Hollywood


A few years ago, I fell in love with a musical called Once. I would sometimes enthusiastically recommend it to people, only to be asked, “What’s it about?” I hate that question.

Oh, it’s not an unreasonable question. Everyone asks that. I do too, when someone recommends a film to me. Trouble is, the films I most enthusiastically recommend are typically those to which the question doesn’t apply.

Before Sunrise is an example: two people spend a day walking around Vienna and talking. Nothing happens, in the traditional sense of a plot. How do you explain to someone why it’s so wonderful?

Once is similar. Oh it has a plot, but it’s really just something for the film to do with itself while the music plays. The film works because it understands music, and musicians, and why they need music in order to exist. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in that little music shop at lunchtime, the film basically stops to watch them. It does that often. And we do it with them.

As is often the case when someone makes such a wonderful film about nothing, someone else gives them a bigger budget and asks them to make another one, this time about something. Which completely misses the point of course, because the reason why the first film was so wonderful was because it was about nothing except the music itself. Heck, it didn’t even bother to name the characters — they are listed as Guy and Girl in the credits.

And so it goes with John Carney, who has now made a film called Begin Again, set in New York, about a down-and-out alcoholic A&R executive and a singer-songwriter who sometimes writes music for “her own pleasure. And her cat.” He is estranged from his family, has been thrown out of the record company he co-founded, and is always at least a little drunk. She has been dumped by her upcoming rock star boyfriend, is crashing on her friend’s couch and is about to pack up and go back home.

The premise is fine. And Carney clearly hasn’t forgotten anything he knew or learnt about musicians — there are some wonderfully well-observed scenes in there. The problem is that the film wants to have an actual story that grows from this premise, and fit the music in between.

Maybe the problem is mine, in that I just wanted them to chuck the plot and make music together. The scenes where they do precisely that are the ones that hold the rest of the film afloat. There is a liveliness to them that makes even the Mickey Rooney-esque “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” portions work better than they ought to. You can sense a certain joy in the performance. The rest of the time, though, you just check your mobile for messages and wait for the music to start again.

There’s a scene where the Keira Knightley character listens to a song and talks about how the music got lost in the production. Don’t you think there’s something ironic about a situation where you find that the best review for a movie, and not exactly a complimentary one, was actually uttered by a character in it?

 

For those of you who wondered about the radio silence: I have a daughter who is old enough to acknowledge me as something more significant than Random Tall Creature With Facial Hair, but not yet old enough to want to watch Citizen Kane with me and argue whether it’s the greatest film ever made. (Her current approach to the Universe involves three fundamental questions: Is it a pair of glasses perched on a nose? Whatever it is, can I bang it on the floor and make some noise? Can I eat it? Citizen Kane, unfortunately, doesn’t check any of those boxes.)

What happens, therefore, is that I end up watching a couple of movies on long haul flights (and I don’t even travel all that often), and on the odd night when I really ought to know better than stay up late. On the flip side, I’m reading a lot more (on my way to work and back). So I recently revisited Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games series, and thought back to my experience of watching the two movies (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire), the latter of which I watched on one of the aforementioned long haul flights. And I realized something.

The reason why I grew increasingly less enchanted with the writing in the series is the following: It is set in sort of a haphazardly put together dystopia — a cross between a TV show and a post-apocalyptic nightmare that feels real and plausible as often as not. Just when you begin to feel drawn in by the despair, an odd discussion about fur–lined leggings yanks you out of the mire of despond you happily found yourself in just seconds ago. It’s a bit disconcerting, and prevents you from getting involved, almost always a bad thing in a book.

The first book worked for me because it introduced us to this world, and quickly dropped its main characters into a deadly, inverted version of a reality show (unreal world, real emotional responses), where the plausibility of the setup was not a principal consideration. The second and the third books, being increasingly concerned with the world outside the arena, worked less and less as a result.

When I look back on the whole series, I realize that what holds the series together, if only tenuously, is the character of Katniss Everdeen. This is one messed-up girl, perhaps even more than Lisbeth Salander, who in recent times has become the archetype of the Batshit Insane Ass-Kicking Heroine. It is in charting Katniss’ scarred emotional landscape that Suzanne Collins gets a measure of control over her book — the story is simply there to provide a backdrop against which to set Katniss’ inner monologue. Since the story is told from her perspective, and her narrative eye looks inward as often as outward, we feel emotionally anchored to some extent.

