The Oscars so far…

Am very happy with the wins for Woody Allen and Alexander Payne in the Best Writing category.

Woody Allen’s script for Midnight in Paris is his most inventive in years…a true celebration of art, artists and the creative process.

The adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel The Descendants by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash shows a wonderful light touch and a deep understanding of what people expect from relationships.

I am thrilled with Octavia Spencer’s win for her supporting role in The Help. She absolutely inhabited that role.

More thoughts in a few hours…


Preparing for the Oscars – Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I have been a fan of Gary Oldman ever since I watched the two most over-the-top performances of his career – as Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant 1992 feature and as the villain Zorg in Luc Besson’s hilarious and inventive The Fifth Element.

Since then, I feel that Mr. Oldman has coasted a bit, presumably getting big paychecks for his roles as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise and as Jim Gordon in the rebooted Batman franchise and various voice acting roles in animated movies.

So, it’s nice to see him back in a serious lead role playing George Smiley in the first ever feature adaptation of John Le Carre’s cold war novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the book was turned into mini-series in 1979 with Alec Guinness in Smiley’s role).

The film is a top of the line production from Working Title, featuring some of the best character actors in modern cinema. In addition to Oldman, we have Oscar nominee John Hurt, Oscar winner Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds (who first came to notice in Spielberg’s Munich in 2005), Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in Infamous in 2006), Mark Strong (who played the villain Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes in 2009) and Benedict Cumberbatch who skyrocketed to public attention playing a contemporary version of Sherlock in the acclaimed BBC mini-series of 2011.

Previous Le Carre novels have made it to the big screen with varying degrees of critical acclaim – I am not even going to talk about box office success…we are not talking about Michael Bay territory here – with my favourites being The Constant Gardner (Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz) in 2005 and The Tailor of Panama (Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush) in 2001. It’s not easy converting Le Carre’s labyrinthine plots into an entertaining 2 hour film and when it works, credit must go to the script writers and the director.

TTSS is the first English language film (and only his 2nd feature film after 2 decades of TV work) by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who put an entirely new spin on the vampire genre with his 2008 girl-next-door-who-happens-to-be-a-vampire flick Let the Right One In. A bit of trivia here…Alfredson’s older brother Daniel directed parts 2 and 3 of Swedish movie adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

The film is set in the early ‘70’s (and therefore must now be classified as a ‘period film’ I suppose!) and deals with Smiley’s efforts to hunt down a mole in MI6 and in doing so, to gain some measure retribution after he and his boss are both forced into retirement after a botched Hungarian operation. The tone is the film is suitably drab, reflecting both the geographical and moral landscape that these spies operate in. However, Alfredson is able to add some dynamic touches through interesting camera movements and placements…there is a recurring shot taken from within a dumbwaiter carrying documents from the ground floor up to the top floor, which comes to mind.

Gary Oldman has been nominated for Best Actor for this role, but it is not a performance which has much opportunity to shine on camera, because the director doesn’t have too many close up shots of Oldman and also because – unlike in The Descendants, where the story revolves completely around Clooney’s character – the screen time is liberally spread across the large cast of characters. In fact, Gary Oldman’s acting in this film is not so much about emoting, but about being able to hide emotions and present the blandest possible face to the world. It’s the subtle efforts which stand out, the way Oldman pulls his lower jaw in and sets his facial muscles to create a slightly different face to the one we are familiar with.

Unfortunately, I don’t think TTSS is going to win either of the 2 Oscars it is nominated for – Oldman for Best Actor and Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan for Best Adapted Screenplay. Nevertheless, the movie is a must watch for lovers of carefully constructed spy movies and for the opportunity to see an outstanding cast of characters working seamless and selflessly together.

Preparing for the Oscars – George Clooney’s performance in The Descendants

I usually do a hurried catch up of Oscar nominated films as we get closer to Oscar night.

Unfortunately I have not yet seen The Artist which is likely to be a big winner in a few hours.

But last night I got to watch The Descendants and it was a hugely satisfying experience. This is the 3rd consecutive great film from Alexander Payne (4th by some counts, but I was never a fan of Election). As I mentioned on my Facebook update this morning, The Descendants is a film about life and death, love and loss…filled with interesting characters the viewer can instantly relate to.

This is a George Clooney film almost all the way. As a viewer, we are allowed to see how his character, lawyer Matt King, privately deals with the grief of his wife’s impending death while having to put up a brave front for his two daughters for whom so far he has only been a “back up parent”. There are good performances from the actresses playing his two daughters, especially Shailene Woodley playing the older daughter Alexandra. The only odd note came from Alexandra’s slacker boyfriend who starts off as an obnoxious socially insensitive teenager and then mysteriously transforms into a quietly supportive extended member of Clooney’s family. Also a notable performance from Robert Forster as Matt King’s father-in-law. I last saw Forster in his acclaimed performance as Max Cherry in Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown back in 1997.

