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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Drive

The unsmiling no-name no-nonsense protagonist who talks 3 words per minute, keeps going about his business until fate intervenes and a makes mighty mess his way. Then there are sudden bursts of extreme violence, which leave him mostly unruffled, that add depth, maybe charisma too, to his personality. We've seen Clint Eastwood don some of these in the 60s. Drive, starring Ryan Gosling directed by Nicolas Refn is a mature 21st century reimagining of that genre. While this is undoubtedly more mature and satisfying than the buttered popcorn action flicks that pop out of Hollywood studios, there's nothing for deep introspection here.

Consider this scene: the Driver (the protagonist is unnamed) is taking his neighbor Irene (in a wonderfully understated performance by Carey Mulligan) out on a date. Before they leave we hear the phone ringing. And in the car she says "That's my husband's lawyer. He says my husband will be out next week". A long silence ensues. The husband is in the prison. There's something blooming between the driver and the neighbor. The husband's return is obviously going to complicate things. I hate to use the word 'art' here, but usually in cinemas that allow for long pauses between conversations, like... er, arthouse productions, the director is giving the audience enough time to grasp and absorb what had just happened on the screen - a death or a divorce or an infidelity. Here, it doesn't even take two seconds after Irene's uttering - the audience know beforehand that the husband will be out of prison and the status quo will be disturbed. Why the long pause? This cinema has probably half the number of words compared with any other movie of similar running length. And I admit that the silence is soothing, mostly because it's better than filler dialogues. But it's important to distinguish between this soothing silence and a meditative silence where what transpires on the scene is deep.

The laconic and cold driver makes money as a get-away driver for the robbers who either don't have their own transportation facility or lack the skill to evade L.A.P.D on L.A roads. His rule is to just wait for 5 minutes outside the event, pickup the party and drop them off at a safe place. So when he realizes his pseudo-girlfriend's husband is in trouble to pay off his prison debts, a matter of few thousands, he steps in to help - the husband will steal and the driver will drive. There's no ulterior motive: not to send him to prison again; the help seems genuine. Makes one wonder what would have happened if the heist had gone right and their neighbors lived happily ever after. After all, the driver is, in more than one sense of the word, a hero. But shit hits the fan spectacularly. The husband is killed and the driver is on the run. We learn that it's no job for a small-time crook. A lot of money is involved and the mafia is behind it. Needless to say, some heads roll are pulped.

This film has got style - Ryan Gosling's minimalism, not just words, but expressions, Carey Mulligan's vulnerability as a single mother, the terrific score helping the noirish photography, non-commercial violence, enjoyable silence and more. But at the core, even though Refn has invested enough time in developing his primary characters, I really didn't care if they got together in the end. Now, I don't want a climax where the hero/heroine race through the airport and one of the people in the background say something romantic. But, even by the standards of neo-noir I had the least bit interested in the driver starting a new life with Irene. The objective here seems to be excellent filmmaking, not making an excellent film.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thorrible

It's hard to get the take-me-not-serious tone. Just not taking the writing & production values seriously doesn't provide the tone. Most of the dialogues are horrible. Sample this supposedly funny line:
Our dear friend is banished to Earth! Loki sits on the throne of Asgard as our King! And all you have done is eat two boars, six pheasants a side of beef and drink two barrels of ale! Shame on you!
Shame indeed. This happens when Thor is getting to know the Earth people and their way of life: after gulping down a cup of coffee in a diner he smashes the cup asking for more. When he's politely reprimanded by the girlfriend that Earth people order in a more gentle way, he nods in an understanding manner. Wow! I've seen superhero movies where the guy comes to our planet and does funny things not knowing how stuff works. But this writing is scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is stuff rejected in a screen-writing convention in Peoria.

