Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Cast: Shahid Kapur, Priyanka Chopra, Amole Gupte
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Runtime: 150 min. (citation needed)
Verdict: Ridiculously out-of-tone pretentious mediocrity. And really really long
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Either Kaminey is the most brilliantly subtle comedy ever, or it is so astonishingly blind that it doesn’t realize every moment in every situation is potential screwball, and the ending is an absolute pie-fight. I suspect it is the latter. I thought I was laughing with it, but as it turned out, I think I was laughing at it. I mean, I don’t remember anytime watching a comedy with a shaky cam and a kitschy melodramatic flashback. And let me lay out the news for you real straight – No one here is really kaminey. The three principal characters are full of good-intentions and guilt and psychological blah, and the rest of the farce is an assortment of your run-of-the-mill colorfully designed characters. So there is less of a moral dilemma, and more of a, you know, I-am-dark-and-bleak pandering.
Let me explain. For that let me cite a name – Priyadarshan – and a title – Malamaal Weekly. Mr. Priyadarshan’s stock film is supposed to be the ensemble screwball, where everything seems to be reverse engineered from an all-in-the-family climax. Criticize him and his repetitive films all you may, for their crass humor, for their clichés, for the ridiculous endings. But the man is Mr. Smarty Pants, and he is always aware the tone his silly films warrant. And within them, he so subtly creates characters, who upon close scrutiny, always reveal a certain ambiguous morality that works way beyond the genre.
You see, as audiences, we care for characters when they feel like real people, when they seem to be capable of being both a Good Samaritan and a selfish bugger. It is when they do something bad, something amoral, that we actually feel betrayed, or hurt, and that is what is at the heart of the best of film noir. The film noir works on moral ambiguity, not moral certainty. I mean, if the characters are all bad, why would I feel the need to bother? Mogambo is supposed to be killed right? But you care for Langda Tyagi, and detest him. The rest of the guys in Kaminey, behind their zany exterior, are nothing more than two-bit comic-strip villains. That is why I invoke Malamaal Weekly, because it is a film that actually is the way Kaminey ought to have been. The Priyadarshan film has more characters, each guided by selfish desires, and it is a darker film than the pretentious obviousness of grey-ish Kaminey. Every scene is so grey, so bleak, so bereft of light that Mr. Bharadwaj seems to be hammering down his moralistic viewpoint. And really I didn’t give a damn.
I wouldn’t discuss the plot. There is no need to. There is nothing extraordinary. It is A meets B meets C, where F meets E meets D meets C, and A meets C and blah and blah, at the end of which you feel you have taken an exercise in a math class. Guy Ritchie does it in his two best movies – Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – both funny, colorful and ultimately pointless. Still he is wise not to indulge in moral pandering and let the story unfurl in its glorious fashion, wit and all. Mr. Bharadwaj, on the other hand, seems to be under the impression that he is inventing/redefining a genre. He is not. He is polluting it. Needlessly so. There is nothing original about it. We are only interested because the film is giving incomplete information, and it is structured like one of those quiz questions where you need to identify the face concealed behind the square blocks. Speaking of which, do those square things have a name? Supply me the word and I shall ask the almighty to bless you. Coming back, if not for that, the plot never leaves the beaten track. There is nothing surprising. There is only what, not how. And what is always easier and mediocre than how.
On top of which, Mr. Bharadwaj jerks us around with that shaky camera of his. I hated that. It brings nothing to the table. There are entire sequences where you wish you just hurled something in the general direction of the screen so that the damn thing just stops for a moment. Look, let not a misguided idea lead you to argue that the visual style is something that is supposed to be ugly, to reflect its characters. No, it isn’t ugly, it is just plain uninteresting. Scenes just don’t stay long enough to register an impact.
Let me put it this way. Kaminey is a film of a good pupil indulging in a pretentious little exercise, no more. There’re sequences where Mr. Bharadwaj shows his true subtle self, with his impressive visual styling. Look how brilliantly he uses camera focus in the scene where the politician Bhope Bhau (Mr. Gupte) is being interviewed. He composes the frame impeccably, with the real man, out of focus, sitting on a chair in the foreground, and the television image in focus, in the background. That is the image of the man. The real man is blurred during the interview, but as soon as he gets a personal call the focus swaps, and we see the real man. But to what gain. We learn no more insight into him. He could have had depth only if Mr. Bharadwaj had tried. But as it turns, the focus brings in a man who is an absolute baddie.
