Thursday, February 28, 2008
Director: Pete Travis
Runtime: 90 min
Genre: Thriller, Action
If one were to assemble a trailer out of the reactions the actors muster here from their respective vantages, when the President receives a bullet from an unknown source, I wouldn’t be surprised if young audiences could be fooled into buying the admission ticket thinking it was one of those spoofs Hollywood seems to churn with mighty potency this time of the year. Unfortunately, it isn’t one.
There’s the President’s security man, who it seems is played by a mannequin with an uncanny resemblance to Dennis Quaid, only that it seems to be sweating profusely. It is a thing of wonder how some performances manage to scrape through an entire picture barely registering more than one expression. There’s Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, as a tourist with a video camera shooting anything and everything that finds its way to in front of him. The manner in which Whitaker acts around his new found possession gave me some unintentional chills, especially when he was around a tiny girl, and if for some reason his behavior comes across as weirder than that kid in American Beauty, I’m sure no one even in their dreams meant that. I’m also sure about one more thing – a brief montage through the audience would have thrown up more than a few faces with reactions infinitely more genuine.
This seems to be one of the early movies on a relatively new sub-genre. The film gives the game away, though quite late for my liking, when an important character observes – We’ve to tie all the loose ends. See, in a thriller, there’s only one kind of an audience band that needs that kind of a reassurance – teenagers who seem to have forgotten their way out of a dead teenager film. So what we now have, on our hands ladies and gentlemen, is the dead President movie.
The plot in question is an assassination told from multiple viewpoints, or more precisely multiple vantages. The President of the United States, played by a rather uninterested William Hurt, is in Spain to sign some deal. Just when he spreads his arms to embrace one and all, the bullet from somewhere turns out to be the first and only one. That would be the first ten odd minutes. The rest of the film essentially rewinds itself, and us, back through time and forth into these events. Again, and again. How? Why? The last question did find an echo through the audience but I believe for significantly different reasons.
The film obviously seems to be delighted with its narrative gimmick; it just cannot have enough of it. Vantages, it seems, be damned. Events shown have little plausible relation to the vantage concerned, and most of them seem to have a blurting feel to them. To some extent, cramming too. Consecutive vantages seem to have chunks from the previous reruns and we never are supposed to know why. The rule of the game is don’t ask. Damn logic. You could almost feel an epiphany around you – the filmmakers seem to have wound up watching the following DVDs – Air Force One, In the Line of Fire, Death of a President – and have capped it up with Rashomon. William Hurt even has his own moment to emulate Harrison Ford where he gets to beat the bad guy, but too bad for him, the entire sequence is an exercise in the shoddy.
There’s little reverence to plausibility in general as well. When the weapon in question turns out to be in the nearest building, and you throw your arms up in aghast please be assured you aren’t the only one. If you venture in there expecting something complex, kindly brace yourself for a miserably foolish assassination plan. There’s the ending, which is structured around a piece of ridiculous coincidence, and any script that comes up with such sort of a pack up doesn’t exactly deserve to get off the shelf. I learn the film was delayed for over one year. I can easily see enough reason why this kind of picture deserves a straight-to-DVD status, one shelf to another.
Before I forget. You cannot have your President played by a William Hurt, or a Jon Voight or a James Cromwell and expect people to believe he’s an early goner.
Another. No matter how many times you replay a bad film, from every which view it still remains a bad film.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Runtime: 158 min.
Genre: Drama, Thriller
On most occasions when we pay the movies a visit, we’re looking for the best ride possible. Most times, movies probably are made keeping that very endeavor in mind. Howsoever we’re familiar with it, we’re never failed to be enthralled by that ride when done with a touch of class and novelty. It probably takes a genius to attract us away from that ride, and induce the realization out of us what a great experience inventing the wheel, all over again, could be. To make us experience what watching the movies all over again, afresh, could be. Paul Thomas Anderson is that sort of a genius, and in the relentlessness of There Will Be Blood, in its arduousness we’re exhilarated and drained. There’s intense richness of tragedy, of eccentricity, of obsession, of audacity, of performance, of filmmaking, of literature, of humor, and when we’ve moved on a bit far from this year into the future, we’ll learn there’s still more to be discovered.
I’m being absolutely plain here – I’m not one hundred percent sure on the wheel-ride metaphor and what I intend to say. It was late into midnight when the end credits started rolling, and here I was exhausted, reeling under the searing and sprawling intensity of the film. It was very necessary for me to step back and take a toll, and as I started gathering my thoughts this was what came to me, out of nowhere. It felt right, but why is not a question I’m in possession of an answer of. I decided to open my review with these random thoughts, as a testament what an artist Anderson is. He doesn’t create easy parables – one note films dealing in allegories that rarely have more than a single layer to them. He believes in, and creates stories – complex, intriguing – and never settles for any one emotional note, or any one character trait, or motion in any one direction. In There Will Be Blood he has unleashed a tornado hurling itself along with random fury, expanding in all directions – there is horror, there is satire, there’s screwball. It doesn’t give us any single moral to hold to; in its imperfections of tone, of pacing it is pure mania we feel. I’m not sure there’s another modern director who could boast of such cinematic flourish, and if there’re any I’m sure there aren’t many.
The film could be labeled a chronicle of the force of capitalism, of the unscrupulous ways of evangelism, of distrust, of families, of power. That would be describing the obvious about of the crust. If anything, it is a desperate attempt to claw and peel layers of a man, a force of nature, who has named himself Daniel Plainview. Apparently he has folks who are named Plainview too, and strange as it may seem, Daniel is at odds with his name. He is at odds with his fellowmen, with his family, with nature, with God, and I believe himself too. As much like the story, Anderson’s Plainview is anything but for plain view, a paradox and more than any modern movie character, he’s impossible to be described, and typified. It requires a level of greatness and the same unrelenting passion to humanize this misanthropic being, and there lay the one and only Daniel-Day Lewis. Rarely do two talents explode into each other with such fervor, and There Will Be Blood is one such film in a very, very long time. Let me paint you a brief sketch of the panorama.
It is 1898, and Plainview is all alone in that rough terrain digging for silver. For a good part of five minutes we see him wrestling with nature, slowly inching his way through the hole, against an ear numbing score with a shrilling intensity. We hear not one word, and it is haunting just like the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the beginning of the evolution of him, and probably an allegory to the birth of capitalism in that wilderness of Southern California. He’s all on his own, and when he breaks his leg badly in a fall through the hole, we hear the first word, rather the first cry – No! He exhales in the hole, and inhales, picks up himself, picks up the rock and crawls his way, all along the ground, back to the nearest shred of civilization.
