Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Cast: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Runtime: 118 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Drama

        Below are some facts about Will Smith I have learned lately, facts that only apply to him and the other blessing the almighty has bestowed upon us.
Fact 1: Will Smith is so great he can calculate your guilt just by looking at the numbers in your checkbook.
Fact 2: Will Smith is so good a microphone into which he has spoken, heals asbestos-related disorders and colorectal cancer by direct application.
Fact 3: Everything Will Smith touches heals, and never feels pain ever again.
Fact 4: If you wish for true love, learn to love Will Smith.
Fact 6: Will Smith is so noble that God plans to use his sweat to bring peace and prosperity throughout the world. God himself wasn’t aware of its myriad powers, but learnt of it when a drop fell to the ground and the Garden of Eden sprang into existence.
Fact 5: The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that Will Smith is not an illusion.
        Now, you might wonder, when will the one blessing play the other? As in, when will Will Smith play Barack Obama, because, Fact 6: deep down everyone is a Will Smith or a Barack Obama.
The source for the information above is All I did was to extend the properties of one superhero to the other, and add a couple of my own.
Now, if you still want to latch on to your cynicism, and not believe the insights I am sharing, you ought to look no further than Seven Pounds. We mortals might have not thought about it, but Will Smith upstages Jesus right on the stroke of Christmas. Mark my words, there will one day be the greatest award in his name – The Will Smith Sacrifice Award for Services to Mankind. And a whole different international holiday – Smithmas. You wouldn’t believe how Smith singularly serves so many people and brings tears of gratitude to so many eyes. No wonder he is God’s blessing.
        And if in return he asks of you to sacrifice your valuable time and valuable money for the cause of one of the worst films in recent memory, I believe that is the least we can do. A creepy, and essentially sick film that is masquerading as feel-good cinema, as something that ought to inspire and catalyze soul searching. Probably the most disgusting example of manipulative cinema since Patch Adams and The Life of David Gale. Trust me when I claim that I was less appalled at the end of Dead Poets’ Society than I’m here. I don’t know, but isn’t stalking people intrinsically perverse, as opposed to being good natured? An act that betrays a certain sense of, you know, disturbingly psychopathic and socially inept behavior. But that is not enough, for Will Smith can always do that much more than the regular John Doe. Here, playing an IRS agent Ben Thomas, he outdoes even himself, even from I am Legend and actually gets down to selecting and evaluating folks to stalk, and then judges for himself if they are good and kind and worthy and deserving of his gifts, the ones he has been planning to distribute to these folks. What those gifts are, I won’t tell you, but you’ll surely learn once you watch the film, and once that happens, you would want to throw something at the screen. I wish I could tell you though, spoil every possible moment of this film, but I fear you might throw something on your computer screen instead, and I believe the success rate in the latter as opposed to the former is rather very high due to the proximity involved.
        Why those gifts, I’ll tell you. While I’m at it, I’ll tell you about some of these lucky deserving folks too. Ben Thomas has left his home, and is living in a motel room for the past few weeks. We learn he has a wife, and we learn he was one of those “smart” people jobs down at some rocket company via a scene where he talks and people listen. This is second time in two weeks I say that there needs to be a repository maintained of these stock sequences, now that CGI has come about and that it is spectacularly easy to replace one face with the other.
        So, he has apparently left his “genius” job and is out there now collecting taxes moving around in the same suit. Why I don’t know, I mean why the same suit, but I would take immense pleasure in reminding that the actor-director’s previous venture The Pursuit of Happyness also had him wearing a same suit throughout a film. Why pleasure, because I claimed in my review of that film that it was in a way shamelessly manipulative, and I seem to find some sort of sick satisfaction that this film here is bad in the way it is. How bad? So bad you will make return from the night screening and decide to stalk the one who recommended this film, for the rest of your living life. You’ll make calls to everybody you know just to share how horrible this film is, not because it is bad, but because it assumes such a noble face and tries to cloak the innate twisted sickness of its premise. Not that the premise itself is sick, but the ennobling and dare I say godly status thrust upon its protagonist is repulsive, and dare I say demented. It is a sick fascination of many a kid, especially the lonely one, who dreams how every one of his relatives and known ones down at school (including the best looking girl) will react once he suddenly disappears from their lives. There’s a rather brilliant scene at the end of the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko, where that beautiful song from the British band Tears for Fears captures, rather reveals what Richard Kelly and his film seem to be hiding the whole time. Not here, because this film and its script has been manipulated to such an extent that they seem to have grossly misunderstood and maybe overlooked the many themes of their premise, and instead focusing on shallow exercises in drama and overblown melodrama. Tears, tears and more tears. This film starts on a sad note and ends with the depressing.
        But overblown drama, I can endure. What I cannot is trying to make a thriller-of-sorts out of the material, winking at the audience, and supplying them installments of information just so that they could be shattered when it is all revealed. Two things here, one the film is utterly predictable right down to its final frame, and two the film doesn’t know that and assumes it is smart. Yes, the logical thing to say is the blame rests with the screenwriter Grant Nieporte, but the director Gabriele Muccino isn’t doing us, or for that matter his film any great favors either. I have seen two of his films now, and one of his primary tricks is to have a hand held camera shake a little and provide close-ups to the characters as they converse, just to make it seem all the more real, as opposed to say fictional, and maybe even fantastical. Make no mistake, Muccino is a very adept filmmaker, a filmmaker who is given to grace, and it could be discovered in the way he chooses to have long scenes, thus involving us more. The script is terrible I assure you, so much so that having informatory dialog is like the least of its offences. Ben’s brother calls up, and says – Hey, it’s me, your brother. Or the doctor informs us by saying “No anesthetic, very brave” just so that we would know Ben’s doing a great courageous act. There’re lots more of those, but the problem is the film is good enough not to deserve itself.
        As an audience, we’re torn apart, between its inept storytelling and its other more touching scenes. The performances are so good you feel pained. There’s Rosario Dawson suffering from a coronary disorder, and there’s such truth in her acting. There’s Woody Harrelson as a blind man, and he delivers the strongest most touching performance of the film, although he is there for only three scenes. There’s Will Smith too, and what pains me is the fact that his services are sought for such a film. You cannot hate Smith, for there’s a great honesty to his acting. But here you feel as if that honesty is being used to serve an inherently dishonest motive, one where that benevolent charm is used as a trick. The film doesn’t deserve these performances. The film doesn’t deserve its direction. Most of all it doesn’t deserve the jellyfish.
        And the film doesn’t deserve us either, doesn’t deserve a thoughtful and self-respecting human being, except for to throw things at it and laugh at it. Its shameless and cruel core is revealed during the final moments when the film chooses to show what Ben Thomas has chosen to do, rather than just skipping it altogether and moving to the aftermath. No, the film intends to suck tears out of our eyes, if possible by means of a plunger, and panders its final act, and then move to the relief part. You would wonder the reasons behind why he chooses his act, and what the film throws at you is one of the worst possible reasonings of all time. It is unpleasant and it is insulting. So is the film. So much that even Will Smith’s noble healing touch cannot save it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Cast: Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale, Salvatore Cantalupo, Tony Servillo, Carmine Paternoster, Ciro Petrone, Marco Macor
Director: Matteo Garrone
Runtime: 137 min.
Country: Italy
Language: Italian
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Crime, Drama

