Friday, March 31, 2006

Oscar Feast V – Walk The Line

A gifted singer is about to go waste. His red-neck farmer father has no notion of his talent. His wife wants him to take up that job her Dad has been offering. His sales calls are met with doors shut rudely in his face.

But he makes it. Only to lose it all.

There is the price that fame makes him pay, there is the fast life of the tour, there is the wife tucked away feeling left out, there are drugs to be done and a border to be crossed to get that easy bagful.
But as you and I know, there’s also a friend in this decadent jungle. She is strong and loving, she has a shoulder for his tired and abused head, she is ready to shun the glory, she is content to live in his “big fat shadow”, and she plucks him out of the degenerate mess.

Does it sound all too familiar?

It is, but Walk The Line is as open and fresh and honest as Reese Witherspoon’s face. Though it’s actually the story of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and his rise and fall and rise, the film devotes itself in part (and more) to June Carter (Witherspoon), Cash’s tourmate and friend. June is one of the daughters of the popular and musical Carter family.

More than director James Mangold’s intentions, my guess is that June becomes as important as Johnny in the film because of Witherspoon’s powerful portrayal of a young, kind and well-mannered stage-seasoned professional. And we like it that she shows reluctance in getting involved with a married man, and also because Cash' s wife has been endowed with enough negativity. I do tend to get carried away when I appreciate a film and its actors, but I’ve seen Capote too, and I absolutely fail to see why Phoenix didn’t get the Oscar. Witherspoon deserved hers. (When they announced her name, I thought of Legally Blonde and kept “Oh no-ing”; Jabberwock cautioned me; I stand corrected; though, on second thoughts, Legally and WTL together emphasise Witherspoon’s repertoire). Hats-off to Phoenix and Witherspoon for doing their own vocals in the film (yes, I know, it's hard to believe, though the film's credit clearly mentions the fact). Professional singers, work harder, these guys look good to grab a neat chunk of your pie.

The WTL action opens in 1968 when Cash is at Folsom prison, California, to make his famous live recording. The flashback starts in 1944, with his life as a kid at his Dad’s farm in Arkansas (the bond between the two brothers is touching).

If you are the rockabilly and country type, you’ll enjoy WTL as a musical almost. The deep bass (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”) reverberates throughout. The onstage chemistry between Phoenix and Witherspoon is remarkable. You might want to see the film again for the superb duets:

· "Time’s a Wastin"
· "It Ain’t Me Babe" (interesting playful variant from Bob Dylan’s)
· "Jackson"

…as well as the singles, including the pensive “I Walk The Line”.

There’s a shot or two of the King himself, and Roy Orbison (frankly, I know only "Pretty Woman"), and a wonderful depiction of Jerry Lee Lewis, right down to his so-called piano-pounding. There’s also Sam Phillips, the Sun Records man who in the 50s was responsible for exposing all the above-mentioned talents, namely the country-rock mixture that gave way to rockabilly (I’m no authority, so enlighten me if you can).

I would disagree vehemently with those who’ve termed WTL a musical.
· It doesn’t live only for its music
· I didn’t wait for the next song (though I loved it)
· It is too much the “drama” genre to be a musical (the tension between Johnny and his Dad is evidence enough)

Once more, here's to Phoenix and Witherspoon singing...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Oscar Feast IV - Good Night, And Good Luck (with digressions and quiz)

No, I’m not going to rave about George Clooney.
Rather, I am delighted to tell those of you who haven’t yet seen Good Night, and Good Luck that if you are a Humphrey Bogart fan, you should see this. I would die before Casablanca is remade, but if it absolutely must be, then let me die knowing that they’ve chosen David Strathairn as the new Rick.

But seriously… Maybe Strathairn won't be able to do full justice to Rick Blaine with regard to the latter's romantic aspect, but do see him. Roger Ebert describes him as a stealth actor.
Go to end of post for easiest visual quiz on which is HB and which is DS.

Forget sepia, director George Clooney goes out and out with the old faithful black & white. GNGL is a stylish throwback on newsroom drama, a newsman's duty, and that eternal debate between media Editorial and media Owner.

The issue is Joseph R McCarthy, the US Republican Senator who in the 1950s unleashed his own brand of Reign of Terror against state department officials he insisted were Communist infiltrators. As with any large-scale obsessive initiative, McCarthyism gained a certain amount of popularity, which waned after the Senate itself shrugged off his tactics.

