Manifesto [2017] – Strikingly Versatile Cate Blanchett Recites Absolutely Esoteric Notions

German gallery artist Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2017) originated as a multi-screen video art installation at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Melbourne) in 2015. The installation consisted of 13 giant screen spaces, where actress Cate Blanchett’s diversely accented voices recited extracts (in 10-minute video) from the seminal, incendiary texts that largely shaped artistic, cultural, and political ideologies of the Western nations in the 20th century. From Karl Marx and Fredriech Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto to Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 at least 50-60 significant manifestos or declarations are clubbed together under 12 distinct scenarios or themes. Cate Blanchett ptakes a different, extremely challenging avatar in each scenario. The actress’ tour-de-force performance along with Rosefeldt’s meticulous and contemplative observation of each man-made environment keeps the experimental feature vibrant and highly fluid. 

Shot over 12 days, the 100-minute 12-segment movie stages each of the proclamations in an idiosyncratic, if not slightly absurd, setting. In the opening sequence, there’s a gorgeous drone aerial shot of a dilapidated industrial premise. The camera moves slowly, accompanied by a voice-over, before focusing on Blanchett who plays a homeless man ranting the words of Karl Marx. A mourner at a funeral quotes from Dadaism (the subversive ‘No More’ declaration); a tattooed & cynical British rocker throws around ideas of Creationism; a CEO at private cocktail party reciting excerpts from Abstract Expressionism; a master puppeteer pulling the strings of a puppet to patter on Surrealism and so on. Apart from the funeral speaker scenario, my most favorite one is the ‘Conservative mother’ scenario [Pop Art]. A housewife, her husband and three children sit at a dinning table, spread with a sumptuous feast. She starts saying grace which happens to be ‘I Am for an Art’ manifesto by American sculptor Claes Oldenburg. The ‘grace’ is inter-cut couple of times with other scenarios since it’s a very lengthy one, and the sheer absurdity of the situation is absolutely exciting. As the grace comes to an end, the camera roves through the opulent house revealing the bizarre collection of stuffed animals with a live crow cawing. 

Cate Blanchett brilliantly maintains the perfect cadence in each scenario, despite the incongruous nature of her proclamations. It’s most amusing to see Cate as the newscaster and reporter (hence 12 scenarios, 13 performances) in a segment discussing about conceptual art. If we press mute and watch the scene, it would seem to be just seem like typical news weather report. As a cinephile, I was naturally intrigued by the staging of film manifestos. In this one, Cate plays an elementary school teacher and her eyes dilate with wonder while explaining the different cinematic school of thoughts to the pupils.  She starts with Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Nothing Is Original’ statement (from his ‘Golden Rules of Filmmaking’) and switches to Stan Brakhage’s evocation of ‘the untutored eye’ to Godard’s ’It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to!’, and then to the ‘ecstatic truth’ idea of Werner Herzog (which talks of creating or stylizing realities). Eventually as the teacher monitors the student’s work, she recites Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 film movement rules, which actually stands as the perfect contradiction to Herzog’s notion. In the incredibly hopeful ending, the camera pans across a school playground in slow-motion, encapsulating the illuminated faces of the children, and the slow fluttering of a pigeon towards the sky signaling the new generations’ elated spirits (which may spawn more artistic strategies).  

Blanchett’s impeccably staged readings are finely complimented by Rosefeldt’s keen eye for architecture (vividly elegant cinematography by Christoph Krauss). From the abandoned industrial campus to the colossal garbage incinerator plant to intricately aligned financial trading floor to the surrealistic chamber (the scientist in protective-suit enters into it) to the luxurious retreat of the one-percenters, the places and the expressed thoughts sublimely showcases our extremely polarized world (in terms of economical, artistic, cultural, sociological levels). Some of the cryptic, talk-heavy philosophies that are heaped upon one do endanger in watering-down the effectiveness of the polemical and contemplative words (and most of these are super-complex art theories). But the passion with which the director and actress addresses the ground-breaking artistic statements, offers quite a lot of sensory and visceral pleasures. The consistent stream of wit and subtle ironies inculcates the message of how this motley of celebrated edicts are capricious in nature, despite having been narrated in a definitive voice. 



Powered by Cate Blanchett’s brilliantly transformative avatars, Manifesto (100 minutes) is a bold, visually magnificent experimental feature that pays fine tribute to different, incendiary artistic movements and its much-heralded contributors. 

