Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Introducing the Dwights

If Little Miss Sunshine grew up and moved to Australia, the result will probably be quite close to Introducing the Dwights. This Australian dramedy tells the story of a charming family whose members are odd not because they are dysfunctional, but precisely because they are functional despite having every reason not to be. Jean (Brenda Blethyn) is a stand-up comedian whose career once showed great promise, but hasn’t really gone places. Her life revolves around her day job at a fast food joint, her late night gigs at a local casino, and her two sons. Mark (Richard Wilson in an endearing and credible turn out) is mentally challenged. But it is her other son, Tim (Khan Chittenden) who is Jean’s biggest concern. For unlike his brother, Tim is growing up, adding further cracks to Jean’s already imperfect world.

Tim’s gorgeous sex-pot of a girlfriend, Jill (Emma Booth) forces his family to confront several issues that are long over due, and over the course of the movie they do so, with considerable drama, but also with great grace. The best things about this movie are Blethyn, at her best in this role that was written for her, and Keith Thompson’s writing. Thompson, whose mother used to be a club singer, draws on personal experience to create something that is as honest as it is warm and funny.

The pity is that as fine a performance as Blethyn creates, we’ve already attended the dress rehearsals. One has seen glimpses of this character all the way from Secrets and Lies, and Little Voice, to Pride and Prejudice. Like Infamous, another fine movie damned only by its timing, one hopes that all those other fine performances don’t take anything away from Blethyn’s latest.


Ye Yan

Going into Ye Yan expecting a prettified action flick is like walking into a thirty course banquet hoping for some pizza and beer. And yes, there is also pizza and beer. Writers Gangjian Qiu and Heyu Sheng take Hamlet, cut out the bit parts, flesh out the principals and throw in some additional intrigue. Who knew that replacing the verse in Shakespeare with choreographed stunts and primary colors could work so well.

Empress Wan (Ziyi Zhang) is an awe-inspiring mixture of Gertrude and Lady Macbeth, without the weepy, ranting or guilty bits. She also happens to be Hamlet’s (Prince Wu Lian) ex-lover, step-mother, and aunt. “Sometimes soft and charming, sometimes frightening”, Empress Wan leaves you guessing till the very end.

The plot is just the icing. The real cake is the cinematography and the choreography. God as they say is in the detail – snow splashed with warm blood doesn’t just look pretty, it melts. But thanks to Xiaogang Feng you don’t end up feeling like a goose in the pre-pâté stage. The Empress’ bathroom (I cringe to call it that – English is so utilitarian about rooms) is bathed in golden light, but we see it through a dark doorway. All of this perfection comes at a price though – one is torn between watching the actors, admiring the stunts, reading the subtitles, and catching a fleeting glimpse of this or that beautiful, fascinating thing at the periphery. All in all, move over Zhang Yimou. There’s a new standard in town.

Death at a Funeral

Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral can teach a thing or two about humor to the plot-less, one-man, one-joke efforts that pass for comedy today. With its ensemble cast of delightfully odd characters and quirky subplots, it defies a one line summary. Suffice to say that there are dead bodies, hallucinogens, nutty uncles, insecure lovers, and oh yes, one little person.

Thanks to our ever shortening attention spans the most successful forms of humor today are ones that are episodic – short bursts of wit strung together with a piece of floss. Borat, Apatow, Kolbert and youtube are the current kings of comedy. However, it is worth while to remember that sometimes keeping track of a plot and a large cast of characters can yield rich dividends.

Death at a Funeral is not the funniest movie or even the best British comedy out there. What it is is ambitious. One can’t help but cheer that effort given the current draw. Once the pieces are set up, the gags that follow are endearing, possibly because you do see them coming. But just when you think you’re all settled into a typical Brit ensemble piece, writer Dean Craig yanks you into something you don’t expect from a sweet little story like this, and then quietly takes you back to where you were a few minutes ago. It is amazing how expressive American actors seem to get after they cross the ocean – drugged-to-the-gills Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage draw more laughs per minute than those stoners from Knocked Up do over the entire movie.

La vie en rose: Bravo, mais pas encore!

