A bouquet of flowers picked along the way ….

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Movie Review) August 18, 2010

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We all fall in love. And we are all the better for it. Whether or not our love ends in a long, happy relationship is besides the point. And that is exactly the point that this 1967 masterpiece makes. Directed by Stanley Kramer and brought to life by Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, the story is about how we reason with love. And the truth that, sometimes, love is beyond reason.

I am very much a person who looks for character development in the movies I watch. And I have come to realize that movies in which the story takes a character and molds it right in front of my eyes, are the movies that I find inspiring. For isn’t that what we find inspiring in life too? IN this movie the stage is set for confrontation when a young white girl brings home a negro as the man she wants to marry. We hardly hear the term negro these days, but I use it because it is uttered generously in the movie. Other than the couple, we have the girl’s mother and father, the girl’s nanny (a black woman), the boy’s father and mother, and a priest who is old time friend of the girl’s parents. We start with certain people expressing what I would call as almost disgust at the prospect of a white girl marrying a black man. And we have some people expressing a restrained disapproval. And how that changes over the course of a little over an hour and a half.

The movie is rich, very rich, is serious, moving dialogues. Some of them might very well live with you forever. I could specially relate to a few since I happen to have experienced similar situation. Like when Sidney Poitier (as John) says “It is not just that our color difference doesn’t matter to her. It is that she doesn’t seem to think there is any difference”. There is a lot of difference between the kind of persons in those two sentences and you just have to know it to know it. Or the part where John’s mother (played by Beah Richards) remarks about men losing a perspective on love as they grow old, of not remembering how it was when they were young. The movie is replete with what I’d term as swashbuckling American language, the kind that makes you smile and thump even when the scene is somber. Here are some examples.

Spencer Tracy as the girl’s father and Katharine Hepburn as the mother put in stellar performances. You rise and fall with them. You feel their anguish and their joy. The movie is set within the span of half a day and in that little time scale it runs the gamut of human emotions giving you a glimpse of your own self many times over. Developing along what I said about characterization is the point that in this movie, any person who gets more than a few minutes of screen time comes across as a complex real person. As examples, I present the African maid and the white Priest. You’d think they behave a certain way. But they do not. They both startle you and yet you will immediately connect to them. And you will recognize the larger statement the movie makes about being non-judgmental, free spirited, liberal, and finally accepting the grandeur of love.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is effective prescription for anyone suffering from excess objectivity. And a resounding confirmation for those who revel in the celebration of love.


Peepli [Live] (movie review) August 14, 2010

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Peepli Live

Peepli Live did not just live up to my expectations, it exceeded them. Giving me a side splitting and yet brooding glimpse to an India I know exists, an India I have experienced first hand, but an India I rarely hear about. An India most urban dwelling Indians think exists only in movies. Actually, that India does not exist in movies because movies are mostly about urban subjects. Peepli [Live] is rustic, charming, and satirical.

A satire on the poverty that runs across the nation and the mockery we have made of it. Peepli Live is powered by exceptional screenplay and the most original dialogues I have heard in a long time. And it is rustic – generously populated by slang that designer wear, polished, English speaking Indians might cringe at. But a language spoken by numbers greater than the entire population of United States. The characters are real and believable. The clothes they wear depict the reality of their existence. Their scraggy beards, dirty loins, and hand woven beds are common sights in rural India. The movie has its flaws but they do not interfere with the story telling. I will have to nitpick to tell you where the movie fell short. Yes, it was that good an act.

The storyline is simple. The farming brothers Budhia and Natha (100% real ‘non-english speaking India’ names) are facing the prospect of losing their land. The way out? Natha will commit suicide, Budhia will collect money that the government will pay to the dead farmer’s family, and use that money to pay off the debt on the land. Around this simple plot is woven the story of greed, treachery, labour, honour, politics, shamelessness, conscience, and most importantly a complete lack of empathy. The only other primetime Bollywood movie from recent times that scratched the vast but overlooked subject of abject poverty was Swades. But unlike Swades, Peepli [Live] has no parallel stories. There is no love story here. No song and dance sequence. But just like Swades, Peepli [Live] is honest cinema. The farmers are real. So are the goons. Omkar Das Manikpuri (Natha) is a find. I knew what to expect from Raghubir Yadav and he delivers. Watch out for Natha’s wife Dhaniya played by Shalini Vatsa. And Natha’s mother will rock your bed just like she keeps rocking her own!