Years later he turns to oil, and when he first digs that slimy fluid out of the ground he wipes his hand on and raises it, drenched in oil. The sequence would be at home in any horror picture, ready for unintentional laughs. But here, it is terrifyingly cold and rings an ominous sign of things to come. It is fifteen minutes into the film when we first hear the man speak a full sentence. It is a strange slimy voice, a snarl here and a grunt there, a monster twirling its nose to breathe fire. It speaks with an authority borne out of the unabashed belief in ones deceitful ways. So confident it probably believes in its own deceit. He has his child H.W. Plainview alongwith him, whom he uses, it only seems, more for his little-boy sweetness than anything else. H.W. has been almost baptized in oil, and practically the first word he must have learnt is oil. Yet, I believe Daniel loves his little boy, and immensely so. There is a wealth of information how Daniel treats his young son, and it is never quite sure if he’s putting a charade or if it is genuine affection. As with much of the film, it is take-a-pick contest, with us having the fortune of quite a number of options. But more than any Michael Corleone, this man is headstrong, and there’s nothing out there that he believes is worthy enough to compete with him. Not man, not nature, not life, not God. Nothing is worthy enough to earn his respect, hell he despises everything and bends before nothing.
Enter Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine) who walks upto Daniel and tells him about his town that literally has oil seeping out of the ground, the cause being a recent earthquake. Daniel and his son walk up to their ranch, the Sunday Ranch, and place a bid to buy them, and buy all of the lands of the village. Here, in the Sunday ranch lay a confusion of sorts, rising out of a last minute casting problem, as a result of which Paul’s brother Eli is again played by Dano. Eli is the smooth voice of evangelism and it is his desire to extract money out of Plainview and further the plan to spread his Church of the Third Revelation. As much as one ought to dread the slimy voice of capitalism, the viciousness of the smooth voice is an able adversary. Partners in crime, but adversaries nevertheless. Plainview though, doesn’t think much of him either.
We call a character Shakespearean when he starts showing realizations of his tragic existence, thereby opening the window of transformation towards repentance and good. We do not necessarily like these characters, but we do not hate them either; we plain feel sorry for them. Jake la Motta in Raging Bull comes to mind. Plainview has nothing to do with any of those clichés, if any attempts were made to reduce him to words, would be the monster in one of those teen slasher horror pictures. An unremitting force. I use cliché not in the cinematic sense, but in the sense of describing the common man, for La Motta in the end is what could be described a common loser. Plainview is what Michael Corleone was in The Godfather, and to a certain extent the sequel. I cannot admire Anderson and Lewis enough here to go the full distance, pull out all the stops, on Plainview and keeping him the way he is. Plainview wouldn’t budge before anybody and that would include his inner voice. The greatest of performances work in paradoxes, not providing us any easy inferences, open to be comprehended. This is right up there with the very best, and when I say this is Daniel-Day Lewis’ finest hour that sure is saying something. Kathleen Murphy, of all the futile attempts I’ve read to sum Plainview, does the best job –
The key to character and performance in "TWBB" comes in Plainview's query: "Can everything around here be got?" The answer is pretty much yes. Day-Lewis chews scenery in "Blood" because he's incarnating a monster bent on eating up as much of the world/movie as he can. "I have a competition in me," he shares almost clinically -- and that's the engine that makes his wheels turn. He hardly knows how to act naturally, with his brother or anyone else.
Probably a human monster, or a monster-human. Take your pick. (Kindly visit this debate on Daniel-Day Lewis’ performance between two of the more esteemed scholars on film – Kathleen Murphy and Jim Emerson - http://movies.msn.com/movies/oscars2008/DanielDayLewis)
The filmmaking is of the highest order possible. I believe Anderson never looks at perfecting his films as a whole; rather he goes for achieving a life for every single sequence. There is never a fixed tone to the film, and even through its single-minded doggedness it strives to create an atmosphere of emotion perfect with the concerned sequence. As Martin Scorsese calls it, it is the kamikaze method of directing going for absolute broke. The score has no emotional trappings. Composer Jonny Greenwood supplies a stark combination of western and horror, but that goes only for sometimes. The score is almost never formulaic, in that it is never in a state of agreement with the emotional tone of a scene, never, not even for a single moment, supplying us with a clue as what to feel of it.
Look at how Anderson creates and scores an oil fire sequence in the middle of the film. There’s nothing traditional to it, and the scene at once feels like an eerie combination of a war and disaster. It is spectacular, it is grand but it also pulls us right into it. No shaky camera can achieve that, and it is the sheer genius of Anderson how he manages to enthrall us with the epic scope of the greatest of old time war films, and bludgeon us with the grit of the newer ones. All in the span of one scene.
I’m not sure under what genre to classify the film, and I’ve only done it as an obligation looking at IMDb. Strange and astonishing surely come to mind. If someone would walk up to me and say this is a half-horror picture, I would have no reason to disagree, and in the ending few minutes there’s the same screwball insanity of any standard B-grade horror fare. I’m sure many are livid at the ending, but everyone would agree it is just as a thunder as the rest of the film. There aren’t any women in this world, and I’m not sure what to make of that. For that matter, I’m not sure what to make of Daniel Plainview. I seem to have observed him enough, but with my limited intellect I am not sure I’m any closer to understanding the person, and I’m sure neither is the film. We know him, and his madness, but we almost never know what to expect of him. He seems to have destroyed everything that did have any connection to him for all he needs, it seems, is a prop upon which he could rest the scarce emotions of the day. With all his power at his disposal, brought about by his immense wealth, I think this was what he was looking for in his life. Destroy everything that has had, at any point of time, committed any speck of offence to him. Physically destroy.
And in the end he utters these words to his butler – I’m finished. He has just finished his meal, killing a man, and has seemingly clubbed out of existence his adversaries. Just like the rest of the film, I’m not sure what to infer from that. It isn’t ambiguous like more standard fare, but it has seems to have so many layers to it. It is a great line to end on, and I’ll probably go with the meal, and would like to think he is up and ready to stamp the next challenge – God.
If that is how one chooses to look at it.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Director: Tony Gilroy
Runtime: 115 min.
Michael Clayton is the kind of film that grows on you, on repeated viewing, because you would be so engrossed in the intricacies of the plot the first time around. I state this as an observation. When you know how things will pan out you see how brilliantly it was all set up, and how smart its characters are. It is rare to have pictures, and rarer still are thrillers that have incredibly smart people making decisions. Michael Clayton, after Breach, again represents my kind of cinema, the kind of filmmaking involved, the kind of people in it, the kind of conversations they hold I most identify with. I’m not sure it is great cinema, but hey, it is what it is. When an idea takes birth in my brain, the manner my brain deals with it pretty much feels like Michael Clayton. When I’m critiquing a thriller, the template my brain is referring to is that of Michael Clayton. Let me give you a detailed picture and see for yourself if you need to be wary of me in future.
Michael Clayton is a force operating in the shadows behind the legal lines playing what the law business calls a fixer. Held in high opinion by the head of his New York City law firm, and that would be Marty Back played by Pollack in that trademark style where his authoritative demeanor commands respect and exudes reliability, Clayton is great at his job. He has the necessary connections, he knows the score, he keeps it simple, he talks straight and he lets the client know the reality of the situation. He doesn’t boast of the same skill as far as his life is concerned – he is divorced and seems to have no regrets on the front, an avid gambler down at Chinatown, and he for such a job he doesn’t seem to be having 75 grand, an amount he needs to stop a grave crisis on the personal front. Let us just say that the crisis augurs bad things for him.
