Grandma [2015] – A Bittersweet Inter-generational Get-together

                                            It is really interesting how Paul Weitz’s comedy/drama “Grandma” (2015) starts. We see a 70 year old woman, a bit tired, in a house stacked full of books, where credit cards are chopped up to adorn the wind chimes. But, this isn’t about a 70 year old dying woman, who is saying ‘Fuck the world, I’m dying’. This is a septuagenarian, who is getting out of (4 month) relationship with a younger woman. Her long-time partner (of 38 years) has died and she has started dating this younger woman, feeling vitality and resurgence of creativity. However, there is an anger within her; may be because it comes from the thought of forgetting the old partner, or simply from the fact that she itself is getting very old. Whatever it is, this 70 year old woman delivers one of the best break-up lines in cinema: “You’re just a foot note”. And, of course by the end of the film, this acerbic old woman gets a ‘karma boomerang’. But, what’s so interesting about an old gay woman, getting emotionally beaten-up in her waning years? For one, this septuagenarian, Elle is played by whip-smart Lily Tomlin and this isn’t an insensitive, gross-out comedy. There’s a subtle gloominess and elegance to “Grandma”, which turns it into a crisply-scaled character study.

                                           Lilly’s Elle, after breaking-up with Olivia (Judy Greer), flips through happier memories and well-preserved artworks of a child, and just at the right time, she receives an unexpected guest: teenage grand-daughter Sage (Julia Garner). Sage, who is afraid of her super-lawyer mother Judy (Marcia Gay Hayden), seeks the help of Elle to get an abortion. The appointment is set nine hours, from the time Sage has shown up at Elle’s doorstep. Six-hundred dollars is needed to go through the procedure and Elle, a once-famous poet and a casual academic writer-in-residence, has only $43 dollars. There’s only one way ahead: Grandma Elle starts up her old Dodge and hits the road with Sage, hoping to meet up with old friends and flames, who may lend some cash. What follows is episodic vignettes, where the little trip shows Sage, her grandma’s worst behaviors and hidden vulnerable side. And, the high-schooler too learns few ironically humorous wisdom of life from Elle.

                                            There’s nothing new about the plot structure or central themes dealt in “Grandma”. It could be seen as the schematic, interpersonal drama, where old stars (like Sam Elliott, Elizabeth Pena) play guest roles in each vignettes. Nevertheless, what imbues an organic flow to the script is based on the manner, the writings reveal emotional depths at key moments, and in the way standout performances are extracted by director Weitz – from central characters to the ones who share small screen time. Sam Elliott plays the role of Elle’s long-ago lover, Karl. It would be cliche to even call this role as a cliche. But, within that short screen time, Weitz establishes a character for Elliott, who transforms from being charming, teasing and finally heartbreaking. It is the kind of scenario, which rather than just solely showcasing the flawed nature of Elle, tries to understand the anger and frustration of a very minor character named Karl. “Grandma” is filled with such little, wonderful, aching moments.  Yes, these scenes are modestly staged and may only have modest impact upon its viewers, but the maturity with which the characters are approached here are something rare.

                                              Writer/director Weitz, apart from imbuing a well-saturated tone of melancholia and regret, excels in pushing the wry ferocity of Elle’s character nature to create hilarious, crowd-pleasing sequences. Elle’s encounter with Sage’s wacky boyfriend (Nat Wolff) [“Your face looks like armpit”] and the way she rattles off insults in cafe and bookstores with a killer timing are a joy to watch. The irresponsibility arc that flows from Elle (aching over her own pains of abortion) to Judy (who pays more attention to work than her daughter) to Sage (who is as acerbic and reckless as the two) is paid good, subtle attention.  Another, unexpected and well-handled aspect of the film is how Sage’s abortion is neither downplayed nor dramatized for issuing a sweeping statement. Paul Weitz, who usually fluctuates between ridiculous (“American Pie”, “Admission”, “Little Fockers”) and high-minded (“About a Boy”, “In Good Company” and also directed “Mozart in the Jungle” episodes) movies has now perfectly chosen a more tidy, indie-film route without making any major, maudlin statements. Eventually, one has to agree that the film belongs to Lily Tomlin and without her bravura acting skills, all the episodes would have come-off as cutesy. Within those barrages of cheeky dialogues, Tomlin finely taps into Elle’s measured sorrow, vulnerability and regret.

                                               “Grandma” (79 minutes) tells a very simple story with a fully developed emotional profundity and extraordinary performances.   


