Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Masoom - One Minute Review

DJ Malhotra, an architect of repute is a paradigm husband-father. His wife Indu, though snappy and stubborn is a lovely wife who is very possessive of her family. With two daughters of no-problem type, the family boat sails along smoothly until a past misdemeanor of DJ comes to haunt and rock the boat. Indu, who makes a scene early in the movie when a dog enters the household, has to live with a young boy who is born to her husband and his acquaintance out of wedlock. Cracks appear in the family tree, and DJ's professional and personal life gets hit badly. DJ's parenthood suffers at Indu's stiff resistance to do away with the boy and the director beautifully captures the emotional separation between the couple in a deliberately slow but serene screenplay. That dog, in one of he early scenes, breaks a family photo before Indu drives it out. The boy comes close to breaking, but Indu stops him from doing so.

Masoom is as refreshing as a splash of cold water on the face of a desert walker. Nasseeruddin Shah as DJ and Shabana Azmi as Indu have carved characters in this movie based on Erich Segal's 'Man, Woman and Child'. Written by Gulzar, the story has it's weak elements but they don't sting the flow of the story, and hence can be easily glossed over. This is Shekar Kapoor's debut feature and the talent of the man is evident here - he captures the growing differences between the couple with beautiful touches: avoiding eye contacts, sharp and cutting responses, sleeping apart and emotional outbursts - all cliched story-telling techniques, but executed with a mature eye. Though the movie is two decades old, it stands tall when compared to the current spate of Hindi movies - finding a good one today is like a desert walker bumping into an oasis accidentally.

Update: More on Masoom here.

Movies #7 - Classical Musical

I'm not a fan of the musicals - I get my share of musicals from Indian movies, which is the only thing they know to make with some level of international acclaim. I never get a strong movie experience from a musical because they lighten up the characters and provide a dreamy texture to the screenplay. Well, I'm not outrightly against this escapist tendency of musicals which run away from reality, but as a matter of personal preference, I'm biased towards gritty realism, where, of course, nobody sings.

Having said that, I watched Sound of Music and My Fair Lady last weekend. I enjoyed both of them, though they wouldn't feature in my great movies list, if I ever had one. I saw the latter first and my first thought was a sense of appreciation for Rex Harrison and George Cukor for pulling off an entertainer based on such a thin storyline. I see and hear critics hailing Audrey Hepburn's performance all over the web - 'not bad' is how I felt. Since Julie Andrews was robbed of this role, which she expertly played on the stage and since my wife insisted, we watched 'Sound of Music'. Now, this movie has a lot more going to it - a decent story, good music & lyrics, and a strong performance by Julie Andrews.

What I found interesting in both the movies is the under-developed love element. In 'My Fair Lady', Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle keep bitching at each other all the time and in the last half hour, there's a need and want of the other person for both of them. In the case of 'Sound of Music' the love between Maria and Georg is better, but not mature enough. We see moments of attraction between the lead, but then suddenly they're in love. I was let down by both the movies in this aspect. But the stories held my attention and the some of the songs were richly entertaining.

Indian Horror Movies

Indian movie industry churns out more than 500 movies every year, and the number has actually come down in the recent years because of piracy and the increasing popularity of television serials. Of all the movies made in a year, probably 10% of them feature original screenplays - the rest are all amalgams of Hollywood blockbusters and old hit formula Indian movies. I can safely say that only less than 5% of the movies that feature original screenplays belong to the horror genre - which means, of the 500+, only 3 horror movies are originally conceived by Indian writers. But we get our share of cheap thrills which are recycled from Hollywood or Japan - somewhere close to 20 movies every year.

Horror is not on the regular menu of an average Indian cineaste. He wants songs, fights, sentiments, tragedy, comedy, heroism and a happy ending. We call it the 'Bollywood formula' and when someone gets the ingredients right, the product is a decent entertainer. But the real tragedy is that the producers insist on religiously adhering to the formula even for thriller or horror flicks. Think of a dream song where the hero and heroine escape to the hills in NewZealand when somebody is plotting to kill him. Or a dying mother and a loving son trading saccharine sweet dialogues when there's a ghost in the house and every character comfortably ignores the ghost for 10 minutes until the mother dies. You get what I mean - the atmosphere, the thrill is watered down, which is a cardinal mistake to make in horror movies.