Meanwhile, one of the firm’s partners and one heck of a brilliant lawyer Arthur Edens (Wilkinson) has had a relapse of a mental problem in a deposition room, defending the agro-chemical company UNorth being sued for toxic pollution. The psychiatric side of it is murky because he seems to be having an aggravated conscience too, and probably a combination has made him run butt naked through a parking lot allegedly chasing the plaintiffs. The company is unhappy, and Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) Perfect situation for Michael Clayton to enter, and just about the perfect note to be done with the plot.
It is the script, all the way, and it is a killer. That and the actors. Gilroy is a super scriptwriter, boy he has penned the Bourne films and that underrated thriller Proof of Life. He keeps the tension high, but then that is given when you walk into it. For much of the opening time you might find yourself holding to invisible threads having no idea which is going where, but I can assure you it isn’t a state of confusion. It is riveting, listening to the smart dialogues. For a film dealing with people in the law business, it is essential to have great conversations because that is what earns them their bread. This is one such film, and it is a joy to witness these snappy exchanges. These people almost always come to the point, mean business, and whenever it is they’re beating around the bush they’re essentially playing blind, negotiating. It is a pleasure as they almost always find the right words to put forth their point, and in today’s films it just doesn’t happen that often.
I love genre exercises, especially the legal ones, and this one here elevates itself beyond any such confines because of the nonchalance it braves, the slickness with which it moves without resorting to cheap tricks of the trade. Like say a twist in the tale at the last moment, which there isn’t any. I’ve told you I’ve benefited from a second viewing, and the way the game is played out here with nuts and bolts will be appreciated more once you know the street round the corner. Arthur is the good, Karen his counterpart down at the other end of the spectrum and the line in between probably belongs to all the others. Both Arthur and Karen break the set of rules, and cross the line, which in the legal world is lethal. You will be fascinated the way events shape up by the decisions taken.
If the tension in your film is primarily derived out of high-tension technical-term-laden dialogues rest assured you need very good actors. Michael Clayton is the kind of film that has not one or two but four such talents.
George Clooney is one of our precious few combinations of an actor and a performer, stealthily brilliant like Eastwood or Redford. You wouldn’t know how good this guy can be unless you see him immerse completely into his characters without even having to stretch himself. You never feel aware he’s acting, by that I mean there’s never a false note to him. There’s just the hint of weariness and anger simmering underneath that face, in almost every sequence. His Michael Clayton is a case study in urban moral conflict. Two years ago, he would have woken up in the morning walk up to the window and stand gazing at the morning light. Probably reflecting upon himself, trying to squash his conscience. He still does it, probably, only he has got infinitely better at it. Maybe that is why he is getting into the restaurant business. Look at the sequence after his father’s birthday celebrations when he meets Timmy and the conversation he has with his son. You would have probably seen this scene on innumerable occasions, but seldom handled with such flair, seldom such reality to it. In its nonchalance we believe in its feelings all the more. Such is the effect of the performances in it, supported by the filmmaking and not the other way round, that we know Henry, twenty years from now, will hold on to this conversation in a special vault of his heart in the gravest of moments. Hollywood, or for that cinema, just cannot have enough of such brilliant performers.
Tom Wilkinson is a powerhouse, and he has all the ‘big’ lines. There aren’t many character actors like Wilkinson who could provide a film its tour de force without hamming it all up. The film begins by his narrative, his confession of sorts to Michael, and it benefits immensely with the ominous touch it achieves right at the outset. Tilda Swinton, and her character, benefit most from the script and are aided most by the filmmaking. Her Swinton has a lot of nervous bones in her body, and she seems to have a method or an exercise of sorts to allay them. I was reminded of Faye Dunaway in Network and this is probably the best compliment I can manage for her. When the principal characters have such good actors playing them, the supporting cast easily feels perfect.
This is Tony Gilroy’s first film as a director, and it is apparent he has the heart and soul of a storyteller. He never imposes himself upon the film; he just lets the narration flow effortlessly. He seems to be an actor’s director, and the finesse with which he handles them, in close ups, dealing with each other reminds me of Steven Soderbergh. Alongwith the great cinematographer Robert Elswith (Syriana, Magnolia) he opts for a coldly menacing environment around much of the film. It is interesting though how he has all the family sequences in the daylight, opposite to the run of the play. It is a great transition, and I can say I expected it considering the intelligence of his work with his scripts.
There’s a scene involving horses that seems to be bothering a lot of people. All I would like to ask of you is to juxtapose it with conversation Arthur holds with Michael’s son Henry. And ask yourself – Do lawyers dream of meadows? Oh yeah, they do. Everyone does.
Please do visit my predictions for the Oscars by clicking on the link below -
Monday, February 18, 2008
Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 130 min.
Genre: Romance, Drama
It is easy to compare Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s classic, set in a period before the World War II, and dismiss Atonement. McEwan’s classy blend of robust prose describing delicate feelings lends a certain amount of earthliness to the proceedings, a rich verve of humor, and that is what absorbed me into its world. But let us just leave that classic novel as it is, and first grasp the essentiality of the story.
Atonement is essentially a drama caused by a silly girl, silly and vain, who has lived her entire life under the impression of being the center of the universe, who derives the reality of the world through literature. She is 13, her name is Briony Tallis, and I say vain because although she writes hell of a lot of stories dealing with the feelings of her characters the prose embellished with recently acquired barely comprehended adjectives, still the soul limits itself to only the letters and the words. I say silly because I’ve myself been 13, and have spent a significant amount of my childhood under that very impression and I’ve been around with several such kids. For that matter, we all have. Yet, none of us ever breezed through our lives viewing ourselves exclusively that, and most of us have been incredibly smarter than this girl here. I remember wading through McEwan’s prose, and wanting so desperately to get worked up on my punching bag. Believe me, she’s that silly. So, let us leave her at that, where she’s new to the process of discovering the teenage life and feelings. Love, sexual naivety, ego, infatuation and that is pretty much that.
Cecilia Tallis (Knightley), elder sister to Briony, is having conflicts with the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the kind of conflicts that lead to romance and then hopefully to ever lasting love. Robbie, an Oxford student is harboring ambitions of pursuing a medical degree, thanks to the old man of the house. In one of those conflicts, derived out of pure and powerful adolescent emotions, a valuable possession of the house in the form of a flower vase is broken into the fountain. Cecilia, in a fit of ego dives into the water, retrieves it, and thunders past Robbie. Briony looks at the entire episode from an upstairs window, sans the audio. Barely comprehending it, she misinterprets it as an act of vulgar treatment on Robbie’s part.
Now Robbie, with his intention of apologizing to Cecilia and confessing his love to her, drafts a letter. Unable to muster the courage to face Cecilia, he sets Briony as the messenger. The curious cat in her opens the letter, and it turns out to be a letter with the wrong content describing fantasies concerning a certain anatomical feature of Cecilia’s body, which Robbie just happened to type in a moment of carnal digression. Later in the night, during a party, she interrupts a moment of passion between Robbie and Cecilia and with that bitterness in her, caused by infatuation reaching its match-point, she lies about a perverse crime committed later that night, incriminating Robbie. The budding romance is brutally hacked right there, in its first night of passion, and Robbie, with the War burning on the western front ends up at Dunkirk.
