Monday, November 20, 2006

Casino Royale - A Bond reboot that is well worth it

A Bond reboot after three years, after Pierce Brosnan. Based on the first Ian Fleming novel, this film presents a new interpretation and a grittier, darker and a matter-of-fact bond. Daniel Craig creates one of the most grounded, believable and kick-ass Bonds ever (I know, I know, except Sean Connery).

The movie starts out with Bond engaged in a gritty hand-to-hand combat (in black and white) with an assassin to earn his “00” status. And from there, he sweats out, picking new skills, smoothing the rough edges of his maneuvers. The Bond character is built stone by stone and we get an inside look at the construction process. Gone are the days of the womanizing, smooth-talking, chauvinistic killer. This Bond doesn’t have time for all that stuff: when asked whether he wants his martini’s shaken or stirred, he replies: “do I look like I give a damn”.

There is a spectacular on-foot chase in a construction site, where both vertical and horizontal hurdles are scaled with stunning ease (the chasee’s skills are more akin with a monkey than any possible human). From there, it is a mixed bag. There are some interesting sequences and set-pieces, and long romantic interludes where the action co-efficient is on the low. But, these sequences are never boring, and do serve the purpose of building the core of the character. This film is a set-up, and spends lot of time laying the base-work for future adventures- buckle up.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Harsh Times - Movie Review

"Harsh Times" is "Mean Streets" cast in the mould of "Training Day". It is a buddy movie and an exploration of the underbelly of the urban landscape, filled with drugs, violence, pointless bravado, and masochistic humor.

Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is an ex-Army ranger, who has temporarily slipped into his previous life of patrolling the streets of LA, engaging in an array of illegal adventures- drug abuse, selling arms in the black market etc. Jim is intent on getting back into the mainstream job market so that he can afford to get married to his girlfriend in Mexico, and bring her to the US. Having freshly being rejected by the LAPD, he is called-in by a Federal agency for a job offer.

He rolls with his buddy Mike, who, in the pretext of searching for a job, joins Jim in his misadventures, and together they navigate the crime hotspots of LA with great ease. They dart in an out of explosive situations, armed with an insider's eye and ear for all things criminal. Their daily routine consists of drugging up as early as possible, as if to block-out any possible intrusion of reason and good-sense, and getting themselves into inextricable situations, and pooling all their resources to get out of them.

During their travails together, they meet some former buddies of theirs who have opted for a more mainstream lifestyle, and "straightened-up". These interludes briefly bring-up the possibility of hope and one day, redemption. The movie suggests that, in the violent inferno of urban crime and street-life, one's destiny is dictated as much by luck and turn of events, as by their deliberate efforts.
Christian Bale turns in another first rate performance. He has been silently building an enviable body of work that speaks for his range as an actor - for further proof, rent and watch "The Machinist" and "Batman Begins" back-to-back. He is ably supported by Freddy Rodríguez ("Six Feet Under") and Eva Longoria ("Desperate Housewives").

This movie was written and directed by David Ayers, whose past writing credits include a slew of hits like "Fast and the Furious", "U-571", and more relevantly "Training Day". He has an eye for detail, particularly in this landscape. Here he creates a believable urban jungle, with suffocating atmospherics and fully believable, down-your-alley characters. It takes a little getting used to to the frequent blood-shed and graphic drug abuse (there is an excruciating scene where Jim undergoes an ingenious procedure to pass a drug test - the weak of heart and refined taste are well advised to stay away).

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Departed - Movie Review

The master storyteller Martin Scorsese returns to his home turf of gangsterology, goons, good guys, violence and bloodshed with his latest offering "The Departed". There is a general grouse that violence in Scorsese films are unmitigated and graphic, which is undeniable. He has set the benchmark for cringe-inducing violence and bloodshed in film (at least until the appearance of a director named Quentin Tarantino). In Scorsese films, violence is used more as a tool to shock and involve the audience, than as an end in itself (unlike in Tarantino films where violence is the means and the end, and the screenplay is more like a pean to violence.) Scorsese is more interested in the criminals themselves- he wants to probe their twisted souls, and dig out some humanity from those deranged landscapes.

