Sunday, October 28, 2007


RUNTIME: 120 min.
RATING: ****

“You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but an audience is like a broad – if you’re indifferent, Endsville.”
- Frank Sinatra
This Sinatra quote is as profound for the art/entertainment business as is his famous existential Do be do be do quote shown in the film. I am not exaggerating; my fellow audiences, apart from the extremely uncreative but honest “I want my money back” comments, actually had the following to say – 1. It is worse than Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag (a very brave comment, I might add) 2. Anurag Kashyap ought be sued for mental harassment. Now the second is really harsh, in my opinion. No Smoking is bizarre, alright. And Kashyap has stated the same in his interviews too. I believe I have a better word in my vocabulary for the film though, abstract. The meaning of the word, in terms of art, is – not representing people or things in a real way, but expressing the artist’s ideas about them. I’m being clear and explanative because I feel it, as an obligation to be so, after the experience the audiences have been put through for this film. It is understandable; this is a first of sorts for Hindi cinema where a director is playing on his own terra firma, self-indulgently one might add, without once actually wondering whether the audience is game for it. Interestingly, as I have watched the film in a multiplex, the very same audience might be extremely enthusiastic about a foreign product, say like Mulholland Dr., but it is somewhat of a taboo in here to pay your hard earned money and getting puzzled for it. Or maybe too early.
So, what is the evidence? K is a chain, sorry train smoker, who just can’t quit. He does have an odd dream that is based in Siberia, where he finds himself fighting for his beloved cigarettes. When his wife asks him, he quips – “Your visa is on the way, too.” As the train of carnage with his smoking wrecks his marriage, K decides to go to a spiritual healing centre running under the disguise of a carpet shop. Little does he know that the centre, located nearer to the core than the earth’s crust, is a mysterious little place forever to make the rest of his life, smoking or otherwise, hell.
The plot does borrow from the Stephen King short story, Quitters Inc. but it transpires as somewhat of a natural reaction to it. Kashyap seems to be saying that the King story is just one facet of the whole picture, and he isn’t merely interested in touching the issue but goes hammer and tong to bring out the other facet. Kashyap asks – why no smoking? It injures your relatives, it injures you and that is a stated fact. It is an irresponsible decision, consciously or sub-consciously, but it is these irresponsible decisions that define a human being, isn’t it? What is a man if he is very picture of perfection? It is an addiction, yes, but why is it an addiction? Why is a man so weak while leaving this very habit? I have seen friends drop liquor with absolutely no fuss but cigarette is something different, it is a part of the soul. Smug non-smokers might say that the addiction is due to weakness, true to an extent, but the weakness is because it is part of the inner self. Smoking just happens to be an allegory in Kashyap’s film to all the habits, evil as they may be, we humans possess in copious amounts yet cannot leave. When you forcibly ask someone to quit you’re asking him to do a good deed, and there isn’t a shred of doubt regarding the same, but at what cost for that is forcibly removing a chunk of his inner self. The final image (how I wish that was the final one with no epilogue and pop song) says it all; it is a great image to be savored – a desolate K looking at his missing two fingers into the mirror. If someone takes away cinema from my life, you might as well paint an image of mine with no eyes. Simple. Yet profound. The story speaks of pragmatism, and I’m a great believer of that approach, but there’re elements of our life that cannot be judged always by its practical consequences. And yeah, I guess damage to the inner self, though a spiritual discussion, is in every bit a practical issue. The movie believes thus and of the three quotes it shows at the beginning it follows the Frank Sinatra one. As one might add, Sinatra was one hell of a practical person and not the least dwelling in philosophical mumbo jumbo. I believe he was the kind of person who wouldn’t dwell endlessly and needlessly on questions of morality and philosophy; he would just do what he deems right. I believe and admire that.
I don’t know how it feels while smoking, I can imagine though. For some strange reason, I have always had the company of friends who have been smokers. Of course, one doesn’t need to smoke to understand that it evokes that sense of macho-ism in a person. There is an image right in the beginning of the film that captures everything about the character K, and his kind. Standing in front of the mirror, with a cigarette in his hand, he admires himself no end. That is a narcissist, that is a metro sexual. That is the image of a harmless person one-step away from being a harmful Indian Psycho. His soul is rotten but still, it is a soul. Undertones of A Clockwork Orange? Of course, that film rings the same note.
Speaking of which, Abraham gives a very compelling performance and his stance, which is natural to him, is put to great effect here. But for the film’s sake, I wonder if it would have been better if a more expressive actor would have donned the character, say a Saif Ali Khan. He is nonchalance might have been deadly, say like Malcolm McDowell.
Another underlying theme is the irony. Whether it is the death of his brother, which I guess is Kashyap’s argument that death comes in all shapes and sizes, though it is not necessarily a debate-clinching one. Or Abbas’s father feeling relief over realizing that his son was only smoking. Or one of the final moments of the film, wherein K is standing in front of a mirror with his soul on the other end. Juxtapose that image with the starting one, where a K in full possession of his soul admires only his exterior self. Even his soul seems to be joining in the act. But ironically, a K in the dying moments devoid of a sizable chunk of his soul still manages to hear its wail, yet he is looking essentially at himself.
But the biggest irony of it all is that, though Kashyap has declared that he wants his film to be a commercial venture, it is far from it. He wants to break new grounds, and I commend his attempt, but he needs to first consolidate the grounds he is standing on. I intend to add, even avant-garde films in the other industries do not exactly see commercial success on wide release; most of them are DVD films. And they can never be, because people have got a hell of a lot of other things on their mind than to ponder endlessly over a cinematic product. Kashyap could have given us our very own A Clockwork Orange had he just simplified the overall product and made it much more direct. Part of the success of films like that are the actors who are extremely expressive so that half the job is done. Here, it the performance of the protagonist isn’t fully realized. Keep it simple, and ante up on the intellectual front and you will truly find commercial and artistic success. Here, what Kashyap seems to have done is alienate the audiences completely. I can understand; where a Yuva is considered a confusing screenplay, this film is nothing short of a sin.
I recommend the film nonetheless, not in least because it is seemingly incomprehensible but because it is beyond that. It is an experience; the mood is low key, the atmosphere surreal. We might never be on the same page but it is always engrossing. And that is nothing short of an achievement. I would recommend it to people who aren’t seeking just entertainment but look forward to debate and discussion not only over the film’s themes but the filming process in general. Kashyap is heavily inspired by the early half of twentieth expressionist German films and those neo noir films; the color is so bleached it could as well have been black and white. And the noir-ish elements aren’t limited to the mood; it is the deal with the characters too. I still feel there’s something dicey with his wife, at least by going along K’s world. I don’t necessarily approve of his loud ‘supernatural elements present” filming; it would have been better if he could have used the camera for that in the way Tarkovsky used in Solyaris. But the elements are all solid; it is just that the vision is too high and too complexly confusing for its own good.
People who still are thinking of suing Kashyap, I have got one title for you – Laga Chunari Mein Daag. They get so many chances, why not these guys who are experimenting all the time not thinking of us as dumb bums fit only for extracting money, but actually are overestimating us. They deserve our support.
I wonder if the Indian new wave has finally arrived, the French had theirs in the late 1950s and early 60s in the form of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and others; Hollywood had its renaissance in the 1970s in the form of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. We might be having our own seeds of revolution sowed through the likes of Vishal Bharadwaj, Shriram Raghavan, Anurag Kashyap and Shimit Amin. The best part if they aren’t just re-doing what the greats have done, they seem to be carving their own history, their own environment suitable for artistic talent rather than just the business-minded ones. I am not sure what I am saying but it feels exciting nonetheless.