That is all you need to know to gather what I’ve to say. Atonement is essentially an internal tale, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As much as it is a sweeping epic, it dwells in the moment too and the story essentially draws its strength from it. The way the flowers are arranged in the vase, as much as is a trivial detail, means everything here. Such moments, in the least, need a certain amount of serenity, a calmness where we can feel them. I’m reminded of Stephen Daldry’s masterpiece The Hours and how it captured these moments. Here, director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) in his attempt to match McEwan’s prose, executes a mise en scène that includes extended tracking shots scored primarily with the clacking of the typewriter. The clack-clack of the typewriter is a reference to Briony, and that she is at the center of it, and we sure understand that. Hell we even admire that. We never feel the moment though, and the entire thing feels like an exercise in narration. Remember, I say execute, because there’s that empty artistic perfection to the proceedings. We are treated sumptuously to the mist of the morning air, but that is as far we get to invade this world. Frames are exquisitely composed, the acting quite theatrically perfect, and everything is so smooth we feel like we’re watching a machine at work.
Let me make things a little more clear. The film, as well as the novel, is essentially an allegorical reference to Christianity, the title signifying the reconciliation of God and humans brought about by the redemptive life and death of Jesus. Robbie standing in for the innocent, betrayed Jesus and Briony, well, Judas. She has committed a grave sin, and she grows up she would comprehend the gravity of her folly. She might atone for her sin then. Robbie meanwhile is in Dunkirk, where the English were annihilated at the start of World War II. As he’s waiting for rescue, at the beach with countless other soldiers, he’s made to witness the harrowing images of war. There’re soldiers lying wounded, some dead, but we never feel it. There’s this long tracking shot in the middle of the combat zone, which everyone is talking about. Robbie walks through as he registers these scenes, and he’s in a daze. It is supposed to be his Via Dolorosa, and we totally understand it, again. Rather we admire it, again. But unfortunately, again, we don’t feel it. The reaction I mustered was – “Oh boy, that is one heck of a tracking shot there. How did they manage that?” – I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line where Jim Caviezel walks through a war ravaged area, stunned. I still remember my eyes moistening during that sequence, and only later did I notice the virtuosity of the filmmaking. Incidentally, Caviezel played his part through another, relatively more literal Via Dolorosa in The Passion of the Christ. I guess it is just my quirky self. Never mind. The Christian metaphors are so abundant they even have a wound smack in the middle of Robbie’s chest.
At the end it doesn’t feel like the epic tragedy it is supposed to be. It rather feels kind of silly. There's all the fabrication of cinematic poetry and literature here, not the gravity of real life. The ending felt less of a shocker and more of a narrative manipulation. The film sort of lied out there, smug, in its own cocoon, oblivious of us waiting to be admired. I’m sure you’ll admire it a lot too, but I’m not sure you would be taking anything home. As the film ended, I said to myself – “that sure was good.” In the same breath, I was wondering about the rise in the oil prices. May be it is just my end, for much of me has been spent last night watching Into the Wild. Do watch Atonement. I can assure you though, your best picture of the year is elsewhere.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Runtime: 193 min.
Genre: Drama, History (hah), Romance (hah-hah)
Come on, a quick one, what is similar between Hrithik Roshan and a mutant lamb? Well, apart from the fact that they both look deceptively innocent? Yeah, they both manage the same score when auditioning for any role. Okay it wasn’t that funny, but I’ve just visited the land where time stands still, and if you intend to keep your sanity within appreciable limits in there, you got to make stupid jokes as these. The purposes they serve are two-fold in nature, one they make you laugh, and two they make you laugh at your sorry plight.
Okay, another one, what is the perfect present for your loved one on this Valentine weekend? You got it, a return ticket through a wormhole to a world where there exists no reason to venture anywhere near this mind-numbingly boring film.
Promise, no more bad jokes.
Where do I begin with this royal ramble, I’ve no idea.
Let me just start by saying this isn’t actually a bad film, but films don’t have to be bad to be unwatchable. This is that kind of a film.
Performances. Principle: It is fundamentally impossible to make a period romance piece with hardly-an-actor and furniture. The furniture may look good, may look divine, and I’m sure furniture is an art form in itself, but it is still furniture and it will not emote. Simple. On top of that it is given lines laced with words it can barely pronounce, forget comprehend. When it delivers those lines it feels like a roll-call of words, most of them turning out to be present. The hardly-an-actor is fine at shouting, but seems to find himself in total discomfort rest of the time. He is wary of opening his mouth too much for the moustache seems to be a fence of sorts, and he has the added responsibility of posing for the cameras too, ala Superman – chest held high, arms equidistant from the trunk – a picture of symmetry. That is what royalty is supposed to be, isn’t it.
The story is simple, actually. Only that it is wrapped around in a lot of hokum passing for cultural details. Akbar wants to rule India. He sends emissaries all over the place. Rajputs have their pride. They also have beautiful furniture. And daughters. One of them asks Akbar to marry his daughter. And take away their furniture. Akbar agrees. How can one deny such royal furniture? Wedding. Wedding night. Daughter rejects Akbar. Akbar sleeps on furniture, which in today’s world would have been a nice little leather couch in the drawing room. Next morning, enter Maham Anga. Every period seems to boast of a Manthara, and Mrs. Anga was glad to turn it on during this part of the Mughal rule. Mrs. Anga’s own son Aadham Khan is an idiot. Sorry, he is worse than an idiot. He just picks up a sword and storms towards the emperor’s chamber to kill him. What was he thinking? He is put to death, and I’m sure it is inscribed on his tomb – here lay a supremely dumb man. Mrs. Anga is raged. Conspiracy is hatched. Some brother of Rajput’s daughter arrives. He is arrested. Akbar mistakes him for Daughter’s lover. Interval. Blah-blah.
Just to tell you, and I’ve no intentions to scare you, there’re some obligatory songs along the road too. You are wondering if I might rather have surprised you with a boo!
Oh yeah, just remembered. There’s a eunuch in there too, unleashing wisecracks with oblivious aplomb, none of them appearing too wise, or too cracking.
Does it feel like a plot that would have been more at home in Inder Kumar’s office, the guy who made those silly films in Beta and Ishq? Yes? Great, then I’m not the only one. It irks me when juvenile conspiracies and romances are passed in the name of a period piece. Agreed, at the time Akbar had that silly half-brother of his executed he was just nineteen. And it doesn’t matter to me that no one looks one wee bit what their historical age is supposed to be. Honestly I don’t care, and I’m more than happy with what the film passes for history. What displeases me is how unimaginatively the romance, the alleged point of the whole film, is handled. Leave aside all the details, and what you get is a paper-thin romance trying to balance itself on encounters witnessed several times on the screen.
That it is very, very long would be an understatement of criminal proportions, it is beyond that. There’re needless scenes all over the place, and if I wouldn’t be exaggerating one bit in saying the film could do away with at least half of it. Scenes just linger on, and on until we forget about what the hell the people in there are blabbering and start wondering that if the beards and the moustaches seem to have been supplied by separate contractors. Do we really need a sequence where some old chap pretending to be the messiah of wisdom hammer upon us his insight – Heaven is nothing but love in heart, and hell is the absence of love. Or the wisecracking eunuch and all the Daughter’s ladies, sitting around a game of Ludo break into some dull romantic ideas on first love, which a 12-year old would be embarrassed of.
