. Juliette's parole officer, Captain Faure (Frederic Pierrot) befriends her, talks about his loneliness and helps to find her a job.

                            One day she goes for a job interview. The employer asks the reason behind her fifteen year long sentence. Juliette answers him coldly that she has murdered her six-year old son. The reason behind her sister's institutionalization has caused Lea to decide never to bring children into the world. Lea was a teenager when her sister was sent to prison. Even though, their parents have abandoned Juliette, Lea is determined to make their relationship work. The movie is mostly about rebuilding emotional ties to start a new life. The sisters' relationship remains pivotal, as they remain magnetized yet wary of digging too deeply. Throughout this entire ordeal, a question will nag in our minds: Why did she do that horrible thing and remained silent during the trial, offering no defense?

                               Director Phillipe Claudel, an university professor has made his directorial debut with "I've Loved You So Long." He has also written the script and his first-hand knowledge of the prison system is derived from his voluntary position as an English teacher in a French penitentiary for 10 years. Claudel's characters neatly fit together in the movie and even the tender scene of Juliette kissing her sleeping niece becomes just another emotional happening. Claudel gives an unusual and rare depth for his woman protagonist and her world is filled with details, which can come only from a novelist's fertile imagination. The director starts the movie with a chilly, beige palette in the airport lounge and slowly warms as Juliette reconnects and rediscovers her life.

Phillipe Claudel
                                Kristin Scott Thomas carries the entire story on her shoulders, with a mesmerizing and nuanced portrayal of Juliette. She gives quiet and controlled performance and brings a real sense of depth to her character. Her chiseled, patrician face piles on various layers and conveys a lot without words. Scott Thomas conveys her inner battle in the dinner party scene, where her drunk host tries to figure out where she's been for 15 years. She says the shocking truth and there's laughter as it is presumed to be a joke. The climatic histrionic explosion was not necessary, but maybe that's what Claudel's script demanded of her.

                                 Elsa, as the non-judgmental sister radiates sympathy. Her performance might be overlooked but it is her emotional outbursts and wavering gestures makes Scott Thomas’s stillness so compelling. The supporting performances by Arnaud -- the eloquent grandfather, Laurent Grevill-- the gentle teacher who gives Juliette a compassionate gaze, and Pierrot -- a parole officer with romantic dream, hopeless life -- are all as formidable as the performance of central characters.

                                 "I've Loved You So Long" moves slowly like a glacier and demands lot of patience. Ultimately, the film ends in an uplifting manner, inciting a new life of hope and possibility. A mature character study, which deserves the attention of anyone who appreciates quality cinema. 


I've Loved You So Long -- IMDb

The Damned United -- The Perils of Ego and Ambition

                                 Sport films are not often preferred by viewers, simply because of the logical rules and regulations, which might turn into a incomprehensible jargon in the mind of uncomprehending. But, the sport movies stow away the intricacies of that particular sport and rather concentrates on the human story beneath. Tom Hooper's "The Damned United" (2009) takes the path of a best sports movie, which is set in the world of 1970s British football. To be precise, it's about Brian Clough -- a famous football manager -- who lifted a middling Derby County team from the Second Division to champion of the First.   

                                  "The Damned United" isn't the usual Hollywood under-dog story. It's narrative arc concentrates in the mid-1970s, when Brian Clough took over the most successful team (Leeds United) and drove it straight into the ground, winning just one match. He lasted as a manager for only 44 days but went on to find success with another club. The English Football world was surprised in 1974, when Clough (Michael Sheen) accepted the offer to take over as manager of Leeds. Leeds was at the top of the tables but Clough accused the team for cheating and has chided them over and over again in the preceding months (“They’ve been champions, but they haven’t been good champions’’). He also despised Leeds' departing manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). 

                                 After taking over Leeds United, Clough became a warped icon incurring the egomania of the British Football. With his outrageous insults and personal vendettas, he alienated players, management and the fans. Clough has previously made the scrappy Derby County club into a successful team with his genius talent spotter Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Clough's ego made him assume that the rise of Derby was entirely his own doing. Interestingly, in Clough's 44 days tenure with Leeds, Taylor declined to follow him. 

                                 Director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech", "Les Miserables") brings in a unique style of his own, by his striking penchant for off-kilter camera setups. He has perfectly brought us the 70s Britain, full of terraced housing and ailing factories. He has also chosen to keep the actual ball-kicking to a minimum level. The sensibility makes up for a accessible drama, which emphasizes themes of friendship, honor, rivalry and loyalty. Peter Morgan has adapted the David Peace's source novel for the screen. The book is said to run less on a story and more on a stream of interior monologues. So, Morgan has done a great job in bringing the massive personality within the 70's grounds and embodying all the richness and ego of the character. 

                                   As Clough, Michael Sheen uses his talent for mimicry. He essayed Tony Blair in "The Queen" and David Frost in "Frost/Nixon" but "Damned United" is one of his rare central performances, where he shows a viewer, what he can do without a co-star stealing the show. He deciphers the British psyche, when he plays as the Leeds manager. However, in the flashbacks, he mixes cockiness, humor, warmth and insecurity. Timothy Spall matches Sheen in skill. He is terrific as Taylor -- a principled man subjected to stand in Clough’s shadow until bad-temper tears them apart.  