"The Departed" is one such character study of the world of organized crime in Boston. (This is a remake of a Hong Kong cop classic “Infernal Affairs”.) Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, is the lord of organized crime in Boston. He makes his prodigy Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) infiltrate the state police force, wherein at about the same time, a recent recruit of the state police, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), infiltrates Costello’s gang. This sets up a curiously rigged high-stakes game, where the role of the hunter and the hunted is continuously reversed. The fact that both Sullivan and Costigan have a common love interest doesn’t hurt the complexity factor either.

The film could serve as a text book example of a well executed ensemble piece. Almost every single supporting character (and there are quite a few of them), is fully chalked out and realized, and manned with first rate actors. Mark Wahlberg stands out playing Dingam as a potty-mouthed muscle flexing cop, who intimidates and cows down opponents with his razor sharp wit and abrasiveness. Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen pitch in with solid performances. Amongst the lead actors, Nicholson stands out. Investing the role with a sort of glee filled rascality, he achieves the delicate balance of making the audience care for him just enough, without sympathizing with his actions.

The film, in its best parts, propels with a seething energy, ably aided by the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It works most effectively as a crime thriller. The screenplay’s attempts to transcend into greatness are only half-successful; the complex character studies initiated are either cursory or in broad strokes. One area where the film succeeds effortlessly is in combining crime and dark humor; this is one of the funniest crime thrillers you will see.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Science of Sleep – Movie Review

To describe “The Science of Sleep” would be a loopy exercise. The film is inventive as hell, imaginative as if there is no tomorrow, and loopiest of all loopy films. It’s like you write a nice little love story on a pack of playing cards, and give each card to a sleep-deprived, hyper-creative art student to doodle on, and assemble the cards back in order.

Each individual scene in the movie makes wild detours, is punctuated with dreamy interludes that frequently puncture the fabric of reality, leading to a constant state of intoxicated delirium. You are never sure where the film lands you – are you in a dreamscape or are you in reality? Sometime this could lead to total chaos, but the movie somehow finds a way to tell the story and find coherence between all this artistic mayhem.

Stephane (played by Gael Garcia Bernal, “Motorcycle Diaries”) visits his widowed mother in Paris. He moves into one of the apartments his mother rents out. A budding graphic artist, he is tricked by his mother into accepting a dead end rote job. His co-workers are an interesting bunch of modern age dinosaurs- people who have accepted their place (as modest as it might be) in society, and go through life with a sense of resigned discontent.

Stephane deals with the disappointments in his life by taking refuge in his spectacular imagination. When reality becomes unbearable, he slips into his fictitious world, and revels in the endlessly interesting possibilities that reality doesn’t afford him. Imagination is his last defense against insanity. Stephane finds a soul mate in his new neighbor Stephanie, who is slightly odd, interesting, and is also taken to creative pursuits. Their meet-cute encounters are like brainstorming sessions between the lead animators in Pixar Studios. They feed off each others creativity and oddity, and in no time they are inescapably drawn to each other. And, as in any romantic story worth its salt, complications ensue (the question is whether are these real or are they also parts of Stephane’s figment.)

Gael Garcia Bernal wields his considerable talents with apparent ease to create a fully realized character. Even at times when the movie is a jumble, the individual moments between the characters and the inventiveness of the makers hold it together. This is a sheer achievement in the craft of making films. The director, Michel Gondry, the maker of the wonderful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, exercises enormous control over the medium and executes this jumble of a movie with great finesse.

Monday, October 02, 2006

School for Scoundrels - Movie Review

"School of Scoundrels" has all the components for a mindless, crass, formula-based flick. Only thing missing is any reasonable entertainment value. One can sit through such exercises in borderline idiocy, if the movie has some good cheer, some laugh-out-loud moments, and some good old fashion escapist entertainment. "School of Scoundrels" has all of the above, just not enough of it to justify our time or effort.

