Tuesday, August 30, 2011

#189: Fair Game

As an outsider after watching a movie like Fair Game, one can't help but admire the liberty filmmakers in Hollywood have to base their movies around true incidents. Even if they involve the highest echelons of authority. It is near inconceivable that we would ever make a movie in India about collusion of Congress leaders during the 84 riots or for that matter the involvement of the BJP state administration during the Gujarat riots. It is as if all the controversial matters in India are perennially sub-judice or too above board to be touched by the anyone from the film industry. In the 2010 release Fair Game, questions are repeatedly asked about the intelligence follies leading up to the conclusion that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. The freedom with which names like Dick Cheney and President Bush are thrown around in the movie makes you really think if there'll ever be such a time a India when a filmmaker won't have to worry about his movie posters being torn outside theaters or seeing his prints burned in the public.

The protagonist of Fair Game is Naomi Watts who plays Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative assigned to confirm or deny the presence of WMD in Iraq. No sooner has she begun her assignment that she finds her office very regularly surrounded by men from the Bush administration. These are men from very high up in the seat of power and men who don't want to listen a 'No' to the question of whether WMD existed in Iraq. Plame, a straightforward analytical operative wouldn't take any sides until she is absolutely sure in her head about the answer. At great risks to her life, she presents a strong case that there is no proof of WMD in Iraq. Plame even enlists the help of her husband, retired diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) who becomes one of the first persons to corroborate her hypothesis, Plame's answer is not as per the tune the administration is singing to the Senate in ill-conceived moments of verbal bravado led by none other than President Bush. When they try to reason with the White House, Val and Joe become victims of a state crusade that questions their credibility. It is an attack on their very existence and hurts them deeply. How far will they go in their quest for their truth? Fair Game provides the answer.

Based on the memoirs of Valerie Plame, Fair Game brings to us the trials and tribulations that the two undergo in their fight for truth against a mighty White House. Naomi Watts is bustling with energy and spunk in her role that places her as the lead. She is forthright and a mix of pure love for her family's and passion for the work she does at Langley. It is not very often that Sean Penn plays second fiddle but the movie shows how it comes so easy to him. While the two were very good in their characterizations, what seemed missing was the husband-wife relationship chemistry that somehow never came to the fore. Director Doug Liman wants us to know that this is a time when the two nearly uprooted their family and went through some of the most difficult times. He succeeds but not so much as Rod Lurie did with Nothing but the Truth, a movie made in 2008 also based on a similar theme.

Valerie Plame had a very strong story to tell and the fact that it made it to screen unscathed is quite commendable. That it had an A-list lead cast performing, even more so. The only thing that just didn't seem to cut ice for me was the screenplay that was littered with too many characters that loosened the grip from time to time during the movie. There were too many faces that were being thrown at us as the face of the antagonist and all of them put together didn't quite have the desired telling effect that would've made us empathize fully with the Valerie Plame. It is also unlikely that any two other actors could've done a better job. It boiled down to how tight a story the writers wanted us to have. Barring that, this is very much a story told well and one that deserves to be seen.

Rating: 6.9/10

Monday, August 29, 2011

#188: TGIYB

TGIYB, a story co-written by Kalki and Anurag Kashyap traverses the journey of a girl in search of her father. The girl is in her early 20s, a Britisher by origin and goes by the name of Ruth (Kalki). Her guiding compass in this journey happens to be a letter she received from her father recently that speaks of the pain of separation that he has endured ever since he left home, and Ruth, to her mother. The letter gives Ruth hope of meeting him sometime soon, a hope that acquires significance considering the strained relationship she shares with her mother. Ruth painstakingly saves up money by working as a masseuse, her work allowing her the flexibility to earn some extra dough by giving an option of a 'happy ending' to her customers. These customers range from regular strangers to fatherly figures like Diwakar (Naseeruddin Shah) and rookies who can't even comprehend what a handshake in a massage parlour could possibly mean.

The other characters in Ruth's life are her boyfriend Prashant (debutant Prashant) and a Kannadiga don Chittiyappa (Gushan Devaiah) that she ends up meeting because of her dopey boyfriend. Ruth's days revolve around chasing clues that her father has left in the letter about his address and what later turns out to be a nom de plume. She goes about making enquiries at the local post office, photographers with that last name and when all else fails even gives good old Google a shot. The movie takes time to set the premise and the simplicity of the plot posed the need to add characters like Prashant and Chittiyappa who as such do not have a direct impact on Ruth's exploration. Devaiah's Chittiyappa though leaves a memorable imprint with his Kannadiga act and comes across as a refreshing relief from the grim nature of the storyline.

After a meandering first act, TGIYB comes together in the latter half of the movie when the plot singularly starts moving in the direction of the protagonist's conquest. Kalki's Ruth is a very driven girl who derives her energy from within herself. There is a smoking intensity in her body language that tells you of her innate need to connect with her father. In a way, it is her recourse to amend what must have been a troubled childhood. With a strong and a heartfelt performance, Kalki completes her journey with you as an audience by her side. And it is only then that you stumble upon the jewel in the crown of Kashyap's latest offering. All that was making you fidget during the movie's duration is forgotten as you're stunned with a jaw-dropping denouement. By then Kashyap has left his touch as one of the finest proponents of Indian cinema around with a few strokes of brilliance. That the story took long to arrive at its climax doesn't bother you now as the end credits roll in an atmosphere of pin-drop silence in the theater.

There is no doubt though that TGIYB could've been 10-15 minutes shorter. Given the ease of accessibility to people on the internet these days, it is also surprising that Kashyap didn't set the movie in a 1990s kind of Bombay. Maybe, he was too tired of the Bombay of Black Friday and Paanch. Irrespective of how TGIYB fares in India, one thing is certain, very seldom has Hindi cinema tried to explore a plot that is as dark and bring it within the mainstream fare. It is indeed commendable that there is an uncompromising director out there who is only making movies that appeal to him turning a blind eye to all the nonsense that passes off for a 'Friday release' every week. Because the one thing TGIYB does not do is pander to any established norms as far as the story is concerned. With his stark and unflinching storytelling, Kashyap, once again shows, why he is a shining beacon for independent filmmakers in India.

