Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Knowing" the Sci-Fi Genre

Science-Fiction as a genre usually has two types of movies. The first is the conventional, big budget, special effects laden box office bait that aim at providing entertainment and discard the possibilities of interesting ideas and originality altogether. Among these are “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “The Core” and “Armageddon” among many many others. The human element here is either ignored or developed in a schmaltzy manner as seen in movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Deep Impact.” These are churned out in large numbers every year. While some hit the bull’s eye like “Independence Day,” others like “The Core” bite the dust and leave the studios poorer and the audiences unsatisfied.

However, thankfully, there is also the other kind of science fiction: one which is daring in its ideas and visionary in its approach. It is based on good science and treats its characters with respect and care rather than use them as an excuse for giving a headache inducing dose of special effects. It is the ideas of such movies which are appealing and not just their visuals. The most obvious example in this type is Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” While it was dull and supremely slow, the ideas in there were awe inspiring and its marriage of the scientific with the philosophical is unparalleled in cinema to date.

Of course, there are the occasional combinations of the two types that also work well. The immediate examples that come to mind are “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “Aliens.” There was imagination there that has triggered a number of inferior inspired films and proved to be timeless in terms of entertainment and imagination. However, films falling in the second and third category are few and far between. Therefore, an entrant in such a category is always a cause for celebration.

Recently, I had the opportunity of catching “Knowing” starring Nicholas Cage among others. The premise was intriguing and the man at the helm was Alex Proyas, the man behind the gutsy and visionary sci-fi noir, “Dark City” and the somewhat disappointingly mainstream “I, Robot.” These two factors were enough to make me interested. And thankfully, I was not disappointed. This was that rare film where the subject matter blew me away! Falling in the second category of sci-fi genre explained above, the movie is daring in its ideas and it lays bare the fragility of human existence without diminishing its value.

The premise is as follows: a school opens a time capsule it buried 50 years ago containing drawings by children of what they imagined the future to be and distribute it among the current students. One child gets a paper which has a seemingly random series of numbers written on it. On closer scrutiny, his father (Nicholas Cage), a professor at MIT, finds that the numbers match with the date and location of every major disaster of the last 50 years and the number of casualties in each. And it also has some dates of the future on which more disasters are to occur. He soon realises that his family and the family of the child who actually wrote the numbers are to play a significant role in determining the future of mankind.

The premise is intriguing although it sounds like a plot of a typical sci-fi – horror whodunit. And Alex Proyas does an excellent job of developing it. The atmosphere is cold and tense throughout, an aspect for which the movie has been faulted by many. However, I fail to see how the theme it chooses for itself could be explored in any other manner. In fact, the element of horror is exceptionally well established and demonstrates that one does not need ghosts or supernatural elements to really scare the crap of human beings. A mirror showing their fragility suffices. Also, Proyas, unlike most pedestrian filmmakers, never discounts the importance of human emotions and relationships that are central to the film. The relationship between the widower father and son is well explored and the film is actually moving towards the end, a rare feat in the sci-fi/horror genre.

I couldn’t help myself but compare it to my recent experience watching “Watchmen.” Both movies fall on two ends of the spectrum in terms of ideas. While “Watchmen” looks at the decadence of human nature as the primary cause of bringing human existence in danger, “Knowing” juxtaposes human existence with the infinity of the cosmos thereby laying bare its fragility and even irrelevance. Really, the world could come to an end tomorrow due to some remote cosmic event and there is nothing we could do about it. At the same time, Alex Proyas combines science fiction with biblical symbolism and religious ideas, themes and beliefs to really leave us with some serious food for thought. While it may be easy to dismiss it as preposterous, it is the preposterousness of it that is, in fact, most appealing. Proyas is unflinching in his vision and dares to take his ideas to their logical conclusion. The climax is a sight to behold and both the producer and the director must be lauded for having the guts to conclude the story like that. While such conclusions may have often featured in writings of great science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, (as a friend pointed it out to me) to see it mounted on this scale in a film is a rare delight.

