Thursday, March 31, 2011

Toy Story 3 - Strength in Unity

The toys that spawned an entire generation's imagination are here. Andy's beloved toys are back in action from languishing for years in a toy chest. Toy Story 3 comes after 15 years  of our original introduction to the unforgettable characters of Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of Andy's troop. Directed by Lee Unkrich, we are once again transported to a world where toys are characters, they have emotions. Inhabiting a child's imaginative world of playacting, they are individuals in their own right.

Andy is setting off to college and as that day comes in every youngsters' life when they are leaving the cocoon their childhood was safely encased in, they have to decide the future of those childhood belongings, their precious toys. Some get donated, others trashed and a lucky few still have their home intact. Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Cowgirl Jessie, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, Barbie and the rest suddenly find their future uncertain. While Woody being Andy's favorite, singly makes it to the coveted box Andy shall take with him to college, the rest have to be content with being stored in the attic. Not so bad, except a mix up has them thrown in the dumpster instead, convincing them that they are being abandoned. A sorry feeling for anyone to have, even these toys who are more trusting and loyal than mere mortals. After escaping from there, hurt and rejection set in which goes hand in hand with the betrayal of good faith and even though Woody tries to convince them otherwise, they elect to get donated.

And so they land up at Sunnyside daycare and we are introduced to a plush bear who smells of strawberries and is named Lots o' Huggin', call me Lotso (Ned Beatty). He is almost grandfatherly in his manner but we soon witness his dark side, ruling all the toys in the day care. Aiding him are Big Baby who stills yearns for his mama, the little girl who lost him and Lotso, and a host of other toys. Thrown in for tremendous fun is Barbie's eternal soulmate Ken (Michael Keaton). The daycare after hours, metamorphosises into a prison where the poor toys are held captive with no chance to escape the cruel life, in which by day they are manhandled by rowdy toddlers during playtime,  and later ruled by Lotso and company. Well, escape they do and in style. The remaining movie is a whirlwind ride of their adventures and the great escape.

A lot of heart has been put into this franchise and this third installment is all heart with huge doses of wit and humor injected in. The big picture of loyalty, love and unity with the fear of abandonment and sense of betrayal are all there. The final reels are an achievement in emotional high. There is a scene which is reminiscent of 'The Titanic', where the characters face an almost certain end in fire rather than water. The  strength of character that Woody and his mates embody are a lesson for the little kids and the big teary eyed kids in us. The well played out conclusion is neat and I cant imagine it being done any other way.

The disney Pixar animation is ambitious and as with all animation movies these days, comes in a 3D version. Not at all necessary in this case. However, the escape sequences are wonderfully handled, characters like Big Baby in a zombie like act with a sad expression are positively chilling and yet heartbreaking at the same time. The action holds well. The thrills are plenty and we cheer for these toys to find their home.

We are a world inhabited by cynics, losing our innocent childhood selves in the jungle that awaits us adults. Monsters are not born. Circumstances create them. Lotso the bear is a prime example. And yet if we have faith and can hold on to the inherent goodness in all of us, life may just turn out all right. Sitting next to my child, witnessing her drink in this beautiful tale with glee, I hope when its her turn to venture out into this world made so complicated, she carries with her the sense of hope, joy and addresses the concerns of life with as much verve as these beloved toys. There's a great lesson to be learned here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Fighter - Not without my family

Hollywood is choc-a-bloc with biopics, a majority focussed on the trials and final triumphs of sportspeople. So, going into 'The Fighter', I wondered what novelty would this true tale of a boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts offer? A movie that has garnered several oscar nominations and has already secured two major wins in the supporting male and female actor category, though we have seen how the Oscars tend to heap awards on this genre. Filmed by David O. Russel, this is the story of two brothers who each had their share of the spotlight in the world of boxing, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). They share a mother and are part of a horde of siblings, the others being a bunch of spinsters who seem like harpies hanging around the house talking in chorus. This is as dysfunctional a family as you can get. The mother Alice, played by Melissa Leo in an oscar winning turn, is the ruler of the roost, the mother who knows best and dare anyone tell her otherwise.