Not that they’re beautifully shot though. I assure you, it is a gorgeous film, probably the most spectacular film Indian cinema has turned out. But Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is gorgeous too; you know where I’m going with this right. There’s a time limit to how long you can sit there and gaze at it. After that, you start laughing at the silliness. The battle sequences are derivative, comprising exclusively of standard shots. They’re good, but nothing revolutionary. Don’t even get me started on the climactic sword fight. Anyways, I didn’t expect much since the budget is a constraint. I understand when directors seem to get possessive about what they’ve created, and it is a wicked little feeling to leave on the cutting room what you’ve created. But you need a tough editor too, to show you the light, and Gowariker seems to need the services of someone good very badly. And I greatly agree with Raja Sen of rediff.com, when he says Gowariker isn’t best suited towards cinema as an art form. Also, when he says Jodhaa Akbar would have been fantastic as a mini-series. Gowariker lends a great deal of sincerity to each and every sequence in this film, and that would be just perfect for a mini-series. Really, it would have been terrific. More importantly though, this film would have been super forty years ago. Or even thirty years ago. Its simple mindedness is just too outdated for the modern audience, who I guess need more insight into their characters. They wouldn’t mind romance, but they want it between two people, not some idealistic notions of them. They want insight, understanding their history and this film doesn’t have that. I could go and on, but then I will only be extending the mea culpa. The end of the month has just arrived a bit early for me, and I still muster the audacity to venture into Jodhaa Akbar. I remember that quote – 'The road to hell is paved through good intentions.' Well, they sometimes are paved along the road to the nearest cinema hall too. Sometimes, they’re pretty much the same.
Please do visit my predictions for the Oscars by clicking on the link below -
Director: Kevin Lima
Runtime: 107 min.
Genre: Romance, Animation, Comedy
Amy Adams has that rare perfection of good-natured innocence in her, which I only have seen in one other place – Tom Hanks. I still remember watching her sweet turn in Catch me if you Can, and looking at her braces and wide eyes decorated with such beautiful eye-lashes and that infectious smile, and falling in love with her. She has the kind of charm in her that if unleashed will make every moment a joy. The most amazing thing about it is she feels so effortless, and if I dare to forecast something for her, she seems to possess the same kind of talent as Tom Hanks. A person who is as affable, with such a magical natural appeal to comedy as her should be a great talent. She is the reason why Enchanted works and weaves such a charm around us. There’s a difference between working the charm and charming, you know. Nicole Kidman works her charm, Amy Adams is charming. Not many can make an audience sit through an entire picture with a spectra-wide smile, occasionally asking of us to get blown away by her lovability. Not many could repeat a Big, though they tried, and there are fewer who can pull off what I would call from now an Amy Adams.
Enchanted is like those animated classics of old times, simple-minded and blissfully so. Giselle is a fairytale princess, in the fantasy animated land of Andalasia, dreaming of her Prince Charming. And she doesn’t mind one wee bit breaking into rapturous songs, involving all the animals of the forest. The land is ruled by the wicked Queen Narissa who has till now managed to keep her son, Prince Edward, from finding true love and marrying. As Giselle is singing her songs one day, Edward happens to pass along, and he is immediately drawn to her. They meet, and they decide to love and live happily everafter.
Queen Narissa has other plans, and on the wedding day she turns up as an old conch intercepting Giselle on her way to the palace. She lures her to a wishing well, and as Giselle wishes for everlasting love, Narissa throws her into it banishing her forever into a land where there happens to be no magic in the air and love at first sight. Just to be more precise, it is Manhattan, Times Square, and the picture turns real. The animated (both ways) Giselle now turns into flesh and blood, and you’ll hardly feel anything. She sets the tone, and it is a brilliant move to start with her. We happily accept it, and crave for more, and wonder how our dear Giselle might survive in this brutal world.
Well, brutal it isn’t because this is a Disney film in the tradition of the best, and there’re some standard set of rules for any. The people remain essentially good, save for the wicked ones after dear Giselle. They play by the Walt Disney handbook where in the world is a sweet little place, and the people still are more than ready to dance to a song in the middle of Central Perk. Look, if you have Amy Adams to be the singer, delighted every one in her ecstasy, she could infect anyone. With her, it almost feels like heaven. That the musical numbers are grand is an understatement. It moves through people, through places with such verve you wonder why there aren’t more songs in pictures.
Take a moment, and look at yourself when Adams is cleaning the apartment she lives in. You’ll know you’re in love too. The sentiments felt are in the best of Disney traditions, and by that I mean they feel as fresh as the morning air and as light as the spring breeze. For her, you wouldn’t mind watching Enchanted again.
The movie sure has some problems, especially during the end when Sarandon’s attempts to ham up the scene fall flat on their face. We still don’t mind, it is a Disney film, and we’ve already fallen for it. The film though always maintains the light tone of the film, right up to the very end, which means if you aren’t laughing your way you are smiling nonetheless.
It is that rare film so adorable that everyone, from the youngest to the oldest. This is without a shred of doubt the family movie of this year, this alongwith Pixar’s Ratatouille. I was sitting next to an elderly lady, who was laughing away like crazy, and we almost banged our heads once, in that laughter.
Did I mention Enchanted is enchanting?
Friday, February 15, 2008
Director: Sean Penn
Runtime: 148 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Drama, Biopic
Christopher J. McCandless, at the age of 23, and straight As in graduation had $24,000 as his life savings. And a Harvard Law seat beckoning him. He donated all of it, packed his bags, didn’t say a word about it to anybody and off he went, to conquer the wild. Inspired by Jack London, Thoreau and Tolstoy, it was the raw truth of nature that inspired him, rather than the love, the money, the fame and the fairness of life. He was a kid, a bright kid, an idealist disillusioned by the relationship his parents shared. He destroyed his identification, and named himself Alexander Supertramp, and introduced himself to anybody he met as Alex. A boy from East Coast, Virginia, and he had only one thing on his mind – to experience the wilderness of his great Alaska Odyssey. You could say he had one another thing – to somehow live his life again, and to get rid of all its lies that had thrust himself upon him. He traveled the length and breadth of America, always close to nature, always feeling strong than being strong. When they found him lying in this bus, in the middle of the Alaskan wild, the reason of his death was starvation on account of eating inedible seeds of the wild potato. On his goodbye note, he had signed himself Christopher J. McCandless.
Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian considered McCandless in his own words stupid, tragic and inconsiderate since he wasn’t exactly well-versed with the unforgiving ways of the wild. Essentially committed suicide, is what he added. One could call him a brat, and a spoilt one at that, and life could well be interpreted as a slow-suicide. Indeed, he did have his own share of problems. Indeed he was no hero. But as Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, and as McCandless believed – “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.” McCandless went into the wild for a reason he knew best, and I would like to believe what he experienced surpassed those reasons. Into the Wild will leave an indelible, haunting impression of those experiences, and I’m sure whenever it is you see this film, you wouldn’t want to part with them in a hurry.
