6 movies to end 2013

First of all an announcement. This is my 100th post on the WordPress platform, starting in Feb 2012. I had already done about 50 posts on the earlier avatar of this blog on Weebly in 2011. So that’s 150 posts in 3 years.

OK, enough with the statistics. Here are 6 movies I watched in the past one month…an interesting mix of indie and blockbuster fare…all worth watching:-

Mud – Matthew McConaughey went through this unbearable phase (for me, at least) in the past 10 years when he was acting in insipid romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Fool’s Gold. The actor who came to prominence in critically acclaimed indie films like Dazed and Confused and Lone Star in the early 90’s then went back and restored his indie creds with Richard Linklater’s Bernie in 2011. He quickly followed it up with a series of other small films like Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud and Dallas Buyers Club; I could even include Steven Soderbergh’s indie-like Magic Mike in this list. The results have been varied but at least he gets marks for trying. And it’s finally paying off…the 44-year-old actor is getting rave reviews this year for his performances in both Mud and Dallas Buyers Club. I watched Mud recently and was thoroughly engrossed by this coming-of-age tale inspired by Huckleberry Finn. The director Jeff Nichols is now considered one of the leading indie filmmakers in America. The real star of this Arkansas-set movie is teenage actor Ty Sheridan, who along with McConaughey’s character ‘Mud’, experiences both the rewards and risks of their respective romantic pursuits. MM and Sheridan construct a fascinating relationship…on one hand Mud is the ‘tough guy’ that the boy wishes his father was; on the other hand, it is Mud who desperately needs the boy’s help to escape from some unsavory characters and avoid ending up at the bottom of the Mississippi River. This ensemble drama features outstanding, nuanced performances from a host of lesser-known actors. And it has a happy ending to boot. McConaughey now seems to be back on an upward trajectory again – he has a role in Scorsese’s just-released The Wolf of Wall Street and returns next year as the lead in Chris Nolan’s new scifi film Interstellar.

Frozen – I thoroughly enjoyed Disney’s latest animation effort. It closely resembles Tangled (2010) in terms of treatment and tone, but the songs are far superior. And because it is based on a less well known Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, the flow of the plot is less obvious than in some of Disney’s other movies. All the characters are likable (even the villains), but the star of the film is the snowman Olaf voiced by Josh Gad…his ‘In Summer’ song is an instant classic, I think. This is going to be one of Disney’s biggest grossing non-Pixar animation films since their hey-days of the mid-90s.

Captain Phillips – British filmmaker Paul Greengrass is the man who loves to bring a documentary-like feel to movies, whether it is the shaky-cam approach of his Bourne films or the amateur video cam look of Bloody Sunday and United 93. He is therefore the perfect choice to direct Captain Phillips – the retelling of a real life ship hijacking off the coast of Somalia in 2009. Equally perfect is the choice of Tom Hanks to play the captain. It has been a while since Mr. Hanks has got this meaty a role…he has restricted himself to producing films and some poor acting choices (Larry Crowne, Charlie Wilson’s War) in recent years. But he is back in full force in this movie and the general view (which I agree with 100%) is that he will get an Oscar nomination just for the ‘infirmary scene’ at the end of the film. Here’s an article about how this unscripted scene came to be shot. This is an incredibly intense movie with unbelievable performances also from the first-time Somali actors Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman. Absolutely must-see.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Yes, we know everyone was a tad disappointed with Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth last year; the first Hobbit movie suffered from complaints about its length and repetitive nature of fight scenes (I suspect this was largely a self-inflicted perception stemming from all the press about how a 300-page book had been stretched into 3 films of nearly 3 hours each). I thoroughly enjoyed the first film and was happy to get in line for the 2nd one. I was not disappointed. It is as good as the first. While Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Ian McKellan (Gandalf) and Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) continue to command center stage as the key protagonists, there are plenty of other characters to add spice and variety. There are the 3 strong elvish characters – Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas (he didn’t feature in the original book), we get to see the the female elf Tauriel created just for the movies (Evangeline Lilly of Lost is perfectly cast) and we have Lee Pace also perfectly cast as Thranduil, the king of the woodland elves and Legolas’ father. Of course, as the title suggests, we finally get to see the dragon Smaug in all his glory. And there is an amusing little turn by Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown (although he is not as funny as I had hoped or expected him to be). There are some great action set pieces – the spider attack in Mirkwood and the barrel in the river; the latter in particular is as good as the best Indiana Jones sequences or anything else I have seen on film and well worth multiple viewings.

