Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Review: Jodhaa Akbar

If you ever harbored doubts about whether beautiful people get all the breaks in life, look no further than Jodhaa Akbar, a movie that’s practically the epitome of all things Bollywood. One could say Ashutosh Gowariker packs in extravagant set-pieces, gory battle-scenes, an epic romance, jealousy, betrayal, and lots and lots of swelling music in his latest venture. Only, it feels wrong to use the term “packs in” when describing a 195 minute long movie.

After a preliminary nod at the somewhat dubious origins of this story, Gowariker quickly gets on with his tale of romance between Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar and his Hindu bride Jodhaa. Every third or so minute, one starts losing patience with what is essentially a Velveeta cheese factory (make no mistake, for all its beauty this is no gourmet cheese farm). But a nanosecond before one crosses over to anger, along comes Hrithik Roshan (or the younger Mrs. Bachchan – depending on personal sexual orientation) with his / her green eyes and you forget all about the lactose-overdose.

After one or both of these almost too-gorgeous people move away from the camera, and you regain the use of your grey cells, you realize that were this man around today, he’d be the perfect Republican presidential candidate. Forget about McCain and Huckabee and their wannabe conservatism – we’re talking about a ruler who’s waged (and won, which is always nice) more wars than our current one might have even had wet dreams about, and whose idea of economic reform is a permanent abolishment of tax on religious travel. And if the evangelicals had any doubts about his social conservatism, they only need to be reminded that not only did Akbar and his wife wait till they were married, but what’s more – they waited till they truly fell in love (this being your cue to go “Awwww”). Yes, this chap does harbor an unnatural penchant for tolerating other religions, but surely, with time, he can be made to see the light.

One has to congratulate Gowariker on his casting. Among the current crop of Bollywood heroes, Roshan is perhaps the only one who can get away with a wink and a smile, appearing almost humble in a story whose only intent appears to be to get everyone to either worship or fall madly in love (preferably both) with the character he plays. If the movie only had the lead couple, you might be tempted to write it off as a story about an alien species of human-like creatures characterized by their stunning good looks. But Gowariker fills the rest of the cast with a fine collection of gargoyles who constantly remind you that Roshan and Rai are indeed earthlings, only more special than you and I could ever be.

Final verdict: cheap cheese in a near-perfect package. How can you not fall for it?

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Review: No Smoking

It is not often that a Hindi movie reminds you of a Murakami short story*. Make that never ever. But that is precisely what director Anurag Kashyap accomplishes with No Smoking. This phantasmagorical allegory explores the idea of addiction, and by extension of non-conformity. It takes a dark and cynical view of the the price one has to pay – to kick the habit, to survive, in fact to do both, as one can’t be accomplished without the other. The explicit addiction in this case is smoking, but replace it with a compulsion of your choice (“vice” according to the rest of the word) and the movie would work just as well.

In telling his story, Kashyap dispenses with or even intentionally subverts many standard Bollywood props, starting with the name of the hero (John Abraham). He is K, just K. And if you must know, his brother’s J. Yes, there are dream sequences involving pristine snow covered slopes. Only, they are nightmares, presumably set in Uzbekistan (up yours, Switzerland), and there’s no singing. There is a Bipasha Basu item number, but only if you aren’t such a boor as to walk out of the theater immediately after the credits start rolling.

K is a chain smoker and when his wife threatens to leave him because of it, he reluctantly agrees to check out this rehab center that appears to be all the rage among his friends. Sinister and bizarre things start happening after he signs up for the program, and the fun is in sitting back and watching him deal with every new lemon that life throws at him. There is some fine black humor, dark thoughts that no doubt every smoker has experienced. There’s even some slapstick thrown in, but thankfully not too much.

The movie is not without its flaws. At 135 minutes it is too long. For starters, a little less of Ms. Takia (particularly in the second half) and lots more of Messrs. Shorey and Rawal would have made a better movie. And ending the story about fifteen minutes before it actually does would have made it a lot sharper and edgier. While one admires Kashyap’s ambitious attempts at pulling a Tarantino with the soundtrack, the places where the music does actually work best is when it is original. Overall, the more had Kashyap stuck to the ‘less is more’ rule, the better this movie will have been.

It is impossible to watch or write about this movie without also thinking about all the bad press it has been receiving. It is a pity that the critic community in India has decided to hate this movie. And it is an even bigger pity that Indian audiences set such store by reviews. I was one of five people at this evening’s show.

