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cinema Essay

The Ummanamoonji Acting School

As news trickled in that Samantha had won the award for best performance in an OTT show for Family Man 2 at the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne (yes such things exist and they make their way onto my timeline), I realized the creeping and undying growth of the Ummanamoonji Acting School in recent Indian cinema. This seems to be a problem. 

You might have heard about the Stanislavski school of acting, you might have even heard of Lee Starsberg or Stella Adler- who further developed method acting. Sadly Indian cinema does not have a proper noun led category definition for professional acting. The truth is professional acting itself is not studied or exposed to the audience, except of course the odd toss around of abbreviations like NSD and FTII. 

While we might not have our own ‘method’, the films that we have made have given rise to different schools of acting – there may not be a name to these schools but you will recognize it when you see it, especially in mainstream films.

The Ummanamoonji School is one such, exclusively for Indian heroines. The perfect playground for the Ummanamoonji school is when heroines, at different points in their career – “go serious” hence the name ‘Ummanamoonji’. 

A heroine’s life in mainstream Indian cinema is considerably shorter. From being introduced in their teens as college (or high school) sensations, very few graduate to become blockbuster heroines and even few make it to the level of influencing projects and having their own markets. The life of the Indian mainstream heroine is much like any start-up scene, 90% of them fail. 

Within the short available time, they would need to progress from being launched aside some producer’s son (or some director who insists on ‘fresh talent’) to being paired opposite ‘up and coming heroes’ for a few years before ultimately making that one film with a superstar hero or superstar director. 

If the heroine is lucky, she gets to repeat the same cycle in a neighbouring wood (Kollywood/Tollywood/Sandalwood) but highly unlikely due to many unforeseen factors- a flop affects a heroine more than the hero, while a hit benefits the hero more than the heroine. 

Yes all this is known, but we would like to give a perspective about how less the chance for growth is for heroines and place all this in context before we expand on the Ummanamoonji Acting School. 

As stated before there are unnamed acting schools within the existing mainstream, these acting schools advocate heroine types- kind, cheerful, pet loving yet glamorous type broadly grouped under “bubbly” roles which slowly evolves into the dutiful-kind-supportive yet glamorous type for the senior heroes. 

Generations of writer- directors have used these ‘types’, most of the time not even providing specifics for the heroines to explore-these are not written in character or within the story, as you may have guessed with the survival rate, these roles are replaceable. Highly replaceable. 

Heroines for at least 20 years have adapted themselves to this ‘type’ so much so we don’t look at it as acting, our collective consciousness driven primarily by bad writing tell us,that this is how heroines on screens should be in a big film. Do a little bit of dance, some comedy and act cute when they are not in those four songs. 

Such limited scope. Much improvement needed. 

It’s tough to survive and when you do survive, you go to the Ummanamoonji School. 

Having danced around flowers, pots and background dancers for close to a decade, the survivor heroine naturally gravitates to the ‘serious part’ or as often reported in chennai times as ‘heroine driven roles’. 

The sad fact is that, no one really knows (ok barring few) how to write serious female roles in mainstream films, as usual they do the easier thing of having to substitute a male led film with a heroine- a powerful role. 

And with no frame of reference of their own kind, them heroines have to put up ‘serious’ faces to umm look the part in a serious film. Tada- the Ummanamoonji Acting school. 

They put on a frown for the entire length of the film, they love with a frown, they kick ass with a frown and they mouth punch dialogues with a frown. The writer- directors think of a frown whenever they think of a strong female lead and our actresses follow through. The parts are woefully underwritten that no other emotion can be expressed and they go into a robotic serious face which is often praised as good acting (ahem). Emotion can only expressed on screen if it has its roots on a page. 

Look around it you, the fingerprints of the Ummanamoonji school are everywhere, it’s there in Nayanthara’s Aramm (and many other Nayan films), it’s there in Jyothika’s Pon Magal Vandhal (yikes and others), it’s there in Family Man 2 Samantha (more about this in another post), it’s there in November Story Tamanna and such. You get the story. 

Sometimes it’s not even a heroine led film, but a serious role in a generic hero driven film, the mind thinks up the likes of Sri Divya from Marudhu etc. Other times, these movies are lost in time like Sneha’s Bhavani IPS or Trisha in Paramapadam Vilayattu. 