Note: I feel the obligation to present my interpretation for the film’s events, it follows. Though I might add, I would need to watch the evidence again and corroborate my conclusions.

I believe K is part of a treatment in a proper rehabilitation centre. He is the typical smoker with all the restlessness and impatience. He gets up three times during the treatment which I guess is a psychical interpretation of the psychological development of his treatment. The first time he wakes up from the bathtub, he has still not recovered from smoking and hence his life is still traversing the circle. He gets up a second time from the bathtub, after his ears are blown off, among the rose petals, but he is still not treated fully. The impatience seems to have subsided a little bit but the smoking guns are still present. He is given a third chance where he chooses the bathtub rather than the cigarette, and he is treatment is complete. Seemingly so. But he still can hear the voices of his inner self wanting to smoke.


RUNTIME: 108 min.

You don’t need to read the book, a wonderfully poignant memoir, to realize that this film is a shame. A shame to the spirit of the whole tragic incident to the point that all the title of the film ceases to be is a placard. I can still remember me and my friends watching the video on the internet, and even the “hard” guys were silent. It was a tragedy. But what do Daniel and Mariane Pearl get. A shoddily made film meandering somewhere in the dark alleys that connect the docudrama and the emotional melodramatic approach to real life situations. I don’t mind either, just as long one is getting the spirit right. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that a film has absolutely no obligation to its source i.e. the book here, even in the spirit, but be as kind as to share your own interpretation. That is only if you have one. This film just skims the surface, whizzing past you a whole lot of gibberish details that even I, having read the book, found difficult to follow. More so, it betrays its own title for this movie’s heart is sure as hell not mighty. There, I say this here, if you have watched the film wondering about Daniel Pearl, you owe it to yourselves to read the book. It is a shame what a golden opportunity has been missed.
When we read a book, especially this one for we know the events, we expect to gain knowledge and details. The book achieved the purpose, and much more beyond that. When we watch a film, especially when we know Daniel Pearl’s tragic fate, what we expect is to share the emotional experiences and if some facts are thrown on the way by, still better. If you know Pearl’s death, and chances are you might know that, there’s absolutely nothing to be learnt here. The entire movie seems to go hammer and tong to portray the tragedy; we know what happened. What we have come here is to share the mighty heart, and nothing is provided on that count.
One might say, director Michael Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo) whose films are always political doesn’t want us to be guided by any emotion. He just wants us to know the facts and he intends to unfold the events in front of our eyes, without that cloud either political or emotional. Point taken, though he isn’t remotely this non-judgmental in his other films (Welcome to Sarajevo). I understand his complete and utter detachment with the emotional process on this reason, but I don’t necessarily agree. But if his intention is to let us know the facts, he could have been so kind as to at least grant us our right as an audience to a clear narrative. Most times, events just transpire with rapid succession aided by probably the most out of place usage of jump cuts in recent times. And to couple with that, one element I hate in films is used – characters giving us the latest up-to-dates. What this approach does is reduce all those characters, all of them potentially interesting, to a series of emotionless news readers. That the characters still manage to register a degree of connection is a triumph to the story and to the actors at work, especially Irfaan Khan (Captain) as the MI sleuth, who delivers the film’s finest performance.
And there is that ridiculous tit-for-tat reference to Guantanamo. Is that what the film asks us to think, that somehow this all gets rationalized? Conclusion: Winterbottom is a political director and here he finds himself grossly at odds with his docudrama style for the subject doesn’t deserve him, not in the least. He is a good filmmaker, sometimes, but this just isn’t his matter. He is trying to give a political tone when there isn’t any need, that at the cost of the spirit of the film.
The dialogues are laughable, and that is to put it mildly. There’re a hell of a lot of phony I can’t believes. When Marianne suggests at the table that terrorism hasn’t won for she isn’t terrorized, clichéd as it may be, it feels hollow. The very same dialogues would have been effective if not for the preceding mess that the film and its director leave. Much of it is a result of the editing style, not a single shot seems to stay for more than three seconds. After having been bored for the first 40 minutes I came up with a game, to clock my guess for the next edit. On an average I was getting 2 and that was getting predictable too. The film needed a filmmaker with intellectual tastes, like Stephen Frears used in The Queen, that lets us observe what is happening rather than forcibly guiding us by all those cuts. What Winterbottom here intends to do, I believe, is to achieve randomness, with the lives, with the city. Sir, your film simply doesn’t deserve those elements. And I re-assert, I not for a moment will agree that Winterbottom doesn’t want us to guide our emotional reactions. There is no other reason for those flashbacks to exist, yet they feel so cold, so out of place as if inserted obligatorily. By never taking the care to establish who Pearl was, and not feeling us the relationship between the couple, the director is assuming that – 1. We already know a hell of a lot about Pearl 2. We already are familiar with the inner workings of a marriage, a loving one at that.
Let me take down these two reasons. For one, we can give the director the benefit of doubt that he doesn’t want to cloud Pearl’s tragedy beforehand, he wants to create it for us at the end by showcasing Pearl just as a missing person. Silly, we all know the end coming into the theatre. For two, what the director reduces the relationship by not showing it is reducing it to a clichéd idea, where we need to withdraw memories from our bank of stereotypes. And, this move, invites comparison with the book. And as an aid, he gives us flashbacks which aren’t exactly enlightening either. Father talking to the belly of a pregnant mother, couple taking photographs over a ferry and a wedding sequence aren’t exactly novel.
Coming to the centre of attraction, Angelina Jolie doesn’t exactly set the world afire.
She is good in parts but plain bland in the rest. Jolie never, not for a moment, possesses the vulnerability of an average lady. Her Mariane seems to be a former public figure who has been thrust into normal life, and now in this tragedy, is all the grace with the media in mind. Silly there isn’t media in the house. At times she simply doesn’t have a clue as to what to do, she stares. Part of the blame of the ineffectiveness of her performance ought to be thrown at the editing too, as soon as she registers the slightest of emotions the camera movies away or the shot. Her final breakdown sequence, though good, is just a testament as to what would have been if the police procedural was trimmed in favor of Mariane’s ordeal. We all know what procedurals involve; there was no need to show Omar Saeed Sheikh’s interrogation. You know what the director wants to show there? That Sheikh has contacts with the upper echelons of every organization and he cannot be touched, forget hanged. That is true, but sequences as these betray the spirit and the director’s instincts. The very same sequence would have been wonderful in an espionage thriller; here it has no reason to exist. What are we concerned with, Mariane or police beating?
The film is being compared by some to Syriana. It is interesting because therein lies a great film based on memoirs (Robert Baer of CIA), yet not does it traverse its own views with respect to the books (See No Evil, Sleeping with the Devil). And they elevate it to a tragedy of epic proportions. Ebert comments that A Mighty Heart doesn’t reduce Pearl’s story to a plot but elevates it to a tragedy. As I look at things, the tragedy is always there for the taking, and much more, but what the film is silly for is to go for the plot. What was required is passion, to understand the book, to understand the life and to come up with a befitting homage to the Pearls. Not some extremely average by-the-numbers film, not in the least.


