Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for January, 2010

Lost in Translation: …

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 27, 2010

This post ariginally appeared at PassionforCinema.

Still from Lost in TranslationIf Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation ever claimed to be the adaptation of a literary piece, that piece would be T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ (after getting rid, of course, of the Biblical connections).

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And, you know what? It might well be doing justice to the poem.

The movie begins with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) in Tokyo, feeling completely alienated from their lives. A hard time they have of it, the city hostile and the people weird. Their spouses gall, sore-feeling, refractory. There are times they regret… but they have nothing to regret. This is their life. At the end, they prefer to be by night, with fans and stupid friends making them mutter in their own ears that all this is folly.

Then one day they come down to their temperate meeting. “Wet, below the snowline, smelling of vegetation.” They move on, meet again and again, going to a tavern, a strip-club, a karaoke session… but there are no answers, so they move on.

And arrive, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (if I may say) satisfactory. The exact nature of their epiphany, the whole third stanza, I won’t explain, except to say that Coppola – as, in all truthfulness, Eliot – never explains it to our brains.

But that’s just incidental. The only reason I thought of the poem after seeing the movie was the line “it was (you may say) satisfactory.” Lost in Translation is, in fact, a movie that is completely cinematic from conception on. See, the power of the movie doesn’t come from the actors, at least not for me. True, the acting is good, the chemistry is beautiful, the storyline borders on sublime, but somehow those things took a back seat for me. Each frame had some sort of weight. I don’t know, really, but… this could have been a silent movie and I’d have enjoyed watching it almost as much, inasmuch as I enjoyed watching it. All the voices are somewhat muted, not completely there, like they sort of aren’t the point. Maybe this is what Ozu is like. I haven’t yet watched any of his movies, just read passing references to his style by Roger Ebert (I found a quote to insert here but it sounded too much like metacritic), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a modern rehash of how he worked; the camera (held by Lance Acord, who also did it for the very differently brilliant Being John Malkovich, directed by Coppola’s husband Spike Jonze) makes the closing of an elevator door occupy as much mental space as Scarlett Johanssen’s “I miss you”, which happens to be one of the most beautiful “I miss you”s I’ve seen on film.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure how much I like this movie. I know it’s a beautiful, beautiful movie, but it’s also an odd, odd movie. Each frame has weight, and that’s masterful , but… if I rate movies by how much they affected me emotionally, where would this rank? I don’t have the slightest. Maybe I should just shut up and resort to the words of a better word smith than I will ever be: “it was (you may say) satisfactory.” Yes, you say, this line is generally interpreted as being double-edged. For me, however, it never was, and in all probability never will be. For me, it represented the confabulation one experiences when one has no idea how good an experience one has just had.

Just, y’know, suspects that it was more good than bad.

Posted in Coppola, Sofia, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

“There must be something wrong if she approves, unquestioningly, of what he has written.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 24, 2010

Unruly Time by Prashant Bhawalkar

Cover credit: Wasim Hetal. I've read the book on the top of the central pile (Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome).

There are two ways to parody a genre. One is to make a genre piece that continuously winks at the audience by breaking the prevalent rules, like the ______ Movie franchise. The other, superior, way is to make a piece that sticks slavishly to its rules, taking them to their logical extremes, as done most memorably by Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy (fantasy) and the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Hollywood buddy comedies); breaking rules is the job of genre artists (artistes?) who want to extend the genre.

When I use the word genre, most people will think of science fiction/fantasy (it’s just one genre, popularly known as SF/F) or crime fiction, and with good reason, for these are the biggest ones, the ones with the most devoted cults. There has recently, however, cropped up a new genre, which tends to write books that sound like J. M. Coetzee and T. S. Eliot having a joint colonoscopy; which is, down to every last example, heavily post-modern; which, in other words, has been desperately calling out for a parody. Even those that we enjoy, we enjoy because they make the colonoscopy sound mild. The genre is the ‘identity’ branch of Indian English literature, and the parody is Prashant Bhawalkar’s Unruly Times.

“Prashant Bhawalkar was” – as is written on the back of the book – “born in Mumbai and studied English Literature at St. Xavier’s college. Upon graduation, he worked briefly as a journalist and went on to study journalism at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Sydney, Australia. A naturalised Canadian, he has lived and worked in Sydney, Toronto, Singapore and New York where he currently resides. He enjoys reading the classics in translation (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit) and playing truant from work to go to the museums.”