Before we comment on the quality of the acting school, we wanted to recognize there is one such and the context as to how it evolved, this is in necessarily not a new phenomenon, a sort of Ummanamoonji acting can be seen in P Bharathi Raja’s Pudhumai Penn, which incidentally also has the girl getting brushed on a bus by lecherous man like in Family Man 2. 

The first signifier is the ‘seriousness’ of the role and the second signifier is that the actresses’ seem out of their depth, which is a combination of sketchy writing (root cause) and poor understanding on part of the actor. All this affects the movie, big time and it hurts us that people don’t talk about it enough. 

But you may wonder, that most of these roles that have been mentioned have been embraced by the audience and we even began with the fact that Samantha was feted for Family Man 2, why is this even a problematic acting school then?

The fetes, the praise and the awards for these ‘attempts’ are in reality for the attempt itself- glamorous heroines going against the grain. 

You can notice this even in the reviews, there would be talk about how deglamorized they look and how the insistence of ‘no makeup’ is helping the movie, these thoughts find their way to public discourse as well (which is again a call for better reviewing) . 

To summarize, this praise does not reflect the quality of the performance and is automatically lapped up by the audience because of the lack of discussions on acting quality in the larger society. 

Yes, maybe we are complaining, maybe we should be happy that there are more heroine-led movies than ever in the larger scheme of things. 

But also look at our angle, when things are nascent it is always best to advocate for quality and higher standards- this arai kooval comes from a group which enjoys Alien/ Aliens Kill Bill and Sarah Connor which are standing examples of doing serious female led action the best possible way. 

Maybe we should be looking at writing more in depth parts for women and not just replace genders in mainstream films and maybe only then our heroines can put their hair down, erase the frown and move towards an Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor school of acting- an admirable gurukulam  with inspiring female characters that has resulted in 100% non boring films. 

No no, this is not the look how-Hollywood-is-doing-it type post. We recognize that there is a need for indigenous mainstream Indian heroine films, we are just pointing to successful templates which can be tinkered around with, till our own emerges. 

Templates, adhu dane yellam. 

Yes to female led ‘serious’ and exciting films but less Ummanamoonji in them please. 

Nandri. 

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cinema:tamil

Likeable Wannabeism : Project Agni from Navarasa (2021)

Of all the films in the new Netflix anthology series that I’ve seen (yet to see them all), the only one that does some justice to it’s rasa theme is Karthick Naren’s Project Agni. 

It’s the rasa of wonder and it works for me because it is not an all encompassing wonder theme of something beautiful which is hard to dislike, but a specific wonder that only wannabes experience.

Technically everyone is a wannabe, so the wonder in Project Agni should work for all; but then even those genuinely experience wannabeism are chided for behaving like wannabes and then are forced to lose it to put on the garb of refined taste and culture. Cursed to consume pretentious content for the rest of their lives.

While I have lost my early wannabe animal to growing pains, that animal still lurks and takes more pains when I call out on other peoples wannabeism- like we did when we did the FRS of Mafia, Karthik Naren’s previous film. 

That’s how people drop their wannabe avatars, their curious instincts lost to ex-wannabes constantly telling them so, it is in a way a loss of innocence. 

I am not asking you to embrace wannabeism here, I am well aware of its pitfalls- like not growing an own voice and constantly in awe of any swaying ‘in-thing’. I’m just trying to say that there are levels of wannabeism which are tolerable, when it does not go along for long, when it is really not on the nose- it is likeable wannabeism. 

Likeable Wannabeism is a group of friends (not more than four) sitting in a restaurant talking about the opening scene from Reservoir Dogs (I mean), but of course not for hours but just the right length until one ex-wannabe can groan (predictably) on how Tarantino is overrated (yawn) and then switch on to Scorsese or Antonioni or some such etc. 

Likeable Wannabeism is the goldilocks of Wannabeism and in the realm of cinema, in recent times, it is usually spent in the discussions of films of Kubrick, Nolan, Tarantino. It’s talking about references to and inspirations from, it is looking at important concepts of life, universe and everything through the lens of movies. Obviously it cannot go on for long, because probably your peer group has only seen Inception and the more you go on talking about it, the more they are going to order the main course. 

