Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

City of God - Movie Thoughts

'City of God' is the cousin of 'City of Joy' in the titular sense. While the former refers the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the latter represents the Kolkata equivalent - neither god nor joy is found in both the places. 'City of Joy' offers a fast-paced account of the story of a few gangsters, but by devoting a good deal of time on a handful of sub-plots, Fernando Meirelles, the director tells us the story of the slums. When I zoom out of the characters and look at the movie, I get a slice of the life of these kids and young men in the 60's and 70's, which I think is the movie's accomplishment.

City of God was constructed by the state to keep the poor people away from the office-going, tax-paying Rio population. The gangsters of the slum loot shops and trade drugs - but they can never get rich because their entire world of business operations are restricted to the City of God. If they display their sleight of hand outside of their region of freedom, the police would break their knuckles. And as long as these people keep the police happy (through black money and drugs) they will oblige. Meirelles captures the bleakness of the slum life with great force and high energy that we actually don't feel depressed in spite of the material. In an shattering scene, a boy of less than 10 years is forced to kill another boy of similar age. But Meirelles manages a poetic justice by allowing the kids from the victim's gang to take their revenge, which is served cold.

The opening scene captures the essence of the movie: A gang of about a dozen young men are getting ready for a chicken feast. When a chicken escapes and flies through the narrow streets of the slum, all of them pull out their hand guns and chase. There is a heavy investment on arms and ammunitions that they don't feel it's a waste of money to shower bullets on a chicken. And since one takes up a gun, not to dictate or look cool but to survive, most of the gangsters are are young and if luck wouldn't favour them, they die young. And when somebody dies young leaving their friend or brother alive, they wouldn't have an option but to pick up the loaded hand gun lying next to the body and get ready for their hunt.

There is not much trust and/or friendship among these slum dwellers: factions divide to form sub factions; factions come together to finish off a common enemy; there is no acceptance of a gangster, only submission, which is out of fear; and in one case when a friendship was budding between a cold gangster and his hip/cool/moderate friend, it's nipped because of an accident which results in the death of the latter. The movie is not all bang-em, shoot-em scenes, there are occasional sprinkles of humour: Rocket, the narrator's first sexual encounter with an elderly woman working for a newspaper has dry wit. There is another sequence when he sets out to mug the general public and finds each of his potential victims to be either 'cool' or 'good' that he can't force himself to point his gun at them.

The screenplay often challenges the viewer with it's narration: in the middle of a story, upon the entry of a new character, we suddenly jump to that character's story and in that inside story we are revealed something relevant to the first story and the forthcoming story. Though character development seems stunted because of this looping structure, at the end of the movie we know what we need to know about whoever mattered. This movie has been compared to 'Goodfellas', but I don't think both belong to the same class of movies. But they both offer a brutally honest commentary on the other side of the society.

Annamalai Challenge - Scene 10

In the forthcoming posts, I'll comment on some of my favourite scenes from Tamil cinema. As is true with all cinema lists, this list is limited by my exposure to Tamil movies and reflects my taste. Ten just happens to be a comfortable number, though I've enjoyed more scenes.

'Annamalai' is a movie that showcases star power. An yet-another-story elevated by sheer style and charisma, Rajini proves why he's a superstar. Annamalai (Rajini), a poor milkman and Ashok (Sarath Babu), a rich businessman, friends from their teen years are divided over an ego clash between Annamalai and Ashok's father. In a weak moment when Ashok loses his mind, he wishes to flatten Annamalai's home and Ashok's father carries out the order. The demolition of the home which held sentimental values to Annamalai ignites a fire in him.

Rajini walks into Sarath Babu's house and pledges revenge saying that one day he'll climb up the social ladder, surpass him and drive Sarath Babu out of his house. This scene gets it masala settings right - just before the intermission, night time, rain and thunder, a drenched Rajini wonderfully modulates his dialogue delivery in a fashion that will get the audience aroused. Rajini's forte is in letting the common man jump into his shoes and do all the unimaginable heroic things - so that at the end of the movie, the common man has a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Conflicts arising from betraying friends are as common as common cold and Rajini here provides a chance for all those victims to relish a virtual revenge.

PS: I've seen the Telugu version of this movie called 'Iddaru Iddare', which was released before 'Annamalai'. The movie stars (or should I say 'the movie features'?) Krishnam Raju in Rajini's role. Execution of the two movies is pretty much the same in all departments, except, of course, for the hero. Which explains why the Telugu version is a dud.

'Rang de Basanti' for Oscars!!??

