Saturday, March 7, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is a good film, but hardly Oscar-worthy. Try telling that to the Oscar committee. Those hallowed gatekeepers to Hollywood recognition awarded it eight Oscars. What rankled was the fact that it came as no surprise. SM had been the media darling for months on end and the bookies’ favourite to win. Which fact leads me to believe that the rest of the world saw something genuinely brilliant in the film. Which belief makes me contemplate the appallingly low standards of the movie-going population and the fate of the human race in general.

Okay, credit where credit is due. Slumdog Millionaire had a brilliant premise that was also a wonderful plot device to showcase numerous aspects of Indian life. The production values were top-notch, some of the casting was excellent and given the relatively paltry sum Danny Boyle had to work with, he did some absolutely fantastic work. The shot locations were evocative of India; the venues chosen captured the soul of the land in as much as it is possible to compress a country to a few hours of celluloid. The music was in a class of its own and well-deserving of the Oscars it clinched. The entire package was a solid likeable crowd-pleaser with a simple uplifting theme and a Bombay filmed with so much love that it’s obvious the filmmakers fell for the city --- hard.

But the script,(a script which Danny Boyle said inspired ‘mad love’), oh the script was bollocks. Granted, the whole film had a fairytale feel to it, so a certain suspension of disbelief was required to enjoy it. But when two slum dwelling itinerants from Mumbai wind up in Delhi speaking the Queen’s English like the Queen herself, then the gap between disbelief and the suspension of it is an yawning chasm; a canyon that cannae be bridged. When Salim starts disbursing Benjamins to old pals, when he’s gotta know the dough will just end up back with his old masters, its more than odd. When a little child,very accurately done up like Lord Ram, materializes in the middle of a riot, it has a surreal Daliesque quality, like that pig-mask scene from The Shining. The dialogue lacked authenticity, coming as it did from Indian tongues unaccustomed to speaking in that manner. It feels like Danny told all his actors,” Speak clearly and slowly, pronounce every word correctly.” The result is that the lines lack the practiced nonchalance of true Bombayspeak, that wonderful synthesis of English and Hindi with effortlessly cool expletives as its cornerstone. The only actors who delivered their lines with a modicum of realism were veterans Anil Kapoor(quiz host) and Saurabh Shukla(Inspector Srinivas). In his defense, it must be said that Danny was attempting to create an essentially English movie, so the jarring incongruity of the dialog must be excused. But this is the Oscars; give the statuette to cinema that does not need apologists. The lines and delivery of, hell, even the casting, of the older avatars of Salim were plain horrid. When Salim justifies his rape of the teenage Latika with lines like ‘I am the elder. I am the boss. I am number one now.’, I had acid reflux. And it had nothing to do with the impending rape. Characters were badly sketched out, their motivations poorly delineated, their feelings and actions barely explained. Worse was the fact that the rags-to-riches story with a quick-fix solution was the same old-hackneyed fare that Bollywood has been churning out year after year. Danny’s inability to deviate from the trodden path of Hollywood sappiness, predictability and fairytale endings is his greatest failure as a visionary. Slumdog Millionaire has been done before, in various guises; we in India call it the last 30 years of Indian cinema. 

SM has become the Indian media’s darling for the past three months. A cause celebre that polarized the country, provoked indignation in many quarters, spawned a lawsuit against the makers but also inspired and made many proud. Now that it’s raining Oscars, everybody’s quick to pounce on the SM bandwagon. This irksome tendency to claim the film as India’s own is a miserable attempt to share in international film excellence recognition that has eluded us thus far. And with good reason, for Bollywood makes crap films. It also takes great films in other languages and turns them into execrable oeuvres of such mindblowing suckiness that it’s a miracle the whole world does not vanish into the blackhole. Bollywood, Mumbai was right under your noses. The source material for SM was a novel written by an Indian - you could have optioned it. The money was there ( Slumdog cost a paltry $10 million bucks –Hrithik Roshan gets more for his Coke endorsement.) This could have been your movie. It still wouldn’t be a great movie, but with the right spin, you coulda won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. But now, you have to hold your tale between your legs and beg for kinship at the table of the Brits; request affiliate status from somebody who is now seen as more Indian than Bollywood itself. What’s worse, this film might shape foreigners opinions and ideas about India for years to come. More’s the pity.

Well, atleast SM is not as bad as that other Indian cultural ambassador of the year, Arvind Adiga’s bland, uninspired novel The White Tiger. How it won the Booker is beyond me. Whatever the judges were smoking, it’s powerful stuff. 

