Friday, May 27, 2011

How Do You Know? (2010)

I was so prepared to be underwhelmed by this star studded romantic comedy from a big league director based on the numerous underwhelming reviews I’d heard beforehand that I didn’t quite give it a chance initially. I didn’t watch it on a weekend where I had nothing else to do and this was the only release I hadn’t seen then playing; I ignored it when my father got the DVD and watched it at home; I even cast it aside in favour of the guaranteed-to-be-underwhelming I Am Number Four on a translantic flight.

But then on my return trip, faced with the same set of movies, I finally decided to give it a chance. Like I said before, great cast, reliably good director – how bad could it be? Turns out, not too bad at all. In fact, good enough to prompt me to tell you this: sure us reviewer folk have opinions worth considering – whether it be Ebert/Roeper or Lekha/Danish, but when a movie has pedigree this good (and okay, in my case, has Paul Rudd flashing that wonderful smile) it’s worth giving it a chance.

How Do You Know? does a simple enough thing that you’d think most movie makers should at least understand the basic mechanics of by now – it takes time to flesh out its characters. Their personality traits come out through often well constructed conversation – not dialogue, but real conversation! – as opposed to them making shrill declaratory statements about the same. By the time the introductory act is over, you may not be in love with all them – but you’ve begun to figure them out, enjoy spending time in their presence, are invested enough to look forward to how their interactions will collide and bounce off against each other.

This is good, strong, character driven cinema masquerading as rom-com fluff.

The characters, if you will – somewhat at the centre (but not necessarily the heart of the movie) is Reese Witherspoon’s recently tossed baseball player Lisa; Paul Rudd’s also down-in-luck businessman George; Owen Wilson as a very much in the prime of his career player Matty; and Jack Nicholson playing George’s father. As the movie starts, Lisa’s path intersects with both George and Matty at about the same time – but those crucial few hours make the difference for her, with a chain of events leading to her moving in with the erstwhile cad that is Matty. George meanwhile can’t seem to catch a break – except when she’s around, and then too, his luck seems to run out abruptly. As for George’s father – he’s a grating scumbag. And here’s my only real problem with the movie: the way Jack Nicholson plays him doesn’t quite help matters. The fault is partly in the screenplay, with every appearance of the character bringing proceedings to a deathly standstill, but its also about Nicholson employing his bizarre facial tics that were much more at home when we were Redrum-ing our way to learning that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – not so much in this otherwise breezy, effortlessly charming film.

It really is quite disarming – I didn’t realize how much I cared for the characters till the point when a very pregnant Katheryn Hahn in a minor supporting role has the husband of her newborn propose to her. So many sitcom-ish cliched ways this scenario could go, particularly when you consider the sequence also involves George and Lisa happening to be in the room at the same time. And yet, it is written, directed and acted in such a way that what starts off as intensely moving, takes an unexpected turn to hilarity, and dovetails into a scenario with the lead characters finding greater depths of understanding and respect for each other.

It’s a delightful piece of film-making in an oddly delightful movie.

So. How do you know whether a movie is good?

I suppose in the end you have to see it for yourself. Though if you find both sides of Lekha/Danish in disenchantment with a piece of cinema, run far and run quick from it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Once (2007)

(as published on

You’ll realize as the credits roll at the end of this achingly romantic musical that the lead characters never actually get named. They remain “Guy” and “Girl” for us. It’s enough – and what’s more, it’s strangely appropriate, this harkening back to the characters of the oldest folktales. Once carries the raw power of a beautiful little story, simply, and unforgettably told.

The guy is a street-side guitar player cum vacuum cleaner mechanic in Ireland; the girl’s an immigrant flower seller. Initially attracted by his music, she also happens to have a vacuum cleaner in need of repair. In the course of their conversation, turns out she’s a bit of musician too, and they head along to a musical store where she is well acquainted with the piano. They sit by the piano, the first line of “Falling Slowly” the movie’s Academy Award winner for Original Song starts to play -

“I don’t know you, but I want you all the more for that”

They begin to fall in love.

