Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises 2012

There will be no end to analysis and commentary on this last part of a truly epic trilogy. Just as there was no end to speculation around it for the past four years since the previous film had graced our screens. So, here's my drop of wisdom in the huge ocean of Batman discussions.

Traditionally, the third part in a trilogy is often the worst. Take, for instance, The Godfather: Part III (1990), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spider-Man 3 (2007) - all were sorely disappointing, especially as they came after a sometimes stronger second instalment than even the first film. Keeping that in mind, The Dark Knight Rises had a lot at stake. If Batman Begins (2005) had started the fire, the reaction to The Dark Knight (2008) could be likened to the size of an inferno. And since then all eyes have been on what Nolan-Bale would do next.

First, let's cover the story very quickly and spoiler-free. It's been eight years since DA Harvey Dent's death and the horrors inflicted by the maniacal Joker on Gotham City. Batman, blamed for Dent's death, has fled the scene. Ostensibly, there is peace all around and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), now a recluse, finds no reason to be a hero. But as Alfred (Michael Caine) points out, he also seems to have lost all taste for life since Rachel, his childhood friend and hope for a normal life, died in an explosion orchestrated by the Joker. Enter a breath of fresh air, cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway); a young man looking for his inspiration, Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a new reason to believe in the future, honest businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard); and a new threat to the city that is bent on destroying everything on a much bigger scale, terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). With the help of trusted Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce and Batman both re-enter the worlds they had exited - in a final bid to save Gotham City and its inhabitants from certain death.

The 164-minute-long film builds slowly, and with many sub-plots, to reach the ultimate hour of multiple revelations and conclusions. To be honest, I could have done without so many minor plots. The story did not need to have these diversions, as the fabric of the main story was already rich enough. But this is somewhat reminiscent of the previous two films - they too had too much going on, which on further viewings always felt distracting to me. Here, they expose another flaw, which is that a lot of questions from these subplots are left unanswered. It would have been a better use of footage to concentrate more on the why and how of some character motivations than having haphazard sub-plots. Also, not having seen this on an IMAX screen, I am not sure, but aside from some breathtaking shots, this did not feel like Wally Pfister's best work to date. The sound recording choices too had me a bit perplexed at times. Other minor quibbles include Anne Hathaway's make-up (red lipstick which 'bleeds' in real life is bad enough, but on screen, where make-up is re-touched after every shot, it is just intolerable), a very unnecessary and cheesy lovemaking-by-the-fire sequence and also, the less-than-impressive action choreography (in places, it's almost clunky and slow, which I partly blame on the cinematography).

Now for the good parts. Despite the slow burn, the film sucks you in anyway. A lot of this has to do with Batman's immense appeal, but a lot more is because of well, quite simply, Christian Bale. The audience Batman and Bruce Wayne back. And so from his first appearance on screen, we are hooked. Also, my one and only, but fairly huge, complaint about the previous film was that it was the story of the Joker. And aside from a couple of powerful interactions between them (did you not literally salivate when Batman 'interrogates' Joker or when Joker stands in the middle of the road challenging Batman to kill him?), the dark knight was barely worth talking about. It's true that his character arc was deliberately setting the scene for the third instalment, but it still annoyed me that the least impressive character in The Dark Knight, was the dark knight, himself. I have no such complaint about this film. This one definitely is about his rising. It concentrates on what goes through his head, what he sees and why he does what he does. This time I felt invested in his fate - I cared again. I do understand that both the second and third parts got the reaction they were meant to - but that doesn't mean I have to be happy about being so uninterested in Batman last time round.

As for the actors, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine, get their usual moments in - though I felt I didn't get enough of Alfred this time round. Marion Cotillard does a good job of being dignified and desirable, but then she never needs to do much to put that across (her final scene of the film though, was awful). Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries his role very well - he's real, instantly likeable and never once comes across as weak, which was possible in a story where the other characters are fairly larger-than-life. As for Anne Hathaway, I've heard way too many people say that her Catwoman (a name she's never called by in the entire film) is the perfect rendition of that character. I found it hard to believe before watching the film and I still disagree. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman; Anne Hathaway is a pretty girl in a leather suit with cat ears. On the sexy scale, I'd give far more marks to Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow (The Avengers 2012). So ultimately, though I liked Hathaway in this, she really just seemed to be wearing the suit and doing the character. She never lit the screen on fire.