The story takes flight with Dicky who had his fifteen minutes of fame as the boxer who once downed Sugar Ray Leonard and has since fallen into substance abuse. His days are either spent in the local crack house or training his younger brother Mickey who has yet to see the big league. At 31, he doesn't have much time left. HBO is filming a documentary on Dicky's time of fame, though it turns out to be his hall of shame. Alice is the domineering mother who doubles as Mickey's manager. Between a crackhead like Dicky for a coach, who spends time wasting away when he should be training Mickey in the ring and Alice, who eggs him into matches for money which either get him nowhere or set him up for failure, Mickey has a shot in hell of ever making it big. His father knows that, the local sheriff who helps with the coaching process knows it, but Mickey is blinded by his faith in his brother. Dicky has been his hero from childhood.

The winds change when Mickey is smitten by college dropout bartender, Charlene (played out of character by adorable Amy Adams). Tough as nails with a don't mess with me attitude, Charlene sees through the facade of his well wishers. She doesn't take long in voicing her opinions in public. The family is torn apart with a helpless Mickey caught in the cross fire. The mother, Dicky and the sisters vs Mickey's dad and his love. This is where the movie actually scores and manages to surprise us. It talks more of the dynamics of a family unit, even one as dysfunctional as this.

What sets this movie apart from a traditional sports movie is that this movie is really about family. What do you do when you know that the brother you have grown up idolizing is actually harming you even though he means well. The mother who, though essentially good, is mishandling your career, your dreams. Alice's loyalty lies with Dicky and Mickey is not blind to it. The family is on his side and yet they are not. Who do you choose, the girlfriend you met just a while back, who actually can voice the thoughts running in your head or your own blood?

The performances are top notch and worthy of the acting awards they have garnered.  Bale must have seen immediately that this was the role of a lifetime and went headlong into it. He dropped the pounds and physically slipped into the character of the good natured drug addict. But where he scores for me is in how much of the real Dicky Eklund he has captured. Watching the DVD extra of the making of the movie, I saw the real Dicky and was mesmerized as to how much Bale's performance has managed to embody him. Melissa Leo's Alice is pat down as the tough talking, hard as nails, cigarette smoking, high heels miniskirted woman who has no qualms making the wrong decisions, as long as she is the one making them. We have seen the kind. Its such a stark contrast from her brilliant act in 'Frozen River' where I had first noticed her. She missed the award for that one. This made up for the loss.

And then we have the sweet Amy Adams who time and again has played the sunny faced golden hearted woman and who personally is one of my favorites actors since the time of 'Junebug'. She goes completely against character in this act of hers and emerges trump. Mark Wahlberg's central performance of Mickey is the steady one that holds all the other supporting acts in place. As the guy who boxes and is being boxed around, he is believable.

The movie works on the strength of its fine performances. You can take each of these characters home. We all know the outcome of the tale. That is why I have never been a fan of this genre. Nobody films a failure's life. We always know the result of that final match. But this was never a movie about a boxer and his time in the ring, though we see all that. Its actually about your family, believing in that fundamental structure, knowing when to grow up and yet never letting it go. And when Mickey wins, the family wins. Here is where the movie had me.

Available on DVD
Originally released in 2010

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mother and child - The loss of Motherhood

What are the words that would best describe the bond between a mother and her child? Primal, everlasting, no greater love or as in the case of this movie, no greater regret at its loss. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, 'Mother and Child' focuses on the subject of adoption and plays it from three viewpoints, the birth mother, the child and finally the adoptive parent. We witness three stories running parallel till they all tie up at the climax.

Karen (Annette Bening) is the mother, who at the age of 14 gave birth to a girl she gave up for adoption. She has been haunted for the last 37 years by this decision of hers. Regret is what she has lived her entire adulthood with, making her a bitter, difficult (in her own words) woman who has no room for new relations in her life. She works as a physical therapist and is a caregiver to her ailing mother at home. In her spare moments, she writes letters to that daughter she never quite became a mother to.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) plays that daughter. She is a high profile lawyer, and successful achiever who has no room in her life for relationships. You dont form any ties, you dont have any expectations to be burdened with, is her stance on the matter. She has no relation with her adoptive parents. We can see in her the bitterness that might follow a child who has been given up, for life. The anger against the mother who abandoned her, has molded her into the cold, unsympathetic person she is. 

Running parallel, is a separate tale of a young African American couple who have been trying to conceive for years and now turn to adoption as their only option at being parents. Lucy (Kerry Washington) is especially aggressive in her quest. Her husband though supportive of Lucy's decision, has doubts of his own. They find a potential birth mother in Ray (Shareeka Epps ), who has her own methods of deciding a good adoptive family for her unborn child.