“Words fall through me, and always fool me, and I can’t react”

Simultaneously, you start falling in love with the movie.

She pushes him to write and perform more music, and over the course of the week that this movie takes place, that’s what they do together. Through music, lyrics and snatches of conversation, we find out more: the guy’s been struggling with his music career, as well as with the memories of his girlfriend who’s moved to London; the girl has an estranged husband back in the Czech Republic. Sure it’s a love story at heart, but a refreshingly unconventional one at that. The lovers never actually share even a kiss; their passion is expressed through the music.

And what music it is. Aside from the wonderfully composed Falling Slowly, there is the haunting “Lies” which plays over a montage of the Guy’s time with his girlfriend. “Little cracks they escalated” he sings, and we see a swift, moving chronicle of the demise of a relationship. Of course, he still has it in himself to be lighthearted about the whole thing, and so we also get the delightfully bitter “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy”. The girl’s heartache comes out in “The Hill”, a cry of frustration – “I wish I didn’t have to make all those mistakes and be wise”. Then there is suitably epic arrangement of a group number late in the movie –“When your mind’s made up”.

The offscreen story is almost as fascinating as the onscreen one: the film’s initial finances depended on Cillian Murphy as the lead, who then backed out. The director turned to the film’s songwriter and composer, Glen Hansard to take up the role opposite thethen 17 years old Marketa Irglova. The director’s own salary was given to the stars to manage basic finances – while the stars found themselves falling in love with each other over the course of the production, ending up in a relationship by shooting’s end. Stories for the ages, I’d say.

For once, it’s a bit hard to say much more, or to give you the exact reason why I loved this movie the way I did. The magical quality of Once is strangely intangible: sure, yes the performances are great, yes the music is wonderful, and yes, it’s a well-told story, but there is something else about this experience I have been unable to put a finger on. The closest I can come is to tell you that this feels like a story of two really well meaning, good people, who might be in love, but also recognize the need to do something to make the other happier.

And sometimes, that’s not the same as reciprocating that very love.

Monday, May 23, 2011


There is a memorable quote in the Woody Allen movie,
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) which goes, "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything."

I've always held that with men like Sir Percy Blakeney, Edward Rochester and Fitzwilliam Darcy, real men never stood a chance. Who needs the trouble of relationships with men who will eventually disappoint, when you can just flip to the chapter "Richmond" and live the moment when Blakeney kisses every spot that Marguerite's foot had touched?

And no character is more complex (and therefore attractive) than Edward Rochester. Playing this role was obviously some kind of rite of passage for brooding, talented actors: Orson Welles, Timothy Dalton, William Hurt, Colin Clive, George C. Scott, and most recently, Michael Fassbender (among many others) have all tried to unravel this tormented hurricane of a man.

It always worries me to see a classic book that I adore being adapted to screen. Despite there having been a few dozen adaptations of Jane Eyre, this is the first one I've watched. Sure, BBC got
Pride and Prejudice right, but that book seems downright fluffy and romcom-y in comparison to Brontë's dark and meditative passages set in those haunting moors. But putting all trepidation aside, I watched all four episodes and I'm happy to report that BBC's talent for adaptations remains unblemished.

The most noticeable thing about the series is that they've drastically cut short Jane's sojourn in Lowood School and with St. John and his sisters. Instead, the series concentrates on her romance with Rochester, and is a commentary on the situation of classless, educated girls with no means. I was all set to burn BBC effigies when I heard about this, but on watching the series, I have no choice but to applaud their pragmatic decision, because when I now reread the book I find myself impatiently getting through the Lowood bits, and will Jane to hurry up and reach Thornfield Hall already! I can see why there was really no need to spend more time on Lowood. Like Jane says, she discovered herself and was "born" only after she came to Thornfield Hall. Yes, Jane is a lovely heroine, naive but levelheaded, but for me, it is Jane's conversations with Rochester that just light up the book.

