It is arguably the most subtle and evocative movie endings I’ve watched during the last couple of years. In an open playground in the obscure hamlet of Sonora (Mexico) a school children’s soccer game is on, watched mostly by the mothers of the players. When one of the boys, the son of a corrupt police officer killed in a shoot-out the previous day, dribbles past his opponents and is just about to score a goal, the sound of gunfire from a distance briefly interrupts the game, then continues.

The title, Cicario (2015), is cartel slang for “assassin” or “hitman”, evidently derived from the first-century Sicarii zealots of Judea, though the word is never spoken out loud in the script; screenwriter Taylor Sheridan defers the revelation of how it really applies here to the end of drama, and this disclosure ties up its attendant issues of justice versus revenge, idealism versus cynicism and how American justice is to be applied beyond US borders without anything as quaint as a formal declaration of war. The idea that the war on drugs might be won is not something anyone takes seriously. The only question is how the forces are aligned and who is enforcing the rules of engagement.

The action is viewed mostly through the eyes of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an F.B.I. agent. Blunt is impressively glum and intense, but Kate is a bit of a blank, on hand as a filter through which the audience can scrutinize Matt and Alejandro, who are far more intriguing characters.

The tenor and texture of the movie are established with that truly horrible scene at the very beginning where the FBI storm a cartel haven. It has its own sheen of horror, aided by the groaning orchestral chords in the musical score from composer Jóhann Jóhannson. The scene lays down a marker for the film’s status as something like a forensic thriller and in its way a procedural thriller, in which the covert procedure itself is the crime.

This is a real white-knuckle thriller, with screeching feedback notes of fear and paranoia, which plays out in a very satisfying atmosphere of pure nihilist ruthlessness. The movie asserts that the war on drugs has turned America into the very monster that they were trying to defeat.


The Water is Wide

“The Water Is Wide” is a Scottish ballad, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s. It has seen considerable popularity through to the 21st century. Cecil Sharp published the song in Folk Songs From Somerset (1906). It refers to the ostensibly unhappy first marriage of James Douglas (second Marquess of Douglas) to Lady Barbara Erskine. If the lyrics are to be believed, in 1681 the rumour mills were abuzz that Erskine had been having an affair with someone, and Douglas promptly dropped her. Her father took her home and she never remarried. Over the years, the song has been recorded by many artists, including the likes of legendary Irish singer Bob Dylan.

The water is wide I can’t cross o’er
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

Love is gentle and love is kind.
The sweetest flower when first it’s new.
But love grows old, and waxes cold,
And fades away like morning dew.

I put my hand into some soft bush,
Thinking the sweetest flower to find.
I pricked my finger to the bone,
And left the sweetest flower alone.

There’s a ship and she sails the sea.
She’s loaded deep as deep as can be.
But not as deep as the love I’m in,
I know not how I sink or swim.


The Secret in Their Eyes

There is a long tradition of Hollywood co-opting the plots of well-regarded foreign films and then snuffing out the very qualities that made the originals feel fresh, unique and eminently remake-able. While it might remove the need for those pesky subtitles, these Americanized versions too often erase such essential elements as logic, subtext and the sense of cultural relevance that made the title a standout in the first place.

Well, they’ve done it again with “The Secret in Their Eyes,” 2010’s foreign-language Oscar winner from Argentina. A smartly done, haunting crime thriller, revolving around a brutal 1974 rape-murder investigation that is re-opened 25 years later, the film charts the effect that the unsatisfactory conclusion to the case had on both the legal team and the victim’s devoted husband. It’s a reflection of the country’s rampant government corruption at the time.

The complicated “who, what, where, when and how” aspects were handled expertly, especially a scene staged in a massively crowded soccer stadium. But what truly distinguished this superb film were the intense emotional connections brought to life by actors Ricardo Darin and Soledad Villamil, who look and acted like real humans, not prettified facsimiles. The agonizing unrequited love between Darin’s justice agent and Villamil’s department chief colored every bittersweet second of “The Secret of Their Eyes,” down to the agonizing final moments.

Now (not exactly, but in 2015, I chanced upon it only a couple of days ago though) we have “Secret in Their Eyes. Despite the fact that a surprising number of plot machinations from the original film remain fully intact, what is missing is the type of hold-your-breath tension provided by good thrillers. Billy Ray’s handling of the footage (an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for his “Captain Phillips” script, deftly directed the journalism-scandal biopic “Shattered Glass.”) never once stirrs up excitement.

