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.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Yet another movie waiting to be made, and for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Hitch is one of the most obvious targets for a Hindi movie remake, and it was even more obvious to me, even while watching the original, that Govinda would do well in the Kevin James role. Secondly, if Govinda was making a comeback, David Dhawan had to be somewhere in the picture sooner or later. Thirdly, given their similar comic sensibilities, a Govinda-Salman starrer was almost inevitable.

None of this, of course, guarantees a movie's success. If you need more persuasion, watch Bhagam Bhag - a movie where the makers pencilled in the lead cast, had a good laugh about the potential, and then just left it at that. Thankfully, David Dhawan doesn't make the same mistake here. This isn't the veteran director at the apex of his abilities, but it has its moments.

The one thing they got absolutely right is the Govinda-Salman pairing. Strangely enough, Govinda's strength has always been his chemistry with his male co-stars - Kader Khan, Sanjay Dutt, and now Salman Khan. It's so obvious that the two of them are having fun sharing screen space, and the good cheer is infectious. It also helps that their dialogue is rich in wordplay, consistently chuckle-worthy and occasionally brilliant.

Sadly, though, when it comes to the other easy target - making a good remake of Hitch - the movie is way off the mark. Sure, the cast looks appropriate - Katrina Kaif and Lara Dutta both seem like obvious choices in hindsight - but the screenplay is so awful, it sometimes feels like a school play written and rehearsed over half an hour at lunchtime.

Performances: Katrina Kaif was never a great actress, but this movie mostly just requires her to look gorgeous, so it's not a problem, really. Lara Dutta fares much better. I didn't like her much in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (although I'll admit she was marginally better than the other three leads), but this one hasn't given me any reason to complain. David Dhawan's movies require a certain brand of acting, and she seems to understand quite well how to do that. Salman and Govinda are quite good together, but have their share of missteps in the remaining scene. There's a kid who plays Lara's son and got on my nerves - bad dialogue, worse acting, total dead-weight. Rajpal Yadav has a cameo where he spoofs SRK in Don, and mostly fails miserably.

On the whole, I'd say the movie is worth a dekko. It makes its share of mistakes, but its one big positive is enough for me to recommend it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Freeze Frame #58: Ghayal

Towards the end of Ghayal, Sunny Deol is chasing Amrish Puri, the man who destroyed his life. Amrish has a gun in his hand and points it at him. Sunny picks up a knife from the ground andstands there, boiling with rage. Mind you, they're more than ten feet apart, so the idea of bringing a knife to a gunfight would, if you look at it objectively, seem absurd. But one look at Sunny's face and Amrish drops the gun and runs. Sure, it's intended for dramatic effect, but the fact is, it works. To me, that was what angry young men in the movies were about.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Screw delayed gratification

For those of you that regularly visit this blog (insofar as there are any that fit this description), the plethora of posts might come as a surprise. Since I refuse to blame myself for anything other than global warming, I blame Blogger.

Here's what happened: I had a whole bunch of little snippets written down for my Freeze Frame series, and instead of leaving them on my comp, I decided to leave them as drafts on Blogger. Yesterday evening, I spent a fair bit of time uploading them. The plan was to post them one a day, so as to create the illusion of being a regular blogger.

Trouble is, Blogger apparently indexes posts based on the creation date, not posting date. Which means that, even if I held off on posting any of these for the next 20 days, they'd still appear online dated 18 July 2007. Which I find damned inconvenient. So I decided to screw the whole plan and post them all. I might go back and edit a few here and there, but there it is.

The downside, of course, is that I might be all blogged out. Which may or may not be a good thing from your point of view.

Freeze Frame #56, #57: Goodfellas, Satya

You might wonder why I did not list both Goodfellas scenes together in my previous post. Let me explain.

Goodfellas and Satya are my favourite gangster movies of all time. They represent, in my opinion, the best of the genre in Hollywood and Hindi cinema. The two scenes I shall talk about here are somewhat similar in how they occur and how they represent a turning point in the proceedings.

An important supporting character in Goodfellas is Tommy DeVito, played by Joe Pesci with a sort of fearsome intensity that makes you squirm sometimes. He is given to sudden bouts of aggression, so much so that even his friends are on their guard with him. However, he seems to be rising quickly in the mob and, owing to his Italian-American lineage, he is the only one among the trio (the other two being Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro) to have a chance to become a "made man". Being a "made man" basically means that you are now a member of the inner circle of the mob and cannot be touched. Clearly a big thing. On the day that he is supposed to receive that honour, so to speak, he dresses up in his best suit and accompanies a couple of mob enforces to the house of a mob chieftan. However, as he steps in, realization dawns. He barely has time to say "Oh, no!" before one of them shoots him in the head. The entire build-up is so impeccable that the scene comes as a complete surprise. You realize later that he had it coming (he killed a "made man" not so long ago), but at that moment, it gives you a jolt.

That scene is also a turning point in the movie. Until then, you've seen how they have all the power and privilege they want. But after that, it's all downhill.

A parallel scene in Satya is the one where Bhiku Mhatre is killed. After much infighting and a lot of death, Bhiku has finally managed to oust his competitor and become the top dog. He is now in such a position that even Bhau, a veteran gangster-turned-politician and his mentor, seems to play by his rules. Just as he basks in his success, right in the middle of a Diwali celebration, Bhau suddenly turns and shoots him in the head when he is least expecting it. Manoj Bajpai gives such an electric performance as Bhiku that the story seems to revolve around him, although his assistant Satya is whom the movie is supposed to be about. His death, although inevitable in hindsight, is sudden and shocking. Much like Tommy DeVito, who basked in his invincibility up until he got shot in the head.

Freeze Frame #55: Goodfellas

Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill, an Irish-American growing up in Little Italy. It charts his history with the Mafia - fascination, involvement, ascent, incarceration and eventual descent into despair and betrayal. It is a story told with such energy and obvious skill. More than any other, this movie is why I worship Martin Scorsese.

The obvious comparison is with the other great gangster movie, The Godfather. Just about everyone who has watched both movies have a side to take. Despite occupying the same lerger canvas (i.e., the Mafia), the two movies are different as chalk and cheese. While The Godfather is moody, atmospheric and rests on an almost Samurai-like protocol, Goodfellas has a more contemporary feel, and crackles with energy in every frame. Each has its own strengths, and uses them wonderfully well. I love both movies, but if it came down to it, I'd pick Goodfellas as my favourite.

One of the interesting things about the movie is its visual strategy. In the first half, you get the feeling of being in a lot of open space, whereas towards the end, you feel kinda hemmed in. The editing becomes choppier as you go along, the external noises get louder, conveying, in some sense, the turmoil in the protagonist's mind. Little things that go a long way.

Aside: A similar strategy is adopted in Insomnia, where the protagonist's sleep-deprived state slowly reflects in the editing and camera movements.

A scene that perfectly conveys the sort of power and influence Henry Hill wields as part of the mob is the one where he takes his girlfriend out on a date. They go to a posh restaurant which would ordinarily be very difficultto get into. But Henry takes her through the back entrance, through the kitchen and eventually to a table that materializes right in front of the stage. The entire sequence is shot in one continuous movement and is so smooth that it conveys everything you need to know about the upside of being in the mob.

