Thursday, December 16, 2004

Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Twelve is shamelessly self-indulgent but what a whale of a ride it is! Actually, correction!. It's a whale of a ride in most parts but it peters out early and comes to a huge thudding halt half an hour before it ends. Perhaps because it's because the story is criminally underconstructed but then - who noticed the story anyway? The film's strengths are it's in-jokes, its fabulously glamorous stars, and its jumpy syntax. On the offside, there are too many in-jokes and the jumpy syntax, even if it's constructor is Soderbergh, cannot pull up the movie when it's narrative sags.

I loved the jokes though. At the beginning when the gang gathers to think of another heist, the members object to being called "Ocean's Eleven"; "We were all equal contributors, who made you the proprietor?" someone says. Then there's Julia Roberts who dissapears in about the fifth minute and returns towards the end for a brilliant scene thats almost worth the price of the ticket. The actors attain a kind of movie-star glamor thats rare and the movie shows them off, spectacular clothes and everything. (Which is fine with me, by the way. Sometimes, actors are just more interesting than the characters they play, unless the actor happens to be Tom Cruise when it just becomes irritating.) After Troy, a relaxed Brad Pitt is heart-throbbingly sexy; he and Zeta-Jones sizzle in their scenes together. My own favorite though was Matt Damon, who has perfected an earnest demeanor and geeky delivery, while at the same time, being completely in on the joke. (his delivery of the phrase "you mean .... morally wrong?" brought me down completely). Damon should seriously consider doing some comedy.

All that said, the movie is however 30 minutes too long and wore me out in the end. Soderbergh shoots with a jazzy syntax that he must have had great fun playing with but the last thirty minutes are just too much. Writer George Nolfi must have finally run of ideas. But hey, it was great while it lasted.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Watching the treacly Love Actually, I kept wondering what on earth had possessed me to rent the movie. Well, for one thing, there was the desire to watch something light. Plus the fact that the movie has been written and directed by Richard Curtis, whose movies, so far at least, I've enjoyed. I am not quite sure what Actually's problem really is. The movie is sincere, it's apparent that Curtis is, quite literally, putting himself out on a limb; this is the mushiest movie he's ever written. Its even got a to-die-for all-star British cast with a few token Americans. And the soundtrack is uniformly gooey (but good though) to the point of making one die from an overdose of sugar.

Ultimately though, there's only so much of mush that one can take. Watching no less than nine romantic subplots means that the movie flits from one romantic pair to another. Curtis is no Paul Thomas Anderson - he has no idea how to weave the plots together, to make the tension of one plot flood into another, to make one plot comment on another. Then there's the fact that the characters all speak in Curtisms - in the cute, self-deprecating style (which means blinking charmingly even in the most hideously embarassing of situations) that Curtis has perfected through all these years. But when actors are barely on the screen for more than a minute, it's hard to make a character one's own; the movie has no characters, just props on which to hang it's message that LOVE is all around us.

What happens if a bachelor British prime-minister (and one as foppy as Hugh Grant, no less) falls in love with his, ummm, housekeeper? What would happen if two body-doubles, who make their living by simulating sexual positions for the movie camera, were to fall in love? Could a man and a woman fall in love without even understanding one word of what the other says? It seems to me that Curtis, wrote the movie, with these kind of questions in mind. I enjoyed hte body-double subplot the most even though it has less than five minutes of screen-time. And I kept looking at my watch as Liam Nesson and his consistently slappable son kept having one irritating conversation after another. The other storylines are more or less generic, depending on how much you can stomach the ages old love triangle of the two best friends in love with the same girl, or the happily married couple in the throes of mid-life crisis or the woman professional pining away for her boss.

Which brings me to another point. The portrayal of women in this movie. Two of the romantic storylines involve housekeepers falling in love with their bosses. Laura Linney (who, by the way, is the best thing in this movie) plays a executive meekly in love with her (hunky) boss. What, one wonders, is the message here? The over-all impression of the working female professional in the movie is that of the secretary - no, not just a secretary but a secretary straight from the pages of a Mills&Boon romance (yes, I used to read those) who falls for her boss, a strong bronzed rugged mascular (yes, yes, you name it) alpha-male. I can only presume it's unintentional since a movie like this doesn't set out to offend people deliberately. But considering how successful movies like these are and the fact that they are generally modified depending on how they are received by focus groups, I wonder how much we still like to think of the working woman as a meek, weak, and yes, virginal secretary.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Jawaharlal Nehru used to be fond of saying that behind every Indian, there lay 5000 years of history and continuity. (He even made an attempt to chronicle those in his Discovery of India). Behind every one of us - inside us, even - are the efforts of all those who are dead. We are the products of history and it marches on taking us with it - as passive observationists or as quiet activists. William Condon's biopic of Alfred Kinsey is a great movie - as a movie, as a narrative, as a story of science and scientist (and I won't even begin to contrast it with the dishonesty of A Beautiful Mind) and above all things - in giving us a sense of history, of the giants, on whose shoulders, so to speak, we all stand. It is also tremendously moving and true to Kinsey himself. Like Kinsey and his scientific work, it is non-judgemental, presenting his research, his obsessions, his evangelical zeal to separate sex from morality, his indignation with "morality masquerading as fact" and also his more troubling tendencies (which included having his research assistants sleep with each other and their spouses).

All the rights we take so much for granted now - the right to use contraceptives during sex, the decrimnalization of pre-marital, extra-marital, oral sex and anal sex, the implied right to privacy that forbids authority from policing the private lives of its citizens, the debunking of all the old wives tales about masturbation, sex education in schools - are all related, in some way to the publication of the Kinsey report. The gay rights movement owes much to him - but then so do we all. (Interestingly Kinsey's book was published in 1948, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 but it was only in 2003 that sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court).

Which in a roundabout way, brings me back to the movie itself. Condon, who wrote the movie from Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's biography of Kinsey, has found the perfect form for a biopic on Kinsey - the question-and-answer interview. The movie opens with Kinsey instructing his reseach assistants on the art of interviewing the subjects for their sexual histories. As his researchers ply him with question after question and as he answers, the movie cuts back and forth between the interview and Kinsey's life. The structure, which seems clunky even as I write about it, works brilliantly in the movie. Somewhere along the way, the cutting back to the interview stops but the movie is so fluid, that I forget where exactly and we continue along a linear trajectory as Kinsey's life unfolds before us. Condon is true to Kinsey himself, he presents the man as-is, warts and all, in just the way Kinsey encouraged his assistants to document human sexual history without being judgemental. (Condon vividly shows the best-case worst-case dichotomy that I talked about before during Kinsey's chilling interview with a paedophile, Kenneth Braun, when his research assistant walks out, unable to suspend judgement, while Kinsey doggedly soldiers on with the interview.) But movie is grateful to Kinsey, grateful because he spoke out against social hypocrisy, because his criticism of morality disguised as facts is valid even today, because he was instrumental in improving life itself for all of us.

In a lovely interview that closes the movie (and which moved me to tears), Lynn Redgrave as a woman who has found happiness with another woman, tells him "You saved my life, sir" and it is hard not to agree whole-heartedly. He most certainly did.

Postscript: I realized that I hadn't written a word about the actors. Words, in this case, are pitiful to describe the superlative acting all around but I mmust say that Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard are all fabulous. Linney, who can shine even in an outstandingly bad movie like The Life of David Gale, is lovely; Neeson is dogged, committed, and understated; while Sarsgaard, with his reptilian face, keeps proving again and again what a great actor he is. Give them all awards, I say. :)

Saturday, November 20, 2004

I am not that much of a sucker for animation films - not that I don't enjoy them but the standard format of such pictures - a hero, with his loyal sidekick, fights the villains and wins the love of his life - gets a little boring at times. Animation films that I've loved are rare - The Triplets of Belleville, Waking Life, Ice Age (this one came closest to being generic but heaven knows why, it just brought , a lump to my throat - especially in its remarkably poignant scenes where the woolly mammoth voiced by Ray Romano contemplates his family's and consequently his own extinction). Another film - one that never quite leaves my mind - was Brad Bird's lovely adaptation of Ted Hughes book about the Iron Giant. Now Bird has made another one called the Incredibles, which is, frankly, incredible.

The fundamental premise is simple: What if superheroes, besides their powers, are just like us? - and the Incredibles are indeed just like any other family. They love, bicker, fight, and enjoy. There are other things no less striking. Whatever be their powers, all the superheroes seem to be uniformly respectful of authority (i.e. the government and the judiciary). They did not revolt even as the Government and the ungrateful citizenry banished them into oblivion (when indeed, considering their powers, they could have). They do not seem to have any feelings of superiority - and indeed besides being resentful at the thought of being disallowed to do what they do best - they aren't snobs. So far, so good.

The points that the film does not dwell on, however, prove to be more than a little disturbing. The Incredibles is, at it's heart, a political movie. Consider the situation it brings up. The superheroes of the world have become a liability because of a blase ungrateful public (in an awesome riff, the commuters on a train who would otherwise have fallen to their deaths merely escape with injuries and then sue the superhero for those.). They are therefore banished - to live lives of obscurity and forbidden to practise their trade (which is basically saving the world from the bad guys). As I mentioned before, that they do not even think of revolting is heartening. As is the fact that they are susceptible to the same laws as everyone else.

It is in comparing The Incredibles to Bryan Singer's Xmen franchise and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series that we can see some clear differences. InX-men, the human race feels threatened by the mutants among them. But there's a crucial difference. In the Xmen world, anyone, mutant or nonmutant, could beget mutant children. X2, in fact, had a touching "coming out" scene - where a mutant boy comes out to his parents and his siblings, who react with bewilderment, confusion and even with outright hostility. In The Incredibles, on the other hand, one can only infer that the superheroes are a class (or a caste) unto themselves, that their "superness", by itself, is passed down generations. The eponymous family, in fact, is the quintessential super family - Dad, Mom, daughter, son and even the baby. Bird's screenplay doesn't talk about the "bad" supers - i.e. superheroes who use their powers for their own selfish good. Our superheroes are all assumed to be good - they probably have a goodness gene that complements their super gene.