I have to admit, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to review it through words. I’m exhilarated beyond them. And overwhelmed. I’m listening to Eddie Vedder’s Hard Sun, used to devastating effect here. Yet, this is the mood in which I want to share it with you. I hope not to infect you with what I’ve experienced. I will just tread along the crust of it, and hope you rather discover the joy of it for yourself.
The film is directed by Sean Penn, a very principled man himself, and he has been pursuing the approval of the family for over ten years. I understand how it means so much to him, this life of Christopher McCandless. He’s the screenwriter here too, and part of the reason this film is so great because Penn doesn’t get down to making a biopic out of McCandless’ life, and glorify him. This film is about that spirit within all of us, it is about the life of Alexander Supertramp whom we experience, sometimes within ourselves, everyday, and Penn must have realized that. Had it been just McCandless, it would have reduced to one of those man versus nature dramas. Here, it is man in the nature, with the nature and more importantly man versus himself. And then gradually, man with himself, for himself. The subject, and the treatment deserve nothing short of an epic, and that is precisely what Penn delivers.
People whom McCandless met on his odyssey are introduced to us and how they are affected by this free-spirit. They include a hippie couple, a bunch of wheat farmers, a young Danish couple, and an old man slogging it along. These are some of the best performances of this year here, and especially of Catherine Keener. There’s Hal Holbrook, who just plain breaks your heart. There’s something haunting about Hirsch here, his wide-eyed arrogance. We never truly love him, but we understand him, or at least we think we understand him. He does wrestle through a lot of physical challenges to meet his character, but the triumph lies in the way he creates an individual out of it, never letting us know the true inside but leading us to believe what we saw was the truth. It probably was, and we might never know.
Here is a man who believes that the joys and experiences of life are placed in everything, and not just in human relationships. The core of mans' spirit comes from new experiences, he believed. And then, at the end of it all, he scribbles to himself – happiness is real only when shared. I probably don’t want to believe in that, but I realize better than most what great happiness sharing the joy brings. To have your feelings reflected in the words, in the eyes of others. In that same breath, I implore to you – you owe it to yourself and that spirit inside of you to see this beauty. The heir to the throne of Easyrider has finally arrived, breathtakingly shot, devastatingly told, and with lots of heart.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Director: Julian Schnabel
Runtime: 112 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Drama, Biopic
It was a Saturday morning, way back in ’90 when I read this story about a man, rendered blind due to cataracts, and his horse as they sold milk bottles around town. I still remember that morning vividly – Saturday was a holiday down at school and after reading the story, I got down to helping mother fix the bed. All of a sudden tears started flowing down my eyes. Mother came down rushing round the bed wondering what the matter was. I was just plain afraid of blindness, and I had this weird notion I might go blind one day. It was for me the most dreadful situation to be in, forever imprisoned into darkness. Until I read about the death of one Jean-Dominique Bauby, seven years later, and his locked-in syndrome.
Bauby was an editor for Elle, and a greatly known name in Paris. On December 8, 1995 he suffered a massive stroke, and went into coma for twenty days. When he woke up, it was announced he was now a patient of that rarest of paralysis, the locked-in syndrome. In that condition the patient is unable to move none of the voluntary muscles in the body, save the ones concerning the eye movements. A man nailed inside a coffin box, and buried twenty feet under, at least as his voice to cry out in despair. In here, he’s locked in with his feelings. He is perfectly normal, in every respect, but cannot share himself. It is horrifying. Bauby, if things could get any worse, even had the muscles in his right eye out of service. It had to be sewn, and then there was only one eye left.
A lesser man would have begged for mercy killing, he instead wrote his biography – Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) – for he still had two parts that weren’t paralyzed – his imagination and his memory. You might wonder how. By blinking his eye, letter by letter, word by word. Inspiring might be an easy word, but I doesn’t quite describe the lives of a Tenzing Norgay or a Sir Edmund Hillary or a Roald Amundsen in their entirety.
Based on that book, Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon tells Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story.
But how does one involve the audience, convey them his situation and take them on a ride through his imagination. And to avoid those mine holes, filled with the conventional sentiment-extracting tricks, which usually plague films of these mini-genre. Jules Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), teams up with the genius of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Munich) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), charges up his imagination into a rapturous celebration of the human spirit, and ends up creating an emotional experience in this technical tour-de-force that would remain unsurpassed all of 2007, and a good part into 2008. Inspirational turns out to be too small a word for the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, and this film. This is superhuman, serious.
It opens with us inside Bauby eyes, seeing what he’s seeing, blinking when he’s blinking. Everyone walks up to him and talks, and we listen to his inner voice desperately seeking to be heard. We see as his right eye is injected with local anesthesia, and is sewn. It isn’t a gimmick, you know, as such things easily could be. It puts us squarely in the shoes of Bauby, claustrophobia and horror engulfing us. And then, at an opportune moment, it breaks out showing the man outside. We are introduced to new people in his nurses, each of them so good you want to cry out loud. We meet his family, and we visit flashbacks. It is all random, interlaced with imagination, and all so sublimely beautiful, and heartrending. We visit a heartwarming meeting between him and his father (Max von Sydow), in the past. His father is 92 years old, and is confined to his own apartment. In a way, he could understand most what his son is feeling. And here the movie elevates the horror to an altogether different level, beyond that residing inside Bauby. It is outside, and shared by the ones who love him the most. They talk to him, but all they see is one wide open eye. For a father it is the most terrible of condition, to talk to his son and not know what he is feeling inside. The doctors say he understands everything, but in that moment you want the person to react. Bauby doesn’t, Bauby cannot. It is horrifying to be locked inside oneself, but I guess, it is equally horrifying for loved ones to get locked outside.
If I have been painting a gloomy picture till now, I couldn’t have been any farther from the truth as far as this motion picture is concerned. There’re the most beautiful images, and bright colors flush into the palette of Kaminski. It isn’t that we’re subjected to obligatory ‘beautiful’ scenery footage; it is the way Schnabel threads it all together into that imagination of Bauby. He is a normal person, as in, he has loads of unlikable characteristics in him. His perspective has changed though, and he repents for his life. He hasn’t loved the women back who loved him, he hasn’t shared time with his children, he has lived for himself. The women in his life used to be anorexic models who could pass for males, and while they were at it, could also pass for a cold and distant object. Now, he is surrounded by his dutiful wife, his nurse who has sacrificed herself for him, and an angel who would wait patiently with him all day long to write his book, letter by letter. In a way, he was locked in too. Through him, Schnabel doesn’t merely create a biopic of Bauby, he creates the biopic of human spirit.
There’s strange irony here as only fate can supply – Bauby, prior to the stroke, had a contract to write a book for the same company that published his memoir. The book was to be a modern-day adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It is probably for the first time the locked-in syndrome has been discussed in literature; Monsieur Noirtier, father to the vile Monsieur De Villefort, is only able to communicate with his servant and his granddaughter. I was also reminded of the 2004 Best foreign language film Academy award winner The Sea Inside, Spanish/Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar powerhouse on the life of Ramón Sampedro who wished to die at the pointless nature of his existence. Ramón was a cheerful fisherman, and a poet too, and it was just a cruel stroke of fate that rendered him quadriplegic. But what was most disturbing about the film was how such a charismatic man wanted to end his life. Here is a man barely able to do anything other than to blink his left eye. He does wish to die one time, and how can one cannot in such a situation, but there is a great sequence between his nurse Henriette Durand, and Bauby. Look at this sequence for it is a sample why this film is such a magnificent creation. This is a great film, and one butterfly that has soared far, far away from its diving bell, into the lofty realms of human imagination.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Director: David Cronenberg
Runtime: 100 min.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Crime
There’re few certainties in life, fewer so in cinema. You can take my word for this – there aren’t many who can construct an action sequence, which lands a punch in your guts you would be gasping for breath, better than David Cronenberg. Neither are there many who end their films as well as he can. As far as these certainties are concerned, the film is standard Cronenberg fare, which means it is quite brilliant.
