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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Limelight - Charlie Chaplin's great movie

Charlie Chaplin has an enduring legacy of a great comedian, remembered for his black and white movies where he played the tramp to great perfection. However, he has played other roles, including a biting anti-Nazi movie, the Great Dictator, made in 1940. Another of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, Jr. (Charlie Chaplin's) movies that was incredibly great was the movie released in 1952 called Limelight. I have seen this movie more than 2 decades ago, and yet remember it for the message displayed in the movie.
Limelight was made when Charlie Chaplin was going through an incredible low time in the US. He was facing an organized protest at the hands of the Senator Joseph McArthy and accused of being a communist sympathizer. In fact, when the movie was released, it was not even able to run long enough to qualify for an academy award. It was only in 1972 that the movie ran long enough to qualify for the Oscars for best Soundtrack.
The movie is essentially a movie about a down and out former star, and how he enjoys a slight revival when he is bucking up a young and upcoming girl, and how as she enjoys her success, he finally passes away.
The movie could be seen as depressing at many levels, given that it is about a person's struggle once he is no longer in the limelight, but I have always considered this movie to be a masterpiece, given the extent of human emotions displayed in the movie. This movie is also unique because it has the only known scene where both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton act together. There is a great deal of controversy about whether Chaplin cut Buster's role, but the fact remains that Chaplin gave the role to Keaton when Buster was going through great tribulations in his personal life.
Calvero (Charlie Chaplin), in the year 1914, is a shadow of his former great self. He used to play the comic clown to great success, but now is no longer to give any great performances until he has drunk more alcohol.
One day, he saves the life of a upcoming ballerina, Terry (Claire Bloom) when she was trying to commit suicide. However, she is diagnosed as having paralysis although there is no medical reason for this. They talk about their life, thus giving the audience a chance to know them better, and this continues for a section of the movie.
She is in love with Neville, a young composer (played by Sydney Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's son).
Calvero nurses her back to health, and soon she is starting to come out of her paralysis, with Chaplin providing encouragement. He is still a failure, although she is now moving up, and the situation is now getting reversed. She is the one who is encouraging him to get back his life. In a small hint of romance, she offers to marry him, but he knows that he is not right for her and believes that she is better off with Neville. She gets him a job on her own set, and encourages him when she seems to fail.
And then the final act. She wants him to play himself on a benefit act, and he unites with his old partner, Buster Keaton in a great performance. Once he completes his act in great success, it's Terry turn. Chaplin is watching her dance while he is sitting in the sets, and that is when he has a fatal heart attack and dies.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rainman: A movie that won multiple Oscars

