Sunday, 30 September 2012

Untouchable 2011

I had no idea about the hype around Untouchable (original title: Intouchables) when I decided to see it. The fact that it was a French film and Francois Cluzet plays the main protagonist was incentive enough, but after watching it, I have read various articles describing it as one of the biggest worldwide hits from France.

The story goes thus: Philippe is a rich quadriplegic, looking for a full-time carer, and along comes Driss, an ex-convict from the ghettos, who is at the interview with the aim to get rejected, so he can show just cause to claim his welfare benefits. Driss's irreverent manner and disregard for social norms win him a probation period as Phillippe's carer, which Philippe and his staff actually have to convince Driss to try out, on the basis of the extravagant perks. What develops is an unlikely friendship between two men who are as different from each other, in every way, as can be. Philippe is able to bring purpose to Driss's life and in turn Driss gives him the gift of laughter. The story is based on the true-life relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou.

This is possibly one of the funniest films I have seen on the subject of disability. As bizarre as that sounds, Untouchable constantly provides uninhibited laughter, but there is not a moment where you feel that Philippe's condition is being made fun of, for cheap thrills. Even when Driss puts Philippe through some awful situations, somehow the disabled character does not come across as helpless. All the way through, Driss treats him like an equal, like someone for whom concessions don't need to be made. Even when Philippe dwells on the tragedies in his life, Driss dissipates the gloom with an idea that challenges the norms of how one should behave in that situation.

Unlike A Sea Inside (2004), which evokes compassion, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), which inspires hope, Untouchable brings mirth, without apology. Instead of reflecting on the heroism in a paralysed person's life, it focuses on friendship and crossing barriers set by society. 2004's Inside I'm Dancing came close to this sort of story-telling, but it played on the pity/heroism attitudes too, which it is sometimes criticised for.

This is not to say all disability stories are the same and should be dealt with in one particular manner. Most of the films I have mentioned were, in fact, based on true stories and each patient had their own circumstances. But in Philippe's case, the focus was on the fun times he had, and still has, with his carer. The film is unashamedly funny all the way through, and memory of the scenes where Philippe exposes Driss to modern art and classical music, or when Driss shaves Philippe's facial hair, will always make me giggle. If the real Philippe and Abdel are anything like the characters on screen, then their relationship is utterly enviable.

Francois Cluzet is an extremely dignified actor, a class act. As Philippe, he has to rely only on his facial expressions and his voice to convey all emotions. It helps, of course, that he has such a warm face and is instantly likeable. Omar Sy, who plays Driss, is a total revelation to me. His entire body is active and alive, his face is absolutely fluid and his performance is completely unhindered by any rules. He is not acting, he just is. And, I must say, besides being a refreshing actor, he really is easy on the eye! All other actors, including Anne Le Ny and Audrey Fleurot, just add to the mix and make it work.

Untouchable is a particularly beautiful story about friendship and living life, and without ever getting preachy for even a moment, it has all the compassion and hope and belief that a film about disability is 'expected' to have. An excellent, excellent film, that is very highly recommended.

Looper 2012

I'm befuddled why so many reviewers are making it sound like Looper is a very confusing sci-fi, time-travel story, when really it is not. Writer-Director Rian Johnson has made sure that everything that could ever confuse you about the science of time-travel is either kept to a minimum or explained in painful detail through the voice-over narration by the main character, Joe. I'm worried that people who are reviewing this film have never seen a sci-fi film before, and this, coming from someone who's not even a sci-fi fan!

The story mostly takes place in the US in 2044. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a well-paid specialist assassin, known as a Looper. A Looper's job is to assassinate marks that are sent by a crime syndicate from the future, that is, 30 years from the 'current' time', leaving no trace of the body or the murder in the year 2074. For this, they get paid handsomely in silver. And one day, they have to 'close the loop', or have to kill their own future self, for which they get paid in gold and are instantly retired from their profession, to live as they please for the next three decades. Failure to close the loop, results in gruesome death for both the assassin and the mark (and I really mean gruesome). So, when older Joe (Bruce Willis) shows up as the mark, current Joe has no intention of letting him go, but obviously that is not how it plays out. And thus, an action-filled chase begins where both 'Joe's fight for their own survival, while trying to get the other to understand the choices they are making.

