Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)

THIS. This is what I go to the movies for.

I encountered David Mitchell's novel on which this movie is based back in the twelfth grade. It wasn't the easiest book to read - starting innocuously enough with an 18th century journal aboard a ship, it abruptly skips to another narrative about an aspiring composer set in the early twentieth century, before taking another sharp left turn into a '70s conspiracy thriller. Next up are stories about an aging, institutionalized publisher, a futuristic dystopian tale, and finally, a post apocalyptic quest. Mitchell allows for this last story to conclude, then doubles back to finish the other stories in reverse order. So yes, it wasn't a particularly easy read, but it remains one of the most satisfying - and daring - literary feats I have yet encountered. I was naturally nervous about the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer's adaptation, wondering how they could possibly bring this seemingly unfilmable novel to the screen.

Well, they brought it. And how.

If the book was daring, this movie is flat out insane in the best way possible. No more nested narratives - the six stories now happen simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other in a mind-boggling act of orchestration. What this juxtaposition does quite beautifully is enhance the sometimes dormant themes of the novel, and a clearer picture emerges before us. Cloud Atlas is ultimately the tale of how the human spirit strives for freedom, how the small everyday acts of bravery are no less heroic than the grand tales of rebellion. In its own way, it takes the history of humanity and paints it into a wondrous narrative that spans time and genre. 

And it doesn't stop there. The other huge gambit the directors take is casting actors across different roles in different time periods. Except for bits where the makeup team occasionally fails them, this is a perfect decision. The novel snuck in the theme of reincarnation through hinting that the protagonists in each its stories were iterations of each other - the movie manages to take that theme and suffuse it with deeper meaning. Lovers cross and re-cross paths, meeting each other in one period, losing each other in another. One character's ultimately triumphant struggle with his dark side becomes a motif across each story. Connections established in one lifetime determine the choices made in another. Days after watching this film, I'm still going over its intricate puzzle pieces in my head.

This is incredible film-making. Through its final half hour, I was fighting back tears of astonishment, marvelling at the way it managed to work through moments of such grandeur to touch on experiences so deeply intimate. The romantics said that if you describe the particular with enough detail, the universal will begin to seep through - Cloud Atlas approaches this situation in the reverse, and through its broad abstractions, it finds its emotional reverberations. 

One of the greatest book to film adaptations of all time, and hands down, the best movie of the year.

Friday, October 19, 2012

English Vinglish (2012)