Roger (played by John Heder of "Napoleon Dynamite"), is a New York city parking enforcement officer, a regular nice guy, who suffers from the standard issue problems of low self esteem, social ineptitude, and acute reservedness. He is a sort of guy whose book shelf is filled with rows and rows of cheesy self-help books. This is the sort of character that mainstream Hollywood loves these days; this character could have easily been transplanted (to and) from about half-a-dozen recent movies (e.g., "The 40-year-old-virgin").

Roger has a crush on his neighbor Amanda (played by the button-cute Jacinda Barret), which he has difficulty expressing. Also, adding to the complexity is the constant presence of Amanda’s girl friend (Sarah Silverman). (How the movie manages to waste the comic talents of the always funny Silverman is another story). One of his acquaintances, sympathizing with Roger's pathetic state of affairs, offers to help him by referring him to a self help coach ("I know a guy, who does this thing"). When a character in a movie says something cheesy like this, that should mean (in a good stupid movie), "buckle up your seat belts, and get ready for the ride". A good screenplay should have soared from this point, but this movie limps and grovels to take-off, but to no avail.

Roger goes to the self-help crash course conducted by Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), and further complications ensue. The movie has some of the best talents working for it. Billy Bob Thornton, the wonderful actor, who consistently creates fully rounded odd-ball characters out of almost any material given to him (e.g., "The Bandits", "Bad Santa"), fizzles out serving an insipid screenplay. John Heder, has made a career out of playing some version of the "every-man-loser" typecast, plays one more such role, reasonably effectively.

The film is directed by Todd Philips who directed the crass, cult classics like "Road Trip" and "Old School". Those movies were funny, this movie is not. Some of the supposedly funny scenes in this movie involve a paint-ball gun and John Heder's groin area, and in another occasion, a defibrillator and Thornton's groin area - this is how inventive the screenplay is. It is not that the movie is out rightly unfunny, it is just insipid, and lingers-on like the taste of a cheap gas-station-coffee. Wise souls will avoid this movie.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fearless - Movie Review

Meditation has many forms. Silent introspection of one’s inner self, sitting on top a hill for hours, as rewarding as it might personally be, really doesn’t translate into great cinema. Martial arts in its purest form, is another form of meditation. It is the painstaking pursuit of a singular goal, of mastery over a form, with great dedication and sacrifice. There are few subjects in this world that are so steeped in spirituality and yet have such an exuberant, entertaining form of expression.

Jet Li’s “Fearless” (if you are not already aware, Jet Li is planning to quit making martial arts movies, and this is apparently his last one), tells the story of the real life martial arts guru Huo Yuanjia at the turn of 20th century China. Growing up in a martial arts household, Huo has a natural predisposition to street fighting and bravado, and great disinclination towards academic learning. Growing up, his only ambition is to be the unchallenged champion of the Tianjin province. Of course, graver things happen to Huo and the ones around him, pushing him into a dark phase of his life. When he emerges out of this, his talent is co-opted by wisdom, and bravado is replaced by responsibility.

The story follows the predictable arc of martial arts flicks. And all these issues have been dealt with much more skill and depth in previous films (one example is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). But, unhindered by a weak screenplay, this film holds together remarkably well. The early parts of the film have a more authentic approach, reminiscent of the early films in this genre - by employing a more in-your-face approach, exaggerated emotions, melodrama, and caricaturish characters (compared to a more irony-infused approach in recent films).

There are some wonderfully crafted fight sequences along the way. One that needs mention is the sequence staged on a wooden platform 200 ft above the ground, with stand alone wooden bars serving as steps- a vertigo inducing thrill ride. These fights, while excellent in their own respect, suffer from the huge shadow cast by films like “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger…”, and fail to measure up their exacting standard.