All I’m saying is, just allow the wannabe their time, don’t call them out on it (always, only when on the nose) and with age and when life happens to them, they too will read the Russian classics, watch Kurosawa movies and listen to Mozart or Beethoven, the generally accepted boring trifecta of books, movies and music or in other words culture. 

But when it is short and snappy, there is nothing like Likeable Wannabeism, it could actually get you noticed, it might actually make the Wannabe an interesting person and not a self suffering movie nerd.

For example, in Project Agni, when Karthick Naren’s short-movie is how we shouldn’t totally chase our obsessions because going too far could lead to tragic consequences and then he name drops a thread from Room 237, the Shining documentary where people almost spend their entire life studying the Kubrick’s movie for meanings to their life and losing it completely: some hair stood on end. 

The connection. The goosebumps. The wonder. 

The wonder that Project Agni goes for is not the general perception of what beauty is or what wonder is, but just speaking to a small subset of movie nerds (not cineastes- urgh what a term) who watch movies not as entertainment or as dinner conversation fodder (although they do end up talking all about movies at dinner- I meant in a non transactional way) or as means to acquire high culture cred but simply as a channel to understand things. Movies as a means to higher purpose. 

It’s why they (movie nerds) go into the details, the set designs, screenplay structures and director interviews- they really want to know what all this is about. Please don’t confuse this with the thala-thalapathy first look poster trailer decoding that things are reduced to on youtube today, what I’m talking about is something in the lines of NerdWriter or Patrick Willems (whose long videos ofc becomes unlikeable Wannabeisms- exactly the point). 

An obsession becomes wonder- when something is figured out and that is the wonder I feel Karthick Naren is going for and he even does some flexes by making the right references and combining genres all within 30 mins while others in Navrasa are not even able to maintain one single mood for ten mins. 

Yes the acting really does help, Arvind Swamy was born to give to exposition dumps and most of the movie is just Arvind Swamy and Prasanna sitting down and talking about the stuff they are obsessed about (another movie nerd attribute of being meta comes to the fore, it’s something we like). And Prasanna is so good that you wonder how good he will be with twice the screen time. 

Also admirable that Karthik Naren chose to go with almost all english dialogue, which the story does demand- try translating ‘subconscious world’ in Tamil and inserting it 25 times in the script, then you’ll know. For some subjects english really works and kudos for Karthik Naren for being himself, it’s a brave thing to be oneself, especially in Kollywood. 

PS

Blue Sattai Maran refused to review the film because it was mostly an English film, maybe this is the solution that the industry has been waiting for to get Maran to stop talking about things he doesn’t understand- just make movies in english, he won’t review. But we would rob the world of much humor.

I know Project Agni won’t appeal to a lot of people, but that is the point of it. We have already killed culture by making it so that it will appeal to all folks. Let this one be.  

So instead of commissioning the usual FRS for Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru, I thought I’ll just write about the stuff I liked. 

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cinema cinema:tamil FRS

FRS: JAGAME THANDHIRAM (2021)

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

Disclaimer: We can only begin an FRS, we can never finish it convincingly.

And so we begin, with our invocation against gangsterism

Yes it is a genre of film but we don’t have to like it.

Yes it does seem cool, but all of us here at the FRS are in this endless process of ageing, which automatically means that we are against cool stuff like coloured jackets-wearing-beedi-smoking-at-the-same-time-smirking-gangsters.

Maybe you can sense there is some hate or you can also take the logical reasoning about how when you make gangsterism the main vehicle of your film you can give any reason to justify it, where lies all our problems with gangster movies. Yes it’s a genre and we (FRS writer’s room) don’t have to like it because supposed cinematic greats have an affinity towards it and even to risk earning the wrath of all film bros.

So yes gangsterism is against the law, whatever is the reason.

+101: No Narration. Good call.

<Trivia Thagaval Sponsored by Wikipedia>

The first half (divide as you will this is a direct OTT release) is very much a reworking of ‘A Fistful Of Dollars’ which itself is a remake of Yojimbo, which in turn Kurosawa said might have been inspired by the pulp novels of Dashiell Hammett.