Danny Boyle says he hopes to make a thriller in Bombay. Let’s hope he does not choose to adapt The White Tiger. Cos if he does, it will probably win 10 Oscars and make me catatonic.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ***1/2

Slow moving but rewarding, this film is a simple story of sin and redemption, crime and punishment.  A western set against the sprawling American landscape, The Three Burials is the story of a reckless young border patrolman and the consequences that arise when he accidentally kills a Meskin. The Meskin works in a ranch owned by Tommy Lee Jones, and, as has been proven numerous times, one does not fuck with Tommy Lee Jones and escape unscathed. The upright,tough Tommy is a man who lives by a strict moral code and when he finds out that this bloke did his Mexican friend in, he decides to give him a dose of frontier justice.

After making border patrolman dig up Mel, Tommy Lee gets himself three horses and embarks on an arduous journey to take the dead displaced Mexican back to the native village he fondly remembers and once described to him. The young patrolman, played to perfection by Barry Pepper is not too keen on the idea and has to be dragged kicking and screaming, at gun point. Tommy Lee directs himself with extraordinary grace, letting the slow, lethargic, mostly silent story tell itself at its own pace. It is hard to direct a slow movie that captivates you and The Three Burials does that to perfection. There are so many small things going on in the movie that captures the essence of the small Western town and the harsh Mexican landscape. The storytelling, non-linear in parts, manages to hold our attention throughout. A haunting score and a masterful script clinch the deal. The restrained and controlled direction is especially laudable, given that it is Tommy's directorial debut. Two gringos, one meskin with an unpronouncable name, sparse dialog, tight scripting, repetitive burials. 'nuff dead.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Hitcher (1986) ***1/2

Though not a road movie in the strictest definition of the term, for me The Hitcher will forever be classified under that elite domain. Set against the vast open landscape of America, the wide empty roads and bleak but beautiful backgrounds remind one of such roadies as Vanishing Point and Easy Rider. However, the similarities end there. While most road films have rebellion and freedom as their central themes, this one has fear.

 The Hitcher is a nihilistic depiction of a psychopathic killer, yet is never too violent or gory. Robert Harmon has crafted a beautiful little genre flick that eschews the gratuitious gore, faces in mirrors and cats leaping from hidden corners while still remaining atmospheric and chilling. 

The plot is simple. Jim Halsey,a young buck driving to California, picks up a hitcher on a deserted highway on a rainy night and soon finds out the man has more on his mind than simple transportation. The taciturn hitcher soon becomes voluble on his predilection for cutting off appendages and does the nice young driver know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured. Jim manages to kick the hitcher out, but our friendly thumb-waving maniac rejoins the hunt after getting picked up by another passing vehicle. The harrowing chase becomes a tornado of violence as the hitcher builds a mound of bodies. When a planted knife casts suspicion on Jim Halsey, the entire local police is mobilized for a massive manhunt. Halsey, framed and falsely accused is helped by a cute chick from a cafeteria. The ensuing car chases replete with helicopter seems to have been lifted straight out of Vanishing Point, but it works extremely well. Rutger Hauer, steely eyed, implacable and ruthlessly efficient steals the show as the hitcher. His character, John Ryder, a Ramboesque inscrutable badass whose motives are unclear is definitely one of the greatest villains of film. 

The Hitcher has a Kafkaesque feel to it, an anti-existentialist touch that suggest that we are merely pawns in a game of random chess, where every character can move anywhichwhere it pleases. The Hitcher is the only one in control; anarchy rules. One feels that his destiny is intertwined with Jim's and can only lead to the inevitably fatal conclusion. Good does triumph in the end, but at what cost? For what is humanity advantaged, if the evil man dies but the good man loses his soul. A pyrrhic victory this, like in Se7en. But to hell with the philosophizing. This is a brilliant little gem and when I say that this movie made me shit-scared of road trips and hitchhikers, you'll understand how hauntingly effective it is. All the goodwill that Jack Kerouac built for hitchhikers, this film effortlessly annihilated. 21st century traveler, you have been warned.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ** ( two stars out of five)

They should never have resurrected this franchise. The third installment of the Mummy is a piece of lamentable, uninspired filmmaking that will leave Imhotep spinning in his pyramid.

Having exterminated every mummy worth his linen in Egypt, Rick O’ Connell (Brendan Fraser) now fights the undead in another well known mummy habitat: China. This time along, the titular mummy is Emperor Han ( Jet Li), a ruthless megalomaniac whose quest for immortality leads him to Zi Juan ( Michelle Yeoh) a sexy, powerful witch. Han fancies Zi Juan, so when he finds her in flagrante delicto with his trusted general Ming, he orders Ming executed, which prompts the witch to literally petrify Han and his army.