Most of Indian horror movies are immature. The producers don't treat their audice as mature viewers who are expecting something that will appeal to their mind, not just their eyes and ears. A dimly lit room, water dripping from a tap, a shabbily dressed woman all seen through a blue-green filter with an eerie music in the background won't generate atmosphere. Atmosphere is the result of a strong story which develops genuine characters and puts them in danger. But the essentials are not cared for and gimmicks are heavily relied upon. The writer/director strongly believes that 'boo' moments judiciously spread across the running time will deliver chills. No, it can occasionally make the audience jump out of their seats (that too depending upon the execution of the scene), but it will never make a good horror movie.

A good horror movie, like any good movie, comes from the mind appreciating the elements of the movie. Indian horror movies heavily depend on strange set designs, high-pitched yells, blood, gore, shocks, sex, camera movements, darkness, ununderstandable editing ( - horror staple) songs, fights and needless sentimental dialogues ( - masala balance). If these are the priorities of our filmmakers, then it could be quite a while before we can get a decent original Indian horror flick. Since horror/thrillers present a variety from the usual entertainers, they continue to make money, which means such movies movies will be made in the future as they represent a safe haven for the producers.

The number of Indian movies I see has dwindled; with easily accessible foreign titles, I don't have to endure a bad copy made in a local language when I can lay my hands on the original.

United 93 - Movie Review

Making a movie, or writing a book based on the events, or the aftermath of September 11 is an act of tightrope walking. The creator has to employ an authentic tone in narrating the events without commercializing the story and exploiting the sentiments of the victims. Talking of stories, there are hundreds of stories associated with 9/11, each dealing with fear, anger, sacrifice, hatred, love and much more. On that fateful day, four flights were overpowered by terrorists, of which three of them reached their targets. United 93 is the story of the fourth flight from Newark bound to SFO, which was wrested back from the control of terrorists by it's brave passengers.

Paul Greengrass, the director, allows the audience to settle down before punching them in the face. For the first half hour, he captures the essence of a busy morning in the airport and a feeling of laziness inside the flight on what seems like a just-another-day which are intercut with scenes from FAA headquarters, NORAD (Aerospace Defense), and air traffic control rooms which begin to feel the heat as a couple of planes go out of communication, deviate from their course and start flying low. At any given point of time, we know what the characters know - nothing more, nothing less. By adopting this approach, the director effectively builds up tension in the foreground and a sense of pathos at a subconscious level because we already know their fate.

A few minutes after take off, the leader of the terrorists eyes the Manhattan skyline, looks at the twin towers and gives a queasy expression wondering why his brothers haven't reached their assigned targets yet. The cameramen and editors add a layer of depth to the acting: when the hijackers are seen in long shots, they just seem to be behaving normally, without inviting any special attention. But, the close-ups effectively reveal their uneasiness and restlessness. A panic of different kind is seen in the faces of NORAD chief and FAA manager; as the two flights take on the World Trade Centers, they scramble for a military intervention and even if they get assistance from fighter jets, they aren't clear about rules of engagement. Only the President can issue a shoot-down, and he is busy thinking about his oil rich friends (see Fahrenheit 9/11*).

<Spoiler>With one of the terrorists threatening the passengers with a bomb tied to his body, a couple of them take control of the cockpit (after killing the pilots) and one keeps vigil. As passengers learn the fate of WTC and Pentagon from their family and friends, it dawns on them that their airplane will also be used as a weapon. Before long, a few men get together and plan an attack with whatever they have - hot water, knives, forks, fire extinguishers, etc. In a pulse-racing scene, the planners just swarm the guy with the bomb, rip him apart and allay the fears of the rest of the passengers that it's a fake bomb. When the terrorist-pilot realizes that they can't make it to their target, he just nose dives the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When passengers storm the cockpit and fight to take control of the flight, it's late and we see a frightening shot of the fast approaching ground view from the cockpit. </Spoiler>

Greengrass, who wrote and directed the movie gets everything right in the acting department. There is no character identification: the audience don't spend more than a few minutes continuously with any of the actors - and all of the actors are either new to screen or not well known. All the actors do a credible job of expressing their anxiety, fear and courage. IMDb says Greengrass put his actors who played terrorists in one hotel and the ones who played the passengers/victims in another hotel to capture the separation and hostility. It's very evident on the screen. In fact, some of the officials seen in the control rooms and military bases were real officers who were on duty on September 11. Barry Ackroyd's camera supports the actors very well. With most of the in-flight shots shot with hand held camera, he creates an immediacy that complements the action.