 

Kashyap has been accused of being arrogant, confusing, and inaccessible to just mention a few of the labels being thrown at him. To be fair to Kashyap, none of these labels are justified, excepting perhaps the one about arrogance – after all, he did go and make a movie with no bad guys (or good guys for that matter), no romance (the only terms of er, endearment used by the leads are “bitch” and “bastard”), and to top it all uses humor that will make no sense whatsoever to three year olds. Kashyap in turn has been far less diplomatic in his response. All of this drama makes what is essentially a rather tame story by indie movie standards into something bigger. So that, despite its best efforts, this movie ends up being not very different from the scores of others that are made back home – Indian cinema will have its pound of melodrama, if not inside a movie then outside it.

As mentioned before, this movie is far from perfect. But to hate a movie simply because it does not stick to standard Bollywood formulae seems a bit much. And this new found thirst for logic from a country raised on utterly illogical cinema is both amusing and annoying. Kudos to Kashyap for pushing the envelope on Hindi-cinema narrative, and hats off to him for refusing to dumb down his vision as well as his sheer optimism in daring to hope that Indian audiences will still “get it”. Better luck next time, pal. Hope you keep ‘em coming.

* The story am thinking about is ‘UFO in Kushiro’ from ‘After the Quake’. There are also elements of ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’. For the record, I haven’t read or watched Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, parts of which are also supposed inspiration for this movie.

NYFF ’07 etc.

I spent the last weekend at the New York Film Festival. Brief reviews follow in the order of least to most enjoyed films:

1. The Man from London
I know Falstaff liked this one – but am going to have to disagree. I found this supposed film noir boring, in the extreme. Yes, there is a murder, even a suitcase full of cash, but given the pacing, these otherwise standard noir props lose their mystery. The black and white cinematography looks striking, but surely, a little more than imagery is needed when you decide to spread a movie over 135 painful minutes. Tarr’s refusal to move forward starts to feel cruel after a while, especially once you realize that this movie is never going to pick up its pace and you have no choice but to wait in quiet desperation for something, anything to happen. And just when something finally does happen, you realize that what you’re watching hasn’t anything to do with the story – for instance, you might spend many, many minutes watching people getting off a boat and into a train, or an old man in a cafe eating a bowl of soup, tearing his way through a hard piece of bread, or said soup man (yes, irrelevant characters make multiple reappearances) dancing with another old man to an accordion, etc. – and even as you realize that whatever you’re watching is irrelevant crap, you know that it’s going to take forever before you’ll be shown something else, and who knows if that will matter.

I suspect this is one of those movies where you’re supposed to “contemplate” about oh, the nature of man or of death or goodness knows what else while that old man finishes his soup. I used the time to catch up on sleep (on short supply thanks to a midnight show followed by an early morning show), made a list of all the things I wanted to do in life or whatever life was left to me by the end of this movie. I got far enough to include big picture goals such as “travel and exercise more”, which as you know, get added on the list after you’ve dealt with more mundane, but pressing tasks like “pay credit card bill” and “mail rent check”.

At one point, about 15 -20 minutes before the movie actually ended, something went wrong with the projector, and it looked liked this was it. Someone started clapping – in sheer relief, I suspect. But no, the evil folks behind the projector fixed it up, and we had to sit through the rest. But I did survive it, and after this movie, I was determined to watch something good. So I purchased tickets for Lust, Caution, which takes us to the next movie on the list – one I ended up watching because I had four hours to kill before the Ang Lee movie started.

2. Across the Universe
While I am a Beatles fan, as a rule I do not like musicals, especially ones in which they eschew dialogue in favor of singing. That all the songs in this one are familiar help, but only so much. I don’t object to newer renditions of classic songs, and in fact enjoyed almost all the big production numbers. But after a while the shiny happy people that inhabit musicals start to get to you – even if they’re pretending to be heart-broken over something or the other. After all, how sad can you be if you’re fit enough to participate in a Broadway production number? And while the Beatles were a prolific band, it does not mean that one has to use practically every song they ever sung. Oh well, this movie is OK if like me, you have four hours to kill and absolutely nothing else to do, but otherwise, I’d simply load the Beatles on to the i-Pod and take a long walk. Much less painful, and definitely more healthy.

On an aside, Evan Rachel Wood displays much wholesome American goodness in this movie. Every time I saw her cherubic face, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Veshakari! I know who you hang out with once you get off the sets, missy…”

3. Hamlet
This silent German (yes, the cards were in German with English subtitles) version of Hamlet had a couple of interesting things going for it: a) it cast Hamlet as a woman – the premise was that Hamlet was born a princess, but raised a boy in order to keep the throne b) it came with live music – yes, the music that accompanies a silent movie in this case was performed by a live pianist. Making Hamlet a woman, one felt, could be used to explain so much. Instead it is squandered, only used to work out relatively trivial kinks such as explaining Ophelia’s death (Hamlet pines for Horatio who’s himself interested in Ophelia, and the jealous but cross dressing Hamlet leads Ophelia on and betrays her). The problem is that irrespective of the “liberties” this movie takes with the original – Gertrude is more villainous, Fortinbras is Hamlet’s old college buddy and wants to help reinstate his friend to throne, etc. – one ends up with the exact same end as Shakespeare, aka “everyone dies”. So it all feels a bit pointless at the end of the day.

