15 August 2012

THE BOURNE LEGACY (Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012, US) - Criss Cross

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross
Sometimes, well most of the times these days, I end up being very cynical about Hollywood franchises. When I heard that Universal were adamant to keep the Bourne franchise alive with a film without both Damon and Greengrass part of me couldn't help lambaste Hollywood for its seemingly endless lack of originality. I was very sceptical about The Bourne Legacy, a film written and directed by Tony Gilroy and starring Jeremy Renner in the lead role of CIA operative Aaron Cross. The Bourne films have been important for the reputation of another global franchise - James Bond. What the Bourne films did for the espionage genre was the injection of a much needed realism in terms of both style and ideology. The representation of politics in a post cold war era in terms of the spy film meant a level of self parody but the Bourne films were some of the first post millennial films to offer a more gritty and credible look at the changing face of geopolitical espionage. The Bourne Identity, the first in the series, is an effective and surprisingly elegant spy thriller which established Jason Bourne as a new age realistic anti hero. The follow up, The Bourne Supremacy, is arguably the finest of the bunch and saw the directorial involvement of Paul Greengrass who brought a greater degree of realism to the action sequences. Given the critical and commercial success of Supremacy, Universal seemed to hand over the franchise to Damon and Greengrass who would go on to collaborate on the disastrous Green Zone project. James Bond responded with a reinvention of its formula, adopting much of the new (old) realism pioneered by the Bourne films and offering us a new three dimensional Bond in the shape of hard case Daniel Craig. The third and supposed final film in the franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum, was universally well received and with some critics declaring it the best. Ultimatum seems the weakest and this is largely because the film is overly derivative of Supremacy and offers in my opinion an unsatisfactory conclusion since the final revelation is predictable. Nevertheless, Ultimatum is still a superior spy thriller. 

So what of The Bourne Legacy? The narrative is set within the same time frame of Jason Bourne's excursion to New York in which he infiltrates the CIA. The focus this time is on Aaron Cross, another CIA operative who ends up being betrayed in order to minimise the political fallout from the Jason Bourne scandal. Cross is the latest covert CIA operation; a lab experiment enhancing both his strength and intelligence. The plot is somewhat of a regurgitation of the Bourne films and offers few surprises in the way Cross attempts to regain his identity. What makes Legacy such a worthy follow up is the way Gilroy chooses to maintain political intrigue with a genuinely exciting handling of the action set pieces. Strangely enough, Legacy felt more like a traditional thriller than the other Bourne films and although this may seem like one of the conventional aspects of the film, it gives the narrative a tautness. One of the best and politically prescient sequences takes place near the beginning. A remote controlled drone is used to carry out a strike against two of the CIA operatives; one of them is killed while Cross manages to escape. It might be the first ever death by drone representation in a Hollywood film. With so many deaths on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border over the years, the use of drone technology to commit atrocities underlines an ugly detachment from the crime and the cowardly ability to never see the people, just a target. Even more chilling is the notion that by removing the human element from target assassinations, the crime becomes altogether more unreal, thus eliminating any contemplations of guilt. The thriller and action genre derive from the chase film or narrative which emerged in the early days of film and Legacy at its most simplistic is an extended geopolitical chase film with an ending non to similar to the previous Bourne films. Both Renner and Weisz are well cast and offer solid performances but their pairing lacks a certain chemistry which was present between Damon and Potente in the first film. Edward Norton shows up as a scheming CIA suit with plenty of hackneyed political dialogue that we have heard so many times before. Legacy is a well crafted spy/action thriller but for me it lacks the sustained ideological engagement to put it in the category of Gilroy's debut Michael Clayton. 