Mr. Bharadwaj often succeeds in creating tension too. Like a brilliant sequence of two guys holding guns to each other, and it feels like a rather refreshing take on the overused Russian roulette sequence. He stretches the tension, but lets it go in a fizz of utter predictability. His editing too is driven more by the mechanics of plot rather than any kind of moral/emotional reasons on part of his characters (for e.g. the irritatingly edited sequence with Bhope Bhau with Charlie Boy and the cops with Guddu), and that nullifies any attempts at psychological insights. Yet, when they come, they simply feel clichéd. The fact of the matter is Mr. Bharadwaj could have offered a subtle and brilliant genre film. He could have realized and respected the simple fact that plot drives his film, and only tinkered with it, keeping the characters mere puppets. He could have easily edited a good half-hour off, cut down on the simplifications, explanations, flashback, and instead churned a film that is completely present. That could at least have made us aware of all the characters, instead of us just having glimpses of many of them and wondering why they are even here except for their primarily perfunctory nature. He doesn’t even love his characters, and at the end resorts to a very convenient and obligatory flushing. He could have understood the funny nature of it all, and instead of gimmickry found refuge in screwball. Instead of bullets and fire, it could have been a pie-fight accompanied by a musical number. The thing is he simply doesn’t.
Note: I ask you reader, for I’m no medical expert. Is it possible, in a situation of a defective speech, to replace a “s” with a “ph”. I mean, aren’t the speech movements totally different in both cases, and I fail to understand how one could be replaced with the other.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 3:10 AM
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Cast: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña, Anna Farris, Celia Weston
Director: Jody Hill
Runtime: 86 min.
Verdict: A film that is unconventional for the sake of being unconventional and ends up being predictable.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
I suppose we had it coming. I believe Quentin Tarantino is a great filmmaker. I mean, as a master craftsman. His films always feel like little blessings in times of utter mediocrity, but I often wonder if they exist in a vacuum. I mean, what do his films represent, apart from say a criticism on the conventionalities of cinema, and a celebration of cinephilia? What do his shots represent? What do the choices of his music represent? What do his characters tell us? They are gloriously entertaining but I wonder if they exist, as Paul Schrader says here, in a void of meaning. I mean absolutely no disrespect, I myself am not sure of what my stance is on the relevance of Tarantino, but I do wonder if everything about Tarantino can be understood as merely the most well-intentioned cinephilia.
Of course, never does Tarantino claim otherwise, and his films exist only to serve as a blast of a time. And they are, the most gloriously made genre offerings, with the most colorful of characters. Tarantino, unlike all of his imitators, loves his characters, cares for them, and that is why there is a certain depth to them, a certain irony to them, that is non-existent elsewhere. His films are worthy of its characters. Observe and Report is no such film, an empty film with scant regard for its characters, and what they might be feeling. I have often observed that such a film often ends up disregarding its audiences too. This one, directed by Mr. Hill, has absolutely no feel for pacing, has no feel for its moments and instead feels as if it is pushing itself on its characters.
Ronnie (Mr. Rogen) is a mall-cop and a penis-flasher is stalking women across the mall. He comes, he flashes and he runs away. Ronnie takes this as a moment to show the world what he truly is, and to also impress Brandi (Ms. Farris), a cosmetic-girl at the mall, who is nothing more than an assortment of bimbo-features. It is appalling. Tarantino cites Taxi Driver as one of his favorite films, and looks at it as something that is funny, probably the most desired reaction I believe. Intellectually and objectively I mean. Observe and Report takes it one step further and tries to make a consciously comic film, rather a satire, with dysfunctionality the order of the day. The satire is on what, I don’t know. Mr. Hill claims that he was influenced by the Scorsese masterpiece, and it is quite apparent. Does Mr. Hill intend to file his criticisms based on that little facet of our urban culture every orthodox moralist beats the hell out of – the shopping mall? I think so, but there is too little substance in the film, there is too little of any observation upon which Mr. Hill can claim a satirical laugh on. His characters are weird, and unconventional, and they might even surprise you for the first few minutes. But a look further, and you see a pattern, where every little incident has been calibrated and designed to go against the norm. And it gets so tiring one can even predict the dialogs in a given situation. Pay attention to the mother. She is a walking-talking model of haphazardly patterned weirdness, with absolutely no heart to her.
The film is absolutely unworthy of its characters. I wish there was a different film that would have captured these lives, but in here, you cringe as they revel in the smug nature of their dysfunction. The only one you really care about is a sweet little coffee-girl on a wheel-chair, Nell (Ms. Wolfe), and she is the heart of the film. The others, well, let us just say they are unmemorable. Mr. Rogen is a fine actor, and it is a fine performance. And he is wasted. Mr. Hill is attempting something along the lines of A Clockwork Orange meets Taxi Driver, with carefully calibrated sadism, but he is not courageous enough to ask any questions. Maybe courage is not the issue. Maybe, he just hasn’t observed enough to gain any level of insight. And he is pretending, trying to come off as if he is double daring the conventions. The thing is, Mr. Hill is merely playing to the gallery. That gallery we should all be wary off at the movies, who I suspect don’t really love the movies, but actually want to come off as cool and sophisticated. Stephanie Zacharek hits it right on the money here. QT might have caused a revolution we all are still celebrating but the side effects are a bunch of imitators who better grow up and actually realize why QT works.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:56 PM
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 131 min.
Verdict: A gripping visceral actioner, but I’ve several issues. Not the masterpiece everyone’s hailing it as.
