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The Invisible Woman (2013)
Tedious, tiresome, boring
As an Anglophile, Dickens aficionado, and period movie lover, I had Great Expectations about this movie (wink!). Alas, I was barely able to force myself to sit through to the end.
The movie does little to shed light on Dickens' inner motivations or character, and has even less to say about the authorial process or creative impulse. The romance at the heart of the story falls flat because the female lead (the eponymous Invisible Woman) is not just invisible but for the most part inexpressive: she doesn't talk, she doesn't emote, doesn't communicate.
The plot contains a number of disjoint, unconnected episodes that add nothing to our understanding of the characters. The character interactions are awkward, forced, and unappealing.
On the positive side, the score contains some magnificent cello music; the sets and costumes are lavish; the architecture and landscapes are beautifully presented. Scott-Thomas turns in a solid matronly role as the love interest's mother. But nothing can fill the vacuum left at the heart of this film by Felicity Jones' non- performance. In fact, this is much more of a French film in English clothing, given the minimalist plot, long silences, and generally depressing atmosphere.
Avoid at all costs.
Slow-paced character drama that is a treat to watch
There were so many ways this movie could have gone wrong:
- It could have had a formulaic conclusion
- It could have been all about the food
- It could have dwelt on the organizational prowess of the dabbawalas (Bombay's famed lunch delivery servicemen)
But it did none of the above, and it's a fantastic gem that lingers in your imagination long after you've seen it.
Ila is an Indian wife and mother trying desperately to regain her husband's affection by going to great lengths to prepare his daily lunch, which is delivered to his office. However, Ila soon realizes that the lunch is going to someone entirely different: Saajan, an office worker who is about to retire and be replaced by a young overeager newbie (Shaikh). Saajan loves his lunches, and begins corresponding with Ila via notes left in the lunchbox. Meanwhile, Saajan's initial loathing for Shaikh develops into tolerance and eventually friendship.
Like all great movies, this one excels in its story, its characters, and the prowess of the actors who portray them. We are so drawn to Ila, her anxiety to capture her husband's attentions, and her inner torment as she suspects his infidelity. Saajan is very off-putting at first, but as we learn more about his past, we see him more sympathetically. Their exchange of notes is so full of deep insight and philosophical reflection on the human condition. Shaikh as well turns out to be both more and less than what we had initially expected.
Watching Irfan Khan play Saajan was a treat. The camera stays on him for minutes on end as he opens the lunchbox, unpacks its contents, sniffs each dish, samples from this and that, all at a very leisurely pace. And he is able to convey his appreciation for the food without exaggeration, without overacting, but with subtle signs of growing interest which are so true to life. You can just smell the curries as he tentatively takes a whiff of this and that dish. He definitely deserves an award for this role. Also the way he grows out of his initial antipathy towards Shaikh is just marvelous.
As a side benefit, this movie gives an excellent view into the lives of middle-class Indian families: where they live, what they eat, how they get to and from work.
The film is brooding, melancholy, although it also has an uplifting and optimistic strain woven through its fabric. It does require patience from the viewer, but that patience is amply rewarded. Truly one of the most memorable films I have ever seen, and well worth seeking out.
The Two Escobars (2010)
Riveting blend of drugs, football, and politics
If the recent World Cup has piqued your interest in football (soccer), this documentary will show you a side of the sport that few have ever seen. I can say it was one of the best 5 or 6 documentaries I have ever viewed, and will remain in my memory for ever.
The story focuses on Pablo Escobar, Colombian drug lord, and Andres Escobar, member of Colombia's 1994 World Cup national squad. They are not blood relations, but both grow up in squalor and poverty; one takes the road to crime and racketeering, the other works hard at his beloved sport, develops his innate talents, and becomes a celebrated player. The squad comes to the WC with high hopes, but they lose their first match (to Romania) and then their second (to the US) due to an own-goal scored by the hapless Andres Escobar and are thereby eliminated from the competition.
--SPOILER FOLLOWS-- A few weeks after returning home, Andres is assassinated. Pablo also comes to a violent, bloody end and is also assassinated. These, along with their surnames, are the parallels between these two otherwise radically different people. --END SPOILER--
What was wonderful about this film is that it brought into very clear focus a period of history in a distant country about which I had heard occasional reports, but had never understood the real situation there. This documentary features lots of original video footage which is often very difficult to watch: senseless violence, bodies of victims, etc. It also shows the humanitarian side of the otherwise ruthless Pablo: how he funded soccer programs for poor communities (along with numerous other philanthropic gestures). Pablo and his fellow drug cartel leaders each take an avid interest in football, each cartel sponsors a club, and the underworld rivalries that play out in street assassinations now infect the playing fields.
The entire movie is narrated by people close to the two Escobars: Andres's sister, his fiancée, his coach, his teammates; Pablo's relatives, his top hit man. You couldn't get a more vivid first-hand description. The stories of some of Andres's fellow national squad members are fascinating in their own right, both before and after their 1994 WC exit.
