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John Frankenheimer Blogathon-The Manchurian Candidate

(This post is being published by me for the John Frankenheimer Blogathon, one of his best movies to date. One classic piece of movie making with a tight narration, some great writing and an outstanding performance by Angela Lansbury as the domineering mother).
Spoiler Alert:  Some crucial scenes in the movie are discussed, readers please note.
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It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under value them.-Henry James

Quite often  it  is  said  that  if  even the  average  American had no  enemy, he  would have  invented one.  In  a way same holds true for   the  Russians too,  considering  they  rarely get  along with any of their  East European  neighbors and vice versa.   The  Cold  War,  was essentially a battle between two  paranoia,  the  Americans  feeding on the fear of the “Soviets” who  would  take over America or it’s  satellite  nations, and turn them into one  vast  military camp, replete  with gulags, psychiatric wards,  KGB  agents.  Not to be outdone, the  Soviets and  it’s   satellite  nations, played upon  the  fear of  “the  Decadent  Western world” corrupting  the  “pristine, ideology of  the  Revolution”.   It  was the  Cold  War,  that  gave  rise  to  an  industry  of  it’s  own,  the  conspiracy  theory  industry,  that  found  it’s  way  into  novels and  movies.   The  Cold  War was  a fertile ground for  the  conspiracy  theory  writers,   and  events like  the Korean War,  JFK’s  assassination,  Bay of  Pigs,  Fidel Castro,  Kim Philby, the  spy ring in Britian,  the arms and space  race provided a ready fodder  for  the  feverish  imaginations  of  novelists,  script  writers and movie  makers.  It  was  the time  of  novelists  like  John Le Carre,  Frederick Forsyth, Robert  Ludlum,  Graham Greene, who  churned  out  some  great  thriller  fiction,  mostly  built  around  conspiracy  theories.   The  end  of  the  Cold  War,  not only  saw the  demise of  the  Great Soviet  Empire,   but  to writers  who  reveled in building  conspiracy  theories,  the  major  enemy  was  not  there any  longer.   Bereft  of  the  great enemy,  writers, movie makers   did  not  really  know where to  point it.   Where  Moscow  was the focal  point, and all  conspiracy theories  seemed to emerge from there, now  the enemy  became more  ambiguous.  It  ranged  from  Colombian  drug cartels to  Arab terrorists  to    East  European rebels  wanting  to establish  a  Russian empire once  more ,  basically  which  ever nation  was  not in the good books of  Uncle  Sam,  became the enemy by default. For  a major  part of the 90′s,  you  could  guess who  was in Uncle Jee’s  bad  books,  just  by taking a look at  the  latest  Hollywood  blockbuster.   In  Stallone’s  John Rambo, the  baddies  are  not  the  evil  Ruskies,  it is the Burmese  military junta,  and  apna  Stallone  Paaji aids the  Karen tribes people  in their  fight  against  the  junta.  Of  course  i  bet  that it  would be  some  time since Hollywood  makes  a movie, showing   Stallone  Paaji helping the  Balochistan  tribes  fighting  against  the  Pakistan  Govt. Of  late though in  order  to  present  a more  friendly  face  to the  world,  Hollywood  has  found a  new  enemy,  it is  within,  or  the  enemy  inside.  So  the  introspection  has  resulted in  movies like Syriana,  where  the  enemy  is  not  some  nasty  Arabs,  but  more  specifically the oil and  energy  companies, that seek to prop  up  dodgy  regimes in the Middle  East.
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The  major  difference  between  the  2004  and  the  1962  versions   of  The  Manchurian Candidate , Richard Condon’s Cold  war  conspiracy thriller  novel.  Where  the ’62  version  was  about a  Korean war  hero,  who  was  actually  captured and  brainwashed  by the  Communists( the  Russians and N.Koreans here) to act  as a  sleeper  mole,  the 2004  version  has  a  Gulf  War  hero ,  and  the  evil  agency  here  Manchurian Global,  an international  arms  manufacturer,   that   brainwashes  and  programs  the  protagonist.  I  feel  this  is  where  the  1962  version  has a  definite  edge  over  the  2004  version.  The  ’62  version  has  more  believable  villains  and  is  more  rooted  in  reality,  the   bad guys  being  the  Russian-N.Korean  agents,  and  also  with  the  Bay of  Pigs & JFK’s assassination   taking  place  around  the  same  time  frame,  it  looks  much  more  sinister.    The  Soviets  trying to  take over the  White  House using  the    sleeper mole  looks  much  more believable,  while  the  entire  thing of   a  global  Arms  cartel,  trying to  control  the  White House, looks  pretty much like  one of  those  Robert  Ludlum  novels.  Sure the  notorious  Arms  Lobby  in  US,  does  influence  Capitol Hill,  but  i  really  doubt  how  willing  they would be to  do a  take over of  the  White House.
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Director  John  Frankenheimer,  had  earlier  helmed  the  biopic,  Birdman of  Alcatraz, about a  real life prisoner at  Alcatraz  who  makes  friends with the  birds  to get  over  his  loneliness.   The  Manchurian Candidate  was  his  first  shot  at  the  dark  and  murky  world  of   espionage  and  conspiracy,  and  later on he  would  also  direct  Seven Days in May,  that  starred  his  favorite  actor  Burt  Lancaster,  as  a disgruntled  US  General, who  tries to lead a coup  against the  President, with  Kirk  Douglas,  playing  a US  Marine, who  tries to foil  the  entire  conspiracy,  and  later on  Black  Sunday about  a  Palestinian  terrorist  attempt  to  explode  a bomb in a crowded US  stadium.   The  opening  scene,  starts  off  with  American  troops   stationed  in  Korea,  grumbling  about  the  fact  that  they  are  not  allowed  to  enjoy  at  a local  brothel  bar in  Korea,  thanks  to  Sgt.  Raymond  Shaw(  Laurence  Harvey),  who  curtails their  activities,  the  other  person  in  the  platoon  is   Cpt.  Bennet  Marco( Frank  Sinatra).    Shaw’s  gruff , surly  attitude,  makes  him  unpopular  among  the  platoon  members,  and  later  on  during  a night time  operation,  the  platoon  is  ambushed,  and  taken  away  as  captives  to  Manchuria.
As  the  credits  play  over  a  button  having  images  of  the  Star  and  Stripes  with  Queen of  Diamonds,  the  camera  now  slowly  shifts  to  the  image  of  a  military  band, beating a  drum,  having  the  image of  the  American eagle on it.    I  feel  the  recurring  image of  the  Queen  of  Diamonds could  be due to the  legend  about  it being  inspired  by  Agnes  Sorel,  the  mistress  of  Charles VII of  France, who  exercised  unlimited power  at  his  court.  Shaw  who  has now  come  back  as a  war  hero,  is  dominated  by  his  mother  Mrs.Elanor  Iselin( Angela  Lansbury),  who is  power drunk  and  has  high  political  ambitions.     Shaw  hates  his  domineering  mother(  shades of  Pyscho  here),  as  well  as  his  step  father,  Sen. John  Iselin( James  Gregory),  who is  an  onscreen version of   Senator  McCarthy, right  wing  in outlook,  idiotic  and  paranoid,  also  standing  for  Vice  President.  If  we  take  the  particular   shot  introducing  these  2  key players  in  the  drama,  the  camera  first  pans to the  Stars &  Stripes,  and  then to the  couple, pretty much  an  ironic  metaphor,  or  as  some  one had  stated,  “Patriotism is  the  last  refuge of  a scoundrel”. The  juxtaposition  of  the  American  flag, the  eagle  symbol  with  that  of  the  power hungry  couple, their  son,  is  a  symbol  that  patriotism  here  has  become  the  last  refuge  of  many a  scoundrel.  And  as  stated  earlier,  the  Queen of   Diamonds,  here  shows  how  both  the  father  and  son,  are  being  manipulated  by  Lady  Iselin.   Shaw  is  disgusted  when  he  comes to  know  that  the entire  victory  parade  was  organized by his mother.

