Sunday, October 19, 2014

168. British film director Steven Knight’s film “Locke” (2013) based on his original script/story: Amazing script forged from what could also have been a superb one-act play with a great performance

There is something special when a director writes his own original script. And Steven Knight’s Locke is special, if an astute viewer evaluates what it offers.

The title reminds one of the 17th century British philosophers, John Locke.  John Locke postulated his ‘theory of mind’ that built the early concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘self.’ Locke felt that our minds at birth were without ideas or blank slates (or tabula rasa) and that our mind’s subsequent knowledge was derived from experience through sense perception.

Knight’s film Locke is about another unrelated, contemporary fictional Locke, whose full name is Ivan Locke. This Ivan Locke, the only person the viewer gets to see in the entire film, is an unusual human being.  Ivan Locke is a successful technocrat—a senior civil engineer responsible for overseeing the construction of skyscrapers.  Ivan Locke is a principled, devoted family man who is on the verge of laying the concrete foundation of the tallest skyscraper he has ever built within the next 24 hours.  However, the good man’s enviable life dramatically changes.

One night’s indiscretion after drinking two bottles of wine, brings all his family and career crashing down at the pinnacle of his 9 year career when he could own a state-of-the-art BMW X5 car. Knight’s development of the Ivan Locke character begins when you see the man removing his work boots before entering his car and putting it in a bag meant for them.  Ivan Locke might not be an aristocrat, but he evidently knows and plans ahead to maintain a rich man’s car. Ivan, we soon find out, is dedicated to his job, and, even after he is fired, insists on completing what he was doing professionally without any scope for mistakes. And when he does make a mistake he is willing to do everything to correct it and admit it was a mistake to all who matter to him. 

He is a modern day Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, caring for those who are weak and lonely, who believes in ensuring his new progeny knows he /she has a caring father, unlike Ivan’s own father.

Tom Hardy as a fictional Welshman Ivan Locke:
aiming to reproduce
the "gravitas and integrity of Richard Burton's performances"
But what holds Ivan Locke’s life together are the principles and experience that he has acquired from his career, his life and, most of all, his father’s actions towards him. Those are the common denominators for technocrat Ivan Locke and the ideas of philosopher John Locke presented indirectly by director Knight for the thinking, discerning viewer. 

Director Knight has stated in an interview “He is called (Ivan) Locke because he is the John Locke philosopher of rationality and he is trying to do stuff logically.” (Huffington Post interview with Erin Whiney, 24 Apr 2014). Much of Ivan Locke’s actions in the movie have a bearing on the lack of communication and interest Ivan’s dad had with Ivan, which we learn from Ivan’s monologue addressing his dead father, as though he were sitting in the rear seat of the car.  It is important to note that the references to the distant past life of Ivan are brought up in “conversations” with his dead father or rather a monologue using the rear view mirror. (Appropriately, the rear view is for the past; the details of the concreting is in the file beside him in the car; and the GPS screen indicates his possible chosen future, with all its options. The confined space of the driver seat, is not confined to the obvious physical limitations.)

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)  speaking to his invisible dead father
 in the rear seat

The manner in which the 85-minute film was made is remarkable. The filming of the original script apparently evolved during a tight schedule, not unlike films of Terrence Malick evolving during the film-making process . Director Knight’s script was captured on film after mere eight nights of shooting, with two versions of the film being recorded each night. The final film was apparently a cut and paste of the 16 accumulated versions.  Except for the immensely talented Tom Hardy, the rest of the cast are only heard but not seen. The film is thus a close relative of a radio play with visuals.

It is visuals that inform the viewer, thanks to Bluetooth, that Ivan has keyed in ‘Bastard’ as the eponym for Gareth who is Ivan’s boss on his mobile phone. It is the GPS visuals on his car’s dashboard that indicate the straight road Ivan is taking to be with Bethan,  the mother of his soon to be born child. It is visuals that inform the viewer that Ivan is not over speeding on the highway. It is visuals that show you that there is further chaos outside the car on the highway as police cars/ambulance with sirens overtake Ivan’s car while Ivan is dealing with and getting on top of each crisis in his life that particular night. And if you are paying attention, you are not likely to turn off the radio (if you were to consider it as a radio play) or walk of the movie.  And it is visuals that inform you that Ivan’s BMW also has an ironic number plate “ADIOS,” Spanish for goodbye.

