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February 05, 2006


5 out of 5 stars

FROM DIRECTOR Stephen Gaghan

AND STARRING George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, Amanda Peet, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, and so on …

What is it about? It's about the world we live in today. It's about oil, corruption, the Middle East, terrorism, capitalism, fundamentalism, unemployment, American corporations, the CIA.

Who's in it? Everyone. It's about fathers and sons. The disillusioned CIA undercover agent. His son. The idealistic energy analyst. His wife and son(s). The reformist Arab prince. His father and brother. The quiet oil lawyer. His father. The Pakistani boy trying to ekk out a living in the Persian Gulf. His father. The corrupted heads of corporations. The old man behind the whole thing. The invisible heads working inside the CIA. The ulamas spreading the word of Allah. The anonymous-looking Chinese who are taking over firms one by one.

What's the point? Everything is connected. Who's right, who's wrong? You're asking the wrong questions, baby.

This film is about oil, but not a single drop of it is seen anywhere, the same way oil lawyers never came across the commodity they're defending. The movie keeps moving forward, so fast that if you miss a beat you realise you suddenly don't understand the whole story. And even if you were following the story carefully you may not be able to hold the entire thing in your head.

Because such is the current state of our modern capitalistic world. The film is based on a book, which is based on true events; however, everything in the film is fictional. What writer-director Stephen Gaghan (who won an Oscar for Traffic) tried to do was to present a film that reflects the way the world is, without any political bias or opinion – and he spent a couple of years just to research and write the movie. I trust him. The world he presents is a scary place. It's scary because we've been so ignorant of what's going on, most of us.

Gaghan is aided by a great cast – every one is a bit player, but they are all well-portrayed, and many will leave their impression on you. The cinematography and music are kept simple, chaotic only when it needs to be. All of this helps, because the story is complicated enough as it is.

Film is not just entertainment. Does this entertain? Depends on who you are. But if you want to have an understanding of how our world works – do yourself a favour.

Deserves Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Alexander Siddig and Jeffrey Wright, not Clooney), Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Screenplay.

November 24, 2005

Downfall – A World Gone To Hell

Der Untergang
5 out of 5 stars

Der Untergang, or Downfall, portrays the final days of Hitler and the Third Reich. Basically, what you see is an empire on its downfall, a once glorious vision reduced to fantasies, an ambitious man reduced to ruins without ever fully realising that he cannot control the world, a group of people forced to make choices for which most of them didn't realise they have in the first place … a world gone mad.

Last week I saw the Korean war drama Tae Guk Gi Hwinalrimyeo (Brotherhood), which tells of two brothers during the 1960 Korean civil war. That one sees a country tear itself apart, people killing their own people, most of them not even knowing at an intellectual level what they were fighting for. It's almost as if everyone's brainwashed, and the result is hell on earth.

Der Untergang does this with a terrible sense of dread. The dread is mostly on the audience, and does not fully descend on the characters (and we are introduced to at least a dozen main ones, which I found very impressive, even in a 156-minute movie) until the final third of the movie. We sense that dread because of what we know today.

We know that Hitler was a monster, and that Berlin would fall.

And in the movie, we are wondering what the hell these people are doing there.

The film is essentially based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, who serves as a makeshift lead character here, allowing us to see the event through her eyes. At some point we realise that we need to understand her urges to see Hitler as a great man. She was giddy with excitement when she found out that she was to be Hitler's secretary. The less intelligent of the audience members will probably think she and the others are buffoons.

My point is, what is going through the head of Hitler? I think the film brings us closer to understanding it. As many have pointed out, the film humanises Hitler. Now, 'humanising' someone doesn't mean making him nice. It just means that it's showing the fact that YOU COULD HAVE BEEN HIM AS WELL. It all comes down to this fact - Hitler was an ambitious man. (Now, before I continue, let me just say that this is what I think from watching the film ... is Hitler like that in real life? well, history as we know it is never, ever actual truth … do you understand what this means?) He had a grand vision, and I actually found myself thinking, what IS that vision? What does he see in that head of his? Why does it have to involve killing millions of Jews? I'm not a historian so I don't know the context, and I don't really care (really, this film is only gonna occupy my entire being for a rather short period of time, a matter of hours).

