Sunday, June 29, 2008

IN BRUGES: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy
Director: Martin McDonagh
Rating: *****
Runtime: 107 min.
Genre: Crime, Comedy, Drama

        Why would killing a child be considered a greater sin than any other act, say for instance killing a man? Is it because they’re little and innocent and defenseless, or is it because they’re young and haven’t seen enough of their world? If it is the latter, who would be arrogant enough to decide who has had enough, for none but few in this world feel they’ve experienced it all. And if it is the former, well, there ought not to be much difference between a seven year-old and a dwarf. I think In Bruges hasn’t been able to make its mind up, it believes everything is wrong and in that confusion lay its immense weight. For some odd reason, Gone Baby Gone comes to mind.
        Bruges is this town in Belgium. As everybody, I’ve always dreamt of bag-packing my way through the length and breadth of Europe. Not through agencies and definitely not chained by a schedule, but just collect enough funds, pack my bags and off on my way. Bruges was an obscure name that turned up a few times when I would research in frenzy, a place known for its medieval architecture with its churches and its famous Basilica of the Holy Blood, something like Florence. In Bruges has done something that quite few films are ambitious enough to portray, and that is to shed such light on a city that jumps it to the top of the must-travel list. It has done that for quite a few folks now, and that includes Roger Ebert and me. And yes, these two Irish hitmen as well, Ray and Ken, who after having disposed of two bodies have been asked to cool their heels in this town they have never heard of.
        Ray and Ken, played by Farrell and Gleeson respectively, are the standard partners in crime one usually comes across. Ken is the guy with a smart cool brain on his shoulders, and he has that air about him that usually thinks and weighs out all options before unsettling itself. He also considers it extremely beneficial for his well being to do as he’s told. The kind of employee whom experience and time has eroded into a fine round smooth nonchalant pebble. Ken loves history and has seemingly lost himself in the heritage of this town within no time. Ray, on the other hand, is the restless kind. He hates history and he hates Bruges and considers it, in his own words, a shit-hole. He hates Americans, and part of the reason is because they killed John Lennon. He is conscious of their films though, and he seems to be aware of most of the midgets who have appeared in them. And there’s a tragedy, something deeply grieving, which is eating from within. Something so powerful the mere mention of which brings this tough guy to tears. And believe me, these guys are tough. Is it a remnant deep from his past, is it from his last job, I’ll leave you to discover. It is because this film is as much an achievement in construction of plot as it is in development of character. The two go hand in hand, and as in the best of films, each supplies the other with fodder.
        There’s their boss Harry, as foul mouthed a gangster there has ever been in cinema, and that includes Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan (Sexy Beast). He’s an Englishmen, and the great thing about him is his integrity. His adherence to his principles and values. In fact, all the three gangsters are men of word, men of honor. Ray meets a Belgian girl and promises to tell her the truth about what he does if she agrees on dinner. She does, and he tells her without no fuss. This film has been marketed as a comedy, I believe, and upto an extent it is. What fascinates though is how much of it transpires as dialogues, frank conversations devoid of melodrama with nothing concealed within the heart, between actual people who happen to know each other dearly. Two key characters at the climax stand in a hotel – one in the room upstairs and one below – and between them on the staircase stands the owner, a pregnant woman who also happens to be brave. None of them are heartless to let the predicament of their lives cause even the slightest of harm to the lady, and they’re more than willing to maintain the status quo for the rest of the night. They promise each other to exit the hotel through other ways, and leave the lady safe. And they do so. No back-stabbing. And that is what derives much of the humor, which to me feels quite odd. Treachery and lies and deceit make for drama, and truth and honesty and integrity make for comedy.
        The director and writer here is Martin McDonagh, a playwright much respected in the United Kingdom, and this is his first feature film. The emphasis on character above all else pretty much tells us his roots, and his dialogues are some of the best in years. With most well-scripted films, the dialogues either seem to be catering to the genre or to the director, rather than to the character. Here, they always stay true to the person speaking them and thus they traverse genres with such fluidity it is often hilariously funny and tragically heartbreaking at the same time. Ray and Ken sit together discussing a lolly-pop man and I was caught stranded between laughing and feeling sad. I’m not sure I have seen any other film like this in recent times. Michael Clayton sure does come to mind. But I’m sure we have the first major contender for this year’s awards season and the year’s top ten lists.
        Colin Farrell gets his best role and he gives his best performance in ages. Gone is the chip on the shoulder that was sticking out so sorely in Miami Vice, and what we see is a true actor. Gleeson doesn’t have the high and mighty aura of a Morgan Freeman, nor does he have the authority of a Sydney Pollack, but in his own nonchalant way he brings to the film the same cumulative effect. And he doesn’t even seem to try. There’s an everyman quality that Gleeson’s plump and chummy face brings to the bad guy role that is priceless. Then there’s one of our greatest actors, Ralph Fiennes, and he has the heartless hard-boiled character on him. Watch him and how his character unfolds. Fiennes inherently doesn’t look deceitful, and I think we always believe him. I wonder if there was the need for the film to end as it does, to show the truth of the man, since we never doubted him in the first place.
        One of the great tragedies of the film I think is that Ray still believes he hates Bruges at the end. Often I wonder what hell is. Other than the usual, you know, eternal damnation and roasting in flames stuff. What is hell supposed to mean? I have found various meanings for myself at various stages of my short life, but I think the one that terrified me miles beyond terror is snatching from someone a cherished world they have just began to love and yet to live. I think that notion of hell haunts me, that abrupt end, where you don’t even have enough time to kiss farewell to that world. And then, you’re left to live with that horror of what could have been for eternity.

Monday, June 23, 2008

GET SMART: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, Dwayne Johnson, Dalip Singh
Director: Peter Segal
Rating: ****
Runtime: 110 min.
Genre: Action, Comedy