                                   The bitter sports scenes in downpours of rain; Clough, pacing his office, in a nerve-wrecking manner, during a big game and only relying on the roar of the crowd outside to gauge whether his team or winning or not; The long nights and self-doubt keeping Clough away from sleep. These soulful scenes might resonate with any sports fan or sports men and makes it rise up from its bitterly setting. 

                                   "The Damned United" finishes at halfway point of Clough's managerial career. In the late 1970s, he joined with an obscure Nottingham Forest squad (reuniting with Taylor). He took the team all the way to win back-to-back European Cup trophies, a feat considered as one of the greatest in the history of the sport. This is neither a soccer movie nor a biopic of Brian Clough. It's simply a parable about a man's struggle with his own dangerous ego.


The Damned United -- IMDb

The Visceral Horror : "Ring" and "The Audition"

                               Japanese cinema got its biggest international breakthrough in the 1990’s with a slew of visceral horror films. These are exemplary products of Japan’s economic-downturn era, and their archetypal figure is the teenage girl, preeminent icon’s Japan’s bubble economy. The films also cast teen pop idols to appeal to female teen audiences. The genre typically combines technology with supernatural. 

                               Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” (The Ring, 1998), which stands at the forefront of the genre, revolves around a superstition regarding a certain videotape: if you watch it, you receive a telephone call; seven days later, you die. A single mother seeking to protect her son traces the videotape to the cabin where recorded events took place, uncovering the story of Sadako, buried alive in a well by her father, and whose psychic powers cause the violent deaths. The film makes implicit connections between Sadako’s power of telepathy and telekinesis and the malign influences of the telephone and television – all are technologies of influencing or touching from afar. 

                              The film’s terrifying climax brings together influences from David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” and Japanese legends, with Sadako clambering out of the wall in the video image, then out of the television set itself. Since the Ringu's release, Sadako's name in Japan is said to become anonymous with technophobia. In the "Ring", the remedy for the curse is also the poison: to save oneself, one must play the tape to another, thereby ensuring the curse's perpetuation. 
                             "Ringu 2" continues the first film's preoccupations with contaminating, possessed and possessive technology -- with a new focus on survivors who have witnessed Sadako's terrible glance, and, as video images morph and mutate, so the curse evolves through yet different manifestations. In addition to sequel and prequel ("Ringu 0"), the movies have spawned many spin-offs and remakes, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa's ghost film "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001). The wave spread to Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand and Hollywood. In East Asia, it established a commercially viable trend for high tension, low-budget horror films which worked with regional stars. 

                               The company responsible for the "Ring", Omega Project, marketed the film through the internet, Mobile-phone dial up entertainment and video game licensing, creating marketing hype to rival Hollywood. In order to withstand the threat of Hollywood, the sequels and spin-offs have themselves morphed as they proliferate through interlocking media. In the Thai film, "999-9999" (2002), for example, the mobile phone is the threatening technology, linking The Ring's viral narrative motifs to stories circulating in the mid 1990s among Thai school teenagers about certain occult phone numbers. 

                                "The Ringu" qualifies as visceral horror -- horror that proves itself on our pulses -- for its techniques of high suspense. "Audition" (2000), another notorious Japanese horror film, adds the dimension of the body being opened up to its visceral horror characteristics. "Audition" is the key to its director Takashi Miike's high international profile. It has solidified his maverick reputation -- its slow moving horror is quite unlike the string of yazuka films such as "Dead or Alive" (1999) for which he is otherwise known. 

                                 In "Audition", a middle-aged widower, Aoyama, seeks a spouse and interviews young women under the pretext of auditioning for a film. He instantly falls under spell of the demure, childlike Asami who, unknown to him, has a dreadfully abused past and plans to wreak revenge by sawing off his feat with piano wire. The film visualizes Asami wearing nurse's outfit with black leather apron and gloves, leaning over Aoyama's prone body with her sedative-oozing phallic syringe. The macabre sequence, initiated when Aoyama falls unconscious drugged with Asami's potion, is itself cut up into series of flashbacks. 

                                Events which took place before are repeated, but subtly and disturbingly altered to accommodate Asami's different perspective, which Aoyama had previously elided, in his attempt to sustain his fantasy of her as 'the Woman', both beautiful and deferential, the two quality he prizes most, and on whom he had decided, even before her 'audition.' At one point, the film flashes back to the couple's first time in bed, allowing us to think the foot-sawing may have been a dream, only then to jolt back.

                                 The image of the powerful, scary woman and castration anxiety is present in "The Ring", too, where victims are found with identically frozen, terrified facial expressions; Sadako's terrible gaze recalls that of the Greek mythological gorgon, Medusa, who has the power to turn men to stone. The fascination with female castrators is not new to Japanese cinema. It is evident in attitudes to the 1936 legal case of a woman called Sada who strangled her lover to death and cut off his penis as a memento. Sada gained public sympathy in her trial and was acquitted of murder. Her story is told in Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976) and retold in Nobuhiko Obayashi's "Sada" (1998). 

