Sunday, December 23, 2007

IZGNANIE: MOVIE REVIEW (THE BANISHMENT)












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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2007

TAARE ZAMEEN PAR: MOVIE REVIEW

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

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

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





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Monday, December 17, 2007

1408: MOVIE REVIEW









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

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

Friday, December 14, 2007

I AM LEGEND: MOVIE REVIEW















CAST: WILL SMITH, ALICE BRAGA, CHARLIE TAHAN
DIRECTOR: FRANCIS LAWRENCE
RUNTIME: 101 min
RATING: ***1/2
GENRE: ACTION, SCI-FI, HORROR

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

Monday, December 10, 2007

HITMAN MOVIE REVIEW











CAST: TIMOTHY OLYPHANT, DOUGRAY SCOTT, OLGA KURYLENKO, ULRICH THOMSEN
DIRECTOR: XAVIER GENS
RUNTIME: 100 min.
RATING: **1/2
GENRE: ACTION, THRILLER

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

Monday, December 03, 2007

THE MAN FROM EARTH MOVIE REVIEW

CAST: DAVID LEE SMITH, TONY TODD, JOHN BILLINGSLEY, ELLEN CRAWFORD, WILLAIM KATT, RICHARD RIEHLE, ANNIKA PETERSON
DIRECTOR: RICHARD SCHENKMAN
RUNTIME: 87 min.
RATING: *****
GENRE: SCI-FI, DRAMA

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

Sunday, December 02, 2007

THE KINGDOM MOVIE REVIEW















CAST: JAMIE FOXX, CHRIS COOPER, ASHRAF BARHOM, JENNIFER GARNER, JASON BATEMAN
DIRECTOR: PETER BERG
RUNTIME: 110 min.
RATING: *
GENRE: ACTION, THRILLER

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

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