Stronger [2017] – An Impressive ‘True-Story’ Drama sans Sentimentality




David Gordon Green is one of the bewildering film-makers in American cinema. He has started his career with low-budget indie features – All the Real Girls, George Washington, and Undertow – which are all lyrical reflection on life in small-town America. He then gained mainstream success with stoner buddy-comedy Pineapple Express (2009). After the main-stream misfires like The Sitter and Your Highness, Green moved back to make festival-primed independent features like Prince Avalanche (remake of Iceland drama) and Joe (Nicolas Cage’ best role in the last decade). His career took another turn when he opted to direct political satire Our Brand is Crisis, a Sandra Bullock vehicle which received mixed reviews. With his latest modestly-budgeted drama Stronger (2017), Gordon Green has captivatingly mixed his sharp meditative gaze into an emotional true story which in the hands of a lesser film-maker would have been a monotonous melodrama. The director continues to frustrate audiences’ inclination to label him since his upcoming project includes the remake of John Carpenter’s cult classic Halloween (1978) and ‘Newsflash’, a drama on the famous CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.

Stronger tells the sad as well as uplifting tale of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of Boston Marathon Bombing (on April 15, 2013) who lost both his legs to the terrorist attack yet helped to correctly identify the culprits. The every-man Jeff’s gradual recovery from the personal trauma is one thoroughly inspiring story for those of us who struggle with myriad of adversities in life. The film was based on Jeff’s autobiography book of the same name. Stronger does sounds like strictly formulaic affair, designed to cheaply extract every bit of heightened emotions of the protagonist’s struggles. Some may wonder whether the movie uses the hero’s physically challenged status as a mere symbol to teach us an allegedly ‘inspirational’ lesson. Playwright and screenwriter John Pollono’s well fleshed-out script casts out such natural doubts. Mr. Pollono, who grew up near Chelmsford, Massachusetts (where Jeff Bauman is from), impeccably brings in a well-judged authenticity to the characters and their surroundings. This offers a very nuanced and intimate depiction of Jeff Bauman’s life and even when the narrative leaps to address the ‘inspiring triumph over adversity’ aspect of the story, it avoids unnecessary emotional grandstanding.


Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an affable, hard-drinking Bostonian man-child. He works the deli counter at Costco and naturally obsessed with the World Series. He vainly tries to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). She is fed-up with Jeff’s broken promises yet she is attracted to his spirited demeanor. To disprove her misgivings about him, Jeff decides to show up at Boston Marathon, where Erin is running. He stands at the finish line to cheer her, when a bomb detonates leading to amputation of both of his legs (3 died and 16 people lost their limbs in this sad incident). Director Green sensibly films the explosion from a distance (from Erin’s perspective) and fills in the gruesome details only later during a heart-wrenching emotional scene. Jeff’s injury rings through Erin’s mind, since the rare occasion he has managed to keep his promise brought upon worst thing possible. She waits in the hospital lobby alongside Jeff’s freewheeling buddies and overbearing alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson).


