[REVIEW] ‘The Last Color’

There are some films I review where the words of criticism or praise flow freely and are obvious and easy to put to the page. Others are a bit more challenging. I can feel conflicted and torn for a variety of reasons on a project and often it is tough to articulate both the good and and where the balance shifted from fresh to rotten (or smile/frown worthy on my system). Such is the case with the new debut film from chef Vikas Khanna called The Last Color. Even as I am writing I am unsure whether the strengths are enough to give it a recommendation.

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The Last Color tells the story of a little Indian girl named Chhoti (Aqsa Siddique) who makes money putting on tightrope walking performances in the city of Vrindavan along the Ganges River. One day on the run from the police she meets an elderly widow named Noor (Neena Gupta in a lovely performance). When the film focuses on this unlikely friendship it works quite well (I’m a sucker for a story of an unlikely friendship).

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I also thought the cinematography was really good at creating atmosphere and tone. Khanna really immerses us in the world of India in all its colors and textures. This is especially true at the end when the widows finally celebrate the Holi where they splash colored powder on each other which was previously forbidden.

The problem with The Last Color is it takes on too much. It should have stuck to the central relationship of Chhoti and Noor but it tries to tackle transgender rights, rape, elderly abuse, child abuse, corrupt police, religion and much more. Sometimes it was confusing who characters even were and I kept wishing we could get back to the cute little girl and old lady. That was the relationship I cared about.

Unfortunately being so schizophrenic made the movie a little dull and not as compelling as it should have been. It certainly felt much longer than its trim 90 minutes, so that’s never a good sign.

Still I think the good in The Last Color outweighs the problems. It’s not perfect but the core relationship really works and it is a beautiful look at modern-day India. If you get to see it let me know what you think.

6 out of 10

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Blind Spot 33: Ikiru

Ikiru marks the 3rd film I have seen from acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa (I’ve previously seen Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai) and of the 3, it might be my favorite. In what feels like a Japanese version of Death of a Salesman, Ikiru paints a fascinating portrait of business life in Japan and how one man tries to stand out after learning of his imminent death.

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Ikiru is about a middle-aged man named Kanji Watanable. He has worked as a bureaucrat for 30 years and with a dead wife and selfish son/daughter-in-law he doesn’t have much to live for or be excited about. One day he finds out about a proposal to turn a cesspool into a community park and he thinks he might be able to make a difference.

Then he finds out he has stomach cancer and decides to make the building of the park his legacy. Unlike America, Japanese society often values group effort over individual accomplishment. This makes Watanabe’s subordination to get this park an extraordinary effort. His coworkers are shocked by his actions and after he dies they marvel at his boldness.

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Watanabe also receives inspiration from a young girl who he has drinks with. He asks her ‘how do you have such love of life?’ and she says she simply loves her job making toys because the toys make children happy; thereby, giving her life the value of making the children of Japan happy (you see more of a group rather than individual accomplishment).

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Like Death of a Salesman there is a melancholy to Ikiru because his accomplishment (especially to modern American eyes) is so small; however, I related to the emotions that Watanabe experiences. It reminds me of the great quote from You’ve Got Mail ‘I lead a small life. Valuable but small and I don’t know if I do it because I like or because I haven’t been brave?’ That is the question of Ikiru and to his credit Watanabe decides to be brave.

At the end of the movie his associates enthusiastically determine to follow his example and do bold things; however, upon returning to work they lose their conviction and life continues on as before. It’s sad how often the road more traveled, not less, is the choice of so many.

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The cinematography in Ikiru is stunning. The way Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai use the black and white to capture loneliness and melancholy is breathtaking. I loved the way rain and snow looks in contrast to the black sky. Beautiful.

I also thought all of the acting was strong especially from the lead Takashi Shimura. Again, he has a Willy Loman quality to him with his shoulders slumped over at all times except when he is swinging in his park.

As for downsides, the film does lose steam when Watanabe dies and becomes a little repetitive. Also I wasn’t crazy about the music, which seemed a bit too bubbly for the sober story. Other than that, it was a great film! I definitely recommend it!