The highlight of the movie is the chap who plays Claudius. He reminded me of the Frankenstein monster – you can clearly see that someone told him “here, you have to look evil”, and the poor dear took it to heart. So he spends the entire movie wearing liberal helpings of dark eyeshadow and squints at everything and everyone, oozing eeeevil, of course. This brute was easily the most adorable thing about the movie.

4. Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon
This inspiring story of a man who suffers from “ locked-in syndrome“, but goes on to blink out an entire book one alphabet at a time is quite a crowd pleaser. For a moving story, unexpectedly enough, I also found it to be warm and funny. Mathieu Amalric turns in an adequate performance, and Max von Sydow in a small but important role provides the mandatory Kleenex moments you’d expect from such a story. I admit that it is unfair to compare this movie with Mar adentro, but I can’t help it. And in my books, team Amenábar-Bardem easily wins over Schnabel-Amalric. Bardem’s Ramon Sampedro is a force of life even as he battles for his right to die. Moving as Amalric’s Jean-Do is, he is ultimately a silent participant, despite all the voice-overs. Perhaps the difference is simply that one movie seeks to make you think and consider your stance on a controversial topic from multiple angles, while the other merely seeks to tell a good story that might just inspire you. Prepared as I was to have my gut wrung out to dry, I came away merely entertained, and somewhat moved. By all counts, this is a good movie. Only, it isn’t an excellent one.

5. El Orfanato
This otherwise unremarkable horror movie turned out to be a lot of fun because I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d gone in expecting something similar to Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro produced El Orfanato, a fact heavily advertised by the makers of this movie), but was instead treated to a something much darker. Not being a horror fan, I’m unable to compare this movie with other recent movies of this genre. I don’t care for the “so gross it’s scary” stuff – severed limbs, technicolor-body fluids and the like, and fortunately, El Orfanato has very little of this. I do, however, enjoy jumping out my skin because the director just threw another completely unexpected shot at the audience. The NY crowd helped too – at the end of every scary scene, people would laugh out, as a nod to the movie makers for having gotten them that once, until it happened all over again – felt like we were all in it together. Good fun.

6. Lust, Caution (Some spoilers)
Ang Lee’s latest period drama is a gorgeous treat of a movie. Set in 1940s Hong Kong and Shanghai, it follows the intrigues between rebels and collaborators in Japanese occupied territory. The plot feels a tad improbable – it is difficult to imagine that a bunch of students can identify let alone penetrate someone’s who’s apparently a highly placed collaborator so easily. But once you get over that hiccup, it’s beautiful going from there.

In Lust, Caution Tony Leung cures you of whatever hang ups you may have left over from In the Mood for Love and 2046. He plays a character who is difficult to like, let alone fall in love with. Not until the last half hour of the movie does he let you in on the fact that he too is capable of emotions, when he makes a wry comment equating his collaborating with the Japanese with whoring. Till that point, you only think of him as as an opportunist and a monster, something that is heavily suggested by the resistance, and which his own persistent reticence does nothing to dispel. This comment and what follows finally allow both Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang’s character) and the audience a glimpse into the man. By then, it is almost too late to fall in love with him, but fall Mak Tai Tai does, with tragic consequences.

This movie reminded me not so much of In the Mood for Love as it did of When we were orphans, although the Ishiguro novel takes place about a decade earlier. It is one thing to imagine old world Shanghai, but to watch it, especially as created by someone with an unerring eye for beauty as Lee, is altogether different. I actually wish Lee would use the props left over from this movie to make When We Were Orphans, as I really can’t imagine any one else making a movie from that novel.

A note about the controversial rating this movie received – it is well deserved. But what is even more shocking than the explicit sex is the movie’s one stabbing scene. It almost feels false, little we may have seen in other movies prepares you for this one. The victim seems to take forever to die and every time he emerges from a fresh stab, you wish he would have the decency to just die instead of making us watch him get stabbed once more. More than anything else that comes before or after, this scene reinforces how green these wannabe spies really are. Only one of them – pretty boy Kuang Yu Min played by real life rock star Lee-Hom Wang appears to have zeal enough to kill someone in cold blood. One can’t help thinking that we could have replaced this brutal act with almost anything else – drinking or drugs or any other less gruesome vice – and you’d likely end up with the same outcome. There is one boy who thinks that doing this (whatever “this” is) is the right thing to do, and others join in because they don’t want to be left out or laughed at later, which makes this murder all the more shocking. Some take up cigarettes because of peer pressure, some of these characters stab a man to death.