Freeze Frame #53, #54: Tumko Na Bhool Paayenge

Tumko Na Bhool Paayenge is an action movie in the glorious tradition of Bollywood potboilers - a fairly racy plot, a nearly invincible hero and lots of ketchup. Did I mention a perfectly logical plot? I didn't? Ah, well...

The plot borrows a few pages from The Bourne Identity and adds its own masala to it. You have an amnesiac hero trying to build a new life when the ghosts of his past intrude upon his idyllic existence, so he goes back to the world he came from, to find out who he was and what happened to him. Of course, as it turns out, our hero was a lean mean killing machine back then (bang bang), so he has enough old and new scores to settle (more bang bang). Job over, he returns to his new life, at peace with the world and with himself.

The first act, detailing the hero's peaceful life in a small village, with loving parents and a beautiful fiancee, is kinda slow and somewhat painful to sit through, but it passes muster on account of the little incidents that indicate that this man isn't who he seems, or who he thinks he is.

Things come to head when his engagement ceremony is disrupted by a bunch of goons who make references to his past, and then make the mistake of trying to kill his parents. He loses control and, in a short and breathtaking action sequence, kills all of them. As action sequences go, this one is among the most effective I have seen. In place of a quiet, shy, slightly confused guy, you suddenly see a cold-blooded killer on auto-pilot. This is how I imagined the first fight in The Bourne Identity would be.

The other sequence that I quite liked is similar to this one in terms of the action and the way it plays out, and comes later in the movie (but chronologically earlier, in a flashback sequence). There's a crucial scene where Salman kills the goon who killed his uncle - the whole scene is so strucured that you see not his face, but his girlfriend's (Sushmita Sen) reaction to her lover becoming a murderer in front of her eyes.

Sushmita Sen's performance is one of the best things about this movie, and her chemistry with Salman is a thing to behold. And what a voice! Deep, husky - more woman than girl in there, and that's a rarity in Bollywood.

Freeze Frame #52: Dum Dum Dum

Despite its dismal box office performance, I thought Dum Dum Dum was a fairly well-crafted romantic comedy. It did have a slightly tedious second half, and the big conflict between the parental units seemed a little implausible, but I found it much better than the other Madhavan movie that came around the same time and fared quite well - Minnalae.

Dum Dum Dum is essentially a showcase for Jyothika's brand of acting. She is generally accused by her detractors of playing the same role over and over again, and these detractors are usually right. However, I'd say this is a movie where it is not a disadvantage.

The plot involves the two (Madhavan and Jyothika) being stuck in an arranged marriage neither of them wants, so they do all they can to have it called off before it gets solemnized. As luck would have it, none of it works, they find themselves drawn to each other and then an actual fight erupts and... you can fill in the rest.

Anyway, one of the strategies adopted by Madhavan to try and break the alliance is to approach his prospective father-in-law directly and persuade him not to give any dowry. So, when the parental units are meeting to discuss the details of the marriage, the man does as Madhavan says and refuses to pay a dowry. Jyothika isn't aware of this strategy, so the entire thing is a surprise to her. The way this scene plays out is quite nice - there's actual dialogue being spoken, but the real conversation is the unspoken one, between Madhavan, Murali and Jyothika. All three of them do such a good job with their eyes that you are never in any doubt about what each of them is thinking.

Freeze Frame #51: Run

Run was the movie that allowed Madhavan to break away from his romantic hero image and play an action hero. For the first half hour or so, you don't even realize it: all you see is him chasing Meera Jasmine around, singing songs and doing his usual shtick.

Then comes the scene in the subway, where he is cornered by some of her brother's men. He starts running and goes right up to the exit only to pull down the shutters. Turns, looks at his pursuers, waits for the first one to come at him and lays him out with a single savage blow. Crocks his head, gets a wild look in his eye and walks towards the rest.

Honestly, I didn't think Madhavan had it in him to do that. He is so effective in that moment that it makes the rest of the movie work wonderfully.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Freeze Frame #50: Lilo and Stitch

The thing about animated features is, even if the little details are new, the basic plot structure is cast in stone and rarely does any movie dare to violate it. Lilo and Stitch is no different in this regard.

The plot involves an intergalactic federation sentencing a self-prclaimed evil genius to life imprisonment for having genetically engineered a new species with superhuman strength and a penchant for mischief.

The creature is sentenced to exile, but escapes to earth and lands in Hawaii. Out there, it gets adopted by a little girl named Lilo who thinks it's a cute breed of dog and names it Stitch. Lilo's parents died when she was young, and her sister Nani has her hands full trying to take care of her. The social service worker (the curiously named Cobra Bubbles) in charge of her case thinks it would be better if Lilo were to be put in a foster home. "It is clear to me that you need Lilo more than Lilo needs you," he tells Nani at one point. With Stitch's destructive tendencies adding to the confusion, nothing seems to be going right for this little broken family. And then you have Stitch's intergalactic pursuers, including the scientist who created it.

Now, you know, for instance, that the little girl's love will transform the dangerous alien into a cuddly little thing. You know that some of the officious characters will have a change of heart at critical junctures. You know that for a short while, the girl will lose her patience with the alien, only to be reconciled with it during the final conflict. Like I said, it's all cast in stone. so the enjoyment usually comes from the little things.

In this case, the little things are reasonably good. The relationship between the sisters works well. ("I love you more as a sister than as a mom," Lilo tells Nani.) There's a supporting character, David, who has a thing for Nani, and the movie, while developing their relationship in the same cliche-worn manner that every movie of this type does, at least has the grace to underplay it. The dialogue is usually intelligent and edgy, and not too sappy. The scientist character makes good use of his accent - it's corny, but I love it. And there's a toad with a non-speaking part that, for some unknown reason, had me in splits.

But the particular little thing that made this movie so much more enjoyable for me was a surprise reference to The King. In an attempt to reform the foul beat, Lilo gives Stitch a role model: Elvis Presley. I was so surprised by that reference that I pretty much fell off my chair.

The plot, despite all the intergalactic nonsense, is typical Disney. And the whole family-is-important spiel isn't anything new either. Sure, it's reasonably funny, but then most of these animated features are. Even the pop culture references, while delightful, are usually predictable.

But what movie would think of making the girl teach the alien to be an Elvis impersonator? There's a touch of Douglas Adams in that idea, and for an intergalactic comedy, that's high praise.

Freeze Frame #49: Frida

Making movies about artists cannot be easy. The tougher the artist's paintings are to understand, the more difficult it is to depict what inspired it. And to be able to present a picture of both the artist and the person underneath... that is even more difficult. Well nigh impossible, I'd say. And yet, this is precisely what Frida accomplishes, and so beautifully does it accomplish it that few, if any, will come away unimpressed by it.

Frida Kalho was a carefree young schoolgirl when she got injured in an accident that nearly killed her. She lived through a lifetime of pain after that, but managed to achieve her ambition: to be her own person. She also managed to achieve recognition as an artist whose unique personal style has made her an iconic figure.