This is definitely an interesting story, and has been told in an efficient manner. Of course, I have many unanswered questions. For one, the whole concept of sending someone back in time to be killed because it's not easy to get rid of a body in the future, feels a bit shaky when we actually see a murder happening in the future without the killers even pausing to think. Also, if the whole idea of 'closing the loop' is so problematic, why make loopers kill their future selves? Why not get another looper involved?

And finally, and this is the only spoiler, which would make sense if you have seen the film: the entire premise of the Bruce Willis character's mission to kill the child is baseless - because if Bruce Willis exists, then Joe managed to kill him in the last round (and we see that happening), so the child's mother was not killed by Bruce Willis in the last round and he shouldn't have grown up to be the Rainmaker at all. And if there's no Rainmaker in the future, then we have no film! OK, that bit is confusing, but that's because it's a flaw and the reviewers aren't really picking up on this just yet!

It is good to see Bruce Willis toting a gun again and looking slightly John McClane-esque. Also, he's obviously very comfortable with these time-travel set-ups, after Twelve Monkeys (1995) and well, The Kid (2000)!! Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a  good job too - but the prosthetic nose and flattened mouth are quite distracting. He does the best he can, but at times, he himself seems distracted by his make-up. Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels pull their weight and Pierce Gagnon gets pretty creepy. So, all in all the cast is more than capable and the pace of the film is consistent. It's a well-executed effort, and despite the holes in the story, the film holds the audience's attention and interest.

Definitely recommended, especially if the genre rocks your boat. Otherwise, it's a decent action film, but not exactly destined to become the next Terminator...

Note: Some of my questions answered, but not really answered, by the director. This is full of spoilers, so no point reading it unless you have seen the film:

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Total Recall 2012 vs Dredd 2012

I've debated about whether I need to write reviews for these two remakes of popular 1990s sci-fi films, which were in turn inspired by a short story and comic series, respectively. Honestly, I have no good excuse to write this, except to get it off my chest!

I'm not a sci-fi fan - and have never been. But I have watched many of the 'essential' films, to better understand the genre. Also, growing up in the '80s and '90s meant that, like it or not, some of the biggest blockbusters I watched invariably had elements of a stark world of the future, where the existence of cyborgs is common, and even humans are more mechanical.

Total Recall (1990), which over time has adopted cult status, always seemed to me, to essentially be a B-movie. It is garish, with awful acting and many scenes set up to make the audience laugh. It is, at the heart of it all, just a fun, cheesy ride. It helped in creating Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'legend' status and is probably Sharon Stone's second most famous role. Why, just after 22 years, they decided to remake the film, is beyond me (besides the obvious hope to cash in loads of money). Yes, the special effects now look dated, but the film is not old enough to need a remake, and still commands a fair fan following that would not like it to be tampered with.

To justify this effort, I guess, 'they' have made some minor changes to the look and feel of the film. The new Total Recall is greyer and quite humourless. By casting Colin Farrell, whose selection of films is really diverse, they have hoped to bring in an actor who is not yet typecast, but generally respected for his work. And with Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, 'sexy action' can be expected, so that should bring in the lads. Unfortunately, what they forgot to bring to the table was a new angle to the story. And though I enjoyed the 'look' of the film (in all its shades of grey), I'm not really sure if the screenplay, the dialogues, the action or anything really impressed me. Yes, Colin and Kate look hot, and that should be reason enough to go to the cinema, but there wasn't much that made me want to stay.

I wasn't thoroughly bored. I was just thoroughly confused about why 'they' felt the need to make this film. With very average action and acting, it's a very average film, which will be massively panned by anyone who actually loved the previous version.