Writing this blog is a humbling experience, and incredibly rewarding. I had seen Rainman a long time back when I was a small kid, and for the purpose of this review, I watched it again. It is an incredible movie, and literally shows you what great cinema is all about. The movie was released in 1988, and won a number of Oscars, and won a double, with the Oscar for Best Picture and the Golden Globe for Best Picture; this is the only movie to have won both. It also won numerous other Oscars, including the ones for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Dustin Hoffman), Best Director (Barry Levinson), Best Writing, and Original Screenplay.
It was not easy to present a story about an autistic person, and make this as a major movie. The movie went through a number of possible directors before Barry became the director. The movie was driven by the power of Dustin Hoffman, and he drove hard for the movie to finally get made. The movie helped to get real-life understanding of what an autistic person is all about, and contributed tremendously to popular understanding of this affliction. However, the character played by Dustin Huffman is not the only kind of autistic there is. Not all of them are possessed of a photo-graphic memory, or the ability to do calculations at great speed. However, it is true that they do need much greater care and understanding, given that they live in their own world (no easy way to make somebody understand what exactly autism is all about).
Rainman is essentially the story of 2 brothers coming to meet each other, almost without knowing that each other exists. One of them is a major operator, used to letting his smooth talking doing all the work and making a fast buck. The other is a autistic savant, living in a mental institution.
Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a LA used car dealer, living up to the usual stereotype of a user car salesman, with glib talk, incredible powers of persuasion, and money problems. He is in the middle of a major deal that could land him in a great debt if it fails. At this point, he hears that his estranged father has died, and left $3 million to a trustee. Charlie is estranged from his father upon an incident earlier where he had defied his father and taken a car out for a joyride. His father reported the car stolen, and Charlie's father was the only father who did not bail out his son.
Anyhow, Charlie travels to settle his father's estate and realizes that his father has essentially cut him off, and left his entire fortune to a trustee. When Charlie travels there with his girlfriend, Susanna (Valeria Golino), he finds a shock. The money has been left to an elder brother, Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), whom he did not know existed. He had some very early memories of a 'Rain Man', but those were just memories.
Upon reaching the asylum, he is told that his brother is autistic. He is explained that this means that his brother has difficulty in conveying what he thinks, difficulties in understanding things, and in a twist, does not understand the concept of the inheritance that he has received. He feels that he has been cheated out of the money and makes a plan to try and get his share of the money.
Charlie wants to take Raymond back to Los Angeles (the mental institution is based in Cincinnati), so that he can get custody of Raymond as a way of getting hold of the money. There is a fair amount of frustration for Charlie in doing this. Raymond refuses to travel by plane due to the fear of a plane crash, and even after a lot of persuasion, refuses to travel by air. Eventually, they decide to travel by road, and that too, not on the major highways but on smaller roads.
And hence goes the adventure that eventually changes Charlie's perception of his brother, making his get closer to his brother. And this is what the movie is all about. He faces tremendous frustration on the way, since it is not easy for him to understand what Raymond is thinking, and it is equally difficult for him to make Raymond follow what he wants. So, for example, Raymond unwittingly causes the break-up of Charlie and Susanna by entering into their room when the couple was having sex. Charlie is furious, and screams at an uncomprehending Raymond. Susanna is much more sympathetic, and wants Charlie to apologize; he instead screams some more. Susanna is disgusted with Charlie's behavior and walks out.
During the journey, Charlie and Raymond have a number of experiences, such as when Raymond scares a waitress by quoting her phone number and address (he had memorized the phone book to 'G' when he was bored), she gets spooked, but eventually understands. In another display of his abilities, he is able to give the exact number of toothpicks that have spilled on the floor very quickly.
Raymond repeats things sometimes a lot, he wants to see a favorite TV program when they are in the middle 0f nowhere, refuses to go out if it rains, trying to take the wheel when Charlie is driving, and so on. Eventually, Charlie softens and feels closer to his brother.
Charlie has not forgotten his money wanting nature. His deal has failed, and he is now in debt, so he uses his brother's incredible abilities to win money at blackjack in a casino at Las Vegas. Charlie also reconciles with Susanna in Las Vegas. Eventually, Charlie spurns an offer of money and wants Raymond to stay with him out of genuine affection. Raymond is unable to decide what to do, whether to return to Cincinnati or stay with Charlie. In the end, and this is a major deal where the movie avoids a syrupy happy ending, Raymond returns to the institution in Cincinnati with a promise by Charlie to visit in 2 weeks. However, Raymond has improved considerably.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Blade Runner: Dark portents of the future

