Monday, August 25, 2008

MUMBAI MERI JAAN: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Paresh Rawal, Kay Kay Menon, Irfaan Khan, Soha Ali Khan, R. Madhavan
Director: Nishikant Kamat
Runtime: 142 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Drama

        The lives in Mumbai Meri Jaan merely exist. They do not change the world around them, nor do they experience any radical shift in the cinematic sense. We leave them just about at the same state where we met them first. Maybe that isn’t true. At the halfway mark my friend wondered if the film was going anywhere. I replied, was it necessary. The characters here are at various stages of their individual lives, some already having scripted it and some in the middle of it and some ready to begin. To some of them, the film manages to impress upon an outlook that might change them, and to some it merely manages to bring in a sense of realization. And to us outside, it brings us stories of people, simple stories, so immensely touching we feel enriched as we walk out. There’s such a myriad range of emotions, most of them true at heart, it seems we’ve been privy to a few lives. At the end, I just wanted to stay in my seat and didn’t want to talk or discuss. Or to think. The film leaves us with a certain calmness, and I just wanted it to sink in. There’s that Rafi oldie from which the film bears its name, and I wish it didn’t play either. Silence during the credits would have been golden. A silence given to contemplation.
        Mumbai Meri Jaan is a grandly ambitious, often flawed, and a deeply effective film. As I drove back, I tried to pin down the film to a certain formula, to a certain mathematical logic so that it could enable me to describe the film. I couldn’t, I failed, and it maybe because I have my limitations. Or maybe, the film isn’t for description in the standard sense, and any attempt that would involve wrapping it under a single theme would fall flat on its face. An Indian filmmaker whose name has escaped my memory once said – “The problem with our cinema is that it is inspired from cinema rather than life.” I hold that observation quite dear to my heart, and at the same time say that it might be an incomplete vision of cinema. Maybe the inspiration ought to look both ways – to cinema and to life – and that is when we get the best and the greatest of the medium. And the best I could come up with as far as describing this film is that it is an example of my belief. The people inside feel real, the dramatic realizations they experience at the end of their arc are cinematic and we’re left with a sense of satisfaction that isn’t manipulated but earned.
        It all rallies around the Mumbai train blasts of 2006, but the said event is just a reference point. To few, maybe, a tipping point. There’s Tukaram Patil (Paresh Rawal), a constable respected by one and all. And not just because of his age, but because his unruffled exterior spreads a soothing effect around. Tukaram is on the verge of retirement after having lived a whole lifetime in the police. One of his juniors, Sunil Kadam (Vijay Maurya), is relatively new to the department, and it shows. There’s just the thinnest layer of idealistic zeal in him, a thin layer mind you, but a layer nonetheless. Patil has been hammered down into a yielding trunk that bends where the wind blows, a trunk with a bent gait. But not Kadam, and he has quite a lot of resistance to offer to the ways of the world. Mind you, I’m just pulling a thin veil of introduction off the characters for you, for one a single review would hardly do justice to a thread, and two I declare yet again that I’m not an idiot to spoil the joy of the film, which if isn’t clear yet is one you should watch with haste.
        There’s Suresh, a hardware expert who deals in selling PCs, and in a weird way true to the name of his profession, he is a hardliner. He is a person given to prejudices, he forms opinions quick and which might not be entirely true. He is low on money, and following the blasts his doubts fall upon a Muslim boy who’s around his age and who frequents the same tea shop Suresh whiles away his time in. There’s a young journalist, ambitious, and when are they not. Rupali (Soha Ali Khan) is a part of the media that sensationalizes events, and maybe exploits. There’s Nikhil Agarwal (R. Madhavan), doing brilliant in life career wise with a handsome job down at a MNC, and a pregnant loving wife. And then, there’s the most fascinating, moving tale of Thomas, a tea vendor who hails from Tamil Nadu and who is played by one of our greatest actors, Irfaan Khan. It is a character that feels pulled straight out of that small town of Malgudi and thrown into the turmoil of a big city. It is thread that is infinitely subtle, infinitely layered, and exhibits the most emotions. At times emotionally churning, at times hilariously funny and all the time true and honest.
vLet me drop a minor spoiler of sorts here, simply because I want to shatter your expectations so that you may enjoy the film’s richness. This isn’t one of those films where everyone’s connected via a unique thread courtesy the script. Nobody encroaches the other’s territory, okay it happens twice, but these folks much like us are connected only in theme. I wouldn’t disclose, but what Patil feels about his pointless existence and what Thomas feels, stem from the same emotion. They’re gutted, maybe just this once, and each reacts to it in a different way. Yes, they might be leading pointless lives trying to wade across the drudgery everyday, but there’s still a sense of ambition, a sense of fantasy, a sense of dream inside. And the degree of its sensitivity, its intensity, is all that drives them.