Dushyant, the protagonist of Unruly Times was born in Mumbai, did his post-graduation in Sydney, is a Canadian national, lives in New York, and … enjoys reading the classics in translation (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit). I was wondering why there was no mention of Singapore or museums. Which is beside the point; the story is about him writing a novel which stars Advaita who does his college in Mumbai and post-grad in journalism in Sydney, gets Canadian citizenship … and enjoys reading the classics in translation (Greek and Latin only, but wants to branch out into Sanskrit). Thankfully, Advaita isn’t writing a book. If he is going to, it’s after the end of Unruly Times.

There’s three sorts of parts of the narrative at the Dushyant level, the parts where he’s writing, the parts where he’s reminiscing about his life, and the parts where he’s being criticised by an unnamed American woman-friend. In his writing moments, he is joined by the colourful and imaginary pair of Bhavabhuti, Dushyant’s fictional ancestor, and Macrobius, a symbol for Greek/Latin classic writers. In his comparatively rare reminiscing moments, he is… well, reminiscing about his experiences to get himself clear for writing his book. It is the third sort of part where Prashant (I feel like I’ve broken some unnamed barrier by calling him this, but I’m determined to, even if just for fun) really shines. His relationship with the woman is, down to every last detail, real. The fakeness of their political discussions, the hypocrisy of their acknowledgement of their hypocrisy, the metaphorical sense replacing logical sense for no other reason than to support one’s argument, I’ve been (note tense) these two. Take a look at the time when she first appears in the book.

They greet each other in French.

‘Bonjour, Mademoiselle’, he greets her.

‘Bonjour, Monsieur’, she responds, seemingly charmed that he has called her mademoiselle. Not only does it have more syllables (anything that has more syllables in French is charming), but it also makes her appear younger.

Dushyant begins with a diatribe against the unfortunate nature of modern civilisation and modern literature in particular.

‘You’re too young to be cynical. Lighten up’, she teases.

‘That is the problem with everything. Everyone has lightened up a little too much. It is why the world is in the mess it is in. Everyone feels entitled to their two-bit opinion, however stupid it may be.’

‘Stupidity – that great equaliser. It is what makes life worth living. If there wasn’t so much of it around, we wouldn’t appreciate the rare glimpses of brilliance.’

It is her criticisms of Dushyant’s writing (Dushyant hates the idea of having to produce post-colonial literature) as ‘not Indian enough’ – she repeatedly urges him to include a wedding –, and not in his ‘true voice’ (“It’s somewhat hoarse…”, he weakly replies) and his conversations with the ancient pair in which the satire really comes out (the book is a parody; the points are satirical). It is after one of these criticism sessions that the line that formed the title of my review came.

It is also her criticisms juxtaposed with our experience that brings out a deeper theme in the book, which also runs in the dialogue: how we relate to our fiction. I won’t say anything more about this, because anything anyone learns here is intensely personal.

The rest of the book, especially Advaita’s story – written in a different, more rounded, font –, is a direct parody of the writing I mentioned. It uses a similar voice, the points made in all the discussions are a perfect mockery of what you get to see there, and Dushyant’s book veers into a more and more post-colonial mould as time goes on, though the ending gives hope for the future.

The structure is of Advaita’s story intercut with Dushyant’s tribulations during writing it. As I went further and further into the book, I was reminded of the Kurosawa quote “Take me, subtract movies, and the result is zero.” Finally, it is the last fifty pages, when Advaita’s story gets increasingly ponderous whereas the cutting to and from Dushyant’s story gets more and more hurried, that really got me laughing, with wierd situations, blind alleys and great misquotes (the pinnacle being one of T. S. Eliot’s about pants).

While there is a lot to be said about the book – chief being that his parody of the rather irritating style is never allowed to go on for too long –, there are problems. The first is the editing; I understand that the publisher Rupa is dedicated to providing cheap novels (this one cost around Rs. 200/$ 4, and it’s one of the most expensive I’ve seen them sell), but that shouldn’t mean that they don’t provide their writers with editors, though I do have to commend the cover they provided; a better edition to own than read. The second is that parts of the end are too preachy; the mockery is left behind to ‘seriously’ articulate some learnings about identity, which didn’t really connect. Of course, this may just be me because I read the book in four widely-spaced bursts and missed out on some continuity.