Legend [2015] – Tom Hardy Totally Owns It

                                         Whenever the award season arrives, we search for amazing performances that weren’t given its respective award statues. There’s an inherent urge as a cinephile to proclaim about such noteworthy acting. Tom Hardy in Brian Helgeland’s gangster biopic “Legend” (2015) makes us do that. Hardy, here, play not one but two major roles: as ruthless real-life mob twins – Reggie Kray and Ronald Krey. He imbues sharply differing personalities into both these characters that gave me a feeling of watching a spectacle. Half-way into the movie, Reggie and Ronnie, interact furiously by exchanging few cockney swears, which gradually evolves into hard punches. Apart from the stupendous technical wizardry in that scene, I saw a performance which made me forget that it is played by the same actor. And, Hardy hovers over the narrative like a giant statue, so much that the script pales in comparison. American film-maker/writer Helgeland admittedly glamorizes or glosses over Krays’ crime life, but that’s something we often encounter in mobster movies. The real problem is that it is tonally jarring, muddled and remains flatter in the second-half, despite all the talents involved.

                                       “Legend” rejects the typical ‘rise of the gangster’ narrative arc and rather starts in 1960’s, when the Kray brothers have already established a base camp at Vallance, London East End. Now their aim is to build a crime empire to take over whole of London. The extortion and protection rackets are the usual businesses for the club-owning twin brothers. They rub shoulders with every prominent individual of London: singers, actors, politicians, etc. The pair’s over-the-top celebratory parties and increasingly daring ventures, as usual, made them the targets for other gangster and good detectives, like Superintendent ‘Nipper’ Read (Christopher Eccleston).

                                       Ronnie is a certified paranoid schizophrenic. Reggie is more multifaceted: he could be vicious as well as suave. Reg becomes romantically involved with a beautiful, yet fragile girl Frances (Emily Browning), which imparts a little friction between the brothers (she is also the film’s moral compass). The American mafia that’s so convinced to do business with the Krays are a little wary of Ronnie; not just because, he has openly professed his homosexuality (in real life Ron was Bi-sexual), but also there is a volatility in him that ends up demanding blood. Of course the collapse of their empire is inevitable, set in motion by Ron’s erratic behavior, although what’s interesting here to see is the symbiotic relationship between Reg and Ron; the brotherhood which binds as well as damages them.

                                       Emily Browning’s Frances narrates the plot and she gives an emotionally engaging performance. Her narration would have been a perfect stand-in for audience view point. But, this is a film owned by Hardy, so her carefully crafted words seem peripheral to the central events, unveiling around the Krays. It looks like Helgeland was torn between telling the tragedy of a woman, ruined by Krays, as well as enamored by the magnetic aura surrounding the twins. The end result is that the twins win over majestically and so Frances’ perspective doesn’t seem as organic as it wanted to be. The panache in Helgeland’s visuals could make us accuse him of glamorizing crime lifestyle, but he makes a point by stating that London was ruled well-educated politicians, judges and businessmen, who are more corrupt and hypocritical than the Krays. So, the glamorization doesn’t come from the vantage point of the director; it was derived from how the high society saw the twins during the 1960’s.

                                      Nevertheless, the director could be called out for entertainingly showcasing the violence (the violence that had happened to real people). A kind of jolly mood prevails over the violent scenes (and even at the orgy scene, where underage boys were used for the pleasure of VIPs). The situation surrounding the murder of George Carnell and ‘a paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar’ joke amply satiates our thirst to see a well-executed, darkly comic sequence, but Ronnie – whom we would deplore and call as ‘monster’ in real life – kind of comes off as a star (than a ruthless criminal). Reggie’s portrayal, however, is more balanced. There’s a hint that Reg could be as ruthless as Ron in threatening innocent passerby, which absolutely culminates in the bloody, ending sequence, making us jolt with shock. Even though Ron is hilarious; Reg comes off as the only multifaceted character. He is like a Scorsese ‘gangster’ hero. The way Reg seamlessly fulfills his boss role and transforms suddenly to be a lover, in that club scene works like a tribute to Scorsese’s profound characters (there’s also another Scorsese tribute, in the scene involving Krays’ over-protective mother).

                                       “Legend” (130 minutes) is structurally flawed to be a excellent gangland picture, although it is worth a watch for Hardy’s wildly entertaining, soulful performance. While frightening one foe, Hardy’s Ron says “I can’t look at you, I’ll get lost in your eyes!” That’s exactly how the central performances make us feel.  