Contrast this also with J. K. Rowlings Muggle world and you'll see how radically different The Incredibles is. Rowlings' fantasy world is composed of wizards and Muggles. Yet Rowlings is careful in making the boundary between these worlds fluid; Hermione Granger, for instance, is born to Muggle parents while both Ron and Harry come from "proper" wizard families;Harry's mother was born to a Muggle family; even Lord Voldemort has a Muggle father. The wizard world is also experiencing a backlash against the Mudbloods (a typically Rowling name for people like Hermione, born to Muggle parents), a backlash that Professor Dumbledore (and by implication Rowling herself) dissaproves of because, one can only assume, it is abhorrent to their liberal priciples. Rowling's fantasy world has been constructed with careful attention to details such as these. Bird, on the other hand, has not thought about the troubling aspects that his movie only hints at.

But he redeems himself in the way he has created the villain of the movie. Called Syndrome, this character of the arch-villain is the most interesting aspect of the Incredibles. Syndrome (he called himself IncrediBoy when he was young and hero-worshipped Mr Incredible) is *not* a superhero. He is a gifted kid, capable of making great gizmos and gadgets but his fervent desire is to be a super. Since superdom is inherited and not earned, that's clearly impossible. But Syndrome manages, by the sheer force of his ingenuity, to even outdo the superheroes he so admires. He is also an egalitarian by instinct - his aim, as he claims, is to make a world where "everyone is a super". I must confess I felt a twinge of sympathy for Syndrome. As voiced by Jason Lee (whatever happened to him after Almost Famous?), it's clear that what motivates Syndrome is a hunger for the recognition of his powers - powers that he has honed to perfection and also a desire to overcome the cards life has dealt him. But as the movie makes clear, superdom is about being human and about wanting to help others, come what may. Syndrome's desire for recognition, ultimately proves to be his down-fall. Had he not lacked humanity, the movie argues, he would have been greater than any super he ever knew. Amen to that.

ps: Here's a link to an article in the NYT on the Incredibles. I must have missed it before

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sometimes political correctness can get in the way of appreciating a movie. Nowhere was this more in evidence than yesterday when I went to watch Jonathan Glazer's Birth. It seemed like the audience (infantile audience, is what I thought when I was watching the movie) just could not get beyond the fact that a thirty-odd year old woman had just fallen in love with a ten year old boy who claims to be her dead husband (reincarnated, of course). When Kidman and Cameron Bright (who plays the boy) get into a tub together, the theatre was awash with screams, shrieks, nervous tittering and loud shouts of "NO!! NO!!". I mean, please.

The point of this rant is that it reduced the affect of the movie for me, even if it did not destroy it altogether. Birth is above all a movie of rich brooding atmosphere, that is enhanced by Jonathan Glazer's glacial pacing and Alexandre Desplat's plangent score. Realizing the controversial nature of their material, Glazer and his collaborating screenwriters have constructed their mise-en-scenes with deliberation, with lots of care being taken to see that the movie does not seem exploitative (think Gaspar Noe's Irresistable or Bruno Dumont's TwentyNine Palms). In doing so, they have made a conscious choice to drench the movie in atmosphere as opposed to emotions. (I shudder to think what the finished screenplay must have looked like. The movie is so full of pauses and long silences that its a wonder that Glazer didn't screw up.) In a virtuoso opening, the camera tracks a hooded figure running in the park while the background score signals unease. At the end, as the jogger falls to his death in a tunnel, the camera tracks out and we fade out to a shot of a baby just emerging from the birth canal. Its perfect. In another brilliant move, the camera stays on Kidman's face for a tight hard close-up for more than two minutes as the opera rages around her.

There is something about Kidman so that when she smiles, the smile strains to reach her eyes, probably something to do with her cold sculpted beauty and albaster skin. Her performance here somehow reminded me of her turn as Grace in the superlative The Others. She is tightly controlled here and along with Cameron Bright, she absorbs the movie's atmosphere so that it seems to be emerging right out of her. Bright's performance here is the opposite of Eamonn Owen's spell-binding turn as Neil Jordan's butcher boy but just as effective. Somehow Glazer has directed Bright to the point of stillness and the young boy rises to the challenge. I'm not sure that Bright has the same remote quality that Kidman has, when he smiles during the film, he looks beatific, almost saintly. It would be hard to take Birth seriously without Bright; indeed, he makes the leap of faith required to believe subject matter such as this easy.

Which brings me back to all the carping critics. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon says that "Birth is the kind of movie that keeps alerting you to its resonant emotional undertow without actually having one." Zacharek misses the point, I think. Glazer and his collaborators, in an effort to avoid the relentless melodrama that a plot like this entails (think of the horrible Ghost), have instead taken a step in the other direction. They've constructed a motion picture without an emotional undertow, a mood piece that encourages a viewer to meditate. The Manhattan that cinematographer Harris Savides conjures up is like no Manhattan that I've seen. Its cold, wintry and a little distant. Even the only scene of Kidman walking in a crowd is subtly anesthetized by its silence. But the mood is fragile, Birth needs rapt attention to absorb it completely, which is why I was so irritated by the reactions of my fellow-viewers.

Other critics have simply dismissed the movie as paedophilia or at least more benign variations of it. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, normally the voice of reason, gave up on the movie after the bathtub scene. Its interesting that Gleiberman recounts that scene as "When Kidman slithers into the bathtub with her young husband ..." when in fact, it is he who "slithers" in with her (if Bright's character ever did anything in the movie that even remotely resembled slithering). The local Phoenix New Times Birth calls it "the nuttiest apologia ever for pedophilia". What exactly are we talking about here? Is this an objection to a 38-year old actress and a 10-year old boy actually being in a bathtub together during the shoot? Or are we objecting to the themes? Like I said before, political correctness may not be such a good thing after all.

Though, if there's something that sinks the movie, its the cop-out ending. By the (seemingly) hurried incorporation of a subplot (involving Ann Heche, no less), the movie simply takes the easy way out of the tantalizing possibilities that it's first three-quarters brought up. I thought it was a shame that the film-makers never thought of the interesting metaphysical possibilities that their "twist" had. (In the movie, the 10-year old Sean discovers that he can't be the "real" Sean since the real Sean apparently loved another woman more than his wife.) But I guess, they finally ran out of ideas.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Is it any wonder that I liked the soundtrack of Garden State more than the movie itself? Zach Braff's debut is definitely impressive but the movie is so bereft of an anchor that it wanders around a seemingly endless space accompanied by a litany of gorgeous pop-songs. Again, not a bad thing but where is the theme, that director's vision that connects together the dots into one spell-binding weave? Perhaps the theme is "offbeat". Word has it that Baff kept a little scrap-book which he filled with all the bizarre news that he read in newspapers. That he felt like putting all of those anecdotes right into the first movie he made, seems to me an indication that he was desperate and maybe, thought about making an making an offbeat indie movie as an end in itself.

Consider this. At home, for his mother's funeral service, a relative offers him a shirt made from the same material as the curtains in the bathroom. Cut to Braff watching himself in the mirror wearing a shirt thats matches the shower curtains to a T. This does get some cheap laughs but the seeming lack of connection between anecdotes is a little wearying. In another scene, on an odyssey-like ride with his friend (played by Peter Sarasgard) we glimpse a hotel where everyone (including a cop) is watching a couple have sex through a hole in the wall. Braff's main failure as a writer-director is that he inserts far too many non-sequiters in the hope of being "interesting" but he fails to concentrate on the most interesting sub-plot of all: the romance between his character and a pathological liar called Sam played with bewitching sweetness by Natalie Portman.

I never thought I'd say this about Portman after watching her sleep-walk through two of the star Wars prequels (Her "Oh, Annie ... "s in the Attack of the Clones brought down the house everytime) but she's like the light that shines through this movie. The first meeting between Andrew and Sam takes place in a neurologist's office and she invites him back to her house. That meeting (which concludes with them burying her pet hamster together) lasts around 15 minutes in the movie and it is alive - alive with a kind of dramatic weight that the rest of the film never attains. Garden State is an entertaining wisp of a movie but like its title, it is purposeless and uncohesive, a failure of the Braff the writer-director.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Ken Tucker has a thoughtful article in New York Metro on the whole Stewart-Carlson fracas. I first saw the Daily Show (and South Park) when I lived in Boston (with three white room-mates). The Daily Show was something they all watched regularly and pretty soon, I was a fan of the show as well. (South Park took a lot more of getting used to; it's in-your-face style redefines the whole notion of in-your-face.)
It had bothered me when I watched the video (I've seen it at least five times now) and Tucker articulates it: Can Stewart have it both ways? Can he toss puffballs to the guests on his show (and say "Hey, this is a comedy show after all!") and then criticize cable news shows for miserably failing in their duty to public discourse? If not, then what middle-ground should he pursue? After all, he is a comic. Tucker has a smart line at the end of his piece:
So this is the dilemma Jon Stewart now finds himself facing: Is he the Emmy- winning “monkey,” idol to millions of young couch-skeptics, or the thoughtful partisan satirist who’d like to be a player in the national discourse? It would take a genius comic to pull off both roles. But for the moment—his moment; his make-or-break moment up until the election—I’m sad to say, my money’s on the monkey to win out.
I'd say not. It strikes me that Stewart just might manage to pull it off. After all, how many people can lecture cable-news show anchors so sternly and yet be so funny?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

I read Anna Quindlen's "One true thing" when I was at Columbia. It was one of the two books that I read, novels without far-reaching plots, whose focus is more on relationships than narrative. The second was Stephen McCauley's "The Object of My Affection" which was so so soooo different from the movie that I'd seen before. I'd liked the movie well enough, it had deepened my appreciation for Jennifer Aniston, who I think, (and still think) is an unparalled comic actress. But the book itself, with its exploration of the lifestyle of a gay kindergarten teacher and his (pregnant) room-mate lives beyond these two (albeit endearing) protagonists. Its instead a funny, tender look at relationships and how they can't be slotted, about how the world is alive with infinite possibilities. (God! Whats happened to me? I can't believe I'm writing such sentimental rubbish!)