The movie plays out the lives of these three characters. Karen finds an understanding companion in Paco (Jimmy Smits), her new coworker. Her relationship with her daily help and the help's daughter is explored as well. The usually distrustful, bottled up Karen finally finds an outlet to that grief she has held onto for life. Elizabeth starts an affair with her boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), a much older widower with grown children. While he thinks of her as his girlfriend, she defines him to be her lover, someone she has sex with, no strings attached. On the side she plays with the affections of her married neighbor, whose seemingly naive wife is pregnant. The men in the movie, though wonderful, are there to lend support and a sympathetic shoulder to the women who drive the show.

This movie, for most its playing time, peeks into the world of adoption, the loss of the most primal bond, the repercussions it may have on the lives of the people separated. Karen never forgave herself this one mistake, though given her age it may have been the only choice she had. We find the effects of that decision decades later in her grown daughter as well, who probably mistrusts any relationship and is unable to form a lasting bond with anyone. We are then exposed to a seemingly unrelated third face through the character of a potential adoptive parent, whose want of a baby that nature has denied her, makes her angle the very world we have witnessed through Karen and Elizabeth.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and inhabited by great actors who bloom in the presence of good material. Bening and Watts, who have managed to balance Hollywood biggies with serious performance oriented cinema in the past, are exquisite, in characters where a lot of the action is happening below the surface, the process is internal. Their faces mirror their emotions with heartfelt accuracy. Watch for watt's expressions when all that she believes in is about to be proved false, the transformation that her Elizabeth goes through. Bening is especially brilliant in her break down scene on being told a truth about her mother by her maid. Subtlety is key to the performances and each actor achieves that important feat with the small nuances in their body language and expressions telling us far more than reams of dialogue.

Director Rodrigo Garcia bring us the tale of a relationship that is at once pure and simple as is mysterious. What makes one a mother? Is it the process of giving birth or the hands that nurture? Is it the time spent in the womb that forms such a bond the cutting of the cord can never quite severe or can a separate set of hands guiding that child through life form an equally strong bond? I have known plenty of cases where the bond between the adoptive parents and the child is so strong, it erases any sense of abandonment in the child. But no matter how secure, I am sure people do wonder, what happened that my mother had to give me up. For the birth mother, there will always be that question, where is my child.

'Mother and Child' makes for an unflinching study on the effects of adoption, its many perils no matter how compassionate the act is and Garcia gets it right, well almost. Where the movie meanders into cliched territory is in the last quarter of its act. The intertwining of the three stories, conveniently tying up all the threads, leaving behind no loose ends and the heap of coincidences showered upon the plot at once turns it from a heart rendering study of characters, each with their own crosses to bear, into another implausibly cliched Hollywood fare. It was heartbreaking to see such an ending. When do things ever tie up so neatly in life?

However, I do recommend you explore this movie for the emotional ride it offers for three quarters of its length. And some may even like the tidy ending. Myself, not so much. Real life is rarely that simple. That said, the characters resonated in their pain, their regrets and their loss. It made me look at my child sitting next to me and send out a silent prayer into the universe, at being blessed to bear her and now having the privilege of rearing her. Such a common occurrence for most women, but this movie made me get how special this truly is. And I shall cherish the feeling.

Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play
Originally released in 2009

Sunday, March 20, 2011

City of God - Land of the lawless

Cidade de Deus (City of God) is that rare vibrant, colorful movie teeming with life which actually talks of doom, death and a vicious cycle of no escape. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, this internationally acclaimed first feature by a successful director of advertisements, is set in the picture postcard city of Rio de Janeiro and shows us a side no travel magazine will. The movie is based in an actual housing project built at the outskirts of the city. Commonly known as favela or a shanty town, these are quite frequent in Rio, populated by the underprivileged.  Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, who himself was a resident of the place and survived to escape it, a world where life holds no value, guns speak louder and more often than words opens up to a shocked audience gripping us from the first frame and never letting go its clutches.

We are hurled into the world of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a wannabe photographer and his narration of a childhood where the government in an effort to clean up the city, moves the poor people of the slums into a housing development and then forgets about them. Ironically named 'City of God', the place, owing to a lack of proper social order and poverty, turns to be a breeding ground for thugs, gangs and lawlessness. A mini barbaric region soon springs up where kids talk animatedly of becoming gang members, robbing people and play with guns as casually as they would a toy. We follow first the lives of three famous hoods of the area 'The tender trio', all fresh out of their teenage years. They steal, do hold ups and dream of making it into the big league of gangsters. From there, we see the payments crime extracts. The tender trio falls for the new order to form and we witness a child who revels in crime and approaches killing with maniacal fervor, grow into this monster Li'l Ze, played chillingly by Leandro Fimino da Hora.

