Tuesday, May 27, 2008

CHAPTER 27: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Jared Leto, Lindsay Lohan, Mark Chapman
Director: Jarrett Schaefer
Runtime: 84 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: Drama

When Mark Chapman was asked why, he tried to explain – “It was just a tremendous compulsion of just feeling this big hole." I think Chapter 27, more than anything, is that big hole of nothing. It might have been intended to be a case study of an obviously psychotic personality, for there are such clues strewn all over the place. But somewhere, looming behind writer director J. Schaefer was the idea about a film dealing with a state of mind, rather than understanding a person. That is why I cannot claim with much authority when I say he has succeeded more or less, because I’m not sure the reasons he set out with. Chapter 27 has an obese Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Alexander), as Mark Chapman, staring at the camera for almost the entire length of its running time, yet I’m not sure if we have managed to achieve even a shred of insight into what made the man. Yet still, we experience the world through his eyes, or something along those lines, over the span of those three fateful days, mirroring the twenty six chapters of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the book that Chapman had in his hand when he shot John Lennon.
Let me ponder over this matter with you over the span of this review, and maybe we can arrive at something. Maybe we can decide if it is an anatomy of a murderer, or as I doubt, is it an anatomy of a murder.
The question is – was Mark Chapman an interesting enough character so as to merit a feature length production devoted to understand him. I’m not sure, just as I wasn’t when they made that excuse about Sam Byck, otherwise titled The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), or Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). They have already created what is the defining moment in the history of cinema as far as sociopathic insanity is concerned in Taxi Driver, and I think it is impossible to create another film of its type and try and exist outside of its shadow. Much of it is because there’s naked truth in practically every moment of that film, so much of it that could be learned and felt over multiple viewings. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece of such immense stature that it would be unwise and unfair on our part to criticize any film just because parts of it are inspired. It is bound to occur because Taxi Driver is practically a psychopathic lonely gun-crazed assassin, pretty much where every assassin even in real life boils down to. As I read through Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale, I could recognize the hazy frameworks of a conclusion, that was, well, pretty much Travis Bickle. Chapman had tried to commit suicide a couple of times before, and as is the norm, this was a man clearly in need of a reason. I mean, there’s nothing much to understand except the usual. You dig deep in and you will find a child whose parents quarreled, and as a result he retreated into his own world. Standard issue that. So let us leave the obvious comparisons here, of which there are many, including Chapman trying out his .38 in front of a mirror.
The movie strives for an ominous beginning, with Chapman whispering, in a dragging voiceover – “I believe in Holden Caulfield…and the book…and what it was saying to a lost generation of phony people.” He is narrating to us, just as Holden Caulfield was, and much in the same vein, he would be sharing everything that spanned in those three days, but nothing would be bared from his past. He does acknowledge the influence of his past, he shrugs it off nevertheless. As if, in a dilemma, if he is the product of his life, or if he is the master taking reins of it. The film hasn’t constructed it, it is itself confused about its central character and how he fits in where. It wants to have it both ways, it wants to look down upon this whacko, and it does honestly want to understand his devotion to Lennon and Caulfield.
