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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Drive

The unsmiling no-name no-nonsense protagonist who talks 3 words per minute, keeps going about his business until fate intervenes and a makes mighty mess his way. Then there are sudden bursts of extreme violence, which leave him mostly unruffled, that add depth, maybe charisma too, to his personality. We've seen Clint Eastwood don some of these in the 60s. Drive, starring Ryan Gosling directed by Nicolas Refn is a mature 21st century reimagining of that genre. While this is undoubtedly more mature and satisfying than the buttered popcorn action flicks that pop out of Hollywood studios, there's nothing for deep introspection here.

Consider this scene: the Driver (the protagonist is unnamed) is taking his neighbor Irene (in a wonderfully understated performance by Carey Mulligan) out on a date. Before they leave we hear the phone ringing. And in the car she says "That's my husband's lawyer. He says my husband will be out next week". A long silence ensues. The husband is in the prison. There's something blooming between the driver and the neighbor. The husband's return is obviously going to complicate things. I hate to use the word 'art' here, but usually in cinemas that allow for long pauses between conversations, like... er, arthouse productions, the director is giving the audience enough time to grasp and absorb what had just happened on the screen - a death or a divorce or an infidelity. Here, it doesn't even take two seconds after Irene's uttering - the audience know beforehand that the husband will be out of prison and the status quo will be disturbed. Why the long pause? This cinema has probably half the number of words compared with any other movie of similar running length. And I admit that the silence is soothing, mostly because it's better than filler dialogues. But it's important to distinguish between this soothing silence and a meditative silence where what transpires on the scene is deep.

The laconic and cold driver makes money as a get-away driver for the robbers who either don't have their own transportation facility or lack the skill to evade L.A.P.D on L.A roads. His rule is to just wait for 5 minutes outside the event, pickup the party and drop them off at a safe place. So when he realizes his pseudo-girlfriend's husband is in trouble to pay off his prison debts, a matter of few thousands, he steps in to help - the husband will steal and the driver will drive. There's no ulterior motive: not to send him to prison again; the help seems genuine. Makes one wonder what would have happened if the heist had gone right and their neighbors lived happily ever after. After all, the driver is, in more than one sense of the word, a hero. But shit hits the fan spectacularly. The husband is killed and the driver is on the run. We learn that it's no job for a small-time crook. A lot of money is involved and the mafia is behind it. Needless to say, some heads roll are pulped.

This film has got style - Ryan Gosling's minimalism, not just words, but expressions, Carey Mulligan's vulnerability as a single mother, the terrific score helping the noirish photography, non-commercial violence, enjoyable silence and more. But at the core, even though Refn has invested enough time in developing his primary characters, I really didn't care if they got together in the end. Now, I don't want a climax where the hero/heroine race through the airport and one of the people in the background say something romantic. But, even by the standards of neo-noir I had the least bit interested in the driver starting a new life with Irene. The objective here seems to be excellent filmmaking, not making an excellent film.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thorrible

It's hard to get the take-me-not-serious tone. Just not taking the writing & production values seriously doesn't provide the tone. Most of the dialogues are horrible. Sample this supposedly funny line:
Our dear friend is banished to Earth! Loki sits on the throne of Asgard as our King! And all you have done is eat two boars, six pheasants a side of beef and drink two barrels of ale! Shame on you!
Shame indeed. This happens when Thor is getting to know the Earth people and their way of life: after gulping down a cup of coffee in a diner he smashes the cup asking for more. When he's politely reprimanded by the girlfriend that Earth people order in a more gentle way, he nods in an understanding manner. Wow! I've seen superhero movies where the guy comes to our planet and does funny things not knowing how stuff works. But this writing is scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is stuff rejected in a screen-writing convention in Peoria.

