Sunday, July 31, 2011
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp
Director: George Nolfi
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: The Bourne’s Ultimatum to God himself. Yup it is exactly as cheesy as it sounds.
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Thriller
The Adjustment Bureau often finds its dashing young Congressman David Norris (Mr. Damon) smack bang in the middle of the screen, alone, him pitted against it. It could be life, could be political fortunes, and as it turns out, could be the plans of the lord himself. In Bruce Almighty, a similarly reductive predicament about a man and the ways of his fate, Bruce was dissatisfied with his everyday-Joe life, wanting to be somebody. Here, we have a situation wherein our Congressman would rather lead one of those everyday-Joe lives rather than be somebody. Despite its ugliness, Mr. Carrey’s film probably advocated pragmatism in life. Mr. Damon’s advocates anything but.
Dear reader, my aim isn’t to argue the politics inside these films, but to understand the different stages of adolescence we’re dealing here. As is required Bruce had a rather beautiful wife in Ms. Aniston. David had only found what could potentially be the love of his life. In a moment that feels like a confession on the part of The Adjustment Bureau David does land a generous peek on Elise’s (Ms. Blunt) glorious thighs. It is not a stretch of the imagination when I claim that he desires to be somewhere around there, and for long stretches of time. He pursues his desire, inspite of the agents of fate advising him against such an enterprise. You know that classic dilemma where we either can have our girl or our life. One might be reminded of Guddu in Kaminey and the fate of the little map he had charted for himself. Or one could be reminded of Fight Club. Oh yeah, adolescence is all around us, and comes in all sizes, shapes and ages. As someone has noted, there needs to be something to the fact that we had two films –this one here and Limitless – both releasing around the same time and both having young good looking actors well set on the road to Presidency. You see, the President’s primary responsibility has to be that of a rockstar. Always has been that way.
A good time to remind you of John Hurt’s wrinkled face towering above London in V for Vendetta. The archetypical face of the ageing and archaic establishment. Also Mr. Chris Cooper, Mr. Albert Finney, Mr. Brian Cox, Mr. David Strathairn. All faces of the establishment in what might probably be the quintessential anti-establishment genre films of the aughties – The Bourne franchise – with the quintessential rebel superhero of our times – Jason Bourne aka Matt Damon. Ah, and of course Ms. Joan Allen. And Mr. Terence Stamp here. And Mr. Anthony Mackie. No other superhero has convinced us more with his abilities. Not V, not anybody. It is one of the glorious identifications we’ve found at the movies – with no great political agenda but only to remain happy with ourselves – and when we were bothered we took the fight to the establishment. The key here is that the establishment’s primary job is to bother us, and it does it without a great reason. Mr. Damon, I believe, has more or less become the face of this romantic rebellion. And here he is merely another avatar of Bourne, where he runs once and gets caught, and he plans it out and runs again and then in a moment of epiphany takes a u-turn and runs straight into their office. And boy can he run. I mean literally, although I wouldn’t count out the figurative aspect, especially when a campaign speech has him declare war against the old brigade and plant a firm kick on their posteriors.
The old brigade, or let us say the Adjustment bureau, keeping in tradition with Hollywood’s stereotyping of the establishment, are stern mostly humorless souls walking around uptight in fedoras and overcoats having little idea about the anachronism they are causing around. You might be reminded of stuff like 1984. Also, there are, again in keeping with the traditions, no women among the bunch. A conservative lot, I guess. And you might be also mistaken into believing that Mr. Damon, in his red and blue, with the American flag behind him, vanquished in the elections, and may be “unjustly” so because the beautiful Elise describes the opponent as a tool, is some sort of a Captain America himself. Or the quintessential liberal. Weinergate reminded a lot of folks about this film.
The problem is this films reminds a lot and provides very little of its own. As some of the film’s opening moments find Norris in the middle of long halls, you think you are in for an existential-heavy examination of a man, and the film almost prepares you for it. And as long as magic hats and magic fingers and fancy diaries with real-time maps/charts of a man’s decision-tree don’t make an appearance, you feel curious. When they do, you feel silly. Uncle Boonmee prepares you for its world. This film assumes you would be prepared for the obligatory arguments on fate and free-will, and that the natural dislike for the “ageing-establishment” would guide you through. Since they are called the Adjustment Bureau, God is called The Chairman. That ought to tell you how deep the film’s spirituality is. The sad part is, in there somewhere, when Norris only has Elise in his mind for three whole years, and the whole of New York to search, I felt I was in for a compelling film. In the City of Sylvia. But he finds her the next frame, and she has a contingency boyfriend, and then I lost all interest. I hate it when films make that character nothing more than a tool to raise the emotional stakes. I hate it even more when the tool fails at it.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 8:33 AM
Monday, July 18, 2011
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes
Director: David Yates
Runtime: 130 min.