Back in the CBS news show "Good Night, and Good Luck", senior star journalist Edward R Murrow (Strathairn) pounces on a loophole when an East European is expelled without reason from the Army. In a daring media crusade against McCarthy’s tactics, he has the support of his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney himself) and a host of talented reporters who do his snooping around for him. There is the inevitable pressure from the CBS powers-that-be, more so since "GNGL" is a sponsored primetime programme (later, despite the tension, Murrow has full freedom). There is the Army to deal with this time, and of course McCarthy himself, who also later agrees to answer Murrow’s questions on the show.

Kudos to Clooney for taking on such a politically delicate topic, in a country where Communism is forever a hot potato, dethroned only for the time being by Terrorism. (It is another matter that most Americans view both as not too dissimilar and equally threatening).

Coming back to GNGL, it is interesting to take note (with around 5 English news channels doing the rounds in the Indian cable circuit) of the unsmiling Murrow – never out to please, be it employer, producer, audience, or subject.

Strathairn does amazing things with a cigarette… OK, so it’s heinous to show a star anchor with smoking fingers, but he does make the stick look like an essential style accessory. And true to reporters and newsdesks worldwide, the CBS stuff is seen constantly lighting up, deadline or no-deadline.

If a Clooney fan, you might find him disturbing. I mean I kept expecting more screentime from him, but in time realised that the put-on weight and comparative insignificance was of course deliberate and he was the director this time. If you've seen Citizen Kane, you'll know Clooney's seen it too. Maybe it's to do with all the newsreel clippings, and constant cuts to tense and crowded hearings. (Ebert, too, has something on this).

If you're a Robert Downey Jr. fan, there's a naughty sub-plot involving him and Patricia Clarkson, who looks much older than him, making things a bit confusing (in fact, Clarkson is only 6 years older to Jr). But this could be old Clooney's trick, and I'm not telling you their story. As I said in my take on The Constant Gardener, if you want the little mysteries intact, don't read Ebert before seeing the film.

Overall, GNGL is a well-made film, stylishly directed, not distinctly memorable, but brush up on your McCarthy if you want to make absolute sense out of it. As I said, it belongs to Strathairn. If we had as good an anchor for a Good Night show, he would make sure you’ll go to sleep thinking of what he just said. Or maybe that’s possible only in films…

Following is the promised EASIEST VISUAL QUIZ on HOLLYWOOD.
Don't blame me if you think the one on top is Mr Bogart ;-) ;-)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Oscar Feast III - The Constant Gardener (and the Fiennes smile)

The Constant Gardener (directed by Fernando Meirelles) is an artistic thriller adapted from John le Carre’s bestseller. I haven’t read any le Carre, but the film becomes a bit dark and one-man army in the end. There is a sad love story, a man who is happy with short-lived happiness, so long as he knows that his true love was true to him.

The issue is more serious and all-encompassing than Erin Brockovich’s crusade. An American drug MNC is using unsuspecting Kenyan locals for drug trials. Tessa (Rachel Weisz), wife of British official Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), gets wind of these goings-on. With the help of a Kenyan doctor, she starts her own sleuthing, hiding the facts from even her own husband. Before long, she’s more than just knee-deep in trouble… while quiet bureaucrat hubby dear indulges in his passion for gardening (and gives the film its name).

The film goes back and forth in time, starting with a shot of an overturned vehicle… Who did it? Was it an accident? Who was in it? If I even started giving you the story, it would be like telling all, and that would spoil this thriller if you are interested. The mysteries start right from the beginning… If you're OK with the smaller puzzles being revealed and want it from a pro, you can read up Roger Ebert.

There are little bits that add to the local suspense:
1. One of the British officials is in love with Tessa, and she has no qualms promising him a night in exchange for a letter that’ll help her in her investigations.
2. There’s the Kenyan doctor, Tessa’s good friend and able comrade in her fight, and rumoured to be going around with her. He arouses her husband’s suspicions.
3. Then there are the local police, who have the essential look and feel of corruption.
4. The corporate types, with their dark money secrets.
5. And finally, the husband himself, and whether he will rise to the occasion when the time comes...

I didn’t quite think Rachel Weisz deserved her Oscar (from what little she had of Brokeback Mountain, I thought Michelle Williams was superb as Ennis' wife). But Ralph Fiennes did a great job (his smile, girls, is Out Of This World, tho the pic here is not from the film).

And then there is Africa itself, like one of Thomas Hardy’s background-protagonists (remember Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native). Looming undeniable and larger-than-life, and made possible by some excellent cinematography and aerial shots of the bleak landscape. Don’t look for the trademark flat-top Savannah trees that've come to symbolise Africa or Mma Ramotswe’s stark contentment. This is as bleak and sinister as it gets...