When Thor, the god of thunder is stripped of his superpowers and pushed down to Earth, he faces a giant robot sent to kill him. It slaps him and he falls down unconscious. His girlfriend swoops him and cries not knowing if he's still alive. And at this moment, allow me to remark on the range of expressions she exhibits - played by Oscar winning Natalie Portman, she doesn't invest a quarter of the emotional sincerity expected of an actor for such a scene. She plays it like a high school drama and director knows that the audience know it's a tongue-in-cheek outing and doesn't bother to re-shoot the scene. This laxity, a sense "y'all here to chill" awareness on the part of creators works on a good script. But the script is fractured, childish, immature. Ironman nailed it in letting the viewer take a break in a charmingly intelligent way. With 'Thor', the break is a bit long, about 110 minutes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Black Swan

Warning: Spoilers.

Aronofsky likes to study characters cracking under pressure. In 'Black Swan' it's the beautiful, timid, perfect, frigid, fragile ballerina Nina Sayers played with exquisite control by Natalie Portman. Her personality makes her a great fit for playing the white swan in Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake', but to play the black swan, she needs to loosen up, get a bit out of the rigid boundaries she has set herself to excel as a performer. Lily, a laid back dancer who naturally embodies black swan in her gracious but beguiling movements threatens Nina, who's constantly worried about being replaced. As a crushing load of expectations begin to fracture her mind, the audience see things through her eyes, to be precise, her mind. (Which is why this is a mind-fuck movie for adults, and the neatly wrapped up 'Inception' is not.)

I don't know if the sex scenes from the movie are on high rotation on Youtube yet. There's nothing explicit - neither a view of a nipple nor a crotch. But the dreamy layer lends an eroticism that's more powerful than nudity. Are Nina's sexual explorations a symbol of her getting closer towards the black swan inside her? I tried to replay the scenes in my head after the movie was over: The ballet producer, played charmingly by Vincent Cassel, indirectly asks her to explore her sexuality so that she departs away her from 'little princess' image befitting the white swan. First Nina tries masturbation in her bedroom; before she can climax, she sees her mother asleep in a chair near her in her room and she stops her act. Then she tries in the bathtub; but this time its not her mother but her mental blockades scare her out of her mood. The director informs us that Nina's ready not only to accommodate, but to be taken over by her complementary twin, Lily, who exudes unshackled sexual energy expected of the seductress black swan, when she's able to fantasize and climax with Lily.

Sex is not the only symbolism in the film, though it was the only one that was quite complex and worked on a mature level. The next frequently used symbolism was the reflecting image. Almost every other shot has a mirror or a reflecting surface. Either the mirror image is doing something the actual person isn't doing (though I have to admit that the director doesn't opt for any cheesy boo shots) or the reflecting surface is a weak black reflection telling us what lies beneath. I thought the director went overboard in pounding the meaning through images. Then there's the expanding goosebump and the disappearing bloody patch, representing the struggle between the white and the black swan; this was the most cheesiest trick in the screenplay.

I particularly liked the interplay between Nina and her mother Erica (played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey). That there be no doorlocks in the house is obviously the mother's decision. In one of the earlier scenes, the ballet director asks Nina if she's a virgin and she responds no. But Portman plays this scene so wonderfully and Aronofsky directs this scene so wonderfully, we don't know if this timid girl is lying. The mother's decision to absolutely avoid all physical boundaries between her and her daughter partly arises from Erica's failure to shine as a ballerina herself because of her accidental pregnancy with Nina. A significant chunk of Nina's 'good girl, no sex' policy seems to be ingrained in her brain by her mother as a cautionary tale.

The director pulls off an expected, but satisfying climax by playing a trick on the protagonist's mind. Was it a cheap trick? It would be, if you're to flip through the pages of the screenplay. But the intensity of the camera, with it's grainy film closing up on Portman's face combined with an eerie background score adds complexity to her character, the narration, the movie as a whole. But I still don't like the very last scene, where the filmmakers leave it up to the audience to write their own ending. Aronofsky did that with Mickey Rourke's character in the 'Wrestler' and he does the same thing here with Nina's fate in limbo. It's not that I'm not capable of convincing myself if someone lives or dies when the closing shot is a bloodied body. It makes me feel cheated when the director strongly guides a viewer all along giving no room to wiggle and in the end shoves him into a wide expanse of possibilities.

