Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Review: Monster's Ball

*ing: Billy bob Thornton, Halle Berry

Stated simply, Monster's Ball is among the best romances I've ever seen. However, it is not a love story. It is about two wounded people reaching out, and discovering, in the process, that they are still capable of love.

Hank is an executioner at the local penitentiary. His father was a cop, his son is one too. The old man is an irascible bigoted sonovabitch who probably treated his son like scum when he was growing up. The son has grown up with the same behaviour traits, but you can see that he knows the words but not the music. There is a scene where Hank's son asks him, "You hate me, don't you?" And Hank replies, "Yes. I've hated you all my life." But he doesn't say this with spite, he says this with almost a sense of wonder. It's as if he just realized it himself, and is wondering how the hell it turned out that way.

Leticia is a waitress. Her ex-husband, whom she hates for the pain he brought her, is a convict on death row. They have a son, reasonably talented but grossly overweight, and that is a source of annoyance to his mom. The last time they meet before he is executed, his father tells him, "You're the best of me." Just before he is led away, he says to Leticia, "For all the times that I've hurt you, I'm sorry." You can see that this shakes her composure a bit - she was more prepared to go through life hating an unapologetic man who hurt her. Hers is a life on the edge of sanity and solvency - she's about to be evicted from her home, and she's just been fired from one of her jobs.

These are two people as clearly defined as you can ever hope to see in the movies. They are brought together by tragic circumstance, and drawn to each other by the grief that's eating both of them alive. After they make love for the first time, they tell each other, "I needed that." To them, it's like grasping at a last chance at life.

I suppose I should mention here that Leticia is black. It is an issue and a non-issue at the same time. Hank is a man who has been brought up to be bigoted, but an early exchange with his black neighbour establishes his level of discomfort with that particular role. His relationship with Leticia unfolds in such an unforced manner that he is given to wonder what the whole black-hating argument was all about anyway. You never hear him talking about it, but you can see him begin to build bridges in simple ways. This is not a man who goes through bigotry and emerges on the other side as a tolerant person. This is a man who was just waiting for a chance to sidestep his bigotry altogether, and Leticia simply provided that chance.

It's a quiet, deliberately paced movie, whose silences are as eloquent as its dialogues. Since this is a movie driven not by plot but by character, especially by characters who carry a lot of baggage, it requires the dialogue to convey a lot. That it manages to do so effectively with hardly any long, introspective passages is a thing to be seen to be believed.

The script is an amazing piece of work - it has the kind of depth that you won't see in more than a handful of movies in any year. It would take a good writer reams of paper to describe what some of those simple, precisely written scenes convey. This is the sort of movie any reviewer would hate, because he would have a million things to say about each of the important scenes in the movie and yet have to rein himself in because the viewer's payoff is in figuring it out for himself.

Billy Bob Thornton turns in a marvellously understated performance as Hank. You see in him, a man who has learnt to suppress emotion to the point where he doesn't even know how to express one anymore. And then, as his relationship with Leticia develops, he learns to feel once more. Watching his character evolve through the movie is like watching a baby learn how to walk.

And Halle Berry's performance in this movie - the one that won her a Best Actress Oscar? Let me put it this way: Have you read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead? When Gail Wynand realizes that the statue of Dominique Francon he has in his museum was the one built for the Stoddard Temple, he asks her, "Was the building worthy of the statue?"

And Dominique replies, "The statue was almost worthy of the building."

Review: Wonder Boys

*ing: Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: Curtis Hanson

Grady Tripp, the narrator and central character in Wonder Boys smokes a lot. Not normal cigarettes - he smokes joints laced with weed. This is an important observation, I think, because watching this movie gives you the feeling that the scriptwriter was high when he wrote it. It moves slowly, everything seems out of joint, things get wierd before they get normal, and then they get wierd again... The wierdest thing is, despite all this, it makes a helluva lot of sense.

You see, while the specific events seem wacky (and I do not use that adjective lightly here), the characters aren't. They are consistent (even when they are inconsistent), often articulate, and we get a clear sense of where they're headed even if they don't. In fact, the slightly off-kilter tone only adds to the effect, rather than confusing things.

The movie chronicles the happenings in the life of Grady Tripp, a rather dowdy-looking professor of English at a snow-covered campus, over the span of a three day literary event. When the movie begins, Tripp is having a rather bad day. His wife Emily has just left him. His editor Terry Crabtree is due to arrive that evening, and is bound to ask about the book he's been woking on for the past seven years. (His earlier book, a critical success titled The Arsonist's Daughter, made both their reputations. The way this one is turning out, it might break them.)

It gets worse: Sara Gaskell, the chancellor of his university and the wife of his department's head, also the woman with whom he has been having an affair for a while now, tells him that she is pregnant. And one of his students, a delectable young thing named Hannah Green who also rents a room in his house, has a major crush on him and would very likely jump his bones the first chance she gets.

And then there's James Leer, his most brilliant and most difficult student, in whom Grady probably sees himself as well as a chance to guide someone to greatness. Leer isn't easy to deal with - he seems aloof, doesn't communicate half as well as his stories probably do, and is a compulsive liar to boot. When Tripp spies Leer standing outside in the snow near the Gaskells' home where a party is in progress, he takes him in to show him a prized piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that Walter Gaskell keeps in a safe in his bedroom.

Why does he do that? I think it is because he is sure Leer would react emotionally to it, and he wants to see that. Then the big event happens. The Gaskells' blind dog Poe, which doesn't like Tripp much, decides to take a chunk off his leg for dinner. And Leer, seeing his professor struggling with the dog, shoots it with an antique gun he carries around.