Most people who grew up in the 80s or 90s will fondly remember the British TV show, Mind Your Language“.  The show hasn’t aged too well unfortunately, what with all the racist stereotyping and today,  its worth is only nostalgic.  I often wondered how a remake of the TV show might fare in the thicket of PC rules we have today.  Thanks to English Vinglish, we have an answer:  very well indeed!  In addition to the predictable array of misspoken English jokes, this film beautifully portrayed how wide that gulf of language can be.  English isn’t just a spoken language with rules of grammar and punctuation, we were reminded, but is also a culture.
Sridevi plays a typical Marathi housewife who finds herself increasingly alienated from her children and husband who all speak fluent English.  They “lovingly” mock her for her mispronunciations and are visibly embarrassed by her.  During a lengthy visit to the US to help her sister prepare for her niece’s wedding, she can no longer bear the alienation caused by the language and signs up for an English crash course. There she meets a motley crew of foreigners who want to learn English for their own personal quests.  Her quest is for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t from the loved ones.  On the surface, the English class is composed of stereotypes: the Mexican nanny, the Pakistani taxi driver, the Tamil software engineer, the middle-class housewife etc.  But as we get to know Sridevi better and realize that there is no such thing as a “typical housewife”, we understand that these characters also want to escape from the pigeonholes they have been put in.  And they share such a great camaraderie that one does not even notice the “I like Rajnikanth and idli” cliches.
Much has been said about Sridevi’s comeback so I wont say much more except to add my adulation.  The movie rested entirely on her shoulders and she pulled it off with such grace that it is not surprising that men still have her poster up on their walls.  And her sarees!  Appropriately dressed-down enough to be credible as a housewife’s daily wardrobe, but so colourful and elegant.  Britney Spears, THIS is what a comeback looks like.
Anybody who has ever been to a foreign country will know how terrifying it can be to do as the locals do.  Even a visit to the supermarket or a restaurant is fraught with fears:  am I doing it correctly?  Have I committed a faux pas? And if something goes even slightly wrong,  mouth goes dry, everything in front of your eyes start swimming,  sound is muted and all you can hear is your pounding heart.  If you don’t speak the language, so much the worse for you.  English Vinglish portrayed this feeling so well in a scene where Sridevi tries to order a sandwich and it was so taut with humour, confusion and mortification that it has to have been based on a real life experience.
But strangers aside, this film beautifully handled that generation gap issue:  parents whose children not only speak English at home but whose tastes have grown so alien to their parents.  I remember the first time my family ordered pizza from the newly-opened Pizza Hut (at my sibling’s and my insistence). We’d heard so much about this dish from the sitcoms we were addicted to, that it HAD to taste amazing, surely?  We picked one that didn’t have any mushrooms (because mushrooms are a gateway meat according to my parents).  Apart from complaining about the cost, my parents’ view on pizza was, “too much garlic“.  Since then,  pizza became one of those mysterious things that the children liked for no apparent reason but something they lovingly tolerated.  So too does Sridevi lovingly tolerate trips to the cafe with boys and jazz dance classes, but what she won’t tolerate is her daughter’s assumption that these interests are somehow better than Hindi and laddoos.
I had two problems with the film though.  First, those absurd, jingoistic, we-are-better-than-USA jokes had no place in a film with such a strong script.  Second, I took issue with the total effacement of Sridevi’s needs.  All she wanted from her family was some respect and recognition of what she does for them and completely puts their needs before her’s.  Children, I can understand, but even the needs of her uncaring, somewhat douchy husband? I don’t get that.  I understand that this is supposed to represent the reality of housewives, but her utter lack of any sexual desire or temptation to cheat did her character a disservice and bought into that ‘Indian women are so selfless and awesome that they would never so much as look at a man other than their husband, even if a caring, gorgeous Frenchman threw himself at them’ cliche.  But these are tiny, overlook-able defects in an otherwise wonderful film.
(My mother’s verdict on the film, “Yes, you were an insufferable brat too. Sridevi’s ability to emote has diminished considerably.  Must be botox.”)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Aiyyaa (2012)

       In the first year of law school, in the process of getting high on each other, my friends and I had a particularly inane conversation. Out of that conversation was born an even more inane idea. We would, at the appropriate moment, stage a snake dance. We'd be a snake family, hiss in synchronized serpitude, arch our hands above our heads threateningly, perhaps do a few lolls on the ground. It was gloriously silly and of course we wouldn't EVER commit to it, but just the thought of doing it would make us convulse with hysterical laughter. 

         Aiyyaa is the result of someone committing to such an idea. It is a deranged film, high on its ideas, unashamed and unembarrassedly ploughing ahead with the loopy situations it engineers. It is crass and loud and pretty darn silly. Its also the best, most hilarious time I've had at the movies in quite a while. 

         Now this wouldn't necessarily be a memorable film if it stuck to that template. It'd dispense with its duties as a no-holds-barred entertainer, and that'd be all. But what Aiyyaa does is actually contain two completely different genres, two completely different kinds of movies, that may as well have been directed by two completely different people who hadn't seen each others scripts while making the movie. There is the unsubtle laugh riot I've mentioned. But there is also this other achingly melancholic, overbearingly sensual piece of film-making that jumps out at strategic points in the madness. That other movie is about a girl who is in love with a smell, and the fact that it belongs to a rather attractive man makes things that much more difficult. When her olfactory senses are triggered, she is unable to do anything but follow the source, chasing the man in a dazed state  through increasingly narrow alleys. Even as her yearning escalates in intensity, he remains seemingly oblivious to her presence.

      This other movie is not just an occasionally powerful piece of film-making, its also an incredibly refreshing one. This is one of the few Bollywood movies I've seen where the female gaze so unashamedly objectifies the male body, where sexuality is celebrated as such a powerful, positive force. A scene where Rani Mukherjee and Prithviraj stand on opposite sides of a curtain, his body as close as possible to her without her actually registering her presence - the screen absolutely throbs with erotic charge. There is similar sensuality in the sequences where she follows him down a street which explodes with colour as a religious procession marches past. 