This self-consciously gorgeous biopic rehashes the rags to riches to in and out of rehab formula one has had just about enough of. Director Olivier Dahan traces the life of France’s much beloved singer and icon Edith Piaf from her childhood to her last days. Apparently, French singers are no different from American ones – they start poor and miserable, get discovered, betrayed, married, lose loved ones, get addicted to substances legal and illegal, and die. Their music apart, the sequence of these events helps distinguish one singer from another. However, thanks to the chronological collage that passes for editing in this movie, you’re never quite sure when all of these events did happen in Piaf’s life.

This beautifully shot movie packs in a powerful performance from Marion Cotillard, as well as a first-rate soundtrack of French cabaret classics. But too many scenes feel as if created to show the world “And zis is ‘ow you make a biopic!”

The singer biopic has become the summer tentpole for Baby Boomers – story lines and performances to draw them to the theaters and a soundtrack smothered in enough nostalgia to get them to even buy a few records. What happens when we exhaust our supply of singers from the 50s and 60s? Some day, we will run out of singers no one is ashamed to own up to liking a year later. What will they come up with for this generation? Hit me baby one more time. Ouch.

Letters from Iwo Jima, California

This week-end I watched the second part of Clint Eastwood’s two-part series on the Battle of Iwo Jima. Having already watched Flags of our Fathers (reviewed here), and not being averse to buying a box of Kleenex along with the pop-corn, I felt I had to watch this one. But this movie doesn’t deliver any of the sense of completion, loads of which had been promised. Despite being touted as the “Japanese version” of the same story, it is in every way, an American movie, made for American audiences.

A large part of why I was drawn to both movies (other than that they were made by Eastwood) was the novel idea of two movies about the same incident, an extended, and considerably more expensive Rashômon, as it were. As great an idea as this is, it doesn’t really work when there is little more than a superficial connection between the two movies. The first movie is more a social commentary on a country at war, specifically the United States of America, than it is a movie about one particular battle. While some of the most spectacular bits of the movie are set in Iwo Jima, much of it actually takes place back home, where we learn the many ways in which a minor incident in the battle at Iwo Jima impacts the lives of thousands, if not everyone in the home country.

Letters from Iwo Jima, in contrast, is almost exclusively limited to the little island. We, along with thousands of Japanese troops, wait for everyone (or nearly everyone) to die. Sure, there are back-stories for the odd soldier or two. Suitable flashbacks involving pregnant wives and other assorted members of families left behind provide the necessary Kleenex-moments that would be expected from a war movie, particularly one about the losing side.

So, we learn that the mainland has no resources to spare and it expects the soldiers at Iwo Jima to do their duty and die honorably for their country. But in keeping the story strictly about the battle itself, we don’t learn anything about well, anything really. Was losing the island strategically and tactically at all a big deal? What was going through the minds of those in Tokyo who were forced to make the decision to let Iwo Jima go? If the entire country of United States was so cheered up by the win at Iwo Jima, what was the parallel outcome in Japan after their loss? If this battle supposedly was the beginning of the Americans’ eventual victory, then was it also the beginning of the end for the Japanese? Or did this loss so rally forces stationed elsewhere, that it took two A-bombs to make them call it quits? If you want these questions answered, go read a book or something.

After they learn that they’ve been left to their own devices to survive, the leadership at Iwo Jima falls into two groups – with the more traditional lot advocating and in many cases, forcing suicide on the soldiers they command, because, as we have learnt from all those other Samurai movies – losing in battle is far worse than dying. The more liberal minority (comprising a grand total of two) feels that tactical retreat isn’t necessarily something that demands seppuku, and that killing yourself can be limited to more desperate situations – such as those where one is almost fatally wounded and only slowing down the rest of the group from making an escape.

My biggest complaint with the movie is this liberal minority. General Kuribayashi and Captain Nishi are the only enlightened commanders on the island. They always treat their soldiers fairly, and act with great nobility and heroism when others might have folded. Played by Ken Watanabe and Tsuyoshi Ihara respectively, they are also incredibly easy on the eye. All of which is grand. But here’s the crux – at some point in their lives, they’ve both been exposed to America. Kuribayashi was in the US for some official reason, before the two countries declared war on each other. And Nishi was a champion at the 1932 Summer Olympics held at Los Angeles. Heck, he was even friends with Hollywood stars!

By making only these two characters noble and heroic, it feels as if the movie’s telling us that only those Japanese lucky enough to have been exposed to American culture are great, while the rest of the country is filled with suicidal brutes. I wondered if it would have helped if even one of them had visited some country other than the US. But had they visited another Western country, or any other country in the world for that matter, doesn’t it still say that goodness and sensibility are traits which weren’t inherent even in a minority of the Japanese, and had to be imported from elsewhere? Nishi’s final speech (another Kleenex-moment) to his men borrows its key message from a letter written by an American mom to her son, which I felt was the last straw!

