Monday, October 16, 2006

20. Little known US TV film director Charles Carner's "Judas" (2004): Recommended only for those who have courage to accept another viewpoint

This is a remarkable film. First, because it was made at least two years before the Gospel of Judas was unearthed in Egypt a few years ago and before the National Geographic scientifically authenticated that the document was indeed written in 300 AD or earlier, by the Gnostics and or the Orthodox Christians of Egypt. It is also well established and historically accepted now that the Four Gospels of the New Testament are not the only Gospels and that King Constantine several centuries later ruled that all other Gospels other than the four in the Bible are not acceptable because he sought the path of least controversy for the propagation and consolidation of Christianity.

What is remarkable about the film is its attempt to re-evaluate the known facts surrounding a chosen disciple of Christ—-who evidently needed a Judas to betray him so that he would be crucified and thus die on the cross to leave his mortal body. Christ picked Judas; Judas did not pick Jesus. What is equally remarkable is that the film reiterates that Jesus was very close to Judas as the intellectual among the 12 apostles. He is dejected when the Keys of Heaven are given to Peter and not to him. Some of the apostles are equally surprised at Jesus' decision to bypass the apostle who was entrusted with the financial affairs of the peripatetic group.

Further, the deaths of Jesus and Judas are interlinked chronologically as the film suggests. I applaud the scriptwriters' and the directors' decision to include the shot in the film of three apostles (?) lifting the body of the dead Judas for burial—which is in line with Christian ideology that God forgives those who repent.

Finally, if the true Christian believes Christ knew how he was going to be betrayed and by whom and even commanded Judas to go and do what he had to do, the independent decision-making capability of the greatest traitor in Christendom needs considerable reassessment. According to the Gospel of Judas, Judas was told by Jesus that he would be reviled for ages and rehabilitated and venerated later. The film also suggests a linked promise made by Jesus to Judas before the betrayal of being with him after death. The film also suggests the reason for accepting the 30 pieces of silver was related to his mothers' burial—a debatable detail never mentioned in the official Gospels.

The fact that the film was not released for 2 years after it was made shows the reluctance of the producers anticipating the reaction of Christians indoctrinated by the contents of the accepted gospels. I also noticed in the credits that the film was dedicated to a Christian priest.

Not only was the subject interesting but the portrayal of Jesus and his disciples came very close to Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Gospel According to St Mathew (which received acceptance of the Catholic Church some five decades ago) both in spirit and in the obvious lack of theatrical emotions by the actors. Jonathan Scarfe's Jesus was different from the conventional but not a bad one by any count. Here was a portrayal of Jesus as a man, who spoke like any one of us and yet commanded respect. Unlike Gibson's The Passion of the Christ that concentrates on the pain and suffering of Christ, this film reaches out intellectually to explore the politics of the day and the dynamics prevailing among the twelve apostles and Mary Magdalane. It offers food for thought. This film is strictly for those who can accept another point of view in Christianity than the accepted one. For them alone, this is recommended viewing. And for those who love the power of cinema.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

19. New Zealander Jane Campion's "The Piano" (1993): Clever film that makes you wonder

This film won the Cannes Film Festival's top honor the year it was released. It is a good film. It's a clever film. You would love it, if you don't reflect on the film too much. If you do reflect on what you saw, you will begin to re-evaluate the movie, the director Campion and finally, the screenplay writer Campion, who reworked the "Bluebeard" story.

I have seen the movie twice. I liked it the first time because it was refreshingly different, restrained in some parts, erotic to an extent, with some brilliant camerawork of Stuart Drybergh and choreography (specifically, the beach scene with Holly Hunter, Keitel and Paquin, with the overhead shot and the imaginative designs of footprints in the sand).

My second viewing had me reassessing if a viewer can be led to like a film without thinking rationally. Take the example of Paquin carrying the piano key with the written message. She takes one path, retraces it and takes another. This crucial action changes the course of the film. Why did she make that choice? Coincidence? If it was deliberate, the relationship between the child and foster father is not adequately developed. The director persuades us to notice this decision with a high angle shot. We in the audience know that Kietel's character is illiterate--but the message is finally read by someone who could read. And so the story gathers momentum.