RUNTIME: 86 min.
RATING: *** 1/2

“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”, said Jean-Luc Godard once. Shoot ’em Up seems to take that too religiously, adds a baby to the menu, follows the principle of make it so bad that it is good and goes wham bham bham bham, literally. And all that with a method and a huge sense of humor. It is the opening sequence that does it and says it all, Clive Owen eats a carrot, pushes a carrot through a guy’s throat, slides through a gallon of costly gasoline while shooting at least a dozen ducks posing as humans, jumps though a window and over the heads of dumb bad guys and shoots ‘em in the face, and then, just as you’re asking yourself “what the hell is this” he shoots the three word Shoot-‘em-Up onto the screen. Well, those three shots are for your brains, blow them apart for the next 80 odd minutes for what is following is nonsensically entertaining. Whatever that means.
Remember John Woo’s The Killer where he has a girl in his hand as he is shooting off the bad guys, or more precisely Hardboiled where he has a baby? That was just an action setting. Director Michael Davis has, as he has told in numerous interviews, just made a movie out of it, the baby being the centre of attraction. Of course, the lady is there too, in Monica Belluci (Donna Quintano).
If one is wondering why DQ, film critic Roger Ebert has already solved the mystery for all of us – Dairy Queen. And she has been cast for what she is most famous for, her drop dead looks. No acting please, any histrionic attempt might be dealt with the only way the movie deems possible, shoot ‘em up. Clive Owen (Smith, reminds me of the Smith & Wesson) is the classic man with no name character who is incredibly adept at turkey shooting, only that he has been now given a carrot too. And mind you, the carrot isn’t just a good vegetable, especially for your eyes, it is an interesting vegetable that can be put to multiple uses – 1. It can be used to kill a bad guy by shoving it straight down his throat 2. If your fingers are at use someplace else, or are out of service, the carrot can be interestingly used as a finger too especially to pull the trigger – and if you’re a good guy you will find that vegetable everywhere. So, coming back, Smith sees a pregnant woman running away from a hood with a gun. He, for some reason, utters the fantastic word and follows them, as if it is all an obligation. Wonder, does Man with No Name have to be a vigilante? Anyways, he delivers the baby while shooting the guys, cuts off the umbilical cord with the bullet too and than is the man with the baby, the mother getting one of the billion rounds fired during the course of the film. Meanwhile, Hertz (Paul Giamatti), the baddest guy, who might as well have horns sticking out for the sake of easy recognition, is behind them for the baby. Why, one might ask? Shoot ‘em up, duh.
Clive Owen is probably in his perfect action role, where his bland-flavored charisma is put to fantastic use. He was supposed to be the successor to Pierce Brosnan for the super spy; here he gets his own little film to practice all sorts of cool stuff from the Bond hall of fame, right from target practice to the girl to firing one-liners. He could wink at Craig too, victoriously, for Belluci is hands down a better co-star than Eva Green. For his part, Owen makes the character, or whatever Smith stands for, believable and that is quiet and achievement. Paul Giamatti gets the meaty part of the histrionics parts and he relishes every moment, getting his own one-liners every now and then. “You know what is the difference between a gun and a woman?” he asks his naïve henchmen who shake their head, as they should in movies for the bad guy to make his line. “You can put a silencer on a gun.” I didn’t exactly find it funny but a smile still appeared on my face, the kind of smile that acknowledges the low sense of humor of teenagers. In a way, the entire film is straight out of a teenager fed up on video games, violent action films, porn and hell of a lot of gun stuff. There is that rebellious nature in the film, if you see a mother spanking her child you spank her back. If you see a silver-spoon-in-his-mouth-all-the-time kid driving his way to madness for himself and peril for others on the road, crash him off the road. If you don’t like an over-smart pony-tailed punk, shoot his horse-tail off. As Giamatti’s character quips, tit for tat.
As for action, there is just hell of a lot of that. It wants to be campy and humorous true, and I get the point too for a couple of sequences are wonderfully entertaining. But somehow, the things just don’t stand memorable at the end, and I am sure any self respecting action film wants to have its action sequences remembered. To make it all funny and put it up as an excuse is just being taking the easy way out, in my opinion. There’re sure some action sequences that are entertaining, I repeat, but on the whole the package is just repetitive. A one trick pony where the trick is to make action over the top. Looks good up front but what happens during the rest of the course of the film is the mere showcase of new ways, and we as audience is expecting that. It gets a little tiring towards the end. The movie isn’t brilliant enough to be deemed must watch, it somehow manages to remain mere entertaining. I would like to add here though, if someone comes back from a screening and critics that the film is preposterous, ask him whether his sense of humor caught one of those bullets flying around in the air.
Director Michael Davis seems to be the kind of guy who when makes a joke has few of the guys laughing but almost everyone is smiling, not because the joke is funny but because he is so cheerful and likable. The film too, is offensive but it is so cute, if I may say so, that we hardly mind. Even his bad guys seem to be likable, Giamatti here, and when he asks them to do a really cruel sequence it feels like he doesn’t really want them to do that. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made that homage films earlier this year, in Grindhouse. Seems Shoot ‘em Up is not a homage but the real deal, and with minimum of fuss.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


RUNTIME: 103 min.