And with this movie also, I have to disagree with Falstaff. I didn’t find Lust, Caution one bit boring. Especially since I had The Man from London for comparison. Yes, the story takes time to unfold, but at least you don’t spend three quarters of this movie feeling trapped – you could easily amuse yourself trying to guess what the devil the rest of the audience found so amusing. And even if one has to sometimes sit back and watch Wei Tang do little other than ride around in cars or get dressed, I’d much rather watch her than a potato faced man stare at a bunch of people leaving a boat.

Why?

I just got home from a preview of A Mighty Heart. All the way back, I kept asking myself why: why do I watch a movie like this? Why do they make such movies? Why do people act in such movies? This is my first movie “based on horrific recent event”. I did not watch the Oliver Stone movie, nor the Paul Greengrass movie. Don’t get me wrong, A Mighty Heart is a very god movie. Strong narration, good acting, solid cast, excellent score. It is also surprisingly dignified. And yes, it’s lovely to see Irfan in another movie. And no, Jolie doesn’t wreck the movie. 

But I believe there is no winning with such subjects or their treatment. The better they are, the worse they are, aren’t they? This question of whether such a movie is tasteful is so not the point. Is there a tasteful way to tell the story of a person who was beheaded and cut up into ten pieces? Is there a dignified way to watch such a movie? No. And yes, all of this ranting comes from a person who did indeed just watch this movie. Much of this anger is directed towards myself. I tried to defend myself to myself by recalling that a) I’d never seen one of these movies and b) I’d read good reviews. But come on! Seriously.  

At some point during the early part of the movie (before I was too caught up in the story), I felt like Edward Norton’s character from The Fight Club – when he visits all those support groups. These movies feel like the worst possible form of voyeurism. No one wants to be in Mrs. Pearl’s shoes. But clearly, at least some of us are curious to find out what it must’ve felt like. Since the incident was all over the news, you don’t walk into such a movie expecting an education. No, the real motivation is to find out what it feels like to get emotionally shafted, by watching someone else get shafted. 

The same accusation could be made of someone who read Joan Didion’s last book (guilty again). But at least with a book, you have the opportunity to get analytical. You react, and then you measure your reaction by comparing it with others from the past and so on. With a movie, such a luxury is absent. You only have enough time to react and then it’s time to react all over again. 

I thought about whether these movies would be any easier to watch if they waited for some time before they release them. They really can’t, can they? They have to get the movie out before people forget the incident. I understand that. But I still don’t understand why suddenly there are enough of such movies for them to warrant their own genre. Heck, there are enough variations on the stories for there to be subgenres. We’ve had The Queen, United 93, World Trade Center, Black Friday. But we return to my original question – why? Well, no more for me. Some of them are fine movies, and more power to them and all that. But I am through with them. 

PS: When I look at that list, I have to sheepishly admit that I’ve watched 2 of those movies (Queen & Friday). But they don’t really fall in the same class as A Mighty Heart. The Queen is dramatic, not traumatic. And Black Friday is a fine procedural. And yes, these are lame excuses. Gah!

Love Bond. Like movie.

[The post below solely reflects the author’s personal views and opinions and is not meant to hurt or insult die-hard fans of any actor who has played Bond in the past. And yeah there are also some spoilers.]

I just got home from watching Casino Royale. Daniel Craig is the best Bond, ever. Bar none, in case you didn’t get that the first time around. He makes Pierce Brosnan look like a souffl� with a whipped cream topping. Heck, he makes Ursula Andress look too soft and lumpy in all the wrong places.

The movie, on the other hand, is merely good. Not great. Perhaps it might have worked better had it come before one had been glutted with the current obsession with wanting to get to the “root” of things – before one was told why Peter Parker became Spiderman, or Bruce Wayne became Batman or Jason Bourne became, well, Jason Bourne.

The best thing about Craig’s Bond is that he is a man who gets the job done. It is when he attempts to do more, such as be charming, that he isn’t very convincing. In every mushy scene (and am afraid there was as much mush as I’d feared there might be), I was impatient for him to stop and turn back into the cold killing machine he is so clearly born to be.

That this movie isn’t the sort of Bond movie we’ve become used to in the last few years is evident right from the opening credits. Psychedelic patterns of suites of cards float around, as Bond kills man after man. There isn’t a single naked woman in sight. In keeping with the opening theme, this movie is all about Bond, really. If there’s

killing to be done, Bond does it. If there’s running to be done, Bond does it. If there’s stripping to be done, Bond does it.