#PulpisGood

</Trivia Thagaval Sponsored by Wikipedia>

It is the story of an outsider who comes to town where two warring gangs compete for control, the smart outsider plays one against each other, of course for personal benefit.

Here the town is London and the man with no name, actually is named Suruli.

-45: In trying to paint the character of Suruli colourfully, the director has forgotten even to sketch the rest of the characters.

Even the most paraded character of London gangster Peter, here played by James Cosmo, who unceremoniously gets added to the list of foreign powers who pose no challenge.

-34: Reinforcement max: movie, characters keep saying that Peter is a racist and white supremacist, while we already got it with his nameplate which reads “WHITE POWER” and random Ku Klux Klan outfit in his room.

His introduction too shows that how immigrants fear him, but somehow Peter is not able to face the problems posed by the gang headed by Sivadoss (Joju George)

-69: Obsession with intros: the first ten minutes of the film is just intros, some with ultra-text splashed on screen ala Tarantino- most movies take time to introduce their characters and that’s not a fault by itself. But in Jagame, with every powerful intro, the acceptability reduces proportionately.

For example, you show Peter as the most powerful gangster in town, but then in the rest of the movie he hardly does anything menacing.

We don’t know anything about his philosophy, every dialogue of his is just reinforcing that he is a xenophobe, which as pointed out, has been already established.

This begs the question, was this really the character that Karthik Subbaraj wanted Al Pacino to play?

+21.9: Reasons: While the idea to make a cross over gangster film needs to be appreciated, the reason to take Suruli from Madurai to London is one of the flimsiest even by Kollywood standards.

+30: Intelligentally Eli: Hero finds out everything including complex smuggling networks about rival gang within one week which other gangsters (who are in the same smuggling business) could not for years

Suruli can start an online course on competitive intelligence; we would surely pay for such things.

-5: But if hero could find out such things, he could have surely been able to find out why Sivadoss’ gang is smuggling gold etc.  

+78: Mahatma Gang Leader:  For a gang leader, Sivadoss is too trusting.

Boss, like your job description to not trust anyone.

-34: Movie proceeds as thus, till it becomes about immigrants and the Tamil Eelam issue.

While there is nothing wrong in trying to address larger issues in films, but maybe if they had been portrayed with more conviction or convincing actors would have helped the cause.

D is an accomplished actor, the transformation Suruli goes through in the film feels more like the character’s ego trip rather than real internal change, we really cannot say more without spoiling the film.

-450: A Host of Issues: If immigration issues are not enough, movies marries another going nowhere plot for speaking against private prisons, the need for identification and living a free life without borders.

Hmm yeah, maybe that’s why every minute of Jagame feels like two minutes.

+23: Cameron-Kanni Spotted: Movie at some point shows a burning merry-go-round which we feel is a reference to Terminator 2: Judgement Day and so we are giving positive points like these.

Yeah like random.

+91.5: Cut to the Combat: It almost feels that the director and crew only wanted to film the final blast everything in our way to the villain’s room shoot-out.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s really done well with slow motion and all that, but it almost seems that the rest of movie, the emotions of characters, are just a ruse(wink wink, nudge nudge)to get us to here.

Well atleast you enjoyed filming that.

Maybe the Thandiram in Jagame Thandiram is to get us to watch 2:40mins of uninspired filmmaking for the last few moments of inspired action, if that was the intention, then we have a winner.

<Winks winks, nudges nudges>

Subam

Team FRS

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cinema cinema:english Essay

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

That Tarantino taught himself movie making from behind the desk at a video store is the stuff of legend. In Chennai, it is not uncommon to have friends who due to compulsions of engaging with popular culture have a tee shirt which proudly says “ I never went to film school. I went to films” or some such Tarantino quote. 

Tarantino is the real life story of the fringe becoming mainstream, the director who launched the career of numerous disciples, the director who within a short time had an ‘esque’ added to his name. The director who has his quotes on t shirts in Chennai. 

It’s what he became.But let’s come back to the first  fact, as a video store clerk- he saw every type of film. Often in the transference of his coolness, the reason for his coolness is omitted.He saw every type of film.  

Has there been any Tarantino conversation without the generous movie name-dropping? To think of it, his tee shirt makes perfect sense, he really figured out how to make movies by just watching a ton of movies- a certified movie nut with unconditional love. 

