Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WATCHMEN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 162 min.
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Fantasy, Action, Sci-fi, Thriller

        I stand here feeling hugely impotent. Not out of some kind of complex after watching Doc Manhattan, but I mean as a reviewer. And strangely I wish I had never ever read the graphical novel. I have abstained from re-reading it for more than a couple of years letting time take a toll on the memory I have of it and the perception that seems to have constantly evolved. I walk into the film believing I have the necessary purity in me to judge it purely as a motion picture and not vis-à-vis the comic book, for I believe that kind of comparison is a pointless way of perceiving things. But as the film passes by I realize I may have greatly underestimated my memory. Or maybe Mr. Snyder’s film works as a refresher course, a briefing session of all that is there in the pages of the comic book. I seem to remember everything, even the little dialogs, the little glances, the little angles. I recognize the variations. And I feel greatly dejected. Not with the film but with me and my objective powers to rationally scrutinize the absolute mess within which I find myself in, trying to make out what I perceive from the adaptation and what I perceive from the source.
        Mr. Snyder’s Watchmen is a box office flop, and that is a fact. It is a movie that revolves around the American zeitgeist, yet audiences do not seem to have dug into it. The word of mouth hasn’t been good. Many critics like James Berardinelli and A.O. Scott have labeled it a big bore. That makes me wonder, does this film have any chance in India, or for that matter any country outside the US, where the concept of a superhero isn’t really that big a part of the national psychology.
        So, you might wonder if the adaptation is a success, to which the natural response considering the shift in medium would be Yes. I, in my present state of utter pliability might concur. I might even argue that cinema, as a medium, isn’t necessarily comfortable to discourse and elicit an intellectual response out of us. Much of it is because of the length and its form, where there’s a limited scope of inspiring the audiences to think during the running time, as in a static medium like a comic book. Ideas work every well on paper, like a 50 page Roark speech for instance, which might prove quite unimaginative and bland on celluloid. At the movies there’s little time to analyze the ideas, and the correct way to stimulate an audience is to make them feel. Elicit an emotional response, through imagery, so that they are forced to wonder. I walked out of Watchmen feeling that the film did a great job of accommodating as much as it could into its feature length, but I wondered if it needed to.
        And herein I invoke one of the great sources of many intellectually stimulating discussions I have ever had – a good friend of mine – and who walked into the film with no prior knowledge of the Alan Moore masterpiece. He is someone who doesn’t really give a rat’s posterior for all this superhero rhetoric, and believes it is all a big bullshit. The kind of talk that is more suited to kids and all their limited and simplistic sense of right and wrong. And he walks out fascinated by the film, walks out asking the exact right questions, hitting upon the ironies that simmered through the comic book. He is the third in a line of people whose opinions I respect immensely – the other two being Roger Ebert and Kyle Smith – and none of them have read the source. And they have all reacted the exact way one would hope to be from something as intelligent as this book.
        Consider, for instance, the kind of analogies my friend draws. If one were to dwell into the mythologies of superheroes, he argues, then Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight might be likened to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, with all the individuals and their ideologies clashing in a little city acting as a microcosm of the world and its order. Watchmen, on the other hand, might be compared to Atlas Shrugged, where many such individuals struggle with each other to evoke an idea of their influence on a world existing in an alternate universe, where Vietnam is the 51st state of the United States and Richard Nixon has been elected for five terms.
        The point here is not the analogy. Well some maybe, but not entirely. The point here is that someone’s imagination has been roused, and that I believe is a success. Watchmen is a story quite well told, with remarkable clarity and surprising depth. And told not with a straight-face but one given to wit and nods and often winks. It is 1985, and The Comedian (Mr. Morgan), one of the members of a one functional superhero band calling themselves the Watchmen that has been disbanded and branded illegal under the Keene Act of 1977, has been murdered. The book never lets any of its characters use the word ‘Watchmen’, but that these guys use it themselves is a clever decision to underline the self-righteous tendencies of such folks. The film makes no bones about the Juvenal quote either – Who Watches the Watchmen – and its free usage by the crowd in general to paint it along walls reins in an awareness that says quite a lot.
        Rorschach (Mr. Haley), with his shifting-blot mask, is a sociopath, a post Keene act one-man detective agency who prowls the streets of the night spitting disgust and venom on all the “filth”, much like Travis Bickle, enters the scene of crime and comes to the conclusion that someone is picking of costumed heroes. He might be paranoid or he might be true, and he decides to warn other members – Dan Drieberg a.k.a Nite Owl (Mr. Wilson), Laurie a.k.a Silk Spectre II (Ms. Akerman) and Doc Manhattan (Mr. Crudup). Drieberg, on his part, also pays Adrian Veidt a.k.a Ozymandias (Mr. Goode) a visit, just to let him know of Rorschach’s weird idea.
