Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Quantum of Solace (6/10)

A Quantum Failure!

Reinventing a successful franchise is never easy. The makers of 'Quantum of Solace' have proved this by trying to redefine James Bond, and failing miserably. The re-invention that started with 'Casino Royale' comes to a jarring halt in this instalment. While 'Casino Royale' made a decent fist of this daunting task, 'Quantum of Solace' is extremely disappointing in almost every aspect.

Where to start? The plot, or rather the more-than-usual-flimsy storyline, which passes for a plot in Bond movies, involves a mysterious organization 'Quantum' that has tentacles everywhere, is trying to take over control of a natural resource, water, and de-stabilizing the world in the bargain. Unfortunately for them, they crossed James Bond's path, and so of course, mayhem ensues. No need to explain too many things because this is James Bond, after all. It doesn't have to make perfect sense. Suffice to say that theres plenty of action, adrenaline, big bangs, pursuits over land, water and air, and a tour of half the world.

Now, the problems. While the Bond movies have never traditionally made sense, what they had in common was the protrayal of Bond as this ultra-chic, super-suave, charming spy who doesn't need to work too hard; a perfect case in point being Pierce Brosnan, whose immaculate hair and tux are never affected, whether he's fighting the baddies, or riding cars, fighter jets or even tanks. With Daniel Craig this super-cool persona has been dropped and Bond has become more human, or to put it bluntly, normal.

The attempt of the movie makers was obviously to fuse the Bond charisma with the Bourne canniness, thus getting the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, this backfired big time. This bond has neither the suaveness, coolness and elegance of Brosnan, nor the lethal efficiency of Jason Bourne. Where Bourne's every move is clearly thought-out and executed flawlessly, Criag's Bond seems to do things for no apparent reason and continuously gets lucky (and I don't mean just in bed).

The action sequences borrow so heavily from the Bourne series that some of the ripoffs are embarassingly blatant. Daniel Craig, undoubtedly a good actor, just doesn't have the aura of control that Matt Damon protrays, nor does he possess the charms of Pierce Brosnan. His attempts to make Bond more human just reveal the too many flaws in the storyline. Ultimately, he ends up dragging Bond down to the level of an average, unspectacular spy.

A disappointing movie.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Midnight's Children

There are no adjectives left to praise this book any more. It has won so many awards (the Booker prize, 'Best of Booker-25 years' and 'Best of Booker-40 years' are the most notable) that any praise seems superfluous. Its like saying Michelangelo was a great artist; true but quite obvious (lapalissiano as a dear friend of mine would say)! In the case of this book, its achievements speak louder than any words ever could. So lets just say that it has earned all the praise it has gotten so far, and fully deserves the accolades that have & will come its way.

The story traces the life of a man born at exactly the same time as India gained its independence from the British, the midnight of 15th august 1945. Through his life, we see the major events that shaped the formative years of India. Considering that this was only the second book written by Rushdie, it is audacious not only in its scope but in its style and content as well. He plays with the narrative like a seasoned narrator and not once shirks from making powerful political statements concerning even the most influential political personalities. Along the way, he imbues every single character with a life of its own.

Salman Rushdie truly is a great writer(a sentiment echoed by literary figures with a lot more credibility than me). His sentences are magical, much more than mere constructions of words. Like a magician, he makes them do things that a mere mortal can only dream of. So it is that his words make us dream, think, despair, love & hate; a proper roller-coaster of emotions that even moving pictures cannot match. He achieves the ultimate objective of any writer by making his words speak directly to the heart of his reader!

One tiny example of his mastery of his art is an episode where a muslim woman saves a hindu life. The episode is narrated in a simple, straightforward way without any pretensions of judging the eternal race relations. His heroes are not sugar-coated, rose-tinted melodrama-filled dummies; they are real-life, simple and even matter-of-fact about their heroic actions, and hence are infinitely more believable. Another testament to his skills is the heart-rending simplicity with which the protagonist's grief is narrated in the second last chapter. With one brief sentence he manages to convey the depth of the protagonist's emotions. And that is the sign of a master writer; to do more with less, to recognize that grief does not need fancy explanations. Sadness is always stark, bare, unadorned and at its root, tragically simple. Listing down every single high point of the narrative is just not feasible, so suffice to say that in the pantheon of the greatest books on realism this book would hold its own along with The Moor's Last Sigh.