        The film shows us what great actors can achieve and how the average ones can impede its flow. Irfaan Khan’s Thomas doesn’t say much, and his eyes which always seem to be that same way betray a sea of emotions. The cop comes at the night and for fault of his pulls the tap of his milk can and let it flow. There’s isn’t much devoted to it, yet we’re moved. Soha Ali Khan’s thread experiences the most cinematic of developments, and that provides opportunity for the most theatricality. Every part of the film is in place, she is the only variable who needs to fulfill her part of the equation and she fails. She is woefully ineffective, and her thread unfortunately left me cold. But I believe it is entirely her fault. Great actors need less, and if you desire proof look no beyond than Paresh Rawal and Kay Kay Menon here. I could go on and on and state the rhetoric, and I don’t want to apart from stating that this is one of the best performances you would come across all year. Savor it, savor every moment of it.
        I haven’t seen any of Nishikant Kamat’s films, and I hear he is quite a name in Marathi films (Dombivali Express). I stand up, I applaud him, I applaud his screenwriters, I applaud his cinematographer and I applaud his film. I have said the film is flawed, and yes it is, but who cares. I don’t for sure, if the film falters a little on a road so ambitious. There’s a sense of personal touch to it all, and it shows, for the film doesn’t follow a plot but follows its lives right down to their cinematic destinations. It has some of the best shots I have seen in recent years, and almost everything they attempt, they pull off. Thomas reveling in his glory, captured by slow-mo with an upbeat background score is a joy only pure cinema, not driven by art or method but by heart, can offer. That moment felt wild, as if I was in a Paul Thomas Anderson picture and this film is no less. Look at how the shot is composed when Thomas is resting against the mall railing. There’s brilliant photography on display everywhere. The editing does falter a bit towards the end where in its zeal to connect via the theme it departs into a frenzy of cuts. Some of them I could have done away with. I could have done away with the complex that drove them to include New York City and draw comparisons. But those become minor gripes, because this is richly developed script and actors who inhabit it are some of the greatest we have.
        I have got to admit here, I entered the film with great doubts having read on the poster – “Celebrating the spirit of Mumbai.” I think the concept of a city’s spirit is a whole lot of horse-dung stinking so bad my ancestors might turn in their graves. It is a concept that is sold to the same part of the brain that buys superstitions. It is something that has been cooked for magazines and newspapers, and maybe books, but doesn’t cut anything in reality. I felt a great vindication when Tukaram mocks the spirit of the city, and I started believing in the film, if I wasn’t already until then. There’s something to be taken from the fact that two of its deepest most colorful and most similar characters hail from outside the city. Maybe NYC was included to allude to the universality of the said ‘spirit’. Or maybe, I’m just too damn rigid for the concept to get through me. Either way, the film works wonders, and it celebrates the lives of its people. Lives that could exist anywhere, but which happen to in Mumbai this time around. And there, to that place, for the time being, they belong. And that is where we leave them.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

PHOONK: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Sudeep, Amruta Khanvilkar, Ahsaas Channa, Ashwini Kalsekar, Rasika Joshi
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Runtime: 130 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***
Genre: Horror, Thriller

        Is it possible to consider a film free of its intentions? After all, once made and done it is for us right, and how we come about to receive it and not necessarily with an eye to what the filmmaker hoped to achieve. The audience I saw it with was in splits, some of them laughing incessantly, and there was some of the most fun I have had the movies this year. Being a weekend and all the local multiplex shot up the prices but I could, you know, go ahead and bet that most aren’t complaining. I don’t care one wee bit what made me walk upto the counter and buy the admission ticket as long as I came out satisfied. And satisfied I was, immensely, so much so that I look forward to the day Phoonk debuts on television and I get the chance to watch that hyper-extended hand. They say it is impossible to catch up with Kanti Shah; he has set the benchmark, and he himself might be so far beyond it the line would be invisible to him. But let me say, Phoonk is a great attempt by Varma and Shah should no longer afford complacence.
        Speaking of attempts, the 5 lakhs prize might be alright but I guess Ram Gopal Varma might have got it wrong on the clause. Keeping tabs on closed eyes is wishful thinking and three times is stretching matters too far. Five lakhs is a big amount and considering all the gaming shows around, you know, he could have had a better and competitive one – how many times does that Rajiv guy put on and remove his glasses? Or how many could actually manage to scrape through it all without laughing more than five times. I’m giving ourselves a whiff of a chance here folks.
