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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas is seen as an iconic movie, taking the role of a mafia man (without getting into the role of a mafia boss as in Gangster) through 30 years of his file, from a childhood yearning to be a man of power and money, to a final stage of obscurity in the Witness Protection Program, a man hidden by the Government to keep him safe from former companions (who have been betrayed). After all, in the mafia, the code of silence, 'omerta' is one of the most powerful weapons and breaking that is liable to lead to expulsion and enmity (and enmity with the mafia means death).
The number of Italian-Americans involved in the mafia is a very small fraction of the US, but the influence on the crime scene, and the level of intrigue in knowing more about their criminal activities has always had a very strong attraction for the US movie market and for audiences (and hence the large number of successful movies detailing various elements of the mafia). Goodfellas is probably one of the best in the league, and has been counted as among the top 100 movies ever made.

Goodfellas (1990)
The movie is based on a true story, about a small-time gangster of Irish-Sicilian origin (and hence not a true Sicilian, and hence never be able to be a 'made' member of the mafia. Unless you were a pure-blood Sicilian, you could never be a full member) called Henry Hill. Eventually Henry reached a situation where he squealed on his friends (or in legal parlance, he helped the police and FBI break up an organized crime gang) and had to be put in the Witness Protection Program for his own safety. This real life story was captured in Pileggi's 1985 non-fictional book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family.
Goodfellas depended on the acting capabilities of a few prime actors:
Robert De Niro playing Jimmy Conway
Joe Pesci playing Tommy DeVito
Ray Liotta playing Henry Hill
Lorraine Bracco playing Karen Hill
Paul Sorvino playing Paul Cicero
And, luckily for the movie, and for us, these actors delivered. To portray a good mafia movie, there has be to a certain inherent level of violence shown both in actual physical violence as well as being able to display a force through acting and dialogues, and it all seems to have come together. Goodfellas garnered 6 Oscar nominations in all (Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay). It must not have clicked with the voters though, since it was able to get only one Oscar - Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Joe Pesci.
In a Italian-American neighborhood in the 1950's, mafia members had a certain attraction for boys growing up due to the easy money and power they projected, and Henry Hill was one of the boys so impressed. Eventually, he quits school and goes to work for the local mobster Paul Cicero and grows up in this company, learning the ropes of theft. He gets help from Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and associates with a violent sociopath Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They indulge in stealing cargo from the airport and make a pretty penny out of this racket. Henry also falls for a Jewish girl, Karen who initially is put off by him, but slowly gets intrigued by the mafia and the different life it entails for a member.
They (particularly Tommy) get more vicious, and eventually indulge in the ultimate sin, killing a 'made' mafia member without sanction, and hide the body so as to seemingly escape the responsibility and retribution. One of their activities in Florida (hanging a gambler over the lion cage in Florida zoo) gets them 4 years in the slammer, a period when Henry is left adrift by his friends and he has to start indulging in dealing drugs to stay afloat (and which also starts his downslide). When Henry gets out of jail, he continues to indulge in the profitable business of drugs despite Paul Cicero's express disapproval.
The downfall of these gangsters continue - primarily displayed in 2 separate situations. In the first one, after a major robbery, Jimmy starts killing off his associates because they start flashing their wealth, something that could draw attention. And then Tommy is killed due to his role in the earlier unsanctioned killing of the mafia member, Billy Batts.
The day which changes Henry's life occurs on Sunday, May 11th, 1980, when Henry is involved in many separate things. He has to coordinate a cocaine shipment, meet his mistress, get his brother from the hospital, cook a meal for his family, all the while when he is suffering from lack of sleep and an overdose of drugs; on top of everything, he is under federal surveillance. Eventually, he is arrested by the police; he is bailed out by his wife but the family becomes penniless as she had destroyed the entire cocaine shipment in the process.
Now Henry starts feeling abandoned, and not only abandoned, as being marked for elimination. He decides to turn approver, and break the code of silence. He and his family enter the federal Witness Protection Program, disappearing into anonymity to save their lives, but not before he testifies against Paulie and Jimmy in court.
The movie was a great review hit and earned around $47 million dollars, and also cemented Martin Scorsese's reputation as a great director. Scorsese wanted to depict the film's violence realistically, "cold, unfeeling and horrible, and that was the effect that the film's critics and viewers got to see.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vertigo (1958)

Imagine not being able to stand on a tall step-ladder because of the fear of heights - called as acrophobia. This fear forms the basis for the movie, now known as one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movies, and part of any list of the top 10 movies of all times. The movie however did not always have that reputation. When it released in 1958, it did not create much of a stir, and got a total of 2 Academy nominations (nominations in technical categories - Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White or Color and Best Sound). It did not win a single Oscar, and was essentially not acclaimed for some time.
And then came the re-evaluation. In the 1960's, the movie started catching the attention of critics and reviewers, and got much more attention when it was re-released commercially in October 1983 and then on home video in October 1984. In the next few years, Vertigo was recognized as being among the best films ever made. Alfred Hitchcock rated it as his favorite movie.

Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock
The movie was an unusual movie in the sense that it combines the familiar Hitchcock trait, obsession, with some great sets, a story that is very gripping. Adding a touch of the paranormal to this story also enriches the whole movie; when coupled with a great double role by Kim Novak and the obsessed role played by Jimmy Stewart make this movie worth watching in a repeat mode. For those who have not seen the movie, it is worth watching.
The movie is shot in some great locations in San Francisco, and a great many of the fans of this movie make it a point to visit them. Some of the locations features in the film include such locations as Fort Point at the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Muir Woods, Mission San Juan Bautista, Mission Dolores, Palace of Fine Arts, and a few others.
The movie is all about the obsessions of a former police detective John 'Scottie' Ferguson. He has always suffered from acrophobia (fear of heights) to some degree, but this develops into a full blown acute fear when he watches his police partner plummet to death during a chase on rooftops (Scottie himself is clutching onto dear life on his fingertips). It is now of the level that he cannot continue in the police force and resigns.
And this fear forms the backdrop of the movie. At such a time, he gets a case from an old wealthy friend, Gavin Elster, to have his wife Madeleine followed. Elster believes that Madeleine may be possessed by the spirit of a woman called Carlotta Valdes who killed herself a 100 years back. And Madeleine plays the part, visiting the grave and moving around in a trance. At one point, Scotties saves her when she throws herself into the San Francisco Bay. They are traveling together when she wants to visit the Mission San Juan Bautista, and then runs up the bell tower. Scottie is unable to follow because of his acrophobia, and can only watch in horror as she throws herself off the tower to her death.
Scottie suffers from depression over this whole incident, and starts to go back to the places that he visited along with Madeleine. And then he meets Judy Barton who looks a lot like Madeleine. She does not tell him the truth about being hired to act as Madeleine while Elster uses Scottie as a pawn to actually throw his real wife off the tower (she writes a letter to Scottie about this, but destroys it soon enough). However, Scottie's obsession with Madeleine starts to show, making Judy dress up like Madeleine (including even the hair style).
Eventually Scottie forces her to go up to the top of the bell tower, and she confesses the truth to him, making him rage at her. However, Scottie has made it to the top of the bell tower, and this emotional turmoil causes him to lose his fear of vertigo. They reconcile, and then Judy pays a terrible price for his escape from acrophobia. She gets scared of a shadow (a nun) and falls down; Scottie is able to look down at her, thus showing that he has lost his fear of heights, but at a massive price.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile is an incredible movie, at one level set in the depths of human despair (where a person can be convicted for a crime to a large degree because he is of an oppressed race (an African-American) in the depths of the American South in 1935 (as racially discriminating a society as possible), and at another level, about the goodness in a person and the gifts that he imparts. The movie is based on a Stephen King novel (published in 1996), and touches on supernatural and paranormal settings in an American prison based on the arrival of Coffey, a convicted murderer waiting on death row.
The movie is set entirely in flashback, with the recounting of the whole tale done in flashback, with one exception, a stunning revelation in the present by the main speaker (currently in a nursing home). The movie was nominated for 4 Academy awards,
* Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role — Michael Clarke Duncan
* Best Picture — David Valdes, Frank Darabont
* Best Sound Mixing — Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Michael Herbick, Willie D. Burton
* Best Adapted Screenplay — Frank Darabont

