Shades Of Words


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Marvel Studio’s Dr. Strange

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If you are expecting an objective review then I recommend walking away as I am fan of Benedict Cumberbatch and am often more forgiving of his creative endeavors than others. Let me begin with acknowledging the obvious – Cumberbatch yet again embodies a hyper-intelligent, narcissistic, apathetic character. He is predictably brilliant in the movie and displays a surprising sense of comic timing. I don’t doubt his talent but I will really like to see him do something else.
Dr. Strange is an odd movie to review, immensely enjoyable but definitely distinctive from its other Marvel counterpart. The arrogant, flamboyant, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange lives the life of millionaires and have-it-alls callously stepping over the lives, dreams and hopes of others. An automobile accident leaves him severely damaged and for once in his life he finds he doesn’t pull the strings. In a desperate attempt to regain the strength of his hands, he follows the tales of mystic healing to the base of the Himalayas to Kamar-Taj in Nepal. After the usual dramedy of he-is-stupid-but-still-the-chosen-one, Strange is taken under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, who makes this silly character look effortlessly real), and very quickly learns to bend the universe to his will. In fact it appears he had probably studied longer to be a neurosurgeon than to be an astral plane traveler. Strange graduates just in time to fight the evil sorcerer Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen, whose considerable talents seem wasted here), who is trying to absorb the planet into the Dark Dimension where Dormammu rules. The planet is the price he is willing to pay for a life of eternity.
In realms of fantasy, Dr. Strange pushes boundaries like no other Marvel before. Imagine Inception on steroids. Strange’s first out of body experience is exactly that for the audience too. Psychedelic montages take us through freakishly bizarre journey through the universe. The time-reversal sequences alone are worth the price of the ticket.
The weak thread of the movie is story. Super hero movies need to latch on to strong moral themes to create empathy for cartoonish, ridiculously clad characters. Dr. Strange is more about one man’s personal journey. The good versus evil storyline is not clearly defined, nor the universe of the mystical magical world. The CGI effects often carry the movie away from the core story. Even the ever brooding Chiwetel Ejiofor cannot provide any gravitas to the flailing storyline.
And the movie makers get it. While immensely entertaining, this movie doesn’t imbibe the sincerity that makes superheroes films somber. It’s almost if everyone realizes how foolish this is and decides to simply have fun with it. For instance, the Cloak of Levitation while obviously a very powerful weapon for Strange to command is used for comical effects. Or the grand climax where the super-villain is defeated by getting stuck in a timeless loop. By the time, Dr. Strange stands up to Dormammu the 5th time, I was rolling in my seat. Movie climaxes are supposed to be awe-inspiring, not nerdy and silly.
It’s sad that the most interested I was in the movie was when the credits finished rolling and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor appears requesting Dr. Strange’s assistance to look for Loki. Now I want to see that movie!
At the end of it this is what I took away from the movie – Use bluetooth while driving.


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Kapoor & Sons

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Let me start by saying that I was really surprised by how much I liked Kapoor & Sons (K&S). The trailer wasn’t promising; the movie appeared to be another glossy love story with pointless dance and song. So not true.  Thematically similar to Dil Dhadakne Do, a movie about a wealthy dysfunctional family, Kapoor & Sons focuses on interplay of relationships in a small middle class family settled on the hills of Coonoor. In terms of depth, relatability and subtlety it does far better job than the shiny travel brochure that Dil Dhadakne Do was almost on the verge of being.

The movie begins when the head of the Kapoor family, Daadu (Rishi Kapoor in geriatric makeup) has a heart attack and is admitted to the hospital. This brings his diasporic grandsons back home completing the small family unit. The heart of the story is the dysfunction masked by love between the four main characters of the Kapoor family – the mom, dad and the bickering brothers. All of them hide their own terrible secrets. Rahul (Fawad Khan) is the perfect and very obviously favored son. A successful writer, he enjoys moderate fame and wealth. He comes first in everything including his parent’s affection. Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) is obviously the disgruntled neglected child constantly looking for approval and trying to escape the shadow of his big bro. Unable to stick to a job he invites constant contempt from his family. The mom, portrayed by Ratna Pathak in a scene stealing performance, is the typical Indian housewife. She is the glue that holds the family together even though she suffers the most thru other’s faults. Rajat Kapoor (in another brilliant performance) as Harsh is the cheating husband and insensitive father. Each character brings a lot of emotional baggage and no conversation is innocent of accusations and past hurt.