Frances vs Nicole – A Brief Character Analysis

                                             Movies about city or suburban youths, spending their life being bored is a theme that’s been repeatedly dealt in recent times. The non-adventures or small adventures of the reluctant, awkward youths have even got a sub-genre to itself, called ‘Slacker’ cinema. With the independent film movement across the globe and with the advent of digital video film-making, we are seeing a lot of young film-makers venting out this world-weary phase of youth. But, still only few films have something interesting or refreshing to say on this frequently dealt subject. American film-maker Noah Baumbach’s relatable portrait of Gen Y “Frances Ha” (2012) and French-Canadian film-maker Stephane Lafleur’s “Tu dors Nicole” aka “You’re Sleeping Nicole” (2014) are couple of gems of this sub-genre to deal with the ennui of the young.

                                           Both the films are shot on exceedingly beautiful monochrome. The plot trajectories of these films are pretty similar: fragmented narrative offering snapshots of close friendship between two girls; their extended fallout, where one matures and the other drifts away with confounding looks. Quotidian parental love, boring jobs, a future with diminishing possibilities, and youthful malaise are the similar narrative threads that permeates these films. Lazing artists, pain of miscarriage, the urge to travel, the joy of getting a bankcard are the minor events in “Frances Ha” and “Tu dors Nicole”. In an interview director Stephane Lefleur was asked about people often bringing up ‘Frances Ha’, while discussing his movie. He replied: “Believe it or not I saw Frances Ha two weeks before shooting my movie. The script was written, the idea of shooting in black and white was there and I went see this movie when it opened in Montreal and I was just screaming…………..if you can get me in touch with Noah let me know. I’d like to ask what he’s working on so I won’t do it again”.

                                            The echoes of French New Wave movement could be felt in both Baumbach and Lefleur’s respective films, although their directorial approach is distinctly different. Noah’s glamorous, romantic view of the city, one which employs wide tracking shots and emotionally intense close-up shots, makes us remember Truffaut, Goddard or Woody Allen (“Manhattan”), whereas Lefleur takes a strict formalist approach, allowing the frames to convey the ineffable emotions and keeping the expository dialogues to bare minimum. Baucmbach & Greta Gerwig (co-writer) goes for a quirky comedy, while Lefleur uses absurdist, deadpan humor that brings to mind the works of Jim Jarmusch. Baumbach conveys the sense of youthful restlessness through his well-crafted montages; Lefleur imbues a lackadaisical, quizzical mood through his static visual compositions. Both the film-makers are intent on rendering the movie as ‘timeless’ ( we rarely see technical gadgets or discussions about it in the films).

                                          Frances Halliday is a 27 year old New York girl, apprenticing for a dance company that seem to offer no better prospects for the future. Nicole Gagnon is a 22 year old girl, living at her suburban Quebec house, who is unable to find a better work place than a charity clothing store. Frances is a whip-smart girl, who had read lot of literature although she has this tendency to say awkward things during awkward encounters. Nicole is an insomniac, who doesn’t say much. Despite being repeatedly beaten down by life, Frances moves through like a bundle of energy; she uses all kinds of expressions to talk about her inner feelings.  Nicole has a comfortable yet dull life, and her monotonous face only stages subtle emotions; a little curling of lip, the slow shifting of eyes should be keenly watched to get into Nicole’s inner psyche. Frances has ‘undateable’ characteristics, while Nicole withholds few ‘unlikable’ elements. Nicole is more petulant and acidic than Frances. From a viewer’s perspective, both Frances and Nicole are recognizable, relatable and of course extract our empathy.

                                           The real conjoining factor, as in all slacker movies, of Frances and Nicole lies in their aimlessness. They are affected by purposelessness that brings a low-key rage in approaching the future. Their aimless nature is questioned on by the sudden maturation of their best friends – Sophie in “Frances Ha” and Veronique in “Tu dors Nicole”. On paper, Frances might seem like a happy-go-lucky girl, while Nicole may come off as the perfect grumpy girl. But, on-screen Greta Gerwig and Julianne Cote transcend those inherent characteristics to showcase a perfectly-defined wistfulness. May be Frances explains her yearning (in the beautifully written and deeply felt monologue about what she wants in relationship or life) better than Nicole, but their emotional beats are intricately layered.

