An Indie-n movie…

I first met Sudhish Kamath three years ago at the Chennai International Screenwriting Workshop at IIT Madras. I was a 14 year old kid with a wide eyed face and I had somehow got admitted into this workshop that consisted of every demographic that a film targets. Sudhish writes the movie stuff for The Hindu, so I was understandably in awe. Over the years, as I explored creatively, he’s given me constructive criticism, which is why I felt I was obligated to do the same for him.

Sudhish recently wrote and directed Good Night Good Morning, a low budget independent film that explores romantic relationships and the cliches that surround them. For the critic who writes rather pretentiously about movies from other directors, it seems he hasn’t learnt from the mistakes of others.

This call didn’t “almost” change mine….

The movie is basically one long phone call between Turiya (Manu Narayan) and Moira (Seema Rahmani), two young people who are lonely and have a short “meet cute” at a bar on New Years Eve. Turiya calls her later, albeit for no apparent reason than to irritate her, and they strike up a conversation because Moira can’t sleep. Over the course of the conversation, they try to understand relationships and a lot of everything else. What they don’t do is discuss the problems of the movie.

I’ll give credit to Sudhish and his writing partner Shilpa Rathnam for one thing: taking the offbeat path. Ok, after loads of fucking Bollywood nonsense, it sure is relieving to see some independent cinema (in black and white too) and some half decent dialogue. The course of events in the film are completely natural, like how strangers start talking on the phone. The way Sudhish deals with cliches surrounding romance in movies is amusing, but nothing more (the riff off Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was the best). So, as an Indian film, it’s good because it’s different, not because it does something out of this world. But otherwise, I don’t see why this film will be remembered, for a couple of reasons:

The film hinges upon two things: that it’s primary characters are interesting, because we’re going to spend the whole film with them and that the journey of the conversation is evident to us, not just to the characters. The movie accomplishes none of these things. Somehow, the characters are supposed to be “likable” because they have traits that we can relate to. Turiya loves The Matrix, Moira loves mint and chocolate. Turiya is an insecure virgin trying to act macho, while Moira seems to “know-it-all” when it comes to sex. Okay, these are traits that people have. There’s a way of making it subtle and not so in-your-face, especially when you’re talking to someone you’ve never met before. The film’s central conceit is ultimately, why it doesn’t work. The journey of the film is confined to only the main characters, and for some reason, their backstories are supposed to make us care. Just showing a montage of their individual backstories doesn’t really do anything except give us information about the characters. In fact, it actually gets irritating after a point. Turiya and Moira seem to love each other because they tell the other about their past relationships and they advise each other on how to get rid of the baggage. Speaking of baggage, Turiya keeps saying, “I have so much baggage!!!” Again, why make it obvious?

The strength of any romantic movie is creating a sense of anticipation on the part of the audience. Through the course of the movie, we can’t wait to see these characters hook up, because we like these guys. Take Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two brilliant movies, that Sudhish even throws reference to in the movie. However, Sudhish is no Richard Linklater. The power of that movie lay in the characters’ enjoyment of their surrounding environment that prompted them to open up to each other. And some of the central plot devices have been borrowed: the girl has to travel in the morning, the guy is recovering from a failed relationship. What I’ve noticed from other reviews is that the “humor” in the movie also stems from Turiya’s male buddies, JC and Hussain. It’s amusing, but it takes away from the main characters and is distracting.

Is it just me, or when Indian cinema tries something different, people aren’t objective and merely praise the person who takes Hollywood leftovers and throws in NRIs? Karan Johar calls this a cerebral joyride. I wonder why…but if there’s a silver lining, it shows that there’s a market for indies in India. And that is very reassuring. 

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The Celebrity Recluse Club

INT. BUILDING—————-Day
We are behind a man. He’s standing in front of a door. The man is nervous, shaking his shoulders and cracking neck. We move slightly to the right. There is a label on the door. It says: CRC.

