8 post-apocalyptic survival movies

A collection of movies dealing with life after a deadly epidemic. These are stories of grit, survival and the occasional heart-skipping scare. Includes some obvious choices and some obscure ones.

Pandorum

Despite feeling like a breathless tale from the mind of an super imaginative youngster, Pandorum manages to tell a tale of apocalypse, horror, bravery and hope. All the while masquerading as a scifi flick. For the majority of the movie, things happen. Characters come and go, violently. Story is revealed, twisted, hidden and revealed again. And there is a nice quest built into the movie that arcs across the storyline, making this feel, at times, like a space-age Indiana Jones episode.

Pandorum is a quintessential post-apocalytic movie, set in a space-ship at the end of human life on earth. In addition to a gritty bleak setting and scary creatures in the shadows, the movie explores the ability of the human race to survive - not matter how great the cost.

Carriers

Carriers is one of the tamest Zombie movies, if you could even call it that. It is a slow and haunting exploration of survival after a viral apocalypse. Centered around two brothers, and their search for a childhood paradise, Carriers is both noble in it's honesty and profound in its selfishness. The undead of this movie are not animated corpses; instead they are pathetic survivalists united by their unwavering capacity to be infected without recourse.

Two brothers and their girl friends are escaping a world-wide epidemic of an infectious and deadly virus. Their path to survival is based on strict rules - to never come in contact with other infected people. No matter what happens and who the infected may be. When one of them becomes infected with the deadly virus, the resolve of the group in following the rules is painfully tested. It is a simple premise with a heart warming execution.

28 Days Later

What I am Legend is to New York City, 28 Days Later is to London and all of Great Britain. One of those sublime opportunities to see parts of UK completely uninhabited.

Animal rights activists attack a secret Government testing facility, releasing chimpanzees infected with a highly communicable viral disease. In a cruel twist of massive irony, this releases the deadly virus into the open ravaging UK over a period of 28 days, killing most people and leaving a few ravenously hungry for human flesh.

As with the rest of the movies on this list, the story is ultimately about survival - in all its myriad forms. And it is also a story of bravery, and valuing others more than one self.

28 Weeks Later

28 weeks later is the sequel to the more famous 2002 movie - 28 days later. As it turns out, during the initial disaster of the rage virus, Don and his wife Alice try to survive by locking themselves in their own house. When the infected attack and are able to overpower the defenses, Don escapes leaving Alice behind.

Six months after the infection, a NATO army has secured parts of London to set up base for uninfected English citizens to return and repopulate the country. Don and Alice's children return from their vacation in Spain, but escape the security perimeter to retrieve personal possessions from their home. To their surprise they discover a delirious but living Alice.

Their joy turns out to be short lived, as the virus seemingly is not fully extinct yet.

The Crazies

The Crazies is post-apocalyptic, not for the entire world but for an unfortunate town in Iowa, that receives a unexpected dose of toxins from a plane crash. As residents begin to turn into violent psychopaths, the Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant) has to rally the survivors to fight, while trying to figure out what really went wrong.

The movie has elements of the expected Government conspiracy, nicely intertwined with human monsters and a quest for survival. By setting up the conflict between the innocent and powerless townsfolk and the big bad Government that only wants to weaponize deadly viruses, the stage is all too predictable. What makes the movie different is it's merciless cinematography. There are no long eulogies or subtle point making. Just a frenzied will to escape and survive.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys is a scintillating science fiction story, of improbable actions and personal demons. But first and foremost, it is a post-apocalyptic survival movie. A man-made virus, released deliberately in several locations across the world, has destroyed a large part of human civilizations. The survivors have gone underground, but yearn to return to the surface. When they develop time-travel, such an opportunity presents itself.

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a disturbed prisoner, who is chosen to go back in time to just before the world-wide epidemic and track down the group calling itself "The Army of 12 Monkeys", which is believed to be responsible for the disaster. Cole survives multiple attempts at time travel and eventually reaches the correct time period; while his inner demons have grown more vociferous. As he begins to learn more about himself and the 12 monkeys, he also realizes that there is more to the mission than his briefing.

An atmospheric whodunit set against an inevitable mass extinction.

I am Legend

I am Legend is probably the most expected movie on this list. When a plague destroys most in New York and turns the rest into sunlight-hating blood-thirsty monsters, Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his faithful dog are determined to keep their sanity and lives. Following a strict survival regimen, they roam the eerily empty streets of the city during day, and retire to a fortified house to survive the night.

The plan seems to be working, giving Neville time to work on a vaccine for the infected. Till one day he is caught in a trap, sprung by the infected who are waiting in the shadows for darkness so they can get their hands on him. Even though unexpected help shows up in the form of a traveling Anna (Alice Braga), Neville has to decide between pursuing his tentative search for a vaccine and fighting for his humanity one last time.

This is not the first attempt at making the original book into a movie, but for those of you who have not read the book; the movie is not a bad way to start thinking about living alone in New York City.

9

After a devastating war between machines and humans, all humans are seemingly destroyed. A rag doll named 9 comes to life. After being attacked by a machine called the Beast, 9 meets others like him, numbered rag dolls that are able to survive the wrath of the machines by hiding and sneaking around.

When 2 is taken by the Beast, 9 organizes the remaining rag dolls on a daring and desperate attempt at rescue. As the rag dolls organize themselves and begin to fight the machines, they realize that they are also carrying precious cargo, that could hold the key to human salvation.

9 is a stylistic look at a post-apocalyptic life, without humans. But the rag dolls are, unbeknownst to them, more human than they realize.

Obvious omissions

The list is obviously missing two mainstream movie series - the Matrix trilogy and the Terminator quadrilogy. For obvious reasons - they are among the most well known movies of this genre and I'll not add much by including them to this list. You've either seen them, or this genre is probably not of much interest to you.

There you are - 8 movies with the best advice on what to do when the world ends tomorrow.

August 05, 2011

X-Men: First Class (movie review)

X-Men: First class is a fitting addition to the mutant franchise; a movie that is an enjoyable tale in itself, while filling in some of the back-story for the major characters in the earlier movies. While it does have some overly dramatic scenes, typical of comic adaptations, the script feels more like a regular science fiction movie. And that is a good thing, especially after the super-intense X-Men Origins. This episode of the saga feels young, fresh and enjoyable.

X-Men: First Class, covers the period in time when mutants were not generally known, and Charles Xavier and Magneto were still young men each coming to terms with their own destinies. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is born into a well to do family, and has finished his schooling in London, appropriately majoring in matters related to the mutation of the human genome. Growing up with a young and self-conscious Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) he has always known there were other mutants in the world, but regards it as little more than an academic exercise, until a fateful meeting with a CIA agent. Meanwhile, Magneto / Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has grown up in a very different world. Living in Nazi concentration camps, and having a doctor take special interest in his abilities, Magneto has grown up with a deep-seated hatred for authority of all kinds and an acute awareness of his difference from all other humans.

When the doctor in the Nazi camp Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) turns out to be a mutant himself, with a goal to push the cold-war era US and Russia into a nuclear war, Magneto and Charles Xavier realize that working together is the only way to stop Dr. Shaw.

McAvoy is perfect as the intellectual Charles Xavier, whose naive charm eventually morphs into the hallmark smile of the character. This was one of the strongest characters in the movie, interpreted well from the character to be. Fassbender's Magneto is a distant second; there are aspects of the persona that shine through, but the magnetic persona of Ian McKellen is missing from his younger self. The remaining characters are interesting in their own right, not necessarily as a continuation of the series. Also the question about origins of X-Men technology is answered - much of it was researched on CIA dollar, during the cash-hungry cold war era. It does make ironic sense.

