Saturday, September 26, 2009
Cast: Harman Baweja, Priyanka Chopra
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Runtime: Time does anything but run
Verdict: It’s simple. Mr. Gowariker doesn’t know how to make a feature film.
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Conversation, it seems to me, is a dying art. More so at the movies, where I increasingly come across conversations being swapped for some empty flash. You see, when it comes to movies, especially romance, or comedy, or drama, a conversation is often the very basic unit of the script. Often, it is everything. The window into the characters and all. That Mr. Gowariker decides to drape (actually I think he mutes) his conversations behind a rather silly sounding song is proof enough that he has nothing interesting to say beyond the clichéd/rhetoric/recycled. Think of it reader. Isn’t it alarming that a film based upon the simple premise of people meeting new people doesn’t have even a single conversation of note. I mean, I’m a voyeur. As are you. That is why we watch other’s people’s lives on the screen with such interest. I would’ve very much wanted to overhear what Pooja (Ms. Chopra, the doctor) had to say to our guy. I wouldn’t know, and I assure you neither does Mr. Gowariker. That speaks real low of his filmmaking.
What annoys me is that Mr. Gowariker doesn’t even have the bloody sense of music. His songs do not feel a part of the film. They’re absolutely inorganic, lending less to the situation, and taking away more. If compassion and intelligence were really the currency of his filmmaking, there were at least three candidates by my estimate who shouldn’t have existed in the title track. You see, our guy, who in Mr. Gowariker’s defense, doesn’t really seem to know what he wants. Can’t really be sure if that was intended. Then again, how can one be when someone is as harmlessly untalented as Mr. Baweja. Nevertheless, my gut feel was that the dude wasn’t really interested in the 15-year old Jhankhana (Ms. Chopra, again). That leads me to believe he could never ever consider her as a possible contender. If he was a flesh and blood person. Or if he was a snapshot of the filmmaker’s thought-process. Yet, despite the dude’s and script’s instant rejection, Mr. Gowariker chooses to include her in the final scheme of things is proof enough that the man doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing. The film scarcely exhibits any shred of what is considered as human behavior. It is all conceptual, like much of everything that Mr. Gowariker makes. And boy, what a boring one at that.
But be thankful. To the good lord, for he laid only twelve constellations in the sun’s path. In there, it feels like our path too. Really. Mr. Gowariker shows once again why he doesn’t really have much sense of at least two principles of filmmaking – scriptwriting and editing – and might also be considered mediocre at best when it comes to framing. His images are devoid of any sort of life. Absolutely. Everything feels staged and framed. I do not know his history but his aesthetics seem to betray a bend for the television soap, or a play. Not that he is good at that, like say Mr. Sam Mendes, but he is seemingly incapable of capturing a life in his image. They are mighty artificial, with only a sense of concept driving them. Every filmmaker has an idea behind his image, but the one who’s worth his name has a knack of making us feel that idea. Mr. Gowariker’s sticks out just as ugly as a fifth grader’s little essay on My Hobby. No wonder the Oscars represent such mediocrity. What else can we expect from such a voting panel?
One needn’t look too far for evidence. You see, analyzing Mr. Gowariker’s films isn’t exactly analyzing a thesis. The simplistic line of thought exhibited in his films isn’t a progeny of an idealist by any means. It is merely, well, simplistic, much like that fifth grader’s argument. The flaws in his films are jumping on the very surface. They are fundamental ones. Like for instance, the editing. One can safely say, even with the kind of feeble knowledge of it as I do, that Mr. Gowariker has little sense of it. For instance, take the clumsy manner in which the dude is introduced to us, after the silly premise of a – money owed to the sharks resulting in a forced marriage – is laid out in front of us. Look reader, how amateurishly that entire portion of the film is structured. The family in India, after learning the only solution to their wretched predicament, decides to call our dude in Chicago. And then, what do we see. A montage, of him –waking up, going to some school, and suddenly in a nice suit at some firm. Didn’t that confuse you reader, if he was studying or working. The question is simple – is Mr. Gowariker interested in the montage of one day or his entire cycle in Chicago. We don’t know, but what we do know is that the little montage is inherently incomprehensible. Doesn’t just fit. Might have worked if it was the opening few minutes of the film, or the background for the credits. The advantages would have been threefold – (a) We might have saved on valuable time, (b) Would have made better sense, and (c) Would have got rid of that visually unimaginative credits-song that lends absolutely nothing.