        Now, you needn’t worry about the others for you would learn about them once you watch the film, which you most definitely should. But two of these folks are fascinating endlessly – Doc Manhattan and Ozymandias. The former is the one true superhero of the pack in that he has true superpowers. For him time and space are detached non-linear entities, and for him every body of mass around is a set of equations and atoms. He perceives everything only in terms of the tangible. For him a human is as valuable as a termite as a canyon as a nut. He has innumerable powers – to teleport objects, to reconstitute them – and in this alternate world where the Cold War looms large with nuclear proliferation raging endlessly, he is the sole deterrent that keeps the United States in a position of dominion. He walks into Vietnam and the country is won within a week. One should note the spectacular usage of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (a clever and supremely funny nod to its iconic usage in Apocalypse Now) as Doc Manhattan towers over Vietnam and blows it away.
        The latter, Ozymandias formerly but now head of Veidt group of industries, is unofficially regarded as the smartest man on earth. He is building a big energy reactor with the help of Doc Manhattan so that the world’s energy crisis might be solved. You might look at his costume, both in the film and the comic book, and you might wonder about his orientation. But you might also choose to pay attention to his desktop where a folder titled “Boys” resides. I can hear Mr. Snyder chuckling at this adolescent joke and I can see him winking at the fanboys. Now, you should wonder how much the worth of smartness, of intelligence is. Do our dreams make us what we are (Nite Owl) or does our intelligence stand us head and shoulders above anything that was created on earth? If I were to believe that attaining and striving for greater intelligence is the only we can stand upto God and square off against him whenever the time comes, what would the odds be of our victory against him? You should wonder along these lines, and if I were to rely on my friend’s reactions, the film will inspire you to imagine along these lines.
        But enough about the plot. Speaking of which, the original comic book’s brilliance wasn’t limited to its plot. What made it the seminal work of art it now is is its very structure, and its brilliant usage of the medium that made it so dense that multiple readings always revealed something.
        The question that springs to my mind as I write this review is if the film is such a structurally brilliant work of art. I’m not sure because whatever cerebral audiences are going to take away from this film wouldn’t be because of its visuals or because of what is on screen. It would be only because of what is on the script. Mr. Snyder does a bang up job of improvising and omitting and deviating within some specified boundaries, but his film is never fully free of its plot. It is always about the plot and not about the experience. I believe a film should break free of its plot, i.e. stop being too busy just narrating it, and find various means to surround us with it. On that level Watchmen is an extremely interesting and inconsistent failure, often striking marvelous moments but mostly just ticking off plot points never getting around to soak the moments. This is what Alan Moore and filmmakers like Terry Gilliam were afraid of, that packing so dense a material with a feature length production and hurling the barrage of ideas over an unassuming and often unwitting audience would just fail. Did I feel any of the moments? Not many, but I found the film worthwhile enough to merit repeat viewings.
        For instance, the opening title sequence, which is a masterpiece of moviemaking but has its share of flaws. It plays to the tune of Dylan’s Times are A-Changing instantly kicking of a nostalgic tone (though I was left behind). Introductions to the Minutemen (a previous superhero band) and various other characters and their fate are run by us as we smile at the awesomeness of the imagery. Look at Doc Manhattan shaking hands with John F Kennedy, and how it is immediately succeeded by the JFK assassination, with the secret gunman being revealed as The Comedian himself. One should wonder that Doc would surely have known JFK’s fate yet he didn’t warn him or act upon it. Such a predicament will follow one more time, with the same two characters, and it is a clever reference to the movie’s theme – Nothing ever ends. Does that mean Doc is a pawn in the hands of The Republicans always against the liberals? Does it mean that the film too is against liberals? You see, I can never believe that decision making can ever be done by a liberal. Forget about the fake ones that do the rounds every which where and amongst us, I’m talking about the true ones. Does the mass always need an authoritarian? I believe that is the case, and the film never gets soft for its audiences.
        There’re quite a lot of Easter eggs in there too, and I give a reference to some of them so that you catch some of these jokes. Watch out for what all Adrian Veidt is watching on his multiple screens in Antarctica. There’re among other things Rambo II (Vietnam), The Road Warrior (why? Fun perhaps) and a hard core porn flick playing. Pay attention to whom Veidt addresses to when he discussing his energy reactor with a group of industrialists.