You look at Steve Carell, one of our best actors and certainly our best comic actor, and you know the reason why the genius of Buster Keaton has aged so much more gracefully than Chaplin’s tramp. Keaton always kept a straight face, and he never betrayed the intelligence of his little fellow. He would be honest and he always played characters that took themselves seriously, and he was wise to know that in a comical situation it was better not to himself play for laughs, not to be false to the character but to just play the fulcrum.
Consider Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), a student of the Chaplin brand of comedy, and how woefully unfunny he is. Even in his attempts at pulling a straight face involve a certain degree of silliness that is inherent to him. Or consider Mike Myers, who has himself spoofed Bond in the Austin Powers movies, and how he would do anything to take a laugh out of us. Carell, on the other hand, is from a whole different dimension. And he has that rare gift in him, the lack of which exposes the desperation of most comic actors. You can call it charm, you can call it heartfelt, or you can call it deadpan. He doesn’t bumble, at least not in the traditional goofy sense, but is incredibly assured of himself, and you know the guy in there is serious. That is why even a joke involving as stale and outdated an item as an exposed butt is funny. You know it is stupid, still you laugh, because hey, this is Steve Carell and with him you believe it. I often wonder about pitching actors from today into silent films, for they are from a whole different world. And I daresay, Carell is one of those few actors, if anything, would have been loved even back then.
In Get Smart, the big screen adaptation of a much cherished TV comedy I have never ever seen, Carell plays Maxwell Smart, or Max for short. And it just isn’t his name, this guy is smart in a way you would rarely come across in your regular spy action film. He works for CONTROL, an alternate arm of the United States’ intelligence machinery, and he’s the top analytical brain out there feeding on tons of reports from all corners of the world and making heads and tails of them. He’s the guy the spy movies have largely ignored, the guy who can derive important inferences from the sparse information of what the surveillance targets are eating. He is the artifact who holds that most valuable belief – that it is people, real people in flesh and blood, at the heart of it all.
He wants to jump the gun though, to being a field agent, and the test results are due. But at the other end of the world, that fun combination from all those years ago – Russian terrorists with bombs planning to blow up a major US City – make a comeback. It is probably one of the first films in years, if not the first, that is brave enough to make a joke out of the predicament, you know, post 9/11. Agents have been compromised, and now it is upto Max to team up with Agent 99 (Hathaway) to set across Europe and save the day.
For an espionage-genre spoof, Get Smart boasts of superb production values and gadgets that really do work, and often draw surprise. There’re stunts, and one involves a sky-dive, which would seriously test those of most Bond films. That is the film’s strength I suppose, they aren’t just making it for the laughs. They do have a pretty solid story, a suspense that is staring right at us, and a script that doesn’t condescend to us. It is a spoof alright, but it does have a thought process that understands the world it is making a joke of. In a rather crucial and amusing sequence, that involves the villain’s henchman (Dalip Singh, otherwise known as The Great Khali) making pulp of Max and 99, look at how Max wins him over. It is not a scene that exists only for its hilarity, but is vital to the film.
Another strength is the cast which is just about perfect. Hathaway is suave, and she has the confidence and intelligence to realize that her presence alone is enough to stamp her authority in whichever sequence she is in. Kinda like the feminine version of Brosnan. Arkin is the cream of the supporting cast, and the thing is all of them seem to be genuinely enjoying whatever it is they’re into. We do to, and what we have is a film that is better than most Bond films of the 70s and 80s. This is quite likely going to be the action comedy of the summer, and just because there’s Carell in there, I’ll be waiting for it as eagerly as I’m waiting for the next Bond film.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

THE INCREDIBLE HULK: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt
Director: Louis Leterrier
Rating: **
Runtime: 114 min.
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Superhero

I wholeheartedly agree with Tony Stark, hardware is a much better bet. Even at the box office. The thing is, these hardware guys – Stark, Bruce Wayne – are interesting in a way these guys with mutative powers thrust upon them can never be. Especially this Hulk guy, who cannot muster too many shades of his character save the ones impinged with green. Like the erstwhile werewolf who feels like a distant cousin to our tremendously high-tempered friend here. He does either of two things – crash into valuable government property oblivious of the hard-working middle class citizens and the pains they take to pay the taxes, or hide in some remote corner of the world – and both involve running. He is essentially running in a paradox, it is his mutative ability that has him on the run. And if we relieve of his troubles, well, there wouldn’t be anything interesting left to him to buy the admission tickets in the first place.
And with that super anger too, you know, there isn’t much to him. That is the movie’s failing, more than anything else. You cannot, simply cannot, make the Hulk universe interesting enough, say like that of Batman or Superman or his Marvel counterparts Spiderman and Iron Man. With him, you’re essentially dealing with the only angle along which you could develop your plot. Much of it would consist of running amuck, and the rest would inevitably have to involve some other guy with a malicious intent who somehow gets the power. And a resultant clash at the end, which would involve a terrible waste of property just because someone didn’t pay attention at the anger management class. I heard Edward Norton had worked on the screenplay initially, but much of it was re-written Zak Penn (Behind Enemy Lines, X2, Elektra). I’ve no idea how either of them have differed at the template level, but at the end of the day we have a Hulk movie that is just about as bereft of energy as its predecessor, and at the added expense of true emotion and sincerity, which by the way made the woefully underrated Ang Lee version a much better film.
It is all the more unforgivable that the makers here have decided to distance themselves from its predecessor, first by marginally altering the origin storyline, with Bruce Banner (Norton) having been handed the credit of creating his angry version. And second by laying more emphasis on the action part, which would have been for the better had they done it well with any dosage of style and imagination. They do not, the action sequences are banal, they’re repetitive, we grow tired of the roaring Hulk, and I bet it is practically impossible to stifle a yawn during the climax, which dragged for so long I yearned for NYC local Spiderman to turn up and sling a few webs and puts these two naughty boys into a cage for good.
The strong intermittent parts are what made the Marvel fun bonanza Iron Man such a great experience, and here there is neither any fun nor any insight. Standard issue attempts are made to generate humor, like a cab ride involving Bruce and Elizabeth (Tyler), which labor for laughs without much success. The rest feels like an assemblage of lethargic bits and pieces, an observation quite amply proved by the ever changing color of Norton’s hair, and its style, and sometimes in consecutive frames. Gone is the vulnerability that Bruce had in Lee’s Hulk, and gone is the warmth that accompanied the tender romance he and Elizabeth shared then. Tyler is no Connelly, but Norton braves through it all, and alongwith Roth gives the only noteworthy performances. I wonder the intelligence behind casting Norton though, for he’s an actor of a rather calm demeanor. He isn’t one who can show raging anger, which Bana did so effectively, and I believe that significantly takes a lot of gravity away from the Bruce/Hulk predicament, whatever of it there is. The inspiration, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, sure were polar-opposite split personalities, but they inherently felt related. Here, the two personas never ever seem entities of the same person.
The filmmakers have kept more than a thread alive for the inevitable sequel, though I’m not sure if there’s much box office potential left. The way I see it, this $150 million contraption doesn’t seem to have long legs. The Hulk better face it, any filmmaker/studio executive whose interest lay not just in the commercial angle of a venture would admit that there’s nothing left in his universe worth exploring apart from the prospect of spending millions of dollars on CGI hokum and then blowing it all up. Maybe making the guy control his anger and use it as a weapon is an angle. I know, that would be another paradox as well, for the more the anger the more is the brute force that would surround him. What foresight would advice though is plan in advance for a destruction of this rather expendable element, and my guess is with a genius like Tony Stark taking rein of matters from General Ross, the way to do it is implanting an anti-virus to do the trick. Tell me, how does Norton sound?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

THE HAPPENING: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo
Director: Manoj Night Shyamalan
Rating: ****
Runtime: 91 min.
Genre: Thriller, Sci-fi, Drama