Another key character in the story is Hawaii itself. Director Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael expertly use the landscape, music and the people to enhance the mood and the story line. One of the memorable scenes has Clooney running down the curving road from his house all the way to the house of his family friends to question them on his wife’s alleged affair. Another moment has Clooney speaking with one of his cousins while in a bar with his family…the cheerful background song from a trio of live performers contrasts with the storm of emotions running through Clooney’s mind when he learns that his wife’s lover will profit enormously from a land deal which Clooney is just about to close which will make most of his extended family into millionaires.

What makes the movie a winner was the fact that in addition to being an exploration of metaphysical themes, it had a genuinely engaging plot line.

Clooney’s on-screen personas tend to be clustered at two extremes – we have the confident, capable characters like Bill Tyne (The Perfect Storm), Danny Ocean, Michael Clayton, Jack (The American) or Ryan Bingham (Up in the Air) and we have the goofy, bumbling characters like Everett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Harry Pfarrer (Burn After Reading) and Lyn Cassady (The Men Who Stare At Goats). Both of these personas work very well for their respective movies. Sometimes he tends to combine elements of both, as he did successfully in Out of Sight and with disastrous results in Leatherheads. In The Descendants, Mr. Clooney has successfully vaulted over the accumulated baggage of those previous roles and given us a real and completely believable character…one which I hope will bring in Oscar gold later today.

3 Films by Satyajit Ray

In the past one month, I have added 3 more films to my list of Satyajit Ray movies watched – Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977), Nayak (The Hero, 1966) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970).

Each film is a masterpiece. All of them come from his post-Charulata period, where he moved away from his socially relevant films to a wider set of genres and a less intense tone.

“Shatranj Ke Khiladi” is the most tongue-in-cheek of the 3 films. I can imagine Mr. Ray making this film with a twinkle in his eye, enjoying the subject matter and the performances of Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey, as the two chess players intent on playing their daily game of chess. Interestingly, the core of the film – the antics of Kumar and Jaffrey – is just a sub-plot to the machinations of the British to have the ruler of the state removed from his throne. The characters played by Kumar and Jaffrey are minor noblemen who occasionally appear at the court of the ruler. In fact, there is just one scene in the entire film where they are actually seen at court with the ruler, thereby establishing the connection between the two plots.
I must make special mention of the outstanding and understated performance by Hindi film bad guy Amjad Khan as the effeminate and ineffectual ruler of Oudh. A ruler only through the accident of birth, he is much more at home appreciating the fine arts, than focusing on affairs of state – a fact that is continuously brought up by the British General who is responsible for enforcing his abdication. If ever a single film captured the essence of how the British expanded their colonization of India, it is this one. Most of the Indian ruling class couldn’t be bothered with what the British were up to, as long as they were allowed to live their lives of luxury. The film is based on a short story of the same name by Munshi Premchand, one of India’s foremost writers of popular literature of the early 20th century.

“Nayak” is an insightful look into the life of celebrity, expertly told over the course of an overnight train journey from Calcutta to New Delhi. This film is based on an original screenplay by Mr. Ray. As one can imagine, setting the film on a train gives Mr. Ray the opportunity to populate the story with many interesting characters. While not all of them interact directly with the titular protagonist, their stories play out as a colorful background to the journey of self-exploration undertaken by the actor, in parallel with his train journey. This introspection is triggered by the attempts of a magazine editor to surreptitiously gain an interview with the actor to publish in her next issue. Their discussions take place over multiple meetings in the dining car, each meeting resulting in the editor (charmingly played by Sharmila Tagore) getting further and further past the mask of his public persona. In turn, the actor (played to perfection by Uttam Kumar) becomes increasingly attracted to and intrigued by this ingenuous young writer. The other characters on the train expertly serve to fill the gaps and move the story forward.

“Aranyer Din Ratri” is a sort of road trip, once again a journey of self-exploration for 4 somewhat callow and self-possessed young men on a forest trip from the city. Here Mr. Ray gives us glimpses into the psyche of the Indian middle and upper-middle class (hasn’t really changed in the 40 years since the film was made) – a sense of entitlement and a belief that money and contacts are good enough to bypass rules and regulations. The 4 friends bully the watchman of a forest department rest house to ‘rent’ it out to them, even though they have no official authorization to stay on government property. Their intention is to ‘chill out’ away from the city, but change their minds and decide to become sociable when they discover that a nearby bungalow is occupied by a wealthy retired man, his daughter and widowed daughter-in-law (both attractive young women) and grandson. In the course of the next few days, their interactions with the women, with the villagers and with the forest dept. officials all serve to showcase the psyche of each of the men. In turn, these events and conversations force the men to examine their beliefs, their fears and their value systems. They return to the city, each a wiser man in his own way.

After each film, I was left amazed at how Satyajit Ray was able to turn the most mundane and ordinary of situations into stories of human insight that I could relate to. I suppose it comes from a deep understanding of what makes ordinary people tick.