Sunday, August 25, 2013

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy - Angels in America

A still from Angels in America
Sometime around Oscar season this year, I became aware of the existence of a man who goes by the name Tony Kushner. His name kept popping up every time they mentioned Lincoln, the biopic directed by Steven Spielberg. Kushner was the screenwriter for that film, having previously written Spielberg’s Munich. While I hold the latter film in high regard, I am yet to watch Lincoln. After the Oscars, Kushner’s name was relegated to the boondocks of my memory. Until of course, I encountered his legend all over again.

This time, it was during an impromptu screening of the TV show Inside the Actor’s Studio. The host of the show James Lipton had formally introduced the cast and creative team behind my all time favourite sitcom Will and Grace, and had just begun interviewing Debra Messing, who plays Grace in the series. As Debra recalled her advent into theater and the arts, she dropped Kushner’s name. No doubt, there was something phenomenally important Kushner had contributed to the growth of Debra and artists like her.

I knew my fate was sealed as it wouldn’t be long before I’d set out on yet another artistic manhunt, in search of the definitive work(s) that edified Tony Kushner. On a whim, I happened to look for the grand finale of Six Feet Under (SFU) on YouTube. Just so you know - SFU was one of my favorites in the category of Drama. I fondly remembered its opening theme composed by Thomas Newman, who I had revered since the time of The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Here’s the link to that episode of SFU:

Having choked up on the episode that depicts the end of everyone and everything on SFU, I chanced upon Thomas Newman’s exhaustive repertoire. I realized he had also scored the soundtrack to a critically acclaimed TV show called Angels in America, which was an adaptation of a Tony Kushner play that went by the same name. Well, there wasn't much to it, the next thing I knew I was hooked on to the six-hour-long cinematic magnum opus – Angels in America (AIA) – written by Tony Kushner and directed by Mike Nichols.

The HBO production of AIA is considered to be one of the most successful made-for-cable movies of all time, led by a stellar ensemble of actors comprising Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Mary Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson and James Cromwell among others. The story is set in New York, 1985, in the backdrop of the Reagan administration and the outbreak of AIDS. Chronicling the lives of homosexual men, both in the closet and out of it, and the lives of those around them, getting by in a time of nagging socio-political upheavals, Angels… makes for an immensely compelling and rewarding movie-going experience.

I will go out on a limb to vouch for the quality of writing in this film, which elevates the material into the realm of an all-time American classic. Kushner, a gay man himself, conveys the pathos of rejection, the fear of impending death, the subjugation of justice and morality, the ambiguity of political persecution and the life-affirming power of love and forgiveness in this epic tale that unmasks humanity in all its dehumanizing and humanizing aspects.

I haven’t had the good fortune of witnessing AIA as a stage play, when it ran to packed theaters in America. But thanks to Mike Nichols, a wizard no less, who is in splendid form, post his success with The Birdcage, I am lucky enough to be able to see this great work of art on film. As it’s become the standard with me, I won’t divulge anything about the plot. If I have taken the trouble to pen these words about a seminal work of art, it might as well be worth your time.

P.S: Fans of Alan Ball would find a recurring motif in his works, especially in the final act of a great TV series or film. Like the use of the song I Just want to Celebrate by Rare Earth in the aforementioned video from the final act of Six Feet Under. Or the use of the song The Seeker by The Who in the closing act of American Beauty. It's like a celebration preceding doom. Completely wicked and way beyond super cool. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Devil in the Details - Only God Forgives

Vithaya Pansringarm as Inspector Chang in Only God Forgives

Off-kilter gangster flicks are really cool things to watch, purely for the daring. It takes guts to tell a story without opting for cliches and bow-tied conventional endings. A film I remember is Sexy Beast, that Cockney-laced cocktail of a criminal masterpiece from Jonathan Glazer. Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Don Logan goes down as one of the finest in my list of onscreen bad guys. That was until a few weeks ago, when I was blown to bits by Only God Forgives (OGF), the new film by director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas.

OGF is a strange film considered even by my hard-boiled standards. It's a saga of revenge set against the forbidding neon-lit landscape of Bangkok. I couldn't care lesser that the plot was wafer thin, for it isn't the plot that makes this film. It's the performances, especially that of a certain actor who manages to arm-wrestle the rest into oblivion. Refn's movie features Thai thespian Vithaya Pansringarm in the role of Inspector Chang - a protagonist masquerading as an antagonist. Or maybe it's the other way round.