Rating: 6.8/10

Sunday, August 28, 2011

#187: Battle Royale

Kinji Fukasaku was the director of the Japanese portion of Tora!Tora!Tora, an acclaimed war movie based on Pearl Harbor. There is an interesting story that that portion was supposed to be initially directed by Akira Kurosawa who actually fired himself from the project once he got to know that David Lean wasn't doing the American part. It is then that Fukasaku stepped in and made his name in Hollywood. His reputation as a crime and violence specialist aided him in taking up the directorial reins way back in 1970 and thirty years later he would nail that reputation with his Japanese cult offering Battle Royale. There's only so much that yours truly knows about Japanese cinema barring the holy trio of Kurosawa, Mifune and Shimura but the temptation to review a movie that is one of Tarantino's favorites was hard to resist.

The premise of Battle Royale is set in minutes into the movie and speaks of a time when Japan is in disarray with unemployment at it's peak and the youth's lawless abandon threatening the future of the country. It is then that the government passes a Battle Royale act and takes on a teacher called Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) to start playing a real-life game called Battle Royale. The game includes a bunch of students of Grade IX who are taken to a deserted island and given different weapons to kill one another. The winner is the survivor of this outrageous game. There is also a collar attached to every student that will explode either at the end of 3 days or if you tried to cut it open. Sounds gruesome ? Well, that is just the beginning. 41 students rush out of the classroom one by one where they're briefed matter-of-factly by Kitano unaware of what lies ahead over the next three days.

The beauty of the story is that not everyone wants to kill and not everyone wants to be generous either. The 41 students are a mix of scared, defiant, violent (one of the participant is there just for fun), submissive, timid and ruthless characters who are at their wits end fighting the ultimate battle for survival. Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Koushon Takimi, Battle Royale swoops in at one go to prepare you for the violence that lies ahead. Viewers are then subjected to 40 murders over the next 100 odd minutes and yet the plot doesn't bore you because there is something novel in almost every murder. The movie has an intense pace like some of the old Kurosawa action movies and the urgency in the characters' movements and body language add to the escalating tension. In terms of performances, the sadistic Kitano stands out for being unfazed like a rock with all the violence that he has instigated. There is a chilling touch to his methods, for example, take the scene when closer to the game's finish he is seen exercising outside his base camp calmly waiting for the winner.

It is remarkable to note that none of the cast members had a stunt double during the filming of a movie that could give any other violent movie from any part of the world a run for its money. Equally noteworthy is the fact that even with such a large and a young cast, there aren't too many moments that would make you think a performer wasn't upto the mark. A significant plot point that comes closer to the end of Battle Royale elevates it to an edge-of-the-seat fare but just when the movie had the potential to become a real classic like an Oldboy, the actual climax lets you down. After the shock opening and a tightly knit second act, the closure seemed somewhat tame. It is quite likely that a situation where you have to kill your friends to survive in an isolated island will feature in your top three nightmares. Battle Royale plays out that nightmare on-screen and makes it chillingly real. It falters a bit towards the end but the experience of seeing it unfold is unforgettable.

Rating: 7.3/10

Friday, August 26, 2011

#186: Singham

Jaikant Shikre, in Singham is a mafia don in Goa who has the police and the local MLA eating out of his hand. He murders and kidnaps people at will and the citizens are too scared to raise their voice against him. Jaikant is granted a conditional bail in a murder case in which he was the 'third accused'. The DCP, a spineless cop, informs him that he will have to travel to a village on the border of Maharashtra and Goa, called Shivgadh, to sign his attendance daily. Shikre is irritated but his cronies shrug it off suggesting that Shikre needn't attend in person. Except that Bajirao Singham, the hard taskmaster cop-in-charge of the Shivgadh police station would have none the proxy attendance business. Shikre has no choice and travels all the way from 'Goa city' and to nurse his bruised ego takes his whole gang along with him. A confrontation ensues between Singham (Ajay Devgan) and Shikre (Prakash Raj).

It is a sequence spread over not more than 7-8 minutes and has to be one of the most intense performances between two actors ever seen in Indian cinema. The dialogues are rabble rousing with the opposite camps of Singham and Shikre waiting in bated breath as the two have a verbal go at each other with their diatribe. It a classic protagonist versus antagonist situation and one of them prevails. The party aggrieved raises the stakes of this confrontation and the movie is about the other's response to that. If Rohit Shetty would've got this scene wrong in the way he envisioned it or if the dialogue writer went a little awry with his lines or if the DOP kept the visualization even a bit loose, I think Singham would've really struggled to sustain for a 144 minutes. But the team delivered on this particular sequence and Singham becomes quite a riveting watch from time to time after that sequence. The problem with Singham though is there really isn't any other high in the movie. Everything that is good about the movie, you get to see it in that scene- the choreography of action, the I'll-screw-you-bravado and above all the intensity of Prakash Raj and Ajay Devgan. From there on, if you expected a climax better than that sequence, you would be disappointed. Thus, ironically, in that one scene lies Singham's zenith and it's own undoing.

Given that this was a remake of the Tamil movie which starred Suriya in the lead, the casting in Hindi to begin with was spot-on with Ajay Devgan firing yet another sharp arrow from the quiver of his acting skills. Now we know along with Salman and Aamir, we will also suspend our beliefs if Ajay Devgan pulls off some logic defying stunts. In a way though, I must admit the action scenes could've been better with a daredevil like Devgan in the lead. Kajal Agarwal, the Telegu actress who makes her debut comes across rightly as the lady-next-door and plays an easy third fiddle to Devgan and Prakash Raj. There's only so much she has to do given that her most repeated scene is the part where she steps forward to take Devgan's revolver and shirt whenever he is bashing the bad guys. Prakash Raj, on the other hand, has a magnetic screen presence and his evil persona with a caricature-ish touch would make him quite a favorite with the masses.

Overall, Singham's packaging works more for itself than it's substance. Watching it without suspending reason won't make this enjoyable but try it and Rohit Shetty and team have done enough to make it worth your while.

