The Holiday watchlist, Part 5: True stories


And so, we come to last of my holiday movies. These three films are based on true stories and are entertaining as well as informative. The saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to all three events depicted in these movies!

Battle of the Sexes: From the directors of the delightful 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, comes this depiction of the events leading up to the historic 1973 exhibition match between women’s world #1 Billie Jean King and retired Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs (who was 55 years old at the time). This match took place against the backdrop of efforts by Ms. King and other top women’s players to secure equal prize money from the tennis establishment of the time. In fact, the top ladies had only recently broken away from the Lawn Tennis Association and set up the WTA (which runs women’s tennis to this day) and had secured their first sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes. Just as the new women’s tour was taking root, ex-champ and serial gambler Bobby Riggs threw a spanner in the works by claiming that even at his advanced age, he could beat the #1 women’s player. If he succeeded, it would weaken the position of the players’ expectation of equal pay and equal recognition. This high-stakes story is told with a light and entertaining touch by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. And the biggest credit should go to the two leads – Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. I have talked about Carrell’s acting chops in an earlier post about the movie Last Flag Flying, in which he plays an introverted ex-Marine doctor. He plays a completely different type character here – flamboyant, attention-seeking, super-confident. And Emma Stone brings real earnestness and heart to the character of Billie Jean King, who at that time was also discovering her own sexuality, dealing with her husband’s discovery of her extra-marital affair and also fighting the establishment! This should have been a crowd-pleasing holiday movie that could have sold a lot of tickets and I am amazed that it could not find an audience. Definitely worth watching – hugely entertaining and also educational. I loved Alan Cumming as iconic tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling.

The Disaster Artist: From the sublime to the ridiculous. I don’t know how to describe this movie, but it is a must-watch for movie aficionados and it’s no wonder that it’s getting such high marks from critics and Hollywood insiders because of course, they all love movies about the industry. This is a movie about the making of a 2003 independent movie called The Room, which frequently appears in the list of the worst movies ever made! The Room was produced, written and directed by an enigmatic man named Tommy Wiseau, who also played the lead in the movie. The Disaster Artist is brilliantly directed by actor James Franco, who also does a amazing job playing Wiseau, a narcissistic man who had no self-awareness of how bad an actor, writer and director he was. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck; you know it’s not going to end well, but still cannot turn your eyes away. It’s truly remarkable that someone as un-talented and self-deluded as this man could find the money, people and equipment to make a movie. I guess it’s a commentary on the desperation of all the wanna-be artists who flock to Hollywood, looking for a break. Worth watching, although not entertaining in the conventional sense. Keep an eye out for Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson playing the supporting actors in the movie.

All the Money in the World: And finally, we come to the movie that’s been making all the headlines for the wrong reasons, which is that 80-year-old director Ridley Scott reshot all the scenes involving disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, replacing him with veteran thespian Christopher Plummer (who has come a long way since he played Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music 52 years ago). It’s amazing that he did so in a matter of days just weeks prior to the release date and still managed to get the movie out on the scheduled date. This is not one of Scott’s iconic ‘genre-breakers’ like Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller, but one that’s been superbly mounted and masterfully crafted by a veteran director who can probably put together a movie like this with one eye closed! It’s fast paced, gripping and features powerful acting performances from its two main leads – Mr. Plummer who plays the richest man in the world, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty and Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-daughter-in-law Gail. And the movie, of course, is about the infamous kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973; J. Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom and it was left to the boy’s mother (who had no money of her own) to use all her wits to find a way to get her son back. While watching the movie, one can only marvel at the heartlessness and stinginess of this man who just could not bring himself to pay (until at last he found that he could get a tax deduction for part of the ransom money!!!). Also, a great performance from French actor Romain Duris who I have only seen cast as soft-spoken young men in romantic comedies, but here convincingly plays one of the Italian kidnappers.

And so, it’s back to work this week and an end to a fun week of movie-bingeing. Keep an eye out for the many of these movies to make big news in the coming weeks and based on their awards performance, some of them could get wider releases in the theatres.

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Miller delivers a visual knockout with Mad Max: Fury Road


In the rarified world of visually-oriented septuagenarian directors, George Miller (he just turned 70 in March) has delivered a KO punch against Ridley Scott!

