Devil

This is how a thriller should be! Devil is one of those rare movies that stays well within itself to create a terrifying paranormal mystery that, for once, does not insult the audience's intelligence.

The movie has an underlying theological vein running through the story. There is the archetypal story of good against evil, with the devil representing all that is wrong with the world. And then there is the idea of forgiveness, and closure. Beyond these core ideas, however, the movie stays clear of all forms of preaching and instead plants itself firmly in the human realm of fear, suspicion, hatred, and the paranormal.

The story starts off Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) investigating a suspicious suicide, by a tall skyscraper, which quickly turns into a rescue of five strangers stuck in an elevator - an light-fingered old woman (Jenny O'Hara), an Afghan war veteran with a big secret (Logan Marshall-Green), a gold-digger looking to cash out (Bojana Novakovic), a security guard with a violent record (Bokeem Woodbine) and a creepy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend). As fire fighters begin the rescue effort, strange activities begin taking place inside the elevator car - lights begin to flicker, and temporarily go out. With every blackout something strange begins happening, first there are unexplained flesh bites and then people begin to die. While suspicion and fear grows in the car, detective Bowden outside begins to unravel the sordid histories of the occupants of the car. As reason and faith come to a head, the prognosis for the occupants of the elevator car does not look good.

It is hard to imagine that in the same year M. Night Shyamalan was involved in the making of this movie, while being associated with something as pathetic as The Last Airbender. Yet, something in this movie worked. The story was spot on. There is a dark, brooding tone to the movie, brought on by an abundance of deep wind instruments in the soundtrack and visuals featuring a darker, desaturated look. Camera work is top notch too, successfully toeing the line of the narrative. The acting is a bit in the light side, and that is probably for the better.

The movie is a success in moderation. There is a bit of everything, scary faces, blood, darkness and scenes that make you jump. But at no point is it overwhelming. The uncomplicated ending, reinforces the theme of brevity - no hanging threads for a sequel. If you like watching scary movies that are, dare I say, intellectual - then this is the movie for you. If you are turned off by paranormal thrillers that struggle to get the balance between scary and story right - pick up this movie and listen to Ramirez tell the story about how the Devil roams the Earth.

January 30, 2011

Peepli [Live]

Peepli [Live] is a study in absurdity that is the modern Indian political discourse. Fueled by a hyperactive fourth estate, dire circumstance, and a simple-minded yet sophisticated populace, politics in India achieves surreal zen that is unmatched. The movie tries, and largely succeeds, in capturing the essence of life outside the sliver of urban India.

Peepli is a fictional village in Madhya Pradesh, which is plagued by familiar oppressive conditions for farmers. A couple of brothers, on the verge of losing their land, decide that one of them has to commit suicide in order to qualify for the government program that supports indebted (dead) farmers. A passing reporter hears this and runs a story in the local newspaper. A rare union of upcoming elections and deficient news cycle causes the story to be picked up by the national news.

What follows is a crazy sequence of loud news reports, visiting politicians, silly social schemes, and through it all a simpleton farmer struggling to make sense of his world turning upside down around him.

The family at the center of the story is cast perfectly. The brothers Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) and Budhiya (Raghuvir Yadav) are spot on. Natha is the simpleton that is swept up in the frenzy around him, and is successful in conveying that through a mostly silent portrayal. His wife, Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa) is a caustic woman, that takes on more than her share in a brusquely efficient way. Natha and Budhiya's ailing mother Amma (Farrukh Jaffar) would have been wildly entertaining but for the fact that she is ill and bedridden. The portrayal of angst with stubborn strength in the family is realistic, echoing the millions of other families that find themselves in similar situations across the country.

The story itself is believable, in a Bollywood sort of way. There are no abrupt dance sequences in Switzerland, but when the entire news media latches on the question of Natha's suicide, there are moments of ridiculous excess. Yet, they succeed in not looking fake. The feel of the movie is more like a documentary, supported by a minimal soundtrack. Certain plot turns are pandering comic reliefs, yet there is a subtle undertone to the movie that keeps reminding us that the loudness of what is on the screen may be overwhelming a greater need outside the spotlight. In essence that is the moral of the story, and the movie does well in conveying it with a sense of determination.

