Category Archives: Movies

The fast car experience

I remember the last time I screamed along with a revving engine. It was 5 years ago in Kerala, in a stripped down Maruti Esteem, and by stripped down, I mean the rally-car way. Factory fitted seats replaced with 2 Sparco bucket seats and 4 way seat-belts, a roll cage, a free-flow exhaust and all that you need to generate enough torque in a 30 metre run-in enough for a decent drift.

For those fifteen minutes, we felt every pebble that the tires crushed, and all of that ended in a smooth 360 degree stop. If I had had a driving license or a fair amount of experience behind the wheel, I may have had a chance at that car.

That short trip down memory lane was a result of watching the Fast Five at the theatre yesterday. The grunt of the GT40 would be wasted on you if you don’t have theatrical sound. Boy, that was the beginning of a parade of muscle and beauty. The only places where better choices could have been made were the monster SUVs which The Rock arrived with and the silvery sissy looking car standing beside Vin Diesel’s beast towards the end. The SUVs seemed ill-designed and bulked up to match Rock’s physique. The rest of the cars have my approval.

Fast five is years ahead of Tokyo Drift (the third of the sequel) in entertainment value. That said, do not fly to the theatre if you sniff a good story here. If that’s what you are after, the trailer is enough. To put it in short, this could be the work of a director who has a Michael Bay’s craziness for trashing good lookin’ cars (but has a much better idea of how to) and a fetish for the Tarantino-Rodriguez style of bringing things down with a machete. I sometimes wish director Justin Lin would rope in an intelligent script writer suggested by Chris Nolan and then continue stealing vaults the way he did this time. I would love him for it.

It’s a must-watch if you don’t have a fast car or a car at all. Those who do can learn to drive during the movie. The best way to rob a bank is to rip out its vaults:

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Lebanon (2009)

Lebanon (2009) is a claustrophobia-inducing tank movie. I stress on claustrophobia, cause once you see the sea of sunflowers and hear the wind gush through it at the beginning of the film, there are high chances that you would be more than just relieved to see it once more in the end.

The film is supposedly based on the true story of a four-member tank crew and a dozen soldiers on a short clean-up mission of a gutted town in Lebanon. Inside the tank are puddles, walls with oil dripping down them like rain on a glass window, gauges which dim as the engine draws the battery to come to life and an exhaust turned seemingly into the cabin. Sometimes the town does feel a lot better than the tank itself. We are soon made to realize that a tank is not merely a weapon but a living quarter for its crew too as we shrink back repulsively making connections with examples of scuzz around us. Our attention is brought back to the mission by the respect-demanding mission commander, Jamil (Zohar Shtrauss) , who is not as emotionless as he seems to be at first.

We follow Shmulik’s (Yoav Donat) observant gaze as he acclimatizes to his first day at his job and at war. Assi (Itay Tiran) portrays the struggling tank commander who finds himself explaining his decisions to the ever questioning Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), whose seniority also seems to be the source of Assi’s insecurity. Yigal (Michael Moshonov) plays the homesick tank driver.

Director Samuel Maoz portrays a clear picture of the tragedy of war, primarily with the help of Shmulik’s constant battle with his conscience over firing at human life, and his monoscopic survey of the gory scene after it. When his reluctance results in a casualty (called an “angel” in military code), the tank becomes a temporary hearse. As the petty mission becomes more dangerous, each encounter weighs down on the newcomers, empty ammunition boxes become urinals and the mind becomes numb from the jarring sound of the tank engine. The hydraulic whine of the turret moving with the gunsight adds the only sound to the haphazard movement outside. The “angel” is soon air-lifted with a rope tied around it and is replaced by a Syrian POW. Once in the tank with the lid closed, you see only what the crew see or hear. Being inside it  limits your senses to the extent that after a short span of less than two hours, when the tank finally breaks into a sunflower field, you realize that you had been taking shorter, quicker breaths all the while.

Samuel Maoz scripted Lebanon from his scarring experience of working as a gunner in the first of the Israeli tanks during the 1982 Lebanon war. Hence, it was criticized as a deterrent for young men to join the army and is yet to receive a wide release.The film won the Golden Lion in 2009 Venice Film Festival but received rejects from Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals.

Verdict: One of the few unbiased war movies around, that are anti-war. 7.5/10

Cell 211 (2009), a thought provoking riot

It all begins with a deafening silence which lasts through a long sequence of opening credits up until the lazy click of a cigarette lighter. What follows then is an ingenious work of making a sharp-edged weapon with a cigarette butt, a look of hopeless despair, and a slow suicide timed only by the sound of splatting drops of water. A simple reminder that “here” anything could be lethal, even a spoon.