The editors have done a masterly job of keeping the material lean and low-fat: there's not a weak scene in the movie. The screenplay does not cut back to the control rooms once the flight is taken over by the terrorists: the audience are leashed to the flight until the end of the movie, which I think generates a lot of emotional impact. Had it been otherwise, the power of the film would have been diluted. 9/11 is one of the blackest days of the 21st century, but Greengrass offers hope to the citizens of the world and pays a rich homage to the victims of United 93**. This is close to a masterpiece - there's nothing wrong with this movie and the creators have treaded the tightrope successfully. Few movies have the ability to arrest the senses of their audience and bind them to the story - this movie did it to me.

*There's nothing ground-breaking in Fahrenheit 9/11. But for the uninitiated, it's a good place to understand George W Bush and his oil tycoon friends.
**$1.15M was contributed by the movie's earnings towards the memorial at Shanksville, where the flight crashed.

Movies #6 - Up Series, Apted

The 'Up' is a series of documentaries that have been following a group of children who were seven years old (in 1964) for every seven years. It seems like wishful thinking for an average film enthusiast to be able to voyeur a handful of lives at periodic intervals. Micheal Apted has delivered it to us - and if you can do simple maths, you will know that the latest in the series is 49 Up. Haven't seen anyone of them and would love to see them all.

In a very good interview with Roger Ebert, Apted said:
You could make a film of twelve people and show bad sides and laughter. I don’t think the films have ever been sycophantic. I think they kind of had a balance, but, nonetheless, underneath it all is an affection, which I think is important in any film. In any work of art there has to be a feeling. Out of feeling love comes, in any sort of art, I think.
Ebert said:
.... there was a person on the internet who got the box set and started to watch the first film and over the next 24 hours, although not consecutively, had seen them all. And then posted this notice saying that it was a metaphysical experience for him, that in a way he had seen not their lives, but life itself. Life flashing across the screen. Because that’s what it is, that’s what life is like.
TNR critic Stanley Kauffman writes:
The segments are so cleverly arranged--he includes past pictorial references for each of the people we revisit--that now there is something almost mystical involved. It is as if a wizard were giving us an overview of forty-two years that mortals were possibly not meant to see.

A History of Violence - One Minute Review

A small town Indiana resident, Tom Stall, runs a diner where everything is normal and everyone is friendly until a couple of guys show up with trouble on their minds. When these guys pull out their guns and threaten his customers and waitress, Tom springs into action, dealing them devastating blows with amazing ease and grace. When this act earns him a front-page recognition in the local newspapers and some amount of publicity on the national television, strangers from Philadelphia start knocking his doors. We learn that Tom Stall is Joey, a criminal who is running away from his past and desperately wants to be a 'normal' small town guy.

A History of Violence is as much about the ability of a man to survive in the face of danger as much as it's a love story. Tom Stall is under extreme pressure to be a sparkling example of non-violence to his son, but fails because of a mob on his toes. When his criminal history becomes evident to his wife and kids, they accept him - not out of a family force but with love, because he has been a great husband and father and treat his past spell as an aberration that is ignorable. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall to perfection, who is ably supported by Mario Bella as his wife. David Cronenberg, the director has achieved a feat that has become rare in Hollywood these days: silent moments are more powerful and thought provoking than action sequences. For a movie with violence in it's title, that's really saying something.

Movies #5 - Animation Progress

I watched Toy Story a few days back. When the movie was released about 10 years back, it was an instant hit, critically super acclaimed and hailed as revolutionary in the progress of animated movies. Pixar brought 3-D animation to screen with a like-never-before tag and it was quite true to see the new shapes and sizes moving around. And then I watched Incredibles. Boy, Toy Story isn't even half as entertaining as the Incredibles.

I guess it just reiterates the cliche, that at the heart of a good movie is a good story and at the heart of a great movie is a great story. Critics and the general public must have been awed by the animation of Toy Story (1995), that they stopped devoting their critical skills to the dialogues and story and just laughed out loudly at the slighest hint of comedy. With time, when superior graphics is taken for granted by the audience, a movie's story-telling skills can be the front runner in getting across to the viewer and make him laugh or cry with the characters.