There’s a golden rule I have realized over the years – sit in the director’s chair and wonder what he was thinking while making a film and more importantly, argue with yourself about the choices made, look for reasons if it is a good film you’ve made. Forget good, it is at least a watchable film that doesn’t drive audiences to wonder about comparing the size of your brain vis-à-vis a peanut. And if you truly are able to pass that examination, if you truly are able to convince yourself that every choice of yours has a reason, have faith that it is a good film you’ve made and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be embarrassed about.
Rogue Assassin, starring two of modern action cinema’s respectable figures in Jason Statham and Jet Li, is one such film. There’re a number of elements that, standing alone, might drive susceptible members of the audience to turn, in unison, towards the friend who thought coming to this was a good idea, especially when television has to offer all the super-exciting song-and-dance competitions. But as I reflect back at every such move, and many more, first-time director Philip G. Atwell seems to have reasons (ones that would make the heads turn back, in unison, to the screen) for most of them. Please don’t get any false notions; this is very much average cinema, but average cinema at its very best, the kind of average I would like my cinema to be and, not only in the said genres but all across the spectrum.
FBI agent John Crawford (Statham) is out to avenge the murder of his partner and his family, three years earlier, at the hands of an infamous assassin going by the name of Rogue (Li). Meanwhile Rogue now roams around by the name of Victor Shaw, having deep intentions of his own, as he squares off two mob families and starts wiping the members one by one, Yojimbo-style.
Now, this is actually a thriller masquerading as an action film. As a matter of fact, there is enough potential in the plot that it could have been an out-and-out no-holds-barred bang-bang action film, John Woo style (kindly do not misinterpret ‘bang-bang’ as Michael Bay but as Woo’s The Killer) or it could have been a psychological thriller, with twists and turns at every end, although that would have required a few more re-writes. And either way, the germ is present for a landmark film in this story inspired in doses from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Woo’s The Killer. In its present form though, the director is quite satisfied with his seemingly low ambitions and I respect him for that. He does strive to make a memorable film, the attempt is visible, and there is visible the try to make a sensible story. There are obligatory elements from the action-movie checklist, and he does try to tick them all, he at least attempts to give a coherent reason for all of them. Since the names are Li and Statham we’re talking about, anyone would naturally assume that the film will have at least a million action sequences. Atwell does fail on that end though, and the reason for it is most people would expect a mindless action film while he’s attempting to bring some sense to the mayhem. I agree with him all the way. The action sequences aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Of course, you would often have trouble figuring out what the hell is happening – the editing isn’t that great – still here’s joy to be had. The violent choreography aims for the randomness in an action sequence, more Peckinpah than Woo. Not that it is memorable like any of these two, but it is just that describing the action in terms of these two names makes it a whole lot easier. To be frank, the action is unimaginative but I commend for he is at least attempting to do something worthwhile and not just exploding everything up at the drop of a hat (read Michael Bay and the kind). He does try to induce a lot of style, a lot of swagger in the action and he does succeed most times.
Halfway through the film, I found myself wondering about the wisdom of choosing Statham for the kind of character he plays. The character is one of those dramatic kinds, haunted by the death and tragedy and all that stuff, and Statham is hardly capable of being dramatic. Don’t get me wrong, Statham is one hell of an actor at what he does; he is one of my favorite actors. If I ever get to make an action film, he will probably be the first choice for the leading man with his no-nonsense demeanor and the wry sense of humor. He is the kind of actor that will inhabit the world of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. But not suitable for dramatic parts; he would hardly be chosen to play Jason Bourne, would he? After having watched the film, though, and its twists and turns, I guess the reason for which he was chosen is kind of good. Anyways, I always like the sight of Statham. But it is Jet Li who has the best part and the best performance. He needs to look cold and cool at the same time and he does a remarkable job at that. It immediately reminded me of his best performance across the Pacific, prior to this, in Lethal Weapon 4. He gets the meatier portions of the action sequences and he sails through them, the seasoned pro he is. But a quibble here, the director could have tried to ‘insert’ an action square-off sequence between Li and Statham. He does put one at the end but that is an embarrassment to any self-respecting action star, let alone Li and Statham. And what is more, he squares them off in a verbal duel. Someone ought to have realized that the audience members didn’t exactly consist of Shakespeare followers. There should have been something to savor.
John Lone, once the actor who once played Emperor Pu Yi in the great Bertolucci film The Last Emperor, is here too. I am not sure if that is a reason to be sad or happy.
Action films of this kind are so much better than their $100 million plus budget counterparts, shams masquerading as summer action blockbusters with names as Live Free or Die Hard and Transformers. This is many times entertaining than so over-hyped names, a film that isn’t soft in the head like on of these films but instead respects the tough nuts that are sitting expecting a real action film. On a scale measuring the action films this year, The Bourne Ultimatum being 10 and Live Free or Die Hard being -10, Rogue Assassin would probably stand at 5. It sure could have been better, a film that would explore the psychological themes at hand yet be an action film, but that would be asking for an utopian world. Good cinema, let us cast them aside for a moment. The rest, if it doesn’t get too much worse than this, I won’t mind even a bit.

