Thursday, January 31, 2008

JUNO: MOVIE REVIEW















Cast: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner
Director: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 96 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Comedy, Romance

This you can take my word for – the best performance of this year is a three-way race between Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Daniel-Day Lewis (There Will be Blood) and a twenty-year old who, believe you me, will be spoken to of in the same breath as the legend above, whenever it is her time comes. That would be Ellen Page, and in her and her family – the MacGuffs – we have probably the most endearing folks since the Hoovers came by visiting last year in that yellow Volkswagen T2 Microbus. That bunch was quirky; these guys here are the coolest parents cinematically.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody is probably the most forthright person you might ever come across in real life, every which way, and if you doubt that you might want to visit http://diablocody.blogspot.com/. Sixteen-year old Juno (Page), or Junebug as her father lovingly calls her, might be just how Cody looks at herself – as an open book ready to LIVE life as she deems it should. She believes in experimenting, whatever her purview allows, and she wouldn’t blink an eye for what the world thinks of it. I kind of like that, that free-spirit, and when Juno ends up experimenting sex with her best friend Patrick (Cera), the result is the most unexpected early-age pregnancy. The kind of pregnancy the elicits ‘Phuket, Thailand’ for a reaction out of fellow teenagers. For a sixteen year old, I guess that is as far any results of any sort of experiments could lead to. She instinctively turns up at an abortion centre, though not before meeting a fellow classmate demonstrating her Catholic belief along the way. The visit affects her, and she again, instinctively decides to give birth to the baby, and starts looking for parents willing to adopt in the alternative press.
You might wonder that there’s nothing remotely revolutionary in the plot. You know what, you’re actually correct. This year has witnessed quite a lot of titles dealing with pregnancy, both serious and comedy – Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, the Cannes festival winner 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days and that charming indy Waitress. The wonder here is the way this one rises above so distinctly, and elevates itself in layers above the quite mundane subject. The first layer is Cody’s script laced with one-liners Quentin Tarantino and The Coen Brothers would be proud of. On paper, the characters that are supposed to deliver these lines have fantastical intelligence in them, so much so that there would have been fear of them losing their believability. In come the casting members and God bless them for that. The actors here are so good they elevate that script, those wisecracks, those whacky one-liners beyond the realms of reality into those territories that exist near to our hearts. Page is a wonder of nature. She is a brave girl, agreed and any movie character supposed to give birth without being married is assumed to be that. What she lends to the character is confidence, assurance in her bravery, and the kind of free-spirit you would yourself want to hold to. Around her the cast revolve, everyone intelligent and likable in their own sweet ways. Juno And in Mac (Simmons) and Brenda (Allison Janney), Juno has the most lovable, sweet and coolest set of parents I have ever seen anyone have in cinema. That includes Raj’s father in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Janney gets to deliver a hilarious one-liner at the end, and the way she delivers it has ensured that it will walk straight into the next edition of Quotable Quotes. No, real life people do not talk like this, and if people in films talked like them I’m sure half of the world wouldn’t have much of a reason to go to the movies. With most movies laced with cool sounding one-liners they actually end up being the point. But here, these actors and especially Page amazingly convey how it is not just about putting across that funny line, but the emotion lingering beneath those lines. We do not merely laugh out of hilarity but out of their likeability. There is a reason why most people prefer watching sitcoms, and why they feel that extra bit coming out of their hearts when they hear I’ll be there for you coming out of their sets. These bunch of actors create that atmosphere of natural affability around their intelligence, and by the time you’re done with them, you would desperately want to know how these guys have turned out in their lives.
And around them, director Jason Reitman wraps the crust, carefully, affectionately building on what is a rather whacky script into what’s probably the most entertaining film of this year. He created that brainy satire in Thank You For Smoking last year, and with this one here, I can safely assume he’s director right up there with the very best in the business, and I’m not just talking of comedy. Look, this isn’t a great film, but neither does it have aspirations to be great. It is like that charming indy counterpart Waitress and between the two, I’ll hold Waitress dearer to my heart, but that is a different matter for a different review coming out shortly. But this, I’ll admit is a marginally better film. When you’re home after a long hectic day has beaten down on you, and you crave for something that loves you, and respects you and stands up, stretches its arm to be hugged and loved in return, this is the film you’ve been looking for. You could argue tons about its choices, but that again isn’t the point in the first place. It is as close you’ll ever get this year to being intelligently entertained. What’s more, it is as close a film will ever get to being the audience’s representative at the awards this year. And believe you me, the audiences don’t stand a chance.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

DIE FÄLSCHER (THE COUNTERFEITERS): MOVIE REVIEW















Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesrow, August Zirner
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Country: Austria/Germany
Rating: ***1/2
Runtime: 98 min.
Genre: Drama, History

You know what? The predictability of these Holocaust films is getting to me a bit. How many times do we have to see the evil SS officer laughing and snorting and beating and shooting the innocent lamb masquerading as a Jewish inmate before it is realized that, well, we’ve got the point. Can we move ahead please, if the weight of that guilt has lightened a bit?
Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) might not be just another of those films solely because it is based on an historical event that is itself distinguishable, and the film itself manages to do somewhat of a justice to it. One of the more remarkable historical accounts I have read in recent times, about one of the more remarkable footnotes in history, is Lawrence Malkin’s Krueger’s Men which details one of the most audacious wartime plans ever – Operation Bernhard. A little known SS officer then, Major Bernhard Kruger, helmed an operation to bring down the British financial system, and by that the world financial system. As the book says – The pound’s the pound, the world’s around. How did they try to bring it down – by producing scores of counterfeit money. And in a twist as only life can offer, Bernhard’s search for the world’s best counterfeiters ended in a Nazi concentration camp. These men were shifted to Sachsenhausen camp where they were given the comfort of food, and the luxury of cushion and privilege of a weekly bath. For six years these men produced probably the best counterfeit ever, so much so that the Bank of England itself took them for real ones. The operation moved its tentacles towards the Dollar, but in an incredible development, the counterfeiters decide to sabotage it to save their own lives.
Die Fälscher is based on the accounts of Adolf Burger, one of those forgers down there. His account The Devil’s Workshop was published somewhere in the 1970s, and when a few years ago it caught the eye of two German producers, they decided to make a film about it. It tells the story of a master forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics) whose allegiance is to none but himself, and ends up here, at the heart of the operation.
A great part of the film accounts the conflict between Burger and Sorowitsch, the former wanting to sabotage the dollar for the sake of the world, and the latter wanting to save his skin. What amazes me though is the way the film portrays Burger’s nobility, and his dogged revolutionary endeavor, against the wishes of his fellow inmates, putting himself to risk from all quarters, to delay the dollar. And all of that time, it feels, we’re against him too. The film, with remarkable intelligence, seems to be building its own novel moral viewpoint to the episode breaking away from the traditional ‘Nazis must be opposed at all costs’. All the while we want those inmates to outlive the war, and we almost wish somebody go out and rat out against Burger, for their sake. They never manage to do that, but all of that is shaken when, at the climax, the wall to the outside world is broken, and we for the first time in the film see the Holocaust victims. And we see the tears flowing down Burger’s eyes, and we realize the big picture.
Yet, the moral standpoint only seems. What the film actually manages is quite cleverly, and with only a few sequences quite early in the film, show us the context. With few sequences I refer to the traditional Holocaust film that aspires to horrify us with countless sequences showing novel ways of cruel death. And with context I mean, the big picture i.e. Holocaust. It does try and pretend that it has owes no obligation to the tragedy, and it intends to shrug it off. The entire moral charade happens in close quarters, and with quite judicious usage of hand-held camera (by that I don’t mean shaky) and close range shots, we feel we’re there. Within those walls, hidden by those painted windows, from the horrors of the outside world. We hear gunfire but we never see. And in that, the film creates a world, with its own set of rules to be followed and own set of moral conducts. But as I said it is only a charade, and one hell of a one for it makes us believe all of that, up until the final sequence when we realize the film was ‘right’ after all.
One of the great characters in movie history is Sir Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. I often wonder about him, the way he strives for perfection to build the bridge, to prove the British might. The very same bridge that would benefit the Japanese no end, and help in the transport of munitions to kill his British brothers. The film is a great moral conundrum, and Die Fälscher had all the opportunity in the world to engulf us in one. Creation is a great feeling, you know, often taking precedence over anything and that includes boundaries. Forgery is an art too, and the film could have dwelled deeper into it and into its beauty. It could have striven for inspiring awe out of us, to increase the dilemma about what is correct and what is wrong. Something brave and novel. Instead the film just uses it as a plot point to make yet another anti-holocaust anti-Nazi statement.