Robberies, holdups give way to producing and selling drugs. The streets turn more bloody. Children are inculcated into killing. In an especially horrific scene, we see a group of children holding guns and talking of crime and how to climb its ladder when Li'l Ze and his gang chances on them. The outcome of the scene runs like a horror film yet reminds us that for all their bravado, they are essentially children. They just never had the chance at a normal childhood. Crime is a vicious cycle where everyone  essentially pays. Li'l Ze becomes the undisputed king of his domain till he rubs Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) the wrong way and hell breaks loose. All this takes places through the eyes of Rocket, while he grows up into a man who wants nothing of this sordid world he inhabits. A chance encounter with a camera captures his imagination and he quickly sees his becoming a photographer, a way out.

Meirelles captures this gritty world of crime and bloodbath with a frenzy. The madness in his technique and characters resemble the Quentin Tarantino school of filmmaking. The editing is crisp, razor sharp. The scenes are mixed, the screenplay tangoes back and forth through decades. The narrative moves at breath-neck speed. Look away and you shall have missed something important. All the characters have their little back stories. The colors are vivid, the music loud, the feeling is of being sucked into a mad world. His background in advertising comes to good use in making a technically vibrant film. And yet according to me, where the movie truly scores is at its core, in the story it has to tell.

Exploring the world of crime and its ultimate payout, it also explores the psychology of crime and criminals. So, we have Rocket, who even on realizing at an early age, of crime never paying, toys with the idea of crime, because its the easiest thing to do with the biggest returns. Li'l Ze's character brings out the cold blooded criminal who enjoys crime. He is completely amoral, power obsessed with scant respect for life. His eyes have the very look I had witnessed a couple of years back in Chigurh's character of an emotionless, twisted killer in 'No country for Old men'. What is it that makes these people slaughter human beings for sheer pleasure. There is a horrific scene where Li'l Ze as a child discovers killing and goes on a rampage laughing his way through it. The concept of a child discovering joy in such a heinous act is bone chilling.

Rio, otherwise famous for its many sun drenched beaches, carnivals, Samba also has a side to it not many of its vast number of visitors are aware of. The favelas which are abundant in the city function in a shell of their own. Drug lords rule the place, children are initiated into the world of crime at an age when education should be their focus. Police are hand in glove with the drug lords, looking the other way at killings which are a common occurrence. Its a jungle here and outsiders stay away. The various reforms that have been planned for these areas show little sign of improving the quality of life. Into this altogether dark world, descends Meirelles's camera and finds the majority of its actors amongst the population residing here, making them go through acting workshops. The result is real performances in an environment they are all too familiar with and a film which bring into focus the gruesome world inhabited by the underprivileged in an otherwise picture perfect city.

'City of God' begins with one of the best opening scenes I have witnessed....knives are being sharpened, loud music is playing, festivities are on, chickens are being shorn of their feathers and killed, a lone hen struggles to free itself from bondage and manages to get away, running for its life. At once guns are drawn, bullets are fired and a gang of men give the hen a chase through the streets, firing away. It sets the tone of a movie which is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. What happens to the moral fabric of the section of society deprived of the basics, when the disparity is so great between the have and have nots and the unfortunate are shoved out of the way, in the face of such abject misery doesn't basic humanity become the first casualty. And once that cycle starts, there is no happy ending.

Available on DVD
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Originally Released in 2002

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Japanese Wife - An old world love letter

A tale of binding poetic love spanning a period of almost two decades, 'The Japanese Wife' is based on a story by Kunal Basu. Helmed by filmmaker Aparna Sen, this tale from India is set in rural Bengal in the Sunderbans where Snehamoy (Rahul Bose) lives with his aunt ( a delightful Moushmi Chatterjee) and teaches Math at the local school. He is painfully shy and unable to communicate with the surrounding people, yet opens his heart up to a pen friend from Japan, Miyage (Chigasu Takuku). She is similarly socially challenged and takes care of her widowed mother. The two communicate their thoughts through weekly airmail and when Miyage comes to know that her only friend is being set up for marriage by his aunt, she proposes to him.