Another aspect of the film that is breathtaking is its special effects. In today’s digital age, special effects are rarely special. While software can create almost any imagery one desires, most filmmakers/special effects teams lack the requisite vision to conceive and create visuals that are awe-inspiring and more than a mere a large scale reproduction of visuals created earlier. Alex Proyas was one of the pioneers in visual effects in “Dark City.” There were visuals there that are memorable even today. The transformations of the city, the climactic battle between the hero and the aliens and the finale were astounding. He brings similar vision to “Knowing” wherein there is a freshness brought to even the most used scenarios. The air crash and train accident sequences sent a chill down my spine with their realistic look. This is possibly because Proyas uses a mix of set design, stuntmen and CGI to create these scenes. The other scenes of destruction are also terrifying and authentic. The special effects in the final scenes involving the children are simply breathtaking in their vision. More than that, I do not wish to reveal.

Ultimately, however, despite its visual appeal, the primary aspect I am drawn towards is the ideas the film attempts to explore. They are a rare feature of mainstream cinema and Proyas displays a fair amount of intelligence in developing them. He may not be a Kubrick (which actually is in some ways, good), but he is a gifted storyteller with a knack to tell something original and distinct in every outing. His vision here results in a film that deserves respect, a claim few science fiction films can make.

Monday, April 27, 2009

“Watchmen:” The Graphic Novel and the Movie

Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” is arguably one of the most celebrated graphic novel of all time and also ranked among one of the best works of fiction ever written. Set in a parallel universe, it is both, superbly entertaining and deeply insightful as regards the political and the philosophical. It is creative, complex and has been considered un-filmable for the longest time by many including visionary directors like Terry Gilliam.

The plot of “Watchmen” is as follows: the story is set in a parallel 1985 where Nixon has been elected for a third term and the world is on the brink of a nuclear holocaust as the Cold War intensifies. It is also a world where superheroes/vigilantes had become an integral part of the social establishment till they were outlawed in 1977. While some decided to work with the government, others chose to give up their vigilante activities altogether. Here, a superhero, Edward Blake a.k.a. The Comedian is brutally murdered and a vigilante, Rorschach, who is on the run from the police for not giving up his masked identity, begins an investigation. What appears to be a political killing quickly shapes up into a part of a much more complex and horrific conspiracy in which the fate of the world may be hanging in the balance.

While the story may seem ordinary and even mediocre, the brilliance of the graphic novel lies in its crafting. The writers carefully sketch out the world they have created and flesh out each character, from the central ones like Doctor Manhattan, the Silk Spectres, Nite Owl, the Comedian and Rorschach to minor characters like Malcolm Long, Hollis Mason etc. with great care and attention. They also develop a story within the story, “Tales of the Black Freighter,” which provides an insightful allegory for the characters of the main story as well as human nature more generally. Their imagination seems limitless and the climax where the various parallel storylines finally converge is simply breathtaking. Right from the artwork to the dialogues, each frame of the graphic novel is memorable. Therefore, adapting a beloved and complex work of fiction like this is extremely difficult and tricky.

When Zach Snyder was brought at the helm for transforming “Watchmen” from a novel to motion picture, there was some hope. His previous work “300” was a faithful and satisfactory adaptation of the Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Of course, it was riddled with historical inaccuracies, a point for which it was lambasted by critics and viewers alike. Nevertheless, one could not take away form the fact that as an adaptation of a graphic novel, it was a solid book-to-movie transformation and made a monstrous killing at the box office.

Zach Snyder breaks down “Watchmen” to its bare basics. This is not to say that the movie is a simple one. There are enough plot twists and turns to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat throughout. Although it follows the graphic novel religiously, even panel by panel in select sequences, that is a forgivable flaw considering the quality of the source material itself. There are flashes of originality in several places, particularly in the title sequences which are arguably the finest credit sequence I have seen. Replete with cultural references from the novel and beyond, it is an excellent encapsulation of select sub-plots within 2 minutes and establishes the moral complexity of the subject matter. Within 10 minutes into the movie, the viewer realises that this is far from the conventional superhero movie. Another example of intelligent innovation is the climax of the story which is a departure from the graphic novel. Honestly, I thought Alan Moore went berserk in the conclusion of the graphic novel. Sure, it was exhilarating, uber cool and fit in perfectly with the sub plots developed in the graphic novel. But it was at the same time, ridiculous and preposterous. In transforming the graphic novel into film, Snyder and his team of writers innovate effectively in changing the climax of the story and still keeping the central theme and logic of the story intact.

Of course, at the same time, there are some sequences which were not as effective as they should have been. The sequence on Mars between Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II is extremely crucial to the story. The thoughts and ideas that are discussed there form the crux of the point driven home by the story. They are intriguing and often, awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, most of these ideas are sacrificed probably to keep the runtime in control. However, one does wish this part had been given more time than say, the sequences between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II which are often long, meandering and unnecessary.