Somewhere in the first quarter, Chapman asks a cabbie the same question that drove Holden nuts – where did the ducks in Central park go in the winter? The cabbie thinks he’s kidding him. And from his reaction, which Chapman seems to have anticipated, he takes heart. As if vindicating the truth of The Catcher in the Rye. And hence the world is phony, because what is in the book is in real life. I wasn’t sure of the stand the movie was taking here, and if you happen to watch it, do supply me with your thoughts. This is a film which believes what it says, and then says what it believes. Consider this, the Dakota where Lennon stayed was the place where Polanski shot his satanic Rosemary’s Baby. And then, Polanski’s wife was murdered by a man obsessed by the Beatles song Helter Skelter. Chapman uses this as an omen for him to carry out his act. And he believes in signs too, and he’s looking all over the place for them. He is living Caulfield’s last three days of freedom, right down to ordering for a prostitute, and then he seems to take great heart from the fact she has worn a green dress. Probably, he mentioned that in his call too.
One could claim that this here is the long- awaited take on Salinger’s novel, which has been sought by innumerable greats from Brando, to Nicholson, to Billy Wilder, to Spielberg, to Elia Kazan. It is aware of its narrative style, as in the flashback, and as if to prove it is clever, it uses brief flashes of events from the future and the past. Chapman is talking to his wife, and we see a flash of him sitting in the back of the police car, looking as they clear Lennon’s body of the front gate of the Dakota. But neither the script, nor the filmmaker seem to be very sure of where to go with that approach. They obviously are keen to show the narrator Chapman as the central version, ala a Keyser Soze without the twist, but they lose it somewhere. This is obviously a show through Chapman’s eyes, yet other people feel inconsequential, and that includes Lennon. Maybe that is what was intended, to a world through a Chapman who had Holden breathing through him, but to whom is the angst directed towards. We never feel it. All there’s looming for those 80 odd minutes is the impending murder. Imagine In Cold Blood narrated not by Capote but by the minds of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, and you might have a fair idea how the film develops its style. Only that the film is a bit too stylish, and too technical.
Not that it doesn’t have a heart, which it does, and at times it is moving. Much of it is because of Leto, who despite a good performance is hampered by unnecessary additions. He huffs and puffs, and he whispers as if the Satan inside is speaking to him, but it is when he acts natural and from the heart is when it works. Like the sequence of his call to his wife. Or the way he stands on the curb with Lennon’s disc staring somewhere beyond. He seems to have gained a hell of a lot of weight for the part, and this is one of the better performances of this kind.
One thing I hated was the terrible shift in tone as the grief stricken faces of thousands of Lennon fans are hurled at us. Look, the way I saw it, this film was about a murder of a person who happened to be Lennon. What if it wasn’t him? I wouldn’t think it would matter too much. Maybe a bit of back-story, and that’s all. They try to take a stand and go out of the way to distance themselves from Chapman, which really made me sad. I know, this film seems to have been hated by a lot of people, and a lot of critics I have read have scorned the man under the pretense of ripping the film apart, which in my opinion is unfair. Needless and uninteresting were the terms most often used, and when Yoko Ono upon Lennon’s murder asked of one and all never to utter the name of this weasel for he committed the murder to claim fame, it is this film that is getting the boycott. I might have never consciously heard a single line of a single song of Lennon or The Beatles. Maybe in the soundtrack of some movie. And so, I wouldn’t necessarily feel like many folks who have been touched by the man and his lines. But for one thing I take a firm stand, and that is a film owes nothing to nobody. Especially this one, which is very far from being flawless, and even at 80 minutes has hell of a lot of needless elements, one of them being Lohan. Yet, it is far better than the phony artistic pictures that get made these days, and nobody seems to hate them with their living guts.