There are many science fiction movies that take on interactions with aliens such as ET, Aliens, etc; there is another breed that takes human conflict on a galaxy wide scale such as Star Wars, but there are few movies that take humanity in its home in the future, and portray it in such a dark canvas. Blade Runner is a classic movie set in the society of the future (set in 1982, it looks at Los Angeles of 2019). Looking at where we are now, 2019 does not seem to be like this, but maybe 2039 could be. Blade Runner is a movie that takes a look at the future, and takes all our fears of the future along with mad uncontrolled technological development and delivers an astounding gripping film. Many have called this film as the greatest science fiction movie of all time, and it could be reckoned among the top ones at any point of time.
The movie is loosely based upon a maverick science fiction author; if you have ever read any of Philip K Dick's novels, you will know what I mean. The movie was based on his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. With all the current discussion around cloning, stem cell research and the mixed attitudes around this, it seems unlikely that society will so easily accept the notion of creating beings that resemble us and are yet mechanical; but with a mind of their own, Asimov's Laws of Robotics not figuring anywhere.
This movie had a major production history in terms of difficulty in getting made, and with further collection releases, for more details refer to the Wikipedia entry. It was directed by Ridley Scot (fresh from the euphoria of Aliens in 1979) and was another classical movie in the sense that it was not much of a success initially, only gaining name and applause over the years.
The movie is about the common fear, of robots who are indistinguishable from humans and who are guided by their own thoughts, and thus can be very deadly for humans. And about the blade runner (Harrison Ford) who is almost retired, but is brought back to kill (retire) these robots (replicants). The Tyrell corporation, a leading corporation developed robotics technology to the advanced level of the NEXUS 6 series, where they were able to develop androids identical to humans, but with a designed life of 4 years (as a mechanism to control them). They were being used in off-world colonies as slave labor for dangerous tasks.
These robot slaves do a mutiny in one of these worlds, and an order is passed that any replicants found on earth will be executed (retired) by units called blade runners. No questions, no worries, just a quick execution for any robots found on earth.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a retired blade runner who is brought back for another mission when 4 of these replicants make their way to earth after hijacking a shuttle from an off-world to earth. He has to hunt these 4 - Roy Batty (the leader of the 4), Leon Kowalski, Zhora, and Pris. They are on their way to earth to somehow extend their life span of 4 years (going to be over shortly). Deckard also discovers that Tyrell's secretary Rachael, is also a similar robot, showing the true sadistic nature of her creator. She does not know that she is a robot, and she was been implanted with memories from Tyrell's niece in order to make her feel human (although she retains her life expectancy of 4 years).
In the meantime, Roy and Leon are trying to make their way to Tyrell, first using an eye designer called Chew to direct them to Sebastian (who plays chess with Tyrell and can thus get them to directly meet Tyrell). In the meantime, Rachael is humiliated by Deckard, she had come to his apartment to convince him about her humanity, but he exposes her replacement memories to her, thus showing her that she was also an android. In the most human of emotions, she cries at this disclosure.
Soon after, in an incredible chase at the ground level of this dirty city of the future, Deckard shoots Zhora, but shoots her in the back, something that he regrets (even though he has only retired an android). His feelings towards these replicants somewhat change when he is attacked by Leon, and in the nick of time, Rachael saves him by shooting Leon. In another sequence, Roy and Pris convince Sebastian to take Roy to Tyrell, which he does (through the chess game that he normally plays). Once in, Roy asks for an extension to his life, and when denied, he eventually crushes Tyrell's heads in a quick gesture and then kills Sebastian.
As the story reaches onto the last stages, Deckard reaches Sebastian's apartment after a phone call and after a bitter battle, shoots Pris. By this time, Roy has returned, and begins the last bitter fight, over empty apartments and roof-tops. Deckard is getting beaten by the superior power of Roy's robotic self, and after a series of escapes and fights, finds himself hanging onto dear life from a beam. Roy, is also hanging on for dear life with his 4 year limit just about over, and his life form dying away. In a last minute demonstration that the androids have human qualities, Roy saves Deckard and then dies. Deckard returns to his apartment and finds Rachael over there, and they move out to an uncertain future, given her 4 year limited life span. One question remains, was Deckard also a replicant? Never answered clearly.


