Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Midnight in Paris - A Tale of Magic Realism

"Oh to be transported to that world you yearn for, the times when the creative giants mingled at parties, literary salons and welcome you, caught in a magical time warp, into their midst. You gape with awe at rubbing shoulders with the masters and they are blissfully unaware of who they are to become in the eyes of a future generation" - that in a nutshell is Woody Allen's delightful new movie. We know Allen best from the times of his love affair with New York. Barely has any filmmaker captured the pulse of that enigmatic city and its inhabitants like Allen. And yet now he churns out movies set in European locales. Some are hits, a lot misses. 'Matchpoint' and 'Vicky christina Barcelona' had shades of brilliance. With 'Midnight in Paris', he gets his groove back.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is on vacation in Paris with his uptight fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her rich right wing pompous parents. He is a successful screenwriter in Hollywood who is discontent with the hack writing  he produces and longs to leave it all to wander the streets of Paris, which is filled with the footprints of literary geniuses of a bygone era, and complete work on his novel, become an actual writer. Inez, on the other hand, loves her riches and wishes to settle in upscale American suburbia. While Inez lives the night life of Paris with friends, Gil would rather catch some air wandering those historic cobblestone lined streets and at the stroke of midnight encounters magic. A vintage automobile draws up and he is transported into the Paris of the 1920s rubbing shoulders with literary giants like Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald as also artists Picasso, Salvodor Dali.

Magic and reality blend as night after night Gil makes the journey into his favorite period of history and has his manuscript read by the great Stein for some valuable inputs. Glimpses into Scott and Zelda's tumultuous relationship and Hemingway's masculinity, love of adventure and all the famous salon meetings at Stein's residence of the 20s ring true. He meets the luminous Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who is Picasso's lover and muse and finds himself attracted to the rich beauty and deep mind. A man considering himself a misfit in todays times with a desire to have lived in that golden era of American literature slowly gains insight into love, desires and finally finds himself in Paris. A breezy watch, it is heartwarming how 'Midnight in Paris' leaves us with that very important life lesson - whatever we seek for, we should keep at the present else no era will be good enough. 

Peppered liberally with a host of great performances in cameos like Kathy Bates as Stein, Adrien Brody as Dali among others, the stand out performance comes from Owen Wilson who embodies the character Woody Allen played role after role, to perfection. It is safe to say he plays the best Woody Allen after the man himself. The sincerity and enthusiasm shines through in his hero worship for these greats who knew not at that time the greatness writ in their destinies. He is a revelation. Rachel McAdams is efficient as the shrewish, spoilt fiancee. One wonders what brought these two in such a mismatch of a relationship.  Maybe their shared love of Indian pita bread. Marion Cotillard is bewitching and just gazing into those enormously expressive eyes, one can believe her to have inspired great artists.

For lovers of literature especially American as well as art of the early twentieth century, and those responding to the magic of Paris, this is an exceptional watch. For those not familiar, this is an equally enchanting ride. Paris looks picture postcard. There is a brief period when time moves its hands back into late nineteenth century 'Belle Epoque' Paris which is Adriana's idyllic era. There is a certain nostalgia associated with bygone eras. For every era, there is one before it to yearn for. But time, after all, moves forward for a reason. 

Released in 2011
Playing in Theatres

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Town - Boston's crime neighborhood come alive

A movie about a bank robber who wants to walk away from his life of crime, having found love and an alternate meaning to life. We have seen it all before. However Ben Affleck's deftly directed and acted Boston crime drama 'The Town' springs a pleasant surprise in its execution for the majority of its running time. This is a movie we can predict each twist a mile away, yet it manages to hold our attention and engage us in its characters' graphs. That is no mean feat.

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) heads a four member gang of bank robbers living in Charlestown, introduced to us at the beginning of the movie, as the neighborhood of Boston that produces more bank robbers than any other part of the country. Indeed crime is more a family occupation in this Irish neighborhood. Doug's father is serving hard time for not snitching on his friends in a crime gone wrong. At the onset, the movie gets down to business with a gritty bank robbery. Hidden behind skeletor masks, they loot the Cambridge bank and then take the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) as hostage. She is let go unharmed, but the gang soon finds out that she lives right in their neighborhood and there is a chance she could point them to the FBI. Jem (Jeremy Renner), the psycho trigger happy member that every movie gang seems to have, wants to "remove her from the equation". Doug, the level headed leader, however takes matters into his own hands. He befriends her, trying to find out how much she knows. In the process, love blossoms. 

The movie takes its time to delve into the Doug's psyche. Here is where Ben Affleck shines as a director. There is in particular a scene, where he talks of his childhood, when his mother walked out on their family. Observe the leisureliness in the dialogue delivery, the correct pauses and the nuances so telling of the effect that incident probably had in shaping his persona. A recovering alcoholic worn down by the world he inhabits, Claire comes as the change he wants to make in his life. Hoping to escape to Florida with her, he reluctantly takes on one last job. And of course, things start to go wrong.

Where the story lacks in novelty, it makes up in its interesting characters and the great scenes they inhabit. There is Jem who is like a brother to Doug, but is the wild boy who needs taming. There is a scene where he walks in on Doug and Claire at a cafe. He is furious to find Doug warming up to the girl who could be a danger to them all. The way he plays the scene, striking up a conversation with Claire, all the while with Doug in tension that she might identify Jem from the fighting Irish tattoo on his neck that she had seen at the robbery, is marvelous. We also encounter Jem's dopehead sister Krista (Blake Lively) who is Doug's former girlfriend and a mother to a little girl. She is a mirror to the girls growing up in this neighborhood of crime. How she is played by FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), who knows the robbers but is unable to collect sufficient evidence for a conviction, are highlight sequences.

Ben Affleck who previously directed the solid gritty Boston kidnapping drama 'Gone Baby Gone', proves that as a director he is here to stay. The Boston underbelly plays his muse and in this minefield of crime, he has an eye for the human drama behind it. He is at his best not when filming the heists, which are all predictable yet exciting, but when he explores the people involved. He lingers on those little scenes telling us a lot more of the characters than written in the screenplay. A lesser director would have swiftly moved along to the next plot point. As an actor, he is a revelation as well. The lean, hard physique with a bang on Bostonian accent and a weary face, Affleck lives this role. In fact this movie is strung by great performances in great sequences with crisp dialogues. Chris Cooper playing Doug's imprisoned father shines in his lone scene as does Pete Postlethwaite in his role as the menacing Irish mob boss who runs a flower shop as cover. Watch him blackmail Doug into one last job, all the while snipping at the stems of roses. Chilling.

Based on Chuck Hogan's novel 'Prince of Thieves', 'The Town' could easily have ended up as another routine cops and robber thriller and in parts it is just that. But what elevates it, is why we want to watch this movie and tell the numerous makers of the genre, this is how it could also be done and maybe it will just work better. Ben Affleck is one director to watch out for. I look forward to seeing more of his work, this side or the other. Watch the movie, you will get it.

Originally released in 2010
Available on DVD