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by Bill Gibron

17 Nov 2008


The juxtaposition of instrumental music with actual songs seems almost antithetical to the movie soundtrack dynamic. After all, we view the score as something supporting the film, not focusing in on its themes (or lack thereof) or pimping particular sales lagging label mates. And yet over and over again, directors use individual tracks by known and unknown artists to amplify their own sense of aesthetic, while studios demand their placement for added marketing pizzazz. Of course, rare is the filmmaker who can successfully merge the sentiments of a specific song with the sequence it’s supposed to suggest. More times than not, the commercial tie-in is more viable that the proposed purpose. Luckily, some films use music as it’s meant to be - a celebration of life within a unique aural vista in which vision and sound are supposed to merge.

This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound looks at three soundtracks that really can’t make up their minds. One wants to celebrate the sexy soul sounds of old school R&B, but yet can’t shake the exterior elements that make the movie it stands for sadly significant. Another tries to walk the fine line between beatbox and breakneck, and almost succeeds. Finally, we get the weird combination of New Age mood music and slightly underdone indie pop. In all three cases, the parts work better than the sum, and if you don’t mind digging just a bit, you’ll probably find more gems than jokes. Let’s begin with the best, for obvious reasons:


Soul Men - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

With their deaths within weeks of each other, Bernie Mac and the Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, left Soul Men with a clouded legacy that no amount of cinematic sunshine could overcome. Even the movie itself, which turned out to be a gloriously raunchy, cliché controlled grab bag had trouble prying laughs out of the pall these tragedies produced. If anything, the sensational soundtrack to the film suffers even more. While Mac and co-star Samuel L. Jackson make a sensationally vulgar and viable ex-R&B act, their singing performances indicate a pair of incredibly talented (and brave) men. Though they only appear on three cuts - the John Legend led “I’m You Puppet”, the sensational Rufus Thomas cover “Boogie Ain’t Nothin’ (But Getting’ Down), and the show stopping finale “Do Your Thing”, their exuberance and professionalism lingers throughout the entire score. It also amplifies the sense of loss. 

As a collection of classic tracks, Soul Men sizzles. There are excellent takes on such Stax staples as “Comfort Me”, “Private Number”, “Water”, and “Memphis Train”. We even get such memory lane myths as “You Don’t Know What You Mean (To a Lover Like Me)”, “I Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”. But it’s the collaboration between Mac and Jackson that consistently stands out. Again, the voices sometimes strain to hit the notes, and there is a lack of pure professional polish that comes through, especially when placed side by side with someone like co-star Sharon Leal. Yet it’s the power of personality that wins over - that, and the undeniable perfection that is these old soul standards. Many may see this uneven comedy as an awkward swansong for two very talented me. But Mac and Hayes are the reasons Soul Men works, not the elements that bring it down.

The Guitar - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

The Guitar gives off the vibe of an incomplete, or even worse, incoherent project. Early reviews of the film, a first time feature by Robert Redford’s daughter Amy, have argued for the maudlin movie as either inspired, or a work of manipulative junk. The half song/half score CD for the project produces a similar kind of disorientation. On the one hand, we get Space Age Bachelor Pad muzak in the form of “Glancing Lovers” by Johnny Saravino. On the other, there’s the subtle folkish fluff of Phoebe Jean Dunne’s “Cold Hands”.  Rock is rewarded with an Everyothers reading of David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing” (good) and the band original “Dive With You” (raging, if kind of flat). By the time we get to the end of the tunes, Alap Momin’s slightly psychedelic “Arch Angel” and Deb Montgomery’s jagged “Fly Free” seem like proper finales.

But there’s more - 30 tracks more. Written by David Mansfield, the moody, ambient tone poems produced to supply The Guitar with atmosphere seem to work, for the most part. “Walking” offers an intriguing introduction to this composer’s concepts, while “Thoughts of Suicide” and “First Flashback” (with its thunderous guitar swirls) broaden the potential canvas. “Shopping” sounds like an ad for a high end PC, while “Nice Dress” is a country-tinged trifle. Things stop about halfway through, oddly enough, for another tune, the lo-fi oddity “Hard Way”. From then on, it’s more amplified angst, carefully strummed psychobabble, and a far amount of sublime sonic invocation (“Leaving” being a prime example). While the verdict may be out on Ms. Redford as a director, her choice in aural accompaniment shows promise - and some problems. As a result, The Guitar soundtrack feels unfulfilled.