Being set during the Cuban missile crisis is presumptuous, even for an X-Men movie, but the script does a remarkable job of pulling it off. There are moments of anachronistic irregularity, but they pass quickly into the background. Stylistically, the movies borrows heavily from the original movies, including actual footage of a young Magneto in the concentration camps (from the first X-Men movie). The training session of the first class of mutants, is one of the more well done comic book looks in any movie.

Finally the movie is visually impressive. The initial part of the movie is heavy on the story, leading to the climax of bombs, explosions and two armies standing by.

As far as the mythos of the X-Men series goes, First Class is a crucial piece of the puzzle. With a story that deserves to be told, and a cast that is carefully chosen, there is not much that is wrong with the prequel-sequel. If mutation is something you looked forward to after the original X-Men, this is the movie you would do well not to miss.

July 02, 2011

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)


Movies about Mumbai are many. Mumbai Diaries (Dhobi Ghat), joins their ranks, not as a pretender but as a rightful contender in the list of intelligent and appealing movies from and about Mumbai. The movie follows four of Mumbai's citizens, each very different from the other, but all inevitably entwined together. The stories are heartfelt and human, thought provoking without being pedantic and in their own way eye-opening without being shocking.

Shai (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker, currently on sabbatical from work and has a penchant for photography. Arun (Aamir Khan) is a modern painter, successful, loner and possessive of his independence. Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) is a new bride in the city, having accompanied her husband from the north of the country. She is making a video of herself and the city for her brother, who has never been to Mumbai. Finally there is Munna (Prateik Babbar), a hardworking "dhobi" from the infamous city slums, who dreams the quintessential dream, to one day become an actor in Bollywood.

The movie is a tale of relationships between the different characters. The most complicated is between Shai and Munna. Munna, a hardworking young man, is used to his place in the stratified socio-economic class system of modern Mumbai. Shai, with a predominantly western attitude towards social interactions, treats him very differently - first as a fellow human being, then as a true friend. This leaves a very confused Munna, seeking something more than friendship. Unbeknownst to him, his understanding of the nature of their relationship also holds the key to his personal redemption.

The relationship between Arun and Shai is, in a certain way, more typical yet just as intriguing. Born of a late night filled with too much alcohol, it waxes and wanes, drifting between rejection and obsession. In a certain way their dance reminds one the relationship between the western world and India - pointedly indifferent and sometimes fascinated.

Finally there is the particularly heart-wrenching journey of Yasmin, as seen by Arun through the un-mailed tapes he finds in his new apartment. The tapes start off with the happiness of a new bride in Mumbai, with its alluring lights and fascinating sights. And then as life settles in, and the realities start to take hold, the excitable child must grow up - no matter how big the cost.

Dhobi Ghat reaches no conclusions. It is a brief window into the workings of a modern Indian city, sometimes confused, sometimes unfair but mostly business as usual.

June 19, 2011

Restraint

Restraint is a slow, low-budget, psychological thriller that punches way above it's weight class without seeming out of place. The setup was pretty good if not entirely plausible, and the ending was the weakest part of the movie. Yet, with a strong cast, the story keeps the audience well and truly involved right up until the end.

Ron (Travis Fimmel) and Dale (Teresa Palmer) are running from a double murder spree. In search of a hiding place, they stumble upon a mansion in the middle of nowhere, which is inhabited by an agoraphobic man Andrew (Stephen Moyer). What starts off as a house invasion and hostage scenario quickly turns interesting when Andrew offers Ron and Dale forty thousand dollars to leave him alive. The catch is that Dale has to impersonate Andrew's fiancee to withdraw the money from a bank.

At the risk of infuriating Ron, Andrew begins trying to turn Dale against her boyfriend. Slowly the allure of life in the well off society begins to contrast with that of a renegade accomplice, as Dale begins to question her life with Ron. As the high-stakes battle of power between Andrew and Ron comes to a head, Dale becomes the decisive factor.

Fimmel is brilliant as the unstable and reckless Ron. There is a sense of scary naivete about the character that is terrifying. Moyer is equally, if not more, brilliant as Ron's exact opposite. Outside of his fear of open spaces, Andrew is the cultured yet scheming man. In places he is decidedly creepier than Ron. In comparison Dale is the flaky one. Young, directionless, she seems to float towards strength - an idea reinforced by her transformation from brunette into blonde in the movie.

The remaining characters in the movie are just the backdrop for the unfolding story, and never really interfere with the narrative. In that sense the movie has a feeling of isolation. Even though there are some scenes shot outside of the huge mansion, it feels like the mansion was the only location in the movie. While it suffers from less expensive production values, Restraint is a cast-driven movie that is worth watching if you are into psychological thrillers.

June 18, 2011

Insomnia

"The end justifies the means, right?"

Insomnia feels like a movie you have seen before. Yet there is something compelling about this murder mystery set in the never ending Alaskan summer days, layered with naivety, dishonesty, and malice.

Under investigation by Internal Affairs, embattled cop Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) have been sent to a small town in Alaska, to investigate the horrible death of a teenage girl. Situated by the Arctic Circle Nightmute Alaska is a place where the sun never sets during summer. In pursuit of the killer, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner, but due to a series of circumstances goes with the story that it was killer who shot Eckhart.

Dormer is then contacted by Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who not only confesses to the murder of the girl, but blackmails Dormer about knowing that he shot his partner. As Dormer struggles with lack of sleep, he finds himself being pulled deeper into a series of lies, deception and working with the killer to frame an innocent boy for the girl's murder. His only saving grace may be the young officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is investigating the death of Eckhart and may hold the moral compass Dormer so desperately needs.

The story is interesting, but fairly commonplace. What makes the difference is the casting of Al Pacino and Robin Williams. With his stone faced expression, Pacino has the unusual knack of demonstrating a wide range of emotions - guilt, frustration, anger and compassion - all the while looking like he just woke up. Robin Williams is brilliant. There is an underlying steel to the local crime thriller writer that makes him way more creepier than one-hour photo ever did with the glasses and ginger hair. Swank is perfect as the starry eyed detective, that struggles with the idea that her idol may have been the guy that killed his own partner.

Christopher Nolan's screenplay is in no hurry. The camera switches between modes of intense character scrutiny, and wide, lazy panoramic shots that make you nostalgic about a place you have never been to. If Fargo was the initial purveyor of the snow covered desolate countryside, Insomnia took it up a notch by adding in the eternal sun. Through out the movie there is a distinct cloud cover, that adds a melancholy undertone, capturing the mood of the narrative.

Netflix had this in my suggested movies list for the longest time, and for some reason I never added this to the queue. I have been a tad skeptical of star-powered movies. But now that I have seen it, I am glad I did. Now I can sleep in peace.

June 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau is not the story of the Adjustment Bureau. It is not an allegory that tells you something you do not already know about free will. What it is, is a well-crafted tale that exalts free will, at the same time subtly disparaging it's impetuous nature. It is a character driven science fiction movie, whose approach to story telling is diametrically opposite to that of Inception.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a successful, brash politician who seems to be on the brink of winning a seat in the US Senate. On the day that he unexpectedly loses the election, he meets a beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). The two hit it off, like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, as David begins to fall for Elise, he comes face to face with a set of people who seem to hold the invisible strings of fate in their hands. Known as the Adjustment Bureau, they possess singular powers, are able to manipulate luck and are always in the background gently guiding the world according to what is known as "the plan". Because the plan prohibits David and Elise getting together, David finds himself facing insurmountable opposition to his being with her. Eventually David must decide if he can afford to defy those who hold the strings of fate, for what feels like the love of his life.

The bureau itself is both the star and the background of the movie. Represented by the field workers who are responsible for executing mundane tasks called for by the plan, the bureau feels like a vast, bumbling, benevolent bureaucracy. Of all the evil empires in the history of cinema, this is probably the closest that Hollywood got to a real evil empire. Where a single infraction does not get the protagonist an audience with the head of the organization and the clueless minions are the only real face of the villain.

