Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight dawns...

  Ever since that playing card flipped over at the end of 'Batman Begins' to reveal a jaunty smiling clown, a road opened up and appeared to have only one destination – bat heaven, courtesy Christopher Nolan. Hype reached unimaginable heights and expectations hovered on such a colossal unreachable level that it seemed no cinematic effort could possibly deliver... and then came 'The Dark Knight'. It was the film that was supposed to release and prove that too much hype could destroy a film. 'The Dark Knight' has now reached the all-time #2 spot at the US box office with only ‘Titanic’ ahead of it. It has ensured that the superhero genre is never going to go away.

  Before we get too carried away, let’s look at it in context. On first viewing, 'Batman Begins' honestly didn't impress me as much as it should have. What was wonderful was that batman received a much needed shot of adrenaline after the insult that was 'Batman and Robin'. 'Begins' felt like the batman we grew up with and Nolan's vision of the universe just drew viewers in. That universe has started looking a lot like Chicago this time around and that is not a good thing because Gotham really needs to have its own identity.

  So is 'The Dark Knight' the monster vehicle it promised? Like ‘Begins’, it was actually after my second screening that I came to appreciate it more. The Scarecrow was always one of my favourite characters and seeing him in ‘Begins’ was disappointing the first time, but upon further consideration Nolan got a lot about the character right. Having him reduced to a cameo in the sequel is sacrilege but at least it establishes some continuity. On second viewing, what becomes clear is that in spite of my love for The Scarecrow, 'The Dark Knight' does take batman forward in an impressive manner. And yes, it could be comparable to what ‘Empire Strikes Back’ did for ‘A New Hope’.

  This time batman has managed to clean up quite a bit of Gotham but criminals seem to be multiplying and chaos seems to be peaking. He teams with Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and James Gordon (Gary Oldman) to take down the mob. The mob turns to the intellectual psychopath known as The Joker to do their dirty work. But the only thing he is interested in is anarchy and before the tale is through, everyone else will know the true meaning of the word. Is this film the second coming that people are calling it? Not quite but it does up the ante. I love ‘Alien’ directed by Ridley Scott but there is something special about ‘Aliens’ that takes the story a step in a whole new direction. That’s what 'The Dark Knight' does for ‘Begins’. The Joker is a wonderful product of Heath Ledger’s creativity and Nolan’s vision. Christian Bale lets his co-stars shine in this one and they do well. Dent gets his tale of the ‘white knight’, of course culminating in the arrival of Two-Face. Oldman is exemplary as Gordon and Michael Caine, as always, is an able foil for Bale.

  In a lot of ways, 'The Dark Knight' is a standalone tale rather than a sequel and it is a pity that two of batman’s greatest nemeses both hit the screen this time. A little more of the development of the true Two-Face would have been interesting. It is tough to find fault with any aspect of The Joker’s characterisation as it clearly shows that Jack Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t the only iconic portrayal possible. A highlight of 'The Dark Knight' is the interrogation room scene where batman takes his anger and frustration out on the joker - brilliantly brought to life by both actors.

  The ensemble cast is really what makes 'The Dark Knight' work as a film that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually a much more believable Rachel Dawes and Morgan Freeman shows an intriguing side of Lucius Fox.

  With Ledger’s untimely passing, it is unclear whether another Nolan film will be made. If it isn’t, 'The Dark Knight' would be a great way to sign off. If not for anything else, Nolan will be remembered for reminding the audience why batman has been a fan favourite for generations. ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have proved that even when the subject matter is familiar, there is always room for a different vision that can create memorable cinema. Superhero films will never be the same again!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dreary points of view

Film: Vantage Point
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver

  Vantage Point had some potential but once you’ve seen the film you will know beyond doubt that it did not have much of anything else. The movie suffers from the most common film ailment – interesting concept, awful execution. And the filmmakers took some talented actors along for the ride. Maybe the actors thought the script could amount to more than the sum of their parts but they were sadly mistaken.