Verdict: Quite possibly the nadir of blockbuster filmmaking.
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, often, during the course of the Oscars broadcast, claims with great pride – “We tell stories.” Looking at Deathly Hallows (I& II), and for that matter almost every movie in this franchise, one might be tempted to advice the AMPAS to be careful about what they are wishing for. There is, by my estimate, close to zero cinematic quality in these pictures, and almost every frame exists not to narrate but to illustrate. Rather, not even illustrate but merely point. Illustration requires a certain level of expertise in the ways of the medium, but pointers, well, you know is something like this franchise. Heavy knights probably built in concrete jump to the ground to protect Hogwarts from the giant malevolent creatures of Lord Voldemort, and you might imagine either of them having a bit of character, you know. At least something like those goofy little mummies in The Mummy Returns. But no, they exist only because they existed in the book, and because post-LOTR fantasy filmmaking demands their presence. They just turn up, attend the roll call and they vanish.
Or consider for example the big dragon like thing guarding the Gringotts bank. It is probably held captive. What is the reason for its existence if it doesn’t guard the vaults? While the bank security is firing away curses at them Harry and his friends jump onto it, release it and fly away. You want to think of a word to describe the series. Convenience is one. Deus ex machina is another. Harry Potter is a horcrux himself. So for Lord Voldemort to die, he has to die too. Fair enough. He dies. There comes one of those unimaginative depictions of afterlife, where everything is pristine white (remember Bruce Almighty, or The Matrix Revolutions?). Dumbledore unleashes some cryptic mumbo jumbo on the unsuspecting audience, you know, because nothing in afterlife is ever spoken plain. And bingo, Harry Potter is back. No stakes, nothing.
Harry Potter has to find a horcrux which is a diadem. A cryptic maiden unleashes another set of mumbo jumbo about the location of it. Harry walks into the Room of Requirement. He is searching for it. As an audience, we have no idea about the geography of that room, and neither do we know what lies where. It might as well be an attic. Harry walks, stops, turns behind, lifts something and bingo, there lies the diadem. It might as well be hanging on the wall. As I always cite with a narrative of this sub-standard a quality, I do summon Mark Twain again, in his full glory shredding Fennimore Copper The Last of the Mohicans – “It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.” This is a movie where the supposed epic fight between the protagonist and the antagonist feels like one of those girlfights, hairpulling and everything, reminiscent of the one caused by Amitabh Bachchan in Sharaabi. Enough said.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 12:34 PM
Thursday, July 07, 2011
Cast: Shia Labeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich
Director: Michael Bay
Runtime: 155 min.
Verdict: 3-D has a new champion.
Genre: Action, Sci-fi, Fantasy
There’s towards the end, what I would call the quintessential Michael Bay shot, a shot I remember now to have been in almost all of his films – The Rock, Armageddon, surely Pearl Harbor (whatever I remember of it). If you are in the condescending mode you might label it as Mr. Bay’s jerk-off point, or maybe respectfully call it a fetish. You know, like the one where Quentin Tarantino has a terrific feel for a woman’s feet. I would, in my turn, earmark Mr. Bay’s films as cases of juvenilia. When you see the ultra masculine image of uniformed men with sunglasses walk in slow-mo to music pretending to be rousing, and then a woman’s slender figure literally appear from among them, you got to say that the man is still locked in there somewhere. Right here right now, I cannot make heads or tails of that image except for one of those empty psycho-sexual jabs. Maybe my jabs would be on target. But then, that image, probably coming in from the very deepest corners of Michael Bay, is one of the most interesting to dissect and ponder over. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with it. Come to think of it, David Cronenberg too.
That is not my point right now. My point is the action sequences, and the 3-D image that renders them. A statement that claims that Dark of the Moon is the best 3-D since Avatar doesn’t exactly inspire a great deal of enthusiasm in me, considering the fray contains Clash of the Titans and its ilk. Just the same way, when I call Dark of the Moon the blockbuster of the summer, it shouldn’t inspire much in you (I have not seen Super 8 and Source Code). Michael Bay does most of the stuff right and Dark of the Moon is a spectacle alright. Of course, modern editing habits leave Dark of the Moon as a 2-D film consisting of 3-D frames, where when a building torn apart from the middle leaves us with no clue as to we are in the torn horizontal part or the remaining vertical part, and where the default shot is the helicopter shot. Also part of the whole bargain is an irony, wherein Mr. Bay moves his camera to cause more continuous shots than usual, you know to create a sense of space and a sense of movement through it, and yet the geography of that space is never really clear. They are moving north or east or west or south or maybe they are running in circles and it is all the same. Maybe it is inept filmmaking, or maybe just casual, or maybe a case of different priorities, wherein we are provided with several shots of Chicago, so that we are sure that this Chicago here is not a strange shape shifting elliptical maze itself. We are sure of it just like we are sure that the numbers contain 1 to 100. And we are provided with an objective wherein we learn that the target is, say, 72. Movement from 34 to 72. The thing is we’ve no idea how they traverse that path, and whether it is through the alphabetical order, or maybe some other shorter route, you know like a game of snakes and ladders.