The Green Mile (1999)
However, the movie did not win any of the awards that it was nominated for. It did win other awards, just not the Oscars. One thinks that was a miss. The Green Mile may feel slow to some, but like the director Frank Darabont's earlier Stephen King adaptation, The Shahshank Redemption, the movie is very well adapted from the book, and builds up the whole concept of life in the prison, and then introduces the pivotal character, the Black condemned prisoner on Death Row. Most people will not fail to be moved by this film, by the emotions, and by the state of affairs in which a person is condemned to die even when you know that he is innocent because that is the way things used to happen at that time.
The Green Mile refers to the last stretch of green linoleum that condemned prisoners on death row had to walk before they met their fate on 'Old Sparky', the electric chair used for executions. Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), an elderly man in a nursing home, comes in contact with a sadistic employee, which eventually causes him to remember an equally horrible employee (in 1935) along with the great giant Coffey, executed despite being innocent.
Paul is the corrections officer incharge of Death Row inmates and it is his responsibility to take a prisoner on the 'Green Mile' - the last trip of the prisoners. His life takes a turn when a new prisoner arrives. John Coffey (a great role by Michael Clarke Duncan), a great black giant standing 7 foot tall has been convicted of raping and murdering 2 young white girls and is now in Death Role, awaiting his turn with Old Sparky. Soon, they discover something strange about this slow and gentle giant. He is able to display great healing powers by bringing a mouse (Mr. Jingles) back from the dead, cures the urinary infection of Paul, and for good measure, also saves the tumour struck wife of the warden, Hal Moores (James Cromwell). He cannot explain what he does, but he has some great powers.
Into this mixture arrives a sadistic guard, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison). He is related to the governor, and is able to be sadistic and obnoxious due to this connection. Nobody can control his sadism and ill-treatment of prisoners due to his connections, but a chance comes when a new prisoner William Wharton (Sam Rockwell) arrives. Coffey comes into contact with him, and realizes that William was the actual killer of the 2 girls for which Coffey is on death row. He then displays his powers, getting Wetmore to shoot William, and then to lapse into a catatonic state from which he never recovers. When Paul asks Coffey about all this, he gets shown a vision by Coffey of what actually happened, something that Paul is not able to endure.
However, in spite of his innocence, Coffey is executed in the prison; but this is not the end. Paul, due to physical contact with Coffey, has gained mightily in terms of a life-span. The mouse Mr. Jingles, whom Coffey brought back, is still alive after 50 years, so Paul can only wonder what will happen to his life span. He is already 108 years as of now (as he explains), has outlived his friends and relatives, and feels that the burden of life (which will go on and on - his own Green Mile) is a punishment for having watched an innocent man executed.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino is extremely famous for his 1994 picture 'Pulp Fiction' starring John Travolta, but he had made a name for himself right from the first picture he did called 'Reservoir Dogs', released in 1992. It was an independent picture, but boasted of a pretty good cast and made a lot of name for itself, and continues to make a name for itself on the DVD circuit. It shook audiences all over with its pace, scenes incorporating flashbacks from the past, and the sheer poetry of the action (mostly in a warehouse).
The tagline for the movie was a good indicator of how the movie would be like: "Seven Total Strangers Team Up For The Perfect Crime. They Don't Know Each Other's Name. But They've Got Each Other's Color". The movie was a good indicator of how Tarantino's movies would turn out - lots of references to pop culture, violent crime, great dialogues, and a story that moves back and forth between the past and the present.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The movie stars an impressive cast of people in the main roles of the perpetrators of a jewelery heist, but without disclosing their names (they are named after colors - Blue, White, Pink, Orange, Brown, Blonde). The cast of the movie is:

# Harvey Keitel as Mr. White / Larry Dimmick
# Tim Roth as Mr. Orange / Freddy Newandyke
# Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde / Vic Vega
# Chris Penn as "Nice Guy" Eddie Cabot
# Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink
# Quentin Tarantino as Mr. Brown
# Lawrence Tierney as Joe Cabot
# Edward Bunker as Mr. Blue
# Randy Brooks as Holdaway
# Kirk Baltz as Marvin Nash

And that is the main cast of characters. There is no female speaking role in the movie, truly making this a man's movie - guns, violence, action, shootouts, and so on. Surprisingly, for a movie that is seen as such as a landmark and the first film of an accomplished film-maker, the origin of the movie was on a very small scale. Tarantino (working as a store clerk) was going to shoot it on the overall budget of $30,000 with a very limited cast. However, Harvey Keitel got to see the script, and wanted to get involved, including putting in 1.2 million dollars of his own money for financing, and appearing as one of the pivotal characters.
The movie does not have a complex story, primarily focusing on the aftermath of a jewelery heist that goes bad (police get involved and hostages get shot). There is no footage of the actual heist, the story is more focused on the going-ons when the robbers reach their pre-arranged meeting point (a warehouse). There is an incredible amount of suspicion that the whole plan had been leaked to the police, growing to the point that there is a firm belief that one of them is an undercover policeman.
Joe Cabot along with his son, 'Nice Guy' Eddie hires 6 people for a heist (the 6 don't know each other) - revealed in a flashback (the hiring is done separately for Mr. Blonde, with the others being made the offer in a group session).
The heist is a disaster, with 2 of them (Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue) getting killed while making their getaway, and Mr. Orange getting shot in the abdomen. The robbers reach the warehouse in different groups (with Mr. Blonde having also brought along a captured police officer Marvin Nash). There is an increasing amount of suspicion about one of them being involved in the cops, and (in an iconic scene), Mr. Blonde tortures the police officer with a knife, finally cutting his ear off. However, as he is about to burn the police officer, he gets shot (by the undercover police officer).
This is when the identity of the undercover police officer is revealed to the audience, but the others do not know. As more of them reach the warehouse, there is an immense amount of suspicion and tension, culminating in a Mexican stand-off where they all point their guns at each other, and then.., shoot each other. At the end, the undercover police officer (Mr. Color !) is left, but he reveals his identity (to the person who led the mission and who refused to believe in his guilt) and finally gets shot.
The movie is worth watching, just for the scenes at the warehouse interspersed with scenes of flashback; it makes for a taut storyline, and you can really see the suspicion and tension in everyone's face. If you have not seen the movie, see it and figure out why Tarantino has the reputation that he has gained.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rebecca (1940) - A masterful tale

The producer David O. Selznick had just had a great movie the previous year (Gone with the Wind - 1939), and signed on Alfred Hitchcock for the first Hollywood movie by Hitchcock (his earlier movies were all British). What is less known is that in the entire fabulous career of Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca was the only movie that won him a Best Picture award. And that too in the year 1940, when competition was fierce with the movie, 'Grapes of Wrath', 'The Great Dictator', and 'The Philadelphia Story'.
Rebecca was conceived on a grand scale, and was fairly expensive to make. Based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier (published in 1938), it cost a bit more than a million dollars to make. Rebecca also starred the leading star, Laurence Olivier in the lead role of Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter (her first name is never revealed in the movie), George Sanders as Jack Favell, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers.

Rebecca (1940) - A masterful tale

The movie follows the book accurately, except where the Hollywood Production Code of that time intervened (the murderer of a spouse had to be shown as being punished), and hence in the book, while the husband murders the first wife; in the movie, the death is an accident.
The movie is renowed for its Gothic look, and for the sheer suspense ! There are very few actual characters in the movie, and all of them had to play pretty good roles if the movie had to have an impact. The overall movie is very impressive. The movie dwelt on the phrase used in the book 'Last night I dreamed that I went to Menderley again' by advertising its posters with the following line: 'What was the secret of Manderley?'
The movie was a great success, both critically and financially. It got a total of 11 nominations and won 2 awards:

# Best Actor in a Leading Role - Laurence Olivier.
# Best Actress in a Leading Role - Joan Fontaine.
# Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Judith Anderson.
# Best Director - Alfred Hitchcock.
# Art Direction, Black and White - Lyle R. Wheeler.
# Special Effects - Jack Cosgrove, Arthur Johns.
# Best Film Editing - Hal C. Kern.
# Best Music, Original Score - Franz Waxman.
# Best Writing, Screenplay - Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison

The movie won these 2 awards
# Best Picture - Selznick International Pictures - David O. Selznick.
# Best Cinematography, Black and White - George Barnes