        If cinema were defined as an approximation of reality, then Gomorra would be its most shining example. Allow me to put it as simply as possible – cinema might have never been more truthful, more brutal, more visceral, more intense, more unrelenting, more savage, more powerful, more intimate, more stunning and more real than this epic crime masterpiece from Matteo Garrone. It has no beginning, no end, and no formal structure. There’s a sense of randomness to proceedings, one that doesn’t betray a sense of construction or falsehood. One doesn’t feel any sense of method to it, and if there is one, which I’m double-sure there is, it ought to be one of the most subtle and brilliant usage of the medium ever. It is an explosion of spontaneity burst out of observation of the highest kind, one that doesn’t evoke a sense of portrayal or depiction, but instead puts us smack in the middle of that world and asks us to sort it for ourselves.
        I have always believed that cinema, by its very structure, is handicapped when it comes to being an informative medium, and is infinitely better equipped than all mediums when being an emotional one. Now, I’m not sure anymore, and my belief might have been very well, if I choose the correct word, shattered. Gomorra doesn’t provide us a formal narrative flow to hang to, for a story by its very definition is a work of artifice. Instead, the film engulfs us, and then overwhelms us with information, with detail, with people, and with their lives. The point is not just to tell you the stories of a few lives, but to make you feel and realize and then blow you away with the activities and scope of the one of the world’s deadliest crime organizations – Camorra. One might be tempted to use the word authentic, and I would ask not to, for that feels too artificial a word to describe the experience of the film.
        The film is brimming with details, minor details, everyday details. We applauded when Marlon Brando spoke like a gangster, and we watched great films about gangsters and the portrayal of the drama of their world. This one here is that world, and has those people inhabiting it. It is amazing how little information we’re handed out, and how little is done by way of the conventional approach to character development. We learn nothing about them, except for their actions, and yet we care for them. We’re scared, we find ourselves right on the edge, endlessly fascinated and gripped by the world we’re asked to live in for those couple of hours. Most times, a film through its elements – camera, script, cinematography, score – feels like an artificial intelligence, always knowing more than us, always influencing our thoughts, and asking of us to feel in a certain way. A camera always knows where to move, a script always knows where to cut to, the score knows where to underline the mood. Not here, not in this brutal minimalism. That is why talking of the film externally, and praising it in terms of its performances, or its screenplay, or its editing would be pointless, and in a way disrespectful of the achievement at hand. Suffice to say, filmmaking doesn’t get any better. There is neither the romanticism, the glorification nor is there a hint of contempt. This is a whole new level of filmmaking, one where we and the film are one, and the film serves no other purpose than to be an approximation of our journey through that Neapolitan world, and what we perceive is what we get.
        If my description of the film is devoid of specifics and instead is given mostly to generalizations, that is because I choose to thus. How else can I describe to you otherwise misses me. Let me give you a fair approximation of the experience. I’m not sure how valid it is to invoke these films here, but think of Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart and try now to remember City of God. Try to remember the experience of those films, and drain whatever cinematic artifice (howsoever appropriate) there does exist within these films. Now, cross those experiences, and multiply them by five. I say five, because we follow five different lives, each of which run into more. The focus isn’t as much on Camorra the organization as much as it is on the people on its fringes, and the film’s intention seems to be to provide us with examples of how the organization affects these people. I’ll describe in brief for you who those people are, and hope you’ll discover them for yourself.
        We open with shots of a dilapidated building, a congested building which feels like a world within itself. There’s a young boy Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) living there, and his job involves domestic supplies to each of these houses. But then, much like every kid out there, joining the ranks of Camorra at the lowest level is an inevitable fact of their lives. The choice then is to choose which clan. There’s Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), the ageing money man, and he is caught up in these bad times of war between two clans. There’s Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a talented hardworking designer of fashion material, some of which are worn by Hollywood stars on those read carpets. The film is based on Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name, an unflinching masterpiece of journalism (so much so that Saviano is under police protection), and it describes how Angelina Jolie’s high profile wedding dress was a forgery from Naples. There’re two buddies, Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) with hopeless dreams of being the next Tony Montana having blinded their eyes, and in reality being a pain for the clan they work for. And then, there’s Franco (Tony Servillo) who has taken college graduate Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) under his wings to make huge money out of illegal disposal of industrial toxic wastes in the countryside. The purpose, as I have mentioned earlier isn’t to find a common thread between these lives (which I believe is a technique given to artifice), but to overwhelm you with the epic scope of the Camorra activities in nearly all facets of the world of Naples, and the extent of its tentacles to the world beyond. And believe me, you’ll be overwhelmed. Not many times does a film achieve the characteristics of a book, but this one does it with devastating effects. The greatness though is that it affects us emotionally, not in the way films usually do, but something similar to how life does. It is always unpredictable, because we never know its people any more than we know the strangers who surround us.
        I said the film has no beginning, and it has no end. It merely exists as a snapshot of hell. It has existed, and it will always. That it is slowly and gradually realized, carefully surrounding and overpowering us with its brute intensity. Camorra, as an organization, is more horizontal than vertical (Cosa Nostra is vertical in its hierarchy), with many clans simultaneously having a piece of the cake. The film might send us in despair and what we feel is a sense of weakness at the impossibility to cut the million heads of this monster, one which has relations (financial and otherwise) deep into the EU members. Again, let me put it as simply as possible – the time might have finally come to scratch those lists of yours, and to make place for what might possibly be the greatest film on gangsters ever. It is called Gomorra, and it feels like that film which will change the way films are made. And if it doesn’t, it ought to.

Note: While you’re at it, there’re very few things out there that are more worth your festive season money than Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah. It’s available at Landmark.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Saul Ribb
Runtime: 104 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Drama, History

        City names are fine, years are fine, but when you have the kids names popping up on placards, we’ve got a royal problem.
        The Annual Bosom-Heaving Bodice-Ripping contest this year is a three-way race between Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson (both for The Other Boleyn Girl) and Keira Knightley, for this film here. You would assume Ms. Johansson to win it hands down, and you would be wrong for Ms. Knightley, against all expectations, takes the honors fair and square for this 18th Century snoozefest, an extended daily soap opera masquerading as a period piece. You might seek a point here in this tale of Georgiana The Duchess of Devonshire where there’s none to find, apart from I suppose an allusion to the late Princess Diana, who I learn was her descendant. The problem though, is the same as I find with most other period pieces, we get a history lesson where the tour guide isn’t good at even making stuff up, and we learn that stuff not gradually but via a news-like screenplay. We get an exhibition of corsets, of wigs, of hats. We see handsome pictures framed with the most obvious artifice, desperately seeking a soul with no apparent success. We see carefully spoken dialog, which don’t seem as if spoken by people, and instead betray the fact that they have been learnt by heart, and then uttered verbatim. Providing us insight then is a matter of a different planet altogether.
        But you see, I don’t mind the film for being such an interminable inert bore. Who cares, who loves whom and who marries whom, and then who loves whom, and then who cries. Who cares if one predicts everything ten minutes in advance? It happens all the time, in all kinds of households. Nothing new, you know. That is why they have that word – adultery. What I am appalled at though, is the sense of humor. Has that famous British humor escaped them? Because if it hasn’t, how can anybody even think of making a drama out of this script and keep a straight face at the same time? Get a load off this. Georgiana (Knightley) is hardly eighteen when The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) lays her eyes on her. You might assume, as I did, that it was out of Ms. Knightley’s beauty. But no, that might not be the case, because all the Duke wants is a vending machine for a young duke. Seriously, something wrong with the You might assume he would at least seek some enjoyment out of the whole deal on the wedding night, but the Duke’s exclusive mission seems to pump out the long elusive mail heir. Ralph Fiennes seems so stiff in his role I half suspect his character on the page seems to be a rather bad case of indigestion.
        Now wait, wait. It doesn’t end there. One year down the line, and Georgiana pops out a beautiful little girl. The Duke is flabbergasted. He gets down to playing with the only thing he seems to enjoy in his life – his dogs. But his resolve seems to be forged out of iron. He gets down to the pumping business one more times, and Georgiana pops out one more. A girl I mean, and what cute little girls they are. Scorecard reads two out of two. Or zero out of two. Depends on whether you’re an optimist or otherwise. Spare a thought for the Duke, and his wife who might be the laughing stock of every household. I don’t know about you, but I would have preferred a film made out of one of those households.
        And the Duke grows stiffer, and his iron will grows stronger. He pumps two more times, and there’re two miscarriages. Now, whatever way you look at it, the scorecard reads zero out of four. The Duke is so out of his wits he chases his wife down the galleries of his huge house, and this time pumps against her will. The cries of her despair reverberate through every corner of the house, and the result is success, finally. Scorecard, one out of five. Now I know the moral of the story – try, try, and try again. But don’t, for god sake, replace this story for the Robert Bruce and his spider one. You never know about kids with their bright minds, they might get all sorts of bad ideas. I wish the film were that bright, and at least had a sense of humor.
        And the problem it still doesn’t end there. The Duke is nothing more than a humping hound, game for any woman around, any woman, other than of course The Duchess. This exasperates her, and it all finally explodes when The Duke is found in bed with her best friend, who has nowhere to go because her husband beats her and has taken possession of her kids and is not letting her meet them and she wants to save them and she is ready to go to any length for them and that is why she wants to stay with them. And, the marriage gets promoted from a bicycle to a tricycle. And not to mention the most ridiculous intimate scene of the year, one that occurs between the Duchess and her best friend.
        Keira Knightley now seems to have grown adept at these costume dramas as she sleepwalks through them, just as Jason Statham does through B-grade actioners. See, I get that Georgiana was famous for her fashion statements, and her social engagements, and her fierce involvement in political causes, including campaigning. But how? How did her popularity manage to seep into every crevice of every wall in town? How did the people get smitten by her charm? That would’ve made an interesting film, a journey about a young girl thrown into the limelight blossoming into a lady, and her stature and her popularity growing wider. But then, that would have required imagination, an understanding, a sense of history, and some effort to go out of the conventional way that approaches history as mere costume soap operas with the same dumb dynamics we’ve grown tired of watching a million times on the television. Instead the film employs that same approach we have grown tired of – the story of a woman imprisoned in her life used as a tool to make bland jabs at feminism.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Cast: Aamir Khan, Asin, Jiah Khan
Director: A.R. Murugadoss
Runtime: 180 min. (Citation needed)
Rating: ****
Genre: Action, Thriller

