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 -

Now check this out.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


RUNTIME: Contender for the most Interminable 142 min. of anybody’s life (of course, we ran out of there during half time)

The clichéd hooker with the heart of gold
A clichéd love-tale to us she told
A tear broke; as we saw the tale unfold
The 100-rupee bill spent brought a chill so cold

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

Let me tell you about the star-childs
None of them, I don’t likes

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

The male is happy, insanely so
Either that or weed at home he does grow
The lady is clueless, afraid of the night glow
Umbrella saves from rain and sun, pity she doesn’t know
I only care for my sweet little money back, though

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

The hooker, she carries a purse on her
For every hooker-cliché, to the purse she does refer
Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o
The only dilemma worrying her in the entire picture
To be humorously poetic or poetically humorous, monsieur
She hammed so much, my life started to blur

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

For a brief eternity, the lady’s love appears
Glum for some reason, the iron bars he fears

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

A sort of world we’re asked to believe
Ridden with every cliché one can conceive
Drop a coin, literally, and emotions change
Characters exhibit a retard’s emotional range

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

Dialogues it seems are of no concern
The actors paid for blabbering on their turn

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

Humanoids they seem these characters inside
In lacking any depth they seem to take pride
Seem to have been developed from the big old guide
Big Old Book of Characters Dumb and Tales Contrived

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

The sets are gorgeous but that is about it
But not remotely beautiful to make one sit
A total of two shots show the whole town
Alas, they never do take us around
Bore us to death, in the same old places
Same old sets, and the same boring faces

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

In there, the time-space continuums bend
Dreams and horror seemed to blend
Everything still, for eternity it seemed to extend
Is your will strong? at half-time asked my friend
Run outta here, or else into insanity we might descend
Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

What do I rate this torture in the end
No Stars in sight, only clouds to spend

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

Hollow it is this set so grand
Not art, but a sleight of hand
Blow us away with narrative insight
Don’t flash us with false artistic delight

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

So bad was the after effect
The day by all means I had to correct
I cleansed myself of the night’s grief
Solyaris and Stalker finally provided me relief

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

Next Halloween, Saw V will be there
With his torture tricks, Jigsaw is out to scare
For them makers, I’ve a scare so rare
Victims seeing this film, a sight no one could bear
For this advice, Lions Gate, please pay me back my fare

Saawariya o-o-o-o, Saawariya o-o-o-o

Note: If anybody has any connections and can make this song sell, it would be great. I spent, sorry burnt a hundred and fifty bucks for this White Trash that too on Diwali. I hope to God I’m not punished for it for the rest of the year.

Monday, November 05, 2007


RUNTIME: 99 min.

Nancy Drew! The very name engulfs me with childhood fantasies. Of course, those fantasies were shared by very-much-real Gabriela Sabatini too. Although I have read only a handful of her adventures; the Hardy Boys almost always taking precedence, but the very idea of a teenage female sleuth was simply irresistible. Hindsight has provided me with both age and wisdom, and those do not necessarily hold the adventures in high esteem. Frankly, they seem to be buried somewhere, too trivial to recollect, but I still cherish those times.
The film though, directed by Andrew Fleming whose last two feature films Dick and The Craft have dealt primarily with teenage female characters, and written by him and Tiffany Paulsen seem to hold the idea of a teenage female sleuth as an absurdity. And the absurdity, in their opinion, is not only with respect to the theme but to the time as well. The Nancy Drew series, which according to Wikipedia started in the 1930s, and is set in the fictional town of River Heights is supposed to be an absurd little place warped in time. So what do the filmmakers conjure up from their bag of tricks? A self-mocking tale that plucks the dear of so many through the better part of 70 years and places her in present-day Los Angeles, or more precisely, Hollywood. And that is pretty much that. Oh yeah, one more thing. They seem to have their head pretty much warped to with all the high school mean girls stuff. So, just in case you are wondering that you’re in for an engaging little mystery film, you just might be in for a minor disappointment. And this is only for Drew readers. The hard-core fans though will lap it up in any case; only the ones referred to as the occasional ones and the ones referred to as the non-readers will find the going tough out there. Not that the film is terrible; but it is just that it neither is good to have a ball nor is it bad to slam your head. It just meanders somewhere between that corridor where every attempt at humor is welcomed with a shake of the head and a small but significant scream in the head – “There is my ten bucks floating”. Oh, of course, if you’re between 8-11 years of age or are hell bent on earning the full worth of your admission price by laughing at everything coming your way, then there’s plenty of laughs. Still, I’m not sure though.
The film starts off by mocking the adventures of Drew (Emma Roberts) by means of a poor-excuse-for-a-funny-sequence where she helps the River Heights police nab two reputed thieves. For the sake of safety, dad Carson Drew (Tate Donovan) asks her word not to ever get into sleuthing. And they move into modern day Los Angeles, making room for a hoping-to-be-classic fish out of water situation where Drew sniffs another mystery – the death of actress Dehlia Draycott (Laura Harring) – who happens to be a former resident of her new house in the city. What we need to endure for the rest of the film is a wafer-thin plot stretched beyond its limits, interspersed with dumb high-school fashion jokes. No prizes for guessing that our Drew always manages to come out on top.
Emma Roberts, niece of Julia Roberts, is sweet to the point of being saccharine. She does turn in a rather good performance, and that is pretty much that. The supporting cast all do their bit to rise above furniture levels, and sometimes manage to just rise above. They of course do manage to annoy you occasionally, but that is the film. I expected that once the opening sequence ended; this is just shoddy filmmaking.
I never get the fixation some of modern filmmakers have for mocking their source material – as if it is cool to be self-aware. On one end we have brilliant adaptations slavishly faithful and serious to their sources in Batman Begins, Sin City, V For Vendetta, 300 and on the other we’ve films as these that think that having a self mocking tone might absolve you of all folly. I agree Drew isn’t exactly Clarice Starling but who the hell expected that. The target audience is one who loves the character, and for their sake alone, come up with something that is remotely adventurous, to the least. I’ve no idea why the ‘mean girls’ are in the film; all the jokes fall flat. The final sequence is absurd to the point of being retarded where the mean girls are discussing fashion and a criminal is being apprehended right in front of them. I’m not against self-awareness but at least believe in your source. This turns out to be nothing – a harmless, meaningless, pointless, craft-less fluff. I dread how Chronicles of Narnia would turn out in their hands with all the self mocking.