However, I was
not pleased with the portrayal of young Jane: she seemed a bit too sure of herself. Jane Eyre from the book was downright terrified of the Reeds and was a very unhappy child. Jane from the TV series on the other hand, was cocky, like she was just biding her time. I just could not feel her despair and hopelessness. Also, Brocklehurst was not horrid enough: I mean, the man in the book was an enormous prick, but I suppose the full character got axed in the drive to keep her childhood short. Fair enough.

But the childhood bit is merely the prologue-- the show really begins with Rochester's entry. He is described in the book as,
"... a Vulcan— a real blacksmith, brown, broad-shouldered; and blind and lame, into the bargain.” Toby Stephens, starring as Rochester, channels that description into every scene. Oscillating moods, abrasiveness, impetuousness, sudden bursts of affection, familial hatred, sense of duty, --this Rochester, like Vulcan himself, is fiery and unfaltering, and does complete justice to Brontë's description and dialogue. There are moments when he spits out his lines with venom for life and people, like the real Rochester. There are moments when he is childlike in his impatience and stubbornness. There are moments when he is heartbreakingly gentle with little Jane. And these little moments stay with you long after the show is done.

The piece de resistance of the series is of course, Jane's romance with Rochester. I found the affair to be very believable, even though it's a rather unlikely tale about a rich landowner falling in love with a very plain governess. There was sufficient conversation and character growth, so their falling in love doesn't feel like it happened in 15 seconds. Also, they took great pains to portray the peculiar situation of governesses who are not rich enough to be Upstairs and too educated to be Downstairs. On the other hand, they didn't make her out to be a downtrodden Cinderella either. It felt very real and their romance seemed likely.

The portrayal of Mrs. Rochester as a beautiful, free-spirited woman is interesting and seems to have taken inspiration from Wide Sargasso Sea. They've given her a character, a lot more than
Brontë ever did. It is hinted that Rochester's hate and fear of her may have stemmed from her independence, open sensuality and vague fears of her mother. Was her insanity actually genetic? Or did Rochester's fears for her sanity make her go mad?

For all its efforts to stay true to the book and depth of its characters,
Jane Eyre doesn't quite have that timeless classic feel of Pride and Prejudice (possibly because Jane Eyre did not have Colin Firth in a wet shirt), but it is the perfect thing to watch when you have a hankering for a proper costume drama and a Gothic thriller-love story.


How can you tell if summer is really here? No, it’s not the heat or that sudden desire to take long vacations. It’s that slew of big-budget, explosion-filled movies where talented actors embarrass themselves to pay for their designer outfits for Cannes. I often hear people say, “Don’t take these masala movies too seriously.” Jerry Bruckheimer for one, is clearly taking that advice to heart.

Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC): The Curse of the Black Pearl was a superb film that reminded us how roguishly charming bad guys are. The characters were fun, the jokes were fresh, the plot was interesting and funny, Jack Sparrow was suave and magic underscored the plot rather than being a deus ex machina. It all rapidly went downhill from there, unfortunately. I mean, there is only so much you can milk out of a ride in Disneyland.

The fourth installment of the POTC series, On Stranger Tides, sees Captain Jack Sparrow searching for his ship, the Black Pearl blah blah evil pirate searching for some magical MacGuffin must be thwarted revenge blah. Sounds familiar? Probably because we’ve seen it three times already. We’ve seen Jack Sparrow duel with someone on rafters, we’ve made the Gibbs-and-pigs connection, we’ve seen Jack’s hilarious escapes from extremely British and comically inept soldiers, we’ve seen Jack do the old climactic switcheroo and yes, we freaking get that pirates drink rum. The trouble with this running gag thing is that, like memes, they have a very short shelf life. The fifteenth in-joke about hats and marooning on islands makes you roll your eyes like when somebody updated their Facebook status about Rebecca Black one hour after it became mainstream.

