The Last Emperor

The Last Emperor is a study of the follies of historical human obliviousness. Pu Yi was the last emperor of China. Born into a life of unlimited power, adoration, corruption and decay - Pu Yi attempts to grow up and take his inevitable place as the head of one of the largest kingdoms in history of the world. Simultaneously the world around him is changing. His kingdom is no more, the economic order of the country is in upheaval, and the world is heading towards its first major war. But ensconced in the lap of luxury in the Forbidden City the child emperor has no inkling of it all.

The movie is a powerful historical portrayal of the life of the last emperor of China. In addition to being historically accurate, the movie also carries the burden of exploring the psyche of the child and the man who lost more than probably anyone else in the history of mankind. And it is this complexity of subject matter that tends to make the movie and tad difficult to approach. Without appropriate historical background, there is a lot in the narrative that is lost on the ordinary viewer.

Cinematically the movie is beautiful. Luxurious sets, elaborate dresses and wonderful acting all combine to make it an absorbing watch. The plot as it unfolds from the point of view of a young child separated from his mother, to the spoiled young man, a manipulated ex-monarch and a wizened old man is well written and still better executed. The only sticking point in the movie for me, was the choice to use English indiscriminately, as an attempt to make the movie more accessible. While the choice makes the movie more accessible, it also makes it seem that much inauthentic.

I first saw the movie more than 10 years ago. The thing I remembered most about the movie was that I had witnessed something seminal, even though the story did not stick with me. When I found it on Netflix, here was an opportunity to watch the movie once again and correct a distorted view through my own past.

The strength of movies like the Last Emperor, lies partly in the power of the historical narrative and partly in the ability of the audience to relate to the times. The history is unparalleled. But the focused narrative built around Pu Yi, almost a century afterward, does present some cultural challenges that makes you walk away from the movie feeling as if you are missing something. Watching it a second time did not quite cure that for me. That, for me, is a measure of both its strength and weakness.

October 31, 2010

Hereafter

Hereafter is an engaging tale of life and hope through the eyes of the afterlife. Absorbingly slow and vicariously involving, the movie follows the stories of three people across three continents as they come to terms with their own experiences with death.

George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a medium - the real one, gaining his ability as a result of a series of near-death operations during his childhood. Even as he makes a living out of helping people connect with their loved ones after life, George realizes that the process is taking an emotional toll on him that he is not ready for and decides to give it up. Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) is a French reporter who is caught up in the 2004 tsunami and has a near-death experience that leaves her with with a new view of the afterlife. Marcus is a London school boy who loses his twin to an accident and finds himself withdrawn and desperately looking for some answers. As fate conspires to bring the three together, the audience gets a surprisingly non-religious discussion of the nature of the afterlife.

Juxtaposing the message of hope against the finality of death is an easy thing to do. But doing so in a heartfelt manner, without degenerating to a theological debate or a pseudo-scientific babble, is the difficult part. Director Clint Eastwood, does a good job with straddling the line without picking sides, yet turning in a heartwarming character study with a rich narrative. The visuals are engaging and stunning in parts, the screenplay swings lazily between the uncomfortably tight and the luxuriously wide. Scenes almost always take longer than required, but manage to keep their relevance.

Matt Damon displays his, to paraphrase my wife, honest humility that makes it easy to relate to him. Which, given the nature of his profession, is an achievement in itself. The twins George/Frankie McLaren are superb. The French are, well, French - fitting the caricature to a T. The other characters flit in and out of the storyline lending depth and relevance to it.

This is not a movie if you are looking for a snappy storyline. The movie is slow. But it is a speed that is appropriate to the subject and narrative. And sometimes that subject may hit too close to one's heart; be prepared for it. All in all it is a great engaging drama to immerse yourself in and take with you even after the final credits roll.

October 30, 2010

Sphere

I had avoided watching Sphere for a while, because of its cast - Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson. Not that the three were in any way bad actors. On the contrary, when you have such strong performers packed into a science fiction movie, and it doesn't turn out to be spectacular - it is usually bad. Unfortunately, the movie lived up to my worst fears.

Sphere is based on a Michael Crichton novel, and is the story of four scientists who are commandeered to help investigate a strange craft lodged in the bottom of the Pacific ocean. Upon arrival, they realize that the craft is not alien, but from the future, and has in its cargo a large, alien, golden sphere. As the scientists are exposed to the sphere, and deadly accidents begin to take place thousands of feet underwater, they have to figure out the cause of these accidents or accept the fate that none of them will ever see the outside again.

