Friday, June 17, 2016


The Peaky Blinders were a criminal gang
based in Birmingham, England during the late
19th century and, to a lesser extent, in the early 20th.
Allow me to impose a break from the insane reality of American electoral politics and invite you to take a fictitious trip back to Birmingham, England, 1919. The obvious heir to Coppola's Godfather epic, with a dash of DePalma's Scarface, mixed together with Soprano-style family values gone hopelessly and blissfully wrong, Peaky Blinders is easily one of the most entertaining, well crafted, expertly written long form series I've seen in a very long time!

I'd forgotten there was a genre called "epic gangster family saga" - yet here it is, the brainchild of writer/director Steven Knight (Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, and - yes - the creator of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but that's another story - 'Millionaire was his day job until the high end work took over). 

Playing the sociopathic family man whose moral compass points only towards
self-preservation, Cillian Murphy's Thomas Shelby is a man suffering from
post traumatic stress disorder. A catalyst for the series' major developments,
Shelby is always one step ahead of his antagonists, until he's not. Watching
him outwit those who would destroy him is one of the series' greatest 

The setup: Post World War I Birmingham, England was the devil's playground. An industrial town teaming with gangsters, corrupt cops, whores, and street urchins. Into this world comes Tom Shelby (back from the war in France) and his clan of marauding thugs with their equally heartless women. The family that kills together sticks together and over the course of three seasons (so far, two more have been announced!) we will witness the scrappy Shelby family rise from street scum to legitimate bourgeoisie. 

The show's exteriors summon images from classic gangster films, and even
more modern fare like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. The
long coats, the slo-mo walks to camera evoke more Leone films like Once 
Upon a Time in the West as well as shots from Mr. Tarantino's oeuvre. Yes, 
the violence is equally Tarantino-esque, but who said ole' Quentin ever had
exclusivity on the horror-show? :-D

To state that Tom Shelby and Michael Corleone resemble each other in their quest for respectability would be to understate things. They are alike in more ways than one. Conflicted men driven to preserve and enlarge their families, men disillusioned with the politicians and authority figures running their countries. Men - and women (equally important: the women!) - take their destinies into their own hands because a lifetime of submission had only brought more submission. Power is never relinquished voluntarily and Tom Shelby, more than anyone (except perhaps Vito Corleone and his son Mike!) understands this. 

Thomas Shelby's older brother is played by this truly charismatic actor named
Paul Anderson, who you will no doubt see more of in the future (I hope).
Also suffering from PTSD at a time when it was called "Flanders Blues", 
Anderson's character is conflicted between his increasing faith in Jesus and
his brother's mandates to perform acts of ultra-violence upon the enemies of
the Shelby clan. 

How can I describe Peaky Blinders' style, tone, rhythm, and pacing? Um...I can't. You have to see it for yourself. (It's on Netflix and I'm told Amazon). What I CAN convey are a sampling of images from the series. Oh, and let us now praise Cillian Murphy, Annabelle Wallis, Paul Anderson, Joe Cole, Helen McCrory, Sophie Rundle and Sam Neil, among other thespians, who bring a calculated restraint under which raw emotions fester till they are released, cathartically, by the narrative's beautifully structured plot lines. Every aspect of this series shines; art direction, camera work, lighting, wardrobe, and razor sharp editing choices; each discipline serving the narrative. 

Polly, the matriarch of the Shelby clan. She is Tom's aunt (I think!) and 
when provoked is capable of exhibiting the same degree of violence as the 
boys. Her continued fight to preserve and legitimize the Shelby family's
assets runs against he desire to love and be loved.

Special mention must be made of the film's music, a selection of contemporary tunes (Nick Cave did the opening theme!) set against period drama - makes things very modern while anchoring us in the past. Uncanny. I think I even heard a cut by the great Leonard Cohen in there. Five stars!

Tom Hardy (left) plays a Jewish mobster whose allegiance to the Peaky
Blinders may or may not be for real. The show is notable for its portrayal
of minorities as powerful equals to the Brits. Italians, jews, gypsies, they're
all legitimate contenders for control of England's crime networks, in this
case betting (the horses), rum, prostitution, and arms. Fun stuff!