Eastern Promises has those very typical Cronenberg-ian characters fascinating to no end. He covers them in layers peeling them off, one by one. It feels wonderful to say this – this film, and I can safely extend that to any Cronenberg film, isn’t about what its people are but how they are what they are. We always have this eerie feeling underneath our skins that always knows the true color of the person, and it is a joy to discover more colors beyond them. It isn’t a mafia film as much as it is about the people inhabiting the mafia. I was reminded of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and how it quite brilliantly combined the two facets of the gangster genre. Cronenberg, as I’ve read in an interview, isn’t even interested in the mechanics of the mafia. That he still brings so much authenticity (you would want to visit here), by means of dialogues, accents, and in this case tattoos is, well, our joy.
I wouldn’t want to supply too much by way of plot. Tatiana, a pregnant prostitute of 14, with needle-marks all over her arms turns up at the hospital where Anna (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife. 23:13, the mother dies. 23:14, the baby girl is born. There’s nothing remotely flashy in the scene, calling upon our attention. But in that Cronenberg way, the mood, the color, the score, the frame, all unite to register their presence. When we’re way past the film, it crawls under our skin, and in our minds, and we feel it. As t turns out, Anna gets hold of a diary that poses a grave threat to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the London boss of the Russian mafia Vory V Zakone (thieves in law). His ‘driver’ is Nikolai (Mortensen), the ruthless Russian born killer. It is him and Anna whom we follow.
In that dark interiors of the Russian underworld, the deceptive performances people put on is the key. There’re rich characters here, and the actors are even more so. You would often get the faintest of sensation that a person in that room is betraying the mask he has put on, but the brilliant deception at hand lets them off the hook. It is a great joy, you know, when the twists and turns aren’t beneficiaries of a writer’s assortment of tricks, but one borne out of the depths of human nature. These actors play their characters in that fashion, and the person inside us somewhere understands and feels the simmering lava beneath that exterior. Mortensen and Cronenberg, it sure is turning out to be one terrific actor-director combination, bettered only by DiCaprio-Scorsese I guess. Just in case his performance leads you to the internet wondering, no, Mortensen isn’t of Russian origin. And that is the least of this mesmerizing performance. Pay attention to the way he drags those dead eyes. That is him in most films, but here it is exaggerated. The thousand-yard stare is a reflection of the internal state of mind. This drag of his, I guess, belongs more towards the external. Naomi Watts doesn’t have too much by way of scenes, but she’s just about wonderful to add to this moral conundrum. Anna is a good person, but there’s something disturbing about the ease with which she takes the decision on the baby. I was reminded of Gone Baby Gone, and this film here without supplying any lines or sequences for it, just leaves us a bit unsettled because that decision of hers leaves us, well, satisfied. It has always amazed me how Watts manages to bring so much heart to a scene. Even in her most trite characters, she excels by providing us a person. Then there’s that wonderful German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, Night on Earth), his Semyon the best performer in the room, outside of Nikolai. What surprised me though was Vincent Cassel finally being given something deserving of his talent. Hollywood always reduces this actor to a stereotype, and he always seems to oblige. Beneath that tough exterior is an extremely vulnerable gangster, and it is a remarkable thing what inspires these people to continue the show, day in and day out.
In Eastern Promises Cronenberg has created one of the best crime films in recent memory. The focus is always on the people inhabiting this world, and not what they do but how they react to what they do. There’re sequences breathtakingly tranquil you would want them to continue forever. It is a unique world where the lines between good and evil couldn’t have been murkier. Apart from Uncle Stefan, I’m not sure if a single character could be safely classified as good. Yet, the film is so efficiently constructed its subtlety might be mistaken for a good genre effort. Speaking of construction, there’s the most brilliant action sequence in this film, which I’m confident enough to claim to be the single best action sequence of this decade. And I wouldn’t utter a single word about it.
Pay attention to the final sequence, as Nikolai sits on a couch with Tatiana’s voice-over. Look at those eyes then. It’ll give you a pretty good idea why he does what he does.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Director: James Gray
Runtime: 117 min.
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Drama
We Own the Night is what I would describe as the standard issue genre film, good while it lasts but almost completely unremarkable. It is a commendable genre effort, cops versus criminals and all. The problem is it seems to be trying to hard, to rise above those boundaries, harboring ambitions to be a great picture when it isn’t. Everyone knows how it is going to pan out, half an hour into the film, but Gray still believes in exploring every moral nook and corner of the film humanely possible. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and when the film has probably the car chase of the year, it sure as hell is not.
You know the drill, still, I’ll carry it out anyway. Bobby Greene (Joaquin Phoenix) is a manager at a Russian club where gangsters happen to be frequent visitors. His real name though is Bobby Grusinsky, son of NYPD chief Burt Grusinsky (Duvall) and brother of star Police detective Joseph Grusinsky (Wahlberg). Now, here’s the obligatory twist in the tale – none of his mafia contacts have even the slightest of ideas about his relations. Seems a tad far-fetched since the mafia does quite a through check into the background of every third rung associate and everyone in the police force seems to recognize Bobby. Let us spare it this negligence, and get on with it. The script is an exercise in the routine, anyway. The gangland decides to execute a contract on the two Grusinsky cops, sending the hitherto confused Bobby into action. And the film too, which until then feels desperately in need of a nice little shot of Red Bull.
There’s a nerve wracking wired-informer-in-the-middle-of-a-drug-deal scenario quite, and there’s a wholly original car chase sequence that will have you clenching your fists against the arms of your chair. There’s the climactic action sequence at the end which feels more like a homage than a rip-off of The French Connection climax, edgy yet predictable. And then, there’s Joaquin Phoenix’s steady performance which elevates some of the dull passages in the film. Apart from that, there’s nothing in here worth mentioning than the standard. Eva Mendes’ has a histrionic-ability-testing sequence which with its positive reading surprised me a bit. Duvall and Wahlberg, powerhouses in their own right, have little to work with here. That they still leave some impression should give you the idea why they are so good at what they do.
But it is the unimaginative script that is the killer. The movie fails to answer why Bobby is so cross with the family, and especially his brother. He even goes as far as hurl abusive content regarding Joseph’s wife. Burt seems to be a wonderful father and I cannot possibly imagine his children would wander. I fail to understand why Bobby seeks an alternate father in Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov), because the film supplies with no plausible answers. When his brother is shot, though, inexplicably, things fall into place for the family and old ties reunited.