Jeff’s playful personality that deeply conceals his inner angst is marvelously expressed in the scene he gains consciousness. After learning his legs are amputated, he cracks a joke referring his predicament to Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan. Jeff also discloses that he saw the bomber. In the following days, the terrorists are hunted down and Jeff’s status is elevated to that of local hero or celebrity. Using the distinctly American tone of exaggeration, Jeff’s circle of friends and relatives claim ‘the world has turned its attention on him’. Jeff, however, understands that the newfound fame is gonna pass or turn stale and what’s possibly permanent is him being confined to a wheelchair. But everyone, except Erin, brags about Jeff’s next TV interview. During the games, he waves the flag and reduced to mere symbol of something grand. Like the motivational chant ‘Boston Strong’ that became rallying cry for Boston’s unity and resilience, Jeff Bauman is provided with monosyllabic purpose. The community, despite showcasing deep empathy to Jeff, unknowingly forces a role upon him. People try to weave a meaning out of a senseless crime by parading Jeff through the jam-packed stadiums (“Am I a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”, he questions an jubilant admirer). This unwanted burden placed upon him makes Jeff to sink more into depression and embrace alcoholism. What’s more regretful is how Jeff gradually becomes oblivious to Erin’s selfless struggle as she cares for his betterment round the clock.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the very committed American actors working today and it shows in his diverse choice of roles, irrespective the project’s budget scale. With such an actor whose priorities lies in rehearsals and donning the character, rather than salary and luxurious accommodations, a breath of fresh air is diffused into the project. The technical crew too is much talented and experienced, including the veteran cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Loving Vincent, etc). Gordon Green says in an interview that, “Everyone had a voice in it. I am not a director who says, ‘This is how it is, and this is where the shot is’. I try and make it a playful place and to make the process as authentic as possible." Director Green’s perspective keenly closes in the distance between Bauman and viewers. By employing intimate close-ups repeatedly, he emphasizes on the protagonist’s agonized perspective without escalating it to melodramatic proportions. In one spectacular scene, when nurses change Jeff Bauman’s leg dressings, the camera keeps Gyllenhaal’s face in the foreground and blurs the procedure going on. While the close-up shot continues to register Jeff’s painful expressions, Erin enters the frame, stands by his side and offers him support. Without much fuss, the painfully authentic scene notifies the dynamics between the tow characters’ relationship. Such pared down yet acute aesthetic sense gives ‘Stronger’ a profound emotional dimension to stand out amidst numerous inspirational true-story dramas. The narrative does take few missteps, like the extended scene when strangers out-pour their love towards Jake (pulls too much at the heartstrings) or the way it offers a light-hearted finality (for the sake of pleasing the crowd). But these are very minor flaws in a film that organically produces its emotions.


In narratives like these, characters supporting the protagonist are often relegated to be ciphers rather than be fully-realized personalities. Green and Pollono don’t make that mistake with the characterization of Erin Hurley. Writer Pollono acknowledges the difficulties of romantic relationship between Erin and Jeff, giving due space to Erin’s own trauma in constantly keeping up the role of a care-giver. When these characters hit the rock bottom, Green depicts it in a raw manner, wholly trapping us in the prickling reality. This rawness combined with the lack of narrative and emotional shortcuts genuinely earns our joyful tears, later when these individuals overcome their incredible odds. Moreover, Gyllenhaal and Maslany’s powerful and textured performance keeps our eyes glued to the screen. While Gyllenhaal’s tough physical performance and measured emotional outbursts would instantly gain applauds, Maslany’s calming presence was equally cherishable. 

Trailer

 

Stronger (118 minutes) showcases how commingling of talented film-maker, writer, and performers could actually turn a remarkable ‘true story’ into a sensitive and emotionally subtle drama without adding layers of manipulative, Oscar-baiting melodrama. The final destination of ‘inspirational’ films like Stronger won’t be a big surprise, but it’s totally worthwhile to observe how it gets there. 