The film explores the idea of competitive sports with great wisdom. The practitioners of martial arts use competition as more of a stock-taking exercise, than as an end in itself. In a way, worthy competitors are our greatest companions. They are among the few people who fully understand the toil and courage needed to achieve a level of excellence (in any field), leading to an un-spelt camaraderie and respect for each other. Our fiercest competitors might be our greatest motivators and closest collaborators (more than we might care to realize or admit). But the characters in “Fearless” realize this, admit to this realization, and celebrate it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Illusionist – Movie Review

“The Illusionist” is an immaculately executed period thriller. What it lacks for in originality and plotting, it more than compensates with rich detail and deft storytelling. “The Illusionist” tells the story of Eisenheim (played by Edward Norton), a magician in the early 20th century Vienna. As a young boy, growing up as a cabinet-maker’s son who is smitten by magic, Eisenheim falls for and has a short, passionate and ill-fated relationship with the young duchess Sophie. When their ill-botched plans to elope are terminated by the powers that be, Eisenheim disappears into the wilderness, only to reappear years later as a supremely talented illusionist. As mandated by the law of romantic storytelling, their paths cross again, and in no time Eisenheim and Sophie are passionately in love again (the adult version this time).

Where is the fun in the world if everyone gets what they want, so the plot thickens with the appearance of vested interests, villains, and almost-villains-whose-conscience-is-awaken-at-the-right-moment. The crown prince of Vienna, Leopold, has plans of his own to get engaged to Princess Sophie, and other plans of larger reach such as reorganizing the power structure of the royal house of Vienna. Leopold is aided in this scheming by his executive-lynchpin Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). “The Illusionist” waves this yarn of political intrigue, bureaucratic dogma and dilemma and period drama around the romantic thread.

The way Eisenheim’s shows are staged (or filmed rather) needs special mention. The introductions by his manager have the right dosage of awe-inducing hyperbole. And then Eisenheim walks on to an empty stage. There are no distractions on the stage- no gadgetry or gimmicks, or flashy clothing. The lean Eisenheim fills the stage with just his persona and presence. Edward Norton was born to play this role. He slowly tilts his head and starts speaking, and his words arrive with a sense of finality to them. It’s like his actions and words have been long set in motion, and they are just filling their logical positions like a domino set in motion. Paul Giamatti, Hollywood’s penance for the likes of Steven Segal, enriches the role of the inspector with his full-throttled approach. All this works because of the perfect setting of tone and atmosphere executed with ample help from the composer Philip Glass, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and cinematographer Dick Pope.

A word about the moustaches in the film- they appear in all shapes, sizes and vigor. Apparently, in this movie, the more powerful you are, odder-looking and vigorous your mustache will be. The actors should have demanded for a mustache-allowance for sporting these specious looking beings.

The movie has you in a spell during its entire duration, which you willingly surrender to. When you walk out of the theater, the spell vanishes, but, what fun while it lasts!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Wicker Man - Movie Review

Sometimes movie-watching is like riding a roller-coaster - you end up exactly where you started, but the thrill you experience during the ride is all you are looking for. Examples of this would be Terminator 2, True Lies. Sometimes it is like climbing a mountain - you sweat and toil during the climb, but the view it affords in the end is worth all the effort - it gives a glimpse of life you are willing to work for. Watching "The Wicker Man" is like boarding a flight to go to some exotic destination, you sit in the plane on the runway waiting for it to take off, and at the end of two hours, you are simply informed that was the journey and are asked to get off. The journey is neither worth the destination, nor the destination worth the journey.

Edward Malus (Nicholas Cage), a sheriff whose daily work is patrolling the highways, gets a letter from his former fiancee'(who left him for apparently no good reason, a few years ago), asking him for help in finding her now 5-year-old daughter who has mysteriously disappeared.

After undergoing the necessary emotions, Malus decides to go to Summersisle - the location of the girl's disappearance- which is an ominous and mysterious farm community located in an island in the Pacific Northwest. Malus is confronted by the weird inhabitants, their strange customs and hostile attitude during his search for the missing girl.