It is not important how the movie ends. The movie is more about how a viewer can identify with Ivan Locke, a successful working class British man who has made one mistake.  On a drunken night the married man slept with his secretary while on work away from home. He does not love his secretary but has sympathy for her apparent solitary life. Ivan seeks forgiveness from his wife for his one and only occasion when he has been unfaithful. Her trite answer to Ivan’s protestation is “The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad.”  The viewer has to choose between the wrongdoer and the wronged, and decide whether Ivan is the hero or the anti-hero of Locke.

It is also a movie where the lead actor has contributed considerably to the making of the film as was revealed at the Venice Film Festival press conference, just as actor Kirk Douglas made director Stanley Kubrick make the all important change to the ending of Paths of Glory (1957). It is a movie that is more than an advertisement for a great car. It is a movie that will make you recall what Steven Spielberg achieved in his similar (and outstanding) film Duel (1971), in which unlike Steven Knight emphasizing character development through spoken dialogues, Spielberg emphasized the effect of faceless and illogical terror through images and sound rather than spoken words.  Tom Hardy’s personal interest in developing an unusual accent keeping the late Welsh actor Richard Burton on his mind’s radar while enacting the role in a confined space is truly commendable. It is a fascinating performance that complements a lovely script.

The film belongs to both Steven Knight and Tom Hardy in equal measure.  It is surprising that the Venice Film Festival chose it to be included in its official major line-up but kept it “out of competition.”  If it were in competition, it might have won an award or two.  The film is recommended for viewers who can appreciate good script-writing and actors committed to perfecting their skills.

P.SThis film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

167. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s film “Certified Copy” (Copie conforme) (2010) in English/Italian/French languages: Love and marriage and their respective true copies

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami can be fascinating because of his audacity to toy around with the minds of intelligent, discerning viewers. 

His Shirin was a feature film exclusively capturing the mosaic of varied emotions of several female viewers watching a movie with a narration in Farsi (the language of Iran) about a popular fable/tale of love and valor, without showing Shirin’s viewers what those members of the audience within the film were watching but merely providing the soundtrack of the “watched” film.

The puzzle begins: Who is the woman who can take up a reserved seat
at a book release ceremony

Kiarostami’s  Certified Copy is equally abstract and demanding of its audience but in a different way. Certified Copy proves to be a fascinating work because it is a film with an open ending and a narrative full of ambiguities, while succeeding in retaining the attention of any viewer, who can sense and appreciate a high level of intellectual discourse presented within the film. Despite the physical and thespian allure of Juliette Binoche (presenting one of her most complex and commendable performances that deservedly won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival in 2010), the film a perceptible viewer will soon realize is not about works of art or beauty (which is what the bulk of the film discusses) but merely uses that platform to discuss love between two adults and the institution of marriage which is the result of love. The film presents an extension of Plato’s critical discussions on the Greek terms mimesis (imitation) and contrasting it with diegesis (narrative). The film indirectly asks the viewer what is real love and what is real marriage as opposed to the general perception of love and marriage. Stanley Kubrick toyed with the subject in a different manner in his swansong Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Ingmar Bergman dealt with the subject in a parallel manner in several films, most notably in The Touch (1971).

Kiarostami is unintentionally mimicking Ingmar Bergman, both in style and content. At least this is increasingly evident in the recent Kiarostami phase of filmmaking outside Iran (first Shirin that utilized non-Iranian actors, then Tickets made in Italy, followed by Certified Copy and the latest being Like Someone in Love, made in Japan) all mirroring the interests of the Swedish maestro—and both directors wrote their own screenplays/stories. And like Bergman, Kiarostami’s films increasingly tend to linger on the actors’ faces that communicate emotions beyond spoken words or their other physical activity. And the conversations for directors rarely abate.

Kiarostami uses his favorite visual idea--a moving vehicle;
and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi captures
 the duo (Shimmel and Binoche)
with Italian exteriors in reflection

Certified Copy begins with a book release in Italy by its British author, James Miller (played by William Shimmel, an opera singer of some repute). The book is also titled Certified Copy and discusses the value of copies of art, not unlike the subject of Orson Welles’ delightful F for Fake (1973). The book release is attended by a young mother (Binoche) and her son briefly. Before leaving hurriedly (as her son is hungry), she leaves behind her address for Miller so that he could sign the many copies of his book that she has bought. Throughout the film, the lady’s name is never revealed or spoken.

