Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Visually Challenged...

I bought a DVD copy of Giuseppe Tornatore's Star Maker; though I found that the subtitles were screwed-up, I decided to go ahead with the movie. The only other non-English non-Indian non-subtitled movie I've seen was Inarittu's 'Amorres Perros', which just blew me away - stylistically & directorially. I've been introduced to Tornatore before through his 'Cinema Paradiso' - which was a good film that made good use of nostaglia & love, with a passion for cinema at the centre. 'Star Maker' is a different theme that has a common man's (and of course, a woman's) desires of becoming a star & how a con man makes life out of it. Though that passion for cinema is present here throughout, that isn't where the heart of the movie lies. In this post, I'll just ramble about what I felt about the visual aspect of this movie. Dante Spinotti is the cinematographer of this movie.

Visually, there is nothing arresting about this movie; but in tandem with the director, the way the camera moves around the characters adds depth to the story-telling. In one of the initial setting-up scenes, Tornatore employs a long shot (time wise) where the camera pans across characters, then houses and then streets. In this scene, which I'm guessing ran for 3 minutes, a young boy picks up a suit and delivers it to someone without goofing up the continuity. Whereas later in the same scene when the camera comes to focus on a group of old men chatting on the street-side, one of them waits for a signal (probably from an assistant director!!) to begin the conversation and as we see them all closer, he begins talking. But we know that this isn't the purpose of this shot. When capturing slice-of-life, even before the camera had them in their viewfinder, we should've heard them talking (in low volume) and as the camera moves near them, it should've been like the audience eavesdropping on their discussion (which was already in flow) and gradually shy away from them. A meticulous & demanding director like Stanley Kubrick would've have reshot, but Tornatore should've found it too painful to choreograph everything again & must have okayed it.

There is a scene where the hero talks to the local villagers in a diner, probably about the power of movies & how stardom could transform one's life. For most of his speech we don't see his face, but from behind his head we see the listener's reactions. This camera movement is important because it tells us that cinema was not just a past-time for these people; they were giving their undivided attention to this guy who says he knows people in a studio in Rome but has nothing to prove his credibility. In a curiously interesting scene, where this con man and a local lady have sex inside his truck, the camera starts approaching the truck from a distance, as if a by-passer heard something from the vehicle and decided to check out what it was. The feeling is less of eroticism and more of voyeurism. I call it curious because the audience have already come to expect promiscuous plays in the con man's part and a simple intra-truck shot should have sufficed. Tornatore must have his reasons. In one of the opening shots, the lone truck moves from right to left on the screen, which I felt a little counter-intuitive. A healthy chunk of the screen's real-estate is occupied by mud, road & bricks, which I guess symbolizes dryness in their hearts.

I can't write a review without understanding the dialogues. Though the story is understandable and though I know what the characters mean, the power is lost without knowing what the characters actually said. Somewhere after the first half enters the lead lady, tries madly to get the con man to accept her into his life, not because she loves him so much but because she hates her life in the present form that much. Cinema & a nomadic life promises her freedom and thrill, I suppose. He refuses to take her & later he comes back to her. But I don't know if there is any kind of redemption involved. The movie ends with a montage of some of the screen tests that he had filmed in his trips across Sicily, where the whole movie transpires. Those who've seen 'Cinema Paradiso' will remember that the famous kissing montage at it's climax brought tears because of the wonderful chemistry that was between the young boy & the projectionist. The climax here just seems like a shameless copy of Tornatore's earlier acclaimed work. Though the movie isn't emotionally fulfilling, it isn't disappointing. So, there goes my mini review.

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Apocalypto - One Minute Review

Mel Gibson, the director, moderately succeeds in trying to tell a compelling moral tale in the first half. In the second half, he cuts to pure narrative and succeeds in telling a simple tale compellingly. Apocalypto opens with a Will Durant quote which says that a civilization rots from the inside. A Mayan village in 16th century, just before the arrival of Spanish ships is the setting. The chemistry between a husband & a wife, between a father & a son, between a family & it's neighbour, between a tribe & the next one is all told in a 'this is how you do it' style by the super skilled director. The essential set-up makes it clear that this is nothing but the calm before the storm. Marauders arrive - the king's army is scraping the nook & corner for healthy men to be sacrificed for their angry god who has let out incurable diseases on men and crops.

The second half is nothing but a lengthy chase scene - Gibson again proves that he can entertain audiences no matter what the setting or period is. To use on of my earlier phrases, this sequence is as refreshing as a splash of cold water on a desert walker's face. Brilliantly brought to life wilderness of the Yucatan region, breathtaking music and high-octane expressions by Rudy Youngblood, the hunter who is being hunted, all add up to a treat for the mind and the eye. Gibson continues his love for blood & flesh here - heads are chopped after the heart if clinically ripped off living men. Deam Semler's camera, James Horner's orchestra and the editor's scissors all come together to produce a thorough entertainment. At the center of this good vs evil drama is love for one's family, a theme that is being avoided by Hollywood except in the animation studios. This isn't a great movie, but has elements of greatness.