Genre: Action, War
In the disorientation of its opening frames, and the intense white knuckle bomb-diffuse sequence, The Hurt Locker serves as a correction on Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t tender us to the tones of melodrama, as Spielberg’s war masterpiece does in its opening few moments, serving to act as a contrast – a verifiable lull before the storm – to the visceral impact of the Omaha beach landing. I think Spielberg greatly diluted the greatness of his film, with the quite needless pandering of the present sequences. Ms. Bigelow doesn’t commit such an obviously horrendous mistake, and instead places us dead smack in the middle of the Iraqi war-zone.
We open to the fuzzy flickering images of gravel, transmitted by the US Explosive Ordinance Depot (EOD) bomb defusing tool “Wheelbarrow”, or commonly referred to as the bot (for robot), as it sniffs its way onto explosives placed right besides a high-traffic Baghdad road. Lined by shops, and surrounded by houses. US Army personnel are creating a safety perimeter. Citizens are running helter-skelter. We even manage to catch a glimpse of the burnt remains of a car, indicating this isn’t necessarily the first time. Ms. Bigelow, aided by her DP Mr. Barry Ackroyd (United-93, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) and the jumpy editing of Mr. Chris Innis and Mr. Bob Murawski, creates an entirely visual exercise of visceral tension. The sounds are carefully designed. We hear the screams, we hear the horns, we hear the goats and we hear the heavy breathing of bomb-defusing expert Sergeant Matt Thompson (Mr. Pearce), as he walks to the bomb. Mr. Ackroyd’s work is stupendous, an accomplishment much in the same vein as of Mr. Janusz Kaminski’s effort in Saving Private Ryan. In most movies guilty of the amateurish and exceedingly annoying shaky-cam-syndrome, like for instance Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, the filmmakers actually go about shaking their camera with little idea that the purpose isn’t being served at all, i.e. the audience just isn’t getting hold of any image to stay long enough to make any sort of impression. But here, that it moves a whole lot is just an illusion. It actually doesn’t, not that much at least, and instead provides you a whole lot of imagery burning really fast on the hard disk of your memory. This is just the right amount of quick, where images don’t stay long enough for us to actually sit and savor it, but long enough for it to stay imprinted in our mind, and serve as some kind of impression when the next image comes along. And in between the editing skips a beat, or two, or three, and stays on a scene, and the tension rises up a notch. This serves as an improvisation on the whole idea of montage.
The sequence is exceedingly well done, acting as a perfect example of the brilliance of what is to come. Sudden surge of sounds. The unpredictability of the surroundings. Nothing around can be trusted. These soldiers have to live with it. They see faces, peeking from behind windows, peeking from behind lines of hanging clothes and they do not know what to make of it. They do not have much time to sit and ponder. Action. Quick action. The opening few moments do what any movie is supposed to do – make us experience and feel the perspective of the narration. We feel the fear, and we search in every image a possible source for danger. You see, there is no fear greater than the fear of the unknown. I know, it is a clichéd line, but it sure as hell is true. We look around, and we catch a glimpse of a butcher with a mobile in his hand. Our fears are allayed, and we feel now is tension. Can we diffuse the bomb before the idiot blows it up?
And then, the film commits the first of its many glaring detours into mediocrity. The idiot detonates the bomb, the bomb explodes, and instead of the film continuing its exercise in relentless tension, it brings out a super-slow-mo bomb explosion and chooses to show it from every angle. The Hurt Locker, for some reason, consciously makes it a money shot, and it feels really weird and horribly out-of-place and out-of-tone. I understand, what we see is not real, and nothing in movie-making is supposed to be real. But what it is supposed be is a source of illusion, and right there, that sequence in slow-mo, ruins the film a great deal more than what is obvious. It is almost criminal, and I say that because, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and as an audience we actually notice it. And we don’t just notice it, we remember it, and remember the implications. That it all is just a movie. With that notion in mind, we seem to progress and view every other ensuing sequence.
The first hour or so is, save the brief moments of disappointing erroneous choices, is a superb exhibition of taut filmmaking. We follow the EOD team, from one bomb-diffusion to another, all in a day’s work. The movies have long derived their thrills by working their narration towards ticking bombs, now a ridiculous plot device. The Hurt Locker is all about these bombs, and these men. And in these moments, it serves as one of the finest war films by superbly assuming the perspective of the U.S. soldier finding himself under the high noon, in this completely alien land, with a ticking bomb before him. Trouble is, most times, it is not even ticking.
And here is where Ms. Bigelow dilutes the tension of these sequences, momentarily so, by switching perspectives and showing the Iraqi terrorists who have been assigned the task of detonating the bombs. Staff Sergeant William James (Mr. Renner), the maverick new bomb specialist with over 800 bombs to his name, finds himself in the middle of a Baghdad street, with a set of bombs surrounding him. Buildings and houses surround him. People peek. He doesn’t mind. We again have no idea what is supposed to happen. That is tension for you. Just then, Ms. Bigelow chooses to show the perspective of an Iraqi from within the confines of one of the houses, looking towards James. He comes down the stairs, looks James has already defused the bomb, and he walks away, dropping the detonator. It is a needless and more importantly a wrong shot, because (a) We do not learn anything about the Iraqi other than the little fact what his role is in the episode and (b) We are no longer gripped by the fear of the unknown, and now we are reduced to a little game of who’s going to get there first.