He just didn’t stream the AFI top 100 to become what he did become(relevant in our time of curated lists and general entitlement of everyone seeking the ‘best’). 

Tarantino went to work, consuming films of all types and sizes, without any notion of preconceived taste.His passion extends beyond just viewing them but to track down and remember every filmmaker. The resultant is a wholly unique person with an extremely specific movie taste. 

Specific to the extent of keeping a close watch on how he will be remembered (the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino is how Once Upon A Time…is marketed), his movies are combos- the ones on a food menu which arrive quick, valuable and consists of enticing items from different pages in the same menu. Each preceding film was a genre version of what Tarantino cooked up. 

But Once Upon A Time is different…it is still a heady mix of genres, it still moves to an assorted pop soundtrack and radio commercials, it does have an obliqueness to violence but this is really Tarantino’s way of giving it back (love) to his industry. 

Although at the same time it is not the “love letter” or the nostalgia driven look of Hollywood- it is authentic but not rose tinted. It is a film about time, a word that features in the title. 

A passage of time, 1969 seems to be year of closure of many things Old Hollywood- the slowing of the studio system- the decline of a certain sort of heroism. 

A man’s man would be ridiculed in our ‘woke’ times, but their careers seem to have ended a long time ago. I can never imagine an ‘environmentally’ aware hero like Leonardo taking up anything remotely similar to Bounty Law ( the TV series that Rick Dalton, his character plays in this movie). 

Tarantino feels for Rick Dalton & his driver-companion Cliff Booth (Dalton himself is based on many leading TV men of the 50s and 60s who lost their way, without a break, mostly forgotten by history) but he is not tied down by the weight of historical accuracy. He wants them to get that one break, that one lucky break which could change a sagging career. 

At the other end of the story is a young Sharon Tate, who at the time represented the Hollywood to come, young with life, till it was horrifically taken away from her. Tarantino cares for her too, doesn’t really care for history. One of the best moments come from Tate getting to watch her on screen in the ‘The Wrecking Crew’. A rather ‘asinine’ film, as Tarantino himself put it while guesting on a podcast. It isn’t regarded as a classic film but means so much to Sharon Tate, thus proving that any movie could make deep impact in a person’s life, irrespective of how it has been ‘regarded’ by society (especially critics). 

The ending, which is sure to shock many, but unlike the catharsis of killing Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, this comes from a sweet place of good intentions and confidence.  The way he juxtaposes fact and fiction in a way that only reminded me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian- a film that follows the parallel lives of the Christ and a commoner.

Clearly my favourite Tarantino and definitely the most re-watchable , a movie where I could endear myself to his brashness.

He knows his stuff, this is his subject, he seems to be having the most fun when without any care following his characters to see where they go-forgetting lines, feeding dogs, folding clothes, watching movies and generally raising hell in the Hollywood of 1969. 


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cinema cinema:english Essay Essential viewing

Let’s talk about : The Ocean’s Trilogy

OC123

While we are on the topic of greatest movies ever made, let’s talk about the Ocean’s trilogy.

Steven Soderbergh is unpredictable, he retired from movie making some four years ago and then came back to make Logan Lucky, many called it an inversion of his Ocean’s trilogy; functional and without any style. The whole style vs substance would put the Ocean’s trilogy in bad light, but in reality style is the substance in these films.

Soderbergh himself has taken various positions on the Oceans franchise, from being appreciative to being ‘I don’t really care if you don’t like it’; but he has admitted that a lot of work went into the trilogy and that is why it is interesting (and great). A carefully constructed ode to old hollywood but still very modern and yet entertaining cinema.

Full disclosure: the Ocean’s trilogy for me is up there (obviously with LOTR) in terms of breaking up characters and their tales into three parts. The Lord of the Rings also had the cushion of a literary work and generations of readers who are familiar with the story.

Breaking down the Ocean’s trilogy; 11 sets up Ocean and his men brilliantly and 13 perfectly completes the story. Twelve falls short because it is unlike 11 or 13, but definitely the most interesting.

Soderbergh’s source material was a 1960 film directed by Moldovian-American director Lewis Milestone*; the original Ocean’s 11 headlined by Frank Sinatra and  Dean Martin, a film that currently holds only 48% weight on critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. That the remake has a score of 82%, that’s where I stop with the facts.