The "quiet" strength of the film is in the character who chooses to remain mute. A finger is chopped off but there is no howl of pain, only blood, only a resignation to fate.

Despite a great performance by Hunter and impressive direction by Campion, I begin to have a nagging doubt if the audience is meant to leave their mind behind and merely indulge their senses, what they see and hear...On second viewing, the script seems more manipulative rather than virtuous. In the epilogue, what are we to make of the metal prosthetic finger--that all is healed? Or was it a convenient way to end the film?

Whether you like the film or not, the film improves our appreciation of cinema as a fascinating medium of entertainment.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

18. Italian director Guiseppe Tornatore's English/French film "La leggenda del pianista sull'oceano" (The Legend of 1900) (1998): a charming fable on celluloid

When asked by the Khaleej Times in Dubai to pick my 10 best films, I listed this movie The legend of 1900 as one of the top 10 movies made in the last 25 years in the English language. Few had seen it, thanks to poor marketing. Interestingly the movie has neither sex nor violence. It even does not even have a typical happy ending. Yet almost everyone who has seen the film heaps praise on this amazing film.

The film released in English as "The legend of 1900," is a fable of an orphan born on a transatlantic passengership on 1 Jan 1900, who is adopted by the crew and almost never leaves the ship even when the ship is to be dismantled and sold as scrap. This strange child evolves into a gifted pianist, rivalling the best alive.

It has all the facets of a soap opera but it's much more. The story is an allegory of people who choose to remain in the security of the known, and never venture into uncharted lands. The film offers much to savor beyond the obvious story. It is also a fine tale of friendship between two men, with no shred of homosexuality.

I love music; I admire the work of Ennio Morricone. I love good cinematography and the Hungarian films of cinematographer Lajos Koltai have long appealed to me. It is perhaps natural that the first film I have seen of Guiseppe Tornatore that involves Morricone and Koltai should appeal to me.

But in retrospect, the film grabbed me because the appeal of the film went beyond Morricone and Koltai. The performances of Tim Roth, Vince, Williams and Nunn were arresting. Roth's British accent at the end was annoying (who could have contributed that to 1900 when the character grew up on the ship?) but otherwise both Roth and Vince played very convincing roles. The casting is commendable--especially when some of the players are not very famous.

There were certain sequences that Koltai and Tornatore can be truly proud of: playing the rolling piano on a ship swaying to choppy seas and the engine room sequence with Nunn and the child.

Most of all, the marketing of the film as a fable, which it is, has its own charm. I particularly loved the song at the end of the film "written" by Morricone--or is it wrongly credited?-- and sung by Pink Floyd's ex-lead singer. Don't miss it as it captures the story in the song as the credits roll by.

This is a very European film, which is probably the reason it has not been given the recognition that it deserves in the US. I strongly recommend this film to many of my friends who have not seen it. Tornatore, Koltai and Morricone weave magic together.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

17. US filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish's "Northfork" (2003): A notable effort using surreal and absurdist images offering layers of entertainment

"It all depends on how you look at it-–we are either halfway to heaven or halfway to hell," says the priest Rev. Harlan in Northfork. The Polish brothers' film is an ambitious one that will make any intelligent viewer to sit up, provided he or she has patience and basic knowledge of Christianity. The layers of entertainment the film provide takes a viewer beyond the surreal and absurd imagery that is obvious to a less obvious socio-political and theological commentary that ought to provoke a laid-back American to reflect on current social values. The film's adoption of the surreal (coffins that emerge from the depths of man-made lakes to float and disturb the living, homesteaders who nearly "crucify" their feet to wooden floor of their homes, angels who need multiple glasses to read, etc.) and absurd images (of half animals, half toys that are alive, of door bells that make most delicate of musical outputs of a harp, a blind angel who keeps writing unreadable tracts, etc.) could make a viewer unfamiliar with the surreal and absurdist traditions in literature and the arts to wonder what the movie is un-spooling as entertainment. Though European cinema has better credentials in this field, Hollywood has indeed made such films in the past —in Cat Ballou, Lee Marvin and his horse leaned against the wall to take a nap, several decades ago. Northfork, in one scene of the citizens leaving the town in cars, seemed to pay homage to the row of cars in Citizen Kane taking Kane and his wife out of Xanadu for a picnic.

