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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall opens with a silhouette of Daniel Craig. As the actor walks from the shadows and into the light, we see his character slowly take form. He’s suit up and holding a gun. A typical James Bond introduction. Continuing in the Bond tradition is a long chase, this time ending with Bond’s death. Cue in the Skyfall opening theme by Adele. It is, visually, so damn appealing but it also has some dark emotion lurking underneath. Now you know what to expect from the film.

We see that Bond has survived and is living a luxurious life in secrecy. He needs painkillers to cope with a life amiss of purpose and it’s been long since he’s received that shot of adrenaline he’s become a slave to. MI6 is his only way out. His boss, M (Judi Dench), hands him a new assignment. Bond heads to Shanghai, a city that’s inhabited by skyscrapers, decorated in lustre and coloured in neon. The filming locations are great. Not just in Shanghai but throughout the film.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Halfway through my first viewing of Cloud Atlas, I knew I had to watch it again. When I finished, I debated. Commercial compromise is much harder for me to take than lack of ambition. Cloud Atlas sold out. I make that statement now after two full viewings. I greatly admire and respect what the film initially set out to do. This is a film with a numerous characters, lesser actors, several events, plenty of scenes and a lot to chew on. They’re all pieced together into a beautiful collage, as if it were the grandest editing project by a film scholar of the highest rank. Nevertheless, the film bears it all evenly. The tone wavers, but never falters.

Cloud Atlas is a large web of narratives, switching back and forth between its sub-plots, each telling a story from a different era and each just as interesting as the other. The film’s talky and quite objectively defined; clearly a film with an agenda. There’s no attempt to suck you in, not an ounce of realism. This is a cinematic achievement that you are meant to experience from the outside. But the perspective is sky-high and the approach is ground-breaking. It requires real audacity to do what Cloud Atlas intends to do and even more to do it the way the film-makers do it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Argo (2012)

Argo opens with news channel excerpts that lead up to a revolution outside an American Embassy in Iran. The people of Iran are outraged. The Shah that they had overthrown is currently reaping the benefits of giving the country’s oil to America by spending his final years in the comfort of American soil. The people want America to send the dictator back to be tried, and hanged. On that demand, they are uncompromising. And they've had enough waiting.

The rioters jump over the gate, storm into the embassy, capture the Americans and take them hostage. Six of the superiors escape through an emergency fire exit and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house. Back in America, the CIA is busy figuring out a way to smuggle these escaped hostages out of the country and their primary concern is how things appear to the media. They joke about it, throw ideas and then scorn at them. There’s a lot of biting sarcasm at the table. One man, however, has a crazy idea he actually intends to take through. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) plans on going to Iran pretending to be an associate producer and get these six escaped hostages back as part of his film crew. These six people have parts to play- screen-writer, director, location manager, cinematographer, production designer. They need to convince inspection officers and security that they are the people they claim to be. Tony Mendez gets the green signal from the CIA and a word of advice from his supervisor (Bryan Cranston)- “Good luck. The whole world is watching you.”

Arbitrage (2012)

Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage revolves around a problematic life phase of a billionaire named Robert Miller (Richard Gere). It’s his sixtieth birthday and he’s celebrating it at home. You see him as a family man who intends to spend the rest of his life with them even if it means selling off his company. This is just the version of himself that he’s selling to his family.

He heads back to his office. But instead, lands up at the mansion of a young lady who ignores him to build the sexual tension before they pounce on each other with a strong sense of urgency. Cut to Miller walking through his multi-storey office, straight-faced and satisfied. He no longer looks like the family man he sold to you at the table. He looks like the alpha male of the wolf pack that was out to rip apart Liam Neeson in The Grey.

Chronicle (2012)

28 year-old Josh Trank employs the omnipresent found footage gimmick, brought to new light by The Blair witch Project and popularized by Paranormal Activity, in his directorial debut Chronicle. Not only is he keen on using it uniquely, going for a superhero film (as opposed to horror), he uses it wisely. The outcome of his efforts is the most realistic Superhero movie to date.