The problem with idea-driven science fiction novels - like this one - is that there are so many ideas to be explored and discussed, that there is very little time for character definition. Further, the entire narrative seems force fit to discuss the concepts, and seems rather artificial and stunted. For a viewer, that makes it extremely difficult to care about what is happening on screen. That was the case with Sphere. A lot of wondrous happenings did take place, but it was like a forced march that left one too tired to care for the scenery. Having too many stars only worsened this. Everyone had so many dialogues to speak that there wasn't much listening going on.

That is not to say there was nothing good to come from the movie. The concept itself was though-provoking. The idea that an alien could be truly alien without a physical manifestation is powerful, which the movie was able to explore rather well. And if you were looking for a great documentary without a voice-over, then this would be it. As a thriller ... it could use more character and fewer stars.

October 29, 2010

The Last Winter

The problem with horror movies for me, is the ultimate resolution of the horror. The cause of horror is never as scary, and worse, triggers the left side of my brain and I am left shaking my head at the implausibility of it all. The Last Winter pulls a bit of the same with its supernatural themed resolution and the ever-present reminder of eco-activism. Overlooking these however, makes the movie a slow, but absorbing tale of creepy, incessant mishaps on a drilling base in the wilderness of Alaska.

There is something about the white flat landscape of the arctic circle that make it a perfect locale for things to go wrong. And in the movie they do, starting from an innocuous bloody nose during touch-football to the eventual onslaught on the phantom culprits.

Ed Pollack (Ron Pearlman) is the gruff taskmaster that heads a drilling crew deep in Alaska. To his eternal disdain, the crew also includes an environmentalist (James LeGros), who is concerned that all is not well with the operation. When a crew member begins acting strangely and is discovered outside, frozen to death, the clock begins to tick on a series of unexplained accidents. As the toll begins to mount, survival becomes the only goal.

The movie is glacially slow as it begins, but in time the narratives picks up enough to be involving if not gripping. Cinematography follows a similarly lazy approach, and the director does not always use the white expanse as a fellow cast member (like say in Fargo). That said, there is something enticing about a horror movie that does not follow the usual set pieces. And moreover, it is a supernatural thriller set beyond the Arctic circle. If that does not interest you, and it should, then this movie is probably not something you want to spend your time on.

October 27, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel

One of the biggest issues I have with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel is its name. Other than act as an intermittent rallying cry, the title does little to summarize the arguments presented by Jared Diamond as the underlying reasons for broad developments of human history across the ages. Instead calling it Geography, Technology, and Germs may as well remove the need for a longer synopsis.

In the book, as well as the supporting PBS and National Geographic series, author Jared Diamond makes the arguments for his theory supporting the underlying inequalities of human progress. The main reason is the difference in Geographic bounties bestowed upon the people by the places they developed in, as opposed to any innate capabilities of the people itself. In other words, the inequalities are supported by the accident of location, rather than any design of race. The arguments can be summarized into the following:

  • Agriculture and the domestication of animals was the key in stabilizing human societies, supporting villages and cities through productivity, thereby freeing people to specialize it trades other than food gathering.
  • Geography is the deciding factor in the emergence (availability of edible plants and domesticable animals) and spread (agriculture spreads well along the same latitude in Eurasia as compared north-south in the Americas) of agriculture.
  • Development of cities was key to increased human densities, leading to the growth of communicable diseases and corresponding immunity in peoples over time.
  • When two civilizations meet (fight) the prevailing civilization is almost always predetermined by their level of technology (guns and steel - resulting from their head start in establishing cities) and their susceptibility to diseases (germs - determining whose diseases are deadly to whom).

Admittedly, these are a ideas that are really powerful and useful in their own right. By establishing the precept that geography could play such an integral part in the growth of societies, the author is able to take the conversation away from specific human abilities to broad inevitable cultural movements. And the large number of examples do go a long way in supporting the arguments in the book. Some have criticized the book for being too deterministic or fatalistic. But it is in being so oriented to cause and effect, but identifying a substantially new cause is the strength of the book.

What the book is also successful is doing is provide a language to interpret the large conquests of history, in terms of the key abilities of the warring factions. Be it the story of the Conquistadors or the rise in European powers, the book does a decent job in explaining them through the ideas of guns, germs and steel.