         Aiyyaa then, is not a conventionally good movie. It doesn't play by the established rules of narrative, it can be too loud at parts and slow down too much at others. This juxtaposition of genres doesn't always work. But, if the purpose of art can be to move you, if it is to make you feel, vital, alive, if cinema can also be about the thrill of the unexpected - then Aiyyaa is a roaring success. It will be compared, and be held as inferior, in scrutiny to last week's English Vinglish. Both are "comeback" vehicles, both feature defining performances by heroines who can hold an entire movie. And yes, while English Vinglish is the technically better movie, while it gets the script and performances right and goes for the heartwarming finish, its also less vital in some ways. The boundaries of cinema are pushed by the ambitious failures rather than the conventional genre products. 

       Go watch this movie. And even if you hate it - and there is a reasonable chance you might - you will have experienced something far, far removed from what the conventions of Bollywood have given you to expect. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

BARFI! (2012)

Tired of sweeping shots of the Andheri sky line and the protagonist being all pensive about the mafia on Marine Drive? Don't fret, because Calcutta is now Bollywood's go-to gritty city with its mysterious (but romantic) alleyways, gritty (but romantic) trams and Durga statues. Anurag Basu's latest film, Barfi! takes us to '70s Darjeeling and Calcutta to present day.

A ridiculously gorgeous girl, Shruti (played by Ileana D'Cruz) moves to Darjeeling and meets the eponymous hero, Barfi, who is a charming rake and was born deaf. They promptly fall in love with each other, even though she is engaged to another man.  She decides to marry her betrothed because Barfi's disability frightens her (although, I'd have empathized if her reason had been his total lack of a job, salary and the desire to get one).  In the meanwhile, Barfi is desperately in need of money and abducts the unloved and autistic daughter of the richest man in Darjeeling, Jhilmil, and hopes to ransom her.  

Ranbir Kapoor as Barfi was great and I applaud him for sticking to what he knows best.  He has played the same charming funny honest optimist in nearly every film he's been in. Barfi is also a similar character, except without the talking and he effortlessly glided.  Priyanka Chopra on the other hand was not convincing;  she clearly put some effort into this role but there was something missing.  Someone should've told her that incessant lip-biting and an odd gait don't constitute character development. I was also unable to look past the sexy bombshell persona she normally inhabits and her self-consciousness was palpable.  That said,  she had a couple of good moments like when she starts becoming conscious of her appearance and her sexual awakening.  

Barfi! was no doubt a beautiful film but it just did not impress. Like Priyanka Chopra's performance, it got so many things right because it took every opportunity possible to remind us that it was quirky and touching and ended up feeling gimmicky from overusing motifs. The raconteur-musicians were a great idea, but in this film, they were jarring and unnecessary.  The Charlie Chaplin routine was cute at first but did not belong in the second half of the film and there were just far, far, far too many chases.  I don't know about you, but I am still recuperating from chase sequence fatigue after Gangs of Wasseypur 2.

And all those movie references and homages-- again, they were cute but to what end? The Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton references and Donald O'Connor's iconic "Make 'em Laugh" tribute were all very well made and nostalgic blah-blah but I still don't understand what their purpose was, apart from providing Anurag Basu several opportunities to flaunt his deep knowledge of film.  Now compare Barfi! with Benny and Joon (1993), starring Johnny Depp.  I wont say that the former is a blatant copy of the latter, but the similarities do pile up.  In Benny and Joon, an eccentric, laconic cinephile (Johnny Depp) enters the lives of siblings Benny and Joon. Joon is a schizophrenic and is unable to live without assistance. Charmed by Johnny Depp's eccentric ways,  Joon falls in love with him and they live happily ever after. Guess how Johnny Depp charmed her?  Chaplin/ Keaton tricks. The Chaplin/Keaton sketches fit in because it reinforced Johnny's character's love for film. What was Ranbir Kapoor's reason?  Anurag Basu had a drawer full of cool ideas and he decided to stick them all into the same movie.  At some points it almost felt as if Basu built his film around the quirkiness rather than let them add colour to the story.

Also, was I the only one who got vaguely creeped out by the Barfi-Jhilmil story line? So here we have this grown man, Barfi, who abducts an intellectually disabled woman who has the faculties of a child, keeps her with him (forcibly in the beginning) for months... and then proceeds to marry her. I get that they were going for the whole love-knows-no-boundaries-and-blossoms-everywhere thing  but Stockholm Syndrome much?