Or consider another little moment quite early in the film. Our dude knows he’s up against it. The film cuts to him sleeping on the couch. And within a matter of two beats, he gets up, conveying to us that he cannot sleep. Any filmmaker will tell you that is wrong. A scene shouldn’t exist to merely relay news. By my estimate, the scene started at least 5-6 second late. See reader, a matter of sleeplessness should first be established. The manner in which Mr. Gowariker handles it reins a sense of artifice that is very much the dominant tone of every moment of his every film.
You know, if I come to think of it, isn’t it sad I spend almost one thousand words and I seem to have addressed only the very basic issues. Never mind. The acting is bad. Awful. Mr. Baweja, and everybody around him ought to realize that some people just cannot act. Not even if their very life depended on it. See Mr. Ashmit Patel. It’s not their fault. They’re challenged. Also given terrible material to work with. And neither is Mr. Gowariker too generous on them. He basically deals in generics and concepts. Stuff like that. Stereotypes too. That career-woman Rajni (Ms. Chopra) is an embarrassment. Is that how a caricature is done? So are many others. Silly songs deleted and more moments to these women and it would have been so much more fascinating. You see, the premise is not a problem by any means. Rather I find it to have a potential for some kind of great film. Meeting and knowing the very inners of new people is so interesting. But not here. My respect for Mr. Aamir Khan’s sense of filmmaking has jumped up a few notches. Boy, doesn’t he know how to get the job done.
Oh yeah, just in case you were wondering whether you would be stumbling upon some insight into girls of various signs, my better half is a Sagittarian. And by god, she’s not even remotely like the one on display. Except for the simple fact that both are, you know, women. I’m sure Mr. Gowariker’s aims weren’t so low.
Note: In a humble display of my protest against the uninspiring imagery on display I attach not a still from the film but its poster.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 1:14 PM
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Cast (voices): Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Petersen
Director: Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson
Runtime: 96 min.
Verdict: Disappointingly standard fare once again, considering the profound manner in which it starts.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
I shrug again. Up features a delightfully tragic montage right at the beginning, something beautiful yet so haunting. I was terrified. I promised myself I would never let that happen. That is the kind of depth the genius of Pixar is capable of, digging deep into the silent era and bringing something absolutely surprising and something that feels so unnervingly close to the pragmatism of reality. So close, I wanted to deny it, and I still do. I was moved, deeply so, and I still denied it. The rest of the movie passed by me, leaving me absolutely cold save a moment or two, leaving me once again in despair at the appalling lack of courage to fight the temptations of silly crowd-pleasing trickery, yet as I moved out of the screening I was still denying the montage. I almost wanted to cry my denial. I think I should mark that as an achievement.
Here is the premise. On second thoughts, let me save it, because the absolute brilliance of the opening montage speaks and narrates, and conveys a whole lot more than all the other Pixar films combined. That is, if we consider the service of cinema, or any other art form for that matter, to be a study of the human condition. So, let me just say that Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Mr. Asner) is a grumpy old widower, and through some terribly clunky turn of the pen of the scriptwriters, gets on an adventure trip to South America. Paradise Falls. In his house. Powered by a million balloons. And a Boy Scout only eight years old. Russell (voiced by Mr. Nagai) his name. And many more examples of what we call standard animation fare. You know the deal. Chases and stuff.
I think I don’t want to say much about it. Save the 3-D. I have always maintained and I’ll still maintain 3-D is a gimmick. A Coraline is a rarity, but most stuff out there does not achieve anything more by the depth perception. At times, Up is just a pretty picture, often the gimmicky use of the depth distracting us from the experience. And on other occasions it is downright ugly, when the feeble image of the stuff moving in the foreground sticks out sorely against the background, evoking a strong sense of image-tampering. From a narrative standpoint, nothing stands out. No economy, overt saccharine, unimaginative character turns, contrived plot choices and a conventional and politically correct moral standing. The thing with these standings is that they look good on paper, but from an emotional stand-point there’s nothing life-like. There’s no truth.