The opening scenes find the old Nite Owl smashing some poor thug. Pay attention to the image I supply with the review, and wonder what the poster is behind and who that couple in the background is. During the opening scenes, you see a Silk Spectre I a.k.a Sally Jupiter on the side of a plane. Pay attention to what plane it is. And during those very opening scenes, towards the end, Veidt meets two weird looking dudes leaning on something right outside Studio 54. Who’re they? There’s an awful lot of winking going on here.
        But much of the film’s clever nods and innovations are in terms of images. I see that most filmmakers look up at films in terms of these images, and somehow speak of their underlying power. Their perception of the visual power assumes movies work much like art, in that if there is an awesome image it would be conveyed. It doesn’t work that way, for motion pictures work on imagery and not images. Blink and miss is not the way films are supposed to work, howsoever accessible DVDs with their forward-reverse features are. Mr. Snyder’s film is so imprisoned within the images of its source that it attains whatever life it needs to within the vicinity of them. He uses the images of the comic book not as a source of inspiration but as the storyboard itself, and that reins in all the weaknesses. One of the great elements of the comic source was to decipher what emotion the blots on Rorschach’s face conveyed from frame to frame. There is no such usage here. Folks who wonder that it would be a difficult task ought to see how The Wachowski brothers use the mask in V for Vendetta. There is little that is awe-inspiring, and most of it just works as narration and not an experience. I have already begun to forget much of the film. Consider The Dark Knight for instance, where visual strategies reek of genius in every frame, imagery that have written themselves into the general consciousness and history books.
        But I have read the book, and right now I believe that is a handicap. I was immensely entertained by the film, but I always felt that I was carrying a baggage I would rather have never subscribed to. I hope, dear reader, that you are free of that baggage that comes with living the graphic novel for a significant part of your life. I hope you walk into the premises knowing little and come out wondering. I hope to catch this film again and carve a stronger and firmer opinion of matters, and till then I envy you.
        And yeah, the crux of the matter is that Alan Moore has been proven right once again.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