You must be thinking, ‘I thought it was a parody, why are there serious teachings about identity?’ The answer is that because it is the superior type of parody; the type of parody that is a quintessential example of the genre. You know, too quintessential. And, after all, Prashant only wrote it to write an Indian identity novel that wouldn’t be ignored by readers, like me, who are jaded and cynical about ‘identity’ novels. And you know what? It worked.

Posted in Bhawalkar, Prashant, Book reviews, Books | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Golden Compass

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 18, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.

I read Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark materials’ trilogy when I was in eighth. I liked it at the time, and it stuck in my head, proving that it was more than merely good (especially when you compare it to the fact that I was surprised when Aslan died in the first Narnia movie, even though I must have read it in the book). When the movie came out, I somehow got the idea that it wasn’t worth watching, and didn’t. Today, I just did, and… wow! And I say that after having watched it on TV, complete with ads and all.

The movie follows Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (daemons are these animalic things that follow their humans around, and are connected in some deep way to them), as they discover the world they live in and become an integral part of some very important events indeed. But I won’t go into the story, as it would be almost superfluous; the story is something to be discovered. All you really need to know is that it’s a fantasy with a thinly-veiled Catholic Church called the Magisterium.

Dakota Blue Richards

Dakota Blue Richards

The real joy of the film is in its array of characters. Aided by Pullman’s extraordinary conception, even the smallest roles are clearly differentiated from each other, given a completely unique colour, sometimes literally. First, there’s Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards, who has (way) more than her fair share of cuteness. With the added gift of intelligence. Seriously, Lyra is probably the smartest and most resourceful character in the whole movie, though this is significantly countered by her innocence and ignorance, and this is a movie where you can see the politics coiling up on the inside walls of the adults. Richards is able to convey perfectly the inner conflicts – Lyra being a child, these aren’t particularly complex – while making me root for her every step of the way, striking a perfect balance between cuteness, simple-minded nobility, and fear.

Nicole Kidman

Mrs. Coulter

Then there is the agent of the Magisterium Mrs. Marisa Coulter (I don’t recall her being actually married to anyone), played by Nicole Kidman. Nicole Kidman, as we all know, has an inbuilt class. Every role I’ve ever seen her in, from being naked in Eyes Wide Shut to herding bulls in Australia, she unmistakably has the class most Victorian women would die for. When the camera first showed her back in her intro scene, my blood began to rush; I could sense in that shot itself that there was something here which I’d never before seen, something that was going to be an experience in and of itself. And, boy was I right! This one scene showcases class that Kidman has never shown before, from the way she flutters her eyelashes – she really performs that, without losing a trace of dignity – at the Headmaster of the college to the way she wins Lyra’s trust, she captivated in a way I’ve never seen her before. Of course, the veneer falls, as she confronts more and more agitating situations. But, that scene! It was almost… orgasmic, in its flow and not even God knows what else.

The Talking Bear

Gandalf v2.0

There’s a talking bear called Iorek Byrnison. He’s a Polar Bear, and he’s voiced by Ian McKellen, reprising his role as Gandalf, the dude who saves the (read every) battle. I shouldn’t waste any more time on this one; you already know what I’m getting at.

The other roles are really small, but they live in that much. Eva Green inspires tenderness after the fashion of Michelle Yeoh as the witch Serafina Pekkala (isn’t that name enough?), even when she’s fighting. Daniel Craig merely holds the role of Lord Asriel, a sort of Galileo who happens to be Lyra’s uncle, and doesn’t go beyond, but I still think it was a good casting decision. Sam Elliott channels Daniel Plainview (the Daniel Day-Lewis character from There Will be Blood) as Lee Scoresby, whom we’ll only see properly later.

The only movie that came close to this in making me laugh out of… there’s a feeling you get that makes you laugh out loud loud in lame imitation of baring your fangs that is similar to anticipation when there’s great violence, or its expectation; let’s call it ‘violency’. The only movie that came close to this in making me laugh out loud out of violency is Sin City. With the obvious difference that Sin City was actually a movie you’d classify as violent. This violency comes purely out of characters you know and love being about to win against all odds.