Any other animated film, and I would have just let out a meh. But here, I feel so strongly against the mediocrity of the rest of the film is because something at the beginning touched me so deeply. There was something true in it. And that truth was betrayed by the film. The house at the end was important. Not the MacGuffin. All the time. The house wasn’t a burden, as the film suggests. It was an honor, it always is. That past. As a whole, Up is never quite there. But as a piece of filmmaking that has stirred me like few films have in recent memory, Up has something really special up its sleeve. It has me scared. How I wish I could end it differently. I wish I would.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:17 AM
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: A very interesting parable, but it could have been a story. Ultimately the bleakest summer blockbuster in a long time. And disappointing tonal gradations.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller
District 9 is probably the bleakest summer blockbuster I might have seen in some time. Maybe a long time. This is an overwhelmingly scathing statement on us, often even resorting to stereotypes just to make its point. That we are, by our very nature, capable of monstrosity time and again. If good and evil really existed, we sure as hell would all be members of the former, but we all would have season membership passes into the latter. It might be easy to argue against some of the shorthand Mr. Blomkamp uses to make his statements, but it might be tough to argue against the historical events he seems to be suggesting as the basis of his outlook.
You see Schindler’s List might be a fine film when considered as some TV soap with a super emotional payoff at the end, but it is not for sure in any way a profound work of art. Because, I believe, it is kitschy and doesn’t understand the very basis of what caused the Holocaust, and instead tries to condemn it as everybody with a two-bit understanding of the historical event does. The Holocaust wasn’t an aberration, it wasn’t a one-time inexplicable turn of events. It was a failure of most colossal kind, yes, but by no means was it some kind of incomprehensible immoral act committed by men with incomprehensible evil within them. The real Amon Goethes weren’t all-black aliens, as Schindler’s List paints them. They were men like you, and like me. What caused the Holocaust was what caused Slavery, was what caused Apartheid, was what caused Rwanda, was what caused Imperialist exploitation, was what caused Gujarat. And will what cause the next such thing. It is not a question of good or bad, I think. Maybe, it is a question of our very nature being hard-wired in that manner. You and I are not bad people, but when together, under a cloud of collective morality, we are capable of a lot of stuff. The Reader is profound, you see.
This complete failure of civilization is what is at heart of District 9, a film that doesn’t seem to pose profound questions as much as it seems to make easy and sweeping judgmental answers in the form of disdainful remarks upon our nature. It was 1990 and an alien ship somehow ended up getting stuck in our atmosphere. Not over Manhattan as Hollywood has forced us to fantasize over the past decade, but over Johannesburg. The ship hung there in air for three months before South African authorities geared up for first contact. They barged in, only to discover hundreds and thousands of malnourished aliens cowering inside the darkness. The world was looking, just as the world looks on every time, eyes overflowing with kitsch dressed up as humanity, and the authorities had nowhere to go but to provide sanctuary and food to the aliens. First they were allowed to mix with the human population, but riots ensued. The area was soon cordoned off, they were not allowed to roam near human population, and it soon became District 9, a slum with the most pathetic living conditions, and inhabitants who in the absence of a leader were just a bunch of individuals who couldn’t take care of themselves. And the inhabitants were branded rather derogatorily as prawns.
I will spare the other details, much of what has been built as a sci-fi tale, and is in fact a very thin parable to all the socio-political offshoots of such an event. With Africa in mind. There are Nigerian gangsters, there are private military organizations, there is witchery and there is discrimination. There is apartheid, and there is AIDS. There is the white man’s guilt. There’re slight chuckles in the way the aliens and Negroes are subtitled, even though the latter speak comprehensible English. There’s the bureaucratic butchery, and the clumsiness they always seem to manage. And there’s science and secret experiments.
And there’s Wikus van der Merwe (Mr. Copley), a somewhat puny deskman whose father-in-law is in-charge of M.N.U, and who is given the responsibility to relocate the aliens out of Johannesburg after 20 years of illegal stay. He visits District 9, with the private army, and serves eviction notices to all of them, and even manages to burn down a hut that has several eggs hatching. And then, a terrible accident occurs, and Wikus, well, has his very life and his very survival hanging in balance.
