Saturday, August 04, 2007

I'm moving!

Now that I've reached a minor milestone (100 posts), I'm celebrating by moving my blog to Wordpress. It's not a major deal - I just found that I like the features better. So the new URL is:

Friday, August 03, 2007

Freeze Frame #63, 64: Orange County

Orange County is the kind of good-natured movie that is impossible to dislike. Within five minutes of its running time, it had me comfortably settled in, and kept me mostly smiling, occasonally chuckling for most of its running time. And it had me laughing out loud at least once. Not a very impressive gag rate, but like I said, hard to dislike.

Shaun Brumder is a bright high school kid who is pretty content growing up to be the archetypical Californian surfer dude when one of his friends dies in a surfing accident. His death leaves Shaun in an introspective mood, which is when he finds a copy of Marcus Skinner's book "Straitjacket" buried in the sand. He reads that book 52 times, and it kindles his passion to become a writer.
Aside: Something like this happened to me with Jonathan Livingston Seagull. A friend of mine gave it to me and told me I'd like it. I opened it one Sunday morning and it changed my life. I did a doctorate because I wanted to teach eventually, and that was because of that book. My thesis is dedicated: To Jonathan Livingston Seagull, who taught me to fly.

Shaun applies to Stanford, wanting to study under Skinner, but gets turned down coz his school counselor accidentally sent in the wrong transcript. After an attempt to win over one of the trustees ends up as a comedy of errors, Shaun decides to make a trip to Stanford and give it a shot. He is accompanied by his girlfriend Ashley and his perpetually stoned brother Lance. What happens there forms the rest of the story.

The performances of the two leads - Colin Hanks and Schulyer Fisk - is pretty decent. Both actors are at ease before the camera and with each other. Given their pedigree (Hanks is the son of two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks; Fisk is the daughter of one of this this year's strongest Oscar contenders, Sissy Spacek), it would probably be unfair to begin comapring them with their parents yet, but I'd say they have the potential to go far. Ditto for Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan).

But all said and done, the best performance is that of Jack Black, who plays Lance. He was a riot in High Fidelity, and did even better in Shallow Hal, but neither of those performances even comes close to his incendiary comic turn in this one. Playing a man who probably stays sober for about one and a half minutes every day and has a knack of screwing up virtually everything he lays hands on, he had me hooked the minute he appeared on screen.

The really big laugh comes in a scene where Lance breaks into the admissions office at Stanford and is caught by the secretary. For reasons best understood only by her, the secretary decides to have sex with him right there, in the office. Maybe secretaries in admissions offices don't have much of a social life, who knows? Anyway, in the post-coital afterglow, they light up a joint (Lance obviously is never without one) and Lance carelessly throws it in the trash. Considering that this is an office and the trash is mostly paper, the results are, well, predictable. All of this is mildly funny, but I guess what gave it that extra edge was the sight of Jack Black waddling out of the burning building in his underwear stoned out of his mind.

Another scene I liked a lot was the penultimate scene, wherein Shaun buries the book back in the sand as he found it, hoping some other kid would find it. It reminded me of a nice little book called "Slow Waltz on Cedar Bend" by Robert James Waller that I read a long time ago. It didn't have the magic of "Bridges of Madison County", but I liked it all the same. The best part of that experience was how I got the book. A friend of mine gave it to me, and told me she was given it by a couple she knew well. They had bought the book, loved it, and decided to start a chain read. They passed it on to her with instructions to pass it on to someone she thought would like it, and give that person the same instructions. I have no idea where that book is now, but I'd like to think it's not languishing in some bookshelf somewhere but is still being passed on.

ps: This is my hundredth post, by the way. Frankly, I didn't think it would get this far. But it's been fun doing it, and I hope you've enjoyed reading it.

Freeze Frame #61, #62: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In the beginning of O Brother Where Art Thou?, a title card informs us that it was inspired by Homer's Odyssey. When I saw that, I didn't know whether to believe it - Fargo started out saying it was based on a true story whereas it actually was not. At the end of this quirky, often funny movie, I came to the conclusion that it did have a bit of Odyssey in it, both in form and in spirit. (I also learnt later that the Coens claimed never to have read Odyssey, which isn't surprising either.)

For instance, the hero's name is Ulysses, his wife's name is Penny (short for Penelope, no doubt), a blind prophet bookends the movie... I could go on about the sirens and the Cyclops and everything, but that's not what makes it an adaptation in my view. Homer's "Odyssey" is not so much an epic with a single theme but a series of older stories strung together on a basic plot about one man trying to get back home. Sirens, Cyclops, Calypso... it's really just one damn thing after another. As a result, you could read any part of Odyssey without really knowing what came before or hence, and still enjoy it.

Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, O Brother Where Art Thou? offers a similar experience as it follows three prisoners, led by Ulysses Everett McGill, as they escape from a penal farm and go in search of a treasure that Ulysses had apparently stashed away before his arrest. On the way, they have all sorts of adventures as they go across the state of Mississippi. They pick up a blues singer named Robert Johnson who has apparently sold his soul to the Devil in return for blues prowess, record a hit song with him as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Then they meet a bank robber named Robery "Babyface" Nelson (there was a real character by that name during that era, I think) and rob a bank. Then... Since we realize very early on that this is not a plot-driven story, our payoff is not in where it eventually leads, but simply in what happens next. This is just a series of great scenes, and that's what makes it so much fun.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is also a musical - mostly bluegrass. The two scenes that stood out for me both involve singing.
Aside: Robert Johnson, for instance, is a reference to a real Robert Johnson, one of the legends of the blues world. His life is shrouded in mystery. RJ is indeed reputed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his incredible guitar prowess. He left behind only 29 songs ( 42 different takes ) which are one of the most precious legacies in blues history.

The first is a scene where the three convicts (played by George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) come upon a river where three beautiful women are singing and bathing. They sing Didn't leave nobody but the baby, and the men fall under their spell for a while. Well, so did I. To me, this scene defines the word "mesmerising."

The second is a scene right at the end where our heroes perform I'm a man of constant sorrow. The first performance, earlier on, was exhilarating. This one manages to retain that spirit despite the repetition, and add a triumphant note to it as well. This is Ulysses finally coming home. The obviously fake beards, and the way they keep pulling on it to emphasize that it's fake, is a particularly nice touch.

This is a movie rich in trivia for quizzing enthusiasts such as myself. However, instead of listing all that I know here, let me just give you a sample, an excerpt from Scott Renshaw's review of the movie:

If you really want a sense of what the Coens are after in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it helps to know the origin of the title. In Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, a Depression-era filmmaker popular for his frivolous comedies decides to hit the road in America to research an important, significant film story -- a story he plans to call O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ultimately, he discovers that people love frivolous comedies, and that there's no shame in creating them. Forget epics of the common man; make them laugh, and you've got them right where you want them, and right where they want to be.

Freeze Frame #60: The Devil's Advocate

The principal function of everything and everyone in The Devil's Advocate is to give Al Pacino an opportunity to play the devil. That he does so with considerable style is among the few good reasons to watch this movie.

Al Pacino's greatest strengths are his eyes and his voice. When it comes to delivering a long monologue, there are few in the business who can match him. A showpiece comes in the middle of this movie, when his character speaks of a colleague called Eddie Barzoom who sems to be coming apart. The rant is more about how the world is being taken over by greed and corruption which, from the devil's point of view, is a good thing. It is intercut with a scene where Eddie is being mugged by a bunch of apparitions while he's jogging in the park.

As I've done before, I quote a snippet here for your reading pleasure:

John Milton: You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God... and where can you go from there? And as we're straddling from one deal to the next, who's got his eye on the planet, as the air thickens, the water sours, and even the bees' honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity? And it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There's no chance to think, to prepare; it's buy futures, sell futures, when there is no future.

The editing and background score in this scene quite effectively create a feeling of dread and impending doom. But all this is just percussion to Pacino's vocals. The man is in top form here, and this rant would rank among his most effective.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni are no more. I know little of their work, so I cannot speak knowledgeably of them. They haven't done much in recent years, so there's no point talking about the great loss to cinema.

But maybe it's a good occasion to remember what they did when they were alive and working. To watch some of those movies. Like The Seventh Seal (Bergman) and Blow Up (Antonioni). Watch this space for the reviews.

Freeze Frame #59: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I had heard a lot about Butch and Sundance, so I expected to find a gripping Western like A Fistful of Dollars or High Noon. I was quite surprised to find that it wasn't anything like any of these movies. It was just about a couple of guys who liked to rob banks, and the fun was in watching them, not in the story. They were like Superman and Batman, only they were on the other side of the law, and they got killed in the end.

The scene I remember most vividly is one where Butch and Sundance are perched on a ledge atop a cliff. They're being pursued, and the only way ahead is to jump into the churning and angry waters below. The exchange at that point is as follows:
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What's the matter with you?
Sundance Kid: I can't swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
And they jump.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics is what I'd call an easy rom-com. The humor is low key, the laughs aren't forced, the movie's amiable and friendly, and you walk out feeling content. The only part where I laughed out loud was during the music video that played over the opening credits. But I did have a good time all the way through.

Much of its charm has to do with Hugh Grant, who has become one of the most dependable rom-com stars of our time. He still plays a mostly content underachiever, but the affected stutter that served him so well in Four Weddings and a Funeral (and not so well afterwards) has been replaced by a combination of easy confidence and wry, self-deprecating humor. Here he does pretty much all the heavy lifting while his co-star (Drew Barrymore) simply plays her part. The two of them look cute together (yeah, cute - can't find a better word for it) and manage to get the funny parts perfectly right.