10 August 2012

EVEN THE RAIN (Dir. Iciar Bollain, 2010, Spain/Mexico/France) - Exploiters

The exploited meets the exploiter?
Even The Rain is easily one of the best films I have seen this year. It is a film that merges two concepts: politics and cinema into a very powerful narrative about oppression, history, privatisation and most directly class struggle. Written by Paul Laverty, a regular Ken Loach collaborator of social realist cinema, and directed by Spaniard Iciar Bollain, Even The Rain sees a Spanish film crew arrive in Bolivia to shoot a revisionist historical film about Columbus and his experiences with the indigenous people of the Americas. The crew is led by director Sebastian (Gael Garcia Bernal) and producer Costa (Luis Tosar) who have a vision of making an epic on an inexpensive budget in a country where labour is cheap. As they film, external political events begin to take over the shooting schedule and soon film making is interrupted by protests over the state's control of water and multinational privatisation. The protest inevitably turns to a violent struggle and a state of emergency is declared, bringing an end to Sebastian's dream of completing the film. The protest is led by Daniel, who has been cast in the film as leader of the Indians. Daniel's involvement in the war over water jeopardises the shoot and endangers his life but it also brings to light the middle class unconcern's of the film crew especially Costa. Costa is a producer who only cares for the film project yet he is the one who seems to change the most. Initially Costa is humiliated by Daniel for his indifference to the plight of the Bolivian indigenous underclass and their struggle for the most elemental of human rights. Costa does come to the aid of Daniel at the end and while this is a literally eye opening experience, a wider point is made about the expiation of middle class guilt. One of the strongest elements of the film is the dramatic parallel between the past and present forms of class exploitation. It is a parallel underlining a continuity in terms of hegemonic oppression. By keeping political details of the Bolivian water war in the background, the film avoids falling into the trap of overly politicising such an important social issue. Additionally, many of the characters especially Daniel are humanised so that their voice feels authentic and credible. The final meeting between Costa and Daniel is undoubtedly the most sentimental. Such emotional expressiveness seems necessary given the way class as a barrier becomes invisible, uniting two very different people against one common enemy: corporate multinational greed. As Costa leaves Bolivia never to return, he opens the gift given to him by Daniel for saving his daughter's life. It is a bottle of water. Although no one can truly claim to own water, many have and yet we forget that water belongs to us all but is denied to many. It is a point made with startling political clarity as is the rest of this great film.   

9 August 2012

ISHAQZAADE / LOVE REBELS (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2012, India) - Star Crossed Lovers

A loose updating of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.
Its too early to say whether or not Habib Faisal is a solid mainstream filmmaker but on the basis of the two films he has directed to date including Do Dooni Char & Ishaqzaade, he has certainly tried to take on the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema and give audiences something a little different. Ishaqzaade is a Yash Raj production and was expectedly well marketed, performing surprisingly well at the Indian box office. The slate of Yash Raj films released over the last two years have been somewhat disappointing and while they have branched out into different genres, the quality of scripts has been uneven. Habib Faisal was a scriptwriter before becoming a director and he continues to write for Yash Raj projects. Ishaqzaade is also written by Habib Faisal and that seems unusual in the context of mainstream Indian cinema since most films use a script typically credited to an array of writers. Ishaqzaade can be interpreted as a contemporary updating of Romeo and Juliet and the story of the star crossed lovers who are fated by their warring families remains largely intact. Given the current sorry state of mainstream Indian cinema, Ishaqzaade is a film that has a lot going for it including an energetic style, vibrant locations, solid performances and an ending that makes good on its promise of fatalism. With Do Dooni Chaar, Habib Faisal dealt with the day to day problems faced by the middle class of India and such an interest in social themes is evident again in Ishaqzaade but in the shape of religion. The story of Romeo & Juliet is given a topical variation by bringing into play communal politics, pitting two political families (The Chauhans & the Qureshis) against each other. In the midst of such intense hatred that goes back generations is the twisted love story of youngsters Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya Qureshi (Parineeti Chopra). In many ways, the characterisation of Parma and Zoya are stereotypical and are familiar enough to us from other romantic films but the religious divisions transforms the characters into potent political symbols of sectarian strife visible in some parts of India. The great compromise when it comes to mainstream Indian cinema is the inclusion of song and dance sequences. In his first film, Habib Faisal succeeds in bypassing such a tradition and although he tries he hardest to keep songs to a minimal in Ishaqzaade, the ones he does use are both insignificant to the narrative and unmemorable. Had he been able to eliminate song and dance sequence altogether, the film might have been stronger for it but then this would have inevitably changed the type of film being made from mainstream to art film. 