Her personal life is marked by a long-standing relationship with the famous muralist Diego Rivera. This is Rivera's third marriage, and when Frida uses this fact to argue that he doesn't seem to be the type who believes in marriage, he replies that he does believe in marriage, only he doesn't believe in fidelity. They do promise to be loyal to one another, though. And in many ways, they are loyal to each other, although the relationship is marred by numerous affairs and heartbreak. No matter what happens between them, they recognize the greatness of each other's talent, and in the end that is the strongest bond between them.

While a good portion of the movie concentrates on her personal life (there are very few scenes that actually show her at work), it never loses sight of her art. Frida's paintings were largely autobiographical, and director Janet Taymor breaks free from reality in a number of scenes to show how her life translated into her paintings. It is a very interesting visual strategy, and makes a huge difference to our understanding of Frida's life and work.

The moment that best represents this, for me, is the scene depicting Frida's accident. It ends with an overhead shot of her lying splayed on the floor of the bus, covered in gold dust, a pool of her own blood around her, a steel rod pierced through her abdomen. It is gruesome, yet undeniably artistic. That was Frida for you.

Freeze Frame #45, #46, #47, #48: Last Tango in Paris

A man and a woman meet regularly in an empty Paris apartment and have sex. They don't know each other's name, or anything about each other's lives: the man insists on it. In there, they don't need names, he says. They leave everything else behind and just bring to that apartment, some essence of themselves.

What he leaves behind is a shattered life: his wife has just committed suicide. His married life wasn't all that rosy either: his wife cheated on him, and he knew it too. In fact, there's even a strange kind of kinship between him and the other man. She, on the other hand, is a twenty-year old Parisienne who is about to get married. Her fiance is a filmmaker who is making some sort of documentary with her as the subject.

The idea is to meet regularly at the apartment for sex. And there's a lot of that, to be sure. But somewhere in between, a real relationship also creeps in. And the sort of compartmentalization they try to achieve doesn't work after a point. And in the end, when he accosts her and tries to start over with her in the real world, she shoots him.

There are things I understand about this movie, and things I don't. The Brando character, for instance. It's not like he is easy to understand or relate to, but after a point, you begin to get a feel for the way he thinks. He is basically a weak man, broken by life, particularly by his wife's betrayal and her subsequent suicide. In the apartment, he plays the dominant role, maybe as a way of compensating for that. But it's not just a gruff man you see there - he is capable of happiness and gentleness as well. For him, the gruffness is a form of defense, even against himself.

The woman, though, I couldn't quite make out. Both physically and emotionally, she's bared to the camera for most of the movie. But ironically, understanding this girl-woman is something I find a lot tougher than understanding the more closed, beneath-the-surface characterization of the man.

The two performances are fantastic. Brando seems to have a talent for playing characters who aren't too likeable, to put it mildly, but end up being legendary in cinema history. Maria Schneider's performance isn't as prominent, but it is a solid one nonetheless. Being both a little girl and a woman and wildly seesawing betwen those two ends can't be easy.

Four moments stand out in memory whenever I think of this movie. I shall talk about them here.

The first one comes just after Brando and Schneider have had sex for the first time. As they lie there, she rolls off, then clutches herself down there and curls up a bit. That moment will stand out forever in my mind as one of the most breathtakingly sexual moments ever filmed.

The second is a scene where the two of them mock-introduce themselves to each other with strange, animal sounds. There's something very playful and romantic and gentle about that scene. For me, that was the moment that signaled that this was no longer just a purely sex thing for the two of them.

The third is the scene where Brando has a long monologue addressed to his wife's corpse just before he breaks down. The intensity and pain he brings out in that scene is such that it is almost difficult to watch.

The fourth comes right at the end. After she shoots him, she sits alone, repeating the same few lines over and over again, ostensibly preparing herself for the questions the police would ask of her. The lines are: "I don't even know his name. He is a madman, he followed me on the street. He tried to rape me." Her eyes are impassive when she says most of those lines, but notice how there's a little measure of pain that creeps into her eyes when says, "I don't even know his name."

Freeze Frame #44: Heat

To me, Heat is essentially two scenes. One comes in the middle, the other at the end. Together, they represent what the movie is about.

The big one is the conversation between Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) the thief and Joseph Hanna (Al Pacino) the cop over coffee at a diner. This is one of the significant moments in the history of cinema, simply because it is the only scene in which you see these two great Italian-American actors talking to each other. Simple as its cops-and-robbers plot is, this scene encapsulates all that is good about the movie.

Hanna has been tailing the thief for a while now. McCauley knows this. And Hanna knows that McCauley knows. In an earlier scene, Hanna and his colleagues are standing in a warehouse where McCauley and his colleagues were standing sometime ago and discussing something. They see no clues as to what was going on, and suddenly the cop gets it. He says, "You know what they're looking at? Us. We just got made." And sure enough, McCauley is seeing them through a telescopic lens from a distance.

One night, Hanna just flashes his lights and asks McCauley to pull over. Walks up to him and says, "What do you say I buy you a cup of coffee."

Over coffee, they discuss the nature of their jobs. Two professionals who need each other. McCauley would, in a purely practical sense (as Arundhati Roy would put it), prefer not to have a cop on his trail. And Hanna would, in a purely practical sense, prefer not to have a crime to solve/prevent. But in reality, what would these two men be without each other? It's yet another sigma field.

"All I am is what I'm going after," says Hanna at one point. McCauley is a lot less obvious about his need. He says, in fact, that he doesn't get attached to anything he can't walk out on in 30 seconds if the shit hits the fan.

And yet, in the closing moments of the movie, when McCauley lays there dying (Hanna has just chased him down and shot him), he puts out his hand, and Hanna comes over and holds it until McCauley dies.

Sometimes, as Charles Bukowski says, you have to kill a whole bunch of people before you realize that life is piss, the sparrow is eternal and that you've been wasting your time.

Freeze Frame #43: Bridget Jones' Diary

Was the working title of this movie Thirty nine progressively excruciating ways to embarass oneself? Most of the running time is devoted to Renee Zellweger moving from one embarassing situation to another, while a love triangle and assorted eccentric Brits hover in the background. Some of those moments work quite well, others not so much.

One moment that works exceedingly well involves Renee Zellweger coming face to face with Salman Rushdie and asking him a very fundamental question. I'm sorely tempted to reveal it here, but I'm gonna desist, just this once. Go see the movie, and see the expression on Rushdie's face.

Much of the movie is essentially crap, let me warn you. But if you're a girl, you can drool over Colin firth and Hugh Grant. And if you're a guy, you can marvel at how Renee Zellweger can't help but be charming no matter what dreck she's starring in. Or maybe it's the other way round. But whatever your plumbing and orientation, you'll love the Rushdie moment.

Freeze Frame #42: Apocalypse Now

Most people remember Col. Kilgore's line: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. That scene stands out as my favourite, but the thing I remember most is not that line but the one following it. The entire exchange reads as follows:
Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son. Nothing in the world smells like that.
: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like... victory. Someday this war's gonna end...
[Kilgore unhappily walks off]
Notice the blank, yet searching look in his eyes as he stares off into the distance while delivering that line. A better characterization of the carnage of war would be hard to find.