Reading "The Object of My affection" didn't lessen my liking for the movie, I only saw them as disparate, focussing on two different things. I saw the movie version of "One True thing" yesterday and I was dissapointed. That book above all, is about the relationship between a daughter, Ellen Gullen, and her cancer-struck mother, and what she learns anew about her parents as she moves back in with them to take care of her mom. The daughter has always admired her father and somehow looked down on her mother for her lack of intellectual glamour and her homey attitude to life. Now she learns that her mother is not who she thought she was. The book is, in a way, about the misplaced contempt of feminists for the stay-at-home woman. I liked the novel, it had an understated tone and above all, seemed to be sincerely written.

The movie, directed by Carl Franklin, instead of being about the mother and her daughter, focusses more on the travails of a cancer-struck patients and their relationship between their care-givers. Ellen and Kate rarely talk in the movie and the film never quite captures the change in Ellen's thinking. Still, the most damning thing about it is way the movie treats the father, George, who in the novel, comes off as selfish, slightly narcissistic but still undeniably human. In a middle-brow tasteful production, such as this, the director is ambivalent so most of the movie is devoted to showing how selfish the father is and yet in the end, he's made to rattle off a monologue about how his wife was his "one true thing". This is so cynically absurd and so transparently false that it almost destroys the movie. (If I'm not mistaken, in the book, that particular statement comes from the narrator herself, that her mother was the "one true thing" in the world). The novel ends on a somber note, with an almost impossible-to-bridge chasm that separates the girl from her father. The movie's ending is again a cliche (literally) with Ellen and George talking about daffodils and flowers (instead, as we should note, about Steinbeck and Whitman), while the camera zooms out.

I found Streep's performance (she was nominated for an Oscar for this), rather actorly, full of little tics and mannerisms but still somewhat opaque. William Hurt, not surprisingly, cannot overcome his badly written role. On the other hand, Renee Zellwegger grows into the part slowly but surely. She's a limited actress, and certainly, like Streep, Moore or even Kidman, she can never dissapear completely into her part. I found her unconvincing in the beginning, it seemed like the Dorothy Boyd of Jerry Maguire, had been transplanted into a WASPy New England milieu, and she doesn't seem like a publishing-type New York yuppie at all. But in the end, it's she who holds the movie together and her performance is nuanced, muted and ultimately great.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Is there a better poet for romantic love than Cameron Crowe? I finished watching Singles just now and this completes the Crowe ouevre for me. I've loved all his movies: Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous. The only stumbling block, was Vanilla Sky, which had Crowe adapting from Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes. Constructed as a philosophical piece of science fiction, it never quite worked and confirmed for me, that what Crowe does best is romantic comedy (and also that Penelope Cruz, whatever her charms, should stop speaking English and quit English-speaking movies altogether). But wait, I'm being unfair to Crowe here. The truth is that Crowe's movies go far beyond romance. In the words of A. O. Scott, he is perhaps the least cynical film-maker we have today, who wears his heart on his sleeve (and in his movies). His movies are forgiving, generous, innocent and sweet. Just like him.

Crowe was a music journalist before turning director and music, particularly rock music, is central to his films. But he also has a way of drawing upon his experiences that makes his movies deeply personal; to speak, his films are his way of meditating on life. In Almost Famous, a deeply resentful band-aid rebukes star-singer of the band Stillwater (played by Billy Crudrup), "What do you know about being a fan? To love some silly little piece of music so hard that it hurts." Thats Crowe speaking and to him, being a fan is important, life is about loving something so much that it hurts. I responded immediately when I heard that line in the movie, its as close as one gets to the heart of being a fan.

Crowe is a film-maker who is romantic without getting sentimental; he is also unabashedly preachy without being sanctimonious. His best film, Jerry Maguire (and probably one of the best romantic comedies ever made), is about a man, a sports agent, who rediscovers that life is not all about money and power, but instead about connecting with people. Put like that, it sounds as sanctimonious a piece of Hollywood puff as they come. But every time the final monologue begins ("We live in a cynical world. A cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors. ...."), I get this lump in my throat.

One of the reasons that I like Crowe's movies is that they are populated with people I identify with, middle-class young men and women with little or no financial worries who are nevertheless grappling with issues of their own. Here he is closer to Whit Stillman, whose talky wonderful trilogy of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco remains one of my favourites. Still, Stillman never got to the heart of romantic love the way Crowe does. (In a scene from Maguire, Dorothy Boyd says about Jerry Maguire, "I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost always is. I love him. I love him!!) Romantic montages take on a life of their own in a Crowe film. He is probably the only film-maker who really really REALLY believes in the redemptive power of rock music and romantic love. And the two may even be inter-related. We just might never know.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I just thought I'd do my version of the hottest story on the weekend: the dust-up between Jon Stewart and the hosts of CNN's crossfire. (For those who don't know yet, Stewart called Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson "partisian hacks" and then called Carlson a "dick").

The first thing about Stewart is that he's funny (intentionally, i think) even when he's being dead serious. His earnest "Why do you argue?" was hilarious. When he told Begala and Carlson to "Stop", I was in splits. And when he said "coz they're h-h-hurting us ..", I was almost rolling on the floor laughing. And of course, there was the way he pulled Carlson's leg about his bow-tie. ("How old're you?" "Thirty-five" "And you wear a *bowtie*!!!!") .

Whether Stewart had any business telling the hosts of Crossfire to stop "hurting America" when he himself runs a faux comedy news program is something I am still confused about. Yet the fact remains that his main strength is as a comic. And he is severe on politicians and "hacks" simply by being funny. What is sure though is that Tucker Carlson made an utter fool of himself on the show. Paul Begala wisely tried changing the subject. But realizing that Stewart meant business, he restricted himself to giving a half-hearted defence of his program. ("I think of it as debate.". Stewart retaliated by calling it "theater".) Carlson, on the other hand, tried taking the attack to the other side. But he ended up in the laughable position of comparing CrossFire to the Daily Show. The striking thing about Carlson was how querulous he managed to sound. He was angry - and showed it in the most childish way imaginable. (" Do you go to people's homes for dinner and lecture them like this? Man, I wouldn't like to have dinnner with you". "I'm sorry Jon, I think you're funny on your show, I just don't think you lecture very well". "You need to teach at journalism school, I think." To each of these remarks, Sttewart replied with unbelievable ripostes.). This may seem strange but Carlson reminds me somehow of that epitome of phallic male narcissism: Tom Cruise. What Carlson probably resented that day about Stewart was not his criticism of CrossFire but rather his own loss of face. That probably was the reason he took to the attack and came off worse in the bargain.

It also seemed to me that Carlson and Begala were a trifle condescending to Stewart, which must have probably incensed him more. (Carlson: Be funny. Please, please, be funny. Stewart: I'm not your monkey). I also disliked Carlson's in-your-face confrontational style ("Couldn't the Democrats find anyone better than Kerry? Was he *all* they could come up with?"). I thought that he was using this style to strike the jokes up a notch but apparently this is how he speaks. And now I know why Stewart called Crossfire pure "theater". This is no way to conduct a rational debate. Which is what we need today.

Postscript: Incidentally check out this page with Carlson's response to Stewart's criticism. Frankly, it bothers me that these hacks cannot even respond constructively to criticism. If journalists don't, then how on earth do we expect our politicians to act on the criticism they receive?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

I was just thinking today about how my list of favorite actors includes no male actors but only actresses. I mean, I love Ewan McGregor's work (plus he's cute too), I think he's not given credit for some of the amazing roles that he has done (and I don't mean the Star Wars trilogy). But there don't seem to be any male actors (besides McGregor) that I can recall at the moment whose work I really really admire in, say, the way I admire Julianne Moore's work. (And I've written about that in this blog as well). I think Sean Penn is over-rated, not because I dislike his work (I loved his turn in Dead Man Walking and I - almost - liked his turn in Mystic River) but because I think he's too ostentatious an actor; he eclipses the movie itself unless he's kept on a tight leash. Russell Crowe? Yes, but again he's too flashy. Anybody else?? Right at this moment, I can't think of any.

But my list of actresses goes on expanding. Julianne Moore, of course, is the best actress today, for my money. But I like both Cate Blanchette and Kate Winslet's work. And Kirsten Dunst is slowly but surely rising up my charts. Isn't it amazing that she's managed to be in two great movies this season? There was her solid supporting turn in Eternal Sunshine (the best movie so far this year) and there was her splendid turn as Mary Jane Watson in Spidey 2. In Crazy/Beautiful, which I saw recently, Dunst hits notes that exceed the movie itself. It's not that the movie is bad - it's a fairly conventional movie that tries to be a little different from all the others - but just a little. Some of the dialogue is just screamingly bad: in one scene, Dunst asks her father, "Why would you do that to me? Don't you think I am worth loving?". I am just amazed that dialogue such as this is even considered realistic. But Dunst all but carries it off. At the end of the movie, she even has a cringingly bad speech ("I know there is something beautiful in all my imperfections, the beauty which he held up for me to see") but she nails that too. And she manages to hit the right notes in Bring It On too - a nice little movie where I was able to look beyond all the short skirts and little blouses (for reasons you probably have guessed) and appreciate it. I saw her in Wimbledon recently where she's paired with the natty Paul Bettany. I don't know why but I am a sucker for the foppy-brit-meets-glossy-hard-American kind of movies and I liked the way Dunst portrayed a rising ambitious tennis star. Is at any wonder that she's the female lead in Cameron Crowe's next? Or that Sofia Coppola cast her in her upcoming biopic (or whatever) of Marie Antoniette? Man, this girl's going to go places. And she's just 22.!!!
In the utterly preposterous thriller The Forgotten, Julianne Moore (yes, the great Julianne Moore herself) plays a grieving mother who discovers that her child had never existed - or rather, that everyone else has forgotten he existed. Of course, she rebels and unearths a conspiracy of mind-boggling proportions with a fellow-sufferer called Ash (played by Dominic West). It is not an understatement to say that the movie is bad - it just plain sucks. And I'm not really talking about the leap of faith that the plot requires us to make. That, in itself, wouldn't matter. What thriller doesn't require you to make a leap of faith? What thriller doesn't have a token romantic storyline and campy dialogue?. But The Forgotten is just bad. It is as if the movie was made on auto-pilot. No one seems serious about it - not the director, not the screenwriter and definitely not the stars.

