Monday, November 27, 2006

Friends/Apocalypse Now

Saw Departed. Want to write review. Sometimes when a movie gets a lot of exposure, I don't feel quite up to the task of adding my two bit to the hundreds of reviews out there. Excellent movie, though. I recommend you see in the theatre, unlike me.

One day in arts class back in college, we discussed Friends for a short while. A devoted fan defended the series while the rest of the class rubbished it, calling the characters unreal yuppies. The next year after I had joined my first job, I shared a flat with a friend close to another flat shared by two girls. We were all friends and us guys used to constantly park ourselves at the girls' place, watching their TV and eating their food. We were in many ways yuppies too. Yet, I never could stand the series. We used to constantly discuss the series, the guys criticising it and the girls, of course, defending it. I always thought I never could come up with a convincing argument as to why I thought it was harmful to human intelligence to watch Friends. It was almost as if I was lacking something.

Now years later, I sat through five seasons. What I must confess I like most now is the mindlessness. I don't watch TV shows much, but no movie comes close to this level of pointlessness. I think Friends celebrates oddity, sexual perversity and moronic behaviour. Sometimes this is even presented as being endearing. Despite all this, I still can't believe I watched 60 hours of mindlessness. Now I am searching for answers as to why the series is so popular and so addictive.

Apart from the countless WW II movies Hollywood made, it also made some famous movies set in Vietnam. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now would be the most famous of them.
The last one I saw was Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, definitely the most ambitious of the three. (The first two were directed by Oliver Stone and Kubrick respectively). Based on the Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness, it traces the boat journey of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) to the Cambodian border to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Kurtz has gone renegade and the US army doesn't want him around. Actually, Kurtz having realised the horror of the futile war has gone into his own cocoon. Duvall, playing a colonel who bombs a village to surf on its beach, gets the best line though, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
No wonder the movie was controversial as hell, a fact made to full use by its makers. It ended the Coppola decade, who was the first of the movie brats, who got old the first. Coppola would never again attempt a movie of this scale. Years later, however, Spielberg, the other brat, would upstage Coppola's 'Ride of the Valkyries' sequence with the 'Normandy Invasion' sequence in Saving Private Ryan.

(Movie brats was once used to refer to Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola, who began in the 70s and made self conscious films. Later, Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson were added to this list. They all had one thing in common. They were unlike their predecessors the first true children of film. A parallel can be seen in Manirathnam, Kamal Hassan and a few others being named as the "Alwarpet Kumbal")

Weekend with Bourne

One night many years ago, after being criticised for telling lame bedtime stories, my dad told me a modified version of Perfume, a novel by Patrick Suskind, which is now a movie. This murderous tale wasn't really recommended storytelling for children, but it definitely was among the best stories I have heard. Years later, I also read the novel. You may be sure I will watch this movie at the soonest opportunity.

I watched the Bourne movies back to back this weekend. Bourne Identity was a book I read when I was may be 11, hardly understanding what was going on, and keeping up only because my cousin, a great Ludlum fan, egged me on. I read that book again and again, fascinated by a killer trained by the CIA to expose and catch the terrorist known as Carlos. When I watched the movie, I was hugely disappointed that there was no Carlos in it. The end of the Cold War had made that plot angle less attractive to the filmmakers. But when I see the series for a second time, I am really impressed how well they adapted the books. Supremacy has perhaps the best car chase among recent movies. Can't wait for Ultimatum now.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