I believe Gray is a good director, and these questions I pose are ample evidence of that. With the kind of script he has at his disposal, that he has explored it to this degree is a cause of celebration. He brings human drama, and a sense of atmosphere to sequences that supply nothing more than mere words on paper. That he has written himself this script is a cause for concern.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 157 min.
Genre: Gangster, Crime, Drama
The film opens with a man tied to a chair surrounded by a group of hoodlums, one of them Frank Lucas, at that time the right hand man of Harlem Godfather ‘Bumpy Johnson’. They bathe the man in gasoline and as he screams set him ablaze. Lucas, played by Denzel Washington with a swagger so very typical of his performances, lights a cigarette and unloads a couple of rounds into him. Mercy killing, probably. And the title appears – American Gangster. With the same emphasis, that dreaded tag follows it - Based on a true story. That is the kind of start I find most disappointing, and most certainly unimaginative.
Frank Lucas was the kind of man who would have claimed – As long as I can remember I always wanted to rule a business empire. That was the kind of ambitious low-key profile he brought to the gangster way of life. No sir, the fur coat not for this guy. He was reportedly so professional in his ways Martin Scorsese would have been proud to tag him alongside Jimmy Conway, probably be his boss, only if they weren’t so averse to each other. He was the black man, in a predominantly Italian, white man driven mafia and narcotics business, and he rose up the chain to command the supply through his famed ‘Cadaver Connection’ that replaced the vacuum created by the drying up of the ‘French Connection’. Of course, much of it is based on Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article The Return of the Superfly (follow the link to the article), which itself is based almost entirely Lucas’ retelling of events. There’s quite a lot of debate, especially in CNN’s article here, but that is fodder for a different subject. What the opening sequence followed by the title does is reduce Lucas’ character to that of a common gangster, which he wasn’t. He was the American Gangster, by which I mean he was a businessman who happened to choose the business of narcotics.
American Gangster is the kind of film a teenager recently exposed to the world of European art-house cinema would label under the section – typical Hollywood big-budgeted bullshit. Though I wouldn’t agree with the blunt manner in which he puts it, I might understand what he actually means, and the wide range of criticisms these words of his encompass.
It might lead one to infer that it is so very tough to have a novel, revolutionizing take on the gangster genre. It is interesting because even the poster seems to mimic the iconic B&W image of Al Pacino in Scarface (click on the link to view the poster). The script, and the dialogues, and the sequences, and the snappy one-liners seem to derive and, at least in the initial hour, inspire from stock conventions of the genre. The gangster businessman’s career follows the same curve, filling the place of an old king, spreading his empire courtesy a brilliant move. In this case, it is Lucas going all the way to war-ravaged South-East Asia to gather top-quality heroin. We have the same old monologue on family values, we’ve the same old awe-stricken expressions of family members as they witness the tangible benefits of success, we’ve the same old shootouts driven from the envy of that success, we’ve the same old trophy wife in the wedlock which as time goes by sours. It might appear to be a great character, but Lucas as on paper is nothing more than a two-note gangster. Washington displays power, displays pride, but there’s nothing layered here to work with. It is a character as cheesy and pulpy as that of Tony Montana but unfortunately bears ambitions to sit besides Michael Corleone.
Then, there’re the stock corrupt bad cops led by Detective Trupo (Brolin) who never manage to be any more than a pack of hyenas, courtesy the script, despite stealing almost every sequence he is in. I have spent significant amount of time after viewing the film wondering if all these similarities are intentional, a parodic reference to the Hollywood gangster. On second thoughts, nah, I don’t think so. The film takes itself too seriously to be attempting anything like that. I wonder what sort of film Quentin Tarantino would have come up with.
But that is just the gangster part of it. There’s a totally different, parallel facet equally derived from stock. That would be the cop film, in this case Detective Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who is the most insanely honest man going around. He is the kind of cop who finds just a shy under million dollars in the trunk of a car and reports it. The kind of behavior which would earmark him as a threat to every corrupt policeman out there on the street. It is a great performance and if there is any soul in the film derived from truth, it is because of him. Strange it is that no one seems to be aware of Frank Serpico, since he was wreaking havoc through his integrity all over the New York police fraternity around the same time.
Ridley Scott might never find his name among the great filmmakers, at least in my book, despite making some of the most high-profile films of our times and not just Gladiator (that would have to be Blade Runner). When somebody keeps repeating the same strengths over a considerably long span of time, and keeps repeating the same weaknesses you wouldn’t have much of a choice either. He might make good engaging films, and mind you this quite an engaging film. It is straightforward direction, put together by sequences cutting back and forth between the parallel stories with little logic sprawling towards an explosive finish. But he might never make a great film, for that time in his career seems to have passed. I might be self indulging a bit, with my review digressing into a career study, but hey, I got to let it out somewhere. His early films were his best shot (Alien, Blade Runner) where they managed to rise high above the constrains of their respective genres. But now, he has started making dramas out of them, often pathetically reducing them to genre films.
Ritchie Roberts says in an interview –
“A lot of people are drawn to the idea that a black man was able to rise to that height over a white man — the Mafia — because of his brains. That’s fine. I’m Jewish, and part of me thinks that Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were pretty cool guys because at a time when everybody thought that Jews were wimps, these guys rose to the heights of the Mafia. Part of me does feel that. But the other part of me recognizes that this is ridiculous; these guys are killers, not to be admired. It’s the same thing with Frank. In truth, Frank Lucas has probably destroyed more black lives than the K.K.K. could ever dream of.”
Scriptwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) echoes that feeling and has said that the above viewpoint influenced his Lucas a lot. He says - “When you meet Frank, he’s very charismatic, very personable. But you can never forget who he is and what he’s done.” That is very true, but what doesn’t true to me is the manner in which shots of drug addicts have been inserted, almost betraying a last minute decision at the editing factory. A hollow afterthought. The film naturally intends to side along with Denzel, but also harbors ambitions of portraying him as an evil person, the latter grossly unconvincing. This was the time when more than one evil force was at work in destroying the American nation. You go by that, Frank Lucas is an evil man, a terrorist, an enemy within aided by another, and flourishing.
But that is not all that it betrays. And had it not been the final hour where almost every force in the film somehow manage to gather together and spiral it towards that gem of a climax, the film would have been brought down in its entirety. Lucas and Roberts sit across a table, working off each other like the way Vincent and Neil did it in Heat. Listen to those dialogues rather carefully. Those lines, and the manner in which they’re delivered represent what the film was supposed to be and intended to be in the first place. It was as much about crime and the mafia as Million Dollar Baby was about boxing. It is about business, it is about economy, it is about the capitalist way, it is about the American way, and there’re no silly emotions involved. Everything is business, nothing is personal. No one is above the system, and that isn’t a bad thing at all. It is all progress. Virtuosity over a decade ago had Washington as the good guy and Crowe as the bad guy. The roles are reversed, and Crowe has become one of the great actors. That is progress. His Roberts might appear to be an honest to death cop. I don’t think he could be generalized that simple. Here is a guy who grew up in Harlem and went to High School with very same guys who later became hoodlums. He has great integrity, and he would serve anybody well. But what about his morality. He went on to represent Lucas as a defense attorney, and now they’re quite good friends. There’re no good guys and bad guys in this world. There’re just guys, and then, well, there’s money.