Disgusting three-ring circus…Johnny’s up for re-election in November. You’ve got it all figured it out, haven’t you? Johnny Iselin’s Boy, Medal of Honor winner. That should get you one of the fifty thousand votes.

Pretty  much  sums  up  the  way  military  operations  have  been  used  for  politicians  for  their  own  benefits.   Raymond  further  manages  to  infuriate  his  mother and dad,  when  he  announces  he  will be going to New  York to work  for  a  publisher,  Holborn  Gaines,  who  has a  liberal  outloook,  something  that  is  anathema  to his  mother.  Predictably  she  denounces  Gaines  as a  communist,  standard  term  during  that  time,  for  any  person  whose thoughts  were  on the  more  liberal  side.   Watch  out  for  Angela  Lansbury’s expression  here,  forceful,  at  the same time  subduing  her  rage, quite  chilling.
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Marco  is  now  serving in the  Army  intelligence,  and  a  voracious  reader.    However  his  rather  peaceful  life,  is  being  interrupted  a  recurring  nightmare.  For  a movie  that  was  shot  in the 60′s  and  in  B&W,  the  way  director  Frankenheimer,  depicts  the  surrealistic  symbolism  is  brilliant.   The  camera  does   a  360  degree shot,  showing  ladies  present  at  some  garden  party  in  New Jersey,  covering  one of them  speaking, and the  rest  taking  in her lecture.  As  we wonder  why  the  shot  of  the  ladies  party,  the  camera  now  cuts to the stage,  and  the  lady  speaking is  now  replaced  with  a  communist  doctor-spy  Yen Lo,    and  the  camera  again  pans  to the  audience.  It  has  a smattering of   Koreans,  Soviets, Chinese,  and  most  important, the  platoon  that  was  ambushed  and  captured  in  the opening  scene.  What  we  see  here  is  the  juxtaposition  of  the  reality  with  the  imaginary,  using  hypnosis.  The  Communist  regimes  were  pretty  much  notorious  for  using  psychological   techniques  to brainwash  people  or  get  the  information  out  from  dissidents.    What we  see here is  the  real  and  imaginary  overlapping, the  lady speaking  and  the  other  ladies  listening  is  what  the  captured  soldiers  imagine,  the  reality  is  Yen Lo, is  the  lady  in  question,  and  the   ladies  listening to her are  in  fact,  the  captured  soldiers.

Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them – or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies’ garden club is in progress.

That  comes  to  fore , when  in  one of  the  best  moments ,  Raymond  is  slowly  brainwashed,  by  what  he  imagines to be  the  elderly  lady Mrs. Whittaker,  when  in  reality  it is  Yen  Lo  doing  the  job.  The  camera  inter cuts  between the  3  characters,  Raymond, Ms. Whiitaker and  Yen Lo.    And  now  Shaw  fully  brain washed,  into a  killing  machine,  strangles  one of  the  soldiers, Ed  Mavole, on the  instructions  of  his  Communist  masters.   This  surrealist  dream sequence  itself  is  one  reason,  why  the  ’62  version  scores  over  it’s  2004  one.  This  entire  dream sequence  sets  up  the  plot, the  entire  raison d  etre.  The  ends  in  the  plot  are  tied  when  it  was  revealed, that  out  of  the  entire  platoon,  that  was  supposedly  “rescued” by  the  heroic  Raymond  Shaw, only  2  died,  one of  the  was  Ed Mavole.  While  Marco,  sees  Raymond,  strangling  Mavole  to  death in  the  dream, he is  not  convinced  of  his.  The  fact is he too has  been  brainwashed  into believing   Shaw  indeed  is  the “hero”  he  has  been made out to be.
Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life. 
The  use  of  symbolism  becomes  more  apparent  later on,  when  Sen.  Iselin,  harangues  the  Secretary  of  Defense,  claiming  that  the  State  Dept  is  teeming  with  communists, after  he  announces  cuts  in  defense  spending.   Frankenheimer  uses  different  perspectives of  the  same  event,  on  one  hand,  you  have the  Senator  taking  on  the   Defense  Secretary,  at  the  same  time,  Ms. Iselin,  is  looking ecstatically  at  the  event on TV,  rocking  back  and forth,   leaving  no  doubt  in  the  minds of  the  viewer, where  the  real  power  lies.
The  plot  now  gets  thicker,  when  another  member of the  platoon,  Corporal  Al  Melvin( James  Edwards) begins to have  the  same  nightmare.  Another  shocking  scene,  in the dream like sequence,  when  Raymond Shaw,  shoots  one of  the  most  popular and  the  youngest  member of  the  platoon, Bobby  Tembeck, straight in the head.  The  blood  spilling  on to  a large  portrait of Stalin  in the  backdrop.   Strangely  Melvin too believes  that  Shaw indeed is a hero,  and  he  parrots  out  the same  line  which  Marco had done.   But  the  main  reference to the  Queen of  Diamonds  follows,  when  playing a  game of  Solitaire,   Raymond  Shaw, gets  a phone  call right at  the  point  when he  gets the  Queen of  Diamonds,  and  hears  a mysterious  voice  asking  him to come to a sanatorium.  The  fact  is  that earlier on in the  dream  sequence,  Raymond  Shaw  was  actually  motivated to turn into  a killing machine,  when the  lady( who in  reality  is  Yen Lo)   brainwashes  him  using  a game of  Solitaire.
In  another  chilling  scene,  Raymond  Shaw  is  now  met  at  the  sanatorium  by  a group of  Communists, that  includes   Yen  Lo  and  a communist  inflitrator  Zilkov.  The  brainwashing  further  proceeds,  as  Yen Lo  impresses upon   Shaw,  his  mission,  his  difference  from the  average  American.

Do you realize, Comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?…A normally-conditioned American, who has been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt. Nobody, of course, has any reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms, guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away. Ah, now Raymond will remain an outwardly-normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community. And I should say, if properly used, entirely police-proof.