Nobel Son - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

From the opening chug of Nobel Son‘s title track, an electro-fied rave-up with Middle Eastern tints by Spitfire, you get the distinct impression that you are about to enter one of those oh-so-hip self-referential efforts where the director, Randall Miller, is about to channel his inner Guy Ritchie. Reading over the plot synopsis for this darkly comic thriller, one feels the fit will be a little more complicated. The story involves the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize winner by members of his own dysfunctional family. The remix heavy soundtrack, peppered with several instrumental tracks by popular trance DJ and recording artist Paul Oakenfold, is very reminiscent of the man’s contributions to other fast-moving missives like Speed Racer, Shoot ‘Em Up, and The Matrix Reloaded. Oakenfold is definitely the star here, his knob twirling and disc twiddling on such cuts as “Thumb Time”, “Roasted Pig”, and “Screwing Around” showing off his style magnificently.

Unfortunately, this fellow CD space savers consistently let him down. The Bad Apples “Let Me Be Real” is so derivative of flaccid FM rock that it starts to sound dated the moment the lead singer opens his bemoaning craw. Spitfire’s tracks aren’t bad, but they too suffer from a sort of “been there, heard that” recognizability. Emjay and the Atari Babies do their best Sigue Sigue Sputnik meets T. Rex cock stomp with the interesting “So Clear”, while “Hum” from the Groove Armada starts out strong, and then never builds into anything. Only the Chemical Brothers contribute something special, their brilliant “Come Inside” suggesting all the reasons the band was once considered the “next big thing” in music’s ever-changing landscape. If a collection of songs can be indicative of the type of film they complement, the hit and miss redundancy of Nobel Son‘s soundtrack doesn’t bode well for director Miller’s motives.

 

by Bill Gibron

16 Nov 2008


1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.

After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.

It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.

Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.

Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.

And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.

With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.

As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!

This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   

by Bill Gibron

13 Nov 2008


It’s a strange weekend for film fans. Unless you’re enamored of a certain British secret agent and his contemporary post-modern reimagining, you’re actually fairly stuck for something to see. Clearly convinced that Bond will dominate the box office, the studios have steered clear of this date, restricting the releases to a bare minimum. Indeed, unless you’re lucky enough to live in one of those limited viewing areas that see award season surprises before the rest of the anxious, overwrought public, there’s nothing else new. Leave it to SE&L then to suggest 10 alternatives (five films, five DVDs) that easily replace 007 and his hyper-action epic. While some will seem obvious, there’s a few oddballs tossed into the mix as well (click on the title to find reviews, when available/applicable):

In Theaters:

Slumdog Millionaire
One of 2008’s best films, without question. Sadly, this critic is unable to add anything further, having been specifically embargoed until the movie opens proper in mid-December. This amazing multicultural take on an Indian boy’s horrific life will have you wincing and cheering at the same time.




Zach and Miri Make a Porno
Don’t let Kevin Smith’s past cinematic indiscretions and naughty by nature attitude turn you off of this winning, effective comedy. Sure, there’s some scatology involved, and the material may not be perfectly suited for the uptight, but there is as much heart as horniness in this unlikely love story.




Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme is back - and apparently, few in the fanbase truly care. The movie is receiving raves, the acting is impeccable, and yet the audiences aren’t coming. Do yourself a favor and see this amazing movie about familial dysfunction and betrayal before it slowly slinks out of your local Multiplex. You’ll be well rewarded.




W.
Oliver Stone’s even-handed, sometimes sympathetic view of the sitting lame duck President is one of 2008’s shrewdest political statements. All sonny boy wanted to do was impress his overbearing, power hungry poppa. Ruining the US in the rest of the world’s eyes is apparently the way to do it.




RocknRolla
Guy Ritchie is given over to certain solid self-indulgences - and some of us love him for it. Now free of the ball and chain known as the Material Girl, he is able to return to and revel in them, delivering a devastating return to UK ruffian form. Includes a career-making turn by Toby Kebbell (remember that name).





On DVD:

Stuck
Stuart Gordon, the man behind Re-Animator and From Beyond, takes a true story about a homeless man trapped in a car’s windshield after a hit and run (the driver simply ignored him) and turns it into one of the most visceral statements about our sour society circa the ‘00s you’ve ever seen.




Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ok…ok…Guillermo Del Toro is a geek. We get it. That doesn’t mean he can’t make masterpieces now can it? First there was The Devil’s Backbone. Then the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth. Oddly enough, this underappreciated summer standout is one of his best, most personal efforts. It’s grandeur on a groovy scale. 




Sukiyaki Western Django
Takashi Miike is best known for taking the Japanese Yakuza film and its genre gangster offshoots into sickening, violence strewn territories. For this fabulous left turn homage to spaghetti oaters, he decides to cut down on the blood and instead flood the screen with gorgeous, pseudo-psychedelic imagery. And it works wonderfully.




Mil Mascaras: Resurrection
Mexico’s fascination with the legendary Luchadore wrestlers is given a contemporary makeover by confirmed old school fanboy Jeffrey Ulhmann. The result is something that pays perfect respect to the sensational schlock of the past while perfecting same for the new millennium.