You will also meet ‘Lal Bahadur’, a pumping thumping ‘character’. And you will come across Hori Mahato, who becomes a metaphor for things we overlook. You will have questions about the exit of Rakesh, and what truly is the role of the media. For a change, you will be laughing and thinking at the same time. The songs are catchy and the lyrics convey the same feel and message as the movie; and you will want to dance and think at the same time.

The movie did slip in a few sequences and it seems the compromise was made to gain dramatisation. For example, when the news channel vans first roll into the village, they just come in unreal synchronisation. And that last scene at the warehouse seemed loose. Other than this, the movie is tight and pulls out some daring acts which could have fallen flat but do not. Often, the film easily slides from a hilarious moment into one that leaves you pondering. The satire is not sugar coated and there are no long preachy sermons.

I am tempted to watch it again next weekend to (re)enjoy some of those dialogues – exquisite gems that come and go so fast you are left thirsting. Peepli [Live] deserves a peep. Actually two.


To Live (Huozhe) (Movie Review) July 16, 2010

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Stunning, convincing, and a kaleidoscope of humour, tragedy, courage, dignity, and everything else that goes into a life. My first movie from Zhang Yimou (director) has me thirsting for more of his works. The movie travels the life of a couple, Fugui and Jiazhen, from sometime in the 1940s to about three decades later. The couple go from rich landlords to labourers and then middle class, and as they make this journey, the viewer is given glimpses of Mao’s revolution. But that is just the backdrop. The real story here, in my opinion, is about the continuity of life. About remorse as experienced by Fugui when he loses everything in gambling. About dignity so beautifully portrayed by his wife, Jiazhen. About surviving a war and living each day as it comes. About forgiving and about loving. Artistically shot, the movie has its funny moments, my favourite is when Fugui is served vinegar while he thinks it is tea.

The movie benefits from supporting actors, which includes the couple’s children. The love between the siblings produces a few memorable scenes, like the brother (Youqing) fighting with boys that tease his sister (Fengxia) or the community kitchen scene (had me smiling). I also fondly remember the scene when the sister serves food to her parents and brother soon after they’ve had an argument. Fugui’s war time friend (Chunsheng) and the town leader provide comic and tragic moments. I also loved the character of Fengxia’s husband. Come to think of it, every single character in the movie is well etched and acted – the hallmark of great cinema.

I highly recommend ‘To Live’. It is alive.


Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom (Movie Review) January 30, 2010

Spring Summer Fall Winter ... and Spring

Released as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, this 2003 South Korean movie effortlessly slides into my list of the best I have seen. If you are looking to see a movie that is calming and profound, one which will leave you in a meditative mood, this is the title to watch.

Shot entirely on a floating house in the middle of a lake and the surrounding mountains, the visuals are stunning and add to the mood. So is the music. The script is so minimal, I think it will fit in 2-3 pages at most. The story moves fluidly, not requiring any dialogues to convey its message. Five minutes into the film and you know this is going to be different. Abundant moments of complete absence of background score and no human sounds, just the natural creaking of a door, the splash of water, and rustle of leaves. Very melodious.

The title represents the many stages in a person’s life. Written and directed by Ki-duk Kim, this is entirely his story. The actors (including the director) do a fine job but the movie is not built on their shoulders; it stands on its own. As one gentle surprise after another is served I was left wondering that the true surprise is one which quickly retreats giving you space and time to ponder on its message. This movie is generously endowed with such moments.

Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom is about Zen, Poetry, Calm, Politeness, Guilt, Remorse, Sensuality, Innocence, Lust, Murder, Repentence, Meditation, Anger, Wisdom, a cat’s whiskers, and its tail, Punishment, Therapy, Learning, and Love.

Go watch now.

The poster is courtesy this website, where you can also find a more elaborate review. The IMDB page is here. The Wikipedia page is here.


Au Revoir Les Enfants (Movie Review) January 23, 2010

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Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye, Children) is set in German occupied France during the second world war. Directed by Louis Malle the movie draws on his childhood events of attending a Catholic school that harbours Jewish children.

The lead actors are two young boys played by Gaspard Manesse as the Catholic boy and Raphaël Fejtö as the Jewish boy. Like a slow cooked meal with attention to detail the movie is poignant and heroic without being melancholic or over-dramatic. The bonding between the two young boys is beautifully carved through realistic scenes of everyday school life. As the viewer is made aware that one of them is Jew, so is the Catholic boy. A sense of doom prevails in the background, never engulfing the movie or depriving it of its light heartedness. How real!

