Monday, May 31, 2004

I fell in love with ABBA songs again after seeing P. J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding. ABBA, the Swedish group, incidentally was the first whose pop music I bought (and liked). Later of course, it faded and was replaced by the more 'serious' and angst-ridden songs of Pink Floyd and Nirvana. Sscored almost incessantly - and endearingly - to ABBA songs, Muriel's Wedding leaves you humming ABBA again. Muriel and her friend Rhonda do an amazing lip-sync of Waterloo in a talent contest and later hum Fernando looking at the clear starlit sky; Muriel tries on various wedding gowns to the tune of Dancing Queen; and even Muriel's wedding starts with her walking the aisle to the strains of I do, I do.

The movie itself though is a sometimes unsettling combination of pathos, humor and striking cruelty. It is ruthless in it's caricature of characters. Muriel herself is the kind of character you would find in other movies as the hero's dotty fiancee or as the comic prop. Here, however, she's the heroine, portrayed by the astonishing Toni Collette. Collette's portrayal of Muriel is fearless, and it is her fearlessness that lends poignancy to what is essentially a rites-of-passage story.

The movie does not really walk the thin line between parody and misery. Instead director Hogan, who also wrote the screenplay, leaps straight into cruelty. He is merciless to his small-town characters who are all portrayed as mean-minded and mind-numbingly shallow. Hogan never redeems his characters, especially that of Muriel's father, played by Bill Hunter. It's hard to figure out sometimes who is being more cruel: the director to his characters or the characters to each other. But this same hard-headedness makes Muriel's Wedding a movie of substance, unlike say movies like Miss Congeniality, which start by satirizing the beauty-queen culture but ultimately are too gormless to go all the way and end up endorsing it instead.

There are two other female characters. Rachel Griffiths is the free-spirited Rhonda who saves Muriel from her town and her family. In a portrayal that could have gone either way, into gruesome satire or fake pathos, Jeanie Drynan correctly underplays the role of Betty, Muriel's mother, who essentially precipitates the final crisis, that brings Muriel to a better understanding of herself. Now characters have always been functions of plot in movies but Hogan, in self-circular way acknowledges that. In a dialogue of astonishing cruelty, that had me literally squirming, a character calls Betty's death the "ultimate sacrifice for her husband" and says that "betty would have been happy that her life had not been in vain". (Dialogue not accurate).

The equation of marriage with happiness afflicts all the female characters in this movie. The movie's unconventional final act ends not with marriage but with a renewal of a life-affirming friendship. Is Muriel's Wedding an unacknowledged lesbian love story? Maybe. Maybe not. It is however, the best female buddy-movie I have seen!!!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

I must say that I've had to eat humble-pie over my previous views on Angels in America. Yet something does seem to have come out of it. It somehow brought home to me forcefully what the main difference between a play and a movie was.

I saw the first part of HBO's production of Angels without having quite any idea of what it was about. At three hours, Millennium Approaches, seemed to me to be over-long and pretentious. Here is what I wrote on it then.

"Angels starts off magnificently in its first hour (titled 'The Millenium approaches'), flags significantly in the second, even more in the third and then in its final fifteen minutes, soars significantly. The ending of the first part makes it imperative to watch the three-hour second one since there seem to be some really important plot developments in store.

Its all a bit too pretentious for its own good, there are all the cliched characters, the gay man dying of AIDS, his self-pitying lover (Ben Shenkman at his whiny best), the self-righteous closetted, conflicted married homosexual Mormon (Patrick Wilson, impossibly earnest and just about passing muster) and his wife (Mary Louise Parker, simply amazing!!!), who hallucinate frequently and have conversations that are elaborately stagey but ultimately lack any kind of dramatic intensity. Surrounding all of them are some really seasoned actors: Al Pacino (who rants with his usual energy), Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. There are times when Angels soars, the highpoint for me being, one particular sequence in which the hallucinations of the wife and the dying man intersect. The result is a brilliant scene and Parker, as the pill-popping wife, is particularly luminous and funny, yet at the same time weighed down by sadness. It all goes steadily downhill after that. There seems to be no particular reason for having seasoned actors like Streep and Thompson play multiple roles except as a gimmick and also perhaps to boost the actors' vanity (You have to give it to Streep; the lady is faultless with accents).

