Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A very premature "best of 2006" list....

As I posted previously, I still have to see a lot of worthy movies of 2006, so it probably doesn't make much sense thinking about a "top 10" list at this point. But looking back from this point, I can still figure out some sort of grading among the movies that I HAVE seen till now. Not ranks, which don't mean much anyway, but grades. Notice that Pan's Labyrinth seems to be doing great! This might be due to the recency factor (as it is the last movie I saw) or, more likely, due to the great "aftertaste" of the movie. Some of the scenes of the movie have been running through my mind since writing the review and I must say that I probably undersold the movie in that review. Anyway.. here is what the list looks like, as of now...

A+: The Departed, Pan's Labyrinth

A : Lage Raho Munnabhai, The Prestige, United 93, *V for Vendetta

A- : Babel, Cars, Inside Man, Little Miss Sunshine, Omkara, The Queen, Rang De Basanti,

A-- : Dor, *Guru, Thank You For Smoking

The reason all of them are called A's is because all of them were pretty good and should probably not be missed. It was quite difficult, considering that I didn't want to spend too much time mulling over an essentially premature list, to rank movies within a given grade, so they are presented in alphabetical order.

One more thing - it is heartening to see so many Hindi movies in this list. 2006 was a great year for hindi movie industry both in terms of economics and quality of the movies. I tend to think that these things aren't as independent of each other as people seem to think.

* - V for Vendetta and Guru aren't 2006 movies strictly speaking. But V for Vendetta didn't really go into reasonably wide release till well into 2006 and Guru was only postponed to 2007 at the very last minute, so it is difficult to recondition my mind into thinking of it as a 2007 movie.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

You see a Guru and you gush at all the good points and talk about the bad points. Then you go to see something like Pan's Labyrinth and things fall into perspective. If Guru is 7.9/10, where do you put Pan's Labyrinth? 9.5 perhaps? Problem is, its not as if its the greatest movie ever. If you judge it independent of Guru, it will probably fall somewhere around 9. But thats not too bad, is it?

In a year that seemed very bad for quality movies till very close to the end, there seem to be a million great movies that released right at the end of the year which makes this time a very exciting and busy time for anyone who wants to catch all these movies before they leave the theatres. I still have to see most of these movies. Of the top of my head, this must-watch list includes Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Children of Men, Volver, The Lives of Others, Blood Diamond, The Painted Veil, The Last King of Scotland etc. And maybe a couple others that are not quite must-watch but given an opportunity I'll see them (like Casino Royale, Borat, A Prairie Home Companion, The Illusionist etc). This probably means that I have absolutely no right to say "this is the best movie of the year" but I can't imagine more than a couple of these movies finally impressing me more than Pan's Labyrinth.

So, what is it that I just saw? A fantasy? probably. A war movie? most likely. A drama? A thriller? Horror? All of the above? Its a genre-bending movie that mixes everything and does it so well that the first thing that came to my mind was "What the hell does one start with when writing something like this? What is the seed? What is the basic idea that develops into something like Pan's Labyrinth? "

It mixes a story of rebels fighting an insanely cruel military captain with a story of a girl grappling with a fantasy world full of fairies, monsters and suchlike. The two stories keep running parallel throughout without a single place where the transition might seem forced/unnatural. The seamlessly bound threads come together in the end and even though I personally didn't quite see the thematic link between the two very clearly, it didnt bother me much just because everything seemed to work so well. Those who have been reading my reviews before already know how I completely fall for anything with great visuals and music. And this is a movie with beautiful images and even more amazing sounds. So you can see where that 9/10 rating is coming from. :) That is not to say that the story doesn't work. Its a wonderfully told story that just keeps you entranced from the first to the last frame.

Don't miss it, even if you aren't normally a foreign-language-movie person. But beware, there are probably a couple violent images and maybe just a couple of places where the images/situations might seem bordering on horror, at least for children in the audience. Another tip - as is true for any movie with great cinematography and music, it'd be a pity if you don't see it in a theatre!

Friday, January 26, 2007


There was a time when I used to think that any movie not worth watching twice is not worth reviewing, and any movie worth reviewing should not be reviewed without watching it more than once. Little did I know that a day will come when I won't have enough time to watch all the must-watch new releases just once, let alone twice! Probably the only movies that I was able to catch more than once in 2006 are V for Vendetta and Cars, which is probably why I have written almost no movie reviews for more than a year. I guess I'll have to forget this rule from now on. Better write a review as and when one gets time rather than wait forever. So, even though I'm going to see Guru again on this weekend, here are my comments on the movie. There is, however, a possibility that it might be updated after I see it again. Almost every movie feels very different when you are watching it again, at least to me. Its a pity that I never got around to see some of the better movies of last year more than once. Anyway, coming to Guru...

First of all, there's a chance that I might be more critical of the movie than I intend to be. Its a Mani Ratnam movie and that comes with a lot of expectations. Specially because it is thematically very close to Iruvar which happens to be my favorite Ratnam movie. So, inevitably Guru suffers by comparison. For all the bad things I might say about Guru, it is still quite a good movie to watch with many Ratnam moments.