Monday, March 13, 2006


There’s a little crowd gathering
A buzz going up.

I am in a roomful of people
I wait for whatever it is to happen
And with a start
I just know that I’ve come to see you.

I must have, for there you are
And if you are there
What other purpose should I have but you?

So I take my joyful stride
You see me in the midst of all those people
And look… amused? curious?
That stops me dead in my tracks...

Are you sure you aren’t feigning
That look of quizzical recognition?
But no, there you are
Relief flitting prominently across your face
You knew when I stood still
I wouldn’t insist on drawing closer.

There were others of course
And there they were
And there you were headed.

But it didn’t matter
Not anymore
Not as long as I could go on looking at you.

You went on, and further
And I concentrated with all my strength
On your face, when you turned
But didn’t scan the crowd
Glorious seconds that might have to last me a long while hence…

Would you believe me if I suggested
That even in that miserly dream
It was as if I knew you were slipping away from memory itself?

I shrug off the dream
I struggle before you become a speck in the crowd
I have very little time.

I have to memorise your face.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Oscar Feast II - Vote Brokeback, I'm counting

Even if you take out that superb story and the ultra-delicate handling, I could love Brokeback Mountain just for its green meadows, rolling mountains, cowboy country and the brooding silence. I was bowled over with the first 5 minutes, when Ennis and Jack see each other for the first time, but there’s no greeting between them, and you almost fear that they’re hostile cos they may be competing for the jobs on offer.

It’s been labelled a Gay Cowboy Flick, and one of my friends said she wasn’t ready to see this new thing… Understandable, but DO SEE IT. If you’ve wept at Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, or (let’s see) was tormented for those two souls in The Bridges of Madison County and the other two in Casablanca, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t NATURALLY be moved by this one…

OK, so you’re still not convinced. I'll try harder:

  1. Ang Lee uses super-sophistry, but he will not try to convert you. He leaves it to you to know that these two fellas were really in love, and at least one of them (Ennis, played by Heath Ledger) cared for your opinions and was tormented by the way you and others would look at him.
    I loved the delicate way Ennis is shown flipping his wife over when they are making love… the scene says volumes, namely that Jack (and their nights together up on Brokeback) is still so much on his mind.

    You’re still playing hard to get, then:
  2. If you’ve read and loved Annie Proulx’s famous short story, you won’t be betrayed. It’s a wonder how Ang Lee remained so loyal yet managed to stretch it into a film. Fantastic adaptation by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
    If you haven’t read it, you might get it here. It was on The New Yorker but they took it down.
    (BTW, Proulx is pronounced as "Proo". I used to say it the whole hog before hearing it at the Oscars)
  3. The pairs and pairs of sexy blue jeans in the film are bound to get you. They’re the old-style, straight-leg Wrangler-kind. Oh those cowboy legs. After the film, bells and flares suck
  4. Jake Gyllenhaal is my latest crush, well almost. You pronounce him “Jillenahaal”. He’s not gay in real life (last heard, he was seeing Kirsten Dunst). If you’re going by the Oscars, don’t. He loses the beard in Brokeback, and he’s a dish. Ask Ennis (wink, wink)
  5. If you’re a Great American Cowboy Cult/ Western fan, let me tell you that so am I, and that the whole thing remains intact and unhurt. The guy who made Crouching T, Hidden D takes care not to break myths but only to suggest what’s only human.

Ohhhhh, I didn’t take into account that you might love Brokeback. In that case:

  1. Ignore the fact that Heath Ledger (Ennis) and Jake (Jack) look older than 19 when the film opens, but that hardly matters.
    In the end, they fail to look old enough, but by then they have your sympathies, so again, it hardly matters
  2. Polish up on your Texan twang, you might have trouble following it. Especially with troubled Ennis who hardly says much, and almost swallows what he says

    Phew... all this despite Ang Lee refusing to pay me. Tell me if you liked it

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Oscar Feast I - In Defence of Crash...

There seems to be a big fight: Brokeback Mountain vs Crash, and why the former didn't make it a Best Film double in the Oscars (it got the Globe).

I've seen both, and was my usual subjective self when I saw them and when I later analysed my own thoughts on them. I don't know why Brokeback didn't win (I loved it), but I know why CRASH won...

By definition CRASH would be an ensemble fit of characters from all walks of life, more importantly from a lot of race backgrounds (does racial sound RACIAL?), who cross each other in the course of a short span of time and are really, really cross at each other.

I was blown away by the superb editing and the way in which each little story blends into the next one. This is helped by doors opening and closing and banging throughout the film, be it a car door, a store door, or a house door. Locks and doors and cars (and crashes) make up the leitmotif of the film.