FFI has decided to send 'Rang de Basanti' to be considered in the foreign language category for the upcoming Academy awards. I wrote the following in my post on 'Mangal Pandey':

"I think this is Aamir's second shot at Oscar. It is easy to appease the Oscar's foreign language academy members if they can connect with the theme. One of the reasons Lagaan (one of the best sports movies I've seen) failed to win the Oscar was because they don't understand cricket, which is the heart of the movie."

'Rang de Basanti' is his third attempt to attain international stardom. I had a strong feeling this movie might most probably be the one to be sent to the Oscars because of it's theme (rebirth of a nation, freedom from corrupt systems) and the treatment of the story. I doubt very much that this will be taken seriously by the members of the Academy because of the melodramatic storyline. The producers are allowed to edit the movie before sending it to the Academy. The movie is long - if reduced below 2 hours by cutting songs and some tear-jerking scenes, it can generate some buzz.

My thoughts on the movie available here.

Understanding Art Connoisseurs

I somewhat understand what connoisseurs have to say about movies - other than that, I don't understand a shred about painting, architecture, sculpture, etc. In most cases, even though I may understand what the experts have to say about a movie, if the movie doesn't appeal to me, there is no point in understanding a pundit's exposition on it. Because, I believe, that an art work has to move me, enhance my life. If it doesn't there's not much use in understanding a movie through someone else's eyes.

Taste of Cherry - Movie Review

Death. Many serious filmmakers' favourite subject, death has been discussed, dissected, analyzed and interpreted. Needless to say, talented directors have also made parodies of old age, the futility of fighting fate, loneliness, problems of common man and afterlife - all in relation to death. And then we have numerous products that affirm life, that convey how wonderful the world is, that tell us tomorrow will be a beautiful day and equivalent messages by giving a twisted meaning to death. But Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiorastami does something new: he cheats the audience by dealing with death.

The top prize winner at the 1997 Cannes film festival, 'Taste of Cherry' deals with Badii, a middle-aged man whose only wish is to die. He drives around a city suburb looking for a man who is in need of money for genuine reasons and is also a law-abiding/religious man to fill his pit with mud so that he can have a decent burial and a sense of satisfaction that comes from having helped someone in need. He drives around, talking to people, just like any strangers would converse. And this happens for the first ninety minutes - it's like writing a boring essay on how to bore your audience.

Badii is visibly depressed and right from the early scenes we know that his life doesn't interest him. After giving hitches for a few who aren't ready to honour his death-wish, he finds an old man who accords for 2 lakh tomanos which will go towards his ailing child. Although the old man accepts his request, he talks about how much more there is to one's life and talks of his experiences when during his weak moments he decided to kill himself and how a sweet mulberry changed his outlook. Though he's in need of money, he doesn't want to find Badii dead in the pit.

<Spoiler>The climax is where Kiorastami really lets his audience down. We see Badii, after swallowing sleeping pills, come and lie down in the pit which he had dug earlier. He had seen the sunset that evening which the old man had described as wonderful. Lying down, he looks at the passing clouds and the well rounded moon. Then we hear thunder storms and then we see Badii close his eyes. And then we see Kiorastami, the direcor himself shooting a filler scene calling that the shoot is over. Heck, I just wanted to strangle the crew for making me wait so long for what is an ambiguous ending. What... are we supposed to draw endings as per our wish?</Spoiler>

By never allowing us to see into Badii's past, the director makes it difficult for us to sympathize with the protagonist. "So what if he dies at all?" is the question on my mind near the end of the movie. There are raving reviews for this movie, but I don't find any poignancy here - only plain vanilla. I saw 'Fahrenheit 9/11', a recent Palm D'or winner - a pretty ordinary documentary that very biasedly presented a forceless argument. And then we have films like 'Taxi Driver' and 'Pulp Fiction' that have won the Golden Palm. An obvious conclusion would be to attribute the winner of that year to the quality and exposure of the jury that year - but to say something like that with my limited cinematic exposure would be like a beetle's opinion on Milky Way*.

* Thank you Mr.Doyle.

The Oscar Connection

Many in U.S and Western Europe view the Oscars like we view the Filmfare awards. It's nothing more than Hollywood's prom night where glamour dolls walk in see-through wears and the men try to say something intelligent in front of the cameras running live. A crude comparison on the quality of an Oscar winner can be made with an IIT graduate - all of them don't shine or are super intelligent than the rest, but they all have an appreciable amount of intelligence. An Oscar winner in any of the top five categories (picture, director, male actor, female actor, adapted/original screenplay) will display a fair quantity of IQ and professionalism that you won't feel disappointed at the end of the movie.