As could be expected, the story also deals with the nature of free will and it's expression. The good thing is that it never gets too preachy. There are no sermons, just personal epiphanies. But what is really telling is when David realizes that his attraction for Elise may just be because an earlier version of the plan called for it. By choosing to ignore this, David shows free will as an expression of the now, unencumbered by its pedigree.

Emily Blunt is the most vibrant part of the movie, the rest of the characters are either politicians or men in black. Screenplay is quick and pacey. The effects are well done, but generally keep out of the way.

The Adjustment Bureau does not have much of a shelf life, I wouldn't watch it a second time. But for the time I did invest in it, it was a thoughtfully made movie that respected my time. And I had more than enough invested in the characters and their love story to stay interested throughout the movie. Don't worry about this being called a science fiction movie. It could be just as easily be labelled romance, without upsetting a lot of people. After all, it is your free will to do that.

June 07, 2011

Isolation

There are not many things in the world that can combine the words bovine and terror and get away with it. Isolation does it, and only barely manages to scrape through. Teetering between an atmospheric horror movie and a creature feature, Isolation has a few good scenes, but on the whole falls short of being a memorable tale.

In a isolated farm (hence the title of the movie) a farmer Dan (John Lynch) agrees to have his cattle used for illegal genetic experiments. With a veterinarian Orla (Essie Davis) and the rogue scientist John (Marcel Iures) in charge, Dan quickly realizes that he does not know the world of trouble he has signed himself up for. And when it comes time for the cow to give birth, Dan has to ask for the help of a young vagrant couple for help.

Which is when all hell begins to break loose. What spawns from the genetically modified bovine is part chest-burster, and part scurrying rodent with an ability to "infect" DNA. In the ensuing death and destruction, you realize the number of scary and disgusting places a farm can contain. There are hay filled cow pens, water logged corners, squeaky floor boards and of course the opportune failure of technology.

Despite being predictable, some of the scary scenes are well executed. Add in some realistic gore of animal autopsy, there are enough chills to keep you interested. The creature is old-school animatronics and that shows through. Some of the scenes are almost hilarious to the CGI trained eye. But through it all, what sticks with you is the dark atmosphere that permeates through each of the scenes. Setting horror movies in cloudy Irish weather seems almost natural - wonder why there aren't a lot more set in the cloudy highlands.

Isolation is not a novel horror movie. But as creature features go, this is a well made consistent flick that keeps you expecting something bad from the very first scene. Pity there isn't much that actually happens though.

May 31, 2011

Hanna

Hanna tries to be too much in it's allotted 110 minutes. It is part drama, part action. It is a movie about the growing up of innocence, and the bite of truth. It is simultaneously a movie that is clearly inspired by the stylized action genre like Kill Bill or Sin City, yet it is a movie that takes itself too seriously. A movie, no matter how great, can reconcile some of these differences. For Hanna, notwithstanding how dangerously adorable she might be, the extremes it straddles on is one too many. It is no doubt a great movie, but the feeling at the end of it is less of fulfillment and more of abrupt emptiness.

Erik (Eric Bana) is a rogue agent, who is living in the cold arctic tundra, away from all civilization except for his daughter Hanna (Saoirse Ronan). Hanna, under the watchful and tough-love supervision of her dad, is developing the smarts of a soldier even thought she is just 16. The reason for their exile is the ruthless CIA handler Merissa (Cate Blanchett) who is determined at all costs to eliminate the duo. The training of Hanna ostensibly has a single purpose, to avenge the death of her mother, and break the hold Merissa has on their lives. For this, she learns to live off the land, martial arts and weapons combat, along with a smattering of European languages. While she has never known modern luxuries like electricity or music, she has trained hard to know everything that the encyclopedia has about them. This makes Hanna a strange sort of a teenager, knowledgeable and deadly but with no personal experiences.

When Hanna finally decides she is ready for her mission, she finds herself halfway around the world, in Morocco, trying to outwit a gang of killers on her trail while trying to figure out the workings of a electric switch and change channels on a television. One cannot help but question the training methods of her father, who resorted to a singularly isolated approach. Hanna's tentative exploration of the modern world is reminiscent of Mowgli, but for the fact that she also has to do what Jason Bourne himself was barely able to accomplish.

Thankfully, these irreconcilable differences are only apparently in hindsight. The narrative however, glosses over these differences to instead focus on Hanna herself. Ronan is great as the lead character. She has a natural sense of wonder, and quiet determination that serve her in good stead. The deep intensity she displayed in Atonement was definitely not a fluke. Bana seemed a little scattered. While it wasn't clear if this was by choice, it definitely was distracting.

The star of the movie however was Blanchett. Sharing screen time with the lead character, she had the glint of ruthless evil, which alone justified all the training in the world for Hanna. With an obsessive focus on dental cleanliness, Blanchett is stereotypical as the morality bereft CIA operative, and unique as one that seemed to gain nothing personally by being that way - the mark of pure evil. There are others that augment Blanchett's evil persona, and one in particular is Isaacs (Tom Hollander) a flamboyant assassin with a penchant for white suits, whistling and torture.

The movie's screenplay does well to stay clear of any plot explanations, instead constructing elaborate movie segments with little indication of the connection between them. Camera work was notable for one of the shallowest depth of field shots ever, millimeters under what was candle light. Music and the background score was the heartbeat of the movie. The techno funk track, with its catchy leitmotif is responsible for setting the tempo for all the action scenes.

Jason Bourne is the gold standard for rogue CIA operative redemption. It is certain that any future rogue operative movies would only try to up the stakes. But a 16 year old who has never known anyone other than her own father, is probably taking it too far. No matter how much you don't want your mind to intrude, there is only so much your heart can take before it too begins to demand answers. Answers neither Hanna nor her screenplay writers are able to provide.

May 30, 2011

Limitless

Limitless is more fun than it ought to be. With an idea as trite as a drug to access the hidden potential within your own head, this ought to have either been a painful super-hero movie or a morality missive about the pros and cons of meddling with nature. In fact it is neither. Instead, it is an absorbing caper, sort of a crime thriller, that has just the right mix of twists and turns.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a wannabe writer, with a severe case of being an abject failure. He is spineless, racked by issues of self-esteem, and is a mute spectator watching his life spiral down the drain. When his gorgeous girl-friend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) leaves him in what can only be described as a subdued break-up, Morra has hit rock bottom and does not even know it. Which is when he meets his drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who slips him a transparent pill, that is supposed to allow Morra to access his brain's full potential.

The pill, called NZT, does all that it is supposed to do and more. Not only does it open him up to his own mind, it also opens his life up to a series of seedy characters - who either want to take advantage of him or steal his acquired stash of NZT. There is Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), the ruthless multi-billionaire who is Morro's one shot at monetizing his newly acquired capabilities. Gennady (Andrew Howard) is Morro's seed capital for when the latter begins to use his new-found prowess in the stock market. And finally there is the mysterious man in the tan coat (Tomas Arana), who seems to know everything about NZT and is determined to do everything in his power to steal some.

The characters have a healthy dose of the familiar characteristics. The thug is thuggish, the billionaire is ruthless, the girlfriends are supportive yet oblivious and the ex-girlfriends are mysteriously shy. Yet, played by a well chosen cast, this quickly gets the introductions out of the way, keeping the focus firmly on the unfolding story. And it is an interesting story. In the high of NZT, Morro makes new friends, money and enemies. While he is still sorting out which is which, he realizes that the drug does have a side-effect, massive blackouts and unbearable withdrawal symptoms. While the plots to obtain his stash materialize, Morro realizes that he is counting down to madness or death.

The screenplay is light and quick, never getting too bogged down by the story. This leaves enough ends unresolved, that is both annoying and intriguing. The visuals are well suited, one particular effect is the difference between pre and post NZT ingestion, as the world perceptibly brightens from a dull dinginess. Or the zoom in effect as the lens travels through New York - a bit different from the other ways this has been done before. The visual cues are reinforced by the sound track that is quick and pacey.

