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Scoop

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After a brief shift in style for the compelling drama of Match Point, Woody Allen returns to his recognizable avatar of the confused-stammering-hands flaying-self-deprecating-semi-neurotic but kind-hearted self. In Scoop, he dons the role of a small time, low-brow American magician, Sid Walterman (stage name: Splendini), who gets entangled in a murder investigation with Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johanssen) – a rather bumbling, but sexually appealing American journalism student (she manages to sleep with a famous British director but fails to get a story) on vacation in London.

As an audience-volunteer inside Splendini’s ‘de-materializing’ box, Sondra gets the tip-off of a lifetime from the ethereal form of a recently deceased famous British journalist: a recent spate of serial killings of short-haired brunette prostitutes, called the ‘Tarot-card Murders’ are apparently being committed by Peter Lyman, son of a wealthy English aristocrat ! However, it would be impossible to implicate such an influential person on such flimsy evidence. Thus aided (with reluctance) by Sid, Sandra ingratiates herself with the charming Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman – who disappoints in the role) to uncover the truth and obtain a major scoop. Predictably, in the course of the movie, Sandra actually falls in love with Peter and refuses to believe he could be a killer despite mounting evidence (from both real and the netherworld) to the contrary.

Scoop is a light-hearted murder mystery-comedy – meaning neither the mystery is intriguing nor the comedy particularly sharp. But it has its flashes of zany dialogues and one-liners like: ‘I can’t wear contacts – I don’t like touching my eyeballs with my fingers’ or a typical Allenesque : ‘I was born of the Hebrew persuasion, but I converted ……..to Narcissism’ ! Scarlett Johanssen, who played the moody femme fatale role with perfection in Match Point, does adequately as the comically clueless yet determined girl (for the lack of a better adjective, a more Allen-like heroine).  Like Match Point, Allen moves his story to London and the English countryside. Unfortunately, he does not embed London in the narrative like New York, which one can argue, is by itself a character in many of Allen’s works. 

So a Manhattan Murder Mystery this is not – but is certainly superior to Hollywood Ending/Curse of the Jade Scorpion (the abyss of Allens’s career, IMHO) and you will enjoy the film if you, like me, are a dedicated Allen fan. Otherwise, I would urge you to watch some Allen masterpieces before putting this on your Netlix/Blockbuster queue.  

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 23, 2007 at 11:20 am

Don – some comments.

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In keeping with my tradition of watching high-profile movies long after their initial release (and long after all the hoopla has died down), I finally got to watch the Farhan Akhtar remade Don (The Chase Begins Again). Overall, I have to say I was impressed by the relatively slick production and the few twists added to the original story.

The negatives. Firstly, the film had the potential to be a slick thriller – perhaps India’s answer to Internal Affairs, the Hong Kong cops and gangster stand-off flick that inspired Scorcese’s The Departed. But while this version is not as kitschy, and Akhtar has plugged few of the plot-holes, its a long way from matching the technical levels of regular Hollywood movies.

Second, Kareena Kapoor trying to ape Helen’s dance moves in Yeh Mera Dil; does not work, period. On the other hand, I thought the Khaike was okay. Finally, the biggest disappointment was obviously Shah Rukh Khan aka the King of Hamming in the titular role. It is not an easy task to live up to a role essayed by the Big B, but SRK doesn’t even come close. In his effort to bring some intensity, he had his frowning, eye-brows close-together look throughout much of the movie, which was less dramatic and more funny. 

But, worth a watch.

Couple of other notes:

1. What’s with Shah Rukh dresses in the film – the whole tie tucked into a shirt was a fashion disaster.

2. Check out this spoof video on the making of Don.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 29, 2006 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Reviews

Borat

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Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Funny…….but not rolling on the floor with laughter funny; so a bit disappointed.

Some of the humor is extremely crude and unfortunately, the best jokes have been already shown in trailers. Also, I was hoping it would be even more irreverent – some of the Borat appearances on The Ali G Show (as well as the other characters, Ali G and Bruno) were by far edgier and un-PC (this could have something to do with rating issues in the US – apparently there are many deleted scenes). Perhaps a case of too much expectations. Still, scenes like the ‘chick-magnet’ at the car-dealership and the National Anthem of Kazakstan are probably the price of admission (though you could probably catch them on Youtube as well).