5 DVD Collector's version

Saturday, July 7, 2007

2001: A space odyssey

There would not have been a serious fan of science fiction movies or a follower of the best in cinema who would not have seen the science fiction classic '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Based on the short story, 'The Sentinel' by Arthur C Clarke written in 1948, the movie and a new novel based on the movie were written at around the same time, with the movie getting released first in 1968, and the book being co-authored by the movie director 'Stanley Kubrick' and 'Arthur C Clarke' soon after.
This movie is a very strange movie in many aspects, with barely 40 minutes of dialogs in a 148 minute movie. The movie in many many instances looks very stark, with very sharp scenes. With some delightful music, and excellent visuals, the movie is a treat to watch. The movie also leaves the ending sufficiently vague, and these are actually completed by Clarke in his subsequent novels, '2010', '2061' and '3001'. There has been a lot of bitching about the future shown in the movie in the sense that 2001 certainly did not see much of easy space flight, but the fact remains that the American space exploration programme, in its full fancy at the time of Apollo and the moon landings was shut down in the mid 1970's. If there had been sufficient focus and effort put in that direction, such things would still be realistically possible.
The movie set a new pattern with extensive use of scores from the classical composers, both dead and alive. Kubrick shunned the use of movie composers, instead using works by Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)and Gy├Ârgy Ligeti.
The movie is so different from the others that the first spoken word is issued half an hour into the movie; try to think of 3 elements in the movie, with speech, music, or silence (pre-dominant in space). At any point of time, any scene had only one of these 3 elements present.
The movie essentially divided its critics into 2 parts, people either loved the movie or hated it. But slowly the movie picked momentum and gained an incredible amount of popular and critical acclaim, enough that it is now in the top 100 movies of all time.
The movie starts out with a tribe of primeval ape man struggling against the odds. One day they find a mysterious black object appears and they nervously go near it. In a kick start initiated by the monolith, Man starts to get intelligent and starts to develop tools. As he is able to use the bone tool, he is able to kill enemies, and thus ends the pre-historic episode in the movie. He throws his weapon in the air in triumph and the scene changes to that of an orbital satellite.
In the present time, the American base in the moon discovers an object buried in the moon a million years ago (dubbed Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1 or TMA-1), and Dr. Floyd, a research scientist wants to see it. They see a monolith, smooth after millions of years. With the first burst of sunlight falling on the monolith, it emits a screech, as if it is time to act now.
Cut to the spaceship Discovery 1 going to the moon. It carried 6 passengers, Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, 3 cryogenically frozen astronauts and HAL (the onboard computer). HAL is the pinnacle of super-computing, designed to communicate like a human, and very human like in its interactions. At this point, the movie starts to move into the dangerous territory.
HAL reports an impending problem in the communication system, and Bowman goes out of the spaceship to explore, but no problem can be seen. Mission control suggest that HAL is facing a problem, and in the meantime, HAL suggests waiting for the part to fail. Dave and Frank go into a pod, away from HAL, to discuss secretly about whether HAL is failing. Conclusion: if the problem repeats, they will disconnect HAL. Unfortunately, HAL is able to hear what they are saying; and now the movie shows the magic, the power of a computing device out to do harm.
Poole goes outside to repair, and steps outside the EVA pod, at which point HAL takes control of the pod and rams the pod at Poole, killing him. Dave, watching, rushed outside in another pod to try and rescue Poole; in the meantime, HAL deliberately disconnects the support system of the 3 cryogenically frozen astronauts, killing them.
When Frank tried to return, HAL refuses to open the door, revealing that he knows of the conspiracy to 'kill him'. The voice of HAL, always soft-spoken does not hide the danger that Frank is in. HAL also makes it clear that the mission is so important that HAL cannot let Dave screw it up. Dave manages to enter the ship in a risky way, given that he does not have a support system and was exposed to vacuum for a short while. He has one purpose, to deactivate HAL. He starts doing so, and slowly HAL starts to die, all the while protesting about what Dave is doing.
The final part of the movie, with a recording explaining the monolith on the moon and around Jupiter. Dave wants to go out and explore the monolith, and exits the Discovery 1 in an EVA pod. He appears to travel vast distances, first seeming to arrive in a royal room, and goes through some strange experiences, finally seeing himself on his deathbed (through reflected glass) with a monolith nearby. As he tried to touch it, he transforms into a vision called a 'Star Child', a fetus like being, surrounded by an orb of light and in the Earth's orbit.
The movie shows a number of devices that are now present such as flat monitors, glass cockpits in spacecraft, credit cards with magnetic strips, biometric identification