GULAAL: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Raja Singh Chaudhary, Deepak Dobriyal, Ayesha Mohan, Aditya Srivastava, Abhimanyu Singh, Jyoti Dogra
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Runtime: 146 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ****
Genre: Drama, Crime

        It all opens to a drumroll and sedate voice of a man laying out the historical and political context of the Rajputana before us. We see the map. Drenched in sepia but lit by a gold hum. A voice thunders. It is the leader of the revolutionary brigade of Rajputana, one Mrityunjay Singh, but known around as Dookey Bana (Mr. Menon). This man, we observe, is a tremendous orator with quite a forceful presence about him. He is standing on a stage, addressing a gathering of men dressed all black and face covered in vermillion. Gulaal. Addressing would be a wrong word. Raging would be more like it. The frame is still drenched in sepia. The gold hum is still providing for the brightness. To the walls in the background, which at once look from another age. There’re no lights save the flames in the hands of each of the men. Revolutionaries, we learn later. It all seems a throwback from a different age than the present. From somewhere in the past, maybe? Yes, it is. Because this widely respected Bana, this man whose word is the final say, is a relic from a time where democracy was the very visible grass on the other side. Surely not from around now, for we have a little Bana delivering grocery products everyday. By grocery, I mean the regular – Maggi packets, Chips, Biscuits. You know the drill.
        The setting is a fictional town in Rajasthan by the name of Rajpur, which makes for a convenient enough battleground for Mr. Kashyap to let loose a political dogfight. Ideologies – liberals, authoritarians, conservatives, democrats (pseudo), and neutrals – all exist here. The dogfight though goes beyond, beyond mere plot-level details which for various purposes is only a ruse. An excuse, a convenience for Mr. Kashyap if you might call it to enable to push his personal beliefs, for these men being supposed believers of their ideologies also happen to be something else – masculine and feminine. This allows Mr. Kashyap to create a patriarchal world, one given traditionally to the masculine order. One that has run smooth until now. And as is the age-old reason with most of our battlegrounds (again a masculine territory) – the Mahabharata, The Trojan War, Ramayana – a feminine force walks into the midst and causes utter imbalance and utter chaos into this world, where ideologies and qualities unravel into a climax brought about by the unpredictable force of a revolutionary who knows nothing better than to destroy everything around in absolute nihilism. And from its ashes rise, what Mr. Kashyap seems to profess, the true politicians. One who know no ideology, no allegiance and one who seemingly belong to no one but themselves.
        But one got to wonder. To have the courage and ruthlessness to use one’s feminine qualities, the pawns at one’s disposal, and to wreak havoc through them doesn’t really call for the feminine label, is it? Isn’t it masculine enough, to be so strong? I’m reminded of a little political story I read somewhere that happened in Madurai, if my memory serves correctly. And in the same breath I say, I might err on some details. You know, I’ve this condition. Ah, never mind, let us be back. The cause was a Panchayat election, and a sister asked her brother to back off. The brother didn’t, and the sister hired folks to rape the two daughters of her brother. To a guy like me, predominantly brought up in the safety net of the urban world, that was pretty damn cold.
        But then, aren’t you dear reader, someone brought up to believe in supposedly liberal sensibilities, whereupon such incidents shock us and make us cringe, and if they do not they should. Tell me, after a moment of introspection, doesn’t your natural inertia prevent you from assuming anything else than a neutral and safe stance on matters immediate to your vicinity, be it anything (conservative/liberal), but a predominantly liberal stance on matters far removed from us? I might be sounding slightly cynical here, and maybe I’m only preparing you for the cynicism that is in store for you at the hands of Mr. Kashyap, in whose eyes even a scene as potentially true as a brother remembering to bring a string to replace the broken one of his sister’s guitar and her eyes filled with love and gratitude, is a scenario whose intentions ought to be doubted. In his eyes most people are pretenders. Almost everybody. In some or the other facet of life. On some or the other layer.
        Consider for example the top dog, Bana, who is a staunch authoritarian. One should note that Mr. Kashyap doesn’t really overestimate his audience and occasionally throws big obvious hints and cues so that we’re able to gather what he is trying to say. That Bana is an out-and-out authoritarian is apparent, but the filmmaker chooses to include a moment where the elder brother, Prithvi Bana (Mr. Mishra), a convenient liberal, one who’s endlessly mocked and cursed throughout the film and even considered a eunuch for his neutral stances (I would come back to the inherent contradiction later), chooses to salute the Bana Nazi-style. We see that he is also the alpha male around. The numero uno masculine force. One who mocks the wussy Dilip, played by Mr. Chaudhary, upon whose original idea and story this film is based. Dilip the common man, embedded with all the feminine features possible, falls for a conniving Kiran (Ms. Mohan). Dilip the weepy, who pushes himself deep under the safety of a woman upon the murder of his friend. Yet Bana does the same, and falls for the same woman. What is the director-screenwriter arriving at here?
        The problem is that Mr. Kashyap is arriving at nowhere. His film is a big ideological mess. Most of his characters would rather be someplace else, than here. As he displays it early on, and an awful too unimaginatively for my liking, Hell here. The son of the king, Ransa (Mr. Abhimanyu Singh) of the land lives in a bar, a haven of the western world, but he sure does mock his own father for being a sycophant to western women. Ransa has no ideologies. Bana sure does, but he would rather be sleeping with his mistress than his wife. There’s Prithvi Bana who wears a John Lennon locket, has John Lennon posters, and only speaks of in terms of music. He is supposedly the wise man, but what use is wisdom if you cannot act upon it, and if you cannot cause catalysis.
        That way, the film pans out, it seems it wants to be someplace else. Maybe it speaks of Mr. Kashyap, who after fighting an uphill battle with the censor board, might relish the opportunity of making films in a different industry and maybe even a different audience. Which ever way it is, there is little doubt that there’s no particular ideology the film’s adhering to, apart from criticizing every which one. Mocking every which one. He suspects the revolutionaries as folks who’re only jolted into action when their personal lives are ruffled; otherwise they’re pretty common boneheads with a born-to-lose tattoo on their chests and foreheads. He smirks at the liberals, and considers them capable of only inaction. He would rather label the authoritarians fascists. He would call the republicans/democrats scheming power mongers.

***Spoiler Alert Start: Dear reader, please watch the movie and then come around to read this **********

        What would he believe in? Maybe the male order, or rather the masculine order of things. As the political competition in this little town pans out, we slowly realize there’re only two realistic competitors for the tag of last man standing, one of them being a female. It is very interesting to see how he takes a personal interest in the race, seemingly giving the winner an undue advantage by actually manipulating the plot. I wasn’t convinced in the way the woman’s character was trivialized and a tear was forced to trickle down her cheeks. I would surely want to know what becomes of the two.

***********************************************Spoiler Alert End ********************************************************

        I’ve got to admit here, I’ve been writing very fast until now, and as I take a break and skim through whatever drivel I’ve dished out, I fear if I am making much sense? Practical sense that is. It is for you to decide, and if I’m not I choose to believe the film isn’t either, and vice versa. Either way, it seems, me and the film seem to be a chip of the same block – theorists who know nothing better.
        Or maybe not, because for all his limitations as a narrator, and Mr. Kashyap is a real tacky one with serious issues concerning the clarity of conveying what’s on his mind onto the frame, he is got a terrific and a rare gift to provide for a frame that is brimming with life in its every moment. There’s so much of it that one doesn’t really mind to watch it twice just to clarify residual doubts Mr. Kashyap’s narrative leaves behind. Even the lesser characters, and even the lesser moments seem taken from life. Consider the terrific scene where Karan walks to a funeral and is stopped in his tracks by Baata (Mr. Dobriyal). Look at the acting here, look how the scene plays. It is a lesser moment but there’s so much of it drenched in life that it stays. Or for one of the film’s finest moments, an example of great acting where we find Baata at a tea-stall not uttering a word but replying only in nods. It is the kind of scene which provides the kind of depth a script can never achieve, something that could only be attributed to an actor and a director.
        I learn that the film has been seven long years in the making. It shows in the way it shrinks its battle, and takes it into a whole different level. Intellectual or not, it has the energy of personal filmmaking. In the way he judges his characters, in the way he chooses them as the superior of the lot and labeling them the desired species fit for evolution. He might use preposterous developments in his script to achieve those ends, and I do not necessarily mind for it makes for fascinating filmmaking. I just wonder what it would take for Mr. Kashyap to envisage a battle where the last man standing is actually a woman.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Runtime: 124 min.
Rating: ***
Genre: Horror, Drama, Comedy

