12 Rules for (the Review Reader’s) Life

An Antidote to Cinematic Chaos

I’ve been writing reviews for 10 years now (coughs), reading them from as long as I remember. As years pass, I think there is a lot of obfuscation that goes around within the columns of movie reviews, it either ends up describing something else and leaving the reader in the lurch. 

As a reader first (and writer later), here are my rules for review readers esp those who want an antidote to the chaos that is film reviews (also try and make sense of them).

Rule 1: Almost always, when a reviewer says if a movie is socially important, it most certainly isn’t.

Social importance, historical importance, cultural importance are acquired over time, it is most certainly not acquired over the popcorn counter at Devi Theatre and especially not immediately. What’s relevant now, is not relevant next Friday, so yeah.

If a movie captures “this-very-moment” then it’s just that, look for signs of ascribing importance just because the movie addresses current events. 

Rule 2: Almost always, when a review says that the movie can never be classified as good or bad, it can surely be.

This limbo state only represents the inability of the reviewer to share his/her true feelings of the movie at the time due to whatever compulsion.

While there is a set who focus on what are apparently good and bad elements within the film, if they are not able to make up their mind about the film, it is not the film’s fault. It is the writer’s. 

The reasons could be anything and we don’t need to go into that. 

Rule 3: Never trust a movie review that captures audience reaction. Sample: “at that every moment half the audience had their jaw hitting the floor”

Urgh Hmm it shouldn’t matter. Maybe the writers were not hitting their word count.

Extend this rule to providing trivia, and then assigning value to the trivia, so that the overall importance of the film increases. 

The rules fundamentally rise from the fact that reviews have moved away from being observations but into the realm of accreditation, hence assigning momentary importance. 

Assigning importance can be done subtly in many forms, like social norming, by describing how people were howling in the theatre makes us immediately believe that there could be something ‘important’ at the moment. 

Rule 4: Always disregard should have/ would have criticism. 

“They should have killed off the Amudha character early in the movie, like in Psycho” like samples.

This is the “I watch so many movies so I know how better to make them” mode. Much like “how I go on a field trip to Sriharikota and the next month advising ISRO on what they should do on Mangalyaan” mode.

Rule 5: Almost always do not take seriously anything about shot division, color grading, production value , cinematography, sound mixing, box office predictions

Rule five deals with technicality. If reviewers were technically sound, they would (you know) be making movies etc. Especially now, when anyone can make and upload a movie, while here they are uploading umm reviews?

While I do not deny there could be observational critics who could get a sense of how a technical element informs the story element, they are few and far in between and from what I have read, they now function with an arsenal of adjectives, that when overused come with diminishing ‘awe’. 

Rule 6: Semblance of truth can only be found when reviewers write about what they felt while watching the movie.

It ties to some of the earlier rules, reviewers tend to go into social importance, audience reactions, limbo wording when they are not truly able to come to terms with what they feel about a film.

Rule 7: Almost all observations about how the story made the reviewer feel should always be the most important part of the review.

This is because humans have been reacting to storytelling for centuries, it’s built into us. That’s the power of story. So yeah that’s the only valid point to keep reading reviews. Whether the story engaged the reviewer or not. also since reviewers are humans too 🙂

Rule 8: When reviewers tell that the movie-story is predictable, they are thinking that the audience sees the same number of films as they do. 

It is also an addition to rule 7, it only proves that this movie story did not engage reviewers so saying predictable etc.

Rule 9 All of decoding should be avoided, completely.

A movie is a contract between the maker and the seer, and the maker puts in interesting elements consciously and mostly unconsciously. Let the seers make their own connections. When we make our own meanings, imagine the possibilities.

Rule 10 Treat with suspicion, those who say film reviewing is an art form.

Reasons people give to themselves stay in certain professions should not be treated as fact. A film review has high depreciation value. Only the best of the best survive and that too because the movies are great. The movies are always greater than the impression.

