Tuesday, March 18, 2008

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: *****
Runtime: 141 min.
Genre: War, Drama, History

Andy Dufresne declares, in The Shawshank Redemption, one of the pillars of life I hold with great belief near to my heart– Hope is a good thing, probably the best of things, and good things never die. Clint Eastwood is one I revere, and his films mean more to me personally than they should. I have resisted numerous moments of temptation where the lure of an easy download was seemingly too much to bear. Yet, I hoped that I’ll one day get to watch this film on the big screen, the viewing it so much deserves, and that hope carried me through. When I finally installed myself on the seat, with one half of the ticket-stub in my hand, it was a great moment for me and my belief. Small moment in magnitude, but a great one it will be in its everlasting significance.
The greatest of films echo what you bring along with yourself, irrespective of the subject they are based on. Hope was what I brought with myself this day, and satisfaction, and spiritual inspiration. I have never been much of a letter-man myself, in that the emotional gravity supposedly surrounding the written words has always managed to bypass me, inspite of being far from home for considerable stretches of time. But then again, I have not nearly managed a distance the soldiers at war feel every moment of the day. And one doesn’t need to be there to understand it. Those simple words written in those letters carry all the hope in all of the wide world, and few things in our world bind every one of its peoples with such resonance and maybe, that is what overwhelmed me.
Letters from Iwo Jima is Clint Eastwood’s companion to Flags of our Fathers, the two films that look upon the Battle of Iwo Jima from the points of view of both camps, the Japanese and the Allies respectively. The battle for a barren, volcanic piece of land that wasted innumerable soldiers. The battle that lasted for 40 odd days with the Japanese digging a labyrinth of tunnels, and probably their graves. What these films attempt is to exist at their core as mirror images of each other, the Japanese soldier trying to understand if the man on the other side is any different. At times, it seems, one is providing answers to the questions posed in the other. There’s a sequence in Flags of our Fathers where Ryan Philippe walks into one of the caves and his face is filled with absolute horror at the carnage before him. The carnage is never revealed to us, and we’re only left to imagine what could have been so haunting. In Letters from Iwo Jima, when a group of Japanese soldiers on Mount Suribachi blow themselves with their own hand grenades, in an act of Seppuku (ritual suicide) honoring the Bushido code of honor, it is a powerful sequence of unending meditation upon the nature of a soldier. The soldiers who perform it aren’t Samurais by any stretch of the imagination; they’re simple family men who write grieving letters to their loved ones in a hope to return home. Yet something drives them, to cry out loud and pull the grenade near to their hearts and pull the pin and shred themselves to pieces. And I choose to believe it has little to do with the fear of the commanding officer and the firearm in his hand.
One reason for the greatness of the film, and its profundity is it subverts the temptation to go the easy way and show graphic war images and rouse the anti-war pro-soldier feelings. The good war films always manage to find a channel to the emotional aftermaths of a war the soldier has to undergo and those aren’t limited to combat. That most films of this genre decide to show bullets blazing on all sides with limbs going for a toss is just another manner of entertainment through shock because few of these have any level of understanding. It is just a pretense under which they hide the ignorance of their intellect. More so after Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, probably the only good film of its kind. Clint Eastwood is a man of 75, and one of great intellect and