        I see Fellini’s 81/2. I see Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. I see Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool. I read Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. And I wonder. Why is the personal truthful introspective memoir of a man supposed to center around the women in his life? Could the life of a man be learnt only in terms of these women? I go one step further and ask, does it really have to be shaped around them? I don’t know, but I sure as hell aint convinced. Even though I’m moved. And I wonder. Does this kind of a stripped-to-the-bare-bones autobiographical venture allude to the school of thought that believes deep down, at an intensely personal level, every person is essentially feminine? Does the larger-than-life part that is integral to all of us have no say? Or does it indicate that only such kind of a meditation drenched in self-pitying nostalgia sell as art, or find resonance? Let me tell you how much I thank God and Paul Thomas Anderson to have made There Will Be Blood and try and cause a little revolution of sorts in our culture of largely feminine-driven art. When I say feminine I don’t mean the gender, but the qualities. As Ms. Sandra Bartky, professor emeritus of philosophy and gender studies at the University of Illinois observes – We are born male or female, but not masculine and feminine. Everything else is imbibed as we go along.
        Such is the nature of Mr. Kaufman’s first film as a director, Synecdoche, New York, which honors its title so much that it almost overdoes it. Viewers enthusiastic of shorthanded symbolism will have a great time here, just like those to be found in David Lynch’s films. Such is the density that you might require multiple viewing just to unearth the multiple layers of synecdoche employed. I observed in my review of Hunger how masterful and ambitious its usage of the tool was, asking questions not merely human or existential but venturing daringly into the spiritual territories, at once merging something as specific as a life and as grandly general as mankind within the framework of four walls. Here, Kaufman uses it to lesser gains, often posing challenging questions but punctuating them with the downright rhetoric. But every which way, synecdoche is to be found at every step here. And the film spares no effort in ensuring that you know that everything here is not only to be taken at face value, but also attention is to be paid for the shorthanded jab at the larger picture. Does it make for great cinema, I don’t know, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for my kind of cinema.
        Caden (Mr. Hoffman) is a stage director. Synecdoche, New York is about his life through his state of mind. That kind of a single sentence description invokes a whole lot more than what is stated and even what is implied. The film knows that. It pulls itself (the film shorthand for life itself) through space (the stage) and time (the narrative) and tries to make sense of the organic mess it is. Caden’s recent play, a reworking of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with young actors consciously playing the older characters of Willy and Linda, has been greatly acclaimed by every newspaper around in Caden’s native Schenectady. He receives the MacArthur grant allowing him to create a personal piece of brutal and unflinching honesty. And he dives into it, with only an exploration of the self driving him, to create the most ambitious work of his life. Of course the ambition is not to be ambitious but to create a work of art that is rid of every hint of artifice to be a monument of truth.
        Synecdoche as a tool works when concealed, when the focus is on the shorthand while the allusion is only to be felt first and then realized. No point or no joy in someone telling you. At least at the movies. It is a tool given to subtlety, not obvious declaration. For all its cleverness, the synecdoche employed here is too apparent, and every image, every frame doesn’t seem to be existing or dwelling in the moment but instead serving its purpose to carve a chip of the bigger picture. For instance consider the segment of the Miller play Mr. Kaufman chooses to show, and the dialogs involved. Densely layered, quite funny and in a way foretelling what it believes lay at the end of it all. Linda calls out – Willy, you coming up? You got to admire the double entendre here, which at first sounds funny. Then we realize if Willy, on top of all his problems, is also having trouble with his willy? Then we realize Death of a Salesman was a synecdoche for all the working salesmen of the country, struggling through their individual lives. In the process their lives was a synecdoche for Caden and the people living through the supposed drudgery of life. Are they men enough, to their women, in every which way applicable? You got to realize Mr. Kaufman is a genius and this little excerpt from the film exhibits everything that is so special about the man – funny, layered, referential, irreverential, subtle and sharp. (Fans of Dev D ought to look here and see how it is supposed to be done.)
        But then that very genius kinda makes the film the grand and fascinating failure it is. Consider for example the sequence involving Caden and his therapist Madeline Gravis on the plane, where the sequence in itself is absolutely bland and has no resonance, but only gains weight when considered in its symbolic form. Such kind of shorthand actually tells rather than lets you feel. This is the time where the film starts falling into such kind of filmmaking, from whereon scene upon scene have no life. Mr. Kaufman is a scriptwriter and I believe it shows in the very literal way every thing unravels, with no sense of emotion or depth. There’s really no diversity in tone over the entire breadth of the film. Scenes here do not feel organic, do not feel spontaneous, do not have a life of their own. It feels, as if, somebody has edited them to make some sense of it keeping in mind some larger themes. It gets so heavy-handed at times that one feels the film is not wearing its themes on its sleeves but instead has made its sleeves out of those themes. Such kind of filmmaking pushes the viewer back into the regions of indifference, and I believe rightly so.
        Allow me to explain why. And in doing so, allow me to pose a question first.