Very early on, the film makers realised that the POTC movies were simply a vehicle for Jack Sparrow. Which is why I’m puzzled as to why they would so effectively destroy this character. Jack is a slightly unhinged, no-good pirate who is always stealing stuff and searching for immortality and occasionally, he surprises everyone (including himself) by doing something selfless and immediately regrets it, of course. His brilliance lies in his unpredictability and he is not some grand saviour and defender of justice. When Jack Sparrow’s actions can be predicted in the first scene, when you know that he will be selflessly saving a damsel/Orlando Bloom’s life in the climax and when you know that Jack is the Good Guy of the movie (except for destroying the livelihood of a coal seller, who, probably languished in debtor’s prison for the remainder of his days), it is time to bury him and the series.

As for Penelope Cruz’s Angelica, rolling Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan into one character (who wants to kholor her hair) doesn’t help because Jack Sparrow never needed a love interest. Besides, you’d think that two ridiculously attractive people paired together would set the screen on fire, except, Jack and Gibbs had far more chemistry than those two. I also have some trouble understanding her character’s motivations. When a woman who grew up in a convent finds out that her father is one of the most terrifying and evil pirates that ever lived and who regularly performs needlessly cruel acts in front of her knowing very well that it annoys her, it is hard to believe that she is willing to die for him. Then again, one must have some serious daddy issues to sleep with Jack Sparrow.

Now when I enter a movie hall, I hand over my disbelief along with my stray pack of chewing gum. I expect physics to be defied (to a point) and movie logic to tease my temper (to an extent). I don’t even bat an eyelid when a cartload of coal bursts into a flaming inferno because of a stray spark. I nod along in the spirit of the thing when everybody in London believes that Jack is a magistrate because he has a wig on. Who knows, right? Maybe kaajal was a la mode for judges in them yesteryears. But when the entire movie is centred around searching for the Fountain of Eternal Youth and then you find out that it is actually the Fountain of Maximum 4- 8 Decades Of Extra Life, I feel cheated. I also find it hard to believe that an entire species of intelligent life forms never ever wondered why shiploads of men regularly baited them, caught one of them and made them weep using torture. A word of advise for mermaids: instead of behaving like starving sharks, try capturing a man, interrogate him and stop swimming into the same god-damned trap every single time.

I’m willing to throw this film a bone, though: Captain Barbossa daintily drinking rum out of a china teacup was priceless, the banter between Jack and Barbossa hasn’t (yet) grown old and those mermaids were nightmarishly terrifying till they started channelling Spider-man.

You know a series is finished when it takes tips from the Karan Johar School of Film-making (a.k.a. 5000 pointless celebrity cameos). They should have quit while they were at the top (somewhat-ish) and stopped make POTC sequels 3 movies ago. Unfortunately, judging by how much money this movie has already made, we may as well prepare ourselves for POTC 5, starring that horrid monkey and more apathetic shenanigans from the House of Depp.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chicago (2002)

(as posted on

If you can’t be famous, be infamous

I can think of very few movies that feature such shamelessly murderous protagonists who you’re still rooting for, hoping that get away with their crimes. Maybe it’s because of how much fun they seem to be having conniving and manipulating their way through the system, or because, as the ladies in the show-stopping Cell Block Tango number sing about their murdered beloveds, they had it coming. They had it coming all along.

I’ll cut to the chase: Roxie Hart (Renée Zellwegger) is a vaudeville-aspirant-turned-murderess, on trial in the Cook County Jail after she discovers the man she is having an affair with has been lying to her about the one thing that she really cares about - her ticket to the stage - and kills him. In prison, she comes across the matron Mama Morton (a deliciously fun Queen Latifah) and her own inspiration and fellow murderess, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones - also gloriously decadent). They must strive for the fame that will save them from the gallows in 1920s Chicago. Things aren’t looking too good for Roxie, until she chances into Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) - a lawyer with a heart of gold, gold from the five thousand dollar fee he charges for ensuring an acquittal. And so begins the circus.