But hey, I'm no h8r. Like I said, the movie looked great and it is difficult to detest it. Darjeeling and Calcutta are lovely places and even though Anurag is a bit obsessed with tracking shots, it was all very lush and pretty.  The story was certainly more than a National Association for the Deaf educational video and it did rise above being one of those preachy, the-disabled-are-just-like-us films (I'm looking at you, Taare Zameen Par).  Was it an obvious tear jerker? Yes, but that isn't such a bad thing.  And we really must encourage this new trend of Bollywood leading ladies de-glamourizing themselves for a role.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

5 Things Hollywood Needs To Do

Thanks to our four devoted readers and spambots, RWB is 50,000 pageviews old!  Danish and I decided to commemorate this momentous event by putting together a handy checklist of things Hollywood urgently needs to do.  

Now Danish will tell you that he has had enough of the remakes and reboots, but let me assure you that one half of RWB is pragmatic about these things.  Let's face it, they wont stop making reboots because they know we'll watch every last one of them. I say, bring on The Dark Knight Rises Again starring Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.  But without further ado, here's our list of top five things Hollywood needs to do!

Danish Says:

5. That searing gay romantic drama with Ryan Gosling and Benedict Cumberbatch as the star crossed lovers.
Come now Hollywood, it's been a while since Brokeback, and while it was fun watching Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor cavorting in I Love You Phillip Morris, the time is ripe for a scorching romance with same-sex lovin'. And what better, vulnerable lovers than Gosling/Cumberbatch - the latter's had some experience in this regard with a passing gay subplot in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but damnit I need to see some action, stat.

Also, it's important that Michael Fassbender have a supporting role as a jealous former lover. The story could resolve itself by having the three of them agree to a menage a trois at the end.

4. Ceasefire on the reboots and remakes.
Okay I did kind of like The Amazing Spiderman. And it doesn't look like Total Recall blows completely. But really guys, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have more cinema where we weren't intimately familiar with the details of the climax? I'm not even saying they need to create original screenplays - there's a wealth of fantastic literary material out there  waiting to be adapted. Cloud Atlas is one of the unusual book-movie transitions coming out this year, and even if it turns out to be less than stellar, I hope it achieves atleast some amount of success, simply for the reason that big bucks were spent on such a dazzlingly ambitious - and difficult - idea. More of that, Hollywood.

3. More musicals.
Because the notable musicals of the last few years have been, well ... Burlesque. Rock of Ages. High School Musical 3. It's been a while since something on the calibre of Once came along, and more than a decade since we were razzle-dazzled by Chicago and Moulin Rouge.

Let's bust some moves Hollywood. 

(Note: this is NOT an appeal for more dance movies. At least not until they figure out that it's possible to have dance movies which feature a plot beyond a) bringing together motley crew to b) save some revered institution)

2.  A Community Movie
Give the creative team a reasonable budget, and let them create ultimate horror-romance-comedy-scifi-western-thriller. There will be no more need for cinema once Dan Harmon and team are done.

1. Ban Dev Patel
'Nuff said. 

Lekha Says:

5.  Appreciate Edward Norton. 
Seriously, this guy is superb.  Right from his first film, Primal Fear, he has been regularly blowing us away with his formidable acting prowess. Too much of a baby face, we accused him. BAM. He comes back with American History X. Okay, but enough with the serious roles,  loosen up and have some fun in a shitty movie we said. He gives us The Italian Job. Not cult enough we said? Fight Club.  Not commercial enough we said. The Incredible Hulk.  This man has given us everything we have ever asked for and yet, Hollywood regularly lets him down with crappy scripts or poor promotion for his films.  The lowest blow has to be his non-nomination for Leaves of Grass and to a slightly lesser extent, for The Painted Veil.  I thought he was wonderful as the responsible but naive scout leader in Moonrise Kingdom, so please give him an Oscar or two for jobs well done.

4. Stop Splitting The Last Book Of A Series Into 2 Movies.
I can only imagine studio executives' faces lighting up in joy and wonderment when Warner Bros announced that they would be splitting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts, as they looked at each other in wonderment, "We can do that?! CHA-CHING!" 

Now every trilogy/series being made into a movie is pulling a Harry Potter:  Twilight, The Hunger Games, and most recently, The Hobbit.  Cinema has become too much a part of our lives for us to stop watching them.  We WANT to be invested in your characters, Hollywood. We WANT to spend money on your overpriced popcorn and soak ourselves in your glossy dreams.  SO STOP TRYING TO ROB US BLIND BY UNNECESSARILY PADDING YOUR SCRIPT TO STRETCH IT OUT INTO TWO MOVIES. THIS IS NOT NECESSARY.