Movies 4# Philip Seymour Hoffman

Five minutes into 'Capote', I knew I was in the hands of a very good director. When the extras do a commendable job, you know you're in for an acting treat. Hoffman does not merely imitate Capote but inhibits his characteristics, right from a holding a cigarette to leaning on a wall. In a party to celebrate the release of Harper Lee's (Catherine Keener) 'To Kill a Mockingbird', Hoffman remains out-of-focus, holding a cup of drink. Without making eye contacts, he talks to her, in a way that only accomplished actors can do. Conveys his mood and feelings with very little expressions, which only a few like Bill Murray are capable of.

Downfall - One Minute Review

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall chronicles Adolf Hitler's last few days in his Berlin bunker. A military debacle just around the corner, Hitler is deluded about his resources and keeps yelling impractical orders to his commanders. When his subordinates inform him of their colossal inadequacy in combating the Soviet forces and hint that surrendering could be the only diplomatic solution to save innocent civilians, Hitler explodes at them, calling them traitors and the civilians unworthy to carry on with their lives. Finally, he succumbs to his ego, kills himself and finds his only solace which comes from cleaning Germany of "the Jewsih poison."

Based on a book by Hitler's last secretary Traudl Junge's first person accounts, I find this movie meandering with no clear motif or destination. I don't see any need for this movie to be made other than exhibiting Bruno Ganz's thespian skills, who plays Hitler with great control. Cinematography by Rainer Klausmann is worth a mention - he creates a claustrophobic feel inside the bunkers, which is also how the officers there feel inside their hearts and to overcome that fear they keep drinking all the time. 'Downfall' has elements of good movie-making, but ultimately the movie doesn't convey anything.

Dr.Strangelove - Movie Review

Dr.Strangelove is a politically significant film even today, 42 years after it's release. The plot is quite light and the execeution so energetic that there is a chance you might actually take it on the face value and laugh at the comedy and go to sleep, that is, in case you aren't aware of the what some of the key decision-makers say in front of the camera today, like Trent Lott or George Bush, for example. The movie strikes a chord considering the current international political stage because it is all the more relevant with every country trying to gather nuclear technology and their leaders either appearing clueless or making outrageous statements in times of crisis.

A deranged US airforce commander, Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), orders B-52 bombers under his control to strike their assigned targets in U.S.S.R. Though, usually only the highest in the chain, the President of the US has access to the nuclear codes, there is a 'Plan R', which authorizes officials in the lower rung to order a nuclear attack (deterrence). When this is brought to the attention of the Defense General Turgidson (George Scott), he appears, hmmm... I can't find the right word, may be 'smug', 'complacent' and 'optimistic' or a combination of these words. When the President (Peter Sellers) is informed of the bizarre proceedings he convenes a high level meeting, every effort is made to stop those planes from reaching their targets.

What happens in the war-room, as the meeting place is called, provides the crux of the commentary on politics. We expect diplomacy and statesmanship, but neither is found. Arrogance and ignorace rule the meeting. At one point, Turgidson says "(with such an attack) we might actually catch them with their pants down". The presence of the Soviet ambassador makes it all the more funny. When he mentions that the Soviet Union is competent and is not below the US in any category, he says: "the arms race, the space race, the peace race". Well, if it's going to be peace, then they want to be the first in giving the common man a chance to live in peace and claim credit for offering peace.

There is a certain amount of thrill as the plot unravels - all but one of the bombers are recalled. And the quality of comedy is such that the humour borders on suspense that you'd want to know what happens next and at the same time you'd want the situation to remain inert for some more time as it offers the foundation for funny moments. The lone bird which flies low to avoid the eyes of radar after being damaged by a missile finally finds it's target, an ICBM station, and drops a hydrogen bomb and along with it it's captain (which is an unforgettable scene and is a part of many classic montages). The climax, which is bizarre and difficult to paraphrase, results in a potential end to humanity where the leaders plan to construct a mine under ocean to transport the best brains - needless to say, the brains includes those in the war-room.

Beginning with the names of characters (Jack Ripper, Faceman, Kissoff, Turgidson,.... ) Kubrick targets political and military figures on both sides of Atlantic without mercy. Peter Sellers, who donned three roles has crafted each role to perfection. There is fine control in his performances as the President trying to be sane, as captain Mandrake (assistant to Com.Jack Ripper) trying to getting the recall code for the bombers to the Pentagon and an intellectual lunactic (oxymoroic, yet that's the best word to describe him) Dr.Strangelove. George Scott, who keeps contorting his face, trips over, raises his voice to high pitch and remains silent when asked a question offers genuine funny moments. In the middle of serious discussions, he chats with his secretary girl friend and wishes to finish off the Soviet at the cost of 20 million American citizens.