        How do we learn about ourselves, our true selves or how do we gain a greater understanding of a life? By looking at big picture, i.e. by looking at his/our life as a whole? Or by looking at small, harmless incidents, which I believe, reflect the truth in their inherent spontaneity? What we learn about ourselves is in those small moments of life. Like why I asked my grocer to enter it into my credit though it was a small amount and I had that in my wallet? Like why I decided to cut short my mom’s call saying that I was busy when I sure as hell wasn’t? Like why would I let an empty bottle of Mountain Dew stay inside my car for the past four months always feeling too lazy to pick it up and throw it in the bin? What does tell you more about General Patton – that he drove Erwin Rommel back in North Africa, or that he slapped a soldier for being shell-shocked? What does tell you more about Mahatma Gandhi – that he professed non-violence, or that he was in the possession of his carnal desires and having sex with his wife at the very moment of his father’s death and he chooses to admit that to us. A job, a marriage, kids – these hardly present the true picture of a man. The Dark Knight is a big success not because the audience member straightway dug into the ideological crossfire between the Batman and the Joker, but because they found their way to it through the little moments interspersed throughout the very dense and very specific narrative of the film.
        And that Synecdoche, New York is about a man searching for the truth in his life, it doesn’t really structure itself with specifics, and instead deals largely and directly with sweeping life encompassing themes. It ought to be mentioned that Mr. Kaufman’s script, much in the tradition of his previous works, is largely aware of itself, and in the end remarks about that very nature of itself when Caden observes – This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. I believe Mr. Kaufman here is resorting to summarizing and, in the process trivializing. He has gone through all the trouble only to find the life largely uninteresting. There’s a reason why he comes to the conclusion. That is because he hasn’t looked closely enough at the little individual moments that define that large uninteresting life. All a matter of perception. When we look that closely art is made. When we look from that far off, as Mr. Kaufman seems to have, you get facts that correlate with some other facts deriving essentially into a framework of events joined together by some easy philosophical statements that take us nowhere near to the truth other than stating the rhetoric. In the larger scheme of things nothing ever matters, so what’s the point? The film suggests death is, and I find that hollow.
        One ought to remember that Mr. Kaufman’s previous scripts have all been stories, which by their very nature are specific and hence engaging. This one’s not intended to be a tale, and neither is there any exposition, so the richness got to arrive from the little details. The film is largely bland that way for there’s nothing to it that provides for an experience. Multiple viewings would only enhance on a narrative level, which is kinda pointless of the whole exercise of movie-making. One got to ask if there’s anything wholly improved in the transition from the page onto the screen. I believe I wouldn’t stand to lose much, or even anything, if I got down to reading the script. The way the film pans out, one feels all the discovery and exploration was done on the way to the script, and the filmmaking merely involved bringing what’s one the page to the screen. So much so that a sense of design runs through the proceedings, for Mr. Kaufman has already lived the script and is only trying to reproduce that. As a synecdoche for a writer one might view the film as a mild success, as a synecdoche for every man it is largely un-curious. An external element, like a director, who would have himself unraveled the script while filming it, living it in the process, would’ve been the ideal way to enliven Synecdoche, New York. In its present form it is nothing more than a novel being enacted verbatim.
        Which reminds me of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, the novel that I am always suggesting to everybody. It is a great book, with a very clever narrative, and a very Kaufman-esque meta-narrative, but only that every word of it rings observational and hence true. Even for a work of literature it never once elevates itself to see the larger picture of its protagonist Peter Sinclair, and instead creates a bewildering world constructed of one specific on top of the other.
        Look, there’re great many themes in this film that could be peeled over multiple viewings. But nothing that you haven’t seen or read before somewhere. It is the kind of film where you got to read as many opinions as possible, and while doing that pay attention to the age, which might tell you an awful lot about the movie and about the person in question. David Edelstein of New York magazine gets it absolutely right in his review when he says – It’s heartbreaking how rich this failed project is, with enough poetry for several great movies, but not enough push for one. As for a guy like me who is still strapping his boots, this kind of summarization of life doesn’t really resonate. Maybe it would to somebody who is riding into the setting sun, but then I wouldn’t know.
        The way I see it, this is a grand failure, an ambitious film that seems to have been made too early by the wrong person. It is an interesting film nevertheless, but that doesn’t make it a good film by any means. The way the film it is, to watch it feels like a chore. One walks into a film to feel and be stimulated, not to be endlessly preached in dull somber monotones. Clever films like these do that, where there’s no point to the film other than to make sense of the narrative. Of course, more could be learnt here than most of the supposedly good movies doing the rounds these days. Still I find myself largely unconvinced. You see, why does it have to be Hanna Schmitz? Why does it have to be Shanti? Why does it have to be the mother? Why has it got to be only the feminine?
        Oh just a passing thought. How much of a success a synecdoche really is if you are already aware what it is representing?