Rating: 6.4/10

Thursday, August 25, 2011

#185: Not a Love Story

It is news whenever Ramgopal Verma directs a movie. After being hailed as one of the most brilliant and indigenous auteurs of Indian cinema, somehow the ill-will he generated after rehashing Sholay (to this day I am made fun of in the office for owning a DVD of RGV Ki Aag) is yet to leave him. It is not considered elite enough if one doesn't make fun of Ramgopal Verma in a cinematic discussion. The truth however is that the man loves telling stories on the silver screen and he digs in deep to make these stories. So whether it is the story of a Andhra gangster spread over two movies or the story of a crime of passion in a Mumbai suburb, he will give his heart and soul into making it happen.

Based on the now famous Neeraj Grover murder, Not a Love Story is a fairly accurate depiction of the events leading upto the murder and it's aftermath on the families of the key accused. The accused in the movie are played by Mahie Gill and Deepak Dobriyal and the movie is shot mostly on-location in the western suburb of Malad in Mumbai. Mahie Gill plays a star-struck aspiring actress who comes to Mumbai only to see her dreams vaporizing in a matter of months. She is not only subjected to casting couch but even after giving numerous auditions and doing well, somehow there is not gold to be found at the end of the rainbow. Her boyfriend Deepak plays a short-tempered possessive lover who takes time to accept the fact that his beloved wants to spread her wings in an alien city. The first half of the movie sets the context for these key characters that also include Ajay Gehi, playing an executive in a film production company, towards whom Mahie takes an apparent harmless liking to. The second half then purely takes the shape of a murder mystery being handled adroitly by Inspector Mane (Zakir Hussain).

There are two bedrocks in Not a Love Story on the basis of which the I thought the movie worked. The first is the performances that RGV extracts from his actors, right from the supporting cast that includes yet another incisive turn from the all-weather Zakir Hussain, to it's lead actors, they are all very much on the mark. Deepak is the idiotic obsessive lover who is as chilling as the ruthless schemer. Considering this is Mahie's first solo lead role, her performance would very nearly touch you with her fallibility. The second is that RGV's story has the right inflection points necessary to arrive at offering a movie that is quite complete in itself without actually closing the loop with the final court verdict. Now the one thing that puts paid to both these points is the way the movie is shot. If RGV's idea of presenting a story on camera is to put things out of focus, place camera right under Mahie Gill's skirt and do a hundred other idiotic things with it, either I am not equipped enough to understand the artistry of it or the cameraman was simply drunk. In other words, I know very few movies that have been as poorly shot.

I believe a crime of passion would always make for a good story and if it is a true-life incident, it becomes even better. And to be fair to RGV, it is a decent adaptation. The fact is that if RGV had shot the same movie with the exact storyline and identical performances with a slightly more conventional approach, we would have had a better movie. With that caveat in place, I would still recommend Not a Love Story.

Rating: 6.3/10

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

#184: Devil's Double

Biographies are most fun when two things come together. The first is that there's an interesting character in the film. The second is if that personality has had a life or in other words a great story to tell. You look at a movie like Schindler's List and probably see both working together. On the flip side, if it is only of the two things that happen, you get a reasonable middle-of-the-road watch. I would say movies like W and Beyond the Sea fall in the category where the personality was quite interesting but either the way the story was being told didn't cut ice or they didn't have great stories in the first place. A movie like a Fair Game or Goodnight and Good Luck, though strictly not biographies, are examples where the protagonists were ordinary people but the situations that they faced made for remarkable stories. The Devil's Double released in 2009 falls in the category of the latter.

Based on the book by Latif Yahia, Uday Hussain's body double, it tells us the story of Latif's journey from being Uday's most trusted aide till the time he escaped Iraq. Set in early 1990, the story begins at a time when Saddam's reputation in Iraq was one that of a responsible nation-building leader. His son Uday meanwhile, soaked in drugs and sex all day and inebriated with power, was running amok with his lifestyle killing people at will and picking adolescent school girls off the street. In the words of Hosni Mubarak, who call him 'a psychopath', Uday was doing everything to give credence to that title. Directed by Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day), the Devil's Double is an unabashed account of those heady years of Uday's life and his relationship with Latif Yahia, an army lieutenant who is employed as Uday's body double forcefully.

Dominic Cooper who plays both Uday and Latif is irrepressible in his avatar as the former and immaculately intense as the latter. Undoubtedly, this has to be his best performance ever and it would be interesting to see if he gets a BAFTA nomination at least if not an Oscar nomination. His love interest is played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier and though I haven't seen much of her work to comment, she does come across believable as the attractive but selfish Sarrab. Michael Thomas, who has adapted the story for the screen, I suspect has taken a few liberties with the true nature of events and those at times stick out uncomfortably in an otherwise captivating account of Latif's life. While watching one couldn't help but think that there were a few Bollywood-ish elements in the movie that could've been done without. Lee Tamahori otherwise maintains a tight grip on the action and closes the movie on a high.

Devil's Double is a treat for anyone who has interest in movies with disturbing characters as their fulcrum. The movie succeeds in bringing in much of the tyranny Uday was famous for on-screen and that lends it a real shock value. It would be only fair to say that it is one of the better English movies in recent times.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, August 22, 2011

#183: A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan is adapted from a Scott B. Smith novel of the same name. Normally when studios take on projects based on novels, it is quite routine to have multiple screenwriters come on-board. That Scott B.Smith wasn't attached to any other writer is as much proof of the studio's faith in the writer as much of the ability of debutant Scott B. Smith to adapt a novel to screen. Yes indeed, A Simple Plan is one of those rare occurences where not only the author of the novel is credited for the screenplay but he is also given the solo writing credit in the movie.

It is a story of greed engulfing three men in a small town in an American winter. Those three men are Hank (Bill Paxton), his brother Jacob (Billy Bob) and Lou (Brent Briscoe) who chance upon a a bag full of cash while playing the fool in the woods with Jacobs dog. Of these three men, Hank is the epitome of the modern American man who strives hard for his living and for whom his wife and their forthcoming child are all that he lives for. Jacob, the elder brother, is an anachronistic unemployed middle-aged simpleton who can barely put a sentence together coherently. The foul-mouthed Lou is his best buddy and the two seem to share a bond that goes way back and is probably thicker than what Jacob shares with his own brother. As you read this, it might occur to you that these three are completely different characters and in that lies the strength of A Simple Plan. . In any situation, the three end up having different views and that gives the impetus for the story to move forward.