Markovics is the one performance that stands out to be applauded. His is a character not seeking adherence to right or wrong but to one’s skin. He doesn’t transform over the course of the film, but stays that way and sways towards the good, within the purview of his morality. He looks through those beaten eyes, but they are never tired, always looking for the next opportunity to the way out. It might seem that lady luck is riding on him, but I guess it is more a case of fortune favors the brave. He came across to me as an Itzhak Stern, driven by himself.
The Holocaust has had the single most effect on our collective conscience as any historical event, and any film that deals with it out rightly achieves for political correctness. It models itself in a way according to the tragedy. When the music behind plays the tango, we trust it and its judgment, and believe that it isn’t clouded. The feeling continues when the colors in the pallet paint a rather ironic mixture of bright and pastel. But when pastel turns all pale, gradually, in the classic winter-Holocaust-WWII style (hell, even the opening shot of X-Men had it) I felt a bit let down. Not that there’s much option, but what stops the filmmakers from shrugging the bleakness, inspired by historical events, of their tale. When the collective guilt starts taking toll on a film, I hate that.

Monday, January 28, 2008

AWAY FROM HER: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Wendy Crewson, Kristen Thomson
Director: Sarah Polley
Country: Canada
Runtime: 106 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama

Old age sure is a tough little time, and as I look at it from this far, there seems to be no silver lining to the graying cloud. It does wonders to have someone along by your side, it is always said, and reiterated. What does marriage offer, other than the usual, you know, love and companionship? You spend all your life with somebody, for somebody and that is what makes memories. You stand on the edge of a cliff looking down, you stand in front of the incoming waves looking at the setting sun, and you wish there was somebody there to share it with you. We’re too selfish, I guess, to enjoy lives for ourselves. We need someone who could reflect our memories, so that we’re reassured we’ve lived our lives. I am not sure what I’m talking about, and how can I be any? All I can is imagine.
Away From Her reassures that imagination of mine, in its most charmingly depressing romantic tale. The Anderssons have lived together for 44 years, from the time Fiona (Christie) proposed to him when she was 18. It has been a long journey of memories. And in one smooth stroke of life, they realize she has Alzheimer’s. The film starts there, in the middle of that recession, and as she puts a washed pan into the refrigerator we immediately realize what Grant has been through, and what’s in store for them. I have read on IMDb, in some posts, that this isn’t an accurate depiction of the disease. Without digressing too much, all I would say is that isn’t the point in the first place.
Since I’ve already betrayed the preconceived notion one has for this kind of a film, I would tell you a little more about the story, in the hope that you would want to watch this film. Which you ought to, you know, for it is one of a kind romance, one that is borne out of the age-old ‘theoretical’ notions of soulmate and all. Especially in a cinematic world, and quite often real world, that seems to hold its interest primarily in the young. As Fiona’s condition seems to gradually worsen she decides to get her admitted to a nursing home. Grant doesn’t want to let her away, but she persuades him. And they both know where they’re headed.
I wonder if there’s a more tragic feeling than the memories of your soulmate slowly but surely receding into a black hole. Though Grant was an English professor, in a heart rending electricity metaphor sequence, he narrates his pain in a seemingly nonchalant manner as he witnesses the lights go by in his house, one by one. As he describes, it is like each of the brain synapses breaking off, and with them is erased one memory. She’s going away from him, and this is one force of life one is helpless against.
He takes her to the caring home, where there’s a rule in place that the visitors aren’t allowed for the first one month. 44 years together, through thick and thin, and now one month without each other is unbearable. Grant is pleading her all the way to reconsider her decision. She doesn’t seem to be having any of it, almost shying away from him. And when they sit on her bed, in a gem of a moment, Fiona begs to him – “You know what I want. I want to make love, and then I want you to leave. If you make it hard, I might cry so hard I’ll never stop.” This is a great performance by Christie (Fahrenheit 451), and the way she delivers this line in one breath breaks your heart. It is as if she has been compelling herself, the entire time, to blurt it all out to Grant, but she fears his vulnerability. He goes, one month passes, he returns and she is company with Aubrey, seemingly in love with him. She has totally forgotten Grant.
I hope I have generated interest, because that is what I intend to do with this fine film. You wouldn’t believe me when I told you who the director of this film is, and the astonishment index will suffer an even higher reading when you will experience the maturity on display. Remember that 15-year old sitting in front of the bus paralyzed from the waist down in that harrowing Atom Egoyan film The Sweet Hereafter. It is Sarah Polley, and at 28 years she displays a talent many are referring to a young Bergman. I’m not sure, but the delicateness, the subtlety, and the beauty with she goes about narrating the romance is a wonder. She has written it herself, adapted from a short story I have never heard of, and she has engrained such beautiful lines into the script. It is intimidating and awe-inspiring, you know, when a person at such a young age showcases such dexterity and grace. It is a difficult subject, and it is easy to follow the path of the pleasing conventional, and the film has nothing to do with it. Yet, almost for the entire film, there’re several tones overlapping each other, and none specific enough to describe a sequence. As Grant watches his wife with the other man, it is sad. Yet the way he dotes on her with his persistence is romantic like no other. The way Polley composes her frames is a joy. The way she lights up her sequences, with the kind of morning glow we only read about in fiction, is in a way despairing yet pleasant. How’s that for irony?
Much of the awards talk for this film is buzzing around Christie’s performance, and deservedly so. Her Fiona is too proud to appear helpless for her sake, and if I let my imagination wander a little, she would have never sought the nursing home had there been no Grant in her life. She does it for him, and the manner in which she tries to shrug her ailment is breathtaking. It is Gordon Pinsent though who would blow your heart away. It is his eyes, which speak a lot when he sees her recede right in front of him. He persistently wishes everyday for a spark of recognition in her eyes, his face a broken picture at the end of a futile day. I hear he’s somewhat of a legend in Canada, he looks like one.
I don’t know if I love this film, I’m sure I admire it a lot. There were times and moments during the film when I found myself leaping, with a pole vault, to be on the same page. And all that time wondering if Grant was persisting for their sake, or for his. As he dotes on her, a young girl bored of it all, sits besides him and asks him who his relative is. He points towards his wife sitting besides another man. When she asks him why isn’t he sitting with her, he just replies – “I’ve learned to give her some space, that is it. She’s in love with that man she’s sitting with. I’m just making sure she’s doing well.” Yet he wishes to get her back. I don’t know, but as I said, we’re just might be too selfish to enjoy lives for ourselves, or maybe too scared. And before I let this horrible little notion of mine gets any truer on me, I guess I better catch something. How does First Blood sound?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

RESERVATION ROAD: MOVIE REVIEW






















Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino
Director: Terry George
Runtime: 102 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: Drama