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Blind Spot 27: The Seventh Seal

There are certain rites of passages that go along with being a film fan: certain films or filmmakers that must be seen and experienced to have an understanding of film and how we have gotten to where we are in the artform. These include the films of Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, to name a few. For the March Blind Spot film I watched my first Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, and I can see why it has been such an influential film.

The Seventh Seal is a very creative film about a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) who is returning from fighting in the Crusades.  He is disillusioned and frustrated about religion, war and the meaning of life, which is understandable after such a brutal, pointless conflict. One day he meets the personification of Death (he looks kind of like what we think of as the Grim Reaper) and to avoid dying, Block invites Death to a spirited game of chess.

The story continues with Block meeting a group of actors who can’t see that he is accompanied by Death. There is Jof, Mia, and Jonas Skat. They all have varying degrees of faith and cynicism. Jof claims to see visions of Jesus and Mary but Mia does not believe her husband. Jonas is basically a womanizing cad

As the group moves along they confront the Black Death and those petrified of its power, and talk a lot about faith and obviously death. Block wants to be an atheist after what he has seen of humanity but there is always something holding him back from making that his belief system. He certainly does not believe in God but he can’t be a confirmed non-believer either so he is in a state of continual struggle and agony. He says:

“Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way – despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

He goes on:

“I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me”

He reminds me of a section of the Book of Mormon where a man requires a sign in order to believe in God (see Alma 30). This unfortunately is not how God works. Jesus even tells doubting Thomas ‘more blessed are they who have not seen but have yet believed’. Those believers have a power in their life, a knowledge of who they are, and where they are going in the afterlife that ,can help them face any pain or evil. It can lead to poor choices when mixed with the desires of men but it still at its core has power.

It is this struggle with faith for Block that is almost as painful as the war itself. It’s an internal war that Bergman seems envious of those who believe and ready to punish them in revenge. One girl is burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, a theologian is beaten and scarred and a band of flagellants beat themselves into submission. All of these images are meant to show the pain of faith and the envy of those who do not believe (and are usually the ones inflicting said pain).

It’s kind of what Martin Scorsese was trying to do in Silence but without any of the impact or effectiveness (I absolutely despised the torture-porn fest that was Silence). In Scorsese’s movie the faithful are selfish and unfeeling because of silence where here they all suffer because of faith one way or another. God never said He wanted weak Saints!

While I certainly do not agree with Bergman’s cynical outlook on faith and spirituality it is still an interesting one. I appreciate he asks the question ‘what will happen to those who don’t believe who die and where is their solace?” I can see how these people are envious of the faithful and in a way want them to feel the pain that they feel.

I have strong faith, but I can see how to some “faith is a torment.” To someone like Bergman, God is silent when He should be saving the world from evil but to believers God cannot violate the agency of man. If he did he would cease to be God (this is a topic for a whole different discussion). He can guide us and comfort us but He cannot force obedience.

The ending with the dance of the dead was interesting because it felt hopeful and joyous after a pretty cynical film, and I like it when filmmakers end their movie on an ambiguous note.

The only downside to this film is I couldn’t help but think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail a lot. They were clearly trying to parody The Seventh Seal in many scenes especially with the flagellants, which is basically recreated in Holy Grail. Obviously that is a little unfair as a criticism but since Holy Grail is the greatest comedy ever made it was a little distracting!

As I am not someone who struggles with faith, I don’t think The Seventh Seal is anything I would ever watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once. I loved the black and white cinematography and the creative choices. It was different and at only 96 minutes is definitely worth a watch. It is a subtitled film (in Swedish) but I had no problem following the captions.

Have any of you seen The Seventh Seal? What do you think Bergman is saying about faith and religion (or the after life?)?

Blind Spot 9: 400 Blows

400-blows2This month for my blind spot series I finally watched the seminal french new wave film The 400 Blows. Directed by the great Francouis Truffaut I had long heard about this movie but had never seen it. Now that I have I can see why it is such a classic.

