Sunday, December 23, 2007


Cast: Konstantin Lavronenko, Aleksandr Baluyev, Maria Bonnevie
Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Runtime: 156 min.
Country: Russia
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama

There is a vast difference between being emotionally inert and being emotionally hollow. As much as Vozvrashcheniye (The Return, 2003) was intense, Andrei Zvyagintsev sophomore feature Izgnanie (The Banishment) is hollow. An emotional hollowness that engulfs us, holding us captive along with these tragic characters. I say captive because I so desperately wanted them to make things up, but our nature and the choices it sometimes leads us to make often renders the tragedy inevitable. There is a great deal of silence in the film; most of these moments between the husband Alexander (Konstantin Lavronenko) and the wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie). As long as a relationship is having constant arguments of any kind, I believe, it is still far from the rocky paths. But once silence creeps in it usually will signal the point of no return.
Izgnanie starts off with a great shot of a car running along a picturesque landscape of the Russian country. Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev) drives to his brother Alexander’s home in the middle of the night where he has his upper-arm suffering from a gun shot wound fixed, and the bullet taken out. The very next day, Alex and his family, relocate to their countryside home amidst the breathtaking serenity of the scenery. Yet, these people are banished from country (Garden of Eden) for there’s no peace in their lives. Silence yes, and a hell of a lot of it. But peace none at all. The urban world and its rush might conceal that silence, but the country has its own to offer. Vera reveals to Alex that she’s pregnant, and the child is not his. Perhaps the external silence is too much for her to bear.
Alexander is a great character and it is a great performance from Lavronenko. A classic case who has been influenced during his growing days and now is himself influential. Perhaps we all are, in varying degrees. In a lesser film he would have been a stoic binary individual, one of those standard-etched characters that respond in only two ways. But what Alex achieves here is to capture an individual who has added layers and layers to conceal himself, to conceal his vulnerability. As against popular conception, the layer addition is somewhat of an involuntary task. The wife has so desperately tried to penetrate those layers and to truly know her husband all her married life. And now the vacuum is too much for her to bear. Not because she is feeling lonely, but she can foresee where her son is being led to. Where her children are being led to. This is an extremely complex portrayal of parenting. Most films that intend to showcase negative parenting are loud and usually exaggerate the effects compressing them into a rather small time frame. This understands what happens and how the nature of a parent, good or bad, is gradually impressed upon the child. An impression that is infinitely complex than being just plain good or bad. Taare Zameen Par is juvenile in its portrayal of the parent; just as no boy is bad I bet there’re few parents who are bad. A father is a child’s hero, always. I can never overestimate the profound influence my father’s persona has had on me. Vera discloses the secret herself in hope of a final attempt at breaking that shell. But it is impenetrable, that shell. It is transparent, but it is impenetrable.
Then there’s the other silence. The one that exist between the two brothers – Mark and Alexander. It is the silence that prospers between two individuals who’re essentially one, the kind who understand the other’s every little action every little word and every little moment. These are two individuals who’ve been together and stayed together every step of the rocky road. And when one experiences a tragedy, it is the other that suffers. It is a great study, the bond between the brothers. As much as I felt captive within the vacuum of the marriage, I would want to be company to these two brothers as they grew up. I would want to know if they share the same secret of brotherly love-respect-hate.
Outside of Tarkovsky’s cinema, I have never experienced such a great blend of serenity and silence. Zvyagintsev is a master, who pulls of every trick of his with mathematical precision. He’s ably accompanied by the cinematography of Mikhail Krichman, his comrade from his debut film, and they create a profound location out of the otherwise ordinary countryside. This is the Garden of Eden, and with a budget that I suspect is as low as the first one (it was under $500,000). But what the results they achieve is worth billions, the landscape here is a character on its own. The camera is essentially still, and even during the occasional instances when it moves, the results are essentially still. This is an extremely beautiful film to look at, and that it is about such painful characters inhabiting a tragic family is all the more ironic. The secret of the breathtaking prowess of the film’s effectiveness, and its screenplay is that it doesn’t go for plot markers. It takes its time, and makes us privy to the drama as it unfolds, almost in real time.
Love is God, it is said. And God is love. And yet, these people who are incapable of overcoming their shortcomings to achieve love for one another is horrifying, to a certain degree. For if God is love, why doesn’t he himself overcome his shortcomings and help these people out of their vacuum.
One of the great films of this year.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Cast: Darsheel Safary, Aamir Khan
Director: Aamir Khan
Runtime: 156 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Drama

This much I do know – there’s no such thing as a bad boy
- Spencer Tracy as Father Eddie Flanagan in
Boy’s Town (1938)

I love this quote immensely; it has been besides me probably in me for a great part of my journey. Apparently, this quote might seem a bit out of place. On a closer reflection though, Taare Zameen Par at its heart intends to convey a feeling that is a mirror image of the quote. A positive, upbeat, full of heart mirror image of a rather dark and somber observation. And that is – every boy is special. That is true, and I cannot agree more with the film in its belief. What I also believe is that the special boys include me, my brother, my friends and very other boy I know or I don’t know needless of the fact that he is physically, mentally, psychologically, genetically or biologically challenged. Why does it need to be a special-case child, in this case a dyslexic kid, to represent us? Yes, it makes for more drama and probably better engrossing cinema. But please, peep into that kid’s life who builds the 99% of the class. He might just dazzle you with his vision. He wouldn’t be good at painting, but he could surprise you with his insights into history. He could ask you - if three bananas are not divided between three kids, then how many bananas would each kid have. He wouldn’t be good at solving puzzles but he could orate an argument that might just leave you spellbound. Or rather, he wouldn’t have anything apparent up his sleeve. His specialty might just be what this film believes it is preaching but ends up contradicting itself – to LIVE one’s life and not to RACE one’s way through it.
At a moment during the film, Ram Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) while speaking to his friend expresses his disgust at the way parents insist on their children topping every nook and corner of their competitive world. He shrugs – “Rather than having kids, why don’t they breed horses if all they want is to have them lead a life of racing.” It is a truth of our world, sad or not is a great debate, that it is competitive in every which way one looks at it. The film is full of heart, almost brimming with childlike naivety and understandably rebukes this truth. I respect, immensely, how the film goes about its stand on the argument. But, in what was a moment where I was found desperately praying to happen otherwise, the film arrives at the conclusion that the best way to highlight the specialty of the dyslexic kid Ishaan Awasthi (Darsheel Safary) is to reduce it to the very competitive streak it so vociferously reproaches. In this case, it is an obligatory art competition. And that made me sad no end. I felt sorry, extremely, because this is a fine film. A very fine directorial debut by a person who knows cinema like the back of one’s hand, a person who understands the unheralded boundaries of the medium and conjures up little tricks like a true master. And neither this film nor he remotely deserve this self-contradiction when moments before that trite sequence lay a scene that is pure magic, pure cinematic magic. The magical scene I’m talking about is when the Ram and Ishaan look at each other’s paintings, and I wish it all somehow ended there. Every little brush stroke driven by every little kid’s imagination out there is worth something. One can never trivialize them by quantifying them in a competitive mood. The part about movie reviewing I loathe right down to my living guts is the stars. How can I quantify that a film that has affected me is worth so many stars, and hence I pay the least possible attention to it. I guess the uninhibited strokes of a kid’s brush and the multiple colors on his palette do not in the least deserve a competition. No sir, and since I hugely admire Aamir Khan’s intellect I would like to know why he went for that. More so, when he takes great pains to take us through the multiple creations, obviously signaling the importance he holds for them. He delivers a simplistic film so full of heart, yet in the final moments commits an act of pragmatism – a competition that in my opinion indicates resigning to the hard fact of life. Maybe.
Most films concerning the special-case scenario tend to be a third-person narrative where I find myself rarely empathizing, forget sympathizing. Aamir Khan though, through his assortment of trite emotional tricks and clichéd uninteresting characters blended magically with the best of intentions and great usage of the medium, takes us right into the kid’s life. On more than one occasion, he manages in letting us feel the moment – through effective slow motions, mostly judicious usage of background score and most importantly taking us up, close and personal with the protagonist. In almost every sequence the focus is on Ishaan, obviously for it is his story, and the camera blurs everything else in the background. We only need to see the kid, and feel him. There’re beautiful, real beautiful moments scattered all over the place punctuated by real beautiful words from the songs. Young Ishaan, alone and lonely in the Boarding school, is crying no end. Yet, as if resolving to take on another fight in his life, as he has courageously done till now, he opens the tap with trembling hands and wipes the tears of his face. The mother is devastated when she sees a painting by her son that speaks of his insecurity. Most films just shoot such a sequence. Taare Zameen Par captures it in its entire poignant beauty. There’s a difference between emotional and melodramatic. This film is the former almost its entire team with only the briefest of gratuitous forays into the latter. One such element is the father and I can never comprehend what drives a scriptwriter or a director to even etch out such a trite, cardboard character. The father is the very definition of lackluster character development, rather there’s nothing to be developed. Two-dimensional things grow only in the X and Y direction and they are never growing towards us. The mother, for some inane reason, fluctuates between a solid character and a filmy one, so often portrayed in TV serials in all her glory. The treatment that the elder brother’s character gets is why I will never think of this film too highly. Showing the protagonist special is one thing but showing it at the expense of the triviality of a ‘common’ element is rather shallow. As much as the film professes that it loves its kids, the elder brother’s development makes me doubt that for a moment. The kid seems to be picked by almost everyone. A kid, who asks Ishaan to retrieve a cricket ball, decides to beat him. The sequence is handled shabbily, rather the picking on the kid part is grossly overdone.
Though it is very well done, I wasn’t exactly impressed by Darsheel Safary’s performance. It was good but it was a touch contriving-overdone. It seems an effort was made to make the boy as cute and endearing as possible, and I felt aware of that effort. Rendering a character endearing is charm and that charm can never be bought. Safary is more than good in the film, but somehow the overall package of him smelt of contrivance. Maybe it has something to do with his bugs-bunny teeth. Kindly have a look at the attached image, in case you already haven’t watched the film, and see what I’m talking about. Come to think of it why does it need for a special-case to look, you know, ‘special’?
I wish I had the opportunity to appreciate the thematic elements of the film, the finer nuances. I just happen to feel sorry that I recommend the film, heavily, as only a solid entertainer. Often clichéd, often trite yet a strong entertainer. Rather a great entertainer. I just might visit it again. I will visit it again, for the sheer joy in its moments, for the sheer goodness of its tale, for the love that pours when the eyes exchange glances – the child and his hero. Every child has one, desires one. A hero as a friend. I often wished to have T-101 by my side, as a friend, always by my side. When you look among the crowd you desire to see those eyes, always for you, and it has been my father. Good lord, can someone give me a handkerchief. And while you’re at it, please help me with these stars.