In 1560 and 61, a group of conquistadors from Spain made a doomed attempt to invade El Dorado, the city of gold, according to legend. This Werner Herzog movie was shot in the Amazon and its tributaries on a small budget. Aquirre was the second-in-command in the expedition and he is played by Klaus Kinski.
Upon arriving at a foot of a tall hill, Gonzalo Pizarro, who leads the expedition, sends a smaller troupe of soldiers on rafts to look for El Dorado. After a mutiny led by Aquirre, a noble is installed as the dummy Emperor of the land. Aquirre is one who really controls the men. The group is killed off one by one by the Indians, who are almost never seen attacking in the movie.
In the last shot, Aquirre is seen walking his crab-like walk on the raft,long lost in wild river waters, still dreaming of the lost city of untold riches. He picks up a monkey murmuring that he is 'The Wrath of God', a ruthless dictator, who is capable of leading the people to El Dorado. But sadly, none in his group is still alive, and it seems unlikely that Aquirre, in his state of frenzied madness, will make it out of the jungle alive.
Herzog, who wrote the screenplay of the movie during the course of a soccer season, freely mixes fact and fiction. He came up with the sparse dialogue for the movie, often only minutes before the shot. When a river swelled flooding the location, he incorporated that into the script.
This is also an independent movie in the truest sense of the term. Herzog made the movie exactly like the way he wanted to, casting his surgeon and even a retarded beggar from the streets in the movie in small roles. The music by Florian Fricke, Herzog's friend, is a combination of natural sounds and instrumental music.
But the most strange thing about the movie, which is full of strange happenings, is Kinski, who must be well over six feet. Kinksi was a friend of Herzog's and the two shared a strained relationship during the shooting.
Kinski, who has a long face and piercing blue eyes, invented a walk - jerks and sideways motions - that is positively scary. He also pretended that one of his arms was shorter than the other, and his costume is strapped to his body in such a way that it looks like he needs it to stay in one piece.
This movie is a series of arresting visuals shot in a documentary style. What makes it great are Herzog's interpretations. Unless you are incredibly sensitive to them, you might miss understanding why this movie is so haunting.

(A movie-length interview that comes with the DVD helps us see the movie from the director's viewpoint. It may not be advisable to see the movie if you don't have the option of watching it once more along with the interview.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman is no more

I first saw Robert Altman on the Rashomon DVD released by Criterion. In a 15 minute introduction to the movie, Altman explained the movie and the effect Kurosawa had on him. It would have been easy to admire Altman, but after that introduction I began to like him.

Altman died of cancer on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81. His death is almost a personal loss to me. That may sound arrogant, but I am truly saddened.

Rarely does a director, who was in his prime in the 1970s, make such a comeback as Altman did in the 90s and later with Gosford Park (2001). Rarely does anybody work on a variety of genres, and leave upon each of them his own stamp. This is a good time as any to watch Altman films. I am sure you will like him too. Why don't you start with M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts?

But don't end it there. McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Popeye, keep watching.

Read more about Altman and the films he made here.

UPDATE: Here's A.O. Scott with the entire list of movies Altman made.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A rock song from Kerala

Almost a decade after Hindi took the pop route, here's a Malayalam band playing catchup. Avial, named perhaps after the tasty dish, is a five-member band. I have listened to the song a couple of times and the band does seem talented. The video is professionally shot. Do have a look. Boy, aren't my Mal friends going to go mad after hearing them. Or may be they will be sceptical. Who knows? More about the band here.

Thanks, Sri for letting me know about them.

The DC team

(From left to right, Anser, Arun, V.P. Raghu, Balaji, me, T.N. Raghu, Sampath, Chandu, Santhosh, Sivapriyan, Alimuddin, Chintoo, Sivaraj)

It's not often that a colleague treats you to a free lunch for his birthday. The guy, with the gift voucher in his hand in the centre, played host. After eating all that biriyani and icecream, I wonder if any work will get done in our office today.

Casino Royale: Bond gets real

How difficult was it to reinvent James Bond?

When critics say that Daniel Craig is the best bond since Sean Connery and closest to Ian Fleming’s literary creation, are they reacting to minor changes in the Bond formula? After all, any Bond film made now has to take into account the MI series and the Bourne films, particularly the latter, which seem to have changed action movies forever? And isn’t it time anyone making a Bond movie was influenced by Quentin Tarantino? Or took into account the newfound love for dark movies among both critics and audiences? Now, unlike in the sixties, everyone loves grey; black and white is passé.

But the counter argument is powerful. For 21 official films – Dr No was made in 1962 – and through five Bonds, the franchise remained, at least in its essentials, largely the same. Bond is suave, intelligent, handsome and lethal. Except in the case of Roger Moore, who made Bond silly instead of lethal. He was a delight in his own way, but he played himself instead of Bond. But in the early years of the franchise, it was Connery who enthralled audiences worldwide with his cool smile and smooth talking ways. He was Bond, in all his glory, and those who came after found it hard to replace him. That was the story for all actors who stepped into the Bond shoes.

For me growing up in the 90s, the Bond movies were campy and outdated. Having never witnessed the paranoia of the Cold War, Bond movies seemed to be like a Mediterranean cruise. And Bond always won. And you always knew it. Like the Bard says, the rub always lies in the how.