The Party [2017] – A Spirited Star-Studded Black Comedy




British film-maker Sally Potter’s black comedy The Party (2017) is about confronting the truth. When Ms. Potter was shooting the film the Brexit referendum happened. She says that had a reasonable impact on the production since her script dealt with the importance of telling truth in personal and political lives, and further adds that her vision in The Party is of a ‘broken England’. But Sally Potter perceives and duly transcends the tragedy by injecting a good dose of ink-black comedy. The Party is what we refer to as chamber drama as tension and rage gradually heightens after the arrival of a group of disparate individuals meshed within a confined space. While this setting usually spawns thrillers with bucket loads of blood, Potter’s movie subtly wreaks carnage using exquisite verbals. Lensed by the marvelous Russian cinematographer Aleskei Rodionov (who previously worked with the director in her most famous work Orlando), the film’s monochromatic visual tone blocks out realism to provide ample space for the characters’ escalated emotions. The plot may sound like it’s an adaptation of a dull stage play, but Potter’s original script combined with Rodionov’s elegant aesthetics and fantastic ensemble cast largely eschews the worst aspects of the stagey atmospherics. The film’s running time – 71 minutes – is its other huge advantage.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Janet, who has finally achieving her life-long dream of becoming ‘shadow’ Minister of Health in the UK Parliament. She is throwing up a little party to celebrate her appointment with her small circle of intellectual friends. Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall) has provided immense support for his wife to pursue her dreams. But now he pours himself some red wine, plays old records, and sits in the living room in an aloof manner. The reason for his aloofness is revealed a little later. But, before that Janet and Bill’s friends arrive: middle-aged April (Patricia Clarkson), an American with a cynical and superior attitude, her new German boyfriend (Bruno Ganz), a healer who talks like a guru, a feminist and lesbian professor Martha (Cherry Jones), her anxious partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) who has just confirmed her pregnancy, and Tom (Cillian Murphy), the Irish Banker and husband of Marianne, -- Janet’s subordinate – who's supposed to arrive bit later. The gathering starts with amiable toasts to hardworking Janet and Bill. However, as one can expect all hell breaks loose.


Bill says he has an announcement. He is diagnosed with some kind of terminal cancer. Janet’s joy instantly crumbles as she sits closer to her husband, and promises to be there for him as he was throughout her career. But things aren’t that easy. For one, Janet is seen texting to some mysterious lover and Bill has more unsavory things to confess. What’s funny is how the intellectuals with all their combined knowledge rather than soothe their host’s perturbation, engages themselves in ideological battle. The ensuing remarkable debate touches on themes of feminism, faith, democracy, and political anarchy. The dialogue on Bill’s terminal illness suddenly leads to discussion of UK’s National Health Service. All these rational minds gauge the problem in front of them through an irrational or indifferent lens and by self-indulgently referring to their strict belief systems. There are peculiar things happening in the house too: like Tom, who is so rattled for an unknown reason that he often locks himself in the bathroom and sniffs some cocaine.


The characters may contain little in the way of redeeming features, but put together in a confined space, their polarizing thoughts perfectly clash with each other, amplifying tension as well as dark humor. Patricia Clarkson’s wry smile and acerbic wit is the most enjoyable facet of the narrative. Her April regards humanity through a prism of despair and disapproval. Timothy Spall’s somnabulant presence as Bill hits a fine halfway note between fun and tragedy. Bruno Ganz who usually plays the 'cunning German' is cast against type. His expression of deep compassion and Zen-like composition as Gottfried fleetingly reminds us of the affable angel Ganz played in Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Kristin Thomas plays the narrative’s most conflicted role with whirlwind of energy. Director Sally Potter who has framed some of her best shots in closed quarters (in Orlando, Yes, Ginger & Rosa) gracefully moves through the cramped London flat to best capture the action. The script doesn’t just address the muck-ups of parliamentary politics, but also focuses on the politics that drive human relations. Potter takes pot-shots at intellectual superiority which is far removed from speaking truth or acknowledging the importance of love. She overtly shows that politics is omnipresent and adds that such politics is not a bad thing when it’s driven by a language of truth. Potter doesn’t exactly circumvent from theatrical approach or that the plot is very innovative. However, there’s spontaneity and loaded charm affixed to the performance and writing which bestows the movie a surprising power. 

Trailer

 

Stuffed with witty, sharp-edged dialogues and striking ensemble performance, The Party (71 minutes) is a crisp chamber piece about frustrated idealism and broken love. It doesn’t have a great pay-off or possesses lot of staying power, but delivers vicious fun as promised. 