The movie is by no means as polished as it could have been. While the acting is tight and natural, the narrative is sometimes strained. The story is largely inconsequential, beyond its relevance as social commentary. But thankfully there is no sermonizing, no answers, no heroes or even villains for that matter. There is just the desperate opportunism of our times.

All in all, Peepli [Live] was a absorbing watch. It was refreshing to see a movie that is not typical Bollywood. And featuring no superstars, it was a story that stood quietly for itself. A little like the people of the village of Peepli.

January 22, 2011

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a chick-flick for guys, a dude-flick if you will. It is an engaging yet cliché-ridden, hijack drama that takes place underground in the New York's Subway system. When an armed maniac takes over a single subway car and all its occupants hostage, it is up to a mild-mannered control room operator to save the day.

It pits two veterans of criminal hostage crises against one another. John Travolta (cue Swordfish, Broken Arrow) is the demented mastermind, who is determined to do anything it takes to be successful. Denzel Washington (cue Inside Man, Man on Fire) is the out of shape Civil worker who is himself in the middle of an investigation for bribery and has the ill luck of being the point man for the negotiations.

The movie offers few surprises. The criminal mastermind is humble enough to realize that he cannot hold the entire train hostage and lets everyone but one car go. No one uses the phrase "We do not negotiate with terrorists". Denzel Washington does not look all ripped and in fighting shape during the final chase sequence.

The rest of the movie and plot twists fall neatly into place. A few hostages are shot, a batallion worth of police stand idly by, the official hostage negotiator turns out to be useless, and most upper management decisions end up costing lives. Beyond the story, however, it is up to the two negotiation veterans to pull the story together and they deliver. Without Travolta and Washington, this would have been a 1-star movie at best. Between them there is enough chemistry to keep the audience engaged and invested.

Unlike Unstoppable this is no fast paced thriller. Instead it is a easy afternoon watch, for times when you are just in the mood for a good dude-flick.

January 17, 2011

North Face

North Face is a captivating thriller about the race to climb the previously unclimbed North Face of the Eiger Mountain. It is a story of bravery, tragedy, persistence and redemption, set in the times of European unrest and international quest for faux victories. The movie is as much a tale of survival in the harshest of conditions as it is symbolic of the stark human contrasts of virtually any period.

The movie, voiced in German and subtitled in English, follows the story of two young and capable mountain climbers belonging to the German army in 1936. Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) belong to the mountains and cannot turn down a challenge when it comes to climbing. When the "the last problem of the Western Alps" - the north face of the Eiger mountain, comes calling it isn't long before Andy and Toni make their way to the mountainside. Braving the unpredictability of Alps weather, the two set out with a second pair of Australian climbers - Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) - following in their footsteps. The first day they two pairs are able to cover a lot of ground, reaching to more than halfway to the summit. But soon, the fickle weather returns as a raging storm, dumping snow, triggering avalanches and flinging around anyone that is not secured tightly. When a slip causes one of the Austrian pair to break his leg, the remaining three have no choice but to head back down. When they realize that going down may be a lot harder than coming up.

Tales of survival are by definition brutal. But hanging by the side of a sheer mountainside, with nothing but steel nails for safety and a bitterly cold snowstorm raging all around, brutality takes a whole new meaning. You will be glad you are sitting on a couch instead. Several times during the movie I caught myself thinking, "But why don't they just...?", before realizing that there is nothing I could be telling them from a warm couch that they wouldn't already have thought of. And it is this helplessness that comes through with searing clarity throughout the movie.

The story is simple, and presented with minimum fuss. The screenplay thankfully stays out of sight, instead supported by an unbelievable cinematography. The scenes are so up close and personal, there is not a single moment when you feel out of touch with the travails of the intrepid adventurers. You shiver through the howl of the wind, feel the thud of cakes of snow and ice falling down the mountainside. You almost feel every tug in the rope, every crunch of a foot settling on ice and pebbles on an inch-wide ledge, and the stiffness in the limbs because of over exposure. And the camera misses no opportunity to swing out and show you the perspective of the climbers - the unending abyss falling straight down into what seems like another world.

