Monday, August 22, 2011


Sleazy, drug-addled, power-besotted psychopaths waving around their guns, driving their ostentatious foreign cars and abducting women from the streets? Some of us call that every Saturday night in Delhi but others may remember that as the time when Uday Saddam Hussein and his goons ruled the streets of Baghdad. And by most accounts, Uday Hussein was such a complete nutjob that you didn’t want to be anywhere in a five-kilometre radius of him, let alone be conscripted as his body double and take a bullet for him.

But that’s what happened to Latif Yahia, an Iraqi everyman who was, unfortunately, born with a striking resemblance to Uday Hussein. Threatened with his family’s death, he was made to undergo cosmetic and dental surgery and received extensive training to become Uday Hussein’s doppelgänger. He attended potentially dangerous events in Uday’s stead, even surviving many assassination attempts. In that course of time, he was made an unwilling spectator to Uday’s excesses and heinous acts of murder, torture and rape, surrounded by silent henchmen and terrified underlings.

The highlight of the film is, without doubt, Dominic Cooper. I’m terribly in awe of people who play twins (I still cant believe Edward Norton did not receive an Oscar nomination for his consummate performance in Leaves of Grass (2010)), but Dominic was not just playing twins: he was playing a man who had to play another man. Pretty meta, but Cooper pulled it off so convincingly that we can no longer taunt him about Mamma Mia!

This ought to have been the Film with Deep Discussions about Iraqi Political and Social Issues, but the film-makers wisely decided to concentrate on the small and sordid world of Uday Hussein’s posse and by doing so, conveyed the atmosphere of the entire nation. Oh, the devil was very much in the details: Latif practising a vitriolic speech about Kuwait in front of a mirror, or hinting at Saddam Hussein’s gradual fall from grace in the Iraqis’ eyes, or little reminders that everybody everywhere was constantly being watched. From the glitziest nightclubs to the meanest cottages, that stench of fear was palpable.

And that’s another very admirable quality about the film: the ability to portray the horror without overly graphic scenes. Just so we aren’t confused, there are plenty of violent scenes. But none of the torture scenes are even half as horrifying as watching Uday Hussein pulling over his Ferrari to ogle school girls. My only criticism of the film is that, in the end it felt too insubstantial. No doubt it was intended to be a tight script with nothing unnecessary, but even so, some parts of the plot felt glossed over and liberties were taken with the timeline in order to have a neat, streamlined film.

The trouble with biopics, especially biopics about politically-contentious issues is that they are always torn apart by the constant nitpicking over factual correctness. There are some reports that Latif’s entire story is bogus and that he’s just some small-time criminal using his looks to leverage book and movie deals. To them I respond: have you taken a look at this chap’s bio? He got himself a PhD in International Law, is now a human rights activist/ citizen of the world, and lists his political views as “Annoying Governments They are Bastards and Corrupt.” To top it all, he’s rocking a goatee and has a pimped out hat! This guy is my new hero. If his story is true, then good for him for getting away from that psycho and making something of himself. If he made it all up, then he’s quite the storyteller. Either way, I don’t care because the result is a riveting film.

Having said that, it does appear that Latif is also prone to that masculine trait of exaggeration (especially when they cannot be conclusively contradicted), so I’d take the whole bit about Latif being far, far more well-endowed than Uday and this causing great concern among the cosmetic surgeons with a large pinch of salt.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” asks God of Job, as Terrence Malick’s newest film begins.

Two and a half hours later, when it came to a close and the screen faded to black, I found it hard to move. It wasn’t out of being overwhelmed by the experience – not that I wasn’t – it was more simply my fear of breaking the stream of ideas that had, over the last two and a half hours, permeated my consciousness. At multiple points during the film, I got the sense of coming close to the brink of some grand revelation, only to have Malick decide he didn’t want to make it that easy for me, and snap away. With the black screen in front of me then, all I wanted was to hold those different frames of thought and force them all together.

It didn’t happen then – and now, more than a week since I’ve seen the film, it hasn’t happened yet. I have one kind of understanding of what it’s all supposed to mean, but I am certain that it remains my understanding alone. The Tree of Life displays a resolute unwillingness to push you into connecting its beautifully composed frames, and the end result I would imagine, is a composite of different interpretations for different viewers, as its grand abstractions veer into some narrow personal alley of nostalgia.

