Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Babel Snubbed

Wow. The members of the Academy have screwed up again, and how royal is the mess. Babel gets the consolation 'best music' (such wonderful mood pieces by Gustavo) while the decent entertainer The Departed walks away with top honours. I haven't seen 'Dreamgirls', but it's hard to imagine someone beating both Adriana Barazza and Rinko Kikuchi. And the wonderful Guillermo Arriago hasn't even gotten a nomination. I only hope that the members don't dry up Inarittu, one of the most promising upcoming talents, the way they treated Scorsese.

Flags of Our Fathers - Movie Review

Opening lines: Every jackass thinks he knows what war is. Especially the ones who've never been in one.

Flags of our Fathers is somewhere between a movie and a documentary. Based on a book, the movie recreates some of the events that transpired during WW II, employing an unbiased tone in it's narration. It's a meditative look at the nature of war. Critics have called it a confusing product because of no clear demarcation between various timelines, no definite storyline and under-developed characters. But I think it was all very much intentional. Steven Spielberg (Producer) and Clint Eastwood (Director, Producer) must have deliberately made the movie look the way it is, so that neither the story nor the characters are etched on the minds of the audience. What remains at the end of the movie is a buzz, a hazy picture of the enemy, a persistent humdrum and a sombre feeling. There is no heroism or glorification here, which is exactly the point - everybody in the war is an ordinary human being trying to escape from bullets whizzing at him. With this atmosphere soaked in, you get up from your seat.

The central themes (if I'm allowed to use those words) of this cinema are about the government's machinations which plays cheaply on the minds of the public to make money out of war and the true nature of these so-called heroes. When the long World War II was reaching it's climax in 1944, a bunch of marine corps take an American flag atop a mountain in Iwo Jima, a Japanese island and perch it over there, which gets wonderfully photographed and sent back home. The government is out of money and can't sustain the war. It needs people to buy war bonds. To make money, you need to make heroes. The photograph, which symbolizes the patriotic spirit of the soldiers and their march ahead in covering ground, appears on the front page of all the dailies and the government decides to bring three of the six soldiers in the picture (the other three were killed in combat). These soldiers go around the country canvassing the mass to part with their dollars.

American marines landing on the beaches of Iwo Jima is reminiscent of the opening sequence of 'Saving Private Ryan'. A faded look with colours toned down, a faceless enemy operating machine guns, men with gun firing sporadically and trying to get covered, medics rushing aimlessly... but the power-packed punch of Spielberg's visualization is absent here. And that absence very much helps the story, because these is no glorification here. When those three soldiers are asked to recreate the flag-perching in a huge stadium, in a ceremony organized to raise funds, we realize the absolute hollowness they feel and their repulse for showmanship. While one of the marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), enjoys his brief fame, John Bradley (Ryan Philippe) expresses his indifference and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) exhibits his revolt. Beach delivers a memorable performance as man unable to grapple with loss, one who finds it impossible to put a fake smile. In an extended epilogue, we see that he had long lost his passion to live and the screenplay deftly doesn't say if it's this war that made him what he happened to be.

The movie doesn't blatantly say anything, but the current situation calls for a comparison with the American troops in Iraq. The movie features a few scenes, where the American president and many senators congratulate the marines and say something like "You're doing a great job" or "It must have been like hell". Whenever someone said that, I was reminded of the opening lines. The governments, have time and again deluded the public into buying the theory that fighting a war will result in lasting peace or something as unimaginable. As to the second theme, about the so-called heroes' real life, they saw each other in a totally different light. In a sublimely touching scene, John Bradley says that he remembers one of his friends, not the way the public remembers, but as someone swimming in the beach very spiritedly after putting that flag up.

Closing lines (as told by James, son of John Bradley): I finally came to the conclusion that may be he was right, may be there are no such things as heroes, may be there are just people like my dad. I finally came to understand why they were so uncomfortable being called heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It's a way for us to understand what is almost incomprehensible, how people could sacrifice so much for us, but for my dad and these men the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies, they may have fought for there country but they died for there friends. For the man in front for the man beside him, and if we wish to truly honor these men we should remember them the way they really were the way my dad remembered them.

