… if they didn’t, what’s the purpose? If a movie did not fundamentally alter something in you, moved a frame of reference, opened a new window, what purpose did it serve apart from expensive fleeting titillation? And you thought if only excruciatingly serious art films can make that kind of an impact, you’d be as wrong as I was until I sat down to write this, prodded by the cute reminders of Meetu, to enter Wogma and Reviewgang‘s Reel-Life Bloggers Contest (for which, this blog post wants to be an official entry to earn Rs. 3000 worth of goodies, let this wanton desire be hereby made public!).
I don’t normally review movies, simply because I cannot watch them with that aim. Movie reviewing is serious and also seriously difficult business. If a movie moved me, I was too engrossed in it to be able to make intellectual comments on an essentially visceral experience (sort of like trying to analyze the mesmerizing beauty of a woman by analyzing how her viscera contributed to it ) and if I hated the movie, why waste more time by writing about it, unless I am in a seriously bitchy mood to really screw someone’s happiness? So I prefer to remain an avid reader of film reviews rather than a writer, which is a different breed of movie-goers! This attempt will surely not tell you all about the following movies but I hope to convey to you why they moved me!
Just to dispel the myth that only serious movies can move you, let’s start with a comedy as the first one:
There was not a bone in my body that moved, shook, rattled, displaced, dislodged, and romped to the utter collegial intelligent silliness of this farce! This is one movie whose sequel I just longed for (but never arrived!). It is classic Mel Brooks. If you enjoyed his sidesplitting movies (as an actor and/or director) such as Silent Movie, Blazing Saddles, or Robin Hood: Men in Tights, you will just burst out of all the seams (dorsal, ventral, anterior, posterior et al) watching History of the World.
The fun begins with the very first scene where a bunch of fierce alpha males of early apes graduate from chest thumping to self hum.. I mean self… aah… how should I say it… stimulation… yeah, that’s the word! And from then on, it’s a tumultuous riot breaking out in front of your eyes. The movie moves very briskly thru short skits, some as short as just a few seconds. For example, an early man bonks an early female and drags her to his cave: the first heterosexual marriage. Needless to say, this few-seconds-long skit is followed by another short skit depicting the first homosexual marriage. And so on it takes you on a whirlwind time travel thru the roman empire, the birth and death of Jesus (including the REAL story behind the Last Supper), the Spanish Inquisition (including a fantastically choreographed musical with the words: Inquisiiiiition – what a show!) and finally ending at the French Revolution. All forms of humor, be it silly slapstick, wordplays, anachronistic mix of people/props/situations, elegant choreography, oxymoronic juxtapositions are used to rearrange the entire skeletal structure in your body. So a black slave (Gregory Hines) walking into a roman era bazaar with ‘funky town’ blaring on a transistor radio doesn’t remain a schoolhouse skit production humor. The movie is a super-fast laugh parade of such skits weaved together in a common thread. It can get as burlesquely irreverent at times as Benny Hill and it does that with superlative results, but for most parts it stays at a family entertainment level, that of a somewhat twisted family that is Along with Mel and Gregory, Dom Deluise doesn’t just tickle your bones but makes you feel that your marrow is going to ooze out of them. His portrayal of Caesar is one of the funniest I have ever seen.
This non-stop romp of a comedy doesn’t just move your bones with laughter. It transcends you from the caveman period to the French Revolution in less than 2 hours. It doesn’t move you with tremendous audio-visual and intellectual sensory overload, it makes you forget you have any sense at all! It’s good to be moved totally senseless once in a while, that’s like getting an ultimate high without drugs, and for me, that is the biggest success of this movie!
If I continue to occasionally channel surf late at night, somewhat aimlessly but still wistfully hoping for a repeat of a serendipitous discovery, all credit goes to this gem of an obscure movie. I don’t even remember when I saw this. It was definitely between 2003-2005 and a late night at home in the US. I was halfway done with some homework for my MBA, one of those last minute all nighters and for a break, I switched on the TV and caught the first few minutes of this movie. I am glad I kept watching, homework be damned, and when it was finally over, I couldn’t fall asleep (but couldn’t study either!).
For me, the story-line of a movie is very important. In the venture capital parlance, it’s the ‘Elevator Pitch’ of the movie. This one sentence description of a movie must arrest you enough to feel guilty if you don’t watch the movie! So how’s this for the Legend of 1900: the story of an infant abandoned on a cruise ship, adopted by the crew, never sets foot on the land, becomes the best pianist entertainer in the world, and of fleeting love that finally drags him to the land… almost! And drawn in by this weird prospect of a storyline, you get treated not just with fine film-making but some of the most other-worldly piano scores you have ever heard in your life. If you liked the Pianist or Piano or some such fine movies and thought they epitomized the finest in on-screen piano, think again!