Marco  inspite of  all  the  brainwashing  is  not  convinced  that  Raymond is worthy  of  the  Military Honor. The death of   the  publisher  Gaines(  actually  assasinated  by  Shaw)  as also  Melvin,  begins to  convince him  that  something  fishy is  afoot.  But  the  biggest  motivation for  him  to  suspect  that  Raymond  Shaw,  was  not  really  the hero, who would  save  his  own  unit,  is   Shaw’s  own character.  He  was the  most  hated  men  in his  unit.
It isn’t as if Raymond’s hard to like. He’s IMPOSSIBLE to like. In fact, he’s probably one of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever known in my whole – all of my life.
Marco,  now  on  a leave, begins  on  his  mission to get  the  whole truth  about  Raymond  Shaw.  A  mission  that  sees him  meet  with  a mysterious  female  Rosie  Chaney( Janet  Leigh),  on the  train.  They  have  a  pretty much  random conversation  about  some of  the  states,  a  football  team  and her real name  and nickname.  On  face  of it, looks  quite  random,  but  considering  that  nothing  is  what  it seems  here,  was the  entire  conversation  some kind of  cryptic  message.  Also  consider  this  Rosie  is  the more  dominating person here,   putting  across  the  conversation,  while Marco  is  the  passive  person.  Is  Marco  also  being  manipulated  by  Rosie here?
While  by now  we  are  pretty  much  sure  about  Raymond,  who  is  manipulated   by  the  Russians-N.Koreans,  we  are still  not  sure  of   the  relation between  Marco  and Rosie.  The plot  gets  thicker and thicker,  when  an “Asian”  gentleman  Chun Jin,  is  taken  in  as  Shaw’s  translator, something  which  Shaw  can  never  make  sense of.    The  Manchurian  Candidate  is  the  kind  of  pyschological  conspiracy  thriller  that  works  on multiple  levels.  At  one  level,   Raymond  Shaw,  is  the  Manchurian  candidate, the  helpless  pawn in the  entire  chessboard,  who  is  moved  by  his  masters  in  the  Communist  establishment.  But  Shaw’s  plight  is  even worse,  not  just  being  manipulated by the  Russians,  he  also  is  manipulated  at  the other  end  by  his  own domineering mother.  While  his  mother  and  the  Communists  are  at  the  opposite  ends of  the spectrum,  there  is  not  much difference in  the  way both  use  him, for  their  own  purposes.  The  threat  to  the  nation,  comes  not  just  from  the  enemy outside, it  is  as much  as  the  enemy  inside, power  hungry  maniacs  like  Eleanor  Iselin.    In  one  way  using  the  Queen of  Diamonds  card  to brainwash   Raymond  into  killing, is  symbolic  of  how  he has often  been  manipulated by  his own mother from childhood,  he  hates  it  but is helpless.
The  Manchurian  Candidate  is  a movie  that  needs to be watched,  for  it’s  rich  symbolism,  its  metaphorical  allegories,  as  also  the  deeply  multi layered  plot, that  reveals  a new  angle  every  time  another level  is  uncovered.  There  is  not  much  of  action,  except  for  one  karate  fight scene(  i  believe  the  first of it’s  kind in American cinema)  between  Frank  Sinatra  and  the  Asian  valet.  This  is a movie  that  works  entirely  on  its  plotting  and characters. Of  the  greyish  tones  it’s  characters  acquire,  and a  sinister  world  where  nothing is  what  it  seems.  And  add to it some  great  performances.   Frank  Sinatra is  excellent  as  Marco,  the  protagonist  who  strives  to dig deep into  what  seems  a  convoluted  mystery.   But  the  best  performances  would  go  to  Laurence  Harvey as  Raymond  Shaw, brilliantly  capturing the  guilt,  the  agony, the  ruthlessness of  a person,  who  ultimately becomes  a pawn  in a deadly game,  and  above  all  Angela  Lansbury,  in   a performance  that  is  just  awesome  as  the  ruthless, domineering Ms.Iselin, cold, chilly, ruthless,  she  manages  to terrify the  audiences, just  with  her  expressions.

John Frankenheimer Blogathon( Feb 19-March 1, 2015)

John Frankenheimer, remains one of those directors, who often remains an enigma. At one time, touted as the next Orson Welles, the later part of his career, stumbled from disaster to disaster, before he redeemed himself somewhat with the 90’s thriller Ronin.  Yet this man made some of the best ever Cold War thrillers,  The Manchurian Candidate, about an American citizen, brainwashed by Chinese to assasinate the President, and 7 Days in May, about an extreme right wing plot to overthrow the US President. In fact some of his best output came during the Cold War era, with a series of gritty, tightly scripted thrillers. He also proved he was equally adept at the War genre, with his WWII drama, the Train,  and the gritty crime drama, French Connection II. Beyond thrillers and crime,  he proved he was equally good at human drama, with his tale of redemption, Birdman of Alcatraz. Technically he was  a genius, check out the tracking shots and amazing camera work in the Train, or the breathless car chase scenes in Ronin.

In tribute to a director, who has really not got his due, will be hosting a blogathon from February 19- March 1. You could contribute with either reviews of his movies, or other aspects too like his collaboration with Burt Lancaster or any other aspects of his movies.  And yes please do promote with one of the promo pics below.

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We have also hosted blogathons earlier on Mike Nichols, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Michael Mann, Sydney Pollack, Howard Hawks, Roman Polanski and Steven Soderbergh, which you can check out.

Mike Nichols Blogathon- Closer

 

It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams… that is being naked.- Rob Bell.

Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes are discussed in the post, readers please note.

In 1790, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a two act opera in Italian called Cossi Fan Tute( Thus do they All), which was performed at Vienna. The plot of Mozart’s opera, centres around two couples where the guys accept a bet to prove that their respective fiancées are eternally faithful. In order to carry out, the guys will pretend to be in disguise  and try seducing each other’s lover. And that sets off a series of betrayals, indiscretions, that throw the lives of the 4 characters into complete chaos and a free fall.  There have been latter attempts too at exploring the intricacies in relationships between two couples, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal  and  Pierre De Laclos Les Liaisons dangereuses( Dangerous Liasions).  The basic thread is the same, of two couples, where the partners are trying to cheat on each other, with or without their knowledge and the consequences that follow. Mike Nichols 2004 movie Closer, was based on Patrick Marber’s play of the same name, and while it had the same theme, of 2 couples and their partners cheating on each other, the treatment was much more contemporary and much more raw.  The language is more profane, and the story in a way mocks the Internet relationships, which is pretty much a 21st century phenomenon. Mike Nichols had earlier explored the theme of 2 couples on a cross collision course, in his 1966 debut movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where a young couple gets drawn into the stormy married life of a middle aged couple, and finds that their own marital life is under threat now. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was itself considered too bold, and shocking for it’s times, with the profane dialogue and the sexual implications present at every stage in the story. Closer is about two couples here- an aspiring novelist Dan Woolf( Jude Law) and a young American stripper Alice Ayres( Natalie Portman),  a photographer Anna Cameron( Julia Roberts) and a dermatologist Larry Gray( Clive Owen).

Natalie Portman and Jude Law

In an opening scene, that mocks at most of the staple romantic comedy clichés, Dan meets with Alice, on a busy London street, when the latter has an accident.  Both the actors walking in slow motion, and Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter playing in the background.  It seems a scene straight out of any standard rom com, with Jude Law, looking wistfully at Natalie Portman, in a red wig, looking utterly waifish.  And soon, Portman,looking all dreamy eyed, hit by a bus, falls on the road, Law rushes in to help her up.Portman looks back with a mix of innocence and coquetteishness , and in that sweet tone of hers calls out “Hello Stranger”. One of the best opening scenes ever. The following scene in the hospital, sets up the two characters well, Dan is an aspiring writer, but now consigned to writing obituaries in news papers, what he calls the “Siberia of Journalism”. And Alice tells that she is a stripper, but proves to be quite an alluring character, sweet and innocent, but curious,  with a hint of mischief, under that sweet face.  The opening scenes, hint at a picture of a perfect romance between Dan and Alice, as they walk around London, taking in the sights, cuddle together on bed and kiss. It just seems all so perfect, but it’s sure, there is some trouble lurking around the corner. And it arrives in the form of Anna, an American photographer,  who comes to take a picture of Dan, who now is planning to launch his book, based on Alice’s life. By now Dan is in a full fledged relationship with Alice, but still does not prevent him from flirting with Anna, and they have a passionate kiss together, another well shot scene.  Dan seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, he is attracted towards Anna, but at the same time, does not want to let go of Alice, whom he claims is completely lovable and unleavable.