Note: The opening shot of the film is an example where Mr. Kaufman gets it absolutely right, where the radio is the correct source to insert whatever that has to be inserted, while the framing beautifully captures the lonely existence. There’s no sound, nothing external to the surrounding apart from the voice of the radio. I believe that ought to have been the benchmark for the entire film.

Monday, March 09, 2009

13B: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: R. Madhavan, Neetu Chandra, Poonam Dhillon, Sachin Khedekar, Murali Sharma
Director: Vikram K. Kumar
Runtime: 146 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***
Genre: Horror, Thriller

        Believe me, there’s no detail, no reference, nothing you are going to miss in 13B. You don’t need to pay attention because the film is doing that for you. Even if you take a yawn, or blink your eyes, or wander of into the restroom, or care to buy a bag of popcorn, or pass a silly remark to your friend, or you are more interested in holding the hands of your brand new date, you still wouldn’t miss anything. The film makes sure that you get the point. This film is anti-subtle. The pictures hanging on the wall in the background of people who matter to the narrative are so large that you would be blind to miss them, or not wonder about the size. Okay forget Mahatma's. But everything else, every other hint, or every other motif (the number 13) is not left to be discovered by us. This isn’t self service by any means. This is the anti-self-service. You miss it in a long-shot, you shall get a medium shot, and if you’ve still managed to miss it somehow, you shall get the unmissable close-up.
        Let us get this straight. 13B is far from skillful. There’re large parts that are downright awful. Every which way. The acting is bad. Really, really bad. Everybody is phoning it in. Big time. Is that supposed to be some clever reference? I mean, the film is based on the television and the television soap culture that has become so much of a part of our daily lives, and you would agree that the acting in those serials wouldn’t necessarily revolutionize the acting books. So, you tell me.
        Of course, the film has no sense of framing either. For some odd reason the color is desaturated and it only works against the film. The lines spoken are cringe-worthy, as if no one took the pain how these ridiculous lines would sound. But then, let us forget about it. That comes with the territory. Who said good films are supposed to be skillful? If anybody did, tell them they’re wrong. So let us get on with it.
        Manohar (Mr. Madhavan) and his family – his wife, his elder brother and his wife and their kids, his sister and his mother – all walk into a brand new Rs. 20 lakhs flat, which in times like these feels like dirt cheap. The film spends no time in letting us know why it is both dirt and cheap. The flat number is 13-B. If you are wondering why ‘B’, try wondering again. You’ll get your answer. There’s only one rule – nothing is subtle. The flat is possessed. Every time Manohar’s nephew takes a picture of him within the premises of the flat, the image is crying out loud that there’s more than the natural at work here. As in, supernatural. Basically all things that have anything to do with an exodus of electrons through them are possessed. The kind of them – the television. Right at the stroke of…no, not midnight…but 1300, some channel with some new television serial pops up. The name, and you got to appreciate the sense of humor not because how funny it is but because how dumb it is. The name is Sab Khairiyat Hai. Ha! So much for irony. The television, with its opaque glass dividing what’s inside from what’s outside begins to act like a mirror, reflecting and eventually foretelling what’s in store for the family. Manohar, the poor guy who is facing the brunt of this wicked activity on the part of the flat, learns about this strange predicament, and gets on behind this mystery.
        Enough of the plot. For that matter enough of the film. Let us talk about television. Given a choice folks, what would you prefer. Friends or Titanic? Even in the films, there’s a reason why a series or a trilogy is dearer to an audience then say, a single shot story. Say for example, The Godfather, which is treasured more by the audience as a saga (1, 2 and 3). For that matter Star Wars. The thing is, the more we have of someone, the more real they get for us. More so with serials because they end up so familiar owing to the fact that they’re part of our living rooms, and dinners. There is their length that makes them a part of us, and we start believing even when it is outrageous, we start laughing even when it is unfunny, we start feeling even when it is minor trite drama, because they’re someone we know and care about. Television is a strange form of fiction. I speak of this not from experience but from observation. We love familiar surroundings, somewhere we feel a part of. Is fact and fiction being merged here? I think yes, where the image of one is influencing the other and vice versa. We sure are living in fascinating times, influenced and guided by fascinating things. Television is one of them. It is funny, it is stupid, it is dumb, it is informative and it is a huge part of our lives. It is a fact of our life.
        I am sure the guys behind 13B thought along those lines. Pity they didn’t take the satire the full distance. Or maybe they just didn’t know what to do with it, and ended up making a serviceable horror film. And in that process hiding the very thing that they shouldn’t have. That it is not a dumb film by any means, except for that it isn’t really sure how to be smart.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Who's Watching the Moviemen?