Dante’s Inferno
Looking for something really unusual? How about an urban update of the famous Divine Comedy, acted out by carefully constructed and imaginatively manipulated paper puppets? Sound insane? Well, thanks to creative genius and certified whack job Sean Meredith, it actually turns into something quite profound.

by Bill Gibron

12 Nov 2008


He’s that old friend we hardly recognize anymore, that middle aged idol that’s, apparently, going through a bit of a creative and cultural crisis. Granted, the secret agent is substantially less sexy in 2008, especially when you consider the War on Terror implications of such stealth. And let’s not forget the endless recycling and regurgitation. Over the course of 22 films, he’s gone from suave and dangerously debonair to a pitbull on ADD. He’s been resourceful, laxidasical, and constantly reconfigured to fit contemporary parameters. But the question remains - is James Bond still James Bond? - and better yet, has the latest incarnation put the final stake in the character’s heroic heart once and for all.

When Daniel Craig was announced as the latest incarnation of Her Majesty’s licensed to kill-bot, there was the typical unbridled backlash. Most of the complaints centered on the unknown UK actor’s age (Sean Connery was 32 when he starred in Dr. No - Craig was 28 at the time of Casino Royale), his blond hair, his lack of experience, and the general kvetching that comes with any change in the 007 mantle. While he may have faced more scrutiny than Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton, no new Bond gets off easy. Then again, the Connery vs. Roger Moore/George Lazenby/you name it argument is so old it beats the original spy thriller to the retirement home.

So what’s there left to talk about if we don’t dish on whether actor X can carry legend Y’s Walter PPK? How about the equally erratic aspect of the men behind the lens? In the franchise’s 46 year history, there have only been 10 directors involved in the James Bond films - Terence Young (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball), Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun), Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) Peter R. Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), John Glen (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, License to Kill), Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies), Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough), Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and now, Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace).

For many the same old sentiment applies - the older films were far better and truer to the character than the newer, more modern action efforts. Others point to Young and Hamilton as forming the Bond mythos, and the latter lackluster work of Glen for almost destroying it. The decision over the last decade to offer an Alien like approach to the series (a new filmmaking face guided the material each time out) has met with some hesitation, and a lot of head scratching. Was Tamahori really the right person to put in charge of Brosnon’s final fling with the character? Indeed, the same could be said for Apted, a man mostly known for the triumphant documentary anthology The Up Series.

With Quantum of Solace, one assumes that Forster will face the same cinematic struggles. In an era where stuntwork has to be spectacular, massive in scope, driven directly by the narrative, and captured with a frantic ‘you are there’ urgency, the reigning king is Paul Greengrass and the amnesiac black ops icon, Jason Bourne. There is no denying that the two films helmed by this gifted director (Supremacy and Ultimatum) are contemporary action done with a determined artistic merit. Sure, you sometimes get queasy as the camera careens endlessly around the actors, but Greengrass understands the volatility of such sequences, and the violence that typically results.

Forster obviously feels a kinship to this kind of chaos. From the very opening of Solace, he strives to keep the viewer directly in the line of car chase/fisticuffs fire. Of course, it seems odd that the man responsible for Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction, and The Kite Runner is putting on his shaky-cam POV. He’s the last wannabe auteur you’d envision taking over the Bond beatitudes. When the characters interact in the latest installment, Forster is right at home. These moments remind us of why the spy thriller remains a potent genre. But as a creator of convincing spectacle, Forster fails. He’s no John Woo, or for that matter, Michael Davis.

Indeed, by taking this strategy in bringing the character into the 21st century, Quantum stumbles. Indeed, what Davis did with his rollicking Shoot ‘Em Up, or Tarantino does with his typical homage heavy approach is bring the mannerism to the material, not visa versa. In essence, when QT takes on a bit of vehicular mayhem, he draws from the endless canon of same, picking and choosing the best bits to drive his camera/crash choreography. Similarly, someone like Woo works out placement and particulars so that his sequences become dramatic statements on the storyline’s themes and subtext. But in Forster’s case, it’s just copying for the sake of commerciality. There’s even a bit of balcony jumping ala Bourne.

Going back to the old Bond films, one is instantly aware of how clearly defined they were/are. Our hero faces an evil enemy hellbent on taking over the world. He gets help from a hot lady, an entire Aston Martin full of gadgets, and enough mental ingenuity and physical acumen to guarantee at least a chance at success. In the post-millennial 007 universe, the superspy is now a superhero, almost impervious to pain, injury, or unlucky rolls of the plotpoint dice. Taking away the debonair dandy’s vulnerability may be in line with today’s power hungry demographic, but it robs Bond of one of his most important aspects - his humanness. Spies are not gods. They are people playing policy against each other to root out terror and keep the bad guys at bay.