The discovery of the money leads these three characters into a spiralling affair of conspiracy, betrayal and one-upmanship. And the catalyst for that spiral is Jacob's wife Sarah, played by Bridget Fonda. Sarah is the archetypical Lady Macbeth who is far more conniving than her husband Hank. In one of her finest performances, Fonda lives up to her famous last name and delivers a stirring performance. The beauty of A Simple Plan is in fact, it's inherent simplicity. Some really incredulous things happen in the movie but because the narrative is laid out so with such an easy pace, you really don't have trouble digesting it at all. The stand out performance amongst the actors comes from Billy Bob. His act as the buffoon-ish Jacob rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination. It is a performance that moves you in the end with it's integrity. Directed by maverick Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan keeps you on the edge-of-your-seat till the very end never letting up on intensity. Danny Elfman and Alar Kivilo combine their respective departments of music and photography to add various levels of on-screen aesthetic brilliance. Sam Raimi's collaboration with Coens might've helped him in giving the movie a very subtle yet strong undercurrent of tension that gives you the feeling that the story could explode any time. In fact, those explosions keep coming and yet each is more impactful than the last.

In the annals of crime thrillers, and there's only one that I went by which is the AFI's top 100 Thrills, surprisingly A Simple Plan doesn't merit a mention. Going through that list makes you think that it should've been there. It really should've been.

Rating: 7.8/10

Sunday, August 21, 2011

#182: Manhattan

Story goes that once Woody finished Manhattan, he disliked it so much that he offered to make another film for the producers, United Artists, if they didn't release this movie. As an audience, we ought to thank whoever it was at United Artists, who didn't take up Woody's offer and went ahead with the movie's release. For Manhattan is the best looking movie that Woody ever directed. Years later he would go on to say that he wonders how he still got away with the movie because it also turned out to be one of his most successful movies in an illustrious career spanning over forty years.

Isaac Davies (Woody Allen) is a TV serial writer who quits his job over creative differences. He now wants to write a book which he has been planning for a while. Isaac is an idealistic, twice-divorced 42-year old in a city that he thinks is suffering from decadence. 'Moral decay' is something that is mentioned more than once by Isaac and it is something that he wants to get away from. For instance, in his own life, he doesn't think it is right on his part to date a 17-year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who is in high school. He wants to keep his moral integrity intact and to absolve himself from this moral decadence, he keeps exhorting Tracy to move on to better and younger men. Ironically though, his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an extra-marital affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), an independent and a strongly opinionated lady. Written by Woody Allen and Marshal Brickman, Manhattan traverses the lives of these relationships over the course of a neatly stitched 96 minutes.

Before I come to the other elements of the movie let me say this, if ever a cinematographer's work shone in a movie, it is this one. Gordon Willis should've got an Oscar for this one- no questions asked. The minimalism at times was a throwback to the Swedish and French movies of the 60s, maybe an inspiration in themselves for that soulful look Manhattan thrives on. The famous bridge scene advertised on the poster above was just one of the many breathtaking moments in the movie. Willis' black and white photography gives a fresh visual dimension to the famous Keaton-Allen chemistry. In terms of performances, Michael Murphy is very much relatable as the fickle-minded husband of the attractive Anne Byrne and full marks to Mariel Hemingway for a performance that would go on to earn her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Oscars.

Now for the inevitable comparison with Annie Hall. Manhattan is a less-funnier version of Annie Hall spread over a shorter period of time. If you're the kinds who would like more laughs, it is Annie Hall that you should go for. Personally, Manhattan appealed to me more because as far as the theme of romantic relationships go, an area which Woody specializes and dare I say exploits on the silver screen, this comes across as his most mature offering. My guess is Woody didn't like the movie so much because there aren't too many funny moments in the movie. And as a comic writer, Woody saw it as his failing that he couldn't get those funny lines and situations going as much as he would've liked.

In 1980, there was a TV discussion between Ebert and Siskel about who between Mel Brooks and Woody Allen was the better filmmaker. One of the points Ebert mentioned was how Woody was losing his touch in 1979 with movies like Manhattan that weren't anywhere near as funny as some of his previous works. Siskel defended Allen saying that Woody had a better range and that Manhattan was an example of a movie where Woody wasn't playing his go-to character of a neurotic, goofy self. I recently saw that discussion online and with the luxurious benefit of hindsight I can say that they both missed their mark. Woody actually would not experiment beyond his romantic comedies in the years to come and Ebert probably understood Woody wrong because Woody would go on to make even funnier movies.

With Manhattan, I thought Woody took a leap that he wasn't sure of and in his self-effacing manner thought he had come a cropper. Fact is, he had a stunner on his hands.

Rating: 7.9/10

Saturday, August 20, 2011

#181: The Informers

The Informers is a medley of interconnected stories set in the city of Los Angeles in 1983. The characters include a middle-aged couple moving back in together, their teenage children, a rock singer, a hotel concierge and a father and a son who are on a trip to Hawaai. The Informers was written by Brett Easton Ellis and Nicolas Jarecki and directed by Gregor Jordan.

I had read once in a Syd Field book that writers always have to be conscious of the number of characters that are introduced in a movie. In the case of The Informers, the writers chose to ignore that rule completely and it is the audiences who suffer during its 94 minute duration. Incidentally, the movie had a cast that would've made any director jump for joy but rarely is such talent wasted so effortlessly. Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Billy Bob Thornton, Winona Ryder are all solid names on the movie's poster that actually made me pick up the movie but unfortunately there's very little each has to do in their respective roles. In fact, I found it intriguing that these actors went even along with this script. More than a couple of storylines in The Informers could've been avoided altogether and even then I think the movie might have only just become watchable.