Rule 11 You must consider a possibility that you are in the wrong part of the forest if you are reading the reviews for the words and falling in love with it.

Any movie can be simply expressed without much adoration, ornamentation, alliteration, turns of phrase. These are things writers do to keep themselves interested. 

Stay vigilant, sago, reviewers also slip in “we”, when they mean “I” and immediately make us believe that we also fully buy their versions.

Vigilance is key. 

Rule 12 Always read reviews only after seeing the movie.

Please do not settle down and fill your head with opinions before you watch something. If you need recommendations to catch/thrash it then it means that you are better off not seeing something that friday. 

Movies don’t run away. There’s always time.Let movies collect days and dust. 

In our brief period on earth, each person gets to see a finite set of movies. The good news is we can make this a unique playlist. Do not fall for friday fever.

But of course obvious exceptions for some of the rules apply and I can be accused of breaking almost all of them. But this is my observation over the years

This is not an imaginative piece like ” a world without movie reviews” Of course not. But these rules will question the unnecessary ones (them reviews) and strengthen those who seek guidance in understanding them.

Take it or leave it. 

Honest story based impressions are the best form of reviews. And even these represent the frame of mind of the reviewer at that point in his/her life.

Reviews always tell more about the writer-commentator than about the movies itself. So movies first, reviews next. 

It is also important to have specific taste, and such can be developed only when not overly influenced by others.

For those asking: logical fallacies and plot holes are still game in good reviews as they fall very much into the story. While watching a movie, we are first following the story. Discovering a well hidden plot hole/ gap in a movie is like uncovering a magic trick!

Thank you for reading. Hope it was useful.

Thanks to Alex on Film for the Mayor Ebert image from the movie Godzilla

FRS: Bhoomi (2021)

So you all know what an FRS is right? Right?

Even before the Big Bang, there was agriculture

+25: For #JR25. Nandri Vanakkam. 

+12: a long time ago in a galaxy far far away types opening for this movie which opens in one corner of the universe and zooms in on planet earth, because the movie title is Bhoomi (earth), of course while the credits play.

+101: from the very first we know that Jeyam Ravi has actually done two world (bhoomi)changing things

  1. Help humans live using carbon dioxide instead of oxygen by inventing one mathirai (tablet) 
  2. Recreate Mars’ climate on earth and use it to grow plants.
Space X Samudayam

-11: That the movie will not choose to focus on the exciting stories behind these breakthroughs, tells a lot about the movie. 

+33: Director Lakshman’s screen credit comes immediately after Jeyam Ravi says, ‘give me one seed and I shall create a new world’ (whistle moments for fans of the director) 

-21: Movie missed the opportunity to name itself ‘Seed-an’ because most of it is about Bhoomi’s search for potent seeds only. Yes, the hero’s name is also Bhoomi, movie name is also Bhoomi, planet name is also Bhoomi. 

FRS Trivia Thagaval sponsored by Wikipedia 

Keen watchers will remember that Vijay’s name in Kaavalan is also Bhoomi 

+12: When American media asks, the hero will say that his hero is not a scientist or an inventor but a humble farmer from his hometown. 

Annadata -1, America- 0

+1776: NASA salaries are so good that Bhoomi can buy villa which is miga miga arugil to the Statue Of Liberty (ofc)

+101: NASA employee policies are so good that suddenly Bhoomi gets one month leave, just before a potentially universe changing mission.

-40: Said humble farmer is played by Thambi Ramiah, his screen duration can be immediately guessed based on the paavam face that he is having and the number of paavam family members in his house. 

Oops spoilers. 

-35: Heroine is a bayandha subhavam types, although this initially used as comedy material, this character trait is lost as the movie progresses. Boss why you introduce characteristics and then forget it mid-way.

-323: As usual, as is typical of Kolly thinker movies, officials, police, IAS officers and politicians are all bad people and have no redeeming qualities. So, obviously, all 4 make up the nasama villain set vs our NASA hero. 

