Monday, March 07, 2005

a quart of reels

And before he knew it, Saturday was upon him. He sat himself down on the couch and waited impatiently while the unskippable combination of federal warning/corporate logo/contents copyright/extras copyright screens had passed before the main menu for Once Upon a Time in the West came up. He had seen this film as well as the dollars trilogy quite a few times before. But this time, he had the benefit of a lot of reading and viewing about Sergio Leone and his style of filmmaking. The trademarks of this director's immensely rich sense of narrative style were obvious, as were his tendencies for excess and inconsistency. But right from the slow agonizing opening sequence to the last frame of a developing railway town, he agrees with every contention that this movie has an undeniable place in the list of greats. He smiled at the way Leone's directorial credit appeared: like the clapping block on a clapper board. He liked the use of silence in Cheyenne's theme on the soundtrack: (a) the abrupt stop as Cheyenne was dying, before a low whistle accompanies the thud of his body hitting the ground, and then the theme starts back up again (b) during the end credits before the frame fades to black. The special features on the DVD are rewarding sources of information (and it's nice to see what Sir Christopher Frayling, the author of Something to do with Death -- a biography that takes both its title and cover photograph from this epic -- looks like). It's nice to see how the massacre of Thakur Baldev Singh's family was inspired by the killing of the McBain family. It's nice to see and understand the importance of the presence of Monument Valley and also the influence of directors like Ford on Leone. And since Leone is clearly a post-modern director here, how would Tarantino be qualified given that Kill Bill Vol I and Kill Bill Vol II derived from movies like this (which already derived their content from other Westerns)? Touch of Evil represented a not-so-nostalgic coda to film noir. This movie is Leone's coda to the genre of the Western. It is imbued with the disdain and disillusionment that Ford faced in the last years of his career, and presented in his films like The Man who shot Liberty Valance. This is not to say that Leone's opus is pessimistic. Far from it. It conveys all the hope of the new (final?) frontier, but with a strict adherence to the harshness of hate, greed and death. And by using actors in parts that challenge their established persona and iconography ("good guy" Henry Fonda, Ford's good cop Woody Strode).

The problem with Taking Lives is the complete lack of any surprise or mystery. You will never really have a doubt about the true identity of Martin Asher, who has been "taking lives" -- killing people and assuming their identities and lives, because he cannot have a life of his own (thanks to his mother having showered all her affections on a now-deceased sibling). This is not to undermine the sincerity of Angelina Jolie playing a troubled FBI profiler with moody gusto. Ethan Hawke doesn't deliver all the goods. And Kiefer Sutherland's part suffers from the fact that we've seen him do parts like this before (the perceived suspect). There's definitely a section of the audience that will probably remember this film for the display of skin. There is no denying that it is a valid piece of trivia. But I really wish the film could transcend the oh-too-obvious similarities in mood to much more effective mood pieces like Se7en (what can you do? The serial killer genre is saturated). The score by Philip Glass is effective, as are some examples of the marriage of interesting camera angles and editing. And I must confess a macabre liking for the last time we see the head of Gene Rowlands (followed by a nice almost-vertigo-zoom moment for Angelina Jolie).It would seem, in the grand summation, that the denouement is not the purpose of the film. It seems most rewarding when you are in it for the journey. And it's a slickly made, decently executed journey. And yes, it's nice to see something that's officially set in Canada, instead of getting that place to pass off any any random American landscape.

ham hai.n is pal yahaa.N

That Subhash Ghai has no talent as a filmmaker is evident. That he is on the verge of being a worthy successor to Dev Anand is undeniable. And the fact that his latest film Kisna: The Warrior Poet was compared to Yaadein shows that there are still some people in the audience who haven't switched their brains off. How does one begin to outline the demerits of a venture that is DOA? Vivek Oberoi almost betters his overtly-in-love-with-myself gig in Kyon!... Ho Gaya Na(dude, you have a long way to go before you can challenge Shah Rukh Khan). Subhash Ghai made the news for roping Ustad Rashid Khan in to sing a couple of songs on the soundtrack. If the way they were used in the film (or even arranged, to begin with) are any indication, Vishal's efforts with Sanjeev Abhyankar will continue to find no challenger for several years hence.

rahegii sadaa yahaa.N

Debutante Antonia Bernath grates like there is no tomorrow. And debutante Isha Sharvani does mostly nothing but dance in this film. Someone clearly handed her the wrong idea on how to make it big in Bollywood. What's the point of all those strange poses, all that rope mallakhaamb, and all those weird facial expressions? Ghai's posturing as an artistically sensitive filmmaker reeks thanks to this sample.

ham hai.n is pal yahaa.N (piano/flute interplay)

And there's so much hamming in this film, it should have received a adults-only certificate for non-vegetarianism. Om Puri's medium rare hamming is a big big disappointment (and a blow for people who thought that he could do no wrong). Sushmita Sen's cameo is only another addition to the list of bland uninteresting characters. In her case, her part suffers from brevity. Most others, like the badly under-cooked villain Prince Raghuraj, suffer from unimaginative writing (or the complete lack thereof). To see Rajat Kapoor in this role mouthing dead parrot lines like "that's just the reassurance I wanted".