Now that all the disclaimers are out of the way, lets get down to business. Guru is essentially the story of a man whose sole purpose in life is to get ahead in his business almost completely disregarding other people's opinions of his methods. It is very much like a Citizen Kane or an Iruvar in the sense that it follows one man's journey over decades of change. Needless to say, this sort of theme provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone performing the protagonist's role. And even though Abhishek Bachchan doesn't come close to what Mohanlal did in Iruvar, he is amazing in his own right. Except for a couple of scenes where he resembled Amitabh too much for my comfort, he carries the movie wonderfully well. His body language, his comic timing, even the energy he infuses in some of the dramatic scenes are so good that you almost can't imagine Gurubhai any other way. The same probably can't be said about Aishwarya's Sujata. Even though she is quite good here, as she is whenever she is casted by a good director for a character like this, you can imagine the same role being played by other people (I could see Yuva's Rani Mukherji in my mind's eye in some of the scenes, and it looked more compelling; and that's just talking about the more mainstream actresses. After all, there's almost nothing that Konkona Sen Sharma can't do. and then there is Tabu. Anyway, I digress..). Aishwarya essentially is playing a combination of her two roles in Iruvar, something that she tends to fall back on for most of her prestigious non-masala movies and ends up being more than efficient. That some of her scenes are extremely well written helps in elevating the impact of her performance. At the end of the movie you remember a lot about Sujata, much more than the screen time that she has outside of the songs. This is true for a lot of other characters too. For a movie that has Abhishek Bachchan in almost every frame, its amazing how much impact the comparatively tiny appearances of Mithun, Madhavan, Manoj Joshi, Rajendra Gupta and Roshan Seth leave. Even Vidya Balan, whose character is essentially conceived just to add some spice to the Abhishek-Mithun and Abhishek-Madhavan relationships and has maybe a total of 10 lines to speak, doesn't seem wasted unless you are a big Vidya Balan fan who came to watch the movie just for her. Mithun started with a slightly over-the-top "achcha hai! bahut achchha hai" that made me cringe a little, but soon settled into a really good understated performance that is a perfect counterpoint to the punchline-driven characters of Gurubhai and Shyam Saxena (Madhavan). Madhavan is superb as Shyam Saxena. There really is no one in his generation of actors who can bring the combination of boy-next-door charm and righteous energy into his performances as effortlessly as Madhavan has done time and again. This role is right up his alley and he makes it his own even with the limited time he is on screen. After a disappointing turn in Rang De Basanti (to me he was one of the weaknesses of RDB, not necessarily due to his performance but just the way the character was probably conceived didn't impress me a lot), Guru will probably get him the long overdue recognition of people who haven't seen him in Alaipayuthey, Kannathil Mutthamittal, Ayidha Ezhuthu etc.

Speaking of punchline-driven characters, the dialogues here are brilliant. I guess the credit goes not just to Mani Ratnam who must've written the screenplay in English but also to Vijay Krishna Acharya who has translated them to Hindi amazingly. Punchlines follow one after the other making at least the first half of the movie a completely entertaining fare. So much so that at intermission the only problem I had with the movie was the placing of the songs. Mayya Mayya is pardonable as it comes right at the beginning (with extremely well done credit sequence) and so doesnt affect the flow of the movie. But Barso Re, even though very well picturized, could've done with better placement. That, however, is nothing compared to Tere Bina, that just didn't work for me at all. It plays at a time when you'd not expect it to, but rather than surprising you in a good way it just looks gimicky (like Roobaroo and some of the background score that just didn't work for me in Rang De Basanti... different, but gimicky more than anything else). THAT, however, is nothing compared to Ek Lo Ek Muft, which adds absolutely nothing to the movie. I don't know what Mani Ratnam was thinking. He probably envisioned it as another item song along with Mayya Mayya, but you don't put an item song just about anywhere in the movie. Specially not a song that isn't too great itself. Ek Lo Ek Muft single handedly takes away some points from the movie. Its a pity that Mani seems to be losing interest in song sequences lately and seems to be doing them more as a necessity than anything else (something that was clear even in Kannathil Mutthamittal and Yuva). For someone who is probably the pioneer of the great modern song picturizations, this is just not good enough. I guess the editor needs to be blamed too. Its not just the songs, there are some other places too where things just don't flow as well as one would expect from a top-notch movie.

The single biggest reason why the movie isn't as quite great as it could be, however, has nothing to do with the songs or the editing. Ratnam is just too good pre-intermission and comparatively lame post-intermission. The heady first half keeps you so interested that you tend to expect a lot more from the second half than what is there. Not that the climax isn't well done, just that it doesn't match the overall flavor of the movie, not for me at least. I guess you can't do much with a movie about business houses that is set-up like a thriller. How much more thrilling can you make the ending? I don't know what else would be more interesting, just that it wasn't quite interesting enough for me. Again, that sequence is actually done quite well, with some good writing. But it was disappointing nevertheless.

Rahman is brilliant as always with the background score. Maybe a bit too much so, in fact. There were places in the movie where the elaborate score required more a bit more punch on the screen than Ratnam was able to deliver. Which brings us to cinematography. And that is probably the only thing that is consistently awesome throughout the movie. There are some scenes here that are just breathtaking. Barso Re, even though not very imaginatively shot, has some beautiful images. And then there is this one scene when Abhishek is standing in the middle of a farm when it starts to rain. To me that one scene itself is well worth the price of the ticket! Its stunningly beautiful!

Having said all that, it is still an unmistakeable Mani Ratnam movie. For me, the defining characterstic of a Ratnam movie is the way he depicts relationships on screen. For all the action and gimmicks in Yuva, its the Ajay-Esha, Abhishek-Rani and Vivek-Kareena scenes that made the movie for me. Dil Se was all about SRK's interactions with Manisha and Preity for me. and Alaipayuthey is as good as it gets in making an engrossing movie out of a simple love story. Here too, its some of the scenes of Abhishek with Aishwarya, Mithun and Madhavan that are superbly written and performed. For all his attempts at making big movies with big issues, its sequences like these where Mani truely shines. Its these sequences where you want to give the movie 8.5-9/10.

That it probably settles at around 7.9-8/10 is due to all the little things that could've been done much better.