It may be unfair to compare the Argentine version with this inferior one, since most people probably haven’t seen the first. But even when taken on its own terms, “Secret in Their Eyes” amounts to a huge disappointment. Perhaps reading subtitles might have been a better option than sitting through two hours of a weak imitation.


La Perouse

La Perouse is a suburb in south-eastern Sydney. It’s also the northern headland of Botany Bay, sitting pretty in Randwick city. In favourable traffic condtions, it would take hardly twenty minutes from the Sydney CBD (Central Business District) to the cliff.

Now, a little bit of history. The penninsula got its name from the French navigator Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse (1741–88), who landed on the northern shore of Botany Bay on 26 January 1788, just a couple of days after the British sailor Captain Cook had anchored off the coast. Louis XVI of France had commissioned Lapérouse to explore the Pacific. He departed Brest, France, in command of the Astrolabe and Boussole on 1 August 1785. The French stayed at Botany Bay for six weeks and built a stockade, observatory and a garden for fresh produce on what is now known as the La Perouse. After obtaining wood and water, the sailors departed for France with a hopeful ETA of December 1788. However, the expedition was wrecked a short time later on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands during a cyclone sometime during April or May 1788. The circumstances of the ship wreck remained a mystery for 40 years. In 1826, items associated with the French ships were found on an island in the Santa Cruz group, with wreckage of the vessels themselves discovered in 1964.

The sun drenched beaches of the penninsula are a great lure for visitors as well as the nearby city residents. The lone aircraft among the cauliflower clouds finding its way to the military outpost at Bare Island, and the departing ship from Port Botany next door, as the twilight fades over the ridge would appear quite like a live collage. Then there’s the restaurant overlooking the beach as if inadvertently edited out of a Daniel Craig movie, with the mixed odour of caviar and French wine hanging in the air.


Marriage Story

Don’t be fooled by the title. “Marriage Story” should be called “Divorce Story.” That would better prepare you for the highly realistic, yet emotionally draining experience of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, loosely based on his own divorce and amplified by the subtle most performances in recent years from its protagonists.

Not every movie is meant to entertain. Some are meant to capture the harshest of realities. Spend your moviegoing money accordingly, knowing that you are in for dramatic heartache.

Having lived together in New York, where Nicole starred in Charlie’s theatre productions wherein both achieved critical acclaim, she is decamping to LA where a TV pilot awaits. Charlie insists the move is temporary, but increasingly their son, Henry, seems to view California as home. Wherever they go, the couple appear trapped, a quality emphasised by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s carefully choreographed, Bergman-esque framing, capturing them in confined interiors even while those around them babble about “the space” of Los Angeles.

While the legal procedural thread underwrites the narrative, tonally, Marriage Story slips nimbly between a tender emotional drama and laugh-out-loud screwball comedy. A scene involving the serving of divorce papers turns tragedy into farce, while Nicole’s instruction to her mother to “stop loving Charlie!” provokes laughter and tears in equal measure. There’s even a musical element, with the maneuvering of Stephen Sondheim songs for an unexpected emotional punch, while Randy Newman’s romantic score ensures that our heartstrings are pulled in several directions at once.

What’s extraordinary about Marriage Story is that everyone in this story is right, based on their position in the situation. Charlie is right, Nicole is right and Henry is right. And they are all hurting. Baumbach has come about as close as you can get to telling a wrenching divorce story with devastation but no villainy.

Because Marriage Story is about the terrible process of a bad-math divorce, it would be easy to see in it a bleakness that would make it uninteresting. But the performances are so good and the story is so complex that it is, in the end, startlingly and deeply humane. “Who was in the wrong here?” you might find yourself asking as you get to the end. Neither of them, is the answer, and both of them.

Tail Piece: The producers, Netflix wanted to shake the Hollywood playing ground a little bit, by leasing the Paris theatre in New York City, closed in last August, for premiering their Oscar hopeful Marriage Story. As a matter of fact, the ‘Paris’ has a 71-year history, which was opened on September 13, 1948, with Marlene Dietrich cutting the ribbon. If you have never been to New York and only know it from the movies, it sits in catty-corner to the Plaza hotel and across from the south-eastern entrance to Central Park. Around the corner is Fifth Avenue, where you will find Tiffany & Co and Bergdorf Goodman.