Oh – about the bits on ‘exposing’ the  homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and chauvinism of middle-America – those were fairly predictable. Don’t tell me anyone is expecting a gay-pride parade at a Rodeo ? And the sexist comments by the drunk frat-boys of University of South Carolina – they are fairly lame compared to stuff I have heard back in college (in India) being discussed by guys in a sober state. Mind you, I am not condoning the actions of any of these people.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

November 17, 2006 at 10:17 am

The Departed

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Watching (and subsequently reviewing) the latest work of a cinematic legend like Martin Scorsese, one is faced with a dilemma; does one view the work in absolute terms, perhaps simply comparing against the genre and the contemporary films, or should it be judged against the high standards of the artist’s oeuvre? My personal take has usually been the latter. But after the disappointment with the gaudiness of The Aviator, I wanted to avoid the pit-falls of such high expectations. This time I completely ignored the pre-release publicity of The Departed, hoping to watch the film without bias. Still it was difficult to think of it in isolation and I have to admit that the feeling I came out of the theater was that while much better than his last feature, Scorsese’s latest matched neither the psychological intensity of Taxi Driver or the sweeping drama of Goodfellas (or even Casino for that matter), a film about crime and criminals that will draw inevitable comparisons.

Nevertheless, one cannot blame a director for his past greatness and I should quickly add that The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong cop-flick Internal Affairs, is certainly a very entertaining, action-packed, hard-boiled crime drama.

Not to sound like a 70s Bollywood movie trailer, but the film has it all – edge of the seat excitement, suspense, thrills, incredible fight sequences, some tremendous acting (with an exception, see below), taut and witty dialogues, a sexy heroine and importantly, an edgy soundtrack1 to go along with the high-octane action. Where is falls shorts of expectations is the ending, which was underwhelming to say the least – with the final scene being downright ‘cheesy’ (the quotes will be obvious for those who have seen the film). Also, there are a few plot holes and coincidences that are a bit too convenient.

The fast paced story shows the parallel lives of two characters, Billy Costigan (Leo Di Caprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), both hailing from the largely Irish-American South Boston neighborhood – also the heart of Irish Mafia activities – and both recent graduates of the State Police Academy. Billy’s background and links with elements of the Irish criminals makes him an ideal candidate to go deep undercover and secretly infiltrate the crime syndicate of Frank Costello, the Irish mob-boss, played by Jack Nicholson with enough cold hearted, ruthless menace to make a Quentin Tarantino villain look positively angelic in comparison (Among others, he kills a woman and says "She fell funny").

Colin Sullivan meanwhile (as you might have already guessed) is Costello’s inside man, having grown up under the latter’s auspices and training. Placed within the police with much foresight to provide tip-offs, Colin uses his suaveness and smart gab to rise up the ranks and become a member of the Special Investigation Unit assembled to nab Costello. Beyond his obvious allegiance to Costello, however, lurks an independent ambition (expressed brilliantly, IMO, through a pithy scene where he talks to a real estate agent about buying an upscale apartment overlooking the state capitol building).

Once this basic premise is set-up, much of the latter part of the film involves tense stand-off, with the police attempts to nab Costello being deftly thwarted by Sullivan and the respective moles trying to uncover each other. In several juxtaposed but tightly edited scenes, the film flips back and forth between the two protagonists. Predictably, as the film rolls on, there is a blurring of moral boundaries; as Costello says :"……they would say you could become cops or criminals. What I’m saying is this: When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference? ". Interspersed within the hard-hitting violence, however, are cleverly placed scenes of droll humor and witty satire (a police chief during a surveillance, cries out with the glee of child in a candy store, "Patriot act …Patriot act……I love it !!").