Oscar night is primarily an event to celebrate American cinemas. Only a very few non-U.S movies make it to the prime category nominations, which leaves the rest of the international films to compete in the foreign language category. Just as how the common Indian man has come to adore and embrace anything American, the Bolly/Jolly-wood also aspires to garner a trophy or two of the bald man. The members of the Academy who vote in the foreign language section (which includes Hollywood producer Amritraj) see Indian movies as an exercise in 'escape from reality'. They call our films 'musical'. And needless to add, we emphasize our visuals, costume and design elements over story, direction and action. With this perception, it's difficult to command the members' vote or at least have them take our movies seriously.

And then comes the selection of movies - are we sending the right pictures to the Oscars? Anything with songs will be a turn-off. Mediocre production values will be a turn-off. Sub-par action will be a turn-off. Unbelievable storyline and lesser directorial efforts will be a turn-off. I don't have the list of Indian movies sent for Oscar consideration. But if they are in the same league of 'Jeans', then we might as well forget our Oscar dreams (that was a cheap ploy to get Amritraj lobby for votes and I don't think he would have done that anyway). Something like 'Kurudhippunal' has in it to reach across boundaries. I don't know how/why it was overlooked.

Oscar nomination or victory increases the visibility of a foreign language movie and makes for good marketing. Although winners are respected, I don't think anybody (even the winner) perceives it as the pinnacle of movie-making. If Indian film makers want to be taken as serious movie makers by the Academy, we should make more movies that question/transform/educate society and effuse an European aesthetic aroma rather than entertainers tailor-made for our audience. They have the talent, but they need support and encouragement from the public and producers alike. We need more movies where a woman's feelings are prioritized over her flesh, where songs give way for surrealism, where depth in a genre is respected over masala-scattershot, where stories are originally written instead of amalgamating under-performing Hollywood stories, where a director listens to the common man, watches his wife cooking, a child playing in the park and then gets behind the camera instead of....

Oscar, just like any award reflect the tastes of it's judges. Many great achievements/achievers haven't any awards under their belt. Martin Scorsese, considered one of the greatest living directors doesn't have an Oscar. But his movies will be remembered fifty years from now, and the directors who beat him may not be. Ultimately, it's the public that decides who's the winner and Oscar just happens to be a grand gala - nothing more nothing less.

Amelie - Movie Review

'Feel good' factor is an universal movie phenomenon - because it makes money. Most of the movies that set out to please the audience usually end up with a lot saccharine sweet scenes or unnatural plots that the viewer instead of feeling good, actually feels bitter at the end of the movie. Jean Pierre Jeunet's 'Amelie' gets the commercial ingredients in right proportion to truly make the viewer feel better.

Amelie Poulain is a lonely child - taught at home by her teacher mother, she doesn't have any friends to play with all her childhood. The atmosphere in the house is so emotionally insulated that even a fish in their aquarium tries to kill itself by jumping out of the glass case. When she grows into a fine young woman, she finds a job at a cafe, and her uneventful life progresses smoothly until she finds an old rusty box containing the memorabilia of a boy who had lived in the same apartment four decades back.

Amelie, whose life is not punctuated by anything bizarre, tries an experiment: find out he owner of the box, return it to him and observe how he feels about his long lost treasure. When the box is somehow returned to the owner, now a man in his fifties, he cries out in joy and calls the deliverer his guardian angel (Amelie remains anonymous). Motivated by this incident, she sees herself as a do-gooder, taking every opportunity to anonymously help people who cross her life. And the receivers of her grants are mostly the residents of the apartment in which she lives.

Because of her uncommon social sense, she doesn't find having a boy friend adding any value to her life, or at least interesting, until she meets Nino. Nino works here and there, had an abnormal childhood and passionately collects discarded photographs form auto-photo booths. Though this is a case of love-at-first-sight, because of Amelie's shyness and fear of rejection she keeps sending Nino on rounds before they finally accept each other. In fact, Amelie is so shy that when they both finally meet, she insists on not talking and they make love, which symbolizes the beginning of their family life.

Scenes flow like a steady river because of sensible editing hands of Herve Schneid who lends to the pace of the movie which might otherwise have been a bit sagging. Since Amelie devices strategies to help her neighbours, the editor keeps the audience updated about her efforts in a manner that's easy to follow. Bruno Delbonnel imparts a strong greenish tinge to most of the scenes that provides a eerie feeling - a questionable move for an optimistic movie. But otherwise, the photography is strong.