Movies about dysfunctional families aren’t new, not even for Bollywood. What makes this really worthwhile is the edge of the seat drama, brilliant performances and the beautifully layered story.  No character is devoid of secrets or sin. Each scene exposes a speck of the mess that the Kapoor family is, building the tension until the climax when all hell breaks loose.

Alia Bhatt’s character, Tia Singh, is charming and fun and provides some impetus to certain parts of the movie when it tends to drag. This is the first movie of her that I have seen and she is a revelation as an actress. While her character is not truly essential to the narrative, her performance makes it worthwhile.

Fawad Khan brings a steady and believable performance as that of the older and more responsible brother, while continuing to look superhot. Sidharth Malhotra has the more difficult part to play and he does mostly well in this sensitive role, stumbling through some intense emotional scenes.

There are some oddities that are probably worth mentioning. For a story set in a hill station in Tamil Nadu, there is a disproportionate high number of North-Indian Hindi speaking families settled there. While Tia’s character is pleasant, her plotline begs credibility.  Daadu’s antics as a party loving old man are sometimes cute and other times annoying. All scenes with Rishi Kapoor appear contrived. He is a plot point necessary to force the characters together for all the fireworks, but he himself does not add any value to it.

These quibbles aside, Kapoor & Sons is an incredible smart and sophisticated movie. A movie that can be watched more than once.


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PINK

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I will start with the obvious. PINK is not just a movie but social commentary – and it is done really, really well. It’s the kind of movie that will (hopefully) impact the discussion on sexual consent for years to come. At the least, it will bring this discussion to your living rooms. If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this review and go watch it.
The plot is straightforward enough. Three girls –Minal, Falak & Andrea- join a few guys at their resort for dinner & drinks after a rock concert. Something transpires and the girls flee the scene after hitting a boy almost fatally with a bottle. While we are never shown what happened, it’s implied heavily that Minal was molested. Alone and scared of the incident, the girls just want to move on with their lives. The boys Rajvir, Dumpy and Ankit hatch plans of revenge. They are going to show these modern ‘characterless’ girls their place in this world. The threats and the harassment begin. The girls finally go to the police which make matter worse for them. Minal finds herself in prison on charge of murder and the girls truly hit rock bottom. Help comes in the form of Mr. Deepak Sehgal, a retired lawyer who defends their case.
The first half of the movie is a slow stretch – establishing the premise, the characters, their dynamics and desperation. It’s like elastic being pulled back, and then it snaps in the second half. The courtroom drama is the moral center of the movie. It takes on the trite and over-used ‘she was characterless so she deserved it’ approach head on. The defense aids in establishing that she may be characterless (whatever that truly means) – but did she consent to sex. The emphasis on consent is the core theme. The movie also calls out on the inherent feudal mindset that prevails on today’s urban men that appear deceptively modern. Rich, educated abroad, trotting about in designer wear – they still don’t see women as equals or people with free will.
Taapsee Pannu as Minal and Kriti Kulhari as Falak bring in fine, nuanced performances. Taapsee Pannu does a phenomenal job in the portrayal of an assault victim. Sexual assault may not always leave physical marks but the emotional scars are as important. She easily outshine Amitabh Bachchan in every scene (a side note – his towering presence was really not required on the poster of a movie about a women’s issue). The movie is low in melodrama until Bachchan appears on the scene (just kidding – well not really). I do like the fact that even then the focus remains on the girls. Mr. Sehgal’s character breaches on the edge of sermonizing but is often stopped short which is a relief. It’s important for movies to drive social messages without occupying the pulpit.
Some narrative decisions seem very deliberate. As an audience we never see the actual incident till the ending credits roll. Along with the court, we rely on the testimony of the girls and the witnesses. It’s a parallel to real life where often in cases of molestation there are no witnesses and the onus of establishing the incident often falls on the traumatized victim. The movie makes an important point of mentioning that consent is important even if it’s the women in question is your wife – a pointed barb at the lack of laws around marital rape.
It’s important to note that this movie is not about rape in general. It deals with a very specific type of incident about a very specific section of society. The focus of the movie is rather on the deep seated patriarchal values that drive men in India to assume themselves as the proprietors of woman and self-appointed judges on their transgressions and habits. ‘You drink, so you are fair game. You smile ‘freely’ at me, so you are fair game. You refuse me, how dare you, you slut! Let me show you who I am!’ These values extend to the police force whose job is to protect its citizens. The condescending and dismissive inspector who discourages Minal from filing her original complaint; the rude and unsympathetic female police officer who arrests the girls without proper investigation. They are not characters in fiction – they are characters that you read about everyday as yet another rape story hits the news.
Minal, Falak and Andrea are normal working girls. What happened to them continues to happen to a lot of girls like them. And they are not as lucky to have a Mr. Sehgal help them.