        There was once a time when a lanky guy called Vijay, with the top button of his shirt ripped open to betray a rather beast-haired chest, and he would beat up scores of guys by locking them in a warehouse and we would applaud. Not anymore I guess. Today, fulfilling the promise of a good actor isn’t appealing enough. If Brando were alive today he might have very well been termed a hack because for all my money he never had a six-pack. See, two things. One that rhymed, and two I’m in a sense old school. Clint Eastwood is the man. Amitabh Bachchan is, or was the man. Even Arnie was the coolest not bare-chested but in a leather jacket. The very sight of a bulky shaven body betrays a sense of, what can I say, disguise. A sense of desperate claim to manhood. But then, never mind. To each his own.
        I hope better sense prevails and comparisons to Nolan’s Memento are avoided, and ignored. We have all struggled with that film and its innate tragedy. To me personally, it has haunted me. The predicament itself is such, and I believe we all deserve a bit of enjoyment of it now. You know, the kind where we don’t feel helpless, for we all are handicapped, as viewers, as people, as citizens. I don’t know about you, but the idea of villains being bashed up mercilessly appeals to me from time to time. The idea of being charmed by the love of an angel fascinates me too, and immensely so. Pauline Kael famously clubbed films into two types – art and trash. Both can be equally good mind you, and Ghajini is everything I sought from the immensely engrossing trash it is. There is entertainment, there is charm and most of all there is Asin.
        So, don’t pay too much attention of the plot, which is basically an old fashioned revenge drama (Mahesh Bhatt’s Criminal with its kidney premise comes to mind) with a new handicap for the hero (Amitabh Bachchan’s Majboor with its brain tumor thing comes to mind). When Mark Twain ripped apart James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in a hilarious essay, he said –
It is a restful chapter in any book of Cooper's when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact the Leather Stocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.
That is the kind of easy minded 70s escapism that could be attributed to Ghajini. But then, this is hardly literature. This is trash, dear reader and trash with quite a lot of fun. When needed even the army make an appearance out of nowhere. The twigs, of course, have been replaced by mobiles, and a character forgets them just when he shouldn’t, and a phone rings aloud just when it shouldn’t. There’s another twig too, and it moves around in the form of young Jiah Khan, who feels too feeble to hardly stay in a picture, leave alone cutting a pretty one. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that she is a god-awful actress, so terrible that her character’s name has fled me and it hasn’t even been an hour since the screening ended. I believe we ought to forgive, and more importantly forget.
        Now, young Jiah is a twig in another, narrative sense too. As in, performing the exclusive services of providing expositions and resolutions. She is no more than a mere device to resolve the plot, often making calls at crucial junctures so that the film would move forward. Take for instance a crucial sequence at the end of the film, where Sanjay Singhania (Aamir Khan) is lying in the hospital, confused and lost. His life-saving tattoos and clues and pictures have been robbed of him. Just in case you do not have prior knowledge about the premise we’re dealing with here, Sanjay suffers from antergorade memory disorder (AMD) wherein he has a memory span of 15 minutes, after which is memory gets erased, and he has to start all over again (Those who have watched Memento, might realize here that Sanjay doesn’t remember the past either, unlike Leonard Shelby. A rather interesting spin if you ask me). The film in fact shows a placard upfront just in case you are caught off-guard, but then removes it quite early. Never mind, because if you missed it, the film opens with a theory class where characters speak in arbitrarily chosen wooden words, whose sole purpose to exist is to convey information to us.
        So, the Jiah Khan character walks in, and as stipulated under her contract, she provides every bit of information to Sanjay so that he can claim revenge on his man. Now see, if not for anything, that information is at least worth two hours (considering the length of the film that preceded it), and it is a whole lot for the guy to process and store. But he does, and he thunders to the evil man’s den roaring like a lion. If the film here suffers a temporary memory loss, and forgets its hero’s condition, I think we should cut the film some slack. This is slam-bang Sir, not a thoughtful logical exercise. When I claim Tamil cinema is the best in entertainment we have, this is what you’ve been missing. Not any hint of cynicism or self parody, but escapist entertainment with a lot of heart.
        Of course, it would be cruel of me to imply that the film is dumb, and unaware. Not in the least, for this is a film that caters to everyone amongst us, including the lowest commonest denominator, not because it doesn’t know better, but because it chooses to. Any doubts to the contrary ought to be laid to rest by the opening few moments, which involve a rather robotic Sanjay beating up some guy. Maybe cyborg-ish is a good word for the note the actor is gunning for. And you got to appreciate the humor of the plumber job, and I believe he forgets to open the tap just to check if his installation is correct. What follows it though is quite a scene, where Sanjay walks into his room and puts his stuff neatly into their proper places courtesy the notes and sleeps and gets up and walks into the bathroom clueless and sees the note of “open your shirt” and opens it and sees all his tattoos and burns in rage. Absolute monstrous rage. I believe the Jonathan Nolan short story had a similar scene. Choosing to include it in the film alone is a wonderful decision, for no amount of words could explain the psychological and emotional state of the person at hand. The walls are black, the atmosphere is dark. Yes, I would have had edited it differently, in a more composed and sedate fashion, with calm frames scanning the hero for longer moments. And then jumping the gun on the edits to gain maximum impact. The film chooses to do it differently, in a mish-mash of skewed camera angles and fast forward jerks, but it still gets the point across with remarkable impact. Sanjay is boiling in despair, and decides to vent his ire on the poor punching bag. I was with him till here, but for some reason he chooses to get on the tread mill. I am not too sure I would have done that, but never mind.
        And if you think the film cannot be subtle, you might be wrong again. There is a rather brilliant moment where the Jiah Khan character bumps into Sanjay, and courtesy her curiosity, sits down with him to understand his condition. Just in case you’re wondering, she is a medical student. Maybe she seeks to feel his state of mind, and she throws at him questions. He replies, and she dutifully jots down, pay attention, jots down everything he says. You got to appreciate the irony at hand here, for what is the difference between them anyway. I mean, one notes down on his body, and the other (we) notes down on her notepad. Memory, as Lenny said, is unreliable. There’re such motifs strewn all over the place. People note addresses on laptops, and note phone numbers. In the final analysis, you know, it is just a matter of time. Speaking of which, the mobile alarm is asked to be of service too.
        There’s quite an action sequence at the end, cheerful in its gratuitous violence and greatly enjoyable all the same, where the bad guys receive a bashing of their lifetime. Sanjay walks along a narrow path flanked by houses, and I couldn’t help but notice and admire the claustrophobic feel of the space. The way it mirrored the road to Ghajini, one that was built and broken and built and broken in Sanjay’s mind. The set is constructed as if it was a labyrinth, a puzzle, and I cannot believe it is a coincidence. The bad guys jumping on him might be from the present, but what is past present and future for Sanjay. They might as well be the same guys he has already killed, and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to him. It is a fascinating visual show, and while you’re having a great time smashing folks to pulp, please do keep an eye on the images the filmmaker is throwing at you. And, if possible keep an eye on the length of the sequence, and be kind enough to supply me the figure. I hope it is what I expect. Speaking of which, there’s a game based on the film coming up too.

        And then, there’s Asin. What transcendent beauty, what immense grace. What a wonder of nature. I remember watching the Tamil original and falling in love with her, and I maybe in love all over again. Some experts might complain about her acting. Yeah, yeah, she often comes across wooden in the film’s dramatic moments. But I say, the hell with her acting, these guys have just got their priorities all wrong. Who wants acting when a mere smile and a glance can leave you in a trance? Who wouldn’t fall in love with her, who wouldn’t be dizzy by her mere presence? Who wouldn’t go insanely mad at her loss? If it were me, I would have worn a cowl and cape and finished all criminals and if it proved too expensive a proposition, I would have scarred my face and put war paint all over it and bleached my hair and burn the world.
        The film’s best moments are hers, and as long as she is on screen, the film is a joy. It is silly, yes, but there’s just so much overflow of charm and romance that it is impossible to get infected. Songs come arbitrarily and you would be a fool to complain, for she is floating across most of them. And all I could muster was awe. She uses a terrible dialog that speaks of her magic that have the power of changing governments, but you smile all the same. She helps a few kids glide past an obstacle, and that generosity of hers feels straight from almighty, and I clapped in my seat. Yes, some of the scenes involving her and Aamir Khan are terribly phony from both ends, and it might be a great coincidence that one of them actually involves a phone call, where he calls her from London and asks her of her well being. I actually don’t care, you know, and I believe if you seek great performances you got to look elsewhere. And believe me, these ones here get the job done.
        See, the film has two tones, primarily. One which the film uses to begin itself with, with Sanjay locked in the grim darkness of his revenge, where the word Ghajini is driving him, and I believe that is the inferior one. The other, and obviously the superior one is where the film ends up locking Sanjay in. That might as well be heaven, where he is locked with the divine Asin, and love is guiding him. Who wouldn’t want to forget everything and be locked in her presence, forever?

