Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"But Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew." - Professor Charles Rankin in "The Stranger"

Orson Welles' "The Stranger"  reminded me of Hitchcock's "Shadow of a doubt". But do not mistake them for being alike. They use very different formats to enthrall the audience. While "Shadow of a doubt" revels in oscillating between the truth and doubt, The Stranger focuses on nothing but the truth. There in lies the beauty of this film.

How can a movie still hold any intrigue and aura if the secret is revealed in the first half of the film? How can you hold your breath in anticipation when you know what you are looking for? But you do. Orson Welles creates that sense of suspense right from the opening scene where a Nazi prisoner,Meinike, is set free. The hope is that Meinike would lead Mr.Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) ,of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, to a dangerous mastermind Nazi criminal,Franz Kindler. 

Meinike leads Mr.Wilson to a small town in Connecticut, Harper. But before Mr.Wilson can find out Franz, Meinike is killed. Mr.Wilson stays back in Harper to reveal the true identity of the hidden criminal. 

Professor Charles Rankin is a local school teacher who marries the supreme court justice's daughter Mary (Loretta Young). There is an interesting conversation between Mr.Wilson and the professor. The professor believes that " people cannot be reformed except from within. The basic principles of equality and freedom never have and never will take root in Germany. The will to freedom has been voiced in every other tongue. "All men are created equal", liberte, egalite, fraternite - but in German..."
Mary's brother remarks " There's Marx. "Proletarians, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains." to which the professor replies "But Marx wasn't a German, Marx was a Jew." 

This confirms his identity to Mr.Wilson but he has no proof. Only if Mary confesses that she had seen Meinike the morning of their wedding, the professor can be persecuted. In spite of being shown the atrocities of the genocide, Mary refuses to believe that her husband is a criminal. She is torn between her love and her belief that she cannot fall in love with a criminal. 

Every step of the way, we are shown the truth, the truth is shouted from roof tops but what would Mary do? Would she turn her husband in or live in the hope of reforming him? Would Franz Kindler win this battle between the innocent and the conniving?  Would Mary's family and the Harper town people know the true identity of an innocent teacher? 

Watch another of Orson Welles' great movies where you get a good dose of closeups, play with shadows and light as well a slickly edited action-packed climax that makes you wonder why modern day film-makers do not learn such techniques.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"I still have a mind of my own. Elsewhere being gracious is acceptable. "- Leslie Benedict in Giant

 I would count "Giant" in the same category of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia". It is a saga but the big difference is that Texas forms the background of Giant instead of Arabia and the story is a family epic. 

There is a scene in "Giant" where Leslie Benedict (an excellent Elizabeth Taylor) walks into a group of men and wants to participate in a political discussion. Her patriarchal husband , Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), asks her to join the women in their siesta and "behave like everybody else" and boy! she fights tooth and nail to make her point. Her feisty yet caring nature is the backbone of their marriage. This saga spans a few decades starting with Leslie's move from Maryland to her husband's home in Texas and ending with their grown-up, married children. Adopting both the Texas land as well as the people, Leslie is a strong support to her rancher husband, Bick Benedict. Bigotry forms an interesting thread inside the story without being glaring about it. Leslie helps the Mexican-Americans with medicine and help, which is frowned upon both by her husband and other locals. Although Leslie is not the ideal wife that Bick expected and their marriage has the ups and downs over the years, their bonding shines through. 
I cannot help but mention, the role of Jett Rink (James Dean's last movie role) , who starts off as their help and later strikes oil and makes it rich. Jett Rink is someone whom we have come across in our lives. He is apathetic, loathes others just because they have money and finally becomes a wealthy alcoholic.

 The movie is a concoction of strong performances by both Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson but it Liz Taylor that shines through. Her feminist and spunky Leslie shows the real Elizabeth Taylor, who could not be bridled by anything. I was not impressed by James Deans' acting - as a young and unruly help, he was being himself and as an older drunkard, he seems too melodramatic.He is remembered for 'Giant' as the last movie before his untimely demise. The surprise for me was Rock Hudson, who  represents a rancher in the '50s,  caught between his feudal upbringing and his wife's attitude against sexism and bigotry. The director, George Stevens' Texas is no Arabia but he showcases the brown and rugged terrain and the ranger home Reata equally beautifully. He is worthy of the Oscar he won. 