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The Legend of Tarzan

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The Legend of Tarzan

I have fragmented memories of watching the 1999 Disney animated movie when I was too young to question the politics of the story. Based loosely on Edgar Burrough’s adventure series, any interpretation of the movie will be fraught with problems inherent to colonial literature – racism, imperialism, the savior complex etc. The Legend of Tarzan is a retelling of the tale that tries commendably to cater to modern sensibilities of the 21st century.

It’s firstly not an origins story. The audience is introduced to Tarzan, already living the life of an English lord. It’s been eight years since his discovery and return from Africa. We learn of his childhood in the wild through flashbacks. He is now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, married to the feisty Jane Porter, living a quiet retired life in his English manor. He is requested to accompany Captain George Williams (played by Samuel Jackson) on a diplomatic mission to Congo for a friendly visit to King Leopold’s territory. The covert purpose is to investigate a suspected slave trade encouraged by the government of King Leopold.

This is where history meets fiction – as a Captain George Williams did indeed go to Congo, discovered and reported on atrocities committed by the private militia on the Congolese people. In the movie, there is a larger plot afoot – King Leopold plans to mine the diamonds of Africa and couple it with underground slave trade to become the richest kingdom in all of Europe. This strategy is masterminded by Captain Léon Rom (played reliably and effortlessly by Christoph Waltz) who is driven by ambition and pure evil. To achieve this he needs to deliver Tarzan to Chief Mbonga, the tribal chief who owns the diamond regions.

Tarzan and Jane’s down-the-memory-lane trip turns sour pretty soon as their host village is attacked and Jane is kidnapped. The movie now follows the predictable path; Tarzan must rescue his Jane and save the people of Congo from Rom’s devious plans.  And so he does, swinging gorgeously from vine to vine, fighting apes and jumping across trees through the forests of Congo!

The very buff and good looking, Alexander Skarsgård plays an understated, brooding version of Tarzan, rightly so for someone who has spent more time in the wild then in the company of men.  Jane Porter is the only significant female character in the story and Margot Robbie plays her with aplomb. Jane’s character often mocks the traditional role. When the villainous Rum asks her to scream, she throws her head and retorts – “Like a damsel in distress!” She does do a commendable job of putting up a fight, but for the sake of convention and the box office, she is gloriously rescued by Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan tries hard to be politically correct – not an easy task given the original material. The choice of adding a black man as the partner to Tarzan’s journey is very deliberate, as is reference to slave trade, and the colonization of Africa. Somewhere buried in the script there are references to civil war and the cruel treatment of Indians. The movie addresses a lot of political hot topics with a brushstroke without delving into the details.

In the end, in spite of all its ambition, The Legend of Tarzan remains a silly adventure romp.


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Pride & Prejudice

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The 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice surprised me greatly. Having been an ardent fan of the faithful BBC adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, I strongly believed that no other interpretations were required. I avoided watching Keria Knightley’s Miss Bennet for years until the movie showed up on my Netflix recommendation. I am so glad I gave in.
As an adaptation Debora Moggach’s screenplay remains true to the novel. Key turning points and interactions are verbatim from the book. In other places, extensions and improvisation on text adds immense value to the original plot. For instance, Lizzy’s reaction to Charlotte’s engagement is more frank rather than the contained polite one in the book. The first exhchange of dialogs between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy more pointed and sharp – as Austen had intended if not so much written in words.
More than the screenplay, I believe Joe wright brings out the darkness that lies repressed in the pages of the novel. The desperation of the Bennet’s middle class is apparent in the sweaty flutterings of the mother running around an unkempt middle class establishment. The girls are all pretty but they are definitely lacking in urban sophistication – the gap between them and the Bingleys/Darcys painfully apparent. And has Mr. Bingley not always appeared a little dimwitted – so easily persuaded by his friend and sister to abandon his love. In the movie there is no pretentsion – he is decidedly a simple, bumbling good looking idiot. There is some caricturization of all main characters – as if the layer of Victorian proprietary protecting them has been stripped away. The country dance halls are loud and noisy, the village streets muddy and the dresses of the Bennet not always starched clean.
The English countryside is used to its complete picturesque advantages with the camera often sweeping across meadows and hills. The weather is used to accentuate the mood of the storyline.I love the fact that Darcy’s first proposal is in the rain instead inside the Collins’s cottage. The cloudy foggy day adds to the tormented exchange which again does the job of bringing out the undercurrents of passion only implicit in the novels. Lady Catherine De Bourg’s interview with Elizabeth in the middle of the night is truly outrageous and slightly improbable but it adds beautifully to the urgency leading to the ending.
As in the book and in the 1995 adaptation, Elizabeth of this version also goes through a change of heart when her eyes first fall on the grand facade of the Pemberly estate. Future financial security weighs big on the Bennet girls.  It’s also interesting to note that a similar observation is made when Jane confesses her feelings for Mr. Bingley. “Handsome and conveniently rich”, Elizabeth quips to her sister.
In matter of perfmonaces Keira Knightley shines. It is truly her movie – there isn’t much for anyone else to do. Macfayden’s Darcy is more wooden than repressed. I really did not see him as a ‘hero’. All the other big names of British cinema do well to bring the story together.
I highly recommend watching this version. The tone of the movie might bother you a bit but this is a beautiful retelling of a classic with all the focus on the subtext.