Like any great work of art, don’t you think?

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”

Twenty minutes in, we pull away from stolen moments of suburban life, to the creation of life itself. In images that evoke quiet wonder, we follow the journey of a molten rock that becomes the Earth, right through to the birth of consciousness on the planet.

Malick pays off this narrative gambit with another series of quick sequences that are equally extraordinary: another birth of consciousness, this time of one particular life itself. We move from birth to perception to triumph to jealousy to ennui. At one level, the images that precede might be telling us about the insignificance of human life in the grander scheme of things – but no, I think Malick is going for something more generous here. He’s equating the two miracles instead – the grand triumph that is every single life lived, with the grand triumph that resulted in a speck of consciousness arising in some far corner of the universe.

Large segments of the movie are whispered to us – different characters take up the narrative, all hushed seemingly in prayer. The way of grace and the way of nature are the choices laid down before our protagonist – his mother represents the former, and the sequences with Jessica Chastain are segues of controlled rapture. The way of nature is represented in all its nasty, brutish and short glory by Brad Pitt, and his scenes crackle with misplaced menace. Hunter McCracken is the son who has to chose either path , and in an astonishingly assured performance, he conveys the mix of anger, frustration and guilt largely without speaking.

Prior to The Tree of Lifes’s Palm D’Or win at Cannes, the first screening was met by a balance of jeers and cheers. It’s easy to see how this could be a deeply polarizing movie – all you need to despise it is a healthy dose of cynicism and a lack of faith in Malick’s overall vision.

No, The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone, but then as Roger Ebert would have you know – a movie that’s made for everyone, isn’t particularly for anyone at all.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Making a prequel to one of the most iconic films, and a franchise so firmly embedded in popular culture that it’s practically an emblem of geekdom? They might as well have worn a placard around their necks saying, “PAN ME.”

Planet of the Apes (1968) begins with Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts waking up from suspended animation which lasted for two millennia. They land on an alien planet populated by wild, mute humans and intelligent, civilized, talking apes who are the dominant species on the planet. The apes are surprised to find intelligent humans and feel threatened by them. Heston finally escapes to a region which contains evidence of an older, now-extinct civilization. There he realises that he was on Earth all this time. Humanity had utterly destroyed itself, and a new species stepped up to take their place. It’s a devastating, bleak ending and easily one of the greatest moments in cinema.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a lot of difficult questions to answer: what happened during the time the astronauts were in suspended animation? How did 6 billion people, skyscrapers and other human paraphernalia disappear? And more importantly, how did the apes get so damned smart? I’ll give them this much: they did attempt to address these questions. And yes, they employed oodles of Movie Science, which is perfectly acceptable, to a limit. But when handy, spray-on versions of super-intelligence virus/drugs appear, you know they’ve gone too far.

James Franco plays a brilliant young scientist who is conducting animal trials for an Alzheimer’s disease cure by employing the same plot device as the scientists in Deep Blue Sea: injecting Science into an animal (chimpanzees in this movie) to make it smart. Due to an accident, the project is terminated and all the chimps are killed, except for one. Franco takes the baby chimp, Caesar, home and brings him up as a child. As Caesar grows up to be something of a genius, he realises that he’s an oddity and there’s no place in the world for him. It is when he breaks out of his comfortable family circle that the dominant-subservient relationship between humans and animals is revealed to him.

If the entire movie had been about Caesar’s attempt to understand and reconcile himself with the world, it would’ve been an instant sci-fi classic. Caesar’s character was clearly modelled on Charlton Heston’s character and the original Caesar from the franchise. The confusion, alienation from one’s own species, the inability to be understood despite being able to communicate all provided so much potential for a great film, but were given short shrift in order to concentrate on monkey fight sequences. What started off as a sensitive portrayal of Caesar’s relationship with humanity, became a frenzy of idiotic scenes, each trying to top the other in WTF-ness. At one point, all the apes in an animal rescue shelter began to take on prison movie personalities: the Newbie, the Morgan Freeman, the Silent Giant from Minority Community, the Sadist and the Sullen Ex-Leader. And this wasn’t even close to being the silliest part of the film.