However, as I write this, it occurs to me that all my excitement might not have been at the fighting. As I’ve already said, I read the books when I was in eighth, and more or less remembered the story. Lately, I’ve been realising that this is a pretty deep story, and as I was watching this movie, I was over and over again seeing symbolism, with knowledge of what’s to come. I now think that maybe, just maybe, that violency might well be a result of discovering idea after idea that has been deeply buried inside you, for isn’t clash of ideas violence too?

Another result of this uncovering was that I thought, unlike most, that the Church critique was more pointed than in the books. I could clearly see what every symbol stood for. Chris Weitz, the writer and director, has been criticised for watering down Pullman’s themes. Now, I think I saw what I did because I knew what I was looking for. Now, I also think that Pullman’s first book in isolation would not be very themed. In other words, I think that the movie couldn’t possibly be too well-themed, because it needs its sequels. Without them, it is merely a brilliant action movie, even if my favourite of the genre.

PS (the perfect illustration of the unfairness of life): Chris Weitz’s latest movie was The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Recommended reading:
Michael Moorcock on fantasy (more because it’s a new perspective than anything else).
Roger Ebert’s review.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, Weitz, Chris | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Of Talking Gorillas and Deep and Subtle Points

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 16, 2010

Cover of Daniel Quinn's 'Ishmael'

Look at the topmost leaf

Daniel Quinn “does not identify himself as an ‘environmentalist,’ arguing instead as his central thesis (and throughout his works) that humans are not separate from but part of the so-called ‘environment’ (which, like ‘nature,’ is typically conceived of as being out there somewhere, and somehow distinct from us).” (Copied from Wikipedia.)

He published Ishmael, his most famous book, in 1992. He has also written two related books The Story of B (1996) and My Ishmael (1997).

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael is subtitled ‘An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit’. The only reason I noticed this important reason not to read it only halfway into the book was that I knew I wanted to read it as soon as one of my friends told me about it – he said that it was our worldview from the point of view of a gorilla –, before I’d ever seen the cover. To be honest, when I told him to get his copy, I expected to receive a heavy tome written in a gorilla’s first-person voice. What I found instead was a thin little ‘novel’ written in the first-person point of view of the human the gorilla is talking to which was such a breezy read that I finished today after beginning yesterday, but which made points of depth and subtlety, even if it got a few of its facts wrong.

The first question I found myself asking – around twenty pages into the book – was why it was structured as a novel and not an essay. There’s a narrator who feels philosophically empty. He sees an ad in the newspaper, “TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” He answers to find a large room with a gorilla on the other side of a glass pane. The gorilla starts telepathically telling him his own story, and then moves on to explaining (this is why it was so important to have the narrator, I eventually figured out) why mankind is destroying itself, for the first time I’ve seen convincingly framing the answer in culture rather than technology.

That word ‘convincingly’ is possibly the most important word in the last sentence. For years, I’ve been bombarded with nonsense about how it’s actually consumerism that’s at the root of our environmental problems. Ishmael, or – if you prefer to think of it as the ape rather than the book – Ishmael, goes deeper, rooting the problems in the reason we are so consumerist.

In fact, a majority of the book is spent in Ishmael showing the narrator to that very reason. Now, my only major quibble with Ishmael: he doesn’t factor in evolution properly into his whole view. He does, but there are a few holes, of varying size; the biggest one is his assertion that the Leavers – the ‘primitives’ who are content to stay so – lived like lions and wombats, killing only what they had to. The truth, however, is that humans from around the time of the ‘creativity revolution’ (as articulated by Jared Diamond in his The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, which would make a perfect companion piece to Ishmael) around forty thousand years ago, when we suddenly started inventing a lot more tools after a long stop of I don’t remember how many years, have left a trail of extinctions and such-like wherever they have gone, for the simple reason that we have the power but don’t really know how to control it properly; our dying out is our natural fate in natural selection terms, if we don’t save ourselves. Not solely due to Ishmael’s assertion that our ‘Taker’ culture tells us we are gods, though it does tell us that and that is clearly very wrong.