  Pete Travis directs Vantage Point from a screenplay penned by Barry L. Levy. He does a lot of misdirection with the help of cinematographer Amir Mokri but that does not cover the fact that the film was just going the motions with nothing special to offer. The trailer suggested that maybe something original was in store; perhaps a pulsepounding thriller without a dull moment or at least a popcorn action movie. The thriller feel was what Travis was going for with his idea of retelling an incident from eight different perspectives. The final result actually takes away any pace from the narrative and makes the audience bored with the whole process.

  The crux of the tale deals with an assassination attempt on the US president (William Hurt) while he is attending a terror summit in Spain. The film opens with the first character’s vantage point setting the scene for the events to unfold in an arena with a crowd ready to listen to the president’s speech. The camera stays with a single character for some amount of time as he or she interacts with others and shows what the individual experiences during the assassination attempt. Then, suddenly the scene freezes and rewinds back to a specific time. Then the same assassination attempt scene is played back from another character’s point of view. This should have kept viewers engrossed but by the time the fourth rewind begins, the interest level has already waned.

  So, as Vantage Point proceeds to show how the journalists see it, how the secret service agents deal with it, how a bystander tries to understand it, how the terrorists planned it and any other viewpoint thrown in for good measure, viewers will be forgiven if all they experience is a constant déjà vu effect. Even the acting talent does not do enough to get you riveted. Sigourney Weaver plays a TV news producer in charge of covering the event and her part is finished and forgotten before anything is made of her character. Dennis Quaid appears to be the central character – a secret service agent back after a hiatus and trying to find his feet again. Matthew Fox (of TV’s Lost) plays another agent and Forest Whitaker is a bystander with a camcorder, who inexplicably goes out of his way to get involved.

  As each rewind is completed, a little more information is provided and all the threads are supposed to be tied together in the requisite formulaic huge climax. Unfortunately, there is zero to get pumped up about and the surprises are as clichéd as they come. Levy’s writing takes quite a few sweet liberties with plausibility and serendipity. If director Travis expected the audience to care as he brought all the characters and the narrative together, he should have tried harder to add depth to their backstories. He adds some little bits and pieces so he can keep the tempo going, which just comes off as underdone. Towards the end, there is also an extended car chase sequence inserted which does nothing but prolong the agony. We have already seen Jason Bourne do it all and do it better. Many of the characters’ motivations are an unintentionally tangled web and the dialogues are nothing to write home about.

  Vantage Point is nothing but a stab at an action thriller gone haywire. Somewhere between the constant flashbacks and seemingly extravagant puzzle he was weaving, Travis loses sight of his own vision. A mediocre suspense story is the consequence and an air of campiness descends around all of it. And it is not the so-bad-it's-good feel that makes you want to see the movie. Just listen to what Quaid’s character says at the end for proof that the film inadvertently became campy enough to lose sight of the story it was trying to tell and in this case, that was the final nail in its coffin.

Rating: One out of five stars

(Published in Oman Mirror on March 12, 2008)

Friday, February 29, 2008

Lack of writing time tells as Oscar turns 80

  The 80th annual Academy Awards ceremony should have been an occasion to revitalize the show and bring back the kind of viewer interest that peaked in the 1970s. In the recent past, viewership for awards shows in general and the Oscars, in particular, has shown a steady decline. The reasons range from the waning quality of mainstream Hollywood films to attention spans that are not willing to devote around three-and-a-half hours to watch the ultra-affluent pat themselves on the back.

  The 80th Oscar awards show was an opportunity for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to go all out and bring back what people loved about the Academy Awards in the old days – showcasing the joy the cinematic medium brings and the passion of millions that grow up adoring every aspect of it. Unfortunately, it became clear it was never going to happen when the Writers Guild of America strike almost led to its cancellation. Luckily, the strike was resolved on Feb. 12 but that did not leave enough time to pull together a show that would get people talking and bring them back into the fold. Since the academy bigwigs hate postponements, the decision was taken to cobble together the best show they could.