        This here, usually, would have been the part where I give you an idea about the story so that you are aware of the premise you’re getting into. That won’t happen, for the film already stretches a 20 minute short film into a full length feature and any attempt on my end to summarize it would essentially break the thread. Of course, as the trailers suggest, there is black magic i.e. good old fashioned voodoo, and there’s that apparently sound foundation of modern horror fare served by the Hindi film industry – possession.
        By means of plot, there’s precious little beyond them to hold on to. Of course, the film appears to be desperate to suggest a debate between science and the supernatural, between faith and skepticism. Never mind that good old science is never given a chance, and the farthest the film goes with the skeptic is asking him to declare he does believe in God. He sure does declare it even when an opportunity refuses to present itself, but beyond that the film hits an iron wall. The skeptic is Rajiv, the father, and whose services are later shared by a doctor. Both of them essentially perform the same function, although it should be given the latter has more of a technical expertise at her disposal, but then again the film goes nowhere with her either. The characters suffer a kind of collective amnesia as well, wherein the little girl experiences actual levitation, yet they somehow profess it can all be scientifically explained. Impassioned declaration on behalf of science is all they do. There isn’t much or anything happening in the film, so we never have actions that speak. That is the reason why the characters resort to actual debating, rather than the story doing it for them, and if the discussion was indeed the film’s ambition, I believe they might have been served much better, artistically and otherwise, if they had two people indulge in a conversation on the same for the entire length of the film.
        Of course, the impassioned part could be attributed to the performances, which for some odd reason I found mathematically correct. There’s a balancing act at work in the film. The parents do not act – the mother’s understanding of the character is limited to crying and some expression I unfortunately couldn’t decode, and the father suggests that there’s nothing to his character other than to periodically remove and put on his glasses and look sideways. The little child Raksha (Ahsaas Channa), who played a boy in Vaastu Shastra and who here plays a girl and frankly I’m confused, acts a lot, even when she isn’t supposed to. She hurls at us her entire arsenal of expressions in every sequence she is in. There’s Rasika Joshi in there too, who I find to be a firm believer of acting in quantitative terms. You know, the more the better, and she almost tilted the scales were it not for Sudeep’s balancing non-performance. She’s a nightmare and one might say she’s supposed to be one, but I believe the audience was sent all the wrong signals. Hamming would be an understatement of what she bludgeons us with, and I’m happy she wasn’t in the film for too long. Come to think of it even torture sounds quite mild. Let me fall back here on one of my pet criticisms of simple unwatchability – Alex DeLarge probably could have been shown Rasika Joshi, and he would have been benevolent pulp in the first go. Still mild. Maybe five lakhs is for the guy who could successfully measure the toxicity of Joshi’s performance. No chance I say, no chance.
        The fact is, the film is still a horror film, and no matter how much I enjoyed it otherwise I have to lay out the cards for you vis-à-vis its intention. And it isn’t scary, not one bit, and let us leave it at that. Looking at present horror fare churned every which were, I’m reminded of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and how Alfred Borden admits to what he terms the Pact of Acquiescent Sorcery. It is the illusionist’s attempt to pull an illusion over the audience that he’s privy to supernatural powers, and the audience in their part know what that it is an illusion but they suppress the knowledge and acquiesce to this illusion. Modern audiences subscribing to horror enter with the readiness to be scared no matter how cheap they come. And even then, some of the films fail, even at this basic level. There, it seems, is a failure to appreciate an elementary rule to manipulate the audience. And this is courtesy the greatest manipulator of them all, Alfred Hitchcock. And here it goes –
        In his book-length conversation with Truffaut, he used a famous example to explain the difference between surprise and suspense. If people are seated at a table and a bomb explodes, that is surprise. If they are seated at a table, and you know there's a bomb under the table attached to a ticking clock, but they continue to play cards -- that's suspense.
(Source: Roger Ebert’s review of The Orphanage, one of the best horror films I have had the privilege to watch. A great example of the effectiveness of the genre when done with a personal touch.)


        We no longer seem to have suspense anymore, all we have is obligatory boos, a trick that is fast gaining predictability and filmmaker’s with limited imagination are having trouble realizing it. The trick hasn’t evolved at all, and it has become an element akin to what a car chase is to an actioner. So much so that the horror film seems to rally around this one stretch of sequence, and the number of such scenes decide the potency of the overall score on the boo-index. The character gets up in the middle of the night, the background score that is till now playing mutes all of a sudden, and that is a useful indicator that a loud bong is just around the corner.