That said, however, I’ve never read a writer who I’ve thought understands so perfectly what’s going wrong as Daniel Quinn, though honestly I have to admit that I do most of my arguing after I read the essay/book, when I’m up against real-life situations. In fact, even if six months down I’ve discarded what Ishmael says as mostly well-intentioned but wrong, I think it’s worth it because of the new perspective it offers, and new perspectives are always welcome.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Quinn, Daniel | Tagged: , , , , , | 9 Comments »

On looking at a partially-covered disk

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 15, 2010

A partial solar eclipse

You really want to look at this through film?

There’s a solar eclipse going on above my city, and everyone in my college is gathering round to see it, through DVDs, films, whatnot. I saw it too. It looked like… put a piece of cardboard with a round hole in front of a bulb, put a coin according to taste, cover it with canvas, and voila: a solar eclipse.Seriously, the photos look better. There is, however, something inherently scenic about a partial solar eclipse.

Except, you know, it’s not up there. It’s down here. Everyday, we in the tropics see a sun-ravaged landscape being ravaged by the sun. Any respite comes in the form of cloud-cover, which merely softens up the image.

The solar eclipse, like cloud-cover, reduces the brightness, but it never actually softens the image. It is still as sharp as bright sunlight.

That is why today was, for me, a revelatory experience. The end-result is something both softer as well as harder than what we normally get to see, summing up to something strangely ethereal, yet undeniably real.

And we all look up.

Posted in Notices to Society | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

3-D non-cinema

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 12, 2010

This post originally appeared at PassionforCinema.

the seedsToday, I finally watched Avatar. Much has been said about this movie, and if you’re looking for a conventional review, I recommend this; I will restrict my general remarks to ‘I enjoyed this movie as a good-looking, well-made action movie.’ All I want to talk about is the 3-D.

I think there is something essentially uncinematic about the whole technology. It has something to do with the floating jellyfishish seeds, seeing which in 3-D might be the strongest reason to spend over a hundred bucks to visit the theatre. I noticed, at one point, one of these pop out of existence dangerously close to the centre of my vision. I was wondering why the hell it irked me so much till I got back home, when I finally figured out. The basic reason is: peripheral vision. This is something I’ve noticed to some degree ever since my first 3-D outing Monsters v/s Aliens, which I found entertaining enough but full of disembodied torsos flying around, because all the action happened outside the screen. At the time, I pointed out (in some comments section or the other) that the edge of the screen was always at the depth of the real screen. Now, I think this is close to the truth but subtly off. I thought this problem would be solved by the all the depth on the other side of the screen paradigm of Up when I first heard that that’s how it was. I watched most of it without the glasses; all the important bits were in focus anyway. So, why? It’s, as I’ve already mentioned, peripheral vision. A screen, unlike our vision, is a hard-edged object. Our vision peters out from central to peripheral in a smooth continuum. So, when, the seed passed out of the screen when it was really ‘close’ to me, it was also nearer the centre of my vision than it would be at screen depth. In other words, that seed wouldn’t really have passed out of my vision at that point in time. Now, you might ask, 2-D provides a ‘perfect illusion’ of 3-D, so why does it not irk us in 2-D? Why, in fact, would it look wrong in 2-D if that seed had stayed in the screen? It’s because 2-D provides us the perfect illusion for our area of focus, as our focus is generally on one plane anyway. 3-D takes that (naturally two-dimensional) area of focus and turns it into a three-dimensional panorama. But the three-dimensional panorama is missing that important thing of something (except the glasses) to occupy our peripheral vision, so it can never be quite real. The only way it would be really immersive is if put you in the panorama, but the too much detail on the side will restrict the ability of what you’re watching to be considered a movie rather than a game (and in what form will you be watching the movie).

And that’s not the only problem. The other major problem is the detailing. I’m not talking about the panorama but in the number of planes. Every face, human and humanoid, in Avatar looks like a cardboard cut-out in its 3-D surroundings, because there are too few planes in it compared to the background (I’m not completely sure why this should be so, because we can easily deal with much more depth; my guess is that the recording equipment had its limitations). In Up and Monsters v/s Aliens, everything looked too round, because of insufficient detailing of the planes’ positions (the difference arises in the feature/animation difference).