Under normal circumstances, a half-way decent screenplay could have extracted an amusing movie out of this premise. Not here. The movie misfires on all cylinders. Brilliant actors are criminally wasted - Nicholas Cage gallantly strives to save the movie with his commitment and skills, but to no avail. The grand dame of method acting, Ellen Burstyn, looks outright silly- now that is an accomplishment. Even the gifted composer Angelo Badalamenti, the genius who churns out masterpieces for David Lynch, provides an ever present, rankling background score that is more a nuisance than anything else. The supporting characters are so witless and clueless, they seem to exist just to mouth some cryptic-sounding blabber and squint and stare pointlessly. Once the movie shifts to the island, there is not a single exchange that seems authentic or sounds true.

Of course, the movie tries to execute a slew of textbook horror movie tricks. But in an un-engaging narrative, they look like the tricks of a pathetically exposed magician, who is determined to continue performing. Here is a tip - if a studio withholds the press screening of a movie before its release (as it happened with this one), there is a message to be heard - don't waste your time by even bothering to try it. Let the movie critics be the ones to voluntarily subject themselves to these kinds of exercises in pointlessness. Dear readers, listen and heed.

Note: This article was originally published in

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code - Movie Review

Disclaimers first. I haven't read the book. Neither am I an authority on Catholic theology/history. I view this movie simply as entertainment - a movie(or perhaps the writer) that cleverly conjoins well known (unrelated) facts to forward a conspiracy theory. The celebrated film critic Roger Ebert crystallizes the situation in his review: " DaVinci Code - the book is utterly preposterous, the movie is preposterously entertaining". Even Dan Brown says so: that is why the book is listed under the "fiction" section. So, the question that is most relevant to this review is: viewed as entertainment, how effective the movie is?

Viewed in this vein, most of the times, the movie oscillates between being moderately entertaining to reasonably entertaining, with a couple of 10 minute stretches that are certifiably boring. The story (wink! wink!) is, well..., wait..., uhhh... sorry, I cannot complete this sentence with a straight face. What if Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married? What if they had a child? What if their descendent(s) are still with us, today? What if the Catholic church (or a secret cell in it, actually) wants to keep this under wraps and will go to any extends, including directing a creepy looking priest, who is remarkably well built, and looks very close to what Paul Bettany will look like under silver blond hair, to terminate the last of these possible descendents? What if there are an equally zealous group, who are hell-bent on protecting this possible descendent? What if all of the above is true?

The movie starts with the murder of the a museum curator, who before dying, very conveniently, takes time to leave behind an elaborate coded message on the walls, annals and all possible surfaces of the Louvre, in Paris. His death brings the two principal characters together: Sophie, his granddaughter, and Prof. Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, who happens to be in Paris to deliver a lecture. This sets into motion a cat and mouse (and sometimes a mouse turned cat, chasing former fellow mice) game, between the lead pair and all the evil forces that are inevitably unleashed. During this process the English channel is criss-crossed a few times, and you get a free tour of the landmarks on both sides of the channel. For a film that is filmed entirely in Europe, it somehow manages to be visually bland. If you want to see how visually pulsating a movie filmed in Europe could be, rent the DVD of "Munich", and enthrall yourself.

The first half-hour or so of the movie limps by, in spite of the incredulous things happening around, until Paul Bettany's priest literally dashes into the screen and injects a shot of adrenaline to the movie (and the audience). But, during this time period, there is enough Audery Tautou and Audery Tautou-stares on the screen to keep one (speaking for myself) engaged. She is the most effective of the actors in the movie, projecting the right amount of incredulity and awe. Tom Hanks, playing Langdon, is colossaly wasted, and comes close to being invisible. This is partly his fault, but mostly the credit for this goes to the screenwriter and the director. This is deeply unsettling for a Tom Hanks junkie like myself. Tom Hanks is one of the greatest actors of this generation. Whenever I watch his earlier work ( I have seen "You've Got Mail" at least 20 times), I am dumb struck by his effortless talent and spontaneity. But in his recent work ("The Terminal", "Ladykillers"), his performances are not that effective. These roles require enormous skill just to attempt them, which Hanks obviously has. But his recent acting is affected with a touch of self-conciosness that somehow undermines his performances. It is almost like his spectacular star status and the consciousness of his power in Hollywood is catching up with him. I look forward to the day, when he will make me eat my words.