The movie has a lot of running around. But these scenes are desultory and the background score is uninspiring. There is no palpable sense of fear and the scenes of grief are contrived. Moore and West are supposed to have some kind of chemistry between them. The fact is: none exists. And the campy dialogue doesn't help either. This is a sloppily made, tired movie - a movie which could have been much better only if a little more thought had been spent on it. Worse still, the plot is non-existent. I mean, the most important question, why!!, is never answered except for some mumbo-jumbo about discovering the psychic, almost fleshy link between a mother and a child. Please. And why would someone want to know that? The denouement is so silly that its absurd. Moore's character calls the villain (who's supposed to be an alien or something) a son-of-a-bitch and - bam! - he vanishes because - and this is a scream - he needs more time apparently. More time for what? Will he be back? And who was he anyway and why was he doing all that? Sometimes, in the movies, some questions are better left unanswered but in the Forgotten, it seems as if the screenwriters forgot the plot as they were writing the chase scenes.

I wonder how Moore got hooked into this disaster. But perhaps that's easily explained. Moore's most famous roles have always been about suffering (safe, Far from Heaven, The End of the Affair, The Hours, even Boogie Nights, perhaps) that she inevitably jumps at the chance to expand her repertoire. Hence Evolution, The Big Lebowski, and Laws of Attraction. That's also probably why she agreed to star in Hannibal - a film I enjoyed very much - and managed to convey convincingly an older, more bitter Clarice Starling. Maybe someone came up to Moore and said - "Hey, I've got this great idea of a thriller of a mother who blah blah blah". Lets face it, the plot synopsis sounds good. The only thing is - the screenwriters lost interest while writing the screen-play, the director lost interest while shooting the horrible screen-play and the editor lost it because of the sheer yuck nature of the material he had. Moore probably lost her interest during the production itself. To her credit though, she manages to be impressively manic in two or three scenes (maybe less than that) but how can any actor, even one as great as Moore, overcome the flat tired material?

I know I am being unfair to Moore here and I love her work. She is not only an impressive actress but also an articulate one. The Hours DVD has commentary by Streep, Moore and Kidman on their respective scenes. Kidman, whose performance in the movie is its highlight, drove me nuts - as she went on and on about how great it was to work with a director like Stephen Daldry, how Virginia Woolf was an inspiration to her et al. I mean: Please!! Streep was hard too - not because she blathered on and on but because her commentary seemed vaguely contemptuous and condescending. Moore however was sublime, she was articulate in explaining her acting choices and it's obvious how much thought goes into her acting. Interestingly Moore described Streep as "formidable", a word I thought I understood particularly since I was also listening to Streep's commentary. By now, I have heard Moore's commentary on the End of the Affair DVD and her take on Safe and I am desperate to hear her on Far from Heaven too.

Friday, September 24, 2004

There are two faces in the utterly fascinating documentary Control Room that linger long after it is over. One is of Samir Khader, a producer for Al-Jazeera, a man who seems constantly to be smoking and who has the particularly pungent manner of a scheming Machiavelli. The other is of Lt Josh Rushing, a painfully earnest (and endearing) young American, who, by the end of the movie, promises that he will do more work in the future so that "the American public learns more about Palestine". In a way these two men, I think represent the two extremes.Rushing seems somehow to be trying to make sense of the world. Khader is frankly cynical, even manipulative, knows exactly what he thinks and why he thinks so but his cynicism also masks a certain kind of idealism - he wants his kids to study in the US and live there.

The film-makers try hard to be objective though its always very clear whose side they are on. But in a way, there are no sides in Control Room, just fundamentally irreconciliable points of view. Lt Rushing, in the most touching moment of the film, admits to the fact that he was disturbed by the gruesome footage showing dead American soldiers but not so much by the footage of dead Iraqis. He wonders why this was so - the slightly bewildered look on his face is something that I will not forget, more so, since questions like these confront most of us today. The other big moment in the film comes when Khader candidly admits that he would gladly exchange the "Arab nightmare for the American dream". Its a funny moment but theres never a doubt that the man means it. Theres another such "aha" moment when Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist, tells Rushing that Arabs connect every image of a foreign army in their capitals with the Isareli-Palestine conflict - something that Rushing (and me too) had never thought before. To me, nothing could be more distant than the war in Iraq and West Asia conflict.

I have stopped regular television consumption a long while ago (My TV viewing since 1996 has been fairly erratic) but Control Room reminded me more than anything else how television coverage had the immediacy that newspapers lack. War coverage, especially through newspapers, turns into statistics of casualties and wounded. Television makes the casualties real though I guess, they could never be as real to a viewer sitting and watching in the comfort of his living room as they are to people in them.

Sometimes the arguments in Control Room become farcical even as they are striking. Lt Rushing, in an argument with the journalist Hassan Ibrahim, says that the US spent more money on the precision bombs when hell, they might as well have bombed Iraq with the kind of bombing that happened to Germany and Japan in the twilight of WWII. And I thought: Does he think Iraqis appreciate that? But in a way, Lt Rushing has a point. Television coverage, has certainly helped make war more humane (or at least the appearance of being more humane). But the movie's strength is that it never lets you forget that war is a messy business.

I was not really convinced that the US actually bombed Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad - it seems like a really dumb and obvious thing to do, even if they needed Baghdad to be cleared of all journalists to stage-manage (??) the toppling of Saddam's statue. But the movie did make me appreciate Al Jazeera a little bit more (I've never watched the channel, actually but I didn't really think much of it before). To be an independent news channel in the Arab world - where democracy as such doesn't exist - and to cover the momentous events now unfolding there, is one hell of a task.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’ masterful tribute to Douglas Sirk could well have been called The Fall of Cathy Whittaker. When we first see Cathy, she is the perfect housewife, the perfect suburban mother, devoted to her children (though Haynes has some fun with Cathy and Frank’s attitude to their children), more than attentive to her husband, and planning her annual party with her friend Eleanor (played by Patricia Clarkson in a pitch-perfect performance). At the end of the movie, as she stands looking forlornly at a departing train, she has no husband, no money and most importantly, no standing in the frosty narrow society that she lives in. As Cathy’s life unravels, Haynes, while maintaining the same visual style as that of a Sirkian melodrama, manages to bring to the surface all the subtext in Sirk’s films. It is the perfect deconstruction, cerebral, yet at the same time, heartbreakingly visceral.

The power of Far From Heaven lies in the fact that it works equally well, even when the viewer has no idea of who Sirk is. (me, for example). The characters talk in stilted, frustrating euphemisms, never once spelling out what’s on their mind, yet Elmer Bernstein’s matchless score, which runs beneath nearly every scene is more than equal to the task of supplying the emotions that are running amok. Moore, who is in almost every scene, is brilliant. She works within the conventions of the tear-jerker but what she does with her role goes beyond melodrama. True to the times that the movie takes place in, Haynes doesn’t waste much sympathy on Quaid’s character, a closeted homosexual. Yet Frank’s agony and rage come through, especially in the scene where he breaks down and admits to his wife that he has fallen in love with another man. The movie’s most tenderly realized relationship is the one between Cathy and her black gardener (played by Dennis Haysbert). It is here that Moore’s finely realized performance is at its devastating best.

(How does Moore do it? She has now played three different variations of a suburban housewife; earlier in Haynes' Safe and the more recent The Hours, yet she manages to be different every time. Plus she's played a porn star in Boogie Nights, the devious Mrs. Cheveley in An Ideal Husband, a woman struggling with her faith and love in The End of the Affair and Yelena in Vanya on 42nd Street! And each one of them is amazingly done!)

Here is an interview that Moore and Haynes did with the Guardian. Also A.O. Scott's superb review of Far from Heaven in the New York times (my favorite Scott review!!) and Peter Bradshaw's review in the Guardian

Sunday, August 01, 2004

When he finished Rushmore, director Wes Anderson decided to show his movie to the redoubtable Pauline Kael, whom he apparently admired. When things didn't quite turn out as expected, (Kael had Parkinsons and was rather luke-warm about his film), Anderson wrote an article in the New York Times titled "My Private Screening with Pauline Kael". The text is not freely available on the Times' website but here is David Edelstein's rather sharp rejoinder to Anderson. (Incidentally, the article can be found as an introduction to the published version of the Rushmore screenplay.)

In his article, Anderson says that Kael told him that she "genuinely did not know what to make of the movie". Anderson, narcissist that he is, probably takes this to mean that there are people who just dont "get it". I agree with Kael though. I have no idea what to make of Rushmore. Or what Wes Anderson wants us to make of Rushmore. Yes, so he can create obnoxious - and I mean, really offensive - characters like Max Fisher. And yes, maybe Bill Murray can appear in a movie without appearing superior to it. But so what?