Love is All You Need – Two of Danish director Susanne Bier’s last 3 films have been nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscars, with In a Better World winning in 2011 (Interestingly, Mikael Persbrandt who acted in that film features as the changeling Beorn in the latest Hobbit film). Ms. Bier’s latest film Love is All You Need is too ‘light’ and commercial to be nominated for an Oscar, which is precisely why I enjoyed it so! Pierce Brosnan is a long-widowed Englishman who continues to live and work in his late wife’s native Denmark. He arrives at his lemon plantation in Italy to attend his son’s wedding with a Danish girl, Astrid. There he meets Astrid’s mother who is recovering from a battle with cancer and has just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her while she has been fighting for her life. Into this mix, the script throws in Brosnan’s self-obsessed sister-in-law who harbors a not-so-secret crush on him, Astrid’s philandering father who lands up for the wedding with his bimbo in tow and last but not least, Brosnan’s son who starts having doubts about getting married. It sounds like a farce, but the actors play it straight and it all works somehow. Very charming and always good to have a happy ending. I am definitely going to have to watch Ms. Bier’s 2 Oscar-nominated films now, although I will have to be prepared for heavier fare.

Parkland – Parkland is the name of the Dallas hospital where doctors attempted to save JFK after he was shot on that fateful day in 1963. The film chronicles the events that take place from the time of the shooting through the next 4 days until JFK’s body is flown out to Washington DC. The story is told from the perspective of the doctors at the hospital, the Secret Service and FBI agents who deal with the aftermath of the shooting, the family of the prime suspect Lee Harvey Oswald and Abraham Zapruder, the man who filmed the now famous footage of the shooting with his home movie camera. Zapruder is played by the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti. Also in a prominent role is Billy Bob Thornton as Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels who was in charge of the security detail on the day. Jackie Weaver is completely frightening as Oswald’s unhinged mother. Zac Efron features prominently in the movie’s publicity material as one of the doctors and he is a significant figure in the first 15 minutes of the film when they try desperately to save the President’s life. I enjoyed the film for the history lesson and for the sheer intensity of those hours and days after the shooting. And I have to admit, for the 60s hairstyles and clothing!

That wraps up my 2013 film watching. I still have 31 movies on my ‘watch list’ for 2013, mostly indie films, except for Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave. A few like All is Lost (Robert Redford), Inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaacs), Dallas Buyers Club (McConaughey), Philomena (Judi Dench), August: Osage County (Meryl Streep/ Julia Roberts) and Nebraska (Bruce Dern) will gain prominence when the acting nominations are announced in a few weeks. As for the rest, I will have to pick my way through them before the 2014 summer blockbuster season begins!


Three summer movie trailers

Three big summer 2014 movies had their first trailers released this week – Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow and Jupiter Ascending.

In 1998, the hype going into the summer was around two action tentpoles – Michael Bay’s Armageddon and the English language remake of the beloved Japanese monster franchise Godzilla. Godzilla was being made by Roland Emmerich, who 3 summers earlier had clobbered the box office with Independence Day. Given the pedigree of the source material, and Emmerich’s track record, Godzilla was widely expected to become the box office champ of 1998. Instead, the film crashed and burned after its big Memorial Weekend debut, let down by high expectations, poor casting, unlikeable characters and a thin plot. Although its final global box office take was actually pretty decent, it could not escape the stigma of the fan-bashing. Sony Pictures canned the planned sequels and the rights reverted to Japan’s Toho studios.