Bradley Cooper's self effacing commentary is spot on, setting the tone for the rest of the movie. Robert De Niro is as rugged as only he can be. Except for maybe Michael Douglas. While this is not intellectual thriller extraordinaire, the characters make the tale convincing. Limitless - is the number of ways this story could have been messed up. Thankfully, in choosing to be limited, Limitless was way more fun than it ought to be.

May 29, 2011

Beneath the Dark

Morality tales couched as supernatural movies are a dime a dozen. While some movies focus on the supernatural, others on the horrific nature of the moral transgression. Beneath the Dark takes an underwhelming, egoistical tale of morality, and wraps it in a road-side motel thriller. The thrills are limited, the plot thin and the narrative tentative. Yet as horror-thrillers go, it keeps away from cheap thrills, making it a lot more watchable than many in the genre.

Paul (Josh Stewart) and Adrienne (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) are driving to LA to attend the wedding of one of Paul's fraternity brothers. Tired and after a close call running off the road, they decide to check into a motel deep in the Mojave desert. The motel, while seemingly unoccupied, has a variety of strange characters and stranger occurrences. All the characters seem to know a lot about Paul's past. Slowly Paul realizes that there is more to the motel than it let on, and that a dark secret in his past could hold the key to his redemption.

The movie has all the hallmarks of a slasher flick, and you keep expecting one of the characters to go all psycho. Instead, the characters are strangely reticent and restrained, which, feels a little underwhelming. The owner of the motel, Frank (Chris Browning), feels forever on the edge between contrition and vengeance - a feeling the back story wantonly encourages. Equally unsettling is an unnamed man (Afemo Omilami) who manages a fair bit of menace while trying not to sound forced. Frank's wife Sandy (Angela Featherstone) rounds out the trifecta of strangers. As a character she is one of the most important for the plot, yet manages to barely be in the spotlight. This takes away some of the mystery and punch.

The screenplay starts off slowly, always seemingly on the edge of breaking free. This gives us enough time to care about Paul and Andrea, and the story enough time to set the plot pieces up. There are several Christianity elements peppered in, but it does not commit to be fully Biblical. The background score is also there.

All in all, Beneath the Dark feels like a movie better than it is and in reality is a movie worse than it ought to be. There is a lot of promise, but it falls short of execution. Maybe it's genre-straddling lack of commitment had something to do with it, but you find yourself hoping something really bad happens. Something momentously horrific that would almost justify the building suspense. When that doesn't happen, it seems petty. While that is not particularly a great term to describe a horror movie or a psychological thriller, ultimately it was the pettiness beneath the dark that prevents it from becoming a really good film.

May 08, 2011

The King's Speech

I'll run the risk of spoiling the ending; the king does do a great job with his speech. And even before you start the movie, you are well aware of this historical inevitability. However in the long and torturous path, leading the man with a stutter to the kingship of World War 2 England, lies a fascinating story of friendship, bravery and self-realization. Such is the story of King George VI, who came to the throne after the death of his father and abdication by his brother. The King's Speech is an account of one man's struggle with his own daemons, and the story of a reluctant king's rise to power during a time of incredible trial.

Colin Firth is unbelievable as the King. There is little that can be said about his performance, that hasn't been said before. He was almost perfect struggling to put his thoughts into words, and the abject, stifling fear that public speaking or even attention brought upon his person can only be seen to be believed.

The screenplay focuses exclusively on the speech impediment, often juxtaposed with an account of the personality of the Duke and ultimately the King. Almost too exclusively. By design this lends a one-dimensional aspect to the film, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it unfortunately paints the man with just that one stroke. As a result the emotional drama is significantly emphasized over historical context, which again may not be a bad thing. Because this makes the movie appealing at a very personal context without the distraction of accuracy.

Which brings us to the speech therapist. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is the enigmatic man that is as important a character in the story. Rush is positively inspired as the Australian man who developed his techniques assisting shell-shocked soldiers during the first World War. Peculiar, patient, amusing and irreverent, he makes you wish you had a teacher like that.

For a movie that did not care about historical storytelling there are several choices that were surprising. The one that stood out the most was casting and actually showing a Churchill on screen. Arguably one of the most well-known faces, casting Churchill is a challenge. Timothy Spall was a surprisingly good pick. Even if he did not look like Churchill, he definitely was not distracting by not feeling like Churchill. The king's wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) was probably more cliched than most, as the strong yet supportive royalty. In a way she was the royal standard that measured the lack of congruence among the rest of the relationships.

The movie is a fascinating look at the pressures of expectation. That the pressures were for, arguably, the most important job in the world is only incidental. The movie is an emotional journey with travails and triumph. But at the core, it is a simple feel-good story that is both poignant and inspiring.

Salt

Salt starts off as a movie trying too hard to be a slick action flick, then settles into a series scenes that are actually slick, before suddenly realizing it's success and becoming incredibly self-absorbed. It begins as a Bourne wannabe, but ends up as a Angelina Jolie adore-fest. While the movie wins no points for originality, it definitely makes it up with hard work. The screenplay works hard, the actors work hard and despite the ending our imaginations work hard. And like a hardworking puppy that wins you over, Salt compels you to keep watching despite all its inadequacies.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a spy working for the CIA. In reality though, she is a secret double agent, planted by the Soviets as little more than a child. For decades she grew up in the US, successfully infiltrating the US spy service. Till one day her spymaster Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up to suddenly expose her. Finding herself between a rock and a hard place, Salt has to sort her own loyalties out, and deciding if she was going to stay true to her adopted country or heed the call of her motherland past and act as the trigger for "Day X" - an operation that includes punitive strikes against the US.

Yes, it is a good old sleeper cell story, spanning decades, with a strange throwback to the foes of yore. I am certain that part of the reason for making the movie PG-13 was because no one below that age would even care about Russians as the enemy. This anachronism isn't the only dissonance. The movie seems surprisingly short on extras to play security agents. As if the recession got to the Secret Service. This results in fight sequences that consist of long periods of running through empty corridors without meeting anyone.

All action movies require, no demand, a certain amount of naïveté. And they add a certain nugget of "knowledge" to the audience. Salt's is the use of a taser on the driver of a cop car to twitch his legs into stepping on the gas. Tase on low for 40 miles and hour and medium for 60.

Jolie is the earnest glue that keeps the movie together. Not knowing what her motivations are, keeps the entire sequence of events from sounding silly. Thankfully there are not too many background stories or clarifying voiceovers. That said, the term "Day X" could have used better nomenclature. A couple of action sequences are dizzyingly well done, explosions are limited, fights are meh, and the chases are mostly on foot. But all said and done, the movie stars Jolie. And that alone, as the producers would have surmised, makes the movie worth adding to the queue.

And they are not mistaken.

May 06, 2011

Just Go with It

What happens when Adam Sandler stops squealing like a surprised pig in every scene? You get a comedy movie that is actually watchable in Just Go with It. While the screenplay is as predictable as they come, there is a certain simplicity to it that actually makes it fun. And with an adorable cast, this is a surprisingly heartfelt and funny chick-flick.

Danny (Adam Sandler) is a smart-mouth serial-womanizing plastic surgeon, who uses a made-up story about a horrible wife to make his move on women. His assistant is the stunningly hot, yet under-appreciated Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), who is a single mother with two adorable kids - Maggie (Bailee Madison) and Michael (Griffin Gluck). When Danny meets a stunningly hot dumb blonde Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), and gets caught up in the story about his imaginary family, he has to look to Katherine and her kids to stand in.

The plot is as expected. The hot chicks are curiously hidden in plain view till they buy expensive clothes and high heels. Guys can be all the pigs they want, till they meet the hidden hottie and suddenly become amenable to settling down. And the kids are all grown up till there is a game night, and they suddenly break down yearning for a missing parent.