The characters in The Informers were too self-absorbed to make any connect with its audiences. Not to mention the stories themselves, none of which made you look forward to what their ending might be. The only one thing that impressed in The Informers was the soundtrack by the seasoned Christopher Young. For often, it was the music that kept giving you a sense of something about to happen. That eventually nothing did was the script's failing.

It is nice to be have a multi-strand narrative and make it really dark and snappy. But it takes real craft and genuine skill to make it work and to make it memorable like Snatch. In the case of The Informers, it is as forgetful as it can get.

Rating: 2.6/10

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

#180: Bridges of Madison County

The word that occurs to me the moment I think about The Bridges of Madison County is 'serene.' Is there anything more serene on film than seeing Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep play 50-plus year olds in love with each other against the backdrop of the beautiful American countryside ?

Based on the book of the same name written by Robert James Waller, and adapted for the screen by Richard LaGravenese, the Eastwood-directed movie plays out like a soothing composition bathed in melody. From the first frame to the last, each visual typifies a lazy American stable life that forms the crust of the characters involved. From within though, both Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a National Geographic photographer and Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) a reasonably happy mother of two, have a simmering desire for each other that they're too scared to pursue for fear of social pressures. Francesca has been married for 18 odd years and is suffering the proverbial itch. Everything is too settled in her humdrum daily life for her to derive any excitement out of it. Kincaid, on the other hand, is a traveling photographer who makes friends as he goes along from one corner of the globe to another. His innocent charm and knowledge of the world is too tempting for Francesca to resist. Kincaid, a dignified vagabond in Madison County finds a reason in Francesca, to stick to a place for a change. Even as their different worlds merge in a quest for love, the stakes are too high for Francesca to walk out of a well-settled marriage. The movie is a journey into the emotions of these two characters as they jostle with the ultimate decision- how far will they go for companionship.

This is a story mostly told in flashback and if memories had a color, cinematographer Jack Green nails it. Given the non-linear narrative, editor Joel Cox rightfully gives the film's pace two different rhythms- one for the flashback and another for the present both working in unison to make this a delightful journey of a little over two hours. Clint Eastwood is magical as the nature-loving photographer who is a son of the soil in every sense of the word. It is remarkable how even as a director he doesn't given into the temptation to indulge himself as an actor instead making this a movie about the female protagonist. Meryl Streep excels in one of her most challenging roles as the faithful wife but Kincaid's passionate lover. Her yearning is captured not so much in words as in her manners and this very well might've been a role where Meryl was pushed to the boundaries of her acting skills, if there is such a thing.

The Bridges of Madison County is a warm and a touching tale of love that will go best on a Sunday afternoon with the person you love the most by your side and a vintage Pinot Noir on the table.

In any case, if you can't watch it with that one person, watch it for that one person.

Rating: 7.8/10

Sunday, August 14, 2011

#179: Kind Hearts and Coronets

Great actors sometimes need only as much of a moment in a motion picture to leave a memorable imprint on our minds. Sometimes they get an entire canvas for themselves in a movie. It is akin to having a batsman on a first day flat batting track in Ahmedabad. And if that batsman turns out to someone like a Kallis or a Lara, they'll make you pay heavy. Now think an actor as accomplished as Sir Alec Guinness essaying eight different roles and you have a situation where if the script of this movie is tight enough, one can be assured of a most enjoyable experience. As the Kind Hearts and Coronets rightly turned out to be.

The Ealing Studio of England is one of the oldest studios of the world and since 1902 has been at the forefront of British filmmaking. Post World War II perhaps the need for audiences to levitate towards lighter subjects gave the studios the opportunity to delve in a series of production of comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets released in 1949 was the fortuitous product of this phase. Directed by Robert Hamer, the movie is about Louis Manzinni (Dennis Price), a man who wants to go back to the splendors of the royal family of the D'Ascoynes, a family that banished his mother for marrying an ordinary Italian singer. On the death of his mother, when the D'Asocynes refuse to even bury her in the family tomb, Louis' desperation to be accepted as a part of royal lineage gives way to retribution.

Over the next few months, Louis carefully plans the murder of all those family members who would come in his path towards becoming a Duke. He gets himself close to the eldest Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne who is very impressed with Louis' work and keeps promoting him in the banking firm that they work for. John Dighton and Robert Hamer, the screenplay writers deftly place in a love triangle between Louis, his child hood girlfriend and Edith D'Ascoyne that makes this more than just a revenge drama. The comic elements in the Kind Hearts and Coronets are derived from the deadpan seriousness of the whole affair that at times border on the farcical. Yet as an audience one stays rooted to Louis' cause because of the empathy that the character generates with his backstory during the first act of the movie.

Alec Guinness plays all his characters, that include a lady, with such effortlessness that it is hard not to be amazed with the range of skills that go with it. Dennis Price's character arc traverses emotions of despair, animosity, love, jealousy and his composure and capability in handling these were as brilliant as they come. The narrative structure of the movie, and credit is again due to the the director-writer combination here, lends itself to a wonderful last two minutes that should rank as one of the best endings ever in cinema. Simply put, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a fabulous piece of cinema. Watch it before you die.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, August 13, 2011

#178: The Spiral Staircase

Robert Siodmak was a German director who moved to Hollywood in 1939 during the time when Nazism was on the rise in Germany. Over the next 13 years, he would go on to make 23 movies in Hollywood, a prolific record by any standards before he returned to Europe. One of his most acclaimed films during his affair with Hollywood was The Spiral Staircase, a murder mystery that starred one of the first actresses of cinema-Ethel Barrymore.

The story is set in a small conservative county in America where there are only two doctors and even necessities like medical stores are spread far out and wide. Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute caretaker in the house of the Warrens is asked to be careful because a serial killer who attacks women with deformities is on the loose. While the killer murders a second disabled lady, the cops suspect him to strike the house of the Warrens where Helen could be an easy target. Dr. Parry a young and charming doctor who wants to cure Helen of her affliction visits the Warrens to see their ailing mother (Barrymore) and agrees to take Helen away on that very night to Boston to give her access to facilities that can cure her muteness. Professor Warren, the elder brother gives in to Dr. Parry's wish but at the same time Dr. Parry is summoned for another emergency. Whether or not Helen would survive the night till Dr. Parry returns is the crux of The Spiral Staircase.

