Wednesday, April 24, 2013

When women take control

"The story I tell is for all who want to hear. A tale of those who fast, a tale of those who pray, a tale of a lonely town, mines scattered all around. Caught up in a war, split to its very core. To clans with broken hearts under a burning sun. Their hands stained with blood in the name of a cross or a crescent. From this lonely place, which has chosen peace, whose history is spun of barbed wire and guns."

It's often the fairer sex which is more sensible than the stronger one when it comes to dealing with emotions. Some women think with their minds and some men with their hearts. Such are the women in a small Lebanese village; they strive to maintain peace amidst tensions in the surrounding areas. Where Do We Go Now (2011) sheds light on how a small group of men (from two different communities that are already on the edge) is unable to withstand the ugly wave of conflicts in the name of religion on their own. How the women who are tired of losing their men to wars stand up and decide to ensure peace at any cost.

The story is set in a remote village away from the violence rampaging around the country. In this village Christians and Muslims live together without much trouble. The church and mosque are opposite to each other and the people mix along well and co-exist in harmony. Even though the two communities had their differences they seem to be living with each other in peace. The trouble in the village begins with a broken cross in the church and some farm animals soiling the mosque which is more than enough to trigger the hot blooded men as they instantly accuse each other for those incidents. It's the women who act sensibly and try in every possible way to prevent the men from taking the path of violence and being swept in the country's religiously motivated civil war.

As the news of the religious tensions in the country spread they remain unaffected and make keeping peace in the village their ambition. Right from cutting off the wires which connect and provide signal to the only television set in the village to roping in Ukrainian pole dancers, the ladies do everything possible to keep their men's minds away from the ongoing tensions. Not to forget the use of hashish to get them high and keep them distracted. War was perhaps the only solution for these men when it came to putting an end to religious tensions but fortunately their women thought otherwise and targeted their weapons so that they can hide them. Their tactics may have managed to keep the men away from killing each other but an unfortunate event involving a death of a young boy caught in communal riots outside of the village triggers the inevitable.

 Priest: "Did we get away with it?"
Imam: "Down here maybe. But up there, I'm not so sure."
There are different shades of emotions in this movie and sources suggest that the actors had never acted before, each one of them gives a quite remarkable performance. Director Nadine Labaki who also acts in this movie cited the problems in Lebanon as her inspiration for making it. She mixes harmony, humour and tension while telling her story. There is a romance between a christian woman and a muslim man, there are songs which involve dancing and then there are tense moments as the men get hellbent on killing each other due to the unavoidable incidents involving their religions. There are times when it seems a bit too much which can be seen in the scene where the mayor's wife pretends to be talking to the virgin Mary but all in all it goes well with the plot of the movie. The movie revolves around a sensitive topic in the form of communal tension which  involves women from the Middle East taking initiative and bringing peace back into their homes. After all the ups and downs along the way the movie ends with a bold resolution which puts an end to the hatred. If only the world worked according to Labaki's imagination then this would be a perfect solution for peace.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Mystic River: There are threads in our lives ...

... You pull one, and everything else gets affected.