The story starts in a flashback sort of a way, when an ex-musician fallen in bad times visits a pawn shop to sell his trumpet. The tune he plays moves something in the shopkeeper and the musician narrates the story of Danny Boodman T.D. 1900 (supremely played by Tim Roth), a child abandoned by his immigrant parents on board a luxury cruise liner. Danny is raised by the guy who shovels coal in the gargantuan underbelly of the ship’s engine room where Danny spends most of his time. He becomes a self-taught pianist, modern-day composer, as well as a jazz virtuoso and one of the best in the world in each of those categories. Yet, this orphan never loses his child-like innocence, sheltered by his small world of the cruise liner, learning about the outside world thru filtered stories told by passengers who befriended him. Interspersed in this story are some of his amazing skills at the piano. The highlight of the movie is the duel between Danny and Jelly Roll Morton, a real life jazz virtuoso and self-taught pianist who claimed to have invented jazz. Jelly challenges Danny to a piano duel and insults Danny until he accepts. What transpires next is one of the most unanticipated scenes I have ever seen on screen. And the piano?! I guarantee you’ve rarely heard such fantastic (and fast) piano ever in your life.
The piano of 1900 moves you (thanks to Ennio Morriccone and Jelly himself) to the core, starting with your tympanic membrane, reaching out to the auditory brain circuits and propagating thru your body, making you understand you’re listening to some of the best in the world. But that’s just the icing. The basic premise of the movie, the self-taught prodigiousness of an orphan who defines his entire world, life, and love in the cocoon of a cruise ship, continues to tug at my heart even to this day. The innocence that envelopes Danny throughout his life makes you wish you continued to hang on to your long lost innocence. Long after the movie has ended (in my case, almost 7-8 years), he continues to tug at your heart with a pang: I wish I could have done something to save him from his cocoon-doom. There are epic movies that move you to the core and want you to do something great for the entire mankind. The Legend of 1900 moves you with just one person’s unique story and in no small parts due to the fantastic piano score!
Crime dramas make me uncomfortable. Not because of the violence and gore but because they often engender sympathy for the wrong folk. Why should your heart bleed for Don Corleone in The Godfather? Why would a hot-tempered and extremely violent Joe Pesci’s death make you puke in The Casino? It bothers me when that happens and I still cannot help it. The difference with The Untouchables is that the real good guys move you. And the bonus is that it was a true story!
Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is a federal agent who goes after the entire criminal empire of Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Ness is straight laced, law abiding official who tries to trap Capone thru above-board and legal means and gets frustrated as the entire security and legal apparatus is bought off by Capone! A disillusioned Ness selects a young dedicated assistant to help him, Detective George Stone (Andy Garcia) but to no avail. Eliot’s gradual transformation from following and upholding the law to taking it into his own hands starts with a sermon from a jaded cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) who has bottled up all his righteousness in an entirely corrupt system and is just biding his time. The team is complete with the inclusion of Agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith, a versatile actor and director in his own right), a bespectacled agent who looks more like a benign accountant than an agent. They hound Capone with a singular mission to book him, following unconventional means, taking law into their hands, meeting violence with violence and sacrificing half of the team in very violent encounters.
This is one of those films where everything works together perfectly, the acting, direction, cinematography, locations, music, all of it. Much lower on the gore quotient than some other Brian De Palma films, it nevertheless has a fair share of gory violence and action. None of that, however, reeks of sadism on part of the director as it sometimes does. The final action sequence in a subway station where Costner and Garcia nab one of the criminals is one of the best stylized slow-motion action sequences I have ever seen on the screen. The suspense, the slow motion, Garcia’s run, Costner’s dilemma between saving a baby and nabbing the criminal, the implied voices, the inanimate sounds of everything else all come together to etch the entire sequence on your mind like no other. The timing is improbable but well within the realm of possibility. Almost the entire cast is absolutely stellar, Costner being the weakest link, not being able to change expressions much as he starts losing his moral and legal plank. De Niro absolutely boggles your mind letting you peek into the perverse mind of Al Capone, crying while watching an emotive opera and simultaneously chuckling a sinister smile when he gets the news of the death of one of the agents. Sean Connery is the same Sean Connery as always: gritty, no-nonsense cop. Garcia fits the quietly energetic and unemotional rookie cop perfectly well. The goose-bumping sinister quotient is mightily enhanced by Bill Drago playing Frank Nitti, a ruthless killing machine working for Capone.
A criminal son dies a violent death, the criminal (god)father weeps and we feel his pain. Or the weakened godfather dies of a heart attack, playing with his grandson and makes us somehow like him. By showing the rare human vulnerability of a hardened criminal, movies like The Godfather make us fall into an uneasy love for criminals. The transformation of Eliot Ness from a law-upholding official to a killer is complete when he brutally finishes an unarmed Bill Drago in an enraged revenge killing. And we identify with his rage bordering criminality. When we like him (even under somewhat expressionless face of Costner), we feel happy we are moved by the right person, precisely because a decent man finally said ‘enough is enough’ and perpetrated a criminal act against evil! Who amongst us has not ever dreamed of taking things in our own hands and finish off all evil in the world in a violent way?