Hollywood screenwriters, you cannot squeeze 2000 years into a movie, unless you are Stanley Kubrick. Just because evolution is achingly slow and not the stuff the average movie-goer wants to see, doesn’t mean you should squeeze it into 15 minutes either. Even Movie Science will not stretch that far.

As for the actors, all of them ranged between passable to meh, mostly because their roles did not ask for more. Tom Felton and Freida Pinto had very, uh… “flexible” accents, Franco was competent and John Lithgow was (predictably) one of the brighter spots in this stupidfest of a film.

And I cannot stress on this point enough: there were far far FAR too many references to the movie franchise. Easter eggs are fun for all ages but peppering each page of the script with “tributes” got annoying and took away from the serious atmosphere they tried to create. The first one you spot is cute, but after that, the sheer number of references spirals into good-lord-not-another territory.

Like this, except every three minutes.

Unexplained questions are the hallmark of a good film. Inception was insanely awesome, because it left enough space for rabid fans to spin conspiracy theories but otherwise covered its tracks well, plot-wise. Gigantic plot holes on the other hand, are the consequence of too little research and too much cocaine. Understandably, science fiction calls for a lot of audience imagination. We do not yet have the science to create credible futuristic technology, and I’m more than willing to look beyond that. Previously, films were happy to leave such technology as mere plot devices, and use the two hours to ponder on the consequences and ethics of such technology. These days, it feels like our infatuation with technology, our capabilities and CGI is the reason why science fiction films are just not working any more. They are too keen to provide answers for irrelevant questions that nobody is asking.

However, this film does leave you with that timeless question: Why don’t movie scientists believe in titanium/carbon nanotube reinforced cages?

Just for funsies.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Another alien invasion flick, another disappointment. Although, to be fair, C&A started off extremely promisingly. The idea of an alien invasion set in the late 1800s is a great concept because common awareness of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets came much later. If aliens did invade in those times, it's more likely that such attacks would've been ascribed to demons or Satan. But this is where C&A failed, for me. It's true, they do call the invading aliens as "demons", but not one of them showed that fear of the supernatural or turned to god, the bible or even a priest for assistance. They just picked up their guns and went to shoot the aliens down, like they were invading mountain lions.

Taking inspiration from one of my favourite websites, The Editing Room, where Rod Hilton writes brilliant and witty abridged scripts for movies as he sees them, I thought that instead of a review, this film deserved an abridged script.

Daniel Craig is not thrilled with his Queer Eye makeover.



(DANIEL CRAIG wakes up in a desert with amnesia and a futuristic metal bracelet on his wrist)

Daniel Craig looks freakishly plasticky
and has creepy eyes. Obviously he's the alien.

Actually, I'm the cowboy. Instead of losing my
shit at the sight of this incredibly alien piece
of technology that is at least 200 years ahead
of my time, I'm going to treat it as a slightly
irritating accessory and ninja-murder some extras
for fun.

Hmm, it says here on my Western Movie Checklist
that I've got to head over to the nearest tavern,
drink shots of whiskey through gritted teeth and
pick a fight in the town square with the local

(He does so).


Whoa fuck! Olivia you crazy creep, have you been
staring at me for the last ten minutes?

Both of us are looking for something.

Wow, that was deep. You should start a tarot
reading business.

(After more than half an hour into the film)

(checks title of the film)
It appears that the movie title is Cowboys AND aliens.
Okay time for some explosions and alien ships that look
like trilobites, which will blow up the town and lasso
them a bunch of people! Woo!

(The town sheriff, the bookish innkeeper's wife and Harrison Ford's son (who looks suspiciously like Shia LeBeouf. COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT) aka local asshole are all kidnapped by the aliens. Daniel's bracelet decides to wake up and shoots lasers at the ships).

Nice bracelet you have there, Daniel! Despite
this being a back of beyond rural hamlet, we
wont suspect it to be a government conspiracy
or witchcraft. Carry on, good sir!

Standard issue legendary bad guy who likes torturing
people reportin' for duty. Graar, I encourage nepotism!
Rip that other man in half while we're at it!