With Brosnan, there was a consistent attempt (in rare cases successful) to turn Bond girls into Bond partners. This movie smoothly reverses the trend. And when one female character is given importance, it’s not in a Michelle Yeoh or Rosamund Pike manner. And I found myself wishing how much better it would’ve been if they hadn’t bothered with making even this minor concession.

If you’re the sort of fan who enjoys Bond movies for their formula, you’re in for a mixed bag. Some golden, even holy Bond traditions have been dispensed with* in this movie, but most of the stock phrases make an appearance. And they do so at such unexpectedly delightful moments, that you fall in love with them all over again.

Action fans take note – Casino Royale may well be the most physically challenging Bond movie ever made, and boy, does Craig pull it off. I can’t imagine any other Bond doing any of the key stunts in this movie**. Just as one’s no longer impressed with Matrix-style stunts, one was also tiring of the blow up party that’d become part of the Bond formula in the Brosnan movies. Casino Royale has hopefully begun a new phase of stunts on a low-TNT, high-adrenaline diet.

So why do I insist that this is only a good movie? Here’s the thing – when I was walking out of the theater, in those 2-3 minutes before I had a chance to ask the mandatory “So?” to my companions, I kept willing myself to love the movie because I so loved Craig. And that’s precisely the point – you don’t need to talk yourself into liking Craig. You just do. Not so with the movie, and in my book, that’s not the sign of a great movie.

I sure as hell hope that Craig will make many more Bond movies – perhaps some script will finally let him be the cold-blooded spy he is.

*I for one didn’t even notice their absence till I started writing this post. And when I think about it now, am quite relieved and happy they didn’t try to force them in. Craig doesn’t do breezy charm very well, and having those scenes would have only embarrassed him and the audience.

** And hats off to the extremely nimble and sure-footed Sebastien Foucan for an incredible chase in the first third of the movie

Homegrown talent

Growing up in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s (we turn of the century souls are doomed to sound so old so soon, aren’t we?), one of the most important questions that you were judged on was, “unakku yaar pudikkum? Rijini-ya, Kamal-a?”[1] This question was an important divider, a quick and dirty way of determining if you wanted to continue your acquaintance with the new kid in class, or confer upon him / her the label of “weirdo” (or “loosu”, to use the vernacular) and take comfort in the knowledge that your life would not in the least bit suffer from not having this person in it.

I suspect this is a cultural phenomenon unique to the 80s. I don’t know if my parents were divvied up based on their preference for Sivaji or MGR or who ever was big in their days. And I doubt that this question matters today. Can you imagine letting say, Bharath or the Chimp (aka Simbu) define your identity in any shape or form? (*shudder*)

But as always, I digress. Us 80s kids had one more question that was an almost equally important divider – the Crazy Vs. S.Ve.Sekar question[2] [3]. Like the first question, this one too appears to be a purely 80s hang-up[4].

Personally, I have always firmly been in the Crazy camp. I was introduced to Sekar first. My cousin (who being older pretty much dictated most things taste-wise for me in those days) was a big fan, and used to watch his plays. Since I didn’t live in Madras, I used to borrow my cousin’s recordings (I remember the audio tapes of Kaatla Mazhai and Mahabharathathil Mangaatha). I loved them, and tried to hold on to them for as long as I possibly could.

I might have continued life as a Sekar fan ( I remember that that old line “ullae veliyae ullae veliyae ullae veliyae” used to make me laugh uncontrollably), but something happened that changed my loyalties forever. 4 words: Michael Madana Kama Raj.

MMKR is, bar none, my all time favorite Tamil movie ever. And am pretty sure it will retain its position for the rest of my life. There may well be funnier movies, but none will have the “I grew up with this movie” cachet that this one has. I still watch this movie once in a while. I don’t laugh at every joke any more – but just for my favorites (the incident of the poor mama’s false teeth, most scenes involving the dad in the last third of the movie (his wanting to make tea at the tea estate, his wanting to relocate discussions to inside the refrigerator), and others that I love because I remember these are my parents’ favorites (for some reason the line “kizhinjithu, ithula Telungu vera” used to make my Dad laugh the hardest I remember him laughing, the “thiruppu thiruppu” joke that always set my mother off, the “Beem boy Beem boy” thing that one of my cousins used to recite till we were convinced that the gift of speech, especially in boys under the age of 10, was something that the family should be able to turn off at will).