I could hardly stay awake through Rushmore, and most of the people I saw it with, couldn't either. After seeing the movie (or rather staying awake through it), I cannot believe that Bill Murray was even considered for an Oscar nomination for this performance. That this silly, pretentious, self-conscious, and smug movie is even considered to be a little gem.

Here is an interview with Wes Anderson published in Salon magazine.

Also a tribute to Pauline Kael that appeared in Salon.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

I just got back from the execrable "The Village" just now and I can safely say that M. Night Shyamalan has probably created his silliest plot twist ever. Which, I guess, was bound to happen some day or the other. How can a man create an entire story around a plot twist? Yet that is exactly what Shyamalan does. It helps, of course, that he is the master of the medium. There are a few scary sequences in "The Village" that are, well, exquisite. Its just that Shyamalan is never content to make just a good old-fashioned scare picture. He needs to put something else in there as well and as far as it goes, his pseudo-philosophy is just not as interesting as his direction. Take Signs, for instance. What could have been a standard alien-scare picture (and boy, was it scary!!) is instead some kind of fable for proving that God exists and whats more, that miracles are possible. To say that this is hokum isn't quite right but as David Edelstein has pointed out, a director utterly in control of his story and his characters is almost God.

In "The Village", Shyamalan tries to spin up a political allegory. It is never very clear when exactly the movie takes place but we do hear something at the end about combat casualties. The idea seems to be that creating a money-less insular society away from all "evil" might be the best way for us, considering the decadence we've fallen into. But Shyamalan, not surprisingly, (his movies are inevitably about ghosts and gods) injects religious overtones into the movie - the idea peddled is that the village is a holy place, full of love and innocence, a veritable paradise, in fact. Michael Agger has noted in Slate that Signs became a hit only when it was adopted by Christians as a movie about the power of faith. The same could work for The Village, despite that fact that God, in all of Shyamalan's movies, is a non-denominational entity.

There is nothing wrong with a film-maker working with different themes in a thriller. Hitchcock, on whom Shyamalan clearly models himself (the point-of-view shots, the total control over the camera and the music, even the cameo appearance), clearly grappled with love, obsession and desire, even though, on the surface his films are all routine thrillers. But Shyamalan's thinking is sloppy and his pseudo-religosity borders on the exploitative. Can an insular world - a closed ecosystem - really be that "holy"? This is an idea that seems to possess everyone - from woolly-headed Gandhians to even more woolly-headed globalization-protestors. Hell, before the British came to India and started their whole-scale exploitation, villages in India were mostly self-sufficient, closed-off ecosystems. But were they really such "ideal" societies? We see reports of atrocities and hate-crimes everyday and most of these take place in small towns and villages. An insular system is a sure recipe for stagnation - human progress comes from an inter-play of ideas and resources. But Shyamalan, of course, will have none of that. Instead, he combines his ideas with his religious fervor so well that such logical objections must necessarily be cast aside. It helps of course, that he does not have the mentality of a raving street-prophet, that his movies combine nerve-jangling sequences with a stately, glacial pace, qualities that could be easily mistaken for profundity.

Shyamalan's great talent is directing young actors with spooky looks in their eyes. Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense, Rory Culkin in Signs, and now Bryce Howard in The Village. I was impressed with Howard who makes her debut here. I loved Joaquin Phoenix's acting in Quills and although, his performance here is sub-par, the man still manages to be interesting. As for The Village, go see it for the scares - but please, Mr Shyamalan, lets stop all this pseudo-profundity.
Make no mistake about it, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart is an angry polemic. There is little poetry in it, or beauty or any of the things that we so admire in art these days. The play is an angry howl of rage, the rage of a man who fought the system and encountered systematic indifference, apathy, even outright hostility. Kramer's greatest achievement in the play is that he manages to walk the thin line that separates righteousness from self-righteousness.

Ned Weeks (who, I suppose, stands for Kramer himself) is an angry young man. He is strident, shrill, disagreeable and very very annoying. Kramer himself spent months creating a group that would help raising AIDS awareness. He was also fired from the same group he helped create before he wrote Normal Heart. The play is a damning indictment of everyone in power when the AIDS epidemic began. Like his earlier novel Faggots (which I haven't read yet) , it is also an indictment also of the gay subculture that has separated sexuality from the mind so completely that it was the easiest target for the HIV virus.

The Normal Heart recently had a revival in Chicago where it received a luke-warm reception. The NYT even carried a touching letter in response to their article on the play's closing.

Friday, July 30, 2004

I am having a hard time wrestling with my demons after seeing the Irish film "Cowboys and Angels" recently. It's not just the fact that people I watched it with found it "sweet" or "cute", who told me with frank bewilderment in their voice, "How could you *not* find it cute?". Was the movie an unabashed piece of populist film-making? Yes, most definitely. Is that bad? Again, definitely not. I've never been a big fan of far-left criticism (read The Village Voice) that casually dismisses movies that it considers even remotely populist.

But its more than that. Consider "Cowboys and Angels". It traffics in cliches. Like a sort of Irish version of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy", it has a queer guy and a straight one. Both room-mates. Of course. Of course, the straight guy gets a make-over courtesy the queer guy. There's the inevitable fag-hag who the straight guy has a crush on. There are a couple of gangsters who complicate matters. There's drugs and a little (just a little) bit of sex. And of course, there's the customary happy ending with the even more customary rites-of-passage. All of this, handled rightly, could definitely have made for a "cute" movie.

But Cowboy's problem is not the the cliches it peddles. It is the movie's fucking tepidness (or is it tepidity?). Its utter lack of dramatic intensity. The way it meanders in different directions but never - never - ever backs up its cuteness with emotions. Midway through the film, our hero reveals that he lost his father in an accident and had to give up his dreams of college. The scene is played with the customary weepy background score - but it amounts to nothing more than words. The actual import of what has happened is never conveyed - neither by the cute actor Michael Legge nor by the film-maker himself. The deep bond that develops between the room-mates by the end of the movie remains a screen-writer's device. It is not even remotely in evidence on the screen. And the movie's set-piece - a scene where the gay guy tries straight sex and a homo-thug goes down on the straight guy - is so contrived that I actually burst into laughter.

For a movie that calls itself gay - and markets itself as a plea for tolerance (blah!!) - there's a curious double standard on display here. Like NBC's Will & Grace, homosexuals are fine - hell, they 're even amusing - as long as they don't have sex. The movie's one moment when the gay guy is actually shown having sex - if it can be called sex, that is - is also it's biggest cheat, proving that in movies, characters are functions of plots.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Fernando Meirelle's City of God (or rather, Cidade de Dues, as my friend calls it - its so much more glamorous!) is filled with astonishing visual tricks.  The narrative is full of little digressions and detours yet the weave is astonishing.  The movie made the adrenaline literally sing in my veins, I got up around the room, I paced, I paused the movie when I wanted to savor a moment. It's like a well made MTV-video - the shot-composition is brilliant, the cuts and the fades are just right and the music - the music! - is one throbbing rave.  The movie pulses like a heart - a live heart. 

Yet for all its virtuoso techniques - and it is brilliant film, really! - the movie left me uneasy.  Now a film, that, for most parts is full of gun-toting kids, some of whom are barely five or six, would make anyone uneasy.  But its a little more complicated than that.  The movie made me uneasy because it wasn't uneasy enough about what was going on.  It's all there - the City of God was created to keep the poor away from the posh confines of Rio, the law is absent, only the fittest survive and children get inducted rather early into the cult of violence - but the movie uses all these elements as the raw materials in it's jazzy syntax to craft, what is ultimately, an action film.   There is no moral center in the city of God. 

Our protogonist is a photographer, a little like the director of the film himself.  Yet, his photography, and his camera, to him, are little more than instruments of escape - of escape from the City of God itself.  He - and consequently, the movie and the viewer - learn nothing from what is happening around them.  The startling thing about the movie is that the rites-of-passage it promises at the beginning never really happens, instead our hero remains stuck in his limbo - he may appear to have climbed out of it but he's stuck nevertheless. 

I hate to sound like a puritan nag here.  I've never felt that movies needed a moral to be good - particularly if the moral was one of those old out-dated cringe-worth cliches that we often pass off as morals.  The exhilirating movies of Quentin Tarrantino, for example rarely offer any morals, as such.  Critics of Tarrantino have criticized the nihilism of Kill Bill, with it's fetishistic violence.  (Interestingly the same critics would never say the same of the sadomasochistic violence in The Passion of the Christ).  But Tarrantino's movies take place in their own parallel world and in that specific world - he imbues his films with feeling and even, may I say it, with honor.  City of God, on the other hand, uses it's realism in a way that borders on the exploitative - it's been adapted from a book which took the author 8 years to write and which is based on his own experiences in the City of God. 

It's a great movie - just not that great!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The gay romantic comedy is a strange hybrid. Dennis Lim , writing in the Village Voice, says that Bumping Heads, a short in the Boys Life 4 anotholgy is "stupendously inept", a "blabbering concussed cringefest of unrequited lust". Lim, like his colleague Michael Atkinson, is guilty of overkill. Dave Kehr, writing in the New York Times, says that gay indies havce become "much less overtly political" and "tend towards naturalistic comedy and drama, trading slogans for complex emotions.".

I have nothing against Bumping Heads which I found slight and pleasing. It belongs to that genre of indie romantic comedies, which adopt multiple-points-of-view narrative, overlapping voiceovers and intersecting flashbacks to jazz up a light romantic story-line. What I object to is that this short is placed in a gay shorts anthology even though, it has really nothing to do with the experience of being gay.

The same goes for "This Car Up", an annoyingly pretentious story that claims to be about serendipity and fate when it is really nothing much more than a series of meet-cutes lifted straight from the movies. Again this one is buoyed up by its fancy syntax: four split screens, two to map out its protagonists and two that act as their thought-bubbles.