A couple of millennia later, Rick O’ Connell (Brendan Fraser ) and his wife Evelyn are coaxed to come out of an idyllic retirement to deliver a sensitive package to China, where their dashing, rebellious son Alex has just unearthed the tomb of the Dragon Emperor. A propitious confluence of events leads to a family reunion, at which point, things (and the movie) start going to pot. With formulaic predictability the O’Connells manage to reawaken the Emperor who starts wreaking havoc and generally being an ill-mannered, fire-breathing badass. Rick and his family, who hate the undead on principle and feel the only good mummies are dead mummies, take it upon themselves to exterminate Han before he can turn immortal and enslave the world. Wild adventure, romantic entanglements and several standoffs ensue, and there are rare moments when you feel again the outrageous chutzpah and roguish wit that made the original Mummy so memorable.

Brendan Fraser and Jet Li manage to hold their own, but the rest of the acting is so wooden it could have been phoned in. There are numerous attempts at humor, but since these attempts have the success rate of impotent sperm, the laughs are few and far between. The CGI sequences, featuring undead armies, the odd yeti or three and an Emperor Han who can transmogrify at will into three-headed dragon or giant lion thingy do little to salvage a script plagued with cringe-worthy lines and lackluster direction. At the end of the film Jonathan ( Evie’s brother ) relocates to Peru, so a possible next installment might have Rick and family battling the Peruvian crystal skulled Mummies that starred in the last Indiana Jones flick. Tutankhamen save us from that possibility.

The Midnight Meat Train ***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Stars Leon Bradley, Leslie Bibb and Vinnie Jones

Without a doubt, The Midnight Meat Train is one of the best horror movies in recent years. Adapted from a short story by horror maestro Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame) and helmed by Japanese director Kitamura in his Hollywood debut, this film is bound to please horror aficionados who have gone too long without a worthy spine-tingler. Atmospheric and infused with a sly sense of foreboding throughout, TMMT eschews cheap scares in favor of a mildly stewing discomfiture that culminates in a violent potboiler of a train ride

When photographer Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper, TV’s Alias) is persuaded by a prominent art gallerist into exploring the naked underbelly of the city for grittier subject material, a foray into the subway offers him a glimpse of Mahogany, whom he begins to suspect of being a serial killer. Despite the vehement protestations of his sultry girlfriend (Leslie Bibb, Iron Man) and disregarding all sane options, Leon begins shadowing him to confirm his suspicions. Mahogany (the effortlessly menacing Vinnie Jones, Snatch) is a butcher by day, and as soon becomes apparent, does not entirely dispense with the tools of his trade at night. As Leon’s nocturnal peregrinations in pursuit of the butcher increase, his obsession consumes him and places his loved ones in jeopardy, leading to a nail-biter of a climax in the eponymous midnight train, which is the butcher’s base of operations.

As a horror film, it succeeds remarkably well. Vinnie Jones turns in a spectacularly chilling performance. Taciturn, ominous and brutal, he is the seminal slasher; eviscerator extraordinaire. There’s enough gore, blood and decapitations to satisfy your inner sadist, but not so much you’ll lose your lunch. The mood, oh the mood, that holy grail of the horror genre, is captured and distilled with consummate ease. The satisfying twist at the end hinted at great conspiracy, of vast hordes of things that go bump in the night. Highly satisfying horror! Stephen King, eat your heart out.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Last House on the Left vs. Wolf Creek

Roger Ebert loved Last House on the Left enough to give it three and a half stars. That put paid to any notion I had of sensible critiques. All critiques are biased and all critics have pet peeves and prejudices that they cannot lay aside to write review. In fact, perhaps the best critics are the ones who see the movie through their own tinted lenses than pander to popular appeal.

What I cannot for the life of me understand is why Ebert rated this movie so high when he gave the similar Wolf Creek zero stars. Perhaps because pioneer trash is considered classic while modern trash is just trash. Not that the movies in question are trash, but a lot of people do see the horror/slasher genre with lone sociopathic nutcases slaughtering innocents devoid of value. I concur, but have to point out that the genre provides for damn good entertainment. In my guilty pleasure lies its redemption.

Both movies revolve around women who get kidnapped and savagely murdered. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left benefits from an above average plot with a twist: the killers end up in the house of the woman they murdered and the distraught parents proceed to mete out their vengeance on them. Wolf Creek on the other hand, has no such poetic justice or sweet revenge; it is a bleak visual display of the evil that lies in man’s heart.

Both movies claim to be based on true stories, and I would well take their word for it. In this zany world, folks killing each other with no motivation is hardly cause for surprise. Wes Craven’s film, while hailed as a groundbreaking and pioneering oeuvre, hardly gripped me the way Wolf Creek. Granted, pioneering films are not always known for their cinematic excellence; similar films that follow have better technology at their command and they also learn from the mistakes of the past. So while Night of the Living Dead might have been pioneering, Dawn of the Dead is a much better crafted and more effective movie.

