Sunday, June 23, 2013

Let's talk about Jacob

I feel like I need to make a disclaimer. Yes, I've been a little psychologically prone lately. Meaning subject of the human mind has been immensely intriguing to me. And yes I have been a bit more partial to children's mind. Which is why Defending Jacob by William Landay seemed like the perfect book for me at this point in time. It's been on all possible lists and recommendation sites and critics loved it. I'm also always up for a good courtroom drama so I was game.

Without losing much time about the plot itself, let me tell you about Andy Barber, an assistant DA, respected in his small town, ruthless prosecutor, always chasing down bad guys. He has a happy family, a wife Laurie and a teenage son, a fourteen year old boy Jacob who becomes the prime suspect of a horrifying crime involving the murder of Jacob's fellow student. Andy's taken off the case and for the first time in his life finds himself on the other side of the court fence. And defending Jacob is something he will do, no matter what. And that is basically the gist of the story. Apart from the fact that Andy is hiding a terrible family secret he hasn't even told his wife. A secret that might unlock Jacob's mind. Or not.

Whatever it will do, it won't change the fact that throughout this story you shouldn't expect to get inside Jacob's mind. Not even to observe him. Call this a spoiler if you will but Andy Barber never questions Jacob. He doesn't deliberate whether his child did this. He doesn't ask him. Hell, the book is written from his perspective and he is more than willing to just defend the boy, turn a blind eye (or two), cover his ears with his palms and sing lalala. To the extent where I was following the statements of certain witnesses, just dying for the author to describe any kind of reaction from Jacob. Was he pissed off, was he upset, did he smile or did he not care at all? We never know. Because it doesn't matter to Andy and this book is written in the first person, so it's a father's account. When it comes down to it he is willing to do practically anything to keep him safe. And when Jacob once or twice says he didn't do it, Andy sets on the path of no return. All the while his wife is having trouble, going back and forth on Jacob's guilt and innocence. As evidence mounts, their marriage is slowly becoming less and less strong and the trial stronger and stronger. 

"At some point as adults we we cease to be our parents'
children and we become our children's parents instead."

So how well do we really know our children and what goes on in their daily lives? Again it turns out - not so much. And then another shocking event can turn everything you thought you knew completely around. 

Let's leave aside the fact that this book screams movie. And that it reads as if it was written for that. The fact of the matter it is, it doesn't need 400 pages. About a hundred less would do easily. Don't expect some strange ending like in The Pact or a thoroughly detailed story of a teenager's mind. Perhaps I was hoping for the latter more than the former. The ending is supposedly a big shock but if you can pick up on all those clues that Andy mentions how they're a sign (I guess to make readers go on), you'll know halfway through the book what it's going towards. The surprise for me was more what eventually triggered the ending. And if the author feels the need to mention future developments that are horrifying in every chapter (and, mind, make them very, very dramatic), it's never a good sign.

What was a little bit disturbing was that the author (or Andy) keeps referring to Before and After (the event). Which is the title of a 1996 movie starring Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep. Whose son is Edward Furlong, or Jacob (?!) who is accused of murdering his girlfriend. In shape of this second Jacob, we get redemption and truth (or at least a version of it) and although in a poor shape of a TV movie (Meryl is saving this movie's ass big time!), at least you find out what happened. I admit, sometimes it's good to not know. To keep the reader or audience guessing. But in an ambiguous, not in a vague manner. So in short, this book sort of pissed me off. I liked the ambition of psychological approach. I just wish it was met.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Who is Keyser Soze?

"McManus came to us with the job, Fenster got the vans, Hockney supplied the hardware, I came through with how to do it so no one got killed, but Keaton... Keaton put on the finishing touch. A little 'fuck you' from the five of us to the NYPD."

WARNING: If you haven't yet seen this classic, you might want to do so before reading this.

A couple of years ago while I was watching a movie, I figured out that a good thriller doesn't necessarily need to have mind-boggling camera effects or dynamic chase and shooting scenes. It takes one Kevin Spacey to constantly play with your mind and make you focus hard to follow what's going on. Besides him, just put in a couple of cons to raise the doubts and of course, also an adamant cop who thinks that no one can outsmart him. With having such characters mixed in a superbly mysterious plot the end result is The Usual Suspects (1995).

"What the cops never figured out, and what I know now, was that these men
would never break, never lie down, never bend over for anybody. Anybody."