Thankfully the narrative of the film doesn't suffer from the film of two halves syndrome plaguing so many Indian films of late - this means the first half is light hearted whereas the second half is dominated by heartache; I guess its the perfect emotional mix for the masala film genre. An interesting departure is the way the intermission is used. Many films use the intermission as a crossroads in terms of narrative and romantic films in particular use the intermission to convey a predictable dilemma facing the main protagonist - usually related to having fallen in love. Habib Faisal departs from such formulaic hyperbole by using the intermission to frame Parma's successful plan to marry Zoya and have intercourse with her, thus giving his family the edge in the election race. It is a bold and inventive use of the intermission and takes the material into an unfamiliar territory. The discovery of Parma and Zoya's secret marriage which was carried out by Parma as a way of exacting revenge on Zoya for her humiliation at college at first creates more hatred between the two families. However, once the families realise that their political reputation and domination could come to an end, they come together to eliminate Parma and Zoya. Such an alliance demonstrates a wider point about religious divisions and political power and the way the two interconnect and depend on one another in today's India. Rather than embrace Parma and Zoya's secular marriage, the families reactionary stance reveals a reactionary ideological perspective that promotes a culture of intolerance. What Parma and Zoya's union represents is the progressive face of middle class India in which the youth will have a decisive role to play in the erosion of such traditional and repressive values. Ultimately, Parma and Zoya's marriage poses a threat to the political power structure which is in place and it is political interests that must be protected, even at the expense of a premature youthful liberalism. 

Similarly like recent films such as Ishqiya and Omkara, the city is nowhere to be seen and director Habib Faisal opts for a rural 'lawless' geographical landscape of old colleges, brothels, over sized family mansions and depilated railway carriages. It is a rustic terrain that seems fitting for the ancient rivalry that exists between the two families. Zoya is a feisty and spirited female character who seems trapped in such an overly male dominated world. When she tells her brothers that she has dreams of becoming a politician like her father they laugh, mocking her enthusiasm as foolishness. It is only when she is disgraced by Parma does Zoya realise that the value of honour is sadly more important than her happiness or even existence. Such a reactionary response from the two families yet again taps into the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in rural India. Yet it is a feudalism that wins votes and appeals to the traditional sentiments of the electoral. The film also seems to deconstruct the male arrogance of a youthful figure like Parma who is transformed from vicious, hot headed demagogue into a symbol of religious tolerance - any romantic notions of heroism are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an aberrant banditry. The turning point for Parma is the death of his mother who is executed by his uncle who heads the Chauhan family. From thereon Parma promises to uphold his mother's dying wish, to protect Zoya. Interestingly, the matriarchal figure yet again resurfaces in relation to the actions of the fallen male hero and this aspect seems to invoke the conventions of traditional Indian cinema from the 1950s onwards. 

In terms of the ending, the film opts for a bloody shoot out which results in Parma and Zoya taking their own lives, thus adhering to the fatalism of Shakespeare's classic tale. In fact, it feels more like an ending inspired by films such as Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in which the main protagonists have no means of escape other than self destruction. In the case of Parma and Zoya, their rebelliousness threatens the norms of the feudal, sectarian world so they must be eliminated for the status quo to prevail. Ishaqzaade is a deceptive work, posing sophisticated and pertinent ideological arguments that are smuggled into the fabric of what appears to be a pedestrian boy meets girl love story. So perhaps we can conclude by saying in the words of Martin Scorsese that Habib Faisal is a director as smuggler, working in personal themes and social preoccupations into the fabric of his films. It seems like a perfectly sound argument why the mainstream can in fact be a perfect arena for testing out more unconventional ideas on a wide audience in the most deceptive of manners.