Consider this. Robert Preston’s The Cobra Event amplifies, by means of a biochemical terrorist attack, the rare genetic disorder Lesch-Nyhan syndrome to barbarically horrific proportions. Allegedly Bill Clinton was severely alarmed after reading it. The lethal pathogen at the heart of the tale is nuclear polyhedrosis virus, and the early symptoms are of common cold, fever and conjunctivitis. Within a few days the virus eats away the brain, and eventually the victim would reach such ghastly levels of self-cannibalism he would start nibbling over his lips, his eyes and he would tear of his forehead and chew over it and his spine would arch awkwardly and he would kill himself. Preston claims in his note at the beginning of the book, the situation he describes is a definite possibility if his research over biochemical warfare is anything to go by.
Now, consider this. It is commonly accepted fact that a musth elephant is hands down the most dangerous mammal as far as humans are concerned. Glands are secreting and everything inside their heads is so messed up, not even elephants of the same herd sneak anywhere near. Many mahouts are torn apart, or crushed. A musth elephant is known to attack with the sole intention of destruction and mayhem. But there have been very many reports, some documented even on the National Geographic Channel, which speak of elephants, herds of them, sneaking in during the night to the nearby villages, especially in the North East and West Bengal, knocking on the door of those huts gently, and as soon as it is opened the person is ripped apart. These are normal elephants, not the mad musth ones, and this seems to be a deliberate practice. There also have been incidents where trunks look for humans in the huts through the windows. Experts say, the elephants are taking revenge upon us for encroaching upon their territory. Bear in mind, an elephant is probably the closest to humans in displaying emotions as jealousy, love, anger and so on.
I ask you this, which scenario frightens you more? I think it has to be the murdering elephants, for there’s no explanation save what we conceive out of our guilt – say we’re destroying the environment and stuff of that kind. Maybe we aren’t prepared to understand the world we live in to such grave detail, and we tend to humanize it all. Maybe there’re other forces beyond our comprehension, waiting to be understood and all we can muster is to come up with theories or some such nonsense. To come up with percentages, for such figures seem to have a quelling effect on our minds. You doubt it? Take the matter of a salary hike, and actual figures do not in the least seem as impressive as, you know, percentages.
Manoj Night Shyamalan’s The Happening offers the horror and drama of one such scenario that seems to have been cooked up by that amazingly fertile brain of his. It isn’t a story as his other films, but more of a parable, and as in keeping with the writer-director’s style, it mostly concerns and examines the human condition under an attack by what’s apparently nature’s forces. Elliot Moore (Wahlberg), a warm and easy high school science teacher in Philadelphia, has been summoned by the school officials to what is an emergency meeting in the auditorium. The whole staff is down here and so is Elliot’s good friend Julian (Leguizamo), and they’re asked to flee the big city, since early reports seem to indicate the entire north-eastern part being affected. We learn both of them are married, Elliot has a wife in Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Julian has a daughter in Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and they all head for the railway station in a hurry.
It is a mass exodus there; not running and jumping and screaming and falling and stampeding as if a bomb exploded, but silently calmly and in a clueless fashion, for no one knows what the terror is, or what is to be terrified of. Just reports that people are killing themselves in huge numbers on cellphones. The train stops in the middle of nowhere and that is just about as far I’ll go revealing the narrative.
There’s something to be taken away from the fact that all his previous films have clocked just a shy less than two hours, and this one here is a good 15 min. shorter than any of them. Scenes aren’t developed and everything feels so rushed. Shyamalan’s films have been known to have a leisurely pace, and that is why we end up being engulfed by that world of his creation. After all the criticism his films post The Sixth Sense have earned, it feels as if the studio gave him a finishing time under which to wrap the picture. It is a shame, for criticizing Shyamalan has become the in-thing without understanding the nature of his work. I would be waiting for the Director’s Cut, if there would be one and I hope the picture in it is longer and more beloved to the filmmaker.
Look, this isn’t a scary film and anybody who would assume that this one would be wrong, just as none of Shyamalan’s films are pure horrors. Scares are mere ingredients, and here there are a few he pulls out of his bag like the wizard he is. A couple of them feel gratuitous though, like the one with the lady who puts her cellphone on speaker, and we hear strange noises.
What he captures rather is the nature around us, with trees swaying back and forth diligently. None of it plays out as sinister, or as if some evil is looming large. Rather, in those shots there feels something melancholy, as if the characters do not belong there, and they are being asked to leave. Not many words are spoken in the opening shots, and yet they fill you with immediate tragedy. I’m surprised this film has been released in the middle of summer, a quite introspective film thrown against the spectacle CGI-filled behemoths. There’re heartwarming characters in there, with heartwarming performances from Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo, and you want them to be safe. You wonder what they did to deserve this, and through that you fall upon your answer. The film lets you imagine, and you feel a part of that world. That is the genius of the man.
Strangely, I do not feel my heart wants to belong to this review. I guess I have a fair idea as to why, and much of it is due to Shyamalan. He might the first to disagree, but Shyamalan makes those rare films which blossom fully not in a theatre, but in the solitude of your own company. They have a spiritual and emotional gravity to them we would much rather experience alone. I saw the film in a theatre full of people on a Friday night, and I’ll be catching a morning show soon, on one of these weekdays in the hope there will no one around. And I got to tell you the people I saw it with didn’t like it one bit. There were curses being hurled at the man, as was the case after The Village and Lady in the Water, and I suspect some of them were expecting a twist ending. I have struggled for two days now, to reveal it or not, more so because I belong to the conservative school of thought – the one which tries to reveal nothing by way of the plot for maximum audience discovery. I seem to have arrived at the conclusion though that the disclosure might help you watch the film in a better perspective, as it so much deserves. I’ll take the plunge, I seek forgiveness, and I tell you now there is no twist ending.
I admire the way he doesn’t offer an explanation. Maybe it could be interpreted as his revolt against the twist endings that have been attributed to him. Or maybe it could be the demand of the story. Shyamalan is a great optimist, and with the way he has ended the picture, he has struck on both the deals – he hasn’t compromised on his optimism and he has neither compromised on the film’s threat. How I wish he had directed the upcoming remake of The Birds, for amongst the current filmmakers there’s none more gifted to helm a Hitchcock presentation. Signs might have been a homage, but this here is the truest in nature to that film. Shyamalan is that kind of a genius, our premier story teller, and in him I’ll always believe.

