Cinema Retreat: Movie Reviews By Prof. Aysha Iqbal

A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

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It was the Swinging Sixties. The Fab Four , as the Beatles were popularly called, had a string of hits— “Can’t Buy me Love”,  “Should’ve Known Better”,  “A Hard Day’s Night”, “She Loves Me…Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”, “All My Lovin” — and were at the height of their fame. In A Hard Day’s Night, pop culture meets the Mockumentary genre, and how!  The plot is lightweight and is an excuse to showcase the Fab Four in their youthful prime. The Beatles’ fellow Liverpudlian playwright Alun Owen wrote the witty script, and gives touches of British surrealist influences to the proceedings.

The film was originally meant to be an advertising movie for The Beatles and their albums, but turned out to be one of the wackiest musicals of all time, where the Beatles mock their own fame. At its core, A Hard Day’s Night is a classic tale of four youngsters having lots of fun and defying authority. The best way to describe the film is 87 minutes of unbridled fun, as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr , and George Harrison star as themselves in this roller coaster of a movie.

The Beatles are absolutely natural and endearing with their individual quirks intact. So Paul is cute, John is cocky, George is philosophical, and Ringo is appropriately confused.  My personal favorite scene is Ringo’s take on Sir Walter Raleigh’s famously chivalrous act of spreading his cloak before Elizabeth I. Watch that scene and see how incomparable British tongue-in-cheek comedy can get. Film buffs across the world also remember the press conference scene where The Beatles are interviewed by a bunch of sober looking journalists, and are asked trite questions. Sample this:

Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?

Ringo: I’m a mocker.

 

Reporter: Do you often see your father?

Paul: No, actually, we’re just good friends.

 

Reporter:  Tell me, how did you find America?

John: Turn left to Greenland

 

Reporter: Has success changed your life?

George Harrison: Yes.

 

The film owes much of its vitality to the practitioners of cinema verite like Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, who had developed cheap, lightweight equipment that enabled the filmmakers of the sixties to take to the streets and capture reality. Observe how from the very beginning the camera follows The Beatles (the band’s name is never mentioned in the film, though), who are chased by a bunch of screaming fans, particularly teenage girls.

The film was a sensation. So excited were the critics of that time that A Hard Day’s Night was referred to by Andrew Sarris as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” The slightly amateurish style of filmmaking works because the entire idea of A Hard Day’s Night is to cock a snook at the establishment, the old and the traditional. The film plays on the then prevailing sentiments of the working class heroes. True to the film’s spirit, Paul, John, George and Ringo are down-to-earth, unpretentious and self-confessedly working class types. In fact, Paul says at one point,We’re a community, majority vote, up the workers and all that stuff!” There’s a running gag about Paul’s grandfather which is a source of much slapstick comedy.

The film had a far-reaching influence on generations of filmmakers. Martin Scorsese says this about Lester and his ilk, “Each new picture was eagerly awaited, and they set the style for so much—in commercials, in television . . . and certainly in movies—that it’s easy to take his influence for granted. He was one of the key figures of the era.” It doesn’t come as a surprise that A Hard Day’s Night paved the way for the British New Wave that has given us some of the most hard-hitting films of that era.

The b/w cinematography was by Gilbert Taylor, and fits in the mood of the times. The scene with “Can’t Buy Me Love”, feels like a psychedelic trip from the pop-saturated 60s. Watch this, and several other moments in the film, and you’ll understand why Time magazine described A Hard Day’s Night as “more than the movie, it is the answer to a maiden’s prayer.”

A Hard Day’s Night is  a musical about a day in the life of The Beatles. You’ll enjoy the film if you are a Beatles fan; and even if you are not, then you’ll appreciate it for the glimpse into the world of one of the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 20th century. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

 

Bangkok Hilton (Ken Cameron, 1989)b16493e083f9260c5e263238770a44a3

This is a three-part television miniseries from Australia , with quite impressive production values, and with some of the best known British and Australian actors from the world of films, television and theatre.

As a child Katrina Stanton has been led to believe by her aristocratic  (and snooty) grandparents that her absentee father has been long dead. In spite of her privileged life, the child grows up lonely and insecure, always seeking approval and reassurance from her cold and detached elders.