The movies, on the other hand, can only hint at all of this. It can be like any other blockbuster action spectacular. But as far as adapting the actual books go, they basically have to hope that Jennifer Lawrence can hint at the more interesting inner narrative through her acting. As good an actress as she is — and let’s face it, after watching her in Winter’s Bone, we all pretty much knew she’d hit this waaay out of the ballpark — this is a tough ask. She almost pulls it off.

Almost.

If you’re gonna be stuck in a tin can for 15 hours (Dubai to San Francisco), you better hope that you can sleep through most of it, or that your airline has a decent in-flight movie selection. I ended up with option B, and here’s the result:

Olympus has Fallen

High-octane hostage drama set in the White House. Here’s a little cheat-sheet:

  • John McClane: Gerald Butler (disgraced ex-secret service agent)
  • Holly McClane: Aaron Eckhart (POTUS)
  • Sgt. Powell: Angela Bassett (Head of the secret service)
  • Chief of Police: Morgan Freeman (Speaker of the Senate).
  • Hans Gruber: Rick Yune, whom you might remember as Zao, the guy with diamonds stuck on his face from Die Another Day. More pertinently, after Nazis, Russians, aliens and Middle-Eastern terrorists have had their say in Hollywood, it’s now the turn of the North Koreans.
  • Money: World domination, or something along those lines.

You can fill in the rest. Yippie kai-yay etc.

It’s good fun, though, and the presence of someone like Freeman gives the whole enterprise a lot more gravitas than it deserves. There’s a scene where he realizes that he is more or less in charge, and the buck stops with him as far as the hostage negotiation or the fallout of the crisis is concerned. The tension in the room is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. Freeman pauses for a moment, almost visibly pulls back and relaxes for a moment, and orders a minion to bring him some coffee, with precise instructions on how he likes it. Then he gets to work. Those twenty seconds are pretty much why he earns his paycheck.

The rest of it is standard bang-bang — as a genre exercise, it’s above average, but it’s no Die Hard.

Gangster Squad

Sean Penn. Josh Brolin. Ryan Gosling. Nick Nolte. Emma Stone.

The story: A bunch of cops taking down Mickey Cohen in late-1940s Los Angeles. Think The Untouchables crossed with LA Confidential.

And the movie still ends up being a dud. The sheer, mind-numbing waste of talent and resources makes me want to throw up. How the hell do so many good people come together without even one of them realizing that they’re making an absolute turkey? In the beginning, an honest cop saves a woman from getting raped in a seedy hotel owned by a dreaded gangster. At the end, the same cop has a loaded gun pointed at the same gangster, but throws it aside so that he could beat him up with his bare hands. This is the sort of thing you expect to see in a bad Vijay movie (except, he’s more likely to have sidekicks than collaborators).

Adam’s Rib

Husband and wife end up as opposing counsel in a case where a woman is on trial for shooting her husband when she finds him with his mistress. I watched a stage play adapted from this material a few months ago — Between the Lines, directed by Nandita Das. One of the things that struck me about the stage adaptation was the easy chemistry between the real-life husband-wife pair of Nandita Das and Subodh Maskara. Their interaction helped the play tide through some of the not-so-well-written patches.

Funnily enough, the exact same thing can be said of the film as well. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play the couple, which ought to tell you nearly everything you need to know about the onscreen chemistry. The writing is weak in parts, particularly the ending. But Tracy and Hepburn seem to be having so much fun out there that it almost feels rude to point it out. Hepburn is great as always, but Tracy is the standout here — so much of his performance depends not on the dialogue but his facial expressions and body language, and he absolutely nails it.

Oh, and Jean Hagen, who played Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, has a lovely little cameo here. The woman’s one of the most underrated comediennes of Hollywood, I tell ya.

A Day the the Races

Groucho. Chico. Margaret Dumont. Harpo. In that order.

Forget everything else: plot, heroes, heroines, songs, dances. None of it matters when these guys are on screen. In case it does matter to you, here’s what it’s about: The owner of a failing sanatorium brings in a new head of medical staff (Groucho) who turns out to be a veterinarian. Hijinks ensue. He comes clean in the end:

Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor. But marry me, and I’ll never look at another horse.

Let me conclude by mentioning a throwaway exchange between Groucho and Chico:

Chico: One dollar, and you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.

Groucho: That’s the most nauseating proposition I’ve ever heard.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about this, to be honest. Only that, a few years ago this wouldn’t have even pinged my radar. You folks tell me: Is that happening to you too? Or maybe you’re a bit ahead on that curve than I am?