The support cast is as expected, quite excellent: Alec Baldwin as a slick detective chief concerned as much with catching the bad guys as his own status, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, playing the good-cop/bad-cop duo in charge of running Billy Costigan and keeping him a secret from the rest of the police department, Ray Winstone as Costello’s trusted deputy and butcher-in-chief. The only jarring note in my opinion was struck by relative newcomer Vera Farmiga, who plays the role of a psychoanalyst employed with the police. In a one of the convenient coincidences I mentioned earlier, both Billy and Colin manage to fall in love with her, albeit in different ways in keeping with their characters (Billy’s is more of raw emotion and vulnerability while for Colin, you will get the feeling it is a part of a calculate move for rising up in the world). While her chiseled angelic features and ultra-expressive eyes, she’ll take your breath away for most parts, but somehow her role does not blend in with the rest of the narrative.

In the final analysis, this is obviously a film you won’t want to miss. I haven’t been to the theatres a lot recently, so there isn’t much basis to compare it with the year’s output, but if the internet buzz is to be trusted, it is certainly one of the best (with the so-called ‘Oscar season’ of releases coming up – expect a whole lot of similar meaningful, award-contender quality films to crop up in the theatres right about now). But to get back to where I started, the film isn’t a notch on Goodfellas. Apart from the obvious difference in milieu and perhaps genres, Scorsese was working with a richer tapestry in Goodfellas, and with its laid-back narrative, brought out an aura of the mob-culture, which I enjoyed more than the throbbing action of The Departed.

******************

1: Two tracks stood out during the movie. First was "Comfortably Numb" – the version sung by Van Morrison during Roger Water’s 1990 staging of The Wall in Berlin. Second was rock number I hadn’t heard before with a catchy bagpipe in accompaniment – an google search revealed it as "I am Shipping off to Boston", an original Woody Guthrie number covered by the band punk band Dropkick Murphys. I listened to some sample’s of the band’s numbers and liked what I heard. The band, according to their website, wants to "blend the musical influences we had grown up with (Punk Rock, Irish Folk, Rock, and Hardcore) into one loud, raucous, chaotic, and often out of tune mix that we could call our own" .

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 10, 2006 at 8:54 am

The World’s Fastest Indian (mini-review)

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The Worlds Fastest Indian (2005)

"……You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime.."

That was Burt Munro, the real person whose life is depicted in the movie The World’s Fastest Indian, replying when asked if he was sacred of being killed in a crash while riding his motorbike at incredibly high speeds. As the title suggests, this film is about pushing the limits of speed – but then there is a lot more – it is about the love of a man for his machine; it is also about dreaming and a dogged persuasion of the dream. As Munro says in another of the many philosophical moments in the film, "If you don’t follow your dream, you might as well be a vegetable…..a cabbage….".

The film opens in 1962 in Invercargill, New Zealand ("the southernmost tip of the British Empire") where Munro, a retired old codger, lives in a tiny, messy shack, indulging in various eccentricities. The chief among them involves endless tinkering with an old but beloved motorcycle, a 1920 Indian Scout. Over the years, the bike, originally manufactured to reach top speeds of 50 miles per hour, has been tweaked upon with geeky affection by Munro. And like a true mechanical geek, he hand-crafts his parts, often using unconventional techniques, and many of the modification involve ordinary household items: a hinge from a kitchen door, or a piece of cork from a brandy bottle. His shack, doubling as a garage-workshop, is dedicated as a temple to ‘the Gods of Speed’, with various hand-made motor parts as offerings.

While working on his bike, Munro has nurtured a dream for over twenty-five years: to set a land speed record with his trusty Indian at the salt plains of Bonneville, Utah during speed week, a veritable Mecca for speed chasers. When he suffers an angina attack, Munro is spurred by the reminder of his mortality and finally decides to undertake the journey, cashing in his meager savings. The movie chronicles the adventures, as he follows his dream from the backwaters of New Zealand to the salt plains of Utah, via the glitzy (and mean streets) of Los Angeles and through the lonely American hinterlands. (There is some interesting fish-out-water experiences depicted as Munro grapples with life in America, particularly driving on the right side of the road, which many recent visitors here will sympathize with). However, even after reaching Bonneville, his journey is far from over, as it turns out he hasn’t pre-registered and his machine is considered ‘unsafe’ to try a speed trial. But Munro’s affable personality, combined with the dogged determination wins over other participants and officials and he is allowed to make an attempt.