And what a spectacle it is - the movie is one show stopping musical set-piece after another. We kick off with Velma Kelly’s superlative take on All That Jazz, a piece that serves to contrast her falling stardom with that of Roxie’s rising one. All of Chicago seems to hold its breath as Velma Kelly shimmies on stage, and in the audience, there’s Roxie, first looking on in awe, then imagining herself in the spotlight. There’s a nice splash of witty editing - Roxie clutching the handlebars in bed is contrasted with Velma clutching her backup dancer’s hands. Beyond a clever take, it’s also a great nod to the extent of Roxie’s desire to be on that stage.

Queen Latifah gives us a saucy little take on When You’re Good to Mama, an introduction to her tit-for-tat policy that Roxie will later learn to exploit. The aforementioned Cell Block Tango is an impressively written succession of monologues (“We parted on artistic differences - he saw himself as alive - and I saw him dead”) in a grand ode to murders that ought not be called crimes. Richard Gere shines in his introduction as the lawyer who really just cares about love, then literally strings a charmed media along in another brilliantly visualised sequence in They Both Reached For The Gun.

The breakneck pacing is allowed to breathe with a series of numbers throwing some more light on our leading ladies, with Velma trying to convince Roxie to get on with her act, while the true extent of Roxie’s own showbiz mania comes through in a faux stand up performance-of-her-dreams. Before you know it though, the movie is back to its breakneck showmanship, with the grand centrepiece, at least as far as I’m concerned - Give ‘em The ol’ Razzle Dazzle. The nature of the charade Billy Flynn’s spinning for the entire system is masterfully executed here, with the courtroom standing transformed into aBarnum and Bailey creation for Flynn’s ringmaster. Swift cuts juxtapose the theatre our lawyer’s trying to create, simultaneously merging it with the reality of the courtroom until the two are virtually indistinguishable. The cheering crowd would be just as at home in an auditorium, and the way Roxie poses coyly at the camera, you would think she’s on the red carpet.

Renée Zellwegger, who plays Roxie in Chicago, poses coyly at the camera on the red carpet.

Image above and on article thumbnail from Wikimedia Commons here.

Creative Commons License

The genius of Chicago, as I touched upon in the start, lies in this refusal to have a moral centre. If there is anyone with an honest heart in this movie, it's Roxie’s steadfastly loyal husband - and he doesn’t meet with a great fate himself. The murderers and the liars, on the other hand, frolic in their fame, and the movie has the conviction to let them get away with it all - conscience be damned. It’s unapologetic, debauched, gaudy, and the one of the best times I’ve had at the cinema.

And look, if you want a message movie, go watch Taare Zameen Par.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


George R.R. Martin may not believe in deadlines, but I am glad that HBO executives do. True to their word, the HBO original series, Game of Thrones released on April 17th and is already 3 episodes old. So far, the show has exceeded every expectation and has already been renewed for season 2.

Based on the still incomplete fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire written by the reigning world champion in procrastination, George R.R. Martin (who, yawn, has announced ANOTHER release date for the fifth book), this TV series follows the lives of several ruling families in the land of Westeros and their many political and bedroom intrigues.

If you have not read the books, let that not deter you from watching the series. That is, assuming you’re into medieval sword-and-sorcery tales of violence, sex, re-animated corpses and other terribly exciting things. Oh, and dragons. However, you should stop reading this post as there may be some spoilers ahead.


Now that we’ve shaken off the philistines and barbarians, let me answer the question that has been plaguing us since they announced the making of the TV series, “HOW IS THE CASTING ARE THE CHARACTERS ANYTHING LIKE I IMAGINED THEM OH GOD THEY’VE RUINED IT HAVEN’T THEY?” You may now rest easy knowing that the casting is perfect and the show is e p i c. That should not be surprising considering the fact that GRRM retained a degree of control over the casting and since the story is supposed to be in POV format, a good cast should’ve been their top priority. Even I could not have done a better job and I’ve spent countless hours pondering this very question.