“What kind of a person hits and runs away from an accident?” is at the center of this latest drama examining the after effects of a mishap. It is a great moral quandary, this question, and there’re many ways to explore it. Reservation Road though, picks the easiest, the most conventional, the most unremarkable path it possibly can and tries its best to provide a neat, and a rather happy resolution. Something the subject doesn’t deserve in the least. Reservation Road is so correct, and I mean every which way, that its characters seem to walk only on zebra crossings, whenever the chance offers itself.
By the conventional path, what I mean is that there are the usual doses of the family not coming to terms with the tragedy, the growing distance between the father and the mother, and one of the parents life being driven by it i.e. on the road to finding the killer and getting justice. And all of them find themselves resolved as the final frame makes its appearance. Up until then, what triggers the events at hand is the most commonplace reason for night-time mishaps – a combination of the mobile phone and the full-beam of the oncoming vehicle. It is incomprehensible to me why, when there’s traffic from both sides and there’s enough vehicles to shine the divine light on the potholes in front, would one need full-beam. I face the problem every night, while I drive back to home, and it is a sense that doesn’t need to be taught; it is rather something we as Homo sapiens are assumed to understand. Anyways, Dwight Arno (Ruffalo) with his son on the passengers seat back from a Red Sox game, swerves from the path and rams his SUV into Ethan Learner’s (Phoenix) son Sean. Panicking, he flees, even before the Learners realize what has hit them. The moral drama begins.
Ethan is a college professor, and he seems, initially, to be in the possession of the wisdom cinema usually offers them. His wife, Grace (Connelly) is the one who is hit the hardest, initially. But as weeks pass by, and the investigation heads nowhere, the equation changes. The mother fights her way back into life, but the father seems to be drowning deeper into the territory of vendetta, moving ever farther from his family. If you wonder why I use the word drown, that is kind of tone the film assumes, and that is where I’m cross with it. It quite easily assumes judgmental positions; it always sits on a hill-top playing God to these characters. Yes, on an armchair, it is easy to assume that the revenge seeking parent is wrong, for he is forfeiting his life, and his family. The film, through Grace’s voice, does as much as get the house rid of Sean’s possessions. And she, quite easily, assumes a conflicting position, not trying to understand him, but always asking of him to do the right thing. I don’t think it is all that easy, and the script, nor the film ever explore that.
George seems to be an astute observer of moments, and how they pan out on an individual. When Dwight walks into his office, Ethan sitting there for him, it is a great sequence the way it focuses, internalizes Dwight’s conscience. The sequence has a great claustrophobic effect. And there’re quite a lot of such fine moments. There’re some easy coincidence along the way too. By easy, I mean easy for Dwight’s conscience to make its presence felt. Dwight’s former wife Ruth Wheldon (Sorvino) is Sean’s music teacher. And Ethan, when he requires legal services to advance the investigation of his son, walks into Dwight’s office. As easy as you like. I don’t mind that too much, while it is done with honesty, and the film does whatever it tries, with a great deal of honesty. It even plays the moral game with honesty, and it shies away from the harder game with honesty. I quite liked that, and having been witness to George’s previous directorial venture, the universally acclaimed Hotel Rwanda (2004), it was quite what I would have expected of him. The same approach served him there too, the politically morally correct, easy way out, always playing the pleasing God. I didn’t think much of that film that time around, and when I viewed it a second time around a few weeks back, I think my initial judgment was pretty much bang on. The subject matter is distinguishable, the handling not exactly there.
The performances take the film where it is. Connelly has made a career out of anguish; she can make even the most thinly written character to shine. She does that here, and elevates a rather thankless character, undeserving of her talent. I’m not sure if these characters seek her or is it the other way round. The focus is on Phoenix and Ruffalo, the two characters in counterpoint to each other. The predator and the prey. Ruffalo portrays finely the guilt that accompanies the character, a person who is aware of his cowardice and is rather helpless to do anything about it. Phoenix is the toughest character; and is quite convincing, especially in the later stages. None of them are helped by some Oscar-lust driven sequences, that we unfortunately feel like, owe their existence to their histrionic-ability-reading abilities.
But what about the central question? There could be a lot of views, a lot of debates and a lot of judgments passed. You know where the answer lay – within yourself. I would love to have seen what Ethan would have experienced if he ever ended up, mistakenly, being the cause of a fatal accident. Maybe that is what he sees in the end, and that is why he leaves. There’s nothing more horrifying than the simple truth – when life pushes, one is capable of a lot more evil than one judges against. It takes great courage to stand up, and raise one’s hand, then. The film reaches that very same destination, traveling a rather unimaginative road, never making a stop decent enough to explore those horrors.

SUNDAY: MOVIE REVIEW




Cast: Ajay Devgan, Ayesha Takia, Irfaan Khan, Arshad Warsi, Mukesh Tiwari
Director: Rohit Shetty
Runtime:
Rating: **1/2
Genre: Thriller, Comedy

Irfaan Khan, one might argue, is India’s best actor and his decision to play the character he does is more a reflection of the growing real estate prices than the phenomenal talent he possesses. Here, he puts it to comedic effect, one that would possibly have been executed, with great degree of energy, by Johnny Lever a decade back. Not that he isn’t good here, for all his talent he can even make staring at a blank screen engaging. He plays Kumar, a wannabe actor who does impersonations of popular Hindi cinema characters, and he is supposedly driven to his auditions by his good friend Ballu (Arshad Warsi), a cab driver. During one of those drives, back from a scary play, dressed in Count Dracula’s traditional attire, his character seems to be quite elated at the audience’s euphoric response. Ballu confirms that, and congratulates him on that wonderful comedy. Kumar is taken aback by surprise, for it was by intention a scary act. Now there’s nothing remotely novel there (the gag best executed in an episode of Jaspal Bhatti’s Flop Show), or for that matter funny, but the way it is done doesn’t render it painful either.
And that is the way this film feels about itself, and ends up as. Look, you wouldn’t exactly have people lining up to use ‘Sunday’ and ‘awards’ in the same sentence, but then you wouldn’t be having them use ‘reimbursement’ either. One way or the other, the film doesn’t give a hoot in hell about what it is supposed to do with its plot, which some might gripe, highbrowed, could have been engineered in a significantly better manner to create a solid whodunit. It just wishes to have fun, it isn’t remotely self-serious, and none of it is done at the cost of us, giving a jolly good time while we’re in there. In that, it feels like a timer-driven old Hindi film, the mood changing with every ring of the bell.
Sehar Thapar (Ayesha Takia) is at the crux of Sunday, an animation dubbing artist who seems to have momentary lapses of forgetfulness. The film, though, seems to be grappling with the option of magnifying it into a full blown case of amnesia. Not that it does anything with that, but it is one strand it hopes you’ll cling on to while it unravels its plot, seemingly revolving around a missing day from Sehar’s memory bank. She walks into a disco along with her roomie Ritu (Anjana Sukhani) on a Saturday evening, she boozes, and a nice little dance item ensues. For all those drooling tongues that have just come out at the mention of the dance item, I don’t think it is what you expected. And that is that. Sehar wakes up the other day, and bang it is Monday. And she doesn’t realize it until much later, when the running time is apt enough for ACP Rajveer Randhava (Ajay Devgan) to drop his comical farce and don the only thing he does best, play it straight and serious.
The performances, most of them, are workmanlike bordering on enjoyable. Ayesha Takia does what she has been doing all her career till now, and that’ll be the wafer-thin combination of boisterous and vulnerable, either of them achieved at the drop of a hat. The character assigned to her isn’t exactly multi-layered, for that matter none of them are. They’re what I usually term remote-control characters. Press of a button, and a new facet appears. But that is hardly a criticism that needs to be delivered to the film, when it doesn’t seem to be interested in it. Look, this is the way the script was written – Anukokunda Oka Roju was viewed, gags were written, and names were written around to deliver them. And that is how the execution looks – interchange either of the actors with and you would arrive at pretty much the same result, net. Arshad Warsi is second on the slapstick index, and it often works. Mukesh Tiwari, as Devgan’s sidekick is quite funny, having a rather hilarious moment or two.
Rohit Shetty is serviceable too, and he seems to have a flair for slapstick. There’s honesty in his ways, and there’ll be a day when he might direct a rather funny No Entry. But that is quite far down. He jumbles up the thriller part of the film, quite badly I might add. In a way, it turns out to be good, you know, for the overall tone of the movie for there are numerous ridiculous developments that seem to beg for laughter derived out of unintentional humor. Big moment is the climax, where I laughed out loud and a few faces turned around. I wouldn’t say he is uncomfortable with a thriller; he obviously made a serviceable one in Zameen. But this sure doesn’t look like it. He really needs to get the services of a good editor; the film, especially in its second half feels like running in a marathon, where the comedy serves as the booster.
As I said, this is average cinema. I wouldn’t be bothered too much, either way, with titles of this kind. Not exactly life-changing, nor hair-tearing. One thing bothered me though, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the film per se. There’s a sequence, which involves Takia’s character dubbing for some animated characters on some environmental issue. It is her introductory scene, if I remember correctly, and she, with great aplomb animatedly dubs the voices. And that scene is a microcosm of why we make such lackluster animations. Takia, voicing what looked like an old lion, coughs as the clichéd old figure would. She continues in the same rhyme, for other characters, each word uttered slower than a snail would take its next step, neatly ticking each checkbox what they assume children would laugh at. Look, children might laugh at it, but children will laugh at anything. When an animation is created, it should be enjoyable to adults too.

