Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

There's a scene in the middle of the film where Aunt May tells a badly bruised Peter that secrets have a cost. The good news is people suck at keeping secrets in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, Marc Webb's sophomore feature. 

I have respect for Sam Raimi's trilogy and he put the superhero genre back on the map, sketching a path for films which followed. But let's face it, Tobey Maguire's Spider Man is a wimpy cry-baby and his portrayal of nerdy Peter Parker was quite cliched. The movies became unbearably melodramatic at times. I think we all agree that Part 2 was the best, and Part 3 the worst. If there's one thing that's common in Raimi's trilogy, it is that people kept secrets from each other and entire scenes were built around the little reveals. That never happens in the new movie. 

Garfield's Spidey is shown to be very powerful and capable of doing wonderful things. But his lean body frame gives him this vulnerability which works in his favor. Unlike Maguire, he isn't a complete loser before being bitten. Yet, he oddly has no friends at all. The movie is more a character study about how he comes around to use his new found powers for the better of the people. Yikes, I feel like I am defending the movie even though it hasn't given me many reasons to. It is fairly predictable, but close to the end, the people of New York are shown helping Spider-Man and that was one scene which worked on an emotional level. I cannot recall having a moment like that in any of the Raimi movies. 

If you have seen the trailers or read articles about the film, one issue was often being highlighted: that Peter just couldn't keep the bloody mask on his face. Yes, that's true but it actually works better. One thing I learnt is that Andrew Garfield is the go-to guy for algorithms. There's a scene highly reminiscent of The Social Network where Parker produces an equation for Dr. Curt Connors, that will help replicate physical traits of a reptile. What doesn't work is how the guy who couldn't speak a sentence properly becomes this talkative punk when he puts his suit on. I know from cartoons that Spidey talks a lot, but I prefer the silent Maguire way of going about work. I mean, I wouldn't mind if he was being funny, but he is talking sweet nothings to a giant lizard. 

I didn't think much of the action scenes. I would disagree with anyone who says there's only as much you can do with Spider Man. Besides swinging, which does look pretty cool in 3D, there is nothing memorable about the action. Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is hip and a welcome respite from the slutty Mary Jane Watson who changed 8 hands in 3 movies. There's nothing about Bugle yet. 

It may be better written film, but don't believe the crap about this being an untold story. It takes a tiny detour and comes back to the same spot and the Raimi movies. A little bit of humor would have helped. If you haven't seen the previous trilogy, this will be highly entertaining. But since everyone has, they won't find it amazing in any way. Old wine in a new, better looking, three dimensional bottle is what this is.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

I am like Andrew- shy, afraid of confrontation, reclusive. I have wished I had powers, wished I had a magic pill. I guess everyone wishes for those but many people don't really need it; they're just being greedy. Try giving Superman power to shoot webs from his wrist on top of his existing abilities. He has no use for it. He'd probably punch you in the face for wasting his time. But the same powers in the possession of a weaker person would do him world of good. I liked Chronicle for the same reasons I liked LIMITLESS and portions of CAPTAIN AMERICA. 

There are two ways a weak person would react to his powers: he'd try to fit in or he'd flip out. Years of alienation did Andrew no good and he embraces his new powers by choosing the latter. He considers himself the apex predator, and sees nothing wrong in hurting other humans. Do we feel guilty for squatting flies, he asks. So, yes, we keep going back to what Uncle Ben said: "With great power comes great responsibility." 

However crazy they may sound, we have had time to get used to Spider Man or Hulk and we don't really have a problem accepting those theories. That's the first step of appreciating a superhero mythology. Which is exactly the reason why the source of their power remaining unexplained works better. Chronicle is a very good first movie and I hope they leave it at that. Would you have like to know what was inside the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? I hope not. Some things are best left untold and I told care to know how they ended up with the powers. There's clear indication that there will be a sequel where they'll become friendly neighborhood heroes, helping people out. Who wants that? There are dozens of others to do that, thank you.