Scott of course is far more prolific and well known, with 22 feature films since 1977; his seminal scifi films Blade Runner and Alien, historical epic Gladiator and gritty war film Black Hawk Down have each set the high water mark for visual style in their respective genres. For physician turned film maker Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road is only his 9th film since 1979; four of those have been Mad Max movies, but he’s also made the wonderfully wicked Witches of Eastwick, the 2 Happy Feet animation films (he won an Oscar for the first one) and the tearjerker Lorenzo’s Oil about a family’s battle to find a cure for their son’s rare brain disorder.

While Scott’s style remains just as epic in his later years, none of his recent films have broken any new stylistic ground; whether it is Robin Hood, Prometheus or Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s been a sense of “been there, seen that” to the look of his films; it’s difficult after all, to raise the bar when the proliferation of CGI has made it possible for a film maker to bring to screen almost anything that he can visualize in his imagination. The barrier therefore is no longer technology, but imagination itself.

And that’s where Miller has scored his knockout. With Mad Max: Fury Road he has just delivered perhaps the most gloriously flamboyant road chase ever seen on screen; no doubt providing a lot of food for thought for every self-respecting action film maker, from Michael Bay to Luc Besson to the Fast and the Furious production team! Much like LP records have made a comeback with music aficionados, non-CGI action films like Fury Road along with Furious 7 earlier this summer and the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation are finding enormous appeal among action movie fans.

There are enough inventive bits in this film – cars and weapons, costumes and makeup, music and lighting – to keep fanboys and future directors busy analyzing it frame by frame for weeks and months to come. The hyperkinetic chase early on through the warrens of the Citadel, the ludicrous ‘human-powered’ fuel injection system that Nux comes up with during a car chase, the Polecat attack sequence, the live musicians in the War Boys’ convoy and the briefly glimpsed ‘marsh stiltmen’ are just a few of my favourite moments. You will find similar lists populating almost every review of the movie.

As if to give the audience respite from the sun-blasted landscape, Miller sets the middle portion of the chase in the night. The switch from ochres, umbers and siennas to the gun metal blue of the moonlit night is matched by a change in the pace and scale of the chase.

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Half way through the movie, I found my eyes smarting; I realized I was hardly blinking for fear that I would miss even a millisecond of the visual buffet brought to screen by legendary Australian cinematographer John Seale. At the age of 72, he will surely earn his 5th Oscar nomination and perhaps even a win to go with his earlier one for The English Patient.

But for all this talk of visual genius, the critical acclaim for Fury Road owes as much to Miller’s investment in the people as in the cars and production design. The central character in the film isn’t Max; the story is in fact built around a female road warrior named Imperator Furiosa (I could almost hear Hermione say: “it’s Furi-oh-sa, not Furio-saaah”) who is a modern-day Ripley, driven by the same fierce protective instinct that Sigourney Weaver brought to the screen so memorably in Aliens back in 1986. Likewise, Max’s nemesis Immortan Joe – a post-apocalyptic Darth Vader, clad in an acrylic body shield and sporting a fearsome breathing mask – is sure to rank among the top 10 movie villains for years to come; not just for what he does on-screen, but also for the tyranny and unspeakable cruelty he represents.

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Miller believes he has enough material to make another Mad Max film (or three, he says!) and it’s difficult to believe that Warner Bros. will waste even a minute after the opening weekend numbers are out on Sunday night before signing a deal for the next one. Other than the upcoming Jurassic World, I believe it is unlikely there will be another film this summer to top Fury Road. Meanwhile, all is not lost for 77 year old Ridley Scott. In November, he will have a surefire hit on his hands with the release of scifi thriller The Martian. The source material – the best-selling page-turner by Andy Weir – is ‘flop-proof’, but it will be interesting to see how Scott brings it to life on screen. What new visual kick can Scott bring to the real-life space thriller that we have not already seen in Apollo 13 or Mission to Mars?

Tony Scott: A tribute to his work with some of the greatest actors of our time


For someone who was a latecomer to Hollywood (he made his first movie only at the age of 38), Tony Scott was fortunate to have worked with the who’s who of the film industry. After years directing commercials along with his brother Ridley Scott, he came to Hollywood to direct his first film, the vampire thriller The Hunger in 1983. He made 16 films over the course of the next 27 years and worked with the biggest names of the day.