This fascinates me, Wikus’ predicament that is, which you might have guessed by now if you are good enough to have reached here in this passage. It is not merely a plot point, but a vital thread to the film’s bleak outlook. You see, what it suggests is, mankind, as a general rule, isn’t made of superheroes. Oskar Schindler might have been real, and so was Paul Rusesabagina, probably, but things on ground aren’t exactly that black and white. We are driven by survival, we are survivors. I think we all have cracked that wise line on the father of the nation, which I really do not want to repeat. And District 9, and Mr. Blomkamp are wise, not to resort to melodrama, but instead be unflinchingly and relentless brutal in their depiction of our morality. Or the absence of it. There are harmless eggs which Wikus orders to burn. Yet he shows moral concern when he is asked to shoot an alien with their weapons. You might wonder why? You might also wonder if the predicament is purely physical in nature, or has it breached the soul as well.
There is so much happening in District 9, and all of it is dense. Confusing dense. I mean that as a compliment. That is because although the film is densely packed with social commentary, it still works brilliantly as a standalone story, stripped off all its allegories. The film uses convenience a lot, from furthering its effect to furthering its arguments. There is the documentary approach, which is actually pretty effective in dismissing the fantasy feel that is home to every science-fiction of recent times, and instead reigns in a texture that feels real and tangible. The aliens are not super-humans either. It is all very convincing, and that is its strength and its weakness. That is because the film is not in anyway a straight documentary either. There is no one single perspective. One moment it is a documentary, the other moment it is newsreel footage and the next it is inside information. It is jarring, and disappointing. Why did Mr. Blomkamp feel the need to have this inconsistency, I do not know. But I do know it gives him convenience to create a blockbuster that basically doesn’t ever ask us to explore the story, which is handed on a platter, and we in turn only have to gather the themes in question. I don’t particularly approve of that kind of filmmaking, where integrity of perspective is discarded for trivial issues. The greatest of science-fictions work because they are brilliant work of narratives first, and the themes surface only when we try and skin the plot. The Prestige is such a wonderful example, and so is Minority Report. Here we do not so much have to understand and feel the themes as much as we have to connect them. I wonder how fascinating it all would have been if we didn’t have any inside information, and District 9 was stripped and constructed entirely as a documentary. No extra information whatsoever.
But then, this is still very interesting. Just because of the tone it takes. I have heard comments that criticize the film’s third act, but any other suggested way would have basically caused an act of betrayal. You see, a film that is so disdainful of mankind would consciously suggest that we are only worthy of an ending that contains a shootout. What else are we capable of? Kubrick said the same in Dr. Strangelove. That is what satires do, and mind you, District 9 is a satire. When in danger, economic or otherwise, we resort to war, the film seems to suggest. A movie that consciously creates two-bit caricatures would obviously end in a wham-bam vein. At least the idea is right. Schindler’s List suggests it was them who committed holocaust. District 9 at least seems to suggest it was we who are racially biased. The Nazis were us, always. In that, District 9 tends towards a greatness that the Spielberg movie absolutely doesn’t. I say tends because Mr. Blomkamp doesn’t manage the courage to go all the way, and instead chooses to sentimentalize the final moments, which utterly spoils the game. As I said, the tonal gradations are a terrible issue.
And what’s more, the movie might have just tapped into what the real weapon against mankind. And who is the real victor at the end of the film – us or the aliens. The ultimate distressing fact is that District 9 hands out the win to them. How? By giving them the very weapon we used to consolidate our superiority – proliferation. That is a first in the alien-adventure genre, where we don’t win. Within 30,000 years we have managed to be 6 billion or something. That is how we captured this planet, not by guns and ammunition, but by our voracious proliferation. When the aliens arrived in 90, they were a few thousand at best. And within a span of two decades their population has exploded to 2.5 million. That is what the film’s final line says. That means they have been approved by Darwin and his apes, and I can’t help but feel that this is our weapon turned against us, alien style.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 10:54 PM