An epic for all ages!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Dark Knight (9/10)

A comic-book hero movie with philosophical aspirations! A villain more complex and deep than the hero! An oscar worthy performance! Plenty of gadgetry and big bangs! This movie has all this...and much more! If anyone can take a comic-book hero movie and turn it into a huge blockbuster, completely reconstructing the franchise along the way, it is Christopher Nolan. And he is in top form here.

'The Dark Knight' confounds you with the complexity of its characters, richness of its plot and its sheer magnitude. There are many layers to this movie. There is obviously the simple good vs. evil plotline. But just under the surface are many more subtle themes. How difficult it is to be truly good, how easy it is to turn bad, how strong (or weak) is our respect for morals, the lure of the dark side, and the indefatigable spirit of the light! Nolan follows all these themes and manages to string together a movie that is much more than an average hollywood blockbuster. It is a movie which makes us think. At the end, the words of Harvey 'Two-face' Dent resonate in our ears : 'You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villian'. Terrifying, precisely because the movie shows how close this is to the truth.

Heath Ledger as 'The Joker' is astonishingly good in this movie. When Nolan was asked why Ledger as Joker, he replied "Because he is fearless". Watching this movie clarifies that statement. Its not just that he is showing us a Joker far more wicked, far more sinister and far more scary than ever seen, its that he's using an actor who has never played a villain before (played Casanova, in fact), to play possibly the most scary character ever portrayed on-screen. And the gamble has played off handsomely. Ledger has played the Joker with a refreshing honesty, and in so doing injected a level of menace and wickedness into the Joker that is unexpectedly terrifying. He forces us to take the Joker a lot more seriously than we'd like to. This is an iconic performance that'll be remembered for a long time and deserves an Academy Award.

A must-see!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Moor's Last Sigh

This is an epic about many things : about Bombay, about growing up and about the different manifestations of love; but most of all, it is about women, about four generations of strong, proud, flawed mothers, wives & daughters, and their culmination into one ultimate flawed, hapless, helpless man - MOOR. The plot is a family history, a narrative of the life stories of 4 generations of the Da Gama/Zogoiby family where not one member is perfect (which is probably a true reflection of real-life where everyone has his/her share of imperfections). Moraes 'Moor' Zogoiby, the last son of the Zogoiby family, and the narrator, takes us on a journey from the origins of his family tree all the way to his final hours, where we see the successes & the failings of his family. We see them becoming exceedingly rich professionally, and reaching a shocking level of moral decay, with a climax that is shocking for its savagery.

The writing doesn't have Rowling's simplicity, King's invention or Dan Brown's breathless pace; but what it lacks is more than made up by an amazingly inventive narrative style and an almost magical play on/with words. The simple, straightforward story becomes an extraordinary achievement thanks to the narration. Most writers have one, proven style of narration and stick to it; Rushdie on the other hand, seems to constantly experiment with and evolve his prose style, and in the process finds exhiliratingly original ways of narration.

His manipulation of words is astonishing at times, and the inventiveness of his narrative style is always brilliant. His ability to take simple acts, and describe them, so as to effortlessly ascribe to them profound meanings and philosophical connotations is truly exhilirating. And thus, from the simple act of breathing, he comes up with the following : "I sigh, therefore I am. A sigh isn't just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning." This was one book which never seemed to end, partly because it is fairly long, but also because there were so many passages of mind-blowing writing that I couldn't resist reading these over and over to savour the magic of his words.

An epic in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

WALL.E (9/10)

They say that lightning doesn't strike twice. But where Pixar studios are concerned, lightning doesn't just strike once(Toy story). It strikes again(Finding Nemo). And again(The Incredibles). And again(Ratatouille).

The latest magical flash of lightning from Pixar is 'WALL.E'

The plot is fairly straightforward. WALL.E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class) is the last active robot on earth, whose job it is to collect and dispose of waste. EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is a state-of-the-art robot sent to earth on a classified directive. On earth, she meets WALL.E, and something else that requires her to return immediately to her masters. By this time WALL.E is hopelessly in love with her, and follows; leading to the inevitable adventures and wholly unexpected discoveries.

So what makes this movie special? The highly endearing robots, the honesty/simplicity of its plot, the unbelievable chemistry between its many inanimate protagonists, and not least of all, the numerous ingenious alternatives to speech that it finds to convey the essentially human feelings of its completely un-human protagonists. And so it is that despite saying just one word in the whole movie, WALL.E manages to come across as love-struck, sad, happy, puzzled, and infinitely more clever and human, than intended, or indeed expected, by his creator. And despite looking like a feminized i-pod with blue eyes, who utters less than 5 words in the whole movie; EVE manages to get across her innocence, lethalness, happiness, exasperation and in one final moment, heart-breaking vulnerability.