Miller does respond by visiting her studio populated with copes of art and he obliges the good lady by signing the copies of her book, one of which is for her son addressed by Miller by the first name. And there begins the puzzles for the viewer to ponder over. The son notices that his surname has been left out by Miller. The lady recalls her sister used to stammer and addresses James Miller as “J-J-J-J-James.” Is there a familiarity between the two that has not been revealed? Miller states that he wrote his book after watching a mother and her son in Italy, after the son stopped to admire a statue that was probably a copy “some 15 or 5 years ago.” And the lady played by Binoche seems to be aware of that incident. The viewer is cleverly sucked into a complex puzzle to figure out if the two knew each other in the past and whether the author, Miller, is somehow related to the boy.

Miller is married to someone (similar to the unseen film-within-film in Shirin, and the young man’s past lover in Tickets) the viewer never sees but evidently exists. Third parties viewing the duo traveling in Italy assume Miller and the woman to be married, following which they begin to “act” as if they are married. Perceived actions appear more real than reality. The couple’s individual reactions to newly-weds in churches asking them to join them in their celebrations are markedly different. Miller comments "I didn't mean to sound so cynical, but when I saw all their hopes and dreams in their eyes, I just couldn't support their illusion." Is Miller's real marriage having a downturn as to be considered an illusion?

Do the "married" couple spend the night together?

Church bells ring as if a marriage is taking place (possibly real, possibly “copied” in memory).  The “acting” couple asks for a room at the same small hotel they had apparently stayed ages ago and the lady (Binoche) expects Miller to spend the night with her, when the bell tolls 8 o’clock and Miller has a train to catch in an hour.   A perceptive viewer will recall the lady’s son commenting, “You are trying to fall in love with him.” And that she does by going to the rest room and wearing costume jewelry earrings and trying to look more attractive for Miller, which he does not seem to notice. She, on the other hand, has noticed his change of perfume. Whose is the real love and whose is the certified copy of love?

Shimmel and Binoche: reprising Bergman's techniques?

Kiarostami seems to be toying with real love, perceived/certified copy of love, real marriages, and perceived/certified copy of marriages. The film offers the viewer several options. None is cast in stone.    

Carriere's and Shimmel's respective characters
 discuss the copy of Michelangelo's statue David  in Florence,
a subject discussed ironically by two "married" couples

Somewhere in the middle of the film Kiarostami shows the conversing couple passing by a copy of the statue of David by Michelangelo publicly admired at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, while the original is in Florence’s Gallery of Fine Arts. And the couple discusses this subject with a tourist (played by Jean-Claude Carriere the co-screenplay writer of so many of maestro Luis Bunuel’s classic films and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata) and his fictional tourist wife. The discussion of the original (diegesis) and the certified copy (mimesis) continues to the end of the film as marriage and love gradually replace works of art in the discussion.

"Costume jewelry is as good as real jewelry" quote from the film 

While there is no sex or nudity in the film, it is quite understandable Certified Copy could not have been made in Iran with that country's prevalent official conservative social attitudes. Having seen all the recent four films made by Kiarostami, Certified Copy proves to be the most cerebral, with his episode in Tickets proving to be the most delectable among the four. In comparison, Like Someone in Love, was not remarkable cinema even though no Kiarostami movie can ever be considered pedestrian.

Certified Copy remains essential viewing for viewers who love good cinema and have a penchant for philosophy and aesthetics.

P.S. Kiarostami’s earlier works Shirin and Tickets and Orson Welles’ F for Fake have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

166. Indian filmmaker Sudevan's debut film "CR no.89" (India) (2013): A micro-budget Malayalam language movie that is different and refreshing

Malayalam language movies have won prestigious Indian national film awards in recent years but they are rarely ones that stand out as some did, three or four decades ago. 

At last, there is an innocuous debut film from a young director that would make a sleepy cineaste sit up to savour its whiff of freshness. That’s director Sudevan’s CR No.89--a little, big film which premiered in 2013 at the Intentional Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It is “little” because it is an 80 minute film made with an incredible shoestring budget of Rs 700,000 (about US$11,000) pooled by the director’s well wishers (read “non-internet” crowd funding).

It is “big” because the film, with its odd title, devoid of sex or participation of mainstream actors, and with minimal violence, has scooped up a slew of regional Indian awards including Best Film of 2013 at the 2014 Kerala State Film Awards, the NETPAC award for the best Malayalam film at the 2013 IFFK, the Aravindan award for the best debut film by an Indian director from the Chalachitra Film Society, the John Abraham award (in memory of the talented late Malayalam film director, not the living Bollywood actor) for the best debut director from the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), the Padamarajan Puraskaram (award) for the best film of 2013 from the Padmarajan Memorial Trust and an acting award for Asok Kumar (for the role of the automobile mechanic)  from the Kerala state film awards. Unfortunately, the only international film festival this film has been invited to, thus far, is the minor Colombo International Film Festival.  Marketing remains the bane of quality Indian regional cinema while what does get showcased in countries  outside India are the semi-commercial films.

