Mountains May Depart [2015] – An Inadequate but Compelling Study on the Throes of Capitalism


                                       Ambitious Chinese film-maker Jia Zhangke’s “Mountains May Depart” opens with a high-angle long shot of what looks like a dance club. A group of young Chinese men and women are exuberantly dancing to the tune of “Go West” (Petshop boys’ version) as the camera zooms in slowly. The song promises a bright future, a new beginning; to be ‘together’ in a glorious consumerist, western capitalist society. The camera then zeroes-in on the central character Shen Tao (Zhao Tao), a fresh-faced independent woman, leading the dance celebrations. It is 1999 spring and the nation is celebrating the birth of new Chinese year. Consumerism, materialism, and thriving globalization have brought vigor to the Chinese culture and are subsequently and gradually followed by the growing disparity between poor and rich.


                                        The self-confident, scooter-riding Tao (from small inland Chinese town) is pursuing the modernization, keeping her Chinese identity intact. Her comfort in the ‘west’ only multiplies her feelings of love and innocence. She is surrounded by twin poles of men: childhood friend Liangzi (Liang Jin Dong), a worker in a local coal mine; and Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), a rising capitalist. Both men love Tao. Liangzi is a soft-natured guy, whose future looks shaky due to job insecurity. Jinsheng is a crankier, aggressive guy, who’s interested in showing off his new status symbol – a red Volkswagen Jetta. May be Tao loves Liangzi, as he is her close friend and seems like her kindred spirit. But, Tao can’t dismiss Jinsheng’s raising status and the ‘joyful’, materialistic life he could offer. While showcasing Tao’s dilemma or pain of losing one for another, director Zhangke keeps the camera fixed on Zhao Tao’s empathy-generating, bereaved face.




                                       Eventually, guided by the new way of thinking she chooses the ‘right’ man for her, and the director’s execution is flawless that we won’t judge Tao for her decision. Tao regrets deeply when Liangzi leaves the town forever to be a migrant worker. She marries Jinsheng and few years later give birth to a son, whom Jinsheng insists to be named ‘Dollar’. Up to that point, the movie is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, and the first 45 or so minutes seems to be just a preface for the upcoming divides between peoples living in a consumerist society (the title “Mountains May Depart” appears after the end of first act). Now it is 2014. Liangzi’s stint as a mine worker has highly affected his health. He has a family (a caring wife and a toddler son) and so decides to cast aside the old stubborn attitude, regarding the decision of never moving back to his old hometown. After the move, Liangzi meets a friend to seek some help for the medical treatment. Alas, times are not good for any working men.



                                           Liangzi hears that Jinsheng has evolved into a big-shot, living in Shanghai and that he has divorced Tao. The expected dramatic arc, however, doesn’t happen after the meeting of old friends, Tao and Liangzi. Zhangke chooses to offer different perspective. Little later, the director broods over the displacement or disconnection of Tao’s son ‘Dollar’. This third act is set in the year 2025 and 19 year old ‘Dollar’ (Dong Zijian) is living with his free, irritable dad in Melbourne. He’s searching for his identity by learning Chinese language. He and his father communicate through ‘Google Translate’. The grand high-rise building and white, smooth interiors of the materialistic land seem as repressing as the emotionless beings inhabiting them. Dollar doesn’t remember his days spent with mother Tao and to keep his emotions intact, he develops a friendship/oedipal relationship with an divorced, older college professor Mia (Sylvia Chang).    




                                           Director/writer Jia Zhangke punctuates his directorial approach with deliberately confusing details (like the falling of aircraft from nowhere) or elucidating brief moments (like the image of ‘caged tiger’ hinting at outside forces beyond one’s control). He has a wonderful eye for framing the soulless, post-industrialist Chinese landscapes or the horizontal, empty spaces. Romance in the materializing/materialized society is the central theme of “Mountains May Depart”, although there’s no particular center or established narrative arc for the movie. Jia Zhangke in an interview (to mubi.com) states how he started this project, back in early 2000’s with no script, but went onto shoot some footage (with the camera having ratio of 1:1.33). The old footage was integrated briefly in the first act and Zhangke says that was one of the reasons for opting to shoot the preface in 4:3 aspect ratio. Zhangke’s approach gives a clear picture of where his focus or attention lays. The transition happening in homeland plus the effect it has on common people is the basic layer or foundation for his works. The characters, their conflicts, and a rounded-up narrative arc become secondary to his approach. The end result is a fragmentary cinema, which should be experienced only for its ambitious themes and restrained visual style. In fact, Zhangke’s themes in “Mountains May Depart” dominate characterization and narrative that the emotional attachment is very less. In his previous movie “A Touch of Sin”, Zhangke constructed string of tales, inspired from tabloid news stories. Anger or rage set the perfect tone for dramatizing the Chinese society, spiraling down into the blood-filled dysfunction. Here, Zhangke approaches with a tone of elegy, but his unconventional flourishes either wanders into melodramatic territory or remains impossibly dry.