Golden Eye was the first Bond movie of my time. It reprises all the clichés, the out-of-the-world opening sequence, the two Bond girls, the amazing stunt sequences, the gadgets, the BMW, the globe trotting, and the megalomaniac villain who is out to destroy the world. It smelled like euphoria. But every Bond movie made after that was a disappointment. I wasn’t sure if I had become big or the movies small. But it just wasn’t the same anymore.

It isn’t the same with Casino Royale too. Bond has been, perhaps, forever changed. First of all he gets real. Then he gets vulnerable and falls in love. He gets beaten up, stabbed and tortured. He has scars on his face, and through the course of a night in a club, his shirt is repeatedly drenched in blood, some of which is his.

The changes begin right from the opening sequence. Instead of the gravity-defying stunt sequence, we see Bond making his first two killings and earning the 007 status. What could have been the opening sequence comes a little later as Bond chases a Black runner through the streets of Madagascar in what must be one of the best Bond chases ever. But this one is on foot.

Later in the movie, there is a car chase. The villains have the Bond girl, played by the dignified, virginal Eva Green. Bond is chasing them in his Aston Martin. Classic Bond scenario. The first Bond chase was in a boat in From Russia, With Love, I think. None of them have ended in an accident. So director Martin Campbell (Golden Eye, Zorro) end this chase in one.

He also does away with Money Penny, the adoring secretary to M, and Q, the gadgetmaker. The famous score doesn’t make an appearance in its entirety till the closing credits. “The name is Bond, James Bond,” is said again only at the end. Ironically, someone else says it before Bond in the movie.

Craig is outstanding in a couple of scenes. In one he is washing away his wounds in front of a hotel room mirror. In another, he almost dies in his favourite car of a cardiac arrest. He plays Bond as a spy instead of a superhero. This is the how-it-all-began story and so all that makes sense.

As the movie unfolded, I realised that Campbell had based the entire movie on the novel. In my teens, I had thought of that as a very boring novel. But that is believed to be Fleming’s best writing. The loyal adaptation works in some cases, and even when it should not work, it does. Like when Bond drinks poison. Everyone in the theatre knows Bond cannot die. But that scene is one of the best of the sort made since Connery beat to death a large spidery creature put in his bed in Dr No. (Wasn’t it?)

Another new thing is the torture sequence adapted from the novel. Bond is stripped bare and tortured in a way that makes Goldfinger look like a wuss. Bond also falls in love, for the last time, with the Eva Green character. He falls, falls hard and learns his lesson. Trust no one.

But again was it so hard to do this? It really wasn’t. But what cannot be explained is how hard it was to reinvent Bond. To make him real, vulnerable, and dark. To put fear, pain and loss in his eyes. That is what is different in this Bond movie. That is why you shouldn’t miss it.

It’s not about how good the movie is. It is about how good it opens up the series for the movies to come.

Read proper reviews here, and here.

Time magazine recently listed the 100 best albums of all time. Some of my favourites Graceland and Blonde on Blonde are there.

During the last few days, I wrote three Metblogs. On the Common Entrance Test, Chit Chat, a restaurant, and on the rains. There are more here.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A column

A sub-editor has to, without end, develop his skills at work. It's a job filled with pitfalls. But one thing that has really helped me as a sub is the Online and Off Line column that appears in The Hindu every Monday.
The appointment of a readers' editor was highly controversial, with many in the media calling it a dummy post. But I find the column and more than that the daily correction of errors that appears in The Hindu's centre page useful.
Your opinion may differ about how good a job the readers' editor is doing, but try and read the column, particularly if you are a journalist.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Omen

When I was a kid the one film everyone in my neighbourhood knew as a great horror flick was The Omen. This is significant because in Nagercoil, people only knew Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. The first English movie that ran for 50 days was Jurassic Park. Chan and James Bond did about two weeks.

Now The Omen has been remade. Saw it last week and have to say it's bad.

What made the original such a popular movie? Hard to say. But two things strike me: everybody understood the movie without the help of dialogues and everyone was horrified. Now I can't say that for Rosemary's Baby, a much better horror film from Roman Polanski. The horror in that movie, however, doesn't work on a gut level.

In the 1976 movie, Gregory Peck's struggle between a sceptical atheism and horrified belief in God seemed so real. Now, in these days of instant communication, Satan's rise to political power hardly seems possible and movie is no longer terrifying to watch. That technology has not much improved the big scenes - the murders of the nanny, the photographer and the priest - is a testimonial to the original movie's grip on our imagination.