The kids perhaps are one of the best aspects of the movie. Between them faking a British and mafia accents, the two are hilarious. Between them they manage to carry most of the scenes with aplomb. And where the kids are absent, a quiet(er) Sandler cracks a few funny ones himself. Aniston is just herself; and by that I mean Rachel from Friends. The rest of the cast pitch in with their own brand of crazy that includes German accents and gay husbands.

Sandler comedies started going downhill right after he realized he was funny. Somewhere after Click, I decided not to watch a Sandler movie again. This movie however, was a surprising and welcome change. Not only was it funny, it added a few memes to pop culture - like "making a Devlin". And when you have to do something like that, listen to the advice from the movie - and just go with it.

April 25, 2011

Intacto

There is fate, and then there is luck. But what if that wasn't always so, and luck was something you could use to change what can be. What if you could choose to deploy your luck to make the finger of chance point your way. Intacto takes that idea and runs with it. Inhabiting a world populated by a cast of mysterious characters, uniquely seedy games and obsessive cops, Intacto is an bewitching look at a life of pure luck and chance.

The premise of the movie is unique. Everyone has a certain amount of luck, some more than others. The luckiest are those who tend to take the luck of others around them - like the lone survivors of plane crashes for example. Some are inherently lucky while others have the ability to steal luck from those around them. And when you pit these supremely lucky people against each other in games of pure chance you get you find out the most fortunate of them all. For over 30 years it has been Samuel (Max von Sydow), a secretive old man who lives under a casino and has never been beaten in a game of chance.

Samuel had an apprentice, Federico (Eusebio Poncela), who had lived in the same casino, and made his mark stealing the luck of patrons who were beating the odds of the house. When Federico decides to move on, Samuel, affronted, reacts by emptying the former of all his luck. Stripped of his strength and turned into a pariah, Federico begins to search for a challenger. Someone who can help him beat the old man in a game of chance, and redeem his humiliation. He gets his chance, when he meets the lone survivor of a horrific plane crash - Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia). Unfortunately, Tomás is a bank robber who is being relentlessly pursued by a cop Sara (Mónica López). Chance and destiny come together in an explosive ending that is no more certain than a roll of dice.

The movie has a curious style. The scenes are heavy and oppressive. Dialog is limited, which is a good thing because with all the depth brought out by the atmosphere of the movie, anything said could only sound trite. Screenplay is choppy, in a disconcerting deliberate way. Most scenes are not set up, but unfold for the characters as they do for the audience. There is a certain machismo to the games of chance, that borders on the excessive. The storyline, beyond the premise, is not entirely plausible. The net result is that the movie tends to gravitate towards being more of a graphic novel. Which is not particularly a bad thing.

Equally interesting are the games people play. They include running blindfolded across a highway, dousing the head of contestants in molasses and seeing if a bug chooses one over the others and the ultimate - firing a loaded gun with five bullets in six chambers at an opponent's head.

This is a truly original movie. It might not be the most well adapted, or the most brilliantly made. But it has a certain charisma to it. Like a craggy old man with piercing blue eyes, it is oddly disconcerting and keeps you intrigued. There are moments of brilliance, and moments of silliness. But as luck would have it, it all works out to be deeply engrossing.

April 24, 2011

The Machinist

Talk of Christian Bale movies led to a re-watch of The Machinist. Even for a second viewing, the movie was just as intense and gripping as I had remembered it. Over the years, psychological thrillers have become relatively commonplace, bringing with them a plethora of novel mental diseases into public limelight. Yet, there is something about the power of something as commonplace as guilt, that can take an unbelievable toll on the human mind. And when it is accompanied by a harrowingly gaunt 120 pound Bale, there is something tantalizingly concrete about the experience, that sticks with you. Through the movie and beyond.

If you have not heard of the movie yet, you probably may not know that Bale starved himself for the role. Allegedly, consuming one cup of coffee and an apple each day, he lost 62 lb, dropping to a mere 120 lb. This leaves him, for most part of the movie, as little more than a skeleton. Sunken cheeks, ribs sticking out, eyes unnaturally protruding, barely covered by the stretched eyelids, Bale presents an image of insomnia that is hard to imagine let alone replicate. The most incredible part is that he had to regain the mass plus 60 more pounds for his role in Batman Begins.

Trevor Reznik, hadn't slept is more than a year. He works in a factory as a machinist, handling precision cutting tools. Through the year, he not only loses weight, but finds himself increasingly isolated from everyone else around him. His only two companions are a waitress at an all-night airline diner, Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) and a prostitute named Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Things take a turn for the worse, when he meets a new coworker named Ivan (John Sharian). Ivan is a guy Trevor has never seen before, but it seems as if none of the others that work with him know him either. Figuring out who Ivan is becomes an ever present distraction for Trevor, and in one such distracted state he accidentally causes one of his coworkers to lose a hand.

Uncovering Ivan's identity now becomes an obsession for Trevor that nothing else, not even losing his job and his sanity, is able to stop. Already on the edge, Trevor's reality begins to crumble, scene by scene in front of the camera. This is probably one of the most compelling portrayals of psychotic self-destruction in movies. As goes Trevor, so does the audience, till the final unraveling of the mystery along with the last shred of reality.

There is more to the movie beyond the haggard Bale. The story is well done, the screenplay and editing are the right level of uncomfortable. Lighting is harsh, accentuating the bone-structure of the lead insomniac. The whole movie sports a flat, desaturated look, through which patches of color seems to burst forth as if in a dream. There are so many other details that add additional dimensions to the movie. Like upon finding an unexplained post-it note on his refrigerator, Trevor proceeds to begin analyzing it, ignoring the apparent bucket-full of blood that seems to be dripping all around it. These and other dissonances between Trevor and the audience work to enhance the feeling of disconnection with reality.

The Machinist is not a scary psychological thriller. It is introspective thriller, riveted on a character that seems larger than life and pitiful at the same time. It is a private study of reality, at the center of which is Trevor. By the end of the movie, the abnormal begins to feel so normal, that it takes a while and conscious effort to reset the baseline for reality. And that is when you will be most thankful for a good night's sleep, and a fresh start the next day.

April 17, 2011

Hall Pass

Hall Pass is no comedic genius. The jokes are infantile, scatological and R-rated shocking. There's pot, booze, chicks, cheesy pick-up lines, uncovered body parts and a stereotype cornucopia. Yet, it isn't half as bad as it could have been. With a shockingly aged Owen Wilson, and a rather bemused Jason Sudeikis, Hall Pass seems to take the mission of extracting a snicker from the audience as its one and only objective. Which it manages to achieve, even if it is at a significant cost.

Rick and Fred are the two middle aged men, played by Wilson and Sudeikis, who are firmly stuck in the geeky college obsession with sex and women. In their self-perpetuating mythical image, they see themselves as conquerors of concubines forced to settle into lives of married American suburban males. Powered by each others ability to blow hot air, and oblivious to their childishness, they find themselves in more than one silly escapade that exasperates their spouses - Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate). This finally earns them a strange sort of mental cleanse - a week's pass from marriage that they could use to do anything at all. And get "it" out of their systems.

On cue this releases the two sets of characters required to drive the week to closure - the loser friends and the hot chicks. Powered by Stephen Merchant, Larry Joe Campbell, the friends help prove how out of touch the lead characters are with the world. Right from hunting for chicks in Applebees (a family restaurant) to playing golf after consuming "special" brownies. The jokes are somewhat predictable, but manage to work. The chick-brigade is led by Leigh (Nicky Whelan) and the baby-sitter Paige (Alexandra Daddario). Predictably the moments here are awkward and cheesy.