Yes Peter Jackson, I am talking to you.  You are officially removed from my Silmarillion TV Series Fantasy Crew because I don't want to spend my life savings on a 1000 part series.

3. Start Making Romantic Comedies Memorable Again.
With Nora Ephron gone, it truly is the end of an era.  Is the romantic comedy genre dead?  We had No Strings Attached/ Friends With Benefits which were eminently watchable for the most part. The Five Year Engagement was cute but formulaic. Bridesmaids and Easy A were standouts, but apart from the odd film or two, most lack that je ne sais quoi which defined romcoms from the 90s and early noughties.

We want genuinely funny, infinitely quotable movies with their heart in the right place and infused with just a hint of reality and wisdom. We don't want your shitty movies that reinforce stereotypes and pander to what Hollywood perceives as "female demographic".  We need those romantic comedies where there is just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. We need more lone reeds. 

Of course, we are willing to settle for Hugh Jackman in period costume.

2.  Give Us A Break From the Traditional Superhero Films.
With The Avengers' unprecedented success and even The Amazing Spiderman's modest takings, superhero films are now box office safety nets for studios.  Never before has this genre been taken this seriously nor has it generated this much money, so much so that that this is how our weekends are going to be for the coming years:  Captain America 2, Thor 2, Superman 2, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Avengers 2, Batman reboot, X-Men: 2 and these are the only ones that have been greenlit. 

Stop and think, Marvel/ DC. Don't overmilk this cash cow. Give us some time to recover from TDKR and The Avengers.  Bring out the Collectors' Edition DVDs, we'll buy them and rewatch them rabidly and we promise not to get all snooty about how much better the comic books are.  

But do make more movies like Chronicle and Kickass. Those were awesome.

1. Stop Scrimping on the 3D/ CGI Budget.
Really, in this day and age, there are no more excuses.  We've seen some shockingly good CGI techniques and we, The Movie Beasts demand nothing but the best.  After having seen some incredible visual spectacles in Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Hugo, The Adventures of Tintin and several other recent films, crappy CGI or afterthought 3D are unacceptable. And stop re-releasing old classics and Titanic in 3D, it simply does not add anything to the film and just reinforces our perception that Hollywood is run by a bunch of greedy cokeheads.

(Dis)Honourable Mention: Stop rewarding Adam Sandler and Michael Bay with movie scripts. 
Unless these two take a good hard look at their professional choices and totally revamp their styles, it is safe to say that they are both well past their sell-by dates. One could argue that Michael Bay is an aberration who never deserved a director's chair in the first place, but that's a story for another day.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Second take (2012)

In  Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns comic, Lana Lang is attempting to defend Batman: "We live in the shadow of crime . . . with the unspoken understanding that we are victims-of fear, of violence, of social impotence. A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been in our hands. We are under siege  -  He's showing us that we can resist." It's an important point, one that has seemed crucial to Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman universe. The idea here in those lines is about transferring some amount of autonomy to the citizens of Gotham city - "the power is, and always has been in our hands".  More on that in  a bit.

It's a bit hard - nay impossible - to be completely objective about a movie series if you've been the kind of fan that Nolan's Batman films made you.  If you were a proud comic book nerd, you gushed at the ways the movies had paid homage to different parts of the canon, ultimately weaving in a new narrative that stands proudly aside the best of what DC has to offer. And if you were just the regular cinemagoer, you marvelled at the complexity of the narrative, the brilliance of the performances, the sheer thrill value of the movies. 

The problem with being a fan is that it becomes particularly difficult to write a review resembling anything approaching balance. I sensed fleeting moments of disappointment within myself while watching the Dark Knight Rises, and yet when a friend began dissing the movie as we walked out, the rabid fan in me took over. You will not dismiss this movie, the fan said, you will acknowledge the brilliance of Nolan's vision, you will accept that this is the best conclusion to a motion picture trilogy yet, you will ... you get the drift.  But over the days that have passed since I saw the movie, it is that mild disappointment that has festered and grown, not the admiration for the parts that worked. 

Try as I might, I have been unable to love The Dark Knight Rises the way I loved some of its individual parts, or the way I loved its predecessors.  So what did I appreciate?

One part of Bane's plan: the idea of having Gotham cut off from the external world and be forced to retreat into a Hobbesian state of nature. The fact that it must face this, its greatest challenge punctuated the absence of Batman,  and also the absence of its state sanctioned law enforcers. To the extent the movie focuses on that, its conflicts are grandiose, its stakes never higher.