The movie depicts the emotions of the novel pretty well, taking us through the tale of a young girl who suffers through emotional turmoil as she feels inadequate when constantly compared to the first Mrs. de Winter (Rebecca), who was very sophisticated, and apparently very suitable to the role of being an aristocratic lady; and Maxim was apparently very much in love with her; if all this emotional burden was not enough, there is the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who was very much fond of Rebecca and spares no opportunity to remind the second wife of the supremacy of the first wife, going as far as to tempt her to end her life. This was a superb role of the housekeeper, and was a critical element of the movie.
The second Mrs. de Winter was an assistant to an elder haughty American lady vacationing in Monte Carlo, when she mets Maxim, elder to her. Soon enough they hit it off and Maxim proposes to her. She comes with Maxim to the estate and to Manderley, the mansion. The young bride is somewhat overcome with being the mistress of this large aristocratic and having a team of servants to run the mansion. And then she meets Mrs. Danver who continually reminds her of the greatness of Rebecca, to the point where the second wife starts feeling that she does not know why Maxim married her. At one point, she is almost about to give it all up when there is a massive surprise; the boat in which Rebecca died has been found.
And this is the element of total surprise; the oh-so-perfect Rebecca was in fact a promiscuous lady whom Maxim hated within a few days of marrying her. She had affairs a plenty, and taunted Maxim that he could not divorce her because of the status and name of his family. But she had pushed Maxim to a stage when he was on the verge of killing her, and he almost did (she had an accident during the confrontation and dies; as opposed to the book where Maxim killed her). He then puts her body in a boat and scuttles the boat; but now her boat and the body has been found and Maxim is now in threat of being held responsible.
He finally gets free from suspicion, but the more important emotional upheaval for the second Mrs. de Winters is that she knows now that Maxim hated Rebecca; such an immense boost it gives to the emotions of the almost scarred new wife; she is now ready to assume her responsibilities as the true mistress of the mansion and the strength of the marriage. Everything happy ? Not quite. The by now deranged Mrs. Danvers cannot accept that the second wife will be the happy and successful wife, and sets fire to the mansion causing it to get destroyed. And that is how it ends, they move away from there, and Manderley is now in ruins.

The Hitchcock collection:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Graduate (1967) - the angst of youth

The Graduate was a very successful movie; it seemed to epitomize an entire generation which did not know what to do with life. There was a gap between them and their parents, and the movie displayed this gap pretty incredible and very realistically, although with a comical touch. This was pretty much demonstrable in the sequence when the protagonist appeared in a scuba suit in a party (as desired by his parents) to show off the newest acquisition.
There were many other touches in the movie that are worth remembering, such as the romance with the elder lady (of a different generation - his father's friend's wife), the nonconformity with what he is doing (or not doing) doing in his life and a mismatch with what his parents are expecting, the utterly blissful Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. Now imagine all this being displayed to America of 1967; The Graduate was an incredible hit. The movie cost $3 million to make, and earned $104 million.

The Graduate (1967) - the angst of youth

The movie earned a total of 7 Academy Award nominations, with 3 of them being acting nominations, for Dustin Hoffman, Bancroft and Ross. The additional nominations were for Best Cinematography, Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. The movie eventually won one award for Best Direction for Mike Nichols.
Why did the movie strike a chord so instantly with people of that generation ? There are many reasons, and quite a few of them are applicable to people even now (in fact, would be applicable no matter whether you are in 5 AD or 2015 AD). Some of the phrases used in the movie became incredibly famous, and would be readily apparent to anyone who has watched the movie such as:
1. "Are you trying to seduce me Mrs. Robinson?" (when the newly graduate Hoffman is being seduced by his father's friend's wife, but is not sure as to how to proceed, or whether what he thinks is actually happening; eventually he does start an affair (clumsily) with her after a few days)
2. "Plastics!" (Just a single word phrase, but with a whole lot of meaning; used by a supposedly wise father's friend as to what to do in life - become more corporate and shallow; decidedly not advice to work in the area of the plastic industry)
3. The movie advertised itself through the following phrase used in the posters "This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about his future." (This phrase summarizes the movie from start to finish).
The movie itself is fairly simple. There is this young graduate from an East Coast College, back home after completion of his college course (and where he did fairly well in most streams); he feels totally adrift and alienated in the existing social and sexual mores, and feels totally out of place in his parent's house and their social circle (and hence escapes to his room often enough when a party is going on).
His parents try to encourage him to lead a normal life, meeting young girls and figuring out a life for himself. Instead, he is seduced (with him behaving very clumsily) by the bored Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). They eventually set up a hotel room for their liasions (not much emotional involvement, just the pure physical involvement). His parents, unknowing, push him to move to go on dates with Miss Robinson (the daughter of the lady that he is having an affair with).
He does meet the girl (Elaine), and tries to push her off, but is then intrigued. However, Mrs. Robinson is absolutely against this effort, and discourages Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman). Eventually, Benjamin tells Elaine everything, and she is shocked, enough that she moves away from him. Eventually, she agrees to talk to him, but then she moves away to marry another guy.
And thus the final sequence of the movie. he chases Elaine, first driving to Los Angeles from the Bay Area, then driving back, and finally driving to Santa Barbara (doing more than a thousand miles of driving in search of Elaine). He reaches the church where the wedding is going to take place, and manages to interrupt the marriage. She is extremely impressed by this action-oriented, urgent style of Benjamin, and even though she has already gone through the whole wedding ceremony, she runs out on the wedding and runs away with Benjamin to a future about which they do not know much. They really don't even know whether they love each other. And this is how the movie ends, with being able to see them sitting in the bus as it moves away.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Saving Private Ryan: The real blood and gore of a war

A lot of movies nowadays start in flashback, and so does this movie. It takes a World War 2 veteran, visiting the 'American Cemetary and Memorial' in Normandy; he collapses due to extreme emotion in front of a grave, and that is where the story begins. 'Saving Private Ryan', in addition to being an unusual quest for a soldier in the middle of a raging and fierce war, was also very famous for its portrayal of the battle scenes of the landing of the Omaha beach in Normandy as part of Operation Overlord, the all-out allied effort to re-enter the European battle zone in order to defeat Germany. The battles were bloody, with a great loss of life. Most movies that depict these landings shy away from depicting the horrors of war; something that Saving Private Ryan depicts with a great amount of clarity.

Saving Private Ryan: The real blood and gore of a war

Saving Private Ryan is a film with 2 mega-stars; starring Tom Hanks as the soldier in charge of the mission of finding Private Ryan, and Steve Spielberg as the Director. The movie garnered immense positive publicity and acclaim, ignited a burst of interest in the Second World War, and earned a large amount of money. The movie won a total of $480 million worldwide on a budget of $70 million.
Saving Private Ryan got nominated for a total of 11 Oscars, and won the following: Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Editing and Best Director. However, Saving Private Ryan did not win the Best Picture award (and there are not too many movies that have won the Best Direction award and not won the Best Picture Award).
The movie is supposed to be loosely based on the story of the Niland Brothers in World War 2, where it was believed that only one out of the 4 brothers survived, and the surviving brother was sent back to the United States. The concept is very simple; a senior American General realized that for the Ryan family where all 4 brothers were serving in the allied army, 3 of them had died withing a few days of each other, and the one brother not confirmed dead was missing. And their mother would get the 3 notices of death on the same day. General George C Mashall orders that the remaining brother be found and sent back to the United States to the grieving mother.
The task of finding the Private Ryan (Matt Damon) falls on Captain John T Miller (Tom Hanks) who has managed to survive the landing at Normandy. He receives the order to find Private Ryan and assembles a 8 member team (comprising of the following: Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, and Adam Goldberg) for this mission. Nobody really knows where Private Ryan is, so they move from place to place, city to city trying to find out. They eventually manage to find a friend of Ryan who tells them about his current location: trying to save a strategic bridge over the Merderet River in the town of Ramelle.
By the team they arrive at this location, they have lost 2 members of the team already; they take part in a small battle and defeat a German advance force. They als end up meeting Private Ryan and inform him about his brothers deaths and that they have come to take him back to the US. He refuses to leave his unit, and intends to stay to defend the bridge against a German counter-attack. Captain Miller eventually agrees, and tells his men to join the battle.
The Germans arrive in force and push the Americans back slowly using more men and firepower; just in the nick of time, American reinforcements come and defeat the Germans, but at the cost of Captain Miller. And then the scene shifts back to the present where the man in front of the grave is Private Ryan and the grave is of Captain Miller.
The movie won immense praise for the scenes of the Normandy invasion, showing the losses and horror of the fierce battles. These battle scenes have been portrayed as very accurate, and among the best battle scenes in war movies. The violence depicted is pretty detailed, and this has come in for some criticism. But overall, the movie, showing a post-Normandy mission, has some great scenes and pretty good acting. Easily worth watching.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The fighter - Gladiator (2000)