                                              The 2025 consequence is loaded with profound meaning. It speaks of the negative consequences in a society, where humans solely take decisions based on globalized, consumerist mentality. Love and other basic human emotions or human relationships are driven by materialistic needs. It shows how money can’t save your love or bless you with new purpose in life. The experiences of young ‘Dollar’ in this segment is based upon numerous real life accounts, director Zhangke had heard from Chinese people, living overseas, totally disconnected from their identity. The other commendable aspect of this episode is how Zhangke laments for loss of identity through the loss of language; not through other decorated, hollow words like ‘race’, ‘socialism’ and ‘history’. The young Chinese people’s inability to learn their mother tongue alienates them from parents and this break down in communication even becomes a force of oppression (on the youngsters). The emotional (& sexual) awakening of ‘Dollar’ through his friendship with old tutor is a nice touch. It tells us how true feelings of love have brought up Dollar’s submerged thoughts about his birth mother, while the wealthy, confined society had made him bottle up the thoughts about mother. There might be deeper meaning, waiting to be unearthed in this episode, but at the same time this ‘future’ episode is also the emotionally uninvolving episode of the three. I don’t know if it is the performance or selection of actors or an overly melodramatic approach, my patience and attention devolved in this part of narrative. The emotions weren’t as deep as the themes.



                                                The meandering, dis-satisfactory ‘future’ sequences also make us cherish the marvelous, tear-jerking performance of Zhao Tao (wife of Jia Zhangke). Zhao Tao perfectly embodies director Zhangke’s idea to portray change in emotions in relation to rapid rise in economic development and technologies. Like other vital characters, her character too isn’t designed in a robust manner, but Zhao Tao transcends the flaws in characterizations & narrative in those first two episodes. The mid and close up shots, covering the agony in Tao’s face keeps us interested in her plight. She makes two vital, life-changing decisions based upon freshly gained bourgeois mentality. Tao’s choice of relationship and feelings of love are dictated by her materialistic pursuit. She chooses Jinsheng over Liangzi, and in 2014 Tao is facing the consequences for that. Later, when seven year old ‘Dollar’ visits Tao, she takes a look at the boy’s wealthy, materialistic surroundings (through the pictures in iPad) and decides to sacrifice her love for the ‘well being’ of Dollar. Once again, the idea of ‘well being’ is dictated by wealth; not love. So, the misery Tao inflicts upon her is done by own choice. On further contemplation, these choices should actually make a viewer hate her or at least judge her. But, thanks to Zhao Tao and Zhangke’s restrained approach that we actually end up sharing and even relating with her misfortune. Our lonely heroine, at last walks her dog to an industrialized, snow-falling landscape and repeats the same dance moves, we witnessed at the joyous first scene. Her moves seem to balance the liveliness and inherent sadness, and it gradually became hard for me to contain the tears. Tao’s dance promises us hope, but also laments for the lost joys (due to meaningless pursuit of materials), and the (Go West) song’s lyrics calling for ‘togetherness’ in the capitalist Western land only comes off as a parody. 

Trailer




                                                “Mountains May Depart” (126 minutes) is a flawed, yet fascinating feature that keeps us in a wistful, thought-provoking mood to reflect on the dire effects of consumerism on our emotions and decisions. It would have been a masterpiece, only if it was more emotionally involving. 


My Favorite Movies from the Year I Fell to Earth




                                     “We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds” said the great movie critic Roger Ebert. The medium of cinema is one among the many things that helps us to break through the limitations either we voluntarily embrace or placed upon us. Cinema has and will continue to enlighten my thought process. Along with great literature, the cinematic art had made me ponder over my finite life period in this vast, infinite universe. It has provided me the much-needed comfort when loneliness and depression had persecuted my mind; or jerked me out of the comfort zone to understand and explore the unfamiliar. 

                                       I was born on June 23rd, 1987. And, what else would a cinephile (with a blog would) think on his birthday other than come up with a new movie list for his small circle of readers? So, here are my 23 favorite movies from the year I arrived at Earth:

1.        Nayakan     [director: Mani Ratnam]

2.       Full Metal Jacket    [dir: Full Metal Jacket]

3.     The Last Emperor   [dir: Bernado Bertolucci]

4.     Withnail and I      [dir: Bruce Robinson]

5.     Empire of the Sun   [dir: Steven Spielberg]

6.    The Untouchables   [dir: Brian De Palma]

7.    Goodbye, Children  [dir: Louis Malle]

8.    The Cyclist     [dir: Mohsen Makhmalbaf] 

9.    Wings of Desire   [dir: Wim Wenders]

10.   Matewan      [dir: John Sayles]

11.   Red Sorghum      [dir: Zhang Yimou] 

12.   House of Games   [dir: David Mamet]

13.   Pelle the Conqueror    [dir: Bille August]
(Pelle the Conqueror had its world-wide release and got screened at Cannes only in 1988. It got released in Sweden and Denmark during Christmas 1987. My love for this movie had me to include it in this list, taking into account its domestic release date).