That is not to say there aren't gaps in the narrative - the biggest being China. For a people to develop almost along a parallel path with little outside influence, while bucking the trends of social development outside, China presents a unique juxtaposition to the deterministic sense in the rest of the book. While the author acknowledges this and provides some context, it stands more as an example to what can be done despite the geographical realities of a people.

The biggest issue I had was, the way technology was used to answer a question about technology. The author begins the book based on a question asked of him "Why do white people have so much cargo, but we New Guineans have so little?". Cargo here referring to the riches of technology. By answering that question with guns & steel doesn't help. Instead, if one were to take those out of the equation what remains is germs and geography, which is probably too simplistic.

As a racially agnostic way of parsing and understanding world history, the book is a definite winner. But to not consider any human achievements into the mix tends to leave quite a few open questions.

October 25, 2010

Moon

Moon is one of those slow, understated mystery movies, that emphasizes the prime purpose of movies: storytelling above all else. Restricted to the stark and claustrophobic confines of a moon base, the movie traces the last days of solitary life for Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), as he gets ready to head back to Earth after his stint managing mining operations for a critical clean-energy resource found only on the Moon.

As Sam goes about completing his missions, he begins to see and hear things that are not supposed to be. He keeps this from the lone humanoid presence on the base, the robot GERTY (Kevin Spacey), to not let anything interfere with the reunification with his wife and child on Earth. But, an unfortunate accident with a Harvester sets in motion a series of events that brings him that much closer to coming back to Earth and that much farther from home.

Eschewing dramatic scores for the sounds of the everyday, the movie sets up a feeling of loneliness and solitude. This is further accentuated by the clinical whiteness of the moon bunker, echoing Sam's state of mind. For a movie shot in 2009, it has a remarkably retro feel to it - some scenes almost paying homage to The Clockwork Orange. The viewer is successfully pulled into the brooding world of Sam, and as things go bad for him, cannot help but internalize his struggle for existence.

The movies under-emphasizes the science part with almost no reference to the "how" beyond what is strictly required for the plot to unfold. In doing so, it brings two actors to the forefront - man and the unknown company that put him alone in the middle of the Earth's lone satellite. In essence this is a story about the struggle of man - against the elements, against the upcoming resource crunch on Earth and against the ever present greedy corporation. Yet it doesn't turn preachy or Luddite but is a rather uncomfortably personal exploration of these themes.

It is almost required by space movies to have references to the grand daddy of them all - 2001 Space Odyssey, and the Moon does not disappoint with parts of the set, the daily activities and GERTY resembling HAL 9000. Shot with a budget of $5 million, this is no Space Odyssey, but is nevertheless an absorbing tale.

October 10, 2010

Firefly and Serenity

There are few good television series that turn into good movies. There are fewer great television series that become great movies. But there is only one great television series that spawned a great movie, but found no commercial success in either flavor. That is the series Firefly and the movie Serenity.

There are many theories as to why, the absorbing tale of a cocky captain and his capable yet flawed crew aboard a transport space ship (Serenity) was cut down so mercilessly at the end of but one season. But the truth is that not having Captain Mal (Nathan Fillion) around to mouth off his passive aggressions towards the merciless control of the Alliance has left television worse off.

Firefly is not the story of a hero. It is not the charted course of a flawed man overcoming his pitfalls to accomplish something memorable. Instead it is a character study of survival. Filled with a cast of relative unknowns, Firefly explores the reaction of a free man to an uncompromising crushing tyranny. In a way it is an exemplification of Adam Smith's invisible hand, playing out not in economics but in life.

Firefly has introduced us to a class of neurotic yet real characters, from the ever dependable second in command Zoe (Gina Torres) to her loyal yet jealous husband Wash (Alan Tudyk); from the pretty and confused Kaylee (Jewel Staite) to the elegant Inara (Morena Baccarin); from the temperamental Jayne (Adam Baldwin) to the solid conviction of Shepard Book (Ron Glass); and finally the spoiled but grounded Simon (Sean Maher) to the quietly scary River (Summer Glau). There is little but circumstance that holds this rag-tag army together. But at the same time, they complete each other in a way that almost makes their coming together fated.

Snappy dialog, deep characters, well designed space ships, a wonderful music score and an underlying tension in the story, all combine to make it a great watch. But for all that was lost, there was one part of the story that suffered the most because of an untimely cancellation - it was the story of River Tam.

