Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream is 2000 film based on a novel of the same name written in 1978. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans.
The film portrays the different forms of drug addiction, taking the viewers through the experiences of these addicts as they continually inject and intake drugs.The film traces the lives of four characters Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her son Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) and Harry’s friend Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans).
The story begins in summer. Sara Goldfarb, an elderly widow living alone in her apartment, spends her time watching television. After a phone call announces that she will be invited to be a participant on a game show, she becomes obsessed with matching her appearance to a photograph from Harry's graduation. In order to fit into her old red dress, she first tries out a diet, failing which she visited a doctor and begins taking a prescription of weight-loss pills. The pills alter her behavior, but she vehemently insists that the chance to be on television has given her a reason to live. However, her invitation does not arrive, and she begins to up her dosage, causing nightmarish hallucinations. She sees herself on the TV show, being adulated and cheered by the crowd.
Her son Harry is a heroin addict. Together with his friend, Tyrone, and his girlfriend, Marion  who are also addicts  he enters the drug trade. With the money they make over the summer, Harry and Marion hope to open a fashion store for Marion's designs, while Tyrone dreams of escaping the street and making his mother proud. However, Tyrone is caught in the middle of a drug gang assassination, and Harry uses the majority of the money they've earned to bail him out of prison. Meanwhile, because of the arrests and shootings of dealers, it becomes very hard to obtain any drugs, throwing Harry, Tyrone, and Marion into a state of deprivation. Growing more desperate, Harry convinces Marion to have sex with her psychiatrist in exchange for money, causing a rift in the relationship. The group continues to deteriorate as Marion falls into prostitution and Harry's arm becomes severely infected from improper injection technique.
Eventually, Sara’s sanity is almost completely lost and she is taken to a mental hospital. The movie ends with each character curling up in a fetal position, Marion on her couch after prostitution, Harry in the hospital bed with his arm amputated, Tyrone on a cot in prison, and Sara in a bed in at the mental hospital.
   The film takes us on a journey through what the characters feel and experience in their deepest moments of anguish as the drug addiction spirals out of control leaving them imprisoned in a delusional world of reckless desperation and devastating reality.
I found Sara Goldfarb’s story the most depressing. At her age, living alone in an apartment and the loneliness she faced brought out such sadness that her wish to lose weight and fit into the red dress to look good on TV was almost justified. The use of extremely short shots to bring out the character’s experience of the drugs, interposed with long shots brilliantly brought out the intercuts between reality and fantasy. Burstyn’s character was nominated for an Academy Award.
The story of the three youngsters was distressing as you see young blood being wasted, craving for something so toxic. It eats into their conscious being, as their bodies cannot live without it. The withdrawal symptoms force them to go to any extent to get money to satisfy their hunger for a score.
Their lives intertwined with drugs in a way seems to be a parody on the American Dream. Each character, in order to realize their dream resorts to some form of addiction as a substitute to the actual fulfillment of the dream. They choose immediate sensory satisfaction over struggle for something higher. I found it a perfect representation of the loneliness people face over attaining something that is the path to “happiness”, which on the contrary actually pulls them backwards in the depression of not being able to achieve it.
The sound track by Clint Manswell is haunting, as it creates a certain rise of momentum as each character experiences a falling spiral to desperation and devastation. It creates an accumulating sense of loss and helplessness, tracking closely the action on screen, and the downward fall of the characters. The sadness is immense.
Similar in theme to Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream brings to us a different perspective to drug addiction, the impact of addiction in different forms and what it drives a person to do. Trainspotting too has a flavour of its own to portraying the lives of addicts, although I found Requiem to show the hollowness of life and the consequences of failure to satisfy one’s dreams brought out beautifully. The final ending of the characters turning into a fetal position is symbolic of how in the end, we all go back to where we've come from, helpless, to be in the position we are most comfortable in, protecting ourselves from our sins and abandoning all our woes. 
Watch it to experience powerful film-making, a brilliantly unforgettable sound track and the truth of drug addiction.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mona Lisa Smile

Mona Lisa Smile is a 2003 American film directed by Mike Newell, starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles. It tells the story of Katherine Ann Watson (played by Julia Roberts), a teacher who comes to teach at Wellesley College, a conservative women's private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, United States in 1953.

Watson encourages her students to study to pursue serious careers. She uses modern art to suggest that they need not conform to stereotype. She feels that women can do more than solely adopt the roles of wives and mothers.

Watson's teaching methodology is very different to methods deemed acceptable by the school's directors, who believe firmly that Watson should not use her class to express her points of views or befriend students, and should stick only to teaching art. Her job is at stake. Unaffected, Watson becomes more forceful in her speeches and believes that she needs to instill a spirit of change among her students.