                                 The term "monstrous-feminine" is usually a misrepresentation of powerful female deities through centuries of patriarchal culture, but in Japanese modern horror films the 'monstrous-feminine' is rarely unequivocally monstrous. Japanese horror films mostly works on a dreamlike level than what is currently made on the Hollywood horror market or others. There is a significant undertone of graphic exploitation in this genre films as well, showcasing shocking violence and sexual depravity, but mostly, it gives the sense of  being in control, creating maximum tension and fear which is vital for a good visceral horror movie.

The Anime -- A Brief Introduction

                              Anime are a mass-media phenomenon in Japan, produced on a huge commercial scale within the Japanese studio system and consumed in vast quantities by domestic and regional audiences. “Astro Boy” (1963) was the first influential anime export to the west, but it was the breakthrough “Akira” (1988) which announced anime as a huge cult phenomenon internationally.
                              Anime are sophisticated and complex, comprising an astonishing range of styles, genres and themes. Even anime intended for children contain mature themes rarely found in Western animation. Anime are produced not only as feature films but also as TV serials, straight-to-video and multimedia spin-offs. In most of the anime, the characters’ goals are complex: ‘villains’ are not wholly evil; facile romantic conclusions are forestalled; closure is open-ended. Many anime movies use sudden focal changes, varied and unusual camera angles and distances, whereas Western animation usually deploys a uniform, middle distance. This does not mean that anime hasn’t borrowed Western influences. Stylistic influences include glam rock, with characters sporting hair of many colors for graphic variety and characterization.

                            Anime emerged as a distinctly post-war culture, expressing the concerns of post-war youth generations. Its imagery is often apocalyptic. The atom bomb is repeatedly referenced. Apart from being the only nation to have suffered atomic attack, the Japanese are said to live under a number of other collective stresses (internal and external), including the continual threat of earthquake, typhoon and climatic extremes. The economic downturn in the 90s resulted in sporadic acts of violence, such as the gas attack on Tokyo subway, and the grisly murder by a teenager called Sakakibara. All these reinforced a growing millenarian anxiety.  

                           The pessimistic tones are partly derived from Western cyberpunk influences. Cyberpunk depicts dystopian worlds populated by virtual entities – Artificial Intelligences and other human-machine interfaces. Like, Hollywood science-fiction, it portrays an intensification of present day tendencies, namely the dispositions of post-industrialist capitalist society. 

                           “Akira” (1988) has imported Western cyberpunk elements, including films like “Videodrome” (1983), “Terminator” (1984) and “Blade Runner” (1982), and combined them with its own imagination of disaster derived from centuries-old apocalyptic beliefs. “Shinto” is one of Japan’s oldest religions. It holds that inanimate objects such as rocks, trees and rivers are sacred and that god dwells in them. “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) used this influence to comment on and reflect the unique circumstances of Japan’s post-industrial society. 

                           Japan’s most popular film-maker, Hayao Miyazaki crosses boundaries of age, gender with his animes. “Princess Mononoke” (1997), an eco-fable about the destruction of the forests set in 14th century Japan, was the best-selling film of all time in Japan until “Titanic.” Miyazaki’s next film, “Spirited Away” (2001), which traces ten year old Chihiro’s adventures in a spirit realm where sorceress Yubaba transforms her parents into pigs, did better than “Titanic.” Spirited Away also won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and “Golden Bear” at the Berlin Film Festival. Miyazaki’s earlier animations, “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Castle in the Sky” (1986) and recent animes like, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and “Ponyo” are also extremely popular across East Asia. His new film is titled “The Wind Rises” and might be released in September. 
                            Typical Miyazaki traits include richly realized fantasy worlds, pre-industrial or futuristic settings, plucky girls and formidable matriarchs. The motifs of flight and empowering labor also unite his work. Miyazaki’s films are not alone among anime in portraying images of strong women. These have a long tradition in Japanese stories and legends. The complex attitude towards women is demonstrated in “Princess Mononoke”, where the eponymous heroine lives among wolves and is first seen with her visage smeared with red war-paint and blood, spitting out bullets from her Moro’s side and licking the wound.

                               A hairy pelt hangs around her neck, connoting unbridled animality and, together with suggestions of menstrual blood, pointing to dangerous female sexuality beyond society’s accepted norms. Yet Mononoke is not subjected to mechanics of degradation or containment administered out to her type in patriarchal narratives; that is, she is neither destroyed nor domesticated by offer of marriage. There is also an equally ambiguous villain: Lady Eboshi rules over a gun-manufacturing iron works, heralding the arrival of iron-age technology and the destruction of the forests, but she also gives refuge to society’s marginals, ex-prostitutes and lepers. 

                             The film charts the disappearance of the former ecological order and the shift away from pre-modern communion with the natural world and its spirits, as expressed in animalistic beliefs and depicted in Mononoke’s ability to interact with the host of nature’s spirits. Lady Eboshi’s actions epitomize the desire to make nature subservient to human will by eradicating and repressing the traditional animalistic beliefs. 

