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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".
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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.

6 comments:

Varaha said...

"No Country for Old Men" is a great example of how to use silence as an effective background theme. When I watched it (I think soon after it won Academy Award last year), I was impressed by the dispassionate narration.

Portraying cold-blooded murders effectively comes naturally to the Coen bros. (it could be witnessed even in "Fargo", which was made quite a few years earlier).

I was especially moved by the bullet-ridden, sand-covered body of the pet dog that had also been killed due to the deal-gone-bad.

A great movie.

Cheers
Varaha

ohmsdeeps said...

When I watched the original version 'Wednesday' in Hindi, I saw the common man and not the star Nasrudin shah in that cast.
But in Unnaipol Oruvan, I just saw
the big star Kamal Hasan and not a common man.
kamal is clearly not able to script or cast himself to a character which makes the audience to forget his star status.Like we saw Velu Naikar in Nayagan or kameswaran in MMKR and not the Kamal Hasan.
Sometimes I think he deliberately does not want to come out of his star mould nowadays.
In that way , neither do i see him much different from Rajni or Vijay.

Ohm

ohmsdeeps said...

i think Unnaipol Oruvan could have been a genuine attempt of remake if the common man role was actually played by 'Delhi Ganesh', who is just a good actor and not a star.

Prasad Venkataramana said...

Varaha,
Circumstance & criminality naturally come to Coen brothers. Though they didn't write this one (only adapted for the screen), they knew exactly what to do. I'm curious to know how much of the visual ideas in this film are contributed by the writers/directors and how much by the brilliant Roger Deakins. This movie is a great example where the thrill element is elevated because of great cooperation between the writer, director, editor & the photographer. I have to note that the first 3 are handled by the brothers.

Ohm,
My problem is not exactly Kamal's star status, but storyline.

PS: The writer employs a contrived and weak ploy to dismantle his stardom - Kamal buying veggies from the market; at the end of the day going home with his basket; he drops a couple of tomatoes and picks them up remarking about the cost of vegetables.

Varaha said...

Friedman again -
http://www.thehindu.com/2010/01/07/stories/2010010755500900.htm

Prasad Venkataramana said...

Varaha,
In some corners it has become cool to criticize Friedman for his lack of understanding of middle east / energy issues / etc. But there's only so much a 5-paragraph column can say. And at least to some extent the message has to be dumbed down to appeal to the mass - after all he's writing for the Times, not some fringe journal. (You should read his 'From Beirut to Jerusalem', a book he wrote when he was the foreign correspondent in the middle east). But he has been spot on on this issue. Unless there's a fundamental change in the Arab/Muslim polity we can't expect much.