I am not a fan of 'found footage' genre and I don't see why it was required for this film. It does not add to realism. It is plain annoying.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Messenger (2009)

THE MESSENGER, directed by Oren Moverman, had been on my watchlist for a long time and I wanted to see it before the director's second film, RAMPART. 

Everyone likes UP IN THE AIR, right? The two movies are similar in a way. Where UITA had Kendrick playing Clooney's protege on a mission of sacking people from their jobs, this movie has Woody Harrelson's character Stone mentoring Ben Foster's Montgomery on a task of informing family of departed American soldiers about the death. Montgomery is highly decorated for his age and is hailed as a hero by his superiors for what he did in Iraq. Stone, who was stationed at Kuwait, is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober 3 years, but has never seen action. Deep inside, both men hide secrets and the face they put up may not be real.

Stone lays the ground-rules which include talking only to the closest kin, never using phrases like 'has left us' or 'is no longer with us', abstaining from physical contact with the relative among other things. Informing a father about his son's death is really a hard thing to do, but I assumed nothing would go wrong if they stuck to their rules. I was proved wrong over and again on all of the occasions. It is really hard to predict how a person will react to such a news. Most people flip out. This is a painful job and I wonder what the folks at Indian Army do about it. Do they simply make a phone call? I don't think so. That makes this movie very universal. 

On one instance, a visibly shaken widow of a fallen soldier shakes their hands and thanks them saying it must have been hard on them as well. This is a first, says the cynical Stone who notices a man's shirt on the clothesline and immediately judges the woman. Montgomery, new on the job, ends up being emotionally involved with the woman, helping her out and learning about her life. Filled with great performances, the film fills you with dread every time they approach a new family. You just hope that they find solace. You just hope that everything will be okay.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011)

This is the third major feature film from writer-director brothers Mark and Jay Duplass. Their previous film CYRUS was also quite funny about an over-protective son creeping the lights out of his Mom's new boyfriend.

Jeff is an optimist; a glass half-full guy. He is obsessed with Signs, the Night Shyamalan movie, and believes everything in this world is interconnected and happens for a reason. Also he's 30 years old, smokes pot and lives in the basement of his mother's house. His brother Pat has no time for Jeff's voodoo bullshit. He weakens his already struggling marriage by getting a Porsche when his wife is cutting back on things. Their mother, an attractive lady in her early 60s, is leading a monotonous life and doesn't even have someone to share it with. Her biological clock has stopped ticking and whatever's left of her good looks will also soon vanish. These three lives struggling in a slow quicksand and are desperately looking for someone to throw a rope.

A phone call asking for some Kevin starts Jeff's day. Being the believer he is, he considers it a sign and sets off on a journey which will affect everyone in his family. Jeff keeps looking for his signs as many events lead to all the characters crossing paths many times through the movie's course. One might scoff at all the coincidences but that is what the movie is all about.

Life is hard and we all need something to hold on to, something to have faith in. Good things will happen if you have a true heart and hope. It's a happy little comedy that will make your insides go all warm and fuzzy.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

Gangs of Wasseypur, Anurag Kashyap's epic crime saga sprawling over 6 decades, is the portrayal of the rural, trigger-happy India we've been waiting for. Characters don't belt out profanities in the range of kutte and kaminey, but speak their mind without worrying about the censor-board. Forget about thinking twice before pulling the trigger, people die here by the dozens for very petty reasons. Without going into the story, I'll just say the film has, at its center, Sardar Khan and his rivalry with Ramadhir Singh. 

Sardar is like a mad dog and saying that he has a penchant for ultra-violence and lawlessness would be putting it slightly. He’s also like that monkey which pulls the tiger’s tail. Killing is easier, but defeating a person in every imaginable way is, we are told, more fun. Sardar has one mission in life since he was a boy, and it is to destroy Ramadhir. Like The Joker who had not the slightest intention of killing the Batman, Sardar's life is incomplete without Ramadhir Singh. This all-consuming rivalry unravels leisurely over many fascinating set-pieces. 