The movie takes a while to get you invested in the characters. Somewhere in there is potentially an unfulfilled love story. And there are underlying socio-political layers to the story too. But once the climb begins, everything else fades away. What you are left with is human spirit and endurance going toe-to-toe with a 13,000 foot behemoth. And you cannot help but join the climbers and pray that they are not the first ones to blink.

The Fountain

The Fountain is a moving depiction of the struggles of life, death and love, across a millennium - from the end of the dark ages to an age of spiritual enlightenment. The movie is all about the opposites. The juxtaposition of death and life, of love and insanity, of acceptance and struggle, of success and failure. And the realization that the opposites are perhaps the most similar to one another.

Darren Aronofsky's movies have a symphonic, non-linear aspect to them and The Fountain is no different. Through a selection of scenes from the age of the Spanish Conquistadors, the current times, and of a distant future, Aronofsky weaves a moving tale of the search for the Tree of Life. In a sense it is an exploration of the nature of life itself, of growing up and maturing. Yet the movie also carries with it an undertone of the fantastic. Of a world of possibilities no matter how ephemeral.

The movie is intensely poetic in the way it unfolds. It switches back and forth between time, sometimes indulgently, sometimes abruptly. There isn't much sense to the individual scenes themselves, even though each and every one has a certain emotional charm to it. The movie is like a picture that you need to squint through to see. With the movie you need to see past the characters to recognize them. Hugh Jackman is the face of courage, determination and action. Rachel Weisz is his love, and the strength of acceptance.

All said and done, the movie is not an easy watch. Be prepared to have your face furrow up quizzically through the first few scenes. Even when you do pick up the flow, it often turns out to be an eddy. Themes repeat, scenes overlap and start right up again. To compensate, however, the scenes look gorgeous. Lighting is impeccable, with a predominantly warm palette to go with the theme of the movie. And some sequences are mind blowing, like the one where Hugh Jackman walks through the city downtown to just the sound of his own footsteps.

The movie could have been five stars if there it was a smidgen more literal. When you take every scene and wrap it in a metaphor, tie it with a simile, it tends to make them that much less accessible. Notwithstanding the emotion they do manage to convey. If you dislike movies like Memento, or have an aversion to time-travel tales - it is safe to say you will dislike this movie. But if you are up to running with ambiguity, and are willing to drag the brain out during a period of relaxation - The Fountain is a great reason to do that.

January 16, 2011

The Vampire Chronicles - I & II

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice was a significant departure from the regular treatment meted out to the undead. Sans garlic and holy water, Anne Rice's vampires were thoughtful, melancholy with oodles of character. I loved the series, at least the first four before Rice decided to take the series all theological.

Interview with the Vampire, was not on the first book of the series, it was also the first of the Vampire Chronicles to be made into a movie. As an adaptation, the screenplay predictably falls short of the novel, both in terms of the story and the depth of the characters themselves, not to mention the deviations from the original storyline. As if to compensate, the movie is stuffed chock-a-block with stars, in a desperate attempt to make up for lost story. Brad Pitt plays Louis, the sentimental plantation owner from New Orleans. Tom Cruise is Lestat, the Paris born commoner that converts Louis into a vampire. Antonio Banderas is Armand, the coven leader in present day Paris. Kristen Dunst, as a young girl, plays Claudia the baby vampire.

Tom Cruise fails at being Lestat. Lestat of the book is impulsive, cheeky and bold, having slayed an eight-wolf pack to get the attention of Marius, his maker. In the movie Tom is instead immature and lovelorn. Brad Pitt manages a much better Louis, especially in exploring his love-hate relationship with Claudia. Kristen Dunst shows moments of steel in playing the child vampire, but at the end comes off more as a child than a grown woman stuck in a child's body. The interactions between the characters is theatrical, the whole movie taking on tones from Théâtre des Vampires - loud, dramatic and over the top. The first two novels are all about Lestat, his drives, his motives, his idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately getting that character wrong spells the death knell for what could otherwise have been a much more powerful rendering of The Vampire Chronicles.