Monday, May 12, 2008

SPEED RACER: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon
Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Runtime: 206 min.
Rating: **
Genre: Action, Sport

Just in case you’re interested, here I toss another incident to vindicate my long standing belief that everything happens for a reason. Kind of. The show was at 2230, and I was stuck up with work till a quarter of an hour before. And I had no money on me either. Result? Extra brute force applied on the accelerator of my bovine car. A left here and a right there. Hurling a couple of curses on stray wanderers. Getting some on the way for wandering off commonly appreciated lane discipline. Reaching there needlessly early. The kind of drive I guess that geared me just about perfectly for this film. As in sinking into my seat watching the screen explode in total chaos.
Speed Racer is one hundred percent visuals. When someone coined ‘eye-candy’, and I guess it was a child rather than an adult, he meant something along these lines. Every possible shade of every possible color from the near 2 million or so the Asian Paints catalog has to offer, bright or glum doesn’t make a difference, is crammed up into every inch of space in those two odd hours. Extra saturated at that. It worries me a bit that $100 million have been spent to religiously replicate the sleaziness of an afternoon 60s Japanese filler I have never seen. I wonder what commercial sense it makes to spend outrageously to render something that was produced for a sum less that one hundredth. And as for artistic endeavor, there wasn’t any I believe with those anime shows of yore in the first place. That makes the technical carbon-copy exercise near vacant and futile and terribly short-sighted. As in relentlessly pursuing to create something bad. I might never understand, and neither did I understand the camp of Grindhouse. You might strive to pay your homage, but strive to better it. Not consciously make an equally bad production. Jackson didn’t re-make a 1931 film complete with a man in an ape-suit, he gave King Kong his own spin. Frank Miller gave The 300 Spartans through his own graphic novel, not by merely replicating them. That is why I say vacant, and if anybody claims that The Wachowski brothers have art on their mind, I think it would be a case of giving them too much undeserving credit.
In fact, The Wachowski brothers are so consumed in rendering the anime part as it is, that a requirement as pertinent as lending coherence to the proceedings is all but forgotten. Needless it may be, yet there’s something dazzling about it all. You might have to brace yourself for conditioning in the initial hour wherein your brain might go for a spin and eyeballs may very well pop out of exhaustion. Probably, you haven’t seen anything like this, I haven’t, and I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. And neither is it all bad. Merely in the bad hands for once. It is a spectacular showcase of vanity, and I suspect even the filmmakers themselves didn’t find themselves in command either. They seem too confused, too distracted and it shows in the initial part where the film moves nowhere and the actors seem as lifeless as the surroundings around.
Let us get done with the story part here, which by the way doesn’t have much going its way. It is about Speed Racer (Hirsch) who has racing flowing through his veins. As a child the only thing that brings any shred of sense to him is fast speeding cars. Good for him, because the family business is racing run by his pop, Pops (Goodman). As he grows up a terrible tragedy befalls the family with the death of the elder brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), a tragedy that all but destroys their love for racing. Obviously it doesn’t, and Speed Racer, the brilliant new talent on the block, has to live with the ghost of the family’s past and live up to his ideals in this capitalistic world as he races his Mach5.
The first half if anything is terrible, and for a movie based on the adrenaline of speed, it is damp squib. Completely hollow, it might catch you more often that not stifling a yawn. I would advise you not to suppress it, and neither should you suppress the need to catch a breath of fresh air. Dialogues are crammed into whatever minutes that are available from that bludgeoning visual pomp. Most of them seem to have been written on the spot, in a terrible hurry, and the only purpose they fulfill is inform what’s happening around. Of course, nothing much is. I wonder if these lifeless sequences which offered little room for inserting special effects to The Wachowski brothers were directed by a second unit. The opening racing sequence is so awfully made that you might have trouble spotting the car in all its delirium. Color, effects, close-ups, dialogues, cars, a monkey are vomited on your face. At regular intervals they throw at you ‘comical’ situations most of them involving Speed’s younger brother and his partner, a chimp, just so you’re aware the film isn’t taking itself too seriously. Not humor though, the film has an dreadful sense of it. Coupled with the wink-an-eye style, it harms the first hour no end. One thing I would have appreciated is honesty, and there isn’t any on offer.
I have always maintained that The Wachowski brothers have never been good with their effects, they tend to overdo them. The Matrix was just about perfect but The Matrix Reloaded, for all its money, was garish. Especially the sequence where Neo fights a thousand Agent Smith’s where you could clearly notice the below par effects, as in computer games, whenever Neo flew in the air. They have called their film motorized kung-fu, but there’s a serious lack of choreography to any of the races. A serious lack of method.
It is the second hour, that saves the film from being a total disaster. The brothers seem to come into their own, the film grows a bit coherent, more sequences are lent to the family, and a cap is put on the effects. As a result it grows a lot warmer. The climactic couple of races are done quite well, though they are overtly campy, the whole film is and that is the point. There’s energy to the proceedings and a sense of direction and you’ll find yourself involved. As I said the conditioning lasts for an hour.
There’s nothing special with the actors. It isn’t remotely the actors’ fault either since this is wholly a technical film, and they are just set pieces. Just about as important as the colors around and the jumping cars. I would agree when you say the film is a terrible waste of an opportunity. And neither will it give Iron Man any serious threat. But The Wachowski brothers have given us a glimpse what could be done. Someday, there will be a film where someone like Terry Gilliam might explore this option to the wonders of their own imagination. And I’ll be waiting for it.

