Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Fine Moment from Our Finest Hour

Forever The Moment

Alternative Titles: Our Finest Hour, Uri Saengae Choego-ui Sungan

Year: 2008

Country: South Korea

Runtime: 2 hr and 4 min approx.

‘Forever the Moment’ (also known as ‘Our Finest Hour’) from South Korea, is a partially true (some events and characters are fictional) story of the events surrounding the South Korean women’s handball team and its journey to reach the finals of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Like most movies made out of sport, this too, follows the worn down line of showing the team’s genesis, individual struggles of some players (and how they eventually overcome it), how they find motivation in the darkest of hours, and eventually triumph (?).

Spoilers Follow – The movie’s climax has been revealed.

If you followed the Athens Olympics, you’d know that Korea lost a close encounter in the finals to Denmark. In the movie, this match comes down to the line, with a penalty shootout determining the fate of the two teams involved. In a make or die situation, Mi-Sook, arguably the protagonist of the story, misses her shot, and Korea has to settle for the silver.

You’ve seen various winning and losing moments in a sport film. But I’m sure you haven’t seen a brilliant take like this. Instead of showing her penalty and the works (the goalie, the shot etc), all we see is Mi-Sook and the people behind her. We DO NOT see the goalie and the goal. And 2 seconds after the ball leaves her hand, the result is obvious. We DON’T see her missing the shot. From the same camera angle, we see Mi-Sook’s shoulder drooping, her face losing all the energy and her legs giving away, her eyes not wanting to believe what just happened, her team-mates aghast, disappointed and the Denmark bench in raptures, predictably ecstatic. The shot becomes even more pronounced considering the fact that every other shot of the penalty shootout is shown in its entirety.

Sport movies often tend to hype the final play, the grand finale, and prolong it to an extent where it becomes unbearable. For someone who’s seen movies like this that tend to make a grand show of ‘THE MOMENT’, it was refreshing to see such innovative screenplay. The guts to not show the moment, the audacity to not tell the viewer directly that the shot was a miss… it was wonderful if you ask me.

Monday, May 5, 2008

International Cinema

A new month, a new beginning… and hopefully more activity.

Back in my second post, when I mentioned watching cinema from all ends of the globe, I really meant it. Although English (and by this I mean movies that feature English as the major language) movies make up the majority of my favourites list, there are these occasional foreign gems that you should know about.

And know you shall.

Cinema in other languages will now be tagged under the ‘International Cinema’ label.

Why international cinema? Because cinema isn’t restricted to Hollywood. And movie magic definitely isn’t. I strongly believe that international cinema hasn’t reached the average film buff yet, and consequently one misses out on a large repertoire of wonderful films.

In other words, I shall diligently try to add more foreign cinema entries to this blog. We already have a Brazilian sensation and a classic from Germany. More to come.

A word of advice: in case you do acknowledge my reviews and go ahead and watch the films, do watch them in their original languages, with subtitles. Originality is something that ‘dubs’ can never bring, however good they are.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

M - ... Wow!


Year: 1931.

Country: Germany.

Principal Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens and others.

Directed by: Fritz Lang.

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes approx.

Fritz Lang’s classic psychological thriller.

Have I ever told you that I’m a sucker for serial killer movies? I haven’t? Well now you know.

Infact, I’ve even grown to classify them into a few types.

For me, a good serial killer movie is an engrossing tale about a person committing crimes in quick (not necessarily so) succession. It is often a story about who the killer turns out to be, and how they (the police, private investigators and you know, the works) catch him. Some movies choose to reveal the killer’s identity eventually, while others continue the suspense and mystery with an open ending which leaves us with no clear ideas whatsoever on the killer.

A great serial killer flick has all this, while subtly trying to tackle some other issue of relevance. The best example I can provide at the moment is ‘Memories of Murder’ where apart from the usual serial killer escapades we were subject to dark humour predominantly circulating around the then police practices and the methods they used to ‘catch’ a culprit. Such a movie keeps you engrossed, but makes you think even after its runtime. Not necessarily about the killer alone, but that subtle message that it wanted to air.

‘M’ is without doubt, a great serial killer movie.

The movie begins with a take of a few children playing around singing ‘Just you wait a little while, the nasty man in black will come. With his little chopper, he will chop you up!’. A wonderful way to introduce the plot, if you ask me. Children are rapidly disappearing in a German city and chaos ensues in an attempt to nab the child murderer. As expected the police are pressured in a big way and the whole force is galvanized into finding this one man who is responsible for the death of 5 children. As you might expect, the rest of the rest of the movie focuses on how the cops eventually find the culprit.