Friday, January 25, 2008

JOHN RAMBO: MOVIE REVIEW




















Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Graham McTavish
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Runtime: 93 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Action

I was three when I first saw John Rambo drifting along the road, to Delmore Barry’s house, seeking the only remaining member of his Special Forces unit. When he unsuspectingly walked up his widow, with the faintest of smiles, little did he know what that road awaited him. Neither did me, and as years passed by that image still remains one of the most clearly etched memories of mine. People might reduce, and classify what ensued to a rather common tag – a super rocking series, which last hit us twenty years back. I would think otherwise; this series was much more than simply the ultimate action trilogy of all time.
And that was then.
In the meantime, the action genre as we knew it, is slowly dying amongst a plethora of wussy poor excuses. There’re some films trying to revive it and all, but the ultimate period for them was the 70s-80s. Those guys kicked posterior, and I mean real bad. No one can even stand up to them, not even the supposed superheroes. There sure is one relic named Jason Bourne, but he can only do so much. These bad guys are ruling the roost making action films for toddlers, and families, with fake explosions and hoping they could get the same share of audience as the next Drew Barrymore romance.
And that is now.
Well, John Rambo is back. And with him is Sylvester Stallone, who after successfully resurrecting Rocky Balboa, has made an absolute blinder of a film. This is action as it is supposed to be, gritty and no holds barred. Not fake, no Sir. Sock em up, Rambo style, in the guts. If you pass for a Rambo fan, and an action fan, you would find yourself thanking heavens. And I don’t see the film breaking into any new fans. We, meanwhile, have grown into adults, and it feels so has John Rambo for us giving a scale of violence Saving Private Ryan would have been proud of. The body count raked up is somewhere between Rambo III and Rambo II, but wouldn’t you be surprised when I tell you that Stallone has done it again – John Rambo is the best installment since, well, First Blood. And that is something, since there were two real killers in between.
The country is Burma, and John Rambo is living for nothing out there. Meanwhile human rights atrocities are setting new world records, as the Burmese army is crushing its way through the Karen territory. A group of missionaries turn up to this stranger, John, to ride them through the river, and help them serve lives. The Burmese are as bad as any bunch of villains have been in any action flick, with snarls, and grunts, and shrieks. But little do they know their worst nightmare is down, but not out. And when Rambo is pushed, let me tell you, killing is as easy as breathing.
There’re moments scattered all over the place, where the action junkie long dormant inside of you would want to exclaim in joy, and shout. Sitting in the fourth row from the screen, and although there were a few souls around, I gave it my howl. Come on, you get action this hardboiled only once in a while, and when it is bestowed on you, you got to be wise enough to savor every moment of it. Stallone amazes me with his physique. Throw away, in the nearest dumpster bear in mind (Environment Awareness Week), all the lingering doubts that he’s feels too old for this, or doesn’t look the part. He is as capable of throwing real hurting bombs, as throwing iron-melting stares. Not that he speaks all that often, as Rambo barely as lines, but the slurred speech still works wonders and can still intimidate a whole army of fake tough-guys. Because why? Because he’s the ultimate tough guy. Period.
What did I say though – this series is much more than rocking and socking the whole world, which it is, and in a superbig way. Scratch the first film, and you’ll find one of the best dramas about the soldier in war, and what he has to face. John Rambo is much more than your average action cutout; he is as psychologically complex as Jason Bourne. Maybe that is why Bourne rocks, for he seems to be an urban version of John Rambo. He is the ultimate man of action, and at its core is Stallone who has created a character believable at first, but at the same time larger-than-life and parody proof. In that, he’s similar to Eastwood’s the man with no name. Come to think of it, what kind of a name is John Rambo anyway. The kind of name that superheroes would be proud of, and the kind of name that creates legends out of it. Rambo sure is one, and Stallone furthers that here. He understands these characters he has created, he knows them, and he hits the bull-eye.
Stallone does understand too, what makes this series of his so dear to his fans. Remember he was co-writer on the first film. Between all the action, he creates quite nice moments with the character and his inner demons. Rambo has been the best at quelling them; he’s the classic crowd pleaser for he is a killing machine yet he has guilt inside him, and he is vulnerable. Stallone is often not given his due, for he’s a sublimely excellent filmmaker. His methods aren’t loud, they do not show off, and he’s one of the best narrators. He has this knack of pulling out sequences nothing of which seem to be false, yet when we sit back and think of them, we realize how easily they could have gone laughably wrong. This is old school action, and by that I mean almost all the action is clear, comprehensible and most importantly gut wrenching. The themes he touches, under the pretext of an action film, shouldn’t be lost track of. There is a hell of a lot of violence, and blood, but the film doesn’t seem to be reveling in it. And not that it shies away from it. It is criticizing it, and at the same moment we enjoy it, and that is what makes these movies so very special.
It was almost a year back when I watched Rocky Balboa, and reviewed it. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2008. It has been made at a comparatively lesser budget of $50 million. The studios should have had more faith in Stallone, and at 93 minutes I wanted it all the more to continue. How I wish I was a child to experience it all over again, anew.
One might wonder what made the legend stay back in the jungles of Asia, within the darkest confines of the heart. I guess John Rambo was waiting for someone to tell him that the mission is over. Little did he realize, all these years that the voice was within him. What that voice required was catharsis, and in a final shootout, which could easily be overlooked as mere turkey shooting, Stallone makes Rambo enjoy what he does best. And when he looks back at it, what he has done, he realizes it is time to go home.
We couldn’t have asked for a better journey. Stallone, take a bow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

ZODIAC: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #1]




























Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards
Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 158 Min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama, Psychological, Historical

One knows it, doesn’t it, when a very special film is unfolding before the eyes. Watching Zodiac, I was reminded of that relic of investigative journalism All the President’s Men. And believe me, this is a film that will be spoken to of in the same breath, as I see it, for years to come. There is the same eye for detail on display, for police procedural, for journalism, and for sensational serial killing. And then I remembered, rather realized, the man behind this film is David Fincher and he probably must have intended the resemblance. I checked, and I was true. That is genius for you, and though some might disagree, he has finally arrived.
There have been beautiful films capturing the urgency of an on-going investigation (Manhunter, All the President’s Men) but most often, films based on the triviality of digging old graves (The Chamber) turn out to be damp affairs. There’s nothing profound there; on-going investigations naturally tend to be more energetic, more suspenseful and hence more entertaining. Of the numerous triumphs that I would credit Zodiac with, and there’re breathtakingly many, is the sublime manner in which it manages to be both and achieves the near impossible by engrossing us in the rush of an on-going investigation and the hush of yesterday’s news.
Fincher is the kind of genius, who turns something as trivial and formulaic as the dates and times down the bottom of the screens into devices that seem to have been invented for this very film. All by judicious usage. The same judicious way the infamous Zodiac killer, the modern incarnation of Jack the Ripper, accumulated a body count of at least five and boasted of several others. He still hasn’t been caught, and he most certainly never will be. The principal suspect Arthur Leigh is dead for over fifteen years, and some of the counties still have the investigation open, the San Francisco Police Department has officially closed the case. The details are all in Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac, from which the screenplay has been adapted, and it chronicles the entire journey of the case of the Zodiac killer, from his first murder on the 4th of July, 1969 to the 16th of August, 1991.
Yes, the film is indeed spread across a time frame of 22 years, and amongst its greatest achievements is the way it captures the passage of time. It is a thriller, it is a crime film, and obligatorily it needs to be engaging all the time. I hope you’re getting the insurmountability of the task in hand, and more than any film I’ve seen that have achieved it, Zodiac perfects it. More so than either The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas, just in case you’re craving for a frame of reference. Its structure, and the architectural aspect of it is a thing to marvel at. It is episodic, but strangely all its episodes feel like a part of a single episodic entity.
And during all that while, there’s a great deal of authenticity. It almost feels like a documentary, and yet, I would go as far as to state that no documentary could have captured so rich a detail and wrap it up under 158 minutes. The reason I’m so sure of it is because how the film manages, quite brilliantly, to capture the psychological impact of a case on the entire police force spread across numerous counties. As it says, there is more than one way to lose your life to a killer. The case was a labyrinth where almost every police officer involved, every journalist involved found themselves lost, constantly running into each other. Zodiac, yet again, achieves that paradox, by leading us through that maze, showing every bit of detail, leaving us stranded seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and when we end up we feel like them detectives having gone through the details, again and again. It doesn’t simply narrate the case; it engulfs, and overwhelms us with one. Zodiac is as close a film will ever get to being a documentary and in turn, a documentary couldn’t possibly reciprocate its gratitude to cinema in a better way.
To travel back and forth among a hoard of characters so that we never forget them requires inspired casting choices. Not a single character fails to leave a mark among undeniably the best ensemble performance of this year. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., everybody give incredibly layered portrayals. Especially Mark Ruffalo, who with his little nuances, increasingly reminds me of Marlon Brando. He plays David Toschi, the super-cop on whom Steve McQueen based his Bullitt and Clint Eastwood inspired his Harry Callahan, and Ruffalo brilliantly assumes the same aura and self-righteousness that would accompany such a cop, a self-righteousness that has been earned and conferred. The crowning glory of Ruffalo’s performance is that he sidesteps landmines that typically find their way in the portrayal of this kind of character viz. the one-dimensional arrogance overshadowing almost everything, and he makes us feel for him, feel his desperation, we worry his vulnerability.
And then, there’s David Fincher, at the helm of this masterpiece. For long he has been in my book the brilliant enfant terrible of cinema, and although his filmography till now is that of somebody who has a great deal of genius inside him, none of the films there are exactly a product of a genius. There’s always a shade of psychotic evil looming large in his films (Se7en, Fight Club, The Game, Panic Room), and most often it is the kind society hasn’t come to grips with. It is the kind of evil that seems to be inspired from films, rather than real-life, as in Se7en which is again a brilliant police procedural but a rather unconvincing social comment. Zodiac is work of calming wisdom, against the raw energy of his earlier film, and creates a mature world which goes about its business dealing with evil as nonchalantly as evil carries itself. He still uses his encyclopedic knowledge of films the only difference being he isn’t showing it off this time around. Like the time when Graysmith follows Toschi walking pass the tables of San Francisco Chronicle, and we immediately feel like Bullitt meets Carl Bernstein, and Graysmith is supposed to feel like that too. That is the kind of genius few directors are capable of. His editing, his shot selection, are so old school and thoughtful. Modern crime thrillers usually tend to slice a sequence into several, unnecessary pieces for artificial dramatic effect, effectively serving us a mashed item. But here, it starts of by merely observing, gradually taking and guiding us deep inside the maze. I’ve long worried about the man, for he was the most talented new name whose body of work just wasn’t kicking off. Zodiac gives me much more than a hope, it rather assures me that one of modern cinema’s masters has well and truly arrived.
I could go on, it is that kind of film I could give extra-long discourses on, I could just take every little sequence, every little frame, and talk about how magnificently it has been created. I would watch it again, and again, to try and realize how such a masterful work was created. If 2007 were stand up in cinema history books to claim for an accomplishment, it needn’t look any further. I do have my flaws and I most usually am biased, and if it weren’t for my shortcomings, Zodiac would have towered over anything this year in my book, and that includes 3:10 to Yuma.