VOICE
(o.s.)
Come in!
The man opens the door and enters.

INT. ROOM——————–Day
The man enters in a darkly lit room, with only one light bulb swinging  above a dark, circular, mahogany table. He is a man in his late 30s, slightly balding and is chewing gum. On the other side of the table, away from him, are seated three people. They have dark burkhas on, all emblazoned with the logo: CRC. 
VOICE
Sit!
The man pulls back the chair in front of him and sits down. He places a white envelope on the table. It has CV written on it. The middle cloaked man drags it to him and opens it. 
MIDDLE GUY
Welcome, Mr…..?
TOLKIEN
J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien speaks with a British accent.
THIRD GUY
I’m sorry?
TOLKIEN
J.R.R. Tolkien, you know, from the Lord of the Rings books, the Silmarillion, the Hobbit?
The three men scratch the top of their cloaks.
FIRST GUY
J.R.R. Tolkien is dead…for many years now…
TOLKIEN
I’m very much alive as you can see…
THIRD GUY
We can see that….
TOLKIEN
What’s with all this skulduggery, I say? All this mystery, you might as well call yourselves the Black Ku Klux Klan. 
MIDDLE GUY
The what?
TOLKIEN
The Black Ku Klux Klan, you know, because you’re wearing black cloaks…I heard that there actually was some kind of organization like that…bent on killing us whites, they were. 
MIDDLE GUY
Well, we’re not the Black KKK. 
TOLKIEN
Well, stop this tomfoolery and show me who you are…
The guys look at each other, shrug and take off their cloaks. They are: Terence Malick, Bill Watterson and Thomas Pynchon, who still has a paper bag on his head with a question mark.

PYNCHON
I apologize for the inconvenience of the paper bag. If I expose my face to sunlight, it withers.
WATTERSON
I’m a big fan, Mr. Tolkien. 
MALICK
Okay, now that we’ve done the formalities, Mr. Tolkien, are you aware of the eligibility for admission into this exclusive club?
TOLKIEN
No, I’m not. 
WATTERSON
First rule of Celebrity Recluse Club: You do not talk about Celebrity Recluse Club. 
TOLKIEN
Why?
WATTERSON
We’re recluses, remember?
MALICK
The second thing…you need to be known for a couple of works in your whole career. Being prolific is not an option. 
PYNCHON
We had to kick out Cameron because of that. 
WATTERSON
We kicked out Cameron because he had so many girls around him man…he was like Hefner after a point.
MALICK
You’re just jealous you creep out girls because you still draw a little kid and his stuffed tiger. 
WATTERSON
I am NOT jealous, you old coot!
MALICK
That’s outta line! Pynchon’s way older than me! 
They start bickering. Tolkien looks around the room and notices an empty chair at the left extreme of the circle. 
TOLKIEN
Whose chair is that?
The recluses become silent. 
PYNCHON
That was for J.D.
TOLKIEN
James Dean? John Dorian? Jack Donaghy?
MALICK
You do know that two of those names are for characters right?
WATTERSON
J.D. Salinger, our dear friend.
MALICK
Yeah, he was a ton of fun. Remember the time he flashed those little girls on Halloween?
They all guffaw.
MALICK
That’s another requirement for the club, Mr. Tolkien. You need to do a bunch of crazy shit while you’re in the club, to gain notoriety. 
TOLKIEN
I’m already crazy! I created Gollum and Orcs, right? And a transsexual Peter Pan with a pornstar rod, right?
PYNCHON
That’s right! Wait a minute, that last part sounded just wrong…
TOLKIEN
(to Pynchon)
Have you noticed your ears look as big as Dumbo the elephant’s?
PYNCHON
It’s because of the bag! It’s not fair…
Tolkien gets up and slaps Pynchon’s bag. 
TOLKIEN
Stop whining, you puss!
The other guys are kind of shocked…and then the door bursts open and two burly men clad in white rush in and grab Tolkien. 
MAN 1
We apologize, this guy escaped from the mental hospital. He thinks he’s some guy called Tolkien. 
MAN 2
Yeah…sorry. What were you guys doing here, anyway? Costume party?
The celebrities are back to wearing their hoods. They are as silent as stone, as the men try to speak to them. 

