Monday, October 31, 2005

The Weather Man - Movie Review

John Lennon said "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans". If you write a 104 minute screenplay based on this quote and cast Nicholas Cage to play the lead, you have "The Weather Man".

David Spritz (Nicholas Cage), is a Chicago weatherman, recently separated from his wife and two kids. The film is not interested in giving us the details that caused this estrangement . He is apparently flourishing in his job. He has a subdued, but seemingly normal relationship with his famous father (a Pulitzer prize winning author, played by Michael Caine). But there is something lurking underneath the surface that suggests more trouble than the obvious. There is a 10 second close-up of Cage's face in the beginning of the film, where he is just staring at the camera. Through this shot, he is able to suggest a spiritual turmoil underneath without even twitching a single muscle. Now there is star who knows how to act.

The weatherman's (Cage) problem is that he cannot take himself or his job seriously ("I just read the weather, I don't even predict it"). Groucho Marx crystallized this predicament in his brilliant one-liner "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member". This problem seems to be afflicting movie characters since the Marx brothers' time. In a recently released movie "Elizabethtown", the lead character asks "Don't you think that you are just fooling everyone, and someone is just going to call your bluff someday?". It seems that people have a problem quantifying their lives. They need a reference frame against which they can measure their success. And this reference point is almost always too idealistic and unreachable for real life to measure up to. Cage's character in the movie has the same problem. He measures his life with that to his father's. His father published his first book when he was 28 and got his Pulitzer when he was 31. And anything he does in the weather business seems too trivial to even merit comparison with his father's achievements. He writes novels (bad ones at that) in his free time, tries to be a good father by awkwardly spending more time with his kids. He wants more. Doesn't everybody?

There is a possibility of an excellent movie here. But, what we get is only a reasonably good one. The movie has loads of half-baked, heavy sounding, pseudo-Zen babbling. Well, what better can one expect. To expect insights into life's philosophy from a big-budget Hollywood movie is like turning to Dr. Phil's show to solve domestic discord. The movie works not by giving profound insights, but by providing quirky moments and letting good actors do the rest of the job. The strongest parts are the scenes between Nicholas Cage and Michael Caine. Caine provides a perfect counterfoil for Cage's deadpan stares and constipated expressions. The only thing that is more frustrating than wasted talent is half-utilized talent. When you get a glimpse of what could have been..., well, don't we all want more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

North Country - Movie Review

When complex social problems are fictionalized in film, mostly they are reduced to simplistic moral tales which end up glorifying an individuals' (mostly a highly paid Hollywood star) triumph over the forces of evil. Reality proves otherwise. Any meaningful and lasting change is brought about by broad based efforts of numerous people, where some individuals play an instrumental role. A change for better is society's triumph over itself.

"North Country" deals with the issue of sexual harassment faced by the women working in a steel mine in northern Minnesota. Sexual harassment not just by their male co-workers, but by the entire community that consists of the mine workers and their families. In doing so, it underlines a key fact - such acts of gender-prejudice is not perpetrated by men alone, as much as being perpetrated by the society as a whole. Centuries of marginalization of women is brutally rationalized by one simple sentence by Sissy Spacek's character "kids are your purpose, the Father brings home the money"

Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) flees an abusive relationship, with two kids in tow, to move in with her parents. She tries out odd jobs before somebody mentions that she could make 6 times as much by working in the steel mine. Her father, who has worked in the mine for the majority of his life, doesn't hide his displeasure at Josey's decision - "women just don't do such things". To start off, she is subjected to a far more intrusive medical exam than one would expect. Then, the torture starts-some outrageous acts passed off as fun, some explicit comments, actions, some implicit gestures. All aimed at sending one message - women have no business doing a man's job.

The women respond to these situations with whatever means accessible to them. But most of the recourses are fruitless, and taking an extreme step might put their jobs at risk. The movie deals with the various facets of this problem in the most convincing of ways. The filmmakers are very ambitious to dive into the depths of this problem. This over-ambition almost derails the movie in the final act.

Charlize Theron returns with a strong performance after her oscar-winning role in "Monster" The movie parades an army of Hollywood A-list actors in supporting roles, like Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spasek, and Sean Bean. The court room scenes are anchored in hard-boiled realism with the help of pitch perfect performances from the defense lawyer (Linda Emond) and the judge (John Aylward). The conversation between the defense lawyer and the President of the mining company is a brilliantly staged shadow fight of thinly veiled professional intimidation and psychological one-upmanship.

The stunning landscape of rural Minnesota in winter provides the backdrop for the human drama much like a David Lean film, where the epic settings provide a perfect backdrop for a personal story. This is done with no uncertain help from the cinematographer Chris Menges. The director is Nikki Caro, whose previous venture was the much loved "Whale Rider". With this movie she proves that she is one of the most promising directors to watch out for.

Note: Previously published in

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Good Night and Good Luck - Movie Review

While watching "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", the first film directed by George Clooney, one was able to see glimpses of a good director, showing modest promise. Clooney has come a long way with "Good Night and Good Luck"- his second attempt. Good Night and Good Luck is one of the most gripping, terse 90 minutes I have ever spent before a talking screen. One of the important and the most difficult contributions a director makes to the film is setting and implementing its tone. This film is an achievement of tone and mood.

The movie is based on the legendary face-off between Ed Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy over the actions of House committee on UnAmerican Activities (HCUA) in 1954. Exploiting the cold war hysteria, Sen. McCarthy launched a witchhunt in the early fifties which was aimed at branding and isolating left-leaning intellectuals and artists as communists. This unleashed a reign of terror in which artists such as Charlie Chaplin and Orsen Welles among numerous others were black-listed as communists. There was a growing restlessness among the leading intellectuals and artists against this terror-regime and the methods used to brand people.

Ed Morrow was the host of the weekly news program "See it Now", in which along with his producer Fred Friendly (played by George Clooney), they brought the methods used by Sen.McCarthy and the HCUA under fire. This led to a protracted battle in the media which galvanized the anti-McCarthy sentiments in the American society, which eventually led to the downfall of McCarthy and the US Senate passing a censure motion condemning his conduct by 67 votes to 22.

David Stratharin brings Ed Murrow to life through an inward looking performance of steely resolve. A large part of the movie involves close-ups of his face and his reactions. And his performance serves the film in the best possible way, unobtrusively. The only casting choice which doesn't serve the movie very well is George Clooney himself. At least for me, it was mildly unpalatable to see Clooney in anything less than a leading, larger than life role. And more so to see him play second fiddle to Ed Murrow's character was bit of a reach for me. But, that is only a minor aberration in this genuine achievement.

The movie provides a good window of the inside operations of a television network in the 50's and the argument between the president of CBS and Murrow and Friendly sounds almost innocent in todays standards, considering the role of (or the lack of it) TV networks in the equation of news vs. entertainment currently. This movie joins the illustrious list of movies that expose the inner workings of TV networks such as "Network" and "Broadcast News"

When Murrow and Friendly decide to take on Sen. McCarthy, the TV network (CBS) and the advertisers back-off and Murrow and Friendly are forced to spend $1,500 of their own money to promote the program in newspapers. The scene showing the airing of this live episode is a deliciously orchestrated orgy of great cinematography and editing. At the end of the program, after Ed Morrow signs off with his trademark "Good Night and Good Luck", there is the wonderful scene in which everybody's attention turns to the telephone expecting adverse feedback. The deafening silence that permeates the theater during this wait is one of the those true moments that only cinema can manufacture, and is a testament for what good cinema can achieve.

Note: More information on McCarthyism can be obtained from