The two get married by exchange of traditional marriage symbols. He gets a ring, she gets a pair of conchshell bangles and sindoor . This is all done by airmail. The two are poor and don't have the means to travel cross continent. She also has an ailing mother to tend to. They are united in spirit. From hereon the movie leisurely paces through their lives, his mostly. In Snehamoy's otherwise lonely life which is only populated by Miyage's letters, her absence and the little memorabilia from Japan she sends across, enters a young widow (Raima Sen) with her young son. The widow is his aunt's friend's daughter,left homeless after the death of her mother and husband. A pseudo family unit is formed and Snehamoy may see the normal life he denied himself. But his heart beats only for Miyage who is still unable to make the physical move over to him, now because of her failing health. They make a few futile attempts to reach out on the phone, across bad connection and broken English, to each others voices.

The tale, given its time period, is implausible. We see through the background of Hindi movie songs and subtle conversations, that their love traversed the nineties through the first decade of this century. Theres an explanation given for the lack of internet, email usage by our lovers. And yet, even in the most improbable scenario, an utterly believable human tale can emerge on the strength of the characters, the love they portray, the empathy they evoke. It is here that the tale goes awry.

Ever since I read the jacket of the dvd case, I had wanted to like the movie. A movie about true love amongst the commonest of people in the strangest of situations, and their lifelong devotion to one another....I was ready to be sucked into their world, their love. However, Snehamoy's character of a timid, school teacher didn't ring true in its portrayal by an otherwise brilliant performer, Rahul Bose. I failed to see how the intelligent actor could have gotten the mannerisms, the dialogue and its delivery right and then stretched everything to the point of theatrics. The broken Bengali toned English was jarring. It sounded fake as did the exaggeratedly slow body movements and mannerisms hinting at a meek and socially inept person. The natural flow of body language was sorely missing.

When the central character rings a false tone, we lose the movie, especially a character driven human tale. We stop caring. Even though I sympathized with the characters over their heartbreaking circumstances of separation though life, I knew I couldn't love them, one badly enacted and the other rarely seen, with no insight to her sufferings and misery in this life of separation from a loved one.

There are several redeeming factors though. The highlight of the tale is a bravura performance by Chatterjee in the role of Snehamoy's aunt. She is pitch perfect as the loud mouth, yet golden hearted aunt who feels for her nephew's self made solitude, accepts a marriage such as his and yet wonders at the practicality of it all. Raima Sen as the widow, who is left alone too early with desires still beating inside her, is accurate in her portrayal, letting her beautiful eyes do all the talking and grieving.

Having followed prolific filmmaker Aparna Sen's career through the decades, witnessing each of her work, be it in English or Bengali, I have found her to be erratic in her efforts. While she has made award winning movies, the likes of  36 Chowringhee Lane, Paroma, Paromitar Ek Din, Mr & Mrs Iyer, which will go down in the annals of important films from India especially Bengal, she has also given us movies that have been major disappointments, not because they are so bad but that we have come to expect such quality from her.

Aparna Sen tries in this movie. The slow paced lethargy of the film beautifully captures the essence of rural life. The focus is on capturing the small moments of life, as these are not characters  prone to grandiose, they are ordinary and their ordinariness is relatable. The Ayurvedic doctor, the village shopkeeper, the lonely widow, even Snehamoy are all people we might encounter. It is her inability to extract reality in her lead performer's portrayal of Snehamoy, which lets her down. It also does not help that the story is too one note.

I wanted to be privy to the widow's world, the relationship that might have been between two lonely people. There is one scene that scratches the surfaces beautifully. I wanted some more and their possible outcome. It is all very well to love in letters, but theirs must have been a frustrating life. A letter wont comfort when one is alone, it cant replace a hug, a physical presence. But I digress. That would have made for another beautiful tale of the complexities of the human heart. And yet this is a sweet, simplistic story that never quite connected with me. I sighed for the movie it could have been and the performance which might have redeemed it.

Available on DVD
In English and Bengali with English subtitles

Thursday, March 10, 2011

La Nana (The Maid) - An Arresting character study

From Chile, comes an intimate portrayal of a live in domestic help and the household she is part of, well not quite. Director Sebastian Silva's 'The Maid' is the story of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), working for an upper middle class family with three children, the oldest girl a young adult, in Santiago, Chile. The movie opens with an expressionless Raquel sitting at the small kitchen table partaking of her dinner. For a moment, she glances up and meets the camera head on with her eyes and holds our gaze. It is a disquieting moment and sets the mood of a movie where the trajectory is never where we expect it to go.

