In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

For a self-professed life-long movie buff, my introduction to Roger Ebert (1942-2013) happened quite late; just about a year and half back. But once I started reading his reviews, there was no turning back. I was hooked. Considering the fact that he wrote more than 10,000 movie reviews in a career spanning 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times, I believe I will remain hooked for many years to come.

Writing a eulogy for a person like Roger Ebert, is daunting. There is no facet of his life that I can throw light upon. His life was tremendously well-documented. Everyone knows that he was the first film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize and to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He coined the term “Two thumbs up” for movies he loved and “Your movie sucks” for the movies he loved to hate. He battled cancer valiantly for more than a decade; a decade during which he lost half of his face, his voice, his sense of smell and taste. He even wrote a book about rice cookers, The Pot and How to Use It, despite the fact that he could no longer eat. What I can do is share my personal experiences of reading his reviews.

It requires tremendous craftsmanship to write words that influence human behavior. Every review of Mr. Ebert made me either want to watch the movie or stay far away from it. He was my trusted guide of the celluloid universe. The wit with which he started each review, the care with which he wrote so as not reveal any spoilers (or if there were any, they were always preceded by a warning), the way he used to craft philosophies into reviews and the efficiency with which he connected two movies from seemingly varied genres and age – everything about his reviews made me want to read more.

Benjamin Franklin once said “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing”. Mr. Ebert, if there is Internet in heaven and you read this… Let me tell you… You did both. I will see you at the movies.

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The Last Stand – Schwarzenegger Stands Tall

It is always a pleasure to watch movies like ‘The Expendables 2‘ and ‘The Last Stand’. Not because they cater to the escapist action junkie in me, but because they cater to the Schwarzenegger fan in me. I still remember going to the local single-screen theater as a kid to watch Terminator and trying to imitate his “I will be baaack” in his trademark accent. What I enjoy most about Schwarzenegger flicks is the fact that I can completely identify with them. I can safely replace the cast of his film with Bollywood actors and imagine how it would be if a Hindi film were made with the same story. The Last Stand, directed by the South Korean Jee-Woon Kim, is as Bollywood as Bollywood can be; and I’m not complaining.The last stand

The premise (Yes! There is one) is pretty simple. A notorious Mexican drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega, inconsequential) manages to escape from the rusted iron fist of FBI officer John Bannister (Forest Whitaker, visibly uncomfortable) and decides to make a run for it in… hold your breath… NOT a plane… NOT a chopper… but in a highly modified Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1! How do I know that it’s a Corvette C6 ZR1, you ask? Well, this fact is pushed again and again into the screenplay in a blatant attempt of product placement. So you have statements like “How do you stop this car?” “You blow it up!”, “why didn’t he take a chopper?” “because the car is faster than any chopper!” etc etc, you get the picture, right? It’s a Corvette C6 ZR1. Point taken! Let’s move on!… So yeah, drug lord Cortez decides to cross the INTERNATIONAL BORDER of US and Mexico in a Corvette C6 ZR1 and his own private army which seems to be very strong when it comes to removing barricades from the road but is quite understaffed when it comes to removing Schwarzenegger.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first outing as a lead actor since Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, plays Sheriff Ray Owens. Ray Owens is an old and tired ex-LAPD who decides to hang up his boots and sip a beer in the sleepy town of Sommerton Junction. Oddly enough, for someone named Ray Owens, he sports a rather weird Austrian accent. So.. yes… Ray Owens and his rag tag team of deputies (including freshly minted ones like Johny Knoxville of the Jackass infamy) are the last line of defense between the Corvette C6 ZR1 and Mexico. How convenient!! Everything that happens next is what Mr. Schwarzenegger is accustomed to doing for the last 3 decades.

For an action film, the Last Stand has a pretty short line-up of action set pieces. This is probably because in this film although only Arnold seems like someone who is capable of doing some action, he is evidently quite incapable of even jumping on a car and running into a diner without huffing and puffing. The 65-year old is clearly old and not cut out for much action but what he lacks in virility, he makes up in charisma! He still has fabulous screen presence and I actually ended up rooting for him when he took up that famous shot gun of his. Total paisa vasool! There are some decently good one-liners here and there, but the dialogues in general suck.

