It’s been a couple of years since I stopped reviewing films professionally, and in that time I haven’t watched too many movies on their initial release. (Actually, not having got into the DVD-rental habit, I haven’t watched many of them at all.) But around this time of year (pre-Oscars), Delhi’s multiplexes show films of a marginally higher quality than usual, and I’m looking forward to next week: Brokeback Mountain, Munich and especially the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.
Watched Crash yesterday, Paul Haggis’s debut feature about a couple of days in the racial conflict-ridden life of Los Angeles. Enjoyed it on the whole, though parts were simplistic. Overall I was more impressed by the film’s structure, the attention given to nuances of character, the editing and the performances than by its pat handling of the racial-discrimination theme. (If a movie’s deepest insight into the subject is that the best of us carry the potential for racism within us, and that conversely even the most bigoted people have good sides to them, well, that isn’t an earthshaking revelation where I’m concerned.)
There are quite a few powerful scenes. My favourite is the only genuine gun-shooting that takes place in the film (though it threatens them all the time). It’s based on a split-second decision that goes tragically wrong (the flip side of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) and what makes it so effective is that it’s done by the character you’d least expect it from – it’s the movie’s strongest demonstration of how our hidden prejudices can come to the surface in high-stress situations.
One of the unfavourable reviews I read recently (it was from either Salon.com or NYT) remarked that the film’s chosen method of showing how complex people are is to show exactly two sides to each of its characters: the Very Bad and the Very Good. I don’t think that’s quite fair – at least 3-4 of the protagonists (notably the rich black man played by Terrence Howard, and the two thieves who double up as commentators on the city’s race politics) were more complexly depicted, with the script at the very least providing pointers to still other sides of their personalities. Perhaps the problem is that there just wasn’t enough time to do justice to all the characters. Most successful ensemble films that cut between many different groups of people (think Robert Altman, or Magnolia, or The Thin Red Line, hell, even How the West Was Won) are around three hours along, but this one is just a little over half that length. I couldn’t make much emotional investment in a couple of the characters (like the DA’s wife, played by Sandra Bullock) and if the film had to be this length, they could have been left out of the script and the time gained distributed among the others.
But highly recommended and all that, especially if you don’t walk into the hall thinking “this is a best picture Oscar nominee, so it has to be a Great Movie”.
P.S. One of the advantages of not watching movies as soon as they are released is that I don’t have to beat myself over the head about the factual errors made by our esteemed newspaper “reviewers”. In her Crash review the TOI Grande Dame writes “The district attorney thinks it would be good politics if he gave the award to an Iraqi named Saddam.” That’s completely wrong, as anyone with a little common sense would know. And over at the HT, Vinayak Chakraborty describes a film where “the director’s accompanying voiceover gives us nuances into the filmmaking process”. No such thing occurs anywhere in the movie. He watched a “Making of” documentary by mistake, yes?
Update: for a full-length review, read this one by Samanth Subramanian.