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Monday, December 28, 2009

Thrills & Messages

I saw No Country for Old Men yesterday and Unnaipol Oruvan today. Plenty of spoilers.

The chief among the many irritants puncturing 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is not its adolescent understanding of the political/judicial/social set-ups that define a country in dealing with terrorists but its horrible dialogs. When a 'terrorist' (Kamal Haasan) calls the chief police officer of the state (Mohanlal) to negotiate the release of imprisoned terrorists, Mohanlal asks "Is it true?" and "Who are you?" If you've read Forsyth's Negotiator you would have been better at dealing with terrorists. But on second thoughts, if you're dealing with a 'terrorist' bubbling with teenage-angst who demands instant justice such a negotiation doesn't seem like a bad idea. Stereotypes abound (a young geeky hacker, a good Muslim police officer, a Hindu arms dealer, etc), this movie is another in the line of disposable non-entertainment.
Tom Friedman has been writing for a while about the abysmal absence of rebellion among Muslims at the gross injustice perpetrated between themselves while they waste no opportunity to show up in unison be it a slanderous cartoon or a panda bear called Mohammed. So this movie has taken it up - a non-Muslim Muslim who calls himself a 'common man' tired of terrorists siphoning off the goodwill of the religion decides to call it even by killing the terrorists.
The repeated usage of kid gloves by Kamal in dealing with complex themes has resulted in a sharp drop in my respect for him. When half the Tamil film community goes gaga over Kamal's gamut of knowledge one expects that to be displayed in his films. (I know he's working on a borrowed script, but nobody stopped him from improving it). Even if he thinks the Tamil audience are not ready for something like Do the Right Thing he doesn't have much to lose. He's not at the peak of his career, he's well past it. All the thukda actors and writers have been singing paeans for more than a decade now. If he can't raise the bar, especially with such low budget productions where you don't burn your financial fingers, then Kamal doesn't get to complain about the quality of Tamil cinema.
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The Coen brothers' 'No Country for Old Men' is a stunning film. There's less dialog to be heard than most other films. The atmosphere Coens create is just damn immersing. For the most part it's a thriller and a very good one at that. A man (Josh Brolin) stumbles into a horribly gone drug deal where all the players are dead in the middle of a desert with the drugs and money sitting tight. He sets off with the money, which leads another man (Javier Bardem) to pursue him. Their cat-and-mouse misadventures leaves a trail of bodies which brings in another man (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff of the town, into the picture.
Javier Bardem portrays a chilling psychopath and I don't remember the last time I twitched my fingers at the sight of a villain before seeing his performance. There's a scene that would easily walk into my annals of best scenes - we already know that Bardem doesn't need a reason to kill when he walks in a small town gas station (in 1980, west Texas). A conversation that ensues between him and the store owner gets so creepy and tense that I wanted to go out in the balcony, get a fresh breath of air, and then come back a bit relaxed. I don't know if this piece of brilliance is right out of McCarthy's page or from the fertile brains of the twisted Coens, but the belt hanging behind the owner, a visual symbol for a hangman's halter, sure belongs to the brothers.
The final segment of the film is completely devoid of thrills and delves into the pathos of the sheriff. He's concerned at the rise in crime without any motives. He comes from a family of police officers and he has heard stories. But working on a case that involves a psychopath who kills for the sake of it (not the mention the first lines of the film where the sheriff recalls the murder of a 14 year old girl by her boyfriend, again, for no reason) gets him depressed at the cultural depravity encroaching the society. The best he can do in summarizing this descent is in these words: "I think once you stop hearing 'Sir' and 'Ma'am,' all the rest follows".
*
There's a structural similarity between these two movies when seen from 50K feet - they both start like thrillers and end with a message. But that's as close as I can get to equating them. 'Unnaipol Oruvan' screams and yells I'm-a-thriller with its phone-call traces and pulsing music and then whams a 'message' to its audience in the last 15 minutes in an unabashed sophomoric style. 'No Country for Old Men' is so taut, visually and thematically, there's not a slight sag in the narration. Those looking for thrills to extend until the credit roll may be disappointed with the final 15 minutes. But it's a mature moral tale - a tale not shoved into my face, but I did the math to figure it on my own.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar

James Cameron is Hollywood's best special-effects-sentimental geek. From Aliens to Titanic, he's been covering new grounds in getting technology to further his stories featuring maudlin plots and clichéd outcomes but look very good on the screen. Avatar is in line with the era in terms of technology but sinks to new depths in a narration that's a juvenile bash against US foreign policies, corporatism and an anti-green lifestyle. Should someone should tell him that the pure-profit motif he decries in corporate America is responsible for all the technology that made the visuals of this movie so spectacular and the capitalism-believing studio executives funded his $300M project and chain theaters will make him millions as it has before? Well, who am I kidding here?
Here's a brief outline of the story: 2154. Earth is desperately looking for energy resources. A distant space body called Pandora has this rich mineral, funnily titled, unobtanium. Corporations and military send a force to study the natives of Pandora, negotiate a displacement to mine the mineral under their, wait for this, sacred tree. If negotiation doesn't work military might will have to be sought. (Why only the U.S military if the whole of Earth needs energy resources? China already bats towards imperialism. I would have appreciated Cameron if there had been a racial/geographical medley instead of just American soldiers. We see an Asian scientist, but he finally turns out to be a good guy).
I'm not a fan of good vs evil stories painted in broad strokes. You can make a movie appealing to anti-war and go-green activists, but this one is thematically immature to have a meaningful conversation about them when stepping out of the theater. (Ironically though, it has borrowed concepts from The Matrix, Dances with the Wolves and The Last Samurai, all of which do a decent job of getting the audience to delve into their worlds). Spielberg once said that visual effects should help the story, it cannot be the story. He also said that many give credit to Cameron for the technocrat he is but not the story-teller. I agree with the 1st sentence, not the 2nd one.
But go see it in 3-D for the visual orgasms it has to offer. This I like very much about Cameron - being able to realize the surreal imagery in his mind onto the screen. The world of Pandora is spectacularly vibrant, colorful and interesting. The middle segment is spacious and sets up the bond between the hero (a bio-engineered part human part native) and heroine. Cameron's not Michael Bay to throw up an action sequence once every 20 minutes. When there are no fights, there are adventures. We see new things along with the hero. This is a sample entrée in the banquet for my fantasy taste buds: the hero climbing up floating mountains to tame a flying dragon and claim one is a rite of passage in getting accepted into their community.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On Twitter

I'm on Twitter. I'll try to cut down on my just-quote posts (where I say nothing but just quote a block) and move them to Twitter. Of course, there will be much more. This will be an experiment for me as I don't quite know to work crispness and humor into a short sentence and at the same time say something meaningful.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

This is quite scary:
During a year-long gambling binge at the Caesars Palace and Rio casinos in 2007, Terrance Watanabe managed to lose nearly $127 million.

The run is believed to be one of the biggest losing streaks by an individual in Las Vegas history. It devoured much of Mr. Watanabe's personal fortune, he says, which he built up over more than two decades running his family's party-favor import business in Omaha, Neb. It also benefitted the two casinos' parent company, Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which derived about 5.6% of its Las Vegas gambling revenue from Mr. Watanabe that year.

In a civil suit filed in Clark County District Court last month, Mr. Watanabe, 52 years old, says casino staff routinely plied him with liquor and pain medication as part of a systematic plan to keep him gambling.

It's scary because there were no signs of such behavior during Watanabe's early life. His fortune was not inherited. He joined his father's business when he was 15 and slowly built an empire. To transform a small toy store to a $300 million conglomerate requires not only extraordinary business acumen but also discipline and control - something that's not found in addictive gamblers. And then such a sudden descent in this manner, as if someone with no monetary orderliness won a lottery and decided to bungle it up, shakes me.

PS: Read the whole article, it's very good reporting.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Vaaranam Aayiram

When I decried the quality of Tamil films to a friend and how I can't get past 10 minutes of many that I've tried to watch in the recent past he insisted that I see 'Vaaranam Aayiram'. After watching it for 30 minutes I wanted to stop, but I persuaded myself because I haven't seen a Tamil film until the credits rolled since 'Dasavatharam' and wanted to sit through this one for the heck of it. Then I decided that in such circumstances I should go with my instinct and save myself some time.

While the usual formula contains part cleavage and part punch-dialogues, Gautam Menon, the director, in an effort to give the audience a 'non-movie' movie experience has stripped some of the ingredients. There are fights where the hero doesn't fly. The father is friendly, not fire-breathing. The hero falls flat after losing his love but picks up life with another woman and marches on. More importantly, there's no flow in the narration where elements of screenplay converge in the end for a grand denouement. But pretentious drab should not be confused with film art. 'Vaaranam Aayiram' is long and fails to engage. It's not cerebral and doesn't deserve delving into its themes.

While Menon wants to be appreciated for his bold vision for his tangential sub-plots in the second half, we can sense his turmoil to abide by some of the Tamil cinema's rules. Songs. There's a 10 minute episode on how the protagonist's parents fell in love in the 70s. Surya as a school boy? Give or take 20 years, the viewers won't notice! Although I'm annoyed by overacting heroines, Menon flashes his female leads with their underacting. Their stilted range of emotions is annoying too. The biggest downer is Menon's dialogues - in trying to be poetic he's managed sophomoric. Some may sleep through, some may scratch their heads and some may be wowed. I just didn't hate the picture.