DASAVATHARAM: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Kamal Haasan, Asin
Director: K.S. Ravikumar
Runtime: 180 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Sci-fi

Dasavtharam opens with a sequence that is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It is spectacular alright, but there’s a level of devotional fervor, a level of raw uninhibited emotion, a level of larger than life mysticism that is seldom experienced in prologues. Rangaraja Nambi, one of the ten parts Haasan plays, is a twelfth century Vaishnava and his God has been challenged by the local Chola king who wants Lord Shiva to rule over the land. The Vishnu idol is pulled out of the temple but not before Nambi making thorough mincemeat of the king’s men. And when he decides not to renounce his God, the king orders to sink the idol and the devotee, both chained together.
You would think that this is going to be a watershed film in the history of Indian cinema, especially after such an explosion of an opening, like something you might have never seen before. Unfortunately it isn’t, and rather than march along like an epic, it scoots like a mish-mash of an action-chase film with doses of romance and comedy, all the while registering nothing more than a whimper. Mind you, it has a burst of a thousand ideas. Rather, the film seems to have been made to cater to these ideas and concepts and beliefs so much so that it is overflowing with them. Haasan, the writer here, and Ravikumar, the director opt for an uneasy blend - a cerebral, thought-provoking story crossed with a mindless, comic self-parody. It is as if the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, as if it acknowledges the fact that this is all in the end just a movie. I do not agree with that style one wee bit, considering the subject at hand.
The plot I believe has been a closely guarded secret for a long time, and I wouldn’t be the one to reveal it here. Only that it concerns a vial carrying a dangerous virus, which if unleashed might kill millions, and the chaos theory. You know, the one which theorizes that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in one corner of the world can lead to a hurricane thousands of miles away in another part, if, the tiny turbulence due to the fluttering causes a critical combination of air pressure changes. (Source: http://www.answers.com/). And yes, there’re ten Haasan’s in the film in what feels like a spot the Haasan contest, alluding to the ten avatars of Vishnu.
And that is what disappointed me. It is a nice entertainer, but when you summon Vishnu and his avatars, a mythological concept that has such immense weight – from the wrath of the Narsimha, to the rage-filled Parashurama, to the wily Krishna – I believe you owe it to explore it. The ten Haasans is actually just a novel interesting idea, and for much of the part it has nothing much to do with the ten avatars. You might as well have ten different actors play the part and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Any similarities are purely coincidental, or maybe seem as an act of welcome accident. Like the way Nambi might be viewed as an allusion to Kurma, the tortoise that appeared to provide a base at the Ocean churning. I’ve been visiting sites and I have learnt that the ten versions on paper were supposed to be – a Brahmin, a Dwarf, a Scientist, a Fighter, a Black Man, a Tourist Guide, an Old Woman, a Robber, a Young Lady, and an Emperor. Now this looks more like a rendition of the ten avatars, and most of these aren’t present in the final film.
What depressed me beyond that disappointment though was the way the ten versions have been handled. They aren’t ten larger-than-life figures but pawns of fate, or maybe of God, and that was indeed the intention. Here the story feels weak and artificial. It has been constructed around the ten characters with a deliberate attempt to cram all of them somehow even if their inclusion makes no difference. As if, the writer first thought of the character, and then made the detour from the story to include him in the action too. In a way, you know, it works out quite well as far as the theme is concerned, that everything happens for a reason.
The characters themselves though, aren’t anything to write home about. Except for the central version, the scientist Govind Ramasaamy, everyone else is just an excuse to show off the versatility of the man. And the abilities of the make-up crew, which is patchy at best. The other versions seem like masks with overgrown faces, they look horrendous. But curiously when I stared at some of them for a considerable length of time to find out what’s wrong, whenever the film allowed me of course, I could find no reason. All the parts are bang on, it is just the sum total makes them look like one of them clowns who are going to tag along with The Joker in the year’s biggest film The Dark Knight. I don’t know, was it intentional, and maybe it was because the film has an overall comic tone, some of the time ridiculing itself, and this was just another of those gimmicks.
Another saddening feature is the over-reliance on special effects. The film looks rich and splendid whenever it doesn’t use them, like in the monastery which is such a simple and beautiful set. Especially the song Mukunda. I loved the simplicity of the song. The trouble arises when the F/X come in, and they make their presence felt most of the time. Scrubby is what they are, and the film seems to decay into a haze every time. Especially when two versions share the same frame. I would love to learn what the complication was, and it has to be something much more than the standard trick that involves the shooting of double roles. But why on earth do chase sequences in Indian films rely on effects, rather than innovative use of camera angles and editing techniques. Any notions that they cost heavy ought to be put to rest – watch the economy with they were shot in Mad Max. Simple magic of angles. And it is way better than anything any of those Matrix films could muster, for it feels real. I learn, and I need confirmation on this, that the opening sequence cost somewhere to the tune of Rs. 3 Crores. The whole Chola temple set was built, and how I wish they used the rest of the Rs. 162 Crores in the same way.
Do not wonder about the performances. It has Haasan here. Asin’s part of the bargain is to scream like a simpleton and I’m not sure I would have tolerated that character had it been any other actress. Her greatest asset, apart from being a good actress, is her natural ability to batter that initial resistance we have for any character when we’re only observing and analyzing the behavior.
I might have given off an impression that this is a bad film. It certainly isn’t one, and it is perfectly decent entertainer. It experiments, and it takes a few risks and I would want to clap for that alone. But there’s a resident feeling inside me that says the film isn’t ambitious enough. What it could have been was an epic mythological conflict. What it could have been was India’s very own superhero-team, like Watchmen. What it could have been was a passionate argument on God. What it could have been was the exploration of a man’s life, our lives, and how it is all a cumulative entity of the versions we change into every moment. What it could have been was one of the greatest films in our history, a film to which I could have said I loved it. But I didn’t, though I liked it. For viewers who do not understand Tamil, the film does offer subtitles. The dialogues are wonderful, more than wonderful, and they are often hilarious. And as in the opening sequence, where it is needed, they’re epic in scope too. The Hindi version comes two weeks later, and I would advise you not to wait for it, for the magic in those voices can never be replaced. And I would suggest watching how a film that I believe started of as a grand venture turned out just to be an entertainer.

You know what I wish, there’s a separate version somewhere out there which I’ve missed. Honest. You know why? Because the version in the image I supply to you below doesn’t exist in the film. Neither does a Negro, which I hope you’ll be kind enough to image-search through Google.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

AAMIR: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Rajeev Khandelwal
Director: Raj Kumar Gupta
Runtime: 90 min. (citation needed)
Rating: *****
Genre: Thriller, Drama

Ladies and Gentlemen! You’ve read about it in the newspapers! Now, shudder as you observe, before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of nature’s mistakes, I give you…the average man. Physically unremarkable, it has instead a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity’s importance. The club footed conscience and the withered optimism.
- The Joker (The Killing Joke)