Now, Warner Bros. is going to give it another shot. If 1998’s Godzilla was entrusted to one of the biggest directors of the time, the 2014 version is being directed by a virtual unknown; Gareth Edwards is a British filmmaker whose only feature film – 2010’s Monsters – cost less than half a million dollars to make and grossed just USD 4 mn in limited release around the world. Edwards has a background in visual effects and he created the effects for Monsters on his computer using off the shelf software! But he won critics over with his focus on the relationship between the two lead characters as well as his spare and lyrical visual style.

These skills were apparent in the first teaser trailer which came out this week. It opens with paratroopers jumping off a plane; the lyrical touch is very much in evidence as we see long shots of the troopers falling with red tracer flares marking the paths of their descent through the dark skies. As they fall, the camera cuts to show their point of view – they are falling into a city in flames and through the smoke they get their first sight of the jagged spikes on the monster’s back. The trailer then cuts to several random scenes from the film, some of the key supporting characters (Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and the two young leads, Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the famous Olsen twin child actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley).

Godzilla arrives next summer on 16th May, sandwiched by the superhero films Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It may not make much more than 1998’s Godzilla when adjusted for inflation, but with lower expectations and hopefully better critical acclaim, it will fare better in the public’s memory than the 1998 version.

Tom Cruise’s Oblivion kicked off this year’s summer with decent reviews and a reasonably profitable take at the global box office. Next summer he appears in his second consecutive scifi film, Edge of Tomorrow. The film is an adaptation of the Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill, with screenplay polishes done by power-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (close associates of J. J. Abrams). The director is Doug Liman, who was very hot ten years ago when he kicked off the Bourne franchise with The Bourne Identity and followed it up with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He hasn’t done anything of note since then, so this is a sort of comeback for him.

The movie is being described as Groundhog Day meets Oblivion – Tom Cruise plays an inexperienced soldier who is killed in battle (against an alien force) and is forced to relive the same day again and again, until he becomes good enough to break the loop. The film also features Emily Blunt who acts in her 3rd scifi film as the intelligent woman who helps the hero (JGL in Looper and Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau) overcome impossible odds.

The trailer sets up the premise clearly, which is very important for this sort of film if it wants to appeal to an audience beyond the scifi fanboys. Tom Cruise, starting show his age a bit and looking haggard (as he should be, considering what his character has gone through), talks to someone off-screen about his ‘recurring problem’. We then see the story unroll, the battle scenes and Emily Blunt’s character as a very appropriate song ‘This is Not the End’ plays in the background. The trailer ends with a short but impressive clip of Tom Cruise’s character in action after presumably going through several iterations of battle training. The tone of the film is remarkably similar to that of Oblivion. The two movies are produced by different studios and different production companies, so this is either coincidence, or Tom Cruise himself has played a role in influencing a certain look and feel for both films…very much a possibility. Since 2005’s War of the Worlds, Mr. Cruise has had only two movies gross more than USD 100 mn in the US…and they were both Mission: Impossible films. I have a feeling that Edge of Tomorrow will not help him break that jinx; scifi action films have a very specific male-skewed audience and in spite of Emily Blunt’s strong role, I don’t think this trailer does enough to expand the appeal to women. However, as with a lot of action movies these days, it is the international markets which really hold the key and it is entirely likely that the film will make a profit through its global box office gross.

The Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas was one of the big bombs of 2012. Based on the ‘unfilmable’ award winning novel by David Mitchell, it was perhaps too much hard work for audiences to keep track of the multiple nested/ intertwined storylines. That was their second big box office failure following on from the disastrous Speed Racer in 2008. So it’s nice to see that Warner Bros. is still standing by the filmmakers who created the seminal Matrix trilogy for them; their new film with the studio is Jupiter Ascending which releases at the end of July 2014. This original scifi story (written by the siblings) stars Mila Kunis as the titular Jupiter and Channing Tatum as her protector Caine. Like Keanu Reeves’ Neo in The Matrix, Jupiter has some sort of power/ ability/ background which she is not aware of, but for which others want her to die. And of course, like Neo, she is perhaps the key to the fate of our world. I also saw glimpses of a couple of young upcoming actors – Eddie Redmayne (who played Marius in Les Miserables) and James D’Arcy (who was in Cloud Atlas and also played Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock).