+90: Hero displays scientific temper, wow Kolly thinkers! 

-90: Hero displays scientific temper in all the wrong things, like taking the strand of hair from the heroine and analysing it to find what emotions she was going through 

-41.2: Over the course of the movie, the hero loses the scientific part and only has the temper. 

-17.8: Movie runs around a bit before becoming the usual corporate is bad and zero sum game template, usual diet of Kolly thinkers. 

+14: Seems director is also subscribing to all the conspiracy video channels that some of the FRS writers are too, movie suddenly makes a turn to reveal the main villain as Richard Child (possible play on the Rothschild family) and 13 others who control everything in the world

Child is the father of the (bad) man group

+69: Bhoomi is also a worthy addition to the drone camera pandemic that is plaguing the Kolly industry, most of movie is in bird’s eye view 

For five minutes, movie also is shot like “Life of Ram” from 96 when Bhoomi and his schoolmate go in search of potent seeds from the tribes who live in the forest. Of course, they are still doing untouched agriculture.

-75: Rest of the movie is just Bhoomi vs Richard Child speaking to one another in slow voices over the mobile phone which in Kollywood is dubbed casually as “cat and mouse game”, only this game is not interesting only. 

+36: Something something happens and Bhoomi decides that he will be starting his own ‘farming corporate’ and now movie is about homemade cola companies vs foreign cola companies

-36: but earlier it was against corporate itself, but now suddenly they are okay with Indian companies that exploit agri lands, such water and pollute environment

Decide Bhoomi, who are you fighting??? 

-100: Bhoomi and his new brand, imaginatively titled “Tamizhan” will accept capital from Indian corporate houses, but will not strike a deal with them to use their distribution networks, but why? 

Men of culture, agriculture

Also why would you launch your brand across the country on the same day so that villain can easily cut-off/buy-off all your produce?

Other notable Kolly viruses ( segment sponsored by Chitra & Co ) 

Short term virus- it originated in the “one song la millionaire” trope, now it is extended to represent one montage le systemic change. 

Bhoomi is an immediate montage success and now all farmers want to be like him, so he even goes on a talk show to convince his fellow farmers, who are immediately….wait for it…convinced. 

Same virus reappears when Bhoomi wants to launch all products of the Tamizhan brand across the state on the same day (pongal) ! But why ? Can start in a region and then scale right? Looking at how customers react to your product etc? 

Maybe the director thinks that selling products and releasing movies are the same thing, we don’t know, just guessing. 

Like…never mind.

That brings us to the next virus, which is the identity virus, every battle is ultimately a battle to bring down the Tamil Identity. 

In Bhoomi, this is planned by Richard Child on a global scale and to much of Bhoomi’s advantage it is this virus that ultimately helps his cause. 

People will buy products just to save their Identity, quality of product and all no one will check? If it is from the Tamizhan brand then people will buy, it seems.

What if corporate guy is actually giving a good product at a low price? Are you guys gonna shun them just because he doesn’t share your identity? 

So many questions, but no answer from Kolly Thinkers. 

So many viruses in Kollywood, let’s chronicle some more in the FRSs to come. Chitra & Co is in no way responsible for the content, that they run a pharma business should not be of anyone’s concern etc disclaimer. 

-43: If you have read till here, you will probably be tired, just like how we felt after hearing the “Tamizhan Endru…” BGM for every act (in slow motion) that the hero does in the movie

-27: All songs whenever, wherever.

As we sat to compile more points, the FRS writers realized that the movie sneaked in a brand promotion for one of the veshti brands that the hero endorses. But since that is Indian corporate, it’s all allowed. 

Yeah so. 

All data and statistics are incidental and non-serious except the ones provided by our data analytics team in Pune

Subam.

Naval Oru Thodarkathai

What Bama Vijayam Can Teach Us About Resisting Modernity 

When someone asked Naval Ravikant what the biggest collective challenge for people over the next ten years, he replied with “resisting modernity”. 