In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, The Joker recounts his origins to a captive Commissioner Gordon. He was a run of the mill conman, and he never truly reveals what his name used to be then, and through his tale describes to the upstanding cop the philosophy of one bad day. That one bad day that snatched from him his innocent wife. That one bad day that destroyed him and his face. That one bad day that made him insane miles beyond the farthest limits of insanity. That one bad day that made him the clowned prince of crime. That one bad day, and what it can do even to the most upstanding man. That it can batter him to beyond a point of no return.
Aamir Ali (Rajeev Khandelwal), touches down to Mumbai, having left his practice of two years in London for good. He would have stayed there for ever, and I suspect he could have. But he doesn’t fancy his chances under the present climate of ethnic distrust and suspicion, and he probably hopes to bide his time here with his family, and when the season changes he would return to his flourishing life. But that is for the future. He might believe everything is in his own hands, and he’s playing his cards alright. Heck, everything feels totally under control. But this day, the day when he sets his foot back on home soil, the day when his family curiously is seen nowhere to receive him, the day when he calls home and nobody picks up, the day when two anonymous men on a bike ride up to him and toss a Nokia 6610, the day when it rings and he picks it up and a stranger is on the other line, the day when he is told his family has been taken hostage and they would be killed at a moment’s notice lest he comply with their instructions, this day would be his own private one bad day.
Here is where I assure you, I have revealed nothing, and if my discussion of this gravitating piece of filmmaking seems to be skimming along the surface, so be it. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the idiot who spoils the joy of others. At the same time, nothing would stop me from declaring that this is the best film we’ve made since that masterstroke we know as Johnny Gaddaar. And it is every bit as great a thriller as that one, with tons of moral conundrums we find ourselves the middle of.
Clocking at 90 minutes this is a lean economical film that pulls out all the stops to put us smack in the middle of a city and engulfs us with it. The city here is a central character, and the shape it assumes thoroughly reflects on the way the film unfolds. It stinks when it wants to, it feels rotten at times, and on some occasions it feels a maddening place. A harsh irrational hell of random and pointless human existence. Aamir runs for his family in here, from pillar to post, with little or no help. He’s not a hero by even the farthest stretches of imagination, and he’s being broken to pieces from inside. He’s tired, he’s asthmatic, yet he runs. With a red suitcase in his hand he clutches most dearly too, cutting a picture of such intense sympathy you would want to cry, he runs. This is a heartbreaking performance from Rajeev Khandelwal, who I hear is an actor of repute on the television.
There’s the proverbial hooker with a golden heart in there too, and when the opportune time arrives to measure her worth, her actions seem more valuable than any treasure. Such is the brilliance of filmmaking here, our hearts well up at the joy of her existence. It is the mark of a good film, for it realizes that, and in Aamir’s eyes we find the acknowledgement reflected. It is the first occasion when his tears attain full flow, and it is a touching moment of an overpour of honest emotions.
As I sit alone at this hour in the night writing this review, I’ve realized this film has left a certain degree of a devastating impact on me so much so that I’m constantly losing myself in a stream of thoughts that juxtapose Aamir against his fate. It is fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time, and I am arguing with myself on whose side the film considers itself to be – with the man who writes his own fate, or the one who thinks he is writing his own fate. Aamir, beyond a shred of doubt, is of the latter kind. He considers himself successful, and he might be, for what counts for a successful life in this world is the perfection achieved in impersonating the next person. As in clones, where everybody is imitating everybody.

“With the help of favorable measures great individuals might be reared who would be both different from and higher than those who theretofore have owed their existence to mere chance. Here we may still be hopeful: in the rearing of exceptional men.”
- Thus Spake Zarathustra
Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the Overman, the next stage in our evolution not necessarily a product of biological sciences but forces beyond them. The man of action, the man of ideals ought to be jolted into action by his environment. That is when he shows his worth, if any. In Aamir, the man who passes for the bad guy speaks at the other end of the phone, quietly stamping his authority and his willpower. He doesn’t flinch, and he draws out Aamir’s predicament as if he was God. Or maybe, the messenger of evil. But then, he has taken a stand and he’s willing to be counted. The nature of his allegiance might be wrong, but it could be argued he has risen above the drudgery of everyday life. What this one bad day asks of Aamir, with the evil man as its instrument, is to take a stance in his life. For good or bad doesn’t matter, but at least jump out of the line and be counted. It asks of him if he is a worthy adversary to him, a hero so as to speak, or would he still remain that commonplace loser who always does what he’s told. It is an examination, if you could look at it that way. You might wonder why he chooses to do what he does at the end. Maybe our evolution lay beyond a lifetime, in the same manner by which Dave jumped a thousand zones and dimensions to evolve into the star-child in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film has done what it can do though, to stand up and be counted, and that is to achieve a level of brilliance in filmmaking experienced only few times a year, or sometimes never.. A film where technique serve the film and not the other way round, where the filmmaking isn’t rigid in its adherence to one style but a multitude of tricks to draw us into itself. As a film that draws inspiration from that 2005 festival circuit hit Cavite (the filmmakers of the original are given acknowledgement right at the start), it is a work of great craft so much so that it could be called a work of art. A film from where much could be learnt for young filmmakers and screenwriters, most of them having to do a thing or two with honesty and truth. Maybe, in its own way, what The Magnificent Seven is to Seven Samurai. But I’ve seen great films vanish before my eyes, like last year, and I think a film can only do so much as far as writing its own fate is concerned. The rest is left to us, to recognize it, to grab its feet and place it on our shoulders and give it a ride of its life. If ever a film deserved that, it is this little overwhelming gem here, and I sure do hope to contribute my little bit in promoting it. Maybe even shout on rooftops. Of course, I would wish it the very best of luck for its tryst with its fate.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

SARKAR RAJ: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Sayaji Shinde, Govind Namdeo
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Runtime: 139 min. (citation needed)
Rating: **1/2
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