Finally the forces of good and evil. So, evil first - Bane is meant to be sheer brute force and Tom Hardy's bulk owns that part of the character. But the way he delivered most of his lines sounded like he was constantly asking a question. His intonation was very strange. Also, he never once scared me. I know what his character is known for - and I saw him being brutal and evil on screen. But he still didn't feel menacing. This is a FAR cry from Heath Ledger's Joker, whose very presence gave me the creeps. So, honestly, for me, this film was heavily dependent on Batman / Bruce Wayne - and thank God he was as well-written as the one in Batman Begins. His face, now ageing gracefully, records the journey Bruce has had through the trilogy. There is humility and determination there, very different to the angst and arrogance we remember from his early days in Gotham City. Christian Bale is excellent, as always. He must be the only actor to lend so much dignity to a comic-book character. And everything about his physique is believable - when he leans on a walking stick in the beginning and when he retrains to be Batman, Bale is Bruce Wayne.

Overall, the film is more than satisfying. There are identifiable characters, strong interactions, reasonably interesting twists, a fantastic build-up and a clean conclusion - with some excellent tying up of threads by referring to and including themes we have seen in earlier films. Above all, there is a sexy Batpod!

There's no point in me recommending this film, because every film and comic geek will watch it and will probably take a friend or four. So, I'll just end by chanting Deshi Deshi Basara Basara (what ever language that may be in)!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Magic Mike 2012

It's a little pretty, a little not. A little gritty, a little not. What ever it is, it's definitely not the film I thought I was going to watch. So, five stars for the trailer that incidentally did not give away everything about the film - or make that one star because it sold a completely different film!

Do I sound confused?

Adam (Alex Pettyfer) moves to Tampa to live with his sister Brooke (Cody Horn), after getting into trouble and being kicked out of college. While working at a construction site, he meets Mike (the eponymous Magic Mike - Channing Tatum), who helpfully initiates Adam into the world of stripping, where the money is fast and the women even faster. Cue scenes of gyrating male pelvises, followed by lots of alcohol and sex, followed by more gyration. Oh and of course the club owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), is cool but a little mad, and predictably as nurturing as he is conniving. Through Mike's special tenderness towards Brooke, we become privy to the cracks in his facade, and share his hopes and dreams, which are much bigger than his current lifetsyle. We also witness the impressionable Adam corrupted by the pull of the fast life. Things go up and things go down (no pun intended) - and the film ends.

The reason I am confused is that like many other women in the audience, I went to see some male booty and some comedy. That's what the trailer had somehow led me to believe this film was about. I had even made some comparisons to the Bollywood comedy Desi Boyz (2011), where two friends - played by Akshay Kumar and John Abraham - turn to stripping for some fast money, under the tutelage of a nutty club owner - played by Sunjay Dutt.

But Magic Mike isn't that film. It is, in fact, a mixed bag. There is definitely a lot of booty (male and female), some very sexy dancing (mainly by ex-stripper Tatum) and some quite funny dialogue. And then there's the curveball thrown in - the film tries to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And then swerves in a different direction and gets overly dramatic. In some scenes it works brilliantly and in others it jars. Like some recent Steven Soderbergh-directed films, I am not sure exactly what he is trying to do here. None of the characters or situations are explored fully - and nothing makes complete sense. Scenes jump, in tone and framing, from moody to thoughtful to cliched. So do the characters.

Adam's change from vulnerable to confident to cocky comes about too quickly. Dallas's character seems to make no sense either - is he a don or a prima donna? What does Mike really want? His relationship with Joanna (his go-to-shag) is in direct contrast with his relationship with Brooke - and his supreme sacrifice to save Adam has no basis or precedent. And Brooke has an inexplicable character arc too - is she earnest or just playing hard-to-get? Most importantly, none of these puzzle pieces fit together. Even the camera work, with Soderbergh's new pet, the Red digital camera, goes from edgy to boring. There are so many different styles and tones at work here, that the film seems to have been directed by someone suffering from bipolar disorder.

Does this mean I didn't enjoy it? On the contrary! What the film does not deliver in consistency, it more than compensates in 'visual treats', alternating with some beautifully shot, well-written, character-driven scenes. Also, the actors pulled their weight. Matthew McConaughey does a decent turn as sleazy Dallas; Cody Horn has the right proportion of angst and oomph; Alex Pettyfer is surprisingly well-cast to play the endearing misfit and the slimy bastard; and in his own production, Channing Tatum has shown acting chops I did not know he possessed. For someone who's been nothing more than an all-American jock for me, Tatum really impressed me with his expressions, his voice and body language, and his comic timing. His scenes with Cody Horn are raw - and the dialogue between them is written and acted in the most natural, believable manner. So, he gets a gold star for really carrying the film through (yes, yes, I know - it's supposed to be based on his experiences, but that doesn't mean he has to act well!).

I'm not sure what basis to recommend this film on. It's pretty in places and thoughtful in others - and if you're interested in film-making, it could serve as a masterclass on what not to do. So, really I'm not recommending it, even though I did enjoy it myself!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man 2012

He is amazing indeed, this Spider-Man. Barely a decade after the previous franchise was launched, Spidey gets a reboot and is recast - much to the delight of old lovers like me. But I have to admit, it's been quite a journey to get here.