Whoa, hold it. I did tell you this was a great movie, right?

This is where ‘M’ throws an interesting plot twist at you. Indirect consequences of the urgency to arrest the child murderer include maximum security, unprecedented police raids and the like… all of which disrupt the hitherto smooth activities of the criminal underworld. In what I can only describe as a masterstroke, the crime lords conspire to work together to catch the murderer. The rest as they say is a movie well worth your time.

Much of that credit goes to the cast and the writer-director team of Thea van Harbou and Fritz Lang. Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert is perhaps the first (?) and most definitive portrayals of a serial killer. A character that must have set a precedent, for we often see serial killers in the same shade. Beckert is perfection. A guy who is as normal as they come, whose killer instincts and motives are best described by the movie as being triggered by an ‘instantaneous impulse’. There are other clearly discernable characters such as Franz, Lohmann and Schranker but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say that ‘M’ is so filled with characters that you’re bound to like. Elsie’s mother, the blind beggar, the guy who trails Beckert, the old guy who’s mistaken for the murderer… there are many more! Harbou and Lang must have spent quite some time developing the populace, and they seem too have done an excellent job of it.

The usual characterization and plot apart, there are several little things I love about this movie. Some scenes, a few portrayals and the dark typically noir-esque ambience it successfully creates. In doing so, ‘M’ carves a niche for itself.

For example, take the scene where we first meet the killer face to face. His introduction is synchronized with a graphologist’s description. (“The very particular shape of the letters indicates in this man a very strong and pathological sexuality. Some of the broken letters reveal an actor’s personality which can be indolent or even lazy.”). Telling us in the clearest of ways, how aptly the character can be described. Or the scene where the distraught mom shouts her daughter’s name. ‘Elsie!’, we hear the name three times, each time the frame shifts to a new location… locations that were perhaps frequented by the girl, poignantly signifying that something is amiss. And to confirm our worst premonitions in the most wonderful way, we see her toy, a ball, rolling out of a few bushes and her balloon stuck on electricity wires. ‘M’ takes its sweet time to develop its plot, but it marvels in sequences like this. Sequences that speak volumes without actually saying much.

Infact, one of the best things about the cinematography, in my opinion, were the sudden muted sequences that the screenplay was brilliantly interspersed with. Introduced a few times, they are perfect examples as to how cinema can show so much without actually saying anything. I also loved the way the camera, in a few instances focused on WHAT was being said, rather than WHO said it (For example, the scene where Lohmann recounts the damage to the office). That aside, the lighting was perfect in nearly every scene making you believe that this is every inch a dark thriller.

And to cap it all, the final scene in the dilapidated refinery where the ‘criminals’ decide to ‘judge’ the killer. Pure genius. I can’t begin to say what I liked more. There is the inherent irony of criminals trying to pass judgment on a criminal so that they can peacefully resume their criminal activities. There is the attempt to make it as legal as possible, with even a defense council (yes of course, he’s a criminal too) and the like. And finally there is the way the killer justifies his insatiable craze. Lorre’s must surely be one of the best portrayals I’ve seen. Irrespective of how he was throughout the movie, his acting in those 10 minutes really made me take pity on him. Yes, that good.

And finally there’s this inescapable fact that the movie works splendidly as a drama too and not just some serial killer fare. The way in which the murders have unexpected repercussions on the crime world is fascinating. Another instance of fabulous writing is the place where criminals seek the help of the beggar’s union to help them nab the killer. It might sound incredulous, but it was so well done to the point that it seemed very believable. Ultimately, ‘M’ transcends from being just another serial killer film to a classic drama cum film noir feature woven around a German city.

‘M’ is cinematic brilliance at its very best. What’re you waiting for?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dial M for Murder - Plan B Never Seemed so Delightful


Year: 1954

Country: USA.

Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelley, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson and others.

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock.

Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes approx.

Is this the man she was waiting for… or the man who was waiting for her?

Before I start raving about ‘Dial M for Murder’ I have to confess that this movie wasn’t vintage Hitchcock, but it was well worth the time spent on it. I’m reviewing it as a standalone Hitchcock movie and not in comparison with his other masterpieces.

Over the years, I’ve come to like some stereotypes and hate others. One character I enjoy watching is the calculative person, who bides his time when plotting something big. Typically an ideal conversationalist and a master manipulator, he’s cunning and quick to improvise. I’d classify some outstanding villains (most notably Lee Woo-jin from Oldboy, whose name strikes me first) and a maybe even a few protagonists under this class.

For me, ‘Dial M…’’s Tony Wendice occupies a well-deserved position in that list of movie character staples.