"We bury our sins. We wash them clean."
It's already a classic and rightfully so. The story that introduced me to the genius of Dennis Lehane and shed new light on Clint Eastwood's talent. It's one of the very few movies that led me to read the book. I usually do it the other way around but this story just spoke to me in a way that made me wonder: if the movie is so wonderful, how amazing must be the book?
And I wasn't disappointed. More than that, this is one of the movies that in my opinion follows the book the closest. As much as it is possible, given that Mystic River is a very complex book and quite a hefty volume. The story itself seems quite simple. Sean Devine, Jimmy Markum (Marcus in the book) and Dave Boyle are three friends playing hockey on a Boston street in 1975. Their friendship is abruptly stopped when Dave foolishly sits into a stranger's car, believing him to be a man of the law. The car drives away and Dave comes back after four days, sexually abused and scarred for life. But abuse is one of those things that aren't talked about but should be. Twenty-five years later all the boys are married men with their own problems and demons. Sean is a cop (staying at Heartbreak hotel), Jimmy is in his second marriage, walking on the brink of the law and Dave is a quiet father of a young boy. Then Jimmy's 19 year old daughter Katie is found murdered and Sean is in charge of the case. The hunt for the girl's killer begins but it will bring out so many past demons and troubles that you cannot even imagine. There is a secret behind every corner and Sean Devine and his partner Whitey Powers (yes, Lehane knows how to pick his characters' names!) leave no stone unturned. While they're putting the puzzle together, Jimmy is getting restless, convinced that they are not doing a good enough job. He is intent on keeping his promise to Katie - that he will catch her killer and kill him. Meanwhile Dave's wife Celeste, the brilliant Marcia Gay Harden, oscar nominated for this role) Jimmy's wife's cousin, has a secret that she's been holding on to and it's eating her alive. On the night of Katie's murder, her husband came home bloody and shaking. Now it's up to her to decide who she should tell that and whether or not she should trust Dave's explanation. The clock is ticking, the snowball effect is in full speed and the atmosphere is getting more and more tense, nervous and dreadful. The end result will shock and shatter everyone.
Combining the aspect of the book and the movie, let me say that this cast is perfect. No one would do a better former (and current) bad boy father than Sean Penn (Jimmy). Kevin Bacon is ideal as the jilted husband, waiting patiently for his wife to forgive him and come home to him (Sean). And Tim Robbins who definitely doesn't make enough movies is remarkable as the damaged Dave Boyle, the tall broken giant who even walks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders and yet hisses like a snake if backed into a corner.
"The reality is we're still 11 year old boys locked in a cellar imagining
what our lives would have been if we'd escaped." - Sean Devine
This movie is like a song. It flows and shows all aspects of these men's lives and how they have been influenced by that horrible car incident years ago. No one really knows the whole story of Dave's captivity which makes him more of a mystery and a bigger suspect. The motion picture score is so much a part of the movie that without it the story would probably wobble. But Clint Eastwood left nothing to chance. He didn't win an oscar for this movie, was more rewarded for the following year's Million Dollar Baby but Robbins and Penn both took away the lead actor and supporting actor's oscars, respectively, and became the first duo in a movie to achieve that since Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith for Ben-Hur (1959).
Most notably commented and talked about scene in the movie is definitely Sean Penn's "Is that my daughter in there?!" breakdown. Many characterize it as over-acting and it wasn't rare that people even laughed during the scene at the movies. But Sean, who asked for a tank of oxygen to be ready at the scene in case of emergency, tapped into Jimmy's pain. For anyone who read the book and knows the character of Jimmy Markum (Marcus), knows that Jimmy adored his eldest daughter, she was the apple of his eye and the heart of his heart. And I am sure anyone who has a daughter can confirm that the pain which he was spewing out of his system, was real and authentic. Even his mimic and his behavior echoed Jimmy's.

In the book, Dennis Lehane makes you want to be a part of this dysfunctional society and in the movie Clint Eastwood makes Boston seem like the place where you might just want to live. And that's probably how Lehane wants his love for his hometown to be viewed. The ending after the ending is particularly haunting. To see who actually pulls the strings and who is the freakiest of them all? It's horrifying.
All in all, this story is one of those whodunnit thrillers that are good at their core for being what they're supposed to be and then transcend into an amazing coming-of-age story of how time transforms everything and how one small moment can change your entire life.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

This is England.

"Some people say we're racists. We're not racists. We're realists. Some people call us Nazis. We're not Nazis. No, what we are, we are nationalists and there's a reason people try to pigeonhole us like this. And that is because of one word, gentlemen. Fear."