The Distinguished Citizen [2016] – An Incisive Dark Comedy On Ineradicable Human Foibles




There can’t be a more insulting question posed to a writer than ‘why can’t you write about nice things?’. This is the question posed to the protagonist of Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s The Distinguished Citizen (‘El ciudadano ilustre’, 2016), who is a Nobel Laureate returning to his economically depressed Argentinian hometown Salas after a gap of 40 years. The directors say that the small-town setting was realized as a microcosm of the Argentine society, especially its mean side. But the social and cultural inhibitions embraced by the townspeople could stand as a fine miniature of the human society in general. From chauvinism, ideological fanaticism to cultural snobbery and utter mediocrity, the unpleasant things and attitudes of Salas reflects a sort of universality. In such a hypocritical, ignorant, and idolizing society the write often fights a lonely or losing battle against the absurdities of human condition. However, as in real-life, the writer protagonist of Distinguished Citizen also gives into vanity and spitefulness. The gulf between the thoughts and actions or behaviors -- on the part of writer and society on the whole -- plus the unfathomable contempt that fame triggers is what the Argentine film-makers are interested to explore in this black comedy. 

The Distinguished Citizen is the fourth feature of directing duo Duprat and Cohn. The duo have remarked that they have chosen the protagonist as a Nobel Prize winning writer because no Argentine writer, in reality, has ever received the coveted prize (including the great Jorge Luis Borges) and because it’s common for a writer, unlike other artists, to perpetually keep the hometown as their work’s constant backdrop. Duprat and Cohn, who had also served as cinematographers, conjure visuals that don’t contain any eye-catching cinematic qualities. It’s as simple as the stagings witnessed in subtext-rich Romanian New Wave films. ‘What’s simple can be truly subversive and disturbing’ says the central character about writing which resonates with the film’s visual language too. Divided into five chapters, the film opens with Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martinez), aged around 60, in Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. His acceptance speech is unexpectedly aggressive, in which he wonders if he had lost his ‘revolutionary’ label since he is now being acknowledged by the ‘establishment’. Despite the crudely critical speech, Mantovani accepts the award, may be out of vanity.


The narrative then fast-forwards to five years after the Nobel Prize victory. We see the wealthy writer’s opulent Barcelona mansion (which includes a sprawling library) as he is seen sitting forlornly and rejecting all the prestigious invitations from around the world. The fact that he has become the part of establishment didn’t bestow Mantovani the urge to write. His publisher is still questioning whether he has started writing anything new. Amidst the numerous invitations uttered by his smart personal assistant Nuria, one thing however gets Mantovani’s attention. It’s an invitation from the mayor of his hometown Salas, who desires the writer would visit his hometown and accept the ‘Distinguished Citizen’ award.  Although he has comfortably lived in Europe for the past four decades, Salas has served as the inspiration for all of Mr. Mantovani’s novels (“my characters were never able to leave, while I was never able to go back”, he quips). The writer has mostly painted a less appreciable portrait of the town’s inhabitants, yet the locals are proud of its most famous son. To his personal assistant’s dismay, Mantovani decides to go alone for the 3-day trip to Argentina and requests to not pass this news to any reporters.

The trips commences with few lightly humorous situations with the pilot on-board broadcasting the presence of a Nobel Winner on the flight and a mentally challenged person awarded with the duty to pick up Mantovani at airport. Soon after taking a short-cut in the remote countryside, the car Tyre blows up and there’s no spare. They both spend a night on the dry land using the books of Mantovani to light a fire and for toilet papers. Mantovani, who is an astute observer of human absurdities and foibles anticipates this. Next day, a cheesy and eulogized short documentary about the writer’s life is screened at the town’s center and Mantovani is visibly reduced to tears. It’s a rare expression of nostalgia, since Mantovani’s alleged writings and the narrative itself trains its eye on the acerbic and relentlessly repulsive human behaviors. The local beauty queen awards the writer 'Distinguised Citizen’ award and the town’s mayor makes a rousing speech. Everyone is gentle to him, but it’s made clear that they respect him more for his reputation (Nobel Prize) than actually for his works. Mantovani’s darkly hilarious routines in the town include being a judge for annual drawing competition and to provide a 3-day lecture. He also meets his old friend Antonio (Brieva) who is married to Irene (Frigerio), his former girlfriend. Soon, every one in the town desires a delicious piece of the writer’s fame. Bouts of jealousy, old & new resentments slowly rise to the surface and the increasingly frustrated Mantovani comes across one unsavory encounter after another.