Extraordinary thing, the internet. Possibility of genuine global communication, the first great democratic medium. -Anna

The Internet, if there was one term to define the 21st century, it would be the “Age of the Net”. Yes the first great democratic medium, that bought knowledge to the common people, and turned relationships upside down. On the Internet, you could be yourself, and you could still not be yourself. The Net was a medium, where you could be what you wanted to be, instead of what you are. You could get into an anonymous chat room, and be a stud, carrying on with 5-6 females at a time, never mind if in real life, you were nowhere close to it. Or like Dan, transform yourself into the opposite gender, and indulge in hot cybersex with the others. Which is what he does with Larry,  a dermatologist, whose instincts and approach towards the opposite sex are pretty much caveman level.  Larry actually believes that  Dan, whom he meets in an anonymous cybersex chat room is actually a female, and when the latter asks him to meet in real, he accepts it. Nor is there any finesse in his approach with Anna, who also comes to the same place,it’s crude, he does not even bother to check with her, if she is the same person with whom he had cybersexed.

It’s a lie. It’s a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully, and all the glittering assholes who appreciate art say it’s beautiful ’cause that’s what they want to see. But the people in the photos are sad, and alone, but the pictures make the world seem beautiful. So the exhibition’s reassuring, which makes it a lie, and everyone loves a big fat lie.- Alice

One of Closer’s best scenes, is when the 2 couples are together, at a photo exhibition organized by Anna, on Alice. We have Alice talking to Larry, Anna taking with Dan,  and the camera keeps switching back and forth, capturing the interactions between the two characters.  Dan once again is pursuing Anna, he can’t get it how she has fallen for a dermatologist, as he says “can you get more boring than that”. Larry on the other hand, is quite content in his relationship with Anna, he takes pride in the fact that she is even amused by his nasty habits. Or maybe the fact that it’s the flush of the first 4 months when everything seems hunky dory.  He is deeply in love with Anna, as he puts it “You are a woman”, while Alice is just a girl.  It is this that makes Alice remind him “You seem more like the cat that got the cream. Stop licking yourself.”.

Oh, as if you had no choice? There’s a moment, there’s always a moment, “I can do this, I can give in to this, or I can resist it.” And I don’t know when your moment was, but I bet you there was one. I’m gone.- Alice.

Closer is Mike Nichols most dark movie,  next to Who is Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?  I would say. It is brutally honest, cold and cynical, sparing no punches in it’s take on modern day relationships. In a sense it is the anti date movie, that mocks at all those romantic cliches of  eternal love you have been fed with.  Dan is in a relationship with Alice, yet he has no qualms cheating on her, with Anna, who herself is married to Larry.  Yet he can’t seem to give up on Alice, he really does not have a convincing explanation about what made him fall for Anna, when he does not seem to have any issues with her. He wants Anna, at the same he is jealous if Alice finds some one else. He loves Alice, does not want to hurt her, but at the same time he himself claims he is selfish, he feels he would be happier with Anna.  At that very moment, the word “love” seems to be shallow, it just seems a matter of convenience to be used as and when needed. All that talk of eternal love, being there for another just goes straight out of the window, as we see Dan seeing love in an opportunist sense.

Don’t say it. Don’t you fucking say “You’re too good for me.” I am, but don’t say it. You’re making the mistake of your life. You’re leaving me because you believe that you don’t deserve happiness, but you do, Anna.- Larry

For a movie that  explores the issue of partners cheating on their significant others,  Closer does not really have any explicit scenes of nudity or sex.  The sexual tension here though is more from the dialogue and the characters motivations. Take the scene, where Larry confronts Anna, over her cheating on him with Dan.  It is completely dialogue oriented, yet you feel the rawness, the sexual tension, just from the words and the actions. As Larry demands Anna, to let her know what happened between her and Dan, you feel that sense of unease, the tension somewhere in the air.  Larry is the other end of what Dan is, more brusque, more rough and yes quite possesive of Anna too. The very thought of Anna sleeping around with Dan, gets Larry all heated up, yet he still wants to know the graphic details of the sex they had. As he puts it to Anna “I am a fucking caveman”.

Closer is not a movie you would go out on a date with, it’s too honest a look at what we call love and relationships. It is like watching your own relationship in a mirror, with all that facade of true love, stripped away.  What you get to see from Mike Nichols is a brutally honest, no holds barred portrait, and that is not a pretty picture to look at. There were many who hated Closer, as they felt it was just too cold and cynical. But that was what the movie was intended to be, to shock and awe,albeit in a more subtle manner. You see both the relationships, hurtling down a path of no return, and that makes you examine your own.  When you say “I love you”, do you really mean it, or is it just an opportunist turn of phrase you are using to satisfy your lust. You hate Closer, because you know like Dan or Anna, you have used love for your own opportunistic ends. You hate Closer, because you know like Larry under all that educated, refined exterior, you are still a caveman. You hate Closer, because you find that some one like Anna, for all her waif like exterior, is actually the most sensible and level headed of the lot. Closer puts the mirror straight in your face, makes you have a re look at your own relationships, insecurities, and how shallow the concept of love is.

The movie is also helped by some splendid performances.  Jude Law is first rate as usual, as Dan, who uses love for his own selfish ends. Not too big a fan of  Julia Roberts, but she was pretty good as the cold and calculating Anna. Clive Owen, exudes the natural caveman like appeal and raw passion of Larry quite well, especially in the scene where he confronts Ms.Roberts. And Natalie Portman, packs in the right mix of innocence, coquettishness, impishness, with a lingering sexuality, in the right measure as Alice.

Mike Nichols Blogathon-Charlie Wilson’s War

The real life Charlie Wilson

Charles Nesbitt “Charlie” Wilson (June 1, 1933 – February 10, 2010) was a United States naval officer and former 12-term Democratic United States Representative from Texas’s 2nd congressional district.  Wilson is best known for leading Congress into supporting Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operation which, under the Carter and Reagan administration, supplied military equipment including anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles and paramilitary officers from their Special Activities Division to the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. – From Wikipedia.

(Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes are discussed in this post, readers please note).

In the 80’s, George Crile III, the CBS journalist, began to uncover details of Operation Cyclone,  while researching and reporting on the war in Afghanistan.  The astounding details on Operation Cyclone, began to come out and in 2003,Crile  published his findings in a book, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History.   This book would be the basis for  the 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks as the titular Charlie Wilson.