From time to time, there comes a phase in Hollywood when a film of a certain genre becomes successful and we start to see more movies in that genre coming up. Gladiator is one such movie. Who would have thought that a movie about a Roman General as a gladiator, challenging the might of the emperor, would be successful, or even more surprising, win Oscars for performance, and for the Best Picture ? Gladiator did all that. Gladiator was nominated for 12 Oscars, and won 5 of them, including the coveted ones for Best Picture and Best Actor (Russell Crowe). The overall list of Oscar wins are:
* Best Picture
* Best Actor (Russell Crowe)
* Best Visual Effects
* Best Costume Design
* Best Sound

Gladiator Movie
The movie was fairly expensive to make, costing over $100 million to make. And yet, so powerful was the movie, so attracting was the overall story and the overall grandeur of the action movie that it fairly packed in the dollars, earning worldwide over $450 million dollars. It gave a tremendous boost to the image of director Ridley Scott (since the movie received overall positive reviews and besides was a super-duper success), and to the acting pull of the Australian temperamental actor Russell Crowe (who gained immensely from the success of this movie).
Don't look to the movie as being a history lesson. It is universally acknowledged that besides the characters of the late emperor Marcus Aureluis and his power-hungry son Commodus, there is not much accuracy in the names of the other characters, and even the depiction of these 2 characters does not match their real-life careers. At the same time, there is a much better degree of accuracy in the lives of the people of that time, the scenes, the war, and the overall depiction of the life and death of the system of gladiators.
The film was shot in various locations, with a broad division into 3 parts for shooting. The Germanic war scenes was shot in Surrey in England; the scenes of slavery, desert and gladiator training were shot in Morocco, and the scenes of Ancient Rome were shot in Malta (including building a replica of the Colosseum).
The film starred the following actors, Russell Crowe playing General Maximus Decimus Meridius; Joaquin Phoenix as the murderous emperor Commodus; Oliver Reed as Proximo (the head of a gladiator school); Richard Harris as the wise emperor Marcus Aurelius; and Connie Nielsen as Lucilla (the sister of the emperor).
The movie is essentially a story of betrayal and revenge. Maximus is the general who wins the Romans a powerful victory in Germany and is a hero. The wise but ailing emperor Marcus Aurelius wants to appoint Maximux as the temporary head so that a transition of power to the Senate can happen. The ambitious son of Marcus, Commodus cannot see power going away from him and kills his father. He offers Maximus a high position, but Maximus refuses. He is ordered to be killed along with his family; Maximus manages to escape, but his family is killed by the emperor. Maximus can only bury their bodies and swear revenge on the new emperor.
Maximus is taken away by slave traders, and eventually becomes a gladiator, to serve for the entertainment of Rome's citizens. After initial reluctance, he fights for self-defense and keeps on rising, finally showing himself to a horrified emperor. When the emperor tries to get him killed in the arena, Maximus manages to always win; there is a great moment when Maximus refuses the order of the emperor to kill a defeated opponent, earning the line 'Today a slave is more powerful than the emperor of Rome'.
Maximus is being supported by Lucilla, the sister of Commodus; when they plot to regain his army and overthrow the emperor, Commodus learns and sends his praetorian guard to attack the gladiator camp and defeat the plot. Maximus manages to escape; and then comes the final moment when the emperor decides that he must prove himself once and for all by defeating Maximus in the ring. He gains an initial advantage by weakening Maximus through a knife before the bout, but eventually is defeated. Maximus does not last much longer, as he can see his dead wife and daughter calling him, he manages to get power reverted to the Senate. And then he dies.
The fight scenes in the movie are tremendous, and there is not much hesitation in showing the blood and gore that results from such gladiatorial contests that were fought to the death. In the bigger fight scenes, the action is much faster and complex, but does not seem chaotic.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump was an incredibly successful movie. It earned a massive amount of money, more than $650 million on a budget of $55 million. Additionally, it pretty much cleaned up on the Oscars (and many other awards as well). The Oscars it won were some of the most prestigious ones, namely the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor:
# Won - Best Actor (Tom Hanks)
# Won - Best Director (Robert Zemeckis)
# Won - Best Film Editing (Arthur Schmidt)
# Won - Best Picture (Wendy Finerman, Steve Starkey, Steve Tisch)
# Won - Best Visual Effects (Ken Ralston, George Murphy, Stephen Rosenbaum, Allen Hall)
# Won - Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth)
It picked up a total of 13 nominations. Forrest Gump also won the important trio at the Golden Globe awards (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor).
The Best Actor award did a lot of put Tom Hanks right at the top of the heap in terms of money-grossing abilities and excellent performances. Just the previous year, Tom Hanks had won the Best Oscar for Philadelphia and has also given a superb romantic role for the movie 'Sleepless in Seattle'. The two consecutive Oscars for Best Actor also made Tom Hanks the first Actor after Spencer Tracy in 1937-38 to win the Award for 2 consecutive years).

Forrest Gump (1994)

The name 'Forrest' itself has the potential to be very controversial. The name and the character are related to a famous General Nathan Bedford Forrest, very famous for being a great cavalry leader for the Confederate Side and also infamous for being reputed as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist hate organization. And of course the movie itself during very tumultuous periods of American history, with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and its massive protests, the rise to fame of Elvis Presley as a legend, the Watergate scandal, and the emergence of AIDS as a modern killer disease.
The hero of the movie is unlike most heroes; he has a low IQ of 75, a level that can classify him as dim-witted, but at the same time, there is an inner strength that keeps him going through his life. It's this that keeps him going as he plays an unintended part in many huge events of American history. The movie also played an important part in the use of technology in movies; the scenes where Forrest Gump is inserted into many historical events were very well received and discussed, especially the meeting with Kennedy in the White House.
The movie starts from Alabama, where Forrest is shown sitting at a bus stop, telling his life's story to fellow passengers who are waiting for the bus. This is the way that the story of the movie is told, and the movie also ends at the bus stop as Forrest escorts his son to the school bus. The movie is essentially a flashback, the story of the country told through the character of Forrest Gump. From the beginning, he was very inspired by his mother, particularly 2 sayings that she used to have: "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get" and "Stupid is as stupid does." (Incidentally, as the movie became successful, these sayings came into much more wider usage).
Given that he was slow-witted and also had leg braces, Forrest used to come in for a lot of jibbing from other boys, and at one point, to escape them, he discovers that he can run and run (in the scene where he first discovers this, you can see his ability freeing him from the leg braces as they drop off). This running ability is on display frequently through the film; from the time when he impresses the coach and eventually makes the All American, to rescuing his fellow soldier in Vietnam, to finally meeting his love Jenny (played by Robin Wright) and his son.
His experiences are varied, and given that the movie actually exults in these experiences, it is almost necessary to mention them. Gump is supposed to have inspired the dance gyrations of Elvis Presley after Elvis sees him trying to dance while wearing leg braces. Due to Forrest making the All American team, he meets President Kennedy in the White House, but having drunk so many bottle of Dr. Pepper, he can only mention wanting to go to the loo when he actually meets the President (I really like this scene). He later meets President Johnson after getting the Medal of Honor for saving his fellow soldiers, and later still, after playing some great ping pong with China as part of ping pong diplomacy, he meets President Nixon. Nixon gets him moved to the Watergate Hotel (a better hotel than the current hotel that he was saying at) and Forrest causes the arrest of the burglars that eventually brings down Nixon.
There are some poignant scenes in the movie. All his life, he has been in love with his childhood friend Jenny Curran, but Jenny always had a much wilder life. She refuses every time, once leading him to do a 3.5 years across the country where he becomes a celebrity although no one is able to figure out why exactly he is doing this running. It is only after decades of knowing each other that they finally get married, but she dies shortly after of a Virus (speculated to be AIDS). And the movie ends with him dropping his son off to the school bus.
It is hard to pinpoint why people really liked the movie; there are some great performances by Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, and Mykelti Williamson. But the main reason is that people liked the story of a simple but honest man, and the movie captures a period of history in the United States that was very emotional and controversial. It universally acknowledged that the period from the 50's, from the Civil Rights movement and the Supreme Court ordered desegregation, from Kennedy's election (the rise of Camelot) and his assassination, the Vietnam War and mass anti-war protests, Watergate and the eventual forcing out of a President, all these were times of great change.
Watch this movie if you have not, and I am sure that you will have a reaction; you may like or hate the movie, but you will most certainly have a reaction.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Schindler's List (2003)

Few people who have seen the movie can forget the experiences and depth to which humanity can sink (and rise). For people who are not so aware of what the Holocaust was about, or about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis on the Jews (and on Russians, Homosexuals, Gypsies, and others), the movie brought details in great detail. Using Black & White almost throughout the movie somehow seemed to convey scenes of horror and despair more brutally and clearly.
The film was first offered to Martin Scorcese, and then Roman Polanksi, but then it came to Steven Spielberg, for whom this sort of movie was very different. Steve Spielberg was already known as a gifted and accomplished director, but his movies were more thrillers or science oriented movies (such as Jaws, ET, Indian Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind); and here was this subject (based on the book Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally) about the Holocaust and the genocide directed by the Nazis, primarily at the Jewish population of Europe.

