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Monday, February 25, 2008

Groundhog Day: A great comedy

Groundhog Day is a movie released in 1993 that was a sleeper hit; praised by critics on its release but not exceptionally. It was with the passage of time that the movie got more praise, and became much more famous, especially on the DVD circuit. The movie is based on the concept of Groundhog Day, a holiday celebrated in the United States & Canada on the 2nd of January. So what is the concept of Groundhog Day ? It is an irrational method of determining whether winter will soon end ? So, on January 2, supposedly a Groundhog is observed when it comes out of its burrow, and if it sees its shadow, it will return into its burrow implying that winter will continue for 6 more weeks; if it fails to see its shadow as it is cloudy, winter will soon end. One of the most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil found in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA.

Groundhog Day (1993)
Using this concept, a delightful movie was made. The movie, released in 1993 is a comedy, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, based on a story by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis and based on a story by Rubin. The movie did well on release, grossing over $70 million in the US itself, but was not rated to be nothing very great. It was a much bigger hit on the DVD and home video circuit, and was evaluated to be among the top 100 funny movies. The movie is a lot about being able to get away from being focused on only oneself, and learning more about what other people want, and understanding them. Accordingly, the movie has also struck a chord with religious leaders who play on the film's theme of slowly moving away from selfishness to a sort of rebirth where you can focus on others, and become more selfless.
The movie also made the concept of Groundhog Day, (a day that keeps on repeating itself without end and without variation) a very popular term among the US military, where it is now refers to a repetitive, unchanging and unpleasant duty. Some examples of the use of the term by military personnel ranges from Somalia, Bosnia, and Iraq.
The movie itself is about a weatherman who gets stuck in a situation of no change, where the day keeps on repeating itself over and over again, and only he is able to understand that the same day is getting repeated; slowly he changes from being a self-centered person to a person capable of understanding others and appreciate them. So, Phil Connors is a Pittsburg TV Weatherman, not very happy about having to cover the 2nd of January Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. He reaches Punxsutawney along with his producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) to cover the event (celebrated as a festival in Punxsutawney. Once the celebration ends, Phil is unable to leave since a blizzard envelops the town (ironically, Phil had predicted that the blizzard would miss the town). However, in a major shock, when he gets up at 6 AM to the song on his alarm (Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe"), he realizes that it is the 2nd, and not the 3rd. He remembers the previous day, but everybody else thinks that it is the 2nd (without any memory of already having spent the previous day). This cycle keeps on repeating itself.
Initially he realizes that this repeat gives him great power, so he is able to steal money, drive drunk, lead police in a chase, and seduce beautiful women, but he is not able to seduce his producer Rita. Soon, he tires of all this, and gets frustrated. Not able to see an end, and tiring of this repeating of the same cycle, he soon tries to commit suicide many times, and succeeds, but with ultimate failure. He just gets up the next day at the same time, on the same song.
Soon, he turns a new life, trying to improve himself. He is able to convince Rita of the truth by telling her about more and more things that he learns, and also turns more compassionate towards other, including savings the lives of many people. He also learns a number of complex tasks such as learning jazz piano, sculpt ice, and know about everybody in life. Finally, after much self-improvement, he is able to profess true love to Rita, and she accepts. And this causes the day to finally move to January 3.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Platoon (1986) - Violent depiction of war