This movie shows us a future replete with comfort and yet most definitely undesirable. It reminds us of the gift that is this earth of ours, and how we are misusing it. But above all else, it reminds us in a totally new way, the power of that most powerful of human emotions, love!

A wonderful, wonderful film!!!

Monday, May 09, 2011

Charlie Wilson's War (9/10)

Effortlessly brilliant!!!

By now I've come to expect something special from a Mike Nichols movie. So when I watched this one, I was positive that I wouldn't be disappointed, but I wasn't counting on being blown away, which is what happened. This movie is a masterpiece of its genre, a political satire of the very highest calibre, not to mention an exceptional biopic.

Charlie Wilson was a US congressman with pretty serious character & moral issues, who almost single-handedly was responsible for the US arming of the Afgan resistance against the Soviets, hence directly causing the end of the cold war. He was a womanizer & chronic drinker whose heart was in the right place, and when he witnessed the pain and inhuman atrocities in the Afgan refugee camps, he took it upon himself to arm the Afgan resistance. The movie tells his story, and how he finds unlikely allies in a coarse, foul-mouthed CIA operative, an exceedingly rich woman with a personal interest in the well-being of the Afgans and the bevy of gorgeous, eager-to-please, all-female assistants (Charlie's angels)!

Why is it so good? As always with a Mike Nichols movie, the dialogue is wonderfully brilliant, laced with satire, shrewdness and wit. The acting is uniformly excellent, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is absolutely, unbelievably good as the foul-mouthed CIA guy. He owns the screen in every single one of his shots, being charmingly politically incorrect and showing remarkable confidence, control & passion with his dialogue delivery. The music at all the times is meticulously matched to the setting and enhances the feel and the authenticity of every shot. The entire movie is shot and controlled so well that the brillance is enhanced by the seeming effortlessness of it all.

Another masterpiece from the master film-maker!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Closer (10/10)

Those who love at first sight are traitors at every glance

Larry - She doesnt want to be happy.

Dan - Everyone wants to be happy!

Larry - Depressives don't. They want to be unhappy to confirm they're depressed. If they were happy they couldn't be depressed anymore. They'd have to go out into the world and live. Which can be depressing!

Just one of numerous instances of razor-sharp verbal wit showcased in the masterpiece that is "Closer". From the first shot featuring "The Blower's Daughter" to the very end, which incidentally features the same song, this is a movie that is an unforgettable experience.

Here's a movie that says, "things dont always work out as expected & that we are not as strong-willed as we may think", and boldly goes on to explore the consequences. Mike Nichols has given us a refreshingly brutal look at relationships. And done it with breathtaking elegance as well.

At its heart, the movie is about relationships. What sets it apart is that it deals with all the aspects of a relationship that weaken it. It's like watching all the weaknesses of humans crystallized in one film. It might not sound like fun, but life is not always fun either. Unlike the dime a dozen 'feel-good' movies out there that are far removed from reality, this is a movie not afraid to tackle reality head-on. There is a unique strength and vitality to realism that just cannot be captured by fiction, and it's this realism that makes 'Closer' so compelling.

The biggest asset of this film is the unbelievably clever dialogue. Considering that the movie has zero action & almost no comedy, the dialogue is the only weapon at the director's disposal to make an impact on the viewer, apart from the acting. And what an impact it makes! Almost every single line is laced with shrewdness, cleverness & wit and delivered exquisitely. Brutal and hard-hitting at times, deceptively simple at others, but utterly convincing and clever always, its the dialogue that turns this movie from a 'very good' movie to an 'exceptional' one.

Finally, the stellar cast - Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Julia Roberts. All four are exceptional, and not so much acting as 'living' their respective roles.

I like three kinds of movies - ones that make me laugh ('Snatch' comes to mind), ones that promise a great ending ('The Usual Suspects') and lastly, and the most difficult to achieve, ones in which the story is an end in itself and the actual ending matters very little.

"Closer" belongs to the third type. You don't watch it for the ending, to know how it all turns out in the end; you watch it to savour the class & elegance of every shot and every dialogue. You watch it to witness four tremendous actors and one brilliant director at the peak of their powers. It is the equivalent of a beautiful journey where the destination is immaterial, and the journey is all that counts. This is a journey well worth taking!