So too with Last House on the Left, it perhaps succeeds as a view into the dark recesses of human evil, but as for realism, suspense and gripping terror, it trails behind Wolf Creek. Both films are deeply unsettling, and Wolf Creek is damn near unwatchable. The villains in Last House might be coldblooded, remorseless killers, but they do not give you the jitters every time they are on screen. The Wolf Creek slaughter machine however, is chillingly efficient at raising your heartbeat and your nape hair.

Wolf Creek had a much tighter script, sparse dialogue and numerous scenes that notched up the nerve-wracking anticipation. Last House has a lethargic quality to it, it’s like watching a snuff film shot in slow motion with two bumbling cops who do a lousy job of providing comic relief. People might argue that Last House is less nihilistic, with redemption coming in the form of revenge. The killers do not go scot free. Be that as it may, Wolf Creek is the better film. I wonder how Craven would shoot Last House if he were to remake it today. For a directorial debut it’s not bad, but he’s definitely honed his craft well over the years.He’d do the concept better justice, I’d assume , long as he does not use the same scriptwriters employed for his last directorial outing, Spiderman 3

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

World Without End

Ken Follett has carved out quite a name for himself penning great espionage thrillers; the rare kind of airport novel that are a notch above the rest and worth re-reading. The mass paperback market is the territory of such personages as Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele. Follett inclusion in this list would not merit surprise. But future times will not remember Follett’s Eye of the Needle or The Key to Rebecca as much as they remember his historical epic The Pillars of the Earth. Vast in scope and populated with tremendous characters who encompassed every vice and virtue known to man, Pillars transformed Follett from a purveyor of cheap thrills into a mature writer who could craft a thousand page epic that was as riveting as any of the paperback thrillers he wrote.

Eighteen years have passed since Follett’s magnum opus; years he spent writing fiction, which, while good, would be forgotten in a generation. World Without End, however is a different kettle of fish. I felt it inferior to Pillars, but that is in no way a criticism, considering how good Pillars was. The book is a sequel of sorts to Pillars; it takes place in the same village and the descendants of the Pillars protagonists feature prominently. The priory of Kingsbridge is home once again to the evil machinations and virtuous enterprise of rich and diverse characters.

Our hero Merthin, is an architect nursing grand ambition, great ingenuity and a seemingly hopeless love for the plucky and spirited Caris. Caris is an absolute rebel, and flouts almost every societal rule espoused by fourteenth century England. She is a woman before her time, torn by her desire for independence and her love for architect boy. She also dabbles in medicine, despises authority and her religious beliefs are heretical to the point of atheism. Our villains include Ralph, Merthin’s headstrong, bullying brother whose primary passions are fighting and philandering, Godwyn the stubborn prior whose purpose it is to thwart any and all plans with a semblance of sensibility and Philemon, his sycophantic lieutenant who’s got a severe case of kleptomania. There are a lot more peripheral characters, but Follett does them justice by fleshing them out, giving them significant roles and making sure they contribute to the overall plot. Against the backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, Follett does a masterful job of crafting a vast story spanning many decades. As with most epics, one expects that good will triumph and the gallivanting hero will land the woman of his dreams; but the author manages to keep the element of suspense alive. Mostly, Merthin’s and Caris’ plans are frustrated by mere pigheaded authority, obstinacy, and the superstitions of those in power. Independently, they manage to make enemies of almost everybody who has a say in the running of Kingsbridge and only reason, and their popularity among the more sensible locals will help them in their causes. This book has it all: politics, dark secrets, conspiracies, steamy scenes aplenty, undiluted evil and virtue pure as the driven snow. It was a time when men were real men, women were real women and let us say nothing of Alpha Centuari.

I’d been reading Connie Willis’ Hugo winner The Doomsday Book at the same time I was reading this. Both novels deal with fourteenth Century practices and prevailing social mores in some detail, and the important lesson to be taken away from their perusal is this: the fourteenth century absolutely blows. Not only was there no internet, but also the living conditions were terrible, the people were absolutely filthy, superstitious to the point of idiocy and the plague didn’t help matters any. The church’s near-absolute governance over the people’s day-to-day lives coupled with their absolute ignorance in many matters further exacerbated an already terrible situation. The feudal system and droit du seigneur prevailed; the feudal serfs had about as many rights as the sheep and women had less. Depressing times to live in, but a great backdrop for storytelling. Witness the success of Braveheart, The Seventh Seal & Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Ultimately, World Without End is pure escapist pleasure; a rich tapestry of enormous proportions woven together by an author at the top of his game. He gives you characters that you can identify with and feel strongly about and forces them into crunch situations that bring out the best and the worst in them. In some ways, both Pillars of the Earth and World without End are an allegory of the eternal fight between reason and ignorance in a world that seems to elect its leaders based on the Dilbert Principle.