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. Rediff.com 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.