Naval has regularly pointed out the ills of modernity which makes us live our lives a million times in our head before we live once in real, slowly eating away our lives, making us live as celebrities, perennially depressed. 

Turns out, like most truths, Naval’s words could be found in other sources too. Naval Oru Thodarkathai is hopefully a continuous exploration of such thoughts. 

I would like to clarify, modernity is not defined only in the view of adopting technology. Modernity also encomapsses growth, urbanness and competitive rat-race and celebrity culture.

Naval has regularly pointed out the ills of modernity which makes us live our lives a million times in our head before we live once in real, slowly eating away our lives, making us live as celebrities, perennially depressed. 

Resisting modernity cannot be achieved by reverting to an earlier state. It is human tendency to assume that opposites will solve problems, as though if we go back to an earlier time, adopt then prevalent methods, our current problems will move away, oh how life was simple and how happy we all were? (rhetoric)

Question: If modernity is our biggest challenge going forward, what is it the challenge to?

Answer: Happiness. 

Right, you do not agree with my definition of modernity? 

I agree, haven’t been quite clear, let me try again. 

Cut to 1967. 

In the black and white images of K Balachander’s Bama Vijayam, I rediscovered what Naval was trying to say (or my understanding of it). 

Bama Vijayam is a story of an entire family trying to resist modernity. Naval should watch it. 

And Bama, the actress, is the personification of modernity and celebrity culture(the 1960s equivalent of it), her arrival (Vijayam- good use of the word) brings with it a lot of changes to this simple family unit headed by Ethiraj(TS Balaiah).

This simple family unit, which has three caring daughter-in-laws who are content with their modest lives, with their modest working husbands and overall believable ‘cinematic simplicity’. 

They wash together, they cook together, they play together, they work together and they laugh together. Oh what fun. 

Kannadasan also sneaks in “oh what good does a pearl do to a happy woman?” 

It’s a great way to begin a movie about a family going downhill, show them at their idealistic best, show them in a way that their goodness shines through. 

“For what use are these riches being earned?” asks one of the trio, the other replies “some for our children, the rest for the whole wide world.”

So good they are! Even in their striving lower middle class setting,they have the exact goodness that some want to return to now in 2020. The comfort of the joint family, a benign patriarch, dutiful husbands, the good memories that children bring and the principles of living within one’s means. 

Cut to now.

So good right? Why did we lose all this?

Cut to 1967

But wait, they lose it too. 

When Bama comes in, first the family unit which now consisted of three couples slowly starts to break, suddenly being a neighbour to a cinema star brings on them-the need to progress socially, they borrow, they lie, they steal, they even betray. 

Since this is a comedy, all this is played for laughs.

What we are witnessing is the scene by scene destruction of a simple happy family unit that we so yearn to return to, while facing daily life in the present. 

In effect, the problem of resisting modernity is perennial, that is my extension to Naval’s quote and it does not depend on setting or status. 

When modernity tempts, few can resist, even the most simple and happy minded. 

Hey, we never said it was going to be easy, but there is way.

Resisting modernity might be our biggest problem, because it takes away our happiness, reducing us to playing never ending status games in our local celebrity cultures(which is what Bama Vijayam is also about). How prescient! 

But this modernity fellow is like devil and will surely crop up in other disguises like virtues and resisting it is not a complete solution but only an act of delaying. 

Focussed work is really the complete solution, and those who have seen Bama Vijayam will know. Work brings freedom from comparison, contentment and time and a calm mind to chose happiness over despair. 

A return to ideal state is possible in the movies as it is guided by the mind of the screenwriter.Not so easily attained in real life where the devil is more relentless and our real minds are much more fragile to temptations. 

In reality, there is no turning back, there is only moving ahead. 

Nandri. Vanakkam.

Stay tuned for more such nonsense explorations of twitter truths and pedestrian philosophy through the lens of non threatening and non current entertainment. 