Growing up is not easy, a constant need to belong and feel accepted is always present. This need was something that a lost 12 year old boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) experienced as he was constantly being picked on and bullied both in and outside school. His situation changed the day he was stopped by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and his friendly gang of skinheads as he was walking back home after a rough day at school. This is how Shaun's lonely and less than interesting life turns around in This is England (2006).
Set in the early 80's, this film is adapted from some of director Shane Meadows' real life experience as an 11 year old skinhead. After watching this film, I have come to a conclusion that there are 2 types of skinheads; one is the harmless, non-prejudiced and laid back type and the other is the scary, angry and discriminating one. Shaun's first encounter is with the harmless and a fun loving bunch who instantly welcome him in their lives. Woody, who is protective of him right from the beginning makes sure that he feels accepted and also transforms him to make him look like a part of the gang. Now here is a jolly and peace loving bunch of skinheads who don't mean trouble at all unless it comes to tearing town old abandoned houses while they go hunting wearing funny costumes. They also exhibit unity is diversity in the form of having a black member Milky (Andrew Shim) as a part of their group, with no hatred towards each other at all. With all the joy and laughs surrounding this harmless bunch Combo (Stephen Graham) enters, an old friend of Woody's who has just got out of jail. He brings with him his intense hatred towards the non-whites who live in England, which he developed in jail. According to him they have no place in his society and need to be kicked out immediately. Shaun experiences through him the other type of a skinhead who is tough, violent and aggressive. The one who thinks that using power is the only way to gain respect.

There is no denying the fact that using emotional tools to brainwash a person almost never fails. The Nationalist approach toward driving people to hate the immigrants worked wonders and a lot of locals were drawn into it. Combo comes in with such an approach and manages to convince little Shaun (who is having a tough time dealing with the loss of his father at the Falklands War) and Gadget (Andrew Ellis) to join him. He is exceptional with his intensely hostile character and creates that nervous atmosphere which kept me wondering what he will come up with next. This is England shows how the once friendly and peace-loving group of skinheads who were multicultural in nature, turn violent against the minorities as the frustration due to unemployment rose in the 80's. The working class' insecurity led to hatred against the minorities who could afford to sport a smile on their faces despite the tough situations. This movie captures different emotions in phases, it starts off with Shaun's loneliness and switches to light- hearted humorous phase once he finds Woody and gang, and with the arrival of Combo it brings in the tense and violent outbursts. It is impressive the way Meadows has recreated the 80's era and has incorporated the style into the characters and music in the background. Although I thought that Shaun's mother letting him hang around with the skinheads without much fuss was a bit unrealistic. Perhaps she didn't complain much thinking that her son finally found friends and a place where he feels accepted.

Stephen Graham, perhaps best known as Al Capone from
Boardwalk Empire and he is beyond tremendous in this role.
An honest movie depicting the discriminating attitudes which exist in the world that are fueled mainly by jealousy. The so-called leaders who for their own selfish needs trigger hatred among people using them as baits. This was also adapted into a four episode tv series named This is England '86 and a three episode This is England '88 which aired in 2010 and 2011 on British television respectively. Unfortunately, this is not just England, this is the world.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

What women need: The Patience Stone

Until Khaled Hosseini, Afghanistan stories were not at the top of bestsellers lists. After him it seems everyone is trying to get a piece of this cake. But not everyone is Khaled Hosseini.
Atiq Rahimi is not a new author, in fact he's also a filmmaker and a prolific artist but until now he never got enough attention for his own work. Until he scored an introduction by the great Hosseini himself for this novel. If Khaled says this man is great, then he is. The faceless women of Afghanistan are finally getting their voice heard with the help of - men.
In Persian folklore, Syngue Sabour is the name of a magical black stone, a patience stone, which absorbs the plight of those who confide in it. It is believed that the day it explodes, after having received too much hardship and pain, will be the day of the Apocalypse. But here, the Syngue Sabour is not a stone but rather a man lying brain-dead with a bullet lodged in his neck. His wife is with him, sitting by his side, taking care of him and still resenting him for having sacrificed her to the war, for not being able to resist the call to arms, for wanting to be a hero, and in the end, after all was said and done, for being incapacitated in a small skirmish. But even though she is angry at him, she talks to him and finally tells him so many different things that she never told him when he was aware of her words and could even answer. She shares her secrets and desires and becomes more and more bold. Not only towards him but towards the outside world too. While in the streets rival factions clash and soldiers are looting and killing around her, she tells him the stories of her life that he never heard, tales of sex and love and anger and grudge. The latter two she holds for him because he mistreated her and never respected her. Her tale is shocking and unsettling as is the unfolding outside the window where war is taking place. Rahimi speaks of this war
and the horrors that take place outside this woman's home and inside it, with an almost bored, used-to-it tone. Because you cannot escape war seeping in through the walls, no matter how thick they are.