wisdom. One that has been earned, not learned. He carefully sidesteps these obligatory landmines for more emotionally intense and claustrophobic sequences set inside the tunnel, affecting us with the soldiers. It is not about the courage behind the Banzai attack but the vulnerability behind the fear of imminent death. It is a better film than its companion purely because each of its characters leaves an indelible impression. Flags of our Fathers did get a bit heavy-handed, but this here as all the maturity that a film made by Eastwood so very much deserves. The soldiers die of dysentery borne out of unhealthy water and unlivable heat. They are grossly undersupplied and their leader, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi knows more than well that defeat is a foregone conclusion. Yet the man plans unendingly so as to give his men another day to live. Most of whom having never ever even ventured near a firearm, let alone a war zone. As the greatest of war films, this film so very much exemplifies the enormity of an ordinary man stuck in an extraordinary situation.
Eastwood for most of his career has examined the very nature of killing. In Unforgiven, in Mystic River, in Million Dollar Baby. Killing is far more than taking a man’s life, and beyond it, and more than anything else, Eastwood’s career can be summarized through the various facets of it he has presented, and the reasons he thinks lurk behind each of them. Kuribayashi was a vastly learnt man, and in the United States he carried out extensive research on the technological front and its military implications. It was long before the war, and he won over many friends. In a superb sequence showcasing the excellence of Ken Watanabe as an actor, he is presented with a Colt 1911 as a farewell gift. When he’s asked by the wife of one of his US military counterparts if he would kill her husband in case of a war, Kuribayashi nonchalantly replies in the affirmative. For his country, he says. Most of the soldiers here live under the impression that the guy on the other side is a savage, and a coward. A relatively lesser human being, for none of them have known anyone. And for most of them, I believe, it was easy to pull the trigger. There’re two soldiers, Kuribayashi and the Olympic gold medalist show jumper Lt. Colonel Baron Nishi, who have stayed in foreign lands and met its people, and they happen to know better. They even understand the other man, and more than any other man they are better capable of putting a face on him, yet they kill. Out of patriotism, out of professionalism. It is fascinating. The killing isn’t limited to there. A higher ranking officer asks of his men to kill themselves by passing an order. Kuribayashi confesses to his men, in a poignant speech that their defense is a futile attempt and at best an exercise in delaying the inevitable, yet he asks of them to die defending in honor. Not surrender. The real Kuribayashi died under mysterious circumstances, and his letters are one of the great artifacts of the war. Eastwood might have made a war about Japanese, but through them he addresses every soldier of every army who has ended on the losing side and in turn has been ignored royally through the medium of cinema.
At this point of time I’m not sure if what I have seen is a masterpiece, but I know that I’ll be watching this film again. It is the kind of film that needs to be watched twice to feel every moment put on screen, and get enriched by it. There’s behind it the wisdom of one of cinema’s great knights, and its soothing touch is humbling. Alongwith its companion, Eastwood has lent the genre with an altogether different and profound viewpoint. As they prepare for the final suicide attack, Kuribayashi promises his men – “A day will come when they will weep and pray for your souls.” I don’t know if the real man claimed thus, but I’m sure of one thing. If ever a soldier who fought there in those trenches could watch this film, he would weep in gratitude for the acknowledgement. And I don’t think there is any greater achievement for a picture on war.