Technically, the film is flawless. From the soundtrack to the cinematography and special effects, everything is handled with great care for detail. At the same time, Snyder ensures that the technique supplants and does not overpower the plot and characters which are the life and soul of the graphic novel. The soundtrack takes popular classics like “Sound of Silence,” “Unforgettable” and “Hallelujah” and uses them effectively throughout the film.

The performances range from powerful to disappointing. Perhaps the finest performance comes from Jackie Earl Haley who plays Rorschach. He brings about the moral fanaticism coupled with a cold logic and a mad streak which his character demands. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also well cast as the Comedian. He is powerful and effective as the sadistic and crass superhero who understands the chaotic and inherently selfish nature of man. Billy Crudup is excellent as Dr. Manhattan as he brings out the aspects of calm, composure and cold clinical logic combined with a subtle emotional vulnerability which are central to his character. Carla Gugino is well cast as Silk Spectre I and shines in a small role of the former superhero, aging mother. Malin Akerman looks beautiful but is unable to reflect the intelligence her character possesses. Patrick Wilson is just right as the Nite Owl and performs well as the nervous, occasionally bumbling but always sincere and caring superhero. But certainly the most disappointing casting is of Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. He is a thorough miscast and the charm and style of that is central to his character. He just isn’t imposing and interesting enough. The exotic accent doesn’t help things either. He is not only a far cry from the Ozymandias of the graphic novel but also a woefully uninteresting character independently.

So overall, comparing the book to the movie, the movie remains a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel. The liberties that are taken mostly work in favour of the film and not against it. There are certain individual sequences and actors that disappoint. Nevertheless, the superior quality of the subject matter and the effective transformation to the screen elevate the film to a memorable one that appeals to the initiated and the uninitiated alike. It is a dark tale that is laced with wit, humour and some striking insights n human nature. It is definitely a bold story for mainstream big budget cinema and Snyder and Warner Bros. deserve kudos for having the balls to tell it and even substantially do justice to it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Great Musical Moments: America – West Side Story

With the risk of getting shot, let me admit at the very outset, that my first viewing of “West Side Story” left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. The story of Romeo and Juliet has been done to death in different settings and this one follows the original tale almost religiously. The two leads playing Tony and Maria annoy rather than enchant and the chemistry between them on screen is far from electric. As a result of this, in the end when I saw Maria left all alone to pick up the pieces, I didn’t feel any sadness for her. The main story and its execution left me rather cold.

This is not to say that “West Side Story” was a terrible film/musical. The music of Jerome Robbins here is splendid with one great number after another from “Tonight Tonight” to “Maria” and from “America” to “Somewhere.” The choreography is absolutely spectacular and the fight sequences are unique for their simultaneous embodiment of power and rhythm. Fortunately and unfortunately, there is such life and intensity in these sequences which is sorely lacking in the rest of the film.

However, in my opinion, the masterstroke of brilliance in the case of “West Side Story” lies in its setting. It takes a very real issue of its time i.e. rivalries among immigrant groups in New York City and sets it to a larger than life canvas which is simultaneously intriguing, entertaining and at times, awe-inspiring. It is a story set in a time when America was changing dramatically with more and more people from diverse cultures pouring into cities like New York and Los Angeles. It captures the immigrant experience and clash of cultures so well that perhaps that is the reason for its long lasting appeal.

This immigrant experience is perhaps best explored in the song “America.” The song is placed right after Anita is trying to explain to Maria’s brother that Maria has grown up and she can meet whoever she wants. He refuses to accept this argument and believes that Puerto Ricans cannot mix with Irish-Italians or any other group. They reach the terrace where several of their group members are there with their girls. Anita brings up the differences between America and Puerto Rico and quickly we are drawn into the song itself.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the song is its picturisation. The choreography combined with the body language and costumes create a sexual tension which is palpable. The women ooze confidence and the men are clearly out to impress them. The element of the changing dynamic between the sexes is very well explored. The Puerto Rican women are freer in America. They can do what they want and wear what they want. They feel no longer tied down by the men. While they are still in a limbo caught between their past and their future, they are quickly becoming strong, independent women (perhaps best seen in the character of Anita). For the guys, while this is a turn on, it is also a source of insecurity as they realise that their women are no longer completely under their control.