When I was growing up in the eighties, I had a huge crush on sweet Spider-Man. I don't know whether it was the less than adequate cartoon series that did it, or the even worse TV series, but he was my hero. I loved his graceful movements and his ability to hang from ceilings and swing across buildings - his ability to save the day without a big, black cape or the need for a low, raspy voice.

All that was wiped clean with the onset of my teen years. I was suddenly more fascinated by dark, brooding, unpredictable men (cue Angel, the vampire with a soul and Batman, the dark knight). When first Michael Keaton, then Val Kilmer, and later Christian Bale became Batman (yes, I love George Clooney as much as the next breathing homo sapien, but c'mon, even he apologises for desecrating the very best of DC Comics), I completely gave up on Spider-Man. It didn't help that when he finally got to grace the silver screen, Tobey Maguire was picked to play Peter Parker, along with Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson - two actors who I saw as neither innocent, nor sweet - and so the very premise of the first film seemed flawed. I just wanted Peter to wipe the stupid smile off his face and MJ to not be such a self-centred, conniving girl all the time. They did not win me over at all - and their struggles meant nothing to me.

So, when I saw it announced that the franchise was getting a fresh start, I was happy. And when I learnt that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are the lead pair, I was ecstatic. Garfield had had me mesmerised during 2010's Never Let Me Go and Stone's natural freshness in 2010's Easy A and 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love had brought me hope for a future Sandra Bullock. This sounded like a dream team.

Then the trailer came out. The trailer that carefully, painfully, in the most detailed way, explained the story of the film, in near-chronological order. I thought, 'that's it...what's the point of going to the cinema now?' Well, obviously I did go (even though it's taken me five paragraphs to get to the point) and I am so glad I did.

The Amazing Spider-Man repeats much of the storyline of 2002's Spider-Man. You see how Peter (Andrew Garfield), bullied and battered at school, tries to keep his head down and be good. You see how his curiosity gets him bit by a radioactive spider and how he acquires an alter-ego. The corresponding rebellion, the ensuing guilt and the desire for revenge from the first film, is imagined in a very similar manner - but there are slight deviations from the original tales, all the way through, which surprise you a little bit. There is definitely more creativity in reference to the back story about his parents, and the secrets they guarded, than in previous films - and this time, it isn't MJ, but rather Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter's comic-book first love, who shares the screen with him. Also, the villain is new, though so many villains have such a similar story that I can hardly tell the difference nowadays. So Dr Curt Connor (Rhys Ifans) too wants to improve his life and humanity in general - but ends up as The Lizard, because of his personal greed and ambition. And of course, it is left to Peter / Spider-Man to save the world from certain darkness, because no one else could ever face the villain like our hero.

But this film is a joy, from start to finish. The entire script is speckled with comic moments and the dialogue is hardly ever cheesy. In fact, the cutest moments - especially between the young lovers - work because the script doesn't actually give them mature, unnatural lines to spout. They're awkward, tongue-tied and very, very smitten - and they show it, with the way they look at each other and how they express their feelings with incomplete, nonsensical exchanges. Garfield and Stone have buckets of chemistry, which helps immensely to bring about the light frothiness of their love story.

Others seem to be doing what they do best. Rhys Ifans plays Dr Connor's insecurities and aspirations to perfection, but honestly, it doesn't seem like he had to act much differently from many of his previous appearances. Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and Sally Field as Aunt May are genius choices. Excellent actors both, they don't need to be overly dramatic to show pride or disappointment - and again, these weren't difficult roles for them. All three of them are the familiar faces that do exactly what we expect them to do - but they do it so well.

Despite the predictability, and the very expected moments, it is Peter's discovery of his new abilities, the development of his relationship with Gwen, his teenage angst and silent rage, and the realisation of what his mission should be that are portrayed excellently - not only because Andrew Garfield's face is like a canvas of emotions, but also because the scenes are very well-written, directed and edited. Director Marc Webb, with 500 Days of Summer (2009) behind him, certainly knows how to pull at heartstrings. I can't say I have been emotional while watching many other comic-book films, but I sat with moist eyes through quite a bit of this one.

A thoroughly enjoyable ride - with great special effects (all that swinging made me nauseous!), strong acting and a very engaging script. My original crush on Spidey is back - and I would like more of this, please!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 2012

Normally, I would research the facts before reviewing a historical drama. But when the title of a film has the name of one of the most influential leaders of the United States, followed by the words 'Vampire Hunter', any need to research facts goes out the window.

With this anything goes spirit and an understanding of how tongue-in-cheek (read wafer-thin) the premise is, I went to see the film in 3D today. And I must say, despite what ever the serious critics may say, I thought the film was a riot.