Following the death of her mother in an Australian estate, and while going through her letters, a barely out of her teens Katherine (Nicole Kidman) decides to go in search of her father. Her father, Hal Stanton (Denholm Elliott), has a backstory, with echoes of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim. Hal comes from an illustrious family of war heroes, but he himself failed to live up to the ideals of heroism that are expected of him. During the WWII, he was a Major in the army, and was imprisoned by the Japanese in a Bangkok jail. When a group of his own men try to breakout, Hal betrays them to the prison authorities with the good intention of protecting the rest of his soldiers from repercussions. The Allies court-martial him once the war is over, and his own family disowns him for the dishonor his ‘cowardly actions’ have brought to them.

Alone and rejected, Hal travels from place to place under several assumed names. One of his aliases is Graham Greene, under which he practices as a lawyer. He meets and has a brief relationship with Katherine Faulkner, an Australian heiress, but his past comes back to haunt him again. Katherine’s family maneuvers to break the affair, forcing Stanton to abandon Katherine, who we later realize, is pregnant.

Years later, Hal and Katherine’s daughter, Katrina embarks on a journey to trace her elusive father. In London she meets her father’s younger brother, who gives her the contact of Hal’s solicitor in Bangkok. Stanton, now leading a reclusive, alcohol-drenched life in Bangkok, is approached by their family lawyer, Richard Carlisle (Hugo Weaving). Stanton dithers. Too much water has flowed under the bridge, he feels, and it’s too late in the day for him to bond with a daughter he had never known.

At the airport, Kat runs into Arkie Ragan (Jerome Ehler), a charming, American photojournalist. He woos her and they have a couple of dates at all the right places in London. He urges her to track down her father in Bangkok and suggests a romantic weekend in Goa before taking off to Thailand. However, we soon learn the truth about the smooth-talking Arkie whose actual profession is international drug-trafficking. Arkie uses Kat’s luggage to stash away heroin, and coolly walks away once she is apprehended at Bangkok airport.

What follows is somebody’s worst nightmare come true. In jail Katrina faces humiliation and violence, and these scenes are gut-wrenching in their authenticity. (The name ‘Bangkok Hilton’ is sprawled across as graffiti on the prison walls as the harrowing conditions are ironically compared with the luxurious chain of hotels.) A distraught Kat contacts Richard for help, who convinces Hal to meet his daughter, pretending to be the lawyer’s assistant.  The rest of the story is about two damaged people coming together, their increasing reliance on each other and their ultimate triumph.

Dialogues are wonderful, even poetic at times. Denholm  Elliott was an established actor in English theatre and films and had done a lot of Shakespeare , and it’s a pleasure to hear him speak . His is a morally ambiguous character that forms the moral centre of the film.

Bangkok Hilton is an engaging and dramatic fare. The plot is tightly constructed, the characters are well fleshed out, and performances by the three main protagonists keep you interested for the entire running length (the original version is 270 minutes, but the one available on youtube is much abridged). The hallmark of a good story, films or literature, is that one should care about the characters, and I am sure a few minutes into the film you will start investing yourself in the lives of Kat and Hal.

Essentially, it is a coming of age story,  a young girl’s quest for love, her father and herself. The film holds largely because of Kidman’s portrayal of an overprotected, sheltered kid’s transition to adapting to the squalid conditions of the jail and plotting her escape.   Unarguably this is one of Kidman’s best roles ever and she is absolutely luminous in it. She is appropriately goofy and gauche in the earlier parts, and increasingly steely in the second half, where she faces n impending execution.

The action moves between Australia, London, Bangkok, and India (you’ll spot many familiar locations of Goa). But though beautifully shot, this is far from a tourist brochure. Bleakness and despair hang over most of the film, that is, until Kidman’s Kat finally reconciles with her father. Note the green screen technology used in the early parts of Hal and Katrina’s lives, suggesting a deep connect between the shamed father and his painfully shy, introverted daughter. The last scene stays with you as the duo proudly walks away on a Goan beach, but not before making sure that Arkie gets his just desserts. Though Hugo Weaving (you may recognize him as Agent Smith from The Matrix and V from V for Vendetta) is very attractive as the lawyer, thankfully the film does not resort to forced romance between Kat and Richard.