Another aspect well explored is the issue of economic deprivation. Here, I don’t just mean the poverty but also the humiliation associated with menial jobs and the stigma associated with the immigrant status then. Of course most of it comes from the men who had to face the worst of it. While the women enjoyed a sense of empowerment in America, the effect was the opposite on men. Certainly, their lives were better here economically than their home country. But in that quest for greater economic status came a loss of the Puerto Rican way of life. Again, the women feel the pinch lesser than men who are affected not only by the individualism of America (as compared to the supposed warmth of their home turf), they also feel threatened (and perhaps, impotent) by their increasing insignificance individually, both in relation to society and in relation to their women. Hence, their urge to assert their control in more macho (and often, sillier) ways.

Ultimately, however, “America” is a joyous celebration of life in all its splendour. It brings out its constant changing nature and the need to enjoy it in every way possible. Despite their insecurities about their culture collectively and America’s impact on them individually, men and women take it in their stride and try to adapt to it and make the most out of it. It captures a time that no longer exists on a scale that is astounding. It is exciting yet insightful. That is precisely the reason why it marks a great moment in musicals and arguably, a great moment at the movies.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Under Scrutiny: Ronnie Screwvala

Most often, there is one person who is always forgotten to be mentioned while giving a great movie its due: the producer. He is the person who oversees the execution of the film and bears all the hassles. Most often, it is his money at stake and he can play an instrumental role in making a great film or making a complete mess of it. For example, it is Harvey Weinstein's edited version of "Cinema Paradiso" that is today considered to be a revered classic and not the original vision of the director. At the same time, over-interference has also ruined many films.

The film industry has been in a state of flux for the last ten years. Caught between the masala fare of the 90s, the mini-revival of parallel cinema of the 80s and exploring new forms of cinema including the abstract experimental and the uber-contemporary, the film industry is in the midst of change. The rise of a strong urban only contributed to these changes while corporatisation has worked in both ways. While some have chosen to recycle the same old stuff with bloated budgets (Singh is King, Bunty aur Babli, Dhoom 2 etc.), others have really dared to push the boundaries of Hindi cinema and both, reflected and contributed to the changing sensibilities of Indian society. Amongst the foremost in this category is the man behind UTV: Ronnie Screwvala.

The Bombay boy started with television and gradually branched out to distribution and production of movies. With a career spanning over twenty years (ten of which has been devoted to the movies), he has managed to push cinematic frontiers particularly in the last 5 years or so and more often than most others dared to walk the road least travelled. And that has made all the difference.

Lets look at some of his works as a producer. After the forgettable "Fiza" (2000), he came as a co-producer to Farhan Akhtar's critically acclaimed film "Lakshya" (2004). A great story of personal transformation and a good war movie, the film was different from most others at its time for its technique. Apart from a solid script and arguably Hrithik's best performance, the film boasted of some of the most exquisite cinematography ever witnessed on the Indian screen. It's action sequences were spectacular in places. No costs were spared on the project (Budget: Rs. 32 crores) and though it was a financial disaster, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of 2004.

Moving forward, after some smaller films ("Main Meri Patni Aur Woh" and "D") and the daring but preachy "Swades" in 2005, Ronnie Screwvala gave us "Rang De Basanti" (2006). Here, you have a unique story and script which looked at issues like patriotism and the apathy of the youth from a whole new (and somewhat abstract) prism. It was a risky project in terms of its very concept and required huge amounts of faith to be made. The director was Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra who previously gave us the visually stunning but box offfice disaster "Aks." Once again, no costs were spared (Rs. 25-30 crores) and some of the best actors and technicians in the industry were assembled. A free leesh was given in terms of execution and the result was for all to see. The film was loved by many and hated by an equal number. But it had been many years since a film had actually managed to evoke such strong reactions for its content and was actually considered socially relevant. A whole generation of people flocked to watch the film and many drew inspiration from it. The biggest success of the year, the wave that "Rang De Basanti" created was unstoppable for a long time.

In contrast to "Rang De Basanti" was another film released in the same year by UTV: "Khosla ka Ghosla." Directed by a first timer, Dibakar Banerjee, the film had no big actors to boast of except Anupam Kher and Boman Irani. Made on a small budget, this little sleeper hit is arguably the best (and certainly, the most intelligent) comedy made in many years. With solid performances from the two stalwarts and Ranbir Shorey, Vinay Pathak and Navin Nischol, the film was loved by audiences and critics alike. It harked back to the times when comedy was more subtle than the brand of humour that rules the roost post "Hera Pheri." It relied more on wit and situations rather than physical antics. It was the sort of film that Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have made in his hey days and raised the bar for the comedy genre considerably.