Steven Knight, the brains behind this unique and incredibly
absorbing and entertaining series. This man writes 
compelling scripts like few in TV-land.

PS: Like what you read? Share it on social media!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens / Long and slow, in a multiplex led far, far astray.

In The Force Awakens a black man is tasered twice, drinks putrid water from a trough alongside an animal resembling a pig, and - in his own words - states that he used to work in sanitation. OK. Let's let those details slide. Call me politically correct. A Cambridge lefty. I can take it. By the way, that black man is the film's male lead. Does that make everything okay?

By now everyone pretty much agrees that there are no major surprises, aesthetically or narratively, in The Force Awakens. OK, maybe the aerial dogfights have a few more twists and turns than last time, and what happens to Han Solo is, well, something of a surprise (though we all saw it coming). But everything from the film's color palette to its chase-scene structure (where's the map? C'mon people!) smacks of deja vu all over again. Of course, it's supposed to. You don't make a billion dollars on a $350 million investment (that's some cabbage right there, folks!) innovating. You make it by playing to your base. This dumbed down installment of the franchise is sorely lacking in the great political intrigue and back room negotiating that took place in so many of the other Star Wars films. Let me remind everyone of the diplomatic brinksmanship that took place between the empire and the resistance in previous entries. We enjoyed watching Sith leaders, republic princesses, Jedi knights, and lost family members moving as if on a chessboard, trying to outguess, outfox, outdo each other. I do not see any of that in The Force Awakens. Once it sets up its formula it's basically an inter-galactic game of "tag, you're it" and nuance, intrigue, or mystery be damned.  But, okay, we can let that slide as well. After all, if in Jurassic World we wanted to see "more teeth" (bigger dinos), in The Force Awakens we want to see "bigger bangs", larger death stars exploding, though the screen size is still the same!

Is it unpatriotic to not have enjoyed The Force Awakens? Everyone seems to be so gaga about this movie that to dissent may be the kiss of death. OK, call me a rebel here. Sure, I'll reject The First Order and say I did not particularly enjoy watching The Force Awakens. Hang on, however: I do marvel at the technical virtuosity as well as the visual splendor of those early scenes in the desert so reminiscent of earlier Star Wars films as well as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (not to say Elaine May's underrated Ishtar!). And the space opera family dynamics appear to be laid out in a way designed to engage me, emotionally speaking. But when those intimate, personal exchanges take place, notably between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, I leave the Star Wars galaxies and find myself in a soap opera set in the San Fernando Valley called As The Universe Turns. Schmaltz Wars, I say.

Additionally, I'm kind of concerned that, in the battle between the good guys and the bad guys, Americans may see themselves too much on the side of the good guys, the rebels (maybe so during America's revolutionary years?). Yet, if you look at the imagery in The Force Awakens, while the bad guys are visually equated with the Third Reich (always a reliable bad "other" - as in not us - guy), there are also images reminiscent of our military's actions in Vietnam. In one sequence we get the First Order sending in air power to decimate a village and storm troopers using blow torches on people and thatched huts. Maybe it's me. I got to watch the final years of the Vietnam war on television so I could not help but draw parallels. We know our government has a dark side. It has more than once engaged in warfare where there was no military parity with the other guys whatsoever. We have a well documented history of taking a sledgehammer approach against our enemies, no matter how weak they are. To my eyes the Pentagon does indeed bear some resemblance to the First Order's arsenal of people and weapons. Now that's probably an unpatriotic idea. Hard to admit, but it's true. And, who knows...maybe we are watching our complete selves up there on that screen. Part light, part dark, our conscious selves aligning with the rebels, our unconscious selves with the First Order.