While it may sound as a cliched ‘under-dog overcoming all odds’ film, two things prevent it from going the campy Disney way. One: writer-director Roger Donaldson, who keeps the story on leash and does not let the melodrama run away. For Donaldson too, this film was the culmination of a dream – having started with a documentary on Munro at the beginning of his career. Two: The Man Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins is among the rare breed of actors who can convey a truck-load of emotion by a simple, almost imperceptible twitch of the facial muscles (watch The Remains of the Day for the best example of this). He delivers another flaw-less performance here.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

July 25, 2006 at 2:55 pm

Some recent films

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Short comments on some films seen recently (meaning two weeks ago).

The Da Vinci Code: I initially had reservations about Tom Hanks essaying the role of Robert Langdon, but I needn’t have worried. Hanks is a master performer and I thought he played the role to perfection. Unfortunately, that’s the only postive thing I have to say about the film. The biggest let-downs were Tatou’s and Jean Reno’s role. Both are great actors – but were constrained by some wooden and often cringe-worthy, cliched dialogues.

So I have little to add to what others have already said, other than the fact that I feel I was wrong about the book being easy to adapt into a film. The book was bad, really bad from the literary standpoint, even after conceding the pulp thriller genre. Forsyth, Ludlum et al wrote in the same genre, but their prose was much superior and more readable. But at least TDVC read like a screenplay – so a good film was expected. But while watching the film, it struck me where I went wrong in my conjecture. There are scenes and actions that during reading – we are willing to accept – just by the manner in which the author communicates. But the exact same action is not always believable when seen on the screen. For example, the first scene with the curator being shot and leaving clues all around him – when I read it in the book, I was willing to believe that a dying man, shot through his chest could think with such clarity and run around writing with his own blood. On screen, just because we were seeing the action, it stuck me as more absurd. (The alternate explanation is that I was absolutely brain-dead while reading the book. This could be true since the book was actually my ‘leisure’, non-brainy diversion while I was writing my thesis).

The Break-Up: Although critics have mostly panned the film, I found it enjoyable. Not rib-tickingly funny – but chuckles all around. Some of the issues of living together seemed to hit home 😉 I quite like Vince Vaughn and his fast talking style. The ending, however, was a bit stretched and overly sentimental. It was almost as if the film wanted to be taken itself a bit seriously and not remembered as a goofy comedy.

The Irony of Fate: or Enjoy your Bath: This delectable mid-70s Russian comedy was recommended by a Russian colleague and is apparently a staple feature of New Year’s day TV line-up in that country (much like The Christmas Story is in the US on the 24th of December). The spirit of the film is quite similar and will remind you of the 70-80s Hrishikesh Mukherjee made warm and tender romantic comedies.

The story is about a usually shy and reserved middle aged man Zenya, who on New Year’s eve, gathers enough courage to finally propose to his girlfriend. He plans to spend that evening with her to formalize the proposal. However, during a traditional New Year’s eve meeting of friends at a Moscow public bathhouse, they all get stoned drunk on vodka and beer. Consequently, when his friends mistakenly put him on a plane to Leningrad (a different person in the group was actually supposed to fly), little does Zenya realise that he has woken up (still drunk) in the airport of a different city. Now here is the fun (and a slightly suspended disbelief) part: when he gives his address to a cab driver, he is taken to a building in Leningrad that is on the same street name and number and an exact replica of his apartment building in Moscow (a dig at the sameness of the Soviet communist-era mass produced buildings and town planning) ! So he ends up falling asleep, in the apartment (even his keys work!) of Nadya, a slightly past-prime but still very beautiful lady who is herself waiting to be proposed by a steady, if not particularly exciting or adventurous man. What follows is a regular comedy of errors as the mix-up gets sorted out and a predictable, but tenderly developed, blossoming of love between Zenya and Nadya.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: There is probably something wrong with me. I simply could not finish watching this film. Now, I will confess that I am not really a fan of Rowling and the Harry Potter series. Yes that is sacriledge to a great number of people – but there it is. I have nothing against HP and wish well the people who go crazy over the books and the characters – it is just that the series has never excited me. There is still so much sci-fi fantasy literature out there that I have not covered (Gaiman and Pratchett are the two that immediately come to mind) and presently I have limited reading time.

