Archive for November, 2005|Monthly archive page

Me and You and Everyone We Know

A highly decorated film, ‘Me and you and everyone we know’, should come with a warning. “Watching this movie can cause death by boredom or at the very least spoil a long week end, otherwise lovely in every aspect.” It’s one of those movies that make you go, ‘what were they thinking?’ ‘They’ is an all-purpose pronoun that stands in for numerous groups – producers, film festival juries, and newspaper critics.

After watching Garden State, I felt that my being a neither-here-nor-there immigre was to blame. Had I grown up in the US, I’d have found the movie as enjoyable as the rest of the audience in the theater did. With Miranda July’s movie, I don’t know what you have to be to enjoy the movie. It’s most distinguishing character is blandness. Everything, especially most lines spouted by the leading actors are told in a dead-pan tone. From time to time, the movie provokes sheer disgust, leaving you yearning for the blandness, which is then promptly delivered to you.

The premise is simple – girl meets boy, likes boy, boy having been burnt by recent relationship (literally, as you’ll find out if you watch this movie) is hesitant, but love conquers all in the end. You have a few sub-plots to keep the pace going – an old couple in love, some kids indulging in behavior that would be considered kinky in adults and is therefore nauseating in children, and of course, adults indulging in some kinky behavior of their own. I don’t know if you’re supposed to laugh at any or all of this – the New York Times called it a ‘romantic comedy’. I didn’t, I couldn’t.

Movies like this are Hollywood’s attempts at making “hatke” movies, an endeavor whose results are about as painful as the “hatke” movies from back home.

I’ve tried to think of what steps I can take to guard myself against lemons like this in future.
a) I could read more than one review. In this instance, the Times loved it, but the New Yorker did not. But I hate reading reviews till after I watch the movies, as most reviews make watching the actual movie rather pointless.
b) I could check with friends. Only most of my friends have more sense than I do, and steer clear of “Winner: Cannes, Winner: Sundance” label, to which I am drawn as moth to a light.
c) Watch trailers to judge for myself. But trailers are the most evil propaganda devices ever conceived. Am sure a trailer of this movie would have the 1.5 funny lines and the thimbleful of thought this movie provokes all condensed into a sexy, irresistible package, liberally smeared with quotes from every “serious” newspaper or magazine whose reviewers gave this movie a positive review

So, there’s not a thing I can do, really. I’ll just chalk it up to occupational hazard. ‘Me and you and everyone we know’ is the price you pay for getting to watch movies like Crash, or Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, other movies I got lucky with this year.

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All grown up

Thanksgiving week end over. Not a dime spent on stuff I do not need. I came very close to blowing $500 on a Toshiba laptop. Obviously, I don’t need a laptop. But ‘need’ and ‘bargain’ have not a single thing in common. Thankfully, my roomie talked me out of it, with vague mumbles about newer models that are apparently just round the corner, and that will be available for an equally great price. That didn’t really convince me, but combined with images of my usual & fail-proof reason to get through week ends (the old I-don’t-have-the-files-with-me-sorry-will-do-it-first-thing-Monday-morning) not working anymore just did it for me. I walked away with a tremulous smile, amazed at my own audacity. I did not even turn back to look at Circuit City or Best Buy or wherever we were confronted with that tempting deal. A slight variation of that old story about Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt applies to me – only I turn into a walking credit card bill.

When I confront a sale, I panic. It’s not that I so desperately need what am looking at (that happens only in Flora Fountain, where no pavement bookseller worth his salt can ever get me to bargain – the gleam of desperation in my eyes is just too easy to read. Believe me, some have actually tried, disappointed by my “OK, I’ll take it attitude” – apparently, the average pavement book seller likes to believe in “earning” a living). Not many people may ever need a low-pressure practice chamber that you use to train for a trip to the top of Mt. Everest, but heck, you may NEVER get it for $21.99. At that price, surely, it’s worth even climbing the damn peak. After all, it is as good as reason as “Because it was there.” Mine could be “Because I got a bargain on the equipment.”