As unappetizing as this movie was, I concede: I went and saw it, wanting to see it, eager to see what these characters had been up to. And here's the thing: we all want to see it because - regardless of quality or the true nature of its moral compass - it is the only example of collective, shared myth making that everyone consumes at one moment. What's bigger? Not Batman, not Jurassic, and not Pixar. Star Wars is the tale told round the campfire writ globally. Today you can chat about The Force Awakens with anyone anywhere. How's that for your small talk at the airport terminal check in line? Refuse to see it at your own peril. And, uh, may the force be with you.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Alejandro Jodorowsky

From El Topo (1970). Alejandro Jodorowsky (right). The idea of a western as something more than a good guy (white hat) / bad guy (black hat) showdown had been pioneered by John Ford as far back as Stagecoach (1939), but few if any - filmmakers can turn a genre piece into a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Infused with iconic and surreal imagery, El Topo is considered the grandaddy of midnight cult movies, and deservedly so. Jodorowsky has said his goal with regard to cinema is to re-create the experience of taking LSD, without taking the hallucinogenic. He wants to re-write the book on how humans perceive life and themselves. Highly ambitious, his films shatter every preconceived notion we have about what cinema is supposed to be. 

Imagine Luis Bunuel, Quentin Tarantino, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez rolled into one and you'd probably get Alejandro Jodorowsky. He has called himself the "father of the midnight movie" and he's probably right. Throughout his career Jodorowsky has provoked, outraged, offended, and disrupted at least as many people as Mssrs. Bunuel, Tarantino, and Marquez. Mainstream cinema (read: Hollywood's studios) effectively ignored him, dangling a possible production of Dune based on the novel by Frank Herbert in front of him, then abruptly taking it away.

In every Jodorowsky film there are paradoxes and dichotomies. Innocence, youth versus wizened age. In El Topo the gunslinger(Jodorowsky) and his boy (Jodorowsky real-life son) travel the land confronting bandits, corruption, decay. At every stop death threatens the innocent youth, only to be shot down by the gunslinger. But it's never quite so straightforward. The gunslinger is on a quest for enlightenment and cannot reconcile his murderous ways with the sublime state demanded by the divine. 

Watching a Jodorowsky film is an unnerving experience; you want to look away but you can't. You don't know why you can't stop watching what is unfolding from moment to moment. Is it because the imagery is so shocking? Because it is beautiful one instant and repulsive the next? Peaceful, then violent? Jodorowsky has called his worldview many things, but the one that sticks with me the most is psychoshamanism. It's perfect and describes his art beautifully. There's always a deep religious, spiritual component combined with matters of the self and the compassion or brutality that people exhibit towards each other. Families gone horribly wrong, people on personal quests, violence as a means of cleansing, absurdist, comic moments, the list seems about as varied as the human condition.

Innocence in the form of the boy (Adan Jodorowsky) is never without some guardian. In Santa Sangre (1989) it's the dwarf or the girl mime, watching, caring. The quest here involves breaking from one's family, in this case a psychotic mother. Trauma always plays a key role in a Jodorowsky film. Trauma as a formative experience. In Santa Sangre it is the boy witness his mother's arms being severed that sets him on a life long journey of dependence on her - until he is able to exorcise her from his being, but not without a price. 

Jodorowsky came to film from the theater and pantomime and in El Topo, released in 1970 (he's the lead) you'll see how his years touring (and writing sketches) with Marcel Marceau's troupe informs his acting style. But this isn't a mime you poke fun at for being a mime. It's a terrific, cinematic, horrifying, exhilarating, and life affirming tour de force bit of acting. Still, the movie's (as with all of his movies) greatest strength lies in Jodorowsky's inventive, provocative, political, allegorical, and poetic imagery. It's as if Heironymous Bosch, Todd Browning, and Fellini had somehow managed to live and work in South America!

Santa Sangre (1989). The elephant's funeral march. What can one say about these images? They speak for themselves. Fellini was surely a fan.

Jodorowsky's scenes are often living tableaux. Dali's surrealism comes to mind. The images and actions are disturbing but not in an exploitative way. Fascinating to watch how carefully, how meticulously his set pieces unfold, each new development symbolizing something, moving towards some inexorable, inevitable ending. It usually goes one of two possible ways: humanity is a brutal, soulless, barbaric thing or it is compassionate and caring. Regardless, there is always mortality, finality, the transience of life, and its opposite, eternity, immortality, and maybe even the divine.