Freeze Frame #41: The Untouchables

The opening scene in The Untouchables shows Al Capone giving a newspaper reporter an interview while he is getting a shave. At one point, the barber makes a mistake and nicks Capone, annoying the latter. It's a tense moment, for he knows (and we do, thanks to a title card in the beginning, in case we hadn't heard of Capone already) that this is a very dangerous man he's dealing with, and this little nick could cost him heavily. Then Capone smiles, tells him it's all right, and continues with the interview.

It's a small incident, and Capone would probably forget about it in a few minutes, but in that five second pause and the smile following it, he effectively conveys how he holds the power of life and death over people. In fact, the very next scene shows a small shop being blown apart by a bomb placed there by one of Capone's men.

Take away the surface gloss, the art direction and the period setting, and you'll find that The Untouchables is a very well-made masala movie. Robert De Niro's performance as Al Capone is a perfect example. He doesn't play him as a real gangster, and there's none of the searing intensity you'd find in, say Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. Frankly, if he had introduced himself with the lines, Saara shehar mujhe Loin ke naam se jaanta hai, it wouldn't have seemed out of place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Freeze Frame #38, #39, #40: Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain

There are movies that tickle the funny bone. There are movies that gently tug at your heartstrings and tickle the funny bone at the same time. And then there are movies so delightful that you can't stop smiling for a long time after you see them.

And then, there's Amelie.

Here is a movie constructed almost entirely out of sunshine and laughter. I think the operative word is confection. Only, Amelie isn't your everyday milk chocolate. It's a bag of Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans. I lost count of the number of times I practically shrieked in delighted laughter. This is one of those movies whose entire running time qualifies for a Freeze Frame post. However, if I had to pick my favourite moments, it would have to be these three:

Amelie's mother's death. Roger Ebert's review describes the scene as follows: "Her mother dies as the result of a successful suicide leap off the towers of Notre Dame, a statement which reveals less of the plot than you think it does." I cannot come up with a more apt summation.

Fifteen. The narrator explains that Amelie busies herself in strange and trivial pursuits, such as guessing how many people are having an orgasm in Paris right at that very moment. And the scene cuts to a montage of people having an orgasm. Fifteen, to be precise. A lesser movie would've just mentioned that line and had us wonder.

My pick of the lot is what I call the Occam's Razor scene. Amelie has left Nino Quincampoix a message in a Polaroid photograph cut into little pieces and left at a random place that he frequents. The photograph shows her in a Zorro costume holding a signboard that asks him to come to the bar where she works that afternoon. If this sounds wierd, you should see the rest of the movie.

Anyway, she's at the bar waiting for him and he doesn't turn up at the specified time. The narrator says:
Nino is late. Amelie can only see two explanations. 1 - he didn't get the photo. 2 - before he could assemble it, a gang of bank robbers took him hostage. The cops gave chase. They got away... but he caused a crash. When he came to, he'd lost his memory. An ex-con picked him up, mistook him for a fugitive, and shipped him to Istanbul. There he met some Afghan raiders who too him to steal some Russian warheads. But their truck hit a mine in Tajikistan. He survived, took to the hills, and became a Mujaheddin. Amelie refuses to get upset for a guy who'll eat borscht all his life in a hat like a tea cozy.
The entire narrative is accompanied by visuals depicting the alternative, filmed in the sort of choppy way you see in old documentary footage.

While teaching neural networks and learning theory, I often refer to this scene when I discuss the concept of having the simplest curve that fits the available data. You understand why, I'm sure.

Freeze Frame #37: Kill Bill Vol. 2

The thing that stands out for me in all of Kill Bill is the dialogue. Not the spectacular geysers of blood in the first volume, or even the brilliant segment with Pei Mei in the second. Which is why I found it immensely satisfying when the final confrontation with Bill was mostly just the two of them talking. David Carradine gives what is probably the performance of his lifetime. I personally felt he deserved an Oscar nod for this one.

I loved the background music that played during Bill's farewell. And their parting exchange: "How do I look?" "You look ready." And, of course, the brilliant monologue about Superman.

But my favourite moment in that entire sequence comes when Bill explains that, having found her getting married to some nobody in the middle of nowhere, he overreacted. Beatrix listens to this and replies, incredulously, "You overreacted?" Fair question to ask, considering Bill & Co basically wiped out the entire marriage party.

But here's what struck me: she's leaning back in her chair when he's talking, and when he says that he overeacted, she straightens up. Not in one movement, as people usually would, but in steps. She straightens up a bit, then stops, then a bit more, then stops, then a bit more before she responds. It's a very deliberate movement.

The thing is, Tarantino basically slows things down in that whole sequence. With every other major character, the confrontation has involved some degree of violence, so you half expect a bloodbath in the end. Instead, you get dialogue, and lots of it. It's delayed gratification of the highest degree. The way she straightens up is a perfect example.

Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.

The problem with Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. is simply this: it never really takes flight. It is well conceived and occasionally well written. There's much warmth and sexiness on display. And it's far more interesting than the other honeymoon movie that came out around the same time - Just Married. But somehow, it just doesn't add up.

The movie tells the story of a honeymoon trip taken on a shockingly pink bus by a bunch of disparate couples. As is the case with stories like this, each couple has something brewing under the surface, which comes through somewhere or the other. Some people act as catalysts for some others to reach a turning point. In the end, some go back happy, some don't. A movie of this nature depends largely on the chemistry between the characters. They don't all have to be lovey-dovey, but there has to be something there that makes the viewer invest in each relationship and care for how it turns out. This is essentially the fatal flaw in Honeymoon Travels.

In some cases, the stories aren't interesting. In some others, the acting is a let-down. Sometimes it's both. The only couples who emerge unscathed from this movie are Boman Irani and Shabana Azmi, who play an elderly couple for whom this is the second marriage, and Kay Kay and Raima Sen, a Bengali couple trying to rekindle the spark in their marriage. Of the four, Kay Kay and Shabana give solid, unsurprising performances.

The other two are phenomenal. Boman plays Oscar, an elderly man on his honeymoon with Nahid (Shabana). It is the second marriage for both, and their families react predictably to their pronouncement. Theirs is the warmest relationship of the lot, and Boman in particular invests Oscar with such an interesting combination of crankiness, humor, despair and love that he steals every scene he is in.

The real standout, for me, is Raima Sen who is simply luminous in the role of a Bengali housewife with a streak of individuality that scares her husband at times. There is a moment on a beach in Goa just after an ill-advised parasailing episode, when she just walks into the waves, free of all inhibitions. It is a well written scene, carefully set up in the preceding minutes, but it’s not a surprising one. However, there’s something about how she does it that makes it work far better than we think it might. At times docile, at other times impish, and at yet other times breathtakingly sexy, this is a performance that deserves an award she will almost certainly not get.

The movie has a few revelations in store along the way. Most of them are revealed through a voice-over by a Radio Mirchi jockey and accompanied by snatches from appropriate film songs. These revelations, alas, don’t always work as well as the device does. A couple of them are quite surprising and garner the odd laugh. The rest are considerably more pedestrian. There is also a big non-radio revelation that works so badly it almost completely derails the movie. Thankfully, the characters involved are developed so shabbily that we don’t really care at that point.

The music is mostly okay. The dancing, however, is noteworthy. There’s Pyaar Ki Yeh Kahaani a lovely tango with Abhay Deol and Minisha Lamba, and Kay Kay’s wild gyrations in Sajna Ri. Outside of that, nothing to really write home about.