But the bulk of the comedic heavy lifting is managed between the two main characters and some scenes with a very high shock value. Yes, the movie is R-rated for a reason. And no, without those scenes, the movie would have been left with nothing else of significance.

We went to the movie to make up for last week's disaster of a chick-flick: No Strings Attached, because this, apparently, was a dude-flick. While that classification of the movie displayed a considerable misunderstanding of the term, there is a certain idiocy in the movie that can probably only be enjoyed by men. It is an obstinate refusal to grow up, coupled with a inexplicable attraction to bodily functions, that barely redeems this movie to half the human population.

April 16, 2011

Source Code

Remember the movie 50 First Dates? Source Code is nothing like it. Apologies for any unpleasant memories that reference may have brought about. Instead, Source code is an intelligent story about having more than one chance to get it right. It is a story about the dignity of human life, and an indulgence of the hope of a better life elsewhere.

Capt Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a former helicopter operator for the US forces in Afghanistan. As a result of injuries suffered during a mission, he is severely incapacitated, to the point of death. He is however kept alive, as the unwitting pawn in a top secret military program. Through his brain which is on the throes of death, the program, known as Source Code, is able to tap the last 8 minutes of other people that had been recently killed. Source Code works by inserting Stevens into the body of a suitable candidate, and through him re-live a phantom version of their last 8 minutes. Stevens could interact with people around him and bring back that knowledge with him, as many times as required.

Stevens wakes up on one such instance, in the body of one Sean Fentress. As he learns over time, Sean was killed in a train explosion outside Chicago that morning, and Stevens' mission was to find the bomber, because it was suspected that the bomber was planning a second attack in downtown Chicago shortly afterward. As Sean, he meets his friend Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), along with a bevy of characters in his car of the train - characters that form a stereotypical background to this thriller stretching eight minutes at a time and bookended by a wrenching wake up and a violent explosion. Orchestrating the episodes is his controller Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and the obligatory mad scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright)

The mechanics of the movie, while vital to the story's existence do not play that much of a part in the plot itself. Stevens does stray from the path proscribed by his controller, but the motivation isn't as much to test the capabilities of the mechanics, but it is more to save the people on the train and particularly the girl he just met, who seems to know him so well. As a result, the story starts off at a disadvantage - there is always only one way for the story to end. Curiously the relentless unveiling of the truth feels more satisfying than it should, almost like destiny fulfilled.

Technically the movie is subtle. The explosions are understated and always in the background. Editing is mature and purposeful. And while the Q-word is used, one could safely ignore most of its' ramifications with no impact to the story. The dense explanatory dialogue takes care of that.

Overall Source Code is a tightly woven tale, a star in the new pantheon of accessible main-stream Science Fiction fare. It almost feels like a new era, one reminiscent of that of Star Wars. While the Source Code is no Star Wars, it is one where you get to meet the characters, sympathize and identify with them, and more important invest in their well being. Once you do that, it does not matter if it is the same eight minutes over and over again. You will be right there, cheering them on, hoping that something more complete is just round the corner.

April 09, 2011

Monsters

As a movie title, Monsters is highly misleading. As a story, it could almost have passed for a chick flick. But as an overall movie package, it was understated in conception, gritty in evolution and excellent in execution.

Six years ago, NASA, the poster-child of extra terrestrial boo-boos, sent a probe to collect samples of potential life in the Solar System. Upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, the probe crashed, presumably spilling it's contents into the dense jungles of Central America. Whatever was in the probe, rapidly evolved into large tentacled aliens that infected the region between the US and Mexico. The entire area is now cordoned off and the populace on either side of the infected zone is slowly coming to terms with living in an alien-infested world. And these aliens, by the way, are the large octopus-like namesake monsters.

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photo journalist in uninfected Mexico, who is unsuccessfully looking for a story within the biggest event in Earth's history. As luck would have it, the daughter of the owner of his publication, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), is injured in a recent Monster attack. As a result he is commandeered to check on her and make sure she is on her way back to the US. On their way back, they miss the last ferry for the next six months out of Mexico, and decide to instead take the land route back to the country. And this route, unsurprisingly, passes through the quarantined area.

As they bribe their way into a passage back to America in this new twist on fence jumping, the two encounter the infection, terror, attacks and beauty. During the process, they also discover each other.

The movie is luxuriously slow in progressing the story, but rarely feels cumbersome. It is no adventure quest movie, but instead it is trained squarely on the humans finding their footing in the new world. Shot entirely through hand-held camera, the movie has a very strong documentary feel to it, but thankfully eschews ugly fast-paced shaking for more refined movements. Some of the scenes around the enterprise that has sprung up against the background of suffering is well portrayed, forming the intellectual bulwark for the story. Music naturally forms a big part of both the narrative and the backdrop, successfully building the base to create an absorbing if not tense feel to the movie.

Alien and Science Fiction are evolving past the combative alien narrative and the apocalyptic destruction movies into the more mundane coexistence narratives. District 9 was a great example, and Monsters is a worthy inclusion into that list. The key to this movie is expectations; keep them low. For it isn't much of a genre movie as it is a well put together tale, in a world that could realistically come true.

April 03, 2011

A Peck on the Cheek

Have you ever wondered why 9-year olds do not get to make life-or-death decisions? Or why we humans give so much weight to experience? Or why researching about a place is good before you end up there? If you missed the basic common sense course right after birth that covered these important questions, here is a refresher - A Peck on the Cheek. The movie an emotionally conceived idea that lacked any connection to reality, which in turn was produced by someone that had never been exposed to any form of mortal danger. It is an empty story masquerading as intellectual insight, that trivializes the real issues it purports to explore.

The movie is set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan conflict. G. Thiruchelvan (Madhavan) and Indra (Simran) live in the South-Indian city of Chennai, and are raising three children. The eldest, played brilliantly by P.S. Keerthana, is Amudha who was adopted by the couple. On the day of Amudha's ninth birthday, in a fit of misguided honesty, the parents reveal this to her, and that she was left by her mother who originated from the conflict ridden region in the north of Sri Lanka.

As the child fixates upon the identity of her birth mother, the parents decide, in another fit of propriety that they are going to take the girl and see her birth mother. Never mind that all they had to go were the name of the town and the first name of the mother. Also, forget the fact that the region is an active war zone, which has produced one of the deadliest civilian casualties in modern time. Once in the country, the three begin the search, surviving suicide blasts, artillery fire and a small arms ambush. Again, it is never clear if this is merely misguided ideology or some sense of guilt that causes the parents of three children to take upon this perilous journey to satisfy the fantasies of a 9-year old.

Notwithstanding the child-rearing faux pas, the movie is stuck somewhere between an award hunting indie movie and a populist Bollywood flick. That results in these random uncomfortable songs, in the middle of a maddening narrative. Unfortunately A.R. Rahman fails to work his magic with the music for the movie.

What does redeem the movie are the performances. Even with a hole ridden plot, the main characters work their magic. Madhavan does a good job displaying his character's stubborn strength with a driven sort of love. Simran is not terrible. But the best of the lot is the 9-year old, that makes you want to scream out in frustration. And thank our stars that their lot does not run the world.

March 31, 2011

Gosford Park

If you ever needed confirmation that the British society in the middle of the 20th century was a model of waste, corruption and decay - you need to watch Gosford Park. The stratified society, built upon a crumbling edifice of self importance and ineptitude, is depicted brilliantly in this rather languid portrayal. Unfortunately, as a narrative, the movie lacks punch. A multitude of red herrings, dead-end plot moves, and a confusing cast takes away from the period piece. There is a thin line between brilliant and mind-boggling, and unfortunately the movie tends to boggle unreasonably. Foreign culture is always bewildering to the outsider; the mark of a great movie is not just to stay true to the culture but to make it more accessible to those on the outside. Unfortunately, Gosford Park makes little attempt to do that.