Revenge has been the subject of many Hindi films from the notorious 70s and 80s. Kashyap’s admiration for the Amitabh Bachchan films belonging to that period shows as he pays homage to Trishul, Kalnayak, etc. Wasseypur too, I’d argue, has the template of a 80s revenge drama, but it is the treatment which sets them miles apart.

This is the most important Indian movie since the previous most important Indian movie. It takes the story back to rural India which remains unaffected from the westernisation. Many movies have had rural India as its subject but they were social movies passing judgments about everything that is wrong about the place. Wasseypur never judges its characters and their actions. It never says there’s anything wrong with them. Infidelity, rape, murder, dacoity defines them, and they are not ashamed of it. Like one character says, “Iddhar kabootar bhi ekh pankh se udta hai, aur dusra pankh se apni ijjat bachata hai.” They are who they are and it simply documents a saga which could have taken place in any of the thousands towns in India. 

As time passes, characters find different ways to harms each other as they mature from desi bombs and pistols to automatics. There’s karma if you look for it and dollops of poetic justice. But in spite of the little tussles, the movie continually gave this impression that Ramadhir was always on the receiving end. One of my problems with the movie is that the narrative is linear as fuck. Imagine starting with Vito Andolini's birth in Corleone and then going all the way to killing of the heads of the five families. I don't even understand why we even need to know about Sardar Khan's father. I agree it gives another generation's foundation to the rivalry, apart from also giving it a history, but it simply comes across as a deliberate attempt to make it seem grander than it actually is. 

I really wish I had seen the 5-hour version which has been playing at film-festivals. There are so many sub-plots which are hanging in the balance and it feels odd when the closure you get is not the kind you expect. Most of the developments which will go on to shape a character in the sequel look very incomplete. For example, the love-track between Sardar’s younger son Faizal and Sultan’s sister, though entertaining, goes nowhere at the end of part 1. I understand there is little the maker could do to rectify this but it felt odd. 

The dialogues are just the right amount of crackling without making the characters look like a bunch of smart-asses. Sardar's wife Nagma, played wonderfully by Richa Chadda, is the second most memorable character in the film. The single most gratifying part of watching Wasseypur is that its characters had the liberty of using profanity in whichever way and magnitude they wished to. And it feels so right. 

Sardar is so fascinating you sort of root for him in spite of knowing what he's made up of. But the movie is so expansive and meandering that I sort of lost interest in his pursuit and simply sat there taking in whatever it threw at me. I couldn’t write anything about the movie last night and I was disappointed in it. But now I can say Wasseyur is, without a doubt, a fine piece of work and everyone must watch it. It is simply too entertaining to miss.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

We have known two theories about the birth of mankind- Creationism and Darwinism. While one has too many flaws to be plausible, the latter doesn't answer all the questions. I have not given this subject much thought to be honest and the idea of another theory never even occurred to me. As suggested by the movie, if Engineers, as we refer to them, indeed created us, it doesn't stand next to the two existing theories as a third. But it simply replaces the God in creationism with Engineers. Now what good is that? Of course, good or bad is not even the question here.

We are told that Elizabeth Shaw is infertile, but a life is created in her. By this, how strongly are they indicating that Earth was barren before the arrival of the 'Engineers'? The movie only dares to attempt answering questions about the birth of mankind on Earth. It has no opinion on the creation of the Universe.

It is indeed fascinating that humans, on their quest to find out about the species that created them, take along a species which they created. David has no soul. He has little regard for the value of human life even though he was created to serve them. He very casually does an experiment on a member of the crew and the results are frightening.

So now we have a robot attempting to learn more about humans by watching their dreams as they sleep in the Cryo, we have humans who are spending trillions of dollars and a good 6 years of their time, risking their life in the meantime, to find out about their creator, and the supposed creators, who we are told were far more advanced, may have done their own share of search for the one ultimate creator. A pattern emerges, and along with it, so many questions. Are we looking in the right direction? Is the search even necessary? Are we to assume that it was indeed a God who created everything and set this never-ending puzzle in motion? How did he come into existence then? What was before him?