Anne Hathaway: Her Selina Kyle takes pride of place in the canon of magnetic characters Nolan has etched out. Every line reading she does is delicious, and every time she's on screen, the movie fires up with a vitality it lacks otherwise.

The sheer spectacle: Except for the opening sequence which was filmed in a curiously flat manner, the set pieces in this finale upstage anything that's come before by a long shot. The mid-movie football field implosion is fantastic, as is the frenetic final half hour.

But then,  there is the question of what the movie does to Gotham city. This has been a series as much about the battle for Gotham's soul as it has been about Bruce Wayne's.  The Dark Knight crystallized this by giving us the two standout sequences of the series - and perhaps cinema as a whole.  There was the terrible choice that the citizens of the city had to make as they sat on two explosives-laden ferry boats; and there was the choice that Batman has to make when he finds out the lives of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent are in imminent danger.  The citizens make the ethical choice despite all indications to the contrary (of course Batman himself is on shakier ground here, but that's another story). Despite the Joker's best efforts, he is unable to tilt the citizenry into anarchy, thus also proving something essential: Gotham is a city worth saving. The League of Shadows might have believed it was beyond hope, and the Joker may believe it is beyond hope, but the citizens by choosing to not press the trigger prove them wrong. They take, as Lana Lang would say, some amount of power into their hands. Social order prevails.

Cut to The Dark Knight Rises. The ferry-boat thought experiment has now been in a way expanded to include all of Gotham within its ambit. Anarchy reigns wide in the city - but not quite. There is also the fascistic regime of the Scarecrow presided "sentencing" court, where the only  sentence is, effectively,  death. Across the city, the 99% seem to resort to thuggery and looting (thanks for demonizing the Occupy movement guys!). The law enforcers are of course trapped underground, until they're rescued for the final standoff.

Who are they and Batman fighting for? For a city that's content to finish itself off, bomb or no bomb? For a citizenry that is unable to raise its voice, take a stand, open its doors to kindness, demonstrate some sense of an ethical compass?  I don't know where the Gotham of the last movie disappeared to, but it's not on display here. Unlike the Dark Knight, the city doesn't earn its salvation.

While my biggest gripe with the Dark Knight Rises is its (mis)treatment of Gotham, there's also the fact of its alarmingly ham-handed dialogue - poor Michael Caine is saddled with a clunky bit of exposition which he is required to deliver through blubbering tears. Then there is that disappointingly conventional idea of a nuclear bomb serving as the plot driver, devolving into an annoyingly familiar race against the clock. Batman's ultimate enemy is really chaos and anarchy - to saddle the conclusion of this trilogy of ideas with such a stock Hollywood device feels like a failure of ambition.  Also, Bane? Doesn't work. After the physical fear toxins of the first and the mind games of the second, to have it all come down to a question of sheer brawn?

That said, the movie still works as a conclusion to the arc of Batman/Bruce Wayne.  "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely. Are you ready to begin?". That's the challenge Ra's al-Ghul puts before him early in Batman Begins, and that's a theme that has echoed through the trilogy. The Bruce Wayne who was ready to shoot his parents' murderer in cold blood has disappeared, replaced by a man who refuses to engage in retribution, to a man ready to sacrifice everything for his beloved city, and finally, a man who comes full circle. As we leave him, he's able to close one journey and pass on his identity to another.

Gotham, as we say goodbye to it, still needs Batman. But Bruce Wayne, finally, doesn't.

Look, it still works. It works spectacularly as a comic book movie in general, it works perfectly as a Batman story in particular, and it is just about serviceable as a conclusion to this fantastic series of films. But, to echo the words of Commissioner Gordon, the Dark Knight Rises is not the movie I needed it to be. Maybe, with the over-high expectations, it's the one I deserved? 

Thursday, July 26, 2012



All superheroes are ultimately tragic characters. Most of them lost their parents in terrible circumstances;  others lost their entire planet. Oh, Marvel may put a happy spin on things with wise-cracking alcoholic superheroes, but donning a mask and cape and saving hapless women from rapists makes for a lonely life.  But few superheroes have fared better from a gritty reboot than the Batman.  The adoption of his phobia as his symbol, the filth of the city of Gotham and the excellent decision to omit the placement of underwear over tights have all helped make the gritty reboot a thing.  It has fared so well that the Bat Nipples are now forgiven and nearly obscured from memory.