RUNTIME: 114 min.
RATING: ****

Ever wonder how vulgar and sweet could be used to describe the same thing. Try Superbad. It’ll probably force you to. This isn’t a teen sex comedy where the characters’ awareness-levels make you wonder if they ever, for a moment, read or watch anything other than porn. Not that these guys don’t have the same cravings; they very much do but they are capable of remarking that it is sad that the Coen brothers don’t make porn. The movie is bound to be spoken of in the same breath as the American Pie movies, a comparison borne more out of lack of frame of reference more than anything else. For one Superbad is a million times smarter, funnier, loving and most importantly profane. It doesn’t put a naked female object to parade dumbness and lack of humor (a trait I very much attribute to American Pie movies); it just uses a hell of a lot of dialogues to crack bagsful of laughter. On a scale, it is nearer to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused than anything else. And yeah, hell of a lot of funnier than the latter.
And yeah, it transpires during a single day, just like the latter. Seth (Jonah Hill, Knocked Up) and Evan (Arrested Development) are two contrasting horny teenage geeks hell bent on losing their virginity before they’re all set for college. Though they’re best friends, they’re attending different colleges. And they get the opportunity to get all set when a Home Education crush Jules (Emma Stone) bestows Seth with the responsibility of alcohol for her party. Then there’s the third geek, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who is so unpopular that he is disliked even among the three of them. I wonder how much of an achievement it is to be so geeky that you’re an outsider even among the geek community. But this outsider comes up with what would be the geek-band’s trump card for alcohol – a fake ID. The movie ensues as the raunch explodes full blast during the rest of the night.
The dialogues, especially the one-liners depicting the bodily parts, are consistently humorous and occasionally over-the-top hilarious. Imagine Quentin Tarantino making a high-school movie, and Superbad has the dialogues which would be very much what QT would come up with. Funny and referential. The profanity isn’t just for the sake of it; it shows the angst and desperation of the high school nerds who have just been spent on porn never having experienced the real deal. Not a joke seems out of place with the characters; most times laughs are generated solely by the anticipation by how a particular character will react, especially Seth. I was absolutely in splits when Seth finds that dorky Fogell with his fake ID as just a single name printed on it – McLovin. Fogell says – “They let you pick any name you want when you get down there.” Seth shoots back – “And you landed on McLovin.” Fogell, not exactly realizing the tone of Seth – “Yeah, it was between that or Muhammad.” Seth blasts – “Why the F*** would it be between THAT or Muhammad? Why don't you just pick a common name like a normal person?” Fogell, commands all his wisdom and remarks – “Muhammad is the most commonly used name on Earth. Read a fucking book for once.” And Seth turns the other way to explode on the other side. This is the sort of lines, which I call contextual humor, that lace the entire film.
This seems very much like an autobiographical film, with co-writer Seth Rogen (the man behind and in Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin) mirroring himself in Seth’s character. I guess high school films, especially the good ones like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused have more of a probability of being autobiographical in nature. Among all the profane humor, there is that touch of sadness and nostalgia creeping in. The movie is sometimes very original. And rarely do teen SEX comedies have such likable characters. These aren’t your usual clichéd dorks; I can see them grow up into respectable people who would laugh their high school shenanigans off. Fogell, especially devoid of true friends, finds two of them in two in-adept cops who for all their looks mirror Seth and Evan. If the writing is good, the performances even more so. I’ll be looking forward for more of Jonah Hill; he just elevates the lines to another level. I hear fresh from school Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the new sensation of town, with everybody wearing an “I am McLovin” T-shirt. The females too, aren’t exactly what they have been the past few years in such films – simple sex objects devoid of any personality or vulnerability. Though the screen time isn’t a measure of their depth, they do come across as characters you would feel for, characters you would wonder as tow hat is in their mind. These aren’t just blonde bombshell high school pampered queens; they’re very much susceptible to folly and embarrassing situations. And I just love the motto of Seth – “You know when you hear girls say 'Ah man, I was so shit-faced last night, I shouldn't have f***ed that guy?' We could be that mistake!”
I had forgotten that the teen sex comedies could also have characters that one could identify with. Yes, one doesn’t need to attend high school in the United States to identify with these superbad dorks. All the qualification you need is to have been a guy during some or the other point in your life. Guys don’t boast of too many personal moments one could get moist-eyed about; all we’ve learnt is to deal with everything, absolutely everything, with a punch of humor. We, in our most personal moments, revel in personal attack where nobody can take offense. And humor is the best way to deal with anything, absolutely anything. And, for that, no freaking superbad guy has any need to take lessons from Clint Eastwood. It comes natural. (And there I resist myself from going into the Superbad mode.)
Meanwhile, it will suffice to say that Superbad is destined to be remembered with the same love and nostalgia I guess is reserved for Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti. And its dialogues, I guess, ought to be memorized.