14.    The Dead     [dir: John Huston]

15.    Blind Chance    [dir: Krystzof Kieslowski]

16.   Broadcast News   [dir: James L. Brooks]

17.   Hope and Glory    [dir: John Boorman, Lasse Hallstrom]

18.   Ten Little Indians    [dir: Stanislav Govorukhin]

(Russian adaptation of Agathe Christie’s famous novel)

19. Where Is the Friend’s Home?    [dir: Abbas Kiariostami] 

20.  Babette’s Feast   [dir: Gabriel Axel]

21. The Princess Bride   [dir. Rob Reiner]

22. Predator   [dir: John McTiernan] 

23.  Planes, Trains & Automobiles    [dir: John Hughes]


Dead of Night [1945] – An Essential British Horror Classic


                                                 Horror anthologies are hard to pull off. All it needs is one insipid story to lose viewers’ interest and the whole framework would look like a charade. Apart from Amicus horror anthologies (“Tales from the Crypt”, “Vault of Horror”, “Asylum”) and George Romero’s “Creepshow” there hasn’t been many good horror anthologies with the ability to sustain a sense of dread from first to last. Recently, interlocking tales of highway terror “Southbound” (a little Twilight Zone-esque) turned out a better, cohesive narrative. But, I think this sub-genre’s one and only masterpiece is the British movie “Dead of Night” (1945), made by the famous Ealing Studios. Its format of compilation was also unique for its time as four different directors (Alberto Calvacanti, Basil Dearden, Charles Crichton, and Robert Hamer) were employed for different segments. Each segment stands as a testament to the film-maker’s strengths, who later went on to make many British classics. Although the stories may seem out-dated (one or two is weak) the directors’ visual approach (diffusing atmosphere of chaos & fear) to create haunting mood may serve as fine lesson for young film-makers.


                                                 Ealing Studios is one of the great production houses in the history of cinema. The studio introduced many influential British directors (or at least gave an elevated platform for the great British film-makers) and made plenty of meaningful entertainment movies, unlike the humongous Hollywood studios of the era.  During the World War II, Ealing studios made quite a lot propaganda films, but decided to break the routine when Britsh Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted its ban on horror films. The real world horror was slowly reaching for a threshold point that the board allowed to produce harrowing movies. Ealing Studios gathered around some of the excellent British actors of the time – Michael Redgrave, Mervyn Johns, Basil Radford – along with four good directors. Of the four, Robert Hamer made his directorial debut with “Haunted Mirror” segment. Hamer went on to director some excellent works like “It Always Rains on Sunday”, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, “School for Scoundrels”, etc.




                                               Unlike many horror/supernatural anthologies, “Dead of Night” (1945) had a good linking narrative rather than be a simple, hollow framing device.  The film opens with architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arriving to a beautiful country cottage in Kent. He has a sense of deja vu, the minute he takes a turn in the road and sees the house in full view. Craig is guided inside by host Elliott Foley (Roland Culver) and meets other different types of British inhabitants in the cottage: Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychoanalyst who approaches everything with rationality; Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), a race driver; cheery 14 year old Sally O’Hara (Sally Ann Howes); an independent woman Joan Cortland (Googie Withers); and Foley’s mother (Mary Merall). Walter watches every one of them with a bemused look which is easily adjudged by DR. Van Straaten. Walter says that he had been to this cottage and met every one of them in his recurring dream, although he had never heard about or seen these people in his reality.

 

                                               At first he couldn’t recall what happened in his dream, but gradually it comes to him. He predicts some women will come to the house asking for money. Every one laughs at this, but Grainger’s wife (Jude Kelly) enters the narrative asking him for change. Later, Walter also states that this dream will fully turn into a nightmare (a violent one), but the reason for it he doesn’t know. While, other guests brood over Walter’s deja vu and claims, Dr. Van Straaten stands firm and attests there must be some rational explanation. One by one from Grainger, the guests start to relate their own encounter with supernatural presence. The man of science is sidelined despite his usage of psychiatric terms. At last the doctor too narrates his own bizarre experience from a non-paranormal perspective, and it is perhaps the most haunting tale of the series. The dark tales eventually lead to well-designed hallucinogenic trip and a fine twist.