There’s another such instance, two rather, where this kind of perspective-switch completely skims away one layer of the tension, and relies only on the obsession of William James to make the sequence intriguing. The scene is the U.N. building, and the device is a car bomb, with carefully concealed wiring. No one knows what the source of detonation is going to be. The army, having created a safety perimeter, is now looking every where around. And just then, The Hurt Locker switches to the perspective shot of an Iraqi from atop a nearby building trying to fire at the car set it on fire. I agree, the primary source of the tension in this scene is not where the detonating bullet is going to come from, but the time James has on his hand before he can find the detonator amidst the wiring and defuse it before the fire melts it and the stuff explodes. Yet, this shot does two things – (a) Give us prior knowledge of where and when the bullet is going to come from, when there’s absolutely no need to. If, Ms, Bigelow would have edited out the shot, and instead chose to show us only the bullet coming out of nowhere, the panic would have been that much more intense. (b) It doesn’t even show the face of the terrorist, and so the guy is no more than a mere device in the framework of the scene.
The second of them is much more than a mere error, and in fact becomes a problem. In the middle of the desert we encounter a sequence of sniping warfare. Now reader, you would have surely read some wonderful books on sniping, or would have played some video games and would have always dreamt of having a rifle in your hand aiming at a distant target. So you would agree with me when I say the tension in sniping encounter is all about perspective. The unknown, and the unreliable. Sergeant William James assumes the role of the spotter, while his team member Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Mr. Mackie) is the shooter, aiming at the fire coming from an unknown source.
Now, let me invoke the brilliant scene from Stanley Kubrick’s war masterpiece Full Metal Jacket, and see how timely it switches perspectives, and why. As the soldiers get gunned down, we do not know the source, yet gradually we see only the rifle. Not the person behind. As audiences we subconsciously picture the face of the marksman, only to be later shocked by who it turns out to be. Kubrick had an agenda there.
Here, for no particular reason, Ms. Bigelow chooses to show the hideout of the Iraqi snipers aiming at this group of US soldiers and private ones. The tension is completely diluted, and drained out, because we know the number of Iraqis sniping from the hideout. The scene is quite interesting in the way a sniping scene ought to be filmed, yet it doesn’t go the full distance of flat-out brilliance. When the Iraqis are dead, we know they are all dead, and we do not share the perspective of the U.S. guys, and so do not feel the tension they must be through.
All this in the first hour or so, from where the film takes a disappointing detour from the fascinating what-has-been and what-it-could-have-been, to another film that feels the need to have a three-act structure, a story and something that serves to humanize and emotionalize these group of men. William James meets a boy, and stuff happens with that arc that I don’t find interesting enough to discuss. It is just a meaningless thread serving to bloat the film for no particular reason.
But what it spoils completely is the brilliant narrative structure of the first hour. Yes, there is not much realism in these scenes. I wouldn’t know, but some of these sequences have moments that are contrived to induce a stressful reaction from us. A cab driver manages to break a high security cordon to detonate a bomb, and doesn’t manage to get shot. It is a completely idiotic moment. Yes, I agree, it might be implausible, but what it serves is to provide an emotional truth about the characters. You shall learn when you shall see the film. The point is, the film dispenses away this fascinating episodic structure that neatly chips away at these men-of-action in moment of action, and instead gives them one of those generic stories. In its extremely disappointing final act, that serves to highlight William James’ predicament – War is a drug – The Hurt Locker does it most obviously and most artificially. One would be reminded of the ineffective third act of Cast Away, and the shots that capture William James’ state of mind as he returns to his country and to his wife are guided less by an emotional truth, and more by an aim to provide some kind of contrast to the world back in Iraq. The shots are still, and they lack heart. They lack life, and they feel perfunctory. Had there been no dialog explaining William James’ nature, had it all been a silent montage, I think it would have been a whole lot better.
Nevertheless, The Hurt Locker is how a war film ought to be. Stripped down to the bare-bones. A volatile experience. A jolt of energy. Ms. Bigelow takes two of our stars – Mr. Pearce and Mr. Fiennes – and kills them within moments of their appearance. That is the kind of out-of-the-blue shock audiences should feel, the kind they felt when Janet Leigh was maimed in Psycho, when John Travolta was shot in Pulp Fiction. You got to play around with the image of a star, and how the audience perceives them. How I wish it had taken its brevity and courage to its final destination, this probably might have been a war masterpiece.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 1:49 PM
Monday, August 10, 2009
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: Michael Mann
Runtime: 139 min.