Note: The locations in the song titled “Guzarish” seem to be the same one from The Cell, and even probably The Fall. The latter, dear reader is a masterpiece, from Tarsem. And so is Asin, from God.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Cast: Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, David Morse, Clea Duvall
Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Runtime: 85 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        There’s a twist in the tale, obviously inspired by Shyamalan’s movies, and obviously designed to shock you. But there’s a small problem that occurs while we’re on our way to meet it. You see, the journey is so boring and lifeless and we’re so down and out that we’re in a position to accept anything. If they had capped it with the final battle sequence of Saving Private Ryan, I wouldn’t have complained. If they had capped it with a song and dance number from Moulin Rouge, I would have clapped and jumped and would never have complained. If they had skipped the final few reels, and jumped straight to the credits I still wouldn’t have complained. As long as they promised to end it they had my complete support. And I didn’t disappoint them. Even when my luck was staring right into the face of an exposition that could not have been any farther from originality even if it had tried.
        You know that stock twist where everything is a dream? Mark that as your reference point. Now mark the coordinates of that one where everyone is dead and cheerfully unaware of it (I realize why we have funerals. So that the dead get the memo, and don’t roam about a confused lot.). Connect the two via a line segment. Now run. Run far, far away from it. Run like the wind blows. In the opposite direction to that segment. If you don’t you’ll end up like me, staring into empty spaces and constructing coordinates and marking points and considering the mathematical equation to time travel. A flight down to salvage the past.
        So, what does the plot involve? How would you feel watching it? You know, a movie where all its characters ran around in a merry-go-round with some of them falling arbitrarily while some board arbitrarily would have been considerably more involving, and dare I say more insightful. The deal is plain. You horse around for an hour weaving some silly romance which supposedly bloomed in the wake of a great mishap, and bang, in the final reel try to pull the rug. There occurs a great air tragedy, and there are left only a few survivors. Supposedly, they end up being so traumatic that they might grow the Leonard Shelby syndrome, even though they suffered only as much as a scar on their elbow. A shrink walks in, Claire her name, played by Anne Hathaway, and I’m still trying to come up with an explanation as to why. Of course, my favorite one is where she is speaking rather sternly to her agent behind closed doors. Of all the fantasies I have had for Ms. Hathaway, this would probably be the only one which would be for her good were it was fulfilled.
        Now, one of the survivors, Eric (Wilson), has grown hyper-reactive, and has grown an over-bloated sense of euphoria in life. As the PhD genius Claire puts it, he must be reevaluating his priorities. Yup, that was something you needed to drill through a million books to come up with. Never mind, because all this has happened just in time for some obligatory PG-13 sex, and Eric all but disappears after enjoying Ms. Hathaway. I’m not a PhD genius but if I were Claire I would have felt exploited, whatever the condition of my patient may be. Back to the wreckage, and some of the survivors recount a different tale of the mishap implying the airline’s negligence, while some recount a different one where it is all squarely put on the overworked pilot. Claire tries venture into the truth behind these stories when the airline’s staff start resisting. You know, EVERYONE MIGHT BE INVOLVED.
        But don’t pay too much attention to the plot, because it has all been re-engineered into existence. The template so obviously is The Sixth Sense. But let me tell you once again, a truly great thriller with a truly great twist in the tale doesn’t reverse engineer its plot. It actually engineers its plot, and designs its twist which is worthy of it and in a way inevitable. I wonder, why don’t filmmakers gather the courage to make a film where the twist or whatever is presented beforehand, and we’re left with the happenings of the entire film to grapple with its developments. You know, like running it all backwards with us having the knowledge of what it will all end like. It is considerably easy even to the most unimaginative narrator to place us in the character’s vantage point and do any which thing he wants. But it requires only a great film to give us that knowledge beforehand, to place us not in a First Person POV but a third person’s, and then go about his business. Such a movie won’t only work, it will actually cause devastation. I remember Irreversible, and it almost got there. Well almost. And I still applaud. For this one here though, I applauded when it finally ended. And I jumped around in joy, before I got down to drawing the coordinates. I still am. And the way I see it, it is all simple – Run. Run dear reader, run.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Cast: Ching Wan Lau, Andy On, Ka Tung Lam, Kelly Lin, Flora Chan
Director: Johnnie To, Ka-Fai Wai
Runtime: 89 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Thriller

        I have always been curious of how much do we really know about ourselves. I guess we all are. I mean, my principles and my moral code, might very well be a bad joke. You know, dropped at the first sign of trouble. For real. A rather tedious corporate training session I once had to attend spoke of the Johari window, which consists of the quadrants that kinda maps the human psychology and the manner in which our behavior is influenced. Two of those quadrants got me interested the most, and both of them are the ones Not Known to Others. By fascinated, I mean in the movie sense. You see, deception and self-discovery are two of the most tried themes of the psychological thriller genre, and often to the point of exploitation. And even between the two it is the latter that always fascinates me. “Who am I”, might as well be the most mysterious and enigmatic of all questions that have evaded us, and that includes God and space.
        Such might be the central theme of Johnnie To’s first collaboration with Ka-Fai Wai since 2003’s strangely brilliant Running on Karma. Imagine the opening scene. A young cop walks into a room, where four or five other cops are intently watching a man at work. What he seems to be doing comes across as odd. There’s a pig hanging from the ceiling, and the man is stabbing at it from various angles, and with varying intensities. He is Bun (Lau), and he already seems to be a special detective. And there’s still lot more to come. He rushes to a nearby table and pulls a suitcase from underneath it. He summons the young cop who just walked in. He places himself inside the suitcase, and asks the young cop, Ho (Andy On), to zip the suitcase from outside and push it down the stairs. Young Ho seems to be too obliged to wonder why. But we do. The film obliges by cutting to a newspaper article that reads – “Student killed in multiple stabbing”. We gain some much needed clarity, and we are fine when Ho pushes him down what feels like three or four flights of stairs, and we wonder that the man inside must be really odd. Odd as in crazy. But more than that, we worry he might have a couple of broken bones and maybe internal bleeding. Maybe concussion. We are eager to unzip him, and Ho in his part obliges yet again. To our utter relief the man inside is fine, and only slightly disoriented. More importantly he has solved the murder case, and he announces the killer. This man, Bun, is indeed special.
        But then, there’s still more to come. The chief of Hong Kong police department is retiring, and everyone is bidding him farewell. Bun though is lost deep in his respect for the man. He is lost, totally, and in an instantaneous gesture he cuts his right ear and gives it as a present. The film cuts to the title, and assets a point well made. No explanation needed. This man, Bun, might indeed be mad.
        But then, so was Sherlock Holmes. And so was William Graham. And so is Batman. What’s Bun’s madness then? He can see people. As in, he can see people. He can see distinctly the set of different personalities their selves consist of. As in, like different physical entities. He sees a man, and he sees all the personalities within him as different people, walking together. Let me give you an example. If he were to lay his eyes on Bruce Wayne, he would notice a giant monster, Clint Eastwood, T-101 and God, walking together. If he were to see The Joker, he would see only The Joker. But these are extraordinary individuals. Bun only has ordinary individuals to observe, individuals whose inner personalities could be plotted on the Johari Window. As far as I can infer Bun only can perceive the personalities that lay in the Blind Spot, Arena and Façade quadrants, and the Unknown might expose the limitations of Bun’s special clairvoyance.
        Now, this is the set-up for the set-up. As in, the groundwork laid for the actual plot. I wouldn’t reveal much else, except for that five years have passed since Bun cut of his ear and the police have fired him. Detective Ho, one of the men deeply influenced by Bun, decides to seek his help and guidance to solve the case of a missing cop. And that is where I’ll part ways with the plot description by adding that you can expect a rather bloated Hollywood remake anytime now.
        Most thrillers end up being about what, or how. Mad Detective is about why. We know the suspect, and Bun follows him. Bun tightens his noose around him. But how does he do that. He digs deep into the emotional aspects, and seeks those signals. It is kinda like method acting, only that he has extra sensory perception to record almost every ounce of why a person behaved in a particular way. The emotion behind the motivations. The film moves thus too, and it isn’t gunning for some cheap, lowbrow last minute twist in the tale. It doesn’t betray us. Instead it uses its characters as leverages to understand the others, and it does it with great subtlety. Not with expository dialog, but by action. This is that rare thriller where we understand, and probably empathize why a character does what he does. Not everything is logical airproof like To’s other recent thrillers (Exiled), but then it makes sense in a more delirious sense. It makes sense in a more emotional way. The film uses extensive use of dolly zooms, of frenetic edits, of reverse angles, of odd camera angles just so to shake us off balance. Often the space is all cramped up, and we are deliberately confused. In a way all of these techniques lend a poetic feel to the proceedings, as in a ballet. It is all about a state of mind, and film tries its very best to make us audiences feel that. And it succeeds. One of the more fascinating tricks the film employs to very good effect is the consistency of point of view shots. We see the same physical space from Bun’s POV, and we are edited to Ho’s, with great clarity. That is mastery at work here, we’re confused when we’re supposed to be, and we aren’t when we shouldn’t be. How rare is that in today’s thrillers? And then, there’s great pomposity at work too, like in that climax. Mirrors and mirrors everywhere, and we are sure and unsure at the same time. It is like the film intends to make its job tougher, and we applaud that it has the guts to believe in itself that it can pull it off.
        A small element keeps bothering me though, something which keeps me from going full throttle on the praise. As I got down to recording my feelings and my thoughts once the film ended, I kept coming back to the whole subplot involving Bun’s wife. Why was it there? Was it intended to create a doubt in our mind? A kind of confusion? I’m not sure that is the case, and then I saw an interesting pattern. One that stemmed from To’s previous films and their themes of masculinity. When you choose to see the film, which by all means you should, you should notice the kind of dress all the women wear. At least most of them. In their black business suits, they are supposed to look like that conniving bitch. I wonder, do we really look at business-class women executives that way? Is what we feel part of the Blind Spot, or the Unknown? I don’t know, and I guess neither do we.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Cast: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Lynnsee Provence
Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 92 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama

        Terrence Malick may have made only four films in 35 years, but his greatest gift to us is that he made them at all. This great artist of cinema has influenced great many poets, David Gordon Greene for one, who takes on the role of the producer for Shotgun Stories. The director is Jeff Nichols, and in a way, he seems to be from the same institution Greene is influenced from – Terence Malick. This is his debut effort, and what an effort it is. Pay attention to the word influenced, for these filmmakers – Greene, and now Nichols – reject the generally practiced idea that drives the way images are composed, much like Malick, but in a significantly different visual style. Yes, all of them do challenge and often reject the way most filmmakers surround their characters with an atmosphere that basically reflects their psychological state of mind (a school of thought descendent of the German Expressionism). But where Malick has an unearthly and grand visual style or dare I say flourish, Greene and Nichols strip theirs right down to its bare bones.
        Most often the frame serves the purpose of implying. It is agile, and it picks up selective information on our behalf. But imagine a film which doesn’t relay information, but instead takes us on a tour, and leaves us to observe that world for ourselves. Imagine such a narrative, where we aren’t served with motivations, character developments, explanations and back-stories. Imagine people, good people, who do what they do not because they want to do it, but because they have to do it. Shotgun Stories is one such rarity. It doesn’t have any artifice whatsoever, any pretense, or any morality play to it. It isn’t a parable with a moral, but in the best of traditions of moving and often profound stories, it is exactly that – a simple story. So well created that if it was borne out of real life, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.
        And as with all well told stories, the ones told by cinema I mean, a complete recital of the tale wouldn’t play a spoiler at all. Not that I would want to divulge anything unnecessary here, but if I were to, even as much as the whole story, it wouldn’t affect the viewing experience. Take my word for it. I watched it around a fortnight back, and was moved, and in a way stirred by it. I wasn’t sure then if that was the way I wanted to write a review, you know, in all the frenzy of my feelings. That would have betrayed an emotion this film doesn’t lend to us, and in its sleepy town, the film discovers a calm minimalism of great truth. I waited, and watched it again, and I found a greater sense of depth. A story, narrated only as an observation with no personal prejudices and with no desire of judging, can often be deep for it is us who have to discover that world.
        Now let me tell you about the story a bit.
        Son, Kid and Boy are three brothers in a quiet town. Son’s married, and has a kid, and his wife has taken the kid to her mother’s place. Just temporarily, for she is sick of Son’s obsession of perfecting the ‘system’ that exists behind gambling, of somehow deriving a mathematical formula behind its probability. She loves him though, she loves him very much, because these are good people. Everyday people. Son works down at the local fishery. Kid, who works with him, sleeps down in a tent because he has no home and no van, and he has a girlfriend whom he is planning to marry. Boy lives in a van, with his dog Henry, and teaches kids basketball. Their mother lives at a different place.
        Now, you might wonder that the names sound odd. But then, you got to wonder about the person who gave them those names. It was their drunkard father, and it is him who causes the other half of the story. Or rather, the set of half-brothers he has brought to this world once he sobered up and settled into a responsible man and married another woman. And left Son, Kid, Boy and their mother. That father has just died, and the abandoned sons learn about it from their mother. It is one of the many great scenes of the film in the way they pan out so quietly and unremarkably, but reveal so much about the family. The brothers are doing what they do in the evening – Son perfecting the system, Boy and Kid watching television – and their mother knocks the door, and tells them that her father has died. They ask her about the funeral, but she asks them to look for it in the newspaper instead. They do, they go, and Son does something in the spur of the moment. He spits on his coffin, and the longstanding feud between the two set of half-brothers is laid on the fire to boil again.
        This is where I shall leave the story hanging, but then one ought not to expect something dramatic here. The film is as spare when it ends as it was when it begins. The film isn’t grim, and it doesn’t lend itself any particular tone. It is a film only given to observation, not judgment. This is a film that considers its characters for what they are, considers them people, and understands them. It looks at their actions, and understands them. Yes it feels, often it does, but takes great care not to let that cloud these lives. There’re great many shots of the town – its fields, its roads, the dust blowing – and they aren’t meant to convey, but to evoke. A sense of place, I believe. There’s a scene in the beginning, where Stephen and Michael, the other set of half brothers are reflecting the events that occurred during the funeral. Michael is simmering with rage, and a dark cloud passes over them (one might be reminded of that famous sequence from Bonnie and Clyde), and I would like to choose to believe here that it was a shot of serendipity. Not designed, but just an accident.
        There’s terseness overall – in the story, in the way these people speak, in the way they live their lives – and hidden beneath it is a treasure-trove of information. Indie films are usually about a minimalist approach, but often it is a cloak to hide their shortcomings. It is often merely a style, a trick of artifice rather than a choice borne out of sincerity. Not here though, and underneath its simple lines lay a truth that helps us gaze into these people. How else do we know about the people we meet? Often profound drama lay not in greatly constructed sequences, but a simple spoken sentence that often summarizes a whole life. There’s one such here, a statement if you would like to call it that, and seems to erupt from the deepest corner of Son’s heart. It is another great scene, and as the mother is cropping her garden, Son stops his car and gets out of it and walks a couple of steps. He says – “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it's come to this.” She doesn’t look back, and he gets into the car and drives away.
        Michael Shannon is the only actor here I have previously seen, and it is one of the best performances of the year. It is a coiled, laconic performance but greatly magnetic. There’s a certain strain in his face, and it kinda betrays a sense of inner pain. The other two performances, from Douglas Ligon (Boy) and Barlow Jacobs (Kid) are just as remarkable in the way they reveal so much with a gaze. But then, the objective of these performances isn’t to convey, just as is the case with the film, but to be those people. Everything else will take care of itself. This is such a film, where the images have a certain sense of freedom from their characters, and the film has a certain sense of freedom from its story. A little gem you might say. A film without false moments is a rarity, but a film with so many true ones as this, well, is special.

Note: Here is an excerpt from Roger Ebert’s review. He had selected this film for Ebertfest 2008, and has named it as one of his Top20 of 2008. I believe the following might provide some information, and some more. –
“This film has literally been saved by the festival circuit. After being rejected by major distributors, it found a home in smaller festivals, where word of mouth propelled it into its current wider release. It has qualities that may not come out in a trailer or in an ad but sink in when you have the experience of seeing it. Few films are so observant about how we relate with one another. Few are as sympathetic.”
Source: Roger Ebert’s review of Shotgun Stories, here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt
Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 122 min.
Rating: *1/2
Genre: Drama, History