The Dark Knight Rises brings Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy to a close. It began with Bruce Wayne's childhood trauma of losing his parents, his rise through the ranks of the League of Shadows, him defending Gotham against all manner of evil, whether or not it wanted him to and then saving Gotham again from the clutches of The Joker.  The Dark Knight now occupies the place of the superhero movie that was so good that its sequel could never hope to top it (?)

Now everybody wants to know if it was as good as The Dark Knight  and there are the inevitable comparisons between The Joker and Bane.  This is where most people will fall in two categories:  people who have invested so much love and time in TDK that TDKR will be loved regardless and people who have raised their expectations so high that anything short of  Greatest Movie Ever Made On the Planet Till Forever More will be loathed.  And as much as I believe that a series should be judged in its entirety,  everybody knows that the second movie in a trilogy is (sometimes) ALWAYS the best and then there's the Dreaded Curse of the Third Film.  Once you have a bad third film, the entire series is just tainted.  Is there anyone who can say "Spiderman Trilogy" or "Matrix Trilogy" without looking nauseated?

Despite having so much riding on this film,  Nolan's Batman series shrugged off that curse and TDKR provided a fitting conclusion to the series.  It wasn't perfect, but then, neither was The Dark Knight.  Seriously, what was that ending?  Why did Batman have to take the fall for Dent's death? If they really and truly wanted a martyr, why couldn't they have just put out a story that the Joker killed him or that he died from septicaemia?  In the words of one inimitable Supreme Court advocate, "[because] Batman is a drama queen."

At the end of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne set aside his Batman persona and let the memory of Harvey Dent's idealism and Giuliani-ness save the city and clean the streets off the mafia gangs.  8 years after Harvey's death, Bruce Wayne is no longer Batman; he's a broken man mourning the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes.  But he must once again put on his Batsuit and save the city from a new kind of evil: a deliberate, precise and cold brute of a man, Bane and his ruthless team of sycophants who are intent on completing Ra'as Al-Ghul's pet project: destroying Gotham city.

Bane was a fantastic character and Tom Hardy played him so convincingly.  Where the Joker was insane and unsettling,  Bane is just flat out terrifying.  He is insurmountably strong and his brawny physique is complemented by his calm, deliberate and calculated speech.  His first fight with Batman was gut-wrenchingly visceral and ups his respect level considerably.  Hardy is a fine lesson to actors that you can have your face obscured for an entire film and still manage to be memorable.  Unfortunately, the character was let down by a weak ending which took away from all his strengths while adding little to his character.  In any case, a weak Bane story line did not ruin the film because he was not as central to this film as the Joker was to the last.  Joker's story arc was to remind Batman that there is a yin to every yang; that there is no Batman without the Joker and no Joker without Batman.

On the other hand, this film went back to some of the unanswered questions from Batman Begins.  Are Batman and Bruce Wayne two different people? Does Gotham need Batman?  The Bruce Wayne from the first film was a vengeful man who wanted to clean the streets of Gotham because his parents died at the hands of a common criminal.  But the Bruce Wayne we see now, almost a decade later is old and weary.  His thirst for vengeance brought him nothing except more loss. His alter ego wasn't stopping crime as much as it was creating other crazies in masks.  While he no longer doubts whether or not Gotham needs a Batman, Bruce finally begins to question his need to be Batman.

As for Catwoman, full disclosure: I cant stand Anne Hathaway. I did my best to be unbiased but have you met a more yawnworthy Catwoman?  Oh, I'm glad she wasn't licked back to life cats or something, but she was just so goddamn boring and without individuality.  Even her fight sequences were boring.  Apart from one or two good lines, she would've been completely lost in the epicness of the film if it wasn't for the fact that she was wearing a latex suit and was straddling a bike in a way that only Megan Fox could (Transformers). I get that they didn't want to festishize her like Michelle Pfeiffer but girlfriend's already got the skintight suit, red lipstick and mask, might as well make her purr her lines.  But Joseph Gordon-Lewitt, on the other hand!  Now there's a side-character who managed to stand out.  He wasn't just the young idealist foil to Gordon/Batman's jaded veteran but he was no hothead either.  He managed to combine Bruce Wayne's anger and Commissioner Gordon's composure and forged a very interesting character.  I can't wait to see Gordon-Lewitt in more movies that aren't 500 Days of Summer.