Effective conspiracy theories know how to tread the thin line between "could-be-possible" and "definitely impossible". They throw enough facts and logic at us to make us question certain things without pulling the rug completely. In that aspect, this is a remarkably successful attempt. Though, to escape certain inevitable awkwardness, it answers a lot fewer questions than it poses. In the end, they track down the sole living descendent of the Christ-Magdalene union. At this point my mind kept wandering off to imagine what sort of monumental pressure (procreationaly speaking, that is) this descendent must be under. I already hear that they are going to make another Dan Brown novel "Angels and Demons" with Tom Hanks returning to update his role. So for the 60 million fans who bought "The Da Vinci Code", and the countless ones who freeloaded on them, keep your engines running.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Mission Impossible III - Movie Review

Summer is here. Take out your wallets (and handbags) and be ready to shell out some serious cash towards the coffers of Hollywood studios. MI-3 officially kicks starts the summer blockbuster season. Blockbusters- meaning that you are expected to leave your sense of logic at home and if possible shave off 10-20 points from your IQ score- for maximum results and enjoyment.

Lets get back to the movie. Like all returning secret agents, agent Ethan Hunt is happily living a normal life, after a self-imposed retirement. And like any self-respecting secret agent, he is of course having an unbelievably great relationship, and when the movie starts, the pair is just about announcing their engagement. Here is a question: How do you prove the alpha-male status of a near-superhero agent? Conventional wisdom dictates that the incredibly good looking hero have a steaming, incredibly romantic relationship with another incredibly good looking member of the opposite sex. Wrong answer. Pair him up with an obviously not-so-goodlooking-heroine and this is supposed to instantly humanize our hero and bestow a romantic-god-everyman status on him. This act of romantic magnanimity, is supposed to reinforce and elevate his alpha-male status.

Once again, I am digressing. This is the wrong approach to view a blockbuster. Now, seriously, lets get back to the movie. Agent Hunt is called back into action, after one of his prodigies is kidnapped. He inevitably tangles himself up with the bad guys, and serious mayhem ensues. The bad guys are really bad, the good guys are relentlessly good, and the heroine is insultingly insufferable. The action sequences are thrilling enough to carry the film and there are enough foreign locations and action set-peices and emotional turmoil in the movie to keep you engaged for two hours.

The bad guy here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He gives a stunning performance, a performance with such merit, that I started questioning whether the movie deserves such a performance. I haven't seen such evil exude out of any villain. One look at him, you might want to turn in the opposite direction and start running. The movie is supported by a list of first-rate actors: Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne & Jonathan Rhys-Myers. The background score is used with delicious playfulness to incite the mood and suggest impending twists, without overexposing the already extremely famous theme music.

Such franchise films (like James Bond films) develop a template which is faithfully followed with enough variation to invite the viewers back to the theaters. Some components of the MI template: (i) rubber masks, which allows the hero and villains to switch identities instantly (this concept is stretched to the limits of human acceptance).(ii) self-destructing video-messages (iii) Tom Cruise suspended by a thin wire, almost hitting the floor (several times in this movie). This is a good action movie, certainly not in the top-tier of action films (like True Lies, The Rock and Face-Off). It could serve as an action appetizer for the impending summer blockbusters (Superman Returns and Pirates of Carribean 2).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bhagat Singh and the Roo Baa Rooo Conundrum

I got a very interesting comment from a friend to my review of "Rang De Basanti". I thought the comment needed to be answered fully and thought I should make it a part of the main-section of the blog. So, if you want the full story, please refer to my review of RDB. I have quoted tafosi's comment in part and have added my response to it.

tafosi said:

" You are right in a way because whatever you've said makes absolute sense due to your interpretation. Going by that, you will find no complaints. However, while seeing the movie, after seeing the movie and after reading everything that people have to say about the movie, my opinion on one thing has not changed. For me it is not a political movie. There was no political significance and I would love to ask the director if that was his intention. For me, the film was a character study of passionate, but flawed young men of India. They are the breed who live their life on the extreme, all about being impulsive and let the consequences be damned. In fact, the freedom fighters whom they portray, were themselves flawed. Once again, passionate yet impulsive. Yes the political message does appear to be resounding, but quite honestly it was never about that with me and once I was prepared to overlook that fact, I really liked the movie."