But, despite all these flaws, and despite the fact that the first one alone convinces me that 3-D is not the future of intelligent cinema, and even despite the fact that a substantial number of the best shots in this movie had me straining to find the third dimension because they looked like they were 2-D, I’d heartily recommend this watch; there’s something to be said for the fact that I never felt the need to take the glasses off.

Posted in General, Movies | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band’s Visit): Not Peoples, just people

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 3, 2010

still

The reason I watched this movie

Music is about the harmony of a set of discordant notes. Especially orchestra. In some way, Elan Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit is about the harmony between a set of discordant people. Not peoples, just people.

Right at the outset, a title card declares that the events depicted aren’t actually remembered, because they weren’t important. Of course, we refuse to believe. That’s just standard heartstring-pull-porn for ‘it was terribly important, just not quantifiable’.

This is where The Band’s Visit delivers: they aren’t important, just tender and human and sweet. This is not a standard enemies-change-their-lives movie; it’s just an outsiders-who-happen-to-be-from-the-enemy-country-mildly-alters-them-to-the-exact-extent-that-average-outsiders-would movie.

The story is an Egyptian police band ends up in the wrong village in Israel and can’t leave till the next morning. The plot is about four people in the band and the Israelis who put them up/put up with them.

No one is a particularly ‘new’ person in the morning. The only change is the dose of freshness and perspective that the addition of outsider-interaction inevitably brings. One figures out something wrong with himself, a realisation that has been too long in the pipeline. Another finishes a piece he wrote half of thanks to a baby and his father. Yet another finally gets a phone call (this storyline seems to be a parable about hope and symbiosis in conflict). A fourth de-gloomifies his not-girlfriend.

Never in all this outsider-interaction do we hear mention of the tension between their countries; that is for us viewers to add.

There is, however, another staple of outsider-interaction: awkwardness. This is an uproariously funny movie. Yet we are never laughing at the people, we are always laughing at the situation. We never during the course of the movie lose respect for any character.

Music, especially orchestra, is about the harmony of a set of discordant notes. In some way, The Band’s Visit is about the harmony between a set of discordant people. Not peoples, just people. Not characters, just people.

Ebert’s review.
James Berardinelli’s review.

Posted in Kolirin, Elan, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Lists 2009

Posted by Ronak M Soni on January 2, 2010

This post originally appeared at PassionforCinema, an Indian international cinema blog.

Most people release lists of their favourite that came out in a particular year. It makes sense for them, because they’ve watched nearly everything that came out in a particular year.

I, however, have two peculiarities: I’m insanely selective about the money I give my local theatre and my local theatre around as selective about getting prints of the really good English movies (movies I’ve watched in a theatre 2009: Watchmen 3.5/4, HP6 3/4, Transformers 2 0/4, Monsters v/s Aliens 3/4, All the Best 3.5/4, The Hangover 3.5/4, Inglourious Basterds 4/4, Kaminey 2/4, Rocket Singh 2.5/4, Wake Up Sid 3.5/4), and I’m still watching a beginner’s course of cinema. This means that I can’t come up with a conventional list.

Lists, however, are important; they force you to retrospect, and clearly decide on your preferences. So, here are my lists, which include the movies I’ve watched in 2009. And since I watch movies completely devoid of their context, I’m not putting release years.

My biases: Black-and-white over colour, December over January (brackets after director’s name say when I watched the movie), atmospheric over easy-feel, movies with 12 in the name, and more that I can’t catalogue right now.

Best: Links are to reviews on my blog.

  1. Kumonosu jo (Throne of Blood), Kurosawa Akira (January): I’m not even sure whether I watched this in 2009 or 2008, but this best adaptation of Macbeth still affects, much more than his more celebrated Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (I like it about as much as I like Rashomon). But then, I’d been studying the play for the two years prior.
  2. kumonosu jo poster