When Thor, the god of thunder is stripped of his superpowers and pushed down to Earth, he faces a giant robot sent to kill him. It slaps him and he falls down unconscious. His girlfriend swoops him and cries not knowing if he's still alive. And at this moment, allow me to remark on the range of expressions she exhibits - played by Oscar winning Natalie Portman, she doesn't invest a quarter of the emotional sincerity expected of an actor for such a scene. She plays it like a high school drama and director knows that the audience know it's a tongue-in-cheek outing and doesn't bother to re-shoot the scene. This laxity, a sense "y'all here to chill" awareness on the part of creators works on a good script. But the script is fractured, childish, immature. Ironman nailed it in letting the viewer take a break in a charmingly intelligent way. With 'Thor', the break is a bit long, about 110 minutes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Black Swan

Warning: Spoilers.

Aronofsky likes to study characters cracking under pressure. In 'Black Swan' it's the beautiful, timid, perfect, frigid, fragile ballerina Nina Sayers played with exquisite control by Natalie Portman. Her personality makes her a great fit for playing the white swan in Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake', but to play the black swan, she needs to loosen up, get a bit out of the rigid boundaries she has set herself to excel as a performer. Lily, a laid back dancer who naturally embodies black swan in her gracious but beguiling movements threatens Nina, who's constantly worried about being replaced. As a crushing load of expectations begin to fracture her mind, the audience see things through her eyes, to be precise, her mind. (Which is why this is a mind-fuck movie for adults, and the neatly wrapped up 'Inception' is not.)

I don't know if the sex scenes from the movie are on high rotation on Youtube yet. There's nothing explicit - neither a view of a nipple nor a crotch. But the dreamy layer lends an eroticism that's more powerful than nudity. Are Nina's sexual explorations a symbol of her getting closer towards the black swan inside her? I tried to replay the scenes in my head after the movie was over: The ballet producer, played charmingly by Vincent Cassel, indirectly asks her to explore her sexuality so that she departs away her from 'little princess' image befitting the white swan. First Nina tries masturbation in her bedroom; before she can climax, she sees her mother asleep in a chair near her in her room and she stops her act. Then she tries in the bathtub; but this time its not her mother but her mental blockades scare her out of her mood. The director informs us that Nina's ready not only to accommodate, but to be taken over by her complementary twin, Lily, who exudes unshackled sexual energy expected of the seductress black swan, when she's able to fantasize and climax with Lily.

Sex is not the only symbolism in the film, though it was the only one that was quite complex and worked on a mature level. The next frequently used symbolism was the reflecting image. Almost every other shot has a mirror or a reflecting surface. Either the mirror image is doing something the actual person isn't doing (though I have to admit that the director doesn't opt for any cheesy boo shots) or the reflecting surface is a weak black reflection telling us what lies beneath. I thought the director went overboard in pounding the meaning through images. Then there's the expanding goosebump and the disappearing bloody patch, representing the struggle between the white and the black swan; this was the most cheesiest trick in the screenplay.

I particularly liked the interplay between Nina and her mother Erica (played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey). That there be no doorlocks in the house is obviously the mother's decision. In one of the earlier scenes, the ballet director asks Nina if she's a virgin and she responds no. But Portman plays this scene so wonderfully and Aronofsky directs this scene so wonderfully, we don't know if this timid girl is lying. The mother's decision to absolutely avoid all physical boundaries between her and her daughter partly arises from Erica's failure to shine as a ballerina herself because of her accidental pregnancy with Nina. A significant chunk of Nina's 'good girl, no sex' policy seems to be ingrained in her brain by her mother as a cautionary tale.

The director pulls off an expected, but satisfying climax by playing a trick on the protagonist's mind. Was it a cheap trick? It would be, if you're to flip through the pages of the screenplay. But the intensity of the camera, with it's grainy film closing up on Portman's face combined with an eerie background score adds complexity to her character, the narration, the movie as a whole. But I still don't like the very last scene, where the filmmakers leave it up to the audience to write their own ending. Aronofsky did that with Mickey Rourke's character in the 'Wrestler' and he does the same thing here with Nina's fate in limbo. It's not that I'm not capable of convincing myself if someone lives or dies when the closing shot is a bloodied body. It makes me feel cheated when the director strongly guides a viewer all along giving no room to wiggle and in the end shoves him into a wide expanse of possibilities.