In the dining room we are introduced to the family members, lighting candles on a cake and wrapping gifts. The occasion is Raquel's 41st Birthday and they are having a surprise celebration for her. The family is kind, thoughtful and appreciate Raquel's loyalty of over 20 years since their first child was born. The mother, Pilar (Claudia Celedon) is especially caring, treating Raquel like a family member, except that the roles are set and the lines are drawn, though a little blurry, as often happens with a person living in your home for decades, intimate to every detail of your life and family inside the house and yet not quite a part of it. 

Raquel gets up early morning, cleans her bed, showers, dons the  maid's uniform and goes on to make breakfast for the entire family, wake the children and get the younger ones ready for school and brings breakfast trays for the elders in bed. The day then wears on with the usual dusting, vacuuming, cleaning of rooms and so on. The chores are endless and Raquel approaches them all with the same dour faced determination. But something is wrong. She is getting frequent headaches, her solution to which lie in the medicines she keeps guzzling down. But Pilar feels her to be overworked and wants to hire another maid to help her with the day's work. And here the movie takes off and goes in unexpected directions.

What Silva set out to make was a character study of a person who has little contact with her own family (we hear her mother call her a couple of times and the conversations are stilted), adopting the family she works for as her own and leading an extremely solitary, confined, almost claustrophobic life within the walls of the house she works, in the midst of a full family. She almost makes a territorial claim on this household of hers and when a new maid (Mercedes) is brought in, her fury knows no bounds. The tricks she delves in to make the other woman's life miserable are petty, mean and yet I could never hate her, even when she locks Mercedes out of the house for hours, hides the small cat she is to take care of in a drawer. Raquel had my attention through all her internal rages which are set in the lines of her face, the pursing of her lips, narrowing of those eyes, jutting of the chins, shoulders hunched, ready for battle. Why is she like that, probably because she knows no other way. She seems never to have grown up from the girl who finds a perverse pleasure in petty power games with opponents, into a woman who with age and gained wisdom adopts a milder nature. Raquel never seems to have gotten the opportunity to learn in the world.

Sure enough Mercedes leaves, followed by another feisty older maid. Strangely, even when the kids figure out the reason behind the departure and tell the mother, Pilar cannot and will not let go of Raquel.   The loyalty of those long years of service bind. At this point, we know not the direction which the movie will take....will Raquel go crazy amidst her headaches, conflicting emotions and maybe even take a knife to the family members. But where this movie heads instead is profound, deeply stirring and finally the only human direction it could have taken, with the introduction of a third maid Lucy (played by the luminous Mariana Loyola). She is level headed, a no nonsense person with tremendous empathy and wisdom. And Raquel finally meets her match.

The Maid is defined by good performances from the entire cast. Loyola shines in her supporting act and so does Celedon, But this movie is essentially Catalina Saavedra's and she is fascinating in each detail, from the expressions on her face, the correct body language and in the humanity which finally shines through in the tremendously lonely woman. Saavedra won a best actress award at the Sundance festival as well as other international awards.

Silva adopts a documentary style of filming with the use of hand held cameras and close, intimate shots of people, their faces and the many expressions, their actions...nothing is allowed to escape us. He shot this film in the very house he grew up in Santiago and has dedicated this movie to the two maids who worked for his family. He knew his way around the subject from the ground up and this is evident in his mature handling of a subject which is mostly relegated to genre films, not of the artistic variety. Silva and his movie have won awards around the world at film festivals, well deservedly so.

At the conclusion of the movie, I wanted to give Raquel a hug. And if I was living in a country where the live in maid or even the maid who comes and works for us daily was prevalent, I would have given mine a big hug. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, we forget they are as human as us and not just workhorses. This movie might just be that reminder.

Available on DVD.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson's Posthumous Masterpiece

Lisbeth Salander... crime against women...Sweden at the forefront of modern literary history being created. Does any of this ring a bell? No. Ok...seen anybody at the airport, the neighborhood coffee shop, at a park holding books with titles such as 'The girl with the dragon tattoo', 'The girl who played with fire' or 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'? If not, you will definitely hear about all the above very soon, actually by the end of this year when Hollywood springs on us its, hopefully not too watered down and deviated version of the first  book in the series 'The girl with the Dragon Tattoo' and introduces a character that will quite possibly go down in film history, as it has in the history of modern fiction, as enigmatic, oddly distinctive, misunderstood yet so lovable that we want to reach out and give her a big hug. Her name is Lisbeth Salander. And the series 'The millennium Trilogy'.