The other two shorts can at least claim to be "gay". O Beautiful which is again filmed mostly in split-screens (suprisingly well, I must say) is about the aftermath of a hate crime. The premise and the movie's ambition and it's fearlessness to venture into melodrama are it's strengths. Its actors' tics and mannerisms are it's liabilities, as well as its inability to make the melodrama really affecting.

The worst film in the anthology is LTR, a preening, elbow-digging pseudo-documentary. I suppose Philip Bartell thinks that filming a mock documentary on two twinks who rhapsodize about love committment rings is insightful. Well, it's not. This is the kind of movie that tries to make itself good by making its viewers feel superior to the protagonists. Forget about insight, it's not even remotely funny, except when the documentary-maker ends up having a fling with one of the guys he's filming.

Is it a sign of progress and amalgamation that indie gay cinema is leaning more towards light romance rather than "serious" examination of gay issues? Not really. It'd be a sign of acceptance if gay romantic comedies found a place in romantic comedy anothologies, rather than gay anthologies. This is clearly not the case. Gay romantic comedies are clearly marketed towards gay audiences. The need of the hour is to take the gay out of the romance.

The star of Quills far from being Geoffrey Rush is Joaquin Phoenix. As the Abbe Coulmier, he is the anachronistic good-hearted liberal, a man of faith who tries to solve all his problems by compassion. He is deceived repeatedly, by the Marquis, and even by the inmates of the lunatic asylum he runs, but he retains his kindness. Being kind is probably the only way he has of retaining his sanity, but the film implies that this probably might also have been the reason for his undoing.

consider this scene where the the Abbe realizes that the Marquis has been publishing his pornographic books behind his back. He storms into the Marquis's cell with a copy of Justine, but is sidetracked when the Marquis asks him if he has read the book. Phoenix's voice almost breaks with indignation. "Its not even a proper novel. ....Frankly it even fails as an excercise in craft. The characters are wooden. The dialogue is inane. And not to mention the endless repetition of words like ...(pause) nipple and pikestaff". I found Phoenix's performance breathtaking; the battle between lust, love, duty and innate kindness plays out on his face on a near operatic-scale. I'd never have thought that the lugubrious Phoenix and the winsome Kate Winslet would make a heart-breaking couple but they do. Winslet is amazing (as always). So is Rush.

It is the character of the villain, played by Michael Caine, that ultimately trips Quills up. The man is a monster, with no redeeming qualities about him. He sodomizes his wife, a child of sixteen, presumably because that way, she retains her virginity. He practises torture ruthlessly, and for all practical purposes derives a kind of sexual pleasure from it. He condones murder, kills people, drives them insane. He is probably the embodiment of the AntiChrist (and I use that word only because the film uses it once) that probably the Marquis thought he himself was. But the man is frankly, not believable. And in directing all the source of evil to this one person (what about the Marquis himself? He wasn't a saint now, was he?), the movie reduces its own complexity.

But beyond a doubt, the film is a masterful piece of work. It is sumptuous in its look and feel even when its second half is filled with blood, death and torture. It even tries, by its own standards, to show the other side. The conservative argument against pornography is that it gives people "ideas". A key plot development in Quills rests on an inmate, who wants to try out the things he hears in the Marquis's work. The puritan right can no doubt use this plot-point in the movie to justify it's stand on pornography or any "deviant" sexual act. But the Marquis was not a man who only dealt in normal kinky sex between consensual adults. As so many commentators on this film have pointed out, he was an aristocrat who believed that his position gave him (and others like him) a license to kill (and torture, and mutilate) for pleasure and sexual gratification. What should our reaction be to his work now? The cannibal case in Germany has shown that kinky sexual acts must be constrained; S&M torture has to be within boundaries, if it involves taking human lives, however consensual. The question: Can the Marquis de Saade be our hero in opposing the puritan right? The movie's answer is an emphatic yes; but since it softens the Marquis considerably, by turning him into nothing more than a witty kinky indomitably scoundrel, I don't quite agree.

Friday, June 18, 2004

John Sayle's Lone Star is a quiet contemplative well-crafted film, but what distinguishes it from it's competitors is it's texture. In a space of two odd hours, Sayles manages to create a series of rich sketches involving more than 10 characters. On the surface, of course, it seems like a crime-thriller when the discovery of an old skeleton prompts the local sheriff (Chris Cooper, brilliant!!!) to launch an investigation. The investigation is more of an excuse for Sayles to examine a small Texas town in all its contradictions. I have never seen a movie with so many characters, each of whom is so strongly written. The movie does however have a final "twist", but its not the one I'd been expecting. The delicate, yet stunning end, is the movie's tour de force. A great movie!!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Is a satire successful if it never reveals its true nature? Or a colossal failure?

Robrt L Pela, in his review of What the #$*! do we know?, compares it to the faux documentaries of Christopher Guest. This is cavalier treatment of Guest, all of whose movies from Waiting for Guffman and the more recent, A Mighty Wind, are extremely funny and a treat to watch. Aside from the Polish Wedding sequence, What the #$*! is greyly unfunny, endlessly repetitive and in the final analysis, tedious. In his review, Pela mentions "those humorless movies that soft-pedal science to those of us who wouldn't know the nucleus of an atom if it entered us from behind". This one however makes no attempt to even soft-pedal science. Sure, we get a lot of talk about quantum mechanics, but there is never an attempt to explain it, howsoever rudimentarily. No Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, no dual nature of matter. Maybe, it is "too wacko to be what it claims to be: a semi-serious documentary", but it is never really wacky either.

Despite what Pela says, I don't think that movie is intended as a spoof. The behavior of its talking heads - who perhaps think that the best way to hammer a concept into our heads is by sheer mind-numbing repetition - indicates otherwise. But on its own terms - that is, as a semi-serious docudrama - it is even worse. It starts off with a gratuitous extrapolation of quantum mechanics, which is applied in a seemingly arbitrary manner to all manner of things from the nature of reality to the presence of free-will. The metaphysical mumbo-jumbo used borders on cant. Then, we veer off into neuro-chemistry - emotions are compared to addictions – and then suddenly, the talk turns to the nature of God. But it's only in its tedious final quarter that the movie reveals its true colors. All of the talk - quantum theory, neuro-chemistry, and even the dubious meta-physics - is in support of that standard staple of self-help hacks - - "I am what I think I am".

Concurrent to all this is the fictional narrative of a young deaf-mute recently-divorced woman whose conception of reality changes. A smirking young boy asks her "How far down the rabbit-hole do you want to go?” And later on she stumbles on to a woman who talks about how the power of words changed the shape of water molecules. The movie asks us to imagine what we could do to ourselves if we only thought right. At the end, our protagonist has dutifully started loving herself and becomes a more satisfied person (or so the movie would like us to believe). This straight-for-TV story is interesting only because of some delightfully funny animated sequences - sequences, I must say, that are strangely incongruent with the rest of the movie.

Is Pela spoofing himself when he recommends the movie as “fine family entertainment”? I have never been less entertained in my life. The movie peddles bad science – and what’s more, its bad film-making too. This is a self-help book/movie masquerading as a scientific documentary-parable. Instead of wacko insights, we get repetition. Instead of soft-pedaling science, we get pseudo-scientific rubbish.

I just wish that the film-makers had made an all-out faux documentary instead. Their animated sequences cackle with energy and a few times, even had me convulsed with laughter. But finally, I hope to God that the movie was intended as a spoof, even if an unsuccessful one. Because otherwise, it becomes not just a bad film, but instead criminally bad film-making that ultimately endorses bad science.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

West Side Story would probably have been a much much better movie had it been a dance-musical without dialogue. Alas, the movie does have have characters that talk and one cringes to hear them sometimes. When Natalie Wood makes her climatic speech over her dead lover's body "All this happened because of HATE", the more cynical among film viewers might burst into laughter, while the more restrained ones (I count myself among them) would merely squirm in their seats and wait for the scene to end. It is said that the redoubtable Pauline Kael called Wood "machine-tooled" and her character "so banal that she destroyed all thoughts of love." Typical Kael! Maybe its just the way the character is written. What, for example, can one say about Wood's character Maria, who at one point (when her lover has killed her brother), tells her lover, "Hold me! Tighter!!", and goes limp in his arms? Wimpy, I thought, as I watched the movie. Get a hold on yourself, girl.

Without those jarring dialgues though, the movie is marvellously choreographed by Jerome Robbins and has a fine score by Leonard Bernstein. The first set-piece begins with a stationary frame, continues into gorgeous overhead shots of Manhattan and then zooms right into a basketball court to introduce us to the Jets and the Sharks. The greatest compliment comes from Roger Ebert who says that if street gangs could dance, they'd have danced like the Jets and the Sharks. And they would, really. Robbins manages, by the sheer force of his dancers' moves, to bring out the arrogance, the power, and even the fights. (I've never seen anything like the Rumble which is a dance-fight scene.) The movie comes alive during the dances, in a way, that makes it seem even more dissapointing when it's characters start talking. The foot-tapping number America is easily the finest in the film and the dancing in Cool is simply breathtaking.

There is a performance in the movie that is brilliant, moving even, but it belongs to Rita Moreno, who plays Bernardo's girlfriend Anita. The scene were she almost gets raped by the Jets is the most harrowing scene in the film. (Even this has been choreographed as a dance.) Her dancing, her dialogue, even her singing carry the kind of conviction that no other actor is able to match, except while dancing.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Today I remembered Richard Goldstein's article in the Village Voice, where he had mentioned conservative columnists David Brooks and William Safire's volte face on the issue of gay marriage. Since the op-ed pieces in the New York Times cannot be accessed after 7 days (that is, unless you want to shell out an absolutely incredible sum of money for an article - what do they base their prices on anyway?), I did some appropriate googling (God, what would we do without Google and the net?).