We’re never told why in Sarkar Raj, not until the last few minutes, and instead we’re assaulted with a barrage of audio visual imposition during the entire length. All the terribly unimaginative evil men seem to care about is wasting the next thorn in the flesh. Nobody boasts of any finesse, any subtlety. They twirl their eyebrows and squint their eyes and a wry smile is always ready on their faces, which intermediately turns into a snicker finally revealing itself into the wicked laugh. You know, they might as well put a cape, a thick moustache, an ugly mole on the cheek, an eye patch, and raise a placard reading a big ‘V’ for villain. That is how the film scampers along, until the end, when Subhash Nagare (Amitabh Bachchan) summarizes by means of an easy explanation to Anita Rajan (Aishwarya Rai) in what seemed like a ten-minute ramble, and my head hung in great disappointment and I sunk deep within my seat in despair, for the realization hit me that a opportunity was lost. This one had every plot element going for it – the current political climate, a little bit of history providing current context and a family drama – and yet somehow nothing works. I’ve never been to a film school, but there’re a few things I’ve picked up over my years at the movies. One of them concerns a screenwriter, and when a script feels the need to neatly thread every single development at the end in order to bring its audience on the same page, I think it is the time to scratch it all and rewrite.
In its labyrinthine denouement lay the germ of a great thriller, a great crime saga, a great moral tale, and most of all a great film. I’m talking about the plot, that is. Sarkar Raj, as an idea, is an infinitely better re-imagining of The Godfather II than its predecessor was of The Godfather. The Godfather II has always felt to me as a lazy film, and Coppola’s ambition to contrast the rule of Michael and Don Vito sure has thematic depth that would fill the Pacific ten times over, but it hampers the pace with its obligatory cross-cutting. And Sarkar was a woeful film, at which I was so livid I left the theatre premises even before it could end itself, for I was ill-equipped to deal with Varma’s excesses and had succumbed to them. But let us leave it at that.
Varma, with his idea here, had done one better on Coppola. The germ must have been influenced by the Enron crisis, if you remember it well. With the construction of a power plant at a village as a backdrop, Sarkar Raj harbored intentions to bring to the fore the father and the son and the differences in their beliefs, together and in one frame. While the Pacino vehicle was always about business, this one stamps its beliefs for the opposite – everything is personal in this world. It is essentially about the clash between them, the two schools of thought. I think, as are most things in the world, a little bit of both.
At least, that was the idea.
But it needed to be realized as a script first. Alas that building block seems to have long been banished from Varma’s films. The story or whatever passes for it here, happens in the first fifteen minutes in a hurry. The so-called differences and conflicts are resolved within the span of a wasted sequence. After that, it is just a great long wait on how it will all be wrapped up as Sarkar Raj, smug in its style, repeats itself over and over relentlessly until our brains suffer a collective hemorrhage. On whatever few pages, which I’m sure was under 10 the script found its existence, the words must have been written real big, in caps and bold. I say this because the actors speak them thus, not conversations but statements each punctuated with a million comas and a zillion drumrolls. It gets to a point wherein you can predict the onset of the drumroll in a sequence, not by the dramatic shape it is assuming but merely by the time elapsed since the last one. It gets to a point where actors deliver all their lines with due regards to the background score. It gets to a point where you instinctively rub your ears in total ire as soon as the lights are switched on.
All that these sentences seem to be concerned about though is people speaking in grim hushed conspiratorial tones, with plans and murders the only keywords thrown at us. Sequences themselves have no meaning, they have no clue to offer, they have nothing to say, except for the fact they exist waiting to be assembled into that final briefing. Whatever developments there are unfold thick and fast in the first quarter of an hour, with us having no inkling how they fit in the bigger picture and why, which is a shame. With lethargic pacing, and a ridiculous emphasis on key scenes, the film is supremely unfocussed in its narrative. Loud and brazen dialogues are given much more of a time and key sequences, like the riots are just hurled at us out of nowhere.
And then, it loses steam and runs out of ideas, and that is when it starts playing out like one of them low grade thrillers, with a twist in the tale that shouldn’t have been in the first place, when it could have been cerebral chess-game like Benegal’s Kalyug. Think of the brilliant Johnny Gaddaar, and how it always keeps us informed. That is the mark of a supreme screenwriter, and a supremely confident picture. Early in the film, a character mentions the Chakravyuha. Unfortunately nobody paid attention why we’re fascinated by that spiral military formation, both in the written and the visual medium. It is because we’re given the big picture beforehand, and in the narrative of its unfolding there has always been breathtaking clarity. The brilliance of a film is not in keeping everything concealed and revealing only at the last minute, but by laying out the whole deck right in front of our eyes, and then surprise us with how they add up. Here the great tragedy is that the cards are laid, but are lost amidst the bludgeoning and pretentious technical indulgences, and gradually we’re made unaware of their existence.
What’s this fetish with awkward camera angles is I would never understand? Good frames are spoilt beyond repair by the use of these angles, and they almost caused nausea in me. And what’s with these super close-ups, which strive to land us with more than a fair chance of familiarizing ourselves with every strand of facial hair on display. The background score isn’t a thing of the background no more; it exists much like those periodic splits of laughter that find their way in most sitcoms. Loud has never been my type, and everything about this film is loud with a capital L. Make that all caps and bold, again. Everything here is shouting in our face as if we’re retards and didn’t get it the first time around. Look, this is a subject and a film that doesn’t need add-ons of style, least of all shots calling attention to themselves. It hampers a dramatic film as this, and we end up noticing the excessive style all around, the way the silhouettes cross each other splitting the frame diagonally, when we ought to be paying attention to the developments. We’re not the ones to fault though, because the film itself is so happy about its frames it is imploring us thus. I’ve always been a believer that the style should augment the film, and not exist just for the sake of it. Consider again, Johnny Gaddaar, a film so perfect and so remarkably spot-on with its usage of stylistic devices that the entire exercise becomes a visual joy.
Tip here for free, again –
One, when you’re constructing a sequence of a shock blast or any such kind, with the thematic and visual focus on a particular character, it is always necessary to hold the frame in medium shot. That is, the character ought to be with respect to the environment, and that is when we notice the contrast and everything can be achieved without a single edit. In an important development in the film, Shankar falls to the ground as a bomb explodes at a distance, and we’re essentially supposed to experience the sequence through him. A kind of black out is what is supposed to be surrounding us. Something akin to when Denzel Washington falls to the ground in The Seige or when Tom Hanks is on the Omaha beach in Saving Private Ryan. Here, the camera moves in crazy clueless angles, but always in close-ups. Hence, to provide us context, it becomes imperative for it to edit to the other reactions, and hence the impact is lost.
You might wonder, if I am committing the same sin as the film, of losing sight of characters for technique. I might well be, and I guess the film had it coming. The film, even before the first frame, has assumed that both of the central men, the father and the son, have been explored enough, and all they end up being is not too different from the effigies of theirs that are burnt. For some odd reason, which I didn’t comprehend even in the first film, Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) walks all angry, often teeth clenched. There’re only two expressions he shows, a kind of binary machine. The other appears only in the vicinity of Anita, where he attains some shred of a three-dimensional structure, and that seems because he has been notified beforehand. It is a weak uninteresting character, for on one hand Varma paints his film exclusively in the tones of sepia, and yet he shows this man as a great moral hero with little or no flaws in him. Yet he sketches him as one who is a sum total of the compulsion of circumstances, and not because of inherent emotions. What does that make him? A superhero? Hardly, for if that is the case, nobody takes any pain to develop him, and everything about him is essentially one note.
Then, there’s the father. What a waste, and what a rescue act by Amitabh Bachchan. The man strives on such larger than life cut outs as these, and his trick is to bring that shred of emotion and vulnerability to such a character. Look at him in Agneepath, as he towers over every single frame. His eyes, when given the chance and familiar territory, speak so much here. I think both Varma and Bachchan realized their blunder with the first film, when the former in his obsession of the angry young man in Zanjeer, created a character with just one expression – anger, total. Here, it is more human, at least the performance is.
Tip for free, yet again.
Silence is golden they say, and much more so during an emotional sequence. At the time of death, the lesser the spoken words, the stronger is the impact. Case in point, Shakti. At the mother’s dead body, Amitabh Bachchan, flanked and handcuffed by cops, walks and pays his respects to her. He then walks towards that man, the father, lonely and desolate, sitting in the corner. The son slowly sits down, and he clutches the father’s arm. Both do not look at each other, but they break down, individually. It is a sequence of infinite brilliance and heart, and it leaves us devastated.
That’ll be the final tip of the day, I swear to all my Gods.
To what was most surprising to me, I was fascinated by the woman at the centre of it all, Anita, and gradually found myself drawn towards her with every increment of a frame. She hails from the United States, she feels highly awkward drinking tea at a stall and holds a condescending view of the politics here. Yet, she is fluid enough to flow with the tide of the river here, and at the same time rigid enough to stand to her own set of principles. Yes, it is a character that is straight out of the writer’s conceit-filled bag, but it is gravitating nonetheless.
I think I was better equipped to deal with Varma this time around. And I understand what the films stand for, not suave gangster flicks, but the intention is to put up a good old fashioned exercise in the loud, to cater to what’re called the front benchers. I respect a film that takes great care to please one particular section, especially the front benchers for I’m one. There’s great joy in such a film, and when done with honesty, like the severely intense Ghatak, the results are electrifying. This one here isn’t one, because it seems to be under the impression that it is an important film, when it isn’t one. It could’ve been, but it isn’t. There’s so much pretense in here, I wanted to throw up, and it spoilt the joy for me.
Please, allow me one tip.
You want to watch one film for the week. Then please, I beg of you, don’t fall for this bloody super dumb bloated sham here, and instead invest yourselves in Aamir, a true gem. And if you’ve time to spare for one more, I would suggest watching Aamir again.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