Powered by: Chakpak.comTaare Zameen Par

Monday, December 17, 2007


Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack
Director: Mikael Håfström
Runtime: 104 min (Theatrical Release) / 112 min (Director's Cut)
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Horror, Drama

Let me get this out real straight and real loud. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the horror genre in its present state (for reasons click here). And 1408, to my utter disbelief, is a truly scary horror picture. Probably the best horror picture in over a decade. Of course, there’ve only been a handful of them.
During the pre-production of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick once called up Stephen King, at 3 a.m., and asked him - "Aren't ghost stories really just an affirmation of an afterlife?" King’s response tended towards the negative. The conversation continued, and during a point Kubrick bluntly asked King if he believed in God. King thought a minute and said – “Yeah, I think so." Kubrick replied, "No, I don't think there is a God," and hung up. (Courtesy: Eric Norden's interview of Stephen King, Playboy, June 1983) I like King’s novel a lot, and it has been my partner for a good part of my life. And I think Kubrick’s version of the story, keeping only the vague remains of supernatural, is more unsettling. The film, much like Kubrick, doesn’t believe in the existence of God but does believe in something waiting to be explained.
1408, another addition to the vast and formidable body of Stephen King’s adapted works, stands as the film that is quite perfectly the anti-Shining. By Shining I mean the Kubrick’s version. It isn’t confused, in any which way, where its sensibilities lie. It firmly believes in the supernatural and the existence of hell, the portrayal inspired from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Think of Mike Enslin, played quite brilliantly by John Cusack, as an extension of Kubrick in that he doesn’t believe in supernatural so much so that he scoffs at the mere mention of the afterlife. He isn’t the armchair type either for he scouts reputed haunted places, visits them, and then debunks their reputation through his bestsellers giving their boo-score on a shiver-scale. And then, he gets this anonymous postcard warning him not to visit room no. 1408 of the Dolphin hotel down east in New York City. More than anything else this is a challenge to his beliefs and his ego. I’m not sure debunkers and skeptics can ever be humble about their opinion. It is considerably easier to convince people of faith otherwise than to do it the other way around. Enslin walks into the hotel intoxicated in smugness and checks into room 1408 despite the desperate warnings of the hotel manager Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). And then, the epiphany.
1408 wastes absolutely no time in arranging its cards, and soon after that firmly places itself behind the player it vehemently supports. Not every member of the audience would realize the film’s conviction though, and the script is smart enough to exploit its protagonist’s lack of belief here to play a game or two with them. There has been a huge delay in the theatrical release of the film offshore during which the Director’s Cut of the film has already been released. There’re significant plot changes between the versions resulting in markedly different endings. But none so significant enough to alter the very conviction of the film, which essentially is filled with hope. Isn’t the presence of something supernatural, howsoever evil, an indication of the presence of something other than ourselves. And that, I feel, gives the feel-good factor a shot in the arm. It makes me remember what Arthur C. Clarke once said –
"Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering."
As is the case with the other release this week, 1408 is essentially a one-man show. In the hands of a lesser actor this film would turn into those numerous other horror pictures I try so desperately to dodge, where the actors try their best to be what I call remote-control performers – press a button and you get a new standard emotion/expression (approved by the association of unimaginative actors) for the next quarter of an hour.
John Cusack is one of our best actors who is almost always convincing in whatever he does, be it the puppeteer in Being John Malkovich or the righteous deputy mayor in City Hall. Here, he achieves a level of performance towering in its scale for he neither has a whole island or a whole city for himself. This is just a room and there can be only so many scary elements, but Cusack elevates the material to levels of spirituality. Cusack, much like Tom Hanks, has the uncanny knack of getting us to like him and to cheer for him in whatever he does. Director Håfström effectively uses it to generate horror, and believe it or not, genuine emotion.
I can’t help but bring attention to the complete lack of violence and blood. When gory films reveling in their degeneracy are ruling the roost, piling sequel after sequel, it is so pleasant to witness a horror picture that is truly scary, yet doesn’t achieve that by grossing us out. We know half-way that the room wouldn’t physically harm Enslin yet we’re on the edge of our bums the whole way. Thanks to Swedish director Håfström, he gradually shifts the horror from an external force to one that manifests itself through the emotional and psychological upheavals. Even more pleasantly surprising is that all of it is achieved the good old-fashioned way. Disconcertingly enough, the epiphany begins with ‘We’ve just begun’ from The Carpenters played on a clock-radio. Dante would have loved it, I guess.