Monday, May 05, 2008

BIKUR HA-TIZMORET (THE BAND’S VISIT): MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri
Director: Eran Kolirin
Country: Israel
Language: English, Arabic, Hebrew
Runtime: 87 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Comedy, Drama

In the heart of this simplest and gentlest of tales lay music in its purest form. It is at once royal and humble, and it plays out like a series of tender notes, created straight out of the loneliness of its heart. The Band’s Visit isn’t a musical in the traditional sense, in that there aren’t any extravagant songs to speak of. But I’m tempted, more than any film in recent memory, to call it a true tribute to music because of the richness of its heart, and it’s almost simpleton honesty. Its rhythms flow softly and smoothly to us, something akin to the sight of a tiny fish hustling in the serenity of the deepest ocean. Truth is the word that comes to mind for some unknown reason.
Back in 67, if one were to venture into the Sinai, the temperature might have shown a reading markedly higher than normal. That would remain the status quo for a considerable period of the ensuing years. Though politics have changed, and certain leaders seemed to have warmed up, I’m certain there exists a certain degree of friction. On its face, The Band’s Visit might appear to be particular to Israel and Egypt, and I believe looking at it in that context alone would be an oversight of cruel proportions. Cast aside all those prerequisites, and discover a film about the interaction of people, good people, warm people, common people, you and me, who merely happen to be from different parts of the world.
Nobody pays respect anymore to the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra of, Egypt and nobody deems their classical music worthy enough. Headed by Tawfiq (Gabai, Rambo III), and desperate to prove their efficiency and value, The Band land into Israel seeking the Arab culture centre, dressed in their sky-blue uniforms exponentially adding to their apparent importance. They’re supposed to be, or they at least expect to be ceremonially welcomed and driven to their destination. The reality on the ground couldn’t be more different, and nobody seems to care even wee bit about them. By nobody, I mean the concerned authorities. The common people around at the airport seem to take great interest in the sight of them though, and some of them intend to have their picture taken. When the wait gets to their nerves, they inquire at the information center for a bus to take them to Petah Tikvah. Middle of nowhere, with few buildings if anything and a lost of dust and wind blowing around, is where the bus drops them. And a cafeteria in sight with a handsome woman incharge. They have breakfast, and when they explain their situation, they learn that the next bus would be coming the next morning.
It is a great sight, the woman, her name Dina (Elkabetz) and Tawfiq, to whom she refers to as the General, converse with each other. Especially the brand of English they utter. Every facet of him speaks of measured pride and discipline, and his every word weighed carefully before letting it heard by the outside world, lest someone would think low of their culture. She speaks casually, with gay abandon, and a confidence of a person who has the rein of her life in her own hands. Nothing else matters to her much, it seems, and neither to the two men who have been sitting there sharing her amusement and surprise that these thorough gentlemen evoke. As she replies in what is a beautiful line, complete with its sardonic observation to his question about the location of the Arab culture center – “No culture. Not Israeli culture, not Arab, no culture at all.”
She proposes to them to stay for the night, the other two Israeli citizens sharing her burden. One has a birthday at his house, and other intends to go out for a date, but on her insistence they help. Over the night, the film brings out a whole lot of a spontaneous mixture of comic encounters and tender emotional revelations. A night of lives being shared. There’s a wonderfully witty sequence, reminding me of Chaplin’s films, where the young and romantic Khaled (Saleh) helps his host reach out and grab the seeking hand of love. And there’s a sequence on a solitary bench, in the middle of an imaginary park, that involves veils being dropped and loneliness being disclosed. Not with a shouting desperation, but subtly and probably unknowingly. The sight of a good person warms up your heart in many ways, and it doesn’t matter if he’s a stranger from a far off land, it still opens up to a smooth flow you might never believe. Especially when it has great isolation buried inside of it.
This is Kolirin first feature film, and it is astonishing to view the mastery on hand. He seems to almost always know how to compose a shot. Make that always. We view the characters interact from always the precise location, and not even once are we disturbed by an unnecessary edit or movement. The night transpires with languid grace. It is an accepted rule, that the longer a sequence the more emotionally involved we become. Every sequence is just about the perfect length, and as it passes by we feel richer having shared a slice of life. Perfect is the word that comes to mind.
His economical approach lend great generosity upon the actors and each of them, even the ones with the tiniest parts leave an impression. The interaction between Simon and his host is so heartfelt, and there’s something so deeply profound and alive about their view on his long unfinished concerto. There’s Sasson Gabai, whose every wrinkle seems earned, and deserving of respect. An elder, isolated and lonely, and hoping for a companion. It is a wonder how the same feelings echo in Elkabetz’s eyes too, yet in a manner more desperate. Maybe she has broken the shackles of her culture, and language, the twins that separate us. Salman Rushdie, in his magical new novel The Enchantress of Florence has Mogor dell’Amore, the bearer of a great secret tale, declare – “This may be the curse of the human race. Not that we’re so different from one another, but that we’re so alike.” On the contrary, I think it is one of our great blessings.
When the band finally plays its song, it felt like I missed a beat. Something swelled inside my heart, maybe a glow of happiness. It was the realization of their insistence to spread music, and it touched me so gently I felt the warmth of elation flow out of me like never before. I closed my eyes for a fleeting moment to cherish this film. A film of the rarest beauty and elegance. A film so poignantly insightful of the strangeness of the bonds that flow between us. I guess that is what The Band’s Visit is all about. I guess that is what music is all about. And I wish to cherish it again, and again.