Genre: Action, Crime, History
No filmmaker can compose a poem out of the honor that exists among cops and criminals as Michael Mann can. He understands men, he understands what drives them, and where most filmmakers would need a whole page worth of dialog, Michael Mann needs only a little glance, or a little facial twitch, or a momentary gesture. His men are his men alone, and although they are of this world, they exist in a different realm altogether, with nobility in their thought and purity in their intention. The subtleties of this realm only he understands. Often his films seem to be speaking to us without ever trying to. From Manhunter, from Heat, from The Insider and from Collateral this is the film he has been working towards. It is about two men on the opposite sides of law (Heat), it is about a man overcoming himself (Manhunter), it is about a man’s honor (The Last of the Mohicans), it is about a man against the system (The Insider) and it is about more. Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s masterpiece, a glorious culmination of his themes, a crime epic of mythic proportions.
We all know John Dillinger was killed. We all know how. We all know the lady in the red. We know the fact, and we know the legend. Michael Mann plays both, the legend and the fact, in tandem, each causing the other into an inevitable chain of events. Dillinger caused mayhem for only a year or so, yet he was a national hero, a man who stood up against a system that caused national poverty and depression. He robbed banks, and the public applauded. He was a Robin Hood, but he was a man. I say that because being some kind of Robin Hood needs a performance, not truth but charm. The Dillinger character is one of the film’s great triumphs, subtly hinting at this predicament the man found himself in. He was a romantic, yes, but that wasn’t his true nature. I wouldn’t say it was a façade, for façade is something given to pretension and lies. Rather, the charm was a compulsion for Dillinger that he absolutely had to pull out when placed on the stage. Here was a man who, when advised by Karpis (the guy who would outlive everybody, including Melvin Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover) that what they do wouldn’t last forever, snaps back – We’re having too good a time today, we ain’t worrying about tomorrow – and in the same breath asks of him – Keep me in mind on the train – a job that would demand of them to hang their proverbial.
Mr. Depp’s Dillinger, in many ways, represents us. Our dreams. The romantic larger-than-life facet of us. I often wonder, given a choice what would most of us prefer to be – an outlaw or a lawman? I speak not in strict professional terms, but in the spirit of what these two lines represent. We, by our very nature, resist discipline. Even when in authority we dream of rapid changes and revolutions. Status quo seldom satisfies us. Guided by that young heart inside, we are always inclined towards the ideal. A romantic notion of it all. That is why I believe so many outlaws and revolutionaries capture our imagination.
Dillinger knew this, so did everyone around him, and Mr. Depp, in what is by my estimate his greatest performance and an accomplishment of craft and truth, conveys that man to us. That man caught between the two facets of his – the larger-than-life charmer and the average Joe. We all have it, you see, and assuming either of them is merely a matter of what compels us to feel good and comfortable at that moment. What makes the commoner inside of us rise to the occasion? Michael Mann and Mr. Depp construct it all so sublimely into a character that feels so true it comes across as a fact. They do not need a dialog, or a set piece. Often, all they need is a simple shot, like the one below, and the dreams that are harbored inside of Dillinger are conveyed. (And here is an image from that beautiful shot – the sky clear, and Dillinger looking around to see what the world has in store for him. I take the image from the trailer, and although the sky in it might feel murky, the actual shot in the film is sunlit. Some post-production work might have been involved.)
Or they would need the charming smile of the man. Mr. Depp would have been a great star in the heydays of the studio system, and if the real Dillinger had ever laid his eyes on him, I believe he would have found for himself another source of inspiration. Public Enemies doesn’t narrate the legend, but constructs it, and it constructs it through the facts. Dillinger and his merry men – Hamilton, Homer, Pete Pierpont – walk in and out of banks as if it was a stroll in the park. These sequences are choreographed with some kind of ruthless simplicity to them. I think Manohla Dargis of New York Times puts it best – During the first robbery he shows Dillinger and two accomplices from high overhead, the camera peering straight down as the men fan across a black-and-white bank floor like MGM dancers. When Dillinger leaps across a railing, he soars.
He meets a pretty girl, Billy Frechette (Ms. Cotillard, La Vie En Rose), and he swoops her right off her feet. She is a strong self-respecting woman, who wouldn’t just be anybody’s girl, and yet she falls to the charms of the man. Michael Mann frames these scenes in the warmth of a golden hum, and he gives Mr. Depp dialogs that would have been worthy of Humphrey Bogart. And Mr. Depp doesn’t disappoint, turning on the irresistible charm. She seeks to know the man, and he charms her to an illusion, and often asking her to believe it – Say that you know it, say it. And she walks right into it. It is a heart-wrenching performance from Ms. Cotillard, and in a way tears flowing of her eyes after she learns Dillinger’s final words provides some sort of closure after Michael Mann so cruelly broke Eady’s heart in Heat.