The movie starts off showing Senator Charlie Wilson( Tom Hanks), frolicking around in the bath tub, with a bunch of other females, one of them an aspiring starlet Crystal Lee( Judy Taylor), her agent, where the talk is about her role for a TV show. In the opening scene itself it is clear that Charlie is hardly interested in legislating or governance.  Coming from Lufkin, Texas, a town where people, just wanted to have their guns, and be left alone, Charlie has plenty of time on his hands to frolic around, with nubile young females, partying, sniffing coke.  He has staffed his office with pretty young women, and his reason “You can teach them to type,but you can’t teach them to grow tits”.  That is what Charlie was an easy going Senator, enjoying the good life, the women, the parties. I believe that the real Charlie Wilson was even more wilder, when it came to drugs and sex.  It was quite interesting watching Hollywood’s Mr.Nice Guy  Tom Hanks, play the role of a sleazepot, and he does it quite well. One interesting part, is when Charlie is frolicking with Crystal and a couple of other strippers in the bath tub, at a hotel in Las Vegas, the camera keeps cutting to a TV show, where Dan Rather, is speaking about the crisis in Afghanistan, and how if the US does not act, it could end up being another communist state. In a way a rather nice setup to Charlie’s character later on in the movie.

Charlie for the most part is having a good time, enjoying with the female staff in his office, who seem to love him for all his sexist attitudes( or maybe it is the bad boy persona).  I did hear that  Charlie Wilson’s female staff were fanatically devoted to him in real, often nicknamed Charlie’s Angels.  And yes, listening to one of his constituent’s appeal for setting up a Nativity crche, at a fire station in Texas, his life is pretty easy. Until he runs into Joanna Herring( Julia Roberts, doing the icy blonde act), a rich born again Christian  Texan socialite,  and is the Honorary Consul to Pakistan.  Herring sleeps around with Charlie when needed, disdainfully calls his female employees as sluts, and she is the one who impresses him on the need to supply asssistance to Afghanistan.

I’ve been with the company for 24 years. I was posted in Greece for 15. Papandreou wins that election if I don’t help the junta take him prisoner. I’ve advised and armed the Hellenic army.I’ve neutralized champions of Communism.I’ve spent the past three years learning Finnish! Which should come in handy here in Virginia! And I’m never, ever, sick at sea.So I want to know why I’m not gonna be your Helsinki station chief- Gust Avrakotos

And this is where the most vital character in the movie comes into the picture, Gust Avrakotos( Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his best performances ever).  Gust is a maverick CIA agent,  passionately dedicated to his job, some one who lives and breathes it 24/7. He has no patience for the file pushers, is outspoken to a fault and cares for no one. Aaron Sorkin’s strength is in the way he introduces his characters, sets up their motivations, and the interpersonal exchanges between them. Recall Jack Nicholson’s introduction scene in A Few Good Men, where he makes it clear to Tom Cruise who the boss is. And that is the main strength of Charlie Wilson’s War, the character set up, and the exchanges between Charlie and Gust. This is one of the best introduction scenes ever, where Gust has a showdown with his superior, goes around and smashes the glass window, in one of the movie’s best scenes ever. Gust in a way sums up the typical, on the ground CIA agent, who has been hands on, and has no patience for the sanctimonious file pushers.

So give an interesting premise, characters and set up, does Charlie Wilson’s War live up to the expectations?  Yes and No.

Mike Nichol’s strength is the way he develops his characters, and the interpersonal relationships between them. He is not much of a visual stylist like David Fincher, Ridley Scott or Mann, his forte is characters in a suburbia or an urban world, and their interactions. Nichols works best on that level, be it Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  or Graduate or Postcards From the Edge. And that is the major strength of  Charlie Wilson’s  War, the interactions between Charlie and Joanna, Charlie and Gust, as they begin their mission to arm the radicals or what they call the “ultra-right”  in Afghanistan, who are fighting a losing war with the Soviets. The scenes where Joanna convince,  Charlie of the need for US intervention in Afghanistan are well played out. She for sure is an interesting character, rich Texan socialite, ex TV show hostess, ex beauty queen, who is now the Honorary Consul to Pakistan. In her own words other than boycotting the Olympics, which was a fairly impotent response,  the US Govt was hardly doing anything to prevent Afghanistan from going under the Soviet Radar.

If this were a real war,State would issue a white paperoutlining the Communist threatthe way they did in El Salvador.
If this were a real war,there’d be a National Bipartisan Commission on Afghanistan, headed by Henry Kissinger
the way they did in Central America.
If this were a real war, Congress would authorize $24 million for covert operations the way you did in Nicaragua.

The feeling is that the US was not really considering Afghanistan a threat, the way it did with some other countries during the Cold War. And that is where Joanne impresses upon Charlie the need for arming the rebels, saving Afghanistan, defeating the Russians and even ending the Cold War perhaps. Interestingly that did turn out to be prophetic, the Soviet defeat there, was one of the factors in hastening the end of the empire. Only that reality hits Charlie in the face, when he visits Gen Zia in Pakistan( Om Puri in a neat little cameo), who complains about the inadequate funds, the equipment and the fact that he does not really trust them.  As he says “You sell us planes, but not the radar,You offer Afghans rifles from WWI against Soviet helicopters”. In a rather moving scene, Charlie visits the refugee camps, and the plight of the people there moves him. Again this scene is shot quite poignantly, showcasing Charlie’s transformation, who is now fully convinced that the US needs to act fast in Afghanistan to prevent it from slipping permanently into Soviet hands.

Charlie-Were you listening at the door?
Gust- I wasn’t listening at the door.
Charlie- Were you standing – at the goddamn door listening to me?
Gust – No.
Charlie-How could you even… That’s a thick door!
You stood there and you listened to me?
Gust-I wasn’t standing at the door.
Don’t be an idiot.
Gust – I bugged the Scotch bottle.
Charlie- What?
Yeah, it’s got a little transmitter on it.

Another great scene is the first meeting between Charlie and Gust,  when the former calls him to his office.  Gust has an enclyopediac knowledge about the officials around, and as they discuss, Charlie asks him to leave the room for a moment, when his faithful aide Bonnie( Amy Adams, pretty much under utilized) drops in. Charlie comes to know that Paul Brown, the guy whom he had been hanging out in the bathtub in the first scene, is now wanted for a fraud. And he also comes to know that he is under investigation for alleged cocaine use, and hobnobbing with Paul Brown and the starlet Crystal. The best part is when Gust comes back into the room, and then reveals his indiscretions.  Charlie is shocked, and wonders if Gust was eavesdropping. And then Gust cooly reveals to Charlie, that his Scotch bottle is actually bugged, this was satire at it’s best. Tom Hanks and Paul Seymour Hoffman are both at their best in this scene.

The Soviets didn’t come into Afghanistan on a Eurail Pass. They came in T-55 tanks.The fighters need RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers, Katyusha 107mm rockets, wire mines, plastic mines, bicycle bombs, sniper rifles, ammunition for all the above and frequency-hopping radios and burst transmitters so these guys aren’t so fucking easy to find-Mike

Another interesting scene, is where Gust takes Charlie to a place where a bunch of  youngsters are playing chess. He calls one of the nerdy looking kids there. And then to Charlie’s  utter disbelief , it is revealed that he is actually the Weapon’s expert for CIA. Charlie feels is he being taken for a ride, here, I mean how could this nerdy looking chess player know anything about strategic ops and wars. And then the nerdy kid, Mike, explains the need for RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers. And here again, the need to make sure that these weapons come from Israel and Egypt, an American made weapon would have escalated into a full scale war.