Say Harrison, why is it that the coolly evil, sinister
and intelligent villains always end up raising dumbasses
for sons?

You whelp! At least I wasn't a pretend-bad guy in that shitfest,
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Mr. Ford sir, did you not read the title of the film?
Cowboys are the traditional heroes which makes aliens
the bad guys so you tone it down and be Daniel Craig's
Sean Connery and a father figure to me.

(Harrison, Daniel, Olivia, Orphan and a Motley Crew of Townspeople whose relatives have been kidnapped set out on a mission to find these aliens that are using technology completely beyond their comprehension, and presumably wing it after finding them).


(Lone alien wanders around their camp and finds the young orphan. Instead of ripping him to pieces like it did to all the other people it encountered, the alien chooses to gently stroke the orphan's face. No, seriously).


What? No, don't be stupid. I'm just passing time by
caressing your face till your rescuers arrive.
Okey dokey here they are, toodaloo kid!

(Meanwhile, the innkeeper is learning to use a gun).

Dude, you must be the only innkeeper in the entire
goddamn west to not know how to use a gun. I'm a PRIEST
and I can shoot like an ace, for fuck's sake. When you
opened the tavern, did you expect to receive patronage
solely from society marms?

Psh, whatever grandpa. You just made a heartwarming,
sagely speech. You know what that means right?
You just Samuel L. Jackson'd yourself.

(Alien shows up and kills the Preacher).

(The aliens attack and the motley crew uselessly shoot at them with their shitty old timey guns).

Hey Daniel, by all means continue to ride around
and admire the fucking scenery and NOT USE THE ONLY

(Daniel does so).

Oh, and Daniel, it'd be great if you and I could take
a break from this alien invasion thing and lovingly stare
into each others' eyes. It would be better if we could do it
in the vicinity of that alien that is definitely not dead.

Yup. not dead.

(kills Olivia Wilde).

Nooooo! Not Olivia!

Wait a second, something's missing. Let me go through
my Checklist again: brooding gunslinger... check, gun-toting
female... check, small orphan... check, gang of outlaws
... check, Sam Elliot look-alike... check. Aha, I have it!
Apaches! Let's go find some.

(find some apaches)

Hey Apaches, we have dead Olivia Wilde with us and don't
quite know what to do with her.

Let's burn her and see what happens.

(Olivia Wilde comes back to life).

I have come from a place above the stars. My planet was
destroyed by these aliens who are looking for gold.
GET IT? GOLD RUSH? Anyhoo, these aliens are kidnapping
people to study human weaknesses. I know every thing
about the aliens and what that bracelet of your does and...

Wait a second, you raging twat. You KNEW exactly what
the aliens were up to and how to use my alien bracelet
as a weapon and you chose to shut your mouth all this
time when people are getting killed and abducted and
whatnot. WHAT THE FUCK?

I wasn't sure if you would've believed me.

Bitch I have a laser shooting bracelet on my hand, and
flying machines with demons in it blew up the whole town.
My disbelief got suspended 3 minutes into the movie.

Oh, also I still have amnesia and more that half the movie
is over. How can we fix it and fill in the backstory?

Native American medicine got that shit covered, brah.

I got my memory back. I just remembered how I got
my alien bracelet. Apparently I was in an alien
ship and tripped and my arm fell onto it. Thank god
aliens are total asshats who leave weapons lying around.


Yeehaw! Die aliens, die! Humans rule!

Are you seriously killing us with spears and wooden
arrows when 50 bullets didn't seem to be able to do
the trick earlier?

Hey, Rule #1 of Invading Earth (Hollywood-Style).
Aliens are only invincible in the first half of the
movie. By the climax, they're worse than Stormtroopers
at surviving.

Besides, we're the Ewoks of this movie so you're doomed.

Hmm, you're right. Besides, we don't know why we equipped
each of our crewmembers with weapon-bracelets powerful
enough to shoot down our own ships. And why the fuck did we
invent weapons when we have no way of centrally monitoring
them or shutting them down?

Rule #2, sonny jim. Only the absolute fuckwits of the
universe ever invade Earth.

The aliens realise the depth of their breathtaking stupidity and obligingly die.