There were also a few ridiculous things which are to be expected in a film about masked vigilantes like Batman taking the time to rig up a large-scale pyrotechnic marvel of a Bat symbol while Gotham is being ripped to shreds.  Was it awesome? Yes.  Was it symbolically relevant to the plot? Sure!  Did I cheer and clap like mad when it was lit up? Of course.  But one merely questions the timing of setting it up, that's all.  And while I enjoyed the film: the nail-biting climax, the cool new gadgets and superb subplots and side-characters like Gordon, the conclusion to Bruce Wayne's story arc was supremely out of character, unsatisfying and totally unnecessary.  You may disagree, but never forget that Conservapedia has now claimed this film as one of its Greatest Conservative Films (because it correctly portrays those Occupy Wall Street hippies as thugs and murderers). Along with those other conservative classics like Ghostbusters and The Lord of the Rings.   Yeah.

Also, the reboot has been announced.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Movie Review Round Up - June 2012

Having enough time on my hands to catch a lot of big screen action, but strangely not enough to write a full length review, here's a short burst of opinions on what I've  seen this month. The lengthier reviews will be back soon. No, really.


Begins spectacularly. Looks stunning. Pulls you in, hook, line and sinker into an ambitious plot that's heavy with existential dread.

Then, at about the 1 hour mark, it starts to fall apart.

The very reason that Prometheus came into existence is also the albatross around its fascinating neck. This was a movie designed as, if not a direct prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, then at least a close cousin of the movie, sharing, as Scott put it, the "DNA" of the cult film. In this attempt to link it to Alien, Scott manages to squander a fascinating premise. "Where do we come from?" is the question the movie asks as it begins, and "Why were we made?". But as it reaches its conclusion, the metaphysics is replaced with one big question: "What does the black goo do?". Prometheus doesn't actually devolve into a terrible film, just one that leaves aside the soaring heights of its initial premise to try and give us more convention sci-fi thrills.

Still, the hypnotic first hour, the beautiful visuals, and a reliably excellent performance from Michael Fassbender make this an important summer watch.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

I've seen the first two Madagascar movies, and been faintly amused - and that's it. Passable, lightweight entertainment. To my delight , this third outing decides to leave behind all moorings in reality - or sanity - and delivers one of the more satisfyingly entertaining experiences I've had at the movies in a while. The plot is besides the point, the movie exists in a series of staggeringly fun set pieces. My favourite of these is probably the one where King Julian the flamboyant lemur falls for Sonja, the tricycle riding bear. Then they go to the Vatican and get married. Then they go on a honeymoon where her tricycle breaks. So of course King Julian buys her a motorbike, which she rides on the streets of Rome with wild abandon, her husband secure on her shoulders.

What, you need more reasons to watch this?


Having eagerly tracked Dibakar Bannerjee's cinematice oeuvre, one has come to expect genre-redefining acts from him at abandon. The charming family reverse-con in Khosla Ka Ghosla, the other side of the conman in Oye Lucky,  and of course the audacious, chilling  Love, Sex aur Dhokha.  If Shanghai fails at any point, its that it betrays that red hot streak of boundary pushing. Its an excellently made political thriller, with great all-round performances (with the exception of a somewhat grating Kalki) and a crackerjack script. The plot zips along and the pace rarely slackens from its gripping tautness. But its Dibakar Bannerjee and unfair as it is, he's led you to expect something more,  another layer perhaps, or  a moment of stunning revelation, or even unexpectedly fierce poignance. It doesn't come. Shanghai remains a fine film, one of the better Bollywood productions we'll see this year.

What it fails at is transcendence - a forgivable enough flaw.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages has a bit of a problem. Its a 2 hour-odd film, with about an hour and ten minutes of song. The songs represent some of the 80s biggest rock hits, and are mostly sung well, if not always staged perfectly. The problem is that the other fifty minutes comprise incredibly shoddy dialogue and alarmingly hammy acting. And those imperfect staging choices? Yeah so one of them involves splicing random shots of Mary J. Blige's extremely  peripheral matter into a series of musical numbers that have no business involving her. Also, her hair goes from resembling a dying hedgehog to a glossy lion mane. 

If anything else stands out in this strange production, its the one terrific performance of the lot: Tom Cruise as rocker-of-ages Stacee Jaxx. Cruise takes the slightest of material and crafts a memorable character, one haunted by the excesses of fame. Also, he can sing. Really sing. Particularly memorable is his rendition of Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive, a performance he seems to be pouring every fibre of his being into. 

If only the rest of the movie displayed the same kind of delirious commitment.