On the whole, this is a lot less interesting than it could’ve been. I’s not an utter waste of two hours of your life, but if Seinfeld is playing on TV at the same time, you know what to do.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Thank you for smoking

It looks like a penchant for humor runs in the family. Jason, son of Ivan Ghostbusters Reitman, makes his feature debut with Thank you for smoking, a satire aimed at lobbyists in general and tobacco lobbyists in particular. I haven't chuckled this often during a movie in a while.

What's interesting is how he trusts the audience to see the point. The movie is satire, but it doesn't push too hard. Aaron Eckhart makes tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor into such a smart guy that you find yourself laughing along with him and admiring the way he spins himself out of trouble. A fair bit of the material plays almost as it would if it wasn't actually lampooning the subject.

The movie also has a key moment where it plays it straight. This comes right at the end and concerns Nick's son. You could see this coming a mile off, given how much warmth and chemistry Eckhart and Cameron Bright (who plays his son) bring to their parts. What's nice, however, is that even then, Reitman is content with just pausing long enough for us to get it, and doesn't actually descend into much preachy dialogue.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

AKS Reviewwwwws and blog recos

In my quest for concordant absurdity in the blogosphere, I came across a couple of amazing blogs, both of which feature reviews of AKS. I strongly recommend that you read the rest of their posts as well: both people have so much more to offer.

Doing jalsa and showing jilpa: For most Tamilians with a working knowledge of Chennai slang, the mere title of this blog is enough argument. However, if you wish to be convinced further, consider this: a blog post titled Neocarnatic gajabuja gilma, which contains references to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, and another on Sivaji titled When I speak, simply vibrating no? Needless to say, Maraththamizhars will enjoy this much more than the others, but there is much of interest here for a non-Tamilian with a taste for the absurd.

Random thoughts of a demented mind: The blog title sounds like something dingchak's blog title generator might come up with, but the content is top notch. Look for reviews of movies such as Red Swastika and assorted Mithun classics.

Another site with good content for lovers of celluloid gilma is Timepass. The opening page has a poster of the Govinda-Kimi Katkar starrer Dariya Dil, with him dressed as Superman and her as Spiderwoman.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Freeze Frame #36: Scent of a Woman

When you think about it, the tango scene in Scent of a Woman isn't really essential. You have a blind colonel and a young student having dinner at a posh restaurant. They come across a beautiful young woman who is waiting for her fiancé. And while they wait, the old colonel dances the tango with the young woman. The fiancé arrives, she goes off with him, end of story. She doesn't appear again, nor has her presence advanced the plot or added any unexpected dimensions to either of the major characters. That scene tells you more about the tango than about anyone in the movie.

However, if you ask someone what they remember about Scent of a Woman, their answer will be either this scene or Al Pacino's magnificent rant at the end. Sometimes, that is more than enough accomplishment. That moment has a beauty that transcends its context.

Freeze Frame #32, #33, #34, #35: The Third Man

The Third Man is arguably one of the best British films ever made. Shot on location in the bombed out streets of Vienna, the movie evokes an atmosphere of dread, intrigue and post-war depression like very few movies have managed to do. From a visual standpoint, the movie ranks among the very best. No special effects, just an off-kilter way of viewing the world. So much about that movie remains vividly in memory long after watching it, that picking one's favourite scenes is a difficult task. Having said that, the four moments I quote below are on top of my list:

Right at the beginning, when Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) first comes to Harry Lime's place, a neighbour (or was it the caretaker?) informs him that Harry is dead, and says he doesn't know whether he went to heaven or hell. While saying it, he points upwards to heaven and downwards to hell. However, the shot is composed so that Holly is looking up a flight of stairs to this guy, and the guy is seen upside down, which means that the directions he points to are the exact reverse of what he intends. It's a simple device, but it does much to establish the world view that most characters in the movie have.

Although Orson Welles features prominently in the credits, his Harry Lime is almost a MacGuffin - much of the movie has to do with an investigation of the circumstances of his death, and the people connected to him. "We should've dug deeper than a grave," the British officer says at one point. By the third act, one has almost forgotten that he's listed in the credits when he appears suddenly, framed against a doorway, smiling that sardonic smile like only Orson Welles can. The impact of that shot is fantastic - again, an off-kilter composition, making him appear, both literally and figuratively, at an odd angle to the proceedings.

For most people, the ferris wheel scene with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten is the high point. The tension in this scene, the dialogue that crackles with sardonic wit, the way it trusts the viewer to assemble the jigsaw without having to spell out what has really transpired until then... fantastic doesn't even begin to describe it.

Everyone, of course, remembers the cuckoo clock speech. Legend has it that this speech was of Welles' own devising - it is not in the Graham Greene novel, not did Greene write it in the script. I reproduce it here, simply for the sheer pleasure of quoting it:

Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

The last scene is yet another of my favourites. After Harry Lime is well and truly buried, Holly hitches a ride with the officer to the railway station. Just then, he spies Anna (Alida Valli) walking down that road in his direction. He still has feelings for her, so he gets off and waits for her. She walks towards him, then past him, and slowly away. The book ends differently, on a happier note (for Holly at least). However, this ending is definitely more appropriate, given all that has happened. When I first saw this movie, I remember praying fervently for her to just keep walking and not go to him. I kept muttering "walkawaywalkawaywalkaway..." almost continuously. Thank goodness someone was listening!

Aside: Incidentally, one other movie where I muttered a similar prayer was Roman Holiday. As Gregory Peck walks away after meeting Audrey Hepburn for the last time, I kept praying that she shouldn't run after him, as she almost certainly would have in a lesser movie. A big reason why I love that movie is that he just keeps walking.

Gangsters and Sigma Fields

Several months ago, during one of our crazy lunch discussions, one of my colleagues came up with the following line: "The Godfather is a sigma field, machaan."

Now, most people would be bewildered by this statement. However, the geeks that we all were at that table, it struck us as a brilliant analogy and has stayed with us ever since.

Aside: The guy who made this comment was Rajendran, the only human being I know who thinks that explaining the geometry of least squares regression makes girls go weak in the knees. That might serve to explain why he came up with this one.

For the uninitiated (which is, I assume, most people reading this blog), a sigma field is a collection S of subsets of a set X such that:

  1. If the set E is a subset of X and a member of S, then so is X-E
  2. The union of countably many sets in S is also in S
  3. The null set as well as X belong to S
In other words, the set S is a self-contained universe of sorts. Which, when you think about it, describes The Godfather perfectly. The moral universe that the movie inhabits is entirely within the premises of the Mafia. We consider Carlo Rizzi to be a bad guy because he betrayed Santino. Never mind that Santino himself was a gangster and had enough bad karma waiting to bite him in the ass. We cheer when Michael orchestrates the killing of the heads of all the other New York crime families. Rooting for the bad guy is not particularly new, but what makes The Godfather so interesting is that it created a universe that was almost entirely independent of the society we know.

In earlier movies where we rooted for the bad guy, the law still had a part to play. Either it was portrayed as corrupt, or bumbling, or benignly admonishing, or something on those lines. In the ones with a moral, the bad guy you rooted for got killed in the end. But in The Godfather, the law enforcement is hardly seen on screen. The only one you remember is the corrupt cop who is in cahoots with a drug dealer and punched Michael in the face. Self-contained universe, like I said. Almost like Star Wars, except there are no people with snouts and three eyes on their head.