Like most Schwarzenegger movies, I ended up replacing the cast with Indian actors. So I imagined some dreaded terrorist to escape from police custody and try to crossover to Nepal in a Mahindra Thar or a Scorpio… So that he can later go to his home base (I’m being politically correct here so I’m not naming any country… but you get the picture, don’t you?) and the only person stopping him is… hmmm… first choice was Dharmendra but he is a little too old for this… How about Sunny Deol? Or Nana Patekar? Or hell if you want to make 200 crores out of it, let’s just put Chulbul Pandey as the last line of defense!! Once that part is dealt with, everything else will fall into place… because frankly, nothing else matters!

Coming back to The Last Stand. Obviously it is a must watch for that vast legion of Schwarzenegger fans because in case you had any doubts, he has still got it! But it is also a worthwhile watch for people who pay obscene amounts in multiplexes to watch movies and then crib with statements like “India me aisi movies kab banengi?” (when will India make movies like this?)… Well, my friend, India can surely make a ‘The Last Stand’… If it manages to find its Schwarzenegger.

Rating: 8 on 10 (all 8 points for Mr. Schwarzenegger!)

The Amazing Spider-Man : Reboots swing into action

The season of reboots is here. And The Amazing Spider-Man kicks it off quite nicely. From the very first scene where the young Peter Parker goes searching for his father while playing hide and seek, you know immediately that this movie is not going to be like Sam Raimi’s trilogy where Tobey Maguire plays a rather un-sure version of Peter Parker. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the earlier trilogy was bad. It’s just that TASM is much more…grown up.

The story is the one that we’ve heard for years. Peter loses his parents, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, Uncle Ben gets killed, Peter becomes Spider-Man. But what is expectedly yet refreshingly different is the execution. And that is where the director Marc Webb (notice the last name) comes to play. He takes the tried and tested story and gives it just that little extra to make sure the audience doesn’t go “oh we’ve seen it all before”. And so Peter Parker’s interest in photography (remember his role in the Daily Bugle?) is subtly hinted at right from the beginning, he wanders around always accompanied by his skateboard (the skills of which will later help him as Spider-Man) and he has no qualms of wearing his school backpack or answering a call from Aunt May while he’s perched on top of a high-rise building asking him to pick up eggs on his way back.

Andrew Garfield is a rebel without a comb. Ever since his outing in The Social Network, he’s been marked as someone who’s got brilliance material woven into him. The comfort with which he stammers around Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy or how his eyes well up while talking to Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) about his parents, Garfield forces you, quite effectively, to feel a connect to the character.

But that’s kind of where the actors stop being brilliant. Emma Stone is decent with her portrayal (for those of you who think Gwen Stacy wasn’t in the earlier Spidey movies, she was. Remember her?), Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curtis Conners is commendable and nothing more, Irrfan Khan has too little a screen-time but makes it work nonetheless (will he be the Green Goblin in the next movie?? Fingers crossed) and Sally Field as Aunt May is forgettable. I guess this was always meant to be Andrew Garfield’s movie than anyone else. But it wouldn’t have hurt to want to look forward to what some other character might do in the next movie.

There are some amazing moments in TASM that must be pointed out. First up, if you are watching the movie in anything less than 3D, you are not doing it justice. Unlike many other movies that are ‘converted’, this one’s is shot totally in 3D. And the result is high on visual awesomeness. Secondly, this has to be my favorite Stan Lee cameo ever. The symbolism of how he’s created characters that can fight and live it out in the background on their own and not affect the metaphorical music of his life is not missed.

To sum it up, the purists would be very happy with what Webb has presented to the audience. There are enough minor details that the fanboys can get excited about and explain in detail to the muggles.

 

Rating: 7/10

Battleship: Where everyone tries very hard to act..

What do you think before you decide to go watch a movie that is based on a board game?

Thought 1: I don’t have a good feeling about this…

Thought 2: I wish I had better things to do this weekend..

 

What do you think after your get out of the movie hall after watching Battleship?

Thought 1: Well.. I deserved that..

Thought 2: I wish I had better things to do this weekend..

Battleship is one of those movies where your expectation levels before the movie is inversely proportional to how good you’ll feel about it after you’ve watched it. IMDB’s description about the movie is far more interesting than the actual movie.

IMDB says –

“A fleet of ships is forced to do battle with an armada of unknown origins in order to discover and thwart their destructive goals. “

We say –

“A bunch of hot-shot Navy guys (and 1 girl) fight highly sophisticated alien ships using an outdated, converted-into-a-museum battleship. All this with loud music constantly blaring in the background and everyone (except Liam Neeson) trying extremely hard to act.”

 

"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.... hi there... aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa...."