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Liked: Gone Girl aka Marriages can be hard

What would happen to your life if one day you come home and your wife has disappeared? Would you worry yourself to death? Or would you send a little prayer of thanks?

What would happen if your wife disappeared and it looks like you killed her?  I bet you would be pretty desperate for her to be found.

 

Poster courtesy contactmusic.com

That’s where Nick Dunne finds himself one day when he returns home to find his wife gone. (If you haven’t watched the movie, then I suggest you stop reading now and rent the DVD!). The cops are called in and find proof of foul play. While surprised by the careless attitude towards his wife’s disappearance, due to lack of evidence they hesitate to bring him in.

Meanwhile -where is Amy? More importantly, who is Amy? Through a series of flashbacks, narrated by Amy as parts of her journal, we get a peek into the Amy’s childhood that overshadowed by her fictional version, Amy and Nick’s early years of romance followed by a crumbling marriage.

In the present, police find holes in Nick’s stories and a trail of clues that convinces them that Amy’s disappearance was an inside job – as in the husband did it. Smiling Instagram pictures with a volunteer, having a mistress and generally not giving a shit about his wife don’t help his case.

Then the police find the golden ticket –Amy’s journal with the last sentence that literally states- ‘He is going to kill me’. A little convenient, don’t you think? I thought so too.

Seriously, if you haven’t watched the movie yet, stop reading now.

Amy was no ordinary mid-west house wife. She was a pretty, highly educated and accomplished city girl. She wasn’t going to stick around in an unhappy marriage that used up all her money. She wasn’t going to get cheated on. She was going to get even and how!

I wasn’t surprised that the elaborate set up was to frame Nick for the murder. What surprised me how Amy chose to punish Nick, or the other men before him. It was as if she was fighting thousands and thousands years of subjugation of wives all over the world. She also chose to punish men by falsely implying them in criminal acts that are most often true against women. She was beating them at their own game. In the end, sure she was a psycho bitch, but all those men, maybe deserved just a little bit of it. To call her a nut job would be over simplification.

Based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, director’s David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a fascinating movie at so many levels. Of the bat, it’s a great who-dun-it. On the next it’s a fascinating psychological thriller with an extremely intriguing cast of characters. At a deeper level, it’s a commentary on mental, sexual and physical abuse in marriages presented through a distorting looking glass. There is no justifying the crimes that Amy commits but what’s horrific is that how easily true all her claims could have been. Gone Girl is also a commentary of the invasion of media into our lives and how critical it can be in determining one’s fate. Nick’s concern is not limited proving his innocence to the system, but also to the public. His wife is missing and he has to come on talk shows to explain himself.

Rosamund Pike has the right mix of vulnerability and steely determination to be Amy. She clearly overshadows the rest of the cast. Ben Affleck is ideal for the role of stone faced Nick. The tone of the movie is dark, even the early happy days in New York are shot in the cold winter. It’s not a happy movie, but it is extremely entertaining.


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2014 – The Year of the TV

2014, was my Year of the TV. A new baby at home and a DVR service courtesy DirecTV meant that I could relax my exhausted mind with endless TV shows and movies. New parents often tell me that when you have a child, you never get to watch a movie again. In our case, watching TV was the only mode of relaxation that involved the least effort and the maximum returns when the baby was asleep.

The whole year is a blur and it’s hard to remember what all drivel I sat through, but a few things stand out – because there were really good or really bad. As 2014 comes to a close, over the next 1 month I am going to reviews on everything I liked, loved or hated.