My Response:

I don't know, Ritesh. I won't characterize these characters as passionate and impulsive. These guys are narcissistic, self-involved and their cluelessness can only be topped off by their self-love. I don't think any other thought (apart from themselves) enters their mind- of course before they loose one of their own. I don't sympathize with these guys.

And to compare them to Bhagat Singh is an outrage. Bhagat Singh was a great intellectual and a revolutionary. The methods he used might be debated, but his love towards his fellow men is unquestionable. He was 24 when he was hanged. But if you read anything that he has written, you will appreciate and understand what a complex person he was. I recently found a good site that has accumulated all his correspondences and speeches:
His now classic booklet "Why I am an atheist" is a soul-searching and bold treatise. If you give one of these documents to the characters in RDB, they wouldn't be able to make head or tail out of it, unless we are able to introduce an item number with Malaika Arora in pitching these ideas to them.

He (Bhagat Singh) and his copatriots were not impulsive- they were deliberate and calculative. When they planted the bomb in the assembly, they went out of their way to make sure that nobody is hurt in the blast and this act was aimed at solely to get their voice heard.

The movie begs to be taken as a political movie. Here are some references the movie throws our way: (i) the saffron-cald activists seen all through the movie, they could have chosen any colour, but the political ambitions of the movie had to prevail. (ii) in the first scence, when Bhagat Singh is lead to his hanging, we see him reading a book by Lenin. So, taking it as a political film, the film fails miserably. If you don't take it as a political film, then, it is even more outrageous - in this case, they are willing to use any historical figure to spice up the proceedings and introduce some fake patriotism.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Rang De Basanti (Hindi)- Movie Review

Over the last few years, one has come to get used to the "hush-hush" reverence with which Amir Khan's new projects are received. And his latest one had even more "hush-hush" factor because it has another "hush-hush" talent A. R. Rahman associated with it. Once the movie was released, the second round of standing ovation started. Superlatives were exhausted. Blogs were clogged with praise.

RDB is the story (well, if one might call it that) of a group of college students with devil-may-care, I-have-nothing-to-do-with-studying, beer-gustling, high-speed-racing-in-the-dark, designer-cloth-cladding attitude, the likes of whom seem to populate every Bollywood movie these days. There lives are interrupted by a documentary filmmaker (a young British, should I spell it out for you, woman), who is hell-bent on making a documentary based on the lives of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru, Sukh Dev and Chandrasekhar Azad. Our "devil-may-care" college students are cast in the above mentioned roles. There are extended rehearsal sessions that are filled with generous doses of fun, frolic (so that the filmmakers can wedge enough number of song sequences and slick montages set to peppy music) and small helpings of sentiment and reflection. In the course of which, due to some unrelated, unfortunate happenings, they loose one of their own.

Now, the movies' master plan becomes visible and you can start drawing parallels between pre-interval rehearsal sequences and post-interval on-screen happenings. (I advice you to have a box full of sharpened pencils to help you draw parallels, as the filmmakers are hell bent on pointing every possible one with flash backs and ominous music.)

This movie could have been dismissed as another Bollywood potboiler, from which you are not supposed to expect any better. But the movie begs for our attention. It wants to be more. In the early sections of the movie, there are saffron-clad political activists always in incendiary, clash mode. If you start to expect any ideological debate/revelation, you are in for a big disappointment. The filmmakers want to aim for, well- everything. It is supposed to be a sharp political commentary on modern India. It is supposed to draw parallels with history and inspire the brains out of its audience. The problem is : the movie has the political insight of a twelve year old. The issues it raises and the solutions it directs at us have zero understanding of the complexity that shapes the ground realities.