Inspector Chang is the one solitary voice of reason in a world numbed by anarchic cacophony. His presence is single-handedly worth the price of admission.  Chang disburses justice in a swift, remorseless fashion, not unlike that of famed detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) in Training Day. However, unlike Alonzo's howling wolf among sheep metaphor, Chang is a man who lets his eyes do the talking. He doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say, which is strange as you still cannot take your eyes off him.

He also scores brownie points for being probably the only policeman in the history of cinema to have a penchant for karaoke, not withstanding Bollywood (phew). You have to see it and hear it to believe it, but Chang's rendition of a popular Thai pop song can tear at your heart like a machete through a slice of cheese. It's by far, my favorite scene in the film. Soundtrack junkies can feast their ears on a brilliantly ambient score composed by Cliff Martinez, who'd collaborated with Refn on Drive. You can catch a slice of the OST here:

Speaking of strange gangster flicks, a few moons back, I had seen yet another one of those weird and crazy films - Seven Psychopaths. I have seen offbeat crime films before. And when I say offbeat, I am referring to the strangeness in which the narrative moves forward. Prior to Seven Psychopaths, I had seen William Friedkin's Killer Joe, based on the play by Tracy Letts. That was a confounding and enriching experience in many ways. Watching Seven Psychopaths, I was in turn, reminded of Sidney Lumet's brilliant Before the Devil knows you're Dead.

It's hard to even begin talking about such films without giving their plots away. But they nevertheless deserve the attention. Why such films intrigue me is because I can sit back rest assured that I'll be taken on a journey I've never been before. At times, I don't mind the senselessness of it all. I don't mind the grey power it takes to interpret such movies. And I love the idea that every time I expect the director to do something I predicted, he can surprise me and say, "You know what? We could do something different for you."

Come out, come out, wherever you are - The Conjuring

Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring

I wasn't a great writer to start with, in spite of what my few well-wishers may have you believe. At best, I might have been or rather would have been a mediocre writer. As I see, there is ample room for mediocre writers in this town. Mediocre has seemingly become the new exemplary. Sticking to that notion of ordinariness, I have now mustered the courage to pen what I believe are my thoughts concerning a brand new spook fest that goes by the suspicious title of The Conjuring. It's an extraordinary little film that I had been warned against watching on the big screen. And as is customary, I had summarily dismissed the warnings as all too inconsequential. BIG mistake.

The Conjuring ended up giving me a Big Kahuna migraine bang in the middle of the night, and ensured its images stayed with me for the better half of the day that followed. When people tell you that the film is replete with old school scares, you might do well to brush up on your fundamentals of fear, in case you've gone rusty. Maybe you could go back and revisit the horror flicks that scared the pants off you at an age when fear still meant something. I had entered the theater with trepidation. In fact, I did want to experience fear. And the film dished it out in spades, and then some.

As usual, there are going to be no spoilers here. Those hoping for a quickie can stick around. I am also aware that revealing too much about the film would ruin your experience. So please forgive me if I veer off from telling you about the bare bones of the plot. I'd still suggest you go in with as minimal information as is humanly possible to garner prior to such screenings. The opening tells you that the film is based on actual events that took place in the 70s. How much this affects your interpretation of what transpires on screen, is purely relative to your belief in the supernatural.

Skeptics might have a field day and theologians may argue their socks off. But it's the unsuspecting viewer who might end up as the biggest casualty here. The film is a potent testament to the power of manipulation as employed by those behind and before the camera. By the way, for those who haven't even caught the trailer of the film, stay away from it. There's a huge boo moment in the trailer which ranks as one of the spookiest moments in The Conjuring. You'd be doing yourself a great disservice if you happened to catch that scene on anything other than a 70 mm screen.

One of the epiphanies that I have had during and post the screening of the film is that a good horror film is as hard to construct as it is to create a great work of comedy. Knowing what makes people laugh is hard enough. But knowing what genuinely scares people is even harder. It’s not torture porn or gorno that I am referring to here. It’s a genuine sense of being unnerved, a notion of being unsettled, the idea that pure evil lurks around the corner, devoid of a tangible demonic or quasi humanoid form that dispels any notion of comfort or closure. Isn't it just a fact that what we fear most is what we do not understand?