So, there is Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), the 16th POTUS, who as a child suffered the consequences of a vicious vampire attack on his mother. He grows up with revenge in his heart and is rewarded with a mentor, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who trains him in vampire slaying. He is aided by childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and boss Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) in this endeavour. He also finds time to love, woo and marry Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) - but the mission continues to be 'find and kill the original, 5,000-year-old vampire, Adam' (Rufus Sewell), who it seems is a bigger enemy of the state than even slavery.

Does that sound like a really bad plot? Honestly, it is no better watching it, than describing it. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Let me explain by first stating that I'm a Timur Bekmambetov fan - and he has directed this brainless venture. Ever since I saw his Night Watch (2004) and its sequel Day Watch (2006), I thought he had made two of the most interesting vampire / monster films and I couldn't wait for Twilight Watch, which Fox was supposed to produce. Of course, it was depressing to see how Bekmambetov sold his Russian / Kazakh soul to the American devil, who shelved the third instalment of this brilliant story and made him direct Wanted (2008) instead. And that was a painfully bad film, which even Angelina Jolie's fabulous body and some beautiful shots couldn't save. So, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I snigger every time I think of the title) was actually a surprise because I didn't expect it to be worth my time at all.

There are some great jump-in-your-seat moments, some average dialogue and acting, an amazing scene amongst horses and lots of very satisfactory slaying. But above all else, is the director's undeniable stamp on every shot and every post-production special effect. Timur Bekmambetov seems to delight in creating smoky effects and trails of particles on air. That's been his constant in all previous films I have seen - and is used here in abundance. So, the film looks beautiful and generally feels like fun - but is not expected to make you run out and grab a copy of the novel it is based on.

Seriously, what else did you want from a movie with a title like that? Leave your brain resting at home and just keep your eyes open for a visual feast.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Killer Joe 2011

Who'd have thought I would live to see the day when Matthew McConaughey would deliver an Oscar-worthy performance?


Killer Joe is a very disturbing film that starts with Texan trash Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) plotting with his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to get his mother killed. She is apparently an evil, self-centred woman, who never loved her children - but much more importantly, Chris has information that her life insurance is worth $50,000 and the sole beneficiary is his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). Chris has a plan - they will hire cop/contract-killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do the dirty deed. Not much convincing is required and Ansel agrees to this as long as the cash is also shared with his current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon).

Enter 'Killer Joe', who is not particularly impressed with the family's low-life characters and their unpredictability but has taken a shine to the slightly unbalanced Dottie. He agrees to take on the contract only on the condition that Dottie is given to him, as guarantee for his fee. But now everything begins to get more and more complicated - and Chris's seemingly simple plan starts to fall apart. As if the family interactions and underlying dynamic weren't sickening enough, when Joe is displeased with the unexpected turn of events, he finds very unusual ways to teach the culprits a lesson. The last few minutes of the film will go down in cinematic history as one of the most disturbing scenes of all time.

The dialogue and style of the film in some places is very much like a stage play's. Of course as I discovered later, it is based on a play of the same name, by Tracy Letts. Its plot revolves around the five main characters, with barely a scene or two involving anyone else. I mention this as it highlights how important each actor's performance is - and how each has excelled in conveying creepy vibes! From the very first scene, Emile Hirsch establishes Chris as the free-loading loser whose harebrained schemes smell of disaster; Thomas Haden Church, who by now has done more than his share of chilled-out roles, adds multi dimensions to the slow-witted Ansel; Gina Gershon is eerily convincing as a trashy, ambitious, small-town woman with big dreams, who seems to be the only one with actual concern for Dottie's welfare; and Juno Temple is remarkably spooky as the slightly off-kilter, young girl, whose desires and lack of ulterior motives make her the only 'honest' person.

And then there is Matthew McConaughey, in a role of a lifetime. Yes, we all know he was excellent in A Time to Kill (1996), and we all loved him in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), but in between and after those, he has delivered sub-standard films and rolled along on natural charm and a smooth accent - not to mention, very 'smooth' looks. He seemed to have forgotten any acting talent till Lincoln Lawyer (2011). Of course, not in my wildest dreams could I imagine nice guy McConaughey, with the smooth accent, to be so bloody brilliant as a depraved, sick, psychotic, sadistic killer. Joe Cooper's impeccable manners are familiar, but Matthew's smile has never looked this sinister and scary. There is not a single scene with him where I was not tense, where I did not wonder how unpredictable the situation could get. He is pure menace in every frame. It is an unexpectedly flawless performance.

Like 2010's The Killer Inside Me, there is no good in this film and there isn't always a reason for why the characters are so depraved. There is enough crudity, nudity and brutality for the film to win an NC-17 rating in the US and an 18 certificate in the UK. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it is a very well-made film, with fantastic performances. Of course, my opening line mentions an unlikely scenario - characters like Joe Cooper do not win their actors Oscar noms, but if they did, Matthew McConaughey would completely deserve it.

Excellent film...but watch at your own risk!