MMKR’s cult status apart, Crazy has done some awesome writing for a number of other movies and of course, there are the plays. I’ll move on after a brief mention of my favorites – A-Ha (my kingdom for the deaf thaatha, and the classic one-liners like “Sweet name. Jangiri”), Aboorva Sagodharargal (Manorama at the police station and Mouli get funnier with reruns and Janakaraj & Shivaji remain as fresh as ever), Thenaali (Dr. Panchabootham & his assistant Ramesh Khanna who always gets Thenaali’s name wrong), and Kaathala Kaathala (I don’t like this movie (too many kadi jokes), and mention it out of fear of legions of Crazy fans issuing a fatwa in my name).

I thought about why I came to prefer Crazy over Sekar. The answer lies in the fact that Crazy is closer to PGW than Sekar is. The intricate plots, characters that spill over from one play to the next, his masterly use of props (in one play, Crazy plays a character who’s supposed to kidnap someone, and goes around begging all the characters in that scene to take the chloroform drenched handkerchief from him, there’s another that involves a sack of coconuts), his use of Madras-English (he gets it bang on – his English dialogues remind me of grandfathers-who-write-to-the-Hindu-editor, convent-taught-kids (think Church Park, DB – the “old” schools), The Hindu, and well just Madras), and his ability to bend language to his purposes (“I mean what I mean, but they can’t be so mean” is a priceless thing to say when your main characters are losing their minds about fish in the Sambar).

S. Ve’s plays are funny too. In her post, Tilo calls him the Seinfeld of Madras. I agree. Seinfeld and Larry David are very funny, but do make their characters likable. The reason you laugh at Kramer or George or Elaine is because they are so uniformly obnoxious that it gives us immense pleasure to watch them falling flat on their faces. All of Crazy’s characters by contrast are immensely likable (at least I find them adorable). They have a Wodehousian detachment from reality. No one is remotely evil, political or social issues of the times are almost never dealt with, characters are mostly bumbling and adorable idiots. If you like your comedy to be of the escapist variety, Crazy’s a fairly dependable sort to turn to.

But of late, it’s a pity to see both Sekar & Crazy stuck in a rut. It’s as if comedians are like Russian dolls and have only so many jokes inside them. Once you’ve gotten to the last tiny doll, you can only reassemble them and start over. But I suppose it doesn’t matter too much, really. All you need is MMKR and your family around to escape from

[1] The truly hair-raising part is that this question continues to be asked. Only this time as an outdated, but nevertheless important conversation starter in arranged-marriage-first-phone-call conversations. Even the possibility that judgements about one’s character or personality are being made on the basis of one’s response to this question is at least one important reason why the process sucks.
[2] Important disclaimer: I haven’t watched any of the plays of either playwright, and my exposure is restricted to the movies they were involved with, the odd audio recording and any crumbs thrown to the masses via television.
[3] Somehow YG Mahendran never figured in this question. At least that was the case in my family. Perhaps there vast numbers of YGM fans out there put me in the, er, “loosu” category on the basis of my answer some secret question that didn’t actually mention his name. To these YGM fans, I’d like to say, “You were right”. I’ve never liked him, and we wouldn’t have had much in common.
[4] Then again, what choice do kids these days have? To actually harbour a preference for Karunas or the hundreds of Karunas wannabes means that you have not only seen their work, but know enough to distinguish between them… When you have been reduced to such lows, it seems too cruel to ask you questions about wit and timing and plot and all the other qualities that mark the good comedian.

Update: For non-Southerners, the closest Hindi example to MMKR is Jaane bhi do yaaron. MMKR is no where as cynical, though. Similarities are limited to the way the plot is set up (layers and layers of carefully planned and executed scenes that all add up to a wonderfully hilarious finale)

A humorist after my own heart

Some humorists make you laugh till your stomach hurts. Others can make you chuckle ruefully. Woody Allen makes me glad I’m me. [1]

I first fell for Allen’s words, not his movies. I read White Feathers first (or it may have been Side Effects) and moved on to the scripts of Annie Hall, Manhattan and a couple of others I don’t recall now. I must have been in my under-grad then. I’m not sure what directed me to his books at the USIS library, but I suspect I’d have found his works sooner or later. It’s difficult to imagine who would have replaced Allen had I not discovered Allen.

Over the years, I’ve watched many of his movies (although I’m glad that I still have quite a few saved for rainy days ahead) – from the truly sublime ( Crimes and Misdemeanors , Zelig , Annie Hall, Manhattan), the utterly delightful ( Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan Murder Mystery) to strictly-for-fans only ( Sleeper, Don’t drink the water, The Front, The Purple Rose of Cairo). It’s good to be the fan of a man who is not only a genius, but also prolific. Just compare the experience of being a Woody Allen fan to being a fan of, oh, David Mamet or David Lynch – with Allen you simply get more.

