The Music Room

The Music Room

জলসাঘর [Jalsaghar; The Music Room] (1958)


Director: সত্যজিৎ রায় [Satyajit Ray]

Main Cast: Chhabi Biswas, Gangapada Basu, Padmadevi, Kali Sarkar

Satyajit Ray was a director who mostly followed the lead of cinema in other countries.  The Music Room is basically an Indian re-make of Sunset Boulevard (1950).  It is the story of a Raj (Chhabi Biswas) who admires music, but whose royal estate has dwindled due to some sort of flooding (the explanation in the film is cursory and implausible).  He is nearly broke.  A nouveau riche moneylender (Gangapada Basu) arrives and as a matter of pride the Raj spends the small remainder of his funds on a concert held in his palace music room, to show up the businessman and assert his hereditary superiority.  The culmination of the film is a lengthy music and dance performance.  But the best individual moment is perhaps when a servant is shaking incense or something at the concert guests, and when the businessman recoils the servant makes a point to shake some more of it at him.  The film suffers from having no likable characters.  The aging Raj seems like a fool, and the sniveling businessman is insufferable.  The servants and musicians offer no significant independent perspective in the film.  Most significantly, though, the film’s exploration of social class is considerably less daring when set in a caste-based society than when Sunset Boulevard explored class conflict and social prestige in a society that denies the existence of class.  The Music Room takes much too much for granted in casting archetypes: the Raj, the moneylender.  As a study in the vices of pride and hubris, this doesn’t offer much in the way of depth.  But the big musical number has its own value independent of the film.



Hud (1963)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Martin Ritt

Main Cast: Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon De Wilde

One of those rare times Hollywood delivers a movie worth watching.  This might be seen as an early warning shot of the “New Hollywood” movement. The drama involves an old fool rancher (Melvyn Douglas) in a state of desperate denial, clinging to old values as the world changes around him.  He disavows his sanctimonious nature, which forces his son Hud (Paul Newman) to become everything that Douglas’ character hates.  On Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne describes it as Douglas’ morality vs. Newman’s amorality.  That seems like a ridiculous view.  Newman has morality, of a kind, it is just antithetical to everything Douglas’ character stands for.  Hud is a womanizing drunkard, and hardly a conventionally likable character.  But he’s a character true to his circumstances.  He highlights how Douglas’ character denies his oppressiveness and closed-mindedness, by revealing how Hud sees no other option to preserve his dignity.  On the surface, Hud creates problems, but as the movie progresses, he comes across as someone fighting back — perhaps in a futile, excessive way, but fighting back nonetheless.  The cruelty of the human characters is underscored by the casual animal cruelty on the ranch.  Everybody leaves Hud in the end, but that suits him just fine.  The ending is kind of fitting.  Hud wins out.  He gets no real satisfaction in it though.

This is just a really well-made film too.  There is music in the film, but usually the stark black & white cinematography speaks for itself.  Much of the music comes from characters turning on a radio or jukebox.  Of course there is great acting throughout.  Osborne called Patricia Neal’s performance one of the best of the decade and he’ll get no major argument here even for such a bold claim.  And this might be Newman at his very best.  He throws all the charisma he can behind a character that seems to deserve none of it, and that underscores the tensions and contradictions of the character’s situation eloquently.



Metropolis (1927)

Universum Film A.G.

Director: Fritz Lang

Main Cast: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

A classic of the silent era.  Epic in proportions yet simple in story, this has influenced countless films that followed.  Some (Elysium (2013)) are practically remakes.  The special effects were groundbreaking.  This — along with the likes of Brecht/Weill‘s The Threepenny Opera and Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplatz and even Hilferding‘s Finance Capital — represents one of the great achievements of Weimar Germany.