Based on the book 'Some Must Watch' by Ethel White, the movie is a taut account of some gripping action of that stormy night where protagonist Helen unbeknownst to her must survive the killer on her trail. At 81 minutes, the fast-paced screenplay by Mel Dinelli reaches its denouement before your mind can even think of wandering anywhere. All good whodunnits should lead up to its resolution with biting tension and give its audience a gasp when the killer is revealed. And it is for this precise reason that the Spiral Staircase has been long recognized as classic in its genre. I suspect even Hitchcock might've enjoyed it.

Rating: 7.3/10

Friday, August 12, 2011

#177: Aarakshan

In the mid-80s there used to be a genre of Hindi cinema that had a storyline with the breadwinner of a family as the protagonist. The hero would be a gentle soul who has got a loving family and who falls on troubled times because of an antagonist who would be plotting his downfall due to a difference in opinion about property/family business. It would be a very linear story with a happy beginning and a tumultuous middle act that would see the hero struggling with not just finances to meet ends but perhaps also contracting a heart disease or his wife would suddenly pass away due to an affliction. The ending would then bring all those ends together more often than not in a happy resolution. Swarg and Ghar Ek Mandir are examples that come to mind. This weekend's multi-starrer Aarakshan is one such nostalgic throwback to those days.

Amitabh Bachchan is Prabhakar Anand, a righteous principal of an esteemed college institution who selflessly believes in the right to equality of education. His protege whom he appoints as junior lecturer in his college is Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan), a meritorious student who with Prabhakar Anand's help over the years has moulded himself into a strong and able individual. The catch is that he hails from a backward caste and a few doubting eyes around the campus see it as a clear bias towards weaker castes. In a statement to a newspaper around SC's judgement about reservations, when Anand hints at personally seeing nothing wrong with reservations, his bete noire Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) sees it as an opportunity to get Anand banished from the college. And thus begins Prabhakar Anand's travails that see him tested every ten minutes from thereon. Oddly, the movie promos seemed to suggest this is a movie led by Saif Ali Khan but clearly this is an Amitabh Bachchan show. He displays once again why he used to be such a master at his craft and why he can still get your tear glands going with his monologues and sheer on-screen presence.

Manoj Bajpayee has a certain malleability to his skills that allows to be cast in a rare negative role and does well in his avataar of a money-hungry professor. Prateik Babbar as the voice of the students who prefer merit as the sole of criteria for admission holds his own in this heavy duty and the same can be said of Deepika Padukone- Amitabh's daughter in the movie who is torn between the differences of opinion between those who are close to her. The screenplay by Anjum Rajabali and Prakash Jha have quite a few loopholes but what the story (by Kamlesh Pandey) singularly succeeds in achieving is making this a battle between the good guy and the bad guy and making that battle reasonably engaging. A stand-off scene between Prateik Babbar and Saif Ali Khan is one among quite a few sequences that will impress you in the movie.

What Aarakshan lacks in depth is made up by some strong performances by it's cast. Character actors such as Yashpal Sharma, Darshan Zariwala, Saurabh Shukla and the emerging Amitosh Nagpal do justice to their parts and lend a more realistic feel than Jha's last multi-starrer Rajneeti. Whether the story that uses our flawed teaching institutes to establish a point around the volatile subject of reservations can have a social impact that some of Aamir's movies have done in the recent past is doubtful but what is barely in doubt is Aarakshan's value for money and time this weekend at the box office.

Rating: 6.6/10
P.S.: Political parties / social activist organizations etc etc. please watch this movie and stop the nonsensical bans for the movie. There's not a word in the movie that should get your goat going.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

#176: The Corporation

A Canadian production, The Corporation is a documentary that looks at the might, pitfalls and evils of the private enterprise through a series of interviews with CEOs, authors, academicians, economists, corporate whistleblowers, social activists and consumers. The documentary went on to win several international awards and writer Joel Bakan even wrote a book on the same theme in 2003, the year of it's release. The documentary was directed by Jenniffer Abbott and Mark Achbar.

What begins as a tutorial on the origin and growth of the corporate identity soon turns into a unidimensional bashing of the private enterprise over the next two-and-a-half-hours. What the documentary does well is getting a great spread of eminent names towards this end that include Noam Chomsky and Milton Friedman amongst others. Through a series of chapters, each intended to show the ruthless profit-at-all-costs motive driving organizations, The Corporation does become a bit boring after a while. What is nice to see though is an easy going feel to the whole exercise unlike the rabble-rousing fare of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.

To sum it up, The Corporation is a documentary that you can pick on a day when you would be tolerant to watch something that's commonplace but didactic enough to make it worthwhile. But if what you have in mind is a hard-hittting piece that will make you think of springing into action, The Corporation is barely in the same ballpark.

Rating: 6.7/10

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

#175: Hollywood Ending

It is no secret that a lot of Woody's scripts are derived from personal experiences and apart from his most preferred topic of relationships, I would suspect his next comfort zone is around performing arts and films. One sees that comfort mould itself beautifully from the experiences as a stand-up comic into a movie such as Broadway Danny Rose and in other cases not so beautifully in a movie like Celebrity. Time and again, we've seen him use the backdrop of performing arts and movies to weave his stories in and these include names like Sweet and Lowdown, Bullets over Broadway and Stardust Memories. Hollywood Ending made in 2002 premiered at Cannes and is yet another attempt on his part in this sub-genre of his movies.

It has as it's protagonist Val Vaxman (Woody Allen), a double Oscar-winning director who has now fallen on troubled times. His ever-smiling optimistic manager Al (Mark Rydell) is pulling out all stops to get him a mainstream film project and yet the only work that's falling in Val's lap are diaper commercials. It is during this phase when out of the blue, Val's ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni) suggests Val's name for a project at Galaxie Studios that she thinks only Val can do justice to. The studio head Yeager (Treat Williams) is Ellie's fiance and knows Val's eccentricities too well to be confident about handing over the directorial reins. Ellie's conviction in Val's mercurial capabilities however sees Yeager giving in to his wife but not before a meeting where Yeager does see the merit of having Val as the director.