I don’t know about Sophomore Jinxes, but the third film in a trilogy is almost always a tricky one. The thrill of discovery is gone after the first one, the assured handling and dramatic heft is covered by the second one, so what remains? Emotional baggage, mostly. (And killer mutant teddy bears sometimes, but that’s a bit of an outlier.)

Iron Man 3 traverses some of the same territory. The events of The Avengers where Tony Stark had to face Gods and supernatural entities have left him with, well, something like PTSD. If you’re a superhero, the last thing you want is a tendency to get anxiety attacks when someone mentions New York. Friends and loved ones — few though they may be — try to help, but in the end, you have to carry your armour and whatever else comes with it.

Tony has other kinds of baggage as well. His pre-Iron Man persona didn’t endear him to too many people (not that the current version is Mister Congeniality either), and some of those chickens have now come home to roost. And these birds are more than just angry — they’re seriously deranged, with the firepower to match.

So yeah, he has his hands full with demons both within and without. As good as the action is (and the 3D experience isn’t half-bad either), there’s only so far you can go with this material at this point in the franchise’s history.  What makes it work as a serviceable summer entertainer is the strength of two performances.

The first is not surprising: Robert Downey Jr. has always had a nice line in sass, but his ability to switch gears in the more dramatic moments is especially noteworthy. The sass is the more important characteristic, though: here it’s more than just a lovable character trait, it’s practically a survival skill. And since the Iron Man franchise has always been about him, the film relies on him to carry us through the portions where the action gets a bit tiresome.

The second is a man whose acting skills have never been in doubt, even if his choice of roles has been considerably dubious at times. But suffice it to say that Ben Kingsley steals the film from right under everyone’s nose. Forget wisecracking armour-clad superheroes, AI-systems that give as good as they get, fiery supervillains and gorgeous women — the real reason to watch this film is an aging British character actor who gets ten minutes of screen time, five of which are worth the price of admission. If that isn’t a superpower, I don’t know what is.

In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has achieved that rarest of feats (for him, anyway) — he has made a film that bored me to tears.

I make my case through the contrast between two exchanges. In Kill Bill Vol 2, there is a scene where Bill tells Beatrix the story of Pei Mei’s Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. He pauses in between (long, beautifully constructed) sentences to play on his flute, speaks slowly and really stretches out a small incident into something approximating an epic. Consider now the story of Broomhilda as related by Dr. King Schultz to Django. This is an actual epic, and you sense that Schultz can really relate the heck out of it, but Django is impatient and asks too many questions. The beauty of QT’s cinema is that his characters relish their dialogue to the point where the Universe — the audience, the camera, even the other characters in the scene — pauses and lets them speak, and cares not for such trivialities as plot and loaded guns and Mexican standoffs. Not here. As blood-soaked as his frames get sometimes, the principal reason why I love Tarantino’s films is the dialogue that precedes the bloodbath.

Now, this may seem like a minor quibble. One could even argue that Django’s approach is true to his character, even if the tale is diminished in its telling because of it. But the trouble is not with this scene per se. It is symptomatic of the film itself, which focuses more on what happens rather than on how it happens. There is the occasional moment to relish, such as an argument between some KKK members about the masks they’re wearing. But scenes like these are scant consolation in a long, bloody film. Too much gore is not a problem per se — too much gore without the prospect of anything entertaining in between is.

Why, you might ask, am I expecting humour and whimsy in a film about the abominable cruelty of slaveowners in the Deep South and the bloody revenge meted out by Django and Schultz? I submit that Tarantino’s subjects have never been all about sweetness and light anyway — his last film was set in Nazi-occupied France, for heaven’s sake! What makes his films so interesting to me is his ability to mine that thin vein of sublime ridiculousness even in subjects that nearly every other filmmaker would treat with grim fascination — half the time, your enjoyment comes from watching him get away with it. Without that critical ingredient, what remains is a lot of stylized violence, and the style wears thin after a point.

Understand that my problem is not with this movie being different from what he has made before. I would’ve been perfectly content, had he made a good movie that was unlike any of his previous ventures. In my opinion, this one simply isn’t all that good.