Besides, if I don’t buy it now, I’ll surely regret it on my deathbed – as I watch images of my life, a compilation utterly lacking in pictures of conquering peaks of any sort. All because early in 2006, the prices of low-pressure practice chambers shot up to $115,000,000. I breathe my last, croaking out, “Why? Why? Why didn’t I buy it when the damn thing cost just $21.99?”

This Thanksgiving, I promised myself that I won’t give in. Such resolutions are par for the course. It wouldn’t be thanksgiving if I didn’t make such resolutions. But this year, I actually stuck to it. Hallelujah!

I feel so grown up. I am celebrating by making a grilled cheese sandwich with the new toaster that my roomie bought (hey, if I didn’t pay for it, I didn’t buy it. It is VITAL that you appreciate the definition of “purchase”). I’ll even cut off the nasty corners off the bread. Did I mention I was feeling all grown up?

Questioning stereotypes

In Die Hard, Bruce Willis made the ‘action hero’ a human being, a man who also aches as he bleeds. Over the years, the humanization project has been extended to cover superheroes, too. Spiderman hits a bad patch and is unable to swing across rooftops; Batman has yet to really recover from a childhood trauma; Harry Potter’s voice is cracking. Black and white cinema had evolved into all-gray, ‘am-in-touch-with-my-sensitive-side’ cinema.

At first, I enjoyed this tinge of reality in the fluffy yarns that Hollywood excels at spinning. As a macho cop, the hero battles a horde of baddies single-handedly. Unrealistic, but hey, we did warn you he was a ‘macho’ cop. But when this individual winced as he walked barefoot across a floor strewn with broken glass, it suddenly made him seem a shade less wooden, and that much more attractive. Invincible, but equipped with soft soles is apparently how we’ve come to like our heroes.

But soon, this seemingly endless gray started to tire me. I grew weary of having to feel sorry for everyone in the movie, having to root for everyone, from the hero down to the 4th side-kick on the bad side. Slowly, I increased the proportion of Cary Grant movies I watched, where the worst quality the hero can be accused of having is too much cheek. Bogie movies were good, too – while the hero was not as white as Grant, the villains were certainly pure evil. No one can ever accuse Renard or Kasper Gutman of possessing a single good quality. Even the side-kicks were uniformly and satisfyingly slimy.

After that trip around the world, we finally land in Los Angeles, where ‘Crash’ unfolds. This movie is all gray. But it is the most pleasing shade of gray I’ve seen in a very long time, perhaps ever. There are good cops and bad cops, good kids and mixed up kids, rich people who discriminate and are discriminated against, and the best part is that all these are often the same characters. No one is quite what he or she seems like.

The plot is too complicated and too simple to recount. The predominant theme of the movie, if you can narrow it down, is how misleading and also how true to type stereotypes can be. As you are faced with characters that repeatedly turn the tables on you, just when you think you have them pegged, you end up questioning your own beliefs about racism, about first impressions, about miracles, about sheer rotten luck. And frequently, you catch yourself chuckling, mostly at yourself, as the characters give vent to emotions the politically-correct-you keeps to yourself.

 

The cast is brilliant, and has everyone from Ludacris (yes, the rap / hip-hop star) and Ryan Phillippe to Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon (who plays the most counfounding character in the movie), most of them in roles I’d never thought I’d see them play. With its numerous sub plots and star-studded cast, this movie could have been so easily messed up. Instead, it can serve as a how-to manual for any ensemble tale.

Usually when Hollywood tries to appear real, it gives you a layer of good and a layer of bad, which mix about as well as oil and water do. In Crash, Paul Haggis has achieved the smoothest emulsion yet of goodness & evil. Crash is a brilliantly executed complex ensemble piece that interweaves tens of stories into a surprisingly cohesive and ultimately uplifting whole. Watch it.

 

‘Tis the season for togetherness

This last week, my friends and I have exchanged a flurry of emails about the new Potter movie. The strength of the email flood is a couple of degrees weaker than the one that followed the release of the 6th book. After all, this is just a movie. As book snobs, we place a greater value on the written word, as opposed to crude commercial entertainment for the masses. (Yes, we choose to turn off our disdain switches when it comes to crude written commercial entertainment for the masses.)

Someone watched the movie first, wrote a review, and sent it to everyone else. Reactions are still in progress. As for the one or two poor souls who haven’t watched the movie yet – tough luck, for the reviews were full of spoilers. As a group, we have been perverse enough to make sure that we copied every single crib mail (obviously, the movie is NOT as good as the book.) to ALL our friends, HP fans or not. Our reaction to the movie is predictable, given that it’s written into the group’s bylaws. (That was item #2 on the initiation oath – “we swear allegiance to the group and we swear to HATE every movie ever made from a book with a 0.001% margin of error (the bit about the margin of error was an amendment introduced a few years ago when older members were still reeling from LOTR – that good books AND great movies were not mutually exclusive was a revelation. Those 3 movies had the same effect as Copernicus’s pronouncement about the earth not being flat. It shook our basic beliefs in the meaning of life and everything else.))

Having gotten over that digression, let us return to the email list. As I said, we took great pains to copy the one or two misfits who care as much about Harry Potter as they do about, oh, the debate on Pluto’s being a planet or an interesting bit of fluff at the edge of our solar system, which is to say, zilch. Our insistence on getting them up to speed on the new movie stems from a number of reasons:
a) We still nurture wild hopes of getting them to see the light
b) We wish to impress them with our wondrous movie reviewing skills – how we can skillfully compare and contrast a given movie with any numbers of older movies that may or may not be related to the first movie
c) We wish to impress them with our photographic memory & how this superior skill allows us to remember every scene, every minor character, every insignificant subplot from the book that the movie being discussed is based upon, as well as any numbers of other books that may or may not be related to the first book
d) We wish to prove to ourselves and each other that we’re all really brilliant casting directors, who’re temporarily pushing time at our current jobs till we get discovered by Hollywood
e) We don’t want them to feel left out
f) We want them to feel left out

Items e and f contradict each other. Yes, I am aware of that. This contradiction forms the crux of any group, really.

People come together all the time, drawn by common interests. Formally and informally, I belong to several myself. Little, private clubs of movie-watchers, desi-food lovers, book-readers (there ever so many sub groups under this one – Wodehouse-lovers, Dostoevsky-haters, secret-Henry James-readers, open-M&B readers and very many more), holders of crushes on Gaël Garcia Bernal and Mikhail Baryshinov (yes, we believe that age is merely a number, when it comes to dashing men), haters of Hummers, lovers of New Yorker cartoons, disdainers of popular Indian movies, guilty watchers of The Commander in Chief, secret fans of Paris Hilton & Backstreet Boys, and well, you get the picture.

At first, I used to revel in the goodness of it all – a group of like minded people getting together to share ideas, find companionship, share joy etc. Unity, ha! We only really get together in order to leave others out.

Of course you can be a snob all by yourself. But there is strength in numbers. If nothing else, it is reassuring. A lone 28 year old obsessing over a children’s book sounds like he / she belongs to Loserville. A group of nearly 30 somethings who love Harry Potter, and are planning to gear up for the Narnia tales are wise old souls who remain young at heart, despite all the disillusionment the big bad world has thrown their way in 30 long years.

Forming a group or getting accepted into one isn’t easy. Truckloads of compromises have to be made. Be it a decision to keep thoughts of what you really think of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ to yourself when surrounded by the Marquez groupies, or keeping your documentary-viewing habits a secret from the Tamil-Masala-Movie-Fan-Club members, to much larger sacrifices like watching the occasional Jane Campion movie and worse, pretending to like John Malkovich, every surrender is carefully weighed and carried out with coldhearted precision.