The film also focuses on the lives of various students of Watson's. Elizabeth "Betty" Warren (Jones) (Kirsten Dunst), a rich girl with a conservative, domineering mother marries a man who is unfaithful to her. Constance "Connie" Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) has insecurities about her body while searching for a boyfriend; Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of the few Jewish students at Wellesley at the time, who is also one of the first students to admire Watson; and Joan Brandwyn (Donegal) (Julia Stiles), who is initially conflicted about whether to pursue law school after graduation or become a housewife to Tommy Donegal (Topher Grace).

Although many are initially put off by Watsn's style, as the film progresses, more students begin to admire her, including Betty, despite being her most vehement critic.

  Watson chooses to leave after one year, by which time she had firmly made her mark as not only an exceptional teacher but also as a woman to look upto, who strongly held to her beliefs and ideals. As Betty narrates, she calls her "an extraordinary woman" and an individual who "seeks truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."

The film clearly shows the battle between the modern and the conventional. Or rather between rigid norms and structured patters to new age ideas (Represented through Art forms). This movie shows us how a woman (Ms. Watson) is the symbol of change, coming to inspire and to make a difference in the minds of young women who are programmed by those who are the moral lawmakers of the land. Taking Art as the subject of inspection, we see a conflict between Renaissance and Modern Art (Picasso). While the Renaissance focused on perfect structure and defined lines, modern art depicted the free mind with “abstract” ruling the artist’s mind. Art is symbolic of the times and thought-processes of the people of those times.

Programmed minds is what Ms. Watson tries to demolish. The closed minded thinking is brought to notice right from the beginning when she gets a job and comes to teach. On her first day of class, she gets terrified of the students who seem to know everything written in the syllabus. She sees how the students have read every word from the book and know it as well as the back of their hand. She leaves the hall, shaken, but surer of what she must do next class.

Getting her own preference of paintings, ranging from one she had done when she was a child to another, which Betty called “grotesque”, she asks them to “look beyond the paint” and open their minds to a new idea. And there begins the journey to change, the path to breaking grounds and living by one’s own potential mind. The students are taught to look beyond the four walls of the classroom and see how they can contribute to the outside world, beyond the realms of being wives, or daughters or mothers.

The four characters (Ms. Watson’s students) are interesting to analyze. Betty is the most insecure of the lot, although she seems to the be the most confident. Her rich background has made her arrogant and sharp-tongued, always on the prowl to get others in trouble because of her so-called “high-ideals”. She is strongly against Ms. Watson’s teachings and bent of thinking. She says “her subversive and political teachings encourage our Wellesley girls to reject the roles they were born to fill”.

“The roles they were born to fill”, stays in my mind as I ponder on the words that dictate our life. These roles we play is essentially what makes us who we are, or so do many people think. Is it time we looked beyond these roles? Or do we as Betty believes, fill them as destines by our very birth?

As important as Mr. Watson’s radical outlook was, it is equally important for us to see this conflict that many girls face today. How do I as a girl born in this society, to this family pursue my dreams but also choose to make and live as a family? Are both possible? According to Ms. Watson it is, as she said “  you can bake your cake and eat it too!” She also observes seeing the dogma of the rules of the institute that she thought she was headed “to a place that would turn out tomorrow's leaders, not their wives.”

Connie symbolizes the girl who is insecure of her figure fearing she may not be able to attract eligible bachelors. Here, again we see the image of what “perfect beauty” is supposed to be. Giselle sees in Ms. Watson a little of herself, who she hasn’t yet discovered. Her character is one, which tries to seduce men and get happiness out of the comfort of knowing that she is wanted. She grows to admire Ms. Watson for her strength of character and firmness of belief. Joan Brandwyn is the perfect example of someone who does exactly what she wants. Choosing to do away with an offer to Harvard Law school, to take care of family, she chooses out of her judgement what will make her most happy. She justifies her decision to Ms. Watson thus “You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don't. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You're the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.”

Although bordering on dangerously radical, Ms. Watson manages to create a lasting impression on her students as she did on me. Patriarchy has ruled most of the world today, essentially because of this attitude of the sexes. One of domination by the males and submission by the females. And so the equation falls perfect or so we think. But at whose cost? Only once we empower ourselves can we empower others. Ms. Watson did just that.

I find the title of the movie apt for its theme. Like the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa, we wonder what really goes on in the minds of so many young women, as they undergo conflicts of identity, roles and responsibilities. Behind the smile lies the real You.

Watch it for its sharp dialogues, wit, conflictual thoughts and situations that gets us thinking on the relation of the study of Art - its form and structure being representative of the way we think and the way we live.

“Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image.” Betty Warren


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Into the Wild

If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.

These were the words of a young man who believed that there needn’t be a reason for you to do something that you love. If you have the drive, then nothing can stop you. And you go all the way realizing this dream without looking back. Based on Jon Krakauer’s book by the same name, Into the Wild is a 2007 American film directed by Sean Penn. It tells us the true story of a young man, Christopher Johnson Mc Candless and his adventures with life.

Into the Wild recounts the life of Christopher Mc. Candless (played by Emile Hirsch), a real-life student athlete at Emory Univeristy. Brought up in a well to-do family, in 1992, Mc.Candless hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness. He had given all his savings to charity, burnt all the money in his pocket and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his body was found by a hunter. The whole story is narrated by his sister.

Mc. Candless’ life was that of a regular young person, who graduated from college, lived with his parents and sister and did all the regular things that a man of his age would do. When he graduates, he thinks of carrying on with his studies and plans to apply universities. His parents offer him a new car. But Chris’ reaction is unusual. He gets upset and asks them why would he need a new car? He doesn’t want these things. It’s these things that he doesn’t believe in. This scene is the first time we see Mc. Candless’ real character develop. He rejects all forms of material and conventional life and believing that his parents had betrayed him because of their constant fights, he leaves everything and everybody behind and sets out on a cross-country drive to reach his ultimate goal – Alaska, without telling his family where he is going or what he is doing. This leaves them to become increasingly anxious and eventually desperate to find the whereabouts of their son.

He abandons his old car after it is caught in a flash flood. He then hitchhikes his way into the wild after burning what remained of his dwindling cash supply. For sometimes, he works on farms but leaves that too, paddling his way to Mexico on a kayak. Followed by the police, he leaves the kayak and then travels by freight.

During his travels, he encounters many unconventional people who were intrinsically good in nature and welcomes him into their families and homes. Although Mc Candless had an opportunity to settle down with each meeting, he chooses to move on with his quest for a meaning to life, with the conviction that only the wild of Alaska will give him true knowledge. He simply refuses to contact his family.

Chris by now has a new name “Alexander Supertramp” and lives in the “Magic Bus”, which was an isolated bus he found. Although initially exhilarated by the isolation, the beauty of nature and the thrill of living off the land, life gets harder. He writes in his dairy, hunts and gathers and reads books. He slowly realizes how nature can be harsh and uncaring. He realizes that happiness is real only when shared. As his supplies run out, he is forced to eat roots and plants. Unable to distinguish an edible plant from inedible, he gets poisoned eating the wrong plant. He slowly and painfully starves to death, as he continues to document his process of self-realization and demise. Two weeks later, he dies.

The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences. This is the line that drove Mc. Candless to the wild. A will to explore, a will to experience a new life, a real life away from the material world. I saw how this conviction that Mc. Candless carried with him remains dormant in me and many others and how we too at some point of living in this material world would like to seek and truly explore.

Watching this film, I experienced a sense of Catharsis. Although I may not have the courage to do what he did and go to the extent of his daring travels, I did feel some happiness in seeing how he went out and completely renounced his worldly life to seek something higher and supreme. The quest for true experience and knowledge is inspiring. An undying spirit that kept him going simply amazed me. His thrill and sheer fascination of nature almost unnerves you.

The soundtrack by Eddie Vedder builds the theme and meaning of the film brilliantly.
Have no fear, for when I’m alone
I’ll be better off, than I was before

In solitude we find our inner selves. The time we spend on our own is when we contemplate our personalities, our deepest desires and our fears. We confront ourselves. Mc Candless does this to find himself and gets happiness out of following his free will. Eventually however, we see how he realizes nature is harsh too. It made me think how in the end our lives are entwined in a cycle of desires. There are two sides to every coin. While the grass may look greener on the other side, the other side may not after all turn out to be that green. However, one must strive to strike a balance. A balance between what you feel is you, following your heart’s desires, and also keeping in mind the people who love you, not hurting them or causing them pain because of your actions. It’s a tough equation but it’s not impossible.

Sean Penn directed the movie with great detail, bringing out subtle instances of tremendous emotional impact. Mc Candless’ character brings out sensitive issues of society, politicians and hypocrites who rule this world and make young people bitter to everything around them.

What if I were smiling and running into your arms, would you see then what I see now? - His question to his loved ones. Watch it for its sheer ability to move you and leave you wondering about the real meaning of life.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Khuda Kay Liye

Khuda Kay Liye is a 2007 Pakistani film directed by Shoaib Mansoor.