Friday, December 14, 2007


RUNTIME: 101 min
RATING: ***1/2

George Romero carved a sub-genre all by himself when he made the mother-of-all-zombie films Night of the Living Dead. The film was actually inspired from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (the source here), a work which depicts its infected ‘humans’ as that other dreaded name in my list of ‘Night creatures to be avoided to maintain sanity’ – vampires. With the latest addition to the jumbo-budgeted studio-produced titles I Am Legend completes the circle, more so than Heston’s version The Omega Man, in proving that vampires and zombies are in fact siblings, more so than their third distant cousin, the werewolf. If in the process, I Am Legend manages to try and restore some level of intelligence to the nightly-creatures’ proceedings, it is by no means a minor achievement considering the love-hate audiences harbor for them. I have always believed that Zombies and Vampires can hardly ever make a decent picture without ever asking us to suspend our belief down a high tensile strength titanium cord, and even then they end up being cheesy. I Am Legend manages to suck the corny horror element of the genre, down to its last drop, and presents us a filtered, somewhat sophisticated sci-fi horror picture. A picture that is surprisingly thoughtful and dramatic, despite the zombies whose presence I just cannot stress enough.
As I was driving home late last night, I encountered the usual lions-of-the-night dogs barking and pursuing my vehicle with all the madness they could muster. Four in all, and save for their barking it was dead silent in the middle of the night. Something possessed me and I stopped, about turned and started pursuing those dogs, maybe trying to give them a taste of their own medicine. They stopped at a dead end and I, with my false notion of haughty courage, squared off with the four of them, their eyes shining in my headlights. The only sound then, the silent hum of the engine. Me, warm and cozy within the locked-from-all-sides confines, and them out in the cold amidst the silence of the night.
I intend to share this crazy little incident because the opening sequences capture that strange blend of oneness and conflict with nature with eerie precision. There have been countless multi-million dollar productions that have given us a glimpse of a post-apocalyptic major familiar city, but none captures the loneliness of the last man on earth it as well as this film. 28 Days later had a similar sequence, a breathtaking one, but i would like to ask Danny Boyle one day why he chose to punctuate (I initially thought of ‘pollute’) it with a MTV- soundtrack. Silence is golden and that is a golden rule. Music of any kind intends to evoke feelings in us and the lack of it, often, is what achieves supreme results. 2001 opens with images of nature, with pin-drop silence. That is when the awe factor comes in.
I Am legend tells the story of a brilliant biologist Robert Neville (Smith) who also happens to be the last survivor of a deadly virus that has wiped of the civilization. He is supposed to be inexplicably immune (you know the drill). He hunts in the day, along with is K-9 partner Samantha, waiting ever so eagerly for humans to turn up. In the night though, he hides from the infected humans (mutants of Zombies and Vampires) in his home, which he calls Ground Zero. He is the king and the subject of New York City, and he dutifully uses its resources. And that includes DVDs from your local outlet. Boy, I wish I was the last man on earth.
This is Smith’s Cast Away and he plays a big part in conveying the psychological and emotional turmoil of the character. His Neville tries his best to keep his sanity in this most hopeless of situation. But I was confused, logically. Neville seems to be a strange mixture of hope and despair. He speaks of Bob Marley and the attempt on his life in December’ 76, and his fight against all the evil that is human-created. Yet he refuses to consider, even for a single moment, that there could be un-infected humans under a safe haven. He names his place Ground Zero for he’s hoping to bring a vaccine to cure the infected, yet he doesn’t believe in God. He has been alone for three years so much so that he thinks of mannequins as live forms. Yet he doesn’t harbor any sexual intentions when the time comes. This construct of the character, and these odd contradictions, aren’t out of real-life but borne out of a writer’s scheme of things. But then, how else can it be? They manage to rope in Emma Thompson for the briefest of moments, and I liked her momentary presence. It was pleasant.
This is a well constructed film. All the sequences, horror, thrilling, dramatic, are given the kind of treatments they deserve. Almost all the attempts, technical, are pulled off with success. The film harbors the fear of the infected, but it never attempts to create its own reason for the scare. It rather uses the latent fear of the unknown wild organism (aliens, zombies, vampires) that has been grown over horror-genre’s history and tries to downplay the alarming nature of these events. In most other films, such an encounter is the film’s high point with regards to tension. Here, there seems to be a nonchalant air about it, as if it is just a part and parcel of daily life.
What worries me about I Am Legend though is about the infected people, and the treatment. This film obviously wants to break the zombie-shackles (28 Days Later), but why doesn’t it try to understand its antagonists a little more. They are almost always alien. And unfortunately, more so considering the big-budget, they come across as cartoon-ish thanks to CGI. It hurts the eye, for they seem to be elements of fantasy when the film demands real elements. They scream and jump around like mummies, each one of them seemingly in a contest to open the widest mouth and the loudest scream. Go the full distance, put some thought for them and this could have been a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And it wouldn’t even have required the add expenses of the CGI to construct those damn effect-laden creatures; rather going the real way of the countless zombie films could have actually sealed the deal. Somebody once said about picking the best things from everything around. Here was an opportunity to follow the wise saying. Not following it has resulted in this very definition of a mixed bag. I guess, intellectually and dramatically, this is just about as far a zombie film funded in hundreds of millions by studio executives can get from the genre conventions

Monday, December 10, 2007


RUNTIME: 100 min.
RATING: **1/2

The hit-man is named Agent 47, probably inspired from Idea’s new advertisement. He is sparkling-clean bald with a barcode behind his head. The dress code, to be strictly adhered to, consists of the usual pitch-black suit with the tie being the only element where you could bring a little fashion in. He has been the star hit-man for quite a few years, but is now pursued after an assassination in Russia has reportedly gone wrong. He walks around railway stations, stealthily I might add, dodging half-a-dozen rival assassins and FSB agents. He walks around hotel corridors and manages to find planted guns, for both hands, with consummate ease. He also carries a girl-hostage on him. Getting the hang of it? That is Hitman, the latest addition to video game to movie series.
Early on, during the credits, two child-trainees trying to escape from the Organization’s camp are shot dead, juxtaposed by a big banner shouting out ‘DISCIPLINE’. And this is the interesting part, for I’ve always been fascinated by symbolic dressing. A more telling blow with respect to conveying discipline would have been these children shown wearing their suits and ties. I like, pardon me, love ties for they seem to rein in discipline more than any aspect of dressing and that includes black shoes with matching socks. The picture of these bald men roaming in their suits drives home discipline and more importantly order. Something akin to the classic good-white horse and bad- black horse thing. Contrast this with Jason Bourne, a distant and infinitely more talented cousin of our hit-man. He wears all nonsense, always casual and hence he is spectacularly out of order. Or is it the other way round. Anyways, Bourne’s casual attire renders him supremely stealth.
I like the stealth part a lot. Picture this – a super-bald man walking upright in the middle of a railway station, his spine so tight it might as well be a string on a guitar. He is clad in a black suit, red tie and his barcode is begging to be scanned. He is alone, and he’s constantly looking sideways. Agents --- FSB, Interpol, doesn’t matter, for both are paid to do their jobs --- are looking for this bald super assassin. – I ask you now. And it doesn’t matter what you might’ve scored on your IQ tests, if you’ve even taken them, they don’t matter much anyway. Would you, or would you not, bet your money, on the agents catching the bald man. I did. And as it turned out, I lost the bet. It seems the organization, which trains bald men like our Agent 47, doesn’t feel the need for a faculty teaching the art of disguise. And they seem to be doing mighty well, with out Agent 47 stacking up a confirmed kill count of over 100. On the other hand, both the FSB and the Interpol, it seems, desperately need somebody to teach them the art of seeing and more importantly, retain.
I guess that is the deal with all video games I have been witness to. At least the target practice ones. I don’t play a lot of games; in fact now that I count them, I couldn’t get past three. I have always been a believer that books are the best leisurely activity. And somehow I seem to have this notion, a preconceived one that might be false, that games do manage to curb the stimulation of the intellect. Or do they? I wouldn’t know. All I know is, and that is a fact, that the films adapted from these games manage to maintain a supremely low intellect, working in their own silly worlds and catering, often exclusively (Silent Hill), to the gratification/comprehension of teenage experts who seem to be hooked on to these games.
It is this very quest to quench that gratification that tears this otherwise insignificant little film apart. On one end it tries to be (at least the script) something more than the usual dose of turkey shooting by trying to rope in the usual melodramas – lady caught in the heat --- hitman averse to emotion --- hitman melting --- the romance. And yeah, in keeping with the in-thing, it does harbor very high levels of political context, which I’ll come back to later. Speaking of the other end, it feels the obligation for gratifying, violent action. This dilemma strips this film from being a pure guilty-pleasure and it doesn’t end up shaking any emotional chords either. It is pure mechanical stuff, to a degree inferior to the limited number of games I have seen, and it doesn’t score too high on the action scale either. Considering that it is a big-budgeted film, US $70,000,000 IMDb says, the action sequences are a sore in the eye with extremely patchy special effects. The shooting sequences are so amateurish in their final result; I wondered for a moment if IMDb got the figure wrong.
The most glaring evidence of the mess at hand is all the intentional political references. For one, it is not at all a coincidence that the picture is set primarily in Russia; the portrayal of the Russians as an unflattering blend of evil, scheming, inept people is every which way intentional. The villain most probably seems to be a reference to Mr. Vladimir Putin, and his seeming immortality a juvenile tendency to render everything mysterious even viler. There’s a none-too-subtle and extremely ineffective reference to the Moscow theater siege and the infamous use of chemical agent. And then, the CIA (a symbolic reference to the whole of the United States) thwarts an attempt by a guileless Interpol (United Nations) headed by a British agent (Elder brother treatment meted out to Great Britain) to nab our Agent 47. And then, the most glaring of all. The Organization and its agents seem to give out religious vibes, an obvious attempt to portray a religious assassin group against the 11th century Hashshashin, the ancestors of modern day assassins whose primary foe were the Crusaders. As I said it is all immature, especially the jab at Russia, for what is the need for such meanderings. Stick to your game, literally. Turkey shoot. It is advisable not to leap at hoardings one doesn’t comprehend. Maybe, after living under the iron hammer for so long, they need it over their heads to mould themselves back into shape. Maybe we all need. I guess both the cold war parties were fighting for the same thing – power. One achieved it by deception and the other openly. I for one, if given a choice, would take being deceived any day of the week. Of course, minus the hypocrisy. Come on, it is only the means to the end that are differing here.
Is it just me or is our little discussion really wandering into needless territories? Whatever. Hitman is an insignificant little film. Watching it won’t lead you to baldness either which way – tearing your hair or making a new style statement with a bar code on top.