Monday, January 21, 2008

GONE BABY GONE: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #9]











Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver
Director: Ben Affleck
Runtime: 114 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Drama

Gone Baby Gone is one of those rare films which are worthy of its final scene. One of the ways great works affect me is in not just the manner they end, but in how their journey measures up to that ending of theirs. The final shot before the credits roll on, from behind a television set with two people sitting on couch in front of it, seems to linger on for a moment or two more than it was intended to, as if entranced by the view and what it had just created. I was too, and the ambiguous closure of it is, in a way, disconcerting. And yes, its greatness is that it is worthy of that final shot.
Gone Baby Gone is an easy thriller to describe, for its thriller tag is a mere skin-deep generic reference. By that I mean I can share a few plot points without the fear of spoiling your joy whenever it is you decide to watch it, though I hope it is sooner rather than later. Based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, the setting is that same city which has given us two gripping crime dramas of recent years in The Departed and Mystic River – Boston. The neighborhood is coming to grips with the sensational kidnapping of a four-year old girl, Amanda McCready, and the whole of Boston police department is roped in. Amanda’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan) is a drug addict and a mule (a courier for illegal drugs), and she comes across as a mother you wouldn’t line up to trust your baby with. Her sister-in-law Beatrice (Amy Madigan), desperate to go to any lengths to find her niece hires professional investigating team of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to, in Patrick’s words, augment the investigation by helping with the neighborhood aspect of it. And unlike the conventional cop, Boston police chief Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) is welcome to their suggestions, and provides two of his men, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) to aid them. All the chief cares for is the girl.
I feel like I’ve shared an awful lot about the plot than I usually do, yet as I look back I’ve given away almost nothing. That is the kind of depth that exists beneath its surface, beneath its people. As any thriller, there’re twists and turns galore but they’re almost never the point. When the film turns round the corner, it doesn’t give a hoot in hell about a pat on its back but instead examines the moral gravity at hand. The script (Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard) is brilliant, in that it doesn’t care about hiding clues to tease us later; the clues are always there in front of us. There seems to be an air of authenticity about it, but the film doesn’t seem to be too concerned with that either. What it is concerned about, and so is Ben Affleck’s first venture behind the camera in a major studio production, is the imminent moral tragedy. We arrive at the twist not surprised; rather there is an air of expectancy and inevitability surrounding the proceedings. Neither Affleck, nor the film ever make up their mind as to what is right, and they never resort to judging. They never act God, if you know what I mean, nor the intellectually high and mighty. Instead they seem to be discovering their world, through the eyes of Patrick, and in turn guide us along.
Much of the scale of the film, and its tragedy owes its existence to the cinematography of John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Braveheart, Legends of the Fall), and he renders an epic dimension to the film. He travels through the urban terrain via aerial shots, and he maneuvers around Patrick via spectacular tracking shots. There’s a sequence towards the end, where Patrick and Remy find themselves on the rooftop of a building. There’s the slightest indication of grainy footage, and with the vast landscape of buildings in the background against the setting sun, there’s just the tinge of sepia – we feel its gloom.

Casey Affleck offers one of the performances of this year, and in his Patrick we experience a protagonist about whom we never know much about. He seems to be young, but in those eyes there’s an old man quite tired of it all. Been there done that, as they say, and the kind of demeanor you would think twice before messing around. He doesn’t let it out to provide us relief, and that is where much of the moral complexity is derived from. He kills a pedophile but all he feels for himself is remorse. The film doesn’t help him either, sharing his catholic belief. It is the easy thing to do, killing a pedophile, yet it leaves us in a quagmire if it is indeed right. Maybe that is the reason why he chooses what he does at the end, against what is easy, to atone for his past. He probably is aware of the price, both in the short and long run, and he’s prepared to take it one. After all what matters is the man in the mirror, and it is he who is the supreme judge.
I believe though that the film doesn’t seem agree with the choice Patrick has made, and if he seems to be atoning for his previous sins, it feels it is the wrong time. This is the sort of moral dilemma it traps us in, and when we are there, inside, how is it do we judge Patrick. It isn’t about good and evil sticking themselves out with respective tattoos on their chest; almost everyone here seems to be good. There seems to be no place for the evil soul; he is shut out, banished. In that it seems to be the anti-No Country for Old Men for people here aren’t astonished by the evil, they plain stamp it out with disdain. What is tragic though is that the evil stems from the good amongst it. I’m confused now too, with where I’m going with this one, and if I’m seemingly contradicting myself it feels like a good time to stop. Not before heavily recommending this marvelous motion picture, a film one of a kind.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

PERSEPOLIS: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #8]




















Cast (Voices): Chiara Mastroianni (Marjane 'Marji' Satrapi, teenager /woman), Gabrielle Lopes (Marjane, child), Danielle Darrieux (Marjane's grandmother), Catherine Deneuve (Marjane's mother), Simon Abkarian (Marjane's father)
Director: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud
Country: France
Runtime: 95 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama

As I turned the final few pages of Iran Awakening, Shirin Ebadi’s poignant account of her long standing struggle for her rights, and her fight for the rights of woman and children in Iran, some part of me choked somewhere. A girl brought up on virtues, in a rather modest Tehran family, who goes onto become the first female jurist of her country. Yet the book isn’t an account of her achievements; it shares her disillusionment, her insecurities about herself, her two daughters, her friends, and her country. Emotions that might ring true with any person irrespective of time, age, sex or political decree.
Persepolis is about Marjane Satrapi, a similar woman born into a similar family and brought up on similar virtues, the only point of divergence being she represents those for whom Ebadi fights. Marjane, or Marji as she’s lovingly called, shares the same insecurities about her country, and the same disillusionment, which occupies a considerable portion of her account. All the while though, it shares equal footing with Marji’s experiences as she grows from a boisterous little girl, her parents never stopping short of fuelling her excitement, into a weary little lady.

Iran, and its people have always caught my imagination. Much of the image that I’ve painted of their life, and what it feels to be an Iranian sure does stem out of pages of books, but I would never miss a chance to interact with them. I perceive, of all the peoples of the world, Iranians as a macrocosm of the revolutionary man, and their country a microcosm of the revolutionary world. They might seem to be caught in the rigors of life, but deep down their instinct does tend towards freedom of thought and expression. Satrapi’s account, too, might seem a confusing confluence of aspirations caught up between sharing the political upheavals of her country and the dramatic disorder as she breaks into adolescence on foreign soil. In the honesty of that confusion, she echoes the voice of that girl, her innocence asking her to believe that she’s a princess to change the world, and the world in turn gradually asking her to reply to that innocence of the futility of its question.
The world of 3-D animation, driven by ever-evolving technology, is fast encroaching every little place available. For obvious reasons, which if one might care to jot down would read along the lines of better visual experience. Here, it is two-dimensional, and more importantly, almost the entire picture is painted in black & white. Color does come in for a moment or two, when Marjane reminisces her life in the present. Let me tell you, it is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen at the movies all year – the added contrast, the caricatures, the energy in the narration – the entire visual style deployed the want in me for the film to go on. I wanted to stay in that world of hers, and wanted her to share every moment of it. I’m not sure if I would have gathered the patience to read if Marjane penned down an autobiography out of her account, or made a dramatic film of some kind. She chooses the world of animation, and it has great power, this world. She calls it Persepolis, referencing that old city of Persia. No wonder her two graphic novels, Persepolis 1 and Persepolis 2 (the source of this film) are such a huge success.