        Frost/Nixon’s idea of a grueling interview is a boxing match. Not such a bad way of perceiving things, until the focus is lost from interview and is squarely shifted to the boxing match. Ron Howard, and Peter Morgan take that thematic connection so seriously they start seeking inspiration from Hollywood sports movies with stock storylines. Even that wouldn’t have been that bad, considering you can always find ways of making a send-up of sorts by structuring your film that way. But neither Howard, upon whom I am sure, nor Peter Morgan, upon whom I need to confirm my latest doubts, are nearly as smart enough to realize that. Hell, they seem to be not smart enough to realize they aren’t smart enough. I draw that conclusion because no smart person would get down to ridiculously dramatizing an historical event that had already been devised thus. The real-life Frost/Nixon interviews relied heavily upon the dramatic personality of Mr. Richard Nixon, and the dramatic developments that unfolded during the course.
        But nobody seems to realize it, and they instead reduce it to one of those underdog stories you have seen a million times. Be it in sports movies, or in one of those melodramatic courtroom dramas, where the young brash hero is losing the plot. He isn’t given any chance against the schemes of the snickering villain, neither by his foes, nor by his peers. And then, just before the final round, or the final day, an unlikely source installs a sense of inspiration deep into the soul of the crusader. He turns an unstoppable force overnight, pouring over books and files and highlighting and underlining, or starts jogging and piling weight after weight upon himself all the time remembering the saddest emotional moment of his lives as if it were a leverage. And all that is underscored by some rousing music behind. The montage plays over and over. You might as well shoot one such set, and use it time and again, just replacing the faces using CGI. There’ll come such a time, and filmmakers as unimaginative as Ron Howard might stand to gain a lot from it.
        The problem here is that the unlikely source is likely the worst movie scene of the year. It involves a drunken Nixon calling a down and out David Frost in the middle of the night. So down, that he has absolutely written himself out. It is, in true movie tradition, his birthday, and supposedly a cause for us to sink in despair. We do too, but for radically different reasons. Nixon calls, and Nixon rambles, the details of which I will spare you. Suffice to say it deals with the obsessions the public, and the movies (Stone’s mediocre Nixon) share about him, about his insecurities, and his grouchy self. This is a period where the film and the script are desperate to hammer in the idea that these are fundamentally two like-minded people facing off, you know like in another of those age-old movie traditions, and the telephone call is a cheap way of demonstrating it to us. To some, it might seem drama. To me, and lot of other self respecting individuals, that is a goddamn cliché. And the movie is riddled with those. I’ll do you the favor of listing you some, and if you find yourself curious, you might seek the rest.
        Now, was Mr. Nixon a grouchy old man? Frank Langella, and writer Peter Morgan, upon whose play the film is based, view Mr. Nixon thus. You know, mirroring the popular perception that clouded everybody’s opinion about the man post the public declaration of the tapes. Langella, in turn, plays him like a huffy puffy wrestler, easily agitated when cornered. The real Nixon, or at least whatever I saw and read of him was far from that. An approximation would be a salesman, and often Nixon behaved like one, always pretending to be affable and pleasing rather than aggressive and confronting. His interviews with Mr. David Frost are an example where he smiles, often sheepishly. But the movie never examines this predicament, because it isn’t interested in the person and his set of qualities and his set of flaws. Maybe, rightly so, because this isn’t a biopic. But when the film reduces him to a caricature that is wrong, and unacceptable. Langella’s performance is buzzing the Oscar word, but the way I see it, it is a terrible and phony turn. One that doesn’t try to embody the person, but instead tries to embody the characteristics. Yes, Nixon did get drunk and do ill-advised phone calls, but using it as a turning point and filling it with the dialogs that it has speaks of the sensationalist attitude of many a media channel of today. Ron Howard falls in the same category, a person bereft of any analytical intellect and adept only at dramatizing. Remember the Max Baer character, and what a cardboard he was in Cinderella Man? Such sequences speak, or betray the intellect which believes in drawing leverage rather than constructing an intelligent analysis. That drunk phone call scene, by the way, would have been a good choice for a satire, but the absolute wrong one for such a drama.
        Let us come back to that terrible choice of having the phone conversation. Nixon hangs up, and Frost, who till now has been squandering the interviews feels a spark light up inside of him. Just like the case with countless movie characters before him who have felt that inspiration, he says to Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), his then girlfriend, I have got to work, and he starts rummaging through the case files and the tape transcripts and what not. He is a changed man now, one who didn’t know anything about the Watergate scandal until then, and who suddenly and overnight had grown into a pundit. A flawed man, yes, but an inherently good man who at last found his moment. Stuff of dreams, as you might call it. Where else can it happen but at the movies.
        But was the real Mr. Frost so careless, and dare I say imprudent? So neglectful that he didn’t bother to prepare himself for the interview until the very last day. The interview was conducted across four sessions on four separate days, mind you, and the film shows him absolutely negligent until the very last day. They show it as a bout, each session a round, and the first three seem to have gone Nixon’s way. But the fourth, and Frost punches in a knockout, eliciting the famous apology out of Nixon.
        Did it happen thus, would be a moot question. Of course not. Mr. Frost and co. spent 18 months (from the time of the signing of contract to the actual interviews) preparing like hell. The real Mr. Frost is laid back, and cool. Michael Sheen plays him like a fresh from college journalist eager to have his first big bite. But then, history or reality isn’t something the film is interested in getting right. It is manipulated with great generosity, and every time without any obvious cause. Just as Mr. Nixon argued in the original interviews that Mr. Frost was picking his quotes and quoting them out of context, the film uses the interviews as a clothesline on which to hang its idea of thematic resonance. In the actual interviews Mr. Frost asked Mr. Nixon about the latter’s quote to Chuck Colson, in an unpublished document. The quote was dated Feb 13th, 1973, 8 months after the burglary, and it goes - This tremendous investigation rests unless one of the seven begins to talk. Now, the entire basis of Mr. Frost’s tightening noose around Mr. Nixon during the interview wasn’t the knowledge of the burglary but the knowledge of the cover-up. Hell, that is what the entire scandal boils down to, the cover up. But no, the film decides to use the same quote but on a different day, on June 20th 1972, three days after the burglary. In the film, David Frost is trying to corner Nixon on the very same question by asking about his knowledge of the burglary, rather than you know, the cover-up.
        You might wonder why the film chooses thus. But then history isn’t relevant here. This is like a boxing match where it isn’t about the punches and the strategies, or a courtroom drama where it isn’t about the legalities and rebuttals. The interviews, the whole Watergate scandal is meaningless to the film. It might as well have had David Frost and Richard Nixon indulge themselves in a WWE wrestling bout and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
        Now let me stop myself from nitpicking on historical accuracies, and although this might be a complete mess, I believe a film can surely take liberties if its purposes are thematically sound. I’m not sure that is the case here. For one, an interview like this that had been designed to be dramatic (imagine the fiercest episodes of Hard Talk with Tim Sebastien, or remember Karan Thapar’s grueling session with Kapil Dev on the same programme), would naturally serve the said purpose in a film too. Why would there arise the need to dramatize it further, unless of course the filmmaker and the screenwriter think that we’re not intelligent enough to get it. And if that wasn’t terrible, they choose to include a thousand age-old movie clichés. You see, there’s no other way of saying it other than that Frost/Nixon is horrendously clichéd. And for a movie, that is based on actual historical events, rather than imagined ones, that is a terrible quality to have. I am not sure if it is my expectations, which as a matter of fact never bother me, neither during the viewing nor during the analysis. That is why I am astonished how inexplicably bad this movie actually is.
        Second, the theme, the battle are the interviews. Everything lay in and around those interviews. Everything about Frost and Nixon lay in the how, why and what of those interviews. The script is right in creating a narrative about the interviews, rather than the men, but it botches up the execution. The interviews, themselves have significantly less footage. They’re, as a matter of fact, pushed to the background, used only as a punchline every now and then. What we see is behind the scenes, which is fine up to a point. But here, it gets way too much, especially when every time either Frost or Nixon score a point, we see reactions of the aides on both sides. There’s Kevin Bacon, as Jack Brennan, and his end of the bargain is to look mean and menacing. There’s Diane Sawyer in Nixon’s camp, and all she and the other two are asked to do is to smirk as they look at the miserable Frost. Are they even characters, or are they just excuses for the bad guys? It is shameful of the film to resort to such means to invoke emotions out of us.
        Howard and Morgan do not seem to think much of our intelligence, and there’s ample proof in the way the interviews are conducted. Nothing is left to our inference, and everything is spelt out by means of the various side characters. The script has a neat style where everybody except for Nixon and Frost are shown speaking about the interviews, as in a History Channel documentary, and they interpret and lay out everything for us. They might as well have had a scoreboard nearby and it wouldn’t have made it any worse. And there is another weakness that is betrayed in the process. One of the great features of the original interviews was the atmosphere, with its low-key home lighting, which reined in a cozy, warm environment. It felt interior. The film though for its part doesn’t know how to shoot those sequences. So all it does is show us excerpts of those interviews, and if you have ever heard an interview, you would agree that the impact lay in how it evolves rather than the highlights. It is a slow process, a gradual increase in the tension, each moment drawing strength from the previous. The film doesn’t know that, and for it this is a boxing match. A punch, a sentence is all it needs. The final interview, and the final apology is run fast because it needs to be accommodated by highlighting the key points, and it is a horrendous example of by-the-numbers filmmaking.
        But then, when has Ron Howard been a director of style, or substance, or intelligence? If he would have been any good, he would have seen the interviews time and again, and drawn inspiration from there. There’re moments of great gravity, little moments, a glance, a smile, a remark, and it says a lot. But then, subtlety is hardly a hallmark that can be said about most Hollywood filmmakers, including Howard. Here is man susceptible to clichés. I always felt that Ron Howard can never ever make a good film respectful of the intellect of its audiences. Now, I’m fairly certain he never will. All he can do is shamelessly pander by presenting his movie-grown dramatization, oblivious of his own limitations. All his aim with this film is to implicate Nixon yet again. There isn’t no insight to be had, and we gain no greater understanding. Mr. Frost and his motivations are never questioned, neither is the self-righteousness of the media. That is a vision of course that is outside Ron Howard’s capabilities. He might not realize that the Nixon interviews, more than an historical event, were a media event. Historically, it was a footnote. Of course, all Howard’s limited intellect can do is pick up the footnote and sound it as if it is one of history’s landmarks, and relevant to today’s political climate. I wonder, has Ron Howard ever even met people?