Premium Rush (2012)

Even the uncharismatic Joseph Gordon Levitt, with the constantly sullen look on his face, can be infused with a hint of excitement as he rides through streets and races past cars in Premium Rush. Considering that both of the film’s main actors, the other being Michael Shannon (playing a maniacal degenerate gambler with a badge), are at risk of being typecast, it is safe to say that the bike is the unique selling proposition of David Koepp’s new film. It’s just what gives JGL the never-say-die attitude he lacks.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Killing them Softly (2012)

Andrew Dominik, who sent Brad Pitt to the peak of his career with The Assasination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, one of my favourite films of 2007, reteams with the actor in Killing Them Softly. He’s also managed to rope in James Gandolfini of The Sopranos, Richard Jenkins of The Visitor, Ray Liotta of Goodfellas and cast them in what appears to be a crime thriller. Tell me it’s not an irresistible combination. Take into account that the film, not only screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival but was even nominated for a Palme d’Or. It has just everything going for it. And I was going to be seeing it two months before the Rottentomatoes consensus was up. I was excited at this rare opportunity.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson is one of the few directors whose style of film-making I absolutely loathe. I took a liking for Rushmore but other than that, I found all his films either plain lazy or too subtle for their own good. I just couldn’t decide which. I never managed to find the motivating factor behind his characters and their actions. It echoed the experience of watching a foreign film without subtitles. But what’s worse is the distant way with which he treats his characters. Anderson writes damaged characters and weighs them down with heavy baggage from the past while he rolls on the floor laughing with his finger pointed at them. I don’t believe Kubrick or even The Old Mallick saw their characters with such iciness. While those two auteurs saw their characters through alien eyes, Anderson sees his through those of a heartless little prankster. Even crueller is the bright-and-sunny exterior; a clear indication that the film-maker takes pleasure in torturing his characters. To make a long story short, I rarely get Anderson’s films but when I do, I’m mostly appalled.

When Terence Mallick returned after a twenty-year hiatus with The Thin red line, I can only imagine how people must’ve felt. This was a different Mallick. He wasn’t just seeing his characters, he was feeling them. This particular trait was predominant in The New World and more so in The Tree of Life. As feeling became more and more abstract, Mallick’s films became more and more amorphous. Wes Anderson takes a similar turn with Moonrise Kingdom.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods is a heartless, hilarious, campy self-satire. It criticizes the very techniques it employs. Owing to a few extended pauses, the sound of your heart beating becomes too loud for you to bear. And then, you’re hit with jump scares that will give you convulsions. It’s a shallow and ridiculously loud piece of work. But it’s also brilliant. I was completely caught off guard.

We have two perspectives on a certain event that’s about to occur, shown in parallel. One shows us the event live- a gang of youths are heading for a cabin in the woods, where they intend to spend their weekend. They’re a generic bunch characterized by archetypes, revealed by the film-maker himself. As the emphasized title obviously suggests, there’s going to be mayhem. In all likelihood, it’ll have supernatural forces at the helm. The other point of view is from a setting similar to Eric Byer’s office in The Bourne Legacy. There’s a huge screen, an array of computers and everyone’s pleasantly buzzing around like worker bees. The cabin and the woods are controlled by a large corporation that consists of scientists and technicians. Now, don’t take all of this at face value.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

That character in Pulp Fiction you never see.

Ezekiel the Almighty. Jules summons him by reciting Ezekiel 25:17. He makes his first appearance when he lets the bullets go through them without actually piercing through them. Jules acknowledges his existence, takes him seriously and decides to change his ways. Vincent calls it luck and discounts the deed. Ezekiel is offended.

Jules and Vincent discuss the incident in the car. Vincent condescendingly asks Marvin "Do you think god came down from heaven and stopped these bullets?" Ezekiel reacts impulsively by making him blow Marvin's head off. Vincent suggests that Jules probably drove over a bump. Or was that Ezekiel? However, Jules says “Hey, the car didn’t hit no motherfuckin bump.” Well, that leaves us with just one conclusion. Ezekiel squeezed the trigger.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Expendables 2 (2012)

In 2009, Sylvester Stallone (better known as Rocky) assembled action stars of yesteryear, himself included, and decided to make a motion picture out of their past glory. He decided to call it The Expendables, an apt title considering that that’s pretty much what they are in this film. Not just in the eyes of the people under whom their characters serve but even to us, the viewers. We remained outsiders, merely watching these strangers do things we hardly gave two shits about, waiting with the false hope that our existences would eventually be acknowledged. Bummer.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