While I will be lining up on opening weekend to catch all three movies, I think only Godzilla has a realistic chance to become a genuine blockbuster. For the other two, the best one can hope for is that they will be well made films that will at least not make a loss for their respective studios and financiers.

Favourite soundtracks – Serendipitous Songs Part 2

Concluding my post about hidden gems from movie soundtracks that I bumped into the past one year. Two of these songs introduced me to the rich Brazilian music scene, encompassing rap, funk and rock. The third one comes from a very engaging indie drama called Laurel Canyon.

In 2010, British filmmaker Asif Kapadia released a widely acclaimed documentary titled Senna about the legendary Brazilian Formula 1 driver. The film traces Senna’s Formula 1 career from 1984 until his tragic death in the San Marino Grand Prix ten years later. For fans of Formula 1 and of Senna, it is a visual pilgrimage, an emotional journey. As the credits roll, we see various cuts of Senna the man – enjoying himself in the midst of crashing waves on a beach, in a garage celebrating with friends, racing his car, popping champagne and ultimately driving away smiling in his Porsche road car. And all the while in the background plays the end credits song – Maracatu Atomico by Chico Science & Nacao Zumbi. Chico Science (aka Francisco França) was a co-founder of the ‘Mangue Bit’ movement for social change which originated among disaffected youth in the Northeastern Brazilian city of Recife in the early 90s. It expressed itself through a new form of music fusing the Western genres of funk, rock and hip hop with an Afro-Brazilian musical genre called Maracatu. Chico Science’s vocal delivery is edgy and raw, but the funk and the hip hop elements give the music a natural groove which just seems to penetrate your body as you listen to it. Ironically Chico Science died in a car accident in 1997 (3 years after Senna) at the age of 30. His band Nacao Zumbi (Zombie Nation) continues to perform and release albums. The song Maracatu Atomico was originally composed by another group in 1974, then re-recorded in the Mangue Bit style and featured in Chico Science’s 1996 album Afrociberdelia. The version in the Senna documentary is a new version recorded by Nacao Zumbi for the film. In the 1996 album, there are also reggae and trip-hop versions of the song…all pretty cool. I liked a bunch of other songs in the album too; really grateful to Senna for helping me serendipitously discover this really interesting genre.

In August last year, while researching about the Brazilian director Jose Padilha who had been tapped to direct the upcoming remake of RoboCop, I ended up watching Padilha’s breakout movie Elite Squad (2007). As I wrote in my post at that time, this movie (and its equally successful sequel) tells the fact-based story of BOPE, an elite anti-narcotics squad in Rio who have to deal with corruption and internal moles while trying to take down drug lords operating out of the slums of Rio. The film opens with a night-time raid that takes place in one of Rio’s shanty towns. The raid takes place during a street party/ concert and the song being sung is the super-catchy Rap das Armas (Rap of Weapons). This song is part of the Brazilian ‘funk carioca’ movement that originated in the late 80s and went mainstream in Brazil through the 90s. Rap das Armas was originally written in the early 90s as a protest on urban violence, but because the lyrics featured the names of a number of firearms, it became popular among gangs for the wrong reasons. It was re-recorded by another group soon afterwards with even more weapons’ names added in and there are lots of European remixes of this song which have added heavier beats for the dance floor. A decade later, it stirred up lots of controversy when it was used in this movie and the filmmakers had to remove the song from the official soundtrack of the movie soon after its release. For those of us who don’t understand the language, you can simply enjoy the groove of the music and the infectious refrain “pa ra pa pa…” which is supposed to imitate the sound of a machine gun. Equally interesting is the origin of this tune, which was copied from the opening lines of The Outfield’s 1985 hit Your Love…the lyrics “Josie’s on a vacation far away” is replaced with “pa ra pa pa…”. Check out the original version by MCs Junior and Leonardo and the more extreme version by Cidinho and Doca.