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

All quiet on the western front

Have you seen a movie likely to make a major impact on you ? Well, you may have seen some, granted. This movie is one that is a must see, there are very few movies that depict the futility and hopelessness of war like this one. For war mongers sitting at the back, this movie and the associated novel are a must see (and I am not trying to be political right now).
All quite on the western front has been on the Top 100 English movies list for a long time now, and it is in fact a very old movie. The movie is based on a book published in Germany by 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque called 'Im Westen nichts Neues'. The book had incredible sales, selling 2.5 million copies in different languages within 18 months. The book in turned inspired the movie in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone. The movie won the best Best Picture and Best Director award, and was the first talking movie to win an Oscar.
The movie was seen as generically anti-war and anti-German (being set on German soldiers) and was banned by the Nazis. There have been many movies set on war zones, and many of them glorify or justify the concept of war, but this was a vehemently anti-war movie. The movie stars Lew Ayres in the pivotal role of Paul Baumer, and stars Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, and others.
The movie is set in Germany, with a group of schoolboys getting encouragement to join the army by their professor (Arnold Lucy set in a jongoistic role) in the backdrop of a military parade happening outside. These are young enthusiastic boys, and encouraged by the charm of fighting for their country, the enlist. However, their enthusiasm soon dies down in the hard training that they undergo at the hands of their sadistic drill sergeant, Himmelstoss (the ex-postman). He makes them undergo a variety of hard training during the course, enough that when they are about to leave, they get revenge by dumping him in the mud.
These still enthusiastic new soldiers reach the frontline to the tune of enemy shells and are greeted by war-worn and highly cynical soldiers who are already fighting. The German army is already suffering from poor supplies and lack of food. At this point, another pivotal character of the movie, Sergeant Kat Katczinsky (famous for being able to find food) arrives with a pig and they all join in with gusto.
Their first mission, to string barbed wire at night. One famous scene from the movie is when they watch the truck leaving them and going back, a sense of poignancy. They get the first experience of a shell bursting nearby, and one of them shits in his pants. Kat offers them the most valuable advice at that point about what to do in case of shell attacks.
The first death - one of the new soldiers is blinded by the shell fire, and runs off in a panic towards the enemy side and is gunned down. To their shock, they are not allowed to get the body back, it's foolish to waste another life to get a body back. After all, it's just a corpse. They are already starting to learn about the waste and horrors of war.
At another time, they have to sit in a bunker with constantly exploding shells, and they start to crack. They have to co-exist with rats in the bunker, and to just to exist for days like that. In another scene of great profoundness, the French infantry charges and is held down by German machine-gun fire. Another touch of horror is brought forward to Paul when a grenade explodes in front of a French soldier reaching for the wire, and after the smoke clears, there are just the hands gripping the wire.
More horror, with close hand-to-hand combat between the Germans and French, and now many of the schoolboys have been killed.
The soldiers, directly involved in the war, start discussing it. This is a dialog, not very long, that captures the guts of the movie. They do not know why they are in the war, they did not know the enemy so hating them enough to have a war seems crazy, and they are sure that the French feel the same way.
War also makes people cold. Hence, when a person loses his legs, there are soldiers ready to ask for the shoes since the owner does not need them anymore. This is presented in a montage where the shoes are passed from one to another as the owners keep dying.
In another gripping moment, Paul encounters a French soldier who has jumped into his shell hole and Paul wounds him mortally. He has to stay there while the French soldier is slowly dying and it is a long wait. During this time, he becomes remorseful and tries to find out about the soldier's family in order to help them. He brings more water for the man to sip, but the soldier has died.
The effect of war on a growing up man is incredible. Paul gets leave to go home, but is unable to connect with anybody over there, he has had too many different kinds of experiences. In his school, he meets the professor who is still encouraging new students to join the war. Paul refuses to give them an encouraging talk, instead talking of the raw emotions of the war; and they call him a coward. They are still young and enthusiastic.
When he joins back, more of his company has been killed. In a discussion with Kat, he lays down his feelings about home and his trip. As they are walking back, Kat gets hit by a splinter and dies, but Paul does not know. He only gets to know when another soldier tells him. Death and destruction has claimed almost everybody he knew.
The final passing. Paul reaches from inside his trench for a butterfly, and a sniper shoots him. And hence the name of the movie. On this day, when Paul was killed, there was nothing much going on, and hence the report back was 'All quiet on the western front'. After all, what is one soldier's life.
In the classic ending of the movie, all the dead soldiers are marching away towards a void in a ghostly column, killed for they know not what.