Schindler's List (2003)

It is calculated that the 'Final Solution' propounded by the Nazis (Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, etc) in the early stages of the War killed 6 million Jews in Europe during the course of the war. The Nazis were very systematic and documented everything that they did, and their solution of identifying Jews, separating from the rest of the population, and the concentration camps (that used industrial efficiency mass gas chambers) were a solution for mass murder that humankind was not able to visualize. Even though Western Europe and America knew that Jews were being victimized, the level of killings became known only when the concentration camps were over-run by Russian and American soldiers after the fall of the Nazis, and the true story came to light.
In the midst of this state-directed terror where the civilian population mostly stood by and let mass-murder happen (and Europe had gone through repeated bursts of anti-semitism including mass pogroms in Russia), there are stories of people who shed their normal beliefs and played heroic parts in saving people. One of them was Oskar Schindler. His role in saving around 1,100 Jews from being murdered was recognized and he was in fact feted in Israel in 1958, but the story was never very famous. And then came this movie. The movie did not shy away from presenting his negative points; he was a womanizer and unfaithful to his wife, he did not shirk away from setting up his factory using funds almost forced from the rich Jews who had been forced to live in the ghettos, he exploited Jewish workers, he bribed his way through the Nazi machinery; but all those are human weaknesses when compared with the super-human role he played in bribing the Nazi machinery in order to save 1,100 Jews by getting them employed in his factory. He fought for each worker, sometimes going to great distances to save them when they were mistakenly taken away. At some point during the killings, the impact of the genocide made him a person who was determined to use his cleverness and guile to save people.
And it is this portrayal of a complex person, but one who eventually spent everything he had in order to save people that makes this a great movie. Schindler's List was both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. The movie earned over $320 million compared to the $25 million that was spent, and also earned the movie 7 Oscars including the most important ones - Best Picture and Best Director. The 2 great performances of the movie - Liam Neeson playing Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes playing the brutal SS officer Amon Goth (later caught after the war and hanged for crimes against humanity) were both nominated for Academy Awards, but did not win.
The movie is essentially about Oskar Schindler, out to make an opportunity from the war effort. He sees that war will need supplies, and he proposes to supply crockery to the army; with funding and labour from the oppressed Jews. Through a measure of drinking and fraternizing with the Nazis, he succeeds in getting started; he is not great at running his business but has some excellent support from Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley in a fine role) who is a gifted accountant. Running parallel is the horror story of the German Army marching through Poland, defeating the Polish Army within 2 weeks, and starting the first steps of the repression and murder (ordering the Jewish community to assemble in major cities such as Krakow and live in ghettos from where they will soon be marched off to concentration camps) that will become to be known as the 'Holocaust'. Getting papers stamped with a certificate of being an 'essential' worker will save a person, and that is what Schindler promises.
You see Schindler weaving in between the Nazi machinery, using a mixture of bravado and bribes to get what he wants; and woven in between are the brutalities; a group of SS men shoot a one-armed worker declaring him as useless, the Camp Commandment orders people killed when he feels like it or takes a rifle and randomly shoots a prisoner (with blood staining the snow dead), there is the sorting of items picked from Jews sent to the concentration camps (including jewellery, valuables, teeth with gold fillings, you get the idea), the horror of women being separated from their children. Schindler soon gets obsessed with the idea of saving his workers, and by the end of the war, he has managed to navigate the Nazi bureaucracy enough to save more than a 1,000 people.
This is a cold brutal movie that does not hesitate to show the darkest nature of what humans can turn into, but it also shows the essential humanity of a person from whom such actions were not expected. Schindler's List is a must-watch movie, even though it has been a long time since it was released.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Memento (2000) - A great movie

You might find this movie confusing in the beginning. After all, the movie, about a person with a medical condition in which his brain can store no new memories, runs in 2 alternating sequences. One of these sequences is in color, and the other in black and white. The color sequences, in reverse chronological order, depict his investigation into how he came to be into this condition that he is in as well as who killed his wife during a burglary; while the black and white sequence records his speaking with an anonymous phone caller in a hotel room. These 2 alternating sequences converge near the end of the movie into a color sequence.
Now, such a movie might sound confusing; but it is actually a great movie. It requires a great amount of thought and courage to make such a movie, and if done well, it can seem like a breath of fresh air from all the normal thrillers and romances that one sees. However, this same aspect of trying to tell the tale of the movie in the form of these 2 separate narratives can seem strange as well, and there are questions about whether the intention of the director was to actually propound the sequence method and be praised for this new effort, or did he actually feel that this method of telling the tale would actually be the best way ?

Memento (2000) - A great movie

Making such a movie means that the background of the story creation is also a bit different, and so it was in this case. The movie was directed by Christopher Nolan, and the story arose during a cross-country trip in July 1996 by the brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan narrated the story idea, and Christopher liked the idea; pretty soon (in a few months) they were discussing a draft and although the actual movie was different from the story by Jonathan in some aspects, key elements were maintained.
The movie was shot at a very fast clip, from the period of September 7 to October 8, 1999 (a 25 day shooting schedule). After hunting for actors from Brad Pitt onwards, they settled for a non-celebrity Guy Pierce for the main role. The other 2 actors were taken from the just-hit Matrix, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, and they were set to go.
There were some complications in filming since the script called for some of the scenes to flow in a reverse direction, and doing so for scenes where bullets and shell casings (that move at high speeds) were involved was tricky, doable, but more tricky.
The word "memento" means "remember" in Latin, and that is the crux of the movie. Here is this guy Leonard, who was injured on the head during a burglary, and now suffers from a condition known as 'anterograde amnesia', a condition that prevents his brain from forming new memories after the burglary. His wife was raped and killed during the burglary, and he wants his revenge on the killers (he killed one of them during the burglary, but was attacked by the second one and he now wants to hunt for the second one). But how do you do that if you can't remember anything for more than a few minutes, if you can't remember whether the person you met was a person you met earlier in the day or yesterday ?
How Leonard attempts to solve this problem is through a system of notes, a Polaroid 690 camera and the most important information to be tattooed on his body. In scenes, you will see his slight frame covered with tattoos (information), and that is a chilling reminder of the condition he is in.
How does the chronology of the movie work ? Well, there are alternating black and white, and color scenes showing different parts, and so:
When numbering the scenes chronologically, then sorting them how they appear in the film, the pattern becomes more clear. The letters A-V will represent the color scenes (with A happening chronologically first, and V chronologically last), and the numbers 1-22 represent the black and white scenes chronologically. The scenes appear in the film like this:
1, V, 2, U, 3, T, 4, S, 5, R, 6, Q...20, C, 21, B, 22/A
So the two types of scenes alternate. The black and white scenes (numbers) start from the very beginning soon after the injury, and work forward to the climax at 22/A, while the color scenes (letters) work backward from the climax at 22/A. The climax scene (22/A) changes to color halfway through, showing the convergence of the two interlain storylines. The order of the scenes creates confusion in the viewer, just as Leonard is confused, and the climax being in the middle of the chronological story causes a sense of intersection, one forward from the beginning, and one from the end backward.
Overall, this is a movie that grips you, forces you to remain hooked, and if you feel the need to watch a movie different from the others, then this is the movie for you.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Payback: A dark anti-hero character

Payback (both the original (released in 1995) and the new released version (released in 2005)) are dark movies. The new released version portrays a character whose characterization is even colder and darker than in the 1999 movie. The tagline for the movie says it all: "Get ready to root for the bad guy". This is quite literally true as you see a guy, who deceived his wife, and in turn was deceived by her and his partner during a robbery and for good measure, gets shot by them and left for dead, coming back to get his share of money.
The interesting part of this movie was how the original movie by director 'Brian Helgeland' was rejected as too dark, brutal and anti-hero by the distributors and the studio, Paramount and Warner Brothers, and 30% of the movie was re-shot by John Myhre who re-shot 30% of the movie with the aim to make Mel Gibson more palatable to the audience in a funnier and more likable role. The original portrayal was deemed such that it would turn off audiences from the character. Eventually, the director was allowed to re-make the movie the way he wanted and it was re-released in 2007 in the way that the director intended.