This is not a whodunnit. Yes, there is a murder, and there is a mystery. But the who is as irrelevant as the why. What matters instead is the delicate maneuvering, intrigue and corruption that surrounds the event itself. And the absolutely lack of empathy and basic moral decency, that characterizes the cast of characters. There isn't much to keep from the movie, unless maybe if you are British. But even then the movie is probably more provocative than cathartic.

The year is 1932, and the world, according to the British system is divided into two halves - the upstairs of the lords and their ladies, and the downstairs filled with their valets, butlers and assorted servants. One such allegorical structure is maintained by Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) in their idyllic country house. The two have invited a number of guests for a shooting party; the list includes an assortment of family members, their spouses, and Hollywood celebrities. Through the movie, the party moves from meal to meal, punctuated by a round of shooting birds, and a murder.

What follows was something out of the P.G. Wodehouse books, without the narrator or Jeeves. To be fair some of the conversations are witty - British witty - particularly those involving the aunt of the lady of the house. Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) is the stereotypical patient zero when it comes to snobbishness. Her cringe-worthy retorts and too-loud comments are funny, yet juxtaposed by her abject need, serve to provide a commentary upon the two-faced nature of aristocracy.

There are two other characters that define the story. There is an American producer that seemed to serve two purposes through the movie - make it more accessible to American audiences by making fun of the British, and be the foil upon which to prove that the society was decadent at best and rotten at worst. The second character is Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), Lady Trentham's maid. A young impressionable girl, she is the closest to a narrator who is the single source of sense and innocence in the characters of the movie.

I began to lose the movie when following the characters became difficult, which was about 5 minutes after checking into the country house. The presumably accurate and heavy British accent did not help. In the end the movie runs more like a documentary, like a time-capsule of life between the two wars. Which would have been great if I could have done some pre-study or had a program to follow along. Without either it just became a challenging watch, with lots of promise but no actual reward at the end of it all.

March 30, 2011

Surrogates

Surrogates is a sloppily put together, sappy tale about the inhumanity of robots and the problems of spending all your time on the internet. The central theme of the story is mildly interesting, which could have been handled well and nurtured into a truly entertaining tale. But in the suffocating confines of the script, the story became less of an allegory and more a literal reason why you should not hide behind a robot that impersonates you. Noted. We will try our darnedest not to do that.

Surrogates are humanoid robots, that look and sound like younger versions of everyone. All surrogates are controlled by their human counterparts, from the comfortable confines of a recliner. Surrogates and their controllers are connected so perfectly, that the controlling person can experience everything through the eyes and ears of the surrogate. This, over a 14 year period, has made a major part of humanity into a certain form of uncontrolled couch potatoes. Everyone has begun staying back at home, and having their surrogates replace them, at work, for pleasure and even to pick up chicks.

Naturally, there is a part of the populace that has taken umbrage to this proliferation of robotic personas. They have virtually broken away from the rest of the country, forming their own reservations, which are robot-free zones. And anyone that dares enter is hunted down, in typical neo-luddite fashion.

Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is a surrogate cop. With a distant wife Peters (Radha Mitchell), and a tragic past, Tom unsurprisingly finds himself torn between the comfort and safety of the surrogate life and the fact that it is pushing him further away from his wife. When he begins investigating a murder, that seems as if it was committed through a surrogate, he has to begin peeling the layers of deception and dependency.

Everything in the movie seems fake. The only natural thing about the characters is that their surrogates are pleasingly unnatural. The backgrounds of the cop with a distant wife seems overdone. The prophet and the human-only reservations sound good in theory, but come across as a cross between rednecks and people that cannot work computers. The brilliant scientist forced out of the company he created - cliché. There are few original ideas - like jacking through surrogates - which too manage to sound hollow and made up; being surrounded by so much expected boilerplate.

Surrogates is based on a graphic novel. Just based on some of the lame attempts at authenticity by the script, I can almost guarantee that the novel will be great. At the end, the movie is yet another bad attempt to summarize good science fiction literature as a movie, because the concept sounded good. But what makes a movie tick are the characters. Even if, in this case, they are just robots.

March 24, 2011

Outbreak

Watching Outbreak is like getting under the covers with a familiar paperback. You know exactly how it is going to end, but you just want to let things unfold anyway. The couple passages you had forgotten and are unexpected, seem to provide more joy than they really ought to. And when all is done and you're drifting off to sleep, there isn't much you can recollect about what just happened.

Based on the novel by Robin Cook, Outbreak is the story of the outbreak of an infectious disease in the US. A disease that is so quick and deadly that it has a mortality rate of a 100% within a matter of hours. Not only is it dangerous, but the disease seems to develop an uncanny ability to morph into something completely different in a matter of a few generations. And yes, underlying it all is the rogue officer and the supposed penchant of the military to weaponize everything they can lay their hands on.

What really rescues the movie is its star powered cast. Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) is a brilliant, neurotic and surprisingly out of touch military doctor who specializes in the study of viruses of the more deadly persuasion. He is in the process of finalizing his divorce from his wife and colleague Robby Keough (Rene Russo). Both presumably met during work, fell in love and got married, before Keough discovered that her husband's IQ did not necessarily translate into a great EQ. The Colonel's boss is Brig. Gen. Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman), who saddles the fine line between the demands of the military during the cold war and this thing called the conscience. Yes, the characters are exactly as they sound, which is what makes the movie seem so effortless. Who, in their right minds, can resist Freeman barking orders while having monologues with his inner demons?

Oh yes, and Kevin Spacey was there as well, as Maj. Casey Schuler. As the footnote may indicate, this is not the science fiction Spacey you are looking for; this is. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Maj. Salt and Donald Sutherland as Maj. Gen. Donald McClintock rounded out the star power.

Robin Cook made his bones writing mysteries laced with passably accurate medical know how. However, all pretense at being accurate was tossed out of the screenplay during approximately the third scene. The virus was little more than an mass emergency, that justified mobilizing a number of armored vehicles and helicopters. As a period piece, it did reflect upon the craziness of an era where the pursuit of biological weapons seemed like a good idea. But beyond that and the usual bashing of "the man" there wasn't much one could take away from the movie.

What Outbreak lacked in story, it made up in a star cast. What it missed in accuracy, it made up in surprisingly genuine chemistry between the different characters. Outbreak is further proof that good science fiction movies do not come with good science. They are fiction first, the science is merely gobbledygook that makes up the dialogue and justifies the use of super cool explosives.

March 23, 2011

Rango

Rango is Johnny Depp's latest attempt at portraying a quasi-capable, hero figure that is high in self deprecating humor and is forever threatening to break the fourth wall. Bookended by the most adorably sinister, strigine mariachi quartet, Rango is a funny tale about an accidental hero, his dramatic follies and his redemption.

The story is by no means wildly inventive. Picture a man (or lizard) who is predisposed to self-indulgent fantasy, that does something unexpectedly heroic and is instantly the savior of the populace of a small town in the middle of the desert. Then a mystery comes along that requires the hero to actually do something, and while he is still trying to come to grips with it, a series of unfortunate circumstances exposes him to be the fraud that he is. He then has to fight his own insecurities before solving the mystery and exposing the evil doers while winning the heart of the dame that always believed in him. Yes, I know, that could have been any number of movies.

What makes Rango different is that it does not hide behind the storyline, instead has the cast take digs at it irreverently. As if they are with you in knowing how ordinary the plot is, yet imploring you to come along for the ride because, hey, it is fun.

And fun it is. The first thing that strikes you is the detail in the movie. Yes, Cars has done this before, but there is a certain rawness to the desert renditions in this movie. The characters - all animals a la Animal Farm - are pockmarked with experience and dearth, yet are simple at heart. Jake the rattlesnake (Bill Nighy) is one of the favorite characters in a long time, not just for his most awesome rattler, but also because his serpentine nobility at the end. Beans (Isla Fisher) and her defense mechanism are hilarious. The turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty) is gravelly and spot on.