Alberto Ammann plays Juan Oliver, the nervous, eager-to-impress guard being shown around the prison, each sight and sound of which seems to rattle him. The prison’s constant state of construction lands rubble on the new guard, rendering him unconscious. The guards carry Juan to cell number 211 which has been recently emptied even as Malamadre (a lifer played by Luis Tosar) manages to take a guard distracted by the accident hostage. The prison soon erupts into a riot.

The sequence of events – Juan getting injured, Malamadre taking a guard hostage – might have seemed staged and resulted in Cell 211 becoming another prison break story, but Juan’s visit is made to look voluntary and that saves it from the fall. As the guards assume defensive positions, Juan is left to fight the prisoners with his own wit as the entire block is cordoned off. From here, Juan plays the new prisoner who makes sound strategic decisions to keep his job and the situation under control.

Director Daniel Monzón uses the black and white muted video feed from the security cameras effectively to frame a judgmental point of view of the rioting prisoners. As you absorb the scene, a loud-colored camera feed hits you hard, flooding your senses with the scenes someone in the riot would have witnessed.

As Juan is left against hardened criminals to test his will to do what is right, the audience is tossed to and fro between the two points of view – that of a prisoner and that of the outside world (read: the cruel penal system). Monzón narrates the prison break in flashbacks, each one weakening in its impact as the prison scene spirals further out of control. Juan is clever at improvisation and a delight to watch. Not to say that the others give dismal performances, but they seem to have fallen off the main picture while Juan gets all the attention and Malamadre fights for it.

On the whole, the film is a thought-provoking thriller and deserves the eight Goyas (Spanish Oscars) it won.

(Malamadre, as seen in the poster above, resembles an imposing demonstrator standing against the riot police in a photograph by Danny Ghitis, during the run-up to the US presidential elections of 2008.

“Never Judge A Book By Its Movie”

So said JW Eagan- the quote was on one of my bookmarks from Crossword- and I agree wholeheartedly with it. A stack of DVDs isn’t on my “three things you’d take with you to a deserted island” list- I like cinema only in moderation, because it somehow seems to drain my reserves of patience (and I take the blame). But there is hardly anything as off-putting as a horrendous movie made out of a perfectly good book.

It is almost criminal to watch the movie adaptation of a book before having read the book itself. Reading is an impetus to the imagination, and it is the prose that is supposed to create the first impressions in your head-this is also the measure of how successful an author has been in impacting your thoughts. Succumb to all the hype of a movie before you’ve read the book it has been adapted from, you’ve almost surely lost the excitement of the richness of language and characterisation which drew such overwhelming images in a person’s mind that, incapable of suppression and containment, they spilled onto the screen. I floundered through the movie adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park and Rob Roy– finishing none of them- but ravenously devoured the books.

That said, there have been a few adaptations that have made a successful transition to the screen from paper. The eternal tearjerker Little Women was almost- certainly not entirely- loyal to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, but I’m thankful I read the book first; I wouldn’t have wanted Winona Ryder’s (then) rosy face interfering with my own picture of Jo March. Into The Wild was just as good in its sincerity, but I’m glad the first images of the forests, the wildernesses and the people Chris McCandless met were in my head- even though it was a real-life story. Middle Earth wouldn’t have been as mysterious and darkly beautiful if I’d seen the Lord of the Rings movies shot in the more homely (yes, I said it) locales of New Zealand first. Hobbits were JRR Tolkien’s own creation, not heavily made-up human beings.

The movies the actors choose to do later, and their real-life adventures splashed across newspapers also ruin it for me. I really don’t like to believe that the protagonist in the Twilight series (need I explain further?) was the thoughtful young woman who McCandless almost fell in love with. Ryder, troubled and accused of shoplifting, couldn’t have been the merry, still-tomboyish Mrs. Bhaer, could she?

Then there is the publicity. I would have enjoyed Ice Candy Man more if Deepa Mehta’s characters- omnipresent on television when 1947 Earth was released, thanks to relentless promotion- hadn’t superimposed themselves on the faces I was gradually painting in my head. My copy of Vanity Fair has a photograph of Reese Witherspoon and her corseted cleavage on it. Is she to form my idea of a character as vivacious and interesting as Becky? I think not, for I certainly trust Mr. Thackeray‘s capabilities better- I’ve covered the book in paper and shut out the names of the cast, the director and the costume designer. If the wise mothers and chaperones talk of sprigged muslin, I’ll figure out for myself what it is, thank you very much.