Charlie Wilson’s  War works best in the entire lead to the mission, the planning, the strategies used, the discussions on the weapons. The way CIA makes use of seemingly normal people like Mike for undercover operations, is well shown, as are the ego clashes between various officials. Also to Nichols and Sorkin’s credit, they don’t  turn Charlie’s transformation from a rake, to a man who headed one of the largest covert ops in history, into something too sentimental. Yeah the scene at the refugee camp, is a bit Hollywoodish, but the transformation of Charlie’s character is shown gradually, from the first scene where he watches the TV news about Afghanistan, to his subsequent encounters with Joanna and Gust.

So what did not really work for me in this movie?

Operation Cyclone, was not just the largest covert ops in history, it also had an impact, right after the cold war.  The arms that were supplied by CIA to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, would be used by them later on the US itself, in a series of terror attacks during the 90’s which finally culminated in 9/11. The movie does quite well, in looking at how the operation was planned out, the strategies, and the scene where Gust and Charlie meet an Israeli arms dealer, is another great one. Especially the part where they suggest a co-ordinated effort between Israel and Pakistan, Egypt, their sworn enemies, which makes it clear that the Cold War was more a struggle for power, than anything else. And this now is the problem with the movie, after setting up the premise so well, looking at the way the operation was planned, carried out, it falls flat in exploring the aftermath and impact. Operation Cyclone, was problematic, in order to overthrow one enemy, the Soviets, it ended up creating a far worse enemy, much more vicious. And the movie just glosses over the whole aspect. The brilliant tongue in cheek satire, on US policies during the Cold War, and their “fight against communism”, loses out to a series of stock montages, showing the Afghans downing some Russian helicopters.  Mike Nichols works well when he is dealing with interpersonal relationships or character studies, however politics is not exactly his forte. The movie just glosses over the impact of Operation Cyclone, we just have a rather lame denoument by Charlie in the end, wondering if they had done a bigger mistake by handing Afghanistan over to the Mujahideen. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s searingly honest Munich, that explores the impact of Operation Wrath of God, on the pysche of the men handling the mission, this movie lacks the kind of introspection, that would have made it a classic. At the end of the day, it just becomes another Hollywood style, Americans get together, have fun saving the world from the bad guys, albeit written more smartly, and having a more intelligent screenplay. And that to me is where the movie falls short of being a genuine classic.

Mike Nichols Blogathon- Wolf

Jack Nicholson in Wolf

 

We start the Mike Nichols Blogathon, with a post on his horror classic Wolf,  written by Peter Roberts. As Peter puts it Wolf was a radical departure for a director, usually known for his human dramas like Graduate or comedies like Working Girl. It was dark, creepy and scary, also ended up polarizing audiences and critics alike. Peter is Editor in Chief of Deuce:Grindhouse Cinema,  and a rabid movie geek, who loves every kind of movie.  In his own words on Wolf here.

For me WOLF is an exceptional entry in the subgenre that doesn’t fall into the usual trappings that many of these kinds of movies do. It is certainly a werewolf film, but it’s played out with a combination of realism, sly humor and romance. I think what Mike Nichols did was create a solid character driven story first then add the werewolf elements to that which really worked for me. Using the backdrop of the book publishing business and the inner battles for seniority between Will and Stewart was very refreshing. I really enjoyed all the power play aspects mixed in with the supernatural elements. Of course any movie with Jack Nicholson in the lead is always worth watching and in this movie he delivered another entertaining performance infusing his trademark sense of humor and wit into the proceedings giving it a more grounded feel.

Mike Nichols(Nov 6, 1931- Nov 19,2014)- A Blogathon Tribute.

Mike Nichols, a director with whom I share my birthday- Nov 6.  Apart from the personal connect, he remains one of my favorite directors, and a blogathon was due on him from quite some time. I was sort of sad, when I heard the news of his passing away on Nov 19, his last movie Charlie Wilson’s War, was a brilliant satire on the Cold War, US involvement in Afghanistan, add to it fabulous performances by Tom Hanks( in a role much different from his Mr.Nice Guy image) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In his long career, Nichols has directed movies ranging from the great( Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginian Woolf, Silkwood) to just about good( Postcards from the Edge)  to utter meh( Day of the Dolphin). Though Nichols often tried crowd pleasing stuff like Day of the Dolphin or horror like Wolf,, his forte was the personal movie. Of people and their relationships, he was at his best exploring human relationships in all their complexity.

In tribute to one of my favorite directors, I am doing this blogathon on my site here. I had earlier done  blogathons on Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Roman Polanski, Howard Hawks, Michael Mann,Steven Soderbergh that turned out quite well. So here is looking forward to contributions for the blogathon, in the form of movie reviews, articles, interviews, anything related to Nichols.  Also please request to use the given pictures on your blog for promoting it.

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Any one interestd in contributing can please mail me at  ratnakar.techie@gmail.com

Steven Soderbergh Blogathon-Behind the Candlebra.

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The Soderbergh Blogathon finally ends with this lovely piece  by Critica Restro, on Behind the Candlebra. Critica Restro, is owned by Leticia, a 20 yr old Brazilian with a love for classic cinema, and a cinephile. She blogs in Portuguese, and we have got a link to a translated version.  Behind the Candlebra, is a sort of throwback to the earlier classic era of movies by Soderbergh, and takes a look at the relationship between the flamboyant pianist showman Liberace( Michael Douglas) and the poor boy Scott Thorson( Matt Damon). In her own words

Wait a moment: the blog is not about classic cinema? What a telefilm of 2013 doing here? “Behind the Candelabra” can be a modern production, but it has a whole retro feel, and even cites many movies and celebrities from classic movies, it is an important period in the life of the first and only pianist showman: the flamboyant Liberace.It’s 1977 and Liberace (Michael Douglas), has a consolidated creator of spectacles for the eyes and ears, is aged 58. He the young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), relatively poor boy who dreams of becoming a veterinarian is presented. Then begins a relationship that will forever change both of their lives. Scott, who was just 18 when she met Liberace and was raised in foster homes, is introduced to a world of luxury, wealth, jewelry and vanity.

Steven Soderbergh Blogathon-Traffic

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(Spoiler alert: Some key scenes of the movie are discussed in this review, readers please note).

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.-Global Comission on Drug Policy.

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Towards the end of Traffic, when the newly appointed Drug Czar or what is effectively Chief of the National Drug Control Policy, Robert  Wakefield( Michael Douglas), is about to give his speech on the 10 point methodology used to combat the illegal drug trade, he stops at a moment.  He is unable to continue further,  and then mutters “I can’t continue further. If there is a War on Drugs, then our own family becomes the enemy. How can you wage war on your own family”.  He walks out, unable to speak further, that one moment, sums up the entire War on Drugs, that has been taking place since more than a decade, a war that has no winners or losers, just devastated families and individuals. Robert should be knowing better,  his own daughter Caroline( Erika Christensen) had become a junkie, and he along with his wife Barbara( Amy Irving), had to go through a mental hell, getting her back.  Robert had been appointed as Drug Czar, owing to his tough stance on drugs, but the irony was that he would have had to battle the enemy right in his home, his own daughter.  Soderbergh’s  Traffic, looks at the world of illegal drug trafficking,  through  various angles. At the top you have people like Robert, with his missionary zeal against drugs, and you have the  fabulously wealthy drug lords like Carlos Ayala( Steven Bauer). At a lower end you have the foot soldiers men like  Javier Rodriguez(Benicio Del Toro) and Montel Gordon( Don Cheadle), the cops who are actually out there on the ground, tracking the drug mafia, putting their lives on the line, sometimes in vain. Basically Javier and Gordon, have the most thankless job of all, quite often doing the hard work, spending most of their life, in run down cars, equally run down apartments, walking through dead beat neighborhoods.  Caught in this war, are people like Caroline, her boyfriend Seth Abrahams( Topher Grace), and  Ayala’s socialite wife  Helena( Catherine Zeta Jones) who married him for the money, unaware what he actually does.