Payback: A dark anti-hero character

The movie was never that popular, but it is a great movie. The story-telling is incredible, and even though you know the lead character of Mel Gibson is essentially a bad guy in addition to being tough and brutal, you follow the character and his adventures, and you may end up rooting for him to be successful. The new release improves the movie to some extent by removing Mel Gibson's voice-over, forcing more emphasis on the screen play and the evolution of the character and the story.
The movie is all about revenge, and the determination of a guy who has been wronged. He will withstand torture, use his base cleverness and ruthlessness to get out of tricky situations and continue moving on, with hardly a redeeming feature. The only time when you get to see much of humanity is when he is with his former lover where he shows some emotions and feelings (but not that many). The only other time he shows emotion is when he is being tortured to reveal information, and even in that, he takes a huge risk.
Now, about the original movie storyline (since I saw that first). (If you feel that your suspense about the movie will get affected, stop reading whenever you feel). The movie is about this character called Porter (played by Mel Gibson). You never get any other name, just Porter. Porter at one time was a driver to a call girl called Rosie (Maria Bello) and developed an intimate relationship with her; something that his wife Lynn (played by Deborah Kara Unger) discovered later and which led to his downfall.
In order to earn some money, Porter plans a holdup of a Chinese mafia related operation (an extraordinary dangerous thing to hold up another mafia operation since they would not take kindly to it) with his friend Val Resnick (played by Gregg Henry). The operation is simple, ram their car, beat the shit out of them and take the money. Unfortunately for Porter, both his friend and his wife betray him and shoot him twice (and leave him for dead).
However, they should have confirmed his death. He survived, but does not remember too much except for his identity and the fact that money was stolen from him. And from this point on, the story is incredible as he battles his former partner who has already accepted him as dead and used the payoff money to join an organization called The Outfit. Porter teams up with Rosie again (since she is close to The Outfit), and starts an onward movement to get his money back (it seems almost comical as he is trying to explain how he just wants his $70,000 back and not particularly looking for revenge). He also battles 2 crooked detectives and gets them caught in an internal investigation. The movie carries on with him working his way up the chain (typically by killing people whom he meets), including an encounter with the Chinese mafia whom he manages to defeat and run away from on. The first movie has a bloody scene where he is being tortured by a sociopath with a hammer so as to get him to reveal the location of the son of the chief of the outfit.
Overall, this is a great movie, very engrossing and very enjoyable. It has a fair amount of violence though.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Braveheart: A great movie about a rebellion

Before we start, a couple of warnings. First, the story will start emerging as you read on, so if you feel that an element of surprise is being lost, then stop reading at any point of time. Next, if you are going to treat this movie as a guide to the history of the Scottish rebellion against the British under William Wallace, don't ! There are many inaccuracies in the movie, but they don't detract from the overall movie effect.
This is a great movie, and can also be called an example of life imitating art. The release of this movie in 1995 highlighting the Scottish rebellion against the English rule in the middle ages galvanized Scottish feelings of their own identity. The historic locations portrayed in the film became tourist destinations (and interestingly, so did the battle scene locations in Ireland where most of the fight scenes were shot; the other scenes were shot in Scotland). Some cast members from the movie were also present when the 1997 Scottish Parliament took their seat, having obtained powers under a new deal with London.

Braveheart: A great movie about a rebellion

The movie had Mel Gibson in a triple role, having produced, directed, and starred as the main lead. The movie was pretty successful, having cost around $53 million to make, and earning more than $200 million.
The movie has been praised for the reality of the battle scenes (not the accuracy, but the great detail put into making the battle scenes), for the great musical score for the movie (composed by James Horner, who also composed soundtracks for Titanic, Aliens, and Apollo 13). This was complemented by some great actings efforts; by Mel Gibson who put his heart into the lead role of the reluctant warrior William Wallace; by Patrick McGoohan as 'Longshanks' (aka known as Edward I, the cruel and brilliantly cunning kind of England); Sophie Marceau as Princess Isabelle, the arranged bride for the effeminate son of Edwards I and who also develops a soft corner for Wallace; Ian Bannen as Robert the Bruce, Sr, unable to try for the Scottish throne because of his leprosy, but who is as cunning and will do any amount of treachery for his son Robert The Bruce (Angus Macfadyen).
It seems to have won the critics acclaim as well, being nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and in a mark of the sweep, it won the 2 most treasured Oscars for Best Movie and Best Direction. Overall, the movie won 5 Oscars:
* Best Picture
* Best Director (Mel Gibson)
* Best Cinematography
* Best Makeup
* Best Sound Editing
The story is about a country under the control of a powerful and cunning king, Edwards I. He has also conquered much of Scotland and done so rather brutally, killing William Wallace's father and brother. Much later, when William becomes an adult, he is not a warrior. But when an attack on his wife, the beautiful Murron (Catherine McCormack), by British soldiers happens, William defeats them. However, he is unable to control the consequences; the sheriff brutally cuts her throat, an incident that sets the remainder of Wallace's life.
He is now a man on a quest, and starts attacking the English camp and fort, and becomes a hero and inspiration to Scots. He starts successfully, defeating the English on a couple of occasions, including the great Battle of Stirling. However, he now starts coming up against politics, with the Scottish nobility betraying him at another battle (Falkirk) where he loses. He moves into a guerrilla campaign against the English. During this time period, he meets Princess Isabelle as an emissary of the English king, and they have a brief but passionate relationship. In the last section of the movie, Wallace walks into a trap where he is betrayed by Bruce the elder, and other nobles and handed over to the English.
He is tried for treason, and you have to remember, this was a time when torture was permissible as a penalty. He refuses to acknowledge the authority of the court, and is sentenced to death after being 'purified by pain'. What follows is a sequence of blood and gore as he is tortured to almost death, and scream 'Freedom' with his last breath, and he is then beheaded and body parts sent to different areas to display as a sign of the fate of people committing treason.
William is dead, but he inspires Robert the Bruce and other Scottish to finally defeat the English, and win their freedom.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