That is not to say there are no redeeming aspects. Mood and music are captured pretty well through out. There is a consistent use of smokey backgrounds with harshly lit foregrounds, emphasizing the spotlighted nature of the movie. The music adds to the feeling of introspection.


Queen of the Damned has one of the best soundtracks, if you are into that kind of music. From the devastatingly soulful "Forsaken", the mournful "System" to the thunderous "Cold" by Static-X, the background is filled with metal ballads that can cause chills go up your spine. Unfortunately what happens on screen quickly dampens all such emotional reactions. Instead of a movie remotely following the cue of the novel, what we get is a mix of spoofed Gothic sub-culture and the least vampiric of all vampire movies. One could have replaced the vampire with any other folkloric creature, and the movie would have made just as much sense.

To begin with the good - casting Lestat. Stuart Townsend is a much better choice for the brat prince. The flashes of arrogance are more Lestat than Tom Cruise ever was. The music is a close second, for successes with the movie. Pretty much everything else works against it.

The story, suffers from telling too little. It meanders from act to act without much of an explanation or background story. What little explanation there is seems to have been added in during editing. The Queen of the Damned is supposed to be about the origins of Rice's vampires; the movie is the story of the concert and a deranged super-vampire. A super-vampire that inexplicably causes other vampires to combust, likes Heavy Metal and for some reason dislikes a bunch of other vampires that live in a castle. These other vampires are the protectors of something and want to save humanity. Oh, then there is a mortal, the niece of one of these protector vampires that is part of a rich group that follows vampires without being seen. As I said, the story is light on details.

The acting is uneven. The effects, lacking subtlety, are awful, intruding into the main narrative as if someone just discovered a new piece of FX gadgetry. The background vampires are a sad excuse, especially compared to Rice's introspective over-analyzers. And funnily, there are too many aerial setup shots. Every couple of minutes there is an aerial shot, a new town, another aerial shot, a new city. Enough to stick out like a sore thumb, and hurt.

Queen of the damned comes off as a stylized vampire derivative. There are other stylized vampire derivatives that came about in later years that unfortunately beg comparison to. The more I think of the movie, the more it reminds me of the trailers of - dare I say it - the Twilight series. With the Queen of the Damned movie, the tale of the origin of the vampires is dropped for a romanticized fight between über blood suckers. That, dear vampires, is the quickest path down the Twilight zone.

January 15, 2011

Unstoppable

Unstoppable is a fantastic thrill ride, that is a bit like Speed on rails, but feels more dangerous and menacing. For a hundred minutes the audience is taken on a high speed chase through rural Pennsylvania where a runaway train, half a mile long, loaded with explosive chemicals is hurtling towards certain carnage.

Make no mistake, the movie is formulaic. You have all the characters required to make the ultimate feel-good situational thriller. A series of unlikely events resulting in a massing snafu. A golf-playing CEO along with a profit-minded Corporate executive. The extremely capable middle-manager that is willing to stake everything on a hunch. And finally the flawed yet capable man on the job who alone stands in the way of certain disaster.

Denzel Washington (Frank) seems to have been built for movies like this. His weather-beaten capability, gravitas-filled gruffness and occasional burst of humor make him likeable. His presence on screen is reassuring. Chris Pine (Will) plays the younger apprentice. The background score is great, dominated by speedy percussion and bass. The screenplay is brisk and engaging. Cinematography includes a lot of aerial footage, and dolly shots for a sense of speed.

The movie has its annoying aspects as well. The presence of news camera crews, and frequent cuts to news clips as a means to provide background information - was a lot more distracting than I would have guessed. There is also the little background story that could: not quite a logical inclusion into the story at the same time not too much of a distraction.

The pace of the movie is perfect, and unrelenting. There isn't a moment to breathe. I hadn't realized that I was grinding my teeth throughout the movie till I felt my achy jaw toward the end. This is no cerebral think-fest. Rather it is a simple, raw, enjoyable ride with thousands of tons of steel.

January 10, 2011

Cube

Cube is what Saw could have been, but for the latter's unbridled ego mania. Cube is the distilled essence of the rage against The Man, fed intravenously through the cold veins of a psychopath. Yet, it portrays itself, successfully, as a simple survival quest filled with paranoia, intrigue, double cross and murder. And the movie manages to do all that while being shot in the closed confines of the Cube.