The Distinguished Citizen doubles up as a cautionary tale and comedy of manners about the dangers of romanticized nostalgia (the lost innocence couldn’t be found because it was not there in the first place). It’s also a dark satire on the ossified institutions and societies which perpetually calls for cultural conformity and mediocrity in everything (including art). Largely shot using hand-held cameras, the deliberately dull visual pattern of Duprat and Cohn, cooks up nuanced comedic situations and retains the vigor of great mockumentary works. The lack of specific visual signature in a way provides depth to the proceedings. The script (by Andres Duprat) boasts a rich sense of comic timing and profoundly thoughtful dialogues (especially when the writer debates about ethics, artistic responsibilities and artistic freedom). Oscar Martinez’s (Paulina, Wild Tales) explosive central performance instills the bleakness and wittiness in equal measures. Mantovani isn’t written or performed as a quietly dignified writer. Martinez handles his character very well when succumbing to irksome, vainglorious behavior. There’s a kind of ambivalence about Mantovani, which constantly makes us wonder whether he is a hero or anti-hero. It’s what makes both the character and performance often intriguing. Perhaps, the film’s central flaw also arises from there since much is focused on the protagonist’s perspective that we never get into other character’s head. They mostly come across as puppets aligning themselves to this specific satirical vision. Perhaps with a little more empathy, the film could have been a more deep and a well-rounded character and societal study. 

Trailer



The Distinguished Citizen (118 minutes) is a visually sparse yet extremely engaging black comedy about the unalterable absurdist human behaviors. Through one writer’s ill-fated home-coming, the directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn portray how conformism and celebration of mediocrity are the truest enemies of any artistic creation. 


Dolls [2002] – Moving Tales of Undying Love Illustrated by Stunning Poetic Imagery




“I wanted to make movies that can't be pigeonholed. I want audiences to come out of this film not knowing what to say or what to think”, says the multi-faceted Japanese artist Takeshi Kitano (aka ‘Beat’ Takeshi). Mr. Kitano is one of Japan’s top media personalities. He is a poet, recording artist, actor, and once a stand-up comedian. But the most revered of his identities is when he masters the triple roles of ‘writing-direction-editing’. Although it’s hard to say what subject Mr. Kitano would plunge himself into in his subsequent films, there are few recurring elements in his film (good enough to be called as ‘Kitano-esque’). His best films are known – Sonatine, Hana-bi, Zatoichi – for their brilliant juxtaposition of harsh violence and poetic realism. Thematically, Kitano’s works keeps on brooding over love, existence, and fate. Furthermore, Kitano’s protagonists are mostly tough-guys (sometime Yakuza figures) whose deep sensitivity escapes through their hardened facial features over the narrative course. The editing and directorial style of sweetly swerving Kikijuro might be totally different than violent genre pictures like Brother, Outrage or Zatoichi. In spite of the wildly changing formal schemes, a bewitching, lamentable tone could be unmistakably felt in Takeshi Kitano’s cinema.

After facing lukewarm response to his American debut Brother (2000), Kitano distanced himself from restrained gangster films to attempt his most free-flowing movie yet. Kitano’s languidly paced art-house feature Dolls (2002) prioritizes visual lyricism over predefined narrative arc. Dolls portray three loosely interconnected tales, circling around the themes of love, obsession, and loss. The three stories of doomed love are full of achingly beautiful images, although its intended meaning (if there is one) isn’t always easy to grasp. The film opens on a literal stage with a Bunraku performance (traditional Japanese puppetry). The visible doll handlers control the sad characters (of this tale) as per the narrator’s voice. Subsequently, the puppets become the spectator and witness dramatic tales of tragic love. A young white-collar worker Matusmoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) breaks off engagement with his true love Sawako (Miho Kanno) to marry the boss’ daughter. A decision heralded by his colleagues and forced upon by Matsumoto’s parents. Sawako in a state of despair attempts suicide and ends up in near-catatonic state. Burdened by guilt, Matsumoto runs away on his wedding day and kidnaps Sawako from the hospital.