The Song of the Little Road

At long intervals over the years there have been a few, totally unexpected, unforgettable films that attempt and achieve a reality strikingly different from contemporary efforts. Such a picture is ‘Pather Panchali’… As poetic as the wind riffling the lily pads… A film to be treasured, seen again!      Read More…
26th August 2015, Wednesday: We all have short lived memories. Even among the few of us who had once been walked through those sporadic spells of receptivity (“..people were born, lived out their lives and accepted their deaths..”) by one of the greatest artists of our time, how many did remember that it was on this day 60 years ago that ‘Pather Panchali’ was released in Calcutta’s (Kolkota) ‘Bashusree’ theatre amidst much fanfare; or even how small an incident that happened a year earlier had actually altered the course of Indian cinematic history elevating Satyajit Ray as an icon of the golden age of art house film production?.
Song of the Road

Song of the Little Road

In 1954 John Huston was in India exploring locales for his film ‘The Man Who Would be King‘. In between, however, he saw a 20-minute rushes of ‘Pather Panchali’ in Calcutta. Huston was captivated by the underlying syntax in Ray’s visual detailing to the extent that he wired Monroe Wheeler, the curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) recommending the inclusion of ‘Pather Panchali’ in the latter’s planned series Living Arts of India. On 3rd May 1955, a good three months before its official release in India, ‘Pather Panchali’ was premiered in MOMA. Most film critics in the audience were enticed by Ray’s kind of songful storytelling. Almost a year later it found its way to the Cannes film festival where it’s official screening took place close to midnight. Having already outlasted four feature films that day the jury members were exhausted and some gave ‘Pather Panchali’ a skip. Meanwhile, the few patient jurors who watched the film were so impressed by what they saw that they insisted on a repeat screening for those who had skipped it the previous night. Eventually ‘Pather Panchali’ fetched the special citation as the ‘best human document’. It was the first Indian film to have earned such accolades in the European art house trail. The perception of beauty, however, proved to be subjective with Ray’s film. Francoise Truffaut was reported to have expressed his disappointment at its slow pace. While it left an enduring impact on a young Martin Scorsese’s sensibilities, Akira Kurasova felt it flowed with the serenity and mobility of a big river.

Apu, the observer

Apu, the observer

Much like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s 1928 novel of the same title (‘Pather Panchali’) was also set in an illusory hamlet, Nishchindipur (The timeline also coincides; Faulkner wrote ‘The Sound and Fury‘ in 1929). Harihar Roy was a desolate Brahmin priest irate with his struggles about sustaining the family that constituted his pragmatic wife Sarbajaya, the advertent little Apu and Apu’s rascally older sister Durga. Then there is also the manipulative Indir Thakrun, the aged cousin of Harihar who also pokes her head all along as the plot sedately unfolded.

Durga, Apu's rascally elder sister

Durga, Apu’s rascally elder sister

During his short stint with an English advertising agency in 1950 Ray had spent three months in London. By his own admission all the spare time he had, he spent watching movies – 98 of them in all. Some European film critics maintain that Ray has been influenced by the proletarian neorealism of Vittoria de Sica (‘Bicycle Thieves‘). But Ray’s narrative had a demure naivety that made one’s heart ache which was a far cry from the postwar Italian neorealistic objectivity (‘the truth of actors’, ‘photography reminiscent of the reportage style’, ‘refusal of the studio’, etc.).

Ray with his Arriflex

Ray with his Arriflex

‘Pather Panchali’ was made in a shoestring budget defying all norms of conventional film production of its time. All except one (Chunibala Devi who played the mercurial aunt Indir Thakrun) of the film’s actors were nonprofessionals. None of them wore make up. Ray’s twenty one year old cinematographer, Subrata Mitra was a novice with the movie camera. Being a first time film maker, Ray himself did not have much success in convincing financiers what he was actually up to. As a consequence, midway through he was left with no other choice except to self-finance his project by parting with his collection of books, vinyl records and even pawning some of his wife’s jewelry. Still falling short of funds Ray approached Chief Minister Dr. B.C. Roy. As the state fiscal budget had no provision for financing a feature film and the title of the film had the term “road” in it, the obligation of project management eventually fell on the Public Works Department! The fidelity with which Ray had chartered Bandopadhyay’s trail left his own contemporaries like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen overwhelmed. Only a cinematic prescient like Ray could have chosen the small village of Boral as the Nischindipur model that was located in the outskirts of Calcutta near Garia in South 24 Parganas. The natural habitat that Boral was – the trees, the fruits, the winding paths, the birds, the clouds and most of all the evening sun – as much the citadel of the film as were its central characters.