Monday, December 15, 2008


Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates
Director: Scott Derrickson
Runtime: 103 min.
Rating: **
Genre: Sci-fi

        One of these days, someone’s got to get on with the job of destroying earth. And mankind. For real. Enough of this horsing around with the idea every once in a while, selling us obligatory images of destruction and carnage where car parks and stadiums and cities are wiped out. There was a time when we would watch these images, often with great intent and often with a sense of wonder. Now we stare at them, often our eyelids betraying a sense of fatigue and often beyond. The said problem accentuates when somebody decides to wrap it up in a message for all mankind, like for instance in this case, we humans are destroying earth and we need to pull our pants and act. As far as environmental pontification is concerned, everyone down at the movies seems to be in overdrive. Yeah, whatever. Speechify on your own time.
        I am curious what exactly the guys behind this remake brought to the table by themselves. Everything that is exciting has been borrowed from the 1951 original, including Klaatu, a spaceship, aliens, Iron Man and an iron-handed message for mankind. Okay, strike the last one out. All they have thrown in for spicing up matters is Jennifer Connelly, who feels gorgeous on any day, and young Jaden Smith as her son, whose character is such a nuisance he would have my vote for an alien abduction on any day. Aliens, are you listening? Are you receiving my signal? And no, thank you, we don’t want him back. Our hands are already full dealing with many of those stubborn annoying nuisances Dakota Fanning has left for us. Could you be good universal neighbors, and share the burden? Please?
        The premise is exactly how it was for the past 57 years. Mankind bad. Very, very bad. Destroying earth. So, self-styled universe monitors, who got nothing better to do than to run around and hammer their righteousness over unsuspecting citizens of planets, pry on them secretly, learn their language and surprise them by speaking with their accent, and looking like them. They might seem like someone you would want to strike a conversation with, or ask a thousand questions, but if Klaatu played by the usually bored Keanu Reeves is any indicator, the fact is they might bore you to death. But no, to our good fortune that is not their strategy. As is supposed to be the universal protocol, be it aliens on tripods, or asteroids, or aliens in huge saucers, or comets, or Michael Bay, human extermination ought to involve a sweeping explosion of some kind. Nothing else works.
        Now, what differs is our mischief. Back in 51, we were being bad kids quarrelling with each other, and supposedly in need of a good spanking or two. In 2008, we’re still being bad kids who aren’t keeping their rooms neat and sparkling clean, and supposedly still in need of a good spanking or two. If you are wondering that this could have been a sequel rather than a remake, I’m standing right by you, agreeing that would have been a better idea. You know, like with a cool name, The Second Day The Earth Stands Still. Never mind, because that isn’t our call. Our call, may be, is to enjoy the spanking, because it involves a gargantuan Iron Man wannabe, called Gort, wreaking havoc and destroying us. The Gort guy is straight out of the disaster movie protocol that asserts, time and again, that bigger is better. We humans are savvy only when it is big. Our dinosaurs got to be big. Our Godzillas got to be big. Our cyclones got to be big. Our dragons got to be big. Our cyborgs got to be big. Our explosions got to be big. Our snakes got to be big. Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman have got to have them big. The lips I mean. We are idiots and the beauty of the small is lost upon us. Or the practicality of the economical.
        So, our call ought to be to enjoy the spectacle, but we are denied that right because the special effects are tacky. The original had a robot walk out in what seemed like an aluminum suit betraying the overall clumsy production values. But that was 1951, and even in that age, the film had a certain grounded reality to it which made it seem all the more immediate. This one here, with its clumsy CGI feature places the film in a worse situation, where we obviously cannot believe the film at any level. It is half-way, as in a bad fantasy. And in a bad fantasy, or a bad sci-fi as this, you got nowhere to go except to pity your eyes.
        But then, you might take a call to marvel at the beauty of Ms. Connelly, and the vast talents she is in possession of. She can appear to be thoughtful, and poignant even in the face of impossibly written situations. Often, as seems to be the trend with great many bad sci-fi movies of late, it comes down to a contest to see how much of impossible dialog one can get away with if there’s an actor of her stature present. If it indeed is true, Ms. Connelly is a wonderful bet. As for Mr. Reeves, he cannot act even if his very life depended upon it. The good thing is that isn’t the case here, and all he needs to do is another variation of his robotic turns. And he does that with great efficiency. There’s Academy Award winner Kathy Bates, and she needs to pull a straight somber face, often barking random orders and she manages that, just as she manages to drive to work everyday.
        I know where the idea of the disaster movie comes from. You know, the time when Orson Welles was so convincing on the radio recital of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, that people actually thought there was an invasion from Mars, and they ran screaming out of their rooms. There was a time when the movies actually made us feel that dread, but now it is all sugar coated blockbuster-style. And hammered into size by the most available message. The problem is, the film is trying to play it on both sides. On one, it is playing the prosecutor. On the other, it is playing the defendant telling Al Gore and co. that a species acts only at the precipice of annihilation. Maybe, we can still sit smug since ours might have not yet been reached. So hey, you know what, relax. You can clean the room later. You can arrange the shelf later. Dad’s coming day after tomorrow.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan
Director: Ben Stiller
Runtime: 107 min. / 121 min. (Unrated)
Rating: *****
Genre: Comedy, Action

        Spike Lee recently expressed his fears that his infamous spat with Clint Eastwood for the latter’s non-portrayal of black soldiers in his World War II films might have cost him a possible Oscar nomination for his all-black war drama Miracle at St. Anna. Of course, I would want to extend my defense on behalf of Eastwood for Letters of Iwo Jima, because, you see, it was kinda like supposed to be from the Japanese vantage point. Mr. Lee, a bit tough to insert there. Of course, it hasn’t been the only such case. Spielberg’s war tour de force Saving Private Ryan was similarly criticized by many sections for not including a black member. You know that obligatory black guy who hurls a lot of curses and gets whacked off somewhere in the middle, causing severe emotional stress to the white guy who always hated him but now considers him his only brother. From another mother. Yeah, that guy. Who says making a war film is easy?
        For that matter, who says making a film is easy? There’re sets swarming with people, with actors and a thousand contraptions. And if that wasn’t enough to fill the plate, there’re men interfering who know more about running a company than creating art. Negotiating your vision with them, and through them or unfortunately around them to create a film has to be considered a miracle. Ask Sergio Leone about Once Upon A Time in America. Ask Francis Ford Coppola about Apocalypse Now. Or for the sake of accessibility, ask Mathieu Kassovitz. You could just say the words – Babylon A.D. – and witness him go up in flames. Here are the words he chose to describe his experience of making the film, against Twentieth Century Fox –
"I'm very unhappy with the film. I never had a chance to do one scene the way it was written or the way I wanted it to be. The script wasn't respected. Bad producers, bad partners - it was a terrible experience. It's pure violence and stupidity... All the action scenes had a goal: They were supposed to be driven by either a metaphysical point of view or experience for the characters. Instead parts of the movie are like a bad episode of 24. I should have chosen a studio that has guts. Fox was just trying to get a PG-13 (rated) movie. I'm ready to go to war against them, but I can't because they don't give a s**t.”
Just felt the need to point out that this is a director talking about his own film. And just for the record, the film was trimmed to 93 min. with around 70 min. worth of the film being chopped out onto the cutting room floor. Sigh.
        The title of Tropic Thunder is derived from the film being made within, which is based on a Vietnam vet’s memoir about a top secret mission in 1969 to rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded North Vietnamese Prison Camp. The director of the film within is Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and he is a rookie handed the reins of this big-budgeted production. He is a Brit, and making this picture might end up being his worst nightmare. There’s fading action star of the Scorcher series Tugg Speedman (Stiller), whose last film Simple Jack, a tale of a retard who can talk to animals, was both a critical and commercial disaster. There’s Jeff Portnoy (Black), and he excels in fatty farty comedies. What’s more, he has a whole farty franchisee to himself, and his upcoming film is The Fatties: Fart 2. There’s rapper Alpa Chino (Jackson) in a supporting role, and you got to read his name out loud and hear what it sounds like. And there’s the biggest heavyweight on the set, five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) known for his intense method performances, whose last film was Satan’s Alley. It is set in the sixteenth century, is about gay love, and features MTV best kiss award winner Tobey Maguire at the other end of the alley.
        And if that wasn’t enough, a $4 million explosion in the jungles of the remote Asian location is wasted because, believe it or not, the camera wasn’t even rolling. Five days into production, and the film is already one month behind schedule. Cockburn knows he is in trouble, but he doesn’t even have the faintest of idea what he’s dealing with here. The enormity of what is going to hit him is called media mogul Les Grossman, who is financing the project. It is played by somebody you know very well, and would have absolutely stolen the show had it not been for Downey Jr. if you intend to watch the film, I request you to not go seeking the name, and instead wait for him to appear. Believe me, it is worth it.
        Now, we are served all this information via four trailers, scenes from actual filming and an Access Hollywood news bit. Such is the premise of Tropic Thunder, a film which if I hurl against the last few years, surely has found me laughing the loudest and the hardest, and the most. Labeling it outrageously hilarious might turn out to be a cruel understatement. But there’s no other way of calling a riot other than to call it an absolute roaring riot. It is the kind of film that elicits laughs when you’re walking down the street, and subtle funny bits of it are still lingering inside you. It has been over a month since I saw it the first time, and I still manage to chuckle when I’m driving and remember a witty line or two. It lampoons everything in sight in Hollywood, its actors and their methods and their egos and their agents, its writers, its directors, its bosses and its awards. Its films, and its archetypes, and their pretensions and their accents. The general standard of its comedies. Often lampoon might be a wrong word for what the film does, and a big irreverent ‘shove it up’ might be a better description.
        Consider, Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, and his character Sgt. Osiris. And for a moment remember Charlton Heston from Touch of Evil, where they charcoaled him and asked him to be a Mexican. Now Lazarus is an Australian, and he is known to get right into the skin of his characters. So committed he is to his craft that he undergoes a surgery to temporarily pigment his skin to be dark so he can play the Negro his character is. He remains in character all the time, and not only till the wrapping up of production but right until the DVD commentary. God knows what alleys he sought to get into character for Satan’s Alley. He is the kind of actor who convinces himself he is the part he’s playing. Now this is a two-way joke, both a send up of Heston-esque casting (Hollywood actors faking Brit accents while playing Brits, or overplaying the Russians) and the self-important method actors. They don’t end the joke there. Alpa Chino is genuine black, and Lazarus’ over-playing obviously annoys him. Their face-off is one of the film’s many joys.
        The stroke of genius though is the casting of Downey Jr. for the part, who gives us simply the most hilarious character is ages. Someone right up there with Seller’s Group Capt. Mandrake (Dr. Strangelove), or Bhavani Shankar (Gol Mal). This one is for the history books, and it is a comic master work of facial expressions, accents and timing. He is so brilliant that when his black accent slips, it slips into an Australian accent. It is the kind of performance that alone is worth the two times the ticket price, not counting out the DVD on which it could be relished time and time again. I might go up in red hot flames myself declaring that the whole thing is big farce if he doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nod.
        Speaking of which, the Academy Awards aren’t spared either. Their utter predictability is put to the sword, so much so that Lazarus advices Speedman on why he ought to have eased on the pedal on the retarded Simple Jack. Dustin Hoffmann (Rain Man), and Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) won but Sean Penn (I am Sam) lost. They both knew a secret which Penn didn’t, and neither did Speedman. Learn it for yourself. It is funny and an insightful observation.
        The movie has been co-written and directed by Ben Stiller himself, and being a comic actor he knows his way around them. He has always been the comedy genre’s Stallone, and just as the action star’s every major success has involved him being the underdog and smashed up guy, Stiller’s success has been made out of being the butt of the joke. One of the most remarkable things about being a comic actor is to summon the courage to be the embarrassment of the ensemble, and Stiller has a way of doing that without making us feel too bad for him. I learn from various interviews with the movie’s other stars, Downey Jr. and Black, that he is incredibly driven. It shows in the way he doesn’t play safe, but makes an all out assault on so many ends, and gloriously meets the challenge of the politically incorrect head-on. Landmark Vietnamese war films, and Saving Private Ryan are put through the shredder with great irreverence, and there’s a battle sequence right up front. The writing is funny, hilarious and subtle, pretty much all over the spectrum. Just when I thought the days of the funny comedy are long gone, they give me Pineapple Express and this one. God bless them, and if this doesn’t put Stiller on the map of the respectable, then God knows what will.
        Parodies do tickle the funny bone but for sure they do not boast of longevity. Satires do, but often they tend to be cleverer than actually being funny. I mean ha-ha funny. Tropic Thunder is both a consistently laugh out loud parody and a biting satire. And to my great surprise, it has got great heart too. It is courtesy the performances, one of the best this year from an ensemble cast, and you would find yourself rooting and caring for these guys even though there has been no obvious attempt towards that end, and the film is mostly involved in ripping apart the Hollywood system. What a triumph it is, and what a comic achievement, a film that ought to be watched at least a couple of times to get all the jokes. And then, you still might miss laughing on some, because you might end up marveling at the genius of Robert Downey Jr. in a role of infinite jest. I feel so bad for him now, as I remember the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. Downey Jr. is that good, and in a year without The Dark Knight, nobody would have dared to stop him.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins
Director: The Coen Brothers
Runtime: 96 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Thriller, Comedy