The US military involvement in Vietnam was an experience that even decades later is recalled as a phase to avoid. Every military engagement by the US is vetted to see that the US should not get involved the same way that it got involved in Vietnam. The US military had a humiliating defeat when it was forced to retreat from Vietnam, and did not get its true spirit back till the defeat of Saddam Hussain in the First Gulf Way in 1991. The US dogma (including any required military effort) to beat back the ascendancy of Communism around the world is seen as the primary reason for the involvement in the Vietnam War. Given the impact of the Vietnam War on the US psyche during the 1970's and after, it was natural to expect many many movies to be made on the subject, and some great movies have been made.
Platoon (1986)
Some of the movies have been 'Good morning Vietnam', 'Apocalypse Now', 'The Deer Hunter', 'Full Metal Jacket', 'Forrest Gump', etc. A lot of these movies have been dark movies, such as 'Apocalypse Now', a very dark portrayal of the madness of war and what such a war does to the people involved. Similarly, Platoon is a dark depiction of war, of the changes wrought in the innocent young men who went to war, and whom the war turned into cynical, moody and mentally wrought people. A whole generation of young men were taken from their families, drafted into the war, and turned into hard, battle weary men. Platoon takes a glimpse of what war life must be for a few of these young men. Oliver Stone, who served as an American soldier in war, takes his experiences and creates his most famous and acclaimed movie. This is the movie that made Stone's reputation.
The movie made an equally good impression on a large section of the critics, and also got a good share of the Oscars, winning 4, and getting nominated for others.
Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tom Berenger), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Willem Dafoe), Best Cinematography and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
At the time of release, the Vietnam War had been over for more than a decade, and a new generation of Americans were not so aware of the mood of the country in the late 60's and 70's. At such a time, the release of such a movie that portrayed the war as a brutal war that sapped the human spirit, and portrayed the impact on individual members of the platoon would have been akin to a shocking reminder of what the war must have been like. In addition, the movie did not present things in stark black and white, with a large amount of moral ambiguity through the movie. Even the protagonist, a person who does not sway too much from the right side, eventually kills in cold blood, not during a conflict, and out of hate. Further, the depiction of the massacre in a village, modeled after the 'My Lai' village massacre during the Vietnam War is meant to shock.
The movie takes Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a young upper middle-class American dropping out of college to join the war because he feels that there is an unfair policy where rich kids are getting deferment to join the war because of their education, while poorer background young men are being sent to join the war. However, any romanticism of the war is soon lost in the actual combat zone, whether due to the mundaneness of digging foxholes or in an actual conflict situation (where a fellow soldier dies in the cross-fire). The movie also shows the contrasting impact of the war on people with the depiction of 2 Sergeants, Sgt. Elias and Staff Sgt. Barnes. Elias (William Dafoe in an Oscar nominated role) is a squad leader who has not been corrupted by the war and maintains his essential humanity. He almost dies a death at the hands of his own countrymen when he is shot by Barnes (Tom Berenger) in the middle of battle, eventually being killed by the Vietnamese while fleeing from them in a wounded state. Barnes himself is shot by Taylor after a major combat action in revenge for the killing of Elias. Barnes is an example of what human being can become who cracks under the pressure of war and goes to the dark side. Another major highlight of the movie is the dependence of soldiers on good leadership with the platoon having an inept leadership in the form of Lt. Wolfe (apparently Lt. Wolfe is used in US army training as an example of how not to command).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Psycho - Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece

Psycho (released in 1960) was arguably Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movie, and acknowledged as one of the best movies of all times. The movie set new standards in the field of horror movies, something that slasher movies later have found it difficult to emulate. This was also a movie that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to use to establish his reputation, especially when 'Vertigo' had failed 2 years earlier (neither the critics nor the audience gave it much of a reception); and the story of a murderer (a novel by Peter Bloch) was something that appealed to him. He had not made such a movie in the past, although he had made his name in suspense, and the making of a movie of the genre of a psychotic murderer would be a different movie.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)
To that extent, the story of Psycho was something that Hitchcock guarded to a very high degree. Even the film rights to the novel were bought under a different name so that viewers would not guess the twists in the story. This quest for secrecy manifested itself in several different ways. Hitchcock forbade most promotion on the usual media - television, radio, and print interviews so that there was no fear of revealing the truth. In addition, critics were not allowed the usual private screenings, but had to see the movie with the general public, so that the plot remained secret (even though preventing the critics from their screenings might cause reviews to be not so positive).
The movie also struggled on a different front. The studio for which Hitchcock was supposed to make another movie, Paramount, was not happy with the script or with the thought of Hitchcock making this movie. They did not believe that the script was suitable for a movie, and in fact, such a movie was essentially a pet peeve for Hitchcock. Accordingly, his usual budget was denied, causing Hitchcock to raise money on his own and cut costs. He hired his regular staff, managed to get the lead star Janet Leigh for much less than her regular fee; the overall budget was less than a million dollars.
The movie was reviewed poorly by critics, but turned out to be a major commercial success, earning some $32 million overall. Since the movie was produced by Hitchcock's company, his share of the profits was much greater than one would have expected otherwise. The success of the movie led critics to change their views, do a re-review, and the movie earned a total of 4 Oscar nominations.
The movie is a gripping psycho drama, with a shower murder scene that is one of the most famous scenes ever; this scene has been copied and parodied many times. There has been countless research done over the decades to evaluate as to why the scene has had such an impact to users; as an aside, it has been popular lore that the scene impacted the actress Janet Leigh so much that she found it difficult to take a shower after that.
The movie is set in a out-of-the-way motel called Bates motel. It is run by the young man called Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives with his ailing mother. And who arrives to this motel ? The lady on the run, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She is in love with Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but both of them do not have much money. They are in dire need of money since Sam is in debt and also has alimony payments to an wx-wife that are ongoing. Marion steals $40,000 from the office in Phoenix, Arizona that she works in (she is asked to deposit the money in the bank, but she runs off with the money), and wants to drive to the town in California where Sam works.
She is suspicious, wondering about whether the police is after her; in this state, she even changes her car to try to throw pursuers off her track. In this state, she finds a motel on the way, and is persuaded to stay there. She finds Norman Bates a bit strange, but nothing prepares her for her end. When she is showering in her motel room, an apparently elderly woman attacks her and is stabbed to death (with a powerful musical score playing in the background).
Norman finds the corpse of Marion, and in order to protect his mother, he dumps Marion and all her belongings (including the car) into a nearby swamp. However, it is not the end; a private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is hired to find Norman. He manages to find the Bates motel, and starts to question Norman who gets all nervous. He meets the same end as Marion, being slashed to death by Norman's mother after being pushed down the stairs. When Milton does not report back, Marion's mother Lila and Sam get concerned and contact the sheriff. When the sheriff is told about Norman's mother, he is surprised since Norman's mother had died 10 years back.
Sam and Lila investigate further, and slip into the motel. They find a slip of paper talking about the money that Marion was carrying ($40,000), and so decide to confront Norman's mother. Lila is tasked with talking to the mother, while Sam would divert Norman. However, Norman soon has a fight with Sam and knocks him out; Lila is shocked when she discovers the preserved body of Norman's mother; and the secret is out - Norman is wearing his mother's clothes when he comes with a knife to kill Lila. Sam arrives just in time and knocks Norman out.
In the end, a psychiatrist explains the truth; Norman and his mother lived together with no one else. So when Norman's mother took a lover, Norman killed them both, and then tried to erase the guilt by preserving her body, and acting as her (in a classic case of split personality). In this reverse state, the split personality is jealous of any woman to whom Norman comes in touch with, and kills such a women. His psychosis prevents him from realizing the enormity of his crimes. Norman lands up in a cell, his mind dominated by his mother. In this alter ego, she believes that she is harmless and Normal is responsible for her current state.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront is a movie that is more than 50 years old now, but it can still make an impact. The movie was an incredible career booster for Marlon Brando, giving him a massive reputation in the Oscar-winning role of a man who was just passing through life as a 'bum', being the lackey of a mob boss in the union, until a couple of deaths and the inspiring words of a priest and the sister of one of the ones killed caused his conscience to slowly come back to life and get him to do the right thing. The movie portrays an end full of optimism, with the breaking of the control of the mob boss who controlled the union of longshoremen. The whole situation was that of exploitation of the dock workers, and corruption and use of force in order to retain the control of the boss.