        A word has to be mentioned for Savita Singh, who happens to be the cinematographer of the film. Some of the sequences are done quite well, but sometimes the camera does just too much. There’s an overdo of focus and out-of-focus, and I believe, too much of a trick distracts the attention from the film towards the technique. There’s a sequence at the party where we watch an agitated Rajiv pouring over a set of papers and fuming in the background and in the foreground we have Madhu (Rasika Joshi) having a rather animated conversation. The camera alters between focus and I wouldn’t believe if one said that the same couldn’t be achieved if both of them couldn’t have been set in the same focus, i.e. deep focus. There’s another, when little Raksha is entering her school and we have the camera move and swirl around her. It is a nice shot done quite well, but as it continues we feel fuzzy and we turn our eyes from the screen. There was a collective “what’s going on” at this particular moment and I believe that is the last thing a filmmaker wants, that is to put off his viewer.
        So, horror it isn’t, not even if you are desperate to play sucker and try to grab on to every opportunity to get your money’s worth. It simply isn’t possible that way. I would suggest thinking a little out of the box, and simply relish the laughs that keep coming in thick and fast. Like weird old nanny and her vibrations. It might be unintentional, but it is the single best fallback joke I have come around in a long time. Just watch her in every frame, and how the vibrations shape what the other person has said. It is, simply put, hysterical. The film keeps cutting back to her, and I’m not sure I could thank it anymore for that. There’s shots of every which thing in the house, and for a moment it seems there was nothing left on the cutting floor. Maybe, the movie is a memory competition and the five lakhs is for the guy who neatly jots down all the house stuff, and including the vegetables. Nope, no more hints from me.
        Look, I feel I need to explain here a little bit here. I pay absolutely no attention to the stars I attribute to a film, apart from the simple idea that it is a scale for recommendation. No more, no less. So, seriously, does it make a difference if it was supposed to be a horror film? I recommend it, and I hope you enjoy it just as much as I and everybody around me did. There were smiling faces I encountered at the exit, so there it is for you. And if you choose to watch it, here’s another tip. Maybe, just maybe, the five lakhs is for the guy who calculates, with a precision to decimal places, the frequency of nanny’s vibrations. Not instantaneous, but the average. Laugh at your own peril!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

AUF DER ANDEREN SEITE (THE EDGE OF HEAVEN): MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Nurgül Yesilçay, Baki Davrak, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Tuncel Kurtiz, Hanna Schygulla, Nursel Köse
Director: Fatih Akin
Runtime: 122 min.
Country: Turkey, Germany
Language: Turkish, German, English
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama

        There’s something about Auf der Anderen Seite (The Edge of the Heaven) that reminds me of Barry Lyndon. The way the characters move about living their fates, each predestined and intertwined, but none of them are aware of it. As in confined within a box, designed by their creator, and that is something only we as the audience realize. There’re two deaths in the film, and two different sets of people come to grips with the tragedy, and both times you are given a heads up who it is going to be well in advance. That tell us me this is a superior film. I haven’t seen the trailer but I wouldn’t be surprised if the deaths are let known there as well.
        Most stories are concerned with the fate, and how events pan out using these contrivances as fulcrum. The Edge of Heaven shares these two contrivances at the outset, lets us know beforehand what the two tragedies are that shape it, and instead unfolds for its characters. They are good people, nice people, who occasionally do bad things that hurt their loved ones. They repent, they survive and they move on. The film realizes an important truth, that one of the greatest joys at the movies, probably the greatest joy, is in knowing people. The Edge of Heaven, if not anything else, has a fascinating bunch some of whom you would love to meet and spend time with.
        There’s no reason I shouldn’t be telling you about these two contrivances, at least the film doesn’t. But something inside stops me, and I feel I better pay heed and refrain. Let me instead tell you about these fine people, who I suspect aren’t products of real life as much as they’re of the pen. These folks, I believe, have their origin in the writer’s (Fatih Akin) need to fill certain definitions so that they could move the plot forward. And from there and within the parameters of those definitions, they’re so well written, so well acted they assume a life of their own.
        There’s Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak), maybe in his early thirties and as good a person there can be. A Turkish born German professor of German and living with his widower of a father who has never married since his wife died when Nejat was six. Oh yes, I forget. He did have a wife once but things just got too complicated. He is a curious old man, Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz), and late in his life he is feeling the loneliness bite him. He visits Yeter (Nursel Köse), a Turkish born prostitute, and falls in love with her so much so that he offers to pay all her expenses for a month if she agrees to stay with him at his place and sleep only with him. She does. Nejat is a good man, mind you, and he warms up to her. She warms up to him too, for a good man always spreads goodness. She shares with him her longing for her daughter, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), who is studying back in Turkey and must be somewhere his age.