Let's buy what it is trying to say. Engineers create Humans, and right after creating them, they abandon them, attempting to make contact (with the prehistoric men belonging to every civilization that formed from time to time) only to 'invite' them to their world. They, I assume, went away to explore other worlds, leaving behind some of what they possessed. If ever humans manage to reach this place, they knew they would revive the one person who was left behind in the Cryo. This would mean successful completion of their grand experiment. Now the humans will be either destroyed or mutated with the black goo (presumably alien semen) to create newer species. One chain leads backwards while the other leads forward. But this is extremely 2001: A Space Odyssey-ish. I don’t know, I believe this is right.

To support my theory, in the beginning of the movie, we are told that Prometheus was a mythological character who attempted to make humans equal to Gods, and for this he was killed. The spaceship Prometheus has done pretty much the same thing. It has made Humans, a mere product of a social experiment, on par with the creators or Gods, if you will. And the consequences will be dire.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Midnight in Paris (2011)

It is about a successful Hollywood screenwriter/ wannabe novelist who feels out of place in the present and thinks he belongs in the Paris of 20's. It so happens that he actually gets to visit that era, only to find himself being completely anachronistic. But only for a minute. I've always loved the concept of putting the past and the present together, in one way or the other- a reason why I love time-travel movies. Here, Woody takes our protagonist Gil on a nightly fantasy trip of sorts, where he gets to meet everyone of that time he adores and idolizes. For a moment, you try to figure out what exactly is happening, and then let Woody do the magic. There's a small lesson to be learnt, but basically it is a comedy that makes you laugh every time it tries. The stunning visuals, the good music, the people that Gil meets elevate the movie to another level. You see the Woody Allen wrestling out of Owen Wilson every few minutes. This is Woody's dream, that is what it is. You can almost feel his yearning to be able to do all that. Even though he, through Gil, comes to a realization of one kind at the end, his other critical decision only underlines his love for Paris. The film is absolutely joyous. Do watch.

Moneyball (2011)

'On paper, this is the best team you can put together, but [insert a sport here] is not played on paper' -- I am sure we've all heard commentators and analysts mutter this line time and again. In Moneyball, though, the game actually is, so to speak, played on paper. 

Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate who, by the looks of it, hasn't ever played a game of baseball, develops a system to distinguish undervalued players after number crunching on years of statistics. Billy Beane, the general manager of a team working on a shoestring budget, puts all his faith in that concept and decides to implement it. He knows that the current method of evaluating players is flawed but isn't able to put his finger on what it is that doesn't work. Beane's marriage has failed already and he doesn't like seeing his daughter worry for him. Years ago, his life lost track due to a scout's misjudgment and he is determined to change the way baseball works. 

It all comes down to his decision of seeing it through, trusting the judgement of Brand against the experience of many other scouts, including himself. This big idea has to work, or its down to being the manager of a sports good store. It takes a lot of guts to adopt such an unorthodox way of scouting, and Beane has it. But I feel Brand is the real hero for coming up with something like that in the first place. We also have the team manager Art Howe, played by Hoffman, having a little turf war with Beane.

Sports films generally thrive on these 'lets-go-out-and-show-them-who-we-are' moments, but Moneyball has none of it. Most of the action takes place in office rooms, in front of a computer or while watching footage of old matches. The excitement lies in seeing the plan pan out well. I wouldn't call the movie predictable, but like with other sport films, one can more or less tell what's going to happen. Bennett Miller makes great use of actual footage and the juxtaposition with filmed scenes creates an odd realism. The Sorkin/Zaillian screenplay simply flies at breakneck speed. Pitt is really good. I liked Jonah Hill a lot too. It's a good movie, not a great one.

A Separation (2011)

The opening scene of the movie shows Nader and Simin putting forth their case for separation in front of a Judge. They are educated, middle-class Iranians hoping for a better quality life outside the country, but not at the liberty to achieve it due to familial commitments. The 'divorce' sets things in motion, but the story deals with issues far more critical. It is very much a whodunit beyond that point. It made me want to scream, “Say the truth dammit!”, but if I were in their place, I'd probably do the same thing, and honestly believe I did the right thing. It's like sitting and watching your earphones get entangled, as the movie complicates right in front of your eyes. No one is wrong, and no one is right.