The plot, if you will: Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is a musician who used to be part of an 80s group called Pop that enjoyed a brief run of success. His former bandmate has gone on to have a successful solo career while he has been reduced to playing the music man at amusement parks and fairs. His fanbase is mostly middle-aged women who used to love him back in the eighties. He now has a chance to revive his career by writing a song for Cora, a Britney-Christina-type singer. Trouble is, he has zero writing ability. Enter Sally Fisher (Drew Barrymore), a lit student who comes in to water his plants. You can make up the rest. You might be wrong on a few counts, but this is a rom-com - how does it matter?

The music is okay. Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore perform their own vocals, and are passable enough singers to make their roles credible.

The highlight, as I mentioned earlier, is the music video that plays over the opening and closing credits - typical 80s pop song, with a hip move that guarantees the necessity of replacement surgery. Grant is amazing in this video - it makes everything he does in the movie funnier, simply because your mind keeps replaying that scene whenever you see him. Barrymore is pretty much overshadowed in this movie; however, I have a soft spot for her so I'll just blame it on the writing. The girl who plays Cora is spot-on in her imitation of Britney and the like.

On the whole, this isnt like an amazing song that you'll list among your all-time favourites. But you'll enjoy listening to it while it's on.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


No, I'm not discussing Kurt Vonnegut, in case you were wondering.

A colleague of mine who just got back from NY told me that, whenever Paris Hilton was mentioned on TV, the prefix "jailbird" was attached to her name. Sure, the girl must've found it a lot more difficult than The Simple Life in there. But think about this: this is publicity you can't buy.

My prediction is that, within a year, Paris is gonna launch a new line of fashion accessories called Jailbird. It might even have gaudy pink handbags that say "That's hot" in her voice when opened. Remember: you heard it here first.

Okay, I was kidding about the handbags.

Okay, I wasn't. Paris might actually do that and make tons of money on it. In which case I want a cut.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Prestige

At one point, the narrator Cutter says of the audience that has just witnessed a magic trick being performed: "Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it. Because you don't really want to know."

The Prestige tells the story of two magicians obsessed with each other's downfall. But at a deeper level, it tells the story of two magicians who don't really want to know. They are so involved in the sleight of hand they are performing behind their back that they almost willfully refuse to see what lies before them.

They are also both obsessed with magic tricks. One is more concerned with the beauty of a trick, while the other is more concerned with the beauty of the performance. However, the business defines, in many ways, their world view. They both believe that there is a human hand behind the stage that knows what it's doing, even in life. Even in death, for that matter.

The central trick (or tricks) - the MacGuffin, as it were - is one that involves a magician disappearing from one part of the stage and appearing elsewhere almost instantaneously. Does the magician use a double? Or is there really a way of doing it? More importantly, does it matter?

The story is narrated in nonlinear fashion with three separate timelines (not as confusing as it sounds, though). Not to mention a labyrinthine third act that you wonder how much was planned and how much was improvisation. There is even some science fiction, in the person of Nikola Tesla.

The movie has an intriguing start and a riveting second act that has less to do with the tricks and more to do with these people. But where it could have finished beautifully and powerfully, it chose to place plot over character. In The Pretige, instead of seeing the man appear again, you saw the machine. Pity, that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


What is it with Hindi movies and infidelity? For a while now, this has been the focus of a number of movies beginning with the execrable Murder. Abbas-Mustan's latest thriller Naqaab is yet another in this series.

Much bile has been vented about the tagline - The most shocking thriller of the year - in various reviews. It's Wednesday evening and I don't feel like kicking a man when he's down on a Wednesday, so I'll say no more on the subject.

The story begins with a girl dancing with a handsome stranger on the night of her engagement and finding herself attracted to him. She meets him a few more times after that and begins to fall for him. But it isn't that simple: the stranger seems to have been hired by a mysterious man, whose voice you only hear on the phone, to make her fall for him. Meanwhile, there's a mysterious man who captures much of this with a handycam. Cameras are all over the place in this movie, and they play a fairly important part as well. To say anything more would probably reveal the suspense. Let me just say that, while I didn't feel exhilarated by what happens, I was surprised and mostly entertained.

The movie uses an interesting device to hold a mirror to the characters' own morality; however, instead of exploring what the characters think or feel, it opts for the thriller route and concentrates just on what they do. It was a choice I was disappointed with, because the other route, I felt, had infinitely more potential.

That said, however, it's not an unwatchable movie, and has its share of entertaining moments. All three leads give solid, unremarkable performances, one of them the debutante Urvashi Sharma (who bears a striking resemblance to Udita Goswami). The only sore point for me was Raj Zutshi, who looked like his dad ought to be asking his mom about that peackock she met while on vacation.

On the whole, I don't think there's much to complain about this movie, or much to write home about either. You can safely avoid it, you can safely watch it, and you won't care either way. The only thing that stands out is the tagline.