At this point Val is excited about the subject and whole-heartedly accepts the project except that he has got his conscience pricking him about working with his ex-wife who dumped him and working for the man who took away Ellie. Things take a turn for the worse when Val realizes he's become blind and his manager will not have him confess this to Ellie. In a set of a hilarious gags, Woody Allen's writing takes us through a blind Val Vaxman working on the sets of his movie with the help of a Chinese student. There's too much that goes wrong for Val and it is hard not to feel for him. In his typically neurotic manner, Woody Allen essays Val Vaxman with supreme ease for this is exactly the sort of role Woody can sleep walk through. Tea Leoni as Ellie is sweet, charming, level-headed and an apt foil to Val's idiosyncrasies and during their exchanges you also see exactly where both of them went wrong in their marriage. Treat Williams and Mark Rydell are strong pillars as far as the supporting cast is concerned. The best of the movie though is a five minute sequence where a blind Val Vaxman meets Yeager in his suite to convince him that all is well with the film. This is a side-splitting sequence with all the funny elements that we have come to love Woody Allen for.

If anything, Hollywood Ending could've been a bit shorter like Woody's standard breezy 90 minute cinematic fare. Apart from that everything else seemed right - beginning from the casting, to the performances to a storyline that is bound to leave you smiling at the end of it. Surprisingly, it didn't find too many takers for itself at the box-office. If you ask me, and again this is not something that will find too many takers, I would happily place it in a 'Best of Woody Allen' series.

Rating: 7.1/10

Sunday, August 07, 2011

#174: The Secret in Their Eyes

Juan Jose Campanella, a bright talent to emerge out of Latin America is best known for his being nominated twice for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in the last ten years. His latest nomination in 2009 secured him the best foreign film with the Secret in Their Eyes, a crime thriller spanning an extensive 25 years centered around the life of an Argentine cop Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin).

The movie begins with Esposito, now retired, wishing to write a memoir of the time when he was dealing with the murder of the beautiful wife of Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). The murder that was preceded by a brutal rape leaves Ricardo stunned and practically inert towards his daily chores. The only assurance he has from Esposito is that whenever the criminal is captured, he will be sentenced for life. Esposito's best friend, a perennially drunk colleague Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) is his best bet in an office where their boss is always out to humiliate the two. Over the course of the next twelve months, Esposito also earns a friend in Judge Irene (Soledad Vilamil) and Sandoval and he catch hold of the perpetrator of the heinous crime. All is not however hunky dory as the criminal manages to earn an official posting as a security officer within the ranks of the Argentine police.

There is no doubting that The Secret in Their Eyes has a most arresting first half an hour. As the narrative jumps back and forth from the past to the present, you are hooked to the on-screen action about to unfold. Ricardo Darin leads the top notch performances put in by the cast members and the languid air in a crime thriller is unsettling for a viewer in a good way. Where the writers (Eduardo Sacheri along with Campenella) skillfully introduce to us the first clue of the Isodoro Gomez (Javier Godino) being the criminal is not a scene that is outright convincing but something about the ease with which it is presented allows you to voluntarily forgive the transgression. The photography is nearly flawless with Felix Monti presenting a wonderful canvas of emotions on-screen in it's most delectable form and the same could be said about the haunting score. The only place where it failed to touch a chord were the parts where some of the twists in the story seemed too impractical to be true. They don't exactly jar you because these moments were few and far in between but they were liberties exercised by the writers nonetheless.

The Secret in Their Eyes is the most successful Argentine film ever and gives credence to the theory that great filmmaking is no longer the duopoly of Hollywood or Europe. Campanella nowadays spends his time working on American TV series' such as Law and Order and 30 Rock but it would be mighty surprising if we don't see him more often on the world stage in the future for his films that have a visual style and narrative that I found to be universally and unilaterally appealing. He is too precious to be wasted on American TV and the Secret in Their Eyes is an irrefutable proof of that.

Rating: 7.2/10

Friday, August 05, 2011

#173: The Fortune Cookie

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were one of the most enduring on-screen pairings in the history of cinema and their movies ranged from the fantastic to the forgettable and it all started with The Fortune Cookie. And who better than Billy Wilder to bring them together about whom I once heard a mention on a DVD extra that the man made the most definitive movie in every genre of cinema. Whether it's Stalag17, Some Like it Hot or Double Indemnity, Billy would always leave a memorable imprint in the minds of the audience.

In The Fortune Cookie, Wilder and his long-time screenwriting partner IAL Diamond take a look at the world of personal injury lawyers and their selfish attempts to extract money from corporations. Walter Matthau in an Oscar-winning performance plays Willie Gingrich, a crooked lawyer who in the garb of giving justice to his injured brother-in-law is out to file a suit of $100,000 in damages. Jack Lemmon plays Henri Hickle, the sweet simpleton who wouldn't ride along with Gingrich in this plan but is coaxed into it because of the faint glimmer of hope of reuniting with his wife Sandy ( Judi West).

The Fortune Cookie is a light unpretentious comic tale and it has all the lines and situations in place to give you the laughs. A sub-plot of bonding between the football player Jackson (Ron Rich) who injured Hickle during a play is the only part where you might have trouble getting through with the movie. That relationship isn't crystallized well enough for it to deserve an extended climax of ten minutes that the screenwriters generously bestow it with. Walter Matthau's peformance is the star turn in the movie and dare I say even manages to steal the thunder from Jack Lemmon. As the crafty Gingrich, he delivers a flawless turn. It was no mean feat considering that during the filming of The Fortune Cookie Matthau had suffered a heart attack and yet he was able to complete the movie. Billy Wilder movies always have an interesting support cast and filling in the gap here is Perky, the aptly named insurance investigator played by yet-another Wilder favorite Cliff Osmond.