The movie pushes you against a corner and dares you to make up your mind about the happenings and defend it if you could. You see reason behind decisions made by every single character. One more thing I noticed was how the movie puts kids in really hard places and asks them to make pretty tough choices. The unpredictability of the movie is overwhelming; with every passing scene, new revelations come up making you question everything you believed in till that point. If you pay close attention, you can actually try and put the pieces of the puzzle together, as in trying to find who did what.

The ensemble cast's performance is brilliant. The entire look of the movie is so natural, it feels as if you're watching a family through a hidden camera. The characters are brutally real and it has one of the greatest screenplays. It is heartbreaking and hard hitting at the same time when it talks about truth, religion, morality, pride etc. It is truly Iranian in spirit, yet universal and accessible.

It subtly speaks volumes about stereotyping of people with less means by the ones who are well to do. Every few minutes, it makes you look at your own self and see who you really are. Taking into account the socio-political scenario in Iran, I suppose this must have been a very hard movie to make. It is fascinating to see characters staunchly abide by the Sharia law, the Islamic moral code, and fear the prospect of committing a sin. I may not be religious but I sincerely respect unshakable faith. 

I had the good fortune of watching this on the big screen with an audience who, I suspect, were really looking forward to watching it. There's this scene where a character punishes himself. It was such a powerful moment and the entire theater erupted with applause. The conclusion is disquieting, but most suitable, nonetheless. It makes me want to be a better person. Please watch it and ask others to do the same.

The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants is about an ordinary family dealing with the impending demise of the mother in a rather curiously ordinary way. The father, who never really concerned himself with the upbringing of his kids, is hapless after an accident leaves the mother in a vegetative state. The movie, rather leisurely, goes about showing us the family, which is not exactly dysfunctional, but may just end up being one. The elder daughter is becoming more and more like her Mother, and the younger one is becoming more and more like her sister. After much meandering, we learn the mother had been cheating- something which anyone who might have seen the trailer would already know. 

It's interesting to see a character in a position where there's no way it could defend its actions. It is also a rather brave attempt to make the audience root for a bunch of people without telling us anything about the one person who sets the whole thing in motion. And that, in my opinion, is where the movie fails. It has everything one usually finds in a good dramedy. But I just couldn't bring myself to care for anything that happened to them. This also heavily impacts the other big plot line, about dissolving the property inherited by Clooney's family from their royal ancestors. They are likable people and I am not cruel enough to wish more misery upon them, but does that mean I care for them? I don't think so. 

I liked that it was never sentimental or melodramatic. It also wasn't manipulative like I feared. It deals with a tricky subject like death in a lighthearted way. If it had a few more intense scenes, the humor would've have complemented it well, but there are no such emotional highs or even lows. I must confess I had some big laughs, but the movie walks a path that is too calm for its own good. 

Clooney is unlike anything I've seen him in before, and gives a performance which many claim is his career best. No one can look at this role and say George Clooney is playing himself. Maybe its just those floral printed Hawaii shirts, but I've never seem him so relaxed. Shailene Woodley is Godly, btw. It's a pretty looking movie with good music and all. It may work for you, and very well at that. I simply couldn't care.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Satan decided to have some fun one weekend. He got into John C. Reily's body and knocked Tilda Swinton up. Ten months later, a baby boy was born: Kevin, an evil creation of the purest form.

I have seen movies where kids play naughty to annoy the step mom, and then pretend like an ideal child in front of their father. Kevin is a lot like those kids, but he is not just any spoilt brat. I keep going back to the notion in my mind that he is pure evil. He confronts his mother at every stage of growing up, but becomes relatively manageable around his father. He is also full of contradictions. At one point of time when he falls ill, he oddly grows closer to his mother and flips at his father; this lasts for no longer than a night. Kevin feeds on his mother's guilt. He taps it in a bottle and sucks on it. She takes him to the doctor, and almost appears to be wishing he'd tell her that something is indeed wrong with Kevin.