Certainly I can understand the feeling when EVERYBODY is letting you down. That is how Hitler sees his world in his final days. Everyone is either betraying him, or not able to execute his orders. Extreme and intense disappointment sets in. He goes into one of his depressive moods – all is lost, it's over, yada yada. So he brings Eva in and they kill themselves. And a scapegoat is born.

I like that the film did not exactly concentrate on him. There's Eva Braun – how is it that she can remain so calm? Cheerful, even. Is she really just chronically naive? And there's Goebbels and his wife – and in this movie, Frau Goebbels really steals the limelight. She insists on staying with Hitler, like many others – along with her kids. 6 of them. All seem to be below the age of 12. She's is a determined woman – my, in today's world, in another movie, she'd be someone you would admire.

She brought the kids there so that she could kill every single one of them. Poison. She could not live in a world in which the Third Reich and the Nazi doesn't exist. A very disciplined woman. She'd rather Hitler live, they might be able to salvage the remains of their world some other time; but if Hitler wants to commit suicide, she would have to bring the kids along with her down with him. I'm sure most of the audience are shocked at that scene, played out over many minutes, yet each minute is compelling. One by one she poisons them.

Among the generals, you see some who seem like they have common sense, who actually considered the consequences on the people of Berlin. And then you get those who only knew how to obey Hitler. To suggest something else is like forcing someone to think out of the box – have you gone mad? Out of the box? Most of the latter committed suicide in the end. So many of them, you get the feeling of them 'dropping like flies'.

And then you get the youth army. So loyal and courageous. They really believed in it all, and were prepared to die defending the city. Such an honourable (read: fun) privilege. So you see this girl with pigtails telling her comrade to shoot her. He shoots. Then he shoots. Two bodies lying on the floor. What would become of them had that not happened?

I doubt anyone would read till this point … in which case, I don't know why I just typed that. When I saw The Pianist for the first time, I was left with feeling like I was about to collapse. Most people saw that film and thought, 'meh, Schandler's whatever was better'. (Fuckers, can't even pronounce the title properly.) However, for me I was really in the moment … every step the pianist took, especially outside, he could be shot for no particular reason. That was frightening … frightening in a way that most of you won't understand because you don't take films as seriously as I do.

Watching this one reminded me again of that fear.


Because this will probably happen sometime from now. I'd like to find out whether I will be able to live through it.

(Who will start the next war? Corporations? It will probably not be obvious that it's WWIII. You drink your milk and then you fall over dead – chemical in products. Things like that. Basically, something we cannot imagine yet.)

(Can you survive that?)

October 05, 2005

Film Reviewer Gone Crazy

3 out of 5 stars

Oh, not from me. Rather I'm directing you to one of my favourite film reviewers. I don't always agree with what they say, but they do review films in the most hilarious ways. Tagline: potentially offensive.

Their review of Solaris is one of the funniest they've ever done … though you might not get it if you're not really a 'film person'.

So here goes, Ruthless Review on Steven Soderbergh's Solaris.

PS - If you want more, the most extreme one that they've done, one that makes you REALLY want to see the movie, is the review of Deep Blue.

September 22, 2005

What Do You Go To Movies For?

Movie image
War Of The Worlds
5 out of 5 stars

Okay, this might be a tad unfair coz it's not entirely a review. I'll start with one anyway.

It's a 10/10.

Review ends. Rambling begins.

Many people didn't like this movie. That vexes me a lot – when people don't like movies that I like, it really vexes me. That's insane, you say … and actually, I agree. Why should I worry about whether or not someone else likes a movie I like?