                              There might be many Buddhist references in an anime. Mostly it's hard to understand all the nuances or meanings, but fortuitously, you can enjoy the anime, along with only little knowledge. Anime still suffers from the negative stereotype that it is all either violent pornography or mindless entertainment, and thus has not been fully embraced by all. For the most part, Disney, and therefore America still holds the prestigious position in animation worldwide. The rise in popularity and acclaim of anime is a threat to this position. Apart from few movies made by "Pixar Animations", most of the American animation films are old-fashioned and insipid. Whereas, anime is a cultural product of Japan. It exudes both the existential brilliance and lyrical beauty.

The Italian -- A Bittersweet Quest of a Determined Child

                                 "Dickensian" is a word often used to describe heart-breaking dramas involving children. Al though, the stories of Charles Dickens are set in a bleak landscape of London, he also finds some occasional rays of sunshine and humor. Russian director Andrei Kravchuk's "The Italian" (2005) is focused on the plight of one boy, but unlike Dickens, the black humor is replaced by doggedness and desperation.

                                     The story is set in a Russian city in the late 90's. The banking and financial institutions have collapsed at that time. Peoples were left penniless and homeless. Parents abandoned children in orphanages and a servant in the film says that, "They're selling kids for bucks. This country's going downhill." Most of the orphanages are overrun and have their own alternate economy fueled by theft, prostitution, and protection money. "The Italian" is set in such an orphanage, where the six year old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) was abandoned. The name "Italian" sticks to him, when a wealthy Italian couple offers to adopt him and take him to their country. The process of adoption might take two months.

                                   Vanya isn't thrilled at this prospect, whereas the other orphans are jealous of his good fortune to be given a chance for a better life. The overrun orphanage was run by "Madam" (Maria Kuznetsova). She is a money-grubber, who operates illegally as baby-broker, satisfying the needs of wealthy Europeans. The chauffeur and occasional lover of "madam", Sery (Andrey Elizarov) is a heavy-lidded thug, who makes sure that all of her desires are met. Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko) is a teenager, who operates as underground leader of a gang. He follows Darwinian principle and takes money from the orphans who work for him.

                                    One day, a drunk and poor mother comes to orphanage looking for her son. She is harassed by the madam and was thrown away by the thugs. The distraught mother reminds Vanya of his own birth mother and therefore begins a quest find his mother no matter what it takes. Irka (Olga Shuvalova), a feisty teenage prostitute is convinced by Vanya to help him. This part takes through the bleak landscape of Russia, while Vanya shows a heartbreaking strength of will.  

                                   Spiridonov character Vanya has got to be one of the best memorable characters in modern cinema. The blond-haired, hazel-eyed boy reminds us of how sad it is that so many children in the world have been deprived of the parental love -- the thing which most of us take for granted. There are many rough spots in the narrative but Spiridonov cute, intrepid acting makes us to overlook the flaws. 

                                    "The Italian" is said to be based upon a true story, but Andrei Kravchuk's direction doesn't extract any false sentimentality out of the story. Andrei -- a documentary film-maker -- has taken his inspiration from neorealist director Vittorio de Sica's "Shoeshine" (1946). Like De Sica's films, Andrei mixes benevolence and indifference without being overly sentimental. Andrei Romanov's script makes the orphanage as a metaphor for the Russian country as a whole. His script makes sure that it's not just maternal quest of a boy, but also about the economic fiasco, that came smashing at the end of great Soviet Union. 

                                     "The Italian" succeeds cursory kindness with stark brutality, so it's not a easy movie to watch. The final shot of Vanya's angelic face might haunt you for days. But, the realism showcased in the movie is honest and you will be definitely moved by the soul-blasted portrayal of modern Russia.


The Italian (Italyanets) -- IMDb

Like Someone in Love -- A Free-Floating Masterpiece

                                       The Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami has really chosen the path of a world director. His last two movies are shot outside Iran in a language other than Persian. "Certified Copy" (2010) was fully shot in Central Italy, which was a parable about love. His latest film, "Like Someone in Love" (2012) was shot in Tokyo with a Japanese script and cast. The end result of these two movies tells us this: Kiarostami's talent for showcasing human poetry has no language boundaries. 

                                       Kiarostami is known for his minimalistic masterpieces. The placement of camera and the offhanded naturalistic dialogue may dwell well with art-house movie viewers rather than entertainment-seekers. His works demand our full attention and rewards us with philosophical questions and answers. The narrative concepts and the characters offered in his movies might serve as a entryway for further explorations and debates. 

                                       "Like Someone in Love" opens in a bar. Someone is talking but we can't see who since the camera is concentrated upon the bar's bustling visitors. The director eventually decides to turn the camera and change our perspective to watch Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who is talking to her jealous boyfriend and stressing upon the exams she has to take in the morning. Akiko is a student, who is also working as a call girl. She has concealed her moonlighting from her possessive and mildly violent boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase). Her boss forces to take on an important client. She agrees and turns off her phone but hears the series of voice-mails from her grandmother, who has been waiting all day to be picked up at a Tokyo train station. 