And I say again, John Dillinger isn’t putting up a façade, he genuinely loves Billy Frechette, and to that effect, he is putting up a façade for himself. Here is a man who would be tensed as everybody when being chased, and here was a man who would sing a song just when he was sure he had escaped unscathed. This was a performance, yes, and it slowly becomes the truth for John Dillinger. In strange times, we do not need to convince anyone but ourselves, and more often than not, it is the self and the mirror we got to answer to. Not crowds. To be a liar, you got to be a pretty low man. Dillinger is not, and he has no other way than to convince his way into the iconic creation of his own self. Michael Mann doesn’t go about deconstructing the legend of John Dillinger, nor does he go exploring inside him. He merely captures the transition of Dillinger as the larger-than-life persona slowly envelopes him, inspite of the reversals in fortune. You should see the audacity he commits on the day he dies, and the place he walks into. This is a man who has all but embraced his own lie. There is another fantastic shot, where John Dillinger is placed amongst the common citizens he represents, and you should see Mr. Depp’s smug gaze, saying to them – I’m not you, you fools. (I take this image again from the trailer. And here, when this image arrives in the movie, Dillinger is well on his way to embrace his romantic persona.)
And no outlaw ever outlived the law. Or life. In what’s a triumph of casting, Michael Mann casts Christian Bale as Agent Melvin Purvis. I say triumph because no actor can look dispassionate in the face of outrageous provocation better than Bale (courtesy: Roger Ebert’s review of Equilibrium). His pursed lips and his cold gaze seem like the absolute face of the Authority. He represents the System, and maybe, while catching up with Dillinger, he represents the equanimity of life. Mr. Bale plays it not like a character, but as an institution. Unprejudiced, unbiased and fair. Here is a man strong enough to stand in the face of someone of the influence of J. Edgar Hoover (Mr. Crudup in one of the film’s finest performances). When The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy were on the run, you might have wondered, alongwith the duo, what the faces of those relentless pursuers would look like. They would look like Mr. Bale’s and like Mr. Lang’s, who plays Purvis’ investigators Charles Winstead. Indefatigable in their purpose, and honorably so. These are two great performances, by Mr. Bale and Mr. Lang, for they dissolve so neatly into Michael Mann’s vision, and elevate it. There is not much room for emotion, for Michael Mann reveals nothing about the two men outside of their jobs. Singularity of vision is what guides them, and singularity of tone is what the filmmaking assumes when the detectives are on the screen. It is all brutally matter-of-fact, and one might wonder if these men had lives outside of the streets and offices during this one year to distract them. With only little glances at their disposal, Mr. Bale and Mr. Lang create a masterpiece of subtlety. Two of Purvis’ cops fail at marking Billy, and when they come to him in shame, you should see the expression on his face. This is authority, a picture of relentless discipline.
And Michael Mann, the poet he is, strings a tragic little thread here. It is tragic, yet it doesn’t feel scripted. It doesn’t feel staged, just as nothing does in Public Enemies. It feels as if Michael Mann has captured one of the strange jokes of fate. A case of never meant to be. Melvin Purvis doggedly pursues John Dillinger. He chases the Desoto into an apartment thinking it was John Dillinger only to find it was baby-faced Nelson. Through the woods in Little Bohemia, he chases Baby-faced Nelson assuming he was Dillinger, only to be disappointed again. And the shootout at the Biograph. Despite the discipline, I believe someone of the nature of Purvis would have wanted the satisfaction of nailing the man. I don’t think it was the laurels, at least not in Public Enemies. It was a personal victory of maybe catching the man who asks him to get another line of job. Of shooting down the man, who maybe, at a personal level, Purvis thinks to be his direct rival. A personal victory borne out of respect. I’m not sure I understand the motivation completely. Yet, it is there, and although I’ve watched the film thrice, it doesn’t seem obvious. Michael Mann has stripped Public Enemies of the needless melodrama and thrills that Hollywood typically attaches to an action-crime epic. You should see Purvis in the final shootout. And you should see him after it. Within a matter of two shots, Michael Mann sublimely captures the sudden realization of emptiness in a man’s life. It is a glorious shot, one of Purvis walking away from all the lights, and an overhead shot of the same. He walks away from it all. (I again capture the images from the trailer. Watch the beauty of the second image. Everybody is walking towards the center of attraction, while Purvis is the man walking away from it all. And I assure you, it is much more beautiful and poignant in the film.)
Public Enemies is a masterpiece of purely visual storytelling. It is a masterpiece of mood, not the clichéd visual ones filmmakers like Sam Mendes use, but intense emotional ones that bring to mind David Lynch, and Michael Mann. In the thick of it all, when Dillinger and his men would sleepwalk through their targets, there is sun lit large all over the place. The sky seems to be clear. You should see the clear sky in the opening Indiana state penitentiary jail-break sequence, and when Ebert observed that the serendipitous shot of the clouds looming large in Bonnie and Clyde was a stroke of fate, I think he would have celebrated the marvel of Michael Mann’s usage of the digital filmmaking. He clouds the skies, and he manages to capture the brightness of night. And he seems to have drained every bit of thrill from his shootouts, and from his filmmaking, and instead resorting to pure tension. His sequences do not feel like set-pieces, unlike many of Hitchcock’s, yet we only feel tension. Public Enemies has a fascinating architecture – disjointed scenes in the first half capturing the series of events that start to close in, ever so slightly onto Dillinger. He was a state to state criminal, wreaking havoc in one for a time period and running away. He never thought what he did in one could get him in another. Yet it did, the Bureau of Investigation crawled their way around him. The narrative suggests thus, and as they draw closer and closer to him, it starts to get smoother – the Bureau finally connecting the missing dots. As that other crime masterpiece Zodiac created tension out of investigative procedures in office rooms, Michael Mann’s film creates not an action-set-piece but a procedural out of shootouts.