Monday, March 10, 2008

10,000 B.C.: MOVIE REVIEW










Cast: Mammoths (Yabba dabba doo! scores of them), Saber Tooth (too bad, only one), Ostrich? Emu? Dodo?, Steven Strait, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis
Director: Roland Emmerich
Runtime: 109 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy?

Do not tell me ever again a movie is unwatchable just because it is stinking bad, and 10,000 B.C. reaffirms my long standing belief. If you doubt it, go watch the film and try stopping your guts from exploding into laughter when you hear the name ‘Tic-Tic’ on screen. That’s right, a very important character is named just that, and it is pronounced just the way you doubted. And that is not the only twentieth century commodity providing inspiration to our brothers from way, way back in the past. There’s a goatee that seems to be the pride and fashion of one African tribe. They have an interesting spin on it too, one that renders the goatee immune from shaves and lice. Rather than hair, why not attach a stump of wood to the chin. It looks special, real special, especially to an outsider.
Allow me to be blunt right at the outset, saving you some precious time. 10,000 B.C. is pure nonsense, unintelligible and a whole lot of mammoth-dung. It is so bad ancient cavemen could have made a better film. It is so bad, future generations will be relentlessly tested to come up with funnier ways to describe the epic stupidity of the filmmaking. It is so bad, such epic clunkers as Batman & Robin, Battlefield Earth and The 13th Warrior might suffer a complex. It is so bad, it is the worst film of a career that has made such terrible embarrassments as Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. It might be boring, but if you lighten up yourself, and turn up all cheerful like me, and go inside you just might have a blast your internal organs splintering in all directions. 10,000 B.C. doesn’t even need a spoof, it is the film and it is the spoof all rolled into one. Unintentional, accidental, serendipity you might say, but our brothers from way, way back evolved just like that, discovering the world around. Probably this was the time, somewhere around 10,000 B.C. when they discovered that thing we now know as bad films, but not necessarily a bad time at the movies.
Forgive me if I get some of the plot wrong; half of the time all I could manage was watch and giggle. Hear, and giggle. Think, and giggle. There’re a million jokes cramming in for space in that brain of yours in there, fuelled by everything that manages a presence on the screen, and all I could do was giggle uncontrollably like an idiot. The tribe in question is located in some snowy part of earth and is seemingly suffering from starvation. A little girl comes to them from some far-off land, and the local psychic at hand, a lady, called Old Mother declares the little girl named Evolet to be a good omen. Cut to twenty years and the same starvation in the air, and a young lad, marginally better looking than the males around, called D’Leh (Strait) is in love with Evolet. So is she with him. It is around that time the film seems to cross the 15-20 minute mark, and it realizes that there hasn’t been much by the way of action, the one we call enormous spectacle. Out of thin air, a whole army of mastodons (mammoths, it doesn’t matter actually) swarm as the day dawns. One of them is hunted by our young lad, the hero, and he is made the leader of the tribe. For some peculiar reason, which if you discover be kind enough to supply to me, D’Leh disclaims his position of authority the reason being he hadn’t killed the giant beast intentionally. Anyways, it doesn’t matter much either for soon enough evil marauders ride into town and beat everybody and loot everything and eat every piece of flesh and take everybody hostage, including Evolet. Not our young lad, and his