David Brooks article can be found here.. Safire, however is a slippery nut and it is hard to figure out exactly where he stands on the issue.

Brooks opens his piece with the line.
"Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations."
The equation of monogamy and marriage with morality is very common even today, despite the sexual revolution. And I don't find it strange that Brooks, staunch conservative that he is, is almost dogmatic on this point. However rather than monogamy being the moral thing to do, I prefer to think that most people opt for a monogamous life, not because it saves their soul, but because, it satisfies, in some way or the other, their human desires. Brooks is essentially condemning people, who would prefer living an alternative life-style, of say, promiscuity. I don't know whether I should be pleased that Brooks is supporting gay marriage or angry about his reasons. ("sanctifying love with marriage and fidelity", "sacred relations"). There are points when the writer does hit home though. Like Francis Fukayama in his The End of History, Brooks is clear that it is the idea that marriage is a contract - a social contract, maybe, but a contract nevertheless - is the reason why so many marriages end in divorce these days.

The idea of morality must not be confused with a person's sexual ethics. There is something ridiculous in the idea that a man in a monogamous relationship is moral simply because he has sex with only one person. Even more ridiculous is the idea of classifying acts as moral or immoral. This is at best, an oversimplification, at worst, clear distortion.

I read Tony Hendra's wonderful book Father Joe - The man who saved my soul recently. When young Tony commits the "sin" of adultery with an older married woman, Father Joe tells him that his sin was not one of fornication but of selfishness, of subjecting an unhappy woman to his own needs. Hendra writes simply but the book moved me absurdly. It illustrates perfectly how, by judging human beings based on their sexual habits, one ignores the context behind those laws completely. It takes Father Joe, a monk whom Hendra unabashedly calls a saint, to show us that.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Something's Gotta Give

To get a few things out of the way, Something's gotta give has the worst trailer I've ever seen, rivalling even Moulin Rouge. And while, claiming to be a film about an older woman, it unintentionally ends up endorsing views that are, uh, contrary to its intentions. (I guess we probably have to wait till Roger Mitchell's The Mother is released) Lets just say that it tells me that most post-menopausal women in their fifties better stick to someone their own age (or older, for that matter) rather than going for younger handsome hunky doctors (Keanu Reeves gives a performance that I can only call delicious). And oh, you really don't stand much chance unless you look like Diane Keaton (who gives new dimensions to the word gorgeous). And that wierd title!!! Couldn't they even think of anything else?

I wasn't thinking of these things when I actually did see the movie though. The movie is pat, predictable, filled with romantic musical montages, but I enjoyed it. Writer-director Nancy Meyers gives her actors dialogue that has a sitcommy feeling, but you end up liking it just the same. After a customary meta-session, where both characters (Keaton and Nicholson) recite each other's biographies, Keaton says "The truth is, it all goes by real fast, doesn't it?". He replies, "Yeah, in the blink of an eye.". I wonder if Keaton and Nicholson were thinking about themselves when they said it but whatever may be the case, the moment strikes a poignant chord. And then there is an oddly hilarious post-coitus scene, where both of them start sobbing. The crying is played for laughs, but its oddly touching.

Nicholson and Keaton are unparalled comic actors. And, without sounding too pompous, the best comic acting is one where the dialogue is played for laughs but the underlying sadness comes out. I've never seen Nicholson give a sweeter performance and as for Keaton, the best thing to say is that she is the indisputable star of the movie, that was essentially designed to show her off.

After their parting, Harry hears about a play that Erica has written that is ostensibly about their own relationship. And they have a wry understated conversation.

she: what did we have? i'd like to know......
he: can i email it to you when i figure it out?

she: you worry about me?
he: yes, honey, the schmuck, who deserves to *die*, worries about u
she: doll, i'm doing you dont have to....

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Syntax, Setup and Revelation: The problem of syntax in movies

I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 grams on it's release last year. To say that it is not an interesting movie would be insane. The movie is an impeccably crafted piece of work but it doesn't quite work. Inarritu's previous feature, Amores Perros, had a similar plot (an accident that links three different people), a somewhat similar structure but it worked, in a way that 21 grams does not. Probably because even if conceived as an essay on chance, fate and love, it has a gritty realism and some brilliant acting (particularly Gael Garcia Bernal, whose feverishly intense face is the high-point of the movie). The acting in 21 grams is right up there; even Sean Penn manages not to overwhelm the movie. But it ultimately fails because its structure overwhelms its themes. The movie's avowed purpose may be the exploration of grief but its lurchy narrative anesthetizes it's audience.

The other problem is that the film seems to be building up to a kind of cosmic revelation (although one can see it coming a mile off) and the revelation cheapens the movie's themes. It was the same with Atom Egoyan's Exotica which has a similar structure but a little more polish.

There is a problem here. Movies like 21 grams use their plot/themes as a launching pad for their fancy syntax rather than the other way around. Would 21 grams, for instance, be the same film if it was narrated linearly instead of it's current random structure? It would and probably be all the better for it. But then it would then not build up to it's grand revelation. What about Exotica? Now, of course, things change. Exotica may be much more polished in it's non-linear narrative but once it reaches its climax, the movie is strangely empty. Exotica hooks its viewers because of its syntax and the surpise-elements, which makes 21 grams a slightly better movie.

Anthony Minghella's gorgeous The English Patient and Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter are, to my mind, the only two movies that manage to blend their syntax seamlessly with their set-up. Both however are based on novels that are classic non-linear narratives. Michael Ondaatje's novel slips from flashback to flashback while Russell Banks' The Sweet hereafter is a striking point-of-view narrative.

(To be cont'd)

Friday, June 04, 2004

Is there an actor more beautiful than Ewan McGregor? And what a pity that his wonderfully expressive face is not put to more use. McGregor was brilliant as the naive protagonist of Moulin Rouge and Big Fish, two flawed movies for which he doesn't get enough credit despite the freshness and vitality of his performances (and that voice!!!!!!). Yet he can be terrifyingly feral like he was in TrainSpotting, Velvet Goldmine and now Young Adam.

David McKenzie's taut low-key film stars McGregor as Joe, who works for for a bargeman, Les, played by Peter Mullan. The movie is unflinching in it's protrayal of barge life, dark, uncomfortable and mind-numbing. To relieve his boredom, Joe indulges in mindless bouts of fucking and there is something disturbing about the way Joe eyes Les's wife, Ella, played by Tilda Swinton. Their relationship and the discovery of a body in the barge of a woman named Kathy, with whom Joe apparently had another sexual fling, is the crux of this rivetting movie.

McGregor, Mullan and Swinton are amazing. I find it unbelievable the amount of dedication that Swinton brings to her roles. As Ella, she brings a kind of feverish intensity to the sex scenes, which are stark, dank and rough. McGregor gets to project a kind of sinister narcissism that he hasn't displayed since Velvet Goldmine and his performance only goes to show that he's the most under-rated actors today. Not to mention the most beautiful!

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Imagine my horror when I stumbled across a blog supposedly by Google creators Larry and Sergey. It is titled Page and Brin's Blog If Page and Brin did write something like this, what a sensation that would cause. It would almost be like...... the height of hubris. But relief!! - it all turned out to be a parody.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Romantic comedies don't really get much better than Bounce (2000), Don Roos' comparatively main-stream, yet extremely satisfying follow-up to his scintillating The Opposite of Sex. Working strictly within the rules of the genre, Bounce could be a text-book study for the writers of all the tedious romantic comedies out there on how a movie can be predictable yet endearing. That it has two good-looking stars in the lead doesn't hurt it either.

Paltrow steals the show in Bounce. Her acting is mannered and sometimes has a sitcom-like feel to it, but it's a marvellous performance right up there with Shallow Hal, Shakespeare in Love and possibly Sylvia (which I haven't seen yet. I was surprised how restrained Ben Affleck managed to be in the movie. This is his best performance, definitely. The real star of Bounce is however Roos, whose dialogue, while sometimes (but very rarely) glib, is brilliant. I am waiting for his next movie, called Happy Endings.

Oh and for those who watch Bounce on DVD, stay away from the second disc. In The commentary (Roos, Paltrow and Affleck talking about certain scenes), Roos reveals that the dialogue about "No arguments" was ad-libbed by Paltrow but Ben, frankly, sounds drunk. And when Gwen and Ben (yikes!) mention that the fact that they went out helped their performance in the movie, all you want to do is hurl the DVD out of the window.

Monday, May 31, 2004

I fell in love with ABBA songs again after seeing P. J. Hogan's Muriel's Wedding. ABBA, the Swedish group, incidentally was the first whose pop music I bought (and liked). Later of course, it faded and was replaced by the more 'serious' and angst-ridden songs of Pink Floyd and Nirvana. Sscored almost incessantly - and endearingly - to ABBA songs, Muriel's Wedding leaves you humming ABBA again. Muriel and her friend Rhonda do an amazing lip-sync of Waterloo in a talent contest and later hum Fernando looking at the clear starlit sky; Muriel tries on various wedding gowns to the tune of Dancing Queen; and even Muriel's wedding starts with her walking the aisle to the strains of I do, I do.

The movie itself though is a sometimes unsettling combination of pathos, humor and striking cruelty. It is ruthless in it's caricature of characters. Muriel herself is the kind of character you would find in other movies as the hero's dotty fiancee or as the comic prop. Here, however, she's the heroine, portrayed by the astonishing Toni Collette. Collette's portrayal of Muriel is fearless, and it is her fearlessness that lends poignancy to what is essentially a rites-of-passage story.