I wish there were more movies made today that can juxtapose a romantic epic saga along with issues of women empowerment and color discrimination. Although it was made in 1956, "Giant" is worth viewing today to appreciate the amazing actors we miss.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

“What happens when a man stands up and says, ‘enough is enough?'" - Martin Luther King, Jr. in 'Selma'

What is the difference between a person who manipulates people for the good or for the bad ? The former  is called a salesperson and if it is for the good, he is called a "Leader". Martin Luther King is one of those leaders , who through sheer force of words led the movement of the African-American suffrage in early sixties in America. "Selma" showcases King's( ) campaign and struggle to win the rights they truly deserved. All politicians have agendas and it is no surprise when King meets President Lyndon B. Johnson and requests a bill eliminating restrictions on voting for the Black community, Johnson says it is not his priority. How King manages to ultimately convince the President of the Bill forms the rest of the story. 

The movie focuses on Martin Luther King and his strong belief in the cause, without being melodramatic or documentary. It shows that King is not only a great leader, he is also sympathetic, warm and compassionate to everyone. He influences people to participate in this fight of equal voting rights. The initial march between Selma to Montgomery is stopped midway by violent police attacks on the innocent African Americans. This incident is very similar to India's salt satyagraha march by Mahatma Gandhi and shows how much King was influenced by Gandhi and his non-violent methods. It opens this injustice to the rest of the world and soon King has followers from both Caucasians as well as African-Americans. Finally Johnson had to concede to the bill of rights , which posterity will remember Johnson for. It is a huge landmark in the history of African-American civil rights movement. 

Selma is excellent at  creating this '60s period drama. It provides a glimpse into America's history by focusing on the cause rather than people and creates a beautiful narrative flow because even though we all know how history turned out, we are still eager to find out what happened to one man's quest for voting rights in a non-violent manner. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit." - Riggan in "Birdman"

I remember reading Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and moved by his simple yet powerful writing. In “Birdman”, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) directs and acts in a Raymond Carver play "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" to revive his long-forgotten acting career. Who is Riggan? He, like Keaton in real life, was once famous for his super-hero movies and this play is his only chance for revival. His co-star, Mike (Edward Norton) is a method actor but erratic during their previews. What stands between Riggan and a successful opening on Broadway? Is it Riggan’s voices-in-the-head, a spiteful critic or Mike?

Movies like “Birdman” reinforce my love for the silver screen. As the camera pans the claustrophobic labyrinths of the back-stage, I was excited to see what Riggan was upto next. He oscillates between a surrealistic world and the world of Broadway theater in New York City. Michael Keaton plays the role of his lifetime. He slips into the character of Riggan as if he is playing himself and the parts where he has to act in the play, he surpasses any Broadway actor I have watched. There is a scene where his alter ego persuades him to return to playing a super-hero and his response reminded me of Betty Davis refusing to return back to Broadway in “All About Eve”. He has my vote for the best actor Oscar this year.

What is Birdman really about? There are so many inferences you can draw. It is not just the personal quest of a great actor; it is also contempt for blockbuster movies versus theater. And maybe it is not about anything but an ode to the art of filmmaking. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

"When two people love each other and they can't make that work, that's the real tragedy." - Amy Dunne in "Gone Girl"

A marriage is a byproduct of the co-existence of two personalities. Sometimes you spend your entire life with the person yet you might not know them completely. "Gone Girl" is a dark tale of a marriage gone so awry that it is impossible to set it right again.

Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne(Rosamund Pike) are celebrating their fifth anniversary. Instead of a date night, Nick finds himself in an empty home with his wife missing. The police are brought in and it becomes a sensational news story. We see Nick through the eyes of Amy as we read her diary. Is Nick really a sociopath or a grieving husband? Is he capable of murder? Was Amy the devoted wife? The second half of the movie deals with a different side of Amy and catapults you in the opposite direction. The twists and turns come to an unexpected yet not totally plausible ending. 