And that is where Serenity the movie takes it up. With almost the same cast and a self-contained story line, Serenity, picks up shortly after the last TV episode. River, who is mostly helpless in her flight from the Alliance in the TV series comes to her own as Mal tracks down the gruesome secret the Alliance want to keep from the world by silencing River. As Mal tries desperately to broadcast the secret to the world, the crew defend against horde of blood-thirsty sub-humans to buy Mal some time. Help arrives from a very unexpected location.

Do not let the label of science fiction put you off; the series and movie do not talk about warp drives or holographic projections. Instead it is an honest to goodness story of pragmatic survival against a powerful yet hidden enemy.

October 07, 2010

Dark City

The movie Dark City straddles the line between science fiction and noir genres, with remarkable aplomb. Filmed almost completely under artificial lights, the movie has a beautiful retro, futuristic feel to it. Barring some jarringly anachronistic CG imagery in the final showdown scenes, the movie maintains an honest consistency to noir themes.

The movie follows the self discovery of a man, who finds himself at the beginning of the movie, with no recollection of who he is or where he came from. And unlike Jason Bourne, he has no special skills other than an unknown power to reshape the entire world around him.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is the blank slate, on which the disturbingly dark world around him essays an interpretation of time and memory. As John begins to understand the nature of his world, he also begins to question the reality of his life - in particular the continuity of time and dependability of memory.

The ideas are not necessary novel, but reflected in the light of the vivid stylish world of Dark City, they are immersive. And layered in with the ideas are the characters that appropriately defined with the awkwardness demanded by an artificial existence. Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) plays the beautiful yet lost wife of John. Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) is the link between the world of the humans, and the forces that defines it.

Dark City combines the moody feel of noir, with beautiful photography and a thoughtful exploration of the psychology of humanity. There is something in it for the mind and the eyes. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable flick for those looking for something out of the ordinary.

October 05, 2010

The Haunting in Connecticut

Classic horror movies have a formula. Someone in the past commits an unspeakable horror, which is documented in the newspapers of the day, but is otherwise forgotten. The house, that witnessed said horrors lies vacant till unsuspecting family moves in. Moving in family also has its own demons to contend with. Upon the expected manifestation of latent evil, unsuspecting family first suspects itself before realizing the true culprit. Good Samaritan shows up from unexpected quarters to rid the house of evil, while also putting the demons of the family to rest.

The Haunting in Connecticut, follows this to a T. Every plot element makes its appearance on cue. But what ultimately carries it through is a subtle mix of decent acting with well edited horror sequences.

The movie chronicles the, supposedly true, travails of the Campbell family, who's son Matt is suffering from cancer. After moving to Connecticut to be closer to the hospital treating Matt, the family is slowly sucked into the past of the house. Matt, being the closest to death, is the only one that can see feel the presence in the house before all hell breaks loose. The idea that being alive is a continuum that dictates the degree of correspondence one can have with the fully dead is the most original idea of the movie.

Despite it all, I am not tempted to give the movie anything less than a three, because of the really good execution of the various elements. Matt (Kyle Gallner) looks convincingly haggard as a cancer patient, while Virginia Madsen (as Sara Campbell) helps pull together the role of the unsuspecting mother. There are three other children and a Dad, that mostly remained undeveloped character stubs.

Having decided to watch the movie as a warm-up to the main feature of the evening, Let Me In, I was not disappointed at all. Looking back, I realized I should have known the entire movie before it started, but it was more than fun while it lasted.

October 04, 2010

Let Me In

It is difficult to imagine the movie Let Me In without thinking of the 2008 Swedish original Let the Right One In, and as such reviewing it without referring to the original is difficult, if not impossible. The original had certain things going for it, the setting for example. It is somehow difficult to replicate the late Soviet Era feel for a movie, in continental United States. That said, the movie does a remarkable job of staying true to the original while adapting it to a different place and time.

The movie revolves around a bully victim, Owen, who is unable to get any support at home from his divorcing parents. Then a new girl moves in next door - Abby, who is patient, helpful, supportive and, as he discovers later, a vampire. As the relationship between Owen and Abby deepens, Owen slowly realizes the true nature of the one person he is able to lean on. Abby, meanwhile, loses the one other person who knows her secret - her father. The two children with no supervision and control, find themselves hurtling towards a destructive ending.

Abby (Chloe Moretz), turns in an unsettling performance as the young vampire, managing the thin line between the vulnerable and the monstrous. Owen (relative newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) does a really good job as the confused and vulnerable boy.

The atmosphere is another key cast of the movie. Shot mostly under artificial light, the yellow cast of the sodium vapor lamps brings a sense of hopelessness and loss. The playground with its abandoned merry-go-round under snow accentuates the despondent mood.