                                     Akiko, infact, passes by the statue where her grandmother is waiting. Later, she sleeps in the taxi and arrives to the suburbs. Her client is Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), an elderly retired professor and a hassled author. His apartment is stuffed with books. Takashi is enchanted by his visitor and sees her as a lost child rather than a call-girl. He feeds her soup and then tucks her in to sleep. Next day, he accidentally meets Akiko's boyfriend and becomes her loving grandfather. Noriaki asks the fake grandfather's permission to marry Akiko, while she is paralyzed with terror that her secret life will be discovered. 

                                    Like most of Kiarostami's films, "Like Someone in Love" can be understood/guessed only up to a point, from what the characters say, and what the characters say can be less revealing than what's left unsaid. Kiarostami has once said in an interview that, "I make one film as a filmmaker, but the audience, based on that film, makes 100 movies in their minds." That's the best way to describe this movie as it adheres more to an emotional rather than narrative logic. The film's title itself gives us a clue to what the film-maker is up to. The title resonates with all the characters, since they are only pursuing an illusion that only looks like love. Akiko's idea for love is muddled but she simply equates sex with money. Noriaki remains as a traditional boyfriend, who wants to control her by marrying. Takashi looks benevolent but we’re never sure about his investment is in these young people’s troubles. Also, the film's sudden ending raises more questions in a viewers mind. 

                                      Kiarostami often shows up vehicles and neon-lit streets to conceal more about the character's true feelings as they reveal. Reflections are once again used effectively by the director: windows, mirrors and the screens of turned-off TVs are used as narrative devices which convey or withheld emotions of each character. The guilt and nostalgia Akiko feels in the cab, when hearing her grandmother voice is played out wordlessly. The cab window reflects her drained face and then the camera turns away from her to register what she sees -- the same endless thread of flickering neon and soulless streets. 

                                      As Takashi, Okuno delivers an excellent performance. The stage actor, who is in his eighties, has played his first leading role in a film. Rin Takanashi's performance as Akiko feels well integrated into the story. She conveys a lot even in amidst the lustrously photographed reflections. Ryo Kase as Noriaki gives an aggressive as well as a sympathetic performance. 

                                     In "Like Someone in Love", the answers aren't obvious but it doesn't matter since Kirostami's intentions with this simple take is to make us think deeply, in a subconscious level. This movie is a cinematic equivalent of a novella, which offers a brief and fascinating glimpse into different lives. 


Like Someone in Love -- IMDb

Drug War -- A Persistent Nail-biter

                                   John Woo, with ultra-violent hard-boiled crime sagas such as "Bullet in the Head" and "The Killer" defined Hong Kong action films of 80s and 90s. He lost his fervor when he went to Hollywood. Johnnie To is another veteran Hong Kong film-maker, who mastered the action genre by getting rid of vague, cliched aesthetics and infused it with a darker and more realistic edge. Johnnie To's films never has the pretense or narrative bombast. It never tries to raise the stakes of action genre, but instead fully exploits the genre, making its own statement. To's latest film "Drug War" (2012) has all of his stylistic hallmarks and excellent set pieces which might gently direct our emotional responses. This is Johnnie To's first film set in mainland China (even 16 years after reunion, the Hong Kong film industry still remains autonomous). 

                                  Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is a drug kingpin. His amphetamine production plant explodes, killing his wife and her brothers. He escapes and is on the run, literally foaming at the mouth. He crashes into a restaurant and loses his consciousness. At the same time, narc captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) and his officers are tracking a truck driven by couple of idiots, and a bus full of dope mules. Producing more than 50 mg of Meth might lead to death penalty for the manufacturer. So, Choi who is now in the hospital agrees to help Zhang, catch two of Asia's biggest drug barons.

                                 Officer Zhang adopts a false identity and tags along with Choi to have couple of meetings with the contacts. The buyer and seller have never met before to make a deal. So, Zhang sees a opportunity. He becomes the stone-faced seller, when Haha (the buyer) -- the giggling gangster -- is in the room, and when the real stone-faced guy shows up, Zhang becomes Haha. The big truck, driven by idiots, chased by officers in the opening scene seems to have something to do with Choi. Like this, many points get tied into the plot and converge eventually in front of a busy elementary school.  

                                 Honglei Sun brilliantly performs as officer Zhang. He looks sullen for most part of the movie, but comes alive with exhilarating finesse when he was forced to literally perform as buyer and seller. As Choi, Louis Koo, has the same sullen looks but is more cunning than Zhang. He gives a performance that refuses to give cheapen his character with sentimentality. Watching his enactment in the last 20 minute might make your blood boil with rage.   

                                 Director Johnnie To and his long time cinematographer, Cheng Siu-keung has embraced the ruthless economic dynamism of China. They offer visual spectacle in the scene set in a enormous seaport, where all the boats are ordered to move out at the same time. The shootout at the factory run by deaf-mute employees was pictured in an efficient manner. As a director To is more interested in high-level police procedures than the emotional wallop of the characters. He is coolly detached in that manner and is clinically observant. The action sequences are masterfully orchestrated and ingeniously edited. The mobile phones are used in an creative manner to bridge time and space. 