Monday, December 03, 2007


RUNTIME: 87 min.
RATING: *****

In Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker, the Room is a place where only the innermost wishes are fulfilled, wishes that might exist embedded in the deepest safest corner of your heart, wishes you might not even fully realize you had. The world that Tarkovsky portrays in that film is bleak and glum, but I believe I would be speaking for majority when I claim that man, even in those grim circumstances, would wish for humanity’s strongest desire, immortality. I have often wondered if the stalker in is actually immortal, and if the wish room is nothing but a simple scientific instrument to provide immortality, the stalker being an obvious product of that.
Now, according to my unwritten manual of writing reviews, this is usually the part where I tend to give a glimpse of the story. But the manual is for more usual fare and The Man from Earth, penned by the late sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby as his last script, is unusual in the least. Having treaded through the first paragraph, it is obvious to the reader what the film is dealing with. I would not want to reveal anything more. But The Man from Earth is an independent film, one of those numerous productions that aren’t fortunate enough to flood the theaters, forget foreign distribution rights. In fact, as I learn it from IMDB, the foreign rights, both theatrical and DVD release, are still up for sale. And that, in a way, makes it necessary for me to shed some knowledge of its premise. Let me give it a brave shot, without compromising on its style or its substance. Kindly read it with a lot more than the usual attention for the premise is scattered below, literally.
John Oldman (David Smith) is a history professor, leaving his job and his friends of 10 years, to move over to a new place. It is a time for a final goodbye, few final hours of reflections of the past. As it turns out, its time for a shocking revelation – Oldman is a caveman who has survived the past 14,000 years. And as events follow, the scholars around him consisting of fellow academics who seem to have pretty much arrived at ‘final conclusions’ as far as their respective fields are concerned, have their thoughts truly provoked like never before.
There’s a clever observation the film makes early in the film. Dan (Tony Todd, Candyman), an archaeologist, asks John that the seemingly authentic burin in his home is one of those artifacts he has kept with and for himself as a well, memento. Dan replies that it is indeed from a thrift shop. Our primary instinct as audience is that he’s obviously lying. Yet, seldom is it do we keep mementoes of our present. If we go back in time, we might treasure it then via mementoes and relics, for we’re living in a time frame significantly different than us. But, if we’re living in the present, all the time, it is a whole different ballgame. By means of such insightful and often brilliant observations, the film tends to break many notions we seem to carry of immortality. Put in front of an immortal, we would shoot questions that would primarily have to do with a lot of historical events. And, even for a man living in those times, he never would know everything about it. We seldom learn and know the present; most usually, and this is a solemn truth of humanity, we tend to learn about the present by realizing about it once it is past. Most often we experience that realization by means of books and art when the brilliant elite of humanity show us the way.
It is this knack of consistently keeping us engaged in the discussion after having captured our imagination that makes The Man from Earth as riveting a drama as it is a thriller. Often we find ourselves part of the discussion when one of the characters raises our questions, and often we revel in the journey the scholastic discussion is taking us through. The film doesn’t have boring conversation like Lions for Lambs, ridden with dull, dry points. Courtesy the script an equally adept direction by Schenkman and most importantly good performances, we know these characters, we realize their biases, we realize how their arguments are a result of their inner selves and the shock their intellect has received. Brilliantly blending conventional editing under a tent that is essentially an extended sequence, the film, in many ways, plays out like an extended sequence in an adapted for mainstream Tarkovsky film, who loathed rapid montage and believed in prolonged shots and long takes. I was reminded of the brilliant third act of Stalker, its ability to keep us intellectually alert without keeping the human aspects of it at an arm’s length. As a minimalist science fiction it is gripping, but as an intellectual discussion it is that rare film that is stimulating.
The color of the film is essentially brown, even the under-lit sequences having a brownish tinge to the proceedings. Set amongst the woods, the film manages a nice little setting, evocating the kind of settings our protagonist usually likes. Or would like, since I guess brown is nature’s most common color after green. The visual flair reminded me, yet again, of the serenity of Stalker. By means of close intense shots and its low-key lighting, the film grippingly creates a cozy, warm environment of thought provoking discussion we feel home at. It reminded me of those nights in college, few friends wrapped under blankets, as we discussed the mysteries of space, the existence of God, the dimensions of space-time and what not. There were a few arbitrary grainy shots, but I guess working on such a low budget is bound to have its effects. Or was it my copy?
Part of the brilliance of the script, and it is one of the most stimulating of recent times, is its conviction in what it stands for. In rudimentary terms, The Man from Earth is essentially a film whose intellect thrives on issues of faith. As the film progressed, a background process was constantly thinking about the end, and another was constantly praying that film should not have ambiguity, anywhere. And to my great relief, this one believes in its stand, often taking strength from its protagonist’s assured belief. It is a film that through a scenario of immortality, which we would like to exist, tries to disturb long-standing beliefs. It is never what the film believes that matters, it all boils down to how much of it we can believe and how much of it we can, well, consider in terms of mere “interesting discussion”.
There’s an interesting question that is worrying me no end – why did John feel the need to reveal his secret? It is a question as puzzling as his more obvious secret. He claims a lot, some of it feels like the bragging part of a very true claim. He could be a man in the laboratory of time, a product of an aberration of time like the one suggested in Stephen Baxter’s Time’s Eye. Does his psychology work the same way as us? It wonders me no end.
There’re few films – Solaris, 2001, Stalker – that I felt should never end. This film made me feel that. Going through the various threads on IMDB, the film is generating spectacular reactions of the same kind. That it has achieved it without a single special effect is all the more wondrous. It is interesting, very interesting for what could be a greater achievement for a film on immortality than making us want to run it forever, and ever. By the way, I wonder what made them name the film The Man from Earth. I guess Bixby and director Schenkman see him as a prospect to explore outer space. Man from earth would be just about perfect for those species to address him. And if the species by an outside chance happen to know English, John Oldman wouldn’t be bad either. Probably they’ll appreciate the sense of humor.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


RUNTIME: 110 min.

Remember that participant in your school/ college debate competition whose only point was to shout at the top of his voice. He would bang his fists on the rostrum and his arms would fly all over the place, all the time scarcely making a single point. A poor excuse for eloquence, he would still be interesting for he would bring a smile on us, occasionally making us laugh at his way over the top antics. The Kingdom is exactly that, the kind of film that sees the need to introduce Chris Cooper’s character by showing his name underlined by a flashy “Bomb expert” which might as well be the name of a motel; it doesn’t remotely matter if Cooper is reciting his lines in terms of C-4s and Syntex. A film that is so confident in its blissful ignorance that it pointless to criticize it.
Here is a B-grade gung-ho action film that is more along the lines of a Delta Force, a badly made visually incoherent installment I might add, and when it holds aspirations of making a statement it is better to sit back and laugh at it. I was all game for the unintentional laughs but the film is so dull it wouldn’t even give me one. The Kingdom uses the terrorism-jihad-middle east trump card to set a scenario where four super agents of the FBI land in Saudi Arabia to track down a terrorist cell responsible for bombing out a pro-US base.
Let me reiterate, it is futile to debate the film. It would be as pointless as arguing with barking dogs by barking back at them. And I mean no offence to dogs, none in the least. What I found particularly offensive is that the film didn’t even care to let me enjoy my 100 bucks worth of explosions. As critical I’m of my favorite punching bag (other than the one hanging in my kitchen) Michael Bay, I still immensely enjoy his nonsense. Bay at least has a fantastic talent of presenting nonsense; this film doesn’t even have the courtesy to blow up things in a presentable manner. I simply cannot understand the need of modern Hollywood films to shake the camera incessantly. Once again the twin dragons, shaky camera and faster-than-a-speeding-bullet editing, make the proceedings virtually incomprehensible. The cinematographer, the person I hold responsible for my headache, is Mauro Fiore. Remember those awful Stallone films which went by the name of Driven and Get Carter? Well, Fiore was part of the guilty party there too. Why, in the name of God, does he need to shake the camera? And why in the name of all heavens does the editing have to be so predictably fast, the cuts running doubly faster than the blink of an eye. Is the sense of a stable image lost in the land? Is it some holy writ to use the scissor and change the angle every second? The masters of this technique – Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, Fernando Meirelless, Steven Soderbergh – know how to use it sparingly and are deadly effective. Here, it feels as if they have just laid their hands on a camera and just cannot stop being amused by this funny thing that captures images. Fiore is working on James Cameron’s next mega-project Avatar; I guess that ought to do a lot of good to him. As for Peter Berg, the director, it is pretty apparent that he is still under transition from an actor (Lions for Lambs, Collateral) to a director. Long way to go mate, long is that way. I had expressed great disappointment in Carnahan’s script for Lions for Lambs; here his work had roots for a nice little genre film. Alas, that dreaded epileptic camera. Show some light lord.
The performances aren’t much to bother about; Jamie Foxx has been part of an ensemble torture before which flew past us by the name of Stealth. He and Cooper and for that matter everyone, and that includes the guy assisting Cooper pumping the water out of the trench, are good. It is just that they barely manage to register one stable image on us, courtesy again the camerawork.