It is to Nichols credit that Angels ends with a bang. The lives of the characters have now been firmly established and it is interesting to see where exactly the movie is heading towards....

Lets see how the second part holds up......

There it is, right in those words - thoughts which since then I have disowned. "Stagey conversations", "cliched characters" - the fact is - Angels is and will always be a play. I finished reading the play recently (or two plays, if you think of them that way) and I must say - though Kushner would probably object to the word - that it is a revelation. Kushner concentrates above all on his ideas - and everything, including his characters is subordinated. Yet the play is remarkably resonant in it's themes and I, for one, was caught up in it even as I read it. I just wish I had been born a few years earlier to actually watch the play as it was performed. Well, someday!!

Why does the movie not work? I have some ideas. The play is filled with split-scenes which it must have been hard for Nichols to film. And inter-cutting between the conflicts just does not have the same effect as over-lapping dialogue rendered on stage. And the stage!! - which, from some photographs I looked at - is threadbare , with the minimal of props, yet Nichols fills the movie with scenery and ostentatious sets. Above all, there is the fundamental difference beween films and theater. Movies are about plots and characters, the probing camera is capable of seeing much more than the stage can, yet films thrive on a passive viewer. Theater, on the other hand, is gloriously real, much more interactive and above all, it is about the grand inter-play of thoughts and ideas through characters.

Here is an article in Slate on Angels.
The Lector Effect - HBO's new Angels in America gets Kushner wrong. By Dale�Peck

Also A. O. Scott's on-the-dot critique of Angels that he wrote in Slate's annual movie club. (You may have to search a bit, I'm afraid)

But more on this later. :)

Monday, May 17, 2004

Here is David Edelstein's review of Lars Von Trier's crazy parable Dogville
Welcome to the Dollhouse - Lars von Trier's inhuman Dogville. By David Edelstein

After watching the stupendous Breaking the Waves and the wretched Dancer in the Dark, I reached a conclusion about the maverick Lars Von Trier. His movies are not art or even entertainment but cold calculated experiments using the audience as a guienea-pig. Both Breaking the Waves and Dancer were designed to see if an audience could be roused to emotion based on a story that was not only blatantly manipulative not to mention implausible but also astonishingly sadistic. Emily Watson's brave performance in Waves somehow managed to side-step the sadism and the movie, even today, is moving. Von Trier went too far in Dancer in the Dark, which had me closing my eyes with dread with every step that Bjork's Selma took but which also had me hating the director for his sneering sadism. His latest movie Dogville however is different.

While both Waves and Dancer seemed calculated to rouse emotions, Von Trier goes out of his way to drain Dogville of anything even remotely in the vicinity of emotion. For a start, the movie takes place on a huge sound-stage with a minimum of props (the actors even mime the opening and closing of doors, the houses are marked with chalk). However the most important step is that all the characters here, even the heroine herself, are reduced to types, who exist merely to move the story to it's (il)logical conclusion. Now this is Tony Kushner territory, where everything is subsumed to ideology and the characters merely function as cogs in the intellectual machinery. Yet Kushner's plays are so thought-provoking that his characters manage to stand out by themselves. Von Trier, on the other hand, has nothing to offer but his misanthropy which somehow makes Dogville engrossing yet strangely empty. The casting of Nicole Kidman as the protagonist Grace is another case in point. Kidman is a great actress but what probably makes her perfect for the movie (and probably the main reason why she was cast) is how distanced she manages to be from the happenings around her. In the film's latter half, Grace becomes the focal point for all the men in Dogville who start using her for their sexual gratification. Yet even when she is undergoing the most horrible humiliations (which include a dog-collar around her neck), Kidman's Grace never looks less than elegant. This is the final step, that effectively sterilizes the movie and anesthetizes the audience. Don't expect to shed any tears during Dogville.

Yet with Von Trier, one never really knows. I would have called Dogville a hateful movie if I had even the remotest inkling whether the movie is a genuine statement of Von Trier's own feelings. Yet I also had the feeling as I was watching the movie that it was all another one of Von Trier's ghastly joke. I even imagined the director smirking in private over all the hyper-ventilating critics who found his anti-Americanism offensive. (And it would be, if only one knew whether the man was serious!). Dogville, I concluded, is another experiment: to see whether a movie, drained of all emotions could still manage to arouse feelings.