        Who says nothing is impossible? I have just sat and stared at nothing, and laughed at it, and immensely enjoyed it.
        As a thumb rule, most intended comedies do not work because they end up going too far at the expense of the characters, and they end up being cruel. But that is because they do not know better. The Coen Brothers do, and they’re cruel by choice. Their gut is brimming with contempt for their characters, and if given a free rein, they might one day create a film whose sole purpose would be to punish stupidity. Wait a minute, they already have. It is called Burn After Reading, and it feels like an assembly of morons where the fun is primarily derived from the manner in which they keep running around in circles with great exuberance, and you look from up above, and snicker at the idiocy on display. The Coen brothers are looking along to, and for them stupidity might be the greatest sin mankind has ever seen. And they punish each of them thus. And they snicker. And you snicker along.
        Now, is it the kind of movie you would want to watch? I’m not sure about you, but I do from time to time, and to have a good laugh at the expense of an idiot. Now since it is a whole bunch of them here, it is decidedly a riot. There’re some moments of that most interesting kind of laugh too, the one which I call the inertia laugh. It is when a shocking moment occurs, and we laugh because we can’t think of any better way to react. The Coen brothers often to me feel like The Joker from The Dark Knight, in that they carefully and expertly construct their mess and then take great pleasure in systematically messing it up, before it feels out of control, and that is when they gather the control to burn it all and shut it down. So, when I say The Coen brothers return to familiar pastures, I mean that it is all a big neatly constructed tangled mess. Oh, don’t for a moment think that by mess I’m in any way implying confusion, because the Coen brothers are masters of narration, if there was one. They might be one of the final words in ultra-efficient and ultra-effective audience manipulation. So, what do they have in store this time around? I’ll only attempt swift short broad strokes here, because part of the great joy of this film is discovery, and I hope you gather nothing more than a mere clue of what you are going to pay your 100 bucks for.
        Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is a CIA analyzer who has just been removed from his Balkans desk to something domestic, something of low clearance. Sort of like demoted, and that is because he has a drinking problem. His wife, Katie (Swinton) is a child specialist, and is a bonafide bitch. They’re having marital problems so bad a divorce is imminent. She is having an affair with Harry Pfaffer (Clooney), who works down at the treasury, and is happily married to Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who is an author of children books. I might not be stressing on it too much, but you ought to be paying attention to the names, and how they sound. That is part of the contempt. Harry is secretly a building something in his basement, and I believe that is a part too.
        Now, Harry has an interest in visiting online dating centers, and on one such instance he meets Linda Litzke (McDormand), who works down at a fitness center. One of her colleagues is Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), and he feels like the final word in moronity. And he has something distinct about him too, which for a lack of better description, is the diametric opposite of what you might expect out of his Achilles. Pay attention to what happens to him, and where it happens to him in the end. Signature Coen. Oh, I almost forgot. There’s Tad Treffon (Jenkins), the floor manager down at the fitness center, and he harbors feelings for Linda.
        So it is all a big mess, but I use the word only because I cannot use the word the CIA boss (Simmons) uses, which in the final analysis turns out to be apt. But you might wonder why the CIA boss? Let us put it this way. There’s a case of missing confidential data, for which Chad has a word that turns out be apt, or maybe hammered into being apt. it is a word that doesn’t feel funny the first time around, but the Coens don’t budge, and they keep using the word until it becomes The Word, and strangely it induces a few laughs too. And from then on it is all a case of these blind mice trying to play dice, and then paying the price. Strange are the ways how comedies work.
        The Hollywood Reporter film critic Kirk Honeycutt observes here that, apart from others things, this is a spy film where everything ends badly. I’m not sure, and when we label an ending good or bad, we’re essentially being relative. In Burn After Reading, it is tough to connect with any singular character, save for that feeble thread of attachment you feel your favorite actors. There’s real star power, and there’s real acting prowess here, in Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich and McDormand. In Jenkins and Swinton. I wouldn’t describe their performances, for a large part of the joy a Coen brothers film resides in the idiosyncrasies, and the colorful range of buffoonery the actors are asked to exhibit. Suffice to say, they make you laugh, often like hell, and there isn’t one cast member you would want to be replaced. Of course, overcoming and manipulating the audience right out of that attachment is not a big deal for the Coens. The only guy we laugh with, and not at is J.K. Simmons whose there for a mere five minutes and is given the film’s best moments.

        I hope you have a fair description at your disposal, so that you could make a choice. In many ways, this Coen brothers’ film is its own review. It ought not to be analyzed out of respect, because it doesn’t want to be analyzed. It is an exercise in style, the Coen style, and they are sure to come up with such wonderful nonsense when they’re left to play by themselves. There’re only a couple of intelligent people in there, one of them being the Simmons characters, and the two sit around in the CIA office discussing the spate of matters. They might very well be Joel and Ethan Coen, and how the two CIA guys talk mirrors an awful lot how the Coens have made the film. If it sounds strange, that is the Coens for you. So what is it all? It is one hell of an entertainer that just doesn’t make any sense, and neither is it supposed to. It works precisely the way it is intended to work. You might call that kind of a thing a minor entry in the Coens oeuvre. I would call it the Coens having a little fun for themselves, as they have had in most of their films. No harm whatsoever, considering that they can be considerate by choice too.