As of now The Bourne Supremacy is my favourite of the film adaptations of The Bourne Trilogy. Mainly because it doesn’t involve a pretty lady risking her life simply to be a part of this ride. Of course, their relationship later develops into a half-baked affair. Well, that’s fiction for you. And I’m not complaining. I’m just naturally more inclined towards realism. The Bourne Legacy, within its fictional confines, is the most realistic instalment to date. Rachel Weisz’s character doesn’t hop on because she wants to begin an affair with Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross. She has no plan, not a clue about saving herself from a very powerful organization and she needs Aaron Cross, just as much as he needs her pharmaceutical experience to disinfect him. 
Despite running in parallel to the previous instalment, The Bourne Legacy somehow doesn’t share so much with its predecessors. It’s the same world but the approach begins from elsewhere, the take is different and the perspective is through another pair of eyes. The hunted doesn’t interest film-maker Tony Gilroy as much as its hunter, or hunters. The Bourne Legacy is The Ghost Writer meets Michael Clayton meets Bourne, in that order. Even the swarm of antagonists are given a fair share of screen-time and their mastermind, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a good deal of characterization. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises is grim, grand and massive.  It’s the perfect conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s superhero franchise. I think it deserves Oscar recognition in multiple categories. Now, don’t get carried away because I said that. I know what I’m saying. I don’t claim the film to be multilayered or subtle or perched on realism. It doesn’t aspire to achieve any of these. But what it is set out to do, it couldn’t have been done better. The most brilliant aspect of The Dark Knight Rises is the high degree of parallelism- there are several primary characters in so many threads of events that run together simultaneously.

Batman Begins took us through the heart and soul of Bruce Wayne. We knew by the end of it, why he does what he does. The other characters in the series including, and especially, The Joker were strongly characterized. But we never knew why they are the way they are. Character development was absent in the commercially compromised The Dark Knight. In the Dark Knight Rises, the origins of every character are known. Nolan split The Dark Knight into good and bad; like a logician would. Scenes of ‘the people of Gotham’ planted on two ships and forced to choose between the lives of others and that of their own came off to me as a simplistic exercise in moral science. The act of Batman making the selfless choice of playing scapegoat to Harvey Dent’s criminal activities rings false. Particularly because this happens not long after he selfishly chose to rescue his girlfriend over ‘the shining example of justice.’ Even with all these flaws, The Dark Knight still emerged as a successful film. The Dark Knight Rises is the perfect antithesis to both, the central theme of fear in Batman Begins and that one thing that The Dark Knight had to say - “People deserve more than the truth. They deserve their faith to be rewarded.” And I don’t believe I’ve come across another film-maker letting the audience see him take diametrically opposite standpoints on a subject and defend them both with equal conviction.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Michael (2011)

I first saw Markus Schleinzer’s Michael at the Chennai International Film Festival in December 2011. The festival was powered by obscure films from unsung directors and with respect to narrowing down my choices, I certainly had my work cut out. I don’t like going by plotlines. Stories don’t matter to me nearly as much as storytelling and characters do. Critical acclaim was the only deciding factor. But most of these films hadn’t even been released. Michael premiered ‘In Competition’ at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. I learnt of the premise only after the presenter said “The film is about a paedophile who locks up a kid in his basement.” My hopes were up. I like films that permeate into the dark depths of the human mind. Michael did that and more.

A half-bald man is just getting home from work. The house is a barren place. Empty. Quiet. Lifeless. You hear the sound of things being moved, things being dropped, things being carefully placed. The window blinds fall. He takes the stairs down to the basement and unlocks a heavy metal door. “Come on” he says. A little boy walks out of an unlit room. They share a silent dinner and watch TV hoping to inspire a hint of life into their lives. The boy is urged downstairs, back to the basement. The man follows shortly after and shuts the heavy metal door behind him. The film cuts to a visual of the man washing his genitals. Say Hello to our lead character, Michael (Michael Fuith). And his boy toy, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger).

The Mill and The Cross (2011)

As interesting as watching paint dry is a phrase that might ring true to many with regard to The Mill and the Cross.  Story, characters, human element… they all take a back seat. It’s all about the visuals.

