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An unsubtle (and uncharacteristic) didacticism crept into some of Satyajit Ray’s final films, so Sandip Ray, the great Bengali director’s son, is not necessarily responsible for the sometimes clumsy overtness of Target. Written by the older Ray and directed by the younger, this is billed as the former’s last cinematic testament. It doesn’t look very much like a Satyajit Ray film, however, which is not a complaint.
Elegantly shot by Barun Raha, who photographed several of the elder Ray’s later films, this has a rich, expressive look, especially during some striking nighttime scenes; it also features a brisk, edgy chase scene shot with handheld camera. The dynamic visual style suits the melodramatic story (adapted from a novel by Prafulla Roy), which takes up the gun in support of the exploited untouchable caste. Settling conflicts definitively with a shotgun was not the style of Satyajit Ray’s characters, who tended to talk their way to tentative resolutions. But then, the elder director never made films with Hindi dialogue, or ones that opened with credits that suggest an early James Bond film; these are popularizing attributes of Target that originated with Sandip.
Set in a region of present-day India that has retained its feudal character, the film opens with a disgruntled landowner who’s annoyed that he can no longer hit a bull’s-eye with his rifle. Singh (Mohan Agashe) is an avid hunter and an ardent drinker, and he can’t accept his doctor’s advice to give up liquor so as to calm his shaking hands. Instead, he decides to hire a hunter to do his killing for him, and is delighted to find Bharosa (Om Puri), who’s a deadeye shot.
The only complication is that Bharosa is an untouchable, a member of the lowest rank of the long-outlawed but still widely accepted Indian caste system; thus, he can’t join Singh’s accountant, astrologer, priest, and the rest of the landowner’s obsequious, terrorized entourage. The marksman is dispatched to a distant enclave on the estate, where other untouchables live in tiny shacks. Despite government minimum-wage regulations requiring more than twice the amount, Singh pays these workers seven rupees (about 20 cents) a day. Initially, Bharosa is happy to have a job and a small, dirty hut of his own, and he pays little attention to the workers who are organizing to seek either better pay from Singh or new jobs with a more generous employer.
Bharosa is soon disillusioned with his new position, however. He’s insulted when Singh hops off his elephant to take credit for the leopard the hunter bagged, and outraged when the landowner tries to claim Bijari (Champa Islam), an untouchable woman who has befriended Bharosa, as his new mistress. By the time of the final confrontation, the hunter has become Singh’s most implacable, and formidable, enemy.
The lone gunman who arrives in town just in time to protect a threatened village from a rapacious land baron is a staple of the Western, and Target doesn’t discourage comparisons to the Hollywood genre. Still, the film is full of detail specific to Indian culture, which is depicted vividly. (Particularly striking are Singh’s Brahmin employees, maintaining their appearance of nobility and disinterest even as they do their boss’s dirty work.) If Target’s resolution of caste conflict seems glib, its exposition of the problem is suitably complex.
A 75-minute skit that’s overextended by a half-hour or more, Denise Calls Up is about telephone chums who continually claim to be “swamped,” “inundated,” or “up to my neck,” but are really just afraid to meet face-to-face. This premise might make some sense if writer/director Hal Salwen’s comedy featured Sun Belt telecommuters who cower in walled communities and hide in air-conditioned cars. These characters, however, live in Manhattan and are shown walking its streets, which makes their physical (if not spiritual) isolation a little hard to credit.
Gale (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) is the ex of Frank (Tim Daly), whose buddy Jerry (Liev Schreiber) she’s decided to fix up with her pal Barbara (Caroleen Feeney). Attempts to get these two together at a party and a restaurant are fruitless, but the two tentatively develop an exclusively telephonic relationship. Meanwhile, Jerry is counseling his friend Martin (Dan Gunther), who’s been called by the unconventional Denise (Alanna Ubach), who’s made contact with him in a disconcertingly corporeal way. She’s carrying his child, although not as a result of any actual meeting: Denise grabbed Martin’s genes from a sperm bank, one of whose employees then gave her his phone number.
Salwen has a few more riffs designed to keep these people (and a few supporting callers) on the line a while longer. Jerry and Barbara begin to have fulfilling phone sex, Martin contemplates actually meeting Denise, and Gale and Frank’s friendship becomes even more long-distance. Through the miracle of call-waiting, all of them get involved in various telephone rondos, notably when Denise goes into labor. (There’s also the occasional fax, although no e-mail, a curious omission considering these characters’ dedication to psychic concealment.) Meanwhile, Salwen pads the proceedings with tiresome montage sequences and enlivens it with vintage second-tier R&B tunes (Muddy Waters, Roosevelt Sykes) that presumably weren’t budget-busters.
If this were a Saturday Night Live bit, Salwen would get credit for an unusually high number of punch lines that connect. By stretching it to (barely) feature length, however, he spreads the laughs rather thin. He also emphasizes the flimsiness of the characters, none of whom is sufficiently believable to qualify this as satire. Intermittently funny but psychologically glib, Denise is filmmaking that aspires to stand-up comedy.
Kids do the darnedest things, especially when they’re zonked on acid at an empty English manor house where somebody’s uncle killed himself. That’s about all the message offered by writer/director Anna Campion’s debut feature, Loaded, which manages to be generally uninteresting despite its adequate supply of sex, drugs, and death. Sort of an under-25 Peter’s Friends trimmed with bits of Shallow Grave, The Breakfast Club, and Don’t Look Now, this is also a homage to or parody of—hard to tell which—cheapo horror flicks.
Showing no prospect of rivaling her older sister’s The Piano, Campion brings together seven unappealing youths who leave London for the weekend to make a slasher movie (video, actually) and contemplate having sex together. Sensitive Neil (Oliver Milburn), who has bad memories and a good shrink, wants to sleep with Rose (Catherine McCormick, Braveheart’s bride), who’s considering forfeiting her virginity. Zita (Thandie Newton, Jefferson in Paris’ sex slave) might sleep with mastermind Giles (Nick Patrick), if only she didn’t have reason to suspect he’s a creep. Vulgar Lance (Danny Cunningham), who expects to move to Hollywood eventually, is sleeping with Charlotte (Biddy Hodson), whose aunt provided the house. Lionel (Mathew Eggleston), a contented Christian, is the odd man out, not a promising role in this sort of film.
After much cheesy foreboding, a communal acid trip (complete with animated flourishes), and a discussion of the respective merits of Halloween and The Sacrifice (presumably Tarkovsky’s, not Madonna’s), something bad happens. The kids don’t acquit themselves well in this crisis, but neither do their bumblings and recriminations make them any more real: They’re dislikable as well as unconvincing. Indeed, Loaded’s central mystery is why these people started hanging out together in the first place. That and, of course, why any moviegoer would want to join them.CP