The film is difficult for the uninitiated or the impatient film-goer—the most interesting epilogue (one of the finest I can recall) can be heard as a voice over towards the end of the credits. The directors seem to leave the finest moments to those who can stay with film to the end. If you have the patience you will savor the layers of the film—if you gulp or swallow what the Polish bothers dish out, you will miss out on its many flavors.

Darryl Hannah in the role of the androgynous Angel

What is the film all about? At the most obvious layer, a town is being vacated to make way for a dam and hydroelectric-project. Even cemeteries are being dug up so that the mortal remains of the dead can be moved to higher burial grounds. Real estate promoters are hawking the lakeside properties to 6 people who can evict the townsfolk. Of the 6, only one seems to have a conscience and therefore is able to order chicken broth soup, while others cannot get anything served to them.

At the next layer, you have Christianity and its interaction on the townsfolk. Most are devout Christians, but in many lurk the instinct to survive at the expense of true Christian principles, exemplified in the priest. Many want to adopt children without accepting the responsibilities associated with such actions.

At the next layer, you have the world of angels interacting with near angelic humans and with each other. You realize that the world of the unknown angel who keeps a comic book on Hercules and dreams of a mother, finds one in an androgynous angel called "Flower Hercules." While the filmmaker does give clues that Flower is an extension of the young angel's delirious imagination, subsequent actions of Flower belie this option. You are indeed in the world of angels--not gods but the pure in spirit—and therefore not in the world of the living. The softer focus of the camera is in evidence in these shots.

At another layer the toy plane of Irwin becomes a real plane carrying him and his angels to heaven 1000 miles away from Norfolk.

The final layer is the social commentary—"The country is divided into two types of people. Fords people and Chevy people." Is there a difference? They think they are different but both are consumerist.

To the religious, the film says "Pray and you shall receive" (words of Fr Harlan, quoted by Angel Flower Hercules). To the consumerist, the film says "its what we do with our wings that separate us" (each of the 6 evictors also have wings--one duck/goose feather tucked into their hat bands but their actions are different often far from angelic as suggested by the different reactions to a scratch on a car).

The film is certainly not the finest American film but it is definitely a notable path-breaking work--superb visuals, striking performances (especially Nick Nolte), and a loaded script offering several levels of entertainment for mature audiences.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

16. US filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen's "Blood Simple" (1984): A movie to make you laugh (and then reflect on why you laughed)

Debut films have a quality that experience smothers. What struck me first was the disarming innocence of a clever script--not a single cop surfaces in a film replete with so many killings, an Alsation makes its presence felt early in the film but disappears soon after, and a dead man (no proof that he did die, of course!) narrates the prologue of the movie. A fresh towel laid out on a car seat lets blood stain it with ferocious osmotic quality as though the towel was covering a fresh wound! But the blood is several hours old. Yet the movie is clever enough to make you think you are cleverer than those you are watching, because the directors let you, the viewer, know more than the characters themselves.

The Coen brothers are very clever. I thought O brother, where art thou to be average fare until I realized that it was based on Homer's Odyssey, which the Coen brothers deny having read. But neither have I read Homer in original but even without reading Homer a somewhat literate individual can see the obvious parallels. When you realize what they have done you do not hate the Coens but you begin to admire their ingenuity--their scripts reduce the Greek heroes to mortal escaped prisoners or simple anti-heroes.

In Blood Simple, blood that suddenly oozes from a nostril lets the viewer know more than the characters in the film. The comedy of errors that weave the film, invites the viewer to laugh at the dumb actions of each character. But then none of the characters know what the viewer knows and appear dumber than the average person.

The Coens have mastered this gift of portraying the average man or woman, simple or crooked, placed within a spartan canvas of knee-jerk emotions. You laugh. You cry. You go through catharsis. The Greeks have taught the Coens the grammar of entertainment.

Robust performances, striking camera-work (L.A. Confidential picked up several clues from this film), and interesting dialogs invite you to leave your brain behind as you laugh at "stupid" characters on the screen. You enjoy the film even further if you reflect on why you enjoyed the film.