It tells us the story of three people who have problems that relate to on going issues and Islam. Two brothers who are both singers, Mansoor (Shaan) & Sarmad (Fawad Khan), become the best singers in Lahore. Sarmad gets influenced by an Islamic activist, Maulana Tahiri. He begins to practice the extremist interpretation of Islam, goes against music, also putting pressure on his free-spirited family to comply. There is a call to ban music and pictures.

In England, a girl Mary/Mariam (played by actor-model Iman Ali) is a westernized girl in love with a British man, Dave. Her hypocritical father disapproves, despite the fact that he is living with a British woman to whom he is not married. He promises her daughter marriage with Dave, after a trip to Pakistan. However, this is a trap and she is forcefully married to her cousin Sarmad in Afghanistan, and abandoned there.

Meanwhile, Mansoor goes to music school in Chicago. There, he meets a girl Janie and instantly falls in love with her. She quits alcohol for him, and they eventually get married. After 9/11, FBI officers capture him when someone overhears a drunk man accusing Mansoor of being a terrorist. Subsequently, he is tortured for a year in custody just because of his Islamic background.

Meanwhile, Mary manages to run away, but is caught by Sarmad in the process. Sarmad eventually consummates their marriage by force. Mansoor and Sarmad's parents finally come to her rescue under the protection of the British Government, but Mary, driven by vengeance, then takes her father and cousin to court in Pakistan. There, a wise Maulana Wali (Naseeruddin Shah) who explains to the court how Islam is being butchered in the name of war and hatred, bringing the religion forward in a believable and peaceful manner.

Traumatized by all the suffering he has seen and caused, Sarmad withdraws from the case. He also realizes the damage that he was made to do in the name of religion. Mary is now free, but decides to return to the village where she was kept prisoner, so she can educate the girls there. Meanwhile, Mansoor is still in U.S. custody after a year of torment; the last torture session having inflicted permanent brain damage. After a failed rehab attempt, he is deported and reunited with his family in Pakistan where, thanks to the hope of his family, he begins to slowly recover.

The movie clearly depicts the image of Islam as has come to be understood by the world. We see how the two singer brothers are forced to draw away from their music, and Sarmad, in the process undergoes a transformation. This shows us how Islam is seen to be intolerant to music and fine arts. A talented young man is pulled away from what he loves most and is taken to an extremist direction. This change is seen in the way he transforms his dressing and wears attire like Maulana Tahiri. In Pakistan, artistic expression is subdued because of religious dictatorship by such extremist characters.

Mariam, a westernized Muslim girl who is in love with a white man, is faced with strong disapproval from her father, who is not very happy about his daughter dating a white man; although the father himself lives with a woman he not even married to. This is a clear depiction of discrimination against women. The mother strongly voices against this partiality. He talks about how it is acceptable for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim girl but not for a Muslim girl. He fears he’ll be the laughing stock of the Pakistani community. The implications are much stronger against a girl than a boy. She simply has no say in her desires to marry someone. Although this may be an extreme portrayal of women in Islam at this time and age, these practices happen. Patriarchy and the unfair implications of a male dominated society is strongly shown where a woman is faced with bias in spite of a liberal upbringing. In the end, conventions stand ahead of a woman’s voice and free will.

Mansoor, who goes to England and falls in love with a British girl, is faced with conflict, as he is not sure how the different cultures may not fit in if they plan to get married. The girl, however, quits smoking and drinking for him. This is important in showing how alcohol is forbidden in Islam. It also shows how inter-religious marriages do take place in a liberal society, when the man is in power. A Muslim man marries a Christian girl.

After the 9/11 attacks, Mansoor is wrongly accused of being a terrorist and knowing the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. He fears his life and he is put in prison and tortured. I see now how most Muslims abroad live in fear. Fear of being falsely accused, fear of being suspected merely on virtue of their religion. How unfair this attitude is. I strongly resent it. The film shows these prejudices in a way that shakes you out of your comfort in believing that everything is under control. It leaves you uneasy.

The music is captivating. Especially the fusion piece which reflects the confluence of cultures.

The girl escapes and Naseeruddin Shah explains how the image of Islam is marred by such misunderstandings of the religion. He attempts to correct this marred image by delivering meaningful lines. Shah symbolizes the voice of the Right Way to understand Islam.

Although the film is slow paced and lacks credible realism at times, watch it for its honesty and courageous attempt to correct the image of Islam and its potential to change existing beliefs.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Persepolis is a French animated film based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of same name, made in 2007. It was written and directed by Satrapi with Vincent Paronnaud. It tells the story of a young Iranian girl and her experiences while growing up in a war torn country. Marji, is brought up in a liberal family who follow an open-minded lifestyle and does not impose rules on their daughter. They give her the freedom to live, but to live responsibly and well aware of her roots.