The premise of the movie is inventive, and satisfyingly, never fully unravels itself. Six people, completely unrelated to each other, find themselves locked in a mechanical cube, 14 feet across. Soon they realize that there are other cubes next to each other, all inter connected through hatches. Some cubes are safe to enter, others are rigged to kill - instantly. With no way to obtain food or water, the group must navigate the cubes and find a way out, or die of thirst and hunger. But only if they can first come to trust one another.

The entire movie is shot within the cube, no background scenes, no cuts to visualize thoughts or feelings. The whole cube farm is supposedly composed of 17,576 cubes, but at any point you see just two cubes - the one the characters are in and the one they are moving into. Yet the movie never feels repetitive. It is the sense of impending doom and struggle for survival that impels the group and the story forward. Yes, there are a few lopped limbs and some razor wire, just enough to grab your attention. Nowhere near the gratuitous self-indulgence of a slasher movie. You could almost call this a sensitive horror movie.

Unfortunately the weakest link in the story is the acting. Not by much, but enough to make it stand out. The cast of lesser known actors are a tad over the top at times. Cinematography is adequate. There is a consistent use of wide-angle lenses making the small rooms feel even more claustrophobic. The few special effects are so last decade because, well, the film is from the last decade. And the eerie omnidirectional lighting generates a mood of its own throughout the movie.

This movie is part of an upcoming post about movies shot in one location. I had to watch the last few movies before I finished the post. And like the other movies on that list, the lack of spatial flexibility does not hamper the movie. Instead it is actually an asset that helps bind the narrative together. While expansive movies are awesome, there is something about the minimalist genre that is compelling. And Cube is one such compelling watch.

January 08, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia - 3

The third installment of The Chronicles of Narnia - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is a big disappointment. It is a badly made movie for those that are fans of the series and are familiar with its background. It is an unmitigated disaster for those that have not paid much attention to the prequels.

Notwithstanding the creatively and beautifully constructed special effects, the movie completely misses the point about storytelling. Awkward acting, trite dialogue, shallow characters and the lack of a single relationship that the audience should care about is just the beginning. Ably letting down is a screenplay that seems to be out of breath, always running to cover ground and make up for lost time. The choice of adventures seems inconsequential at best if not downright preachy. As with the rest of the series, the existence of Narnia seems to be little more than an ego-trip for some kids, no matter how sorry their plight. This movie does nothing to negate that feeling. When kids act like ego-maniacs it leaves the narrative nowhere - is it a allegorical tale of caution or the exploration of a child's psyche. The answer is no.

Continuing from the previous two movies, it is now the turn of the younger siblings - Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) to carry on their involvement with the fictional world of Narnia. This time, plucked out of their world by a leaking painting, the brother and sister discover that their hated cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter) is also brought with them. Meeting Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and seeing the world at peace, they are puzzled by their summoning. Soon, however, they discover that a number of islands that were once under Narnia's control had been plagued by a sinister sort of evil. Chasing it proves to be a test not only for their abilities, but also for their inner demons.

Besides Peter, I was never a fan of the rest of the cast of children for the series. This movie seems to have taken the younger two further, to unparalleled woodenness. Aslan and Reepicheep seemed more natural in comparison. The one character that seemed to really develop through the movie was, surprisingly, the newly introduced Eustace. In the end it is his transformation that helped redeem the movie, however slightly.

Watching the movie in 3D was yet another nail in the coffin. I am a big fan of the understated 3D. But when it is so understated that there isn't a single event that makes you want to duck - that is underdone. And there were ships, dragons, sea serpants, harpoons, sword fights - get it? Opportunities to make it worth watching the movie with those ridiculous glasses. All missed. Instead what you get is flat fight sequences that move so quickly that it is all a big blur, with no depth. That sounds like I was talking about the content of the movie as well.

It wasn't really all bad. With the adventure of the seven swords, the pace lets off to let the audience invest in the fight with the green mist. Cheer-worthily the Narnians fight back and all is well. Actually it is not, because what follows is further tedious sermonizing with yet another randomly picked bunch of characters. Come to think of it, that seems to be the modus operandi throughout the movie - unsuitable teams are picked with the express desire to prove a point, or deliver a quote. Making it all seem just a little more fake.