                                              No titles are embedded to divulge the title of the stories, but they have been called as: Hearse Driver (narrated by Grainger), Christmas Story (Sally O’Hara), The Haunted Mirror (Cortland), The Golfing Story (Foley) and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy (Doctor). The basic framing story of Walter Craig is skillfully directed by Basil Dearden (“Sapphire”, “Victim”) drawing in the audience to a unique, intriguing situation. The wraparound segment also got to be one of the best nightmare sequences in cinema.  Dearden also directed the first story ‘Hearse Driver’, which sets the perfect uncanny, haunting atmosphere. Based on E.F. Benson’s short story, the ‘Hearse Driver’ is a nice precursor to the ‘Final Destination' films. The second story narrated by 14 year old looks slight and as many complains ‘weak’. Nevertheless, it is delicately shot (by Calvacanti) with expressionistic images of shadows, to further the macabre atmosphere. The third story about upper-class English couple and their mirror was directed by debutant Robert Hamer, which must have influenced numerous horror stories in creating fear through multiple reflections.  Foley narrates the 4th story stating it’s about his two golfer friends. Directed by Charles Crichton (“The Lavender Hill Mob”, “Hue and Cry”, etc), this story is considered to be the weakest link, since it is a supernatural comedy. While the other three guests before Foley narrate events that have created a everlasting impact on them, Foley just wants to cast off the dark mood by coming up with totally unreal tale of risque comedy. Horror movie aficionados may dismiss this story, but Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne combo provides a good comic relief. It also sets up stage for Dr. Van Straaten to come out of his firm beliefs and narrates the most memorable episode of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere. Directed by Alberto Calvacanti and elevated by Redgrave’s stupendous performance, this final tale has provided many visual references and inspirations to later generations of film-makers (the end image of the tale may have cast a spell on Hitchcock while making “Psycho”).




                                                 Each of the stories are written and directed by different people, but they all marvelously conjoin to not make us feel it as collection of disparate tales. To put it simply, these tales may have its lowest points but they never make us tired. Thematically, all the stories (including Craig’s linking story) talk about some kind of repression and fear of psychological imbalance. The accident, haunted room, mirror and dummy seems to be a representation of emotional repression (some are sexual in nature). The unraveling of fractured realities in each story may really have a rational explanation. All the four craftsmen in the film, not only create the unnerving atmosphere, but also have distinctly handled these recurring themes. The distressing, obscure ending still possesses the ability to incite debates. There might not be single production sheen added to the picture, but the knowledgeable performers keep it engrossing enough (also it is important to judge the performance and its production value, considering the obvious fact that it was made in 1945).


                                                “Dead of Night” (103 minutes) is a highly influential and entertaining horror anthology picture. It contains one of the greatest single episodes in any horror anthology. And, each vignette stands on its own and is perfectly entwined to the main thread.  

 

Prisoner of the Mountains [1996] – A Simple Tale on the Commonality of Human Condition


                                                 Russian film-maker Sergei Bodrov’s humanistic fable “Prisoner of the Mountains” (1996) is based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story “Prisoner of the Caucasus”. Caucasus, a barren landscape alternately swept by breeze and bitter winds. The people enduring the hardscrabble life in the region have also held on to generations of conflicts, commenced by Russian colonizers and other oppressive forces. The region’s marvelous chants, tunes and balalaika masquerades bloody battles and eye-for-eye hatred. Director Bodrov updates Tolstoy tale to be set in a remote Muslim village (in the 1990's), not far from the disputed regions of Chechnya, fighting for total autonomy from the Russian Federation. “Prisoner of the Mountains” is a simple, universal tale about the absurdities of war. The narrative is neither provocative nor unique, but never fails to stir our heart & mind in its 99 minutes running time. I recommend this movie for two reasons: for the way it rejects to sugar-coat the conflict's brutality (which could be perceived as a critique on colonizers); and for witnessing the screen presence of beautiful 13 year old amateur actress Susanna Mekhralieva (her placid face could annihilate all the murderous, evil thoughts).


                                                 Flamboyant Russian army sergeant Sacha (Oleg Menshikov) and a new army recruit Vanya (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) along with other Russian soldiers cruise through Caucasus region in a tank. The small group is ambushed by local rebels. In an ensuing, not-so-well staged gun fight sequence Sacha and Vanya are taken as prisoners by rebels. Normally they would also be killed at gunpoint, but their capture is meant to be used as bargaining tool by the village patriarch Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze). He wants to exchange the two Russian soldiers for his son, who is held in the nearby Russian camp. Sacha is an abrasive man looking for the right moment to cut out their captor’s throat, while Vanya reaches out to the people and is enamored by the place & its culture. Vanya, the military novice, also develops a mutual friendship with village patriarch’s young daughter Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva). Although the broad strokes of the plot seem predictable, director Bodrov imbues little details that thrive in an unpredictable manner.