But I'm happy the film is made. Surya is no better than Vijay for accepting such a non-commercial project for it all boils down to holding onto one's fort. While Vijay and Ajith have a strong viewership in B & C centers, Surya and Vikram with their flair for experimenting alternate between commercial and challenging roles to earn audience with sophisticated tastes. Nobody serves the art; every actor prostitutes their talent for money. But with the success of every Vijay/Ajith film we're traveling back in time. With the usual nonsense on how a woman should dress to crass comedy capitalizing disabled people their movies propagate virulent stereotypes. With at least 'Vaaranam Aayiram', we're going in another direction - it's progressive because there's no social degradation.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

This is interesting:
A judge has finalised a settlement in which film studio Sony will pay $1.5m (£850,000) to film fans after using a fake critic to praise its movies.

In 2001, ads for films including Hollow Man and A Knight's Tale quoted praise from a reviewer called David Manning, who was exposed as being invented.

He supposedly called Heath Ledger "this year's hottest new star" for his role in A Knight's Tale, said The Animal was "another winner" and Hollow Man was "one hell of a scary ride".

People who saw the films in the US can now get a $5 (£2.80) refund from Sony's pay-out, lawyer Norman Blumenthal said.
Sony did something enormously stupid. Their fictional cinema critic was just one Google search away from being exposed and still they went ahead. But the legal aspect of the outcome is interesting. So, if I saw the movie and retained the theater stub I'm eligible for a $5 pay-out. The judge thinks that it's appropriate the studio compensate half of the ticket price for cheating its audience. And 'cheating' here means misleading the common man by a fake positive review. I think the judge was legally bound to compensate the viewer somehow. But does it make common sense?

Shouldn't the audience who claim their $5 back be asked to prove that they saw the cinema only because of the fake review by the fake critic? No, because it's logically undecidable. This leads me to another question - how many cinema goers go to a specific cinema because their favorite critic recommended it? Before the internet, whatever newspaper/weekly you subscribed to and whatever critic worked for that publisher played a role. But now everyone has access to every cinema pundits' bytes. Rottentomatoes pools together reviews of popular critics. And IMDb has its rating for every movie - voted by the general public.

At the beginning of this decade, when my interest in cinema was at its peak, I devoured every review from every pundit. There was a phase where I allowed the critics to dictate what I should think about the movie. Wag the Dog is an example - I thought it was bland and predictable, but critics loved it. I read them all and taught myself to love it. This primarily came from the insecurity that I don't know enough, not mature enough, not culturally acclimatized enough to appreciate the product. It took a while for me to realize that I'll always be, heck, even some cinema pundits will be, inadequate and not always get the director's vision. Sometimes, it's just a cheap writer/director conveying something unworthy of serious interrogation. Sometimes a truly serious message is lost on me. But either way there's no need for me to hide my real thoughts.

I saw '2012' last week after reading Roger Ebert's review. For those who don't know much about film critics he's their equivalent of Brad Pitt. He won the 1st Pulitzer for film criticism (of only 2) and most of the times my likes and dislikes are in agreement with his. The cinema was such a disaster that I wanted to punch my fist through the screen (as if there weren't enough holes in the movie). If that's his only review some reads they'll think he has an IQ of the director of 2012. Since I've followed him over the years I know that's his guilty pleasure. He recommends some crazy products from time to time.

Now that I have rambled let me try to connect the dots and conjure a few points. Most people don't listen to critics. They have their favorite actors, directors, writers to decide if they should go to a movie. Those who read/listen to critics always take that with a pinch of salt. And they gradually educate if the taste of their critic matches theirs. But nobody I know ever respects blurbs behind DVD cases or newspaper ads. Those short sentences always have to be 'Brilliantly directed' or as in this case 'Another Winner'. Sony had to pay for something nobody would anyway have based their movie-going decision on and that's just dumb.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Leaders of two very significant democracies come together. And it's on the eve of the first anniversary of a terrorist attack on one of the countries. Obama is about to announce his Afghan policy today while India plays a crucial role in the stability and reconstruction of that region. And I repeatedly read and hear the Salahi's breach into the state dinner. Not just at this respected news daily, but all my news sources have home-page items on the Salahis. In this loud media fart I wasn't able to find a single piece from the top dailies (Times, Post & the Journal) on the immensity of Singh's visit.

The couple that crashed into the party are celebrity whores. They're famous now for trying to get famous. And they want to get a bit more famous so that they can be even more famous. But what about the audience who care about politics, war, economy, health care? They're now driven to focus-journals like National Affairs & Foreign Policy. The editors are not even emphasizing the breach as an indication of the holes in the security details for the leader of the free world - they're carrying profiles of the crashers and what they're up to. With the flurry of coverage given to nonsense like balloon boy, Levi Johnston and now the Salahis, they're ...