2007 was another eclectic year with the forgettable cricket flick "Hattrick," the offbeat "The Blue Umbrella" and the decent "Life in a Metro." However, the important common factor in all these movies were their subject matter which set them apart from the run of the mill. Also, they were extremely different from each other unlike the same kind of films being churned out by producers like Sajid Nadiadwala etc. The music of "Life in a Metro" was excellent and its execution was also interestingly different.

However, by far the best year of Ronnie Screwvala was 2008. Here, there were several projects undertaken by him and each as different from the other as chalk and cheese. It started with "Jodha Akbar" a poor film in terms of script and story. However, historical films have a terrible track record in India with a few exceptions and it took guts to invest Rs. 50 crores into a film about a tale that was even barely known. However, with a combination of a bankable cast, great music, a huge (nearly seemless) canvas and great marketing, "Jodha Akbar" emerged as one of the biggest hits of the year.

But the best thing about Ronnie Screwvala in 2008 was not "Jodha Akbar" but rather, everything else he did. With the exception of "Rock On!" all of the best films of the year came from his stable. "A Wednesday!" and "Mumbai Meri Jaan" were perhaps the best representation of the personal anguish experienced by the common man because of acts of terrorism. They were both small films with small casts and ordinarily, limited financial capabilities. But they left a huge impact on the viewers and managed to do well because of word of mouth against all odds. Again, they were some the few films that were actually socially relevant rather than being merely glossy and jingoistic about thorny issues.

Similarly, "Aamir" was a small film which caused a surprisingly large splash and perhaps revived some hope for the thriller genre which had god awful films like "Race" to claim in 2008. "Welcome to Sajjanpur" saw the return of Shyam Benegal in the director's chair after a hiatus and again looked at the lives and issues of the people in a small town in an interesting manner. "Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!" offered us an interesting crime caper which actually managed to capture the spirit of Delhi and its people. "Fashion" was again a huge risk to take. With an all female star cast and only Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut with any amount of star power, a director like Madhur Bhandarkar (who is well known for small-budget films which do moderate business) and a subject like the fashion industry, it was a huge risk to invest roughly Rs. 25 crores in the project and spare no costs in giving the film an authenticity (from the costume and the fashion shows to the designer cameos) which Bhandarkar's previous endeavours, particularly "Page 3" lacked. The result was a real knockout performance by Priyanka Chopra and the best work of Madhur Bhandarkar so far.

It's only been 3 months in 2009 and Ronnie Screwvala has already given us two films: "Dev D" and "Delhi-6." While "Dev D" has already received much praise everywhere (including this blog) little needs to be said except that Ronnie Screwvala deserves kudos for daring to deliver a movie so bold. As regards "Delhi-6," you may love it or hate it, but you can't deny that it is different in its subject matter and it is a film no major producer other than Screwvala would even dream of making (though they would be content with their "Hey Baby"s and their "Singh is King"s). Further, it is a landmark film for its visual effects and actually capturing the sights, sounds and the people of Chandni Chowk with such poignancy and rare beauty.

To conclude a rather long first post, I come back to where I started from. Producers are rarely if ever credited for the success of their films. Few realise that it is their willingness and their faith that transforms an idea on paper to a celluloid experience. Further, it is sad to note that today, few producers are daring to push the boundaries of cinema. Most cash in on the tried and tested junk and don't really care for movies as a medium for meaningful stories and great art. A rare exception among these is Ronnie Screwvala. Each movie is a new experience. And like each new experience, it may not always be a good one. But I think the new experience itself counts for a lot in a world where fiction is fast being reduced to saas-bahu nonsense.

A Welcome Note

Welcome to my blog. It's all about my favourite things: music, movies interspersed with pointless (but occasionally deep) insights about everything and everyone. As of now, I am looking at two regular sections:

Under Scrutiny - Here, I intend to look at works of specific actors, directors, producers etc. - both Indian and otherwise.

Great Musical Moments - Here, I take some of the best moments in movie musicals and discuss them.

Of course, apart from this there will be other posts depending on new ideas or lack thereof. :)