uncle though and they stay behind following the riders collecting warriors from various other tribes from various other unknown lands. Forming, what my brain chuckled and admitted, the United Tribes Rapid Action Force. As it turns out the marauders are twenty times ahead of our heroes on the civilized-scale. Don’t ask me how, but our civilized brethren, who although in possession of horses and ships always manage to be just a stone’s throw away from the UTRAF, who primarily have the services of their foot. I’m sure the scriptwriters must have hit upon the same doubt, but must have flung it across over a chilled bottle of beer. It shall be that way, and it was filmed that way. Hence, thou shalt not ask. From then on, it is just the thing you expected – one thing after another but not necessarily leading to the next. Strung together on their end with the intention of creating an epic adventure. What awaits them, and us, at the end is a climax set amidst the dawn of a new city – the construction of beautiful palatial complexes, buildings, pyramids, and what not.
You know what, our heroes, the valiant members of the UTRAF, should be given a firm kick on their posterior for besetting the civilization by at least 40 years for the sake of some silly romantic cockamamie of an adventure. Damn you tribes, for were it not for your stupidity we would have been having regular weekend flights to the Moon. I loved their fake accents though; some African tribe managing the Queen’s English much before colonization ever occurred to anybody. Sometimes the accents changed, each tribe exchanging the other’s midway through a conversation, probably as a result of first impression. Accents can be influential. It is also interesting to note how every tribe boasts of a psychic, each of them supposedly trained in some ancient school, and each of them in command of a radio frequency at the exclusive service of their job. Tune in, and the world is a considerably smaller place.
I now realize how unkind I’ve been overall to Gibson’s Apocalypto. Although I had huge issues with the film, to the point where I was considerably offended, yet I know none of those issues were related to basic filmmaking. 10,000 B.C. offends you at the most basic of levels by assuming that someone out there in the audience will put up with whatever trash is put on the screen, irrespective of caste, creed, race, gender, age and what not. Although IMDb lists screenwriters for the film, suggesting that there did exists a script, I’m not sure it surfaced anywhere near the sets. The general idea was to have CGI animals run amuck, and then try and create some sort of a comprehensible mess around them. Although they seem to have largely succeeded in their ultra-low ambitions, the special effects aren’t exactly convincing. Whenever our actors are thrown up against a make-believe background (they were standing against green-screens for large parts of the film), it is a pain in the eye. For Emmerich you need to throw away much more than $75 million, it seems. A handsome Saber Tooth makes a spectacular guest appearance, and while it is all alone on screen everything seems fine and dandy. Just when it shares screen-space with our hero, we realize it isn’t looking at him, but beyond him. We realize the limitations of two-dimensional geometry at every possible level. There’re some ostriches in the picture, that sound exactly like someone from those Jurassic Park films. They seem to have style too; whenever someone hits them on the head they raise their neck, and turn it to one side and vocalize – ‘How’? Too bad they were villains, I was rooting for them. The horde of mammoths though is a spectacle to behold. Let me tell you, Hollywood needs to take great care of these enormous CGI animals for if they ever plan to go on a strike, I’m sure there are many films which might never ever fill the vacuum.

Monday, March 03, 2008

SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF THE FLEET STREET: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Tim Burton
Runtime: 116 min.
Rating: ***Genre: Musical, Horror

The closest I’ve ever paid a visit to man wreaking a gruesome violent act and exercising his vocal chords no hold barred was when this certain lad called Alex DeLarge brutalized ‘Singin in the Rain’ and raped and maimed this innocent couple. It was, in the best of Brechtian traditions, disturbing no end. Come to think of it, the macabre idea of a barber vocalizing nihilist lyrics, and with his glistening silver blades craving for the slightest of contact with human skin, and then slitting them in chilling hurry blood gushing out in all directions, would be uniquely horrifying. That was my idea what Sweeney Todd would be, the Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical that has captured audiences like few others have since its premiere way back in 1979.
Looking at the motion picture adaptation, it feels like the quintessential Tim Burton film – loud, pompous, lavish and largely bereft of any soul. What you see is everything, and that is all to be had. It is an interesting exercise in the genre, confined within the boundaries and probably the first of its kind, with blood and songs walking hand in hand. But disturbing it certainly is not. Moving? No chance. Profound? Not even in hell. Entertaining? You could watch it.
Burton’s favorite partner Depp plays Sweeney Todd in this tale of revenge, the sort of which have been rehearsed before us time and again, in all forms possible. Todd sails into a London filled with vermin, after having spent 15 years in an Australian prison, for a crime he never committed. Standard that. Hard to stifle a yawn. 15 years ago he was an innocent barber in possession of a beautiful wife, until she caught the eye of evil Judge Turin (Alan Rickman) who has Todd arrested. As he walks into his place on Fleet Street, which was his shop previously and now is Mrs. Lovett’s (Bonham Carter) home of the worst pies in the whole of London, he learns his loving wife had committed suicide and his daughter Johanna is in the clutches of Turin caged seemingly forever. Revenge is the dish on the menu now, with the erstwhile barber a barbarian now.
It is a highly stylized atmosphere much in the tradition of any Burton film, who is a brilliant designer of atmosphere (Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands). But then, much in the very same tradition, it almost has no other recommending feature by the way of substance. For a musical that needs to boast of some sort of energy, some sort of momentum, howsoever dark, howsoever misanthropic in tone, the proceedings here have an obligatory flow to them. Each slit throat, I suspect, was supposed to induce a reaction of immense shock. Instead all we muster is another attempt at stifling the yawn, as each of them is reduced to B-slasher movie production values. Been there, seen that is the resident feeling. There’s the chair, the execution chair of the barber but it seems to be largely ignored. So is the broken mirror into which every customer would look into. There’s great many avenues at mythology surrounding them bubbling in my mind, some of them which i would have liked the film to ponder upon a bit.
On the precious few occasions when this spasmodic venture seems to have a caught a new breath of wind in its lungs, it dissipates it in another obligatory boring number. The problem is the actors, who aren’t exactly as good singers. Depp, playing the degraded, vengeful soul is all monotone, quite wonderfully of a singular note. The greatest of actors acquire the surroundings, the notes, the execution what their directors create around them, and Depp is one such name. His Todd has only revenge in his mind, on the inside, on the outside and all around him. It is a grim character and Depp plays him with as much panache as possible. It is the singing that does him in though. Depp was previously a lead singer from some group, and though his vocals come across as assured, they do not rouse us with the negative exhilaration they’re supposed to. It is not enjoyable, foot tapping numbers that should be accompanying such dark material, but what we seek is an encore, a passion in the revenge that is deserving of the singular totality of his mind, that metes out some sort of justice to the dark times it speaks of. What we expect is the spirit of vigilantism, what we get is some unpleased barber.
In such a scenario, where the central figure is monochromatic, it comes to the characters surrounding him to lend agility. Mrs. Lovett, who aids Todd in his quest, is a character that is required to be sprightly, a counterpoint to the largely lifeless Todd. Instead Bonham Carter is even more of an exercise in the dull. She is a wonderful actress, believe me, but her singing is rather inept. We feel the pains she is taking to pronounce every word as carefully as possible, which sometimes overshadow the feeling, the subtext at hand. Similar is the case with Depp, and whenever both of them sing, what we feel like is dialogues have been put to music. They might as well have been talking, with sentences and periods, and we wouldn’t be concerned either way one wee bit. Listening to them vocalizing, I realized for the first time that ‘piss’ and ‘this’ rhyme, and find myself disturbed for some reason. Last year, we had Dreamgirls and Jennifer Hudson, and that was a rousing exercise in the singing department.
It is all left to Sondheim’s original score, and that is all that lends this film any degree of life. There is a degree of Bernard Herrmann, and Psycho to it, especially during the last stabbing. It shrieks and that is where we know this is horror. Burton covers his London in soot all the time, save one scene, and much of it is just shades of black. Dark, darker and darkest.
The ending few minutes do affect us, but then the strange and the macabre have always had it easy on us. Compared to the spiral into the evil and the vicious and its ghastly effects, goodness is considerably difficult to pull off. This is as much a musical as Psycho was about stolen money. The thing about great films, and for that matter the very good ones, is a reason why they’re what they’re. Why is There Will Be Blood the force of nature it is than a straight out epic drama? Why is No Country for Old Men a crime thriller concealing its true nature? The answer to these is simple, and the reason why they are what they are. With Sweeny Todd, there’s no reason for it to be a musical, other than that it is one, and most times productions like these are known as travesties. Dropping into songs is just an interesting exercise, being a musical is just an interesting angle. With a dead end. Next I hear, there will be a gangster musical with an embarrassing Robert De Niro and a hamming Al Pacino squaring off their vocal chords. Oh! I hope no one heard me. Hush! Hush!


Let me sing it for you straight and loud –


Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
On the American Shore, better not set your feet
Two paragons of dark walk in the day
Chigurh and Plainview making hay
Darkness around you is routine and bore
Tiresome to wade in the soot, revenge the only oar

Those angels have coffers, of every which kind
They open it all and the world will be blind.

DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN (THE LIVES OF OTHERS): MOVIE REVIEW [Top 2006 - #6]

Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Runtime: 137 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Thriller, Drama

