Monday, November 19, 2018

Scenic Beauty Beyond The Numbers

For over a decade now I have noted down every movie that I have seen, with a rating out of 10, and at least a tweet sized review. I crunch these ratings at the end of every year and come up with my own Top 5/Top 10 lists, keep the entire data set public and so on. Point being I thought not only do I take my movies quite seriously but also share my thoughts on them generously, maybe even to the point of coming across as a bore to many friends.

However, yesterday a good friend of mine (and a guest blogger here) - Abhishek Paul (a highly underrated blogger himself and a treasure trove of Twitter RTs) mentioned something that made me question some fundamentals about my relationship with movies. He said he can't predict whether I will like a show/movie or not, unlike about most of our friends who are more predictable. Now, not being predictable is a compliment nine times out of ten. This was the tenth. He elaborated that he's aware of my ratings of hundreds of movies, and perhaps some big-data/ML/AI (whatever your favourite term for that kind of stuff is) algorithm can predict what I will enjoy, but in spite of reading most of what I write about the movies I watch and the numerical rating, he doesn't know what is it about the specific movies that I liked or disliked and why. I introspected and took his feedback not only to heart but also went to work on it while it was fresh on my mind.

This has been as good a movie watching year as any for me with 130+ movies seen so far and 45 days still to go in 2018. So I will talk about some very specific scenes and sequences from some of my favourite movies that I saw this year, and will spend some time on the "why and what" made them special, to me.

The Tale
A middle aged woman gets some letters from her childhood that her mother has found in their house. The letters bring back memories, not just unpleasant ones, but confusing memories as she's spent decades rewriting them in her mind. She was abused as a teenager by two adults whom she trusted and respected. They were her role models. And the abuse itself as we see later in the movie was deeply manipulative, leaving her with a sense of confusion, did she really understand what happened, or were they actually helping her and she just didn't get it. Sensitively shot and brilliantly portrayed by the actors, the one scene that stood out for me was the way the memory came back to her. It started off as her as a 18-ish year old teenager. Still the abuse was abhorrent, but she was almost grown up in her memories. But then she realized she was younger, maybe 15-16, the memories seemed more grisly. However, when she actually saw her face at that time, 13-14 she realized she was a kid. A child who was abused. A child whose innocence was mistreated. The rest of the story became much darker from that moment on. The entire handling of the scene and the stark realization of exactly how young a 13-14 year old is was jarring.

The Insult
One of my strongest recommendations for this year. The 2017 Lebanese drama was also in the running for the Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards earlier in March. The name of the movie is no coincidence as the entire story revolves around, well, you guessed it, an insult. The pivotal scene is a masterpiece. The first few minutes were well utilized to set up a regular middle class life in Beirut. You get to meet the characters, regular people with mundane lives, and some construction work going on in this humdrum neighborhood. You get a sense of the cultural tension between the Palestinian refugees and the local Lebanese, one of the protagonists is a Lebanese Christian more specifically. However, there is no gunshots, bombs going off, or anything as drastic. It is a simple altercation between a construction team foreman who needs access to the balcony of someone's home, and how the general interaction escalates from just a impolite response by the homeowner to a near civil war towards the end of the movie. The proverbial spark was captured beautifully, just like it is in almost every start of something big and nasty (Chaos theory butterfly fluttering?). The scene drives home the point about how the smallest of our actions, when not thoughtful can get out of hand, and once it goes beyond the self, the ego, the person you can't bottle it back up.

The Florida Project
A child, 8-10 years old, living on the outskirts of the greatest dream in the world - Disney World - with almost no resources, a single mom down on her luck, and a shady motel. The premise seemed depressing enough to me as the dad of a 3 year old daughter that I didn't want to watch this. But glad I did. The scene that lift the movie are actually the ones around Disney World itself. Where she and her friends hang around in the periphery of the land of amusement park, full of wonder about what lies inside but with equal joy and amusement at tricking families with greater resources in giving them a few dollars to buy ice cream from the vendors nearby. The sheer ecstasy on the impish faces on successfully pulling off this con job and enjoying the cold, creamy treat is at par with those of the more fortunate inside coming face to face with their favourite characters. The resilience, and more importantly the clear distinction  difference between value and price, which children are great at, lifted the spirit.

Eighth Grade
This movie could do with all the publicity it can get. Like many Eighth Graders, and similar to the character I referred to in The Tale, Kayla is a teenager who is at that weird junction of too old for a kid, too young for a proper young adult. It is a coming of age story, but the 2-3 years shaving of age makes a striking visual difference. The scene that stands out in my mind is that of a typical rebellious, "cool", and an introverted Kayla getting her first real sense of belonging in a group when a senior asks her whether she would want to go to a mall with her and her friends. This is like our getting a chance to watch our favourite sports with our hero from the sidelines. Middle school and High school maybe just a year or two apart, but there's a world between them, and our young protagonist, with some of the usual self confidence issues among those in that age group who are not Miss Popular, feels elated at the invite. The emotions displayed by Kayla once she hung up the call and started getting ready for the meeting was heart warming and genuine. You want to be that excited and happy once again, for whatever the reason may be.

Outside In
About an ex-convict and the woman who fought for his case over the years (and was also his ex-teacher). The sequences around his rehabilitation after getting released from prison were poignant with the responses and reactions he received from those around him, many being over careful to not touch a raw nerve and doing so in the process, and some trying to avoid the awkward moments by trying to joke about it in turn causing more awkwardness. The scene in this hugely underrated movie that has remained with me is the one where our protagonist meets his saviour, in a car, outside a restaurant. He's obviously not just indebted to her, but clearly infatuated as well. She, a teacher and a middle aged wife and mom, is initially oblivious to the feelings as she's been cut off from these emotions for years, and then getting the sense of what's going on, starts to show the faintest signs of reciprocation and savouring the moment. This was continued in another scene where he calls her on their home phone as she and her husband are doing the dishes in the middle of a regular school night, and as soon as she hears his voice there's the sense of slightest teenage romantic tension leading her to her backyard to complete the call.