                                 "Drug War" ignores the common rules of a action movie about the fate of hero and villains. The good guys eventually wins, but it comes after a great sacrifice and they only win in a nominal sense. The movie might never be remade in Hollywood because of that final 20 minute gunfight, where uncountable clouds of blood spray, making it messy, arbitrary and all the more real. 

                                  "Drug War" is an absorbing and entertaining action/thriller, which demands the viewer to pay full attention. It has a gritty tone, exhilarating action set pieces and a sweepingly tragic epilogue.


Drug War (Du zhan) -- IMDb 

Little Children -- A Richly Textured Suburban Drama

                                   The suburbs and upper middle class always lend themselves to satires. Master film-maker Luis Bunuel ridiculed the middle and upper classes in a trenchant manner, whereas legendary directors like Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati poked the modern bourgeoisie, lightheartedly. All these satires stem from the contrast between the cultivated image and the reality. Any upper-middle-class person trying to manufacture an markedly civilized life and perfectly safe existence comes under the scanner of satirists. Seen in that light, Todd Field's "Little Children" (2006) is not a pure satire. At the same time, it is a hugely absorbing social drama that is, by turns, agonizing and sardonic.

                                  Todd field made his feature-film debut with "In the Bedroom" (2001), which presented the vigilantism, focused on a family's response to an unpunished murderer. In "Little Children" he took the embarking journey of two characters on their road to infidelity. Based on Tom Perrota's 2001 novel, Todd has balanced the satirical tone and his own bleaker sensibility. The movie unfolds with an erudite voice-over narrative, which in an unhurried fashion introduces all the characters and situations.

                                   Sarah (Kate Winslet) is one of the bored sub-urban wives, but she tells herself that she's "an investigator studying the behavior of bored suburban women" (like an anthropologist). She treats her child like an annoying pet and regards her husband as an embarrassment. Her husband, Richard (Gregg Edelman) is highly successful but is obsessed with porn. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a extremely handsome, stay-at-home dad. He is studying for his bar exam (for the third time), so his knockout wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary film-maker, is the bread-winner.  

                                   Ronnie's (Jackie Earle Haley) arrival into the community triggers outrage among parents. He is a convicted child molester. He lives with his doting mother, May McGorvey (Phyllis Somerville). Larry (Noah Emmerich) is an obnoxious ex-cop and a friend of Brad. He denounces the pedophile and is hell-bent on chasing his away from their community. Brad and Sarah, the neglected spouses, meet at a playground. They eventually give into the inevitable and become intimate lovers during the day when their kids are napping. Larry's pursuit of Ronnie intensifies as Brad and Sarah's affair heats up. They all converge at a point that will have most viewers cringing. 

                                   Director Field, like Alexander Payne ("Sideways", "The Descendants") demonstrates a mastery over his difficult dramatic material. The voice-over (unlike other voice-overs) employed here is helpful, since it accentuates the literary roots of the story. All the characters exude enough materials to make lot of melodramas, but everything is under control and low-key, thanks to Field's direction. Perrotta (wrote the novel) and Field wrote the script, which observes the inner struggles of each character with a hint of sardonic wit. Based upon the story setting, there isn't one likable character. But, the movie's reverse code script rigs our sympathies, making us root for all these reprehensible persons. Winslet's character flouts community standards like "Madame Bovary". There is a reference to that classic novel. During a book-readers club meeting, Sarah harangues a woman, who calls Bovary is nothing more than a "slut." 

                                  We would never approve Ronnie's behavior but the writers make us feel compassion for this outcast. Movies, often give into the stereotypes. The characters are often black and white, but Field and Perrota's script he succeeds in adding some layers to the term ‘pervert.’ Although we empathize with Ronnie's plight, we never sympathize with him. He is a but not the only one in the community: Larry takes a bullhorn to Ronnie's house and terrorizes his mother; Mary Ann, a regimented, frosty home-maker, constantly denounces Ronnie and creates a outrage. Ronnie has committed a reproachful crime but all these high-minded citizens are committing less insidious crimes like prejudice, civic hysteria and self-deception. One of the touching aspects of the script is the scenes involving Ronnie and his mother, May. There is comic irony and tension, as May advises Ronnie not to mention his sexual problems at a date.   

                                 Director Todd Field, an actor himself, draws out extraordinary and subtler performances from his cast. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Kate Winslet in the role of Sarah as she distinctly portrays the internal struggles her character undergoes before allowing herself to feel that ecstasy of love. Patrick Wilson faces the challenge of depicting an intelligent overgrown kid who is trapped by the normalcy. He grapples the challenge with an edgy undercurrent performance. Jennifer Connelly gives out a fine performance, even though she is banished from the script for longer stretches. The master performer in this movie is Jack Earle Haley. The lucidity of Haley's acting in the climax might bring out tears. You may forget that he is acting as he brings out the loneliness and the ugliness of the criminal mind.      

                                 The narration might seem meandering and the ending hysterical, but Field's main goal here is to present a slice of the community -- from bored housewives to sex offenders. The inconsistencies can be overseen as there are lots of thought-provoking questions. "Little Children" is a highly nuanced, engaging drama, which brings out the frustration and anger in a tranquil suburban neighborhood.