But seize this opportunity to watch a retrospective of Gregory Peck films.
Suggested filmography: The Omen, McKenna's Gold, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Guns of Navarone, Roman Holiday, Gentleman's Agreement, Duel in the Sun, Spellbound.

A good time to read this and this too.

(Take Two is a new category that will include two minute - very short - film reviews and announcements regarding movies)

How I used to write

(Post from a few months ago. Never made public for long. Now will stay here forever)

We came into this world with a mission. Mission to change good things and destroy bad things. Armed with pens and omnipotent power, we write about all things important, newsy or just trivial. Mostly trivial. We make out that we know more than you do. Our word has the power of the print or the electronic waves behind it. It's the gospel truth. We are journalists, seekers of change and courters of controversy.

Not one of us ever doubts his skill, talent or the lack of it. Insecurity is not a feeling that we easily succumb to except when attacked by our own breed. Then we take cover or spew fire.

We are everywhere. At the Tea shop smoking, around the corner from your house, at a crime scene, at speeches, at malls, at events, everywhere. We record everything. Not much escapes us unless delibrately.

We are in the business of deception. Deceiving you into thinking what you read or hear from us is important. Into thinking that you ought not live without us. That you may not crap without a newspaper. But we also make money, at least we ensure that our bosses do. But the deception has to be maintained, of a watchdog, a public servant, of someone whom u can rely on to tell the truth. We speak of ethics while getting drunk in bars. Of patience while chopping off words impatiently. Of clearheadness while writing garbage, day in day out like some stupid cranky machine.

We print and broadcast news, but rarely anything is new. You have already seen and heard it before.

Oh, Why do u need us so? Is it because we tell you that you need us. Is it because we make the dough on how convincing we sound telling you that?

Stop the newspaper. Block the news channels. Dont worry if Atal gets replaced by Manmohan. The rice at the corner shop is Rs 14. You dont need us to tell u that.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Blow Up

Watched this movie some three times over the last six months. Pretty awesome. Not the movie, but what directors think audiences are capable of understanding of their work.

David Hemmings stars as a fashion photographer, who accidentally shoots a murder in progress. Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966 was already big enough to make a philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality using this plot, which most other directors would shoot as a thriller.

David - he has no name in the movie, per say - is burning up his life in the swinging, rock 'n' rolling London of the sixties. Movie begins with him leaving a poorhouse, where he has shot people in various poses. He wants to publish these snaps in a book he is working on. In sharp contrast is what he does for a living; he photographs fashion models. In a famous sequence in the film, he shoots supermodel Veruskha, who stars as herself.
David is rich (drives a Rolls Royce), attractive, snobbish and usually gets what he wants. He uses women, but that may not be his worst quality. He absolutely lacks values and we need to get this because when he suspects that a murder has happened he fails to report it.

David runs into a couple in a park. They are hugging and kissing. The women is Vanessa Redgrave. David shoots the couple. She notices him and demands the film and follows him home to get it. David wants to use the snaps for his book. When he develops the film, he finds a murder may have taken place.

This sequence, which about 15-20 minutes long, where he is developing the film in his studio, has no dialogue and is incredible. In a Tamil movie, we would need a Watson to explain what is happening. But here the shots tell the story as David repeatedly blows up the film and suspects he may have shot a gun aiming at someone. But the pictures are grainy and it's hard to tell.

And then the picture unhinges from reality, I think. The rest of it happens in Antonioini's head. As in the logic of it is hard to see for others. And unlike us, who naturally want to find out what happened, Antonioni never lets us know who committed the murder or why.

He is onto things more important. Like if only you have seen something happen and cannot confirm with anyone whether it happened, now did it really happen or not. Like you see a tree, and I say there is no tree, is there really a tree? How much of the nature of reality is understood by social processes?

In the final scene, a group of revellers are playing a tennis match. Only there is no ball. But the group of them are watching the match. Their eyes move along with the ball just like in a tennis match. One of them, hits the ball out of the yard and gestures for David to pick it up. David is first amused and then picks up the imaginary ball and throws it back and now he can actually hear them hitting the ball.