The final scene is a masterpiece, where Dillinger looks at Gable on the screen, and I predict twice within the span of a week – this is going to go down as one of those iconic moments of cinema, much like how La Motta channeled out Terry Malloy in Raging Bull. It is a masterpiece of acting - an icon (Depp) playing an icon (Dillinger) seeing an icon (Gable) play an icon (Edward Gallagher). It is a masterpiece of framing, of editing – You see the smile slowly but surely appearing on Dillinger’s face, convincing himself, and letting the romance possess him completely. It is a masterpiece of scoring – Elliot Goldenthal’s crescendo. Often, all it needs for a romantic is a movie.
I think Public Enemies is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest crime epics of all time. Beyond its authenticity, beyond its tension, beyond its romance, there’s a certain sadness among these men who surround these criminals, though I not know why. It is as if they are all walking towards their deaths, and they know it, and yet they shrug it. Here were men who were romantic enough to dream they could slide off the map despite being on the wrong side of the law. And behind them were detectives, two of them, who probably understood these men, caught them and killed them. And then what? Return to their desks? The final shot reveals two things – one of the men walking out of a door, and a note saying the other shot himself. The film seemed to be speaking straight to me. It always does in a Michael Mann film, in a Christopher Nolan film. But never has it happened that I couldn’t quite understand the enormity of what it was saying. I don’t know, but as I write this, my eyes seem to be swelling up. Public Enemies only grows with each viewing into some kind of beautiful dark haunted epic. I think when they talk about the emotional and spiritual nature of art, this is what they’re referring to.
Thursday, August 06, 2009
Sunday, August 02, 2009
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Rishi Kapoor, Rahul Khanna
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Runtime: 115 min. (citation needed)
Genre: Romance, Drama
I am sensing a lot of flak for the performance Ms. Padukone lends to Love Aaj Kal, and I believe all of that is somehow misplaced and misguided. I read a couple of reviews who juxtapose her acting abilities with those of the two actresses who have preceded her in Mr. Ali’s films – Ms. Kareena Kapoor (Jab we Met) and Ms. Ayesha Takia (Socha Na Tha) – and then go on to compare them unfavorably. To Ms. Padukone. I have seen mere portions of Mr. Ali’s previous film, and nothing in them suggested to me any sort of motivation to dwell any further. But now I am, very motivated, for I see how flatteringly he portrays his women, how generous he is to them giving them the most genuine of moments, and how precise he is with their characterization. I see a casting agent listed for the film and I think he deserves a bonus.
And at the same time I believe Mr. Ali, who has himself written the film, knew exactly the kind of woman he had in mind to play Meera Pandit (Ms. Padukone), and he knew exactly the kind of actress who would have fit the bill. I claim thus because Ms. Padukone delivers an incredibly restrained performance, free from all the bloat that is supposedly the hallmark of the archetypical big-budgeted-Indian-romantic-film actress. She plays it with some kind of matter-of-factness, a certain deadpan. Here is what Mr. Ali believes is a representation of the modern urban woman – strong, responsible and outgoing. As for if she is an extrovert or she generally keeps away from what most teenagers do, well that is an option you can go either way on. I know, what I’m listing out is a stereotype, but reader, a stereotype does contain some shred of truth. Speaking of which, the movie is a verifiable world of stereotypes trying their level best to be real people. And succeeding somewhat, though the movie’s success isn’t based on that.
Now, the kind of urban stereotype Ms. Padukone’s Meera represents might be considered some kind of pretender. The calm exterior that seems to evoke an impression of someone who’s utterly methodical, and someone who weighs in a whole of calculations and doesn’t fall prey to adolescent emotionality. I might be trudging over unknown waters here, but then I do not seem to have much knowledge of stereotypes, apart from a stereotypical idea of them. What I do know is a few people, you know, here and there, across both sides and I see vulnerability and confusion. The stereotype the movie refers to might very well be a façade, and if that is the case, it is a very feeble one. I cannot vouch for Mr. Ali, but I suspect he is aware of it, and he chooses Ms. Padukone for the plain and matter-of-fact demeanor of hers.
And then he sets out to explore, and dig deep, and dig deeper, so as to reveal that confused little girl from within. You should see the final scene. It is a simple shot, capturing a simple yet moving moment from her. And when she breaks down, I felt it. Breakdown scenes can be really cruel, and they are one of those acid-fire tests that reveal the kind of actor you are. Most actors with a hell of a lot of skill earned from hours of training absolutely ruin such a sequence, for their craft betrays the truthful nature of it. Not Ms. Padukone. She is simple and truthful, and it feels heartfelt. There are little variations in voice, so subtle, yet so definitive of the kind of feelings burnt up inside of her. There are little nuances that seem to betray the little girl within. All the ire directed against her performance makes me feel like Veidt observing Doc Manhattan, and almost wanting to claim – Her subtle facial twitches, the little ways in which she directs her gaze and the breaking of her voice wouldn’t be noticed by the layman, but to me she might as well have been sobbing. And the final scene displays a kind of catharsis of emotions we rarely do come across in big-budgeted romantic movies aimed fairly and squarely at family and NRI audiences.