She sees how her country is torn by the Iranian Revolution. Rules begin to be imposed on the people. Being the free spirit that she is, she finds the restrictions ridiculous, going about her own way of living life. She goes out to buy heavy metal music, wears a leather jacket, and constantly retorts back at her teacher for teaching the wrong ideas.

After being sent abroad to study, she becomes more aware of her Iranian identity as she realizes how people look at her not as an individual person, but as a representative of the country she comes from, which increasingly frustrates her. She tries to hide the fact that she is Iranian. She returns home, as she feels guilty that her countrymen are dying and she is away from home.  She feels further aggravated by the rules of the fundamentalists and snaps back at every opportunity. After a disastrous marriage, she returns to France and this time, less in denial of her identity.

Persepolis, on its first watch, had a uniquely blending impact of endearing characters with its cartoon figures and serious undertones of the themes. I enjoyed the quick dialogues, the wit and directness of speech by the characters. I was strongly drawn to the use of animation to show the face of Iran during the revolution. The people suffered under the strict regimen in the name of "Islamic law" and the women faced prejudice and unfavorable attitudes.

            The name resounds for its unique vocal quality. I wanted to read it. And then I wanted to watch it. Persepolis gave me a uniquely enriching visual and textual experience. The movie according to me, did as well as the book. The name fascinated me, as I found that it is a historic city in Iran. What drew me closer to the film was the story of this girl, in a state of mental conflict between her freedom and her experience in a country that suppressed and restricted free thought and action. Marjane comes across as a strong symbol of the fighting woman who does not give up, yet is constantly facing an inner trauma of discovering herself and being caught up with preconceived notions of her national identity.

            I found in Marjane a spirit that inspires, a drive that pushes above all odds and a strong will to fight back injustice. She questions, challenges, and faces its consequences without fearing its fallbacks. Issues of religion, patriotism, family ideals, trust, love, friendship and betrayal are brought forth beautifully.

            The music that is played during times of heightened tension, with no dialogue increases the sense of agitated anxiety one faces when watching the helpless state of the citizens under the repressive rule. The use of black and white to depict the author’s past memories and color to show the present give a stark contrast that reflect the narrator’s mind and how she sees things as she tells us her story.

            Watch the film for its uniqueness of reflective narrative and elements of animated story telling with a passion.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou is a 16-minute surrealist film made in France in 1928 by Spanish director Luis Bunuel and Spanish artist Salvador Dali. It is considered to be one of the best-known surrealist films made in the modernist era.

The film brings across the true form of Surrealism. In the conventional sense of the word, the film does not really have a narrative. It consists of disjointed scenes, which jump from one to another. This creates a series of events that attempt to shock the viewer's psyche.

The silence makes the visuals more unnerving, as we are highly aware of the visual impact the imagery has on us. Provocative themes and abstract concepts is the recipe of this film. We are left baffled and at a loss of any rational explanation. Senseless as it may seem, it leaves us with a disturbing sense of uncertainty that plays with our mind in a way that is beyond our logical comprehension. 

Although the film seems to have a chronology because it opens with "once upon a time" to move on to "eight years later" and then "spring", we realize that the texts are misleading as it does not really make sense. The characters are randomly faced with surprising incidents, which the viewer cannot immediately decipher. The obscurity puts the viewer in a state of constant confusion that is disturbing. It gives a theme that appears to be vague yet is deep in its idea of showing the larger sense of its purpose.

The famous scene of the slitting of the eye is open to many interpretations. When the film starts, we see the moon about to be covered with clouds, while the husband (played by Bunuel) gazes at the moon, fingering the razor he has just sharpened. The moon is symbolic of the eye of the wife because, as soon after this shot, there is a cut to the close-up of his wife. There is one more cut which shows the moon being overcome by the clouds as the husband slits his wife’s eye. Highly symbolic imagery is used here. When he slits the eye of his wife, there is a feeling of convoluting shock as we see how effortlessly the action is done. One cannot understand the motive behind it. And throughout the movie, we are left wondering why that scene was shot as we taken in quick sequences of varying movements and actions. This scene may be looked at as the essence of the surreal art form, as the cluelessness left behind may be the purpose of having it.

This movie can be compared to other masterpieces such as Trainspotting by Danny Boyle and Eight and Half by Frederico Fellini. Both the movies explore different themes using surrealism to create a desired effect on the audience.

One of the world's rarest short films, Un Chien Andalou is a must watch for a mind-boggling, bewildering experience.