And what traits are inherent to the Japanese? A commitment to the team, a willingness to follow even the harshest of orders, and a strong sense of honor? C’mon, Mr. Eastwood, surely you can do better than Tom Cruise! Coming from Sofia Coppola, one might be willing to overlook such superficiality as ignorance. Coming from one of whom much is expected (because much has been delivered in the past), it smacks of pure arrogance. For all its Japanese actors and English subtitles, Letters from Iwo Jima is such an American movie.

Final verdict: Give this movie a skip. If you’re really in the mood for a good cry, wait for the DVD.

Scary future and Clive Owen are better than Gong Li and stylish soap opera

Curse of the Golden Flower: Garish soap opera

Curse of the Golden Flower is the final part of Zhang Yimou’s (or is it Yimou Zhang’s?[1]) trilogy. It is also the darkest of the three movies. That the terms betrayal, incest, adultery, fratricide, filicide, and bigamy do not exhaustively describe the story should tell you something about the movie. Chow Yun Fat, who plays an Emperor, returns to his kingdom after many years to find that almost no one has remained loyal to him. Gong Li, playing his beautiful and treacherous second wife, has been carrying on behind her husband’s back (or not, as we later find out) and isn’t too pleased to hear of the Emperor’s return. The court scene is made murkier thanks to a few disgruntled crown and wannabe-crown Princes, their lovers, an ex-wife, a conniving court doctor and hundreds of Asian women in push-up bras[2]. How and whether all of this gets sorted out is what the movie’s about.

A friendly warning to action fans – unlike the other two movies in this trilogy (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers), there are almost no action sequences involving flying kicks or daggers or swords or what have you. This movie is about courtroom intrigue, save a few scenes of large scale slaughter towards the end. There is also little romance – there isn’t a single heroic figure in the movie (well, save one somewhat minor character, and even that is a maybe) and the only difference between the several relationships that’re explored in this movie is the extent of duplicity involved in each one. Another feature I expected, from watching the earlier movies, was a grand visual spectacle. You’re offered one, sure, but this one isn’t anywhere close to those offered by the other two. While Hero and Flying Daggers were shot in bold primary colors, this one keeps switching between an excess of gold (I have a nagging fear that Shankar’s going to get “inspired” by this movie) and a mixture of too many colors of which a bright magenta is the only one that stands out.

In keeping with the other movies though, we do get a star-studded cast. Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat must be the only stars from that part of the world who somehow didn’t make into Hero or Flying Daggers. So we have them in this one. None of the three movies is exactly strong on plot, but at least the other two made up in imagery whatever they lacked in terms of story. And, they both did have nice little twists at the end. This movie ends up relying on plot a lot more than the others do, and therefore ends up being considerably more disappointing. For all the double and triple crossing, I couldn’t help feeling a little let down and perplexed by the end – there are few ‘why’s’ behind much of the wickedness in this movie – apparently, evil just is.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge this movie while lugging baggage from the other two movies. But I’m afraid that the baggage would be present even had this movie not been part of a trilogy. I’m just glad am still not hung over from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I wish these Chinese film-makers would get over that movie, too.

Children of Men: Ominously close to real

There is a lot of joy in watching a movie on its opening week end, before you acquire expectations and the disappointments that go with them. I am glad that Children of Men was one such movie. There is also a lot of joy in watching Clive Owen in a movie that works for him. Again, Children of Men is very much one such movie.

‘Children of Men’ is set in England in the not-so-distant future of 2027. I understand that the movie is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by P.D James. Had I not known this, I’d have thought the story eerily close to another novel – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both present a bleak future for the human race – something has caused mass infertility and women capable of bearing children have become a commodity traded by the powerful and the power-hungry. Government as we know it no longer exists. Instead there is only a form of totalitarian authority which feels free to kill anyone it feels like. Where Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation (I haven’t read James’s version) departs from Atwood is that Cuarón’s story is a bit more optimistic, and a lot more open to all sorts of religious interpretation.