Lastly, I want to talk about a really nice song called Shade and Honey which appears in the 2002 indie drama Laurel Canyon, directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Ms. Cholodenko was recently nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the excellent The Kids Are All Right (2010) which she also directed. Laurel Canyon features an outstanding performance from Frances McDormand as Jane, a free-spirited hippy-type record producer living in the Laurel Canyon area of L.A. In the film, she is working on producing a record with her current boyfriend (played by Alessandro Nivola) and his band. After several frustrating attempts at crafting a catchy pop song, Nivola’s character writes and records this wonderful piece called Shade and Honey. Nivola does his own singing in the film, but on the soundtrack album, the song is performed by the group Sparklehorse and was actually written by Sparklehorse founder Mark Linkous (who sadly committed suicide in 2010). I couldn’t find a clip of the scene from the film, but this clip at least shows you the lyrics. The movie itself is very absorbing and stars some other big names like Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsdale. Definitely worth watching.

Favourite soundtracks – Serendipitous Songs Part 1

Many films are famous for their extensive use of pop or rock songs, integrating them so well into the script that they are part and parcel of storytelling – Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, Almost Famous and Pretty Woman are good examples of this. Some films films hit songs even when the songs just appear at the end or in one scene – think Titanic (My Heart Will Go On) and Rocky II (Eye of the Tiger). These songs have sometimes become more famous than the movie they were featured in. For every such hit song, there are as many great movie soundtrack songs that go completely under the radar. In the past year, I have stumbled upon 5 such tracks that are worth listening to in their own right, but also utterly suited to the films they have appeared in. I am covering 2 of the 5 songs in this post:-

The Fighter (2010) is an Oscar-winning boxing drama continuing the Hollywood tradition of emotionally powerful films like Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby. Directed by David O. Russell, it stars Mark Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward and Christian Bale as his half-brother and coach Dicky. The film chronicles Micky’s tortured attempt to rise up the boxing ranks, battling with several family related issues involving his over-protective mother, brood of ever-present sisters, a crack-addicted and frequently unreliable brother and his combative girlfriend who is intensely disliked by the rest of his family. Ultimately, they set aside their differences and come together to help Micky deliver an upset victory and claim the world welterweight title. Although a boxing film, it is really a story about family dynamics and blood ties. The film ends with the two brothers sitting on a sofa being interviewed; Dicky talks into the camera, so very proud of his brother, struggling to contain his emotions. The scene then cuts to the 2 brothers walking down the street while Ben Harper’s Glory and Consequence plays in the background. I am not a fan of Ben Harper’s vocal style, but I love the arrangements and musicianship on this song and the lyrics. It is the perfect uplifting, inspiring song to end an emotionally draining 2 hour film. Sadly, the song seems too complex to reproduce live; I have listened to a few live recordings and the song always comes across half-baked or rushed. Best listened to on the original The Fighter OST recording or on his 1997 The Will to Live album.

Earlier this year, Richard Linklater released the 3rd film in his ‘Before trilogy’, titled Before Midnight. The films brings back Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as the soulmates who met by chance in Vienna in 1995, then reunited in Paris in 2004 and are now married with kids and on vacation in Greece in 2013. The film deals with the inevitable anxieties and regrets of a couple entering middle age, who feel they have sacrificed a fair bit for each other but are not receiving the expected appreciation or support. The climax of the film features an extended and bitter argument between the couple in a hotel room, which is almost too painful to watch. It seems impossible that there could be any reconciliation after such a showdown, but somehow they find a way to sit together at the restaurant downstairs and tentatively start a conversation. As the credits roll on this hopeful scene, a soulful love song called Gia Ena Tango plays out. Sung by Greek songstress Haris Alexiou, famous for her earthy voice, it creates a heartbreaking coda for an outstanding film and an outstanding trilogy of love stories. I don’t think the song is featured in any of Alexiou’s albums, I see it listed only as a single or as part of the Before Midnight soundtrack.

In Part 2 of Serendipitous Songs, I will talk about two Brazilian songs and one from an American indie film.