BE KIND REWIND: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz
Director: Michel Gondry
Runtime: 101 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Comedy

There were once these three kids from Mississippi – Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb and Chris Strompolos – all in between 11 to 13, who were spellbound by this one film in 1981 called Raiders of the Lost Ark. We all were, you know, but these three friends were so intrigued they decided to remake it shot-for-shot. Imagine a Hollywood blockbuster contraption that took $20 million to be made, at the dawn of the eighties I might add, with special effects and stuntmen. And these kids did it all slogging it out for six years. Six whole years. The films was buried somewhere for a long time in some or the other attic, only the local townsfolk having a whiff of it, until Eli Roth discovered it, named Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, and showed it to Spielberg, who expressed his wonder to the kids and to their own adventures. This is love for films, plain and simple, and it illuminates every frame of this guerilla film.
Through this bliss that engulfs movie love, Be Kind Rewind celebrates this do-it-yourself mantra of indie filmmaking. It all starts at this old-fashioned, non-catalogued, haphazardly arranged Video rental store, in this small town of Passaic, New Jersey. Not DVDs mind you, but that extinct species we used to call VHS. Don’t most movie love affairs start at a video store? Tarantino? Don’t I want to be lost in one of them stores, under a heap of these videos? Ah, never mind.
The fact of the matter is, the video store is under the threat of obliteration as is the old rickety building that houses it. Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) is the owner and has been warned by the proponents of a local redevelopment scheme of the hazards that loom large over the ancient structure, whose concerns for a change seem genuine. Fletcher is fortunate to have a loyal employee in Mike (Mos Def), who is fascinated by the tale Fletcher has to tell of jazz great Fats Waller and his birth, supposedly not in New York but in this building – Be Kind Rewind. Mike lives with this whacko nuisance Jerry that Jack Black so often has been in a nearby trailer. Without much by the way of finance to save his building from being razed and reconstructed, Fletcher sets out on a mission of researching the big professional video rental stores, as in the ones with the genre-catalogued DVDs while leaving Mike in charge of the shop. Of course, not before warning him of the perils that welcoming Jerry into the shop would bring.
It is a quirky little film, alright, and when it comes to Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) I guess you expect that. The premise here takes a turn in that very direction, when Jerry, believing for real that the powerhouse is their source of controlling the minds of the general public, ‘their’ being the FBI. Black thrives on roles as these, with an outward bend to them, giving him a chance to flex those eyebrows of his and speak in a spectacularly overbearing manner. He decides to undertake a siege and destroy the powerhouse, but ends up getting magnetically charged himself. And when he walks into the store the next morning, throwing up all over, his proximity destroys every tape there is, rendering them nothing more than blanks.
What happens next is the fun part. An old lady Ms. Falewicz (Mia Farrow), a loyal customer, walks in that morning and demands the tape of Ghostbusters. These guys succeed in earning time until the evening, and set out to make their own version of the film and fill the tape. Fill they do, and when everybody starts enjoying these tapes, the business starts rising. Films from King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey to Boyz in the Hood to Rush Hour 2 are ‘Sweded’ in a hilarious chain of frames, and rented to the townsfolk who accept them in glee.
Now, you got to buy the premise out here, and Gondry walks the film through this weird predicament as if it is a commonplace development. Which it isn’t in the least. In this very approach lay both the film’s strength and its weakness. It doesn’t dwell on one surprise; it just keeps hopping from one genre to the next, and thus doesn’t explore even one of them to any appreciable degree of satisfaction. Much of the plot development isn’t story telling. It feels like the trick of a writer, as if the film wasn’t invented with the camera in hand but with the pen, and the director follows it slavishly.
Still the brilliance of it all lies in the fact that Be Kind Rewind boasts of just about the same shabby look as the film it remakes. Not in texture alone, but in its structure it feels clunky as an independent experimental film. A film not made with big bucks in mind, but just for fun and love. It holds no pretense of showing forced reverence (read homage) to the films inside, but instead there’s contempt that tags along with familiarity. I think with VHS, and even with DVDs, when you start owning a picture, you can feel a growing sense of belonging inside of you. The pride in the fact you can relive it anytime you want, and that makes it as much your world as it is of anybody. Your world belongs to you, and so do the films you love. The most obviously visible poster on the wall in the film is that of that awful Brendan Fraser starrer Blast from the Past. I think Gondry just wanted the title, the literal meaning of it, with the video, and the old building raking up nostalgic memories.
More than that it needs money for its existence, the greatest inherent curse cinema has had to contend with is it being relegated to an entity that provides escapist entertainment. Something external, trivial at that, which holds as much significance to a day as an evening stroll in the park, and that is a shame. More than any medium, and that includes the written word, cinema has the power to be an extension of ourselves. It touches us deeper, captures that much wider space of our imagination, and the time is not far in the future when each one of us wouldn’t be shoving tickets just to pass our time catching some eye candy, but produce the moving image to personalize the world around each of us.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rating: ****
Runtime: 124 min
Genre: Action, Adventure