  • Catherine Deneuve – French acting legend Deneuve played vampire Miriam Blaylock in The Hunger, Tony Scott’s debut film in 1983.
  • David Bowie – Rock star Bowie typically plays roles that require an ‘exotic’ look, such as the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976. He played vampire John Blaylock in The Hunger.
  • Susan Sarandon – By 1983, Sarandon was already a well-established Oscar-nominated actress. She completed the love triangle in The Hunger, playing Dr. Sarah Roberts. She went on to star in Ridley Scott’s hit film Thelma & Louise 8 years later.
  • Tom Cruise – Tony Scott made Tom Cruise a bona fide household name with his second directorial effort, Top Gun in 1986. In the same year, Cruise appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Color of Money opposite screen legend Paul Newman and the rest was history for Cruise. Tony Scott and Tom Cruise continued their affair with speed in Days of Thunder in 1990, but couldn’t recreate the magic of Top Gun.
  • Val Kilmer – Val Kilmer got his big break playing Tom Cruise’s rival in Top Gun. He worked with Tony Scott again in True Romance in 1993.
  • Kelly McGillis – McGillis had just come off the critically acclaimed drama Witness opposite Harrison Ford and her star climbed even higher after appearing as the flight instructor and love interest in Top Gun.
  • Eddie Murphy – The next big star to work with Tony Scott after Top Gun was Eddie Murphy in the highly anticipated sequel Beverly Hills Cop II, released in 1987. The sequel didn’t reach the heights of the original…it was the 3rd highest grossing film of the year in the US…but was a big hit overseas.
  • Kevin Costner – Kevin Costner was perhaps the hottest actor in America in the late ‘80s having consecutive critical and commercial success as a leading man with The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. His next collaboration was with Tony Scott in the crime thriller Revenge. Unfortunately, the film was a rare failure for Costner, although he recovered quickly with Dances with Wolves and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
  • Anthony Quinn – International acting legend Anthony Quinn entered his 7th decade in the movies by playing crime boss Tibby Mendez in Revenge.
  • Nicole Kidman – After grabbing attention in the boat thriller Dead Calm, Kidman got her big break acting opposite Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder and they got married soon after.
  • Bruce Willis – Tony Scott’s next film after Days of Thunder featured one of the biggest action stars of the day, Bruce Willis, fresh off his two Die Hard movies. The Last Boy Scout was one of 4 Bruce Willis films released in 1991, though none of them got any box office traction.
  • Christian Slater – By the early ‘90s, Slater had emerged as a young heartthrob in films like skateboarding drama Gleaming the Cube and western actioner Young Guns II as well as a supporting role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Tony Scott signed him on for the crime-romance-thriller True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarentino, who had just rocked the establishment with Reservoir Dogs. The film was a box office failure, but retains a strong fan following to this day.
  • Denzel Washington – Denzel Washington’s star was on the rise when he signed up for Tony Scott’s acclaimed submarine thriller Crimson Tide. He had just acted in some of the biggest critical and commercial hits of the early ‘90s, such as Mississippi Masala, Malcolm X, The Pelican Brief and Philadephia. Crimson Tide was one of the bigger hits of 1995. Nearly a decade later, they worked together again in the kidnap thriller Man on Fire and this sparked a string of collaborations over the next few years, such as Déjà Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010).
  • Gene Hackman – Veteran character actor Gene Hackman played Captain Ramsey opposite Denzel Washington’s Lt. Commander Hunter in Crimson Tide. He went on to appear in Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State 3 years later.
  • Robert de Niro – In 1996, acting legend de Niro played unhinged baseball fan Gil Renard in the adaptation of Peter Abrahams’ novel The Fan. The film was a major failure at the box office.
  • Wesley Snipes – Tony Scott got Wesley Snipes to play baseball player Bobby Rayburn in The Fan. Snipes had just come off a series of high profile action films like Passenger 57, Demolition Man, Drop Zone and Money Train. He also demonstrated his acting chops playing drag queen Noxeema in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
  • Benicio del Toro – del Toro had just come off the sleeper hit The Usual Suspects when he was cast in The Fan. Four years later he would go on to win an Oscar for his role as Javier Rodriguez in Traffic.
  • Will Smith – In 1996, Will Smith rocketed to fame as Capt. Steven Hiller in Independence Day, one of the biggest blockbusters of modern times. A year later, he cemented his position as an A-list star by anchoring Men in Black. He followed up these two monster hits by teaming up with Tony Scott in the surveillance thriller Enemy of the State opposite Gene Hackman.
  • Robert Redford – At the start of the millennium, Tony Scott got the most charismatic star of the ‘70s to pair off with his modern counterpart in Spy Game. The expensive film failed to recover its money at the box office although it had reasonable reviews from critics.
  • Brad Pitt – Brad Pitt had a small role in Tony Scott’s True Romance in 1993, soon after being ‘discovered’ in brother Ridley’s Thelma & Louise a couple of years earlier. By the time, he appeared in Spy Game, he was a major global star with hits like Interview with the Vampire, Se7en, Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club. At the time of Tony Scott’s death, Brad Pitt was filming Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.
  • Keira Knightley – Domino, released in 2005, is an unusual entry in the resumes of both Tony Scott and Keira Knightley. Other than The Hunger, this is Tony Scott’s lowest grossing film ever. It received mostly negative reviews and it appears the studio New Line Cinema didn’t really want to release it after having made it. The real life subject of the movie, Domino Harvey died of a drug overdoes a few months before the release of the film.
  • Mickey Rourke – Troubled actor Mickey Rourke had a supporting role in Man on Fire in 2004 and reunited with Tony to play the key role of bounty hunter Ed Moseby in Domino.
  • John Travolta – Travolta had just appeared in two of the big comic hits of 2007 – playing Edna Turnblad in drag in the musical hit Hairspray and Woody Stevens in the buddy road comedy Wild Hogs. He followed these up by signing up for Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. This marked a return to the over-the-top bad guy roles he had perfected in earlier films like Swordfish and The Punisher (not to mention his unmentionable performance as the alien Terl in Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000).