Brigsby Bear [2017] – A Compelling Indie Dramedy Weighed Down by Cutesy Crowd-Pleasing Moments

It would be better to watch Dave McCary’s directorial debut Brigsby Bear (2017) without reading the plot-line or reviews (like this one): not because it contains spine-tingling twists; but to just have an unadulterated experience of observing the opening scene. In fact, the slightly disorienting opening sequence stands superior to the narrative’s sporadic descent into fuzzy sentimentality in the later parts. We see a grown man, may be in late 20s, named James (Kyle Mooney) watching VHS tapes of a kids TV show called ‘Brigsby Adventures’. The big, furry space bear Brigsby goes on adventures around the universe to win over the evil Suncatcher with the help of Smile Sisters. In the process, the bear dispenses some math equations among other [‘If you have romantic feelings, touch your penis twice a day’, it quips] simple philosophies of life. It’s evident that the man-child James is obsessed with Brigsby enough to fill his room with Brigsby bedspreads, lampshades, huge library of all the episodes in VHS-tapes, and other variety of merchandises. He discusses about the show in an online forum he has specially created.

Over dinner, he talks with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) about the odd convoluted plot development and we also see a weird bedroom poster that reads ‘Curiosity is an unnatural emotion’. In the night, father and son emerge from their underground bunker to see strange, dangerous creatures around their abode. In the morning, the father goes outside to work wearing a gas-mask. It’s probably a post-apocalyptic scenario or the family members are colonizers of a planet. But, that’s not the truth because the creatures we observe are made of cardboard. So the world James inhabits is entirely an illusion. Of course, Brigsby Bear isn’t a dark chamber drama, in the vein of The Castle of Purity, Dogtooth or Room to showcase the deep trauma of being confined to small space and strict rules. It’s a tragicomedy sprinkled with light-hearted moments. The ‘why’ is revealed sooner as FBI agents storm into the bunker and arrest James’ parents. James meets his real mom and dad and learns that the old ones are his abductors and the air isn’t actually toxic. Most disturbing of the revelations is that Brigsby is the creation of his abductor father and he is its entire audience [sort of opposite to Truman Show].

Despite learning the truth, James isn’t angry over his kidnappers and remarks ‘it’s cool’ to have a show for himself. The good thing about these initial portions is that James’ character is well-realized. We can understand his decision to not hate his old parents and the strange feelings in facing the real world and real parents (Michaela Watkins, Matt Walsh). James now also has a younger sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), a high-schooler who often frowns at him. However, he makes friends with Aubrey’s pals Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) and Meredith (Alexie Demi). The detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), the one who rescued him, steals some of Brigsby things from evidence room out of kindness. With the help of his new friends James wants to make one Brigsby Bear movie – the final showdown between the bear and Suncatcher – to seek some closure and move on with life.

The writers Kyle Mooney, Kevin Costello and director Dave McCary were all part of Saturday Night Live (SNL) show. Writer & performer Mooney and McCary have carried their childhood friendship and mutual interest by making videos for comedy group Good Neighbor. Later McCary has directed few segments featuring Mooney in SNL. The trio as expected has a fine understanding to balance the delicate emotions with goofiness. James was well-written, capturing his tragic predicament and vulnerability. And Mooney performs the role with good comic timing without turning him into an idiot. Mooney’s deadpan dialogue delivery, while facing the harsh reality or his bout of enthusiasm when talking about the beloved bear is fascinating to watch. McCary’s craftiness clearly brings to mind the works of Michel Gondry.

Brigsby Bear mostly celebrates the joy of creativity and imagination. Similar to coming-of-age movies like Son of Rambow, It’s a Kind of Funny Story, and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, the film depicts the triumph of imaginative mind over deep trauma or depression; the socially awkward youths choosing the comfort of creation over the tiring societal interaction. Naturally, the script contains the pool of schmaltzy elements those films also had. Brigsby Bear definitely keeps us engaged for its running time but there’s also feeling that it has failed to address some deep layers in the narrative and simply settled for predictable pathos. Once after the ‘explosion’ scene, it begins to run out of steam with scenarios that’s either under-written or far-fetched. The questions about James’ mental health and wealth of psychological material are brushed off for the sake of a feel-good ending. The only interesting scene which deals with James’ psychological state is when he meets the waitress/smile sisters (Kate Lyn Sheil) at a diner. In the end, the conceits in the plot overpower the wonderful peculiarity of the opening scenes. Still, Brigsby Bear (97 minutes) is a watchable gentle comedy, which eschews narrative depth for light-hearted fun and sentimentality. Those looking for a gripping commentary on the pop-culture obsession can look elsewhere. 


