Saturday, March 19, 2016

Madadayo, Used DVDs! #13: Kathryn Bigelow's THE WEIGHT OF WATER

As the cliche goes - and cliches have a basis of truth for a reason - maybe the book was better (and oddly enough my wife apparently has read six other books by the author of The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve, and even owns but hasn't read the book of this one, but that's neither here nor there except that it is not exactly an obscure author or book).

This is sort of a hard review to write because Kathryn Bigelow is an important filmmaker.  I think her work would be vital and crucial to the modern history of American film regardless of sex and if she was a he, born maybe, uh, Karl or something.  But it'll be hard for people in the future to know what a big deal it was for any woman, let alone Bigelow, to finally get directing + picture Oscars for The Hurt Locker after years of not really making that many films, and often seemingly of Hollywood action disposables (though it wasn't that at all, with works of genre art like Near Dark and Strange Days being very much a cut above the rest, and even a seemingly "dumb' movie like Point Break being fantastic at what it was trying to be).

She's immensely gifted and will continue to bring works that I'm sure will deal with the dark passages of the (usually violent) American consciousness.  So it pains me to say that this film she made and has sort of been forgotten isn't very good - this is one of those times where I hate having to put down a movie, but it almost leaves me with no choice.

Matter of fact, The Weight of Water has a pretty shitty script.  And I don't necessarily mean that it's in all of the characters; I can certainly see what a director would see in this material (whether Bigelow read the book first or the script I haven't the slightest, and who knows what happens in post production if one doesn't have final cut).  It's about a newspaper photographer named Jean (Catherine McCormack) who goes to a small island in New England to investigate an old murder from the late 19th century where a man was hung for killing two women who were immigrants.  She's joined by her husband (Sean Penn) as they visit his brother and his lady friend who is sort of unexpected by Jean (Elizabeth Hurley).  And over the course of seemingly several days (or it could be over a week, or two, I'm not sure) she tries to dig a little deeper while it seems as if temptations from Penn's character towards Hurley may be happening... or not, or whatever.

The scenes on the little boat with the four characters, at least on the whole, held my attention the most through the film.  This is almost despite (or in spite of maybe) that there really isn't much story here, or at least compared to the other story set in 1873 (with Sarah Polley and Ciran Hinds playing the woman who seemed to witness it all and has her own story of being a loveless marriage and sadness on this rocky coast, also the sister of the slain women, and the guy who is the accused).  I think I just enjoyed seeing these intellectual(ish) adults talk about Penn's character's poetry and past wounds that are so just under the surface that they come out without too much effort, and the sensuality is at a high pitch as well.  I was reminded of and I wondered if Bigelow had seen Polanki's Knife in the Water, which is is also about head-games taking place in a slow-burn style on a little boat (only there was triangle instead of a quad..rangle, if that's what it's called).

It helps that the actors are cast well, with Josh Lucas in a good early role (funny that he returns to this review series after a VERY different role in Stolen, but I digress) and Hurley cast so ideally that in a strange way it almost seems TOO easy.  Yes, she can play the super-sexy lady of any man's dreams, but is it going too far over the top, even for salacious material, that she sucks on an ice cube while sunbathing topless on the top deck of the boat for Sean Penn's squinty eyes to take a gander at?  Maybe not, but it's a strange choice all the same when contrasted with what the movie is supposed to be doing.  At the same time I welcomed these visual distractions and sort of mild-serious psychological twistings of this marriage-gone-south between McCormack and Penn and the mostly nice and hot relationship of Lucas and Hurley... when compared with the other story.

The central problem of this movie, and one that gets amplified so loudly in cinematic bold type that it becomes wearying, is that the two stories just don't mesh well together.  The 1873 scenes by themselves are not leading to anywhere that is unpredictable, and on the contrary it's easy to see where it's at a mile away; it's ironic that this part of the story, which is full of elements like incest and adultery and (maybe-yes) lesbianism and damnation should be so bloodless.  It's not even that it's dull all the time - some of the time, yes, it is, and I wasn't sure in certain scenes if Polley's droopy eye-lid was some odd thing at the time or if she was just tired from the material - and it's sad that I should feel that from such a good actress and Hinds as a very good presence and solid throughout his turn here.  But there's not much to actually explore.

Meshing the present story of this woman in a turbulent marriage and in a desperate this-mystery could-be-cracked where it pops up and then falls away and then the intercutting becomes pointless.  One may be, or I was, of The Neverending Story, where the character finds the parts of the story that we then see, but this is so intermittent as to not matter.  But the two stories have little flow from one scene to the next, and while I can admire the performances in chunks and sometimes the dialog is written convincingly (though in some other instances definitely not), the pace of it drags so incredibly that by the time the two stories are meant to COLLIDE in such a way as if the "actual" murders and the BIG storm-against-the-ship set piece happens, I realized I was witnessing a fucking mess of a movie.

When I say a mess I don't necessarily mean only the climax either; I can point to the script and say this works and this really doesn't and down the line, however it's also Bigelow that can deserve some blame here.  She is really terrific with most of the actors here - Polley is the only one kind of hit or miss, sometimes excellent sometimes adrift with the material - but stylistically I wondered if she was experimenting... too much.  This is the kind of movie where we see the "INTENSE" flashbacks of someone's interior headspace reflecting on murders or things at night like the house or the shoreline in time-lapse, and it's in black and white and in crazy shifts of perspective and the lighting gets deranged and I just didn't buy it.

