Friday, February 20, 2009

Best Pictures at this Year's Oscars: The Winter of Discontent & An Unruly Millionaire

In this post, I review the four other films nominated for Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards (due to be held day after tomorrow, on February 22nd): FROST/NIXON, THE READER, MILK and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. I've also included DOUBT because even though it hasn’t been nominated for Best Picture, all four of its principal performers are up for acting awards. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has already been commented upon elsewhere. You can also read my film reviews at FLIXSTER and the IMDB websites.

You don't have to look like Nixon to portray him. That point was already proven by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's film of the same name. But while Mr. Stone's film was a biopic, this one focuses on only one- and also, what was to become the last- public chapter in the disgraced president's life.

In that sense, Frank Langella's role is far more difficult: he had to convey the entire meaning of a man's life by mostly sitting at an interview, and using nothing more than words and- this, I believe, is the key to understanding his performance- expressions; in particular, the way he uses his eyes. No, he doesn't cry or stare; he doesn't even look away; what he does is that he doesn't look at you. And that's telling a lot about the man he portrays. In the famous interviews, Mr. Langella's verbal evasiveness just doesn't sync with what his eyes are screaming aloud. David Frost, it would seem, already had his confession long before President Nixon uttered those famous lines; long before the interviews started, even.

I guess Frost's real brilliance lay in realizing this before anyone else- and then, risking everything he had to get the interviews. In making this aspect clear, Ron Howard's film makes a contribution no history book or archival footage possibly can. Nixon's confession wasn't redemptive for the American nation only; more importantly, it was an act of self-redemption for the man who made it.

Langella/Nixon doesn't admit this, but we can read it very clearly in his eyes.

The Reader belongs to Kate Winslet: she is quite simply superb. Everybody else, Ralph Fiennes included, slip into oblivion. The sex scenes are- how does one put it?- both erotic and disturbing. When the Kid (played by David Kross) asks her if she- a much older woman- loves him, she nods. But the nod is everything. It means no and yes and also 'are you kidding me?', all at once.

Her past is demonic, no doubt, but I suspect that the viewer will (like me) come out of the movie sympathizing with her. After seeing the film, the question that perplexed me was why did she kill herself? The most obvious answer is Guilt. Yet, I can't help feeling that it might be something else also. Why for instance didn't this Guilt consume her before? And whether this Guilt also included her abandoning- not loving- the Kid, which, as we discover, leaves him permanently petrified- passive and polite? But she couldn't have known all that, could she? Perhaps- and this is the only answer I could come up with- she was ashamed of not being able to read, so ashamed in fact that she chose to spend the rest of her life in prison than let people know this. Like Salman Rushdie wrote in 'Shame', if you tell the secret, it invites shame; if you don't, you are stuck with guilt. Kate's character chooses guilt.

That she couldn't read was the only secret she wished to keep as her own, having no qualms about admitting to her other more horrific misdeeds: it was indeed the defining characteristic of who she was, the one thing that made her, and what eventually becomes our key to understanding her. Ironically enough, once that secret is gone- she does eventually teach herself to read and write with the help of audio-tapes of books Ralph Fiennes' character sends her- she no longer knows her place in the world...

But we can never know the answer for certain, and that is what makes The Reader such a great, beautifully multi-layered- and might I add, secretive?- film.

The thing with biopics is that they tend to focus too much on their subjects even to the point of obsession, and in the process, they often ignore the fact that there are always at least two sides to every story. Milk is no different- and perhaps, it should not be. But when you go to see a Gus Van Sant film, difference is what you have come to expect (remember his mesmerizing opus on Columbine, Elephant): there is an unmistakable hypnotic quality about them. Milk is anything but hypnotic; at times, it becomes outright jarring.