Quantum of Solace forgets all that, and it’s not all Forster’s fault. Indeed, he’s just guilty of giving the camera a bit of an unnecessary nudge every now and again. There will be those who sing the praises of this 22nd excursion into the life of a masterful MI6 mole, and the way the narrative is set up, Quantum plays like the middle act of a much larger cinematic statement (it picks up directly after, and incorporates a lot of storyline, from Casino Royale). Making Bond aggressively badass last time around was a necessary need of a floundering franchise. Making him into the Terminator in a tux just doesn’t seem right. No wonder it’s getting harder and harder to recognize him.

by Farisa Khalid

11 Nov 2008


It often seems like India makes more movies than any other country.  Though many are made at the low-cost, formulaic, “flash-and-bang” manner of the Bollywood style, once in a while a film comes out of India that deserves recognition from critics, aficionados, and audiences who appreciate graceful, deliberate storytelling.  The visual beauty and scenarios of Jules and Jim, The Seventh Seal, and 8 1/2, the masterpieces of 20th century European cinema, have counterparts in India in the films of Satyajit Ray, Rithik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, and Shyam Benegal. Rituparno Ghosh, a young director from Kolkata, is the creative successor to these great directors, and Chokher Bali, is a lyrical example of his craft and his obsession with one of India’s disgraceful injustices - its religious and cultural subordination of women. 

Drawing inspiration from a novel by renowned late 19th century Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, Ghosh sets the stage for a period film that examines the slow, insidious way in which a woman’s subjugation at the hands of wealthy acquaintances is transformed into a calculated plan of revenge, vindictiveness, and sexual gratification.

In 1890s British Calcutta, 18 year-old Binodini’s parents send her photograph (a painstaking and expensive procedure in those days, for a financially-strapped middle-class Indian family) to two potential bridegrooms, both wealthy and from prominent families, the sensual and indolent Mahendra (Prosenjit) and the bookish Behari (Tota Raychoudhouri). Both men, fancy themselves as modern, and dislike the idea of an arranged marriage.  They reject the proposal without even looking at the photograph. Humiliated, Binodini’s parents marry her off to the first willing man, a landowner in the village who promptly dies of tuberculosis, leaving the unlucky young woman a widow.

For those familiar with Hindu rituals and customs, or with Deepa Mehta’s haunting film, Water (2006), Hindu widows lead a life of ascetic self-denial.  They must wear white saris at all times, they cannot wear jewelry, they are not allowed meat or fish, and live out other such rituals to purify themselves through a lifetime of bereavement. To anyone not Indian, though, it seems as if they are being punished for outliving their husbands. This is the life Binodini is doomed to lead in her husband’s village home, until some family friends take pity and invite her to live with them in Kolkata as a glorified servant.  However, as it happens, she stays with Mahendra’s family, the very same man who callously rejected her and led her to her disastrous marriage.  Revenge is exacted, slowly and patiently.

Aishwariya Rai, India’s most well-known actress, plays Binodini, her first cerebral role.  Through Ghosh’s direction, she gives a blessedly restrained performance that balances girlish submissiveness with coy sensuality. Underneath the doe-eyed charm, Binodini is simmering with rage and her gestures and casual conversations reveal bit-by-bit her plot to destroy the domestic tranquility of the complacently wealthy family families who rejected her. 

There’s a marvelous scene where Mahendra’s pretty young wife Ashalata (Raima Sen), naively takes the poor widow on as her confidante and lets her try on her wedding jewelry, heavy gold necklaces, bracelets, earrings and all.  Binodini didn’t even have such fine ornaments at her own wedding, and her ecstasy at wearing these jewels can’t be contained: she dances and sings in front of the mirror, like a knowing courtesan, while Mahendra and Behari watch, rapt with lust, from behind the bedroom door.  Whether Binodini realizes the men are there, or is unaware, is left a bit ambiguous. But the ensuing manipulation, seduction, and quiet devastation affords grim satisfaction for Binodini, who is forbidden to remarry, bear children, and lead a life of normalcy.

The evocative title of the story alludes to the discomfort caused by something sudden and seemingly simple, like getting a grain of sand stuck in your eye, which once caught, can be excruciatingly painful, and even blinding. So is the grain of sand, Binodini, who wreaks havoc on the domestic bliss of Mahendra’s family, or is Binodini a blameless young woman whose opportunities for happiness were denied to her by the vagaries of fate and society? Like well-made films that center on complicated, compelling characters, Chokher Bali simply presents the story and allows the audience to decide what to make of it all. Anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what’s best in Indian art house cinema, must see this movie, taking it in as you would finely crafted short story.

 

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