In ‘Pather Panchali’ the protagonist Apu’s entry occurs almost twenty minutes into the film. As a matter of fact our Accoladesfirst glimpse of Apu is that of a single murky eye, gazing at us unpretentiously from beneath a blanket. It is from behind those two human observatory posts that we experience not only the coming of age of a suckling but also the evolution of an inept and distressed nation. Soon after the country’s independence from British rule, Ray’s own Bengal was split into a Hindu western half and a Muslim east. The fact that the sutures of that historical lesion still remains insolent which widens under geographical and political influences is subtly underpinned in Ray’s narrative. The rhapsodic Bengali verses that Apu often recites to himself are manifestations of the director’s own dialectal nationalism. Perhaps more importantly, Ray had projected the character of Apu’s mother at center stage at a point in time when women’s domestic dilemmas weren’t the cynosure of deliberation even in the West. But what made the world cinematic audience fall hook, line and sinker for him was how Ray would capture the disappointments, tragedies and little delights in everyday life, weaving them into tapestries of universal predicaments that remain with you like the environment you grew up in.    Only in 1992 when the Academy of Motion Pictures decided to confer a lifetime achievement award on Ray, the naked truth emerged that the original negatives of his early films were in an abysmal state. The negatives were then hurriedly shipped to a South London lab for restoration.  However, a massive fire broke out in the lab nearly destroying the film reels. When they came to know of the tragedy, an art house distribution company called ‘The Criterion Collection’ came forward and took charge of the restoration procedures. They shipped the film reels, or rather what remained of them, to a lab in Bologna, Italy for digital scanning. It then took a laborious struggle on the part of the Criterion technicians to bring back Ray’s black and white classics (‘Apu Triology‘) to life.
Pather Panchali in Google

Pather Panchali in Google

During a 1975 discourse in Moscow, Japanese film director Akira Kurasova said that not seeing the films of Ray was like “living in the world having not seen the sun or the moon”. Now that they are available in a pristine 4K restoration, it is up to you to choose how you want to live in your world, with or without the sun and the moon, that is.


Madras Cafe

The reason why movies of the genre of Madras Café deserve to have an audience is because only by imbuing hope in the Johns and Shoojits of this generation we will also qualify to be contemporaries of our time….     Read More…
John Abraham and Shoojit Sircar

John Abraham and Shoojit Sircar

26th Agust 2013, Sunday: Like Ashton Kutcher said after ‘Jobs’, everyone evolves, in the same way that he is not the same today at 35 as he was at 25! We have been experiencing the evolution of John Abraham for over a decade now. Only a year ago we saw him joining hands with Shoojit Sircar bringing out the breezy comedy Vicky Donor. Though not without its faults, through the making of a charged political thriller like Madras Café they have created a cult film and at the same time set a new bench mark for Hindi cinema. In the opening sequences, while laying out the geopolitical history of the region primarily through voiceovers, it appeared more muddled than moving. It takes almost half the length of the film to come to terms with the incoherent and jarring narrative. Yet the equations of power and eloquence,

Nargis Fakhri

Nargis Fakhri

truth and fiction, empathy and insensitivity could not have been balanced in a more fitting manner. Madras Cafe is a nimble, impertinent and grim chronicle of an ignoble offshoot of political history in the run up to the slaying of the former prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In India at one side of the coin is a huge population of young and educated who want to explore newer turfs, stay with the times, and on the other there is the vast section of illiterates who the politicians and dream merchants relentlessly exploit. The reason why movies of the genre of Madras Café deserve to have an audience is because only by imbuing hope in the Johns and Shoojits of this generation we will also qualify to be contemporaries of our  time. After all every stone within its fold furtively fosters a sculpture waiting for the first tap of the sculptor’s chisel!