And of course, it relies too much on the performance of Sean Penn: that is its principal strength but also, in my opinion, its main weakness. There is no doubt that Mr. Penn is a superb actor, the kind who quietly slips into his character's skin. In Milk, he doesn't seek to re-interpret- or worse, re-invent- his real-life subject; instead he blends himself seamlessly into his character. So yes: you can still discern traces of Mr. Penn's temperamental volatility in the determined if somewhat power-driven gay-rights crusader, Mr. Milk. This makes the film so much more interesting- as also the simmering tension between his character and Josh Brolin's, which lies at the heart of Milk.

And yet Milk is really about Milk, the politician, and tells us very little about his personal life. For instance, his lover (played by James Franco) is at best, two-dimensional. When he leaves him, we don't really know why. The script simply doesn't allow this aspect of Mr. Milk to develop.

More to the point: by focusing almost exclusively on his several failed election campaigns, what Mr. Van Sant offers us is not so much a movie as a propaganda film.

I love epics. Movies should be made like that: sweeping tales that light up the big screen. But they're not, at least not the ones that the Academy seems to like these days. The Reader, Milk and Frost/Nixon- all of which have been nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars- are more HBO-style made-for-TV movies than Epics (which is not to say that they aren't well-made). The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is unabashedly epic, and had it not been for Slumdog Millionaire, it would have, despite its shortcomings, been my favorite film of the year.

If Looks could kill?
I've always suspected that the really great looking actors & actresses suffer from an acting-handicap: their perfect good looks lead us to think of them in terms of gods & goddesses, and therefore any effort by them to play human beings is seen as flawed. This works well for those who can't act at all- like Bollywood’s own Salman Khan- as it compensates amply for their lack of talent; but for those who can act- and I mean, really act- it's nothing short of a curse. Sadly, Brad Pitt falls in the latter category. He is perhaps the most underrated actor of our time- principally because of his extraordinary good looks. No wonder he opted to act in a film in which the first-shot of him is as a horribly deformed baby that even his father doesn't want. And then of course, he begins to grow younger and also, more and more like the actual Brad Bitt...

The trick, I guess, was for Mr. Pitt to look the various ages he portrays in- and as- Benjamin Button. The wizardry of special effects can only do so much; the rest was up to him, really. (Remember Dustin Hoffman in the 1970 film, Little Big Man- back when they didn’t have this kind of technology.) He has terrific company in the form of three extremely gifted actresses: his mother (Taraji Henson), the love of his life (Cate Blanchett), and his fling (Tilda Swinton). Julia Ormond plays his daughter, but she hardly ever leaves the room. In any event, we remember them all having done such kinds of roles before- but not so for Mr. Pitt. (Not that he hasn't but we just don't remember it.)

The entire premise of the film, taken from a 1920s short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, seems to me to be needlessly weird; despite going through great pains to make it look believable, it simply isn't. After all, wouldn't a man who defies the most fundamental law of nature- that we must all grow old and die- attract our news-obsessed society's attention? Mr. Button, however, does not, leading a relatively uneventful unnoticed existence. Also, the whole business of a 90 year old man falling in love with a 9 year old girl edges a bit too close to bigotry for my taste.

But the single greatest flaw with this film is that we've already seen it before. Not one with the same title of course, but the way the tale is told. In case you are wondering, let me give you a clue. Two words: Eric Roth. He was the guy who wrote the screenplay for Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump. The only real difference between the two films is that while Mr. Gump grows older; Mr. Button becomes younger. Everything else- every single scene, every single character they come into contact with, every single shot, even the plot- are almost identical.

The Academy has already honored Forrest Gump once before; there is, in my opinion, no point in doing so again.

Great theatre doesn't necessarily make for great cinema. Doubt proves this. (The Lion In Winter, however, doesn’t.) Despite brilliant all-round performances by a sterling cast- for instance, every time Meryl Streep looked into the camera and I mean really looked, that icy stare, something inside me froze, the temperature dropped- there were a couple of times when I found myself thinking 'when will all this end'.