One cannot fault the actors here — given the material they have to work with, they do a damn fine job. Kerry Washington has precious little to do as the MacGuffin in this particular plot, but you can see why a man would walk through fire and fight a dragon for her. Jamie Foxx gives a surprisingly restrained performance, given the description of his character in the title. Christoph Waltz does wonderfully in a role that, post Inglourious Basterds, can now be described as the Christoph Waltz role. Samuel L Jackson is in fine form as usual, but this is not a big stretch for him as an actor.

The standout, for me, is Leonardo DiCaprio as the plantation owner Calvin Candie. Here is a performance that suggests that he could’ve perhaps taken a shot at playing Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York  — it is unlike anything DiCaprio has done so far, and he digs into it with palpable relish. His Calvin Candie directs the violence rather than personally indulge in it, and yet manages to convey the sense that he could explode any moment. A critical confrontation at the dinner table with Django and Schultz is handled with such fearsome intensity that it makes one wince. Django unchained can be fearsome, but Calvin unchained is a truly chilling prospect. He deserves better than this film.

Regular readers of this blog, such as there are, know that one of the genres I have a soft corner for is the one where a bunch of unlikely musicians get together to form a band. Bandslam approaches this from the point of view of a boy who wants to manage a band, not play in one — not a commonly taken PoV. Now, when I watched this movie a long time ago, I wasn’t all that taken by it. But somehow, one of its scenes kept popping up in memory often, and I have no idea why. So I went to Youtube and looked it up, and here it is.

The song being performed is by Steve Wynn, and is called Amphetamine. The original, frankly, is nothing to write home about. This one, on the other hand… the term pattaiya kalapparadhu (loosely translated to “bringing down the house”) barely does it justice.

The real pleasure for me, though, comes from watching Galean Connell (the one who seems to be coordinating the whole thing) — how often do you see someone enjoy his music like that?

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences,

The next time Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis does the lead role in a motion picture, I request you to simply disqualify all other potential Best Actor nominees for reason of not being Mr. Day-Lewis and present him with the statuette forthwith. To support my humble request, I present four and a half reasons:

0.5: If his performance in his Oscar winning turns (as well as some others like my personal favourite — The Age of Innocence) is anything to go by, you are unlikely to find a better performance in that year. Ordinarily, this would count as a full reason, but I give it only half points because on the odd occasion, some actors do manage to do better. (Although even if they did, you manage to ignore brilliant performances often enough that this wouldn’t really be noticed.)

1.5: Cutting down the time taken for to go through the nominees for even one award would cut the time taken for the Oscar telecast by a precious few minutes. Some of us have to get to work after the show’s over, ya know?

2.5: Consider his first Oscar win for My Left Foot. Look at how Morgan Freeman (nominated that year for Driving Miss Daisy) was cheering when the winner was announced. My guess is, he knew what was coming: a witty, wonderful, yet short speech that stayed in the memory.

3.5: Now, despite the fine example he set back then, so many of his contemporaries insisted on blubbering up there with the statuette in their hands, reading out prosaic laundry lists of thank-yous and making us admire, instead of their acting abilities, the writing abilities of the screenwriters that made them so watchable in the movies they won for. So he obliged by winning again and There Will Be Blood and giving us this object lesson:

4.5: One would imagine that a lesson twice-taught would be heeded, but no. We still got laundry lists. We still do, come to that. So he has won — yet again — this year, just so he could teach his dim-witted colleagues once more how it ought to be done.

However, dear Academy members, I doubt that he will be successful in his endeavour despite his repeated attempts. Therefore, I humbly request you to put both him and us out of our misery and do the needful.

Regards etc.

Ramsu

For most of its running time, Silver Linings Playbook fills the screen with people who don’t get along. So much time, in fact, that when we see them enjoy themselves, it feels like a small miracle.

Then again, the story is crowded with people who are dysfunctional in some form or shape. Pat Solitano Sr (Robert De Niro), whose problems are relatively minor in the scheme of things, is a gambler and sports nut who has been permanently banned from the Eagles stadium for fighting. His son Jr (Bradley Cooper) has just gotten out of a mental institution (against medical advice), where he was committed for extreme bipolar disorder resulting in a meltdown where he beat his wife’s lover half to death. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl he meets at a friend’s place, is still dealing with her husband’s death — she used to deal with it through extreme promiscuity, but has calmed down a bit since then. The extended cast of characters bring their own baggage. Perhaps the only one without her own baggage is Pat Jr’s mom Dolores (Jackie Weaver), but living in this environment can’t be easy.  That she manages to look cheerful for the most part is another miracle in itself. Pat’s mantra after getting out of the mental institution has been to look for the silver lining (get in shape, get his wife back etc.) — he ought to be taking notes from his mom, who has the Hunt Brothers beat in cornering the market for silver.