                                               The two Russian prisoners are held in a livestock barn and watched over by old villager, whose tongue was cut out by the Russian soldiers. The exchange between Russian soldiers and the villager moves with a light sense of humor. It seems like both the parties have warmed up to each other, but then comes an unpredictable moment where we are proven wrong. In another scene, the Russian soldiers observe the village men’s party, when suddenly young Vanya is ordered to fight with a local champion – a big, boisterous fellow. The little moment that ensues next isn’t what we expect to happen. There are many such significant as well as insignificant details that keep up our interest in the narrative despite the predictable framework. Director/writer Sergei Bodrov and co-writer Arif Aliev are highly critical the colonizing stance of the Russians in Caucasus region (Bodrov never clearly states that his film is about Chechnyan rebellion). The villagers are often represented as ‘bandits’, ‘non-Russians’, etc. Sacha and other high command Russian soldiers repeatedly warn about the violent, savagery attitude of Chechen community, while the Russians perpetually inflict all sorts of violence on the people. It is a common trait among all the colonizers to instill false, negative traits upon the colonized subjects. This misconstrued negative identity is what feeds off the enmity. The stark contrast in the final activities of Sacha and Abdul-Murat closely scrutinizes these false identities created by colonizer.




                                              Sergei Bodrov first introduces us the peaceful, mountainous village in wide-shots and at times offers brief glimpses of the local cultures. The framing of Russian soldiers, their tanks and weapons often represents the negative impact it has created in the villagers’ way of life. Abdul Murat’s quest to win back his son is depicted as a last resort. Here, Abdul uses the same violence of his colonizer to make them understand. The little subplot involving Mamed, a Chechen working as police officer for the Russians, and his father talks about the conflict of a different kind: one between colonized subject and the opposer. The disconnect existing between Vanya and Sacha’s Russian identity is also subtly depicted. Vanya feels no connection with the colonizing ideology and at some point tells his dream about coming back to the same place, but not as a captor. Sacha simply comments“This is war. We have to kill all of them”. The way Sacha bellows while shooting a gun and cries when hearing the patriotic march song speaks of his ingrained Russian identity or belief in colonizing ideas. Vanya is more humanistic and his hands are good at repairing watches or making wooden birds than holding guns. Despite such nuances, what stop “Prisoner of the Mountains” from being a great movie is its erratic tone and the aforementioned broad, predictable framework. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended for its celebration of compassion over brutality. The other significant reason to watch the film is for its casually rendered performances. Sergei Bodrov Jr. offers a very natural and relaxed performance as Vanya. He went onto offer fantastic lead performance in Aleksey Balabanov’s “Brat”, but unfortunately died on an avalanche accident in 2002. The non-professional village actors don’t give any false moment in their performances. The girl Susanna, in her only movie role, exudes an alluring innocence that sticks with us long after watching the movie.



                                            “Prisoner of the Mountains” (99 minutes) is a well-told, bittersweet tale on ethnic hatred and conflicts. It is insightful and treats every character with compassion, unlike the grandiose as well as hollow American propaganda pictures. 


Eye in the Sky [2015] – A Pulsating Thriller on the Grey Areas of Modern Warfare


                                         It’s been more than a decade since the Western democracies have commenced the ‘War on Terror’. But, at least for the past five or six years, reports often surface that the US War on Terror is the leading cause of terrorism around the world. The US government and military officials may play the same tune: “our actions is what helping you to stay in safety”, while more vile terrorist organizations like ISIS, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, etc rise from the US ‘noble’ effects to contain terrorism. Along with ‘War on Terror’, words like ‘rules of engagement’, ‘enemy combatants’, and ‘collateral damage’ are tossed around to hide the Western democracies’ own dispersal of terror. US and Britain take great pains to use these terms in order to conceal their terrorism unfurled upon innocent civilians. With every display of their superior weaponry like drone strikes, these majestic democracies only happen to create more terrorists. The military and political system of US thought schools their pawns to place every individual around the world on an ideological map and observe them as little grey dots on a video game. Gavin Hood’s terrific thriller “Eye in the Sky” (2015) serves as a visual analogy to the ethical minefields, plaguing the modern warfare. It shows us a war that has no national boundaries and the one in which even moral boundaries are perpetually changed.

                                        “Eye in the Sky” is riddled with disparate persons, linked by phones, video screens and satellites. They argue about the damage and gains of conducting a drone operation on a dilapidated house, situated near a sparsely populated market area. The mission at first was to capture a radical UK citizen Susan Danford aka Ayesha Al-Hady and few other extremists in a suburban Nairobi neighborhood. She and others are in the official ‘kill lists’ approved by both US President and British Prime Minister. But Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) objective is to capture them alive and bring back the British citizen to stand on trial. Aiding Powell and others is the unmanned aircraft (drone), 2,000 meters above Nairobi. The Colonel is tracking down the action in Nairobi from a dark, concrete bunker, situated outside London. Senior British army General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) watches the action from Whitehall with members of British Prime Minister’ administration.