Many people are calling this the anti-Syriana. Of course, it is anti-Syriana. In fact, it could explode the very foundations on which films as Syriana stand on i.e. sense. I recently read an article that was basically looking into the failure of Middle-east films at the box office. It is a no-brainer, audiences aren’t foolish to pay for something that not only insults their intelligence but doesn’t even care to respect their monetary contribution for its survival. As for its arguments, all I would say is one thing. If this is the pro-war argument one could muster, I wouldn’t be worried too much about the opposing camp. In fact, I would laugh out loud, as its argument plays out like the very clichéd Jehadi rhetoric it so much hopes to criticize.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


RUNTIME: 113 min.
RATING: ***1/2

There was animated (2-D, Mickey Mouse) and then there is animated (3-D, Toy Story). And then, there’s the world and imagination of Robert Zemeckis, who just keeps treading his own course through cinematic history, always pushing the technical envelope. He has probably done more in the area of special effects than any single filmmaker since George Lucas. First, he brings the animation genre back into mainstream limelight, with his immensely successful Who Framed Roger the Rabbit? (1998). If not for him, I guess we wouldn’t have been witness to such masterpieces, a genre which is gaining new grounds with every passing year. Then, 16 years later, as if tired by what his earlier film has achieved, he goes on to make that wonderful Christmas film The Polar Express, bringing to the fore the technique of performance capture (the first film to be made using the sister technique motion capture was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which bombed at the box office).
As against standard motion capture, performance captures the body and the hand movements as well as the expressions by means of sensors attached to the body. That is the reason why Sir Hopkins’ left eye is as it is in reality, a bit smaller than his right eye. Of course, Ray Winstone, who plays Beowulf, and who in reality is more like a bag of pillow, doesn’t remotely look like his character that could rival those superhero Spartans. And that is where the technology comes in, to alter the physical appearance, to alter the expressions as the one who pulls the strings finds necessary. And also, the technology makes it apparently easier to include tracking shots than in live action, making the spectacle even more spectacular.
And as Beowulf finds out, the technology could be used to for a lot of quasi-nude scenes and still finding it easy to escape from the wrath of the censors. There is a sequence where Beowulf is waiting for the monster Grendel, to fight him, and the film teasingly pulls all sorts of tricks to hide the character’s nudity. One moment, it is hidden by a soldier’s sword and the next moment it is hidden by his arm. As the monster comes in, for the first full-fledged action sequence of the film, everyone was riveted on how the hide-and-seek would turn out rather than the simple matter of our hero overcoming the dreaded monster. The soldiers too make a hell of a lot of sexual references for a U/A rated picture.
And then, there’s Angelina Jolie, who is literally glittering in her full glory.
Over a dozen years ago, I had one of my most unique and unforgettable experiences ever at the movies. It was the release of James Cameron action blockbuster True Lies, and by means of a contest in Indian Express, we won a total of 16 tickets for answering four no-brainers. Father gave away the tickets to his friends, for free I might add, keeping only a couple for me and him. And together, we went for the Friday night show to the now closed theater Rahul, a big time name back then. And we were stopped at the gate. Rather, I was stopped at the gate. For what – for an adult rating. Father pleaded unendingly, even lying that it was I who answered the questions (father did), but to avail. I, in my seventh grade at that time, was flabbergasted. And we returned, my dad trying unendingly to churn a single word out of me. I have since watched the film over 30 times, many of those viewings borne solely out of grudge. A grudge I still carry, albeit in small amounts.
So, Angelina Jolie, rather her manifestation is glitteringly naked. And the film is U/A. And the film has earned similar ratings – PG-13 (US), UK-12A. Co-writer Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, Killing Zoe, Silent Hill) admits to Roger Ebert (a longstanding critic of the rating system), as Ebert tells here, that he worked with a glint in his eye and just can’t believe they have got away with it. He mischievously goes on to claim that his fiendish plan is in place to unleash more weirdness on to the masses.
Angelina Jolie tells BBC that she wouldn’t be taking her kids to the film. As I see it, animation or not, if I turn the wheel back those dozen years and it was this manifestation of Angelina Jolie in place of Jamie Lee Curtis, I can’t see much of a difference being made.
Beowulf is based on the English epic, the oldest known epic narrative composed in English. It tells the story of the brave young warrior who arrives on the shores of the Danish king Hrothgar’s empire to rid them of the dreaded monster Grendel, who happens to be the son of an even more sinister monster. The film does deviate a bit from the epic, in the storyline which is understandable, but also in the tone. For one, this is an unabashedly funny film, which keeps no stone unturned to make fun of its central character. One can almost feel the writers chuckling as Beowulf recites his adventures; they in fact insert a small scene betraying that some of his adventures must be pure lies. This isn’t heroic, but in its own sweet way talks about heroism that needn’t be one hundred per cent pure. For one, Beowulf keeps repeating to the people – I’ll kill your monster – as if he’s trying desperately to convince them at every chance. Beowulf is brave, but he sure does pad up stories to impress. In that pride lay his curse. Of course, keeping with today’s times, the curse involves state created monsters.
I was getting a lot of stares from people sitting besides me, for I found myself laughing a number of times. Most of the people just stared there, and for a moment, I wondered if I had lost it, for all my money the film was satirical every which way one looks at it. As I came back and read Ebert’s review, it was heartening to note his viewpoint too. No Mr. Ebert, the spirit of irony hasn’t been lost in the land. The action is written, I guess, to induce chuckles and none of it is unintentional. And then, there’s the climax. The climactic dragon-fight, which has all the energy one can expect. It is as of the entire film’s runtime is an excuse for this one particular sequence.
Beowulf is a spectacle, a rousing spectacle, a roaring entertaining spectacle that invests its all in it. Dialogues are of little or no concern, attention paid to them only when wench jokes are made. Or when Beowulf claims to Grendel – I am Ripper... Tearer... Slasher... Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength... and Lust... and Power! I AM BEOWULF! When a seduction involving Jolie includes only her appearance and none of her spoken skills, I guess that pretty much sums it. Of course, this isn’t as landmark an achievement as that six-pack testosterone overflow that hit us early this year simply for the reason that the technology hasn’t been perfected yet. As opposed to those films (Sin City, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) which use digital backlot (greenscreen), performance capture simply doesn’t capture that well. There are many a time when the emotion just doesn’t get conveyed, where the manifestations come across as what they are – lifeless. Some of it has to do with eyes, for the technology still hasn’t been perfected to fit sensors into the eyes.


RUNTIME: 114 min.