        And with Ayten you’ve the second set of people. Ayten is a radical political activist and her ilk is prone to rough skirmishes with the law. There’s a protest one too many and she is escapes illegally into Germany, with no food and no money. She is a tough nut, this young lioness, and there are only one or two notes to her. She is angry, yet we learn she has heart. A young German girl of her age meets her by chance, gets to know her, gives her room to live in her own house and they grow quite close to each other. They fall in love, and just in case you were thinking, this German girl Charlotte (Patrycia) feels like a lonely person. She has great love within her, mind you, and she pays for Ayten’s asylum plea with the financial help of her writer mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla), who herself was a hippie in her heydays traveling all across the world. She isn’t exactly over the moon with her daughter’s love interest, but then who better than her to understand.
        How these set of people, these threads, get entangled is something I wish to leave you with and I hope you’ll watch it.
        Something I have realized quite recently is that I’m a great lover of films with multiple characters, and when done with honesty and heart, they leave an indelible impression on me. I wouldn’t be able to pin down reasons and quantify my feeling for such films, but maybe the very notion of multiple protagonists rings me as fascinating. The Edge of Heaven might have characters who dance to the strings of director writer Fatih Akin, but they’re acted with such truth that I believed in them. Neither the filmmaker, nor his film give us reasons why their characters act with such compulsion about them. They just do. For instance consider Charlotte, with her eyes bereft of any shred of conceit or pretense, and so wide with innocence to absorb the world around them. She loves Ayten, and she summons all the will to fight against everybody for her, including her mother and the law of two countries, and she does all that alone. I was watching the film late in the night, and when she is sobbing in a foreign country, it broke my heart. Of all the characters in this film, I probably held myself to her and felt for her the most. But then, I wished I could meet somebody like Nejat, and strike a conversation with him along a drive through the countryside or crossing a long road against the coast. Films of this kind, done this well, make you feel that way.
        Fatih Akin pulls his characters through tough and tumultuous times, sad times, unfortunately tragic times, and he does it all with a gentle hand. They, in a fit of insanity commit terrible things, yet he pulls them with a string of compassion. The shots are stationery, and if they move, they do so with grace. It reminded me of Gustavo Santaolalla and his music, touching and deep. He doesn’t preach, and although he plays God, he doesn’t judge them. He just sees them as a loving parent, and leaves them be as they are. Often their passion fills the air around them, and often there is a quiet accumulation of feelings that finds it desperate to break free.
        I’m not sure Akin has made this film keeping his country’s political predicament in mind. Yes, the EU is mentioned more than once, and yes Turkish political climate is alluded to. But it felt to me more as a comment on the characters and their naïve beliefs, rather than any telling statement. The west has always had the belief that Turkey would be best served joining the EU, but I’m not sure that is entirely true. Ayten, in her turn, could be labeled a terrorist, but these are giving in to definitions the film isn’t bothered about in the least. It is about relations, about fathers, about sons, about daughters, about love, about forgiveness, about homecoming, and although I don’t know much about heaven, its edge our world, with its imperfections and all is as good as heaven might ever be. The final shot, as the credits rolled, is of Nejat sitting in front of the sea staring into the horizon. I think the feeling that arrested him was just that.

NE LE DIS À PERSONNE (TELL NO ONE): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: François Cluzet, Marie-Josée Croze, Kristin Scott Thomas, Marina Hands
Director: Guillaume Canet
Country: France
Language: French
Runtime: 125 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Thriller

        Tell No One is a solid old-fashioned thriller Hollywood used to make so well, and as it sprints along you wouldn’t necessarily understand everything not because the film is some devilish Rubik’s Cube but for the simple reason you’re not exactly supposed to be solving it yourself whilst you’re watching it. But you will, because the film is so thrillingly and so grippingly constructed you wouldn’t be able to help yourself from wondering how does this all bloody fit. In its own world, it all fits in quite tight at the end when an important character sits upon the couch quite comfortably with a glass of alcohol and unravels the whole mystery for you. There’re puzzling developments all along the way where you might have to shake your head just to take that extra bit of information, and the final revelation has twists and turns galore at the end waiting. There’re a couple of bonus ones thrown in too, just in case or maybe just to impress you. You’ll probably like it, hell I liked it, and at the same time I’ll still maintain that when you find yourself with the need to have one of your characters unleash a lengthy discourse on what and why whilst you support him by providing the audience with visual imagery, it is time to rewrite the damn thing. If not anything else, you’ll at least end up making a great thriller.
        And let me tell you, and tell this to everyone, Tell No One is the next best thing, a fantastic thriller. Its kind needs that discourse at the end because the devil is in the details, of what monster is being concealed from us and one which set things into motion.