Try synopsizing a Jodorowsky film. Impossible. Too much happens. Too many turns, leaps in time, transformations, magical or hyper-real events. Here's the Netflix summary for Santa Sangre:

When a woman catches her husband philandering with another woman, she pours acid on him, after which he chops off her arms and kills himself. Now, she exists as a vengeful circus performer. The situation leaves their son, Fenix, severely disturbed.

The iguana circus act from Santa Sangre (1989). Easily one of the most surreal moments in the history of cinema.
If only. For starters, if my memory serves, she's not the one doing the acid pouring (but I could be wrong! Watching Jodorwsoky's films is akin to being in a dream). Moreover, the over-arching theme of maternal possessiveness is nowhere in Netflix's summary. Not their fault. As I say, these films defy easy description.

Here's Netflix's summary of El Topo:

In this surreal Western, avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky uses allegory and religious iconography to tell the story of a gunfighter, El Topo (Jodorowsky), who wanders the desert on an odyssey seeking enlightenment. But first, he must defeat four master gunfighters and dig a tunnel to free a colony of deformed underground dwellers from their dark confines. This experimental film reached cult status as the first of the "midnight movies."

Ah! Much better! So it's perhaps not the failed synopsis, but the sheer originality and bravado of Jodorowsky's images (and sounds!) that doesn't make it into the blurb. But, then again, few blurbs really work. Might I add that John Lennon (yes, the Beatle) was in great part responsible for introducing El Topo to US audiences. It played one night in New York, introduced by him, as a midnight movie and spent the next several decades at the cinema. No joke.

Holy Mountain (1973). Playing the prophet or shaman, Jodorowsky will take a handful of decadent, slothful, arrogant, lustful, and greedy men and women and bring them to the mountain top where they will attain spiritual enlightenment. This preposterous idea actually gains currency over the course of the film and by its conclusion we have been transformed - if only for a while. In this image, Jodorowsky (seated) shows us once again the power of his images; their iconic nature and heavy use of symbolism.
Here's the blurb on Holy Mountain:

Chilean avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky weaves a grotesque tale rich in allegory and sacrilegious imagery as a thief (HorĂ¡cio Salinas) is first crucified, then enlisted by an alchemist (Jodorowsky) to join a group of elites who seek divinity and immortality. Juan Ferrara, Adriana Page, Richard Rutowski, Valerie Jodorowsky, Zamira Saunders and Ana De Sade also star in this surreal 1970's mind trip.

OK! I'll take it. But it doesn't even come close. Jodorowsky's re-vamping of the Tarot for Holy Mountain, his enlisting of actors willing to take hallucinogenics with him - while being filmed - his choice to film the story in chronological order - his meta-ending wherein he pulls back the curtain to remind us this quest for divinity is nothing more than a all defies categorization. Iconoclastic, avant-garde, meh...I would say supremely humanist.

Holy Mountain (1973). The individuals selected for the journey of personal transformation. In a later scene they will take stacks of money and thrown them into the fire pit. Then they will immolate plaster versions of themselves in the same pit. 

A personal note: I arrive late to this party. Raised on mainstream Hollywood fare (old and new) and foreign (mostly European and Asian) cinema, Latin American cinema had always been a bit of a non-starter for me. Moreover, seeing the ads for El Topo back in the 80's was a turn off. Why see a low budget cult film? I genuinely believed Jodorowsky's films were made on shoestring budgets and told incoherent stories relevant only to the filmmaker and his coterie of followers. Boy, was I wrong. Jodorowsky's budgets, while they are a fraction of the amount spent on even a small US film, packed a huge economic wallop in South America. His films have dozens - if not hundreds - of extras, major set pieces, virtuosic camera work, and first rate overall production values.  See a Jodorowsky film. They're unforgettable and no one walks away indifferent to them.

Alejandro Jodorowsky. Poet, mime, painter of images, explorer of the human soul.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The End of the Tour

Great poster! Beautiful concept. The image tells us everything we'd want to know
about the film. Especially gutsy is the decision to exclude Jesse Eisenberg's and Jason Segel's faces. 

It's called a two-hander. In the theatre it connotes a play with only two actors. hink Driving Miss Daisy or most plays by Samuel Beckett. In The End of the Tour, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg and director James Ponsoldt take the two hander into movie land, albeit with a supporting cast (including a hilarious comedic acting turn courtesy of Joan Cusack) and make it into a genuine, moving, funny, and heart-wrenching bit of cinema. 