My experience with Dredd was even worse. Judge Dredd (1995) was a fairly miserable film, but here too, over time there was a cult feel about it. Most action fans have seen it, and remember it well, and will probably list it amongst Sylvester Stallone's top films. When the trailer for the new film came out, I wasn't sure if I was quite excited about it, because though Karl Urban doesn't have a half-paralysed face like Sly's, his constantly down-turned mouth, underneath the helmet, seemed like he was aping Stallone (which is weird, because why would you want to repeat a portrayal that has been mocked for almost two decades?). When I finally watched the film, I was further distressed by the fact that his voice kept changing from gruff to normal, like he couldn't make up his mind whether to 'copy' Stallone or not.

The film makers did try to bring something new here though. They did not repeat the story from the first film. Since this character is from a series of comics, there is a definite possibility of bringing new ideas to the table (unlike Total Recall, which is based on a short story). So, what did the writers do? They wrote something completely 'new', that is heavily inspired by an Indonesian film Serbuan Maut (The Raid, 2011), and hoped that no one will notice! Unfortunately for them, The Raid not only had an international release recently, but has been so highly regarded all over the world, as one of the greatest action films ever, that the cat is, sort of, out of the bag. Of course, in the US, where international cinema isn't that widely distributed, it will be business as usual and I am sure this 'new' story will be appreciated.

Except for the stunning visuals and clever cinematography, Dredd bored me so much that I contemplated leaving the cinema a few times. The story was copied, the acting was dull, the dialogues were as cheesy as can be - and the only reason a cheesy action film works (the 'action', itself) was so slow and ungratifying that I really did not see the point of putting up with the movie.

So, in my opinion as dull as Total Recall is, it's still a little more interesting than Dredd - but if I could have my way, I'd go back in time and remove the idea of remaking these films in the first place.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Anna Karenina 2012

It has been a while since I wrote a real opinionated rant, and not a trying-to-be-objective review, but this film has once again brought out the 'animal' in me...!

I have not read Anna Karenina, mainly because anything Tolstoy-related makes me imagine losing the rest of my life to reading one novel. And when there are so many films to watch, why lose your life to written words, I say?! So, this film seemed like the easy way to get my literary education. Instead, I got a theatrical one.

It is set like a theatre production. Stage hands appear and replace pieces of scenery and props, to create new scenes, while the camera watches. A character's walk through the back of the stage implies a journey through town to reach a different destination. Sounds and colours and gestures denote things more poignant than what is apparent. Etc, etc. It's all quite ingenious! And pretentious. And once you have gotten over the novelty of the very stylised film-making, it actually becomes very jarring. The antics around the actors become more than a little distracting, and admiration turns into annoyance. The cinematography is exquisite, though - and the perfect lighting and make-up contribute to some brilliant tight close-ups of the actors.

As for the actors themselves, well, what can I say about Keira Knightley, who plays the title character. It confounds me how successful she has become, with really very little to put her there - but I do have some theories about this:
Britain produces some extraordinary acting talent, and in British cinema conventional good looks are often not the main criterion for casting. Thus, the better-looking actors find themselves lured by better-paid jobs in a much bigger playground called Hollywood. Whether it's Christian Bale or Michael Fassbender or Tom Hardy - men whose good looks are matched by immense talent - they all made their global impact from the other side of the pond. But with the 'fairer' sex, Hollywood has had less luck with recruitment. After Kate Winslet, there have been few actresses that look good, act well and can become stars. Yes, there's Carey Mulligan, but she's not on a film-signing spree for some bizarre reason. Keira Knightley, on the other hand, has caught Hollywood's eye. Who cares if she can't act? She's got those bushy eyebrows, can stare vacantly at things and there are the ever-dependable pouty lip muscles she can exercise. She's the female Robert Pattinson! Also, she has that jutting jaw and high shoulders, that extremely eager, toothy grin - and best of all, she has a British accent and hurried diction, which come in handy for all period films, regardless of their original language. What else could an audience want?
Oh stop being pesky about the acting! We, the audience, are paying for her acting lessons, aren't we? Every time she gets cast in another film that we go and watch, she learns an extra expression, which she uses next time. That's thrifty of her.