  The last year has actually had a range of films in various genres that provided choices with the kind of quality not seen for many years. Hollywood’s most prestigious awards show needed to do justice to them and movies like them that have been produced for more than 80 years. With time in short supply, so was the innovative material to put up a grand and memorable spectacle. What they decided to load up on was clips – montages paying tribute to the Oscars and the previous winners. While reminiscing is always fun, some flair and originality could have accomplished so much more. In the end, the hurriedly-written show was just plain underwhelming.

  One of the better parts of the evening was host Jon Stewart, who seemed to revel in the quick-fire arrangements. He trumped his earlier outing in 2006 with a hilarious opening salvo that touched on politics with the verve he does on The Daily Show and more importantly, on the writers strike and movies. In his typical style, he said: “I’m happy to say that the fight is over. So, tonight, welcome to the makeup sex.” The super-humorous comic sketches of the past were missed though.

  The puns about the strike continued through the event with Stewart offering a taste of the padding that producers would have had to resort to if the show had gone on without the writers. To illustrate the point, he showcased amusing montage reels of film tributes to ‘binoculars and periscopes’ as well as ‘bad dreams’. That the writers were on everybody’s minds became clear when the Oscar for best original screenplay was awarded to Juno. “This is for the writers,” exclaimed former stripper Diablo Cody while accepting the honor. Hailed as the newest writing sensation, it was good to see her win in that category though the lukewarm response from the audience to her words took away a bit from the moment.

  Juno was also an outsider for the best picture prize but No Country for Old Men’s quadruple Oscar haul put paid to that hope. Actually, what was heartening to see was that the formidable lineup of films was recognized across the board. Atonement bagged best original score, Sweeney Todd shone in art direction, Elizabeth: The Golden Age got the costume design trophy, and even The Golden Compass managed to sneak in an Oscar for visual effects. Rounding out the pack was triple technical crown winner The Bourne Ultimatum for editing, sound and sound editing. The films may have little in common but they are testimony to the how diverse the offerings were this year.

  The other positive aspect was the acknowledgment of the little films that could in the midst of all the acclaim for the big names that do. The small, independent production Once was in the spotlight with the best original song going to Falling Slowly, a soft ballad that was performed with Glen Hansard on acoustic guitar and Marketa Irglova on piano. Their acceptance speeches were also two of the most memorable of the night. Hansard was so decidedly self-effacing that it just yanked at the heartstrings. An unpleasant side effect of cutting speeches of the winners short with music is how rude the whole process seems. An unforgettable moment in Irglova’s life was almost ruined. In an unprecedented twist, Stewart had the sense to call her back and let her finish what she had to say – she then went on to share some wonderful words about dreams and independent artists.

  The worst part of the show was probably how dull it became due to the fact that there were hardly any surprises, which meant, of course, zero suspense. Different artistes performing the five original songs are usually a highlight but this year, somehow, barring Irglova and Hansard, they came off as mostly drab. Again, the lack of a planning period and a general deficiency of inspiration were evident. 

  All in all, the glorious 80 that Oscar deserved never came and the bright sparks did not quite make up for the rest. For next year, here’s hoping that in a town with so much talent at its disposal, the powers that be choose to invest the most gifted people into the whole process. Then, at least, what is supposed to be tinsel town’s most memorable night might be something truly worth remembering.

(Published in Oman Tribune on February 28, 2008)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tough times in tinsel town

  Hollywood likes to believe that, as time goes on, it experiences more crests than troughs and that no matter what is going on in the world, the ‘show must go on’. But even the staunch followers will agree that a shadow of gloom has settled in as the year 2008 has dawned. The darkest cloud on the horizon has been the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America, which began in November last year and is showing no signs of letting up.