The Starks are the obvious favourites: they don’t wear pretty garments and decorative armour. They’re grim, tough and mean business. Ned Stark (played by Boromir) is just as I’d imagined him– dutiful, honourable and weary (does anyone else see the startling similarities between him and Duke Leto Atreides I from the Dune universe?). Catelyn is more matronly than expected but the meatiest part of her role is yet to come. Bran is sometimes a darling little boy and often a solemn man. Arya is a spitfire, and Sansa is prissy. My favourite character, Jon Snow was a bit… healthier than expected but the actor has done a great job of portraying his resentment and love for the Starks and determination to make something of himself.

So far, Daenerys Targaryen only looks wistful and wears diaphanous garments. As for Khal Drogo, unfortunately I can only picture him running across a beach in slow motion wearing red swimming trunks. But that’s my problem, not Jason Momoa’s.

As for the Lannisters, the “the things I do for love” scene is so chilling and beautifully executed, that in those 15 seconds, the true natures of Jaime and Cersei are laid bare. And yes, Jaime is suave, irreverent and awesome. But the award has to go to Peter Dinklage (playing Tyrion), who brings the character alive in a way that makes all the others look two dimensional. It helps that he got the cheekiest dialogue (“Go celibate? The whores would go begging from Casterly Rock.”) and Dinklage delivers them so much better than the voice in my head ever did.

Coming now to the plot itself, many were afraid that they would not be able to do justice to the seemingly weighty tomes, but, if you think about it, GRRM devoted reams to describing sigils, mottos and symbols, that when translated to live action, they’re able to devote enough and more time for the characters. Also, despite being told in POV, the books are highly plot-centric. Characters have fixed personalities and are slow to evolve. Varys oozes around the place, Viserys is a horrible beast, Robb Stark is Lord Noble McDutiful, and are slaves to the plot. Few of them change without a major event happening to them, so I doubt a TV adaptation could do much injustice to the characters. A commendable thing about the show is that they’ve spent far less time on back story than expected with no lazy voice overs, and yet have managed to keep the story coherent.

At the end of the day, A Song of Ice and Fire is “The Bold and the Beautiful” of the fantasy book world with suspense, family feuds and amorous affairs. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy them; on the contrary I’ve subscribed to every blog that may have information on the fifth book’s release date. But it does not change the fact that all the women are Vixens, Xenas or Barbies, the plot can be predictable, the descriptions clunky and dialogue cringe-worthy on occasion. That said, this is a great series to be adapted to the screen.

While staying true to the books, the show is not shackled to them. It could’ve descended into a mess of clashing story arcs or become another easily replaceable period piece, but instead, they’ve distilled the characters, retained their best dialogues and scenes and given it a Sopranos (if they had swords and wore cloaks instead of guns and ill-fitted suits) feel, with graphic scenes and grittiness tempered with witty conversations and some beautiful cinematography that lingers instead of sprinting through the story just to hit all the check points (like the seventh movie about a certain boy wizard with a peculiar scar). Often, deeply intimate moments like a father watching his daughter learn fencing betray more about Westeros and its political climate than the plot exposition.

Now is it too much to hope that they won’t scrimp on the CGI budget and the dragons Rhaegal, Viserion and Drogon won’t look like the love children of the dragons from Dungeons & Dragons (2000) and Dragonheart(1996)?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Source Code (2011)

The Chicago skyline accosts you in the opening credits of the Source Code, as we follow the progress of an innocuous looking train chugging along to the heart of the city. As the train crosses a lake, you notice a couple of stray geese skimming the surface of the water.

This isn’t the last you’ve seen of them. Not by a long shot.