There is great humor in the innocence of her account, great intelligence, and I believe there exists no better medium to express it. This isn’t a fable, not even by the remotest stretch of the imaginations, and choosing animation, which is readily assumed to provide such tales, adds an ironical depth to her narration. She explores new avenues for animation – what is truth and what is her view – among many others while readily mocking herself, all with a grace worthy of the standards Marji was raised in. Her life has encountered events, as dramatic as anyone who has grown up in Iran of the 70s and 80s, yet the beauty lies in her ability to render a tale worthy of the medium, and the medium, in turn, never felt worthier of a tale.
This film doesn’t feature in the nine titles shortlisted by the Academy (Oscars) for the category of Best Foreign language film (it was France’s official entry), and although this is a marvelous motion picture worthy of automatic entry for any awards I suspect I might know the reasons behind its exclusion. The sort of reasons that drew reactions even before its screening at Cannes last year.
If you find yourself with an option, choose the French version of the film. The natural sweetness of the nasality of the language brings great innocence to little Marji, and although I do not understand an ounce of it, I’ll watch the film again, sans the subtitles, just to listen to its charm and enjoy the magic in those images. One of the unique experiences of 2007, one that is sure to be remembered for some time to come.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

BOMBAY TO BANGKOK: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Shreyas Talpade, Lina Christianson
Director: Nagesh Kukunoor
Runtime: 120 min. (Citation needed)
Rating: Zero Stars
Genre: Comedy, Romance

If one were to stand at all the exit doors where this film is being screened, for a comment, I could bet it would be one word – Why? Why the trouble? You get the chance to make films, and you turn up with this, a dead end of a journey. Some might view this as a wasted opportunity, to make a fun-filled joy-ride about a fish-out-of-water, or some cockamamie about the interaction of two cultures. This is neither, and most importantly this is nothing. I’ll save you the reading, the sentences attempted below are as futile as the film. Let me get it real straight – Bombay to Bangkok is the kind of film you’ll curse yourself for, and you’ll get cursed for. I’m angry, I’m tired and this film is worth neither, not even remotely. And now, get back to the celebrations, no one gave us a chance at Perth. I didn’t.
While driving back from the theatre, I was rounding up all the methods at my disposal to warn you from watching this film. I still am. That is the best I can do, you know, for it is still a free country. The plot involves a dhaba cook Shankar (Talpade), who by a stroke of mother fortune lands his hand on a purse full of money. The money belongs to a, yeah you guessed it right, gangster. He flees off to Thailand, assuming the identity of a doctor. He crosses paths with a Thai beauty Jasmine (Lina Christianson) who happens to be a prostitute, and yes, she’s the lady on the poster. I am wrestling with the idea of writing down the entire story, to keep you off this film, but something inside me is warning me it would just be a cure. I rise up to the occasion, and as the old medical adage goes, I aspire for prevention. Weed it out.
The film, at least in theory, was never supposed to be a film about money, or chase in the first place. That is just a Maguffin; the film though finds its roots in its intention to enjoy itself through its various moments. It wants to be a big party, but it doesn’t look even it is invited to the bash. The atmosphere is fun in that morose way when it is raining outside, and there’s a blackout inside, and there’s no other option. You know you’re in trouble when a major part of the humor is derived from old age libido, Viagra, farts and the sound of oriental language. A Thai security guard shoots off his name, and we’re supposed to laugh since it is unpronounceable. There’s a jewellery store masquerading as a rapping gangster, too, and his part of the bargain is to struggle with rhyming dialogues, a la Gunda I guess. What’re we? Eight? Anyways, there’s too much flesh around for those impressionable minds.
Slapstick used to have significantly better players (David Dhawan), and used to be considerably more fun. Here, under the pretense of the ‘new’ face of Indian cinema, it is the same old dish, but a tasteless one at that. Consider this – as Shankar walks into Jasmine’s room, the soundtrack plays John Strauss’ Blue Danube. Just as it is with this film, and most of the films nowadays, it is a dead end. It has no purpose, other than to show off. The sequence goes on to that music, and just as the comedy assumes the slightest color of romance, the score unashamedly and abruptly drops the waltz for the conventional twinkler. The innocent love. Good lord. The romantic moment passes by, and the waltz remains on the floor. A dead end, just as the film and the supposed new face. Let me tell you though, I’ve seen the new face, and its love for the medium, and it doesn’t remotely look like this. This is good old fashioned showoff riding high on pretense.
Predictably, the film aspires to come of age, mature, by gradually moving from comedy on language to romance transcending the boundaries. But that is just theory. In practice though, it takes one scene, on the beach, under the starlit sky, and abracadabra. And yeah, one page, for each of them, containing enough words in the other language for both our transcending birds. The script does a roll-call of all the necessary plot markers – the money-purse following a different itinerary, the birds having a small pre-romance fight (I couldn’t find no reason), the final drama surrounding our male-bird’s identity –each of them a number, yell out – Present, Sir. I’m not sure, but just as with Iqbal this script too seems to have been written in record time. And just as that time around, it feels like it, maybe even shorter.
If I was in the job, and this was supposed to be the training, I sure as hell couldn’t have come up with a more agonizing film to test my endurance. I hungered for the exit, those four red letters and the dial of my watch offering the best visuals through the entire film. I have not set foot on foreign soil, but for its entire cultural trip, the film doesn’t boast of one insight that is novel. Just the good old shallow idea – we’re all the same but different. It is so ecstatic at discovering it that it decided to jump into a gratuitous song, it seems was written on the spot. I have often wondered why a professional film critic might gripe about his job. Kyle Smith, Raja Sen and many more, from time to time. I could only imagine the answer, now I can understand. Reviewing a film is a great joy, and such films suck it out in its entirety. All they leave at the end is a nagging little headache, which if closely introspected, would reveal to be frustration. And deeper still, at the core, a question written, seemingly in gold– does such a film deserve to be viewed to be reviewed?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

HALLA BOL: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Ajay Devgan, Pankaj Kapoor, Vidya Balan, Darshan Jariwala
Director: Rajkumar Santoshi
Runtime: 180 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: Drama, Action

It is said Marlon Brando allowed himself the courage to grow into that colossal force on set, to shatter the brand of raw vulnerable masculinity he was the sole owner of. Him and James Dean. “The only reason I’m in Hollywood is that I don’t have the moral courage to refuse the money” – he once said. There’s something profound in that statement, and that strange life of his. Profound for every artist who has been an actor, and for every actor who has ever been a star.
It was just yesterday when Ms. Sharmila Tagore was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Pune International Film Festival. It was a great ceremony, and there was the obligatory video tour of her characters, very nicely done. Nicely done not just because I and everyone in that 1000+ audience liked it, but Ms. Tagore seemed to be genuinely impressed. She mentioned in her address about the dilemma the actors face, and whether the gamut of expressions visible to us was her true self, or was it something we don’t usually pay to see. Agreed that is one of the items right out of the book titled ‘What is supposed to be said at award functions’, it was effective. Maybe the atmosphere got to me.
Just like the names above, Ajay Devgan plays an actor, his character the very definition of the hackneyed ‘filmstar’. That the character’s original name was Ashfaque Khan and that he has changed it to Sameer Khan is one of the numerous potshots/criticisms disguised as a social comment, prime elements of any Santoshi film. Transformation – internal or external – is a prime theme here, and could have been psychologically deeper still, had the film not showed the eagerness to stick to the Santoshi brand of tried and tested. Take this, apart from the above instance concerning the name – Sidhu, played by Pankaj Kapoor with a great degree of authority, was a dreaded dacoit and now transformed into a renowned social activist. Or Sameer’s own transformation to the sly urban superstar, which again, does not take a step away from the conventional. Thanks to that, we never get to see how the transformation happened, or what the emotional/psychological bearings were. No effects, only cause and result. Cut and dried, that is it.
I agree, it is one of the most difficult aspects of filmmaking, showing the transformation of a character. Convincingly at that, for it requires great writing and even greater skills when filming. But that has never been Santoshi’s forte, is it, and it would be sad on our part to dwell on such facets of his films. We sure can exclaim though, ‘what if’ and ‘alas’. This is a Santoshi film, and by that I mean it is the kind of film where you laugh at its self-seriousness and whistle when the next bombastic dialogue is punctuated with a drumroll. There is seldom anything internal going around in his films, everything is external. There are lines spoken you would want to instinctively clap for, I did. My uncle would call such lines chavanni dialogues. In case you aren’t clear, chavanni was best used when Sunny Deol thundered – “yeh dhai kilo ka haath jab kisi ke sar pe padta hai, to who uthta nahi, uth jaata hai.” There’re a fair dose of chavanni scenes too, and most of them involve that wonderful actor Pankaj Kapoor. His small figure towers over the film, for he has the chavanni character on him.
And then, there are unimaginative sequences and plot developments backed up by equally unimaginative camera angles and background score. There’s a sequence where Pankaj Kapoor’s Sidhu is talking about his transformation, and how it came about. It has the germ to move us, but that is at least 10 rewrites away. And 100 revisions on the drawing board, if there’s any, on how to take the shot. Rather than moving the camera in, gradually, zooming us into Sidhu, it takes tame edits and shots from every which place available, rendering his recollection seem an anecdote rather than a profound experience. It is a shame. Incidentally, there’s a sequence that seemed to have been shot in the same room where Amitabh Bachchan stood by the window 32 years earlier in Deewar. That was the first angry young man; this is the nth in a seemingly endless struggle against the system.
Santoshi’s films have always been against the system. They shout, cry in great angst at the deplorable state of affairs, holding the hackneyed viewpoint where almost every man in power is unscrupulous. Halla Bol maintains the tradition, where the first half concerning the problem is rather dull and dreary. Santoshi’s mind is never there; it is in the revolution, taking the bull by the horns, which appeals to his cinematic sense. Hence the crescendo is his films have always been the second half, and it is nothing different here. I guess that was the reason he chose to make a film on Bhagat Singh. But as Damien remarks in The Wind that Shakes the Barley“It's easy to know what you're against quite another to know what you’re for.”
Ajay Devgan tries, but Santoshi reacts best when he is catalyzed by that volatile chemical they call Sunny Deol. There’s a nice sequence where Sameer is receiving an award to the applause of a huge audience, and there’s this towering, intimidating poster of him. With a pair of sunglasses bear in mind. Intimidating in the manner of the famous gigantic poster of Citizen Kane. There, that man in the poster was the aura of Kane, here he’s an alter ego. At the end, Sameer’s waving to another huge audience, and there’s the same poster at a significantly lower altitude to him. Curiously the camera doesn’t seem to be aware of it, and instead focuses on the man towering over the audience. It was never the audience, the actor always had them. It was his alter ego he was cross with.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