He decides to drop out of the society with her and go through a journey of reconciliation. The non-talkative, child-like Sawako is bound by a long red silk cord that binds her to Matusmoto. When we first see the lovers, the red cord brushes through the cherry blossoms, while people gathered around tease them as ‘bound beggars’. An aging Yakuza boss Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) with an existential crisis one day visits a park, where he discovers the girlfriend Ryoko (Chieko Matsubura) he once had abandoned as a young man, still anticipating his (every Saturday) return at the park bench. A famous pop-star Haruna Yamaguchi (Kyoko Fukada) inspires idolatry among the alienated men. Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige), an introverted traffic controller, is one of her most devoted fan. When the pop idol is caught in a car accident which slightly disfigures her face, Nukui takes extreme measures to prove his ardent love. The pair of bounded star-crossed lovers passes through different seasons and also the principal players of other tales, while teetering towards their inevitable fate.


Kitano’s movies are familiar for slight surrealistic or magical realist touches amidst the formal mode of restrained naturalism. In Dolls, the narrative is entirely diffused with hyper-reality and magical realism. The stylistic opening passage of the Japanese Bunraku performance sets the stage for film’s unreal aesthetic appearance. Since it’s the dolls that use humans as form of puppet characters, Kitano’s atmospherics are tinged with sumptuous imagery which isn’t necessarily realistic. The deliberate theatricality of the aesthetics is designed to circumvent the conventional dramatic tension. The bound beggars’ journey through four seasons is captured in glorious color schemes. Matsumoto and Sawako’s costumes progress down from modern-day dress to traditional Japanese robes (majestically designed by famous costume designer Yohji Yamamoto) as they shuffle through sunny land patches, cherry blossoms of spring, red maple leaves of autumn, and white snow of winter (glorious cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima). The sharply contrasting flow of seasons may indicate the lovers’ impossibility from liberating themselves from the cycle of misery and fate. The extravagant costumes and the color-coordinated landscapes keep intact with fanciful imagery, since in real life the homeless lovers’ would be dirty, and dressed in tatters. At one point, we see the red-color maple leaves moving on to snow, as the camera pans up to showcase vast snow-capped landscape. Director Kitano says he included the shot to denote “it's as if it was a play, and the set is being changed.”

The three tales aren’t attached with huge emotional appeal. Their lives are destroyed by some strange twist of fate. Moreover, the characters themselves make mistakes and spoil the love rather than exterior forces. The mistakes are done out of self-love and free-will. And, the amends are made through stranger ways too. The lovers’ gestures to uphold the spirit of love may seem ultimately pointless, but it definitely provokes our empathy. The stretched-out acts of repentance also lead to devastating, yet beautiful images. The theme of looking is consistently established from the beginning of the narrative. Shots are often visualized in subjective mode with the blank-faced characters often watch over something: an angel toy, stomped butterfly, maple leaves, etc. This subjective mode underlines the film’s magical realist vision.  The Bunraku references and other deep layers of symbolism might be lost over those not well-versed in Japanese culture (like me).  Dialogues, as usual are kept to bare minimum. Nevertheless, the emotional purity of the characters easily penetrates through the narrative’s placid surface. The haunted, repressed expressions of anguish from Nishijima and Miho Kanno (the central pair of lovers) are thoroughly heartbreaking. Miho Kanno especially wrings our tear in more than one occasion. The scene of her bursting into tears over the inability to play with broken toy effortlessly heightens our emotional pains. Most agonizing was the scene towards the end, when Matsumoto hugs Sawako, begging her forgiveness, after she clutches her silver chain, in a brief moment of epiphany. 

Trailer


Those who have the patience to emotionally invest themselves in Dolls (113 minutes) would be rewarded with a dazzling and deeply affecting movie experience. Takeshi Kitano, despite taking occasional self-indulgent turns, depicts these very simple tales of love & loss in a mesmerizingly powerful manner.