Note: The Band’s Visit was Israel official entry for the Oscars last year, but the Academy ruled against it citing that more than half of the language was in English thus rendering it ineligible for the Foreign Language category. As a result Beaufort was sent. I’m not qualified enough to argue for or against this judgment, but I wouldn’t hesitate one bit in opining that The Band’s Visit is one of the finest films in any language of last or any year.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

IRON MAN: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
Director: John Favreau
Runtime: 126 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Action, Superhero

Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you, you would be hard pressed to find a better film this summer to munch your big bag of popcorn on. Iron Man is light on everything, almost everything except fun. The kind of fun you would most want to have lain on that popcorn of yours. Pure gripping fun. There’s always a laugh, a chuckle just around the corner, and so is a thunder of an action sequence. Not big CGI-driven nonsense, but the kind of action that makes you jump in your seats, pump your fists, want to forget commonly appreciated cinema-theater behavior and growl a ‘YEAH’. And then, smile in satisfaction.
When Iron Man was introduced into the Marvel world way back in 1963, the early seeds of a great embarrassment, for at least one country, were being sown. It would be some time before results were reaped, but Iron Man, the almost clich├ęd amalgamation of billionaire playboy business man, was already harvested in Vietnam. More than forty years hence, history seems to have served a weird purpose by repeating itself – it has provided an alternate, very contemporary setting for the cinema version of the Marvel superhero to be re-harvested. Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is the billionaire businessman, a MIT grad exceptionally genius, and more importantly owner of Stark Industries – a verifiable Lord of War. His latest designed weapons are the reason the United States Armed Forces need to be considered the scourge of all its enemies. On the demonstration of a new missile system, intended to blast the Afghani enemy right inside his cave, Stark visits Bagram. Just as he’s enjoying with the Air Force unit, their military vehicles are caught in a booby trap and everyone on his side gets killed. The resulting firing embeds shrapnel in his body, and when he gains consciousness, he sees himself a prisoner of a curious pacemaker. More importantly he has been taken hostage by some group of Afghani militia in some cave in possession of weapons manufactured by Stark industries, which is as good as being in the middle of nowhere. As he realizes, his fellow prisoner Yin Sen (Shaun Tob) who is some kind of a multi-linguist wizard himself, has placed that pacemaker in his body, which is working on a car battery, that works as some sort of a magnet holding the shrapnel from reaching his heart.
Now don’t ask me, how a car battery, minus its home, drives its way into those caves. I have no clue, and if you intend to put yourself through such questions, I would advise you better not. Look, Iron Man is a convenient film, by which I mean, when someone wants to find a stick to be broken they invariably find one nice and dry to be broken to the satisfaction of an echoing crackle. Tony Stark is ordered by the militia leader to build for them the latest missile, and under that pretext we see a lot of material that I guess ought not to be there. But if the film starts addressing such issues of logic, there wouldn’t be any summer left, and it would be very imprudent of us to ask anything of a film that has been designed only to entertain, to help us have a blast. If a film does try and hurdle over any such problem, say for example at the end how does the villain who turns into the Iron Monger so deftly acclimatize himself to the new suit/machine without any apparent practice, with only convenience in its mind and our entertainment I do not have any problem. And entertain it most certainly does.