  3. 8 ½, Frederico Fellini (mid-December): I’ve been reading lots of the literature about this movie, and all of it focuses on the apparent complexity. Personally, I found it rather lucid; it wasn’t hard to come up with a plausible explanation for the happenings. But I don’t like it for its lucidity, I like it for something none of the writers I’ve read have mentioned: how much fun it is.
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  5. Jagte Raho (Stay Awake/Don’t Fall Asleep), Amit & Shombhu Mitra (December 27th): My watching was part of a big back-to-my-roots watching of ‘50s movies, including Awara, Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, and Bimal Roy’s Devdas. This one came out head-and-shoulders above them, in fact above all Hindi movies I’ve ever watched. The best thing about the movie was the morally complex emotional reaction it induced: I pitied everyone in the movie (except the kid from Rashomon and the Nargis cameo), but while I pitied every secondary character for what he/she was, I only pitied Raj Kapoor’s situation. The second-best thing: the direction and the script match up to RK’s acting.
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  7. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles (August/September): Much is made of this movie, but for me its true greatness lies in the fact that, during the celebration scenes, I could feel that Kane was putting on a show. Observation: it couldn’t possibly have worked in any other accent.
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  9. Waking Life, Richard Linklater (early December): A brave film which seeks to fight the apathy among the common man. Also, it taught me that anyone who says that cinema is a visual medium is bullshitting; cinema is an audio-visual medium, as witnessed by the fact that this movie is held together completely by force of music; otherwise, it would be nothing more than detached, albeit interesting, set-pieces. Saying all that, let’s not forget what an experience it is. Here’s my review, written in the ten minutes after my second viewing.
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  11. Requiem for a Dream, Darren Arronofsky (October): Go watch the movie, it’s nothing more than an experience.
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  13. 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam (June/July): I love SF, and here’s an atmospheric story about the psychological trauma faced by a time-traveller.
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  15. 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet (September): Subtly atmospheric, so much so that I watched it again when I suddenly remembered the claustrophobia when I read Ebert’s piece. I felt it again.
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  17. Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman (writer) and Spike Jonze (October, twice): The only other Kaufman I’ve watched is Human Nature, and this one was brilliant. After the second time, I realised that this was much deeper than what I’d taken it to be.
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  19. No Smoking, Anurag Kashyap (July): I’m still to watch Black Friday or any Lynch, so I consider this the best Kashyap, followed closely by Gulaal. I didn’t like Dev.D. Please note: this is not on this list because of ‘importance’ or something; the atmosphere really got through to me.
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  21. The Man from Earth, Jerome Bixby: Not actually no. 11, but I’m putting it here because it deserves a bigger audience. It does deserve a place in the special mentions, so don’t worry about insane promotions.
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Special Mentions: Movies that have a sustained influence on my emotions, but that I didn’t put on the list. In order of having come to my head.

The Man from Earth, Jerome Bixby

Across the Universe, Julie Taymor: A love story musical in which all the songs are cover versions of Beatles songs, some radically altered. The best thing, however, is the visual inventiveness of the movie. I saw it again the same day. Ebert’s review.

Sin City, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller: Ebert.

Batman Begins (but not its sequel), Chris Nolan: A superhero movie that goes into the depths of what it means to be a superhero, how it differs from being a vigilante, and the psychology of the main character Bruce Wayne(/batman).

Jules and Jim, Francois Truffaut: I’m not completely sure why this one isn’t on the top ten list.

Manorama – Six Feet Under, Navdeep Singh: An Indian noir, a copy of Polanski’s Chinatown. Masterfully paced.

Omkara, The Blue Umbrella, Vishal Bhardwaj: The first is a copy of Othello with one of the performances of the decade by Saif Ali Khan, who plays Iago. The second is an adult kids’ movie about the theft of an exotic umbrella from a kid.

Gulaal, Anurag Kashyap: A political allegorical thriller with a Shakespearan clown next to off-center.

Eyes Wide Shut, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick: A realistic parable about insecurity and infidelity in marriage, a subtlety-over-depth anti-war statement, a parody of the Cold War made during its height, all Kubrickally done. Clicking on Kubrick’s name gives access to all three Ebert reviews, and more.

Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki: Beautiful, deep manga animation, each frame hand-drawn. Another movie I watched again to satisfy myself.

Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet: Everyone says this is about the effect of TV news, but I didn’t think there was enough focus on that. Still, the most spellbinding thriller I’ve ever seen with Al Pacino doing some career-defining work. Ebert’s review.

Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Dibakar Bannerjee: A clear-eyed, unsentimental look at what being a well-known thief is like for you and those around you.

Juno, Jason Reitman: Teenage girl gets pregnant. Intelligent teenage girl gets pregnant. Ebert again.