The thoughts I bring here today, long before the Hollywood versions arrive, are of the backdrop of the books and their swedish movies versions that had hit select theatres across America this past year and are now on DVD. I am not reviewing any one movie here, but giving my views on  how the entire trilogy translated onto the big screen in it's original Swedish version, having first read and then sitting through the cinematic interpretations of the trilogy.

The author, Stieg Larsson was a political activist and journalist. He was deeply involved in researching and documenting right wing extremism and racist organizations in Sweden during the '80s and '90s. Being an extremely influential voice on these subjects, he lived for years under death threats from his political enemies. For his own recreation, in the mid '90s he created the synopsis of 10 books in the crime fiction genre and then went on to complete the first three in the series, which were taken up for publishing in his native Swedish as well as German and Norwegian in 2004, months before his sudden demise of a heart attack. 

Only a few months later, Sweden was to be introduced to a brilliant novelist when the first book was unveiled. Initially titled in Swedish which meant 'Men who Hate women', it went on to become a phenomenon in Europe and quickly got picked up to be published in English under the title 'The girl with the dragon tattoo'. In quick succession, were published the other two completed manuscripts, 'The girl who played with fire' and 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'. And the crime genre in fiction has not been the same ever since.

We are taken on a whirlwind ride into the worlds of Mikael Blomkvist, Erika Berger and their monthly magazine Millennium for which Blomkvist is an investigative journalist. He is hired by a millionaire to investigate the age old case of his missing niece of nearly 40 years. The grounds of the first book is mostly covered in solving this mystery and in the process unveiling probably the most enigmatic literary heroine of the last decade, Lisbeth Salander. While the first of the series follow the mystery at hand, it also lays the ground for events we are going to be hurled under in the remaining books. The rest of the trilogy delves into Lisbeth's tainted past and investigates hidden truths exposing a conspiracy that reaches the highest echelon of the political scenario in Sweden. A face of Sweden, largely unknown to outsiders, is brought to light. Larsson's professional background translates into shocking details found in the books which even though fiction, reek of the existing underbelly in Sweden's politics and law enforcement.

Crime against women and the shameful men who perpetrate it, is largely the common thread pool of the trilogy. Apparently, as a teenager Larsson had witnessed the gang rape of a girl and had been unable to stop the crime, leading to a lifelong hatred towards crime against women. That girl's name was Lisbeth. Not a coincidence, I am sure. Though the thriller/crime genre is commonly considered pulp in the modern fiction world, I have to applaud Larsson's research, the weight of his words and the exquisite detailing, so much that the books play out like a movie in our heads. The books are highly atmospheric. The snow clad small towns of Sweden are as vivid as the murky political world in Stockholm.

The worldwide success of the books heralded the cinematic versions in Swedish. Prior experiences have shown great books make not for great movies, with very few exceptions. This was going to be an extra hard job, for the series is liberally sprinkled with situations of graphic violence and one extremely  detailed rape which is at the heart of the books. Playing with it, could take the entire punch out of the drama. Thankfully, the swedish movies have succeeded to a great extent in keeping the essence of the books intact. The grittiness, the edginess are all there.

'The girl with the dragon tattoo' is eerily close to the book and gets the most important detail right, giving us the correct Lisbeth Salander in Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. The misunderstood, socially challenged child woman delinquent, genius/ hacker vigilante with  a penchant for goth wardrobe and a body full of tattoos is brought to life by Rapace's accurate potrayal. Michael Nyqvist gives a decent potrayal of Blomkvist.

The second installment 'The girl who played with fire' is a good followup to the first movie and gets its facts correct as well. It is safe to say that if one is not a reader, you can get away with watching the first two movies. Though, in no way can I undermine the pleasure in reading the books. Where the movies falter is in the depiction of the final installment, 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'. This movie loses a good part of the book as the magic of the superlative writing is in the details, the questions it raises and the explanations given. There is not as much of the physical action of the first two books happening here and the movie absolutely fails to capture the details, sidesteps a lot of interesting plot lines and even though ending well, it lost me as an audience pretty early on.