While the end will remain with you for a long time, what I take away from the movie is that love can blossom even in the face of death. The movie makes subtle statements about human behaviour. It uses the case of another young lad who works in the kitchen to make a point. A person of weak character is dangerous and one must be wary. Ample use of piano does justice to the theme and my favourite piano scene is when Jean Bonnet (the Jewish boy) plays it while his music teacher watches impressed. There is also the scene where the two boys play a piece together even while sirens of a possible bombing raid sound in the background. My thoughts went to the scene from Titanic where the musicians play on the deck even as the ship sinks. Music is such!

Au Revoir Les Enfants is in French and while the subtitles are sensitive, I am sure some fragrance is lost in translation. Nevertheless, a very worthwhile watch for its statement on innocence, bonding, and dignity.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Rashomon (movie review) January 9, 2010

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A woodcutter and a Priest sit stunned in what appears a dilapidated though majestic gate. Outside the wind and rain are lashing. They are joined by a character about whom we know nothing till the end. And a story is told. Of a man found dead in the forest and the four versions by four different people (a bandit, the dead man’s wife, the dead man, and the woodcutter) of how this man met his death.

Classic! Very allegorical. And very entertaining. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa‘s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon will keep your attention and leave you thinking. The use of shadows and light, the almost monotone background score, and some of the best face closeups I have seen add to the film’s credentials. There are parts which are rather crude, but they are so few and so far apart that it is easy to forgive.

Watch out for the scene where the bandit brings the wife into the wood clearing and she sees her husband in a certain state. The camera rolls slow and steady, no jerky angles or movement, no loud music, just a sense of tension. And also watch out for the look on the face of the husband when his wife cuts his ropes. I do not remember any other movie where a character displays an expression that is so indescribable.

Rashomon deals with human vices and our continuous fight to defeat, accept, or run from them. The four stories are unique and no attempt is made to solve the puzzle. Because the puzzle is not central to the plot. The stories are merely mediums to pose the greater questions about human nature. And even here, Rashomon does not give complete answers.

Storytelling has been important to human history. Our sense of good and evil, of love and hate, and everything else has been passed down the ages using stories. Rashomon is a respectable addition to the art of storytelling through moving images and sound. Recommended for viewing.


Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (Movie Review) January 8, 2010

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Shichinin no samurai stands tall in the cinema landscape and is widely recognised to be Japanese director Akira Kurosawa‘s masterpiece. Made in 1954, the movie has been copied widely and the story retold so often that an unknowing viewer might find the original masterpiece stale! Shichinin no samurai is a kaleidoscope of many endearing stories from the ages, David vs Goliath, love in the middle of battle, the vagabond with a loyal heart, the silent master, the wise leader, the jovial warrior, to name a few. The story is simple, set in late 16th century, peasants from a village hire seven samurais to fight the bandits who threaten to rob them of their crop and daughters.

The story is told in no great hurry and so the movie runs a good 207 minutes (3 hours, 27 minutes) long. There is no heroism, no mind numbing sword fights, no over arching theme of valour and sacrifice. No, there is none of the melodrama which is often thrown in for good measure to hold your attention. In Shichinin no samurai, the characters vary from cowards to the cautiously brave. Very real, very human. Since the movie was made more than half a century ago, I was not expecting any technical wizadry. And thank God for that. The Black&White tones enhance the drama, keeping your focus dead center on the characters and the story, and not their clothes or whatever. A good part of the climax is relentless fighting between the peasants and samurai on one side and the bandits on the other.  Again, very ordinary and very believable scenes. No one person is the hero. There is sludge, there are bows, arrows, spears, and muskets. There are horses. There is valour. There is loss and grief. And there is love. All thrown together into a heady mix, and yet each delineated.

I love movies that do a good job at fleshing out characters. And Shichinin no samurai is a winner in this. From the first samurai recruited to the seventh, they are each introduced in a setting that captures the essence of their individual characters. What surprises me is that not much time is spent on all of them, and yet one finds it easy to connect to each. Surely Kurosawa was a master of his craft!

I recommend Shichinin no samurai to anyone who wants to see not just an all time classic, but also one that is so great that some other great movies are mere retelling of it.