        Let me give you a feel of things. Alexander Beck (Cluzet), a doctor, in the eyes of the cops is his wife’s murderer for sure. Margot (Croze, Munich, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) has been dead for eight years when the couple went up the lake and things turned ugly. One moment they were warm and cozy together under the moon, the next moment she gets up, jumps in to the river, swims across, gets up to the pier, puts her dress on, and walks into the grasses towards the grass. Alex is still lying there lost in the nostalgia of childhood memories of him and Margot, they were friends from when little you see. You’ll learn that the film is quite generous and keeps throwing at you gifts galore even when you aren’t asking. The whole children arc is just one of them. It never quite sticks but I didn’t mind it either. I’m not sure I did any.
        Now, back to story and back to the lake on that fateful night. Alex hears a scream and he jumps into the water and rushes towards the pier. He hears Margot calling out his name, and just as he sets foot on wood, someone knocks him back into the water senseless. And he’s found unconscious, and curiously on land.
        Now you wouldn’t fault the cops for zooming in their collective scope on Alex, because hey, how could a man rendered unconscious swim back out of the water. Things stink, and they stink bad and the cops get nothing. The wife’s murder is pinned on a local serial killer, but the cops have one slant gaze fixed on him forever. Cut to eight years. Construction workers unearth two dead bodies, both males, not far from the sight. And, from the pockets of one of them something is picked up which would bring Alex smack back into the center of focus. And, Alex receives a mail.
        And there, you have your set up in place, with the lure of a complex maze.
        There’s a chase sequence on foot that is one of the best I have seen in ages. Clear, if not plausible probable for sure, and more importantly it tells you something so deep about Alex’s desperate state of mind. For a film like Tell No One to work, we need to be ready to invest ourselves in our man on the run, and that would only occur if we feel he’s worthy of it. Cluzet, who looks like middle-aged Hoffman (maybe because I just finished watching Perfume), isn’t Harrison Ford (The Fugitive). His Alex, at times, feels even more helpless and vulnerable and we thank to God he has good friends so very ready to help him. The best part about the performance is that Cluzet’s Alex isn’t a man on steam venting it out on his surroundings and breaking down every which where. You know he believes in lot more than he says, you feel he is repressing a lot of emotions. How else will be a man who hasn’t remarried and apparently has even had so much as a girlfriend all these years? That is what makes the final sequence quite special.
        Actors around him only need to be serviceable and they do a bang up job. Casting of recognizable faces is of paramount importance for any good thriller involving a lot of characters, and it helps when they are introduced through the S.O.P. of exquisite close ups. If you pay close attention, the more important ones register themselves thus by doing something notable. You’ll realize quite early that the small time gangster friend of Alex who creates such a ruckus at the hospital for his son would be pretty significant in the scheme of things in store for us. And the film doesn’t disappoint using him in plenty. It becomes so necessary in such a crowded place to pay heed to who has the beard and who is the balding man with glasses, and having recognizable actors does half the job.
        So, let me stop here, you know, because it is a thriller and less said the better. Let me give you a hint though, to help you connect the dots if you decide to watch this film. To whatever scene, ask yourself, why is it on the screen? Does it exist for an emotional response or is it a thread we don’t see the starting point of? Of course, that would be a wrong way to start watching the film, but once you’re sucked in you might need my cue. When the denouement comes, we already know who the big guy is, that is the bad guy. He was already shown on two occasions previously, one when we don’t realize anything and one when the film reveals him as the guy. That is what sucked half the juice out of the how and why discourse for me. I’m not sure why, but I think it is because I feel the second occasion should have played a lot earlier or shouldn’t have played at all. I respect a film that is laying bare ‘who’ before everyone and is trying to only thread the ‘how and ‘why’, but I guess when you already have a revelation at the end of it all clubbing them altogether makes for more impact.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

PARANOID PARK: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Gabe Nevins
Director: Gus Van Sant
Runtime: 85 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Drama

        Through my eighth to the tenth grade, I was quite fast friends with a couple of guys who got into a lot of trouble. I was never ever a part of their escapades, some of which included a night out with the cops, or a good old fashioned no-holds barred fight for a few movie tickets down at Sangam theatre in Delhi, or gang fights complete with hockey sticks outside the school premises. But I was always there to listen to what they had to say. The radical difference in our backgrounds brought an intense sense of fascination within me, and as I look back, I find it strange they always possessed an air of assurance about them. Not anxiety. Just pure bliss. I don’t know why, but I wish I could show them these two remarkable films from Van Sant – Elephant and this one here. I would have loved to know what they had to say about Alex (Nevins) and his apparent opacity to his predicament.
        From where I come, the assured nature of most of the memories I have, it is tough to feel the daze and confusion and the anxiety that is so much a part of many a teenager. I believe Van Sant’s film, much like its more accomplished predecessor Elephant, is successful in that other way, especially for someone like me, in that it does not necessarily bring out the expected emotional response out of us, i.e. it didn’t move me at all. Rather, it worked as an observation borne out of the fascination I have always had. An intense and prolonged observation of the paranoia, and herein it made me think and it let an outsider like me understand the plight.
        Alex, like most of Van Sant’s teenagers, is meandering somewhere in between me and the guys. That means he’s confused, and there’s only the thinnest layer of assurance that helps him masquerade as a confident person. He dreams of Paranoid Park, and the skateboarders swirling around. His family life is in trouble in that his parents are getting a divorce and his father is leaving him and his younger brother. He is old enough to understand what it means when his father is living with “Uncle” Tommy. He has a girlfriend in Jennifer who is a virgin, and is more interested in him than he is in her. He would much rather spend Saturday night with his friend Jared skateboarding than with her, which obviously irks her.
        Alex is the narrator here and he’s confessing his overburdening guilt to us. There has happened something, which I would leave you to discover, which this young mind is terribly weak at coming to grips with. This isn’t a thriller mind you, and it isn’t out to misguide you and trick you into a twist ending or anything. Consider this as a Memento made by Gus Van Sant. It is an intimate, honest film, and the narration is haywire only because the thoughts of the narrator are haywire. He would want to let it out in the open, but to whom and where could he. He is struggling within himself, under that overbearing conscience of his. I believe the ritual of adding on layers, rendering ourselves opaque, is something we approach adolescence. It is then when we metamorphose into individuals, with our own set of problems and doubts, and honesty is given a firm kick out of the window. Like a larva hiding in its cocoon.
        In many ways Paranoid Park feels like an opposite world to that of Elephant. That film had its teenagers enveloped in a void around and a void within. The long observing shots have the complete opposite effect here. This film has the same opacity from its teenager, Alex, but it isn’t because of any lack of anything, but because he chooses to. The background blurs, everything is in slow motion, and we see a person wading through it all with dreams of skateboarders and skateboarding. Not sex or girls like most of his friends. The sequences of skateboarders skating along the inner curves of dry sewer pipes are shot with such immense grace in Super-8 grainy footage as if it is the light at the end of the tunnel dissipating the murkiness around Alex. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is what renders the film’s poetic effect, but it is the editing that what makes the film as good as it is. Something I have managed to appreciate on a second viewing.
        Van Sant is one of our filmmakers who demands of us not mere attention of the mind (narrative), but of the heart as well. To enjoy his films, one has to attain a state that is purged of the baggage we carry to most escapist fare, and I believe one has to be ready to leap by oneself to be where Van Sant wants us to be. I’m not sure that is good filmmaking or bad filmmaking, but what I can tell you is it is mighty rewarding. I have benefited immensely from a second viewing, for this film digs deeper into its character, and you end up empathizing even more. That is of course if you haven’t identified with him. Gabe Nevins, I hear, is an untrained actor. And the stiffness he offers is central to the film.
        Throughout the narration the only place we feel the uninhibited Alex talking to us is when he shares his fascination for Paranoid Park. I wonder what is it about skateboarding that fills so much of Alex’s imagination. Is it the simple uncomplicated beauty of it? I might only speculate here, you know, and my guess is I’m right. All of us have fascinations to which we pay a visit in an instant in our most troubled of times. To a haven which screens us safe from the realities of everyday life. I believe, when that screen is broken, melted the cocoon is broken too. And with it is broken our last link to the dreams which are so much a part of our adolescence, for we’re teenagers no more but adults. I was reminded of that beautiful Tom Perrotta novel Little Children and its ambitious yet immensely rewarding adaptation into that 2006 Kate Winslet starrer. In the final sequence of Paranoid Park, we see Alex with his eyes closed dreaming about the glories of skateboarding. More than anything, the tragedy is that those dreams would be snatched away from him at any given moment.

Friday, August 01, 2008

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Jet Li, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford
Director: Rob Cohen
Runtime: 112 min.
Rating: *1/2
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Adventure

        And you thought Hancock was bad.
        Once Emperor Han (Jet Li) is brought back from the dead, as you obviously must have realized now that this is the third installment of a franchisee which should have stayed dead, he exhibits varied powers but he doesn’t exhibit consistency in the way he deals with them. He breathes fire profusely this one time but during a chase in the middle in the streets of Shanghai, I was impressed by neither his reflex nor his presence of mind. He just hurls some clay of his face at the pursuers, the O’Connells, which I guess you, must have guessed till now. That didn’t bother me much. Once he becomes immortal, and becomes a dragon there’s plenty more stupidity of the said discourse on offer.
        Now wait a second, was the previous sentence a spoiler. Not if you have read the title beyond the word ‘Mummy’ and certainly not if you know the score. There is a tomb from which an ancient emperor is awakened and his aim is to obtain immortality which will turn him into an ‘evil’ creature, and there, that would be your dragon. In the climactic battle you would see Han, and this is only if you choose to waste your money on this piece of dumb and expensive exercise, fight off his rivals with swords when he has it in him to wipe them off in a flash. But then, where would be the film. Ah, never mind. Logic is the least of the film’s problems. Han conjures up icicles in the shape of daggers but they only pop up at a distance from the good guys. Only problem is they still expect us to be thrilled by this. Or ‘entertained’. We would very much be, in fact, as the recent Indiana Jones film showed but someone ought to wrap them inside a good film. Or if it does consider its action sequences its high points at least have the good sense to not mess them up and render them utterly lifeless.
        You know, when you travel by train and you have this window seat and you find yourself staring out into the open and you find it incredibly tough to clearly see the trees right near to the tracks though the view of the farther stretches is just as static and beautiful as a scenic painting. Well, the guys here obviously haven’t realized that yet. Much of the action is shot from such close quarters my head started spinning so bad I had to look away just to get a hold of my bearings. It was unclear, things seemed to whiz by the screen with such high relative velocity I could only capture the lines they ended up making. I believe the scene did have a great potential for spectacle, but then potential needs to be dropped of a building to convert it into something kinetic and move something. But then still, some directors just never fail to disappoint. Rob Cohen (Stealth, Dragonheart, XXX) is certainly sitting right on the top of many such lists, and of course for all the wrong reasons. This is a gloriously new level of insipid filmmaking.
        The first ten odd minutes seal the possibilities of whatever few surprises the film had in store when it decides for a lengthy narrative to this ridiculously straightforward plot. I wonder why they chose to let us know about the history, rather than cutting right along to the excavation and action, and then explain us the history when the necessary time would arrive. As things stand we end up knowing how the film would turn out even before the title appears. What the film assumes us to be, I believe, is idiots who are suckers for CGI effects and that story is pretty much the least of our concern. So, it spaces neatly along the running time three action set pieces prefixed by back stories no one cares about and fills them with tacky effects pretending to sweep us into its spectacle, and in between them pile one awful sequence after another, each of them testament of how bad the film is. When you’ll notice the thorough monotony in the way everybody reacts when an important character is kidnapped by Han, and the way the camera jumps from one to the other, you’ll know what I mean.
        I could opt for the rhetoric and ramble upon how bad the acting is, but that is pretty much understood. Fraser hasn’t changed much in these ensuing years. Maybe a bit, in that he has started to whisper his dialogues a whole lot more so that they’re inaudible. Maybe that is a trick this latest film has developed to evade those scorn-filled laughs we wouldn’t have stopped ourselves from once we heard what those dialogues actually are. The son, Alex, is played by Luke Ford who I’m watching for the first time. And I sure as hell hope to dear God it is the only time. I wouldn’t want to spoil your day by means of unnecessary details but I would be quite fair when I say it would have been a whole lot better if they had killed of the character altogether during these years. As for Maria Bello, she shouldn’t have been in there.
        Now that I come to think of it, the O’Connells shouldn’t have been there, for had it not been for them, there wouldn’t be much of a problem to begin with. Alex digs up the tomb and the parents bring some prism which is supposed to point to some place up Shangri La where some water body provides eternal life. And the prism ends up in the hands of the bad guys. Not that it matters though, because the good guys have no problem arriving at the said destination, the journey to which for the most part seems like a gentle little weekend trekking exercise. And when the crunch time comes, all that the O’Connells end up doing is battling the limits of their own limited and mortal powers against such supernatural forces. Needless to say, they are useless and inconsequential to the final outcome, save for the final sequence which ends up being one big unintended joke.
        I despise films that throw anything half-cooked, hell uncooked, at me under the shallow pretense of fun whilst liberally borrowing from a thousand much better sources. Adventure, for sure, isn’t CGI. The problem with these films is they think that is the case. The Mummy films weren’t that dear to me to anyway to warrant a resurrection from the dead. And those films at least had an interesting mummy. Look, this is your priceless weekend. If you’re hell bent on watching a film, in my limited capacity, I would advise you to watch The Dark Knight. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already seen it. Second time is a charm, is what the response is for the masterpiece.