The day I decide to turn the awe-inspiring Mexican story The Power and The Glory into a movie, I’ll let you know. But you’ll be allowed to watch it only if you’ve already done Graham Greene the courtesy of reading the book. For in this case, it is extremely evident which one came first.

The Unknown

“The road has always led west.”

Journeys are always fascinating, aren’t they? More so when they’re undertaken without a plan and do not come burdened with the traditional tourist trappings?

Imagine a profusion of wild, open, untended spaces; skies that unroll expansively into infinity; acrimonious battles of dreams with norms- a journey into nothingness, at once frightening and reassuring.

Into The Wild is more than a book or a movie. It is a chronicle, the story of a young man who dared to flout the rules that people were setting themselves for incomprehensible reasons (and still do), about the journey he undertook without a materialistic motive. It requires a great amount of extraordinary courage to take off into the wildernesses- well might we talk about it, but would we really do it? Can we summon up the guts to cut up our plastic cards and burn up our paper money, throw away an inheritance and set out into the unknown, to rough it out where common comforts are unheard of and the only way to live is by going back to the lessons of our ancestors, the times before the wheel was invented? Imagine living in an abandoned bus and knowing your next meal will come only when you shrug off indolence and go out into the cold to hunt it down. Or leaving behind the people who’ve cared for you, the last shreds of gratitude and love shaken off with apathetic indifference.

Christopher McCandless did it. An extensive amount of reading- Tolstoy, London, Thoreau, Auden- shaped his principles, imparted to him his loathing of money and luxuries. With no specific routes in mind, he left home after graduation to journey into Alaska- the people he met on the way were his teachers, his friends, more understanding of his needs than the ‘society’ he had grown up in, of which he spoke with sneering contempt. The duplicity of his father’s life and his mother’s quiet resignation to it didn’t improve matters for him at home. The only person he could confide in was his younger sister, and to her he spoke of his dreams and frustration.

Jon Krakauer, in the book, charts the path that Chris McCandless- or Alex Supertramp, as he chooses to call himself- took over two years, teaching and being taught, ending up in the pristine wildernesses of Alaska. Emile Hirsch portrays the young adventurer in the film version- and for once, it doesn’t seem fair to compare the movie to the book, because both, in their own ways, are a tribute to the dauntlessness and faith of McCandless.

The imagery in the movie, the play of light and shadow, is haunting- McCandless trying to tame the rapids between the enclosing walls of canyons, running amok amidst the wild horses silhouetted against the sun, leaving his footsteps behind on fresh white sheets of snow as conifers close in on him, dipping his blood-stained hands that have just killed a moose in cold, foamy Alaskan waters. Eddie Vedder’s powerful vocals coupled with a haunting background score enhance the realism of every scene- his voice bounces off canyon walls and echoes through emptiness, redolent of raw, primitive cries of freedom and abandon.

Chris McCandless identifies with nature- his assumption of being an entity one with it and inseparable from it is almost palpable. He doesn’t crave a moment in the spotlight or a place in the record books. He sets out on his own because he wants to live, to get away from the dysfunctional family that is fettering him with its hopes. A short life well lived is worth much more than endless years of misery. An uncharacteristic error of judgement cost him his life just as he was beginning to gain cognizance of his desires and preparing for a return to the people he had abandoned; but he must have had the solace of an adventure lived out to completion. We won’t know if the haunted look in his parents’ eyes and his sister’s anguish kept him awake on lonely nights. There must be people who call his actions selfish and unreasonable- but who lays out the norms, after all, and why do we decide to obey them? When asked to find a job and make something of his life, McCandless denounced the idea, as he called careers a twentieth-century invention. One that we insist on believing in stubbornly, despite the dissatisfaction and hopelessness it engulfs us in.

Give a man his freedom. There is nothing less moral about a nudist colony than about the ‘civilized’ lust for power and money. Deep down, all of us crave the delight of pink sunsets and virgin landscapes. The fear of a judgemental society is what holds us back- McCandless stood up against it. He bruised egos and hurt emotions in the process- as every person does- but also found what he sought. He accepted advice and gave some back. He loved people for their kindness. Supertramp he wanted to become, and he did it with conviction.

RIP. 

Papillon (1973)

Papillon translated into English means ‘The Butterfly ‘. Watching it was exactly like watching a butterfly; it was slow and beautiful. Had it lasted any longer though, the characters portrayed would have died of old age.

The movie is based on Henri Charrière’s identically named novel where  he plays himself and is nicknamed ‘Papillon’. Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) has been convicted of  counterfeit and meets Henri ( Steve McQueen) who has been falsely implicated of murdering a pimp, on the boat to Devil’s Island where they are to live out their terms in captivity. Papillon offers Dega protection at the notorious prison island and in lieu wants Dega to finance his escape bid. This barter evolves into friendship, but this metamorphosis is very unclear and it has to be beaten into the viewer’s perspective with sudden acts of heroism in Charriere saving Dega’s life, which is very much in danger at the hands of the many people who had invested in the 1928 national security bonds, and those of the prisoners who are after the money Dega has hidden inside his body. And without Dega’s loud verbal realization the metamorphosis would have been invisible.

There are some aspects of the screenplay which seem very un-staged and draw the viewer into believe in its veracity. Sample this- a prisoner exhausted by the heat faints and falls on a brood of hens which leaves a hen maimed and floundering. Natural but painful screenplay for today’s animal lovers!

As McQueen ages in long years of solitary confinement and loses his charm, you start looking for supporting actors who could make his escape less tiring, where there are none to be found. And to negate the good effects of the screenplay, McQueen, or rather every actor, speaks fluent American English throughout. This made me doubt if French Guinea were actually French colonies or French named-colonies. One of McQueen’s escape attempts lands him into living the comfortable life of a tribesman for awhile, just because the tribal chief wants a tattoo similar to the one McQueen has on his own chest. Captured and back in the confines of the same prison, he plots his next bid.

There are so many failed attempts to escape in a decade of imprisonment that the brain (which has been put through a continuous flow of Charlie Wilson’s War, Seven Pounds and a lot of Family Guy) just wants McQueen to build himself a rocket and fly away to glory. A fatigued me finds sleep soon afterwards.

Julie & Julia(2009)

My dinner yesterday was – a plate of golgappa, a smooth glass of mango shake, a little fried chicken warmed to room temperature and a bag of potato chips. At times like these, I just wish I had a splendid kitchen and cookery skills to go with it.

Why?

A dinner catharsis follows.

For one, I hate it when I bite into sugar when I am expecting little mango islands in a seemingly smooth mango shake. A golgappa is a cute, small, hollow ball of finely milled wheat flour fried golden brown, which is deftly cracked with the thumb by the chat-walla to make room for a smaller ball of mashed-potatoes, peas, black chickpea. Before serving it, the golgappa is filled with the spiced water. As the thin fragile walls of the golgappa break against the walls of your mouth, you hear the soulful crunch and your taste buds bow in awe. But this was not to be. There was hardly any salt in the filler to speak of and the spicy water lacked the spice.

“Julie  & Julia” is a firm push in that direction. Towards my dream of a modern kitchen outfitted with stainless steel utensils and a BOSE sound system. And wooden flooring, maybe.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) plays a soon-to-be 30 yr old housewife who lives with her patient husband, answering questions about insurance of the 9/11 victims at the Lower Manhattan Development corporation’s call center by day. Together, the couple make just enough to live in a rented place above a pizzeria. The movie follows Julie as she goes through Julia Child’s cookbook – Mastering the Art of French Cooking, cooking 524 recipes in 365 days and blogging about it. As Julie progresses through the cookbook, a child-less Julia Child(Meryl Streep) turns her attention from boring bridge lessons to cooking.

We soon learn that Julia is a natural cook and that Paul Child (Stanley Stucci) has the patience of an ox on an Indian road, even when his wife in the most competitive of moods chops up mounds of onions leaving him ‘crying’ at the door. He doesn’t have it in him to leave the house as Eric Powell (Chris Messina) does, when Julia goes single mindedly after the challenge. Or maybe, Nora (Ephron, director), in her goodness, reduces the burden on the shoulders of a short man married to a taller woman.  Soon, Julia’s blog wins her the attention of an array of editors and journalists – hence, 65 voice messages and sex follow. Oh! no twists here, Eric had returned a little while back in the movie. I ponder over how a couple barely able to scrape through the month manages to buys those exquisite groceries, year long.
This is a family movie, not short on entertainment value slowed only by the eloquent French pronunciation (I blame Meryl Streep) and men who are single mindedly devoted to their wives.

Julia writes a book and gets her first published copy at the end of it. And so does Julie, who gets published and famous. Now that I’ve blogged too, do I get the kitchen with the wooden flooring and the Veneta Cucine modular cooking area?

P.S: Gracious reader, would you, if you could, throw in an industrious full-time cook as well?

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