The Source Code can easily be written off as a one-gimmick movie by someone who’s just heard the plot. So you have a man who finds himself on a train, no idea how he got there, no idea why the face in the mirror doesn’t actually belong to him – at first. Complicating matters is the fact that the train explodes in 8 minutes. And a fragment of him survives the explosion to then be given vague mission details by a no-nonsense general. The outlines soon emerge – however, I’m going to resist spoiling any of it for you because this is a movie that needs to be discovered. All I’ll spill is that our man is to revisit these 8 minutes many, many times over the course of the movie, Groundhog Day style, to figure out the identity of the bomber.

Of course, the science of the thing is preposterous, of course it requires you to make a fair few leaps of faith, and of course some of this plot seems derivative. But never you mind – the Source Code is one hell of a thrill ride, and by the surprisingly emotional closing moments, all crises of faith for this reviewer at least lay quelled.

For one, this is a satisfyingly smart movie, that isn’t in love with its own cleverness, doesn’t go out of its way to be oblique, and actually allows discerning viewers to put together the pieces of the puzzle for themselves. Remember watching The Prestige? Remember enjoying the thrilling play-off between Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as things escalated to a thundering climax that …… made you want to slap Christopher Nolan. The twist in the tale was cheap and tacked on. It may have been foreshadowed, yes, but it was basically fantasy constructing a completely new rule of fantasy to deal with the vagaries of a convoluted plot. Now, the Source Code has the chance to teeter into that territory – so its wonderful how it gracefully sidesteps it. While it does feature the obligatory final act twist, it’s one of the more rewarding ones I’ve seen in a while particularly in a science fiction movie. I actually remembering hoping the movie would go there, and what a thrill when it actually managed to have the guts to take the idea to its logical conclusion.

Right, I know this all sounds horrendously vague, but you will thank me once you’ve seen the movie. What I can talk about more forthrightly is the great trio of performances that holds the movie together. When we’re dealing with so called “hard” sci-fi, its easy to step into ponderous territory, so losing the fun of the whole thing. This is yet another peril of the genre that the Source Code manages to side step, starting with Jake Gyllenhaal’s great self-aware portrayal of the protagonist. Leads in these movies are often thankless roles, with the director or the script usually labelled the star performer, but its easy to see this movie failing miserably with the overdone gruff-tortured portrayal that someone like Leonardo Di Caprio would’ve inflicted on it. There’s a great cheekiness that Gyllenhaal exhibits which significantly elevates the proceedings. Crackling chemistry with Michelle Monaghan, his co-passenger for the course of the movie helps too, particularly in grounding the stakes for the denouement. Vera Farmiga manages to bring her brand of empathy to another thankless character stereotype – tough outside, soft inside military commander.

But okay, back to the star performer. This is Duncan Jones’ sophomore effort, his first being the excellent (also sci-fi) Moon. In both his features, Jones exhibits a remarkable take on the contemporary science fiction genre: they are movies of ideas just as much as they set out to thrill. Both, too, let slip a fear of where technology might take us in less obvious ways than “Computers are evil! HAL FOR THE WIN!”.

Most importantly though, both confirm that Jones is definitely a filmmaker to watch out for.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

THOR (2011)

Mythology is all about useful life lessons: if you don’t like your future son-in-law, just turn him into stone, or that it’s completely not weird to be seduced by a swan if it is actually a God in disguise. Practically every half decent book/movie ever written has drawn inspiration from this well of stories. So it was only a matter of time before someone wrote a comic book detailing the earthly, modern-day, crime-fighting exploits of the Nordic God of thunder, Thor.

In the comic book series, “The Mighty Thor” (debuting in 1962), Thor is stripped off his divinity and his mighty hammer and exiled to Earth by his father, Odin to teach him a lesson in humility. He lives as a doctor, Donald Blake till he re-acquires his powers and once again becomes a God. In the meanwhile, he is constantly thwarted by his evil stepbrother Loki. He also joins Captain America, Iron Man, Spider Man and others to form the “Avengers” who fight evil and are called the “poor man’s Justice League” by DC Comics fans.