The long opening sequence has much to do with how this is accomplished: the first time you see Don Corleone, he is dispensing favours to a bunch of people on his daughter's wedding day. A few days after that, he meets with a drug dealer who wants his assistance and refuses on "ethical" grounds. The fact that his empire itself is built on the other side of the law is not dealt with at all at this point. You only see the power he wields, and how he uses it to do good, not how he got it in the first place. So, by the time he is shot by the drug dealer, he's gotten you to root for him and his son.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Freeze Frame #31: Independence Day

Okay, I know this is essentially a B-movie with lots of things going bang. However, it was an immensely entertaining one, with every single member of the cast cheerfully throwing themselves into the absurd scenarios the movie offered. For Will Smith, this was a star-making role - it showcased every bit of his charm and screen presence.

My favourite moment in the movie is the rousing Bill Pullman speech at the end, when the Americans prepare for their last stand against the aliens. Especially the bit where the tone of his voice rises in defiance as he says "We will not go quietly into the night!" Corny as it sounds, that part gives me the goosebumps. So sue me.

Monday, July 02, 2007

AKS: The real box office story?

Apropos my comments on the box office fate of Aap Kaa Surroor in my earlier post, it appears that I am mistaken. reports that AKS is shaping up to be one of the biggest hits of the year. Having seen just twenty-odd people in the cinema hall when I watched the movie at the Innovative Multiplex in Bangalore on Saturday evening, I assumed that the fate of the movie was similar elsewhere. Apparently, this is not so: the movie seems to have enjoyed a bumper opening in most centres across India.

My opinion of the movie stands: I still think it is hopeless. However, my comments on the movie's performance don't. When HR's numerologist told him to make a movie whose quality was better than the spelling of its title, he knew what he was talking about. It has indeed helped.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee: The Real Luv Story

Yess. I actually watched itt.

Sometimes you go in expecting the worrst. Through loong, bittter experience, I've learnt that thiss might be a good strategy to adopt.

Howeverr, instead of being an atrocious, abominable mess of a moviee, Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee: The Real Luv Story turns out to be merely forgettablle. Praise the Lord!

I could continue with the awful spelling, but I'm sure you get the point. So I'm gonna spell like a decent, civilized human being from now on.

I'm assuming the odd repeated letter in the title has to do with some numerological advice. Basically, some guy told him that the movie had a better stab at commercial success if the spelling was worse than the film. I think he did follow the advice: the spelling is indeed much worse. But I don't think it has helped, judging by the number of people I saw in the movie hall. Most of them, I suppose, came there for the reason as I did: for a laugh. Sadly enough, we didn't get much of that either. Like I said, the movie is just plain insipid.

The plot involves Himesh "HR" Reshammiya, a rock star, being arrested for a murder of a journalist while on tour in Germany. Half the movie is flashback, mainly dealing with his romance with Riaa (as spelt in the credits). The rest is about how he proves his innocence.

As murder mysteries go, this one has about as much complexity as a story told in a music video. Which, I suppose might be because the makers wanted to keep the focus solely on Himesh. Everyone else - the heroine, the vamp (Mallika Sherawat in yet another jaw-droppingly awful performance) - is just garnish. There's a guy who plays a friend of Himesh and has one good line early on. After that, he too has little to do.

Our hero obliges with a predictably bad performance. His dialogue delivery is at about the same level as his singing, which is saying plenty. The worst acting comes right at the end: an ill-advised cover of Mehbooba, with Himesh giving Mallika Sherawat what is presumably his most lustful stare. Given the lady's performance, the term "good riddance to bad rubbish" springs to mind.

The singing of course is typical Himesh. Either you like it or you hate it. I hate it. Someday in the future, the Museum of Modern (and Incomprehensibly Popular) Art will put Himesh's nose on display. Along with Kumar Sanu's. And Altaf Raja's. And... God in heaven! What have we let our music come to?

I must admit, however, that the theme tune is quite decent. The background score in the scene where he tries to break into a guy's safe shows a touch of innovation. The movie is well shot too: nowadays a standard feature in the Hindi cinema.

On the whole, this isn't the worst moviee (sorry, couldn't resist) you'll ever see. But don't let that stop you from giving it a wide berth. Sometimes, in order to make something look good, you put it next to something that is even worse. After this movie, people are likely to ask him to stick to singing. Which might have been the object of the exercise.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Freeze Frame #30: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

Karan Johar's debut movie is arguably his best so far. There isn't a single unpredictable moment in the entire movie, there are moments in the first half that make you cringe, and SRK hams it up like nobody's business. But for all that, it manages to convey the palpable enthusiasm of a debutant filmmaker in love with Hindi cinema.

KKHH is essentially Kajol's movie. Not only does the story revolve around her, she gives one of the best performances of her career. The plot is straightforward: Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (SRK) are classmates and bosom buddies. But before that relationship could progress beyond that, in comes Tina (Rani) and Rahul is smitten. It helps, of course, that Tina has the whole girly-girl thing going for her. Anjali realizes this and tries to compete, but loses Round 1. In Round 2, however, Tina's no longer around (died at childbirth), and Anjali has become an amalgam of Tina and her earlier self. Which makes it that much easier for Rahul to fall in love with her.

The scene that ties these two halves together is my favourite scene in the movie: it is when you first see the "transformed" Anjali. The camera pans over a busy household in the midst of a celebration - Anjali's engagement to Aman (Salman), in fact. Aman sends some girl to ask Anjali to hurry up and, when she delivers the message, Anjali turns, smiles, and says, "Usse kaho, yeh dulhan der lagaayegi." (Meaning, tell him this bride will take some time.) Her look, her smile, the confidence she projects... all of that manages to convey in one moment what will happen over the next hour or so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sivaji: Citizen Kenai

In some ways, this was a movie just waiting to be made. Shankar is a director with a proven ability to create box office magic with movies involving middle-class supermen fighting corruption. Rajni is a star who has made a career out of playing such roles. The only question that remains is: do we get to see Rajni in a Shankar movie, or Shankar directing a Rajni movie? A little bit of both, thankfully.

Shankar is a director with an ability to think really big. His plots usually involve the sort of skulduggery you'd dream up after your third straight tequila, and believe to be plausible after the fifth. His technique is simple and time-worn: First, set up situations where the man on the street is victimized by greed and corruption at various levels - deserving students having to pay high capitation fees, doctors refusing to treat poor patients, politicos and government officials demanding bribes for everything and so on. Now, once you've gotten the audience baying for blood, have the hero blow up the logjam through some decidedly unconventional and swift methods. Usually, these methods involve some illegality - murder, robbery, blackmail and the like - but they are always directed at the established bad guys. What makes it work is the way he ratchets up the tone of the proceedings from the get-go. For Rajni, this sort of filmmaking is the perfect vehicle.

Aside: For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tamil cinema, Shankar is the man who made (either the original, or the remake as well) Nayak, Hindustani, The Gentleman and Aparichit. If you've seen any or all of these, you'll know what I mean in the above paragraph.