The movie does not really walk the thin line between parody and misery. Instead director Hogan, who also wrote the screenplay, leaps straight into cruelty. He is merciless to his small-town characters who are all portrayed as mean-minded and mind-numbingly shallow. Hogan never redeems his characters, especially that of Muriel's father, played by Bill Hunter. It's hard to figure out sometimes who is being more cruel: the director to his characters or the characters to each other. But this same hard-headedness makes Muriel's Wedding a movie of substance, unlike say movies like Miss Congeniality, which start by satirizing the beauty-queen culture but ultimately are too gormless to go all the way and end up endorsing it instead.

There are two other female characters. Rachel Griffiths is the free-spirited Rhonda who saves Muriel from her town and her family. In a portrayal that could have gone either way, into gruesome satire or fake pathos, Jeanie Drynan correctly underplays the role of Betty, Muriel's mother, who essentially precipitates the final crisis, that brings Muriel to a better understanding of herself. Now characters have always been functions of plot in movies but Hogan, in self-circular way acknowledges that. In a dialogue of astonishing cruelty, that had me literally squirming, a character calls Betty's death the "ultimate sacrifice for her husband" and says that "betty would have been happy that her life had not been in vain". (Dialogue not accurate).

The equation of marriage with happiness afflicts all the female characters in this movie. The movie's unconventional final act ends not with marriage but with a renewal of a life-affirming friendship. Is Muriel's Wedding an unacknowledged lesbian love story? Maybe. Maybe not. It is however, the best female buddy-movie I have seen!!!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

I must say that I've had to eat humble-pie over my previous views on Angels in America. Yet something does seem to have come out of it. It somehow brought home to me forcefully what the main difference between a play and a movie was.

I saw the first part of HBO's production of Angels without having quite any idea of what it was about. At three hours, Millennium Approaches, seemed to me to be over-long and pretentious. Here is what I wrote on it then.

"Angels starts off magnificently in its first hour (titled 'The Millenium approaches'), flags significantly in the second, even more in the third and then in its final fifteen minutes, soars significantly. The ending of the first part makes it imperative to watch the three-hour second one since there seem to be some really important plot developments in store.

Its all a bit too pretentious for its own good, there are all the cliched characters, the gay man dying of AIDS, his self-pitying lover (Ben Shenkman at his whiny best), the self-righteous closetted, conflicted married homosexual Mormon (Patrick Wilson, impossibly earnest and just about passing muster) and his wife (Mary Louise Parker, simply amazing!!!), who hallucinate frequently and have conversations that are elaborately stagey but ultimately lack any kind of dramatic intensity. Surrounding all of them are some really seasoned actors: Al Pacino (who rants with his usual energy), Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. There are times when Angels soars, the highpoint for me being, one particular sequence in which the hallucinations of the wife and the dying man intersect. The result is a brilliant scene and Parker, as the pill-popping wife, is particularly luminous and funny, yet at the same time weighed down by sadness. It all goes steadily downhill after that. There seems to be no particular reason for having seasoned actors like Streep and Thompson play multiple roles except as a gimmick and also perhaps to boost the actors' vanity (You have to give it to Streep; the lady is faultless with accents).

It is to Nichols credit that Angels ends with a bang. The lives of the characters have now been firmly established and it is interesting to see where exactly the movie is heading towards....

Lets see how the second part holds up......

There it is, right in those words - thoughts which since then I have disowned. "Stagey conversations", "cliched characters" - the fact is - Angels is and will always be a play. I finished reading the play recently (or two plays, if you think of them that way) and I must say - though Kushner would probably object to the word - that it is a revelation. Kushner concentrates above all on his ideas - and everything, including his characters is subordinated. Yet the play is remarkably resonant in it's themes and I, for one, was caught up in it even as I read it. I just wish I had been born a few years earlier to actually watch the play as it was performed. Well, someday!!

Why does the movie not work? I have some ideas. The play is filled with split-scenes which it must have been hard for Nichols to film. And inter-cutting between the conflicts just does not have the same effect as over-lapping dialogue rendered on stage. And the stage!! - which, from some photographs I looked at - is threadbare , with the minimal of props, yet Nichols fills the movie with scenery and ostentatious sets. Above all, there is the fundamental difference beween films and theater. Movies are about plots and characters, the probing camera is capable of seeing much more than the stage can, yet films thrive on a passive viewer. Theater, on the other hand, is gloriously real, much more interactive and above all, it is about the grand inter-play of thoughts and ideas through characters.

Here is an article in Slate on Angels.
The Lector Effect - HBO's new Angels in America gets Kushner wrong. By Dale�Peck

Also A. O. Scott's on-the-dot critique of Angels that he wrote in Slate's annual movie club. (You may have to search a bit, I'm afraid)

But more on this later. :)

Monday, May 17, 2004

Here is David Edelstein's review of Lars Von Trier's crazy parable Dogville
Welcome to the Dollhouse - Lars von Trier's inhuman Dogville. By David Edelstein

After watching the stupendous Breaking the Waves and the wretched Dancer in the Dark, I reached a conclusion about the maverick Lars Von Trier. His movies are not art or even entertainment but cold calculated experiments using the audience as a guienea-pig. Both Breaking the Waves and Dancer were designed to see if an audience could be roused to emotion based on a story that was not only blatantly manipulative not to mention implausible but also astonishingly sadistic. Emily Watson's brave performance in Waves somehow managed to side-step the sadism and the movie, even today, is moving. Von Trier went too far in Dancer in the Dark, which had me closing my eyes with dread with every step that Bjork's Selma took but which also had me hating the director for his sneering sadism. His latest movie Dogville however is different.

While both Waves and Dancer seemed calculated to rouse emotions, Von Trier goes out of his way to drain Dogville of anything even remotely in the vicinity of emotion. For a start, the movie takes place on a huge sound-stage with a minimum of props (the actors even mime the opening and closing of doors, the houses are marked with chalk). However the most important step is that all the characters here, even the heroine herself, are reduced to types, who exist merely to move the story to it's (il)logical conclusion. Now this is Tony Kushner territory, where everything is subsumed to ideology and the characters merely function as cogs in the intellectual machinery. Yet Kushner's plays are so thought-provoking that his characters manage to stand out by themselves. Von Trier, on the other hand, has nothing to offer but his misanthropy which somehow makes Dogville engrossing yet strangely empty. The casting of Nicole Kidman as the protagonist Grace is another case in point. Kidman is a great actress but what probably makes her perfect for the movie (and probably the main reason why she was cast) is how distanced she manages to be from the happenings around her. In the film's latter half, Grace becomes the focal point for all the men in Dogville who start using her for their sexual gratification. Yet even when she is undergoing the most horrible humiliations (which include a dog-collar around her neck), Kidman's Grace never looks less than elegant. This is the final step, that effectively sterilizes the movie and anesthetizes the audience. Don't expect to shed any tears during Dogville.

Yet with Von Trier, one never really knows. I would have called Dogville a hateful movie if I had even the remotest inkling whether the movie is a genuine statement of Von Trier's own feelings. Yet I also had the feeling as I was watching the movie that it was all another one of Von Trier's ghastly joke. I even imagined the director smirking in private over all the hyper-ventilating critics who found his anti-Americanism offensive. (And it would be, if only one knew whether the man was serious!). Dogville, I concluded, is another experiment: to see whether a movie, drained of all emotions could still manage to arouse feelings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Slate's David Edelstein calls Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the best movie he's seen in a decade. While that may be debatable, Sunshine is definitely one of the best movies of this year. Charlie Kauffman's wondrous screenplay is romantic and literally cerebral, in that it takes place entirely inside it's protagonist's head.

Readers all over are divided on what Eternal is really about. On one hand, it's about second chances, on the other, about the inevitability of fate. (Joel and Clementine are fated to meet, just as Howard and his receptonist are doomed to their own unequal relationship). It's also about love, the way that things about loved ones that seem so lovable at first get so maddenning later. And then, more than anything else, the movie is about memories. As his memories of Clementine are being erased, Joel realizes how precious they are. (An interesting article in Slatetalks about the neurophysical aspect.)

The movie is absolutely rivetting, laceratingly funny in parts and sometimes (well, thrice, to be precise) heartbreakingly moving. In marvellously poignant moment, the last memory of Clementine that is erased is actually the first, the one where they met. Winslet and Carrey are breathtaking here; savoring their first meeting and their ultimate parting at the same time in the movie's beautiful tour de force. Amazing!!!

Friday, April 23, 2004

An actor called Steve Sandvoss is the saving grace of Latter Days (2003), an extremely mediocre film, written and directed by C. Jay Cox, who seems to have written the screenplay by simply by reaching out into a bag full of Hollywood cliches and randomly choosing one. The story is the ultimate gay fantasy, the party-boy who seduces the cute Mormon missionary and then falls in love with him. And the cliches: there's the standard 50 buck bet, a fag hag who also happens to be a hip African-American, the obligatory sex-scene followed by a string of heart-tugging after-bed talk - need I say more?That, in itself, wouldn't be so bad. A standard romantic comedy, gay or straight, must be based on fantasy. The infuriating thing about Latter Days is that it pretends to be something it's not - a movie about the travails of gay Mormons.

It's not a bad movie, really. Cox's jokes are good, even if it makes all the characters sound the same. And Jacqueline Bisset, Wesley Ramsey, and Rebekah Johnson give pleasing performances, even in roles that scream caricature. It is Sandvoss, however, as the missionary Aaron, who gives the film it's spine. As the confused Mormon, he plays a card-board character with such sweetness and grace that it's impossible not to be moved at times. Consider one such scene where he consoles the distraught Bisset (in one of the film's many highly improbable coincidences) who's just pulled the plug on her ailing boyfriend. He elevates lines lines that seem pulled straight from the pages of a Hallmark greeting card, to something sublime, even profound.

Part of the pleasure of watching the movie came from the audience which consisted mostly of gay men. Somehow this is a movie that cries out to be watched in such company. The jokes seem ten times funnier and the movie rises up a notch from ordinary to fun!!