This isn't the technique in these moments of a solid professional, it's the work of some film school student trying out shit that doesn't stick with the material.  And she may have been wanting to spread a little bit, and of course she's experimented film after film (and hell, the reason Strange Days is so masterful is because she went the extra distance with a number of choices).  But this isn't one of those times.   The Weight of Water is like listening to a friend who has something burdening their mind and over a couple of hours you hear it and go... 'wow, what the hell was that?'  Ironic further that one of the acclaimed female directors of the world, nevermind America, has her two films with female protagonists be her weakest efforts (this and Blue Steel).  

PS: This may be me reading into something that is not there at all, but I wonder if the casting of Hurley is very personal for Bigelow... if you see pictures of the director as a younger person, she looks a LOT like Hurley.  And to this day she's very attractive and in her SIXTIES.  Or maybe it's the two women on that little boat, the smart, go-getting intellectual one and the sultry-questionable other one... hmmm.....

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Yes, some way, some how, this is a goddamn poster in India. Apparently social media memes about sexism in the media aren't a thing yet there or something.

"As long as movies are in this fucking country, people will continue to be fooled."

The above line is said by an old man named Ramadhir who by the time he says it in this 5+ hour film-cum-miniseries has carved out a place for himself to rule. He doesn't have any sort of big empire, and for most of his life he's had the Khans on his back: he killed the grandfather (Shahid), who was really just a petty thief who had delusions of grandeur, then the father (Sardar, who shaves his head and won't grow any hair until he exacts revenge, so basically he'll be bald for quite some time), and then he has to contend with the father's sons, of which there are four by one wife and one by a "mistress" (and this son has the rather peculiar name of "Definite", and no, it's not a nickname, that's how it appears on the friggin birth certificate, if one exists).

But also by this time he's learned how to be shrewd and have his little nest-egg through being a confident and smart businessman, which is the one thing that doesn't really go in line with the Khan clan. They seem to be more about, oh, you know, violence and guns and the occasional (lots of) sex like with Sardar or the hash with Faizil, the latter takes over the Khan empire in the 2nd half of this series.

There's so much story that I could go through here that it would be fruitless to try. Suffice to say that this is why you use the word 'epic-length' to describe a crime series, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing (or always a great thing either). In short, it's a little like the Indian gangland version of the Hattfields vs the McCoys, where two rival families square off over a long, long period of time. However in the case of Gangs of Wasseypur it happens to be when this part of the country is in flux through history - first through the English giving up India and the country gaining independence, but then the factions of Muslims (and there's Hindus in there too, but mostly Muslims in this case) who splinter off into their own groups.

There are also rival industries up for grabs, largely to do with energy like coal, but also iron and other things. Needless to say for someone like Sardir Khan, who lives in the shadow of his father's lust for glory (and vengeance), it's tough not to try to take over. But what about the old man Ramadhir? We see the rise and fall of this family, and it comes technically in two parts (though on IMDb it is in one). The first section, and each runs 160 minutes (and in 8 40 minute chunks on Netflix), though the first episode gives the background on the early years of the Khan family with Shahid, it's really Sardir's show, and Manoj Bajpai steals any scene or moment he's in. There's some natural charisma to this actor that makes him stand out so much, and he takes this character who is a real FORCE, whether he's trying to be seductive to the ladies (those scenes where he gets to Durga, played by Reema Sen, are wonderful), or being a don't-give-a-fuck gangster.

Other actors are really good too, but the thing about the first half is that it has so much story but it feels like it goes in fits and starts. At times it's very compelling, and at other times the director, Kashyap, is indulging so much in the over-abundance of what he can do with the camera and editing (sometimes it's fun with the long takes, other times with slow-motion not so much). I kept wondering where this story would really not so much finally hit lift off, but go into something a little more compelling than the basic ethos: violence begets violence. Ok, we get it, what else is there? How about some extra stakes or exploring what else the city of Waseypur or the surrounding areas have to offer?

It surprised me that it actually was the second half of the 'film', and this is after Sardar gets gunned down and the sons have to take control of this piece that the Khans have carved out, that it starts to get intriguing and messier in a good way. What happens when, as the times are changing into the 90's and 00's, that other gangs, simple start-ups that don't have much to do with the Khans or the "Sultan" or Ramadhir and just want to be bad mothereffers? Or what about politics and the police? How does an election work in this society if people can just vote and pose in burkas? We also get to see what happens with the younger siblings of Faizal, who, without a real father but the sort of "dreams" and aspirations of being in the gangster-dom of this low-down Indian world, step up and try to be badasses, to greater or lessor extents.

I actually expected from the way the second half was going to like the film more than I ultimately did. I think that it was the last 40 minutes or so, following the fate of the Sultan, that things started to dip back down for me, as the narration got to be too much (which up till then was sporadic and alright in that pseudo-City-of-God-Scorsese sense) and the director went SO into over-drive with the violence - yes, even compared to before, and it gets pretty bloody and unapologetic about it, which is refreshing in its way - and more in some sleazy, Troy Duffy kind of presentation. It's one thing to try and show the realities (or close to it) of the criminal underworld of this world of Wasseypur, and another to just become all about how many times someone can be plugged full of bullets in slow-motion set to a wild-and-crazy soundtrack.

But for the misgivings I have about the climax, it's still worth seeking out and I wasn't sure going in quite what to expect; Bollywood is often slapped with a certain type, and I've seen a few other movies that conform to the expectation of over-long (which this may be) and convoluted storytelling with a myriad of characters and a metric-ton of musical numbers. I think the director is more after something closer to what one might see in the Hollywood system of action thrillers, but there is still room and space for wall-to-wall soundtracking and a kind of halfway meeting of a musical as people sometimes sing (or, uh, lip-sync I guess) to songs there, but organically tied to the drama, so it's different in that way.