Jeunet has extracted very good performances from the ensemble of actors. Audrey Tautou as Amelie sparkles and sizzles, very flamboyantly displaying mischief and shyness. Kassovitz as Nino is subtle and simple and plays his role to perfection. Jeunet does a good job of developing out-of-normal characters who are attentive to simple and trivial details. There is a healthy dose of optimism in this movie that you will actually wake up tomorrow morning thinking that the world is a beautiful place to live in.

About Schmidt - Movie Review

The joy of watching slice-of-life movies is the ease with which the viewer can slip into the shoes of the characters. There is hope and despair, comedy and tragedy, interesting events and ... well, thought provoking silent moments - just like our lives. Alexander Payne's 'About Schmidt' deals with a life that's typical small town, square state middle America, but we can see ourselves in Schmidt's mirror. The force of this movie lies in it's simplicity.

Warren Schmidt, a retired insurance company executive from Nebraska stares at the void that is his past and future. He's sixty-six years old, he's just lost his wife, emotionally and physically distant from his daughter, he wonders what's the meaning and purpose of his stay on the planet. Deep inside he's afraid that his existence of six decades is pointless and saddened at the prospects of his future.

To fill this void, Warren adopts a boy in Tanzania through a child help programme, through which he'll send money every month for the boy's education and other basic social requirements. His letters to Ngudu, his foster son, are the means of his emotional ventilation where he expresses how he doesn't love his wife, and later, when she dies, how he misses her. He's also not happy with the younger generations's attitude: his replacement at the insurance company is cocky and values his degree over Warren's experience is just one case.

His daughter's about to get married and he's not happy with her choice of groom. He tries to stop her, but he's too late to impress his words upon her. Though he feels that his daughter could find a better man - intellectually and financially, he doesn't realize that emotional compatibility is the key to a successful relationship, which he didn't share with his wife. At one point he finds a woman with whom he'd spent less than an hour to be more understanding than his wife of forty two years.

Jack Nicholson very adroitly plays Schmidt - there is such control in his expressions that you can teach a young actor with this performance. He's almost in every scene and carries the movie all by himself until Kathy Bates (his son-in-law's mother) steps in and steals the show. Alexander Payne's direction is very natural and believable - not a false step, not a bad dialogue and creates a sympathy for Schmidt inspite of the character's weaknesses.

The movie has elements that are mish-mashed of road-trip, end-life crisis, satire and cynicism. But I think of it as an exercise in character study: we are allowed to observe the old man who is retired from a job of repute who thinks he's done nothing useful with his life; who is bad at managing his daily requirements all by himself; who can't express his love for his daughter and at the same time wants to be loved; and finds solace, peace and happiness in a boy who accepts him as his foster father.

On Reviewing Movies

Everyone walking out of a cinema theatre is a critic, though there are varying degrees of understanding a movie. There is the erudite class of reviewers who usually hold degrees in film or at least in art criticism, definitely have a scholarly authority on the art and technique of movie-making and usually don't bring themselves to watch commercial blockbusters. They look for innovative shots, natural dialogues, long pauses, directorial touches... to mention a few of their requirements. These elite circles meet within themselves, discuss a shot (which a common man wouldn't have seen and even if he had, wouldn't understand the conversation anyway), smoke and generally complain about the slide of the art form into an entertainment for the mass.

Then there is the accessible class of reviewers, whose aim is to interpret their understanding of the story, it's pitfalls, scope, beauty, disappointments, etc to the common man. These guys don't usually hold any degrees in cinema and are okay with commercial films - they see cinema as both an art form and as an entertainment medium. They are willing to let cinema educate them and also let the readers know how profound the message is and powerful the movie is. They have a wide reach because of their simple and lucid interpretation of their thoughts, unlike the erudites. They have a smattering knowledge of what goes on behind the camera and try to update their knowledge through books, speciality sites and the erudite class.

At last is the fun class of reviewers, who don't take their reviews or the time taken by their readers seriously. They just want to let out their thoughts on a movie they saw in a print format, which the internet has made it very easy. They talk about the story in a vague manner, just go gaga over how cool their favourite star is on the screen and then narrate an incident that's unconnected to the movie. This is more like someone telling his friend how likable the movie and there is absolutely no coherent expression. There is not much to gain if you're a movie lover from such reviewers.

I consider myself to be in the accessible class. I read a lot about movies, watch classics and investigate what made them a classic. I stretch myself to find a rare title and see what erudites has to say about that movie. As I started understanding movies, I started falling for those which are labeled 'art'. Contrary to what the common man believes, 'art movies' aren't boring if you understand what they're trying to convey. There are close-up shots of a door-knob, so that you can wildly imagine what's going on inside the room; insanely long shot of an old man walking slowly, who is realizing that he has a lot to do and so little time; long pauses between a conversing couple, so that the viewer can wonder what's going on in their minds; static camera which doesn't follow the characters, to create a sense of the viewer being a restrained voyeur peeping through the camera viewfinder. As one's understanding goes up, it is actually fun to watch such movies.