 At first, The Mill and The Cross seemed to me like a series of paintings with moving objects that were heading nowhere. And I had intended to bring it up in a critical manner. The film evokes stillness and boredom in you. But only as it should; echoing the feelings of an artist who, bored out of his mind, taunts a helpless spider with a stick. The spider hobbles around in its dewdrop studded web but remains unwilling to abandon it. Inspiration gushes in and sets the creative juices flowing. Time stands still, the artist seizes the moment and it all flows onto paper. When he begins to see the beauty of the town, you slowly involve yourself in the film and recognize its beauty. That’s a rich payoff, the realization that all of this documentary-style spying has amounted to something meaningful.

The Goodfellas

You might be confused at seeing a prefix ‘The’ to the title of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’. The purpose of this article is to address, and expose, the characterization of Goodfellas. What makes the Goodfellas so appealing? They don’t give a fuck. The approach director Scorsese and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker employ at making them give off that vibe is more than meets the eye.

Scorsese chooses long tracking shots to introduce us to the Goodfellas. You come to know of their quirks. Take their style of nicknaming, Jimmy Two-Times who always said everything twice”I’m gonna get the papers, get the papers.” Or that the sons were named Peter or Paul and their wives were all Marie. The three principal characters here are Henry Hill(Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro) and Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci). They work under caporegime Paulie (Paul Sorvino).

Let’s begin with Henry Hill and his ambition. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster. It meant being somebody in a neighbourhood full of nobodys. It meant belonging somewhere and being treated like a grownup.” The moment that line falls on your ears, you believe it.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Casino, revisited.

This isn’t a review. This is a write-up of my experience of revisiting, after a few years, the 1995 film Casino. Contrary to its title, Casino is not one of those gambling movies. It’s a follow up to Martin Scorsese’s mafia mob drama Goodfellas.

“When you love someone, you gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You gotta give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believe that’s the kind of love I had” says Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein as he walks out with a cigar in his mouth and into a car that blows up. What does one make of that? Scorsese’s films rarely begin with the beginning. You’re given a glimpse of (mostly) some part of the middle. Just like how Kubrick began Lolita with its ending. By showing us where the story climaxes, our minds aren’t perched on the fate of the characters but instead on their functioning.

Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert Deniro) heads a Casino in Las Vegas. He might be working under the title of ‘Casino Executive’ in a Casino owned by Philip Green, who exists as the squeaky clean front man under the orders of the elders of a mafia family, but Sam was the boss. The first time the camera pans into his magnificent Casino, you see it brightly lit and adorned with slot machines lined up against each other. Sam explains about the business, “We’re the only winners. The players don’t stand a chance.”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Shame (2011)


There’s a creature. This creature is part human- part animal. The human goes to work at day, earns lucratively and lives a high-end lifestyle. At the break of dusk, this creature retreats to his den, morphing into an animal with a voracious sexual appetite and engages in a world of sexual activity. Hookers often visit, cybersex is routine and his store is filled with cartons of pornographic magazines.  This creature is Brandon, Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame.

There’s no guarantee that the beast will remain hidden inside. Even at his workplace, it possesses him unexpectedly, forcing him to masturbate in the restroom. It all works out for Brandon, who keeps his sexual feelings discreet because he doesn’t believe he has complete control over this hypersexual animal inside him. Shame suggests that something has happened in the past for him to be threatened by this inner beast.

Everything is fine until his den is invaded by an intruder, the only person Brandon has a human connection with. Brandon throws out his porn filled laptop, the magazines and the sex toys. Hookers are kept out of action.  The food supply to the sexual animal is cut off and you’ll see it is no easy task to keep it pacified.

Young Adult (2011)

It’s a brand new day. A chick flick is playing on TV but the only person in the room is sleeping on her face. She wakes up and her prominent dark circles catch your attention. Mavis is divorced and in her mid thirties. She binges on coke, ice cream and alcohol. Her social life is confined to one night stands. ‘Waverly Prep’ is the name of a young adult series she’s served as an author for. The series is nearing its end and her boss is pounding her with phone calls asking her to get done with the final edition. This unending loop of events is interrupted by an e-mail from her high-school sweetheart, Buddy. Having grown weary of her lifestyle here she decides to pay hometown a visit and get him back, since “they were meant to be together.” Buddy is a married man now, busy raising his new-born daughter.