And as I said, Love Aaj Kal is a celebration of stereotypes borrowed from every which where. Every frame is designed not to capture, but to show a stereotypical moment. The dialogs often seems to spill over into the territory of a real conversation, but for most of the time it is safe and secure where it ought to be – The Stereotypical Land. Even the images – of the Qutab Minar standing in for Delhi, and India, the Golden Gate Bridge standing in for San Francisco, and the United States, and the far-off land of dreams, the congested street way with a million buildings cramped into each other standing in for Calcutta, and India, and hot women, cafes and Big Ben standing in for London, a.k.a the target audience. Love Aaj Kal, might not be a culmination, but it very well is a self-aware example of the shorthand big-budgeted Hindi cinema so profusely invokes.
In this land, Mr. Ali, about whose films I learn from some friends are somewhat observational in nature, brings some kind of comparison, as the title suggests. It is like an exercise we have had at school when we were asked to chalk out the similarities and differences between flora and fauna. You know reader, that such an exercise often needs the services of a stereotype, and although I am not at all for such kind of cinema, I do understand Mr. Ali’s intentions. He juxtaposes and then criss-crosses between two romances from different periods, the old guiding the new, in a way I leave you to discover. I agree, the idea is kinda lame, but what had me sold was the unprejudiced manner in which Mr. Ali goes about things. He doesn’t preach, and I hate goddamned preachers. He doesn’t ask the old to shepherd the new, but instead sits back, and asks his young to sort it out for themselves. Make your own mistakes. Realize your own follies. He isn’t being cynical, he is just being a good old-fashioned liberal.
He paints the old in sepia and the new in the most colorful of candyfloss, and goes about pointing out the beauties in both of them. Mr. Ali, I believe, plays a song right at the onset that kinda telegraphs beforehand everything that is to follow, and the structure the film might acquire, and I asked myself why he does that. I think he understands the kind of inevitable conclusion such a story takes, and he doesn’t want to meddle around with that. His stories, as everything is in the film, stereotypical, and consciously so. What he instead works upon is in the specifics, in enriching these moments with spices borne out of the observations my friends suggest he possesses. Not real life mind you, but from the best of cinema. These are sweet and tender moments, with refreshingly romantic touches. There is Veer, the romantic from the olden times, and when the beautiful girl he loves so dearly is plucked out of his life and thrown to some far off land unknown to him, he leaves everything and follows. A real story would have had him search for her in the vast expanse of the city, day and night, but this is not one. The film has other ideas. He stands in front of her building, and when she comes out of the balcony, and walks out, it is a wonderful moment. And yet, that is not the first time they have their first conversation. It is fascinating how they have it when the girl comes to out to tell him that she has been engaged. Stereotype, yes, but a gloriously romantic stereotype.
Which begs me the question – is the sepia tanned oldie the stuff of an old romantic’s fantasy? I wonder, you know, because even within the framework of the film, it kinda feels like a dream. I wouldn’t reveal much, and I would want to judge it for yourself, but when I see the oldie living happily ever after with the woman of his dreams, I kinda find the whole frame evoking a feel of the surreal.
The performances are just about top flight. Mr. Khan, with the kind of comic timing he is so god-gifted with, absolutely sleepwalks through the film’s lighter times. But then, the make-up department doesn’t earn its pay, and we see a crumpled face. The man is getting old, but never mind. Not our business. Our business is to give benefit to Mr. Ali, for his film’s tone is derived from his characters, and his characters in turn seem to be inspired from his actors. The film always has plenty of droll in spare, and instead of reigning in dramatic touches that betray the innate nature of the characters, it kinda works around them. Another film with totally different characters would have ended a good thirty minutes before, when one of the characters is wedded and one seems to have realized his dream. But not this bunch, and not this film, because I believe these guys do require the extra length to come to terms with the façade. Mr. Ali’s film does play around with a lot of conventions, especially the one from those god-awful tearjerkers – Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Pyar to Hona Hi Tha – and disposes them away with a certain disdain. One of the causality of the affair in here is a nice guy, with a good heart, played by Mr. Rahul Khanna, and the film isn’t afraid to be a touch cruel in the way it deals with him. I think that is interesting, you know, not being politically correct all the time.
There’re songs galore too. A wonderfully designed song etches out a year in the life of Jai Vardhan (Mr. Khan) in San Francisco and another one is so happy it assembles folks from every which country in Europe to make a splash and shake a leg. Which leads me to wonder if true audacity, something which I always admire and support in a film, lay in the route of the stereotype, as against etching out two real stories? I do not know, dear reader, which is the tougher one, but isn’t creating a moving little film out of a film stock that is used to film something that is stock count for something?
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:42 PM