                                          The girls’ plans are broken, flirtations and friendships go awry, and their assumptions are repeatedly challenged. But, these are something we naturally expect from a slacker genre, even though what makes these plot strands to stand unique is the deft characterization of Frances and Nicole. All these regular elements are loosely structured around the respective phenomenal performances, so that we see it is as the natural, awakening aspects of their extended adolescence. While Frances is still the same Frances at the end of the film, Nicole is hinted to have witnessed a jolt that has awakened her from the queasy slumber. May be the ‘geyser-blasting’ end might bring some fresh perspective for Nicole to approach her remaining youth life. As for Frances, she seems to have reached a point to brazenly encounter heartbreaks as well as adulations. And, she has still retained the ‘Ha’ amongst the uncaring world.   

                                              Overall, I think anyone who has experienced the temporary limbo state between adolescence and adulthood could relate with “Frances Ha” and “You’re Sleeping Nicole”.

45 Years [2015] – An Old Couple Traverses through Emotional Landmines

                                              You don’t need a cacophony of piping noises or lucid, long passages to showcase the emotional maelstrom and the pain of nostalgia felt by a character on-screen. You just need great performers, who could convey the character’s moods in a non-dramatic way. Andrew Haigh’s restrained relationship drama “45 Years” (2015) is blessed by such performers – Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Haigh’s feature film debut “Weekend” (2011) showcased the early stages of a gay relationship between two young men, but with “45 Years”, Haigh has chosen completely opposite story line involving older straight couple, who were about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. The film terrifically depicts how cyclical waves of past griefs and memories could gradually erode the decades of bond between loving couples.  

                                            Relationship dramas rarely travel away from Rom-com genre to present us a genuine, perceptive and unfulfilled side of relationships or marriages. While “45 Years” not only stumbles onto the bitter side of a marriage, but also withholds a complicated situation at its center, which profoundly talks about our notion of memories.  Adapted from David Constantin’s short story (“In Another Country”), the film opens on a cozy, countryside atmosphere. Former factory manager Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) and his wife Kate Mercer (Rampling), a retired school teacher live in relative affluence, although the childless couple spend their time thinking about smaller choices in life. The one immediate thing they had to decide about is what to serve or what song to play for the upcoming 45th wedding anniversary party. Geoff seems like a putterer, while Kate seems clear-eyed. Their initial conversations and unspoken gazes perfectly show us the habits of an archetypal, old & wealthy married couple, who seem to acknowledge each others' flaws and continue to live in contentment.

                                         These initial frames might make us think that this is an average domestic drama. But it’s not. An ‘elephant’ has already entered into the cozy rooms of this couple’s house. That ‘elephant in the room’ arrives in the form of a letter. In that letter, written in German, it is stated that the corpse of Katya had been found preserved in ice. Katya was Geoff’s sweetheart, 50 years before, and she disappeared into a fissure in the ice, while they both were on a hiking trip in the Alps.  Katya was in Geoff’s life before he met up with Kate. So, it seems there’s not much to threaten an old marriage bond, although Geoff becomes so quiet and rattled from the moment he reads the letter. He later conveys that he was listed as the next of kin for Katya, an information Kate says that Geoff had never shared with her.  Gradually, the old couple tries to evoke their own freezed memories about the relationship. A simple song, pressed flowers on a notebook and old photos link up and ask big doubts about their marriage. There’s not a single major dramatic incident in the plot’s course, but with each disentangled, profound truth, the film becomes immensely intriguing.

                                          Director/writer Andrew Haigh subtly establishes the couple’s quiet, peaceful life and then elegantly pushes a ‘ghost’ into the plot that keeps on expose their vulnerabilities and doubts. There’s a recurrent reference to photographs, which sort of becomes a stand-in word for old memories. Photos do freeze our past, confined to a place, whose context might get slippery over time. Old photos or newly remembered memories can hit us with a wave of nostalgia, from which we could extraction a satisfaction that we have led a good life. But, what if those things solely indicate the missed opportunities or doubt over the choices we made in life. Then the old memories & photographs could become a ‘ghost’. In “45 Years”, the specter named ‘Katya’ (whom we don’t even see clearly in the photos) casts a suspicion that is so intricately calibrated. Retrospective jealousy is something we rarely in movie characters, which is carefully etched with the character of Kate.