After all, the story doesn't really move, and all the action, so to speak, is intellectual. The expected duel between Hoffman and Streep never really materialized- with the former quietly slipping away. The central question of the film- can love be a sufficient justification for lust?- remains strangely unanswered. The film does little to influence the viewers' views; it ends up merely reinforcing them. (For me, the answer is No, and Doubt hasn't created any doubts in my mind about that.)

The moment of catharsis, when it does finally come, arrives in the form of a dialogue that Ms. Streep's character has with Viola Davis, who plays the mother of the black boy she believes Hoffman's character has 'made advances at.' It's a short scene, but boy does it surprise! Both actresses hold no punches back: morality, it seems, has no place for a mother who only wants her child to get away from the world she has brought him into. There can be no certainty about things like that. Material is prized over the moral, giving way to a new unorthodox kind of morality. Wasn't that incidentally also the theme of Vatican-II being held at the same time as the events this film depicts?

In the end, Doubt is all that remains.

6. Slumdog Millionaire: And the Oscar Goes to...
For millions like me raised on a staple-diet of commercial Hindi cinema, there’s nothing particularly novel about its plot: the relatively lukewarm response it has gotten from Indian filmgoers compared to the rapturous applause elsewhere is proof of this. Its rags-to-riches tale could well be a cinematic-metaphor for India’s own rise during the period in which Jamal, Salim and Latika's lives unfold. In so many ways, it is the story of India as well as those who have lived here through the tumultuous past two decades.

Its phenomenal ‘rules-breaking success’- to paraphrase the longtime film-critic, Roger Ebert- therefore owes equally if not more to the disenchanted times the world suddenly finds itself thrust into as it does to the movie’s delightful intrinsic-charm: after all, what better medicine than a good healthy dose of unbridled Hope wrapped in wondrously uplifting Jai-hos to cure the globe of its seemingly insurmountable Recession-blues? All the other films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars reflect the Gloom around- but also, within- us; none with the solitary exception of this film offers a way-out: even- or, especially- if the way-out is an implausibly exhilaratingly happy ending. And that is precisely what makes it work.

I leave you with this particular mise-en-scène: as Jamal weaves his way through Mumbai’s reptilian traffic to answer that one last remaining two million-rupee question, a wrinkly old beggar knocks at his car-window. Thinking she has come to ask for money he ignores her at first only to be confronted with the realization that she doesn’t want his money at all; on the contrary, she wants him to win it all. “Béta,” she beams to Jamal as he is driven away, “jeet ke aana.” [Son, win & come.] His victory, after all, would be hers as well.

Much as Slumdog Millionaire’s victory on Oscar Night would be India’s- and also of Underdogs everywhere.

5 comments (टिप्पणी):

Avinash Thakur said...

politician in making turns a solid movie critique

Alok R Singh said...

namaskaar!bhai sahab....i read ur articles@ur blog.....damn good!....u say,howz life n everything going on?......

Veeru Popuri said...

Quite like that said...

छत्‍तीसगढ के विचार मंच में आपक स्‍वागत, है अगर आपके कोई भी खबर या जानकारी है जिसका प्रत्यक्ष या अप्रत्यक्ष सम्बन्ध छत्तीसगढ से है तो बस कह दीजिये हमें इंतजार है आपके सूचना या समाचारों का घन्यवाद

Fredric Fanthome said...

It is a rare pleasure to read such elegant prose.

If only all politicians in India had your capabilities and perceptiveness. Unfortunately the country seems to run the risk of being run by Mayawati after the next elections (God forbid) and the vast majority of politicians (at least to an outsider like myself) seem no better than common hoodlums.

Hats off to you, Amit - while it is your destiny in some ways, I believe - given your stellar pedigree, it is still a path that requires a courage and perseverance that most of us lack. I look forward to the day when you will take on the large responsibilities are are certainly going to be placed upon you. God knows India is going to need people like you if it has any hopes at all of giving its still rapidly expanding impoverished millions a decent life.


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Amit Aishwarya Jogi
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