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What’s Washington like? Well its like Calcutta, surrounded by beggars. The only difference is the beggars in Washington wear 1500 dollar suits and they don’t say please re is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.

Traffic  is  Soderbergh’s  most ambitious movie to date, where he explores the illegal drug trade, through 3 different storylines, different backgrounds, different people, but all having their own part to play. From a posh Cincinati suburb to the centers of power in Washington D.C. to  the deserts of  Mexico, from posh San Diego neighborhoods to the run down back alleys of Tijuana, Mexico, Soderbergh keeps the action flowing back and forth. That he was a visual stylist is always known, but here, Soderbergh goes one step ahead, using different color schemes for each storyline. So when the story shifts to Robert and the posh Cincinati suburb, Soderbergh goes for a cold, blue color monochrome, in a way emphasizing the bleakness of the suburbia too.  The bluish, monochromatic tone, fits in well with the Washington DC offices too, where Robert plans his strategies.  Javier’s Mexican story is depicted in a dusty , strobe like feel, more brighter,  keeping in mind the Mexican atmosphere.  For the Ayala- Gordon story, Soderbergh keeps flashing the camera to and forth, with rapid inter cutting,  a much more sunny look and feel, keeping in mind, the Californian atmosphere.  In fact I would actually say, the cinematography of  Traffic by itself, deserves a separate article, Soderbergh’s  visual stylization is at it’s best here. He just experiments with everything, dull monochromes, dusty browns, hand held camera shots for a more documentary feel,  flashy shots.

Perfect Stranger movie image Halle Berry and Bruce Willistrbd

We in the legal drug business, and I  mean Merck, Pfizer, the rest of my  very powerful clients, realize this  isn’t a war with a traditional winner   and loser, but an organism at war   with itself, whose weapons of mass  destruction happen to be intoxicants.

Traffic is more than just a visual and technical feast however, it is not just the way Soderbergh seamlessly intercuts from one storyline to another, it is also the way the characters are fleshed out in the movie.  Some superb writing by Stephen Gaghan, who incidentally would go on to direct another multiple storyline epic, Syriana, keeps the drama riveting, as you go along with the characters.  When you are making a movie with such a vast scope, there is every chance of cramming in too many characters, who ultimately do not add to the overall experience. It is full credit due to Gaghan, that it is not just the main characters,  even the supporting acts are well fleshed out.  Javier’s partner  Manolo Sanchez(Jacob Vargas)  or Gordon’s  partner Ray Castro(Luis Guzman)  are as vital to the storyline, as is Dennis Quaid as the slimy lawyer  Arnie Metzger, who seeks to take advantage of  Helena’s distress,  or  Eduardo Ruiz( Miguel Ferrer), the drug dealer, who agrees to testify against Ayala. The movie also shows the perspectives of  various interests  on the War on Drugs, right from the Big Pharma representative, who feels that the war is pointless, and that tobacco, alcohol actually kill more persons, compared to cocaine, to the economist, who looks at the issue in strictly market terms, stating that all this is going to achieve, is increase the business of the traffickers. Basically the fact  that it is a losing war, is  emphasized throughout the movie.  There are too many interests at work, who would like to see it fail, be it the Pharma industry or the economist lobbies or the numerous drug dealers. It is a fact that  Robert’s predecessor, Gen.Ralph Landry( James Brolin) wryly acknowledges, when he hands over the charge.

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That is is a losing war is apparent to  Robert, when he finds out that, he has to deal with his own daughter.  Caroline does not seem to be the kind who would fall to drugs, she is intelligent, an active student, comes from a well to do family, her parents are not divorced,  in fact there seems to be no logical reason for her to become a junkie. But the fact that  she does not just become a junkie, but goes to the extent of  sleeping around with seedy drug dealers,  prostituting herself for the next fix. The scenes which show Caroline’s descent into the drug induced hazes  are well shot, with the bluish monochromatic color adding to the bleakness.  Caroline becoming a junkie is however more of  Robert’s failure, as he finds himself totally helpless in dealing with the situation.  His wife, feels that this is a phasing phase, she had earlier experimented with drugs herself, and shows a bit more empathy towards her daughter.  In a way Robert, feels a loner at home,  with both his wife and his daughter, blaming him for the situation. But why exactly did Caroline turn to drugs?  Was it just for having a high?  Or was it a way of getting back on her father for neglect? We will never really know, as Soderbergh, leaves it to us to figure out.But personally I felt the story line dealing with Robert and his junkie daughter, was the weak link in Traffic. The scenes showing the drug addiction are pretty much rushed through, you really do not feel much empathy, unlike in Requiem for a Dream, that left you totally gutted out. Also the ending parts of the story, go into standard Hollywood territory, with Soderbergh, trying to rush it up, though to his credit, he does not go really overboard.

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The best part of  Traffic I felt was the storyline set in Mexico, which in many ways, showcased the War on Drugs, from different angles.  Looking at the viewpoint of Javier, the footsoldier here, fighting a long and dreary war, this part of the movie shows the frustration faced by such men. Of people like General Arturo Salazar( Tomas Milian), who hijacks the War on Drugs for his own selfish, opportunist purposes. Where people like Javier do all the hard work of tracking and capturing the criminals, men like Salazar hijack it for their own purposes, being used as a pawn, by powerful, vested interests.  Javier, feels that people get into drugs, due to lack of opportunities for recreation or work. He speaks from his own experience, hailing from a poor background, his parents had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, as they could not afford to fix the gas heater. His working class background, has made Javier much more street smart, enabling him to tackle the gangsters in his own way.  There is no other choice consider the war against Drugs in Mexico is much more dirtier, much more messy and much more brutal. But that brutality is considered normal there,  as in the scene, where a hitman for the Tijuana cartel Francisco Flores( Clifton Collins Jr) is being tortured, and the other men around laugh it off as just another day. The torture scene is quite gruesome, but what shocks more is the apparent nonchalance, of the men around, who do not seem to be shocked by it.

Salazar’s  way of combating crime, are pretty much different, though he pretends that he is concerned about the corruption and brutality of his officers, he is as much part of it. In fact much more dangerous, unlike the thuggish cops and soldiers, Salazar is also manipulative.  As in the way he mentally manipulates Francisco into revealing the vital information, pretending to be concerned about him, pretending to be shocked at his torture.  In reality Salazar cares for no one but himself and his own selfish interests. This is a fact that is known to both Javier and Manolo, the former, prefers to keep quiet about it, knowing it is futile, the latter however can’t and pays a heavy price.  One more interesting scene is the meeting between Salazar and Robert, in a way it also shows up the differences in approach, between Mexico and US. When Robert asks him what does he propose to do with the addicts, Salazar dismissively states “Addicts overdose, and then there is one less to worry about”.  Salazar simply sees the addicts as a menace, who have to be stamped out, rehabilitation is the last thing on his mind. In reality, Salazar is as much as a thuggish lout, as the guy who was torturing Francisco, he just hides it under a smooth, deceptive manner.