The other reason I loved the movie was the way it was able to portray the stark contrast of absurdity that is Las Vegas. When we had gone to Vegas last, I was struck by the unbelievable difference between the natural habitat of the place and the verdancy created by man. Rango at its core tells the same story but with no sermonizing and zero finger pointing. It is just a tale of animals trying to survive in the harsh water-less environs.

This is a fun Depp movie. If you like irreverent westerns you will love this movie. When you have a chameleon, that has a taste for the thespian, and is trying to blend in - there is not much that can really go wrong. Or can it? Guess you will have to watch to find out.

March 16, 2011

The Jacket

The Jacket is a tall tale, of time travel, hallucinations, amnesia and love. It is cast as a blockbuster and produced like an indie. This and other discrepancies make the movie seem as if it is stuck in an identity crisis. A paradox of extremes that seems to taint everything from the story to the acting.

The trailer for the movie is surprisingly complete in describing the story. Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is a veteran of the first Gulf war, who returns to the US after being shot and miraculously surviving. Hitchhiking in Vermont, he is picked up by a local, but in his amnesiac haze finds himself accused of murdering a cop. After being found not guilty for reason of insanity, he is locked up in a psychiatric institution, where he is exposed to brutal alternate therapy by Dr. Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson), who pumps him full of drugs, straps him in a straitjacket and shuts him for extended periods into morgue drawer.

In the course of this "therapy" Jack finds himself hallucinating and seeing things that should not be. He repeatedly interacts with a girl Jackie Price (Keira Knightley) and her mother, whom he had helped prior to hitchhiking. Very soon his reality neatly spans across time and he finds himself capable of helping others even as his own death looms large.

Brody and Knightley are brilliant, because of who they are and not because of their roles. Their individual intensity is lost in their characters who are little more than the clichéd troubled minds. The pair lack chemistry. The rest of the characters flit in and out of the narrative, appearing more like signposts or riddles than as three dimensional characters that have a connection between them. Maybe it is brilliantly metaphorical, as a representation of life in a psychiatric unit. Or maybe it was just a flat assembly for the purpose of telling the story.

That said there are several moments of brilliance that made this movie such a cult hit. The cinematography and screenplay are alive and engaging. The story on screen has a dreamy quality that juxtaposes well with the tense characters. The psychiatric unit has pieces of narrative that are reminiscent of One flew over the Cuckoo's nest, without the depth of the latter.

While The Jacket is a well produced mainstream sci-fi thriller, it misses the inventiveness of Being John Malkovich and isn't quite a nerdy extravaganza either. It is a well made middle of the road thriller, that does well to engage and narrate. As long as you do not have too high expectations, and do not really care why the movie is named as such, you could do worse with 103 minutes of your life.

March 15, 2011

Warbreaker

I heard of Brandon Sanderson before he was picked to complete A Memory of Light; tentatively first through his standalone epic fantasy Elantris, and then through his Mistborn trilogy. Warbreaker is his other standalone fantasy novel, that has a comforting similarity in structure and plot to his trilogy and standalone epic. It is an absorbing tale of magic, political intrigue and godliness, that manages to be both unique and familiar at the same time.

Brandon Sanderson loves magic. Elantris used writing and Mistborn used metal. Warbreaker's magic system is built around Breath and color. Using rather modern nomenclature like BioChroma and "commands", the magic system is rather elaborate, nascent and pervasive. There is a lot that is not known about the magic, and this allows for a wide variety in the levels of power and skill among the various characters. The pervasiveness, another Sanderson hallmark, builds the entire society, economy and theology around the magic, keeping it front and center through out the book. Yet not much is actually performed. This helps keep the story less about tricks and more about the people wielding it.

The plot for the story is plain. After a devastating war in the region, centuries ago, there arose a number of kingdoms, the largest called Hallandren, which wholeheartedly embraced and built a society where purveyors of the magical Breath were celebrated and worshiped. The original kings of the land were banished to the highlands, to create a much smaller and hardy kingdom called Idris, built on the rejection of all things magical. The feeling of mutual distrust and hatred come to a head when according to an agreement the daughter of the original royal family is to be married off to the God king of Hallandren. Incompatible theology does not go well with a society that is already alienated; something has to give way.

The characters in the book follow Sanderson's familiar yet different model. We have Siri, who is the rebellious youngest daughter of the king Dedelin of Idris, who is vexing under authority, but learns to curb her disobedient streak in the face of true responsibility. Her sister, Vivenna, is quite the opposite. She is a model princess during her upbringing, but in the face of adversity realizes that her bookish knowledge does not matter that much. The third character that carries the narrative is the most inventive and interesting of the three. Lightsong the Bold, is a God - a living breathing god, brought back to life thanks to the random gift of magic. Lightsong, is playful, irreverent and blasphemous in not really believing in his own devinity, much to the frustration of his priests and followers. The narrative primarily revolves between these three characters.

The story has a comfortable pace, slowly building towards what is expected to be a deadly climax. Several plot elements unfold rather predictably. The twists in the tale are fun, but rarely make you to want to re-read the sentence because that simply could not have happened. Character are not always as ruthless as they could be. The entire story arc of the King Dedelin and Idris seems rather open and unresolved. Maybe the epilogue could have been put to different use?

All said, if you are a fan of fantasy or Sanderson, this is a must read. The tone of the story is not very dark. So it also makes a good introductory volume for someone not currently a fan of the fantasy genre.

Warbreaker is part of a unique experiment by Brandon Sanderson. Following on the footsteps of Cory Doctorow, the book was released both as a published hardcover and as a free-for-download eBook version.

March 14, 2011

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Why?

At the end of it all, that is a question that is not satisfactorily explained in the third and concluding part of the Millennium trilogy - The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Without giving away the plot, here is the problem. The reason for a series of errors in judgement by a top secret government agency, is typically linked to a shady past. Something so unspeakable done in past, that must be protected at all costs. And each failed attempt at protecting the secret turns out more damming than before leading to a rapidly escalating series of actions. But, to support it all there must be that kernel of unbelievable secret at its core that must necessitate the first response.

The movie never makes it clear. There are some utterances of a secret, but in no way does that secret seem remotely commensurate with the heavy handed approach of making an enemy of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). True, the acts that follow are despicable, but the original reason for attempting to isolate Lisbeth seem silly, juvenile.

Unfortunately that is what you keep thinking about throughout the movie. And when you do not get a satisfactory response from the screenplay, the movie seems overwrought and fake. The dramatic score for the bad guys, sounds spoofy. And the editing does not help. There camera lingers around for too long after the end of a scene. There are way too many scenes. Many of these contain so many red herrings that one begins to discount everything happening on screen.

The acting is wooden. Especially Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) whose steely gazes are annoying and awkward. The mystery of forcibly including his sister in the first movie makes sudden sense - Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin) is the all-in-the-family lawyer who suspiciously seems like a civil attorney turned ace criminal lawyer for the sake of her brother. Which, brings us to the trial itself.

This section is the worst edited section. Most of the international audience are not aware of the Swedish court system - and the movie makes no attempt to clarify. There is a newscaster who summarizes the case updates for the blond tank character, but the producers could not think of including a news clip explaining what would happen during a trial? And the trial itself unfolds exasperatingly awkwardly. There are random scenes where the defense attorney seems overwhelmed by the prosecutor success, even when she has not had a chance to rebut, and she still has at least one massive ace up her sleeve.

I am not much in favor of Hollywood dramatizations and conveniently clarifying short-cuts. But if ever a movie suffered for lacking those narrative plot elements - this is it. Technically the movie is worse than the second movie, which only barely kept up with the first. Story is airy, with holes. And there is a decided lack of conviction among the cast. In fact they all look tired and defeated. As if the girl did kick the hornet's nest and they were all just stung.

March 10, 2011

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