The majority of Mr. Scott’s work remains firmly pinned in the genre of formulaic summer action thriller, but he somehow tapped into the dynamics of human conflict and used that to tell engaging stories. He leaves behind a legacy of having worked with the biggest names in Hollywood and in the case of actors like Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman, he made them household names across the world. In addition, he was brother Ridley’s creative partner and co-producer. It is difficult to imagine the personal and professional impact of his untimely death on Ridley Scott and the actors that he worked with over the years.

Two Decades of Pair-ups: Chronicling the Denzel Washington formula


Last night I watched Denzel Washington’s latest action thriller, Safe House.

As Denzel’s character Tobin Frost matched wits with Ryan Reynolds’ young CIA agent Matt Weston, it struck me that there was something familiar about the on-screen dynamic between the two actors.

I went back in time and had a look at Denzel Washington movies over the past 20 years and realized that in 13 out of 27 movies that Denzel has acted in during this time, the dramatic tension has originated from Denzel being paired off with or paired off against another strong actor/ character. As a result, Denzel Washington has shared screen time with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. So, I thought it would be fun to chronicle how the ‘Denzel formula’ has evolved over the years with these 13 movies.

#1 and #2 – The trend began with a pair of Denzel movies both released in December 1993, Philadelphia and The Pelican Brief in which he was paired off with arguably the biggest male and female box office draws of the day, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, respectively. In both cases, Denzel played the supporting role or foil to the lead actor.

It must have become pretty clear to film makers that unlike many Hollywood actors who feel threatened when they have to share screen time with other strong actors, Denzel Washington actually seems to thrive on such scripts.

#3 – In 1995, he acted in the submarine thriller Crimson Tide and this time he was locked in a battle of wills against his own sub captain, played by one of the most powerful character actors of all time, Gene Hackman.

#4 – A couple of months later, Denzel returned to the screen in the scifi action film Virtuosity, where he had to match wits against an android carrying the synthesized personality of over 150 serial killers…the android was played by an up and coming actor named Russell Crowe. The movie was a flop and Denzel took a break from action-thrillers and started diversifying his roles, with films such as Courage Under Fire, The Preacher’s Wife and Spike Lee’s He Got Game.

#5 – In 1999, Denzel returned to the formula with The Bone Collector, this time paired off with Angelina Jolie who had just come to public attention a few months earlier with her award winning role in the TV movie Gia.

#6 – Two years later, in 2001, Denzel found himself playing his first anti-hero role in Training Day, one which won him his second Oscar. This time, Ethan Hawke was the good guy, but Denzel’s stature was so great that many people in the audience found themselves rooting for Denzel’s corrupt cop Detective Alonzo Harris.

He followed this up with another anti-hero role in the drama John Q, although this didn’t feature the ‘Denzel formula’ pair-off.

 

#7 – But, by 2004, Denzel was back to the formula in the highly publicized remake of The Manchurian Candidate, this time having to battle it out with none other than Meryl Streep, who played the twisted senator Eleanor Shaw.

#8 – In 2006, Spike Lee released what is perhaps his most commercial movie to date, Inside Man featuring a fascinating cat-and-mouse game between Denzel’s character Detective Keith Frazier and Clive Owen’s bank robber character Dalton Russell. This was Denzel’s third collaboration with Spike Lee.