I suspect age may have had something to do with how thoroughly I fell in love with Woody Allen. For a 17 year old, to live in a big city, have sparkling conversations with friends, listen to jazz, visit museums, and yes, deal with existential problems (Allen’s characters almost exclusively have existential problems – infidelity, temptation, boredom… You don’t often come across characters who have bad jobs, or no-job, no-money, and most certainly never no-apartment) all represented the very best of “adulthood”. Allen’s world was the stuff my dreams were made of.

I’m older now, and I still want to turn into an Allen character when I grow up. Technically, I’m supposed to be living that life I dreamt about at 17 (and in a way, I suppose I am, although I don’t live in the Upper East Side or hang around Swedish film festivals). Now, I simply appreciate their fine escapist quality. I don’t resent the 20-something artists their real estate. They seem to be so sweetly unhappy with their lot that I don’t grudge them the odd 2-bedroom-apartment-with-terrace-and-view-to-die-for, in Midtown or Belgravia.

Also, Allen is an optimist. I can’t think of a single movie of his at the end of which I felt cynical. Things that are liable to make one want to kill oneself in real life – losing the love of your life, getting caught committing murder, or having your spouse of several years cheat on you – only seem to leave Allen’s characters perplexed and mildly annoyed. And in almost all of these cases, you just might manage to live happily ever after (or as happy as one’s neuroses will allow) after all. No, you don’t want Woody Allen for lessons in morality. You watch them to amuse yourself.

A good number of my friends are NOT Allen fans. Their complaints range from
“he looks like he does, and yet ends up with very pretty ladies”, “he married his own daughter, for crying out loud!”, “they talk too much in his movies”, to “he’s a twisted guy who makes twisted movies”… As for the first complaint, I admit it was a bit awkward to see him pair up with Julia Roberts, but in his old movies, honestly, it didn’t feel at all weird to see him with Diane Keaton or any of his other leading ladies. He’s never vain about his looks – whether he’s playing a cheesy, unsuccessful talent manager, an oily Latin lover, or a husband dumped by Meryl Streep for a woman, his looks are an essential part of the charm. As for his personal life, well, he’s no more or no less koo-koo than tens of other Hollywood stars (including the erstwhile matinee idol – Tom Cruise). Who cares what he does with his life as long as he makes such wonderful cinema?

This week-end, I watched Match Point. I found it a bit boring at first (the first two-thirds are pretty slow going), but the last third convinced me that the master hasn’t quite lost his touch yet. It is such a thoroughly delightful movie. But I fear that Allen may have become dated. The average age of the audience was 55. This figure was skewed by 7 or 8 odd people below 35, all of whom, I was glad to note were desis. I can see how selling Allen may be a difficult proposition when the mainstream audience needs Kiera Knightly to draw them into watching Austen, and Ashton Kutcher to make sequels to Sidney Poitier flicks (*shudder*).

I turn to the other humorists I’ve been writing about when I need to be cheered up, or need to get away from my life’s madness. I turn to Allen when I need to be reminded about myself. [1]

[1] Reading back, I realize some of this stuff sounds very vain – after all who am I to say that Woody Allen reminds me of me? I can only protest that when I say some of these things, I do so with the greatest degree of awe. A lot more of “Allen reminds me of the best I want to be”, with just the odd dash of “he reminds me of who I am.” [2]
[2] While I don’t want to sound very vain, I don’t mind sounding somewhat vain.

Losing something on the way from Madras to H’wood.


I had big plans of enjoying a decent movie after the disappointment of Chithiram Pesuthadi. And I ended up watching Baasha, in English – with Viggo Mortensen & William Hurt playing Rajinikanth & Raghuvaran respectively. And I am curiously happy to say this – it was a lousy copy!

A History of Violence = Baasha ++ Sex ++ Violence (broken noses are particularly abundant) – – family drama – – 8-philosophy, no auto-kaarans, and especially no achakkus in any form whatsoever, not even the stray gumukku. In all a pale copy that fails to do justice to the original. Ed Harris & William Hurt play evil dadas nicely – but the man who matters, the auto-kaaran (well, he’s a diner-kaaran here) is wooden. The part I don’t get is why they nominated Maria Bello for her role. She’s alright, but her performance is quite ordinary. Harris and Hurt are much better even in their minor roles.

The agony and the agony

How do the sports fans do it? Year after year, championship after championship? How do they keep coming back for more? Every year, I promise myself I shan’t do this again. But come Oscar time, there I am, a simpleton, hoping against hope that this year it won’t be about past debts, about which movie is morally right, which movie evokes the right baby boomer memories or whatever crazy excuse they come up with each year in deciding the winners. In true Hollywood style, I’ll try to be positive, and count my blessings. So here are some of the things I am grateful for:

– Joaquin Phoenix not winning for the Johnny Cash movie.
– Munich not winning for best adapted screenplay
– Wallace & Gromit’s winning
– That the surprise winner was Crash, and not some song & dance movie

Karl Marx would’ve had tears in his eyes. Equitable distribution of wealth is possible. He might not have seen Hollywood in the role of the just distributor, but it does go to show that miracles do happen, just like Ron Howard says they do.