Little Children -- IMDb

Rated R for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content

The Butcher Boy -- A Relentless Ode to Madness

                               A picturesque Irish town and a young Irish boy in knee pants. This might seem familiar: a coming of age story. But, Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy" (1997) set in this milieu is a violent fantasia, which explores a disturbed mind that is both darkly comic and horrific. Irish director Neil Jordan is famous for his audacious and creative movies like "The Crying Game", "Mona Lisa". He has also made main-stream, commercial movies like "Interview with the Vampire", "The Brave One" and recently "Byzantium." "Butcher Boy", based on 1992 Patrick McCabe's novel, travels on a hard terrain, contemplating the hidden extremes of human nature. 

                               The story is set in a small Irish town in the 60s. In this cold war era, all the townspeople  the fear of atomic obliteration on their minds. Our young protagonist (12 year old) Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) is a bright, vivacious boy and a local bully. His father is an alcoholic (Stephen Rea), who frequently becomes abusive and his mother is mentally disturbed (Aisling O'Sullivan). So, Francie spends most of his time with his best friend Joe (Alan Boyle). Their main spare-time activity is to torment other kids, especially the timid Philip (Andrew Fullerton), whose mother, Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), is Francie's arch-nemesis. 

                                When Francie (after his mother's suicide) does a horrible thing to Nugent's house, he is sent to reform school. There he descends into darkness, which is highly accelerated by Joe's friendship with Phillip. He thinks that Nugent has alienated Joe from him by giving gifts. Francie is given shock therapy and later sees visions of Virgin Mary. Later, when he was out and working in a slaughterhouse he comes up with an horrific and shocking idea to extract revenge upon Mrs. Nugent. The whole story is irreverently narrated by the adult Francie Brady.

                                Pulling off a dark comedy mixed with horror is a very tough job, but Jordan does it with finesse. Even though the movie lacks feeling, it spares us from the simplifying sentiment and gives us something richer, disturbing and more complex. Through Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, Jordan gives a bouncing and sparkling energy to the story. The narrative has lot of internal monologues, which is darkly comic, especially, Francie's descriptions of certain characters. Working with Mr. McCabe, Jordan's script capturing the tone of this quirky, tricky novel and does a noteworthy job of entering Francie's mind without leaving the rest of the village behind. The script connives to follow Francie, even though we are afraid of what's going to come next -- the ferocious end result of all this swirling imagery.

                                Eamonn Owens made his feature film debut with "Butcher Boy", but he looks like a natural with an expressive face. However, Francie's character doesn't claw under our skin. It's more or less looks like watching a cheeky, raging adolescent from a safe distance. The movie's other strong performance comes from Stephen Rea as Francie's father and the adult Francie. His caustic voice-over narration reveals us a boy full of deep-seated hatred and hurt. 

                                Moral ambiguity prevails in this movie, where it refuses to judge its characters and also refuses take sides on the issues of mental illness, violent crimes and society’s approach to these problems. Though not highly controversial or overtly political like "A Clockwork Orange", comparisons can be made for a number of reasons. It provides satirical commentary and is narratively audacious but "Butcher Boy" takes Kubrick's subjective treatment further by fully maintaining the point of view of a boy with a distorted perspective. So, the heightened climax looks much more exciting to Francie but remains unsatisfying for viewers.

                               "The Butcher Boy" is never confronted by adult morality or piety. It remains pure and honest to the last scene, when adult Francie asks his radiant vision of the Virgin Mary, ''What're you doing, Missus, still talking to the likes of me?''  It is an anti coming-of-age movie and the only way to watch this movie is to surrender to the experience.


The Butcher Boy -- IMDb

Le Havre -- Celebrates Humanity

                              Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati are famous for their comic humanist films. Their films don't remind us that how hard life can be. All they are interested in is life's modest charms and fleeting beauties. Their characters say that how easy it is, in the face of cruelty, to behave decently. With overt social conscience and deadpan absurdism, prolific Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismaki is a major inheritor of those film-makers' tradition. His latest film "Le Havre" (2011) has all the trademarks and characteristics of a Kaurismaki film -- compassionate towards the downtrodden people. If you are an avid movie lover but have never heard the name "Aki Kaurismaki" then "Le Havre" will serve as the door to access his warm-hearted fables.

                              "Le Havre" ("The Haven") is a titular French port city. Marcel Marx (Andre Williams) is a gentlemanly shoeshine man (in his 60s), who life with his upstanding wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) and dog named Laika in the placid town. Every day, Marcel sees the same weathered faces of cops, grocers, fisherman and barkeeps. Marcel is striving hard to make ends meet but a sudden illness takes Arletty off to the hospital (appears to be terminal cancer). The simple life is further disrupted when Marcel befriends a young Senegalese boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). 

                               The boy was discovered in a container along with a large group of African refugees. The Africans holed up in the cargo ship thought that they were going to England. Idrissa escapes from the immigration authorities and hides out at the docks. Marcel finds him and rescues him from despair. The boy yearns to see his mother, who is living in London. Despite Arletty's illness, Marcel rallies all this fisherman friends to Idrissa's aid and calls up for a "trendy charity concert" to send the boy to England. A comically sinister police inspector, Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) is hell bent on catching the boy. 