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Inside Man - One Minute Revew

Slick. That is the word to describe this movie. At the outset, the movie is about bank robbery. The movie features a somewhat intelligent plot that covers the basics of heist genre, though it isn't the plot we're interested in. A gang of robbers take on a bank in Manhattan, hold it's clients hostages and ask for a plane to escape. We've heard it all before, and know that it isn't the way the story is going to unfold. Well, the progress of the screenplay doesn't throw much shocks or surprises, but it's all done very affably that you can't suppress having a smile for most of the running length. Take this dialogue exchange between the chief negotiator and the chief robber for example:
Cop: Don't say proposal, see, my girlfriend wants to get married.
Robber: What, you think you're too young to get married?
Cop: No, just too broke. Maybe I should rob a bank.
Robber: Do you love her?
Cop: Yes.
Robber: Then money shouldn't matter.

For a crime thriller, this movie has more than it's share of humour. With stars like Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster in front of the camera and the magnificent Spike Lee co-ordinating from behind the camera, you can take it for granted that there can be no false dialogue deliveries or fake expressions. In a classic cool scene, the robber asks one of his hostages, a young boy, about the video game he's playing. When he explains the objective of the game (Grand Auto Theft?), he ruminates for a moment and says "I'm going to talk to your dad about this game". The respectable Christopher Plummer plays a very dignified cameo as the chairman of the bank trying to protect a haunting past. Matthew Libatique, the photographer is just spot on - with so many symmetric shots and a fine balance of colours, it's a pleasure to see the scenes flow. Russell Gewirtz has done a commendable job writing the screenplay - the compliment is not for his plot (which is interesting, though, has a few logical fallacies) but for treating the audience to a fine entertainer. This could have been much more, but I'm not complaining.

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Passing the Baton

In a recent function organized by Vijay TV, Kamal Haasan was awarded the Chevalier Sivaji Award, something like a life time achievement. Among the audience were the crop of young and not-so-young actors ruling the box-office in the state. Kamal, as usual credited Nagesh, K.Balachandar and Sivaji for pushing his abilities, said that he has no plans of writing a biography, expressed that he felt immensely honoured to receive an award chosen by the general public and then went on to say something very important. Did those young guys with money overflowing from their pockets hear him?

He has been venting out his dissatisfaction at the level of performance among actors in particular and films in general in the past couple of years. Well, he's been doing that for quite some time, but I hear him groan often these days. He once said that as long as his senses are keen and aware, he would some how associate himself with the process of making cinema and expressed his wish to see Tamil cinemas that would make him jealous; that would have him crazy after a role upon seeing a movie - and yearn that he didn't get a chance to play one such and admire the actor and story at the same time. He also indicated that extrapolating the current trend, in his old age, he might just say "namma pannadhayedhan indha pasanga pannittu irukkanunga".

He clarified a point: he's not unhappy when his experiments fail and some lame movie succeeds. Because he didn't complain when his masala movies made money while some quality content were disregarded by the public. But he decried the lack of balance - there's a lot of masala and not much food for thought. When the trophy was handed over to him, Kamal said "It's very important that this statue doesn't remain in my hands for long. The industry should evolve to grab this from my hands as early as possible." He also took it upon himself to groom actors who might be worthy successors to him. Of course, he didn't explicitly praise himself, but he made it obvious that there's not any ground-breaking work going on in the industry.

After Kamal & Maniratnam, I don't see anyone trying to talk intelligence in a movie. Good cinema, as pointed out in a earlier post, is dying in the hands of star power and entertainment value. Earlier in the function, when Vijay received the best actor award he said that he wasn't sure if he was worthy of the honour. There is no room for doubt. The masses elect, just like in politics, a shallow showman. Kamal's speech could also be construed as warning to the mass. If the public doesn't encourage experiments, there is no point in blaming the film makers. But my question to Kamal is how many artistes & technicians have RajKamal Films introduced? When digital movies with newbies can be made at a budget under Rs.10 lakhs and marketed at a relatively low cost (at least in the cities), why hasn't he produced any? What has he done to change the situation other than leaving his films for the upcoming actors?