Retaining pretty much the same concept for the movie, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) is an immortal of Asgard (a world in a different dimension) and heir to the throne after his father, Odin, but he is headstrong, arrogant and impetuous. He is punished by Odin for his pride by sending him to Earth, to live as a mortal. There he meets the very pretty Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) who is some kind of space-time scientist, all sorts of adorably whacky hijincks happen, he become all human-y and decides to confront his evil stepbrother Loki and reclaim Asgard, but in a humble fashion.

The idea that Gods walk among us in the guise of broad shouldered, beautiful, invincible, celestial giants is an intriguing thought. It tickles us to think that Gods, who are omniscient and powerful, could actually learn from the experience of being a mortal. It is even funnier when a God walks into a café and asks for coffee by smashing the mug and yelling, “This drink, I like it. More!” or when He walks into a pet store and says, “Quickly man, I need a horse.”

But that does not mean that a movie actually set in the mythical Asgard/Jotunheimr is a good idea. Especially when “Asgard” ends up looking like the cover illustration of a cyberpunk penny dreadful. Since about 4/5ths of this movie is not set on Earth, but in CGI-gard and CGI-heimr, 4/5ths of this movie looks fake, tacky and has people dressed in very Shiny outfits who speak in Fantasy English (you know, living in realms, slaying fell beasts, riding noble steeds and calling each other ‘Sire’). Which is sad, because the 1/5th bit of the movie set on Earth was extremely funny and well-executed. I get that Asgard was supposed to evoke a feeling of fantasy and otherworldliness, but the only amazing thing about it was realizing that most of the actors in the movie performed their entire role before a green screen.

Even though Thor’s stint as a mortal was the central event in the movie, considering the fact that it changed him and helped him achieve his potential, surprisingly little time is devoted to this period. He cries in one scene and has a 5 minute discussion with Jane Foster about stars and science and that’s it. He becomes Thor the God Who Is Sympathetic to Humans. No doubt they decided to get their priorities straight and focus on the fight scenes (which were not exactly jaw-dropping), but everybody knew and expected this movie to be an origin story and was resigned to lots of character growth and dialogue. Then again, if they’d done that, I’m sure many would’ve complained about the insufficiency of cool action scenes. There’s just no pleasing fanboys.

As for the other characters, there was Odin was played by Anthony Hopkins who just used his script and costume from Beowulf (2007). Actually, I don’t think he even noticed that he was in a different movie. But he’s Anthony Hopkins; he’s earned the right to phone it in for the next 800 films. Loki on the other hand, was a somewhat well-developed character who is tormented by his demons, is resentful of Thor and yearns for Odin’s love. This is quite a departure from the Nordic legend where Loki screws around with the other gods merely because he can. In the movie on the other hand, Loki is a tragic character, which I suppose was a necessary change because audience find it very difficult to accept a character whose motivations are not clear. Finally, there was Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, i.e. Thor’s cronies who are aptly described by a character in the movie as “Xena, Jackie Chan and Robin Hood” (you can add Tall Gimli to that). Little jokes like that remind you that the movie-makers are aware that they are dealing with slightly clichéd characters, but then, who wants to invest more time developing supporting characters when there are Frost Giant fight sequences waiting to be shot?

A common complaint is that Jane Foster fell for Thor within 4 seconds of meeting him and spends the rest of the movie drooling all over him. In her defence, Chris Hemsworth is 3 parts dreamboat, 1 part hawt and has shoulders broad enough to bridge Asgard and Earth, so one really can’t blame her. Besides, it has always been the hallmark of Godhood that women rarely refused you, and if they did, you got to turn them into plants.

All in all, it was definitely an enjoyable movie, but with a generous heap of salt.