The celebrity writer and his admirer. Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel. 

We may never know who David Foster Wallace really was. Already his estate is disowning this film - but the truth about that is also up for grabs. All we have is the film, exhibit A (if you will), and what we read about it, along with Mr. Wallace's writings and David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Maybe it doesn't matter whether the film is factually accurate or not. Maybe what matters is that the film's emotional truth be accurate. Of course we can't know if that too is accurate or not, but I'm certainly convinced it comes damned close and should certainly get high marks for trying to capture who the man was. 

David Foster Wallace at home with one of his two large dogs. 

The End of the Tour follows reporter Lipsky and author Wallace on a five day journey from Wallace's home in Illinois to a book signing in Minneapolis and back. Lipsky, played with dogged determination by the great Jesse Eisenberg, wants Rolling Stone to publish a profile of America's greatest living author, David Foster Wallace, played (well, played is the wrong word here, more on that later) by Jason Segel. If you've ever had to meet someone you admire, and meet them under difficult circumstances, and they were a remote person to begin with, you'll get what the first part of the film is about. Lipsky's first meeting with Wallace provides us with a textbook example of how it might go. Two men circling around one another, taking each other in from a distance, avoiding excessive eye contact. Director Ponsoldt's camera keeps both men at a distance. We, the audience, have the same hard time pegging Wallace as Lipsky did. He moves away, changes the subject, avoids too much conversation - until Lipsky manages to corner him, like a lawyer cross examining a reluctant witness. 

Conflict in a film can be "merely" verbal. It doesn't have to be violent or physical. We're attracted to these two characters
as they circle around each other, looking for a way to connect, hitting psychological walls, falling, getting up, trying again.

In America, the quest for fame and recognition along with adoration from the media is by now a cliche. We didn't come up with the term "rags to riches" by accident. It's everyone's classic fantasy. Well, anyone that aspires to any kind of celebrity status, be it in the world of business, art, or in this case - literature. As portrayed in this film, Wallace is most certainly a reluctant celebrity, hoping against hope that this latest book tour won't perturb his isolated, comfy existence. Writers are loners, but not necessarily by choice. And this is where the actor playing Wallace, Jason Segel, doesn't appear so much to "act" the role as much as he appears to shrug off any attempt to. I haven't seen behavior this natural, this normal, in a film for a long time. Segel doesn't seem to be there, nor do we ever get the sense that the person we're looking at is aware there's a film crew present and a camera pointed at him - in close up no less.  It's an Oscar-worthy performance and brings to mind a sentence written by the great David Foster Wallace himself in his book of essays A Supposedly Funny Thing I'll Never Do Again. Here it is:

Make no mistake - seeming unwatched in front of a [TV] camera is an art. Take a look at how non-professionals act when a [TV] camera is pointed at them ; they often spaz out, or else they go all stiff, frozen with self-consciousness.

Could it be that Jason Segel has also read these lines and mastered the art of conveying being unwatched while the camera is rolling? It wouldn't surprise me. What I'm getting at is that Wallace's real life reluctance at becoming a celebrity, his self-effacing nature, fits hand in glove with Segel's apparent non-acting (which of course it isn't), which appears to align with Wallace's sentences (see above). 

Using their celebrity status to promote a wonderful film about reluctant celebrities.

It takes a special kind of person to withdraw just when the world comes knocking at their door. There's something wonderful about not chasing fame. We want to love someone who is so unselfish. And we do. Our empathy for Wallace's desire to have a normal life is what makes this character study so appealing. Wallace just doesn't want to get sucked into the celebrity-making machinery only to find himself no longer writing and on the talk show circuit. What his reluctance is also masking, however, is his depression and - eventually - as we all know now - his suicide. So while we can love a man who recognizes the sham of the machinery and knows how to sidestep it, we also know that in that maneuver lie the symptoms of an unhappy soul who - in the end - found it hard to engage. Could Wallace have struck a balance between fame and preserving his privacy? At the time of his death he'd been living with a woman, always a good first step. But we'll never know for sure. 