I wonder what wisdom dawned upon the director to name the film, a supposed biopic, The Golden Age. History, and even mythology, teaches us that when a reign is remembered something as important and successful as a golden age it mostly has to do with the subjects under the reign. Ah, forget history. The original, released nearly a decade ago, I learn wasn’t much accurate either. But then, aren’t majority of UK/US period films? I am not remotely a living expert on matters concerning Her Majesty’s ancestry but I knew one important fact beforehand – the Queen knew of Sir Robert’s other wife beforehand for she visited the wedding. The original, though, charted its course and writing its own history along the way. And it is manner in which it changed that one fact I knew beforehand that disappointed me. Sir Robert’s falling down from her majesty’s grace involved social and political concerns and the romance was, I learn, a small variable of the equation. The original, though, pins the motive wholly and solely on the Queen’s sudden learning that Sir Robert was married and that disconcerted me a lot. I’m not the one to harp unendingly on historical inaccuracies but when a film changes the motive to one as adolescent as that reason, I find it difficult to view it with any respect for its intellect. But, that was that.
The Golden Age, though, displays a placard upfront – History is open to interpretations. Now that is a warning in disguise, which means, flip the history all you want. I to a great extent agree with that. If a film can provide me with greater insights into an historical character, a few glaring flips don’t concern me one wee bit. But, to The Golden Age, the royalty and its history seem to be nothing but a series of romantic endeavors, juvenile at best, punctuated by assassination plots. That is it, cut and dried. I guess if they make a film on Ivan the terrible, it will most probably be a father (Ivan) whose wife is dead and who is envious of his son’s love life, which needless to mention will be the film’s focus point. The needless focus on the romance between Sir Walter (a typically wooden Clive Owen) and Elizabeth ThrockMorton (Abbie Cornish) couldn’t possibly interest me any lesser. I’ll come back to them later.
The film opens in 1585 where her throne faces danger from the catholic forces of Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). A plan has been set in motion to overthrow Elizabeth, thus freeing England from the clutches of a heretic. Elizabeth meets a sea farer Sir Walter, whom she starts liking and starts bestowing her favor. She is aided by her loyal advisor, Sir Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), in her fight against these treacherous forces.
Since the film accesses its right to interpret (flip it for real) history, I take the liberty to obviously assume that the central character in particular, whom the film romantics to no end, is an interpretation borne out of the writers’/director’s intellects and interests. So, from the facts supplied, I gather the following – 1. As the clouds gather over her throne, her subjects and her life the Queen rather deems it necessary to pay her undivided attention to the brewing affair between her favorite lady-in-waiting Bess and Sir Walter. 2. The Queen is helpless against the forces, invisible to me, to halt the execution of her half sister Mary who is being punished for treason and an attempt to assassinate her majesty. 3. When the Spanish minister ridicules the queen’s “bedtime” activities she, shredding all the famed composure of the royalty, shouts very much like an offended tramp. 4. When she learns about the marriage between Sir Walter and her beloved Bess, she has him arrested, again displaying the anti-royalty composure. – And all this during a timeline when the Queen is supposed to have been in her late forties. I believe wisdom, intellect and maturity dawn upon any soul by that age. Hence, going by the vision of the filmmaking team here, I deduce that Elizabeth I was more or less a rank selfish woman, hindered by her own limited vision and matters of her very adolescent heart, and that it was only a matter of fate that she was able to rule the golden age. Her Lords were the ones who led England to victory against the Spanish armada. Anybody could rule her kingdom; she simply happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. She is liable to lose her composure even to dogs barking at her. Let me add here that the picture of the character over the span of two films is quite consistent. More so, the film, as its predecessor, tries to show the Queen innocent of any measure of harm doing and any such act were purely out of ill-judgment and the impulse of a injured heart. And this deduction is what betrays the intellect of the film. Shekhar Kapur, in an interview in The Hindu, comments that his film deals with a woman who has declared herself divine but is still human enough to fall in love, who wants to have sex, and bear children. The way I see it, his film does go about that business by portraying Elizabeth I as one interested primarily in juvenile romantic endeavors, and is more or less uninterested in the matters of the state. Greatness might have been thrust upon the real Elizabeth I but I guess she would have been up to it too. Referencing pop culture icons, like late Princess Diana, isn’t exactly enlightening on a historical figure. I guess The Queen taught us that so very effectively. Opulent sets with remarkable precision on costumes aren’t, even for a moment, guarantors of a film’s intelligence and its depth. Rather, and this I learn from experience, they’re cloaks to hide the shallow and in this case juvenile nature of a product that is masquerading as a period drama for adults.
Here, I find it most appropriate to bring discussions and comparisons to the great biopic film Patton, probably the greatest film ever made on a real-life person. The Golden Age doesn’t merit the comparisons, but the towering performance by Cate Blanchett very much does. In Patton, we’ve a film that isn’t shy one wee bit to portray the flaws in its central figure. It shows them, sometimes with a critical tone, and that is one reason why it carves such a fine character. On the other hand, The Golden Age shamelessly tries to show Elizabeth I as the most good-natured person possible, not for a moment dwelling on the possibilities of what a fine film a deeper understanding, a more vivid imagination and a cutting down on the unimaginative detour into romantic lands would have made. Such a film, portraying the queen more central to the looming threats and her role to thwart them would have made a more satisfying feature film.
Kapur, as I quote from the aforementioned interview, views his Philip as a very mild person. It is just that he believes he’s right. But your Philip only appears to be smiling sinisterly all the time, speaking in a hush tone, never ever rising from a placard character that might have as well read – I’m evil. All that important time is taken by that romance.
I find it assuming myself but there’re a couple of similarities between The Golden Age and Spiderman3, other then of course, that both of them are sequels. The Queen too is one who has greatness thrust upon her just as our friendly web slinger, but our web slinger seems to be considerably more up for the task. And more importantly, both films are bogged down by needless and uninteresting romantic arcs, banal every which way one looks at them. It is because of these meanderings that the film needs to insert sequences I call the news-scenes, wherein a character performs the obligation to make the audience understand what the hell just happened.
The guys who deserve all the applause are the ones from the Production design and the costume design department. The film manages to stay watchable because of them. I was regularly finding myself looking at the courtroom surroundings for the dialogues barely were interesting. I also found myself listening carefully to the unimaginative background score which started and stopped during sequences with deadly predictability. I could almost second guess what kind would be played as a particular sequence progressed. The color here is a bit confusing though; the color in the same tone of the opulent surroundings tend to show the golden age but the overall tone of the film – with the looming threats, the sad romance and the listless background score (A.R. Rehman, Craig Armstrong) – tended towards somewhat opposite. This is where I found the original assured; almost all of it happens in dark corners and shadows alluding to the sinister forces at large. I always maintain that technical perfections relating to the production design aspects are easier to achieve, what is challenging is coming up with a narrative to match that opulence. And narrative doesn’t just mean the story; I’m also referring to the editing and camerawork. All these aspects are expectedly bland. The only thread that manages to give this banal assemblage a breath of life is Cate Blanchett, that most wonderful actress.
She is given an underdeveloped character but she manages to pour in some of her great talent here. She is given stale sequences like giving the soldiers a battle cry and that doesn’t work at all. Due to the meanderings of the men behind the camera, her donning the knight’s armor never comes across as convincing. That even her enormous talent isn’t able to save this film speaks of the film’s quality rather than her.
I wonder if the director wanted me to feel anything at all. I guess he very much did, but I couldn’t manage as much as to feel even the slightest of warmth during this extremely inert film, its inertness caused due to its very limited intellect. The films finest moments are during the climax, immediately after the battle, when not a word is spoken. The score manages to come into its own too. And there I remembered – it’s better to stay silent and let people wonder than to open your mouth and dispel all doubts. Meanwhile, Kapur speaks of a trilogy. The third installment would deal with the Queen dealing with mortality. These two films have spoken so much of assassination plots, thwarted ones, that Kapur’s Elizabeth might as well feel immortal. But given that she seems to be so confused, even at this wise age, I guess her majesty will find it difficult again. God, Shakespeare, help them.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


RUNTIME: 127 min
RATING: ***1/2

Stardust isn’t a fantasy epic; it is more of a fantasy tale. Understandably so, for the source isn’t an epic bestseller for a change. Adapted to screen by Vaughn (Layercake) and Jane Goldman, this film weaves a simple tale with all the clarity of a childhood fable. It is never rushed, it is funny, it is romantic, stupidly sometimes and it almost takes you to another world. It isn’t Lord of the Rings by any means, and every fantasy film to come since is expected to be one. It is one of those fillers that make up for the duration we need to wait for another event like LOTR come by, and especially after a long day’s work refresh and entertain us like no other. No need to invest oneself too much, relax, and forget it the next day. Sounds pretty much like one of those childhood tales, doesn’t it?
Stardust tells the tale of a young lad Tristan (Charlie Cox), who to prove his immense love to Victoria (Sienna Miller), heads along to bring her a fallen star as a gift for her birthday. In another place, a witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) is also pursuing the fallen star, which would bring the beauty of youth back in her and her sisters. Far away in the land of Stormhold, a King (Peter O’ Toole) dies, thus setting his sons off in pursue of a stone that would decide the heir. Incidentally, and in a way obviously their fates and the other tales are interconnected, setting off the grand adventure.