Monday, October 08, 2007


RUNTIME: 140 min. (citation needed)
RATING: *****

I have never ever touched a James Hadley Chase novel; the covers alone made me avoid them for they looked intellectually cheap and in an unflattering way, pulpy. A great degree of self awareness and the humor generated from that awareness, though, can create a masterpiece, and that was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, probably the most influential Hollywood film of the 90s (The Usual Suspects, Memento, Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to name only the great ones). And why am I blabbering on with this trivial trivia? Probably because I sincerely believe Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar will attain the same influential status in years to come – a film that will be run unendingly in cinema schools all over the country to carefully peel over the brilliant clarity of its narrative and its almost uncanny knack of pulling off the Hitchcock-ian trick. And what exactly is Hitchcock-ian, many viewers un-exposed to the great master of thriller might wonder. Aside from the standard set of rules that one can search down on the internet (cool blonde, protagonists thrust in real-time tension situations) there is one pretty simple rule – turn left after giving the right indicator. Johnny Gaddaar achieves that brilliantly and a significant number of times. Of course, one could sit highbrowed and try to outguess following the indicator rule but that not only would be a disservice to a film but to the basic process of viewing a film. And yeah, Johnny Gaddaar lands a grip on the narrative so tight that will be pretty difficult for those to raise their brows and place their chin in between the thumb and index finger.
One of my great memories as a kid at the movies was Amitabh Bachchan’s Don and in particular the opening credits. I was in my first grade when I saw it and was naturally puzzled by something happening in red – there’s Amitabh Bachchan running to catch a train, Amitabh Bachchan running amongst a whole load of hung clothes. Something struck me when I saw those very same images, albeit in Technicolor. Of course my limited intellect didn’t exactly comprehend it. And why have I been caught blabbering again? Definitely because Johnny Gaddaar is a product of a vision that loves cinema, and I mean true love (Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino), not the fake kind that comes up with factory flicks. These are one of the safest pair of hands you will come across for it uses the opening credits rest-of-the-film image-flash like no other I have ever seen. In most thrillers, it is an interesting stylistic device (including Don). Here, there is more than one reason to safely assume that it just might be the final-flash-of-one’s-life they say a dying man experiences in those moments. Just in case one is wondering I’m talking a whole load of cockamamie, there is more than a bucketful of morality and guilt in this tale to back me.
The story is simple nut and bolt stuff about a huge chunk of money and a member’s, in this case Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh), plan to lighten his partners of that sum. Of course, the nuts and bolts assemble into a wonderful whodunit-whydunit-howdunit but that is not the lone specialty here. But it is the clarity of the narrative and the ability of the filmmaker to play with audiences’ that makes Johnny Gaddaar a supreme film. We do enjoy the breathtaking ride and at the same time are given the narrative clarity to make up our own theories. And that is when the Hitchcock-ian trick actually succeeds and blossoms. Films can ape all they want but an essential ingredient to pulling off the rug under is to help the audiences conjure up their own stories. A very interesting sequence happens in the opening forty minutes or so. Vikram, after having decided to go ahead with his scheme, buys chloroform from a drugstore citing the reason that his cat is unhealthy and has to be mercy-killed. All the elements until then – the manipulative ways of the protagonist as shown in his demeanor in front of the bus, his scheming ways, the technical aspects and most importantly the acting – take a cumulative effect in making the audiences believe that the perfectly healthy cat is a goner. And then he takes a left, testing the chloroform on himself. And yet again, this is not just a trick for the sake of being a trick. This establishes or rather dispels a very important notion we have about Vikram, and the script is so brilliant that it uses that knowledge to its own effect (Vikram blurting out everything under danger at various points during the film). There is that very clever use of fate intervening too, like one of those Coen brother films (I was reminded of Fargo), mocking the conventionally unimaginative helpful-to-the-plot twist used in pulp novels most notably in the Dan Brown bestseller The Da Vinci Code. Some sequences though, rather some developments are not handled as clinically as the rest of the film, most notably Inspector Kalyan’s (Govind Namdeo) sudden realization of Vikram’s guilt. A shot of him going into the airport and all would sure have been in the script, and would have been shot too, but I guess got scissored in the editing room. Though my version of the script would have opened all the cards beforehand, I respect and immensely admire what Raghavan has done here.