You would have heard of the notion, 'Use a thief to catch a thief'; well, this incredible movie takes this notion to a much higher degree. Use the mind of a psychopathic killer to find another one and terminate a series of killings that are happening. The movie, 'Silence of the Lambs' was a terrifying thriller when it burst onto audiences in 1991. Rarely has a movie won 5 or more Oscars, and Silence of the Lambs is one of them. Never before has a scary / horror movie won the Best Picture Oscar, this movie won it. It picked up a total of 5 Academy Awards,
- Jonathan Demme won an Academy Award for Best Director.
- Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster both won Oscars for Best Actor and Actress respectively
- The film won additional Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture
In addition, the performance by Anthony Hopkins as the psychopath in the role of a helper playing a mental cat and mouse game with Jodie Foster was so electrifying that he got the Best Actor award for a role that was the shortest Oscar winning role with only 16 minutes of acting through the movie.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Silence of the Lambs was a tremendous financial success, earning more than $270 million worldwide on a budget of $19 million. But arguably the greatest effect it had was on establishing the reputation of Anthony Hopkins as a great actor. His performance was hailed as a spectacular one.
For all the chill and menace portrayed in the movie, the actual scenes of horror and terror were few, with scenes of actual violence few and far between. The menace was in the depiction, and in the scenes of discussion between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster (4 interviews in all). The discussions between them are one of the highlights between them, with Anthony Hopkins being the expert mind manipulator, and Jodie Foster, the bright but inexperienced FBI rookie.
The movie is about a couple of psychopaths who are cannibals, one of them in jail, and the other outside. There are a number of young woman getting killed and then getting skinned in a gruesome way, and the FBI is desperately trying to find the killer (the more the killings, the more panic there will be in the whole region). The unknown cannibalistic killer has been styled as 'Buffalo Bill'. The only weapon that the FBI has ? It has another equally horrid killer, the former psychologist turned cannibal and serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter in custody (and what a custody ! They have to keep him in a jail with strict security arrangements so that he cannot escape).
The head of the FBI behavioral sciences unit, Crawford manipulates a young rookie, still learning, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to see Dr. Lecter so that he might be more pliant at seeing her and agree to cooperate. And so starts the game. She has been advised to not let Dr. Lecter get too close to her mind, but soon she gives up all those thoughts, lets him peer deep inside her thoughts and mind (and he seems to be amazingly perceptive). Thus we learn the origin of the name of the movie. When she was 10, her father (mother had died earlier) was killed on duty, and she was sent to live with some cold relatives on their ranch. She wakes up one day early, and can hear the sounds of young lambs screaming as they are led to their slaughter, and that sound goes deep into her. She tries to escape from there with one of the lambs, but is caught, and then exiled from the ranch. The sound of lambs screaming remains with her. In the end, when she manages to catch the killer, finally she hears silence, and hence the title.
Things escalate when a Senator's daughter in kidnapped; Dr. Lecter and Clarice talk and negotiate, although she is setup to fail, once with her boss Crawford letting her promise some terms to Dr. Lecter even though those are not to be carried through. Dr. Lecter lets out information about Buffalo Bill slowly, but eventually provides her correct information that lets her find Buffalo Bill (and what a confrontation, scary ! She is fighting an enemy who has night vision glasses in a house with lights turned off - this has to be seen for the chills to be experienced).
The one scene where Dr. Lecter escapes, and you get an idea of why the security on him was required, is incredible. He swats and kills 2 police officers, and you get an impression of the cannibalistic streak. The chill is when he calls her up later as she is being feted, and mentions that he is having a friend for dinner (the double meaning is very obvious); and then you see him eying the warden of his prison Chilton (who used to treat him badly) !!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

What a delightful movie. Could there be a person who has seen it and forgotten about it ? I just could not believe it the first time I saw it; how can you have the imagination to take a movie about 2 young guys caught up in small-town America for a crime they did not commit, get in a cousin who is a lawyer without experience along with his girlfriend, and an old grouchy judge, and come up with a movie that has you laughing away at many points. By the end of the movie, in the discussion about the right car, you are positively at the edge of the seat as the tension shoots up, and you know that something big is going to happen that will turn the case, and it does so happen. More about that later.
The movie was directed by Jonathan Lynn, and did not have a big cast at all, with the 3 most prominent people being Joe Pesci in the role of a struggling lawyer, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini; the late Fred Gwynne playing the hard and grouchy judge Chamberlain Haller, and Marisa Tomei in the award winning role of Mona Lisa Vito (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role). So you start off with these 2 young men from yankee land who while traveling through an Alabama town indulge in some petty shop-lifting.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
In a twist of how guilty conscience can get you into deep trouble, they land into massive trouble. Picked up by the police after the clerk of the shop is shot and killed, they assume that they have been picked up for shop-lifting (they are a bit surprised that shop-lifting is a major crime, but this is Alabama, so ..). In this surprise, when told / asked that they shot the clerk, they are astonished and only managed to ask the same thing. However, the person recording their statement does not read the question and astonishment in the reply and soon they are now being booked for murder. Hardly a good feeling to be booked for murder in a far-off city, and to be told that they have actually confessed.
And this brings their cousin Vinny into the picture. Billy's mom gets their cousin Vinny to take the case (a bit surprising that, after all, if your son was arrested for murder, you would want a first rate defense lawyer, not a person who has spent 6 years getting into the bar and has no trail experience). And this brings Joe Pesci along with his fiancee Marisa Tomei.
Joe Pesci has very little experience as a trail lawyer, and manages to rub the judge the wrong way right in the beginning (and the judge is even more conscious, after all, a lawyer from Yankee land must be made to appreciate the way justice happens in Alabama). Fighting with the judge over his appearance, over the way to speak in court, and over his experience (he has to show the judge that he has trial experience while he does not, and he eventually manages to fool the judge on this point); the scenes with the judge and Joe Pesci are first-rate.
Some of his other cultural experiences are also great, you get to see the distaste when he had to eat grits every day because the motel serves only that for breakfast, about not getting enough sleep because of the thunderous noise made by trains in the night near the motel (affecting his sleep and his preparedness to the extent that he finally welcomes the contempt notice issued to him since that allows him to get a good nights sleep in the jail).
He gets better and better in the courtroom, being able to challenge witnesses, and slowly move towards proving his story that it was a different car, and not his cousins car. This leads up to the great finale where he gets his angry fiancee (angry at him for ignoring her and refusing to take help from her) through her incredible knowledge of cars in order to try and discredit the testimony of the FBI Agent. You have to watch this scene to believe it. Overall, a must-watch movie.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rocky (1976)

This movie was a surprise, a total million-to-one hit when it was released in 1976. Imagine a struggling Italian-American wannabe star by the name of Sylvestor Stallone, who gets inspired by a boxing match that he saw in 1975 between the super boxing champion Mohammed Ali and a challengerChuck Wepner (whose major claim to fame is battling through a full 15 rounds with Ali and knocking him down once). Stallone writes a script and gets a studio to take a look at the script. Well, wonders of wonders, the studio and a pair of producers like the script and offer to buy it from him. And then Stallone springs the surprise, he wants to play the lead role. Imagine an unknown actor who had also starred in a soft-porn movie earlier wanting to play a role that the studio was wanting to offer to one of the macho stars. However, Stallone held out and got the chance of his life, although with a low-budget movie (the movie was so low budget that some of Stallone's family members including his dad and wife played cameo roles in the movie); The movie cost only around $2.1 million to make, and was an incredible hit, making more than $100 million and making the Italian-American a superstar. And then the Oscars came in. The movie won 3 Oscars (including the most prestigious ones of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing; it received a total of 10 Oscar nominations).

Rocky (1976)

The movie was the embodiment of the American dream; work hard, have pride in yourself, catch all the chances you can, put your heart into it, and you will make good. If you watch the movie and see the slow transformation, the scenes of training and the extra-ordinary hard work needed to be able to reach a stage where the challenge to the world boxing champion can seem realistic, then you will realize how appealing the movie actually is. In addition, the shy romance in the movie seems so natural. The music (by Bill Conti) is a perfect accompaniment to the movie, given how it matches the tone of the movie, hitting the emotional chords when required, and matching the hard physical training scenes in the movie. Further, to illustrate how realistic the fight was supposed to be, both Stallone and Weathers suffered injuries during the shooting of the fight scenes from the actual punches thrown. Together, all these factors seemed to come together and made the movie a big hit.
The movie is all about the sudden chance offered to a young man (Rocky Balboa) who is doing a routine job as a loan-collector for a loan shark and also a boxer, and the offer of a chance against the reigning boxing champion is the chance that seems to come once in a lifetime. He grabs the chance, rationalizing that even though the champion is the better boxer and will almost certainly win, it will be a victory for Rocky if he can stay with the champion till the end and not be knocked out early enough. This is his ambition, his driving force in the boxing match. In other ways, he is a normal young man, in love with the sister Adrian (Talia Shire) of his friend Paulie (Burt Young), and the blossoming of the romance is another strong point of the movie, treated by the director with a soft note compared to the hard physical tone of the movie.
The reigning boxing champion of the world, Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers, who played a part in all the Rocky movies till Rocky IV) has an important fight coming up, with the fight scheduled for the New Year's Day of 1976, celebrating 200 years of the American Revolution. (If you know about the boxing world, you will realize the amount of money and prestige staked on these major clashes). However, his opponent has to drop out due to injury, and after looking around, Creed picks up Rocky Balboa to be his match. As in the real life match, everybody decrees that this is a terribly mismatched fight, except for Rocky who sees this as the path out of his current life. In real life, the boxer Chuck Wepner is always known as the boxer who managed to make Muhammed Ali go the full round, and so it was in the movie. Rocky is coached by a crusty old trainer Burgess Meredith (who is a former boxer himself, and sees in Rocky the chance to live his own dream). The selection of Meredith for this character was a very good choice, and you can only watch and wonder as this hard-nosed trainer transforms the rough Rocky into a gem, capable of standing against the world champion, and even knock him down. For what happens in the final fight, you really should watch it yourself. You won't regret it.