However, such an endeavour is not without its risks. Shankar's biggest weakness is a tendency to overdo things on occasion. Usually, this happens in the hero's tragic flashback - someone close to him gets badly burned or electrocuted, and the apathy of the people around him is what lights his fire. Rajni's weakness is a tendency to have his movies revolve entirely around him. Even while making something like Chandramukhi, he took the low-key Mohanlal role in the Malayalam original and added mucho baggage to it. Baggage of the sort his adoring fans have come to expect from every one of his outings. Maybe it's his fault, maybe it's the makers'. It doesn't matter.

Both these aspects - the synergies and the double-flaws - are on full display in Sivaji. Clocking in at around three hours, the movie takes its time to tell a story of a rich man who becomes poor trying to do good, then rich again by beating the crooks at their game, then arrested, then out, then... you know the drill, I'm sure.

Much of it could have been told in less than two and a half hours, and some of it needn't have been told at all. Large portions of the first half, especially the scenes dealing with Rajni wooing Shreya and her family, could have been done away with. It's unfunny, loud, occasionally crude and mostly cringe-worthy. The most shocking part of it all is that one of Rajni's best attributes - excellent comic timing - has deserted him here. What salvages it somewhat is a triumphant return to form by Vivek. He manages to lampoon just about everybody, including the man who has taken his place on the popularity charts in the last few years - Vadivelu.

The song sequences are about as hopeless as the music (A. R. Rehman having an off-day of mammoth proportions), and watching Rajni flap the odd limb at high speed in an effort to approximate dancing is painful at best. And don't even get me started on the costume design.

The only scenes that work in the first half are the serious ones involving his fight to realize is dream of providing free education and medical care to the poor. In this he comes across a dangerous adversary, a corrupt kingmaker named Adiseshan. The biggest problem with Rajni movies in recent times has been finding a worthy foe with sufficient screen presence. What Shankar and Suman have accomplished here is fantastic: aided in large part by a low-key Rajni performance in the first half, Suman creates an Adiseshan who is as soft-spoken as he is menacing. By the time we reach the halfway point, he's made us want to figure out how Rajni would destroy him.

The second half is where it all comes together. Rajni and Shankar both stop fooling around and get down to business, and the effect is electric. Pure masala, peppered with inside jokes that would have seasoned Tamil film goers in splits. And the coup de grace: a Rajni in the final scenes looking and acting like the old Rajni from Thai Veedu, Thanga Magan and Moondru Mugam. Fantastic stuff! There's a dodgy little sequence involving an amalgam of medical science and biblical resurrection, but I'm inclined to forgive that in light of what follows.

On the whole, this is far less of a movie than it could have been, thanks to some disastrous choices in the first half, but delivers its share of vintage Rajni entertainment in the second half. Worth a dekko? Hell yeah! The Rajni you see in the last fifteen minutes alone is worth the price of admission.

ps: The title was inspired by a comment by my friend Gora. For the uninitiated, Kenai is a Tamil word that broadly translates to "imbecile".

Rajnikanth, Amitabh Bachchan and the necessity of dodging bullets

In the beginning, there was Rajnikanth the actor. He wasn't the best actor anyone had ever seen, but he was quite okay. His biggest gift was an undeniable screen presence. The man had style to burn, and it shone through even when he had a bit of a paunch, a leather belt that could hide Adnan Sami no matter how you draped it, and dance moves that seemed inspired by epileptic robots.

Somewhere along the way, he figured out what his best attributes where, amped up the style, smoothed out a few rough edges, added comic timing to his arsenal and set out to conquer the world. He became Rajni the star. He managed to do it often enough and consistently well, and the public ate it all up. Hence Rajni the Super Star. Whatever happened after that was just momentum.

The bad news is, I'm not entirely sure he can stop it anymore. In order to ensure box office success, the man ends up having to do a whole bunch of stuff that his age and physique no longer permit him to do. The fight sequences in Sivaji alone should get the editor of the movie a national award. Watching him dance is an almost painful experience. It's like he's come full circle, except the robots no longer have epilepsy, they have arthritis.

When you think about it, not too long ago, one could write roughly the same story about Amitabh Bachchan. If this were the Matrix and AB was Neo, the Oracle might've told him at some point that he needed something, maybe death, to take him to the next level. And so it was, that Mrityudaata proved to be his Mrityudaata. A few more filmmakers nailed that particular coffin in movies like Lal Badshah.

And then the man resurrected himself, french beard and all, and became a bankable star again. So bankable, in fact, that scripts like Cheeni Kum and Nishabd and Ekalavya get written now because there's someone like him to star in them. (I said star in them, mind you, not just act in them. AB is a damn good actor, no doubt. But so are Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor. Would these movies have gotten made with them?)

The bottomline is, Neo woke up from the dead and can now stop bullets in mid-air. So can AB. Rajni on the other hand is still dodging them. Action sequences to the contrary notwithstanding.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom

When I was driving back home after watching Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, I asked myself how I would describe the experience to my friends. My top three candidates were:

3. A lengthy rant involving the occasional throwing of cosmic questions into the void, such as "What were they smoking when they wrote this?" or "What moron heard this pitch and decided to put money into this?"

2. The horror, the horror... (Ideally in my best Marlon Brando voice, which unfortunately doesn't sound much like Brando.)

1. An expression of muted shock and misery, held for about 30 seconds.

If you're an avid moviegoer like I am, with tastes spanning multiple genres, languages and levels of absurdity, you tend to walk into a movie with appropriate expectations. Watching a Yash Raj film and complaining about the lack of realism is akin to watching a West End production of Hamlet and complaining about the lack of car chases.

So, when you walk into a theatre to watch a movie that involves Amitabh Bachchan dressed like a cross between Bappi Lahiri and Bjork, you prepare yourself for more such outlandish excursions. The extraordinary thing about JBJ is that it defies all expectations. Unfortunately not in a good way.

The plot involves two people waiting at a London railway station and falling into conversation. They both claim to be waiting for their respective lovers, and talk of how they fell in love. And somewhere along the way, they fall in love with each other. As it happens, there are no lovers in the background: they just made it up. So now they have to do all the crazy stuff people do in romantic comedies before they finally kiss. None of this is particularly novel, but if done well, it could've been a serviceable rom-com. Ah, well...

I guess what brings it down is, lemme see... the wafer-thin characterization, zero chemistry between the leads, a screenplay with no sense of flow, an average score and bad acting. Short list, don'tcha think? Priety Zinta and Bobby Deol lead the pack with truly atrocious performances. Lara Dutta can be forgiven for not being capable of anything better. To give her some credit, she doesn't do too badly in the second half. And Abhishek Bachchan... considering how many comedies he's been doing in recent times, it's amazing how little his comic timing has improved. The man is often half a second late in his dialogue delivery, which essentially means that half the comic potential of his lines are lost while he's getting there. I've already spoken of his facial hair in an earlier post, but I must admit that his look and mannerisms in this movie aren't half-bad. To do him justice, he delivers the occasional zinger quite well. However, these do little to salvage what is yet another bad performance in a movie chock-full of them. The only one who manages to come out relatively unscathed is Piyush Mishra, who plays Abhishek's friend Hanif.