This is clearly the point where a lesser movie would have turned into a fast-paced screwball outing, with professor and student desperately trying to hide the dead dog, and complicating matters further in the process. One of the pleasures of Wonder Boys is that it neatly sidesteps that route. What happens next isn't important, not from a plot point of view anyway. The movie is more interested in its characters, and so was I.

Every performance in this movie is a gem. Michael Douglas, who has made a career out of being suave and sexy, manages to look so unkempt that it seems like an achievement in itself. Watching him potter around in a pink housegown that probably belongs to his wife is nearly as funny as watching Charlton Heston play a Mexican in (the otherwise brilliant) Touch of Evil.

One of the important characteristics of Grady Tripp is that his cynicism, while evident to those around him, has not gotten the better of his amusement or his desire to be a good teacher. Bringing that out takes effort, and Douglas shows a willingness to go the distance. His is the central performance in the movie, and he succeeds in evoking our sympathy and our amusement at the same time.

Robert Downey Jr. and Frances McDormand have particular roles that require them to display an understanding of Tripp that goes well beneath the surface. McDormand's Sara Gaskell clearly loves Tripp, but has also pegged him exactly right, as a man who has lost the will to take initiative - that makes for an interesting dynamic. And Crabtree - well, Crabtree is something else. Intelligent, articulate, with an eye for a good book, and gay to boot. Robert Downey Jr. conveys his preferences in the plumbing department in such a manner that, it seems analogous to someone preferring Steinbeck over Hemingway - a matter of personal taste, not a lifestyle choice.

There is an especially nice moment in a restaurant when Tripp and Crabtree are sitting together and creating a character out of thin air, on the basis of a stranger they see sitting across them. There is both creativity and a parody of popular literature mixed into the description they come up with, but the best part of the scene for me was the easy timing. Hearing them speak in overlapping sentences, anticipating each other's thoughts, was a wonderful experience.

Of the younger cast, Katie Holmes as Hannah Green has the easier job. Given the fact that she has a crush on Tripp, she could've easily become a plot device, but she manages to make herself a little more than that. This is a good performance - not a great or a noteworthy one, but the sort of supporting performance that unobtrusively fills in the gaps.

And Tobey Maguire... ah, the pleasure of watching him play James Leer! His is one of the toughest characters in the movie. He's enormously talented, but he's also enormously moody. He's a congenital liar, but he also manages to tug at Tripp's heartstrings with moments of touching candor. And to top it all, he has a sense of humor that elevates the movie. Tobey Maguire is perfect for the part, with his boyish looks and a lopsided grin that makes you feel like there's a lot more to the joke than what he's just told you. While Douglas' performance is the one that anchors the movie, his is the one that enlivens it.

Director Curtis Hanson, whose previous venture, L. A. Confidential had people salivating for his next venture, has chosen to make a totally different movie, and succeeded admirably. He keeps the proceedings going at exactly the right pace (which, for the kind of screwball activity that goes on, is a little slower than usual), but doesn't allow any slack. He populates the cast with a bunch of wonderful actors who are obviously in love with the project, and comes up with a sweet ensemble comedy that manages to make us smile more often than most of the scatologically-obsessed, juvenile teen comedy trash products put together manage to do.

In its own offbeat, distracted, drug-addled manner, this movie manages to say more about writing and writers than most other movies that tread the same path. Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester, for instance, was also about an older writer grooming a younger one, but had far less to say, and was far more interested in sticking to genre conventions. That one was a product, not a movie. This one is populated with real people who have something to say, and say it beautifully.


I have this habit of writing reviews of movies I've watched, and I'm gonna post a bunch of them, written over the years. But before you go on, I should put a little disclaimer here first. A long time ago, I wrote a review of a movie called Jaanam Samjha Karo and posted it on a mailing list of my friends from my undergrad college. One of them pulled my leg about it, so I replied in a similar vein. That paragraph is probably the best disclaimer I can provide, so here it is:

Leg-puller: General writing does not a review make, either. Hows that? :)

Me: General writing *does* a review make, dude. That's the whole point of a review - write anything, make a few literary allusions to prove your erudition to an audience that doesn't care either way, add a generous dose of sarcasm wherever warranted and maybe even where it isn't, and you have a review. Oh yeah, try to make it look a bit technical - add a few references to the screenplay here and there. Junta doesn't know what a screenplay actually contains, so they'll think you know what it's about. A few stock phrases like "tight screenplay", "innovative lighting" (with reference to some particular scene, even one that is simply shot in broad daylight) and so on add to the effect. But underneath all that crap (as underneath all *this* crap), it's just general writing.

Nothing like a good dose of sarcasm to brighten up one's day, is there? Now, on with the reviews. You have been warned...

So, what can you expect to see here?

I've been in love with the movies for as long as I can remember. For a long time, it was just entertainment. Then, at some point, it became a medium. And then, in some ways, a dictionary of metaphors to describe moments in my life.

I can still remember watching Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon for the first time. I came out of the auditorium feeling dazed, my mind a confused jumble of thoughts trying to grab my attention. Since then, there have been so many instances when I've been faced with a bunch of conflicting accounts of the same situation, and Toshiro Mifune's face would just pop up in my mind's eye.

This blog wasn't my idea, actually. A friend of mine, who has heard me rave about one too many movies in the past, suggested that I put my thoughts down in a blog. And I figured, why not? Maybe someone, somewhere, will read it, feel the same way, and smile.