Marlon Brando: On the Waterfront (1954)
This movie had a certain amount of history in terms of reasons for it being made. The movie was directed by Elia Kazan; he was controversial because he had reported names of possible communists in the American film industry in 1952 (2 years before the making of this movie) to the House Un-American Activities Commission, and he had been criticized for this action. The release of a movie in which the hero breaks the might of a mighty corrupt and evil authority by 'squealing' / 'telling the truth' before a Government commission investigating the waterfront was seen as an answer to the claims made earlier against Kazan that he was a squealer.
Around the period in which the movie was made, the scene of the waterfront was indeed a place of oppression in which ordinary workers had no dignity, only those got jobs whom the boss of the union decided or were in his favor, and there was a systematic exploitation of these workers. The movie was actually based on a Pulitzer Prize winning series of 24 articles in 1949 in the New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson called 'Crime on the Waterfront'. The article was a harsh expose on the scene on the waterfront, detailing bribery, corruption, payoffs, kickbacks to union officials, theft, murder and a generally oppressive culture.
The movie was seen as such a striking movie with its portrayal of the activities on the waterfront, a great melodrama, and an incredible performance by Marlon Brando that it was nominated for a total of 12 nominations and won 8 nominations, putting it at a very pedestral in terms of awards won:
* Best Actor - Marlon Brando
* Best Picture - Sam Spiegel, producer
* Best Supporting Actress - Eva Marie Saint
* Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Black-and-White - Richard Day
* Best Cinematography, Black-and-White - Boris Kaufman
* Directing - Elia Kazan
* Film Editing - Gene Milford
* Writing, Story and Screenplay - Budd Schulberg
Nominations that did not win
* Best Supporting Actor - Lee J. Cobb
* Best Supporting Actor - Karl Malden
* Best Supporting Actor - Rod Steiger
* Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Leonard Bernstein

The movie is about a former boxer Terry Malloy who is somewhat slow-witted. He manages to survive by being the odd job man for the union boss Johnny Friendly. His brother Charles Malloy, is the lawyer for Johnny Friendly. He is just content doing jobs given to him by the union boss and for his pleasure, rears pigeons. The chief property of the union is that no information is to be given to outsiders about anything, a policy of D n D (Deaf and Dumb) - similar to the mafia code of omerta. But, another young dock worker is about to report whatever he knows to an investigating committee, and this trouble-maker needs to be eliminated. Terry is used to call him, and then this young worker Joey is then thrown off a roof by 2 of the boss's henchmen. This horrified Terry, since he is the conduit through which Joey was called to his death.
Slowly things start changing due to the impact of a local priest who is trying to rouse the workers from their lethargy; and more so due to a slowly forming attraction between Terry and Edie (sister of the dead Joey). Both Friendly and Charles see this change starting to happen in Terry, but are unable to stop him. Over a period of time, Terry starts to feel his conscience starts to awaken and he starts to shrug off his sluggish nature. He in fact almost breaks with his brother by blaming him for the way his life had turned out (his brother had asked him to throw a match against another boxer and his life had taken a turn for the worse after that).
Towards the end, his brother is killed by Friendly because of being unable to prevent Terry from giving tetimony, and Terry goes ahead and implicated Friendly in the death of Joey. In a bruising scene after that on the waterfront, Terry fights Friendly and then his henchmen, and gets badly beaten up. However, he has the ultimate triumph when the other workers all line up behind him and throw off the fear of the union boss.