That doesn't mean I'm bored with a typical commercial movie. It's just that I expect a lot of invention from the makers of a commercial product, because I've seen a lot of junk stereotypes. Akira Kurosawa created a sense of fear combined with anticipation in 'Seven Samurai' in 1954, and people until today are following the same techniques - that bores me to death. Some of the ideas to 'thrill' me in a recent movie actually put me to sleep. I wonder if these storytellers think their audience were born yesterday. Indian film-makers generally disregard originality and intelligence and try to make it up with songs, fights and flesh. I've seen enough of all the three elements and hence they don't interest me unless they have anything special.

Every critic is unique and it's always good to have a constructive fight within the community. I've received a fair share of venomous arrows for not approving a popular hero or a successful movie and I am hoping that I'll receive more such shots. I have my guilty pleasures too - where the world loathes that movie and I secretly admire it. If it comes to reviewing, I will confess my affection for the movie. In any case, you can expect me to speak my mind without giving in to public pressure.

Vettaiyadu Velaiyadu - Movie Review

Kamal Hasan is a star and my definition of a star is one who can single-handedly make an average movie into a good one and a good one into a great one. And usually, the name of the star is flashed before the name of the movie - which is not the case here. I guess that means it's a message to audience that this is a director's movie and Kamal doesn't dominate 'Vettaiyadu Velayaiyadu'. And Kamal should be happy about it, because he won't have to take the blame for this crappy product.

Gautham, the writer and director of this movie has serious misconceptions about the elements that form a thriller. Gory murders, car chases, intercuts, jump-cuts, interspersed black & white images, fade-outs, hand-held camera with jerky shots.... Mr.Gautham, these are masala ingredients that are added to an already well cooked item to enhance the flavour. The masala by itself cannot be the food. To make a good thriller, first captivate the audience with a good plot and develop the character. Now, when you put the character into a tight corner, the viewer will feel his pulse racing. The basics of a good thriller are no where to be found in this movie.

The next couple of paragraphs reveals the storyline. For a virgin movie experience, read them after watching the movie.

Raghavan (Kamal) is asked to head an investigation into Madurai DCP Arokiaraj's (Prakash Raj) missing daughter. He finds that she was raped and executed (throat slit) with surgical instruments. So, it is narrowed down that someone with medical knowledge has done this. Later when Arokiaraj and his wife take a vacation to New York, they are murdered in the same fashion. Raghavan, who goes to New York to help their police solve the case, unveils four other bodies killed in a similar manner.

We realize that a couple of students from Tamil Nadu, studying medicine at Brooklyn Medical School are serial rapists and murderers responsible for all the murders so far. When Raghavan zeroes them in, they miraculously escape - not just from Brooklyn, but from U.S and come back to India. Meanwhile, Raghavan's brief stints with Aradhana (Jyothika) blooms into love and they both come to India. You can predict the climax - the psychopath students go on a rampage in India before holding Aradhana as a hostage. Our hero comes and kills the bad guys and rescues her. Subham.

Kamal's performance is poor. Gautham didn't even get the second best performance out of him and it looks like he slept between calling 'action' and 'cut'. Kamal is one of the ten best actors I've seen and is a rare talent in Indian cinema industry. He's already aging and he should stop committing his remaining film career to such lousy projects. I'm not demanding to tailor masterpieces in every outing - but anything of this quality is avoidable. But if the audience punish him for delivering 'Hey Ram', he wouldn't have the motivation to experiment. Anyway, if you want to see Kamal as a cop, go rent 'Khakki Chattai' - that's wholesome entertainment.

The plot is so thin that Hardy Boys would have figured out and caught the murderers earlier than Raghavan and detective Anderson (his partner in NY). The direction does not hold water because of an unstructured screenplay, which is based on a loose story, all of which are unsupported by some bad dialogues. You can thank Gautham for messing up in all these departments. Ravi Varman is the photographer and I frankly would like to talk to him about a technique he uses during a chase scene: the camera vertically rolls 360 degrees a few times and it adds head ache to the already pained head by the story. The saving grace could be Harris Jayaraj - a few songs stayed with me as I walked out of the theatre, and I guess it will be a few months before I forget them.

Hitchcock said something like "There is a bomb under the table, it explodes - it's action. There's a bomb under the table, it doesn't explode - it's suspense". Gautham thinks he has fused both action and suspense deftly in this movie. But there's no bomb here - only a table.