All this is done so you can look down your nose upon those who do not get the Lord of the Rings or Wagner or Scenes from a Marriage or whatever. It is as if we are too pug-nosed individually, but together, we create a patrician nose a Roman would be proud of. And from atop that noble proboscis, we gaze down upon the world. For all our toils for the sake of being included, exclusion is the ultimate reward.

Given the number of groups we belong to, it is always interesting to watch which loyalties take precedence. When I read Karthik’s post about the Goblet of Fire, my blogger loyalties had a face-off with my HP loyalties, and the teen wizard won. Because I’ve been on his bandwagon longer? Because I have more HP-loving friends than friends who think it’s all a big bore? Because I like JKR’s creation that much? I don’t know.

Do I ostracize Karthik? Kinda – but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? All I can say is, Karthik – you’re not alone. I just forgot to include you on the email list of other friends I’ve been excluding all week. And happy thanksgiving y’all. ‘Tis the season for getting together and killing the turkey.

Saving grace

Harry Potterum Maya Theekoppayum. Seems to be doing good business in Madras. Thank God for small mercies. Maya Theekoppay? The mind boggles at the thought of the Tamil versions of polyjuice potion and Bulgarian horntails and even He Who Must Not Be Named…

And here, I was disappointed with the English version. At least I understood what was going on. With the Tamil version, I’d need subtitles.

The Goblet of Fire

Watched the new movie on the big screen. One of the biggest screens available – that’s right, the IMAX. The size of the screen, sadly, did not improve the movie any. Yes, I am going to be a curmudgeon about this.

The Goblet is my favorite Potter book, bar none. It’s the reason I have stuck with the series. Given all that baggage, I suppose I was begging for a disappointment. But thanks to Peter Jackson, I’ve developed a glimmer of hope for almost any movie made from a book. If someone can make LOTR work, and work so beautifully, surely, there is more to Hollywood than I usually give it credit for.

Mike Newell is no Jackson. Sadly, he’s not even Alfonso Cuaron. Most of my Potter-mad friends didn’t much care for Prisoner of Azkaban, the movie. They do however, seem to like Goblet. I am afraid the reverse is true for me. Cuaron captured darkening mood more successfully than did Newell, although there is a heck of lot more darkness in Goblet. Yes, yes, Ralph Fiennes was pure evil, Cedric Diggory was heart-breakingly handsome, and Mad-Eye Moody was, well, mad. But these did not make up for a complete and utter lack of quidditch, (in a story featuring the World Quidditch Championships), no dementors, practically no magic (spells were limited to Accio FireBrand), and only ordinary looking Vila…Michael Gambon is a lousy Dumbledore. Gambon has taken away the dignity Richard Harris so easily infused into the character. Harris had a twinkle in his eye – Gambon spends his time screaming or holding up his robes, indeed most of the time, he’s doing both. What a nifty feat for the greatest wizard of all time!

Over lunch, a colleague and I listed all the stuff that was in the book, but not in the movie. But we had to conclude that all the scenes that were really important were not overlooked. The most important thing at the World Quidditch Championships is the appearance of the dark mark. The Yule Ball provides an opportunity for some light hearted romance in an otherwise dark and depressing tale. The key-take away from the Triwizard Competition is that Voldemort appears, Harry wins and Cedric dies.

Given two movies that aren’t completely faithful to the books, I’ve thought hard about why I liked Prisoner of Azkaban so much and Goblet of Fire not at all. I can only say this – Azkaban captured the mood of the book brilliantly. To show flowers withering away when dementors fly by is practically poetic. Even the portraits in Goblet don’t move! Goblet feels like a McKinsey synopsis of the book, neatly summarizing the three key take-aways, with a couple of fun facts thrown in to please the crowd, but hey, it’s all about ‘what’s important’. When you’re summarizing a 250 page analyst report, that’s exactly what you want. But not when you’re translating a tale of wondrous magic and adventure into a movie. And that is what the problem is with the Goblet of Fire – it has all of the important facts, but none of the soul.