Indian Jones and the last Crusade

The Indiana Jones series were pure action and adventure flicks, packing a heavy dose of adventure, travel and action, in the shape of an persona who could be described as the James Bond of adventure. This comparison is even more interesting because the first (and possibly the best Bond), Sean Connery was brought in to play the role of Indiana Jone's father in this movie. The addition of Sean Connery and the scenes between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford (playing the role of Indiana Jones again) led to some interesting scenes including a fair dose of comedy in their interaction. By the time of this movie, the Indiana Jones series had already had 2 releases (Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and there was a lot of expectation from the third movie in the series.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Opinion is divided as to whether this movie matched upto the previous 2 movies; my personal opinion is that this movie had the required dose of action, adventure, villains, and historical legend in order to make it a thoroughly enjoyable movie. One comes out of the movie having thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and the addition of Sean Connery to the cast made it even better. Similarly, Harrison Ford seems a good fit for the role of Indiana Jones; one can watch his facial expressions and gesture during the various situations that he finds himself in, and find yourself rooting for him.
It is normally expected that a movie like Indiana Jones cannot be Oscar material (those are now seen as being for far more serious movies), but this movie was indeed nominated for 3 Oscars (none of the top ones though or for the acting ones):
* Best Sound Effects Editing - Won Oscar
* Original Score - Nominated
* Sound - Nominated
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade mostly won praise from critics, and most importantly, won on the popular front. On a budget of $48 million, it garnered a sum of over $470 million worldwide. The success of this movie was another milestone in the immense reputation of Steven Spielberg as a great film-maker and director.
The movie's main cast was Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as professor Henry Jones (Indiana's father), portrayed as one of the professor kind of person, always busy in his research and not much given to caring for his son.
In addition, the movie also had the following people playing important roles - Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody: Indiana's bumbling colleague, John Rhys-Davies as Sallah: A friend of Indiana and a professional excavator, Alison Doody as Dr. Elsa Schneider: An Austrian professor who is in league with the Nazis, Julian Glover as Walter Donovan: An American businessman who is in league with the nazis and wants immortality, and River Phoenix plays the young Indiana Jones in the film's opening.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade went through a wide geographic diversity in terms of movie locations, with shooting happening at the following locations - Venice, Almeria, Jordan, Austria, Germany, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Texas.
The movie was released in 1989, and is set in the time of the Nazis, in 1938. The movie is based on the search for The Holy Grail, the mythical cup from which Christ drank during the last supper and which is supposed to give the drinker miraculous powers. The Holy Grail is a holy artifact that has been much sought after over the centuries, and spinning a movie around it would in fact inform a lot of viewers about what the Holy Grail was supposed to be.
Indiana Jones gets to know from a wealthy businessman Walter Donovan that his father, Dr. Henry Jones vanished while searching for clues to the Holy Grail. Indiana starts at the spot (along with Dr. Elsa Schneider) where his father vanished, in a library in Venice, and soon finds an underground set of chambers full of oil and rats. And then starts trouble. A cult dedicated to the protection of the Holy Grail 'The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword', sets fire to the oil in order to kill them. Indiana and companions manage to escape almost the entire cult except for their leader Kazim, whom they manage to convince that the they are looking for Indiana's father and not for the Holy Grail. Convinced, Kazim tells them about the location of his father.
Indiana manages to rescue his father, while learning of the reality of Donovan and Dr. Else (they were Nazi sympathizers and betray Indiana to the Nazi); and they go through a series of adventures (including meeting Hitler), on a Zeppelin airship, on a fighter place, on a car, on a tank, all the time being pursued by the Nazis. These scenes are the core of the action of an Indiana Jones movie, with the action being varied, fast, and furious. And then they reach the ancient Canyon where the Holy Grail is situated. There are a range of booby traps that Indiana manages to evade, but he has now a person reason to get to the grail. His father has been shot so that Indiana has to get to the grail to save him. They (Indiana, his companions, Else and Donovan) reach the Holy Grail and encounter the historic knight (a knight from the First Crusade who is alive because of the grail).
Indiana manages to save his father, while Donovan, making a wrong choice, rapidly ages and crumbles to dust. In the end, it is the greed of Else which causes the whole place to collapse; they lose the grail but Indiana and his companions manage to escape.