                                         The emotional fall down is sequential and yet looks natural. Initially, Kate says “I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed, can I?" Then while taking to her friend Lena on how there’s slight changes in Geoff’s behavior, she utters “he gets over-passionate about things”. She’s trying to reason out or understand her life partner. And, finally when the secret comes to light, she chillingly says “It’s like she’s [Katya] been standing in the corner of the room all this time, behind by back; it’s tainted everything”. Director Haigh cleverly uses visual motifs like closing doors or attics to demonstrate how the emotional troubles keeps on getting heightened. Perhaps Katya being encased in an ice (and the information that she is perfectly preserved) becomes an obvious symbol of the couples’ impending sense of misery. Most importantly, neither Geoff nor Kate is shown as unsympathetic or acidic. It is absolutely evident that they love each other, which isn’t makes their disquiet more distressing. There are also no unnecessary subplots to make things contrived.

                                      As a writer, Haigh puts forward some beautiful dialogues (like the scene where Lena says on why Kate and Geoff need the anniversary party), but he as a director isn’t intent on capturing the dialogue deliveries; he rather concentrates on the reactions of characters to the words spoken. In one occasion, we see Geoff lucidly remembering on what would have happened, if Katya had survived and they had made a trip to Italy. Haigh’s shot in that scene focuses on Kate’s reaction and as words keeps on pouring at the end little emotional ripples on her face. And may be the understated emotional reactions exhibited by Courtenay and Rampling are what gives me a thoroughly engrossing experience. Even the smallest of gestures from the veteran actors expresses battle of emotions.

                                          “45 Years” has one of the phenomenal endings in the recent cinematic history (it also made me remember the impactful ending of Christian Petzold “Phoenix”). It is an assemblage of finest piece of acting and directing. The whole film seems to have build up to that moment, where we see the disquieting closeup shot of Kate’s face. A little slip in the filming of the final, anniversary sequences could have robbed the cliff-hanger sort of culmination. There’s a touching speech by Geoff and a beautiful song, where the lyrics seems to sum-up the couple’s life along with the present uncertainties. Slowly, despite the loud claps, the camera settles on Rampling’s face. Will there be another wedding anniversary celebration? Can they get past the feeling that made them question their whole relationship? We can make up our own theories. But, the uncertainty that lies in the final shot conveys a lot about the realities of relationship and on life too.

                                       At 95 minutes, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” brazenly and vividly focuses on the confounding aspects of a good relationship. The lack of high tragedies and presence of in-articulated, deep emotions may not interest many, but I feel that this is a ‘grade A’ cinema.


A War [2015] – A Compelling and Profound Meditation on Battlefronts

                                                  Tobias Lindholm’s Oscar nominated Danish feature has a very simple title – “A War” (2015). And as title suggests, it deals with the conflict wreaked upon a landscape as well as on one’s inner-self. Men with guns kill each other; their wives become depressed shut in; and children cry or act out. If one is to explain the plot trajectory of “A War” (aka "Krigen", we would feel that there is nothing new in the plot, except that it is a Danish soldiers’ point-of-view of the Afghan war. Denmark went with US and UK by 2002/03 to fight ‘war on terror’, which was the first battlefield for Danish soldiers in their nation’s modern history. But, what else a soldiers’ POV film could diffuse upon the viewers, apart from arriving at an endpoint to state ‘war dehumanizes a human being’. And, Lindholm’s third directorial feature, of course reiterates this age old statement, although the way he puts forwards his characters and their emotions is so compelling to behold.   

                                              Unlike the majority of American war movies, “A War’s” protagonist isn’t a rookie soldier, who thinks war is only about getting the bad guys. The central character is Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), who is a commanding officer with a resolve to take more patrolling jobs to uphold the withering morale of his company men. He has just lost a 21 year old guy, blown to pieces by a landmine, in what was to be a regular patrol routine. At home in Denmark, Pedersen’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) has a tough time in caring for their three young children. Of the three, the middle child Julius is acting up (creating troubles at school) because of his father’s lengthy absences. Pedersen, the thoughtful and persuasive guy, tries his best to understand the family troubles as well as to keep his men safe. At one point, he says that their job is to root out the Taliban and protect the civilians.

                                            Pedersen tries to engage with the locals on a basic human level. But, the exact methods to protect the civilian population remain elusive as Pedersen, driven by protocol, declines shelter to a innocent family, which is threatened by Taliban. Next day, driven out of emotion, Pedersen takes few of his men to check on the family and to root out the enemies. However, only chaos erupts during the patrol. And, an incorrect command is given, out of the desperation to save few lives. Pedersen soon returns home, but a threat of facing a prison term accompanies him.