The thing is Mr. Bay might not be a conventional blockbuster filmmaker, even if he tries real hard at it, and even if his films seek a father figure just as much as the executive producer’s. His films simply defy convention. His films are merely an assembly of short films, and a narrative arc is not his aspiration but a commercial guideline he has no option but to work with. Bumble Bee and the fellow autobots have been rounded up. One of them has already been shot, point blank. Next up is Bee. The conventional sad music is playing in the background. Now, most other filmmakers use this sad music as a narrative signal. Complete silence during such a moment could be a signal that an external force might intervene and change the equation. A sad music usually signals inevitability. It is what we call consistency of tone. When Nyah injects herself with the virus and is left in the captivity of Sean Ambrose and the music is one of those sad ones, we know for sure that there is no way Ethan Hunt is going to get her back now. But with Mr. Bay, that sad music is just an element to be used to manipulate us, and it is a strange confusion in there when we know Bee cannot die and we feel this sad music is just plain inappropriate. The sad music in the hands of a conventional filmmaker, like Raj Kumar Santoshi in Ghatak where the father is made to bark like a dog, is a powerful narrative punch, a low point for the protagonist, a tool to provide leverage later on during the revenge, and it is not to be used lightly. Not with Mr. Bay, who has little to no eye for that thing called arc, and whose films exist in only the present. An old-schooler might call it a case of short-attention span.
And yet, despite being a Michael Bay film, Dark of the Moon sometimes defies the Bay convention. There is the destruction of Chicago, and unlike Mr. Roland Emmerich who would let no such opportunity go unmilked for thrill and melodrama, Mr. Bay, in a rather interesting formal choice, goes for little solemn flashes of scenes of images of the destruction. He doesn’t dwell on them, but rather cuts through them, and in turn provides for a seeming inevitability to the destruction. No thrill, just plain fact. His movie is interested in the aftermath. There is a seeming indifference, or maybe seriousness to it. I was surprised, and pleasantly so. From being a frivolous Michael Bay explosion-rama, it becomes something as serious about an apocalyptic destruction as Terminator: Salvation, the blunt economical cold seriousness he always wanted to achieve and always ended up missing for loud in-your-face melodrama. It is probably the closest Mr. Bay has ever reached to let his aesthetic choices be in tune with the politics and themes of the film.
There is a remarkable addition to the overall aesthetic of Dark of the Moon in the form of 3-D. For the first time 3-D surprised me with its thematic purpose it brought to the fore. Even for all its spectacle Avatar offered nothing more about the purpose of the extra dimension. Until now, and even for large parts of Dark of the Moon the standard recommendation of good 3-D is just another way of saying that it all makes us unaware of the technology, ergo makes the experience akin to 2-D. A sequence in here challenges. Soldiers jump off planes and buildings and become human gliders, as they wade through into the enemy territory. We all have seen such a scene earlier. More recently Lara Croft: Cradle of Life and the Hong Kong action sequence from The Dark Knight come to mind. 2-D they were, and our instinctive reaction at such a scene done well is the thrill of such an activity, or in the case of Cradle of Life the Bond-esque preposterousness of the escape. To that similar image Mr. Bay adds another dimension. And what looked like a defect in Avatar, with those little figures not feeling a part of the image but a little toy hanging before it, miniatures so to speak, here in the Dark of the Moon reign in the themes of the film visually much better than any set of scenes or compositions. They are still looking like miniatures alright, but against the film’s ideas of the epic scope of the whole predicament humans and these erstwhile natives of Cybertron are finding themselves in, this feels all the more gravitating. One might wonder about a Werner Herzog documentary about a compulsive sky-diver, and this image would fit right in there.
This might be Mr. Bay’s most interesting film. A grand mess of the ideas and politics and fetishes and indulgences that make his movies mostly interchangeable. A frame, as usual, is densely packed, and there is a scene involving a Mexican stand-off between two members each of Decepticons and Autobots, and one might make little sense of the ensuing action, although it has all been neatly sketched out. Maybe Mr. Bay sometimes loses track of the human processing speed of visual information. And yet, in a breathtaking spectacle of an action scene on the expressway he slows it all down. Sometimes you wonder how someone could be so out of tune. Or sometimes you just sit back and watch stuff explode real neat.
A final question: What the hell was that with John Malkovich and Bumble Bee?
And Megatron wearing that trailer’s canvas around him in the desert? Neat touch. I park my car under the shade too.