Satyajit Ray, in one of his interviews, said that "artists are not needed to forward a solution for every problem they tackle. Because, the artist might not know the solution, all he can do is point in the right direction". This movie has no sense of direction, leave alone pointing in the right one. Even when it invokes (which our "devil-may-care" college students enact) the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, it doesn't engage in any intellectual probing or political, ideological stock-taking. It just uses their lives to orchestrate action sequences and high-speed pursuits in sepia tinted film, while the main characters deliver pseudo-jingoistic diatribe with lot of eye-squinting, eyebrow-arching fake intensity.

The audience reaction to this movie is another case in point. Mostly, the movie is aimed at ( and received by) the new generation of multiplex going youth. The movie seems to have induced a mixture of reverence, inspiration and admiration. The politics the movie discusses is deemed as extremely relevant and pertinent.

There is a belief/theory that a movie can only be as good as its director. Here is a corollary: a movie can only be as good as its audience. If this movie is deemed by its audience as a matter-of-fact portrayal of the current political scenario and its arguments are accepted as cutting-edge political discourse, then one needs to take a closer look at the audiences' political understanding.

This leads to a larger problem facing Indian soceity: the total political disengagement of the current crop of youth. The source of this problem is not hard to find. There is no half-way decent mechanism for the youth of today to engage themselves politically. Universities and schools in India, where there should be ample scope for such political development, have been completely sanitized of any political movements (barring a few government run colleges). On the other hand, it is considered a taboo to have any political affiliations or dialogue on campus and there is a system that inherently discourages such political engagement. A society with such flawed mechanism pays its price: almost total cluelessness of its next generation.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The New World - Movie Review

"The New World" is the fifth film by Terrence Mallick, in the last four decades. Still, his films rouse great respect and anticipation. George Lucas while receiving his American Film Institute life time achievement award, joked "Next to Terry Mallick I am the person who gets great amount of credit for the least amount of work".

"The New World" is a film that deals with the early European explorers who landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. They are received with a mixture and warmth and suspicion by the native American tribe inhabiting that area. The princess of the tribe, Pocahontas, develops an attraction for the rebellious Captain John Smith (Colin Ferrell). The film starts of as a comparative study between the old world and the new world and the clash of the civilizations. Then it shifts gears into a full-throttled love story. It is actually two films rolled into one.

The movie has a curious structure. It develops relationships and events with snippets of information and montages assembled to perfection. This leads to a shaky start, but once the film settles down it flows with great majesty and poise. This brings us to the question of the pace of the movie. Some moviegoers might complain about the lethargic pace of the movie. Well, if you can just give in to the movie, it sucks you up and never lets go. Certain human emotions and issues become accessible only at a certain pace. It is comparable to meditation- even though it is tough to get into this state, once you are there, the serenity and bliss that one finds there is not possible to experience while you are, say, cardio-training (which is similar to what you feel while watching Fast and the Furious or Independence Day).

What is it about screen presence? How come when certain people come on screen, they just set the screen on fire- all other men, matter and objects seem to just recede mysteriously into oblivion. This is not something one can develop- you either have it or not. Pre-"Baba" Rajni had it, Marylin Monroe had it, Q'Orianka Kilcher, who plays the princess Pocahontas has it. What a mesmerizing presence.

The early part of the movie neatly handles the job of contrasting the two worlds and the men inhabiting the worlds- the key word in this comparison being harmony. Harmony with the world around you, harmony with yourself. It handles the aspect of love in a very tempered way. The first love that ceases Pocahontas is filled with passion and raw emotion- and the world seems impossible without it. But as she walks through life, she figures out that there is another form of love- possibly the more meaningful kind- a love that is informed by the hardships of life and experience- a one that is equally moving and rewarding. Such themes have been dealt with extensively in movies. For example, "Age of Innocence", based on the Edith Wharton novel, deals with almost exaclly the same themes. But, rarely has it been done with such finesse and slightness of touch. It is in the climax that the pace of the movie pays off. The emotional crescendo that the movie achieves at the end is informed and well deserved. Lot of movies try to marry grand themes with personal stories, lot of movies aim for greatness and immortality, only a few get there, and only even fewer get there with such command.