What is the odd title of this movie? The title ought to be expanded to Crime (or Criminal) Report no. 89. “CR no.89” is the jargon used in a regular Indian police station.  The title has a subscript as written in Indian police files “under section 323, 324, 379 of the Indian Penal Code, read with 25(1)(b) of the Arms Act.”  It refers to an unsolved criminal report relating to an illicit transportation of deadly weapons in a stolen jeep and other felonies. The weapons, transported in a jeep, are hidden in crates under heaps of tomatoes.  When the law does catch up with such consignments as depicted in this movie, the transporters are rarely caught or brought to justice. Further, the haul of the weapons by the law enforcers is merely reported in the news and subsequently buried in dusty files as a ‘cold case.’

The brevity of the title inadvertently describes the young director Sudevan, who has evidently not considered how a different and more attractive title could have marketed his debut film beyond the confines of Kerala state, but is more concerned about the reality of frequent illicit arms transportation in Kerala, the violence such weapons inflict on innocent rural folk, and the apathy of the law and order machinery to resolve such cold cases.

Interactions and reactions of rural Indian characters

However, the film is not about arms transportation. It begins with a focus on engines in hardly roadworthy vehicles that ply on Indian roads. The movies then gradually explores how five or six Indian rural characters interact with or react to the shady arms transporters by happenstance or when they stumble on the abandoned  vehicle, because the jeep carrying the illicit consignment has broken down on an unpaved, rarely used road, cutting through a hardly inhabited rubber plantation. The illegal arms transporters chose that odd route to avoid detection. What follows is a credible edge of the seat entertainment for the viewers with an unusual ending as a bonus. 

What Sudevan has accomplished, with the help of three cameramen utilizing very basic camera equipment simultaneously, is to realistically depict varied reactions of average Indians to the goons in distress. How Sudevan has achieved this is truly praiseworthy, especially in creating the final sequence, in which the bad guys are absent. The entire concept is Sudevan‘s own, including an interesting credit sequence. The end-product is a delectable mosaic of how Indians behave.
There is wry humor sprinkled throughout the film—a game of rural checkers played with nuts and bolts, odd hairstyles, attitudes towards work by a not-so-busy small-time automobile mechanic, who is quite skilled in his trade, and the intricacies of social etiquettes of distribution of marriage invitations for middle-class Keralites. There are interesting shots of chameleons cleverly edited into the narrative to allude to social parallels. Sudevan ducks the popular lure of spoon-feeding his audience with unnecessary details in the narrative—he forces the linear details to be assembled by the intelligent viewer. That is rare in Indian cinema.

CR No.89 opened a week-long FILCA international film festival in Trivandrum a week ago. Even the noted Indian filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan stayed through the screening to watch the film that he had heard about but not seen. Young Sudevan had a history of persistently following up with film societies, such as FILCA, to enter his short films in competitions and in film society screenings. The quality of his short films and the resulting sales of the DVDs of his short films helped fund each subsequent Sudevan film, culminating in the award-winning low-budget feature film CR No.89. The success of Sudevan is partly due to the role of film societies in encouraging young film makers, an unusual scenario that is alive and laudable in pockets of India, such as Kerala.

CR No. 89 is a film, with English subtitles, that deserves to be widely seen and appreciated by film-goers who hanker for good Indian cinema in India and abroad. Most of all it is amazing that a lovely, quality film could be made with Rs 700,000 by a young man committed to cinema without any compromises or a political subtext. Most importantly, the film makes the viewer reflect on the varied reactions of ordinary citizens to a similar situation. And it is a movie relying considerably on diagetic sounds picked from the natural environment, something quite unusual for soundtrack management in Indian cinema. Sudevan is able to capture rural Kerala milieu without the unrealistic but popular dramatic inflection of tones used by professional actors, often associated with the better Malayalam cinema.

While quality Malayalam films enjoy widespread viewership within Kerala, it is truly sad to note that well-made small-budget films, such as CR No. 89, and major works of Malayalam cinema, such as M T Vasudevan Nair’s Nirmalayam (The Offering) (1973) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Anantaram (Monologues) (1987), are rarely seen or discussed beyond the borders of Kerala, either nationally or internationally.

(This review was first published at at

P.S. This film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014