Now I realize I haven't even scraped the surface of the film and I have been ranting on about everything but the story. But I guess that's something I'd prefer leaving to the viewer to discover for themselves. But I must leave you with one observation. Looking back in hindsight, I might regard the proceedings as the figment of a very febrile imagination. However, while you’re there in the theater, I can assure you, none of it will appear to be a make believe concoction. You will sincerely pray and wish for a speedy resolution, when the time comes. I can only hope that it’s a swift and possibly amnesiac trip for you.

PS: For the geeks in the crowd, there's a certain prop/visual reference used in The Conjuring that had served as a leitmotif in director James Wan's previous work of horror. It's a sitting duck of a clue, but do leave the answer in the comments. Would be fun to see if you found it. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Spaced out Oddities

Ezra Miller, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I just saw this movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, yesterday. I laughed. And I cried. Oh, and I love Emma Watson. And the whole cast of the film. Oh, and yes. Watch out for the tunnel scene and the prom scene. The tunnel scene is, by far, the happiest moment captured in any film this year. Oh, and by the way, the director and screenwriter of the film also authored the book on which the movie is based. Stephen Chbosky. I haven't figured out how to pronounce it yet. I guess I should just leave it at that. The bigger review, in case I feel like it, will follow shortly. 

P.S. It doesn't hurt to have a kick-ass soundtrack with David Bowie on it. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

An A+ for Orgasm

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in a scene from The Sessions

Today, after an extended hiatus of more than six months, I have brought myself to kick-start my film blog, all over again. And there couldn’t have been a better film than The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin, to bring about this Freudian rebirth. I had the utmost honour of watching it yesterday night after postponing it numerous times for no reason in particular. Now having seen the film, I consider it my duty as an avid film-goer, to write about it, in the hopes that some of you might be prompted into watching it, and hopefully be affected and moved by it in a good way. 

To tell you a little about the film, The Sessions is inspired by the real life story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who had spent the better part of his life on the whims of an iron lung machine. Mark, played by the remarkable John Hawkes, had suffered neck down paralysis after succumbing to polio during his childhood. Despite his near vegetative state - his body is capable of sensations, but his muscles just wouldn’t respond – Mark’s indomitable spirit earned him a university degree in Berkeley and he went on to become a campaigner for the rights of the disabled.

At the centre of this film is Mark’s innate and all too human need to find love. He’s never experienced physical intimacy in the four decades of his existence. As he touches 40, Mark feels an overpowering urge to lose his virginity. He confides to his priest, Father Brendan, “I think I am nearing my ‘USE-BY’ date.” The role of the padre is brought to life by William H Macy, an actor, whose range defies expectations time and time again.

The answer to Mark’s prayers comes in the form of Cheryl, a professional sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. If you haven’t guessed it by now, the title of the film refers to the therapy sessions that Mark undergoes with Cheryl to help him achieve this goal. I must confess, it’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to analyse a film based on a subject as sensitive as this. And it goes without saying that I need to be as careful (if not more), as the filmmakers in conveying my ideas without sounding crass or exploitative.

I will try my best to keep it short and pithy, so that you can spend lesser time reading this and more time catching up on the films mentioned here. From its opening scenes, it becomes clear that this is one of those films that look minuscule from the outside. But its ambitions are nothing short of revolutionary. For it’s not an easy task, to strip down a story about love, to its bare bones and approach it with an almost matter of fact informality.

John Hawkes paints such a believable and empathetic portrait of Mark that it’s hard to convince yourself at times that the actor is an able bodied, fully functioning adult male in the real world. The insecurities and the fears that plague his character are the ones that gnaw away at the psyches of ordinary men in any corner of the world. When he laments to his friend - Father Brendan, that ‘She loves me, but not just in that way’, it echoes the angst of the everyman, whose advances have been spurned by the object of his affection.

However, Mark is redeemed by the virtue of his self-deprecating humour and his indefatigable courage in the face of a disability that could have gotten the better of him. One of the biggest achievements of this film is that it completely does away with the guilt factor that accompanies such narratives. The differently-abled are depicted with a dignity that is so often denied to them. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the actors might have been milked for every ounce of melodrama from the proceedings.

Here, there's no patronizing and there's absolutely no pandering to the need for exhibiting the differently-abled as anything but human. My jaws were left wide open as I heard a certain supporting character in the film, a wheelchair bound young man mouth these lines (sic), “I have an intense affinity to smoking weed. This has almost desensitized my tongue to the point of numbness. However, this is a good thing when it comes to oral sex, because I can go on and on forever; because in the end – cunnilingus is all about stamina.”