                                             The drone is controlled by US Air base in the Nevada desert. Steve (Aaron Paul) and Carrie (Phoebe Fox) are assigned to be control drone’s eyes from a windowless trailer in the air base. The intelligence and surveillance experts are at US naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to make positive identifications about the people, coming in and out of the Nairobi house. On ground, under the orders of British allies, Kenyan military operative Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) observes the high priority targets. Despite all the high-tech surveillance gadgets, signal strengths and perfect approach to the capture, a small change in the plans from the terrorists’ side sends the mission to be ensnared in ethical gray areas. Susan and the men shift to a house, situated in the part of city, controlled by Al-Shabab militants. Farah intelligently gets through the militants controlled area and his surveillance only brings back shocking news to all the persons involved in the capture mission. Now the intent to capture transforms to ‘targeted assassination’. The high command people want the controller of eyes, Steve to get ready to strike at the ‘house’. While the targeteer has worked out the collateral damage and every one is ready for the strike, in comes a nine year old girl (Aisha Takow) to sell bread near the doomed house. 


                                               Veteran screenwriter Guy Hibbert must be commended for his ability to diffuse the moral contradictions and complexities of drone or modern warfare, while also constantly engaging the viewer on a basic level. He also highlights the inherent inabilities of all these modern technologies to effectively contain the terrorism. Director Hood and Hibbert understands the impersonal nature of drone warfare and the unimaginable impact it creates on low-level operators, but at no point they use it to force in the moralistic messages. In fact, the film addresses the common comment of drone strikes being a hollow gesture. The words said by Rickman’s Benson towards the end points out how the impersonal tone and dissociate nature in warfare hail high above from the persons who govern rather than among the men/women who just follow orders. The script isn’t without its flaws or missteps. The movie opens with a little girl playing hula-hoop in the broken-down corner of a house, situated in the middle of slum area. The narrative inter-cuts to the girl’s daily activities, the pressures on her family, etc and we guess that the girl’s immediate fate is going to be springboard for the movie’s moral messages. But, Hood and Hibbert for the most part of the narrative, stays away from taking that route.


                                              The snippets we are constantly offered about the girl halts at one point and she’s only seen through the surveillance camera like the perspective of military and government officials. The insightful arguments and counter-arguments in those decision-making rooms are based upon assessing the cost of a single life. Gradually, the weight of accessing the cost of the girl’s life is placed upon us too (no just from a sentimental whim). Only the slow-motion denouement and crying soldiers seemed to be far-fetched and sentimental, but Gavin Hood clearly didn’t want to be so subtle on the subject matter (or may be it is a much-needed mainstream sheen). “Eye in the Sky” is the most satisfying directorial venture for South African film-maker Gavin Hood after multiple-award winning movie “Tsotsi”. He finely mixes up some satirical elements like Iain Glein’s UK Foreign Secretary to break the uncontrollable tension. Hood also clearly establishes the interpersonal and political dynamics of the characters on-screen. Great care has also been taken to not render anyone as a monster hiding behind a button or camera. Everyone is portrayed as fine individuals, which is what heightens the impact we feel at the end. The performances realize the tension without a single glitch. The steely determination of Helen Mirren and the perfect expression of disdain from Alan Rickman are perfectly used for the movie’s two best characters. And, Mr. Rickman also has the honor to deliver the movie’s best lines (“Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war” – and it is also the last line delivered by Mr. Rickman on celluloid). 

Trailer

 

                                             “Eye in the Sky” (102 minutes) is an impressive and highly engaging cinema that tackles complex political and ethical issues without providing any easy answers. It may seem to re-tell the good-old statement ‘in war there are no real victories’, but the way it tells it is so unexpectedly hard-hitting. 


Eddie the Eagle [2016] – Generic? Yes, Entertaining? Hell Yeah!


                                        British actor/director Dexter Fletcher’s inspirational underdog story “Eddie the Eagle” (2016) starts as usual with the tag that follows around sports biopic pictures – ‘based on a true story’ (nowadays even ghost stories boast that tag too). In traditional sportsmen biopic, this tag is kind of a warning to not ‘google’ and find out about the life of this particular person before watching the film. Since, 9 out of 10 times, you will be scratching your head wondering about the accuracy and perspective of the true events portrayed on cinema. The poster, plot and actors in “Eddie the Eagle” have clued me in on what to expect from it. I know the existence of Winter Olympics, although I haven’t grasped any details on ski-jumping. I haven’t heard the name of British ski jumper Edwards before reading the plot of this movie and most importantly I was really intrigued because the movie had Hugh Jackman, neither playing Wolverine nor an agonized human being. “Eddie the Eagle” is the kind of underdog story which reminds you of ‘ignorance is bliss’. And in return for your ignorance, you get quite a few inspirational lessons and good entertainment. The feelings of those who expect a formulaic story with abundance of charm will soar like eagle and land safely, but those questioning its schmaltzy elements or nearsighted conventions will only feel like the person hitting head first at the ski floor.