The problem I see with Rosamund Pike is that she is wooden. Amy is a one-dimensional character but Pike does nothing to add depth or layers to her personality. She seems to play the extension of herself in "Die Another Day", which might be fine for a James Bond movie but does nothing to a thriller like "Gone Girl". 
Ben Affleck is convincing as the troubled husband who does not understand his complex wife. He also depicts a cool and level-headed spouse that can be easily mistaken as indifferent and apathetic, which forces the audience to suspect him as a murderer. 
David Fischer, well versed in his craft, showcases the beauty of not just the small town in Missouri but also moments during their dating period, which paints a picture of a potentially wonderful marriage.  

This is not a story of the American dream  of a young couple with two kids and a white picket-fence house. It is of two warped individuals who unable to deal with the realities of economic downtime, turn to their own means of amusement. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in a bathtub." - Hank Palmer in "The Judge"

Most children would wonder at some point in their lives why dads are so obstinate. Robert Duval as the father in "The Judge" is the epitome of this. His son, Hank Palmer, is a Chicago lawyer, infamous for defending rich and guilty clients. On the death of his mother, Hank visits his sleepy small hometown in Indiana. This is the beginning of a thrilling courthouse drama filled with dynamic dialogue and the acting prowess of Robert Duval and Robert Downing Jr. 

We know that things are not well between The Judge and Hank early on when his father and brothers go to the diner before his mother's funeral without  inviting him. Hank spits venom at his father who does not flinch at hurtling abuses back at his son. After his mother's funeral , an exasperated Hank boards the flight back to Chicago. The only thing that stops him from flying is a phone call from his brother. The Judge has been arrested for a hit and run case. The victim is someone that the judge had sentenced to jail twenty years ago. As the judge suffers from amnesia of the incident, Hank volunteers to defend his father. But, the judge stubbornly refuses and opts for a local lawyer.The best arguments are those where you relate to both sides and are confused as to who is right and who is wrong and this is exactly what you feel as  the father-son relationship is stretched thin with the father hating his son for not coming back home after college and the son retaliating for not being cared for. The poignancy of this hits us in a scene where the old man awakens in the middle of the night and cries out to his dead wife and Hank reaches out to him. The courtroom drama is exciting in the struggle between the judge who wants righteousness to win even if it means that he is arrested, while Hank battles for his father in the hope of rescuing him from a painful death in the prison.

Robert Duval as the judge is powerful, stubborn and vulnerable all at once. He portrays a man torn between his pride for being a morally just person and his decaying health in ways that in the hands of a lesser actor would have been reduced to cheap melodrama. Sometimes a silent man looking into his past, other times a father roughing up his son and yet other times a dying old man trying to grasp on his final days of dignity, Duval truly deserves the Oscar he has been nominated for.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"You know how everyone's always saying seize the moment? I don't know, I'm kind of thinking it's the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us." - Nicole in Boyhood

For those who are familiar with creative writing, the story arch is the most important element of a story. How you hook the reader from introducing your characters to a cresendo and then back down. This is the most important aspect that 'Boyhood' lacks.

"Boyhood" is the chronicle of a boy,Mason, from ages eight to eighteen going through the motions of a normal life. It is no 'To Kill a Mocking Bird'. The life we see through Mason's eyes is dull, insipid and lacks the curiosity of a child. The story starts off with Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), bickering with her charming ex-husband, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Much to the dismay of the children, she moves to Houston, where she marries her professor. Mason experiences the pain of living with a step-dad . The marriage turns out badly for his mother, who decides to move once more to a smaller town. Mason is a silent child. If he is anguished, we are unable to see it unlike his elder sister, who always protests against the relocations. His happy times are during the weekends with his father, who is charming , happy-go-lucky but very irresponsible. He experiences girlfriends, breakups, smoking and finally off to college. And that pretty much sums up this movie. It is as if someone shared a home video with us but edited out the drama that goes on in people's lives.

A lot has been said about the filming of the movie over a period of twelve years as you see the kid age appropriately. Is that the only criteria for us to judge a movie? I am disappointed that "Boyhood" is nominated along with 'The Imitation Game' and 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'. It is not about the budget, the sets or even the actors. It is about the Plot. America has a divorce rate of 50% , so what we see and experience is very normal. It is as if they made a conscious effort to edit any dramatic moments in life - no one gets lost, no one meets with an accident, no one gets attacked or no one goes through any pain.  Ingmar Bergman's 'Seventh Seal' did not win a single Academy award and I would be disappointed if this movie wins even one!!!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"What is a lobby boy? A lobby boy is completely invisible, yet always in sight." - M. Gustave in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'.

