Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fearless - Movie Review

Meditation has many forms. Silent introspection of one’s inner self, sitting on top a hill for hours, as rewarding as it might personally be, really doesn’t translate into great cinema. Martial arts in its purest form, is another form of meditation. It is the painstaking pursuit of a singular goal, of mastery over a form, with great dedication and sacrifice. There are few subjects in this world that are so steeped in spirituality and yet have such an exuberant, entertaining form of expression.

Jet Li’s “Fearless” (if you are not already aware, Jet Li is planning to quit making martial arts movies, and this is apparently his last one), tells the story of the real life martial arts guru Huo Yuanjia at the turn of 20th century China. Growing up in a martial arts household, Huo has a natural predisposition to street fighting and bravado, and great disinclination towards academic learning. Growing up, his only ambition is to be the unchallenged champion of the Tianjin province. Of course, graver things happen to Huo and the ones around him, pushing him into a dark phase of his life. When he emerges out of this, his talent is co-opted by wisdom, and bravado is replaced by responsibility.

The story follows the predictable arc of martial arts flicks. And all these issues have been dealt with much more skill and depth in previous films (one example is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). But, unhindered by a weak screenplay, this film holds together remarkably well. The early parts of the film have a more authentic approach, reminiscent of the early films in this genre - by employing a more in-your-face approach, exaggerated emotions, melodrama, and caricaturish characters (compared to a more irony-infused approach in recent films).

There are some wonderfully crafted fight sequences along the way. One that needs mention is the sequence staged on a wooden platform 200 ft above the ground, with stand alone wooden bars serving as steps- a vertigo inducing thrill ride. These fights, while excellent in their own respect, suffer from the huge shadow cast by films like “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger…”, and fail to measure up their exacting standard.

The film explores the idea of competitive sports with great wisdom. The practitioners of martial arts use competition as more of a stock-taking exercise, than as an end in itself. In a way, worthy competitors are our greatest companions. They are among the few people who fully understand the toil and courage needed to achieve a level of excellence (in any field), leading to an un-spelt camaraderie and respect for each other. Our fiercest competitors might be our greatest motivators and closest collaborators (more than we might care to realize or admit). But the characters in “Fearless” realize this, admit to this realization, and celebrate it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Illusionist – Movie Review

“The Illusionist” is an immaculately executed period thriller. What it lacks for in originality and plotting, it more than compensates with rich detail and deft storytelling. “The Illusionist” tells the story of Eisenheim (played by Edward Norton), a magician in the early 20th century Vienna. As a young boy, growing up as a cabinet-maker’s son who is smitten by magic, Eisenheim falls for and has a short, passionate and ill-fated relationship with the young duchess Sophie. When their ill-botched plans to elope are terminated by the powers that be, Eisenheim disappears into the wilderness, only to reappear years later as a supremely talented illusionist. As mandated by the law of romantic storytelling, their paths cross again, and in no time Eisenheim and Sophie are passionately in love again (the adult version this time).

Where is the fun in the world if everyone gets what they want, so the plot thickens with the appearance of vested interests, villains, and almost-villains-whose-conscience-is-awaken-at-the-right-moment. The crown prince of Vienna, Leopold, has plans of his own to get engaged to Princess Sophie, and other plans of larger reach such as reorganizing the power structure of the royal house of Vienna. Leopold is aided in this scheming by his executive-lynchpin Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). “The Illusionist” waves this yarn of political intrigue, bureaucratic dogma and dilemma and period drama around the romantic thread.

The way Eisenheim’s shows are staged (or filmed rather) needs special mention. The introductions by his manager have the right dosage of awe-inducing hyperbole. And then Eisenheim walks on to an empty stage. There are no distractions on the stage- no gadgetry or gimmicks, or flashy clothing. The lean Eisenheim fills the stage with just his persona and presence. Edward Norton was born to play this role. He slowly tilts his head and starts speaking, and his words arrive with a sense of finality to them. It’s like his actions and words have been long set in motion, and they are just filling their logical positions like a domino set in motion. Paul Giamatti, Hollywood’s penance for the likes of Steven Segal, enriches the role of the inspector with his full-throttled approach. All this works because of the perfect setting of tone and atmosphere executed with ample help from the composer Philip Glass, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and cinematographer Dick Pope.

A word about the moustaches in the film- they appear in all shapes, sizes and vigor. Apparently, in this movie, the more powerful you are, odder-looking and vigorous your mustache will be. The actors should have demanded for a mustache-allowance for sporting these specious looking beings.

The movie has you in a spell during its entire duration, which you willingly surrender to. When you walk out of the theater, the spell vanishes, but, what fun while it lasts!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Wicker Man - Movie Review

Sometimes movie-watching is like riding a roller-coaster - you end up exactly where you started, but the thrill you experience during the ride is all you are looking for. Examples of this would be Terminator 2, True Lies. Sometimes it is like climbing a mountain - you sweat and toil during the climb, but the view it affords in the end is worth all the effort - it gives a glimpse of life you are willing to work for. Watching "The Wicker Man" is like boarding a flight to go to some exotic destination, you sit in the plane on the runway waiting for it to take off, and at the end of two hours, you are simply informed that was the journey and are asked to get off. The journey is neither worth the destination, nor the destination worth the journey.

Edward Malus (Nicholas Cage), a sheriff whose daily work is patrolling the highways, gets a letter from his former fiancee'(who left him for apparently no good reason, a few years ago), asking him for help in finding her now 5-year-old daughter who has mysteriously disappeared.

After undergoing the necessary emotions, Malus decides to go to Summersisle - the location of the girl's disappearance- which is an ominous and mysterious farm community located in an island in the Pacific Northwest. Malus is confronted by the weird inhabitants, their strange customs and hostile attitude during his search for the missing girl.

Under normal circumstances, a half-way decent screenplay could have extracted an amusing movie out of this premise. Not here. The movie misfires on all cylinders. Brilliant actors are criminally wasted - Nicholas Cage gallantly strives to save the movie with his commitment and skills, but to no avail. The grand dame of method acting, Ellen Burstyn, looks outright silly- now that is an accomplishment. Even the gifted composer Angelo Badalamenti, the genius who churns out masterpieces for David Lynch, provides an ever present, rankling background score that is more a nuisance than anything else. The supporting characters are so witless and clueless, they seem to exist just to mouth some cryptic-sounding blabber and squint and stare pointlessly. Once the movie shifts to the island, there is not a single exchange that seems authentic or sounds true.

Of course, the movie tries to execute a slew of textbook horror movie tricks. But in an un-engaging narrative, they look like the tricks of a pathetically exposed magician, who is determined to continue performing. Here is a tip - if a studio withholds the press screening of a movie before its release (as it happened with this one), there is a message to be heard - don't waste your time by even bothering to try it. Let the movie critics be the ones to voluntarily subject themselves to these kinds of exercises in pointlessness. Dear readers, listen and heed.

Note: This article was originally published in