                                          British plasterer Eddie Edwards only learned skiing in his early 20’s and traveled through a wildly unconventional path to represent Great Britain in Calgary Winter Olympics 1988. The champion ski jumpers usually learn skiing, from the age of five or six and they have the best coaches. So, Eddie had no chance from the beginning and all he had was tenacity, determination and lovably goofy aspiration. At 1988 Winter Olympics, Eddie actually became a B-list celebrity, who despite breaking the British record twice (actually not many Britishers tried ski-jumping since 1929), came last in both the ski-jumping categories. The media loved his antics to try and portray as adventurous simpleton. Eddie became the example for ‘taking part not winning is important’ line.  In the narrative, Hugh Jackman plays an imagined character Bronson Peary who coaches Eddie on his landing methods.




                                           The movie hits every formula you could expect it to hit. Are the well funded competitors portrayed as bullies and snobs? Check. Does the father crush Eddie’s dream and mother supports his dream? Check. Does the British Olympic Association is led by upper-crust men with sneering looks? Check (although this might be a true fact for many Olympic associations around the world). Is Bronson Peary a disgraced ski-jumper fallen into the perils of alcoholism before agreeing to coach Eddie? Check. With all such box-ticking formulas, you only wonder where’s the mundane romantic interest (may be a beautiful girl to equal Eddie’s klutzy nature)? But thank god and writers Macaulay & Kelton for not imbibing false romance. Nevertheless, “Eddie the Eagle” remains highly watchable due to its lead performance from Taron Egerton and due to fittingly broad directorial strokes.





                                           Egerton previously played confident, good-looking young man in World War I drama “Testament of Youth” and in saving-the-world movie “Kingsmen”. Here Egerton transforms him into an unabashedly plucky guy with big eyes peering through enormous glasses. With his presentation of Eddie, Egerton never turns the ski-jumper into a caricature or an object of ridicule. He gracefully diffuses the child-like naivete, awkward demeanor and ardent determination, eventually making us cheer for the man on-screen, although we have per-determined his path and adventures. Hugh Jackman exudes warmth and offers fine support to Egerton, although his role is thoroughly cliched. Director does his best to incite fun within the conventions. Yes, he embraces the routine montages, heroic slow-motions and paints everything as bright and breezy (and the movie is down-step when compared to Fletcher’s good debut feature “Wild Bill”). But, somehow Fletcher saves the movie from sinking deep into the sentimental swamp. The ski-jumps are well staged and have tried to instigate anticipation in each of the ski-jumps . The camerawork is quite in these elevated jump sequences, equally mixing vertigo and pleasure. In the end, Egerton and Fletcher seem like vital elements in not changing this movingly simple movie into a stupidly cliched experience. I also loved the electro score and triumphant soundtracks (whose names I don’t even know).


Trailer


                                             “Eddie the Eagle” (106 minutes) is simplistic, elementary, and formulaic, but still it boasts a undeniable, charming emotional intensity that keeps us entertained till the last frame. Like the real-life “Eddie”, the movie too won’t win any big medals or awards, although it cheered me a lot. 


Midnight Special [2016] – An Effective but Uneven Thrill Ride


                                               It's around midnight at Fort Worth, Texas and a local TV station is broadcasting news about a recent ‘Amber alert’ aka child abduction emergency. The abducted child’s name is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). There’s a shot of door’s taped up peep-hole, which is revealed to be a motel room, where all the windows are covered with duct-tapes. One man is looking at the news report and sees his name as the suspected abductee – Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). The other man named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) says ‘it’s time’. The news report also informs that the abductees could be armed and should be considered extremely dangerous.  In between the two beds, we see a kid on the floor, covered in a white bed-sheet, reading something with a flash-light on. After lifting the bed-sheet and removing the boy's big earmuffs, Roy with a distressed smile on his face says ‘It’s time, you ready?’ The boy is Alton and the calm look on his face makes us wonder if he had really been abducted. The other instant question in our mind will be: Why is this kid wearing goggles? The trio get into the car (1972 Chevrolet Chevelle), while the motel’s receptionist watches them, thinking about the news report on TV. Lucas drives and the  crackling voice from radio police scanner comes alive, passing the information about men driving in ‘Chevrolet Chevelle’. Lucas immediately turns off the headlight, wears night goggles and asks Alton to kill the flashlight (which he is using to read ‘Superman’ comics). A turbulent sound design mixes with a pulsating musical score, the car blasts through the darkness and mystery enshrouds us. Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi drama “Midnight Special” (2016) opens in this terrific fashion, driving in a gripping tone into the first 4 minutes of movie. The opening is like a lesson for any young film-maker on how to setup an engrossing mood & tension through economically limited mode of visual storytelling.