Billy Wilder could not only write, produce and direct timeless movies but also had an incredible eye for talent. That in Matthau and Lemmon he saw a duo who he could rely on for many of his future movies speaks volumes of his vision. Not to forget the fact Matthau-Lemmon pair would also go on to appear in movies of other directors. The Fortune Cookie, in that sense is a neat piece of cinema history sliced and served by Wilder like a delectable afternoon snack. In it's simplest form, it is a buoyant fun-filled comic caper that's great company for most of it's duration.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, August 04, 2011

#172: The Enforcer

It is quite unlikely that I will ever watch a Bretaigne Windust movie ever but this was as good a start as any.

Made in 1951, it starred the iconic Humphrey Bogart in a solo lead role playing a district attorney out to trounce a group of hardened criminals.

Windust had built his reputation as a director on Broadway and his terse realistic style is brought to the fore in The Enforcer.

At 87 minutes, it must be one of the shortest thrillers ever made and even if it were any longer, you would've hardly noticed it since the movie had enough hooks and twists to keep you hanging to the edge of your seat.

A key feature of the movie is the non-linear narrative characterized by the number of flashbacks within flashbacks.

A noted appearance is that of Zero Mostel, the talented actor who is most remembered for his turn in The Producers.

Humphrey Bogart plays the quintessential tough lawyer with elan, poise and style that made him the legend that he was.

Based on a few real-life incidents of the days when a 'hit' and a 'contract' didn't mean words to be careful about for the local police, screenplay writer Martin Rackin maintains a brisk pace that never lets up in tension.

To cut to the chase, The Enforcer is a fine taut thriller that will grab your attention from the very first scene and hold you a hostage to its on-screen wares.

Rating: 7.4/10

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

#171: The Magnificent Seven

Based on the acclaimed Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven was directed by John Sturges and released in US in 1960. John Sturges' reputation with the previously Oscar-nominated Black Day at Black Rock and his handling of the western legend Gunfight at O.K. Corral is said to have helped him in bagging the nod to be the director.

As with most remakes, the movie had all the elements in the right place and yet didn't quite manage to grip me through it's 127 minute duration. The key issue seemed to be the casting. For one, the lead role amongst the seven is essayed by an emotionless Chris (Yul Brynner) whose character does little to excite or for that matter engage. Even someone as exciting as Steve McQueen as Vin, Chris' shadow through the movie, doesn't have much to do except be a trusted right-hand man to Chris and in the process, plays one of the most deadpan roles in his career. In the original the role of Toshiro Mifune was that of a passionate, street-smart but a light-hearted samurai who was a welcome relief from the seriousness of the movie's tone. Here, Horst Bucholz's portrayal of the same character is more of a caricature.

In a movie that had as many as eight key characters, including bad man Calvera (Eli Wallach), the characters seldom touch the viewer with their issues. Although quite of few of them had personal struggles of acceptance and approval that they were grappling with, they never emerged strongly enough to connect. The long shots and action brought to screen would pale significantly compared to some of the other westerns and with due respect to John Sturges, there's hardly anything that Sergio Leone hasn't done better in this genre.

The taut background score is a definite highlight of The Magnificent Seven but apart from that and a few typically crisp lines seen in western movies, I am finding it difficult here to give you more reasons as to why you should watch this movie. In fact, if anything, The Magnificent Seven makes Sholay look even more magnificent.

Rating: 5.8/10

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

#170: Slumdog Millionaire

To it's credit or misfortune by the time Slumdog Millionaire arrived in India, we were in awe of what might unfold on the big screen. One had heard so much about this story of hope and the music that it was hard to not step into a theater thinking that we were about to witness something momentous. Simon Beaufoy's adapted screenplay from Vikas Swarup's Q&A traces the story of a chai wallah Jamaal Malik (Dev Patel) from his childhood till the time he gets on the hot seat of the quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati. Vikas Swarup's story has an edgy fast-paced storyline and if anything, more than the actors, the direction, editing, cinematography ( the last three being departments the film won Academy Awards for) it is the story which is the hero in Slumdog Millionaire for me.

Now, it is highly unlikely that a guy like Jamaal who has barely received any more than elementary education will participate in a quiz show of the highest standards and win 2 crores. But if he does and if that is attributed to the fact that he was destined to win it - you can't question it, can you? So when I say the story is fantastic, it is not so much about what happens in the movie or book but how the respective mediums entrust the improbable occurences in the movie to a simple explanation of fate. 'It is written' as the movie suggests in the very beginning itself- becomes an underlying motif for the on-screen action. The movie also scores highly in it's technical departments and the thorough research done by the filmmakers did make it seem like a home-grown production. In certain circles, depiction of the slum children in poor light has been criticized but there's no doubting that the opening sequences are very well shot and are the stand-out portions of the movie. Anthony Dod Mantle's filming gives it a very gritty look. Major portions of the movie were shot digitally and marks to the DOP team for that 'look' which ironically is as much about grimness as about hope.

Jamaal's childhood was spent around two other key characters- his childhood sweetheart, Latika (Frieda Pinto) and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). Each of these characters' respective child versions ( Ayush Khedekar, Rubina Ali, Mohammed Azharuddin) bring in a lot of innocent yet mischievous energy that keeps coming at you during the first thirty minutes of the movie. What wasn't so impressive were the adult versions of these respective characters. By that time, it is only the story one is interested in. A strong cameo by badass game-show host Anil Kapoor keeps you hooked towards climax but the elder brother's sudden awakening didn't quite pass muster, neither did a typical Bollywood boy-meets-girl-to-live-happily-ever-after sequence in the end. Both are loose ends that leave you a bit dissatisfied. A word on the music in the movie is that any A.R. Rahman fan will tell you that Jai Ho was hardly his best work but the background score sure made the action more riveting. Let me also tell you how bad perhaps Rahman himself thought the song was. As per IMDB, Jai Ho was composed for Yuvvraj but since Subhash Ghai didn't see it fitting in, he turned it down. Now pray tell me, would Jai Ho been as successful if it were retained by Subhash Ghai ?

As to how an average movie like Slumdog Millionaire could sweep everyone off their feet in the west is still a matter of intrigue to me. In my circle of friends, most of them thought this was an overrated piece of cinema. And we would aver so, without this even carrying the weight of expectations that it bore when it came to India. We don't know how and why it got so big and in that probably lies the movie's biggest trick- that 'it was written'.

Rating: 6.4/10