Still, The End of the Tour is so very generous in its offerings. The film has an unlikely but highly entertaining buddies on the road quality. For every question Lipsky poses, Wallance counters with not just an answer but a comment on the nature of interviewing. Like Wallace's writings, the film is also meta and has a wonderfully post-modern anti-narrative feel to it. The risk with two handers is claustrophobia; navel-gazing. Too much time spent with too few people. In this film that somehow is avoided, and I think the reason is that these two guys are simply too different and - consequently - there's enough conflict, enough back and forth - peppered with enough pauses - to keep it interesting. And, after a couple of hours happily stuck with these two wonderful (warts and all) people, Ponsoldt takes us out for a walk with them onto a frozen lake, letting us (and the characters) out of the intellectual cage/game they've (we've) been playing in. Like a great Fellini film whose closing shots often take place by the seashore, Wallace's frozen lake works as a beautiful metaphor for his own delicate, all too human, frozen psyche, his vulnerability, his suffering and, ultimately, his tragic end. 

The film's closing walk by the lake takes us out of the intellectual/emotional cage we've willingly spent two hours inside.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Listen Up Philip

It's a genre. The literary film. Note the title's font, a clear reference to Philip Roth.
It's a genre. You've seen the type before. The literary film. Stories about writers, their books, their lives, loves, egos, successes, and failures. Put a young, ambitious, self-absorbed writer in New York City, make him Jewish, give him a mentor and a string of girlfriends past and present, and call him Philip. Now add a title font that strongly resembles the fonts used on the covers of Philip Roth's books and you've got Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip. Using two key techniques - a narrator's voice over (performed by Eric Bogosian) and long, dialogue-driven scenes filmed hand held in close ups - Perry's film is, like Jason Shwartzman's character, Philip Lewis Friedman, both attractive and repelling. Listen Up Philip attempts - and to some degree - succeeds in keeping us interested in the life of a lousy, heartless, but talented egoist. 

Philip is something of a conflicted, arrogant, prick but there's not a whole lot he can do about it. He's capable of walking out on a two year live in relationship with Ashley (wonderfully played by Elizabeth Moss), to teach literature at a bucolic college upstate, but he can't do it without destroying part of himself and his connection to people. His mentor, Ike Zimmerman (superb work from Jonathan Pryce), is not just a preview of what Philip will become in old age; he's also director Perry's attempt to create a portrait of our real world Philip Roth - just as young Philip Friedman attempts to show what the young Mr. Roth must have been like. While Perry fails at drawing authentic parallels between his characters and the real Mr. Roth (read Roth's biographical The Facts for a better idea of what Mr. Roth is all about), Perry nonetheless makes a wonderfully dark, sarcastic, cynical, and absorbing film about the limits of ambition, selfishness, and - ultimately - the about the impossibility of total self-knowledge.   

The ego, unchecked, young and old. Ike (Jonathan Pryce, left) has become what Philip (Jason Shwartzman) is en route to becoming.
Self-knowledge of one's arrogance and cruelty won't help; these men are hard wired to turn into loners.

With its period piece setting (it looks like it takes place in the 70's), its detached (existentialist? mais oui) nature, and its bevy of women parading in and out of Philip's life, the film takes a page from the Francois Truffaut / Jean Pierre Leaud  playbook. Add to that the intentionally self-conscious and overly analytical nature of the voice over (Truffaut often performed his own voice overs in the same - somewhat urgent but matter of fact tone) and Listen Up Philip feels less like a 2014 American  indie and more like a later French new wave effort. Intentional? Probably. 

What ultimately makes Listen Up Philip worth it is its insightful analysis of its main characters - even if they're all somewhat sociopathic. It's an intelligent movie, but it's emotionally very off putting. The brain has won over the heart, here. There's little concern for people's feelings. Feelings get in the way of ambition, achievement, accomplishment. Those who make it need to be heartless but, as the film illustrates in its final moments, they're also the ones that end up on the street, hoping against hope to find a place to lay down their ego and get some rest.

Putting self above all else. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Locke's poster suggests speed. In fact, the BMW Locke drives down Britain's M6 motorway never goes above 60 mph.
The movements here are all inside Locke's mind. Wonderful.