ONCE: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #7]

Cast: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: John Carney
Runtime: 87 min.
Country: Ireland
Rating: *****
Genre: Romance, Musical

You would want to hug yourself with all the warmth and goodness you can muster, after watching this little gem of a film. By all means, help yourself, and revel in the elation this once in a while gem rains on you. If I would have been any good, I would have written a glowing song for a review. As it turns out, I am not any good at even listening to songs, forget writing one. All I can hope for is to ask everyone not to rob themselves of the joy of this charming little film. And let us, for once, forget that damned word they call review.
There’s this friend of mine who writes beautiful little lines, by way of poems, though I’ve no idea how good he is with strings or for that matter keys (the link to his website is mentioned below). The Guy (the credits mention him thus) in Once reminded me of him; he sings songs on the streets of Dublin, with a guitar in his hand for company. His songs usually convey pain, and a little anger, and this one stranger Girl (the credits mention her thus too) falls in love with his songs. It is usually in the evenings, when there’s little hope for people to wait and listen to his compositions, when he sings his heart out. She loves it. She loves music, too, and wonders to whom are those beautiful lines dedicated to. It is the obligatory woman who has left him. Well, there’re quite a few obligations in the film, and that is not at all the point. It is at its heart so full of warmth, so full of goodness, you wouldn’t take a minute falling in love with it. It barely took me the opening credits, barely the first song, to realize that I my heart was gone. Such is the power of music, they say. Who am I to disagree.
The Girl is played by Markéta Irglová, a Czech musician and songwriter. She is beautiful in way that makes a man want to be a good person, desperately, and for her. There’s honesty everywhere around her, for that matter in the entire film. Glen Hansard, who plays the Guy, is the kind of earnest man you would take great care not to offend, not in the slightest way. He has wide open eyes, and the most sensitive of demeanor. As much as the songs are great to listen to they are no match to the sight of Hansard, hitting the strings with great intensity, crying the loneliness out of his heart on the crescendo, and Irglová gently pressing the keys, soothing the pain and comforting him. These folks love music, are nice and rarely have strings and keys been better together.
John Carney is famous in Ireland for making independent films, most renowned for the Cilian Murphy starrer On the Edge. He made this film at the modest sum of $160,000 with friends’ houses acting as sets, natural lighting and shooting on the streets without permit. I wonder if Carney realized, at that time, that this natural feel is what makes it all so unbelievably believable and honest. There’s a great sequence and a great shot of Irglová walking through the streets, during the course of a full song. It is one single breathtaking ride of a shot, and I wished these moments never ended. Musicals have long become big extravagant song-and-dance numbers. This is the film I believe that could change the modern day rendition of the genre. Subtle and so full of heart. Music between the notes, they say.
It is not the novelty of the exercise, but the novel way in which the exercise finds its way into our hearts that is amazing. It was the surprise of Sundance 2007, as a cheerful little film against the heavy Indies. You might catch yourself with a spectra-wide smile as you watch the film, and you might want to feel embarrassed. I didn’t and sure as hell would rather you wouldn’t. This darling of a film is composed almost entirely of songs; there’re few moments by means of dialogues. It is the kind of film you would as much enjoy listening to, as much you would watch it. I’m listening to the film, at the moment, and its breathtaking music alone has left me on top of this world. They say, music transcends boundaries, love too. Either of them couldn’t have asked for more.

Note: The link I mentioned - http://gaurav-parab.blogspot.com/search/label/See%20All%20Poems%20by%20Gaurav. Have a look at it, and see what I was talking about.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #5]

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Runtime: 122 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama

As a third-grader, it wasn’t Hannibal Lecter that terrified me, no sir, not that silly old sociopath too eager to scare. It was that shape shifting cyborg who just wouldn’t stop, the one they called T-1000. And that was then. I look back at that now and a smile appears, he was programmed to be evil. In a way, I guess, that is considerably reassuring. Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, has the same pure brand of evil in him, in a significantly larger quantity. But this time around, there’s no scientific reason to explain him, or even understand him. He just keeps coming unendingly. In him the Coen brothers create one of cinema’s great villains, and if I gather the courage to trust my instincts, probably the greatest I’ve seen.
No Country for Old Men exhibits the kind of skill that would leave you gasping for adjectives. I’ll help here, and supply one – perfect, and in every which way one looks at it. You might also want to wrestle with ‘great’, I would much rather submit. I remember reading the novel, by Cormac McCarthy, and through that superbly knitted prose wondering about the Coen brothers; it was something right up their territory. There’s blood, lots of it, and there’re the good to a fault townspeople. That is the Coen brothers’ country for the taking, but in a way, it isn’t. The Coen brothers have always found their grim, violent situations funny; I could picture them catching a chuckle or two when Carl (Buscemi) shoots Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) in Fargo, or when the Gundersons seem like gobbling more than a stomach share’s at a free for all in the same film. I have not always found their humor amusing; and that would be for a later day and later time. In McCarthy’s grim epic though, they seem to realize, it seems for the first time, the monumental tragedy at hand. And not for a moment do they find any of it funny, in the process painting the grim world of the novel with mythical colors of the barren west.
At the centre of the myth is a man named, strangely, Anton Chigurh. The name doesn’t stand for anything, nor is anyone sure how to pronounce it. It is just a strange word, just as the man is strange. You wouldn’t know what to make of those eyes, or what to make of what the words coming out of his mouth mean. None of them have any life, or any spirit in them. They just float around, as the man himself, who could be better described as a wind, rather than a breeze. He’s the center, the moral focus or lack of it, and seemingly grappling with this force of nature, having absolutely no comprehension what to make of it are everyone in that country, uniting to form some sort of a joint-protagonist. And none of them seem to be able to muster a reaction against the man, no horror, no tragedy, they’re just plain astonished.
There’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been at a job, for a better part of his life, that he finds incomprehensible by the day. There was a time when he must have fought crime with passion, it must have been a war for him. Now though, he doesn’t seem to understand the enemy anymore. And every day, he fears the worst. Not death, but that one day he might lose his own soul. Among the many remarkable sequences that are there on display, virtually every sequence is, there’s one where Sheriff Bell sits on the couch that is still warm (a poet might have used ‘cold’) with Chigurh’s aura. He drinks the milk from the same bottle that is still dripping, from the warmth of Chigurh’s lips. He looks at the television, and it seems, he has a better idea about the force they’re incapable of dealing with than anybody around. Yet he’s almost never near the action, just an onlooker coming to grips with it. I was reminded of Will Graham, and how he might have ended up when he was old.
And then there’s Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who has unknowingly committed the sin of disturbing the wind that is Chigurh. He turns up at a Mexican drug deal gone wrong, and that sort of thing usually involves dead everyone, at least at the movies. He finds a bag of $2.4 million, and he decides to run away with it. He is the kind of man who believes in himself, a headstrong man, and he’s smart to back it up. Yet he doesn’t know the kind of people he’s dealing with, or the kind of man. This is a beautiful character, played by Brolin, directed by the Coens brothers and created by McCarthy. Cinema and literature rarely have it this brilliant.
There’s something musical about the Coen brothers’ pacing, there has always been. Look at the sequences they create, they’re a joy into themselves. Look at the way you hold yourself clutching on to whatever that is nearest, barely a few minutes into the film. Look at the way everyone seems to be lonely in the sequences they’re in, almost none of the principal characters share a frame with each other. Look at the way the frames change, as if someone clapped. All of it has a musical note to it. That, and the dialogues, and in this case, the way the lines are delivered. Consider the opening provided by Tommy Lee Jones drawl, and if you listen to it carefully you might catch a rhyme to the despair in the voice. That sort of music could be felt later too, as Tommy Lee Jones, when asked if Moss knows the kind of guys hunting him, wonders – “I don't know, he ought to. He's seen the same things I've seen, and it's certainly made an impression on me.” I wonder if there’s another actor who could have played Bell; Tommy Lee Jones has it in his drawl, in his voice, and most importantly in those eyes of his. I wonder what kind of a note, or music might serve the film, if any. Silence is all that comes to mind.
No Country for Old Men is the sort of film that my inner self warns me from writing too much about, unknowingly disclosing something by way of the plot. As a thriller you ought to thank your heavens if you come across a more riveting film. Though the violence is just as potent as the weapon Chigurh carries with him, it almost never is the point. It is rather the absence of a reassuring motive that is horrifying. As a drama, its tragedy is apocalyptic, serving as a prelude to McCarthy’s next creation The Road. I said earlier, didn’t I, this is as perfect a film gets, and easily the kind of film that is labeled great. The craft on display is wizardry in its effect. This has been a great year for the films, more so for me, as I seem to be getting the chance to experience films with regularity as I only could have dreamed. It is going to be a mighty war at the awards season, but I believe, No Country for Old Men ought to rest quite assured, in its brilliance, and its greatness, and most important of all, Javier Bardem. We’ll hear of his Anton Chigurh for several years to come.