Of course it has already been turned into a movie and submitted as
Afghanistan's official entry for Academy award for foreign language film 2012.
The ending is as shocking as Afghanistan can be to any of us, I guess. But despite that, the story itself falls short. Why? Because it isn't deep enough, the story has great potential but the woman is not relatable nor is she believable, to be very honest. Her female voice is more than obviously provided by a man. The roots of her story seem shaky, the tree of her life not very convincing and her attitude a little out there and very inconsistent. I've read, heard and seen many stories of Afghan women and perhaps that was the problem. Yes, the hate and the love which she simultaneously felt for her husband were believable but I couldn't believe her actions.

Although the movie could probably be way better than the book, it shows that the director is actually the author himself. Perhaps he felt this way his story could be more accurately portrayed but this way he only made sure that the movie was just as equally unsatisfying as the book itself. The film was submitted as Afghanistan's entry for Best Foreign Language movie but was not nominated. During the movie I found myself thinking just how much successful would this story be, had it been told as a theater play. Who knows, maybe that's the author's next branch for this story. But given some bold and outrageous topics and words spoken, Afghanistan is surely not going to be keen on letting anything like this happen. Movies (and books) as such always bring up the question of how the religious leaders and strict believers will take it and whether there will even be any repercussions.
I am sure Afghanistan hides many, (probably too) many amazing women's stories but not everyone knows how to write them. Not all Afghan men, for example, who live in France or USA and remember the oppression. Why? Because not everyone is Khaled Hosseini.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Suffering of Son of Man

"You have heard it said you shall love your
neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say
to you, love your enemies and pray for those
who persecute you. For if you love only those
who love you, what reward is there in that?"
There was a man who once walked on the face of this earth. He was born with a purpose of spreading love, teaching kindness and planting the powerful seed of forgiveness in the minds and hearts of people. A man who is the central figure of Christianity and is known as Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. The final twelve hours of his life on earth before his crucifixion and the pain accompanied by the suffering that he had to go through towards his end are visually depicted in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004).
The movie beings with the Agony in the Garden right after the Last Supper where Jesus of Nazareth (Jim Caviezel) is praying while his disciples are asleep. It is obvious that Jesus knows that the time has come for him to make the inevitable sacrifice which he was born to make as he keeps praying to his father. This is when Jesus gets arrested as he is betrayed by Judas who arrives with the temple guards to capture him. From the moment of his arrest starts the inhuman torture that he went through right till the end. There are no limits on showing the cruel ways in which he was beaten and abused. You can say that watching it is a lot to handle but I guess this is how it must have happened. The high priest Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) who initiated the arrest and rooted for his crucifixion exhibited no emotions and did everything possible to put an end to his existence. I advise you to be familiar with the events that led to his crucifixion in order to understand the plot as director Mel Gibson doesn't show much about them. Jim as Jesus has delivered a splendid performance with less words and more emotions. His part as the sufferer is central to the movie and he has executed it with utmost brilliance. Mary (Maia Morgenstern) provides with a stellar performance as a helpless mother who has to witness her son go through all the torture. Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) and John (Christo Jivkov) support her and share the agony she has to face. Like I mentioned earlier it's handy to know the events which led to Jesus' crucifixion to understand this movie better, for eg. there is a flashback scene in which Mary Magdalene first meets Jesus laying at his feet as he saves her from being stoned. It just shows the high priests throwing the stones away and leaving, the fact that Jesus had said, "let he who is sinless cast the first stone," is not shown.