No idea when Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen will release in India. Until then here’s why I have reservations regarding the present spate of comic-book adaptations to big screen. Chew on it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

APPALOOSA: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger
Director: Ed Harris
Runtime: 116 min.
Rating: **
Genre: Western

        The woman with no name is here. She even squints her eyes, only that she’s awfully annoying. No she doesn’t wield guns nor does she shoot one-liners. How she provides for the female version of the great character from the westerns and acknowledges his lack of morals and a lack of any allegiance is by sleeping around with the top dog. She will. With anybody. With anybody who holds the trump card in a town. She doesn’t even need a reason. It is all spontaneous, as if every atom of her aligns itself towards the alpha male around. She does provide a name, Allison something, and through her Appaloosa brings one of the dumbest characters of the year. Hell it isn’t even a character, and neither is it a caricature. For all its characteristics that mould themselves a million times more fluidly than that of T-1000, she is no more than a goddamn MacGuffin (for the uninitiated the definition of the word lay here).
        To introduce her in the most male of all genres, where traditionally even the female often has to try and be a male (True Grit, The Missing), is just a ruse to move the plot forward when one feels it has no reason to. For that matter everything here is a ruse. Appaloosa is one hell of a boring ride based on a stupid and often illogical plot. Randall Bragg (Mr. Irons) is the bad guy because he is supposed to be the bad guy. He kills the town Marshall because hey, how else will the plot get going. The town officials seek the help of gunman Virgil Cole (Mr. Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Mr. Mortensen), who do the job of maintaining peace. For that end they even shoot bad guys for as much as peeing in the bar. Cole even knocks some innocent dude half-dead. If you believe the western has always reflected the politics of its times, and if you wonder Cole & Hitch somehow represent Blackwater & co., the film doesn’t take that analogy anywhere. So let us forget about that.
        And let us talk about how many wasted shots there are in the film. Or how too many angles and too many edits just spoil the game here. I tried unendingly to ignore but the editing is so bad it kept bothering me every step of the way. One of the worst things as an audience is to find yourself invested in a scene graced by some mighty fine acting only to be distracted by needless cutting. Let me cite a scene as evidence, where Everett has just returned to the office after escorting Allison to her hotel room and Virgil is relaxing on the porch (the attached image is the scene I’m referring to). This is one of the many scenes showcasing the laidback camaraderie between the two men. Such a sequence demands one long take with zero edits where the audience is allowed to soak in every bit of the riffing without ever forcing them what to see. And the film does that mistake, just when we are beginning to have fun. Orchestration and the effectiveness of a sequence are diluted severely as a result. One might realize how the constraints lend the film its finest realized moments. As on a train where the film has scope for minimum angles and hence long shots with little or no edits. This is where the film is as its most engrossing.
        Further the film messes its reaction shots, showing them through close-ups. A reaction, especially in such a casual film, is most effective when it is in the same frame as the causative action. It is most enjoyed when the audience is allowed to read it by themselves. The editing is simply uninspired undermining the fine acting these two men are putting here. What is not fine is Ms. Zellweger for her very presence these days leads one to cringe. What is most astonishing is that every man in town could fall for her and her puffy cheeks. That speaks very low of their standard of choice, and maybe reveals their utter desperation.
        I said the film is long. More than that it feels long. That is because it follows its plot rather than plain logic. Once Bragg is sentenced why not hang him right there? For that matter why does Bragg lead the life of a goon when he can pull strings and be the owner of a fine hotel and lead a life of respect? No idea. Only that it rambles on and on endlessly, saved only by Mr. Mortensen and Mr. Harris. And occasionally by Mr. Irons. Outside of these three this is pretty abysmal.