In his long and illustrious career, Stanley Kubrick didn't make another comedy. For a taskmaster with a bleak outlook on the future of humanity, he should have thought that this one movie must be enough towards his contribution for the 'satire' category... and as history has proved, Dr.Strangelove is still discussed in film classes, movie clubs and figures in many lists. The nations that are seen as potential threats to disrupt peace and the power of nuclear weapons have increased manifold, but the leaders (U.S, Iran, N.Korea) continue to amaze us with empty rhetorics. It's a sad fact that this movie is politically very relevant today - one can only hope that the relevance decreases in the coming years. But as a work of art Dr.Strangelove sparkles with dry wit dialogues and memorable performances and will continue to occupy it's lofty spot on the list of comedy classics.

Movies #3 - Constituents of a Great Movie

I think, a thematically simple storyline, which is not tethered to the regional locks from which the movie comes, so that the story and it's characters can transcend geographic boundaries and strike a chord in a cultural alien is an essential element to make a movie great.

You can appreciate Pather Panchali even if you have no idea about Bengali traditions or Hindu values. A simple story of a poor family, which a man, say from Iceland can relate inspite of the Indian setting because of the authenticity of the events that unfold on the screen. Same with Tokyo Story - an elderly couple waiting to die, and their children are busy with their lives - a universal theme that isn't restricted to the Japanese. When the viewer feels that the emotions evoked in him/her by the movie are honest, it's a great movie.

Movies #2 -Life of Pi, Wheezing, Touching the Void

  • Like a biological alarm set to go off at 4:00 in the morning, I started wheezing again. A monster thunder had trigerred my dad to unplug the TV connections. So, instead of watching 'Syriana' again, I started reading 'Life of Pi' the booker prize winner by Yann Martel.
  • The theme reminds me of 'Touching the Void' a docudrama about a couple of climbers where things go awfully wrong but ends happily. Both, the book and the docudrama are about survival in the face of unimaginable adversity. Both are gripping and state how strong the will of a man can get if he faces death.
  • The book is an excellent account of Pi's ordeals on a lifeboat across the Pacific for 227 days. And his lone companion - a bengal tiger. (Pi is a boy of 15 or 16, and his name is short for Piscine Patel).
  • I'm guessing that somebody has already got the movie rights for the book. We need a great boy actor to portray Pi to get the emotional impact that the book imparts. We need a performance comparable to that of Tom Hanks' in 'Cast Away' for a meaningful transition from print to screen.
Update: Jean Pierre Jeunet has got the rights and is in preproduction.

Stephen Gaghan Vs Steven Soderbergh

Syriana and Traffic have a lot of things in common, story-telling wise. And that's not a surprise because Stephen Gaghan wrote the screenplay for both the movies. We are allowed to voyeur many families, cops, top officials who make important decisions, suffer personal losses, who are corrupt, who fight corruption...

Gaghan is very good at presenting a story that spans multiple layers (geography, status, culture..) but I wonder if he has Soderbergh's eyes for every character. 'Traffic', inspite of it's multi-character-intersections, impressed every character on the viewer's mind. The same can't be said of 'Syriana'. Matt Damon, an energy analyst loses his son at a party hosted by an Arab Emir. We don't feel that loss; more importantly, we don't feel Damon's loss.

Roger Ebert writes:
The movie's plot is so complex we're not really supposed to follow it, we're supposed to be surrounded by it. Since none of the characters understand the whole picture, why should we?
He gave the movie four stars, the maximum rating. I wonder if that's a new narrative technique, where the viewer just feels engulfed and at some points overwhelmed at the whole proceedings of the movie rather than understanding every character's position, intention and action. The tag line for the movie is 'Everything is connected'. Well, isn't it ironical that we can't figure out the connection.

ManiRatnam, Syriana #1

  • Woken up at 4:00 in the morning by wheezing, I had no other option but to watch 'Syriana'. I don't know if it's the convoluted, not-so-direct plot or my inability to pay attention to the dialogues, I didn't get a complete understanding of a couple of threads. A second viewing is necessary before I can jot down my thoughts.
  • I realize that ManiRatnam has been using his camera to add/provide a slick/glossy feel in the last 10 years. It's like watching his movies through a rich filter, yeah, they're visually arresting but somehow his camera doesn't capture the authenticity of what is shot.
  • As Hugh says, a story without love isn't worth telling.