"Forgive them, father. They know not what they do."
The Roman perfect Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) who authorized the crucifixion in order to avoid an uprising might be considered a villain by many but this movie shows just how much pressure he was put under by the high priests and their supporters to do so. However, we could debate it as he shouldn't have given in and should instead have supported the innocent Jesus. His character in here shows how he had no choice but to decide the worst for Jesus. This movie will show you the events that happened after the Last Supper and if you ask me there is nothing but pain and suffering till the end. For Christians who know the story it will be a visual depiction of their faith and for the ones who don't know anything it is a story about how Jesus had to undergo unbearable pain and torture before his end. The performances are powerful, especially the one of Jesus as Jim does full justice to his character. Overall, this movie reflects just the pain and the suffering that Jesus went through and doesn't give a glimpse of the glory and the redemption that resulted from it. What it does show is the sacrifice that he made by voluntarily suffering for the sins of the people, the pain that he endured which will send shivers down your spine and the forgiveness he showed to the people who made him go through it, being a true Son of God which he is known to be.

On Seeing a Sex Surrogate

There are movies that are straight-in-your-face and packed with action, twists and booms. Then there are movies that eat their way under your skin in less than 95 minutes and before you know it, you feel for each and every character in it. Some movies are insightful and make you think about yourself, your shortcomings, other people's struggles and give you the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes. And that can't ever be boring.
There are also movies that have such a terrible description that you're put off by it. "A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest." Hm. Seriously? How is that supposed to be inviting for a nice evening in?
But that's what The Sessions (2012) is actually about. I have to admit that there is no other way to describe it if you're talking about the plot. Mark O'Brien (James Hawkes) was a real live man in the flesh, who suffered from polio and was tied to an iron lung. Outside of it he could survive only three to four hours at a time - with the help of his respirator. 43 years out of the 49 that he lived he spent paralysed but it didn't stop his creativity. He was and remained a poet and a writer who decided that he wanted to know physical love before his time was up. So he found a sex surrogate called Cheryl (Helen Hunt). I have never heard of anything like it before so I was slightly shocked at first to learn that this gentle housewife with a husband and a teenage son is going to teach Mark how to penetrate her and please himself and her. Whoa. Right?

"I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it
absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone
for all this."
But the sweet, small independent movie is way more than just that. It's not only that Cheryl teaches Mark how to physically love a woman. He teaches her how to open up and be honest and true to herself and not only to those around her. By merely accepting her how she is. While he's learning how to be comfortable naked in bed with a beautiful woman, Mark also confides in his local priest. Father Brendan in the shape of William H. Macy is the kind of priest everyone would wish for. He basically embodies the type of priest believers look for when they try to confide in men of God. He is kind and not uptight, he is not rigid in his beliefs and sees needs of his flock as what they are and what they are meant to serve purpose for. He becomes Mark's friend and confidant through this hilarious and sweet journey. Helen Hunt got an oscar nomination but John Hawkes deserved one too and William H. Macy is just never ever disappointing. 

Did Cheryl's son know what her mother actually did for a living? I see it as a common question on forums. Teenagers can't possibly be too understanding of "my mother has sex for money" type of jobs. Her husband doesn't have a job and is rolling around the house all day and other men clearly get more of his wife than he does. Not only in a sexual way. They didn't seem to have a sexual or loving relationship at all, they were just plain living like a couple who has been together for twenty years or so. Yes, the relationship is bound to change after such a long time together but in the end it seemed like they were committed but not necessarily loving to each other. (I actually disagree with some of the opinions that her work is what made them that way.)

I think it's very important that these types of issues be addressed. There are many people in the world who are disabled in one way or another and they have the same wishes and needs that anyone else does. And I'm not only talking about sex. And as Mark is falling in love with Cheryl, it seems she's not as distanced as she'd like to professionally be. Mark is funny and smart, his wit is charming and he is as self-deprecating as he is broadminded. All the women in his life love him. But not that way. So when one time in the middle of the night the power goes out, the broadcast of his baseball match is cut short and his iron lung stops, he understands he will die and is completely prepared for it. Only his life is just about to begin.
This true story is outrageously beautiful and uncompromising in what it is. It's exhilarating, funny, heartwarming, brave and poignant. It gives you hope, it shows you what you have, it will make you look at anyone differently. Be it your annoying neighbor or uptight aunt. Everyone has a story that goes far deeper than the first glimpse you get. Remember that.
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