I’ve met this girl like three times, always in the same place…doing the same things…

Goth. Punk. Pierced. Tattooed. Convicted. Genius. Anti-social. Chain smoker. Hacker. That’s Lisbeth Salander. And she’s the girl with the dragon tattoo.

The phenomenon started in 2006 with the release of this book:

Now, keep in mind that the title translates into Men Who Hate Women, a theme the recurs throughout the series. This was released posthumously, because unfortunately Stieg Larsson passed away in 2004. Anyway, it was a worldwide hit, with the rest of the trilogy and film adaptations released within the next few years. I’ve only read the first and am halfway through the second. Trust me, the film adaptations don’t live up to the novels, but my focus is on Fincher’s movie.

The plot of Dragon Tattoo is straightforward: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), the founder of Millennium magazine, has been charged with libel for making accusations against billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg). Shortly after this, he is recruited by ageing tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to do two things: write Vanger’s autobiography, which is merely his cover, and solve a 40 year old mystery. That mystery surrounds the disappearance of his niece, Harriet. At the same time, we follow Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the girl with the dragon tattoo. Obviously, their stories collide at some point.

                                Let me write down what not to do in Skyfall…

The movie is extremely well made and technically brilliant. Hell, it even won an Oscar for its Editing (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall). The opening credit sequence is fucking amazing:

Here’s how they made it:
http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/02/21/oscars-2012-behind-the-scenes-how-those-hypnotizing-opening-credits-for-the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-came-to-be/

This movie cost $90 million and it can be seen in every frame. Fincher makes film look so beautiful. The cinematography is great and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sets the tone in every scene.  The performances from Craig and Mara are what you would expect from good actors, but Mara goes the extra mile through her character by being subjected to sadistic acts and showing up nude onscreen a lot (it pushes its R rating to the limit). It’s an exhilarating debut and I can’t wait to see what else she can do.

That said, though this movie is daring, there is no purpose that it wishes to achieve. It invests next to nothing in its characters and Fincher assumes that the mystery would otherwise keep us engaged if his characters don’t. Fincher is no stranger to hardcore crime (this is the guy who made Se7en and Fight Club and Panic Room), but his other movies had strong characters to guide us through the darkness (Freeman and Pitt in Se7en, Pitt and Norton in Fight Club). In this movie, events occur so abruptly you’re left wondering what the fuck is going on, and those events end. For those of you who have read the book, the abuse that had such shocking impact in the book is shown, but I really didn’t give a fuck when it happened. WHY? Because it was odd…I mean if I hadn’t read the book, I would be shocked that it happens as if it was a daily thing. Similarly, when Blomkvist and Salander hook up, Salander just takes off her clothes and Bob’s your uncle. Luckily, Fincher ends these things just as quickly as he starts them and he doesn’t give them a second thought.

Steven Zaillian adapted the book, and he aims for simplicity in this complex mystery. At times, that approach does work (notice the ending), but oftentimes it leaves the depths of the story quite shallow, which probably explains why everything doesn’t have the impact that it should have. But there is one scene in the movie (the climax) between Martin Vanger and Blomkvist (if you’ve read the novel, you know what I’m talking about), that is so simple and yet so interesting that it makes the whole movie seem like crap by comparison. Maybe I hated it because I was watching the same story for the third time, I don’t know.

At the end of the day, Hollywood produces well-made films from veterans like Fincher. I guess after The Social Network, he said, let’s do what I do best. Let’s do it quick and cheap. Yeah, cheap is the right word for this movie, however well-made it is (riding on the phenomenon). Let’s hope the sequels are better than this one….