I don’t have the energy to sit through 3 more hours next year, to watch Paul Giammati win for a 2 minute appearance in some movie or wait for 30 more years to watch the Academy finally give Ralph Fiennes an Honorary Oscar. But this is the post-Oscar battered-me talking. For once I hope I will continue to feel this bad, so I’m not here same time next year, ranting about one more miserable ceremony.

Dinner and a movie? Skip the dinner.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

This week end, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to defend Texas to a couple of friends from out of town. The questions flew hard and fast – haven’t you heard of building vertically? How do you survive here without a car? Why are meals always prepared for families instead of for an individual? I didn’t have answers to those questions. I repeat what I told them. This is Texas. It took me a couple of years to get used to it, and I have. I am positive that when I make that trip back home and visit my favorite restaurants, I will ask waiters for the rest of my food / coffee / whatever. I will probably feel disconcerted to leave home and arrive at my destination in under 15 minutes. I may not feel motivated enough to drive without a Hummer honking away behind me. Yes, this is Texas, and I’ve gotten used to it.

I didn’t realize how much of a Texan I’ve unsuspectingly become until I watched The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. I felt completely at home in this movie – with the accent, the terrain, ever-present Spanish. I particularly loved the lonely old man who listens to listen to Spanish radio because he likes the way the language sounds. I love watching Telemundo myself for the same reason. And for the fact that someone gets slapped every seventh minute (Ekta Kapoor and Radhika – ladies, you can learn TONS of lessons from these Mexican soaps).

Alright, alright, I’ll get to the point. You’d think Three Burials is a western, about cowboys and Sheriffs and vigilantes delivering justice to one and all on horse back. You have all of this. But the cowboys of Three Burials also round up cows in the middle of nowhere, shoot coyotes, sometimes get shot themselves, speak Spanish, and are quite poor (as a one-time watcher of “Dallas” and sometime resident of Dallas, I have become disabused of the idea that everyone in Texas owns a ranch dotted with thousands of cattle and the occasional oil well). Far from finding true love (don’t even dream of “forbidden” love, all you Ang Lee fans), here, an evening out with the town slut passes for romance. No, the cowboys of Three Burials are not glamorous. Tommy Lee Jones plays the guy to whom you attribute all the “cowboy” qualities you’ve distilled from years of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne (loyalty, honor, an apparently unshakeable sense of justice), because you’ve been conditioned to do so. That he turns out to be all of that, and also mad as a hatter comes as a surprise.

You’d think Three Burials is a story of redemption and justice. If you harm someone, even accidentally, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Barry Pepper’s character reminded me of Matt Damon in Crash. You begin by hating him, but end up feeling sorry for him, even rooting for him as the movie unfolds. But when you start laughing at him just as he’s having hot coffee poured on his lap and his nose broken all within a minute, it comes as a surprise.

You’d think Three Burials is a commentary on illegal immigration and callous government officials. Mexican lives are not worth as much as American lives, or so appears to be the general philosophy of both the Sheriff and the Border Patrol. That the Sheriff suddenly feels the need to visit Six Flags or drive his truck off the road in order to delay his investigation comes as a surprise.

Three Burials is full of surprises. If you love your Zane Grey, Three Burials is not the movie for you. It features mad cowboys, Sheriffs who need Viagra, and embalming lessons you will not learn in Six Feet Under. The best thing about the movie is its sheer nonchalance. The violence, the humor, and some truly disgusting things they do to a dead body (Think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta blows off someone’s head in a car, and they clean the car of blood and brain. Multiply it by a factor of 10 – yes, it is that gross and that funny) – everything is treated with a casualness that takes your breath away again and again.

But for all that, the movie doesn’t quite come up to scratch. There’s no meaningful “so what” at the end of it. And there are too many things that feel completely out of place (Pete Perkins’s proposal to the waitress, the Sheriff’s suddenly sprouting a conscience, the whole mystery about Estrada’s family), and keep this movie from being a truly great movie.

Final verdict: it’s a decent movie, full of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. However, it is a bit disappointing, as all of these surprises don’t really add up to much. Watch the movie to get a taste of Texas and a few laughs that will leave you wondering about your own tastes. And do yourself a favor, please skip the pop-corn and coke.

Go here to read Falstaff’s more enthusiastic review.