But then, I usually do enjoy the Potter films. This one, I thought, started off very well. The special effects were well done and not too noticable The story was quite gripping as well till the end of the first competition. Then I started dozing off around the middle bit. Perhaps some other day when I am less tired, I shall finish it. Also, I take it that the original book had many sub-plots that could not be covered in the span of the film – perhaps if I was more familiar with the book, I would have appreciated the movie better.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

June 23, 2006 at 7:46 am

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi

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"Hazaaron khwaishein aisi
ki har khwaish pe dum nikle
Bahut nikle mere armaan
lekin phir bhi kam nikle"

– Mirza Ghalib

Ghalib’s poetry has the quintessential quality of striking exactly that right chord in your heart. I cannot imagine anyone not being moved one way or the other by his shers and ghazals. This post, however, is not about poetry – it is about a film by Sudhir Mishra that takes its name and inspiration from the above couplet.

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi has a number of factors going for it – well-written story with a decent script (extremely rare in Hindi cinema), character development and some good acting by the relatively unknown cast (two of the lead actors are making their debut). Still, somewhere between the idea and execution, Sudhir Mishra seems to lose the plot, turning Hazaaron…. into yet another film that promises much but appears flat on delivery.

The story, involving three young protagonists, spans five years from the late 60’s, when the Naxal movement was gaining steam in Bengal, to the mid-70’s, with the imposition of Emergency in a power-grabbing maneuver by Indira Gandhi. This an era of which I personally know only through second hand information, but always sounds like a tipping point for Indian politics. Given a palette of such turbulent and volatile political climate, I was hoping that Mishra would capture the angst of the contemporary youth, as well as the pains of the adolescent Indian democracy transitioning from its post-Independence innocence. Again, he succeeds only partially. Apart from the slight undercurrent of anti-Indira Gandhi/Congress running through the film, the intensity of the Naxal-led revolution in Bihar and the brutal police response to it, or the subtlety of the political shenanigans in Delhi is missing.

Beyond the larger backdrop, however, Hazaaron…. is really a personal story centered around the three characters Siddharth, Vikram and Geeta. And in telling their story of relationships and self-discovery, the film really excels. Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon) comes from a rich, upper-class Delhi-socialite background and perhaps typically of those days, is chock-full of Naxalite ideals of a class-less society through armed revolution. Following his ideology, he jumps into a full-fledged armed revolution in Bihar. College-mate Vikram, the son of a Gandhian socialist from a small UP town, is a pragmatist. He wants to succeed financially and climb the social ladder at all costs and uses his political connections to do so. Both men are vying for the attention of Geeta, born and brought up abroad but current living in a surprisingly liberal joint family environment (she comes home one morning with a guy after being out all-night with nary an admonition). Mishra takes an intimate look at the often interconnecting lives of these people: Siddharth’s grappling with idealism in a real world, Geeta’s attraction towards Siddharth (or his ideals) while falling back on Vikram for the occasional moral support and finally Vikram’s unrequited love that in the end forces him into doing something impractical against his usual nature.

There are several scenes that stand out for their wry humor and poignancy – as Vikram visits Siddharth’s palatial mansion for the first time, he observes – ‘god – these people call themselves Marxists !’; in another scene, Siddharth’s father, a former judge, asks his son a honest question – why does he want to achieve his aim through such a violent method.

In the end, I should stress that this is a film definitely worth your time. My lament is that given the ingredients it could and should have been a much better product. Instead, we are left with something that feels half-baked.

A word about the music – the background music by Shantanu Moitra is excellent. Snatches of the theme songs, based on Ghalib’s famous lines recur throughout the film. ‘Baawra Man’ by Swanand Kirkire is simply brilliant – it is currently enjoying the most played song status on my iPod.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

June 1, 2006 at 7:40 am

Posted in Films, India, Reviews