                                                 
                                         Yes, “Midnight Special” is not the best work of Jeff Nichols. It’s distinct identity gradually wanes away and the less dynamic script doesn’t help a bit in the second-half to gain narrative momentum. But, I enjoy watching Nichols’ movies. His crafty storytelling methods use a simple, earthy tone to amalgamate uncertainties. Nichols’ revenge tragedy “Shotgun Stories”, emotionally devastating “Take Shelter”, and coming-of-age tale “Mud” withheld ingrained social realism to also provide space for allegorical interpretations (for ex, “Take Shelter” being an allegory for economic ruins threatening contemporary American life).  The allegorical part of “Midnight Special” isn’t as profound as the director’s previous work (could the narrative be a parable for parenthood and death?), but it works to an extent as an engaging sci-fi, chase movie. As Nichols declared “Midnight Special” is homage to nostalgia-inducing sci-fi films – from Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of Third Kind” (1977) to John Carpenter’s “Starman” (1984). Nichols diffuses his trademark moral complexity, starkness, and adds little mythic quality to make it his own version rather than being a mere emulation.

                                              In “Take Shelter”, Michael Shannon’s Curtis has visions about Earth propelling towards a violent end. But, despite the perfect showcase of Curtis’ visions there would be an uncertainty that would keep the viewers to whether or not believe in his quest. The precarious nature of “Midnight Special” is quite different. Here, the characters and we too firmly believe in the boy protagonist Alton’s visions, although we never see what it is. The mystery is in the boy’s destination and the uncertain factors that could derail their journey. When it becomes evident that Roy is Alton’s father, freeing him from the judgment-day-awaiting, arms buying, religious cult, we could see that Roy is motivated by deep feeling of guilt for leaving him. What’s Roy past? What’s his relationship with the men at religious cult? Why the child needs to be saved? Why the FBI and NSA put out a nation-wide pursuit for an 8 year old boy? What vision did the boy showed to Lucas (friend of Roy) that has made him to leave his job as state trooper and be a fugitive?  Why is the boy ultra sensitive to sunlight? What separated Roy and his wife (Kirsten Dunst)? Some questions are answered, some are left open and some answers make us scratch our head in frustration.


                                               Nichols uses plenty of sci-fi tricks and neatly aligns them with a hint of surprise to give an entertaining experience for viewers. The precocious characterization of Alton reminds us of classic Spielberg characters than the pretentious shades in Shymalan or JJ Abrams’ characters. The presence of two male characters, one female and one boy is pretty much in the Spielberg territory and so are the staunch government men trying to figure out how a kid could make satellites crash out of sky. Adam Driver (a very likeable actor) as NSA analyst Paul Sevier is a trademark Spielbergian character. By the way, does the nature and deeds of Sevier is a representation of Edward Snowden? Or is Alton’s power and threat it poses for government should be construed as the persecution inflicted upon Snowden? May be there’s no hidden meaning; just my allegory-seeking mind playing tricks?


                                                In some ways Nichols deviates from sci-fi chase movies of 80’s. For one, the director keeps the focus on Alton and Roy’s mission rather than spending time explaining the mystery behind the boy’s powers or about the shining creatures of superior world. There is couple of stark shootout which we won’t find in those more audience-friendly old movies. “Midnight Special” is at its best when it wants to be a powerful tale of paternal love. As I mentioned, all the characters exhibit a firm belief in Alton and so they are past the point of self-realization or not seeking any emotional catharsis in the journey. They are just going through the motions. The only moment of crisis evolves when Roy feels that he has let down his son, but soon he relegates to the background and his feeling of guilt propagates nothing. Shannon, Edgerton and Dunst offers a fine performance, but that lack of sharp crisis makes their character to fall flat.  The presence of religious cult also offers nothing except to serve as stage for commence the journey. Nichols’ choice to design a whopping end was neither distinct nor attractive. It was like taking a bumpy but enjoyable ride to only reach at a destination that’s annoyingly bland. However, I liked the final ambiguous moment when Roy stares into sunlight with those ‘wonderful’ eyes and smiles.

                                                  Among all the misfiring elements in “Midnight Special”, I feel it is an allegory for unbridled parental love (although I first thought that it is a parable for faith). Not just the one between Jesus, Joseph and Mary, but parental love in general. It is about the heart-wrenching feeling a parent withholds when the child gradually separates from them while entering the adulthood. It is about the constant worrying the parent has for the child, although he/she becomes a grown-up. There’s a beautiful moment when kid Alton says to his father ‘you don’t have to worry about me’, to which Roy replies ‘I will always worry about you, that’s the deal’. Those lines effectively sum up the layer beneath the sci-fi tale. Apart from the derived images at climax, Nichols has imbued an energetic style with flawless execution. He has finely evolving into a master in churning out moody and brooding atmosphere.

Trailer

 
                                                “Midnight Special” (111 minutes) creates excellent dramatic tension with minimal visual frills. It isn’t the profoundly layered, ingenious entertainment I expected it to be, but still it is entertaining enough.