Hauptmann Wiesler doesn’t express much, doesn’t talk much, and if asked to install himself in the chair at the corner of the room facing the walls, he could sit longer than most folks would even think of. He’s the Stasi (the East German secret police) wiretapping expert, a pure believer in the Socialist regime and he sits, alone in a room, listening. A patriot. For hours together, for even the tiniest of detail missed in those tumultuous times could spell disaster. He has trained himself, probably beyond repair, for the single-minded dedication to his work. Probably, that’s the one thing he’s brilliant at. Identifying even the earliest evidence of a revolutionary idea, in people heading towards total disillusionment with the country. And then, those people aren’t a problem ever again. That is the theory. But ideas only inspire us; it is the lives that transform us.
Sitting there alone, listening to the life of an artist couple – one a great writer and the other a popular stage actress – Wiesler is the very picture of gradual discovery. He listens to their heartfelt love for each other, and clutches his chair, mesmerized. Through him, Ulrich Mühe creates one of the most memorable performances of any year in recent memory. His face registers every single step towards the discovery of love, happiness, freedom – pretty much the entire gamut of life. He probably needs someone to hug him, with unabashed love, and tell him clutching his shoulders, that there’s good within him waiting to be discovered. Someone later in the picture does more than just that, he acknowledges it. The triumph on Wiesler’s face, of infinite subtlety, is a wonder to behold. And that is how I guess the Berlin wall came down on November 9th, 1989, not in a moment of heated passion but slowly, gradually in several moments of simmering emotions, brick for brick.
Morality in cinema is often a prey to easy decisions. The Nazi officer, or the Soviet bureaucrat or the Stasi agent simply cannot be any other than bad. If he is good, then he’s against the system. It is a moral quandary, you know, for how can goodness prevail being part of such a system. 33-year old Mr. von Donnersmarck showcases an awe-inspiring level of maturity and intellect, and in dealing with the subject he never for once takes the route of clichéd opinion. I have been wrong previously, on two counts, when I mentioned this film in my list of the best films of 2006 – one it ought to be higher on the list, and two, Wiesler isn’t a case of transformation. And both of them had to do with conclusions made on my end after just one viewing, something this film doesn’t need in the least. It is a picture that is breathtakingly layered – political, emotional, moral – each of them to be enjoyed, felt and discovered over multiple occasions.
The film opens with Wiesler describing to a class how pertinent it is to grind the accused during an interrogation for long hours, to excavate the secret out of him. It is set in 1984, and it is not a coincidence if you hear the echo of Orwell’s 1984. Probably the emotional complexity of The Conversation too. And maybe just the tiniest bit of Casablanca’s romance. The principal characters, and especially the two men, are individuals of supreme faith and principles, as much are realistically possible. But then, one doesn’t know the boundaries which separate the realistic and idealistic. They do what they do, not out of sympathy, not out of change of character but because of their beliefs. Because, in an ever changing world true characters, like true individuals, grow.
The film has been written by von Donnersmarck himself. It is an extremely detailed picture, both visually and by the word, and he directs it with a great narrative insight. Consider the sequence where they bug the artist’s house for the first time. As Wiesler waits outside their building for a whole day, recording their every movement, it sets the principal character without even spelling a single word. He summons tension from thin air, with a soft but sure score on the back, but that is the last thing on his mind. With the same assurance, and what the film aims for is charting the emotional path, and it is the sign of a great career when you realize the film is not playing to you but has absorbed and engulfed you within it. No matter what direction it turns, it will be affecting you.
Look, I do not want to spoil the joy any further, and I’m satisfied I have given away the bare minimum of the plot. If there’re things left undiscussed as a result of that, so be it. This film is intriguing, complex but an achievement in narration. Discover it, and discover how moving an experience it is. There aren’t many times you will find me begging you, on my knees to go and watch a film. Mark it in your diary if you want to, but before that please visit one of the great motion pictures of recent times. It is a wonder we’re opening to foreign language films other than the ones in English, and when it does with as memorable a film as this, you ought not to miss it. And especially not, for one remarkable performance that do not come every year.
Ulrich Mühe probably found the inspiration from his life, because he was himself under the surveillance of the Stasi. He was one of the active members against the Communist regime and denounced it in a memorable address at Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989. His second wife, Jenny Gröllmann, was registered as an informant during the Cold War, an "Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter" (unofficial collaborator). When asked how he prepared for his role, his answer was – “I remembered.” Simple, and profound. No award is too great for a performance of this kind. Mühe died in July 2007.