The Crowd

The Crowd

The Crowd (1928)


Director: King Vidor

Main Cast: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman

King Vidor’s silent film “The Crowd” was the most acclaimed early feature to use a melancholy, existential ending where a character with great aspirations learns to accept a life short of that, in this case as an anonymous failure.  This would become a sort of film staple, especially in “art house” cinema, with similar examples ranging from Yasujirō Ozu‘s Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo [I Was Born, But…] (1932), Ingmar Bergman‘s Sommarlek [Summer Interlude] (1951), and Satyajit Ray‘s Apur Sansar [World of Apu] (1959), to name a few.  This is one of Vidor’s very finest films — up there with Our Daily Bread (1934).  The pacing is meticulous and graceful, the humor well-placed, and, of course, the acting superb.  Large parts of the film are shot on location — a rarity for Hollywood films of the era — and the sense of realism that the bustling city shots provide is really a useful counterpoint to the ambitions of the protagonist John Sims (James Murray).  But what separates The Crowd from much of what simply has a similar ending is that this is a film that from beginning to end is about ordinary people.  It is not an epic.  There is no hero.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Warner Bros.

Directors: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Main Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean

Combines the outer-space feudalism of Dune with the dystopian bureaucratic comedy of Brazil (or perhaps The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), plus straight-up sci-fi action like The Fifth Element.  There also is a little bit of Soylent Green and The Matrix in the plot.  Despite clear precedents, the visual themes of the film make an effort to break free of the usual Hollywood ones, and in that the film mostly succeeds.  That isn’t to say this is a wholly successful film.  It is a bit long, and many of the characters are simply one-dimensional placeholders for plot advancement.  The motivations for much of the plot are explored only superficially at best.  More time is spent depicting jet boots and big computer-generated architectural expanses.  At times the film’s critique of capitalism and capitalist-style consumerism is inserted into a plot about a feudalistic society like a square peg in a round hole.  But this doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Still, this one is pretty mediocre at best, even if its good intentions (a vaguely feminist attitude, etc.) carry it a bit further than most boring sci-fi blockbusters.

John Wick

John Wick

John Wick (2014)

Summit Entertainment

Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch (uncredited)

Main Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen

A standard tale of hubris & nemesis.  Hollywood makes a lot of movies like this.  But John Wick has a few things going for it that others don’t.  There is no gratuitous romantic subplot.  The fight scenes are also choreographed well — the bane of some many TV shows and big budget movies, where the bad guys seem to roll over and die because…well, because they are the bad guys and they are supposed to die.  Sure, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is practically unstoppable, though his voyage back to through the fists and knives and bullets of a world of gangsters leaves him with plenty of scars.  The best part of this rather simple plot is that Wick does it all because somebody killed his puppy.  The bastards.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

Main Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson

The plot is entirely unoriginal.  I have heard it compared to the video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.  But it also might be said to borrow from Star Trek: Insurrection and the Bourne series (with the theme of government corruption), Minority Report and the Terminator series (with “precrimes” and drones like “Skynet”), and Robocop (the “Winter Soldier” being much like the cyborg Robocop).  And that is not even to mention the plot holes.  Why exactly are the bad guys doing what they are doing?  And how did they get the money to do it?  And why do they drop hints for Captain America to use to uncover their plot?  Anyway, it isn’t any of those things that make this movie fun.  It is that the fight scenes require a minimum of suspension of disbelief and are intense, well choreographed, tautly paced, and impeccably executed.  Plus, the good guys are actually trying to do good, which is not always the case with superhero movies.  Like some of the recent Iron Man films, this is better than most superhero garbage.

Mr. Arkadin [AKA Confidential Report]

Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin [AKA Confidential Report] (2013)

Filmorsa/Cervantes Films/Sevilla

Director: Orson Welles

Main Cast: Orson Welles, Robert Arden, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina

There are few movies that so clearly explain Jacques Lacan‘s concept of the “barred subject” ($) in psychoanalysis like Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin.  The concept is that the subject, the essence of the consciousness of a human being, is a void or lack, and people are driven to try to fill that void to be perceived by others in a certain way.  This is almost a summary of Welles’ film!  Arkadin (Welles) is a wealthy and secretive financier.  Guy Van Stratten (Arden) is con man of sorts who tries to get close to Arkadin, then winds up working for him to investigate the man’s allegedly forgotten past.  As the film concludes, Van Stratten discovers that Arkadin always knew his about his past, when he was a member of a crime syndicate, but saw himself as just an empty vessel to create the Arkadin persona to be seen as powerful in the eyes of his daughter Raina (Paola Mori).