Until then, listen to this amazing song in which Kannadasan-MSV are just hitting it out of the park. 

Kavignar Kannadasan would have made an interesting and insightful twitter account, hmpf, if only.

Naanum Citizen Kane-um

Invocation

I pray to the uninitiated to go watch Citizen Kane and I pray to the Movie God that they be allowed to see the movie without having to think about the weight that Kane carries and enjoy it in all its brilliance. 

I am just going to believe that Citizen Kane released the day before yesterday. That’s it. Here I am writing about it with the same misguided enthusiasm that I have whenever I write about a new release. 

The castle’s not a welcome sight, a very dark place, a palace possibly going to waste, seen better days? Doesn’t seem so, it seems it was quite hopeless from the start, unsettling in ways that sometimes open spaces can be. There’s also the sign, “no trespassing”. 

Somewhere deep in this castle lies Kane,at least he seemed to have seen better days? Or is he too like his castle, unsettling and doomed to be depressed always. That’s the feeling I get, as the only light in the castle goes out.

“Rosebud” 

And a snow globe gently glides down the bed and shatters. 

Life is not a snow globe

A house in winter, captured as the snow rains, set for eternity. But life is not this captured mountain scene in a snow globe, nor does it rain snow always, nor can it be controlled and enclosed within a glass dome. 

Someone should have told Kane that, maybe they did, but would he have listened? 

Who was Charles Foster Kane?

The castle, Xanadu, a monument to himself, unfinished. Ah yes, I can see where my discomfort comes from, a monument for yourself, now that seems pretty sad. 

Consider the narrative of Citizen Kane.The story’s been sullied by multiple narrators, all of whom are suspect and been wronged by Kane at some point. Heck, even the “News on the march” segment (which is basically the whole movie in 10 mins even before the movie begins) cannot be trusted, for example, it shows him at once a friend to the workers and the other time a cold capitalist. 

But what sort of a man was this Mr Kane? 

Orson Welles’ genius is that he keeps posing the same question all through the movie, who was this Charles Foster Kane? 

Was he a mountain child wishing only to play in the snow all day? 

No but he also liked taking over loss making newspapers and building an empire, so was he interested in the news? 

Or was he interested in the business of news? 

Did he marry for love? Or did he hope to find love in the President’s niece? 

Did he really love opera? Or did he just build an opera house because he can? 

Yes cannot be the answer for all of these questions, but what is affirmative is that a man or a woman is not wholly knowable, definitely not from the impressions that they have left behind. 

These residuals are simply not enough to truly like or hate Kane. Any additional information only deepens the mystery, leaving us with no answer to what sort of a man Kane is. It’s not the question we should be pursuing.

Welles himself hints at the answer, towards the end, when one of the many reporters tasked with finding out what Rosebud was, says one word can never sum up a man. 

What could Citizen Kane be about? 

I, like the reporters in this movie, could spend years trying to know what was in Kane’s mind and not care about what’s hiding in plain sight. 

To me, Citizen Kane is about: desire leads to suffering.

Let’s look at this way.  

Kane desires the Inquirer to be the most read newspaper but he also desires to be appreciated by the editorial of the serious folks at ‘Chronicle’, his suffering here is he loses his only friend to this contradiction. 

Kane desires more people to love him, runs for governor, doesn’t make it because of his affair with a ‘singer, his over estimation blinds him and he suffers a severe damage, never to fully recover again. 

Kane desires to be seen as a patron of the art, again pushing through, trying to make a non singer shine, suffers more damage and loses his only personal connection. 

Kane desires to build the most prized private collection of arts in the whole world, and no one wants to live with him in it. 

If there is one thing that the movie keeps establishing is this. 

It’s not about the unknowable persona of Kane but that even the most fulfilling desires are not so fulfilling.And where do we go from there?