The 400 Blows is about a little boy named Antoine who is growing up in the 1950s Paris. His parents don’t care for him and at best placate and put up with him. His teacher at school is constantly scolding him and he is out of place in the world.

In many ways Antoine reminds me of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, which was published in 1951. The 400 Blows came out in 1959. However, I prefer Antoine to Holden because his observations are mostly made through quiet staring at those around him where Holden’s dialogue becomes obnoxious.

400-blows3Some people will hate the 400 Blows because not a ton happens in the story. It’s really about this character and how the world seems to not be made for him. No matter what he does the world seems to scold him.

The cinematography by Henri Decaë is gorgeous and 400 Blows is great to watch just on a technical level. Each shot gives you a piercing look at Antoine’s loneliness. Most of the shots are made beneath Antoine and look up to him again showcasing his isolation both mentally and physically. There are many other unique shots and perspectives Truffaut uses to create tone and tell the story.

We also see Antoine escaping (literally one time from a fire) to the movies, which for movie lovers has significance. It’s really the only positive thing in his life for most of the film.

400-blows5There is definitely a feeling that Antoine never has been allowed to be a child. His parents are harsh including his Mother expecting him to hide her secrets from everyone. His teacher openly hates him and even with his friend they are basically adults not children.

Evidently Truffaut was commenting on the state of the juvenile treatment centers of the era, which is interesting because they are a footnote to the movie. But in a way it makes sense because the whole movie leads up to his placement there and how Antoine never really was given a fair shake. The movie does not manipulate the viewer with sentimentality or emotional sequences. It merely shows Antoine’s life and how the world has failed him.

400-blows-5In some ways I feel a little outside my skill-set to review a film like 400 Blows. The film-making techniques used are clearly masterful in ways only a cinematographer or technician could articulate, but I certainly can tell it is a beautiful and striking film. I recommend reading Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ review where he talks about Truffaut’s back story, the freeze frames and other camera work used in the film. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-400-blows-1959

If you like Catcher in the Rye and those types of stories or love to watch beautiful camera-work I think you’ve got to see The 400 Blows. It’s a classic for a reason!

Overall Grade- A+

Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Throne of Blood

This week for the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series I got to click a big hole off of my movie-watching bucket list. Up until this time I had never seen a Akira Kurosawa film. I had certainly heard of him but had never gotten around to seeing one of his movies.  Well, this week for Best Shot we were assigned Throne of Blood.  This is perhaps the perfect introduction for me to Kurosawa because it is his telling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth- a play I love.

I do think going into watching Throne of Blood it helped me greatly to know the basic story of Macbeth.  Otherwise with the subtitles flying by the screen I might have been a little bit confused. Plus, some of the actors look similar and are similarly dressed so it got a little bit confusing.

Luckily I know my Macbeth and so it all basically made sense to me.  It is of course the story of the Lord (this case General) who is given a prophecy that he will be King. With the encouragement of his power hungry wife he then orchestrates events to make sure that prophecy comes true.  He murders the king and then proceeds to reign in a kind of mania of worry that his crimes will be found out.

It’s all basically here in Throne of Blood.  There is a little bit more of the mechanics of battle than you typically see in Macbeth but the basic framework is here.  It was a creative technique having Miki’s ghost haunt him at the banquet before he knows that Miki is dead.

I also thought the scenes with Washizu and his wife Asaji were very strong.  Washizu must declare an heir and is planning on naming Miku’s son but then becomes convinced to not do so when Asaji says she is pregnant.  The baby is stillborn and so he is without an heir and Miku is dead.  Miku’s son, however, escapes and later confronts Washizu and the great final scenes occur.

My best shot this week is from the scene where Washizu finds his wife Asaji washing her hands from the blood of her sins.  It is my favorite scene in Macbeth and they do it very well here. Most of this movie we are kept at a distance from the characters and emotion is portrayed through loud voices and expressions. However, here we can see their faces and I even think the subtitle says a lot.

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