I have this recurring dream, or you could rather call it a nightmare. I’m standing in the middle of a road, with trees hiding residential quarters on one side, the left one that is, and a huge football playground on to the right with shops beyond. I’m always this kindergarten kid in my school uniform, and my bag and my water bottle. And the whole goddamn place is swarming with slithering shining pitch black snakes. Snakes on tree branches, snakes on the playground, snakes sliming their way all over the tar road. The only place there isn’t a snake is where my feet are. And I keep screaming my lungs out, until I wake up. I’m terribly afraid of snakes, so much so that I can’t stand them even on the television. Fans of the Indiana Jones’ films would now have a fair idea where my nightmare finds its source from.
Father used to take us to a lot of films when we were kids, and one of the earliest was the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This picture, as well as The Last Crusade, was probably the biggest visual influence on me as I got through my childhood. There were images that would just never leave me, and indeed they were all over me. There were many a nights I spent wondering about the Holy Grail, and what a horrifying death it would result in if drunk from the wrong cup. Whenever I hear that age old adage – all that glitters is not gold – I still am flashed with that image of the body withering away to bones. And when the secret buried inside of the lost ark melted those faces it was straight horror for a little kid of my age, I asked father what was it. As we walked back to home from the local theater, father must have got an early wind that putting forth the mythical theory would be liable to prolong a spate of questions. He instead opted for uranium, and a nuclear reaction and I was buried beneath my wide-eyed wonder. That was, when I was still in my upper kindergarten, when I first thought I had a glimpse what it would be in a nuclear blast, and I was terrified. Petrified. But the explanation was essentially science. Four films afterwards, the series has reached an ending, a revelation that is more along the lines where my dad treaded that night. I don’t know what that means, but one thing is certain. These movies are that rare thing, a world in themselves. Those films with a genuine sense of place to them, to which we’re transported to during those two odd hours. And I might never be able to thank father enough.
It has been nineteen years, and you and me have changed, but be glad, Indiana hasn’t. Maybe a trifle on the sides, maybe the old men have gotten a bit lethargic, but that goes with the age. As Indiana once said, it is not the years that count, it is the mileage. Back then, Indiana had a look that said – been there, done that, still interested. It seems to say now – been there, done that, and yawn. And that is most certainly not a bad thing. I had created for myself the impression that Spielberg, especially after The War of the Worlds, had grown into a reluctant entertainer, and that child in him of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indy films was all but lost. But as if a most pleasant slap on my face, he has given me Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The kind of film that leaves a big smile on your face as you leave the premises, with the feeling of satisfaction all about you for having seen a movie.
The template is essentially the same old one. The Paramount logo still dissolves into something on the ground, and this time it is an anthill. Another film and another director would have sat down to bring us on board to what has happened all this while, and bore us, but not Indiana and Spielberg. It is the good old fashioned cut to the chase. It starts off with a bang, at that military warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant found itself sealed and lost all those years ago. And the adventures just keep piling on top of one another, with the Ark making a special appearance. There’s the signature chain of chases with the invention being almost all the participant vehicles run parallel to each other, all the while passengers juggled back and forth with great frolic about them. Indiana is pulled from a Harley into a car and he doggedly finds his way back on to the pillion seat, just as he did it with the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They fence swords across parallel jeeps, they fire bullets, and the object of everyone’s attention, a Crystal Skull keeps changing a hell of a lot of hands. This Skull is one out of a set of thirteen, and it holds the key to another treasure long sought by humanity – El Dorado. The bad guys this time around are the Commies, headed by one hell of a woman in Irina Spalko (Blanchett). And Indy’s partner is Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), who is as good on a Harley, as he’s fleet-footed with a sword in his hand. And then, there’s a monster snake too, which makes an appearance as a rope.
I think more than most films, and that includes any product from the geniuses at Pixar’s, the adventures of Indiana Jones are the perfect outings for a little kid and his papa. The elder partner would enjoy goofy fun and all the wry humor, and the younger one would find it all fascinating where he would incessantly wonder about the mythical-real world of Jones days and weeks after he has seen the picture. Not that he wouldn’t get some of the jokes. Last night at the screening, I was sitting besides two kids, and they seemed to be having the time of their laughs. They were scared, and they often withdrew deep into their seats, and yet they would still manage the audacity to laugh out loud. As I walked out, I was sure there must be some little one clutching the index finger of his papa, hurling at him a thousand questions, and the papa, in return, would be more than enthusiastic to supply answers to each one of them.
Think of it as not a story, but an expert vaudevillian’s act. Only that, there’re three of them here, and the picture in their safe hands is warm and exactly the way you wanted it to be. Spielberg transports himself to his glory days, and making this film seem to be just an extension of reveling in the nostalgia of those years. Everything conjured up here seems to be a homage to his own films from yore, and that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He throws at us one spectacle after another, and I wish he had kept the same dirt-laden look of the earlier films. Here, it seems a bit too neat, and compared to the earlier films, the CGI seem to have taken that much more of a center place. I for one prefer real action, and I prefer the sun beating down heavily in my adventure films, which by the way doesn’t make much of an appearance, since much of the action is in the Amazon. There’s plenty of the next best thing though, mountains filled with deep ravines. As I said, the Indiana Jones films have a sense of place, that perfect blend of a fantastical world which so very appeals to the treasure hunter inside of us.
That, and the dry wit that is so rare in the modern blockbuster. That is what separates Dr. Jones from the rest of the pack, and probably, only Captain Jack Sparrow deserves mention in the same breath. Harrison Ford makes a glorious return to form, after giving tired performances for over a decade. He may be 65, but the smile, and those easy eyes still are the definition of cool. When it comes to his laconic style, there is still no competition. A general sense of droll does sure go a long way in cementing a friendship, especially on globe trotting adventures, and that is one reason why we can watch these films again and again. After probably a year (At World’s End), I again got around to one in which I desired to be lost in.
The repartees are the one to be savored, and although they’re not the best (Last Crusade was the winner in this department, in my book) they’re clever and sharp nonetheless. Ford and Winstone crack it up, and so does old John Hurt holding dearly to the Crystal Skull. Then there’s the most pleasing return of Allen, who simply makes for the best female in the whole of Indiana Jones’ world. Without her, the two intermediate films seemed that bit incomplete. ‘Junior’ finds its way as well, and we realize Ford is no Connery, just as LaBeouf is no Ford. I was glad at the end, when the fedora goes on top of the right head, that of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.
Where does it stand in the franchisee, you might want to know. Let us be honest here, it is tough to falter on an Indy film, simply because it has got a formula going for it. All the films are essentially the same, and everybody might have his own favorite. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’re many who simply find The Last Crusade a joy, and there’re others, film buffs like Jim Emerson who’re nuts on Temple of The Doom and its references. Roger Ebert called it right on the money; these films are like four pounds of sausages. I sure was a bit disappointed with the final few moments of the ending. But then, I realized, I’ve myself changed over the years. I look back at the earlier films, and I’m not sure what was exactly that left such an indelible impression. Though I do discover a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I got to ask that kid next to me what he felt about the ending. What did he think of those images, such mixture of the mythical and the scientific, taking a cue from what Erik Von Däniken said in Chariots of God.
My room partner, who had never watched an Indy film before is now the newest member into the club, and he was so geared up he wanted to watch the other films before daybreak. And I, a veteran, was thoroughly entertained, and as a fan, couldn’t have asked for more. I’m not sure if there’s anything more anyone can do when you decide to pick up the long dormant reins of a most beloved franchisee.