Would you like to awaken your inner child? Do you like fairy tales? Do you mind a movie that takes you to a zany world made of vibrant colors? Welcome to the world of Wes Anderson'sThe Grand Budapest Hotel'.

 ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel' is like Arabian Nights, where stories are nestled into each other waiting to be explored. It starts with a girl reading a book where the author visits a decaying hotel in the Republic of Zubrowka. The author meets the hotel’s owner Zero Moustafa, who narrates the story of his inheritance of the hotel and why it is important to keep it open.

It is the year 1932 and young Zero (Tony Revolori) is fascinated with the opulent hotel and it’s glorious concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is a favorite with older women and one of the ladies is "Madame D" (Tilda Swinton) who spends an entertaining evening with Gustave. A few days later, Madame D is found dead under mysterious circumstances and in her will she bequeaths a valuable painting to M.Gustave. This enrages her family who implicate him as the murderer. The story catapults into chases, the discovery of a second will and the final capture of M.Gustave. 

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori are a joy to watch as the duo who escape the villains in a series of adventures. Fiennes is as comfortable with humor as he is with serious intensity (The Reader). He breathes life into Anderson’s whimsical world. Tony matches Fiennes, even though he does not have as many dialogues. His large expressive eyes make up for that.

Wes Anderson is a master of a distinctive style of art décor. The
intense colors -  pink walls, crimson carpets, staff waistcoats of electric magenta camouflage the gray fascist regime in Europe at that time. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Grand Budapest Hotel also has the morbid dreaminess of a Grimm fairy tale: quaint and picturesque, but reflecting real-world anxieties and the dangers of manipulative villains, while heroes of yesteryears try to bottle up the nostalgia.

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine." - Joan in The Imitation Game

As a technologist, I often wonder about the value of something I work on. How can I measure it? Alan Turing had no such questions - he saved 14 million lives and ended a war two years sooner than it would otherwise have, with a brilliant mathematical invention, which we know today as ‘computers’.

'The Imitation Game' might be the story of World War II but it is no 'Schindler's List'. War forms the backdrop of the story of a man who is socially awkward but wants to solve an unsolvable puzzle. This is portrayed in a scene early on when Alan Turing(Benedict Cumberbatch) goes to the army headquarters not because he likes politics but because  'Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world'. 

Alan's strategy is to build a machine that can be programmable and reprogrammable to break  'Over one hundred and fifty million million million possible settings' that would take millions of years to decode manually. With the help of a team of code-breakers, researchers, mathematicians, Turing embarks on a journey to build this machine. This includes crossword wizard, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who befriends Alan and helps him interact with his team-members. Turing now has a hundred thousand British pounds to make or break the war. 

The most dramatic scenes are from Turing's childhood. In 1927, Turing is a nervous teenager who is bullied by his buddies because of his social awkwardness until Christopher rescues him. It is Christopher who introduces Alan to a book on cryptography. As Turing gets engrossed in the world of codes and cyphers, he realizes his true feelings for his friend. 

The casting choice of Cumberbatch is apt. He portrays the over-confidence of Turing very differently from Sherlock . As Sherlock, he is cocky, defiant and arrogant. As Turing, Cumberbatch has a total transformation - naive, ignorant of social dogma, he portrays at once a mathematical genius as well as an innocent victim, with aplomb. Whether he is scribbling on his notepad or sipping beer, the quirks and nuances he brings to this character are truly remarkable. It did remind me a little of Russell Crowe in 'A Beautiful Mind'. 

The tension of Turing breaking the Enigma is followed by his downfall after the authorities find out about this homosexuality. He accepts hormonal therapy to imprisonment for 'gross indecency' and slowly resigns himself to suicide. 

"The Imitation Game" manages to not just be a thriller but a historic biopic that educates the viewers of the compelling story of Alan Turing. Sixty years after his death, the Queen of England has pardoned Turing and condemned his punishment in 1950s as unjust. Alan Turing totally deserves the universal recognition that this movie has brought to the world. 

This is #Day1 of #YourTurnChallenge. During this 7 day challenge,I would be blogging about one Oscar nominated movie per day.