This is Raghavan’s film, through and through. He knows every nook and corner of his film and how that will be affecting the audience, a hallmark of a good narrator. He displays the same remarkable grasp over the medium and its language as some of the best in the business, finally a director who uses the various techniques not to show off but to further the viewing experience. He seems to know how to use the entire gamut of cinematic expressions; he knows exactly which sequences need a background score and which need the surroundings to take effect. He seems to have some sort of fondness for red for it crops a number of times, I haven’t comprehended the usage. His camera has a lot of love for its actors. There’s a remarkable sequence wherein Prakash reveals his suspicion to Vikram. The sequence could have been easily shot by using the normal two-by-two editing wherein alternate cuts are made to each actor. And that would have not only have been conventional, it would have done gross injustice to the great performance that Vinay Pathak delivers. Instead, Raghavan goes for a rear windshield shot showing Prakash in full view yet showing the scheming guilty eyes of Vikram in the rear-view mirror reminding one such sequence between Samuel Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown. Now that is brilliance for that decision helps the audience enjoy the sequence no end. He elicits brilliant performances from everyone involved for he gives them immense clarity that is so evident in their work. The five fishes are all good and as for Neil Mukesh, this lad is good. He underplays the character allowing the sequence and his director to do the rest. One brilliant shock sequence right before the interval is as much due to his talent as much as Raghavan’s. And special mention for Vinay Pathak (Khosla ka Ghosla), he is a fantastic actor and comes up with the best performance of the film. There’s that street smartness in his overall demeanor, he always seems to be so natural just like a Pankaj Kapur. Raghavan’s ladies disappoint him, Rasika Joshi hams endlessly and Rimi Sen is probably the only person in the entire team who doesn’t have the remotest idea about acting.
He paces the film excellently. Many critics have said that the film loses pace in the second half, which is incorrect. Pacing a thriller doesn’t remotely mean that everything needs to happen quickly and with the same energy. The last thing a brilliantly constructed film needs is a pace that remains uniform throughout, if a sequence wherein he is executing his plan and on the run has the same pace as a sequence where in he is having moral conflicts god help the film. If asked what a finely paced film is, an obvious answer would be The Departed. Well, it is, but The Shawshank Redemption is just as brilliantly paced for what is pace but to find the right tone to narrate a tale. Johnny Gaddaar isn’t mere thrilling escapist fare, there is that moral struggle of a mole that doesn’t beat its chest and shout but remains where it belongs, internally. And I can’t remember even a single sequence out of place.
Quentin Tarantino once said that he wants to make movies for Friday nights, for audiences to have an absolute blast. This is one such film, a film that besides its central strength of the thrills and chills has plenty much to offer for the cinema lover, a hell of a lot of garnish. There’re hundreds of messages I have read that say Raghavan has done a Tarantino. As much as that is deservedly flattering, I’m not sure Tarantino is just that and the comparisons are a bit overdrawn. Let me put it this way – both share an immense love for cinema. There is more than the ten-film share of cinematic references here besides the obvious ones to Parwana and Johny Mera Naam. Prakash going for the kill under the impression that lady luck is on his side is an obvious reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler, 1955). Then much in the mould of the mysterious suitcase of Pulp Fiction, we never know about the “furniture” that is being dealt with. Inspector Kalyan is an obvious homage to Harvey Keitel’s ultra-professional Winston Wolfe. We’ve the watch too. And there’s substance too for the movie always manages to be rich in humor bordering on a black comedy. Neil Mukesh does a hilarious dead-on Sanjeev Kumar. I can’t help but wonder about the fatalistic effect a single sequence showing the killer get ready inserted before Vikram leaves at the end; the air of inevitability that had already been let out in the beginning would have taken full effect. But that is different and it is me (I was actually dishonest and taking a cue from Holmes eliminated my way through to the killer as soon as he wore the jacket.). And this is a brilliant film, probably the one Indian film that will grow a cult following down the years. A film that will probably be remade thirty years down the line, a film that could act as a wonderful export. And I hope to god it does business in a quantity that matches its quality. Asking too much? Okay, let us settle for half. Brilliant film.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


RUNTIME: 95 min.