Even as a choice this seems quite odd for a remake. Soderbergh is like that, he professes that many directors too are like him: attracted to not so greater works of great filmmakers. Positively, this could be seen as learning from other’s mistakes but realistically it is about ignoring what ‘most people’ have agreed upon.

Great work usually comes from not-so great sources

Having seen the 1960 film, memorable is not something I would associate with it; but I can take a guess, it was the probably playful tone and actors bouncing off each other that attracted Soderbergh. He makes the source material his own and we get with three well directed classic films on professionalism and camaraderie.

Show, but don’t show-off

Like most films in this genre where we are indeed cheering for the bad guys, there is a sense of casual code; the team may seem like an assembly of rag-tag crooks but really they are bound together by their professionalism and dislike for vanity. Yes vanity.

Let’s look at the antagonist in the three films

  • Villain 1-Ocean’s 11: Terry Benedict: owner of 3 of the biggest casinos and suitably self-obsessed
  • Villain 2-Ocean’s 12: The Night Fox: a self congratulatory European gentleman thief
  • Villain 3-Ocean’s 13: Willy Bank: megalomaniac, obsessed with building the best hotel on the strip

If there had been an Ocean’s 14, then it is quite possible that the rat-pack would have taken on Tony Stark (yawn) or Donald Trump(?). The only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is “you can be be cool by not saying so”.

Also take into account that the villains have to be over the top, so that the thievery can be normalized but there is always an undercurrent of Ocean and co having a personal stake in the happenings. It is not about the money, but about the job.

It is always about the job

Coming back to professionalism: to sum up, the three films are about a bunch of guys who really really(emphasis mine) love their job and are very good at it, ready to accept unreasonable challenges but don’t want to be seen as very serious about it. It’s part of their act.

Daniel Ocean claims to look at the angles of buildings even when he is not working, Linus spends the prize of the first movie in improving his ‘skills’, Rusty tries running a hotel but feels he is not good at anything else.

The dialogue is a dictionary on skill development, tactics(looky loo with a bundle of joy!) and planning , everyone working towards doing a better con than before. Like Basher puts it ” we don’t do the same gag twice“. Optimization.

Much has been written about work and fun, as though they are too separate things; and coming from a society where the skills you have is almost always not the one which would be called to action at work, I am able to relate to this differentiation. Meaning work is the complete opposite of fun. Maybe that’s why Ocean’s sticks with me, it is about how with the right skills at the right place, any con is doable; I mean any goal is achievable.

Soderbergh could have just made a series of films about a bunch of accountants and still he would have made it in interesting. Ocean’s for me in many ways is about the triumph of work and not without the help of any hack productivity handbook.  A very American thing, but countries are really built by hard working passionate men (and women), who don’t usually get their due.

It is also about the gang

Already covered is their common dislike to individual success, Ocean despite being a master thief doesn’t work alone, the loot is equally shared even if everybody’s skills are not completely utilized.

Two of the three movies happen just to set things right for their mentor Reuben, and all the time they spend together is playful and devoid of any real conflict; the spirit of friendship pervades all through, just like friends having a good time in real life.

But more importantly, it all comes together very well

And finally a listicle!

If you have never watched the Ocean’s trilogy, here’s what you should expect.

  • Addictive. Re-watchable. Laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Sweeping the casino carpet type cinematography.
  • A soundtrack that stays with you for life.
  • Blow-your-cinephile-mind team up.
  • Rusty and Danny saying so much by not saying a word.
  • The twins saying so much but actually saying nothing.
  • The Amazing Yen!
  • Bruce Willis as himself.
  • And introducing  Tess as Julia Roberts! (the whole Looky Loo sequence)
  • Vincent Cassel -laser dance.
  • Viva La Revolucion!
  • Al Pacino ordering a Samsung phone
  • Everybody knowing Mandarin (no language imposition, they know it on the job)
  • “They have enough armed personnel to occupy Paris”
  • George Clooney saying “yeah”
  • The fountains swaying to Debussy’s Claire De Lune

The general coolness of it all(without being cool, sorry Quentin). I mean what is not to like?

Among the greatest Hollywood films, indeed.