                               Director Aki Kaurismaki, himself, calls the film "unrealistic." What he means is that in this modern era, it is unrealistic to focus on the elderly and the pool and to lift up the basic goodness of these people. One of Kaurismaki's directorial traits is that, his characters are often taciturn. The actors never utter more than one sentence at a time. When Marcel asks people's assistance to help the boy, he doesn't go into a lengthy explanation and no one asks for one. Most of the characters we come across in this film are good-natured. Even the feared investigator, Monet insists that "I am ruthless toward crime, but I don't like to see the innocent suffer."

                               Kaurismaki's films are all old-fashioned: vinyl records, vintage dresses, celluloid film and plenty of other old-fashioned stuffs. The only cell phone we see in the movie is used by a guy with bad intentions. Although the director clings to old traditions and stuffs, his affection for the sturdy values of community is commendable. The deadpan humor exudes a quiet, warm glow of reassurance in every frame. With the pastel palette and idiosyncratic use of colors, Kaurismaki's regular cinematographer Timo Salminen transports us to the lovely port city.

                                If you are a cynic, you might think that the plot is too tidy. What "Le Havre" tries to show us is a simple magic -- the magic of simple human decency and its powers. This movie is something to savor, where people rise to the occasion and do the right things.


Le Havre -- IMDb 

The Devil's Backbone -- A Political Allegory and a Corrosive Horror Story

                            "What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over?" Guillermo Del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone" (El espinazo del diablo, 2001) starts with these lines and so we can take a guess that this isn't a typical ghost story. It is rather a sophisticated war commentary, which is concerned mainly with the massacre of the innocent. Del Toro, famous for his off-beat allegories conjures up the most emotionally devastating situation and often tells it through the point of view of the children. "Devil's Backbone" -- confined to a single, crumbling location -- not only tries to provoke your screams, but also earns your tears. 

                                 Bomber air-crafts hover above in the skies and drop a bomb in an isolated Spanish orphanage. The bomb doesn't explode, but we see a boy bleeding to death in a mysterious way. Sometime later, at the brink of Spanish civil war (1936-39), a young boy Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the facility with his father's friend. The unexploded shell is partly buried in the central courtyard. Carlos -- the son of a republican -- is unfortunately abandoned in that orphanage. In fact, the facility was really boarding school, which turned to an orphanage for the sons of dead republicans. So, republicans in the school and a bomb dropped by fascists are at the center of it. It's a metaphor of what comes next. 

                               The facility is run by acerbated one-legged widow, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) -- wife of a leftist poet. Casares (Federico Luppi) is the orphanage's aged doctor and professor. Carmen and Casares have long suffered unrequited love for each other. Carmen has stashed away republican money in the form of gold ingots, in a locker. The servant staff of orphanage includes the beautiful and bland teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo) and a menacing former student turned janitor, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). 

                               Carlos is first bullied by Jaime (Inigo Garces) and his mates, but later earns respect from all his classmates. He is assigned to bed 12 -- bed of the missing student, Santi (Junio Valverde). Carlos soon glimpses at something that looks like a ghost and mildly suffers from Jacinto's villainy. Through the boys, Carlos learns that the ghost is rumored to be the missing student. Carlos pursues the mystery behind Santi, while the ghost communicates to deliver a warning. 

                               The suspense in the movie is not incited through the storyline, but more due to the brooding atmosphere. Horror fans will be grossly disappointed as Del Toro doesn't go for cheap and quick scares. He unfolds the story like a Edgar Allan Poe's story with a heavy set of symbolism. As I said, the unexploded bomb represents a metaphor, whereas the whole characters in the orphanage reflect the microcosm of the war itself. Among the elders, there are republicans and fascists, who stand up for their beliefs. In the middle, there are innocent children, caught like an insect in a spider's web. Even, if you don't get or like the symbolism, there's lot of other things to ponder over.

                               Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro enriches the movie by infusing a contrast between the dank, greenish light that sleeps over the orphanage by night and the parched orange glow of the daytime. As a director, Del Toro instigates his allegorical intentions along with various themes. Greed, class hatred and sexual frustration rise up along with the metaphors and subtexts. In the climax, the allegory is openly observable as the boys must band together against their oppressor. Del Toro says that the deadly apparitions are not 'ghosts', but the people stuck in the past and the ones devouring the present. The sweet-faced Tielve as Carlos features a good range of emotions. The performances by all the other kids are top-notch. Noriega as evil janitor tries hard to inspire fear in the kids, but often the sense of danger is not felt by the viewer. Marisa parades ("All About My Mother") and Luppi ("Cronos") are believably human as their characters reveal themselves. 

                               "The Devil's Backbone" (2001) is both a political allegory and art-house horror movie. As with excellent world movies, you might quickly forget that you are reading subtitles and get swept up in the story. It is highly predictable but there are enough characters and atmosphere to make it a poetic film.     


The Devil's Backbone -- IMDb