                                            In his previous directorial attempt, “A Hijacking” (2013), director Tobias Lindholm took upon the premises of a hostage thriller and transformed it into a layered, psychological drama. He was also the writer behind Thomas Vinterberg’s emotionally exhausting films “The Hunt” and “Submarino” (also one of the screenwriters for exemplary Danish political drama series “Borgen”). So, Lindholm always keep emotions and characters at the forefront, while his plot looks very simple on the outset. He gradually imparts those subtle emotions with a profundity that avoids us from passing comfortable judgments on the characters. It is very easy to find a caricatured version of each of the characters (particularly from Hollywood movies) we encounter in “A War”. The emotional troubles of Maria never reach an overly dramatic arc. The wearied patience of that character is perfectly emoted rather than expressed through large words. The mischief of the three kids come off genuine on camera. The way Lindholm amalgamates two spheres of plot’s course (Afghan & Denmark) in the first two acts, with sharp realism may not give us an immediate impact, but with the arrival of courtroom scenes, all those previous, little personal experiences of the characters makes us to perfectly understand the moral dilemmas posed. To put it simply, Lindholm puts us into a moral minefield, whose existence we are aware of only after getting through the early subtle portions.

                                       Of course, the director/writer isn’t so ambiguous about whether we should root for Pedersen or not. Despite his wrongful action, we empathize with him and the family. When Maria says “Never mind what you should have done, the important thing is what you are going to do now”, we are absolutely aware of what the outcome of the trial would be. So, through the courtroom sequences, Lindholm traverses to pursue thought-provoking questions about war by disclosing few of the emotional ambiguity. Najib Bisma’s (played by Dar Salim) testimony profoundly shows how a good soldier could be forced to take a bad decision due to his empathy. In fact, Lindholm’s idea with that scene is to exhibit how elusive a term like ‘good soldier’ could become. War film protagonists usually tend to claim madness for losing their emotions. Here, it is the opposite and that is what makes the scenario more haunting. In the climax, the inevitable happens, although the director doesn’t finish it with a false note of triumph. At the very end, Pedersen briefly looks at his child’s foot and then goes out in the dark for smoke. Is he just gazing through the darkness? No. He is looking into a metaphysical void which isn’t going to provide him any relief. May be waging wars are like gazing into metaphysical emptiness.

                                          “A War” (110 minutes) takes an often told soldiers’ point-of-view tale and transcends it with admirable emotional ambiguity and thoughtfulness. It is a necessary watch for anyone interested in the sober analysis of war.


The Fencer [2015] – A Conventional Drama Salvaged by Winsome Kids

                                              Finnish film-maker Klaus Haro’s Estonian/Russian language movie “The Fencer” (2015) [Finland’s entry for Foreign Language Oscars) could be easily understood without the English subtitles. It’s not that this is a movie that relays its themes through sequences of stupendous imagery; it is just the kind of film that employs familiar tropes which you might have seen in at least dozens of Hollywood movies. “The Fencer” is box-ticking in various ways: Did this have a handsome protagonist in a state of quandary? Yes. Does this film have a beautiful actress who only serves as hero’s romantic interest? Yes. Is there a cute kid in the narrative, who sees our hero as a father figure? Yes. Does the script include a despicable sycophant, who is intent in maintaining the status quo? Oh yes! Despite such fairly predictable and little annoying plot structure, there is something positively infectious about watching an ‘inspirational’ drama, where world-weary, but wide-eyed kids eagerly wait to learn a path of virtue from the grown-ups. That is what made me to forget that “The Fencer” is an Oscar entry movie from a country that makes profoundly-layered films and also to forgive its conventional script (only to an extent).

                                             The film is partly based on the plight of champion fencer Mr. Ender Nelis. He was drafted by Nazi Germany during its occupation of Estonia in World War II. When Soviet Union boasted its power on Estonia after 1945, Ender had to run into a small town in the Baltic region, where the inquisitive eyes of KGB might not reach. The fact that the film’s protagonist is a man ‘on-the-run’ is established in the opening shot as Ender Nelis (Mart Avandi) is followed by the camera, while walking through a bedraggled Soviet-Union controlled Estonian town named Haapsalu. It is early 1952 and Ender ends up taking the jobs as sports teacher in a school, where the meager sport equipment are often shared with military facilities. Nelis couldn’t stand the propaganda recitals of head-teacher (Hendrik Toompore) and also isn’t good in handling children.

