Saturday, February 03, 2007

Power and Hell

The theme of power and hell is a common element in all four films I saw recently -- each film shows how abuse of power can lead to the victims being trapped in a perpetual hell. All the movies are interesting in a way, but I have to admit I was quite disappointed with the two big name movies set in Africa.

The Last King of Scotland (Director, Kevin MacDonald): Rating 7/10

What a major disappointment! I expected to see a powerful political film which peered deep into the hellish terror of Idi Amin. But all I got to see was a film that scratched the surface while only briefly dipping into the horror underneath. Not having read the original novel the movie was set on, I can’t fully comment on if the problem is with the story itself. However, there is a problem with how the film is constructed. The first 30 minutes are about how a young person can be easily seduced by power. A newly graduated Scottish doctor (Nicholas Garrigan played by James McAvoy) can’t imagine leading a dull boring life in his little town. He spins the globe and picks Uganda as his land of adventure (this was after he rejected Canada as an interesting option). It does not take him long to be seduced by Uganda & Africa. Getting laid and being welcomed as a hero get him off on the right foot. He lands in Uganda just as Idi Amin leads a successful coup and is installed as the new president. It does not take long for Garrigan to be seduced by Amin’s power. After a chance encounter, Idi is impressed by the young Scottish lad. Very soon, the dreamy eyed Garrigan is working for Idi and becomes his trusted advisor. Despite all the warnings of Idi’s terror, Garrigan continues to worship the president. This has to be the weakest part of the film, even though it keeps us interested by giving a few hints for darker things to come.

But when the darkness does descend, it quickly lifts and is followed by more scenes of dullness. By the end, I was both disappointed and angered that I had wasted my time watching this. Sure, Forest Whitaker has brilliantly acted his part out – he dives deep into his role and relishes it; his expressions are fascinating to watch and he precisely delivers each dialogue. But everything else about the movie is just tiring and exhausting to watch. My expectations might have been misplaced but I truly got nothing from watching this movie.

Blood Diamond (Director, Edward Zwick): Rating 7.5/10

“T.I.A. This is Africa.” Yes going by the film locales, this really is Africa. But unfortunately, it is Africa as seen through Hollywood’s lens. And when it comes to Hollywood, it is all about “bling bang”, a little flashy show followed by loud explosions. Ofcourse, I am taking the words of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Danny Archer, out of context, when in the film Danny utters the following words “over there it is bling bling, but here it is bling bang…” The strongest aspect of this film is DiCaprio’s fresh and lively acting. He plays his Rhodesian character with great aplomb.

The movie does have some scenes of genuine political implications as it attempts to shed light on the lucrative diamond business and how the quest for a mere stone impacts the lives of innocent people. The film shows how ‘conflict diamonds’ are used by ruthless dictators to finance their personal wars. The civil wars and genocides result in innocent victims being forced in leaving their homes and living in refugee camps – in fact, one of the best scenes in the film is when the journalist Maddy (Jennifer Connelly) comments on the million displaced people living in a substandard refugee camp and how such a scene would barely get a mention in the Western media. Seriously, does the average North-American really care? How can they be expected to care when they are busy killing the environment with their SUVs, hummers, mini-vans while gulping extra-large, no fame lattes!

Overall, I did like this film but what bothered me is how it is flawed because of Hollywood’s touch of adding un-necessary action sequences and melodrama. Blood Diamond also continues the recent trend of depicting African children soldiers in Western commercial films likeThe Interpreter, The Constant Gardener and Lord of War. In addition, a lot of scenes felt like a rehash of Lord of War and The Constant Gardener. The ending sequence and the beautifully shot street scenes of Sierra Leone are framed & edited similar to how Kenya was depicted in Fernando Meirelles’s film – in both films close-up street scenes of garbage and poverty serve as interludes in between the film’s story line. The potential is there for this movie to be much better than what it is and the film’s long length of 142 minutes does not help either – it is about 30 minutes longer than it should be.

Hell, L’Enfer (Director, Danis Tanovic): Rating 9/10

Based on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s proposed trilogy of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory and written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

The first 45 minutes seem pretty straight forward – three sisters are stuck in their own personal hell. Each of their relationships is complicated and only serves to torment them further. Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) discovers her husband is cheating on her. A beautiful scene is shown when she follows him to the hotel to catch him in the act. As she looks up from the lobby of the hotel, she only sees an endless spiral of stairs (Dante’s Inferno?). Each floor is spiral shaped with the walls painted red. In fact, the color scheme of red, blue and white can be found at different points in the film, clearly evoking memories of Kieslowski’s color trilogy. Anne (Marie Gillain), the youngest sister, is having an affair with her professor while Céline (Karin Viard) is the only sibling to look after their mother. Upto the hour mark, the film feels like a typical French movie – relationship problems, crisp dialogues, shots of cafes and French apartments. But then a revelation changes the film’s complexion. A truth about the past gives importance to the opening scene in the movie and also reveals how the three sisters are living in their hell. In fact, the three women are playing different roles in the exact version of hell that had changed their lives when they were little. The same endless play is being continued forever and ever. The film references the Greek story of "Medea", a play about a revenge of a woman. Hell is a portrayal of that play and shows how one woman’s revenge caused others around her to be forever plunged into a never ending hell. Interestingly, when the discussion of the play is shown in the movie, Sophie’s character is shown to be shielding her children in the rain. In the context of the film’s story, this simple gesture might seem to indicate that Sophie is trying to break away from her circle of suffering and is not willing to let her kids go down the path that she was dealt.

I have to say, the last 30 minutes are pure perfection!!! I was not that impressed with the first 45 minutes of this film but the revelation at the hour mark truly changed my outlook on this movie. Overall, this truly is a film that feels worthy of having Kieslowski’s name associated with it. Now, I can’t wait to see what the third film in this installment will contain.

Otomo (1999, Germany Director, Frieder Schlaich): Rating 8/10

It starts with the cold stare. Fassbinder knew that and depicted that in Ali: Fear eats the soul. That was back in 1974 but the stare never went away, despite the passage of time. Stuggart 1989: the stare is still there. Otomo is used to the stare. But he can’t help getting upset by the hassle that follows the stare. After more than 8 years of frustration in a city that refuses to give him his dues, he loses his cool and lashes out at the problem instigator. Ofcourse, his instigator is a white German and Otomo is black. No question on who will be blamed! This was West Germany before the wall came down. Have things changed now? Will the stare disappear one day? In a way, a stare never goes away. The stare can be about skin, race, religion, choice of soccer team, or whatever else. And people who believe they are superior will always try to exert their power. Now false power also comes with meaningless jobs because in a given context, even a peon can feel like God. In a train, a traffic inspector checking for valid tickets feels he has power over every single person on that train. The traffic inspector can decide who is allowed to sit on a train and who is not. Who can question this God? Not his fellow white police men for sure. Police are often known to abuse power as well, no matter how 'democratic' a country is. To quote a few lines from Spiderman: "with great power comes great responsibility." Some people are responsible, others are not. Unfortunately, it is the ones who are irresponsible that destroy others lives and are the ones who give every other responsible person a bad name.

Otomo is a powerful film shot very much like Fassbinder’s cinema. Otomo was a real person, but the only real elements in the film might be facts about Otomo’s life, the incident with the train conductor and the film’s climax. The final credit rolls indicate that the story shown between the train conductor and climax might just be pure imagination. Whatever the truth, that imagined story gives the film an earthy feel; those scenes show that even in hell, there is usually some hope. Out of all the stares, one stare might be tender and warm!

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