It is painful every time Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) comes on the camera to do anything other than run, scream or look good. Similar is the situation with almost every character in the movie. Liam Neeson as Admiral Shane is a force as usual, but it is sad that he doesn’t have any worthwhile screen time. Rihanna as Raikes is cute running around with a bunch of guys and manages to stay clear of the “irritating bimbo who’s not needed in the movie” tag.

"Hey.. that was my line.."
"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa....."

Another low with the movie is its pace. For what is supposed to be a adrenaline pumped action movie, this one is distressingly slow. Absolutely nothing interesting or exciting happens in the first 30 or so minutes of the movie (I mean there’s not even a needless scene of semi-nudity). And when the alien ship finally crashes into Hong Kong, everyone in the audience heave a collective sigh of relief – “Finally.. we thought you’d never come”. The almost 2 hours of its running time, could very well have been cut to 1:15 – 1:30 and no one would have noticed. Not even the actors.

The action is bearable. Without getting into too many spoilers, the scene where the Japanese captain uses tsunami buoys to seek out the alien ship is a charming reminder of the original board/video game. The action sequences with the aliens are decent. But again, like with most mindless action movies, the director goes a little overboard (ignore the pun) with some scenes like when they manage to drift a huge battleship like it was an old Honda Civic. But all in all, the action scores a few (and the only) positives, for the movie.

Dig up the movie on a lazy Friday night when your girlfriend/wife is out of town and you have a bunch of guys over for an alcohol fest. The high will make the movie interesting for all of you and the hangover will ensure you forget the movie the next morning. Win-win.

Rating: 4.5/10

The Descendants : The great Oscar snub

Let me be blasphemous right at the beginning and state that when I talk about the Oscar snub here, I am not talking about George Clooney not winning the Best Actor award.  He really did give a very good performance in the movie and some of his hardcore fans might be crying in their beds even today that he didn’t take home to Golden Man with him this year. But not me. You see for me, quite honestly, although his performance was most definitely worthy of a nomination, in the year of Jean Dujardin’s The Artist, Clooney really didn’t stand a chance to win that award. I think we are all so tuned to watching him play these witty, sometimes outrageous and quirky roles (read the Ocean’s trilogy, Confessions of a dangerous mind, O brother, where art thou?) that every time he pulls of a decent serious role (read Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air), we all jump in a collective yelp of joy akin to a group of 16 year old girls who just found out there’s a sale on woolen clothes….in March.

"That's what we think about this year's Oscars"

What I am talking about rather is the less appreciated, but highly impressive performance of Shailene Woodley. The 21 year old plays the role of Alexandra King with such nuance and effortlessness that it’s a shame she didn’t get nominated for a supporting actress award at the 2012 Academy Awards. I mean honestly, if Christopher Plummer can get away with an Oscar for just kissing a guy a few 10 times, Woodley surely deserved a nomination at least. Anyone who’s watched a movie will agree that if you were willing to look beyond the oh-my-god-i’m-going-blind brightness of Clooney, it is the performance of Woodley that will stay with you for a few hours, if not a few days.

"I won an Oscar because I am 82 years old, I kissed a guy on camera and I wore a purple sweater.. in there is my advice to you"

The Descendants tells us the story of the lawyer Matt King (Clooney), who is so dedicated to his profession that he has neglected his wife and kids for very many years. All that changes when a freak accident leaves his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a coma and King is forced to become a father he never was and build a connection he never had with his two daughters – the rebellious 17 year old Alexandra (Woodley) and the intellectual but foul mouthed 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller). As if this getting-back-together uncomfortable-ness wasn’t quite enough for King, he has to negotiate a multi million dollar deal to sell a huge ancestral property in  Hawaii (of which he is the main trustee) that will make a lot of his relatives filthy rich AND he discovers that his wife was having an affair and was considering leaving him. How’s that for a bad week?

It is in the portrayal of a man drowned in multiple crises that Clooney delivers. The pain is always there, never surfacing enough for the audience to see a full blown breakdown. The tears are always around the corner, but never in such quantity to make it a sappy-flood-of-glycerin scene. And I think that’s where the director Alexander Payne scores so many points with his viewers. This could very well have take the PS I Love You route to mushyness, but it doesnt and it manages to hold on its own.

And there are so many other characters in the movie that you will remember fondly every time you think of the movie – Alexandra’s dumb and cartoony friend/boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), King’s woozy bawa of a cousin, Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), the exceptionally judgmental and perpetually disapproving father-in-law Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) and of course Matthew Lillard

Undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. Undoubtedly one of Clooney’s best performances. Undoubtedly a movie you must watch if you haven’t.

My rating: 7.5/10

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