                                         A cute and curious little girl Marta (Liisa Koppel) and a sulky teenager Jaan (Joonas Koff), who lives with his grandfather (played by “Tangerines” fame Lembit Ulfsak) changes our protagonist’s constricted attitude. And, of course there’s an attractive, fellow teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp) who provides ample motivation for Nelis. Despite the tyrannical head-masters’ warning that fencing is an elitist and anti-socialist sport, Nelis includes fencing courses in his sports club. The eager kids, in order to be liberated from the gloomy life (most of the kids have lost their father or both parents to the war), embrace Nelis’ fencing classes. Due to the lack of equipment, the students simply use sticks. As the head-master begins digging into Nelis’s shadowy past, the school’s fencing team gets an opportunity to participate in a national competition, held at Leningrad, which for Nelis would be like voluntarily entering into ‘Lion’s den’.

                                       As I mentioned, the script (written by Anna Heinamaa) moves with little surprises and settles on a conventional formula, although it hits the right notes from a simple, emotional front. The children Jaan and Marta makes up for the movie's emotional core and the kids’ lucid performances attracts our attention. The drab palette used to denote the broken-down Soviet society provides enough atmospheric help to root for the underdogs’ battle. The final sports sequences at first looks like a boiled-down version of “Karate Kid”, even though it’s captured better by avoiding faux, chest-thumping emotions. The final sequence also pits Marta against a big & skilled city boy, which is an obvious metaphor for Endel Nelis’ struggle against the intimidating bureaucratic machine. Apart from the predictability factor, the one galling phenomenon about the film is that we never get to know about Mr. Nelis’ and his motivations. He is heroic and says the usual words like “I have been running all my life”. Avandi, who plays Nelis looks and perfectly plays the part, but what makes this fencing club founders’ life different from the usual taciturn-loner-turned-inspirational-figure?

                                        “The Fencer” (95 minutes) is a well-crafted, fairly entertaining, but a very predictable ‘David-Goliath’ drama. It will be remembered as the film that made into short-list of 2016 Golden Globe nominations and long-list of Oscar nominations and apart from that it has nothing unique to remember.


Dheepan [2015] – A Simmering Social Realist Drama

                                                 Jacques Audiard is fondly called as ‘French Scorsese’ by art-house audiences around the world. Like Scorsese, he likes to observe the outsiders or outcasts of the society. Audiard’s protagonists hail from the lower rungs of society. A gangster in “The Beat that my Heart Skipped”, a young Arab prisoner with an intention to become a mafia kingpin in “A Prophet”, a bouncer in “Rust and Bone”, and ex-convict in “Read my Lips”. He most often takes a simple, generic plot and mixes his own brand of lyricism and violence that becomes strangely beguiling. Audiard’s earlier films like “See How they Fall”, “A Self Made Hero” and including “The Beat…” had charismatic, well-known French heroes, whose characters plunged deep into the underbelly of a social institution. But, with “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone”, even the actors were outsiders (Tahar Rahim & Matthias Schoenaerts), whose day-to-day survival and emotional healing became a far more high-wire act. With Palme d’Or winning “Dheepan” (2015) Audiard selects an inexperienced, unknown actor as his protagonist to offer an empathetic portrait of a refugee, trying to adapt to an exhausting daily grind.

                                             Probably the first question one might have after watching “Dheepan” would be “Did it deserve to win a Palme d’Or?” Why Audiard’s most subdued and leaner film was was bestowed with a prestigious award, when he more than deserved it for “A Prophet”? (In that year Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” took Palme d’Or). “Dheepan” certainly didn’t satisfy me as much as Audiard’s “Prophet” or “The Beat…” There are some bewildering and overly conventional plot elements, which doesn’t create as much impact as Audiard wanted it to be. But, if we could forget the post-Cannes buzz and see “Dheepan” as a micro-level extension of Audiard’s favorite themes (poverty, violence and redemption), we could connect with the refreshing aspects of the film. First of all, it is bold and even insane to make French film, set in France, where characters predominantly speak in Tamil language. Audiard’s impeccable aesthetic details along with agitated performances of the leads are the strongholds for the movie.