In this film, Ms Knightley has employed her best stiff-body-and-multiple-pouts routine so well that some critics actually think she wasn't half-bad. That may be because they're comparing her acting to an even worse, wooden performance by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Count Vronsky. If there's a saving grace in the main casting, it's Jude Law (seriously...can you believe that?) as Alexei Karenin. His portrayal of the character is sufficiently worthy of both pity and hatred, so a job well done, I guess. Otherwise, there's zero chemistry between any of the actors and every one just seems to be going through the motions at a rehearsal for a stage play.

Yet, despite all this negativity, I'm glad I watched Anna Karenina. I continue to be an admirer and student of cinema, and this film has definitely been created in a very unique manner - so it felt like going to school to learn some really boring, but essential theorems. Otherwise, the acting, the emotions, the characters, all left me fairly cold.

Avoid it, unless you too are afflicted like me.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Lawless 2012

The last time writer Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame) and director John Hillcoat got together to make a movie, the result was the extraordinary The Proposition (2005), a film I am known to refer to as 'the most powerful Western made in recent times'. Seven years later they have returned with a 1930s Gangster Film, a genre that has been explored over and over again, and recently even made it big on television with HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant's historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, which tells the story of his grandfather and grand-uncles, who ran a successful bootlegging business during Prohibition (1920-1933) in Franklin County, Virginia. The film introduces us to the Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and to myths about their, or at least Forrest's, invincibility. With the help of family friend Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), their liquor business runs efficiently, while their 'bar' serves as a front for illegal activities. But when a new law-enforcer, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), comes to town and tries to intimidate Franklin's bootleggers into sharing their profits with him, the Bondurants stand up against him and a war gets waged between good and evil, except the lines between these two become extremely fuzzy.

Though the focus of the film is often on Jack, it is Forrest who is a legend. It is his determination that makes the brothers a force to reckon with. He is the brains of the family, Howard the brawn, while Jack is the heart - but none of them is quite as one-dimensional as that. Jack's open infatuation and crazy antics for Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) bring on the laughter, but it is Forrest's silent longing for Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) that really melts your heart.

The acting in the film is above par. For me, Shia LaBeouf is the sort of performer that rarely leaves an impression - and here, he is playing a character that not a lot of people take seriously. So, it is to his credit that he has done full justice to his role and slowly grows on you through the film. Jason Clarke and Dane DeHaan have small roles, but they are written so well that both actors make an impact. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain not only provide the much-needed female distraction in this male-dominated drama, as they would have done in the original Gangster Films of the '30s, but they also have a presence that the film could not have done without.

As for Guy Pearce, he has such a mixed bag of roles in his repertoire, and pretty much each one has been delivered to perfection, but he strangely doesn't seem to make enough waves in Hollywood. He was mind-blowing as Charlie Burns in The Proposition, with the same Cave-Hillcoat crew, and now, as Charlie Rakes, he is so deliciously creepy and repulsive that I wanted to get up and clap for him. But he isn't alone in deserving a standing ovation: Tom Hardy, after an under-whelming turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which wasn't his fault but rather the writers', has shown once again why he is in so much demand right now. Using a combination of limited dialogue, small grunts and smouldering glares, he has managed to appear just as fearsome, as he is endearing, in this film.

All the actors have delivered measured and perfect performances, but their job has been made easy by the scriptwriter. Nick Cave has interlaced the extreme violence of the story, with real-life absurdity; his warm, believable characters often deal with bizarre, funny situations, just before something terrible happens. Even at the best of times, the dark clouds are always looming, and during some dark moments, there is a weird urge to laugh. But the writer and director never digress, they never lose grip of the story they are telling and the manner in which they want to relay it.

Lawless is not as flawless or as brilliant as The Proposition, but that may just be because it takes place in a very different era (and is a different genre too). It is a film I would recommend very highly, especially if the sight of blood and gore, at very unexpected moments, does not put you off.

This is, quite simply, the sort of film that reaffirms my love for cinema!