I don't really know how to answer that yet. I can say that one big reason why that is so is that many times people miss the point. As I have mentioned in a previous post – most, if not all film critics fall into this category.

Thing is, it takes a huge effort to make a film – it also takes a huge effort for the audience to understand that. I think it was Billy Wilder who said, "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along." The set is already there. The music – how difficult is it anyway? Special effects? Easy peasy – takes probably a couple of weeks.

Partly what that huge effort in making a film leads to is a LOT of time to think about how to structure the plot and pacing so that the audience pays full attention, how to manipulate the audience into a certain emotion here, how to make the audience understand this point there without making it too obvious and thereby insulting their intelligence. Plus, all 300 people involved in making the film need to agree on exactly what needs to be done, and be able and willing to do that.

So, what of that? In War Of The Worlds there were many criticisms about plotholes – the working camcorder, the only working car, the Ferriers are the only one who descend upon Ogilvy's house, and so on. Too lucky. And Robbie surviving and actually getting to Boston before Ray and Rachel. Spielberg's a pussy, they say. Wouldn't let a kid die. Forced happy ending. Completely nonsensical – how could he survive the wall of fire?

What people don't realise is that we are looking at the story of a family who survived. Three months down the road at the endpoint of the movie – let's say news networks and all have been brought back to basic working order. People are beginning to watch TV. And let's say that Oprah survived, and is determined to go on with her show. The Ferrier family would be THE family to be interviewed. They were the lucky few who survived intact. Completely intact. Many close calls – but they were fortunate. It's miraculous – but these things happen. Did they have a hard time? Did Ray have to see the consequences of him carrying the gun, and kill Ogilvy to protect Rachel and himself?

As for the very much abrupt ending – what would you have Spielberg do? Put yourself in the director's shoes. The movie has ended when the family reunites. What more are you going to tell, to show? Do you want to show a three months later sequence? That would be boring the hell out of an audience who wants to go back. Besides, it doesn't seem consistent to the decision to tell the story chronologically and in a in-the-moment manner. Also, peculiarly to Spielberg, he has been criticised many times for throwing in the 'fourth act'. (A.I., The Terminal, The Lost World, etc.)

The ending also reveals another aspect of the movie that makes it different from all other alien invasion movies that has come before. There are no longer scientists there to explain everything as if they immediately knew what's going on. No longer presidents and generals to make decisions to strike at the aliens. No longer heroes who are ordinary people called on to take on extraordinary missions to save the world. Those are still enjoyable films, really – Independence Day, to me, is still one of the best films of the 90's. Many of you would disagree. Anyways.

In War Of The Worlds, we follow the events that happened from one single family's POV. They do not understand what is happening. They probably guessed immediately that it's an alien invasion – if nothing else, coz Americans are paranoid and alien invasion's the first thing that comes to mind. (And terrorists of course, which is what the little girl thought of first.) They don't see everything that goes on. Maybe there was a city that was being destroyed by 10 tripods simultaneously – what an awesome sight that would have been seen from above! But nope, they don't see that. One tripod is terrifying enough – the human ashes and all.

More importantly – they don't know at the end that the tripods die due to disease. Why do the shields break down? Not sure. Is the tripod partially organic? We never know. Perhaps, three months down the road, when the world is back in order, scientists will announce their results on TV - tripods shut down due to virus. Findings reported in the newspapers. Suddenly everything makes sense. At the end of the movie, when the movie should end, the Ferrier family don't know that. Hence, the Morgan Freeman voice-over in the end to provide closure.

And why do the tripods die? That doesn't make sense. These beings are supposed to be buried millions of years- wait, who told you that? Ogilvy? Why do you assume what he says to be the truth in the film? Still, the point is, these beings are powerful and knowledgeable. They built these machines, man! How could they die from something so insignificant as viruses and bacteria?