Remember the brilliant sequence in Minority Report where Anderton and Agatha evade their pursuers by her pre-cognitive abilities. Next, the latest attempt by Hollywood to turn Philip K. Dick in his grave, stretches that sequence over an entire picture. I wonder what drove the need to pull the great man’s name into this picture, wasn’t Paycheck enough of an assault already. All the guy has in common to the protagonist in Dick’s The Golden Man is his name and his future seeing abilities. And that alternate-future judging, come on, even Groundhog Day had that. Next is a one-trick pony based on a preposterously outlandish premise, yet its mediocrity/brilliance lies in the fact that it turns them all into the conventionally clichéd with consummate ease. The fact that Cage can see two minutes into the future and that he can judge all the probable events like one of those chess moves is easily digested and accepted, what the film follows it up with is truckloads of garbage. It is one of those films that pile up a whole load of cockamamie in the name of sci-fi and a decent author, invent some inane internal logic and then don’t even have the courtesy to follow that. The trick would have been better off for an episode of Tom and Gerry where Gerry could second guess every Tom move and drive him crazy, not for a supposed action-blockbuster that has a special effects budget totaling to round figure of US $173, tops.
There is some supposed terrorist attempt to nuke out Los Angeles. Hence, the “Intel” is after the two-minute headstart-in-life Cris Johnson (Cage) to see the future and help them nab the terrorists. I somehow am unable to comprehend the wisdom in having a major chunk of your force and money, not forgetting a stone-in-a-black-suit masquerading as a woman (read Julianne Moore) behind a man who can give you a two-minute advance, tops, in finding a nuke. Still baffling is the terrorists’ counter-move to camp their Entire Team outside the hotel to kill Cris thereby playing their part as effectively as possible in this wild goose chase. They are a curious bunch too, this all-star terrorist team, consisting of members representing the various countries of Europe and some poor-excuse-for-a-sniper guy (couldn’t pinpoint his language or country but he didn’t appear European).
By the way, it is never explained why were the terrorists trying to bomb LA? Maybe because they just saw Déjà vu. Speaking of which, everyone here and the men behind that incredible timeline film could get together and create the most devastatingly unintentional humor-filled film on time/future travel.
Though the dialogues in this film serve the singular aim to let us know what the hell is happening, I still loved the Intel-crap-talk. Right about the time Nic Cage and the incredibly dumb anti-terrorist squad convene a meeting to tell us what their super-dumb strategy is going to be, one moron asks - "What about Intel?" The stone-in-a-black-suit woman snaps – “We don't need it, we have him." And the strategy, to no one’s surprise, involves a whole lot of incomprehensible bang-bang, Cage setting a new landmark in dodging bullets and the obligatory shooting of the black secondary character.
I nowadays have it tough watching one Cage on screen, in the climax, there was a whole army heading in all possible directions in search of all the horribly bad films that are going to come in the future. And this time around, he has outdone his ridiculous hairdo of Ghostrider too. Cage, though, has perfected his impersonation of a zombie, he could even land himself a role as some sort of a zombie leader in the next Resident Evil film. When it comes to a dumb action film, Cage can act it out to the butchers like no one else can. Jessica Biel could use some of those pre-cognitive abilities to look at her career; she is making one out of bombs. She has little to do here apart from being a pleasant view. Julianne Moore is well, just that, a stone-in-a-black-suit.

One thing disturbs me though, why the nod to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove? Isn’t it enough that one great man has been terrorized by his own creation? Yet another thing that saddens me is how someone who made films like Once Were Warriors, Mulholland Falls and The Edge is now making Die another Day, xXx: State of the Union and now this.