Watching Locke you get the feeling the film was written and directed by a twenty five year old upstart. A kid, really, more interested in innovation than emotion. I looked up the writer/director. He is 56 year old Steven Knight, a Brit, and with a string of screenwriting credits behind him. So...that was my first misconception. The second one actually took place before I saw the film. I had read that the entire film took place inside a moving car, the camera trained on Mr. Hardy, and that was pretty much it. How, I wondered, could this possibly be anything more than an interesting, meandering, but ultimately failed experiment? As I say, that was my second misconception.

The landscape of Tom Hardy's face in Locke registers a gamut of feelings.
It's as much of a canvas as the surrounding lights and reflections zipping by.
As it turns out, Locke is dramatic, beautifully rendered, and entirely original. For starters, there's Mr. Hardy, the actor who played Bane, the guy with the muzzle on his face, in that Batman movie. Oh, and he's also the new Mad Max, who also spends part of the film wearing a muzzle. Hmm... We're talking heavy. Predatory. Lethal. One assumes he was typecast. Third misconception: Mr. Hardy's Locke is a vulnerable, all-too-human, sensitive, caring, but persistent middle class man from Wales who just needs to get to the hospital in time to see the child he's fathered with a woman other than his wife (who's waiting for him to come home to her and the kids so they may take in a soccer match on the telly).

The BMW X5 rigged up.
And then there's the matter of his job. It's the night before the biggest contract of his career (he supervises concrete pouring for skyscrapers) and he's just told his boss that he's not going to be there in the morning. And finally, there's his dad, long gone but to Locke still here; in fact, in the car (as imagined by Locke), and forced - now - to listen to his son telling him he's a shit for abandoning him as a child and he's not about to abandon the baby - his baby - that's about to be born. Brilliant writing, I'd say. We are privy to the character's private, personal, and professional life - all of it in one fell swoop. Well, it's actually 36 swoops. 36 phone calls to and from Locke's mistress, wife, kids, co-workers, and boss, all of them conducted hands-free, all of them performed in real time by actors whose voices were transmitted into Mr. Hardy's picture car which, as you can see from the images enclosed, is rigged for filming and includes, it appears, tele-prompters, gadgets Mr. Hardy may have used. No matter.

The BMW in action. Note the tele-prompters.
Tom Hardy may be the best British actor since Gary Oldman (whom he admires) and this film is proof positive that we're dealing with one of the greats. See it on Netflix. Its brief US theatrical run, its modest production parameters, and its simple story of a complex man coming to terms with himself in no way diminishes this big hearted, generous tale of redemption.

Tom Hardy. Perhaps the best British actor since Gary Oldman. Certainly as versatile.
This is the man who plays Bane in that Batman flic, and - oh - he's also the new Mad Max.

The Apu Trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray

Criterion's poster for the re-relase of Ray's Apu Trilogy. If you go, see them in the order they were made, preferably in one day. Sure, it's a marathon, but worth every minute. For Boston folks, the Kendall Square Cinema has scheduled them to play back to back, with a 45 minute break between parts 2 and 3, just enough time for a sandwich and a beer at The Friendly Toast!

“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or the moon.” 

Criterion's restored 4K theatrical re-release of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy ranks among the top cinematic events of the year. The films are deeply human and tell a timeless, universal story in the simplest of ways. The degree of authenticity here might lead one to believe they're watching a type of ethnographic or anthropological documentary when, in fact, we are talking about a filmmaking style closer to the Italian neo-realists (I'm thinking specifically of DeSica's Bicycle Thieves). It's director Ray's care, his empathy for his characters, their lives marked by joy as well as tragedy, that leaves you feeling so emotionally fulfilled; as if you'd met and befriended someone and watched them grow. 

A still from the now legendary scene where Apu and his sister run through the fields to catch a glimpse of the future; a train in the distance.

Despite having been made over half a century ago Ray's trilogy continues to resonate with audiences. It does this by telling a story that people everywhere will recognize, to some degree, as their own.

