Archive for January, 2007|Monthly archive page

Letters from Iwo Jima, California

This week-end I watched the second part of Clint Eastwood’s two-part series on the Battle of Iwo Jima. Having already watched Flags of our Fathers (reviewed here), and not being averse to buying a box of Kleenex along with the pop-corn, I felt I had to watch this one. But this movie doesn’t deliver any of the sense of completion, loads of which had been promised. Despite being touted as the “Japanese version” of the same story, it is in every way, an American movie, made for American audiences.

A large part of why I was drawn to both movies (other than that they were made by Eastwood) was the novel idea of two movies about the same incident, an extended, and considerably more expensive Rashômon, as it were. As great an idea as this is, it doesn’t really work when there is little more than a superficial connection between the two movies. The first movie is more a social commentary on a country at war, specifically the United States of America, than it is a movie about one particular battle. While some of the most spectacular bits of the movie are set in Iwo Jima, much of it actually takes place back home, where we learn the many ways in which a minor incident in the battle at Iwo Jima impacts the lives of thousands, if not everyone in the home country.

Letters from Iwo Jima, in contrast, is almost exclusively limited to the little island. We, along with thousands of Japanese troops, wait for everyone (or nearly everyone) to die. Sure, there are back-stories for the odd soldier or two. Suitable flashbacks involving pregnant wives and other assorted members of families left behind provide the necessary Kleenex-moments that would be expected from a war movie, particularly one about the losing side.

So, we learn that the mainland has no resources to spare and it expects the soldiers at Iwo Jima to do their duty and die honorably for their country. But in keeping the story strictly about the battle itself, we don’t learn anything about well, anything really. Was losing the island strategically and tactically at all a big deal? What was going through the minds of those in Tokyo who were forced to make the decision to let Iwo Jima go? If the entire country of United States was so cheered up by the win at Iwo Jima, what was the parallel outcome in Japan after their loss? If this battle supposedly was the beginning of the Americans’ eventual victory, then was it also the beginning of the end for the Japanese? Or did this loss so rally forces stationed elsewhere, that it took two A-bombs to make them call it quits? If you want these questions answered, go read a book or something.

After they learn that they’ve been left to their own devices to survive, the leadership at Iwo Jima falls into two groups – with the more traditional lot advocating and in many cases, forcing suicide on the soldiers they command, because, as we have learnt from all those other Samurai movies – losing in battle is far worse than dying. The more liberal minority (comprising a grand total of two) feels that tactical retreat isn’t necessarily something that demands seppuku, and that killing yourself can be limited to more desperate situations – such as those where one is almost fatally wounded and only slowing down the rest of the group from making an escape.

My biggest complaint with the movie is this liberal minority. General Kuribayashi and Captain Nishi are the only enlightened commanders on the island. They always treat their soldiers fairly, and act with great nobility and heroism when others might have folded. Played by Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara respectively, they are also incredibly easy on the eye. All of which is grand. But here’s the crux – at some point in their lives, they’ve both been exposed to America. Kuribayashi was in the US for some official reason, before the two countries declared war on each other. And Nishi was a champion at the 1932 Summer Olympics held at Los Angeles. Heck, he was even friends with Hollywood stars!

By making only these two characters noble and heroic, it feels as if the movie’s telling us that only those Japanese lucky enough to have been exposed to American culture are great, while the rest of the country is filled with suicidal brutes. I wondered if it would have helped if even one of them had visited some country other than the US. But had they visited another Western country, or any other country in the world for that matter, doesn’t it still say that goodness and sensibility are traits which weren’t inherent even in a minority of the Japanese, and had to be imported from elsewhere? Nishi’s final speech (another Kleenex-moment) to his men borrows its key message from a letter written by an American mom to her son, which I felt was the last straw!

And what traits are inherent to the Japanese? A commitment to the team, a willingness to follow even the harshest of orders, and a strong sense of honor? C’mon, Mr. Eastwood, surely you can do better than Tom Cruise! Coming from Sofia Coppola, one might be willing to overlook such superficiality as ignorance. Coming from one of whom much is expected (because much has been delivered in the past), it smacks of pure arrogance. For all its Japanese actors and English subtitles, Letters from Iwo Jima is such an American movie.

Final verdict: Give this movie a skip. If you’re really in the mood for a good cry, wait for the DVD.

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Scary future and Clive Owen are better than Gong Li and stylish soap opera

Curse of the Golden Flower: Garish soap opera
SEVERAL SPOILERS!

Curse of the Golden Flower is the final part of Zhang Yimou’s (or is it Yimou Zhang’s?[1]) trilogy. It is also the darkest of the three movies. That the terms betrayal, incest, adultery, fratricide, filicide, and bigamy do not exhaustively describe the story should tell you something about the movie. Chow Yun Fat, who plays an Emperor, returns to his kingdom after many years to find that almost no one has remained loyal to him. Gong Li, playing his beautiful and treacherous second wife, has been carrying on behind her husband’s back (or not, as we later find out) and isn’t too pleased to hear of the Emperor’s return. The court scene is made murkier thanks to a few disgruntled crown and wannabe-crown Princes, their lovers, an ex-wife, a conniving court doctor and hundreds of Asian women in push-up bras[2]. How and whether all of this gets sorted out is what the movie’s about.

A friendly warning to action fans – unlike the other two movies in this trilogy (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers), there are almost no action sequences involving flying kicks or daggers or swords or what have you. This movie is about courtroom intrigue, save a few scenes of large scale slaughter towards the end. There is also little romance – there isn’t a single heroic figure in the movie (well, save one somewhat minor character, and even that is a maybe) and the only difference between the several relationships that’re explored in this movie is the extent of duplicity involved in each one. Another feature I expected, from watching the earlier movies, was a grand visual spectacle. You’re offered one, sure, but this one isn’t anywhere close to those offered by the other two. While Hero and Flying Daggers were shot in bold primary colors, this one keeps switching between an excess of gold (I have a nagging fear that Shankar’s going to get “inspired” by this movie) and a mixture of too many colors of which a bright magenta is the only one that stands out.

In keeping with the other movies though, we do get a star-studded cast. Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat must be the only stars from that part of the world who somehow didn’t make into Hero or Flying Daggers. So we have them in this one. None of the three movies is exactly strong on plot, but at least the other two made up in imagery whatever they lacked in terms of story. And, they both did have nice little twists at the end. This movie ends up relying on plot a lot more than the others do, and therefore ends up being considerably more disappointing. For all the double and triple crossing, I couldn’t help feeling a little let down and perplexed by the end – there are few ‘why’s’ behind much of the wickedness in this movie – apparently, evil just is.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge this movie while lugging baggage from the other two movies. But I’m afraid that the baggage would be present even had this movie not been part of a trilogy. I’m just glad am still not hung over from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I wish these Chinese film-makers would get over that movie, too.

Children of Men: Ominously close to real
SEVERAL SPOILERS!

There is a lot of joy in watching a movie on its opening week end, before you acquire expectations and the disappointments that go with them. I am glad that Children of Men was one such movie. There is also a lot of joy in watching Clive Owen in a movie that works for him. Again, Children of Men is very much one such movie.

‘Children of Men’ is set in England in the not-so-distant future of 2027. I understand that the movie is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by P.D James. Had I not known this, I’d have thought the story eerily close to another novel – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both present a bleak future for the human race – something has caused mass infertility and women capable of bearing children have become a commodity traded by the powerful and the power-hungry. Government as we know it no longer exists. Instead there is only a form of totalitarian authority which feels free to kill anyone it feels like. Where Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation (I haven’t read James’s version) departs from Atwood is that Cuarón’s story is a bit more optimistic, and a lot more open to all sorts of religious interpretation.

While the story is set in the future, it is an entirely plausible, perhaps even probable future. Cars don’t fly or go on the sides of buildings (that might have made it easier to dismiss it as sci-fi). No, everything is almost the same as it is right now, only more corrupt, more polluted, and therefore a lot scarier. I don’t know when the novel was published, but the major themes are as eerily relevant today as they probably were then. There’s a teeny-weeny chance that xenophobia, terrorist attacks, scary prisons for foreigners, and much else on our minds today will somehow magically get solved in the next 20 years. ‘Children of Men’ is bleak, because it reminds you just how small that likelihood is.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned pen-pusher in a non-descript office, is pushed into adrenaline-pumping action and heroism, when he starts out doing what he thinks is a minor favor for his ex-wife (played by Julianne Moore). His task is to take to safety a young girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is (surprise-surprise) pregnant. Of course, a lot of other folks, all bad, are after this girl. Most of the movie is a thrilling chase, with Owen and Ashitey dodging bullets and bombs, and surviving not just betrayals but also advanced pregnancy.

For a movie that lasts only a little over a 100 minutes, this movie is packed. Not every pause for breath is treated as an opportunity to launch into explanation. I realize that this is one of the things I complained about with Curse of the Golden Flower – but in this movie, I was utterly delighted with the paucity of “and here’s why this is happening” moments. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot of small things because I wasn’t paying enough attention. But that’s what makes it makes this movie feel so grown-up – the underlying assumption that the movie-makers’ responsibility ends with helping you with the outlines of the story, and that it is up to the audience to get the minor stuff or not. I felt the same sort of delight when Peter Jackson did not provide inane recaps at the beginning of the Twin Towers and Return of the King.

Clive Owen is immense fun to watch. The closest example I can think of (and it pains me to say this because it has since become such a cliché) is Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie. Perhaps since Willis humanized the action hero, all we seem to get nowadays are these types who are gray on the inside and gray on the outside… I am tired of the hero who knows better than anyone else does that that he is no “hero”, and takes care to show that while he is capable of destroying an army or two, he is also vulnerable, and has a heart which frequently gets broken and what not. What makes Owen so good is his ability to convince us that he is himself convinced of the ridiculousness of his position. At every turn, I expected his character to get killed or to simply give up and leave, because fighting both the government and the rebels just isn’t something a disillusioned pen-pusher does.

It is also fun to watch Michael Caine, who plays one of the many characters who help Owen in his run. Last week, I had a scary conversation with my 13 year old cousin, who had trouble placing Caine. Her, “Oh is he the old Butler dude in Batman Begins?” caused me great pain. In this movie, he has a small, but charming role. And while I doubt that this movie or his character will make a big impression on 13 year olds, it feels good to see him again, and to remind myself, if not these past-less teens that Caine is a lot more than old-Butler dude!

The only jarring note in the movie is the question of religious significance – even if the story tries to be flippant about it, there’s no denying that in a world gone mad, the only ray of hope is provided by a new born child, whose very existence, given the circumstances, is miraculous. I’m usually exceedingly dim-witted about inferences of any sort, but by the time Owen and a very pregnant Ashitey reach a refugee camp, even I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of all sorts of Biblical associations. This is where making the movie more like the Atwood novel might have helped. Atwood remains dark through out and offers no sappy signs of optimism. But all of this is neither here nor there – if this is what James wrote, one can’t very well expect an adaptation to break all ties with the original.

Warning to movie-goers who expect a sense of closure at the end of a movie – the most commonly expressed sentiment at the end of this movie was “F*&$% that! I hate movies like this!” I can only reiterate that this came from the same audience who’d had a demonstrably grand time before the last one minute of the movie. I understand that the book has an even more ambiguous ending than the movie, but that’s small consolation when you’ve spent a good one hour and a half building up to a finale that never quite materializes.

Before I changed my mind about Daniel Craig, I was rooting for Clive Owen for Bond. After watching Casino Royal and Children of Men, I’m relieved that Hollywood has wiser heads than mine – that sharp decision has given us a great new Bond, and left Owen free to do movies like this one. And it’s a complete pity that Cuarón isn’t directing the next Harry Potter movie. I like what he does with books.

[1] IMDB and Wikipedia disagree. If you know better, tell me.
[2] The last has nothing to do with the story. I can only imagine that it was intended as part of the “visual spectacle”. Chinese women dressed up in almost European gowns with very low necks do little for me. I wish they’d had better looking men in this movie, but that’s just me.

Resolutions

Perhaps the idea of counting in repetitive cycles isn’t so much to have a sense of order as it is to create opportunities for ourselves to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch – if things didn’t work out today, perhaps they will tomorrow, or next week, or the most popular option of all, next year. The idea of a do-over is immensely gratifying.

As a kid, I used to spend most of December coming up with resolutions for the New Year. The making of resolutions reached its heights during my teens. In my high school years, the item which figured on the list year after year was “Study for at least 15 hours a day on week ends”. I especially liked putting in the “at least” bit – a deft move, which I felt left the field wide open for days on which I might do more than 15 hours of studying. The “week end” specification is another DoZ characteristic – for week days, I obviously accounted for time spent at school, going to and returning from school, meal times and so on.

By the time I started college, studying mattered far less. Or at any rate any activity that involved Pachaiyappa’s College didn’t matter enough to warrant a New Year resolution. Others, such as ‘read Thomas Hardy’, started to replace the old promises to study for 15-hours a day. This particular resolution was as futile as ‘I will really like Analytical Geometry this year!’ (from circa 1999 aka the prepping-for-CAT year),‘Try to “get” Operations Research’ and ‘I will not let M. Peru [1] get to me’ (from circa 2000-01 aka the MBA years).

When making resolutions, I’ve tried everything – from being broad and rather vague (“be good” from when I was the 6th or 7th standard) to being ultra specific (“no more than 1hr and 15 minutes of TV per day on a week day” from around the same period). From the modest (“go to the gym twice a week”) to the dizzyingly ambitious (“don’t swear”). There are pros and cons to each method. In fine tuning the degree of specificity or the toughness of keeping a resolution, what I was really trying to do was to find a way to trick myself into keeping a promise, without being in any way conscious about it. Consciously doing or avoiding something reeked of “duty”, a dreaded option which was to be avoided at all costs. I hadn’t yet discovered the joys of martyrdom.

Some years, I’d do evaluations in addition to resolutions. I’d start out by listing what I was happy with from the last year. At some point this started to suggest pride. Perhaps due to spending several years in a Catholic school, every time I feel proud of something, a nun immediately materializes in my head, and chants “Pride goes before a fall”, while doing a little jig. So I’d stop, and start listing things I wasn’t proud of. This list was almost always longer than the first. Then I’d feel too bad, and try to balance things out a bit, till the dancing nun came back.

One year, I remember, a friend told me that using the negative was a bad thing – saying ‘not’ or ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ etc. brought nothing but ill luck. That year, all my resolutions were worded in positive terms – avoid watching TV, shun all telephone conversations exceeding 15 minutes on a day before an exam, and so on.

I can’t remember how long I managed to keep any of the million resolutions I’ve made over the years. I only have the vague but certain knowledge that none survived. Any resolutions for 2007? You betcha –

– avoid Law & Order and CSI and anything involving the solving of a crime in one hour or less

– read at least one never-before-tried author every month

– go to the gym more often (but not be such a sap as to turn up there on the first day!)

Am trying to keep things simple this year, nothing too specific or patently unachievable. Perhaps this year will be the one.

[1] M. Peru – the econ prof from hell, as anyone from BIM will tell you.