You can take my word for it. Irrespective of whether you love or hate the movie, I’m sure you’re bound to notice the guy who plots to kill his wife in a systematic fashion.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the plot. It’s tough to recount the plot without possible spoilers so let this serve as an early apology. When Tony Wendice (deftly played by Ray Milland) learns of his wife Margot (Grace Kelly, presumably Hitchcock’s favourite female lead)’s affair with leading crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), he decides to kill her and use her money for his own needs. As simple as that. After blackmailing an old school mate (Anthony Dawson as Charles Alexander Swan) into carrying out the execution, and planning everything to the minutest of details, he sets things in motion. And as most of you would’ve already guessed by now, the film takes the things-did-not-go-as-planned route and Margot ends up killing Swan in self defense.

Seems ordinary right? This is where ‘Dial M…’ shines as a movie. The quick thinker that he is, Wendice cooks up an impeccable plan B that highlights Margot killing Swan, not in defense, but with motive. Things seem to be going Wendice’s way at last, but Halliday’s persistence and the introduction of the annoying Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) seem to throw the proverbial wrench in Tony’s machinery. Does Wendice succeed in his brilliantly improvised plan? Or is he eventually found out? There you go, ‘Dial M…’ in a nutshell. Well okay, a very large nutshell.

Character-wise the movie is flawless. Right on top of the pyramid sits Millard with his absolute portrayal of Wendice. Persuasive in conversation and almost artful in his moves, he is every inch the diabolical stereotype I’ve grown to love. Along with Kelley, he forms the perfect couple, while Halliday plays the paramour with finesse. Williams does credible work as the meddlesome cop who thankfully doesn’t get on our nerves. Dawson too, justifies his selection by making his character look so real that you almost feel sorry for him. Such good characters, under Hitchcock’s reins, make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Spoilers follow. Read at your own discretion.

Characters apart, I loved the way some of the scenes were made deliberately outlandish. To me, it almost seemed like Hitchcock saying, “This MUST happen only in the movies.” or something to the extent. The perfect segment that summarizes what I’m trying to say is the entire ‘What if’ conversation between Halliday and Wendice. In this scene, Halliday asks Wendice to save Margot by assuming certain things about the crime. In what must be a stroke of pure Hitchcock, Halliday highlights everything that Wendice actually did to frame his wife. Right from the motive to the stocking. After he theorizes all this, it does not strike him that his hypothesis is a very accurate description of what actually happened. Not by a long shot. I’ve seen quite a few detectives and their deductions but I’ve never seen anything as zany as this!

I was also appreciative of the fact that Hitchcock wasted no time on trivial details. While most directors would have spent hefty portions of the runtime in explaining the delicate situation that surrounds the Wendices, Hitchcock takes all but a minute to drive his point home. At breakfast, Margot reads a clipping about Halliday coming to town. And after a quick shot of an ocean liner, we see them kissing. And that’s that. Everything else is left to the viewer. I love it when directors do that sensibly.

By all means go ahead and watch ‘Dial M for Murder’. You might find some hidden feature of the movie that I didn’t.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jeeves and Wooster in Blackadder - A Hidden Reference?


Blackadder, quite simply one of the most hilarious shows to ever light up the screen. Jeeves and Wooster… a rib tickling comedy, based on a delightful series of novels. Stellar shows in their own right. A connection between the two seems improbable right? … WRONG!

In what was a revelation of sorts, good friend Loonan had the following observations to make: Laurie’s mannerisms in seasons 3 and 4 were suggestive of another role he was to play pretty sure, that of Bertram Wooster. The 'tally ho’s and the ‘pip pip’s and the pomposity have Wooster written all over them. As if that weren’t enough, Stephen Fry’s General Melchett constantly refers to George’s ‘Uncle Bertie’… In the centre of the Jeeves and Wooster series is a pair comprising a rich dumb guy and his enterprising butler. Structurally, it seems similar to… yes, you guessed that right, Blackadder the Third. Well well well…

An inside joke?

After extensive research (ahem), here’s the timeline. Blackadder the Third, which was when Laurie came into the limelight, released in 1987. The first episode of Blackadder Goes Forth ran in September, two years later. The first episode of Jeeves and Wooster was broadcast in April 1990. So it all comes down to this: were the Blackadder cast aware that Laurie was going to play Wooster in say 3 years? Was this intentional?

Start exaggeration. COULD THIS BE THE INSIDE JOKE OF THE CENTURY!? Stop exaggeration.

Kudos to Loonan whose keen intellect spotted this. In case you’d like to thank him, do send him a bag of grade A manure. :P