So you realize that when you put these people together, you’re unlikely to get scene after scene of sunny laughter. The strange thing is, they are so intensely, uncompromisingly themselves that they make for fairly compelling viewing.  To observe these people trying to get on with their lives would be an interesting experience in and as of itself, but to tell an actual story cannot be easy, what with all of them getting in their own and each other’s way all the time.

What makes the story move, really, is the sheer force of nature that is Tiffany. It’s amazing how well Jennifer Lawrence does here, given how many notes she has to hit over the course of the film — grief, anger, need, ferocity, tenderness and the occasional scintilla of joy, all wrapped up inside this weird package. And despite all that complexity, she makes us empathize with her anyway. We search for a happy ending in this fruitcake factory of a situation simply because we want her to have one. Well, her and Pat Sr, in whose awkward, obsessive-compulsive character, De Niro mines a vein of sweetness that is as unexpected as it is gratifying.

When that ending does come (and to be honest, this is one place where the creaking of the plot machinery can be heard above the voices of the characters), we cheer for these two more than we cheer for anyone else. As far as this story is concerned, these guys are the silver lining. Pat Jr gets it in the end. Dolores knew all along. Maybe that’s what sanity is all about.

There is an exchange in Zero Dark Thirty between the CIA Director and an agent named Maya, the protagonist of this film. She mentions that she got recruited to the CIA right out of high school and he asks her what she’s done so far. It turns out that pretty much the only thing she has done in the CIA is to hunt down the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

If Maya’s career in the CIA has boiled down to one thing, Jessica Chastain boils down her performance of Maya down to one note: dogged determination. Taken as a whole, Jessica Chastain’s short career so far has provided ample proof of her versatility. This film, however, is not about her range but her accuracy. I have no doubt that Chastain will win an Oscar in the fullness of time, but this film will most likely not put her on the podium.

While the broad historical contours of this story are well-known, Kathryn Bigelow casts this specific plot in a familiar Hollywood mould: The Woman With A Theory No One Believes. Maya pursues the theory that the best way to get to Osama is to find his trusted courier, a will-o-the-wisp named Abu Ahmed. Nearly everyone else is shown to focus on the more immediate problems plaguing the Western intelligence organisations at the time: find and avert further terrorist attacks. Screenwriting classes teach us that plots need conflict — this is the central one in this film.

So she pleads, cajoles, hectors and persuades her colleagues and superiors to help her on this mission of hers that nobody else seems to fully believe in. That she is right is what makes it work, but the interesting part is that her colleagues have excellent reasons to be sceptical of her conclusions for the most part. A lesser film would have portrayed her detractors as petty-minded bureaucrats with equal parts malice and ignorance, but Bigelow adopts a more even-handed approach here.

There is, however, a deeper conflict brewing, one that Maya is not even aware of. What happens once she achieves her objective? Given the methods used to extract information from captured terrorists and their contacts, methods that Maya is very much aware of and tacitly participates in, what bill will her soul present to her when all is said and done? Barring a few moments, Maya’s intensity never flags; you never get the sense that she even wants to think about this. For now, there is just the chase.

 

I watched the film on a plane ride back from the US, and had to spend a considerable amount of time trying not to shake too much with laughter and wake up the passenger sitting next to me. Most of all, I was amazed by Marilyn Monroe’s sheer presence. Watch this scene — it takes a certain ability to do what she does here, right down to that tone of voice.

A couple of weeks later, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – let’s just say that my reaction was somewhere between active distaste and near-indifference. I remember discussing with a friend once, that there was as much guano to be found in the old movies as in the new ones — we just manage to pick the good ones in hindsight. Except in case of GPB, our hindsight was a little impaired.

While Monroe played versions of roughly the same character in both films (ditzy blond on the lookout for a rich guy), in SLIH, she seemed to project a certain innocence that was incredibly appealing, whereas in GPB, the cynicism and self-awareness was a lot more apparent. She has her moments in the latter, but is never spectacular. And I remember thinking, she was a lot more fun to watch when she didn’t know how good she really was.

And then of course I found out that Some Like It Hot came out in 1959, a full six years after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She had been through twenty-five films, thirty-three years and three marriages by then; three years and three films later, she’d be dead of a barbiturate overdose. How on earth did she manage to deliver a performance of such freshness?

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