At the end of a flurry of activity in the form of car thefts, car crashes and car speedings, all these LA-based characters are rounded off, the wicked are redeemed and the heroic too have tiny faults… The subject of racial tolerance or the lack of it in an urban background depicting the white well-heeled as well as the ghetto-born is of course universally relevant and for all times.

So what’s new? Paul Haggis pushes his subject softly, giving tiny insights into how folks who aren’t categorically racial will take easy recourse to it when life puts them in a tight situation. CRASH points out how ordinary impatience and little intolerances might go a long way in hurting people and changing their lives. I was furious with the cop (Matt Dillon) for feeling up the lady (Thandie Newton). I sympathised with her when, later that night, she is furious with her husband (Terrence Howard) for just standing by and not doing anything. But at the next moment, I felt sorry for the husband too: His meek response is that the cops had guns. Frustrating! But then I saw the cop with his sick father, and how he was spending sleepless nights waking up for his Dad and helplessly trying to offer some comfort. I felt sorry for him too. Next afternoon, the molested lady meets with an accident, her car overturns, and she is saved by the very same cop. This time, he risks his life and extracts her from under the burning vehicle.

Too simple? If you look at it as co-incidental, you lose CRASH. It’s there to give you a message. If you think it tells the story of LA and its people, you miss it again. Little redemptions and big punishments make up the story. But that’s not what CRASH is about. It’s about being patient, about counting till 9 before we blow it, it’s about knowing that the other person might be very similar to you. On a planet where cartoons lead to tragedy, CRASH deserved Uncle Oscar...

Do read Ebert on the fight.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dewal Likhon-er Iti

The beloved city will be tidier, but the poorer for this…

State betters EC, stamps out all graffiti
Kolkata: It’s the end of graffiti days in Bengal.
The state government on Monday issued a directive ordering a blanket ban on graffiti, no matter what the property is — public, private or corporate. Home secretary Prasad Ranjan Ray instructed the police top brass to enforce the West Bengal (Prevention of) Defacement of Public Properties Act, 1976, in a bid to prevent defacement of walls. The Act does not allow any household to give a political party permission to write on its wall. In invoking the Act, the state went further than the Election Commission, which had allowed parties to write on walls if a household gave it permission.
“The law makes no distinction between the willing and the unwilling,” Ray said...
(Sorry I couldn't provide a link. This is from an e-paper a/c, and I couldn't find the story elsewhere on the Net yet...)

How will Kolkata look when I visit next, shorn of those impish messages striding walls and houses? Will it be easy to impose such a ban? Will it be accepted peacefully, after such habit and such tradition? All those years of dewal likhon had given politically active youngsters of the city a scope for literary outlet and friendly digs during those tense pre-election evenings. I could almost wish for a counter-surge in creative graffiti that'll defy and mock the ban, but am also in two minds as I find myself picturing a bright and squeaky clean city...

I remember my Mother quoting her favourite dewal likhon years ago. Election was approaching, and the "amuk" below refers to the particular date fixed for voting (which has slipped my mind). The Congress, which wasn't this pally with the CPI(M) in those times, had put this up:
Amuk tarikh-ey aashchhey din
Jyoti Bose-er biyer din

To which the CPI(M) replied overnight with a brand new graffiti on the neighbouring wall:
Ja bolechhish thik bolechhish
Indira Gandhi-ke shajiye rakhish

Numerous such cheeky gems were spawned by Mamata Banerjee’s graffiti-friendly antics. This one is from the jatra-party genre:
Ebong… apnader mon matatey, jhakatey, nachatey… shighroi aashchhen… Miiiisssss Mamata

I wish I had jotted them all down, wish I had my own little nostalgic archive. But who’d have thought that one fine day there would be a “blanket ban” on one of the city’s most recognisable artistic releases? There were times when I have longed for Kolkata to be cleaner here and there, but what now? What if all the new flyovers and strangely jhokjhokey walls make for a city which looks great but has nothing to say? You can’t even put up a graffiti on your own private wall, it seems, which is where the “blanket” comes in… My sympathies for all those who had lined up their brilliant couplets for this year (elections in April or May?).

I wish they had arrived at a compromise:
Anumoti chhara dewal likhon cholbe na, cholbe na
Likhtey holey dewal malik-ke jiggesh korey likhun

Nongra kora dewal likhon ebar bondo korun
Du mash porey purono likhon muchhey phelun

Not in the same class, na? If you have some gems, could you hand me a few?