Among the themes the film touches upon: the sacrifice parents make for their children, the status of women in India and depression, the struggle between the agrarian-based life of the past versus the arrival of manufacturing and industry, and the debate over what to embrace: science or religion. All of this delivered with a degree of cinematic poetry rarely seen these days. Watching the trilogy was like discovering cinema for the first time. I can't think of higher praise. 

Apu's childhood is a mix of hardship and wonder. His simple life in a remote rural Indian village will end as the boy and his family leave for the city.

Apu as a young student, struggles with leaving his family for the uncertainty of adult life in the city.

Apu as an adult, hardened by loss and the inevitable passage of time, yet hopeful nonetheless.

From the Criterion presskit: Two decades after its original negatives were burned in a fire, Satyajit Ray’s breathtaking milestone of world cinema rises from the ashes in a meticulously reconstructed new 4K restoration. The Apu Trilogy brought India into the golden age of international art-house film, following one indelible character, a free-spirited child in rural Bengal who matures into an adolescent urban student and finally a sensitive man of the world. These delicate masterworks—Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)—based on two books by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, were shot over the course of five years, and each stands on its own as a tender, visually radiant journey. They are among the most achingly beautiful, richly humane movies ever made—essential works for any film lover.

SATYAJIT RAY BIOGRAPHY Satyajit Ray was an only child, born in 1921 into a creative, intellectual family of Brahmos—members of a Christian-influenced Hindu movement—in Kolkata. His grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray, was a renowned writer, composer, and children’s magazine founder, and his father, Sukumar Ray, was a writer and illustrator, a household name for his nonsense verse. Satyajit had an unsurprising early facility with the arts, both musical and visual. His father died when he was not yet three, and he lived with his mother and an uncle in the southern part of Kolkata, where he taught himself to read Western classical music and discovered Hollywood movies. After finishing college, beginning in 1940, Ray studied art for two and a half years in Santiniketan, at the university founded by the great Bengali intellectual, writer, and artist Rabindranath Tagore, who would become one of the most important influences in his life. Returning to Kolkata, Ray found work as a graphic artist at a British-run advertising agency and a Bengali-run publishing house, and cofounded the Calcutta Film Society, where he and other film lovers watched mostly European and Hollywood movies and engaged in lengthy addas (coffeehouse conversations) about what was missing from Indian cinema, which was still primarily a Bollywood landscape. While working full-time, Ray began writing screenplays on the side, for his own enjoyment and occasionally for pay, deepening his understanding of cinematic storytelling. In 1949, Ray met the great French director Jean Renoir, who was location scouting in Kolkata for The River. When Renoir asked if he had a film idea of his own, Ray described the story of Pather Panchali, a novel by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee for which Ray had once designed woodcut illustrations and that struck him as being highly cinematic in nature. Renoir encouraged Ray’s love of film and his pursuit of the project. In 1950, Ray and his wife, Bijoya, moved to England, where he would work at his advertising agency’s London office. During those six months, the couple saw ninety-nine films, including Vittorio De Sica’s recent neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. It was this film that had the strongest impact on Ray, as it led him to the discovery that one could make a film with nonprofessionals, on location, largely outdoors, and on a shoestring budget. In late 1950, on the boat back to Kolkata, he wrote a first treatment for Pather Panchali. In 1955, after three years of shooting and editing that was intermittent due to a lack of financing, Ray completed his debut film, which, after legendary screenings in New York and Cannes, officially put him on the map during the golden age of art-house cinema; with Pather Panchali, Ray took his place alongside Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa as one of the most important international filmmakers. He went on to close out the 1950s with a string of masterpieces, including the two films that rounded out The Apu Trilogy, Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), and The Music Room (1958). Over the course of his thirty-six-year career, Ray would direct twenty-eight features. He also designed posters and composed musical scores for many of his own films. He won awards at the world’s major film festivals, including Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. In 1992, thanks to © Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos THE APU TRILOGY 7 JANUS FILMS a campaign led by several Hollywood heavyweights, including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, which he accepted from a hospital bed in Kolkata, where he had been admitted for a heart condition. Less than a month later, Ray died at the age of seventy. His work remains an inspiration to filmmakers around the world.

Satyajit Ray at work.