  What was expected to be a short term setback has brought tinsel town to its knees with thousands losing jobs and many more stuck in a rut caused by the lack of creative talent at their disposal. Premier awards ceremonies are in danger of being cancelled with the Golden Globes being the first casualty. TV shows have run out of material and have cancelled announcements of lineups and concepts in development. A quiet reign of chaos settled in as 2008 swung around but it was just the beginning. Less than a month has passed in the New Year but sad events have already taken control.

  On Jan. 15, 2008, Brad Renfro, 25, was found dead from a heroin overdose in Los Angeles, California. It seems not so long ago that he was discovered as a boy at the age of 10 by director Joel Schumacher and cast in his first major motion picture, The Client (1994). One of the best John Grisham novel adaptations to date, Renfro was able to spar opposite heavyweights like Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones even at a tender age. He justified his promise and impressed critics with two more films soon after – The Cure (1995) and Tom and Huck (1995). In 1995, he was nominated as one of People Magazine’s ‘Top 30 Under 30’. Unfortunately, as he grew older he was in the spotlight more for his frequent problems with the law than his acting prowess. Renfro might have lost his way but another person who passed away within a week of his death was undoubtedly on the road to greatness and was in his prime.

  Heath Ledger was a rare talent who inspired the actors who had the opportunity to work with him. At 28, he had already acted in such a diverse group of films that there was no questioning his talent and love for the medium. From his childhood in Perth, Western Australia, he had dreams of being an actor and at 16; he left for Sydney to make his dream a reality. Parts on TV series and Australian film productions soon followed. But it wasn’t until age 20 that he would really get noticed with 1999’s Australian film Two Hands and Hollywood teen drama 10 Things I Hate About You in the same year. Both roles showed his promise but Hollywood seemed intent on slapping him with the ‘just another pretty boy’ tag and Ledger wasn’t having it. He instead chose to immerse himself in one character role after another. He went from starring opposite Mel Gibson in The Patriot and appearing in the fantasy drama series Roar to showing his comedy chops with A Knight’s Tale (2001). 

  In every role, Ledger stood out and none of his characters bore any sort of similarity. Though the roles in movies like Ned Kelly (2003) didn’t always hit home, noone could ever accuse him of being typecast. He had a small but striking role in Monster’s Ball (2001) and delivered the goods in The Four Feathers (2002). On his choice of film roles, he was once quoted as saying: “I feel like I’m wasting time if I repeat myself. I can’t say I’m proud of my work. It’s the same with everything I do: the day I say ‘It’s good’ is the day I should start doing something else.”

  It was the year 2005 that forever altered people’s minds and showed the world that Ledger was a force to be reckoned with. Four of his films released that year and one would be hard-pressed to find four more different characters. From a skateboarder in Lords of Dogtown and playing one of The Brothers Grimm to a thief of hearts in Casanova, Ledger never gave less than this best.

  The fourth character of 2005 is the one for which he will always be remembered. He played Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and it is a performance that can be compared with the top actors of our time. He received the ‘Best Actor of 2005’ awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the same role. If people thought that it was the peak for Ledger, he was determined to prove them wrong.

  He only got better after that. In 2007, he was one of six actors to portray Bob Dylan in the film I’m Not There. His last completed film The Dark Knight is yet to be released but it is also perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of all his films. He took on the character of The Joker last played by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman and prepared for it by cutting himself from the world for a month and burying himself in the source material. If the trailer for the film is any indication, we might get to see Ledger redefine the character and make it his own later this year. 

  Sadly, the world will not get to see the heights he might have reached if he was not abruptly taken away from it on Jan. 22, 2008, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter, Matilda Rose, and a family in Australia. One of the brightest lights of a new generation of actors has gone out and it is a tragic loss that will always be felt.

  Looking ahead, one can only hope that the rest of this year will focus on recovery for Hollywood from the writers’ strike as a means to honour the craft that actors like Renfro and Ledger stood for. One can perhaps learn from the inspiration provided by people like Ledger, who once said: “I like to do something I fear. I like to set up obstacles and defeat them. I like to be afraid of the project. I always am.”

(Published in Oman Tribune on January 30, 2008)