It could have been trimmed by 10-15 minutes without losing its punch, but overall this is top-notch story telling of a real-life tragedy. It leaves one wondering how little one knows of what is happening behind the scenes when two teams take the field for a game of football. If you have memories of the "war on drugs" in Colombia, and have any interest at all in sport, you will not be disappointed by this movie.
For Anglophiles only?
I'm not sure it's essential, but a love of all things English is surely an asset when approaching this movie. Peopled by a menagerie of eccentric, frustrating, and ultimately endearing characters, the movie's appeal lies in the brilliance of its script and the interest it ultimately engenders in its many protagonists.
Set in a stately country home in perhaps the 1930s, the movie covers the events of one morning and afternoon. Dolly is about to wed Owen, yet Joseph turns up the morning of the wedding. We find that there had been a whirlwind romance between Joseph and Dolly the previous summer, that Dolly's mother was against the match, and now Joseph returns at the 11th hour to perhaps intervene?
There are far too many supporting characters to mention, and they are essential to the movie's success, but the emotional focus is entirely on Dolly and Joseph. The story of their past romance is artfully narrated in a series of flashbacks (the colour palette changes each time we flash back) which interweave nicely with the events of the wedding day. The emotion between them is portrayed with sensitivity and realism; their interactions with those around them (who are mostly oblivious to what is going on) are often funny but also laced with pathos. The various zany antics that set the backdrop for this drama are hilarious in themselves, and there is a nice blend of humour and gravity to keep one attentive. The house, the gardens, the fashions are all splendid.
What the movie lacks is some greater theme or message; it's about a particular love story between a particular man and woman, but beyond that, one doesn't leave with anything more substantial. Nonetheless, it's a pleasure to watch.
If you like English culture, if you enjoy scintillating, witty repartee, then "Cheerful Weather" is sure to please. If you find the English upper crust snobby and boring, well, you might be better off staying away.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
From its initial sequence to its end, this movie has very little going for it, unless you enjoy gratuitous on-screen carnage. There is so much that is unrealistic, one cannot begin to enumerate the ways. (One very minor example: a shot and wounded president walks out of the White House and is greeted by an escort of soldiers who, rather than putting him on a stretcher and carrying him away, drape his arms on their shoulders and help him walk.) The characters all seem flat and lifeless, and even the better actors (like Morgan Freeman) are just going through the motions. The story line is completely predictable. The film relies on innumerable clichés (e.g., a ticking clock counting the seconds down to nuclear catastrophe, while the hero attempts to avert disaster with only seconds to go).
There is a little interest in the lead character who was unfairly disgraced in a past incident, but now has a shot at redemption. Some of the action sequences are mildly interesting from a technical point of view. But overall this movie is a complete waste of your time and brainpower. My only excuse for sitting through it all is that I was on a trans-Atlantic flight, and it helped kill the time.
A French gem
This is easily the best and most memorable movie I've seen in a very long time. Its formula is simple: the juxtaposition of two people from two radically different backgrounds who, with time, become the best of friends. And oddly enough, there isn't the initial suspicion or antagonism; they hit it off right away. But the relationship grows and deepens until they become inseparable.
The real strength of the film lies in the characters and the men who play them. One is a sophisticated, literate, older white man who is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair; the other a young, lanky, street-savvy black man with naught but the clothes on his back. They have such charisma, such chemistry, it is a tour de force from beginning to end. Particularly the younger man, whose infectious smile and boisterous humour keeps the mood light even in the darker moments.
It's set in France, and you do have to endure subtitles (which are not well done; occasionally the punch line of a joke comes up too soon), but it's well worth it nonetheless. This is the first time I've seen a French film that didn't leave me depressed and suicidal by the end. I hope many more like it will follow.
The White Queen (2013)
This review is based solely on the first episode. From what I've seen, I will not be investing more time in subsequent episodes.
I had high expectations because this is BBC after all, but in this case the result is well below par. Nothing excels, everything is at best average, and the overall concoction is simply a mess.
Plot: I suppose we can fault Ms. Gregory for many of the oddities in the plot lines, but they are there nonetheless. Gratuitous magic/witchcraft which is clearly incongruous with what purports to be a historical drama, inexplicable changes in characters' behavior or attitudes, etc.
Direction: way too many stock scenes and gimmicks (children playing gaily while a threatening person is approaching, virtually all the courtship scenes, the court receiving the arrival of the new queen).
Production: locations all seemed wrong, and the credits explained why--it was filmed in Flanders. Buildings don't look English, the trees and fields don't look English, and then the costumes and armor all are not quite realistic. Close, but no cigar. And an unusually high number of anachronistic elements (e.g., woman's dress with what appeared to be a zipper in the back?).
Acting: everyone seemed to be forced into their roles, no one really fit well. The new queen's mother was perhaps the best, it's a role she's played before, but the heroine/protagonist is not quite convincing in this crucial episode. She has a tough job, making us believe that she can fall in love with the man who had killed her husband (at least indirectly, in battle), but she can't pull it off.