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'Sivaji - The Boss' - Blabber

When expectations are humongous, George Lucas once said, there is bound to be disappointment. The commercial titans of Tamil cinema - Rajini, Shankar & Rahman are coming together in 'Sivaji', produced by the yesteryear titan AVM. 'Thillu Mullu' is the best Rajini movie I've seen, closely followed by 'Thalapathi'. Whenever I see him delivering punch dialogues, there is a nostalgic flash-back of 'Avargal' in my mind reminding me of how great a villain we've lost. Shankar's success string should continue here: he very clearly said that this movie has struck a balance between Rajini's stardom & his message masala. Rahman's songs clearly belong to Rajini. Well, even the audio CD cover doesn't have his picture - a clear message for Rahman's fans that he's operating in a different mode.
At last there is a title song tailor made for the irreplaceable pop icon - Athiradikkaran... I can't remember the last time Rajini was given a song that was this fun, energetic, crazy, funky & zesty - 'Rakkamma' from Thalapathi comes to my mind, but it was too serious a composition to be branded as one belonging to a carefree style that I have (along with millions) have yearned for Rajini. The geeky techno start, guitar interludes before both the charanams, meaningless but extremely entertaining lyrics which refer to earlier Rajini movies, pitch-perfect Rahman's voice all add up to my expectations of how this will be picturized. If this is going to be the title song (where else can it fit - with Billa, Ranga, Basha? yes, as the closure song) I hope Shankar does a little more than presenting a collage of Rajini's earlier action scenes with graphical gimmicks.

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300 - One Minute Review

'300' is a video game that you can't play. And that too a game with a mediocre storyline, under-developed characters, flashy photography, sub-par special effects, directorial glitches all on top of historical inaccuracies that the producers would well excuse themselves saying that they have blended a good amount of mythology into the screenplay. Spartan king Leonidas with a paltry army of finely trained 300 soldiers take on the massive Persian army at the Thermopylae pass. While eventually they lose, these 300 soldiers withstand the heavy onslaught of Xerxes in protecting the narrow cliff through which they have to pass, which buys enough time for the Greeks to gather themselves.

The story-telling is colossally fractured - the viewer is kept in dark about the history, geography & politics that lead up to the war. And once the battle begins, we witness some cool action scenes, but soon the sheen wanes off and the hunger for some good story overtakes the bombarding visual food. The rapid/slow/quasi-motion combat shots where heads are cut and drops of blood are strewn across become boring after some time. A couple of nude scenes are shamelessly spliced in. Director Zack Snyder comes from a music video background and it's very clear from his treatment of material where substance is relegated for style. The editor has clumsily combined battle scenes with manufactured momentum and an amateur political drama that unfolds in the heart of Sparta. This is disposable entertainment, with an emphasis on disposable.

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The Good, the Bad & the Okay

This is all about how bad a movie is, a post which comfortably ignores one end of the spectrum. Good bad movies make me get up from the theatre chair with a verve, and find my way at a comfortable pace towards the exit. It's usually the case where the people involved in the production itself don't take their movie seriously and are satisfied to produce a decent entertainer. Ice Age is a good bad movie. Gilli is another example. Mindless fun is the keyword here, and to enjoy some of the scenes you must have to suspend your mind. They aren't a waste of time or money but they definitely don't inspire a second viewing. Good-bad movies are one of the reasons most people go to cineplexes - a convenient diversion from the chores.

Okay bad is a real squirmer. It's a lousy movie and you just wish that somebody shoots everybody and the movie comes to a quick end. Sequels to 'The Matrix' and 'American Pie' are okay-bad. The sole reason for their existence is because the first installment made money and the audience loved the characters. 'Kadhalukku Mariyadhai' falls into the same trap - very commercial, very predictable. For an atheist, I thanked god that day for Vijay hadn't overacted in more than 10 scenes in the entire movie. These movies are tolerable, though your subconscious keeps pestering you to peek into the next screen, doesn't matter how much of that movie has elapsed and how convoluted that plot is - your gut feel is that the neighbour screen hosts a better one than this.

Bad bad movies are a cinephile's nightmare. The producer must have been insane to green light such a project, the director very obviously incompetent and the actors clueless in most if not all of the scenes. Steven Seagal has generously contributed to this category. 'Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion' is one of those bad bad movies that brought me tears thinking of K.S.Ravikumar's greatness. I very badly wanted to spit on the TV to get rid of the bad taste it left in me. Other than the fact that these guys don't have a cinematic sense, they make us wonder if they have any common sense at all. Pokkiri's writer-director can be an astonishing case study of a lunatic mind. That day, I walked out of the theatre with a suicidal clarity that there's more to life.

Ramble: Usually, it's the commercially motivated projects that fall on the bad side. They offer adrenaline, sex, blood, sentimental manipulation, emotional blackmail, etc in a combination that's just not right. How badly they mixed these ingredients determines how screwed up the movie is. Though projects that shun the commercial aspect are handled deftly by experts who know what they're doing, they too miss the mark. Abbas Kiorastami's Taste of Cherry, which won a top prize at Cannes is a bad bad movie - because it's devastatingly boring. Many people said that it maturely dealt with death; well, it was almost death for me and that's the only death connection between that movie & me. Andrei Tarkovski's 'Nostalgia' is another one that comes to my mind. Either I don't understand or don't have the refined taste to delve deep and enjoy what the director is trying to convey - visually and non-verbally in case of both the movies mentioned above. Except for these two art movies, most of the stuff I've seen were pretty interesting and kept me hooked until even after the end of the movie.