8 August 2012

BERNIE (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2011, US) - Mr. Nice Guy [Spoilers Ahead]

Jack Black as Bernie Tiede.
Its amazing what a moustache can do for an actor. Comic actor Jack Black has such a moustache in the latest film from director Richard Linklater. The moustache in question makes mortician Bernie Tiede appear deceptively ordinary; it also transforms Jack Black the comedian into a serious actor. Nonetheless, the moustache is also creepy and fits into the similarly terrifying mundanity of Carthage, a typical small town America, which seems occupied solely by an ageing population. It's as if young people don't exist in Bernie's world. Carthage is situated in the Midwest of America, manifesting a beguiling ordinariness and inhabited by people who believe in a conservative morality as epitomised by Bernie's unnerving friendliness to everyone he meets. Religion in the form of the local church seems to be a binding element in the way community functions. The film opens with members of the town offering us a flattering portrait of Bernie as a saint of Carthage, setting up the notion of subjectivity. Remarkably the film is based on a true story and Linklater involves the town members, interviewing them as if a documentary crew are continually present. Its hard to figure out if the town members are actors or the actual people, thus blurring the line between reality and fiction. If the memories of Bernie are subjective and unreliable, then this becomes a film about a town's collective perceptions and their attempts to hold on to an image of kindness cultivated over time. Bernie, a harmless, over eager and portly man in his late 30s, becomes romantically involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich old widow, who is categorically loathed by the town for her outright meanness. At first Bernie offers support when Marjorie's husband passes away but his affections soon turn to a companionship. It is not long before Marjorie becomes parasitically dependent on Bernie for all facets of her life including her savings. Marjorie's control over Bernie becomes obsessive and one day Bernie shoots Marjorie in the back, hiding her body in a deep freeze then sustaining the illusion that she is still alive. Linklater constructs such an innocent, generous and deeply likable portrait of Bernie that when it comes to his arrest and conviction, as an audience we share the town's feelings that Bernie's actions should be measured against the way he tried to rejuvenate the town of Carthage and its people. Everything including the murder is underlined by a dark comical tone that runs throughout the film's episodic narrative so we are never quite sure if Linklater is mocking the world of Carthage or celebrating its distinctiveness. When Bernie is found guilty by the jury and sentenced to life imprisonment, one feels like an injustice has been committed. Yet the facts are clear - Bernie did kill Marjorie, and although it may have not been pre-mediated, the law has to be enforced and this means Bernie being made into a criminal. Linklater ends on a reflexive note with images of the real Bernie in prison, finishing with a brilliant final shot of Jack Black the actor talking to the real Bernie in prison; it's a moment of real innocence. 

4 August 2012

SLACKER (Dir. Richard Linklater, 1991, US) - Lost in Austin

The opening titles with Linklater
Director Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough feature Slacker is arguably one of his most philosophical and radical works. Shot on a low budget in his home town of Austin, Texas, the film dispenses with plot entirely and embraces an orchestrated randomness as we are introduced to a series of colourful Austin inhabitants. Brilliantly scripted by Linklater, the screenplay contains some memorable and very complex ideological dialogue that is representative of the various slackers that we meet - individuals who have taken a decision to openly reject conformist capitalist society while advocating a cool form of dissent as a favourable lifestyle. The film opens with director Linklater getting of a coach and taking a taxi cab in which he relates a lengthy ramble on the choices people make and the existence of alternate realities. Linklater’s dialogue seems both improvised and seemingly random but it is a stream of consciousness that ebbs and flows to establish an infectious tone as we are taken in by each character’s vivid narratives. The term slacker is synonymous with youth, laziness and potheads but here it means something radical. A slacker in Linklater’s world is someone who seems socially and politically autonomous in their criticisms of the dominant capitalist systems. In a way, such an analogy summarises the position of Linklater as a filmmaker since he has alternated between independent and mainstream cinema yet managing to hold on to authorial interests/concerns. A rebelliousness marks the work of Linklater and many of his protagonists are marginal Americans, living an existence characterised by a slackerdom philosophy. One can see how influential a film like Slacker was on later American indies such as Clerks but it is a film that also draws on the work of Godard, American Graffiti and cult film Repo Man. What I admire most about Linklater is his capacity to make films on his terms - this has resulted in highly original films such as Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie. Additionally, by remaining in Austin to build the infrastructure for future filmmakers Linklater has retained artistic integrity and also his coolness, making him a director that many aspire to emulate. As for Slacker, it is an achingly beautiful film that captures a certain youth zeitgeist and does so with remarkable cinematic rhythms.