                                             “Dheepan” opens on a parched landscape, littered with palm trees, where Sivadhasan (Jesuthasan Anthonythasan), a LTTE warrior stands with an empty look as the dead soldiers are cremated. He had already lost his wife and children to the civil war and now seeks to flee from Sri Lanka. A woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivisan) wanders through refugee camp, searching for an orphaned child. She finds a 9 year old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and with Sivadhasan, the trio becomes a faux family, hoping to find a better life in Europe. The passports are of a demised Sri Lankan Tamil family and so Sivadhasan becomes ‘Dheepan’—meaning ‘man who illuminates’. As the faux family gets into the boat, Audiard superbly cuts to multi-colored lights, blinking in the dark and gradually the shot comes into focus, and we see clearly that it is a set of flashing bunny ears, which Dheepan is wearing on his head to sell it on the pavements. Later, when he goes to his cramped-up apartment (where the woman posing as his wife and the little girl lives) and tries to get a little sleep, he dreams of an elephant in the jungle. If the name “Dheepan” indicates the irony of what our protagonist has become, the ‘elephant’ may denotes his past traumatic & violent memories (elephants are known for their power & memory).

                                             Soon, Dheepan finds himself in an urban jungle, where his faux family finds lodgings in a disused section of public housing. He works as a caretaker and on the horizon he sees trouble in the form of local gangs, who all are peddling drugs. He is often shoved off and witnesses low-level abuses (we hear him being called ‘Mowgli’). ‘Daughter’ Illayaal is enrolled into a public school and ‘wife’ Yallini finds a job to take care of a paralyzed oldman, who is the uncle of apartment block’s gang leader Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). Yallini has selfish motive to leave for England, to live with her cousin, but the three learn to function as a family and they begin to genuinely care for each others' well-being. Dheepan tries to love and to integrate into a society with a set of modest goals. But, in that gang-infested land, mayhem arrives as Brahim is released on parole. Although, Brahim is not portrayed as a demon (he even talks like a gentleman with Yallini), he has his businesses to take care of, which indirectly makes Dheepan to reach his breaking point.

                                             Sivadhasan aka Dheepan Natarajan has the typical characteristics of an Audiard hero. But, in certain ways ‘Dheepan’ stands apart from Malik in “A Prophet” or Thomas in “The Beat…” Both of those characters were diffused with the easily identifiable Scorsese or Brian De Palma’ protagonist elements. Their past trauma and present emotional quandaries remains apparent through the dense script structure. However, Dheepan’s characterization offers no such concession. All the violence, love and neglection, Dheepan has faced in the past is expressed more subtly and demands viewers full attention. The way he often scans the horizon, the manner with which he tries to settle in on the job or tries to love or the way he clamorously calls for a ‘no fire zone’ (and even the means by which cries after hearing the jubilant Illayaraja song) says something about his past and longing for a present, which isn’t as mainstream to understand as in Audiard’s other central movie figures. Anthonythasan who plays ‘Dheepan’ offers a virtuoso performance as the man capable of extreme violence and effervescent love. Anthonythasan, an ex-rebel turned expatriate (better known by his pen name “Shobasakthi”), had played only one minor cinematic role in “Sengadal” (which was banned by Indian censor board). The film also offers a strongest female lead for an Audiard movie (with the exception of Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone”, the directors’ films lacked women characters, who hold their own space). Kalieswari Srinivasan as Yallini steals the spotlight often, especially in the scenes she converses with French gangster. Her performance is well improvised that at times, we feel her character transitions are more graceful and grounded than that of Dheepan’s.

                                               As in the ‘Bon Jovi’ song, Audiard’s script (written along with Noe Debre and Thomas Bidegain) states that ‘the more the things change, the more they stay the same’. When Dheepan fought for failed sociopolitical reasons he lost everything he loved and now when he founds a new love, once again things take a course, where fighting becomes inevitable. The emotional arc of the character seems to be a mixture of Travis Bickle and Paul Kersey (“Death Wish”), but Audiard keeps this subversive story element at the back and projects the script as a love story with a darker core. When the plot traverses as a love story or as immigrant drama, Audiard’s execution and minor transitions remain brilliant. But, when he narrows the story to concentrate solely on the vigilante aspect -- by the third act -- the tonal changes remain a bit jarring. Illayaal’s emotional troubles are totally kept out of range in the final act, as the feelings of a neglected child are reasonably addressed in the beginning. The literally explosive, Travis Bickle style violent confrontation in the end is executed with a admirable vigor, but it didn’t provide a greater impact as the film’s early, subtle portions. And, the more conventional epilogue feels a bit out-of-place, although Audiard might have designed it to remain as uplifting.

                                               “Dheepan” (115 minutes) is far from being Jacques Audiard’s best work, but the film-makers’ splendid visual motifs and rich central performances makes it a compelling drama. The film’s understated emotional intensity may leave many viewers in the cold.