Claire Danes feels like an inspired choice for the fallen star Yvaine. She isn’t a radiating divine beauty but as an unadulterated, innocent creation of the universe she is more than perfect. She always tends to bear mannerisms and expressions that are in effect showcases of inner goodness. I remember her brief turn in The Hours and how I thought at that time what an inspired casting choice she seemed. She isn’t a great actress, she is a good one sure, but there is an affable charm in her good-natured roles that is extremely rare. One can’t buy that charm can they for if yes everybody would have been Bill Murray and Tom Hanks. I wonder what made the makers think that fallen stars are not supposed to have eyebrows; Danes would have looked way better with them intact. She is at the core of this tale, both literally and figuratively, and is ably supported by a round of characters. Michelle Pfeiffer seems to be having loads of fun as the witch, unleashing her entire array of overacting on us. And I mean that in the best way possible, for actors (read beauties) like Pfeiffer come into their own in such roles. Young Charlie Cox (Casanova, The Merchant of Venice) is earnest enough. But what I felt really happy about was that for the fist time since I saw Ronin a good eight years ago, I didn’t feel embarrassed after watching a Robert De Niro performance. He has been setting new benchmarks in awfulness with all those poor excuses for comedies; but here he comes into his own as Captain Shakespeare. A tough pirate for the outer world, but on the inside a transvestite, best described by one of his men – “We always knew you were a bit of a whoopsy.” This isn’t the tired, one stupid expression-wonder De Niro of those awful Meet the Parents movies or those Analyze This trash; the man does have a lot of fun and that fun seems to be finally showing. Then there’s the inevitable participation by Sir Ian McKellen, this time as a narrator. Both he and Morgan Freeman are mandatory now for financing films, I guess.
Stardust is the sort of fantasy film that is so rare nowadays, a film that aspires to tell a story and not jump from one special effect to the next one. I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s odd but underappreciated The Brothers Grimm, but more importantly the lucidity of the tale brought back The Princess Bride. I loved how they made Danes radiate whenever she was happy. Though I wasn’t exactly happy with that lame ending. Had Danes’ character not given me the reason, I would have very well doubted that a fission reaction of sorts happened. That brings me to the special effects which are tacky, somewhat. The cinematography is quite good, and that I guess is mandatory in this post-LOTR world. You simply need to have shots of landscapes as rousing score is played behind for you have that obligation to the tourist ministry generating some revenue. But it is just the effects. I advise that there’s no need to show us that you’re being stretched on your budget; if a film is made for a relatively lesser amount (this film is made for $65 million, considerably less than the $180 million of The Chronicles of Narnia and $100 million of Eragon), try and cut on the special effects. We’ll understand, and we’ll in fact appreciate. And in fact, the film is way better than any of those considerably higher-budgeted films; The Chronicles of Narnia almost made me check blood sugar level.
The movie isn’t exactly pure and unadulterated fantasy stuff for children; it has a couple of gruesome murders, transformations and a murder sequence bordering on black humor. I can imagine a few children getting scared. The film does make up for all that; it almost always is funny. I spoke critically a couple of weeks back about all the self-aware humor that was in Nancy Drew. As I said there, this is the way to do it. This film is almost the perfect blend of such a film – the climax in particular, which in other films would have been quite heavy on drama, is the lightest of light with the seven princes’ spirits almost keeping the spirits up. I liked that.
I was reminded of Solyaris and I’ll tell you why. The fallen star is supposed to be a girl, supposedly helps our young prince rule his kingdom for a good eighty years before they both return to the star-kingdom. There’s a deep psychology there for our exploration always is looking for races/species/celestial objects that are in the end “humans”. Guess our exploration is bound to fail.


RUNTIME: 88 min
RATING: *1/2

You know what was more exciting and entertaining than sitting through this ultra-bore talkathon? Staring at the poster of this film for 88 minutes. The topics debated here, with all the fake fierceness that can be mustered, are moot points in the way that everyone knows the right side. In fact, the film isn’t even a debate; it is just a recital of political and moral correctness. I guess the film aspires to be a debate, and if that is the case it could not have failed more miserably. The film simply and conveniently takes a stand that can hardly ever be debated and then harps over it in circles with “debate-clinching” points a 12-year old would be embarrassed of. I just realized what would be even more entertaining – Lions for Lambs distributing pamphlets about the issues it deals with and us distributing ones that preach to everyone not to visit this film, and see who can out-distribute whom. That’ll be one hell of a game, that one.
Lions for Lambs handles three storylines, mustering all the dexterity of a film school student who has just discovered that a movie could follow multiple storylines, and goes about cutting back and forth these stories tiresomely. There’s Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) who has invited journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) to disclose his new strategy for the situation in Afghanistan that involves capturing the high ground of the mountains so that when the snow disappears, the soldiers could turkey-shoot in all directions. I guess Irving’s brilliant and novel strategy assumes that the unassuming Taliban fighters will come outside, preferably in the day and for convenience’s sake on a roll-call. I’m still not able to make up my mind if this plan was made dumb for sarcastic reasons. Anyways the meeting between the senator and the journalist, the movie tirelessly intends to show, brings together the two parties that together sold the war. And there start the unending ramblings about the politician’s side of things. Then there’s that typical discussion between the aimlessly meandering bright kid, who if is the supposed future for any country makes it a good time to start praying unendingly to God to shower his blessings, and that typical torch-bearing teacher who has taken the onus on himself to shepherd the country’s youth. The discussion, and there are no prizes for guessing, consists essentially of ramblings, again, about how to get hold of your future of you’re bright and serve it to the nation. Then of course, there’s the obligatory war in Afghanistan where two soldiers, executing the senator’s brilliant strategy, are trapped on top of a point with the enemy closing in.
The movie unimaginatively and without any reason keeps cutting back and forth between the various stories. Aha, there’s what I call the punchy-one-liner syndrome too, which is the cornerstone of a bad multiple-storyline film. The syndrome is defined as the endless wait for that stupid punchy one-line masquerading as a debate-clinching idea for the edit to the parallel storyline. This syndrome, my research suggests, has been passed from those unending soap operas which use it to lethal effect. I have a couple of suggestions for screenwriter Carnahan, whose other scripted film The Kingdom I’ve yet to see. And both these suggestions can only help at the structural level, sorry nothing can help those god-awful ramblings. I wonder if he wanted to show a cause-and-effect; he could have first cut down on the stupefying bore that the Cruise-Streep conversation is and rather shown him planning his famed strategy. That would have taken out one punchy one-liner where Cruise tells Streep that the plan is already underway. He could have first shown the strategy being planned and the student-teacher conversation in tandem; then he could’ve gone about showing Streep’s character showing some resourcefulness as the actual battle ensues. It would have helped two-fold – 1. The media wouldn’t have come out as a wuss 2. The constant and needless interruption that takes all the steam away from the battle would be weeded out. I’ve some more suggestion but then that would only come out when I see a nice little cheque.
The political debates and discussions though are nothing but exercises in good old-fashioned cheesy talk. They are as banal and pointless as discussing the pros and cons of science – a debate about which everybody knows forwards and backwards and all the film does is summarize it for us in the most boring and unimaginative way possible, by reciting it to us. It might as well have been a radio play which we could have heard for free, doing away with our own little chores. It doesn’t stir up any new topics, at least nothing that voters come next year wouldn’t be aware of. I was watching the Democratic debate in Nevada the other day. Of course, I was watching because I have always found the sight of Senator Hillary Clinton pleasing to the eyes and I wish for her just as I wished Ségolène Royal was the French President. Anyways, the only hot button issue, obviously, was the war in Iraq and more importantly the growing mumbling over Iran. So that negates whatever endless harping Lions for Lambs is guilty of.
Plus, there’s no humor or imagination too. Raise the same issues but if the process was entertaining, we wouldn’t have complained. Remember Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog? Now that was pure brilliance. That was creativity. That was satire. That was intellectual. That was criticism. That was entertainment. Time to move on to the next paragraph. Guess the syndrome is affecting me too, a wee bit.
I guess the stars are there to take our attention off from the boring dialogues. I constantly found my attention deviating from the film and towards the performances. It was never Janine Roth, it was always Meryl Streep. Nothing to take away from Streep though. She can even make watching paint dry seem entertaining. She isn’t the greatest actress in my book for nothing. Redford has always exuded charm; I can watch him find new and stylish ways to blabber. He is a good director too, and this isn’t such a failure of his filmmaking abilities as much as it is of the script. Tom Cruise manages to give a commendable performance, and they’re never the issue in the first place. They try their best; it is just the matter that isn’t worth their abilities. Cruise’s character keeps saying Victory at all costs. I wonder how good a film about nuking Afghanistan would turn out, Dr. Strangelove style, where a politician for a change takes the place of Gen. Jack Ripper. There you go, a nice little idea for a nice little political film with nice little comedy. Now, where’s my cheque?
To tell you the truth Bob, and I call you Bob not with the contempt-generating familiarity but with the unabashed love with which I have known you through your cool characters, the war has long passed the stage where you could just debate it with respect to one nation. I’m not debating the war; I’ll be the last person qualified for that. But I’m intelligent enough to understand that the war has started affecting a hell of a lot of other nations, directly and indirectly. I guess there is a moral obligation, if nothing else, to show the faces of those Taliban fighters. To make a film just about the cause and effect on your end is extremely selfish, and in a way a showcase of an attitude that indeed causes these conflicts, for good or for worse. Meanwhile do you want to truly know what would have been more entertaining and enlightening? V for Vendetta, the best film of last year criminally ignored at the awards, and one of the best offerings of cinema this decade, if not the best. A film with a breathtakingly crazy confluence of innumerable ideas. And yeah, with a dash of humor too.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