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In Mexico law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity, this is not so true for the USA.Using regression analysis we made a     study of the customs lanes at the border and calculated the odds of a search.  The odds are not high, and we found variables that reduce the odds.  We hire drivers with nothing to lose.  Then we throw a lot of     product at the problem.  Some get stopped.  Enough get through.  It’s not difficult.

The other footsoldiers in the story, Gordon and Castro, are the undercover DEA agents,  tracking down the supply chain in San Diego, men who spend most of their time, eavesdropping, tracking calls, and surveillance of suspects.  They really are not too well paid, most of them hanging out in old, seedy hotels. As Gordon wryly observes “When the DEA gets into the narcotics business, we will stay at the 4 Seasons”.  Soderbergh depicts the bonding between Gordon and Castro, well, the latter providing a bit of a comic relief, with his quips and quotes.  Unlike the Javier-Manolo story, we really do not have much idea about either Gordon or Castro’s background, except that they are cops. The shoot out scene with Gordon and Castro at Ruiz’s office is well shot, depicting the total chaos and confusion, as the DEA and Feds both competing with each other to nab the accused. It is however Gordon who does the real hard work, and grabs Ruiz, who in turn leads them to the big fish, Carlos.  Both Gordon and Castro, have a thankless task, spending long hours on tracking and surveillance, trying to make sense of what they are speak. They however relieve that boredom, cracking jokes at each other, making wisecracks be it on Maradonna or “Rich,white people”.  Also liked the interrogation scene between Gordon and Ruiz, where the latter gives vital information on the drug business, how the consignment crosses the border and the corruption involved at all levels.

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Helena on the other hand, seemingly ditzy and dumb, at the start actually turns out to be the smartest of the lot. Carlos arrest has shaken up her cozy, little, rich, San Diego world. She makes no bones about the fact that she married him for the money, for the socialite life, and everything seems nice and pretty, until Carlos is arrested. Her world is turned upside down, in fact she was not even aware of  Carlos real business. Add to it, the social ostracism by neighbors,  members of her club, the fact that they do not have the money to pay, with all funds frozen and her son getting threats. It would have driven any one else nuts, but Helena, turns out to be much more manipulative and smarter. She uses her situation well, feigning helplesness to manipulate just about everybody, be it Gordon and Castro,when she asks them for help, or her rather slimy defence lawyer Arnie Metzger(Dennis Quaid).  Arnie is the typical opportunist, who sees Carlos arrest as an opportunity to encash on and need be, get closer to Helena too. With his rather glib talk, and smooth demeanor, he feels that he is indeed impressing Helena, cashing in on her vulnerability. And when he does realize that he was the one being manipulated, it is a  bit too late.

Traffic works not just because of it’s  depiction of the drug trade and war on drugs, it is also a large part due to the characters and the relationships shown between them. Be it  the bonding between Gordon and Castro, or  Javier and Manolo, or the strained relationship Robert has with his daughter,  or the way Helena fights back to survive for the sake of her son,  Soderbergh, brings the human touch, at every level.  The movie is also helped by some great performances from an ensemble cast, my personal favorite though being  Benicio Del Toro, as Javier, always rated him as a brilliant actor, and he shows it in this movie, with a performance that deservedly won a Best Supporting Oscar.  For all her drop dead gorgeous looks, somehow never really took Catherine Zeta Jones seriously as an actor, but hers is the second best performance in the movie, as the seemingly vulnerable Helena, who turns out to be the most manipulative of the lot. Her real life husband Michael Douglas, is good as always in the role of Robert Wakefield, loved him in the scenes, where he is searching for his daughter.  Another Soderbergh regular, Don Cheadle, once again delivers as the undercover agent, Gordon.  The supporting cast of Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Erika Christensen do well too. To conclude I felt Traffic was the movie that deserved the Oscar over Gladiator, it is by far Soderbergh’s best movie ever.

Steven Soderbergh Blogathon-Ocean’s 13

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After covering  first two parts of  Soderbergh’s  Ocean’s trilogy here and here,  J.D.Lafrance, looks at the concluding part of the trilogy,  in his piece on Ocean’s 13.  Soderbergh retains the same cast of the earlier Ocean’s series, and this time as a bonus, he has Al Pacino playing the bad guy.  I mean Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Pacino in the same frame, does not get better than this. Playing the bad guy is a walk in the park for Pacino, who relishes it, having a whole lot of fun. Like most Soderbergh’s movies, again this is visually brilliant, some great cinematography, a cool music score and some good fun. In J.D’s own words.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen pays tribute to the classic era of Vegas as Danny and co. restore Reuben’s honor. He’s an old school player who still believes in following a code and prides himself in being part of a select group of insiders that got to shake Frank Sinatra’s hand back in the day. Like Benedict, Bank represents the current corporate mentality of making money over the personal touch that the Mob-run casinos used to provide. If the first two films were about Danny and Rusty’s respective relationships with the loves of their lives, then Ocean’s Thirteen is about their friendship with Reuben. He mentored them when they were just starting out and taught them about respecting history as well as those who came before them. Like with the previous films, going after the bad guy is a matter of personal honor and hitting them where it hurts – in Bank’s case it’s his monster ego. Ocean’s Thirteen ends much like Ocean’s Eleven did thus bringing the trilogy full circle and with a truly satisfying conclusion as the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and Reuben’s honor is restored. Likewise, the film did very well at the box office and garnered fairly positive reviews going out on a well-deserved high note. It serves as an example of a star-studded big budget Hollywood film that entertains without insulting your intelligence.

Steven Soderbergh blogathon-Oceans 12

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In his exploration of  Soderbergh’s Ocean trilogy, J.D.Lafrance,  covers the second part, Oceans 12 here. In his earlier post on Oceans 11, JD, had looked into how Soderbergh, remade the original Ocean’s trilogy, and made it an iconic one. Ocean’s 12 in a way bought some respite to Soderbergh after the twin failures of Solaris and Full Frontal in 2002. While Oceans 12, more or less retains the same cast,  it brings in a welcome addition in form of Catherine Zeta Jones.  It did not earn as much as Ocean’s 11, and critical opinion was divided too, neverthless still has it’s favorites. In JD’s own words.

Like its predecessor, Ocean’s Twelve is beautifully shot with atmospheric lighting and saturated color as evident in the bright yellow that permeates Isabel’s Europol lecture or the green lighting that illuminates the underwater sequence during a heist that Danny and his crew pull off, or the red lighting that dominates the nightclub where Rusty and Isabel meet. Most of the film takes place in Europe and Soderbergh adopts the look of a European film from the 1960’s, which also applies to the eclectically groovy soundtrack from David Holmes that evokes a ‘60s Euro-lounge vibe. The director even described the film’s aesthetic as “the most expensive episode of a ‘60s television show ever.” He and Holmes agreed that the score would be completely different from Ocean’s Eleven in order to complement the different look and feel. Soderbergh is an excellent visual storyteller and this is evident in several scenes that he depicts without any dialogue, instead resorting to music married to visuals that conveys exactly what’s going on. He understands the kind of movie he’s making and doesn’t try to be too cute or wink knowingly at the audience, instead focusing at the task at hand: making a confident, entertaining movie. Granted, Ocean’s Twelve is no Traffic (2000), and it’s not meant to be, but you could do a lot worse with two hours of your time.

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