Bullitt [1968] – A Well-Crafted Thriller with Quite a Few Outdated Elements

There are some great old movies that necessarily get better with time. The unspoiled emotional connection with the narrative and characters provides the staying power for those classics. Then, there are many old films, well-received at its time, but ultimately looks dated and uninvolving for new generation of viewers due to the unstoppable transcendence of cinematic boundaries. We can certainly appreciate the craft that has gone into making the film, but the thing which made it special in the past has been lost to time. Peter Yates’ police procedural Bullitt (1968) happens to be one of prime examples for such category of old films. Bullitt was famous for two elements: Steve McQueen’s (considered to be the personification of on-screen cool and suave) central turn as no-nonsense police detective Frank Bullitt; and the impressive car chase scene through San Francisco’s perpendicular, narrow streets. Released a year after Arthur Penn’s crime masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt’s stark, stylized portrayal of violence became another vital talking point of the film (Richard Fleischer’s Boston Strangler and Don Siegel’s Madigan also released in the same year – known for its discomforting on-screen violence in Hollywood cinema).

Bullitt was written by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner, which is based on Robert Fish’s novel Mute Witness. Critics who had compared the book and film adaptation have pointed out the overall change in narration and mood. Mute Witness is said to be murder/mystery, while its movie adaptation is a slow-burn action/thriller. Initially, Spencer Tracy was considered for the protagonist role, since the detective in the novel was less of a cool guy than in the film version. After Tracy’s death, the script was passed to producer Philip D Antoni and actor Steve McQueen. They both checked off Peter Yates to take over the directorial rein. Peter Yates’ impeccable direction of 1967 heist thriller Robbery (based on infamous Great Train Robbery) provoked the actor & producer to bring him on-board. Director Peter Yates' controlled pacing and detailed logistics in action sequences made him the right candidate to flawlessly actualize the car chase scene (which was brought into script by producer Antoni and the scene wasn’t left to be shot by the second unit).

Right from the opening sequence, what’s evident is the undeniable sense of style in Peter Yates’ staging. The opening shot depicts the faces of group of gangsters, standing against dark background, ready for the action. The fleeing of former Chicago mobster Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) sets the narrative wheels in motion. Johnny is set to testify against the crime syndicate at an upcoming Senate subcommittee hearing, led by hard-nosed politician Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). The mob would do anything to get its hands on Johnny. Hence Chalmers asks police detective Frank Bullitt to protect Johnny until he is able to testify in court. However, that night two hit-men break into the hotel the witness is staying and fatally shoots him. A young police detective is also shot in the leg. The attempt to murder Johnny further continues in the well-guarded hospital. Later, Johnny succumbs to his wounds. Bullitt covers up the witness’ death to avoid facing repercussions from Chalmers and most importantly to get to the bottom of this murder before the superiors closes the case.  

Bullitt is outright Steve McQueen the star’s show. Frank Bullitt is slightly different than the usual charismatic turns from Mr. McQueen. Bullitt is a man of few words with the saddest pair of eyes. There are many silent scenes, immaculately studying the star’s face. Incredibly talented Jacqueline Bisset (who’s often pigeon-holed to play stunningly beautiful girl) plays Bullitt’s art-loving girlfriend Cathy. Apart from a sequence where she confronts the ugly reality behind her boyfriend’s police work, she’s pretty much left to lie under the sheets in bed showing her bare-back or sensually kiss Bullitt. Underdeveloped is the word to express Cathy and Bullitt’s relationship. What’s more uninteresting is the butting-heads relationship between Chalmers and Bullitt. The overly restrained narrative style only allows Robert Vaughn’s Chalmers to be a blatant and abusive politician. Of course, Mr. Vaughn plays his underwritten character to perfection (diffuses it with cool menace). The verbal exchanges between Vaughn and McQueen are also written in a vague manner, never expressing the depth of their interdepartmental ego clashes. Although there’s not many flaws in the 60s style acting, the banal treatment of characters doesn’t provoke any sparks during the conversation. The supporting cast is full of good character actors like Robert Duvall, Simon Oakland, Don Gordon, etc although they are not left to make much impression.