The movie, except for the studio sequence, tests your patience. But it does dig deeper than the usual Hollywood stuff. Watch only if you are the sort to see it again with the commentary. And if you can sit for days afterwards pondering on the nature of reality. Pointless pursuits? Why are they always so darn interesting? Wanna make a movie on that?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My Bangalore trip

Left Chennai Thursday night. Spend a restless four hours on train after waking up at 1.30 am. As the train enters Bangalore, I notice that it looks beautiful in the early morning light, but I am hungry and cold.
Conned by rickshaw driver who look me 40 bucks in one direction before pretending there was misunderstanding and taking me 110 bucks in the other direction. I pretended the misunderstanding too, because I am frightened to test my Hindi abuses on him.
Day a blur as I chat with friends and have breakfast for the first time in months. See Umrao Jaan and visit a old book store, Blossoms. Brigade Road has changed a lot. I could not locate the videogame parlour, but later I notice they have moved to a new place. Wonder if the same people are running it. My cousin used to take the night bus from Nagercoil, come to Bangalore, play games through the day, and take the bus back. That was during the 1980s before the PC revolution.
In the night I meet up with friends from ACJ. We have what my friend says is India's most expensive whiskey. I still hate it. We say some unprintable but funny things about a lot of people, eat Lebanese food, and I nod off a few hours after midnight.
Saturday I watch a lot of movies, including the most watched of all time, Gone with the Wind. Beats me why so many people like it.
Visited Pekos (did i spell it right?) on Sunday. Place has become run down. In fact, they are trying to show off that they are run down. Beer is still all right, though. Have Death by Chocolate, which four of us share. All of us live. I remember eating it alone during my first Bangalore trip. I suddenly miss my camera. Come down with an irritating cold. Come home and sleep the rest of the evening. Catch the night train back. Central never fails to rekindle my love of Chennai. Back home, my roommate is up early typing his novel, a lit cigarette between his fingers.

Great Movies - Roger Ebert

One of the world's most famous film critics chooses the 100 best films of all time. The book is a compilation of his columns written for the Chicago Suntimes. There are no films on the list that are boring, which goes to say a lot about the list. Because if you choose films like Birth of a Nation, which in the 1920s was a landmark film, then you end up making the list very boring. Ebert does well to give those sort of films a miss, carefully choosing movies which are both personal and popular choices. Mr Hulot's Holiday would be a rare example of a totally personal choice.
Ebert also has a prose that is a gift. Most critics writing about film have this high brow style that half the time you don't know what the hell they are talking about. Ebert keeps it simple, straightforward, interesting and gives you all the highlights. He also points out the stuff that is not so obvious.
In a second book, Ebert listed another 100 movies that are a must watch. All the reviews are available online here.

Umrao Jaan

I was so irritated that I ran from the theatre after the interval. I don't know where these characters live or what century. Sometimes, even the dialogue they speak seems strange. And the movie is so incredibly boring, that when the interval came after what seemed like a long, long time, everyone at Rex Theatre in Bangalore clapped.
For a review of the movie, go here.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Down and out in Chennai and Bangalore

I am down with a cold and chest congestion. Sniff sniff. No blogging. I think I caught it in Bangalore.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Satyajit Ray's Stranger: Stories

Stranger: Stories is a collection of 19 short stories and a short novel by Satyajit Ray. Gopa Majumdar has translated them into English. This is really reading meant for children, but when has that deterred me?
Most of these stories, as Majumdar says, have a supernatural element running through them. Though the stories are not scary, they are filled with strange happenings – hence the name.
The short novel Fotikchand, the story of a kidnapped boy who suffers from amnesia, is perhaps the weakest in the book. Long passages seem to be included in this novel for some strange reason. Perhaps, Ray did not mean for it to be a pure thriller.
The stronger stories have only a few characters and end with a neat twist. But in many stories, characters pop up without any major attempt on the part of the author to provide them with character. Mostly, they are used merely as devices to further the plot.
Many of these stories have children as main characters. Some of these are formulaic – meaning they follow the same path, ending with an inexplicable, mysterious happening, which is often logical only within the premises of the story.
What is appealing is the simplicity of the stories. I wanted them to be complex, but Ray, who was as complex as filmmakers get, shuns this quality as a short story writer. May be he did this because he was writing for children. While this collection acquaints us with Ray’s versatility and interest in various fields, it is not a testimonial to his writing skills.
The story titled Stranger was made into a film Agantuk, Ray’s last.