Jaws: Fearful of the sea

(This review will contain the story of the film, so if you feel that your surprise of the movie is being spoiled, feel free to stop reading at any point of time)
For thousands of years now, humans have been traveling on the vast waters of the seas and oceans. And just like there are massive predators on land such as tigers, lions and others such, there are massive creatures in the sea. The shark is one such predator, it is the pinnacle of evolution in the water, and has been there for millions of years now. The shark is one of the true rulers of the water, being a very accomplished killing machine in terms of razor-sharp teeth, sensors that can sense animals in the water, and so on. It is only man with his superior technology who has managed to start decimating the shark, and given the fearful reputation of the shark, there are not that many people signed up to save the shark (as opposed to more lovable creatures such as whales, dolphins, and so on). With more research, it has been found that most of the initial theories regarding sharks are more misplaced, they are not natural man-eaters who will sneak upto you when are in water and attack you. A lot of shark-attacks happen because the shark mistakes a swimmer from underneath as a seal.
And then there was this movie. It single-handedly exploited the fear of humans about the unknown in the water; you can imagine the fear when you are going into the water not knowing that there is a shark nearby, and this movie was actually about a great white shark, the largest of the sharks. Shark attacks have happened before, making the story all the more believable, and people did not know enough not to be spooked by the movie.


The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg as a young aspiring director who had just directed 2 movies before this (one of them was a made-for-TV movie). The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, with the general consensus being that the movie was better than the book. The movie was shot in Martha's Vineyard, and had a number of problems during shooting. However, the movie was splendidly made, with the right amount of menace, suspense and horror and was an incredible success (the movie grossed more than $400 million in its release and is still earning from the DVD market; in comparison the total cost of production was only around $12 million). The movie essentially revolves around 3 people, Roy Scheider (as the local sheriff Chief Martin Brody), Richard Dreyfuss (as a shark specialist, Matt Hopper), and Robert Shaw (as the old fisherman who offers to hunt the shark down, Quint).
Imagine the start of a movie that did not have too many movies of the same genre, and suddenly you see a young girl who has gone into the water in some amount of drunkenness, suddenly being attacked by a massive creature, and you don't even see the full size of the creature. And this is how Jaws started. This is a small town 'Amity', dependent on the tourist season for a fair amount of business. A mention of a shark in the water, and you will see tourists voting with their feet and the collapse of the business. On the other hand, if you don't do anything, then any more shark attacks will anyhow be public knowledge, and you risk the lives of innocent people. This is the choice facing newly arrived Sheriff, Martin Brody. He is helped in this decision by the cold nature of the town mayor who can't see the business lost, and constantly over-rules the sheriff.
While the first victim is being evaluated to see whether this is a shark attack, eventually it is business as usual. And then a second attack, where a young boy is killed in a busy tourist beach session almost in front of her mother. It is now open season on the shark, with many shark-hunters going out in all sorts of boats. It also sees the arrival of the know-it-all expert Matt Hopper and Quint (nursing a grudge against sharks when his ship was downed in the Second World War and sharks killed a number of his fellow sailors). In all this, the shark claims one of the hunters; while a different tiger shark is killed and proclaimed as the killer shark, and hence the people are safe now (an illusion that will claim more lives).
These scenes lead onto the final confrontation where the true size of the Great White Shark is revealed to these 3 hunters who are out on a small boat to get the shark. In a cat-and-mouse game with the shark, including a terrifying sequence where the shark actually tears into a metal cage, their boat is almost destroyed by the shark. How do they save themselves and get the shark ?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Apocalypse Now: A very dark movie

(This review will contain the story of the film, so if you feel that your surprise of the movie is being spoiled, feel free to stop reading at any point of time)
There have been many movies made on the Vietnam War, covering a wide spectrum from comedies to gritty to outright patriotic, and many of them cover the angst and the horror of war; however, if you want to see a movie that does not cover the war as much as takes a look into what the horror of war can do to the human mind and spirit, Apocalypse Now is the movie to watch.
This movie is a movie that almost made the director, Francis Ford Coppola (director of the Godfather series), into a mad person. In fact, there is a documentary by his wife, Eleanor Coppola, called Heart of Darknessthat describes the struggles in shooting this movie on location in the Philippines, and makes for a good companion to the movie DVD.

Apocalypse Now
For Francis Ford Coppola, this movie was a mission for him, to the extent that when the financing for this movie dried up, he used the money he made from the Godfather movies as well as a loan in order to complete the movie. The movie was derived from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1899), as well as drawing elements from Herr's "Dispatches" (1977). The movie starred 3 people in great roles along with a number of upcoming actors, with Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall. Coppola had to struggle with both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, with Martin being out of shape, and Marlon not even reading the novel that Coppola wanted him to read.
The movie went way over budget, with a cost of $ 31 million vs a budget of $13 million (and overcoming a typhoon and a near-fatal heart attack for Martin Sheen). The movie finally made good for Coppola, earning over $100 million, and earning respect at the Oscars as well. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing, but the film won only two awards: Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound.
Enough about the circumstances. What was the movie about ? The movie took a army officer, smart, witty, decorated and a war hero, and now a deranged renegade Colonel named Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). In an shock to his system, he had administered vaccination to the children of a village, and then got called back when he was told that the VietCong had cut off the arm of every such child (that war was this brutal). This incident pushed him over the edge, and he moved out of the normal military chain, believing that the war has to be fought at this level. He sets up a small compound in a temple in the jungle, and sets up his own army that treats him like a god, and kills VietCong intelligence agents without mercy. It is decided that he needs to be taken out, executed, and the man who is selected to do it is also decided.
It is Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen), a man who has been inactive for several weeks now in Saigon, whiling away the time and at the starting point of a depression. He is informed by intelligence operatives that he will have to cross the border into Cambodia, and take Kurtz out. He is given a boat to go upstream into the river (representing the actual Mekong) and armed with a squad of 4 ill-fated soldiers, by-the-book Chief Phillips, a Navy boat commander; GM3 Lance B. Johnson, a tanned all-American California surfer, the Cajun Engineman, Jay "Chef" Hicks, and GM3 Bubba Tyrone, also known as "Mr. Clean", a 17-year-old from "some South Bronx shithole".
The PBR (Patrol Boat, River) has a landing zone from where they have to start, and it is here that they meet the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry (Aerial Reconnaissance) commanded by the eccentric Lt. Colonel William Kilgore (Robert Duvall was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor role). The Cavalry has just completed a mission over a target, and when they meet, Kilgore realizes that the starting point has a great beach with 6 foot waves ideal for surfing. It is estimated that they need to make the zone more friendly for starting the mission as well, and hence the Cavalry decides to attack the village located over there.
In an incredible scene, the helicopters attack with advance broadcasting of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' in order to weaken the villagers and the VC over there. The helicopters defeat the village causing mass mayhem, and then a giant napalm strike is used to destroy a forest just for greater safety. At this point, Kilgore goes from the scene, but not before uttering these dialogues, very famous indeed:

"Smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know one time we had a hill bombed...for twelve hours. And when it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em. Not one stinkin' dink body. The smell. You know that gasoline smell. The whole hill. It smelled like...victory. Some day this war's gonna end."

And the boat starts upriver, with a number of incidents including a stop where there are 3 Playboy Playmates, an incident with a tiger, and on. The crew also loses 2 of their men as they approach the compound, and see sights of people who had attempted to get close to Kurtz. As they approach the compound, one of the crew stays back and is eventually killed, another mingles with the natives and Willard is caught and imprisoned. Kurtz lectures Willard (you get a feeling of the horror that must have been witnessed to hear him speak); Willard watches what happens over a number of days, essentially free.
In the final scene (somewhat controversial since a water buffalo was killed for this scene), Willard kills Kurtz with a machete and walks away. Kurtz utters his final words, "The horror... the horror," as he lies dying and these are the words that are repeated as the screen turns black. Coppola so wanted to make this film a black description of the brutalities of war that even the credits of the film are not scrolled.