Almost heading perpendicular to all the movies of this genre, Favreau (the writer of Swingers) doesn’t bludgeon us with some insipid romantic arc or an out-of-place moral conflict. In a way, he returns the comic book films to its origins where it is all primarily meant to be crazy fantastic fun. He almost always succeeds in what he sets out to do with a scene keeping things running smooth and fine, always managing to wrap its otherwise grim situations in breezy light humor. Yet, when the moments come, whatever few there are, they are touching, romantic and whatever else they were intended to be. They key to such success lay with the actors, prestigious names all. Robert Downey Jr. is turning out to be one of our most bankable actors. There’s always wit in his ways, his own brand, and what he does to the character is something what Depp brought to Captain Sparrow – he brings exceptional charm. Iron Man owes as much to him as much to anyone else, and it is the twinkle in his eye that always wins us over. He’s left on his own for a significant period, constructing the suit and with the aide of his fabulous virtual partner, and it is probably the best time of the film. His exchanges with Bridges, who chews scenery like a true master, blast off as much of a firework as any action sequence. Paltrow, as the secretary Miss ‘Pepper’ Pots graces the film with just about enough of her delicate touch, and she is a delight whenever she is on screen. I’ve to admit here, when I first saw Paltrow in Se7en all those years back, I didn’t warm up to her too much. But over the years she has kind of grown up on me, and I think that is the mark of a good actor. Howard has his own moment or two, and I would love him to have a real major part in what will be a sequel I’ll be keeping a desperate eye on.
In a way, Iron Man is as much a superhero film as it is tending towards a parody of the genre. Which it isn’t at all. The film quite brilliantly juggles its way between the seriousness of the moral conundrum, that the weapons of destruction in the hands of the Afghan militia are of his own making, and then occasionally shrugs it away in a sly moment of wit. It tries to wrestle with the whole weapons cause war versus vice-versa debate too, but wisely turns away, just giving us a fleeting thread to ponder upon. Here is something else I managed to lay my hand upon. Initially Stark is the Merchant of Death, and when he stumbles upon the perils of his own creation and how they’re wiping off soldiers of his won country, he creates what is perceived as the Masterpiece of Death. Only to be snatched away from him from some capitalist entity. Like that everlasting struggle. I kind of liked that underlying theme, intentional or not.
What sure is intentional is it is having fun with its material, loads of fun, and that is what rubs off on us. Iron Man fires off the rockets of his arm, and turns away, and in a super-‘wow’ scene he walks away as the tank blows up behind him. It is the kind of scene you would want to capture in your latest Canon digi-cam. It is the kind of scene you would want to rewind again and again when you purchase the DVD. That is the kind of panache superhero films have been missing all this while, Okay, maybe Hellboy and that was a seriously overlooked film, but there’ve been precious few offering such fun. I guess at some level, Iron Man is a parody on Batman too, for obvious reasons and if Stan Lee claims he was influenced by Howard Hughes, there’s an acknowledgment due.
The ending is a bit on crutches, but never mind, it never irks you one wee bit. It is enjoyable in its own way. As are the rest of the action sequences, which are short but roaring thunder. I was on a back to back schedule, at least when I drove from my home. Iron Man dispelled even the foggiest notions of any such plan, and off I drove back to my home. A film that can change your plan, and give you fun for a whole weekend is, I guess, a real slam-bang start to this summer. All that with more than a dash of heart. With the major chunk of the cream yet to be served, I can only lick my fingers in glee. Marvel, bring on Captain America. I’m all eyes. And Michael Bay, bring on your Megatrons and Autobots and Decepticons. Iron man is going to kick some serious metal posterior.