Overall, it looks/feels much more like an American production trying unsuccessfully to reach BBC standards, than genuine BBC. The result is poor indeed and not worthy of your time.
Touching, heartfelt, and beautifully acted
Happened to catch this on a plane ride, and I'm so glad I did.
This is a small, simple movie about a boy, Kari, born with a cleft lip and his life of trying to deal with this defect and achieve happiness in spite of it. We are given the story in little bits, not in chronological order, but after a while one starts to piece things together readily enough. We see him at birth, as a young boy, as a 20-something year old young man, and then again as a mature older man. The main story revolved around his attempts to court a beautiful young girl who takes an interest in him, but her family of course is not quite as accepting of his defects and simple upbringing.
The story is set around the late 1800s in Switzerland, and is presented in German. The individual vignettes of life in the rural and then urban settings are quite charming, though not always pleasant or pretty.
But the strength of this movie is in its story and the three lead actors who do a fantastic job portraying the two main characters (because we see Kari as both a young man and an older man). It's a story about someone who tries to overcome the bad hand that fate has dealt him, is not entirely successful, and yet in later years can look back on that episode with mingled bittersweet feelings, without anger towards his fellow human beings but as a very well-adjusted person who is dearly loved by his circle of intimates. We can read all their internal emotions in their facial expressions, glances, etc.
A small but I think important subplot was the relationship between Kari and his mother, who nursed him to health as an infant and loved him dearly, a love reciprocated by Kari. We see how this first relationship set the stage for his later attempts to find love as a mature young man.
It's a typically anti-Hollywood movie: with depth, sensitivity, creativity, and a strong sense of historical verisimilitude, all artfully and skillfully shot and on a minimal budget. If you can live with subtitles, this is a very rewarding movie to watch. Even better if you have a bit of an ear for German dialects, as the peculiarities of Swiss German come across repeatedly and are quite entertaining. Some may find the story line a bit predictable, but the artistic way in which we are told the story--part in flashback, part in real time, not in a direct linear fashion--more than makes up for that.
En kongelig affære (2012)
Exquisitely made dramatic knockout
A fantastic film about a country whose history is seldom portrayed, A Royal Affair is a historical drama set in the latter half of the 18th century in Denmark. An English girl is sent off to marry the Danish king, only to find out that he's not fully sane. In her loneliness she falls for the king's doctor, and they find they share not only amorous feelings for one another, but a passion for Enlightenment ideas and political reforms.
There are a few caricatures in this movie that keep me from giving it a higher score: the reactionary forces are pure, unalloyed evil; the reformers are probably far more liberal in thinking than would have been possible in that era; and the preaching against established religion is a bit thick. But otherwise, this is a gem of a movie with outstanding performances in all three key roles, particularly the doctor who is portrayed with an incredible intensity and realism. Also noteworthy is the king who is not quite sane yet not totally loony either; the acting here is frighteningly good and utterly convincing. Last but not least, the queen excels in showing real pathos and long-suffering endurance trapped in her destiny, and then comes alive beautifully in her relationship with the doctor.
As icing on the cake, costumes are sumptuous, period settings flawless, and the music is era-appropriate and delightfully arcane. Original music is also quite good, though most of the time one is so engrossed in the story that the music just vanishes. Movie is almost all in Danish with English subtitles, and I felt the size/font choice for the titles was too big, too pushy, you never quite forget that you're reading titles.
This is a tale of exploration of the darker side of the human experience: what does it mean to be sane, how can a divinely ordained monarch be deprived of his wits, to what lengths will a person go to promote his/her progeny into power, are the "unwashed masses" really grateful to those who try to emancipate them? This movie (and its three main characters) will haunt you for many days.
Life of Pi (2012)
Visual feast but difficult to grasp meaning
Visually, this movie is a knockout. Scene after scene produces audible gasps as we see images we never thought possible. The colors just pop off the screen, the various animals shown are incredibly realistic, and the views of sky and sea are just phenomenal. Even if there was no plot whatsoever, you should see it just for the visuals.
There is a plot, of course. A boy/young man is stranded on a lifeboat and is forced to survive for endless days through unbelievable hardships. And if that alone were the plot, I'd be content, but the framework around the shipwreck story claims something more, that this story says something about the human condition, about God and man, about sin and salvation, about how we should live our lives. My problem quite frankly is that I just did not see the connection. Maybe I need it told more directly, I certainly have a low tolerance for ambiguity. So if you can live with agonizingly uncertain outcomes, where you question everything you have just seen, then you will love this. But if you like things told to you clearly, you may walk away a bit puzzled, as I did.
But regardless, this movie redefines the word "beautiful." I was just amazed to see the many, many moods of the ocean as it is portrayed, in fact it becomes one of the primary characters as it is sometimes benevolent, sometimes treacherous; calm or stormy; gray or overflowing with color; etc.