Monday, October 04, 2010

When the Best Is Bad

The Tamil blogosphere, 'critics' and 'pundits' are abuzz with Shankar/Rajini combo taking Tamil cinema to the next level. Wait a second, let me retract that: taking Indian cinema to the next level. And where has Indian cinema been all these days if 'Endhiran' represents the next level?

The movie is one big ad for a Rajini toy for all fanatics who puke on their Facebook wall that Rajini can make an onion cry and his gmail id is gmail@rajini.com. Too bad producers haven't thought of merchandising. By the time hundreds of Rajinis are stacked together to take the shape of a snake to gobble up cartoon police (near the end of the movie), I wished the snake to leap out of the screen and eat up most of the audience. They were all cheering. I don't know exactly what they were happy about - the very idea of a multiplied Rajini which was mind bogglingly stupidly executed or the 'special effects' which are notable because of their sub-par effects. Sensible people who hail this as a milestone must carefully choose their words - that this maybe a milestone for an Indian movie, in terms of special effects. But otherwise, the plot is badly conceived. The dialogues are bad. The special effects are pre-Jurassic Park era. The action (as in thespian, not blowing things up) and direction are plainly incompetent. I'm not a Rajini fan. But for a sensible fan, I'd recommend he get his fix from Annamalai.

The movie opens with the scientist Vaseegaran, played by Rajini (I know, it's hard to say with a straight face that Rajini plays a scientist) working on a humanoid robot. And by working, I mean he's literally working on it. He's screwing the stuff together, with the help of an assistant scientist and a deputy scientist played respectively by, wait for this, Santhanam and Karunas. These two wouldn't know the 'neural schema' (ooohh, a big word for a Tamil cinema) of the humanoid, and they primarily help with polishing and changing the dress. It just gets interminably boring from these first 2 minutes: Aishwarya Rai, the woman who's just dying to marry the scientist man and settle down, is pissed off that he hasn't returned her calls or replied to her emails as he's busy working. And after Vasee emerges from the lab, he goes on charm offensive and wins her over. Seriously, can it get any more clich├ęd? Bastards. I can't dwell on the storyline anymore; my IQ is dropping every minute I think of the story.

One of the guys said "machi, padam pattasu machi". Most of our (Indian/Tamil) movies and TV shows have been courting people who have a deep hatred for anything that is either intelligent or tastefully done. Shankar and Rajini have sound judgment. They know very well what makes their target audience go 'pattasu' and they get paid to flesh out their ideas which wouldn't pressure the acumen of a stupid 15 year old boy. (But there's a scene where Rajini converses with a bunch of mosquitoes. Anyone over 5 and has an attention span of 2 minutes would have heard their brain cells killing themselves).

One of the atrocities committed by the blogosphere is to classify this as a science fiction. It has to be, right? Because they use words like neural schema and humanoid and robotics. They obviously haven't turned a leaf of either Clarke or Asimov or seen '2001' or 'Solaris' or even something very commercial like 'Minority Report'. There's just not very little science in the movie, there's anti-science here. Artistic liberty on top of some basic science would have been appreciated. Every concept is either dumbed down or simplified or misinterpreted. The android is taught emotions and it falls in love. It's been done at least 18 times before with a decent scientific rigor. But what we witness in 'Endhiran' is a crime against humanity and humanoid-ity.

Hollywood is a medley. Titanic and Avatar, two mega-blockbusters feature maudlin plots with some horrible writing. But when they do special effects, they do it better than anybody else. The 'Men In Black' franchise is stupid, but it knows it's stupid and doesn't treat the audience like they're stupid. The Batman series by Nolan has a solid story and inventive action scenes. The independent film circuit here is super good. Darren Aronofsky has done 4 movies in the last 10 years and just look at how magnificently different the themes he's dealing with are. Alejandro Inarritu has done 4 movies in 10 years and though they have the same undercurrent, I don't think there's any other filmmaker who can do a better job of interconnecting multiple stories with this level of emotional impact. And there's Paul Thomas Anderson. Need I introduce Coen brothers or Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino? My favorite writers Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Kaufman excel in their own styles.