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Thoughts on Borat

The single most striking aspect of Borat is that is constantly ventures beyond limits of decency. The writers have compiled a list of violations to be committed and twisted the situations to write comedy sketches: Borat finds his sister showing off her vagina to her mentally retarded brother and tantalizing "you'll never have this" as funny; he is offended when he learns that women can choose their sex partners; he says that of the problems plaguing his country are social, economic and jewish; he says that women have brains comparable to that of a squirrel's at a feminists meeting; and much more.

If you're sensitive and you're either a jew or a muslim or a woman's rights activist or a Kazakh or a very normal human being, your blood pressure will have shot up at the end of the movie. If you're thick skinned when it comes to matters of religion, gender or race, you will laugh at least two times during the running length - the humour is not only of the offensive kind, but there's also silly, childish and slapstick. Borat tumbles here and there in an antique shop, and he does that in a believable manner. He asks "is this a cat with a hat?", looking at a tortoise. The basic premise of the movie - travelling to Los Angeles to marry Pamela Anderson before she loses her virginity is itself ludicrous.

I wondered if the MPAA guys found it so funny that they lost their senses and awarded a lenient R, for the movie features a nude fight between two grown men. That scene alone should have earned the movie an NC-17 rating. The photography and music lends comedic value at times - when Borat sees a dirty video of Pamela and later laments, the music director weeps as if Borat's tears aren't enough to make us laugh. There is not much for the director to do here - the major credits, if you're inclined to call it so, should go to the writers: there are so many laughs, gags, pulls, triggers, insults, explanations, interpretations.... conceived on the paper and Cohen delivers them with a childish frankness.

At the end of the movie I just felt like watching 3 or 4 adult rated comedy sitcoms back to back. This is the kind of movie that takes pride in it's immaturity. Mildly refreshing, kept me smiling, but at the end I just hurried to the bathroom and then never again thought about the movie.

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Pokkiri - Movie Review

Where do I begin? The incredible story, or the lazy screenplay, or the juvenile direction or the heartless performances or... I face the same problem while reviewing very good movies too. I don't know where to start just because all the technicians and artistes work together and their team effort shows on the screen - the photography, production design, action, music, direction and all other aspects of film making are just inseparable. In the case of movies like 'Pokkiri', they all stand very distinctly apart - as if the cameraman had a stiff with the set director and they both didn't talk for the entire shooting period, or the actor differed from the director's point of views and they both decided to do whatever they wanted to do. You could write an essay on what went wrong in each department, and you'll have enough material for a second one.

'Pokkiri' is the story of Tamizh (Vijay), a guy who offers his muscle power services to city mafia. For money, he would kill and plunder, but not touch children and women. For most of the running length, he hangs around with his friends, falls in, out of and again in love with Shruthi (Asin) and kills people at a frequency a common man would scratch an itch. Since we all know that young people look upto Vijay, he can't don the role of a ruthless killer as he's initially portrayed. So, towards the end comes the expected twist in the tale. By the time his gun runs out of bullets, an international don (Prakash Raj) and his gangs are dead and so are most of the audience in the theatre seats.

I have no complaints against the masala nature of the story. But the execution is so bad that will put a teenage European filmmaker to shame. Vijay's introduction: as he jumps over a plank, green chillies and lemons are strewn in air next to him - a symbolic 'drishti' neutralisation. He utters self-serving words like 'indha pongalukku sama collection' and lyrics that goes 'padapporen enna pathi, kelungada vaya pothi'. The dialogue writers should be lynched for their involvement in the movie - almost every second line written for Vijay is written with the intention of being a punch dialogue. Please understand dear writer, just because the movie has that many punches (and that too off-target punches), the audience are knocked-out very badly. The love between Tamizh and Sruthi is developed neither coherently nor maturely. Vadivelu rubs salt in the painful screenplay.

I saw this movie on a weekday for a matinee show in Virudhunagar, which I guess is a proper B center in cinema trade parlance. The theatre was moderately crowded, whistles and claps for Vijay and hilarious laughter for Vadivelu (he urinates over himself, how's that for a comedy sketch?). I saw the audience leaving the premises with a satisfied smile implying that the experience was worth the money. Vijay openly admits that he wouldn't experiment and would stick to the hero formula. Nothing wrong with star power, but shouldn't it entertain all the segments of cinephiles? This is clearly a downward spiral. Prabhudeva, who debuts as a director in Kodambakkam seems to have struck the right chord, only that the chord is so jarring.