This is just one example of the forthright and frank manner in which sexuality is addressed in The Sessions. There are enough and more scenes in the film that will remain embedded in your memory long after you have seen them. I won’t spoil them for you. What I will tell you is that this movie belongs to Helen Hunt. I haven't seen a more courageous performance by a female actor in recent memory. She imbues her Cheryl with a humanity and strength of resolve that questions the very foundations of our beliefs concerning sexual intimacy and that nebulous thing called love.

Cheryl’s no-nonsense approach to work becomes clear when she tells her client Mark that, “I’m not a prostitute. I do not come back for repeat business. There is a limit to the number of these sessions. In our case, it will be six.” By the way, Cheryl happens to be a middle-class American in her 40’s, married to a stay-at-home philosopher of a husband with a teenage son. The onus of being the sole breadwinner of the family does weigh heavily upon Cheryl. But not once do you see her lashing out in frustration, whether on the home front or the work front.

The tenderly poetic scenes that transpire between Mark and Cheryl are shot with a single-minded doggedness in pursuit of the truth of the human condition. It could barely border on titillation. When one of the characters in the film rebukes Cheryl by telling her that ‘you said you wouldn’t make it personal’, the viewer is reminded of the sad irony that crops up in all such matters concerning intimacy. The fact remains that the human sexual experience is an intensely personal, one-of-a-kind phenomenon that refuses to be bracketed or straitjacketed by manmade constructs of social and moral orderliness.

Try looking at it from a clinically objective vantage point and you’ll find its contents spilling over into a completely personal and subjective terrain. And that is something Cheryl realises when Mark asks her at the end of one of their sessions, if she was able to come. Mark’s innocent but purposeful query raises even more questions than I can possibly wind my head around. Is Cheryl’s orgasm independent of Mark’s experience of consummating his desire? If it were merely the question of losing his virginity, wouldn’t it just suffice for Mark to achieve an orgasm, irrespective of whether he has returned the favour to his surrogate? Can Cheryl experience ecstasy at the hands of Mark and deem it to be a completely impersonal and professional exercise, denying any sort of natural bonding that such unions inspire?

I think it would be appropriate to just leave you with those questions. I do not have the answers and I don’t intend to go searching for them as well. Partly because, I do not know if I am ready or if I have the moral strength or conviction to comprehend the answers that such pursuits entail. Please do not nurture a grouse on account of my having altogether ignored the role of the brilliant supporting actors in the film including William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood and many others. I strongly believe you’d enjoy their performances even more if I didn’t say a word. Or as Father Brendan would have said, “I understand, even among non-believers, the most common expression of sexual ecstasy is ‘Oh God!’”

Footnotes:  In case you are interested in knowing, given below are a few memorable films that feature protagonists pitted against seemingly insurmountable physical obstacles:

Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone
Last year’s highly acclaimed French drama from Jacques Audiard Rust and Bone featured Marion Cotillard playing a whale trainer in an amusement park, whose legs get amputated in the aftermath of a horrific accident. The film boasts of heartbreaking performances from both its lead actors. Marion especially deserves kudos for her role as she attempts to discover what it feels to be human all over again.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Julian Schnabel’s breathtakingly magnificent film is based on the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor in chief of Elle magazine, France, who suffered near complete paralysis after a stroke. The title role is played by the charismatic Mathieu Amalric in a career defining turn, as a man who can communicate using only his left eye. His flashbacks which involve memories of him making love to his wife are some of the most transcendent scenes ever captured on film.

The Sea Inside

Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside)
Alejandro Amenabar directs this poignant recreation of the last days of Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro. The incomparable Javier Bardem plays the enigmatic poet, who's been battling the government for the longest time to allow him a dignified death of his own accord. The film features one of the most exemplary uses of the legendary Puccini’s Nessun Dorma in what, I consider to be the greatest fantasy sequence in cinema.

Monkey Shines

Monkey Shines – An Experiment in Fear
George A Romero’s sci-fi horror flick features one of the very first and finest examples of portraying an intimate relationship between a disabled protagonist and his partner. Texturally the film comes across as a cheesy B-movie with average actors and production values. But the love scene in this film dares to push the envelope in a gratifying way.