The most commendable aspect of Peter Yates’ direction is the use of location to add the much-needed authenticity and grittiness into the proceedings. Cinematographer William A. Fraker and director Yates’ distinct location shooting makes excellent use of light and space, matching the greatness of outdoor scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (the great San Francisco film). The iconic car chase scene and the less-talked but equally wonderful‘airport confrontation’ scenes were the prime examples of designing realistic as well as hair-rising action set-pieces. On hindsight, Bullitt’s chase scene does seem to be trumped by the harrowing chase in the busy NYC streets in William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971, the stunt coordinators – particularly Bill Hickman -- involved in Bullitt realized this great scene too) or the mad-cap mall car chase in “The Blues Brothers” (1980). Yet, the high-speed car chase in Bullitt still remains fascinating (an amalgamation of great editing and splendid stunt driving) and it was one of the instances that revolutionized Hollywood’s action standards (directors William Friedkin and John-Woo had immensely praised this scene). The solemn foot chase inside airport premises was also staged brilliantly as the tension simmers till the shootout. Such tight-rope scenes in the airport aren’t really possible to shoot nowadays. The documentary-realism approach employed by Yates doesn’t add any profound layers to the narrative or characters, yet it leads to few interesting scenes: for example, Bullitt’s mechanical shopping in the grocery shop or Cathy’s slow-buildup of nervousness before she runs up to the motel room. Furthermore, this documentary-realism approach was more perfectly used by directors like Michael Mann and William Friedkin (and by Yates himself in his 1973 drama/thriller “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”).  



Bullitt (114 minutes) is a cop thriller with a wafer-thin story line and overly vague script stretched almost to two hours. It’s a special product of another age which may not be wholly involving to modern viewers. Yet, it’s definitely a watchable movie, bolstered by the cool presence of Steve McQueen and vivid outdoor shooting around the San Fransisco hills.  

Alias Grace [2017] – A Gripping Mini-Series on Fractured Female-Idenity and Murky Truths

As a film-maker, Canadian actress Sarah Polley is predominantly attracted towards works that explore the slippery slopes of memory and fantasy. Polley’s deeply immersive debut Away from Her (2006), her audacious second film Take this Waltz (2011), and stupendous auto-biographical documentary Stories We Tell (2012) recurrently touched upon the themes of long-term relationship and how it could change a person’s perception of life, including love and sex. The narratives are perfectly perched to scrutinize the characters’ reality and imagination, unreliability of memory without ever losing its ambiguity. At its best, the three meditative pieces are soulful study of female restlessness or the deep female desire of re-inventing self-identity in a society that demands them to rigorously confirm to the preconceived gender roles. One of Polley’s dream projects has always been to adapt the celebrated Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical fiction Alias Grace.

The novel is about Grace Marks, a 19th-century Irish-Canadian servant who at 16 years of age allegedly helped to murder the housemaid and owner of the farm where she worked. Thirty eight year old Sarah Polley read the novel at the time of its release (when she was 17) and naturally as a famous young actor with no mother she instantly related to the plight of the celebrated murderess. The novel chiefly examines the rift between the image Grace projected of herself and the image others had about her. Sarah Polley, who had played her first serious adult role in the same year in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, was also gnawed by the state of flux in self-identity. Polley’s later-day heroines (including her own mother in Stories We Tell) were born from this relentless search for the self. She had sought for Alias Grace' movie-rights back when she was eighteen. After two decades, Polley’s dream project was realized in the form of TV mini-series (with the help of Netflix) with a top-notch ensemble cast (which includes the great Canadian director David Cronenberg). However, Sarah Polley restricted herself to writing and producing duties and passed on the directorial torch to fellow Canadian director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho).

Director Harron perfectly marriages Atwood’s piercing yet equivocal prose with visceral images that’s entirely devoid of romanticized nostalgia of the Victorian Era. Furthermore, Alias Grace is the second Margaret Atwood adaptation of the year, following the Emmy Award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian sci-fi series whose arrival is seen timely for the current American political climate. Similarly, Alias Grace, although one of least adaptable novels of Atwood, is also a relevant tale which reflects upon the buried feminine rage. The mini-series unfolds between mid and late 19th century, the time when the fairer sex are expected to affirm to the standards of utmost femininity. Seen from a female perspective and that too from an immigrant female perspective, the era despite being bathed in warm hues looks horrifying and the well-spring of unspeakable abuses. Alias Grace opens with the close-up shot of protagonist Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), in her early 30s, cloaked in grey-blue top, head covered by a white-bonnet and her beautiful grey-blue eyes’ incisive gaze switches from one expression to another, according to the rhythm of her inner narration and thoughts. Grace’s voice-over narrates, “I think of all the things that have been written about me…that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station……..that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot.” Truer to her name, she is as graceful in conducting herself which wholly contradicts the accrued label of ‘celebrated murderess’.