In his entire career, Welles only had complete creative control on two films.  This was not one of them.  As such there are a lot of different edits circulating.  Criterion Collection has issued what they call a comprehensive edition.  They seem to have put together the best and most coherent version I’ve seen.

This film was not regarded very highly at the time, except by the French.  That makes sense.  After all, Lacan was French.  Some superficial readings focus on the simple plot twist whereby Arkadin uses Van Stratten to locate his past criminal associates to eliminate them one by one.  But the film opens and closes with an plane flying empty, that once contained Arkadin.  He disappears when he daughter discovers his personal history, and the foundational crime that established his persona as a powerful financier.  His power and authority is premised on his past being concealed.  More importantly, though, Arkadin is revealed as nothing, the barred subject, like all of us.

After Earth

After Earth

After Earth (2013)

Columbia Pictures

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Main Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

Here is a sci-fi film with an interesting core premise, burdened by all the usual plot holes of a typical M. Night Shyamalan feature.  Humanity makes the Earth’s environment essentially uninhabitable, and the planet’s population moves to a new planet called Nova Prime.  Some other alien species tries to remove humans from Nova Prime (for reasons not explained in the film) by attacking them with genetically engineered monsters called Ursa, which relentlessly attack humans by detecting pheromones given off when humans are frightened.  Cypher (Will Smith) is a general in the Nova Prime military, and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.  However, Kitai is troubled by having seen his sister killed by an Ursa.  So, father and son go on a space voyage and an “unexpected” asteroid belt causes the spacecraft to crash land on a planet that turns out to be Earth.  There were only two survivors.  To raise a rescue beacon, they must reach the tail section of the craft that landed some number of miles away from where Cypher and Kitai landed.  But Cypher has broken his legs, so Kitai must make the journal alone. And an Ursa that was being transported in the craft has survived the crash too, and gotten loose.

The story line is fairly typical “son must prove himself to a military father” one.  Those plot holes?  Well, here are a few.  How would an asteroid be unknown and undetected, so close to the human home world?  When Cypher injures his leg, why is he unable to apply a tourniquet, a technology known for millennia?  If the Ursa are practically blind except for their pheromone sense, how are they able to walk about without crashing into things?  And are they also mostly deaf?  Why must the Ursa be fought practically hand-to-hand, rather than using tanks, missiles, robots, and the like?  And with all the new technologies, it strains credibility that the characters are so unfamiliar with it that they are inclined to offer explanations (for the benefit of the film’s audience).

Will Smith’s acting is wooden.  He was always better in comedic roles.  Jaden Smith is terrible, and devoid of acting ability.  So why watch this film?  There are great special effects.  If you can set aside the bizarre forgetfulness when it comes to “ancient” technologies like tourniquets, there are a few interesting concepts, like flexible and holographic computers.

What makes this movie decent, in spite of its flaws, is the psychological basis for the main plot point.  Kitai must overcome his fear of Ursas to accomplish “ghosting”, by overcoming fear and avoiding the release of pheromones to pass by them as if invisible.  The very notion of “ghosting” is ridiculous.  But the idea that you have free will as to how you subjectivize objective experience is a key concept of psychology:

“[M]an is not simply a product of objective circumstances.  We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivize these objective circumstances, which will of course determine us.”

Kitai has to decide whether in response to the very real and objective threat of the Ursa whether he subjectivizes that circumstance through fear, or another way.  In one very anthropomorphic scene, too, Kitai is saved by a giant eagle who chooses to protect him from severe cold that occurs every day, who manifests the same phenomenon.  She chooses to protect Kitai after loosing all her babies in an attack by jaguars or some such mutated large cats.  A “protector of the weak” is how she wanted to be seen by others.  So the basic message of this film is a defensible one.