Friday, October 05, 2007


RUNTIME: 119 min.
RATING: ****

Choosing a woman to take reins of her own justice isn’t a move just for the sake of it; it does have its emotional and psychological bearings. Most revenge films, most notably the stoic-faced Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, just happen to revel in the vengeful mood basically exploiting the audiences’ taste for that best-served-cold dish. And they happen to star a male, an emotionless gun-wielding poor-excuse-for-a-vigilante male so conveniently appealing to the core demographic, isn’t a coincidence either. I admit, I enjoy the pleasure of the bang-bang of Kersey’s gun, but I do feel guilty about it too for those kind of films aren’t provoking the thought as much as they are taking the shallow, convenient side of the moral debate and pretending that they are profound when all the time they are is mere genre films. But a woman has feelings, at least it is the norm to portray that she has feelings. And that is what Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy) has used to portray, not the cause and the after-effects for they are so convenient to portray, but the effect and the transformation process of those effects. There are few aspects of human existence that are as tough to portray convincingly as the transformation of a personality.
On the surface Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is a regular happy woman having the love of her life in her boyfriend, yet she does have a remarkable sense of observation for life, for her surroundings, for her world. And that sets her apart from most happy people who more often than not are oblivious to all the elements of the world that have little or nothing to do with them. That is an important trait to be established for such a person, in my opinion, is infinitely more sensitive and susceptible to some of the dangerous effects later shown in the picture than the oblivious kind. Erica works as a host of a radio show “Street Walk” where she speaks on her views, views that alternate between the pink and the gray. She returns home one day and goes for a stroll with her soon-to-be-husband boyfriend. And that stroll in the up to now friendly neighborhood of the up to now friendly neighborhood shatters her life forever when the two of them are brutally beaten by three unknown hoodlums in an act of random violence. Her boyfriend succumbs to the fatal injuries but Erica, survives, yet the pink area in her is almost lost forever. And she turns to vigilantism in order to avenge herself.
Watching The Brave One, I was reminded of Shyamalan’s brilliant deep-in-comics mythology film Unbreakable, a film as much about transformation as it is about realization. Though the script here by Roderick and Bruce Taylor isn’t remotely as brilliantly convincing as Shyamalan’s, the psychological and emotional effects are portrayed wonderfully of being a vigilante. David Dunne in Unbreakable reminded me of Spiderman with generous doses of Superman, a man morally good yet not having the god-like heart of the Man of Steel. Erica here is a straightforward vigilante, not Batman (then, how can one be) but very much resonating the violent spirit of Azrael (For non-Batfans, Azrael is the man who stood for and as Batman when Bane broke the Bat’s back in Knightfall). Her job as a radio show host echoes her vigilante status – a voice without a face. People are aware of her and her voice but they don’t really know her, just as everybody in Gotham is aware of billionaire Bruce Wayne.
But granting her a vigilante status would be too convenient to describe her morality and thence a gross injustice to the film. Erica asks herself after she kills two in a subway as to why didn’t she pull the gun before and warn them rather than wait for them to attack and shoot them point blank, giving them no chance. She wonders, why don’t her hands stutter. But she is avoiding herself the question that is most obvious and the answer to the above two – why does she have this uncanny knack of walking into these situations, situations wherein she could use her gun even when not compelled to? Probably she seeks them and probably she relishes them, probably a case of Memento. What director Neil Jordan and in effect The Brave One convey so effectively, despite some none too convincing plot markers aiding the transformation, are the emotional results of this violent transformation and it does provoke the debate inside us regarding the morality of the vigilantism. And it never betrays the protagonist, the stand so obviously and truthfully stated in its title. Jordan is like a lawyer so honestly and diligently explaining the case of her client that he naively exposes the hidden secrets too. We empathize with Erica but we never condone her acts, in fact we feel for the victims.
But of course, the actual graphic element of the violent acts fails to live up to the emotional levels that the film so very much aspires for. It doesn’t remotely shock – you expect her to shoot in the face, you expect that burst of the bang. The opening random act though, does land a brutal punch in the stomach; probably on par with the rape sequence in Foster’s other film about random violence The Accused. I found myself cringe in my seat at every blow that was landed on the couple (I sleepwalked through the so-called torture porns like Saw and Hostel), the sound effects taking maximum points much like the rifle gun shots boxing punches in Raging Bull.
The film, as I mentioned its diligence earlier, does overdo the style though. The tone sometimes gears into melodrama and narrates through voiceovers elements that are better off felt. The script is a worry too; the plot markers aiding the transformation are too convenient with a cheese in top. There was no need to show the first kill in the shop in so dramatic a fashion; probably the film felt audiences wouldn’t like her protagonist. It captures so brilliantly the apprehension Erica faces as she is entering the world for the best time, yet it overdoes the after-effects of the killings, needlessly moving the camera to and fro. What is one moment a brilliantly subtle capture of the mechanical ways of the cop at the police station is blown away into just-in-case-you-didn’t-get-it imposing upon the audience as the film asks him to repeat the line to another victim. A little bit of overestimating the audience wouldn’t do any harm.
One sequence in particular bothered me though – as Erica leaves the shop after killing the man she tries to wipe the fingerprints of her own gun, probably a result of our nervous instincts developed on TV-Cinema crime. But she doesn’t leave the shop in a hurry; she methodically gets across the counter and removes the security tape. Instinctively, shouldn’t that be a realization some time later, say, after she walks a few steps outside the shop. There was something too Bourne-ish about her instincts and that didn’t exactly ring a convincing bell in my ear.
Jodie Foster, of course is brilliant and when is she isn’t. She even made me sit through the awful Flightplan. She has that honesty in her; in her performances and this is a character so tailor-made for Foster. Yes, she was brilliant with her charmingly manipulative ways in Inside Man and how couldn’t she be. But this is vintage Foster. And she has an equally wonderful support from Terence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow). Howard reminds me of Forest Whittaker, besides the resemblance, he does have the same sensitivity about him. A man who is honest, righteous and so vulnerable to be hurt, a man who so readily empathizes with people. The relationship that the two characters share could be classified under romance, yes, but what they share is something deeper and stronger that is not bounded by gender. It is the connecting cord that runs between them that transcends commonplace friendships, a relation that reverberates in the strange unique way as that of Batman and Gordon – the way they look at each other, feel each other, know each other.
How will the two end up? Will they clash? I’m not too sure the film does justice at the end. But I won’t complain, not at all. Maybe that is why vigilantism strikes a chord. However, I wish they didn’t end it by Erica walking past the tunnel to her voice-over; rather a shot of her seemingly at peace with herself would have been an image to savor. And then, we could have a clash between the ideologies of David Dunne and Erica Bain in a sequel.