Remember when the probe went down into the basement to look for Ogilvy and Ray and Rachel? It noticed a rat, observes – then ignores it. It's primary preoccupation is to exterminate humans. Even if they did detect microorganisms, it is not likely to have garnered much of their attention. If that doesn't make sense, try this - what did we look for when we sent probes to Mars? Did we miss the point? From our point of view, no - coz water is everthing to us. But in Mars, our points of view don't count.

And then there's the explanation about immunity. Aliens have none – they haven't been living here. Wouldn't take more than influenza to knock them dead. (This explanation would lead to the possible afterstory that some of the tripods do survive the germs and the human race is eventually exterminated anyway, though to a far greater cost to the aliens than expected.)

I could keep giving reasons to support the 'plotholes' to the film – and you'd say, but you're only defending the film coz you like it. Now we get to the crux of the matter.

Why did you go and watch a film for, if you're not there to try your best to enjoy it? Some movies appeal naturally to us – we just sit there and we completely enjoy it. If not, well, the director can't please everyone – and since you paid for your ticket, look for what the cast and crew were attempting to do. Look for things they put up on the screen for you, the audience's sake. If there is nothing at all – fair enough, you don't like the film. That's fair game.

Watching a film is about immersing oneself in the story. Are you inside the screen or outside? Ideally the kind of attitude that audiences should bring to the cinema is one of trying to understand what the director is trying to portray – not what you think about this and that. There's always time for debates after the film. Again, if you really can't do that – it's not your sort of film.

Watching War Of The Worlds was one of the most intense experiences I've had. I went home carrying that sense of having been through the most frightening and sickening of experiences. I really liked what Spielberg did. I was utterly surprised that many, probably more than half of the people who went in walked out completely unhappy, screaming that cheesy lament 'I want my two hours back'.

Perhaps I'll understand why that is so some day.

Next stop for Spielberg – Munich.

September 19, 2005

A Punch At The Heart

Movie image
Cinderella Man
5 out of 5 stars

I don't know how Ron Howard does it. There is no longer any doubt. He is the best and most consistent director when it comes to affecting the audience emotionally and just generally telling a good story, a good story when we need it.

And I cried at a movie for the first time in a long time.

That is a significantly unusual outcome. Cinderella Man is a weird title for a movie – at the very least, laughable. Plus, I make it a point to avoid boxing movies. I haven't seen any. I don't care. I avoided Million Dollar Baby, even though it was a good movie, because half of that film was about boxing.

But then reviews streamed through – apparently audiences deemed the movie fit enough to enter the Oscar race for Best Picture next year, though we all know it will in all likelihood not win it. Point is, people said the film was beautiful. And so I went.

And this is what Ron Howard as a director has done time and time again. We know the outcome of the movie. Heroes always win. That's how movies should be like, most of the time. Some audiences (which, from my observations, includes a large proportion Brits) prefer to have dark endings. Cliched, that's what they called happy endings. Cheesy. Lame. Such a wuss – the film doesn't have the guts.

Wrong. Movies should inspire and show us the way most of the time. Let the movie (i.e. the director) decide the best course, the best ending. In the case of Cinderella Man, we know it ends in an uplifting mood.

But with Ron Howard, we enter the boxing matches with that expectation in mind, yet we're still constantly afraid of Jim Braddock falling down, or being given the murderous punch and be left half dying there. There are countless sports movies, or basically any movie with a high suspense level with scenes like these. But no one does it like Howard – you forget that the possibility of the hero winning is quite high.

Howard did it perfectly in Apollo 13. He has done it again here. Howard pulled off the emotional aspects of A Beautiful Mind. Tricked the audience into believing that John Nash's delusions in the first half of the picture was real. And then tricked us again even after we were shown the entire first half was delusional. And never once did we feel like we were manipulated. An indication of a truly masterful storyteller.

You don't need to know whether the acting or cinematography or score or whatnots are great.

Just go see the movie.


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