Taxi Driver, The Aviator, Martin Scorsese: Masterfully made stuff. The involving power, of all three – Marty, Robert de Niro, Leo -, is enormous.

Babel, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu: Miscommunication. A little technnique of quick pan followed by bob at destination instead of cutting makes this a truly melancholy experience. Only movie that’s made me think of that word.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Richard Linklater

Charlie Wilson’s War, Mike Nichols: A biopic in which the bio-ed guesses perfectly at the consequences, it got me by this method of making everything seem ominous and telling us about what went wrong at the same time.

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Sudhir Mishra: A clash of two ideas both trying to woo a third, each embodied in a character. Or did I get that the wrong way round? Doesn’t really matter.

The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman: Swedish Kurosawa. Heartrending.

The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme: This one intrigued me as much as it scared me, but it formed an unforgettable experience nonetheless.

Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino (my friend says that I like this one more than Pulp Fiction only because I watched the latter on TV and the former in a theatre): Guy Ritchie done right. See below, in over-rated movies section.

The 40-year-old Virgin, Knocked Up, Judd Apatow: To be honest, both had their boring parts, but in the end they were brilliant, funny comedies with a great deal of heart.

Sita Sings the Blues, Nina Paley: Ebert on this.

Most over-rated: Movies that I didn’t like as much as I expected to, from reviews.
Pulp Fiction: Very good, but expected more energy because of what I’d heard
Reservoir Dogs: Read Ebert’s review for almost perfect concurrence
Amelie: Brilliant set-up and style, but development of the story was a let-down
The Godfather: The colour palette and Brando’s broken voice were all wrong for me; I preferred Ram Gopal Varma’s blacker, better-voiced rendition.
The Shawshank Redemption: Loved it, but best movie ever?
Khosla ka Ghosla: Am I the only one to see how short-sighted this movie really is? Conning the thief doesn’t actually solve any problems.
Dr. Strangelove: Absolutely brilliant, but funny? Only in the last scene did I laugh.
Wall-E: I didn’t think the cuteness and the bleakness worked together well.
Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool: All of Guru Dutt’s secondary characters are stereotypes. In the end, I find this more irritating than I find the masterful filmmaking involving. See Raj Kapoor for an examination of stereotypes.
Kaminey, Vishal Bhardwaj and Snatch, Guy Ritchie: Such movies thrive on taut set-pieces, but these don’t stop and try to build up any tension, unlike Inglourious Basterds. Over-plotting, essentially, destroyed these two movies for me.

Books: Borges ought to be here, at number 3, but he never actually wrote a book, and I’ve only read a scattering of his work. Links are to wikipedia articles, unless otherwise mentioned.

  1. Animal’s People by Indra Sinha: A look at the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, twenty years later. All pathos is shown as anger in the midst of exuberance. Writer’s ready with the screenplay, and here’s to hoping the film gets made.
  2. A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: Exuberant post-modernism. Wow.
  3. Conjectures and Refutations by Karl Popper: My introduction to serious, professional philosophy after the likes of Ayn Rand and Sartre.
  4. The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins: A labour of love to one of the best and most beautiful ideas humanity has ever come up with.
  5. The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Aldous Huxley once said that the best essays were the ones that took something blindingly obvious and brought it out to your conscious mind. This book does exactly that.
  6. Six Acres and a Third (Chha Maana Atha Guntha in the original Oriya) by Fakir Mohan Senapati, translated by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Paul St-Pierre, Satya P. Mohanty and Jatindra K. Nayak. My review here.
  7. In the Heart of the Country by J. M. Coetzee: I’m a Coetzee junkie, and this is certainly my favourite. It takes the form of little journal entries by a woman stuck on a farm.
  8. Rhadopis of Nubia by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Anthony Calderbank: my review here.
  9. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: Amazingly spot-on, not to mention well-written, not to mention the piece of pizza I begun and ended with this book.
  10. Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra: I’ve read all three of his books, in the order they were written. The second (Love and Longing in Bombay) was actually better than this one, but the third (Sacred Games) was a 900-page letdown. So, lacking a seminal work, this one will be my favourite of his books. I like it more than the second because this was a so much newer experience. Vikram Chandra reviews here.

Special mention: Fugitive Histories by Githa Hariharan

Posted in 2009, Lists | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »