Sunday, June 28, 2015

ഓം ശാന്തി ഓശാന (Ohm Shanthi Oshaana) (2014)

Director: Jude Anthany Joseph
Writers:  Jude Anthany Joseph, Midhun Manuel Thomas
Cast:       Nazriya Nazim, Nivin Pauly, Aju Varghese
Language: Malayalam

A spirited young girl, Pooja (Nazriya), would stop at nothing to get the first love of her life, even if it takes seven years and several heartbreaks. Film starts with her father (Renji Panicker) waiting outside the labour room for her birth, a cliched scene in Malayalam cinemas off late, and then jumps to 1999 when she is a 16-year-old school student. This is I guess the first anachronistic mistake of the film since during those times it used to be pre-degree in colleges in stead of the plus-two system. She gets infatuated with an idealized communist social worker/farmer (Nivin Pauly) and there is the obvious class difference between the two. First half of the film have her following him around but ends with him telling her off pointing out that she is just a kid. Like her father, she also pursues career in medicine and leaves for Calicut to pursue the same. The second half of the film is also more of the same with the guy coming back to her life after a gap and goes through other convoluted cringe worthy plot points to end with the predictable outcome.

I don't like to nitpick regarding anachronistic things in films but when you have one which solely relies on nostalgia for its comedy and as selling point, then it is very disconcerting when you see so many obvious and lazy mistakes. Film could have easily been set starting four-five years ahead of what it is originally but I guess the director, who was also born in 1983, had to convolute it such that he can go through all the time period references that he wants to cram in. Like I said, you get mistakes like plus-two students in pre-degree era, tourist buses that look like Volvo ones in 1999, dressing style that is around 5-6 years ahead of its time at least and other such annoying things. If you want to shove down nostalgia down audience's throat then at least do some justice on that front bu working a little more harder as it pales in comparison to films like 1983 and Premam, both of which starred Nivin Pauly.

Film is told from the perspective of its female lead and she isn't all that convincing as the tomboy character. It seems all the director could think of to give as a trait to convey that image is have her ride a Hero Honda CBZ. It is obvious that she cannot ride a bike but he manages to cover it up through some clever shots of its tires, stand and just legs and you never get a zoomed out shot of her riding the bike. Whatever else that director puts in to convey the tom-boyishness is also not convincing and it looks more like a girl who has not grown up rather than being bold. Part of it is to do with the writing and partly to do with limited acting capability of its lead. 

All that said, the film is watchable with out being any good. It never falls into un-watchable territory and there are plenty of laughs to be had from several set-piece comedy sequences like the first 'No Smoking' bit, the Chinese family scene and the soldier battle scene which was used very well for its trailer. Also the Doordarshan Prathikaranam sequence was very well done. Songs in it are very good to listen to and is used such that there is some purpose for it as a story-telling device. Overall it is a light watch done in a way that many of the Malayalee audience find highly amusing (like Ustad Hotel, Vellimoonga) but I don't. It did very well at box office collecting close to ten crores.

Rating: 2.5/5  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Bridge (2006)

Director: Eric Steel
Writer:   Tad Friend

This is a documentary exploration about the mythic beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, the most popular suicide destination in the world, and those drawn by its call. Steel and his crew filmed the bridge from two separate locations during daylight hours for all of 2004 and thereby recording most of the two dozen deaths in that year (and preventing several others). They also taped interviews with friends, families and witnesses, who recounts stories of struggles with depression, substance abuse and mental illness. 

Before watching this, the thing that I remember foremost about Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco would be that scene from the film 'Vertigo'. The bridge was opened in 1937 and recorded approximately 1200 deaths by 2003. Apparently its death toll has since been surpassed by Nanjing Yangtze river bridge with more than 2000 deaths by 2006. For Golden Gate Bridge, the fall is around four seconds long and you will reach 120 miles per hour by the time you hit water after the 245 feet fall and is equivalent to the force of a speeding truck hitting a concrete wall. It holds a fatality rate of 98% which makes it attractive for those want to commit suicide. 

Some of the people, who were filmed jumping by the makers and died, were with mental problems and others were dealing with things like depression, alienation and just plain desire to die. There is one guy whose life is recounted by a family friend. His single-mother had contemplated abortion when she had him but decides against it since she thought that the kid will tide her over her own depression. When the mother died after suffering from cancer, this guy saw it pointless to continue with his life and communicates the same to their family friend who is recounting this. This is the only instance in the film where there is matter-of-factness about the whole thing and rest of the stories are the typical ones you hear. There is stigma attached to suicide in the society and a sense of bitterness by surviving acquaintances as if it is a crime against them. It is an extremely predictable reaction because all these feelings come up because you tend to empathize, sympathize, get angry, guilty etc from a selfish point of view. You feel pain when you see someone suffering because you put yourself in that position. Most things happen from a selfish point of view. 

Overall the documentary is a very good watch in the surreal sort of sense. I found the first half of it more interesting as I wasn't sure about the theme of the documentary. The second half features story of someone surviving the fall and also some garden variety suicidal stories which I didn't find that interesting. The last sequence of the film is the one they captured best on film and also the coolest jump out of the lot. This guy with long hair is featured through out the film with him walking on the bridge. Some have criticized the film for its snuff factor but I don't think it is a valid criticism. The crew had made their motivation for filming a secret from the officials and avoided any sort of publicity. You have the freedom to make art out of anything and the film is poetic and disturbing at the same time and makes for a very surreal watch. I have always felt that jumping out of heights is a good way to die as you do enjoy an exhilarating free-fall as a bonus feature.

Rating: 3.5/5 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

എലിപ്പത്തായം (Elippathayam: Rat-Trap) (1982)

Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Writer:   Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Cast:      Karamana Janardanan Nair, Sharada, Jalaja
Language: Malayalam

Film is centered around a family in post-feudal Kerala who are finding it difficult to come to grips with their new reality. It consists of three siblings with the eldest being a very lazy and patriarchal bachelor guy called Unni (Karamana) who is also prone to paranoia and cowardice. The second one is a middle-aged spinster (Sharada) and the youngest one is a tutorial going comparatively modern girl (Jalaja). Over the course of the film we learn that they also have a married sister who is the eldest among them and is making demands for their assets to be partitioned. We find that the dynamics in the house itself is such that the character played by Sharada has become like a maid to her other siblings and is often taken for granted. Rats getting trapped is a recurring motif in the film and by the end we realize that it is a metaphor for the trapped existence of the characters played by Karamana and Sharada who are caught between two worlds. 

Film actually begins on a funny note as the three characters are chasing a rat in near darkness. Then there is a sequence in which the youngest sister is seen dusting off an old rat-trap and she demonstrates how a rat will get trapped using her hands and this is done in a very Hitchcockian fashion. Then she is shown taking the first rat that is trapped to a pond in order to drown and kill it. The sequence is set to a very distinctive and foreboding background music and it is recurring sequence in the film. Towards the end we see that instead of rat, a very sick Sharada is taken to the pond and during the end sequence it is Karamana being taken. Karamana is totally dependent on others for his existence and he shows fuck all gratitude for it. He represents the exploitative feudal land lord but since feudalism has ended, he is exhibiting it towards his younger sister who lives very much like a slave. The exploitation is not outright cruel but it is just that he takes his privileged position of being the patriarch for granted and his obliviousness when behaving in a thoroughly selfish manner is utmost pathetic. The youngest sister (Jalaja) is also lazy in the modern sense and don't let herself be exploited by her two eldest siblings. She has come to grips with the new reality and takes bold steps to escape from the tharavadu (household). After that, Sharada falls sick and the only concern that Karamana exhibits is regarding how he will get fed. Sharada is taken by the villagers, presumably to the hospital, but the scene is like one of the rat sequences which finally cuts to the pond. Finally the reclusive Karamana is forced out and thrown to the pond as if he cannot bring himself to commit suicide so that he can also escape from his trapped rat life. These last two sequences in the film could very well be symbolic in the sense that both these characters are so meek that they cannot even take the initiative to end their own lives.

It was 'Elippathayam' that first brought international recognition for Adoor as it received an award from BFI (British Film Institute). It was also screened at Cannes in the Un Certian Regard, which is certainly a big deal for a film from India. It reminded me of Todd Solondz films which can best be described as social satire of the darkest kind and usually features very cringy characters and situations. The performances from both Karamana and Sharada are excellent and I was surprised that they didn't get national awards for it. They are ably supported by rest of the cast. Film is medium paced and the directorial flourishes during the opening scenes grabs your attention immediately. Nothing is spoon-fed to the audience and we will learn gradually about all the characters. It is something that I enjoy in films since it makes the experience cerebral. To sum up, it is one of the best films I have seen from Malayalam and is widely considered as Adoor's best film.  

Rating: 5/5  

Monday, June 22, 2015

ഇരകള്‍ (Irakal) (1985)

Director: K. G. George
Writer:    K. G. George
Cast:      Ganesh Kumar, Thilakan, Sukumaran

Baby (Ganesh) is the youngest son of a rubber baron (Thilakan) from high-range Mundakkayam. His eldest brother is involved with illegal timber and ganja business while his middle brother is a drunkard who is pissed off with their controlling father. His elder sister is a loose woman whose marriage is in doldrums. Film begins with Baby injuring a junior student seriously, during a ragging session, because of which he is suspended and forced to go back to his home. From the first scene itself it is clear that he is psychologically in a precarious state and when he gets back to his home we find the reasons for him being such and the dysfunctional family got a lot to do with it.  Basically the film is an examination of Baby's psychological state when put in context with his family's state. It also works as one of the best portrayal of a Christian family setting in the Achayan mode.

Good psychological thrillers are rare in Malayalam. Manichithrathazhu is more of a mystery film and cannot be classed as a psychological thriller. Irakal, which translates as Victims in English, would remind one of Roman Polanski films like 'Repulsion' and 'The Tenant' with its use of dream/surreal imagery, even though only in limited doses. The film is told from the perspective of  its psychologically traumatized protagonist and other good film from Malayalam with such an approach that I could think of is 'Aham'. The best thing about Irakal is that there aren't any binary characters in it. Baby has a love interest in the film and she is shown to be extremely practical about it due to her poor background. She doesn't expect him to marry him and there isn't the usual melodramatic hoopla surrounding the fixing of her marriage to someone else. But in what can be considered as a cliche-bender, Baby is slighted by it and proceeds to prevent the marriage by killing the groom. In one sense, Baby is feeling cheated by everyone else and we are totally sympathetic towards him even though he is spiraling out of  control. The film reaches the predictable conclusion of putting an end to all this but that is also done in a very fresh manner.

Overall the film is a great watch and is a unique one in Malayalam film history because of the treatment of its characters. Thilakan is excellent in his role as the father character and according to wiki, he narrowly missed out on a National award for his performance. He has portrayed so many memorable father roles but many of them tended to be on the extremes (strictness being a regular trait for eg,). In this one, he plays someone who want to just get on with things. One criticism that one could make is that there is some sub-par acting involved but it doesn't bring down the quality of the film. Ganesh made his debut with this film and he is good overall in the role even though one could say it is a bit uneven in some places. It was produced by actor Sukumaran who plays middle brother in the film. It was well-received critically but bombed at the box office.

Rating: 4/5  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

പഞ്ചവടിപ്പാലം (Panchavadi Palam) (1984)

Director: K. G. George
Writers:  K. G. George, Yesuadasan
Cast:      Gopi, Nedumudi Venu, Srividya, Jagathy, Sukumari, Thilakan
Language: Malayalam

A henpecked politician wants his name attached to a new bridge, even if that means destroying another, perfectly serviceable bridge. He is egged on by his coterie and even the opposition is also in on the plans as long as they get a cut from the government contract and associated activities. As everything proceeds religious politics also enter into picture which is resolved by a mutually agreed formula that is quite the norm in Kerala politics. Film works as a political satire and looks even more relevant when put in context with what is happening these days in Kerala politics with numerous scams that everyone are aware of. 

Film is based on a short story with the same name by Veloor Krishnankutty. The characters in it are given names from Hindu, Christian and Muslim mythologies and are portrayed in a caricatured manner. The deliberate lack of subtlety was a bit disconcerting for me initially but you will adjust to it. It does become cleverer as it progresses and the overall exaggeration sits pretty well now because the politicians are also very unsubtle when it comes to looting people these days. I don't think there were many films prior to this which had entrenched corruption as their central theme. You get a microcosm of what Kerala politics is these days with this film which was made three decades ago. I don't think the condition was this bad in those days and in that sense the film can be considered prophetic. It features almost every other features of Kerala political system including how things are carved out based on religious lines and the only thing that I could think of that it doesn't tackle is the dynastic politics which is chronic in the Congress party. We are having a crucial bi-election this month in Aruvikkara and you can see everything that is bad about Kerala politics happening in that campaign. The only qualification for the Congress candidate is being the son of dead MLA and you can see all parties approaching religious power centers for votes. The ruling party (Congress) is smeared with all sorts of scams and it will be a travesty if they manage to win this one due to sympathy votes.

Overall the film is a great watch and is one that has stood the test of times. At around 130 minutes length, it is around twenty minutes longer than it should be. Everything in it is very exaggerated including the background music and some might find that a bit problematic. It boasts of a great ensemble cast. The new bridge collapses quite predictably during the last scene and it is done quite well in terms of effects. Other obvious film for comparison would be 'Sandhesham' which had so many quotable lines and is a favorite of mine. The humor in Panchavadi Palam is quite different in nature as everything is distributed evenly across its script without relying on set-piece dialog barrage between characters. The only other film I have seen from K. G. George, that too not in its entirety, is 'Yavanika' which is considered as his masterpiece. 

Rating: 4/5  

Friday, June 19, 2015

വിധേയന്‍ (Vidheyan) (1994)

Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Writers:  Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Paul Zacharia
Cast:       Mammootty, M.R. Gopakumar, Tanvi Azmi
Language: Malayalam, Kannada

It is a cinematic adaptation of the Novella 'Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum' by Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia and it explores the master-slave dialectic in Southern Karnataka settings. Thommy (M.R. Gopakumar) is a Christian migrant labourer from Kerala who is new to the Karnataka-Kerala border village in which Pattelar (Mammootty) is sort of the feudal overlord. When they first meet, Pattelar proceeds to humiliate the migrant and subsequently rapes his wife. Even though Thommy is enraged at first he is helpless to do anything about it. On top of that he is co-opted by Pattelar into his inner circle by offering him a job in the local toddy shop and makes him his trusted servant. The title of the film translates as 'The Servile' and is told from the perspective of Thommy.

Going by the above synopsis some would presume that the film is a tale of cruelty told in a very serious fashion. My memory of it from watching bits and pieces of it when I was very young was also like that. But it is told with plenty of black humor with minimal dialog. Pattelar is not portrayed as the uber bad guy and is someone with his own insecurities and vulnerabilities. When he asks Thommy's help to kill his wife and make it look like an accident, he quips that her brothers can be a troublesome if it is not done properly. The feudal master-slave dynamics still exist in many rural parts of India but is extinct in Kerala. The time period that the film is set in is not mentioned explicitly and I would guess it to be mid 70s or something like that. The character Pattelar speaks Kannada as his mother tongue and delivers Malayalam in a very odd manner when he speaks to Thommy. It was off-putting initially as it also sounded different  to Mammootty's normal voice and we are so used to how he speaks. M.R. Gopakumar is amazing in his role as Thommy but it was Mammootty who got the national award for his role in this film. On balance, I think the former was more deserving to win but one should praise the latter for accepting such a role that would be considered by many to be very negative. Trivia: Steven Spielberg wanted to work with Indian actor M.R. Gopakumar in the movie, but due to his passport traveling issues he was unable to accept that offer to act in Lost World: Jurassic Park.

I hadn't seen any of the Adoor Gopalakrishnan films in its entirety prior to watching this and Vidheyan was indeed a great watch. The recent Malayalam films from him doesn't look very interesting and I don't know whether it is due to the fact that he is hamstrung by limited actors from this generation. In Vidheyan, the dialog delivery in the able shoulders of its two leads is quite safe but lesser actors can certainly make it quite grating to watch. There is one scene towards the end when Pattelar and Thommy decides to go into hiding and we see Thommy's wife crying and approaching someone. You expect that she is actually approaching Pattelar to complete Thommy's emasculation but  instead she goes to Thommy. Then Thommy consoles her that he will take care of Pattelar as if that is top of her worries and that was amazingly funny and sums up the film as a tragi-comedy. As far as technical things go, I watched a really shite youtube print of the film and it is not fair to comment based on that. Anyway it is shot in a very raw manner and the approach is that of realism. I guess if you are looking into Adoor Gopalakrishnan's filmography, Vidheyan will be a very good film to start with.

Rating: 4.5/5 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wag the Dog (1997)

Director: Barry Levinson
Writers:  Larry Beinhart, Hilary Henkin, David Marnet
Cast:       Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche

Shortly before an election, a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer join efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Robert De Niro plays the role of spin-doctor while Dustin Hoffman is the Hollywood producer. The film was released one month before the outbreak of the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the subsequent bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan by the Clinton administration prompted the media to draw comparisons between the film and reality. It is a loose adaptation of Larry Beinhart's novel 'American Hero'.

I read somewhere that when Tarantino screened Reservoir Dogs somewhere, he warned the audience that those who enjoyed Rain Man among them are advised to leave since his film is not for them. I don't know if there is any truth to that story but I do enjoy Tarantino films and I did enjoy Rain Man when I saw it some years back. That one was also directed by Barry Levinson and is the right kind of feel-good film that I actually enjoyed watching. He had also directed Sleepers which also featured both Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and was a decent watch. But I found it really difficult to finish this film of his which was quite well-received upon its release. It did have a fortunate timing due to the events after its release. The film is like a cynical take on how things are spun and presented in American politics and it does so with the subtlety of bashing someone's head repeatedly with a baseball bat. It is like Disney version of 'In The Loop'. It got academy awards nomination for its screenplay and maybe the element of it being a film depicting some Hollywood producer swung it for them. They do have a habit of conferring things on such kind of films and films like Argo and The Artist are examples for the same. Dustin Hoffman also got nominated and it must have been a poor year. Then again, one shouldn't take academy awards too seriously.

To sum up, the film is a terrible watch despite boasting a stellar cast list. It did have an interesting theme which should resonate because of things like how consensus was built for Iraq-War but the whole planned thing of planting stories with great perfection didn't really do it for me. The humor in it is also not the kind I like and I prefer much more of sweary darkness. The film's success proves that there are plenty of people who enjoy the kind of humor that is there in this film. The performances from the cast are nothing spectacular to write home about and it is filmed in a very 90s Hollywood style (Think Natural Born Killers, JFK etc) of which I am not a big fan of.

Rating: 1.5/5

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero) (1996)

Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers:  Jean-Francois Deniau, Alain Le Henry, Jacques Audiard
Cast:       Mathieu Kassovitz, Anouk Grinberg, Sandrine Kiberian, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Language: French

Set in France at the end of World War Two Albert Dehousse finds out his father wasn't a war hero and his mother is a collaborator. He leaves his wife and goes to Paris. Gradually he inveigles himself with the resistance movement by inventing stories about his own past in the movement. They trust him and he helps them to trace collaborators. 

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the role of old Albert and do some narration while Mathieu Kassovitz, who made his name as the director of La Haine, plays the role of young Albert. This period in French history had some interesting dynamics as France didn't offer much resistance when Germans invaded them (I don't blame/taunt them for that because Germany was much stronger) and a period of four years of German occupation followed. When it ended, naturally there was animosity towards those who were considered to be collaborators. I don't totally understand much of their hatred. You can justify some of it if it is indeed directed against people who actively helped Germans in crushing the French resistance but things like baying for those who had relationships with German soldiers are bang out of order and reflects their own insecurities partly related to the emasculation that they must have felt due to occupation. Film is kind of a satirical take on this with subtlety and it kind of reminded me of 'Amelie', a terribly overrated piece of shit film. It was Audiard's second film as director, after which it took him until 2001 to come out with 'Read My Lips' as a fully evolved director with his own characteristic style.  

Overall the film is a very good watch even though you don't feel like it is indeed an Audiard film. That might have got to do with the fact that it is an adapted screenplay from a novel with minimal contribution from Audiard. He won Palme d'Or at Cannes with his latest film Dheepan this year and I can't wait to watch it. One could see 'A Self-Made Hero' as a light film set during a complex period when much rewriting of history was taking place.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Papillon (1973)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers:  Dalton Trumbo, Lorenzo Semple Jr. , Henri Charriere
Cast:       Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory

A man befriends a fellow criminal as the two of them begin serving their sentence on a dreadful prison island, which inspires the man to plot his escape. Steve McQueen plays the role of Papillon, who is hell-bent on escaping, and Dustin Hoffman plays the role of Dega, a counterfeiter, who can underwrite their escape.

Film hinges on extremely physical performances from its two leads who got equal billing even though one of them plays the titular character but McQueen did insist on getting his name first in the same row. Steve McQueen, style-icon from the 60s, must have been in the waning period of his career but this film came immediately after his role in 'The Getaway'. It is indeed considered as his final great role and for him, the role of Papillon is very much against type. Dustin Hoffman as Dega is very funny in his typical dry manner. The first half of the film depicts the hell like life in prison which makes their plan to escape nothing but a logical next step. We don't get much insight into the backstory of the characters and I never felt that it was necessary. Hoffman's character is all about survival while Papillon wants freedom to live in the 'Civilized' world. After the escape to Honduras, he lives among tribal people with a wife and all that but he again flees from there to reach the mainland but gets himself caught again. We don't get many films that deals with colonial horror from Hollywood and this one is  one such even though it is seen through the eyes of a white convict. They are supposed to serve their time in the prison after which they are expected to serve equal amount of time as a Colonist in a remote island. 

Overall it is a very good watch with excellent performances from its leads. It is close to 150 minutes long and that length is necessary to make us really feel and relate to their ordeal. It does go a bit surreal during the sequence in Honduras making us wonder where it is going, but you have to admire the bureaucratic capabilities of Colonial empires as Papillon ends up back in the same prison after his capture in Honduras. The manner of cruelty by the prison authority is done in an impersonal matter of fact way which is preferable to some silly vendetta like portrayal.  The title for the film comes from the French word for butterfly.

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday, June 15, 2015

Patton (1970)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writers:  Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North, Ladislas Farago, Omar Bradley
Cast:       George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young

The film charts the career of controversial American General, George S. Patton. It begins with his operations in North Africa and then proceeds to his landings in Italy and subsequent march to Palermo and Messina where he is shown to be in a egotistical race with British General Montgomery to be the first to reach Messina. He gets chided for his actions and loose tongue there and gets sidelined for sometime. He later has his career high moment after Normandy Landings when he marches his 3rd Army through tough winter weather to hold Bastogne.  After the war he is again sidelined due to his lack of diplomatic skills.

Film is basically a character study on its titular character Patton. He is portrayed as someone who loves war and thinks he is destined to achieve great things during it. He is highly knowledgeable about history and claims that he had been involved in historic battles like Carthaginians war and Neapolitan wars. We can see his colleagues listening uncomfortably to these proclamations. He sees battle fatigue as cowardice which doesn't sit well now but was a common thing for Generals to do back then. Film actually did good for Patton's reputation but I came out of it with ambivalence. Sure, you need bastards like that to win these kind of wars, but in the large scheme of things whatever that happened in Western Front during second world war was child's play compared to what happened in Eastern Front. The whole European landings and the race to Berlin by US and UK was more of an exercise to get as much leverage during their negotiations with Russians and this part of war also featured a huge number of causalities because of this race aspect. Behavior by Patton and Montgomery seems very childish and was as dignified as someone who is trying to beat someone on who gets more during a riot loot. Bastogne was my favorite Band of Brothers episode and so that part of the film was very interesting.

Overall the film is a great watch and is done in an ambiguous way so that you can judge Patton favorably or unfavorably depending on your own biases. I had just about finished Dan Carlin's 24 hours long podcast series on first world war (Blueprint for Armageddon) and I guess I was predisposed to think of Patton as a dickwad. Performance by Geroge C. Scott, whose most memorable other role is the one he did in Dr. Strangelove, is excellent and the production quality of the film is very high. It is close to three hours long but you don't feel the length. It is not a traditional war film with a set-piece battle at the end and doesn't bother to make you understand how World War played out at a macro level in an elaborate fashion. That is fine because when Hollywood does that they invariably tend to portray as if US won the war.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Burn After Reading (2008)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers:   Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast:        Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich

A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempts to sell it, first to the CIA agent and then to Russians. 

Coming immediately after the universally acclaimed 'No Country For Old Men', Burn After Reading kind of received a critical backlash at the time of its release which was more of a reaction based on what people expected from the film rather than an objective assessment based on its merits. It is not a great film by any means but is nevertheless a very good watch with so many funny moments. We are used to sophisticated intelligence community films and also films where they are shown as bumbling fools. This kind of treads the middle path with those from CIA trying to get their heads around what is happening which is very much like how the audience is also reacting even though we are privy to more information. 

It is as star-studded as it can get in a Coens film. Performances are very good with many of them playing against type. It is one of those films with plenty of chance encounters connecting all the various characters and driving the film forward. But one does feel the connection between Frances McDormand and George Clooeny's character is a bit too convoluted and unnecessary in the large scheme of things. It was interesting to see some of the actors from Veep showing up in the film. I had seen it several years back close to  its release and was pleasantly surprised by it because of low expectations. It held up well on re-watch and is an underrated gem in the Coens' filmography. Camera was handled by Emmanuel Lubezki rather than their usual collaborator Roger Deakins.

Rating: 3.5/5

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Director: Bob Rafelson
Writers:  Carole Eastman, Bob Rafelson
Cast:       Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susuan Anspach

A drop-out from upper-class America picks up work along the way on oil-rigs when his life isn't spent in a squalid succession of bars, motels and other points of interest. We are shown that he is in a relationship with a waitress who is highly insecure about her significance in the relationship. He is shown to be very impulsive and mean-mouthed but gradually we learn that he was born into a very rich family with sophisticated tastes and he had walked out of these privileges. 

Film is a character study on the protagonist role played by Jack Nicholson, with his typical bordering on psychosis performance, and he totally owns the part. It will be fair to say that the film is unlike any other films I have seen. Actions by Bob comes as no surprise to us, especially the last scene of the film. It is not a character that I can relate with in terms of his thinking but you can understand him when he explains it during that famous conversation scene he has with his paralyzed dad-

Bobby: [finally talking with his paralyzed father] I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of... I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really... I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking... for auspicious beginnings, I guess... I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation... My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left... Are you all right? I don't know what to say... Tita suggested that we try to... I don't know. I think that she... seems to feel we've got... some understanding to reach... She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with... The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway...

The title of the film refers to the name of a Piano book for beginners. There is no better person to play a role like this and one could even say Jack Nicholson got himself typecast by playing too many of these sort of roles. This film was quite significant as a breakout performance for Jack Nicholson  but he displayed more range playing his role in 'Easy Rider' which came before this. Performance by Karen Black is also excellent as the easily pushed around partner. The only other film I have seen from the director is his remake of 'Postman Always Ring Twice, also featuring Jack Nicholson, and it was just about decent at best.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Director: Richard Donner
Writer:    Shane Black
Cast:       Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey

A veteran cop, Murtaugh (Danny Glover), is partnered with a young suicidal cop, Riggs (Mel Gibson). Both have one thing in common; hating working in pairs. Now they must learn to work with one another to stop a gang of drug smugglers. 

It can be best described as a mixture of buddy cop genre with odd couple one. I had contemplated watching it earlier so as to catch up with Mel Gibson's earlier works but opted to watch the Mad Max series instead. Got on to this eventually when I was actually trying to decide whether I should watch 'The Goonies'. The writer for this film, Shane Black, was also familiar to me from his excellent 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' which is again a much more comedic take on similar genre characteristics. Mel Gibson indeed had a niche action genre to himself and his character in this film is more worthy of the description Mad than Max from Mad Max series. The central plot point of the film is that a bunch of ex-CIA special forces guys are doing Heroin business and these cops comes across them through a murder investigation. These guys had helped run Heroin business during the Vietnam war to finance the native groups whom they were backing and this angle (albeit in South America) was explored recently in the film 'Kill The Messenger'. This thing was supposed to be a big secret till this journalist Gary Webb exposed it in the 90s. So I was kind of taken aback by this casual reference in Lethal Weapon.

Film is a good watch and the relationship between the two characters are very well fleshed out. Action sequences are very well done but towards the end it does go a bit self-indulgent. I really don't think there is anything more to be explored since the establishment of the characters was the interesting part and I don't have any intention to watch the subsequent three films made for the franchise. All of them were big box office successes with the last one coming in 1997. 

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

While We're Young (2014)

Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer:    Noah Baumbach
Cast:       Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver

A middle-aged couple's career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives. Film starts with this forties couple meeting their recently turned parents friends and realizing that they are not the same people anymore. They don't have kids and have come to terms with it. Josh (Ben Stiller), the husband in the couple, is a struggling documentary maker and he meets the young post-modern couple in one of his classes. They think they can relate more to these 25-year- olds rather than their usual friends. Over the course of the film they realize that things are not really what they seem, like you would expect from this sort of premise, but it does go out about it in such a fashion that it is quite hard to describe what it is.

One can also see this as a protest from Baumbach about the recent trend in documentary film-making (Catfish, HBO documentary on Robert Durst) where they mix facts with fiction to make the narrative interesting. I personally don't have too many problems with it, very much like almost all other characters in this film apart from Josh. The dynamics and power-play along with frustrations in their relationship are very subtly played out and Baumbach doesn't attempt to make it as if he is making it to be about some central point. The couple don't have that epiphany at the end to change their ways but they do indeed decide to adopt a child at the end, which is again a sort of 'black' humor from the director. 

The documentary film that Josh is making is I think a reference to Woody Allen film 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'. I am a fan of Noah Baumbach's work and he is someone who mixes Woody Allen with early Wes Anderson. This film is more of the former than the latter and ends with David Bowie's 'Golden Years' playing during the closing credits. It is a great watch and my favorite work of his is 'Frances Ha'. 

Rating: 4/5

Friday, June 5, 2015

แสงศตวรรษ (Syndromes and a Century) (2006)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Writer:    Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cast:       Nantarat Sawaddikul, Jaruchai Iamaram, Sophon Pukanok
Language: Thai

Story about director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's parents who were both doctors, and director's memories about growing up in the hospital environment. I didn't know anything about the film going into it and this semi-autobiographical aspect was lost on me. I had seen 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' from this director and saw this film as part of catching up with other films in his repertoire. 

The film shows two doctors both of whom are serving in an army hospital 40 years apart. The dialog and events in first part of the film are repeated again 40 years later in contemporary settings but with slightly different outcomes. Concept of reincarnation is again a theme in this film but I don't care much for it. The film is technically sound and the interaction between the characters are interesting enough to make it a good watch. There isn't much of a narrative or any sort of continuity to follow and I didn't get much meaning out of it. You do have the change in human interactions with modernity as people become more and more impersonal. There is a scene towards the end where people are engaging in a public aerobics exercise and that scene is very funny. The first half of the film doesn't have any background music while there is some in the second half. 

To sum up, it is a good enough watch mainly due to the random dialog and its technical aspects but I didn't really understand the film. The sets are exquisite and I might have got more out of the film if I was in a different mood without any distractions but as it stands, it just went over my head. Maybe there is nothing to actually get and that's the point. Open to stand corrected on re-watch but I don't think I will ever get round to  it. Uncle Boonmee was fantastic in an Ozu meets David Lynch kind of way.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Deep Web (2015)

Director: Alex Winter
Writer:   Alex Winter
Narrated By: Keanu Reeves

Deep Web is a feature documentary that explores the rise of this new form of Internet; decentralized, encrypted, dangerous and beyond the law. It is as much about the trial of Ross Ulbricht, accused as founder of Silk Road and as man who posed as its admin- Dread Pirate Roberts, as it is about the principles based on which many of these cyber-punks operate.

The film works like a arguments given by Ross' defense team and they make their case based on the circumstances under which things like deep web browser TOR and crypto-currencies like bitcoin propped up. Privacy and anonymity are their big selling point and Silk Road made use of these two features and operated as an online market place providing anonymity for its users. Ross Ulbricht during his defense admitted that he created Silk Road but that he was framed as its admin Dread Pirate Roberts. His thinking is based on the Austrian economics as proposed by the economist Ludwig von Mises and he saw Silk Road as a alternative market for drug trade that will help in reducing the violence associated with it. It is widely acknowledged theory that America's 'War on Drugs' has been on the whole counterproductive and it makes sense to legalize drugs and many states have started correcting themselves by legalizing marijuana. As long as there is demand for it and the government is pursuing this misguided war by making it illegal, plenty of money is to be made by going the illegal route and an online marketplace like Silk Road is a natural extension of the same. Even if you shut it down, dozens of other such mechanisms will take its place, like it has already, and it will be a case of dog chasing its own tail.

FBI's case is mainly built on their seizure of Silk Road server from Iceland and it has been iffy about how they found it and was presumably done without a warrant. This raises the big issue of digital privacy and fourth amendment but the judge during the trial allegedly took a very favorable stand towards the prosecution side and made a sham of the trial. As soon as Ross was arrested, a big thing was made about him hiring a hit-man to take out someone who was blackmailing him. The defense argues that this was done to prejudice the jury and no such official charge was made against him during the trial. 3500 pages of FBI investigation documents/evidence, which could have raised questions about their investigation methods, was given to the defense just a week ahead of the trial and it was't even allowed as evidence during the trail. Ross was convicted and has  been sentenced for life in prison without parole. You kind of suspect that this is not the end of this issue and there is a significant case to be made that it was a mistrial and probably Serial podcast will take up his case :) Under the existing laws, the creation of a market place where you can provide a platform for illegal drug trade should be enough for getting you a significant jail time but that doesn't make it fair, especially if the state has used questionable investigative methods. It is a question of piracy and as it stands, I think Police can seize your smartphones without any warrant for it. All they need to look for is Whatsapp application to arrest every fucker out there. In India, laws are made so complex that everyone is breaking them without knowledge and if the state want to target someone, they can easily do that. The slow judiciary just compounds the problem.

As for Silk Road, Bitcoin and Austrian economics, I am of the opinion that all of them are ultimately pipe-dreams. For any market, the major roadblock for them is to ensure the enforcement of contracts. Anonymity is a big hindrance to this and you are just relying on review mechanism to ensure that vendors stay true. I really doubt such a thing can sustain in this fashion without a centralized enforcement mechanism, which in case of normal markets is the state and in illegal markets would be the mafia and other such middlemen enforcers. As for bitcoin, I do reckon it is again misguided and will encounter significant problems when they scale up. It is not really anonymous and their  other big selling point of very low transaction costs, compared to other third party mechanisms like banks, will again won't remain so as they scale up.

Overall the film is a good watch giving a counter-argument to the state influenced mainstream media narrative regarding the case. The argument is one sided and works like propaganda and you can decide for yourself how much weight you need to give to their narrative. As we are in the post-Snowden era, the benefit of doubt goes largely to the defense here and the cloud over NSA scandal will remain over the state. Keanu Reeves doesn't add much through his narration but he was excellent in the Digital Vs Film documentary 'Side By Side. Deep Web was funded via crowd-sourcing. It is not wholly coherent as to what it wants to be but is very informative. I guess that is perfect since it is anyway about Deep Web in the first place which for most of us is deeply dark.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

പ്രേമം (Premam) (2015)

Director: Alphonse Puthren
Writer:    Alphonse Puthren
Cast:       Nivin Pauly, Krishna Shankar, Shabaressh Varma, Sai Pallavi
Langauge: Malayalam

The life of a person going through various phases is the premise of the story. Infatuation, romance, first love, pain of separation etc are gone through in the life of George (Nivin Pauly), in the company of his two friends, as he moves from school to college and finally with him entering his thirties in 2014. So it is the quintessential millennial story with a heavy dose of nostalgia, which is essentially what Nivin Pauly has built his career on.  

Film has been a huge success and its been extremely difficult to get tickets for it even on what is now the fifth day of its theatrical run. I am a big fan of director Alphonse Puthren's debut film, Neram, which also starred Nivin Pauly. That one stood out because of its stylish storytelling combined with slick editing and clever soundtrack and humor. Its running time of two hours, very short by Indian films standard, was just about right and I went into Premam with some premonition because of its 160 minutes running time. Film is a very entertaining watch but you do feel that it could have been easily made better with some tighter editing as the director do get very self-indulgent in some places. There are some four-five songs in it, all of which were not really needed, and it does go overboard with some of its film references. Renji Panicker has a cameo, again in his cliched new-gen father role, and that scene was just pure cringe.

There are three romances/infatuations in the film involving the protagonist with the first two done quite well and the last one feeling as if the director is not quite sure about how to end the film. The first half of the film goes like breeze while the second half have you looking at watch quite a number of times. The humor in the film is very much in the typical Nivin Pauly fashion, with him muttering things under his breath and his friends passing comments which can only be heard and not seen. This is a new technique in Malayalam films and I guess they do it to mask the inferior comedy writing/timing that these new artists possess. The supporting characters in the film are very well done and you don't have what is now the typical stupid friend (comedy relief character) of the protagonist, and on the contrary, stupidity is quite well spread across all the characters including the lead. It is quite difficult to describe what the film is other than as a Kerala millennial story done with extreme stylishness that you expect from the director.

I have seen some people comparing Nivin to Mohanlal and I am really not sure from where it is coming from. It is not really based on acting as it is his usual performance completely aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. He does have his mustache wound up (മീശ പിരിക്കൽ), which was a characteristic of quite a few forgettable Mohanlal films post 2000, but it is done with some deprecating self-awareness in this film. You do feel that the audience is kind of on their toes ready to boo if they indeed go overboard. Hopefully that will keep these guys from getting overconfident on the back of extreme success  of these films. Malayalees have a tendency to bring people down if they exhibit any sort of what they perceive as arrogance and you need to only ask Sreeshanth or Prithviraj for that.

Overall it is very good watch whilst not achieving any sort of perfection like Neram did. Film is light on story but the atmosphere carries it through. It will never pass the Bechdel Test and that is not surprising since it is from the POV of its male lead and there is not much depth to any of the romances involved, which is also not a criticism since that can be said of the real life millennial ones. I wish they ended it on another romance failure note since that would have been keeping with the overall tone of the film.  The director also appears in a cameo which is also surprisingly well done. Do watch it on big screen if you can manage to get tickets.

Rating: 3.5/5