I'm not saying these guys are the best. Hollywood produces its share of trash every week. But there's something for everyone in every mood. I don't see that in our movies. Maniratnam, one of our best shots, directed 'Ravanan'. A movie that just goes nowhere, conveys nothing. And I have to say that I like 'My Dinner with Andre'. Just see 'Ravanan' for its dialogues. Kamal Hasan's 'Unnai Pol Oruvan' discounts the complexities of religion and politics and offers a 'thriller'. Well, Shankar and Rajini don't pretend to offer popcorn bites for the mind. But these guys combined are our front-runners and they all suck.

*

Slate, an American online magazine I visit daily, carried an article on Rajini and introduced him thus:
If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth.
Seriously? Is there a universal rule that if you like Rajini you'll have to write nonsense?


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Isabelle Huppert

Once in a while you see a movie which features a stellar performance that you don't know what hit you. Isabelle Huppert's role in The Piano Teacher stabs you in the heart and twists the knife a bit. It's a wonderfully calibrated performance about the deleterious effects of sexual repression. The movie is supremely engaging and disturbing at the same time. I will write about the movie, which will entail a frank and detailed sexual exploration, in a later post.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pricing a Book

This book by Praveen Swami - India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The Covert War in Kashmir, 1947-2004 (Asian Security Studies) - boasting one of the most boring titles I've come across, costs $160. On the top of my head I can think of a few parameters that determine the price range of a non-fiction book. The perceived value of the content is obviously on top. Research scientists and anthropologists spend decades gaining knowledge which they summarize succinctly in an understandable manner. (A topic like Guns, Germs and Steel pops to me). We pay for their years of experience and analytical skills. Another determinant is the genre - an exploration of counter-terrorism, though important, doesn't sell as much a biography of Oprah Winfrey (pandering to the masses). And then the popularity of the author - Obama's earnings from his books last year was $8M.

But no common-sense approach would okay a publisher setting the price at $160 for a 272 page book. (I know there are businesses that pay a lot for slim reports. But this doesn't fall into that category. I bring in the number of pages because that's an indication of the extensiveness & depth of the treatment. A 57-year history can only be put in a nutshell in less than 300 pages; to dive deep and dissect would consume considerable volumes). Unless there are any state/jihadi secrets, which there obviously can't be, it doesn't make sense to price it out of reach of a common man interested in understanding the history. It's hard to put a price tag on any book and the value a good book delivers can never be measured in dollars. And this book might very well open eyes to many; it might very well contain many seminal ideas. But such an expensive price tag in most cases will work against the propagation of the author's knowledge; it may turn out as the prime means to ensure a reduced readership.

Monday, May 10, 2010

David Brooks writes a column that I wanted to write about Elena Kagan, Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Here are the final lines:
What we have is a person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess. Arguments are already being made for and against her nomination, but most of this is speculation because she has been too careful to let her actual positions leak out.

There’s about to be a backlash against the Ivy League lock on the court. I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.
It makes theoretical sense to have someone in the judge's seat who can impartially listen to and make a fair judgement. But nobody is impartial. The school they they went to, the friends they had, the community they grew up, the crime rate around them (or the lack thereof), born to educated parents, educated in a Ivy League institute, marital life (or the lack of it), being a woman... A judge may claim to be impartial in their hearings but still all the arguments have to pass through their collective background filter and by virtue of growing up they would have lost their neutrality.

We'll know quite soon where Kagan stands; after all, she's replacing the liberal lion of the court and Obama wouldn't possibly nominate someone who's going to tilt the court towards right. But as the pragmatist conservative columnist David suggests, it is intellectually dishonest to not express your position on various issues that concern the society and play it safe all along for the sake of professional growth. It is ironical that she had criticized the senate confirmation process for not being insightful enough, while all along she has been preparing herself for such a process.

There's an episode from the melodramatic 'The West Wing' where the president initially leans towards a very centrist judge for openings (two) in the Supreme Court. But then he listens to an extremely liberal and an extremely conservative fight each other inside the Oval and he decides to go with them. I'm glad that Sonia Sotomayor called herself a wise Latina.