The movie is told non-linearly, alternating between the present, in which Eva's life is in shambles, and the past, where she deals with her son. Following the occurrence of some event, Eva is forced to take refuge in a lesser neighborhood, away the life she led in her past. She is over-qualified but settles for a lowly job. People stare at her on every corner, and seem ready to cause any possible harm. Kevin is in prison, and we can only assume why. Eva's life is a mess, but the better her present gets, the messier her past becomes. Does she blame herself for the way Kevin grew up to be? Can anyone in their right state of mind blame her after seeing what she had to go through? Can a mother wholeheartedly hate her own son? Questions questions.

My relationship with my mother isn't all that smooth. We disagree on so many issues. There have been times I have told myself it is normal that we don't relate all that well, as she isn't my lover/wife and that we don't have the same interests. But then I remind myself that she's my mother and that we have to be alike in many ways. If my relationship with her doesn't work, will I be able to make a fruitful connection with anyone else?

The past finally catches up with the present, and we feel this equilibrium, a state of calm. The entire process is, in some ways, cathartic for Eva. He may be a devil, but he is still his Mommy little boy. Ramsay's masterclass visual storytelling, Jonny Greenwood's haunting music, the brilliant performances by Swinton and Miller. There is so much more to talk about this gem of a movie. I am madly in love with it.

JFK (1991)

Reading through Ebert's review of JFK, both regular and the one for his Great Movies, one thing is quite clear: the knowledge as well as the confusion held by the American people regarding the assassination of Kennedy is vast. Over the years, they have learnt about the shoddily investigated case, and slowly changed their perspective after taking in every new piece of revelation that came their way. I am completely befuddled by the Aarushi Talwar murder case; I cannot even imagine how obsessed a nation would have been with the death of their President- not any President, but a much loved one. 

I knew very little about the whole issue before watching this movie. After watching Watchmen two years ago, I thought The Comedian was the killer. I am kidding, but I knew close to nothing. Stone first chooses a protagonist to tell his story - Jim Garrison, a District Attorney who inadvertently became the face of the investigation. He knows something is quite fishy about the whole case, but isn't able to point his finger on what it is that isn't fitting the puzzle. Three years pass, and the dust has pretty much settled; America has moved on, but Garrison has not. He discreetly starts asking around on his own time and money, and before he knows, he has gone too far and made many people upset. A lot happens after this, and I am not going to go into that as I don't really know if I believe it myself. An amateur footage surfaces and undoubtedly proves that Kennedy was shot by more than one person. This directly contradicts what Warren committee suggested, and hence puts the word 'conspiracy' on the table. 

What I found so fascinating about this whole incident is how conspicuously the people of America and the world were lied to. More than the shock of knowing the truth, I was hit by the fact that something of this magnitude was deliberately hidden by the government. JFK is an extremely compelling and brilliantly put together piece of work. With footage sourcing from I-don't-know-how-many cameras and recreations of events based on the testimonies of oh-so-many people, Oliver Stone combines to give one of the most revealing material based on a historical incident. The vastness of this project and the editing prowess makes my head reel. I do not remember much now, but in spite of the fact that so damn much is happening, not once was I confused or had trouble keeping up with the bombarding of facts. 

I would like to reiterate what Ebert too felt about this movie. What I infer from this movie does not really matter. The point is that something this big was hidden from people and is still hidden (the documents will be available to public in the year 2029.) The movie romanticizes Kennedy and shows him in the light of a martyr. We all know his slate was anything but clean, and this glorification may be slightly annoying at times. But the fact remains that the leader of a nation, however tainted, was killed by, if I were to believe what Stone is suggesting, scheming, power-hungry bureaucrats. It is wrong and truth had to be told by someone. I think JFK is a technical masterpiece. The actors are all really good, though I was particularly taken by Gary Oldman's performance. Again, the editing is spectacular and the movie has been brilliantly shot. It is 200 minutes long but it is thoroughly gripping.