Bangkok Hilton had a shoddy remake as Gumrah (with Sridevi and Sanjay Dutt). A slicker version was recently made as Ek Hasina Thi (Urmila-Saif) that I recommend for you.

 

Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996)

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Ever noticed that Tom Cruise is not known for rom-coms or even romantic roles? Don’t let anyone persuade you into believing that Far and Away had got anything to do with romance. This is a period piece so lackluster that you wonder what Cruise was thinking before signing himself in for the role. But that apart, lets look at Tom Cruise’s body of work: You have him in the coming of age parts in Risky Business, Days of Thunder, Top Gun, Cocktail, and Color of Money; dramatic roles in Rain Man, Born on Fourth of July, The Firm, A Few Good Men, Minority Report, Collateral, Valkyrie,  Eyes Wide Shut, Interview with the Vampire, Vanilla Sky and Magnolia ; and in some seriously action films, such as the  MI series, The Last Samurai,  Edge of Tomorrow and Jack Reacher.

This is an impressive list featuring one of the most important superstars of our times. But where’s that one rom-com? After all, doesn’t conventional wisdom tell us that all major superstars must have one out-and-out romantic film in their resume? Come to think of it, even Tom Hanks has You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle. (Yes, yes. Di Caprio hasn’t done one yet, but think of some of the screen romances he has to his credit: Titanic, Romeo+Juliet, The Great Gatsby)

Jerry Maguire is one such work in Cruise’s formidable oeuvre. He is the eponymous hero, who is a sports agent and represents Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), among other sport stars. He is successful and brings profit to the agency he works for. In a moment of some introspection, he sends a memo to his colleagues on the significance of ethics over monetary gains. The piece, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business”, is appreciated by his colleagues but not by the top brass. The bosses fire him—- commitment to ethics does not  work without commitment to success. Watch him do “Show me the money” speech with characteristic “Cruise” flamboyance, as he decides to quit and takes the office goldfish along with him.

Rene Zellweger is Dorothy, a single mother, who believes in Jerry Maguire’s ethics and quits her job when he calls out “ Who’s coming with me?” But love doesn’t happen overnight, although movies tell us about love at first sight and all that.

A rom-com falls flat if the other half of the lead pair fails to match up.  Here we have the lovely Zellweger who gets some of the gentlest moments in the film. It’s her lovability that makes us like Jerry Maguire a little bit more. Cruise and Zellweger display great on-screen chemistry that is strangely lacking in his latter films with his then wife, Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut and Far and Away)

We see Jerry Maguire as he develops a relationship with Dorothy’s cutesy little boy, and finally learns to love the quiet and idealistic Dorothy. And there’s a parallel love story involving Tidwell and his wife, the sportsman’s support system and also his biggest critic. The film focuses on these four people and tells us that it’s not enough just to love someone. It is also necessary to love and respect the goodness in that person.

Jerry Maguire had one of the most romantic moments in cinema that is now a part of collective consciousness of our pop culture:

Jerry Maguire: “You… you complete me. And I just…”

Dorothy: You had me at “hello”. You had me at “hello”.

Tom Cruise is excellent. At the beginning of this review, I harped on the importance of rom-coms  because the genre  has a distinct appeal. Most importantly, they make a star more relatable. To charm and be able to make an audience laugh is not something that comes easily to every actor. I must also mention that Cruise is one major star who has never shown any influence by the greats of Method Acting, viz., Brando, Dean, or even Nicholson, Pacino, and De Niro. It’s a pity that today he is discussed more for his idiosyncrasies and personal life, but his is a unique brand that works.

Jerry Maguire is not profound, and has no claims to be so. But it is very decent and very entertaining, with its heart in the right place. And if all this is not enough, then listen to the score ‘Secret garden’ by Bruce Springsteen that is timeless and touching.

What’s not to love?

 

Dr. Aysha Iqbal is a professor with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her research interests include Popular Culture, Contemporary Literature and Film Studies. She has published seven books, of which the most recent are ‘Behind the Scenes: Contemporary Bollywood Directors and Their Cinema (Sage) ,’ and ‘Postliberalization Indian Novels in English: Politics of Global Reception and Awards (Anthem South Asian Studies).’ 

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