In 1843, 16 year old Grace Marks, who emigrated from Ireland to Canada, is convicted of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Grace is handed-down a life sentence and spent most of her prison life at Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary, apart from the brief excruciating stay at a mental asylum. In 1858, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a practitioner in mental health issues is brought to examine Grace Marks by an empathetic reverend (David Cronenberg) who hopes to exonerate Grace based on the doctor’s report. Although, she has confessed at the trial, Grace says she only vaguely remembers the details of the murders and that most of her confession is engineered by the lawyer. Grace works at the Governor’s house, next to prison, in the day and is exhibited as an oddity to elevate the curiosity of upper-class women. Later, Dr. Jordan begins conducts his session with Grace at the governor’s house. She sits in a straitlaced posture, her hand weaving a quilt as her mouth weaves a personal tale of oppression and abuse.

There’s a sense of power and potency in the way Grace recollects her story, starting from the calamitous journey from Ireland to Canada. It’s as if the prolonged years of loneliness and emotional detachment at the prison had given her all the time to weave the perfectly balanced story. The young woman’s life history is riddled with traumatic experiences and tragedies. Every man in her life – from alcoholic father to the rich employer to the servants and asylum workers and police – has either desired or directly molested Grace. She remarks that one of the duties of being a maid is to avoid the advances of gentlemen. One of the significant event which has haunted Grace for years is the terrible death of her beloved, energetic friend Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard). Through the meticulously detailed recollection of the past, she earnestly elicits the knight-in-the-shining-armor tendencies of Dr. Jordan. On one hand, Dr. Jordan (and we the viewers) wonders whether she is sincere or highly manipulative, while on the other hand he is increasingly besotted by her matter-of-fact narration and projection of sexual purity. Gradually, the series expands beyond the questions of ‘who is the guilty party’ or ‘what is the truth’ and rather explores how Grace intends to shape herself to live in the Victorian world where men process women through the image she showcases or suggests.

Alias Grace moves with subtle, restrained frequency which may frustrate viewers seeking a thrilling true-crime story. The mini-series is basically a hushed exploration of the themes of sexual abuse, objectification of women, white male privilege, etc; a lot of which seems as sadly relevant as it was in the 19th cenutry. The tale also jibes at the way we are programmed to judge women and doubt their inner feelings as deceitful (Polley’s Stories We Tell is also about the way we judge a person through others' collective memory). From the stylistic and writing viewpoint, Mary Harron-Sarah Polley team takes its time to unfold the narrative, emphasizing on each details. Harron’s framing devices shows fine restraint in depicting the brutal violence. I particularly liked the disorienting close-up shots of the doctor and Grace in the long-session, depicting how they occupy a different world. Gradually, as the session livens up, we see more of the shot-reverse-shot and mid or long-shots of them both in a single frame. Yet, Harron constantly hints at the impregnable barrier between them, probably due to the image they both strictly adapt which is partly thwarted when the doctor dreams of intimately cajoling Grace.

Ultimately, the series wholly rests on the shoulders of brilliant actress Sarah Gadon. Her facial expressions often carry a blankness which pushes us to project our perceptions on Grace Marks. The performance is so attuned at times that it’s hard to say if her words and gestures suggest good-intentions or pure malice. That uncertainty is what’s so fascinating and thrilling about her acting. The mini-series does seem to culminate with a satisfying solution, if not one beneficial to Grace Marks. However, if looked closely the ending is unmistakably grim. Grace is free from the bars of prison but at the same times she is domesticated by a land-owner (an old friend) who eagerly listens to her painful past and secrets before possessing her body. The question of whether Grace will ever be allowed to assume control of body and mind still hangs in the air. And, only a resounding chorus of no arises from deep within our conscience. Eventually, Alias Grace is a piercing tragedy about two women (Grace and Nancy) diffused with hate and fear by the unforgiving societal order around them. It’s a slow-burn and ponderous drama compared to the other Margaret Atwood adaptation (Handmaid’s tale) which was much-expansive and openly incendiary.