#9 – Denzel returned to anti-hero territory in 2007 playing gangster Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s epic crime drama American Gangster. It was a reversal of 1995’s Virtuosity because this time it was Denzel being hunted down by Russell Crowe’s Detective Richie Roberts.

#10 and 11 – Denzel’s next two pair-up films were his fourth and fifth collaborations respectively with director Tony Scott. He was back to his good guy role in 2009 with a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, this time having to face down hostage taker John Travolta. In 2010, for a change there were no bad guys, only a runaway train, which Denzel had to stop in partnership with Chris Pine in Unstoppable.

#12 – In early 2010, Denzel appeared in the post-apocalyptic action-drama The Book of Eli, in a highly entertaining face-off against Gary Oldman’s character Carnegie.

#13 – And this brings me full circle to the starting point of this post, which is his latest pair-up in Safe House, returning to an anti-hero role for the third time and repeating the Training Day formula by being paired off against Ryan Reynolds’ rookie-type character.

Denzel will skip the formula in his next movie Flight, which sees a long-awaited return to live-action film making by director Robert Zemeckis, but the plot for his subsequent movie 2 Guns, coming out in 2013, certainly looks like another pair-up, this time with Mark Wahlberg. Clearly, in the last few years, as Denzel has taken on the role of senior citizen, his own screen actor counterparts appear to be getting younger. What is significant is that Denzel Washington has been equally successful in films like Courage Under Fire, The Hurricane, Remember the Titans and Man on Fire where he has carried the film as a stand-alone lead. Surely, this qualifies him as among the most versatile leading men/ character actors of the past two decades.

Prometheus – a religious pilgrimage for devotees of Alien


All the speculation about whether Prometheus is or isn’t a prequel to Alien, made for a delicious bit of anticipation which stretched out over months and months as fans dissected the trailer and those viral character videos.

Well, in the end all the coyness from Ridley Scott & co. was just a smokescreen; Prometheus is indeed a bona fide prequel to the three-decade-old space horror classic. Nevertheless, as Mr. Scott promised, this film explores the history of this universe, rather than revisit the Xenomorphs themselves. Also, as promised we finally get to know more about the ‘space jockey’!

Watching it this afternoon on IMAX 3D (worth paying the surcharge) was an intense, almost religious experience.

The production design and the cinematography are both outstanding. I am hoping that Dariusz Wolski will finally get an Oscar nomination for cinematography after years of bringing fantastical worlds to life – from Alex Proyas’ Dark City and The Crow to the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sweeny Todd.

The world of Prometheus, particulary the spaceship and the people in it, looks cleaner and more antiseptic than the world of Alien set approximately 30 years later. Of course this could also be because the Prometheus is the flagship spacecraft of Weyland Corp. whereas the Nostromo, the Sulaco and other ships from the Alien movies are cargo or military ships with fewer amenities.

Unfortunately, the characters are a bit of a mixed bag, with some displaying illogical or downright irritating behaviour. But of course, if all movie characters acted logically, we wouldn’t have much of a plot, would we? Even so, the acting is top notch from all the key actors; most reviews focus on yet another amazing performance from Michael Fassbender, but the others – Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green – are all in equally fine form.

I also loved the way the movie takes time to settle into the narrative, rather than feeling rushed or obliged to take the audience on a roller coaster ride from the start. In fact, the downside perhaps is that there is no roller coaster ride. Scott is not trying to clone James Cameron’s Aliens, which exploded into non-stop action after the initial set-up.  Instead this is very much a unique entry in the series in terms of tone…with an epic, almost reverential feel to it. Unlike the previous films, the set-pieces here take place in a variety of places – inside the ship, on the surface of the planet and inside the alien structure.

I was actually disappointed when the film ended. I felt that the last act could have been given an additional 10 minutes or so, in order to create a more drawn out climax. And you walk out of the movie definitely looking forward to a sequel as Prometheus sets up plenty of questions and hypotheses which need to be answered. I hope Mr. Scott will retain control of the future path of the franchise and not allow it to go into spin-offs like Alien vs. Predator.

Definitely a must-see and I hope it will be financially successful (it cost about USD 130 million + marketing expenses, so will have to gross roughly twice that in order to break even), so that Fox will green-light the sequel.

New Prometheus trailer and Ridley Scott interview


The new Prometheus full length trailer is a beaut.

Everyone who has seen the trailer agrees the last minute of the trailer is very intense, with superb use of a variation of the ‘siren’ audio effect from the original 1979 Alien trailer.

Added bonus is this Q&A with Ridley Scott.

Releases in early June. Can’t wait.