While the story is set in the future, it is an entirely plausible, perhaps even probable future. Cars don’t fly or go on the sides of buildings (that might have made it easier to dismiss it as sci-fi). No, everything is almost the same as it is right now, only more corrupt, more polluted, and therefore a lot scarier. I don’t know when the novel was published, but the major themes are as eerily relevant today as they probably were then. There’s a teeny-weeny chance that xenophobia, terrorist attacks, scary prisons for foreigners, and much else on our minds today will somehow magically get solved in the next 20 years. ‘Children of Men’ is bleak, because it reminds you just how small that likelihood is.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a disillusioned pen-pusher in a non-descript office, is pushed into adrenaline-pumping action and heroism, when he starts out doing what he thinks is a minor favor for his ex-wife (played by Julianne Moore). His task is to take to safety a young girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is (surprise-surprise) pregnant. Of course, a lot of other folks, all bad, are after this girl. Most of the movie is a thrilling chase, with Owen and Ashitey dodging bullets and bombs, and surviving not just betrayals but also advanced pregnancy.

For a movie that lasts only a little over a 100 minutes, this movie is packed. Not every pause for breath is treated as an opportunity to launch into explanation. I realize that this is one of the things I complained about with Curse of the Golden Flower – but in this movie, I was utterly delighted with the paucity of “and here’s why this is happening” moments. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed out on a lot of small things because I wasn’t paying enough attention. But that’s what makes it makes this movie feel so grown-up – the underlying assumption that the movie-makers’ responsibility ends with helping you with the outlines of the story, and that it is up to the audience to get the minor stuff or not. I felt the same sort of delight when Peter Jackson did not provide inane recaps at the beginning of the Twin Towers and Return of the King.

Clive Owen is immense fun to watch. The closest example I can think of (and it pains me to say this because it has since become such a cliché) is Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie. Perhaps since Willis humanized the action hero, all we seem to get nowadays are these types who are gray on the inside and gray on the outside… I am tired of the hero who knows better than anyone else does that that he is no “hero”, and takes care to show that while he is capable of destroying an army or two, he is also vulnerable, and has a heart which frequently gets broken and what not. What makes Owen so good is his ability to convince us that he is himself convinced of the ridiculousness of his position. At every turn, I expected his character to get killed or to simply give up and leave, because fighting both the government and the rebels just isn’t something a disillusioned pen-pusher does.

It is also fun to watch Michael Caine, who plays one of the many characters who help Owen in his run. Last week, I had a scary conversation with my 13 year old cousin, who had trouble placing Caine. Her, “Oh is he the old Butler dude in Batman Begins?” caused me great pain. In this movie, he has a small, but charming role. And while I doubt that this movie or his character will make a big impression on 13 year olds, it feels good to see him again, and to remind myself, if not these past-less teens that Caine is a lot more than old-Butler dude!

The only jarring note in the movie is the question of religious significance – even if the story tries to be flippant about it, there’s no denying that in a world gone mad, the only ray of hope is provided by a new born child, whose very existence, given the circumstances, is miraculous. I’m usually exceedingly dim-witted about inferences of any sort, but by the time Owen and a very pregnant Ashitey reach a refugee camp, even I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of all sorts of Biblical associations. This is where making the movie more like the Atwood novel might have helped. Atwood remains dark through out and offers no sappy signs of optimism. But all of this is neither here nor there – if this is what James wrote, one can’t very well expect an adaptation to break all ties with the original.

Warning to movie-goers who expect a sense of closure at the end of a movie – the most commonly expressed sentiment at the end of this movie was “F*&$% that! I hate movies like this!” I can only reiterate that this came from the same audience who’d had a demonstrably grand time before the last one minute of the movie. I understand that the book has an even more ambiguous ending than the movie, but that’s small consolation when you’ve spent a good one hour and a half building up to a finale that never quite materializes.

Before I changed my mind about Daniel Craig, I was rooting for Clive Owen for Bond. After watching Casino Royal and Children of Men, I’m relieved that Hollywood has wiser heads than mine – that sharp decision has given us a great new Bond, and left Owen free to do movies like this one. And it’s a complete pity that Cuarón isn’t directing the next Harry Potter movie. I like what he does with books.

[1] IMDB and Wikipedia disagree. If you know better, tell me.
[2] The last has nothing to do with the story. I can only imagine that it was intended as part of the “visual spectacle”. Chinese women dressed up in almost European gowns with very low necks do little for me. I wish they’d had better looking men in this movie, but that’s just me.