Welles doesn’t cast Kane as a villain or a hero, but a sad figure of history who achieved so much and still so little, it is an optimistic tale on what a person can achieve in a lifetime, but it is also a cautionary tale. 

Citizen Kane asks us to choose your desires wisely, because we must be willing to suffer for it. Kane’s early fortune in the mines made it possible that he could afford to take all the suffering that life put in his way (honestly he added most of the suffering himself) but not all of us are blessed with a choice of businesses to run and a personal treasury. 

Kane probably thought that happiness and satisfaction can be got from being successful, being popular and being loved. To his credit he pursued all of it with his talent and charm. 

But it’s not a very happy ending, alone filled with memories or maybe I am reading too much and leaning into some imaginary rule that allots more weightage to how a person died than how a person lived.

I wonder from where the citizen part of “Citizen Kane” came through, probably it is from the notion of the American Dream, a broad affirmation of what America stands for, a land where an individual can live a richer and fuller life when they reach the best of their abilities. Kane did that, he did reach the pinnacle of what was possible for him, it maybe made him richer, but not fuller. 

Forget Rosebud it’s an imagined mystery made eternal on screen, but the suffering is real.

PS: The Sight & Sound Magazine has been publishing the greatest 10 films of all time list, spaced by a decade since 1952. Citizen Kane was on top of the list from 1962 to 2002, only to be replaced by Vertigo, a movie about a singular obsession and how that too leads to suffering. 

PPS: I pray the knowledgeable to forgive this amateur, there has been a lot written and said about Citizen Kane, while mine may not add anything to it, I hope it does not scar the reader’s memory or spoil any existing scholarship. 

All images from youtube.

Rebecca (2020)

As the swivel chair spins #14

The second Mrs. De Winter sighs as Mr De Winter arranges granules of sand on her back and says something to the effect that if memories are life perfume, it could be saved within a bottle and the mere smell of it could be used to recapture the moment. 

Mr De Winter, played by Armie Hammer, however wishes to forget his past. If only the unnamed second Mrs De Winter had known before being whisked away to Manderley. 

Fortunately, I had no problems remembering or forgetting here, I had not read the Daphne Du Maurier novel nor seen the Oscar winning Selznick production, famously the only time a Hitchcock film won Best Picture at the Oscars. So let’s say I could watch the new film without the weight of the past, a state that Mr. De Winter would kill to be in. 

Heroes who could never move into the present because of their past weightage is a story that is of special personal interest, it is also at the core of another Hitchcock film, Vertigo’ but I was also thinking a lot about Uyarndha Manidhan, in which Sivaji Ganesan lives a suffocated life due to a burning incident in his past. 

Yes, the new Netflix production is designed to be dull and hence over the two hours I thought about other story strains that could have been inspired by Rebecca. It’s not spooky nor it is creepy, but what it is, abrupt, but mostly it is a shame, because I love creepy mansions and the ghosts that inhabit them. 

Which brought me to Manichitrathazhu, yes, the similarities were striking, both have mansions that hide more than they show, whole wings that are out of bounds, repressed feelings, alienation and bookish heroines recreating a classical painting (literally) . Hmm that’s more similarities that I thought.

Rebecca of course doesn’t have a Sunny Joseph or  Brad Lee’s disciple Saravanan to guide us through it. Although the Netflix film does have Kristin Scott Thomas in the supposedly scene stealing role of Mrs. Danvers. 

The parallels between the two movies are an interesting rabbit hole to pursue, considering the claims that Manichitrathazhu’s origins lie firmly in the royal family histories of Travancore and not a 1930s novel by Du Maurier. It’s even more interesting when I realize that today is Durgashtami, coincidental? Is this a sign from above?

Durgashtami or not, any day is a good day to watch Manichitrathazhu. 

Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix

Manichitrathazhu is now streamin on Amazon Prime Video

The fact that Sivaji was denied Best Actor at the National Awards for Uyarndha Manithan is a reminder that best work is often unrecognized. So yeah that’s there.