If the series interest you, watch the first two movies even if you haven't visited the books, but do yourselves a favor and grab a written copy of 'The Girl who kicked the hornet's nest' and reel under the masterful kick the grand finale delivers. A pity, we never will find out how Larsson would have played out seven more narratives around his marvelously etched characters. This could well have been the Harry Potter series in adult crime fiction. Alas!

The entire series is available on Netflix Instant Play

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Kings Speech - Punctuated with moments of brilliance

This is the season of 'The King's Speech'. It has been lauded by critics and movie goers across the world. Just a couple of days back, it came away with the Oscars in a majority of the top categories. I finally got a chance to catch it at my neighborhood movie theatre. Helmed by now Academy award winning director, Tom Hooper, it is based on a screenplay by David Seidler, who had a speech impediment of his own, which he battled through his childhood and adolescent years. During that period his father gave him the example of King George VI, who had a worse stammer and yet managed to overcome it to verbally arouse and lead England through World War II.

This then, is the inspiration behind this spirited movie on speech impediment and how history has shown it to be conquered. The year is 1925 and we see Prince Albert, Duke of York, played with great empathy by Colin Firth, delivering the closing speech at the British Empire exhibition in Wembley. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) looks on with great sympathy as Albert, nicknamed Bertie by his family, stammers his way through the lines, to the great discomfort of the public. His wife is on a mission, interviewing speech therapists, even having one try to make Albert speak with a mouthful of marbles, a theory advocated by the ancient greek orator Demosthenes.

In this search, they lands up at the offices of a failed Australian actor turned self proclaimed therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Hereon we witness an unlikely friendship form between the soon to be king and his speech therapist, see some unorthodox methods of treatment which are quite hilarious and yet probably helpful. We have the movie carry us through a period in England's history when after the death of King George V in 1936, his successor and elder brother  to Albert, Prince Edward ascends the throne only to abdicate it within a year to marry his American lover, twice divorced Wallis Simpson, an act the church would not have allowed a king.

Hence, to Albert's great despair, he inherits the new position as King George VI. It is also a time when Europe is in the midst of a looming crisis, Adolf Hitler, and gearing towards World War II. Bertie's problems, however, are more personal. His struggles with speech impediment at a crucial juncture in history, in his role as head of England, at a time when public address over a microphone or a radio had become a necessary evil. How he, with the great understanding and help of Logue, overcomes this disability to a large extent, and delivers a lauding radio address to the nation on the eve of war with Germany in 1939, is the kings speech.

The performances are noteworthy. Colin Firth, is especially exemplary in inhabiting his character. The timid, unsure Bertie who fears his own voice, is brought to life by Firth. Public address is hard enough for most people. Having to do it with a speech impediment can be quite unimaginable. A perfect foil is provided in Geoffrey Rush's performance of the somewhat eccentric therapist/buddy, who realizes that correcting the problem itself wont work, it's allowing Bertie to find his own voice and gain confidence in it, that is the big picture. Helena Bonham Carter as the ever empathetic wife and faithful companion is extremely convincing.

'The Kings Speech' worked for me in parts. Essentially a feel good movie of a man overcoming his handicap with the help of a teacher/ guide and the friendship that develops in the duration, with the occasional hiccups. Its a textbook example of that genre, nevertheless, extremely well made and well acted with a magnificent climax of the kings address to a nation going to war with Germany. The over six minute speech is perfectly captured in it deliverance by a king who has to be extremely clear in his voice and command and yet to make the speech his own, he sprinkles it sparsely with some of his stammers. Else how could the people be convinced it was actually him on the radio, he informs Logue. A great moment, that!

Little Bertie made fun of because of his stammer, the strict father who fails to understand that being impatient and shouting at his son will only make matters worse, the degradation of confidence, the hurt and anger simmering beneath the surface through the years, all ring true. Having a voice and finding courage in that voice is a problem faced by a vast number of people. How I wished that the movie had delved a little deeper into the possible reasons behind speech impediment and spent more of its screen time with Logue reinstilling the sense of voice in Bertie. All the elements are laid out, a bit of digging might have elevated this movie even further. Nevertheless, an extremely well acted drama on British Royalty and the affirmation that they are just as human as us mere mortals.

Playing in Theaters. Academy award winner 2011 for Best Picture, Best Director, Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Firth) and Best Original Screenplay.