RUNTIME: 110 min.

Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who drove into office in a Jaguar and about whom field agent Robert Baer very nicely commented that he probably was the only one driving in a car worth more than a year’s salary, is referenced quite often. In particular by Hanssen portrayed brilliantly by Chris Cooper (I’ll come back to that). And there’s a reason to that. Ames and Hanssen share some sort of a twin-ly relationship in that both moles dug not holes but trenches through their respective organizations; they both were essentially transatlantic versions of Kim Philby. Some of the information they passed along to the GRU and KGB (Victor Cherakshin was the master agent who recruited both of them) were same, and they were bound to be. In fact, the KGB agents (Boris Yuzhin, Sergei Motorin and Valery Martynov) shown to be compromised were already done in by Ames before. But, I believe, that is where the similarity between the two personalities end. Ames comes across as an average greedy turncoat who held no allegiance but to money. Hanssen was something else, a tragic character, much in the mould of a Michael Corleone or a Charles Foster Kane, probably less “tough” on the inside. But he was as much a victim, if I may call it so, of hubris as much as the other two. Probably the lack of success, career-wise, made him a more chronic patient of that disease all “tough’ characters possess in copious amounts. He wasn’t remotely the disillusioned kind like Dmitri Polyakov, not in the least. He was the bad guy, if one may call so, the sort of whom you’ll hold in awe and mystery; the kind you don’t look down upon. At least I did.
Breach, directed by Billy Ray, isn’t the typical cloak and dagger espionage film one usually associates with Hollywood. In fact, it rarely uses dagger or its likes to generate thrills. This is a supreme motion picture, a film that brings home the world of espionage like no other in recent memory. It isn’t car chases in some far of land, but the bureaucratic corridors that keep you on the edge of the seat, and in the company of some beautifully etched people. Most works on the Hanssen case, especially on print, haven’t dealt at all with the guy who had the front row tickets to the action – Eric O’ Neill (Ryan Phillippe). The film tells his story, with breathtaking grace (I guess I’ve never used that word ever for an espionage film) in the process acquainting us with not one, but two people, poles apart. The only similarity they seem to share is that they’re both Catholic. One is absolutely uninteresting (Neill) and the other a repository of layers (Hanssen). Billy Ray, in his earlier film Shattered Glass, wonderfully portrayed the entire farce that journalist Stephen Glass created at The New Republic in the process contrasting us with the relationship between two characters – Glass and editor Chuck Lane. Though that effort was undermined a little by Hayden Christensen’s above-average turn, his sophomore directorial venture doesn’t have anything to stop it in its wheels. In that film we had the boss (editor) unravel the mask of his junior colleague; here we’ve a junior carry out the proceedings.
Here we’ve a person who attends mass every Sunday, who is devoutly catholic (Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei) on one hand. On the other hand, the same person secretly makes kinky videotapes of his sexual intercourses with his wife and posts them on the internet. Here’s a man who is betraying his organization and nation, yet what he demands from his associates is their absolute trustworthiness. The Bureau and the Mole by David A. Vise focused heavily on the kinkiness of Hanssen, sketching elaborately on his sexual deviances. The film does cater to that element but doesn’t focus on it. I believe it is sympathetic towards Hanssen, and I most agree with that feeling.
Chris Cooper, giving probably the first Academy-worthy performance of this year, achieves a character portrayal that is at par with some of the most memorable turns ever. I hear from a lot of interviews he went to great depths, taking help from real-life Neill (he was advisor on this film extensively) and in his words perfecting the accent and the mannerisms. Some performances seem to get lost amongst all the drive for perfection, losing sight of the character. This isn’t remotely that, what Cooper achieves here is monumental. He is Hanssen and his very presence in the vicinity of Neill brings a strange mixture of fear in us, and a growing sense of tragedy on the whole. This performance isn’t a gimmick of any sort; this is acting as an art form. Breach is a complex film that lucidly narrates its complexity with a great deal of subtlety. And quite a huge share of that should be owed to Cooper who conveys a lot, sometimes hell of a lot, through his mannerisms, through his speech.
I’ve heard a lot of Neill in numerous interviews; Phillippe does a dead-on impersonation of him with his accent. And he too doesn’t lose sight of the character, always managing to bring home the conflict raging within Neill. I appreciate the kind of choices Phillippe is making; when I first saw him in Cruel Intentions he seemed to be another teenager. But his choices seem to be inspired – Crash, Gosford Park, Flags of our Fathers and now this. Laura Linney’s character in most films would have been a by-the-numbers one. Here she holds her own identity and stamps her mark in a story primarily involving two characters.
Much of the film transpires through conversations and corridors. Yet, it is considerably nerve-wracking. The narrative tension is heightened for the stakes are high; the dramatic conflicts more so. Billy Ray, amazingly, doesn’t go for the immediate edits required for dramatic tension that one has come to expect from espionage films. He instead, lets the characters grow and the tensions engulf us as the various conflicts take place. The movie isn’t sprinting a 100-metre dash; rather it is deliberate in the process rising high and mighty above the boundaries of the genre. The offices are morose places and this is where Billy Ray is supplemented no end by Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto. It is noticeable in Fujimoto’s films (Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Signs) – the photographic sense that comes across as a unique blend of attractive coloring and the kind of monochrome shades the real world offers us. They aren’t overtly colorful, yet they bring out a sense of subtle flashiness to otherwise morose surroundings (offices and cells in The Silence of the Lambs, courtroom in Philadelphia). And with dull offices the setting, his photography is just what the film needs. They never are overbearing, they’re subtle acting supplementary to the narrative.
And I believe Billy Ray is the kind of filmmaker who would thrive on such assistance. One sequence in particular is a fine example of craftsmanship. As Hanssen makes his last drop at Ellis, he walks out amidst the morning serenity. The brilliant use of hand held camera, coupled with the outstanding usage of score and the cinematography makes us experience the moment, the morning and the feeling someone is prying. If I wasn’t already looking forward to Ray’s work post Shattered Glass, I most readily am now.
I might be slightly biased for this is a film right up my alley, and even more so that this is a decent approximation of my kind of cinema and my vision of it (the subtleness is deadly apparent on every front and I relished it). But don’t let that keep you from visiting this beautiful picture, this is an astonishing achievement considering the subject and how easy it is to go haywire. Through the books I’ve read on Hanssen, incidentally both by authors of a similar name (Spy by David Wise and The Bureau and the Mole), I only managed to know the person. Spy is a commanding read, The Bureau and the Mole mere sensational writing the likes of which are generated in abundance after an important event has occurred. But the film achieved what only cinema at its peak can achieve, it let me meet Hanssen. I could imagine about him before sitting on my armchair; now I believe I might have understood him. For that alone Breach stands as one of the finest espionage dramas ever.

For an interview featuring both Eric O’Neill and Billy Ray, kindly visit -

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