And now for costume design and art direction. It's so atrocious, it deserves its own paragraph instead of being part of the laundry list above. It even deserves its own blog, but I don't think I have the energy for it. Suffice it to say that some of it makes Baz Luhrmann's work look like German expressionism in comparison. The rest of it is just plain bad.

The music has gotten much airtime in recent weeks, particularly the title number with Amitabh stepping out of a Salvador Dali painting to do a song-and-dance routine. Which is just as well, since the rest of the album is pure noise, while this one has the glimmer of a tune. However, it appears so often in the movie that it begins to get on one's nerves. The argument, I suppose, is that the music would grow on you. Well, so would fungus, except you don't let it.

Traditionally, reviews like this are supposed to end with some sort of savage punchline. But then I ask myself, why bother putting in more effort into the review than the makers put into the movie? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Ah, there you go.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Does he plan it all out, or just make it up as he goes along?

So wonders an admiring British officer after yet another of those insane Jack Sparrow escapades that leave him, improbably, out of harm's way (for the moment) and at an advantage over his rivals. With Sparrow, one really couldn't be sure.

On the other hand, with the screenwriter(s) of the three Pirates movies, you could be 100% sure: they made it up as they went along. My guess is, they sat down each day and wrote three scenes or so, and didn't really worry about whether or not they could remember what they wrote the previous day. After it was all done, they might've spent, oh, about half an hour or so tying up a few loose ends. The entire process being lubricated with vast quantities of rum (yo-ho-ho and all that jazz), of course.

Not that this amounts to a criticism of the movie, really. If you've seen Gore Verbinski's The Mexican or the first Pirates movie, you already know that to expect narrative discipline is an exercise in futility: just enjoy each moment and don't worry about how it adds up, or how long it takes. To his credit, the guy knows how to make a movie look visually appealing, and he knows how to make each scene play well enough to keep you interested. Which is essentially what saves this gloriously shot and acted mess called POTC:AWE.

Johnny Depp is as good as ever: who else can carry off a line like "Can we just ignore that she is a woman scorned, the fury the likes of which hell hath no?" And then there's the little pleasure of having watched Jack Sparrow's spiritual father (Keith Richards) play his real one. Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom do their shtick - they do it well, but it's not high wattage, and I suppose they know that they're not what makes the movie tick. Geoffrey Rush brings a marginally kinder, gentler version of Barbossa to the screen in this installment - not surprising, given how many other Part 3s this year have resorted to Karan Johar-esque screenplays.

On balance, I'm not entirely sure if I'd recommend this movie. It's an overlong, unedited, and mostly senseless. But if you can look past that flaw, it does entertain. Hey, if you've watched David Dhawan, I don't see why you should thumb your nose up at this one.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

I think the first thing that strikes you when you see this movie is the level of emotion on display. The earlier movies had a certain cool reserve that masked whatever emotion the main characters were feeling. This one dared to be sentimental. Not that I think this is a bad thing, mind you.

However, the movie does have its share of problems. First of which is Al Pacino. In the first movie, Andy Garcia conveyed a sense of menace - you felt that he could, and readily would, hurt these guys. In the second one, Vincent Cassel conveyed the sense that he was competent enough to beat these guys. Although with the trick ending right at the end, it was difficult to tell whether he really was. In this one, however, Al Pacino seems to be filling in for the villain that the makers thought Al Pacino could play. He displays less than a tenth of the energy the character needs to have, and less than a hundredth of what he could. However, not all the blame for this performance can be laid at his door. His character is written as someone who is supposed to be quite smart, but the script never really bothers to demonstrate it.

The thing is, intelligence doesn't work the same way as evil in the movies. You could merely hint at the evil a character is capable of and not really show it except in the occasional instance, and people would fill in the blanks for themselves. But with intelligence, you need to demonstrate that the guy is smarter than the people around him - if you don't do that, you can't make people invest in the hero's success. If there was no-one of Lex Luthor's calibre, would you feel happy when Superman won?

The second problem is the payoff. The movie has a sort of kind, gentle tone throughout the elaborate process of setting up the con, which would've been okay if it really managed to deliver a zinger of an ending. But the movie prefers to play it straight, and just brings up a few small surprises, none of which are really surprising to anyone who has watched the two earlier movies closely enough. Maybe it's a problem of expectations, but that's a burden that any third installment in a series would doubtless carry.

The third problem is the humor. The material is so obvious, it's almost juvenile. The Ellen Barkin character, for instance, is written and played too broadly. As is the entire segment in the Mexican factory. You get humor when you're looking for wit. The movie does have the occasional laugh-out-loud moment that really hits the spot. But these are too few and far between.

Let it not be said that this review is one-sided. The movie does have some good things going for it. For one, it's not boring - there's the pleasure of seeing an elaborate con being set up. Then there's the pleasure of watching a bunch of talented actors who have grown comfortable with each other over three outings. And then there's the pleasure of watching George Clooney and Brad Pitt interact with each other. Danny and Rusty have so much history together that their communication has by now become some kind of code. They speak in half sentences and faint gestures, and yet it manages to work.

Clooney is a master at conveying volumes while not moving a single facial muscle, and Pitt has always been a great comedian (I thought he was dynamite in The Mexican, although James Gandolfini hogged all the glory). Watching them react to Linus' (Matt Damon) earnest statements is a master class in how to evoke laughter with the barest minimum of effort.

However, on the whole, this is yet another in a series of disappointing third acts that we've been subjected to this year. Especially so because so many of these series had fantastic second outings. I remember telling my wife that it seemed like the Sophomore Jinx was now a thing of the past. To paraphrase the promos of Ocean's Twelve, it looks like three is the new two.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Freeze Frame #28, #29: Deewar

Deewar is, in my opinion, the movie that features the best Amitabh Bachchan performance of all time. It is not that he did not do a better job in any movie before or since - a number of movies come to mind where his performance has been fantastic. But the sort of raw intensity he brought to Deewar was just something I've never seen him replicate. Even today, when I see that movie, there are moments that give me the goosebumps.

This is a movie with a number of great scenes, but my pick for the standout scene is pretty much the same as most others' - the one in the temple, where he goes to pray for his mother's life for the first time. The arrogance of his posture, the anger with which he starts speaking, and the way it breaks down when he eventually begs for her life... it still moves me to tears.

The other scene I really loved was when he goes to a garage where a bunch of goons who have been looking for him all day are gathered, and beats them up. It's a standard action scene, and the dialogue that begins it is straightforward. He just says, "You've been looking for me all day and here I am, waiting for you." But what really struck me was how much the lazy drawl in his voice conveyed the kind of man he was.

Most of Amitabh's blockbusters have been remade in Tamil with Rajnikanth. Deewar became Thee, with Suman in the Shashi Kapoor role. The movie probably did good business, but I found it to be a colossal disappointment. It lacked precisely what its title claimed: Thee (Fire).

Incidentally, I was watching K. Bhagyaraj's Thavani Kanavugal on TV yesterday and there's a scene in which Sivaji Ganesan, who plays his crusty old landlord and an army man who has never set foot in a temple, goes to the nearby Ganesha temple to pray for the well-being of his (Bhagyaraj's) family. And what do you know, the speech is basically a precise translation of Amitabh's speech in Deewar!