As a horror movie there are a few cringe-worthy scenes, but no where close to a what a classic horror flick would demand. And even in the couple of action scenes with the vampire, the movie chose to use CGI, doing so very badly. The tempo of the movie is a slow ponderous exploration of the world from a child's point of view, with brief blocks of mystery and horror.

Do not watch if you are looking for an action horror flick. If you liked the original, you should probably have a go at this as well. And if you are looking for an alternate intelligent vampire movie, with no glistening, this is a must see.

October 03, 2010

The Town

The Town

An unexpected romance trips the otherwise hardened & capable bank robber with robin-hood like morals. Despite the weak, almost cliché, plot to the movie The Town, Ben Affleck's new flick set in Boston is an engaging narrative with an almost plausible ending.

The Town is a classic cops and robbers tale. Ben Affleck as Doug MacRay leads a gang of four bank robbers, who specialize in wearing distinct masks during their heists. During one such hold-up, they end up holding hostage the manager of a bank - Claire Keesey played by Rebecca Hall. Hot on their heels is the FBI fronted by Jon Hamm as Adam Frawley. Wanting to make sure that the hostage cannot identify them, Doug contacts her separately, and ends up falling for her. As the gang decide to pull one last job and the FBI are within indicting distance, Doug has to choose between staying true to his childhood friends and leaving it all for the girl he fell in love with.

Feels like you have seen it before, doesn't it? The plot is not what makes the movie great, but the tight action scenes, interspersed with real dialogues between well-fleshed out characters makes it entertaining. Doug is a nuanced character, who comes across as a "nice guy" despite having bank robbery on his resume. He is ably supported by his childhood friend, James Coughlin, who does well to portray a machoism tinged lunatic. Jim is the perfect foil to bring out the sanity of Doug.

The robbery scenes are well staged, with several parts of the resulting car chase scenes shot from a claustrophobic in-car point of view. There is a gritty urban feeling to Boston and Charlestown (a la The Departed), which does well to contemporise the setting.

If crime drama is your thing, this is a must-watch. Alternately if you are looking for a good date-movie, this may not necessarily be a bad pick.

October 02, 2010

Arrested Development

Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything - and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It's Arrested Development.

The familiar refrain, by the omniscient narrator (uncredited Ron Howard) kicks of every episode of this hilarious sitcom. The story revolves around the seriously dysfunctional antics and relationships of Bluth family. A successful entrepreneurial family, the show begins as the patriarch is arrested for financial malfeasance, that evolves into borderline treason. Matters then fall to the one good son, Michael, who tries to take control of the business, put an end to nepotism and corruption, and continue to feed off familial dysfunction.

Michael's snobbish mother, Lucille, finds herself unable to maintain her lifestyle without the easy checkbook of the business to sustain it. Michael's two brothers, GOB and Buster, find themselves absolutely incapable of being helpful, and unable to realize that. His sister Lindsay with her husband Tobias and her daughter Maeby move from Boston to be part of the family, mostly because loser Tobias decides to become an actor. And finally there is George-Michael, Michael's son, who is struggling to balance his admiration for his father, with his own growing physical and emotional needs.

The show is great because of its deeply flawed characters. And through the three seasons of the show, the characters don't evolve much. Yet somehow the flaws are examined and clarified enough to make you accept them for who they are. Justifying the flaws of the characters, to make the audience discount them is, in my mind, the biggest achievement of the show.

Seeing beyond the flaws of the characters, allows the subtle situational comedy to shine through. The show is shot is quasi-documentary style, with hand-held cameras, no laugh-track and an intrusive commentator. A rapid back-and-forth dialog rich in wordplay ties it all together. Conversations and misunderstandings, do more to move the story forward, than dramatic plot elements. Of course the undercurrent of the taboo - incest and infidelity pitch in to help with the story when nothing else seems to happen.

There are several recurring hilarious elements in the story. One of the best is the "Chicken Dance" practiced by the family members. Each family member has their own unique interpretation of the dance when they decide to employ it to bait someone into attempting something that is bound for failure. And when failure does come to pass, there is always the confession "I've made a huge mistake".

The show suffered from classic slow uptake by the audience, in spite of critical acclaim. Eventually success however came, when the show went to DVD and lately to Netflix instant watch, which is where I got to watch it. With the rumors of a feature film, this is probably the best time to watch the three seasons of the show in preparation for the upcoming grand finale.

October 01, 2010

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