Doesn’t it sound like a chick flick? Don’t be mistaken. It’s a personality study; one that’s presented in a darkly comic manner.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Another Earth (2011)

What if there was another earth with another you? What if you met this other you? Would you tell yourself what to do and what not to do? Would you save your other you? Would you ask yourself what you think of you? What would you tell yourself if you met yourself? “Better luck next time” says Brit Marling’s character in Mike Cahill’s Another Earth.

Seventeen-year old Rhoda has just received her acceptance letter from MIT. “I felt like anything was possible,” she says having just finished celebrating the occasion. She’s going out for a drive. On the radio, she learns that another earth has been spotted in the sky. She looks out. Her car swerves off course and collides with another car. She survives with minor bruises but the occupants of the other car are seriously injured, two of whom succumb to their injuries. Being a minor, she’s sent to prison for a short term of four years and her identity remains undisclosed.

Skip to four years later. Rhoda is now an emotionally remote island. Her family and she have grown apart. It’s understood that she hasn’t written to or met with them since. Probably to avoid confrontation, to avoid being faced with the knowledge of what she is missing, to avoid being reminded of her stagnant state. Making matters worse is the fact that they are all people who deal with a problem by not talking about it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trust (2011)

David Schwimmer’s Trust opens with the track “Give a little” by Hanson. A teenage girl is preparing breakfast, only to follow it with her morning jog. The camera invisibly places itself on various corners of the room while it continues to scan her every move. But she has not the slightest idea. Cut to the title card “Trust”, designed in the plainest white font on a black background and let the track slowly fade away. You trust that this sets the tone for the film, a light teen drama.

Annie is celebrating her birthday with her family at a dinner table. You sense the unconditional positive regard shared. In school, Annie is merely an existence. The ‘cool’ girl invites her to a party, one that has teenagers doing the most taboo things. Annie is intimidated by their exuded sexual sophistication and returns home with a bad taste in her mouth. She tries talking to her dad about how they freaked her out but he cuts her saying that he’s busy with work. She turns to Charlie, a teenage boy with similar athletic interests. He tells her what she wants to hear. There begins their cyber relationship.

Charlie slowly reveals that he’s actually a twenty-year old sophomore. Annie lets it pass. Soon, twenty becomes twenty-five. Two months in, they meet at a mall. Charlie shows up as a middle-aged man. It deeply upsets Annie. How carefully (yet effortlessly) he coaxes her into sleeping with him from that point is disturbingly real. Deep inside she knows she’s making a mistake, one after the other but she doesn’t think such an opportunity will come again and gives in trusting that nothing will go wrong. The verbal ruses that Charlie uses to manipulate Annie... just brilliant screenwriting. Even petty comments on an ice cream flavour such as “You win, Pistachio rocks” earns her trust.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Ides of March (2011)

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) tells reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei) “I’m not naïve okay? I’ve worked on more campaigns than most people will have by the time they’re forty. I’m telling you, this is the one.” Stephen is a junior campaign manager for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a presidential candidate competing against a Senator, Ted Pullman. Between Stephen and Morris is Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen’s superior and senior campaign manager. Stephen has just written a draft that Governor Mike Morris feels urged to accept. While he rides high on that, a call comes from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a rival campaign manager diametrically opposite Paul, who invites him to a political tryst and gets the ball rolling.

Stephen meets with him out of an emotional need to feel self-secure and maybe even with the intent of revamping his political career. Tom Duffy praises himself for being jaded, cynical and having the ability to turn things to his advantage. Paul, on the other hand believes that loyalty is the only currency you can count on in politics. Human errors are made but there are heavy prices to pay. Something momentous is going to happen. Bring in press reporter Ida, a scoop-hungry fiend that will pounce on anyone for it and you await the spawn of an irreparable situation.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Le Gamin au vélo- The Kid with a Bike (2011)

The Kid with a Bike. What if that is all it is about?

French filmmakers seem to rely on the beauty of simplicity. I’ve not seen too many French movies but I have seen enough to spot a resemblance. Their style of filmmaking is minimalistic. There’s nothing colourful about their movies. You cannot split them into physical elements (cinematography, editing, direction) and appreciate them. Neither can you single out any particular aspect for having a particularly stronger effect on you and go on about it. Their characters, normal human beings whom you can easily relate to. Their stories, earthly. Not of a man that’s caught in a sticky situation, not of the underdog that goes from rags to riches, not a twisted story that frightens yet pulls you in. There’s nothing cinematic here, no do or die.

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