Monday, January 07, 2008

3:10 TO YUMA: MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2007 - #4]

Cast: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster
Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 122 min
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Western, Drama, Action

3:10 to Yuma is the reason why I consider westerns the greatest of all genres. 3:10 to Yuma is the reason why I am all for re-makes; the original is one of the earliest films and probably the first western my father helped me through. Most importantly, 3:10 to Yuma is the prime reason why I am in love with films, and I always hope to. I’m not sure how many films I’ll see this year, and how many of them would be great, but if there’s another title this year that can top this remarkable motion picture I would be the most pleasantly stunned man on the face of earth.
As a kid I would be in awe of the world the westerns are set in, it has gradually developed into unabashed love. That world, at its best a complex morality engulfing its gravitating characters has probably been the biggest influence on me at the movies. When I think of it, curiously the word mathematical springs to my mind. It is a world where numbers alone can seal the deal, not intangible elements like authority. You could be the sheriff of town but your star holds nothing when the next bandit walks into town with his gang and you’ve three gunslingers beside you. That and the morality of the individual are the prime variables. The star cannot change the bandit from robbing, but a man, standing alone to face him and his gang, could.
The principal men here, the family man Daniel Evans (Bale) and the bandit Ben Wade (Crowe), are two of the great written characters of our times. And justly, it is played by two great actors. Evans is an impoverished rancher, who has lost his foot in the Civil war. He is a noble man, but that isn’t worth a dime in here. His land is under the gun of the landlord Mr. Hollander owing to the loan, courtesy the lack of water. His barn has recently been burnt as a warning against those pending payments. His younger kid is suffering from tuberculosis, and his elder son doesn’t think much of him. His self esteem is all but obliterated. The worst, he thinks his wife doesn’t look at him anymore as the way she used to. There would have been a time when he would have stood alone and cried, yelled at God. Now, though, the tears have dried up. With a wry smile at his wife, he notes – “No one can think less of me.” I think, goodness is the absence of evil, rather than the other way round. And much of that owes to basic human tendency, for our instincts wander along hell-ish paths. What we need is goodness to rein them in. Evans is that kind of a person, I believe, and the purest example of such kind.
Standing opposite him is the bandit Ben Wade, the man that follows his instincts. He leads a pack of animals masquerading as bandits, and it supposedly, requires a real rotten person to lead them. The initial robbery is a great sequence, in the way it is executed and in the way it speaks volumes about Ben Wade but doesn’t reveal much. Part of the reason why Alexander was revered by his men, my father would tell me, was that he would lead, literally, his men into battle, as opposed to the king who would sit back. He would be found always with the first wave of the invasion. Ben Wade here is revered by his gang but he doesn’t lead them. He stays back. There’s a whale of information captured there.
One of the great pleasures at the movies has been the interaction of great characters played by great actors. Bale and Crowe speak to each other, look at each other with a curiosity bordering on admiration, probably spilling on to the other side. Crowe’s Wade has met a great number of people from bounty hunters to the animals that make up his gang. Bale’s Evans has not met a man who thinks much of him. And in each other they find an equal, and they seem to finally find a person who is capable of understanding each other. It requires great actors to deliver lines that seem to reveal much more than the words they contain. And Bale and Crowe are no ordinary actors. It would have been so easy to have overdone his part, been loud, and would have been showy. Crowe doesn’t, it is his eyes alone that do the talking for him. Westerns usually remind me of those squint eyes that make my day. Here’s another set that is equally capable of setting ablaze a whole town, yet can find place for admiration for an equal. Bale amazes me with his brilliance, with his greatness and he is building a body of work that is quite rapidly leaving me short of adjectives. There’s hoarseness in his voice, a man who is tired of praying and now he has nothing left in him but the bare remnants of hope. His eyes are wide open, still begging God for a chance, to be a hero for his son and his wife, and in the eyes of all. He begs for somebody to think something of him, for he possibly can’t. God will one day listen to him. Bale has given a towering performance in another fine film this year, Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, which I’ll be reviewing shortly. That’ll test my adjectives. To deliver one such performance in a year is a wonder, to back it up with another one is a miracle. If Bale and Crowe do not land nominations in this awards season, I would be most surprised and most disappointed.
For a western it would have been terribly easy, now more so that the genre is almost extinct save the occasional appearances, to stick the camera right in the middle of the desert or go for crane shots since almost everybody is influenced or is expected to be influenced by John Ford and Sergio Leone. It resists the temptation and rather goes for close shots of the actors and I cannot admire any higher. This is a character-based film, and it achieves its magnificence, its glory in the wide terrain of its actors’ expressions. Any such film needs to have able supporting members too, and 3:10 to Yuma has them in abundance. There’s a spectacular sideways shot of Wade’s henchman Charlie Prince – as he coerces a man out of information, the background is burning. That kind of help does wonders for Ben Foster, who plays Prince, and is scary evil. Not that there isn’t any action, there is significant amount of it. But the film doesn’t seem to enjoy the violence; it seems to consider it pointless and almost always seems to be shying away from it.
James Mangold, who made such competent films in Walk the Line, Identity and most important of all that fantastic film Heavy, delivers hardly a false moment in the entire picture. He almost always composes the frame exquisitely, important for any great western. Most significantly, he is the kind of filmmaker who seems to dwell in moral struggles. And if there was a western to be picked up to be re-made, he picked up the right one. His world isn’t that of High Noon where nobody seems to be ready to extend a helping hand, nor is it Rio Bravo where almost everybody raises his hand to be counted. It is somewhere in the middle, a sort of compromise between the two. It is grim, it is dark, but there’s something mythical in its grimness. He chooses music to the same roaring effect. Some are complaining about the climax. Without revealing anything, I would say that there was no other way out for the characters. Not to me, at least.
3:10 to Yuma is the kind of film that makes me not want to watch anything, not want to read anything that could adulterate the experience. It is the kind of film that makes me sit and wonder about the characters, draw myths around them, create legends around them and revel in that exercise. And then watch it again, just to relive those moments. Another time that happened was when I bought myself the DVD of Unforgiven a couple of years ago. Here’s another great western, and a roaring classic for the ages.