ham hai.n is pal yahaa.N (plaintively bland keyboard arrangement)
The problem with sitting through this sorry affair is that in addition to nothing being any good, there's nothing that's any bad, in a manner of speaking. The bad stuff does not even pass the simplest litmus test for putridity. You can barely chuckle at predictably bad lines like "kisnaa, ##this politics##, matalab, hamaarii dostii, ##friendship## samaapt ?" or "jiivanalaal ##katherine## ko Dhuu.NDho waranaa tumhaaraa jiivan nahii.n rahegaa" or the Om Puri-mouthed inanity "for us, love is a love is a love is a love". Om Puri does get a bearable mouthful with "chamakatii taqadiir tumhaare saamane kha.Dii hai aur tuu us pe ba.nduuk taanakar kaale dhabbe lagaa riyaa hai .. aur vo bhii ardh\-na.ngaa?". To Vivek Oberoi belongs another competent earache: "zi.ndagii me.n kabhii ... kabhii\-kabhii ham ardh\-viraam ko puurN\-viraa samajhane lagate hai.n ... lekin vo puurN\-viraam nahii.n hotaa ... puurN\-viraam to sirph jiivan ke a.ntim saa.Ns ke saath hotaa hai".

ham hai.n is pal yahaa.N (slow version)

Ghai was never someone who could present patriotism in an intelligent way, and this film has a couple of examples of people extolling the virtues of India with varying degrees of imbecility. And we also have some stupid exchanges like the following:

kisnaa: arre! ab to tum achchhii hi.ndii bhii bol letii ho
katherine: avashya
kisnaa: su.ndar
katherine: atii[sic] su.ndar (giggles)

Every Ghai film has been notorious for featuring Ghai indulging one of his many wannabe whims -- trying to equate himself to great directors and filmmakers. In particular, his desire to stick in a cameo (echoing Hitchcock, most famously). Almost all of them stick out as being self-indulgent (One would have to try really hard to make such a convincing argument against Hitchcock). I couldn't spot him in this film, but he appears prominently in the end, standing (at the left end of the screen) on the same ledge as the protagonists in the film, pointing to the right, where the words "a film by subhash ghai" (as if we had to be reminded!!!) appear. Ghai wrote, produced, edited and directed this reeking opus. And feels proudly shameless enough to announce it. I submit this to the JaDe project {what is the JaDe project?}

ham hai.n is pal yahaa.N (nostalgic version)

All that exposition (Katherine's assumed name is Gangotri, Shankar (Yashpal Sharma) notes, for the benefit of the clueless in the audience, that Kisna has become truly like Lord Krishna after he kills his maternal uncle (Amrish Puri). Another pet itch of his falls off in this film too -- his penchant of giving his new heroines names that begin with an M (or choosing heroines who already had this taken care of). Didn't really work before. And it's probably just as well that he didn't do it this time. At least he has something he can blame the fate of this film on. After all, that stupid astrological excuse about his cameo in Yaadein wasn't very convincing. The subtitles (incompetent as ever) were probably written in Microsoft Word, because every new line is capitalized (a familiar annoyance).

ham hai.n is pal yahaa.N (pipe version)

The background score by A R Rahman seems to cog from James Cameron's TITANIC. And it seems to make a strange kind of sense -- this film uses a narrative structure (old woman goes into flashback mode to reveal the central story of ill-fated love with her younger self as one of the key players) just like that one. Alert listeners will recognize familiar phrases of raag kedaar at the Nawab's palace. And B-fashion connoisseurs will note the window shades (literally!) that Vivek Oberoi wears as part of his disguise there. And as I conclude, I can't shake off the fact that Farrukh Dhondy is listed as a fellow screenwriter...And, if you haven't already figured it out, my biggest grouse is the melody from A R Rahman that spreads like gangrene throughout the proceedings.

You could argue about the need for the violent nudity in The General's Daughter. And I might be inclined to agree, except that I can appreciate an even stronger argument for it being there -- if only to provide a suitably unsettling counterpoint to the motivations of people involved in the narrative. The plot elements are familiar, and I thought of A Few Good Men. Didn't like that one much, probably because of the presence of Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and the undeniable aura that is Jack Nicholson. This film works well on most counts. Some of the writing is exceptionally engaging -- my favourites would be the scenes involving James Woods and John Travolta. James Cromwell lends able support, but Madeline Stowe is relegated to being a sidekick. Loved the soundtrack. Nice shots of Savannah. And the names of army bases were familiar, thanks to my day job. From a movie-monger's POV, there's John Frankenheimer's sole appearance before the camera (as General Sonnenberg) to cherish (and all of it, save the last line, done in one take). There seemed to be an oblique reference to Lethal Weapon 3 in the "I'll show you mine, you show me yours" exchange about grotesque wounds. Then there's the Casablanca dig with "We'll always have Brussels". And then there's Nietzsche ("that which does not destroy me makes me stronger"). Trivia-mongers may recall its use to open Conan the Barbarian. Two things worried me, though. That bumper sticker which said "killing for recreation". And "there are three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the army way". Personal peeves aside, this is a decent thriller, which only fails at the denouement -- things just drop into stinkville in a most pathetic exhibition of the domino effect.

Which brings us (assume a suitable segue) to a B-grader from the personal collection, Scared to Death. The USP of this flick, according to the packaging, is that everything is told through flashback by a corpse (and this came before Sunset Boulevard!!!). The real USP is more movie-trivia-monger-friendly. This was apparently the only colour film that Bela Lugosi starred in. If you want laughs you can take comfort in some of the loud hamming that people indulge in, and the extreme theatrics (complete with Lugosi's steady standard take on the role). And you can also note the "photographed in natural colour" tagline in the opening credits. And just in case you forgot the name of the film, the final line tells you all: "she was literally scared to death".

No comments:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.