I understand the original books were written for children, but adapted screenplay is an opportunity for the story to grow up. Narnia 3, didn't. And that is reflected in the movie, through all the gorgeous CGI. What you see is the movie that could be, but never was.

January 03, 2011

The Descent

The Descent starts off with tremendous promise with intense scenes and a thundering sound track, before losing steam midway through to devolve into a curious mix of a creature feature plus Rambo.

The movie has a number of things working for it. Tight choreography, great camera work and the previously mentioned awesome sound track demand and grab attention at the beginning of the movie. The scenes that set up the background scares are efficiently effective, reminiscent of the abruptness of Final Destination series. The psychological effect of the initial scenes is reflected and effectively amplified by the subsequent psycho-thriller staple sequences. The cast of relatively newcomers display a comfortable chemistry between them, without being distracting. Some of the deleted scenes displayed a feminist angle that the movie was absolutely better off without.

Paradoxically, it is within the claustrophobic confines of the caves that the movie starts to ease up. Yes there are things that go drip-drip-screech in the dark. But it is balanced by a gratuitous amount of blood, pools of it in fact, and buckets full of bones. When there is such an overuse of gore and slithery things, they tend to scare less. Instead you think about things, which is disastrous for a horror movie.

Pushing it over the top is the two-woman killing orgy that takes the movie towards a slasher ending. The descent was supposed to be a physical and metaphorical description of what happens to the characters in the movie, but in the end it just portrays the direction expectations take after being sky-high at the beginning.

The movie unfortunately tries to do too many things at once. As is expected, that results is something which is good is spots but fails to deliver something more than the sum of its parts. As a psychological thriller it could do with fewer creatures. As a horror movie it would have been better off without the intense beginning. In the end the "six chicks with picks" offer enough thrills to engage, but not enough to break new ground.

The Big Lebowski

The big Lebowski is a twisted comedic thriller, that trades in drollery for a darker treatment of crime caper gone wrong. This is one of those movies where you know the crew has had far more fun making it than you ever can by watching it. The movie has the same rambling narrative like a Dude, where is my car, but is significantly less goofy while the dialogues make a lot more sense; too much sense, in fact.

The movie is the story of The Dude (Jeff Bridges) who is known also as Jeff Lebowski. The Dude is a White Russian drinking, doobie smoking, bowling league topping, war veteran, rug aficionado. All he wants to do is obtain restitution from a richer Jeff Lebowski for the ruined rug when two thugs relieve themselves on it; after mistaking The Dude for his more successful namesake. Because, let's face it, the rug did pull the room together. What follows is hilarious cascading cacophony of thugs, friends, the affluent and the crazy - all conspiring to produce a series of strange events that rattle even the unflappable Dude. Helping things along is his friend and Bowling partner Walter (John Goodman) that proves to be as reliable as a keg of dry gunpowder in a burning house.

The movie is typical Coen brothers. From the deliberate characters that wear their idiosyncrasies on their sleeves, to the precisely lazy pace of narrative. The dialogue is expletive-laden, politically incorrect, unexpectedly repeating and intellectually challenging. Once a conversation starts you have no clue where it will end, keeping you on the edge of your seat while the back and forth unwinds itself. Consider the following between The Dude and the personal assistant of Jeff Lebowski.

The Dude: These are, uh...
Brandt: Oh, those are Mr Lebowski's children, so to speak.
The Dude: Different mothers, huh?
Brandt: No.
The Dude: Racially he's pretty cool?
Brandt: [laughs] They're not literally his children. They're the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers - inner city children of promise but without the necessary means for a - necessary means for a higher education. So Mr Lebowski is committed to sending all of them to college.

The movie never had my side in splits, but at the same time there was never a dull moment. Solid acting, an enviable cast, smoothly filmed sequences and a absorbing tale are the reasons this is such a cult hit. Or as Walter would ask...

"Are we gonna split hairs here? Am I wrong?"

January 02, 2011

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