" They realized that to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't." 
This movie is structured in a flashback as a huge explosion burns down a ship in a San Pedro, CA harbour leaving 27 dead and 1 badly burnt. Some time before this incident five criminals are picked up in a police line-up following a raid on a truck carrying arms. Neither of them seems to be intimidated at all by the police and this interrogation comes across as something fairly routine for them. Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) do nothing but have fun while being grilled by the police. Verbal definitely looks like weakest of them all with his disability and soft character. After being let off they decide to get together and give it back to the police for taking them in without proof. Keaton who was a former corrupt policeman is trying his best to get clean but without much success as he agrees to join the other four. Meanwhile special agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is keen on grilling Verbal after he is given immunity for becoming a witness at court for the ship incident as he was present there when it happened. When it comes to execution of the role, Spacey makes sure that the mystery builds with every moment and it's nothing but a guessing game till the end. The group of five are given a dangerous task, without a choice, of destroying cocaine hidden in a ship in San Pedro harbour. They are approached by Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) who is an attorney for an underworld terror named Keyser Soze. The plot unfolds as Verbal narrates his story while answering Kujan's questions. Kujan wants to hear what he believes in and digs deep into Verbal's side of the story. This entire dialogue between them till the end needs a lot of focus, even the smallest of detail plays a big part in the plot. 

"It was Keyser Soze, Agent Kujan. I mean the Devil himself.
How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?"
So, as it happens the five criminals who were initially lined up under suspicion end up working together and are responsible for blowing up the ship. It wasn't a coincidence that they were held together initially as it turns out that each one of them had wronged Keyser Soze at one point in time. That's why they had no option but to carry out his task. Kobayashi tempted them with $91 million which they could keep after the finishing the job. With Verbal putting things in order through innocent narration of events, there is a jaw dropping twist in the end. This is one of the best mystery thrillers of all time and it keeps you on the edge right till the finish. Spacey got a very well deserved oscar for his brilliant performance. Don't believe in what is said but be careful not to believe in what is said. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he does not exist. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Boys don't cry. Or do they?

Brandon: "So what's your name?"
Candace: "Candace. I hate it though, I'm thinking of changing it."
Brandon: "Sometimes that helps. I'm Brandon."

There are some movies that make you think and the more you think about them, the better they get. Leading a life trapped as someone that you don't want to be is like not leading a life at all. Teena Renae Brandon was one such person who was trapped in a gender she didn't want to be and used to disguise herself as a boy. This was something that she felt was right and what she really wanted to be. Boys Don't Cry (1999) is a powerful tale based on the true story of Teena Brandon (Hillary Swank) who passes herself off as a boy and falls in love with a lost soul called Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny).

Set in 1993, the story begins in Lincoln, Nebarska where a 20-year old Brandon readies himself after cutting his hair short for a night out with girls. Going drinking, stealing stuff and picking girls are some of the things that an average young man from a small town likes to do and Brandon does nothing different. In order to leave his troubled past behind which included several charges (amongst others stealing a car), he moves to Falls City after picking up a fight in a bar. He starts a new life there with a new name, Brandon Teena. Introducing himself as a guy, he mixes along with the youngsters there and stays with them. He finds a new group to hang around with and is liked by John (Peter Saarsgard) and Candace (Alicia Goranson). Swank has delivered a great performance of a transgendered character who somehow manages to get in trouble over and over again. Her character of Brandon is bold and many a times is either not aware of the consequences or doesn't care about them at all. He falls in love with Lana, a troubled daughter of an alcoholic mother played by Jeannetta Arnette. Lana is clueless about the fact that Brandon is a girl and doesn't come to know about it until they have a passionate encounter. That doesn't stop her from loving him as he treats her with respect and perhaps the affection she gets from him is something she had never experienced before. You can't pretend to be someone you're not for a long time and even if you manage to do so, the truth eventually comes out. Brandon's fantasy world is hit by the lightning of his own hidden truth. His past charges and present lies land him up in jail and he has to confront a questioning Lana while he is put in the female ward. What happens thereafter are devastating consequences of Teena aka Brandon's actions and people's reactions to the truth being exposed.

"But I'm not a dyke."
After watching this movie one might question the outlook of the society when it comes to transgendered people like Teena. It has the ingredients to be pretty unsettling but the moments of love and affection between her and Lana also provide hope with the fact that sexual preference doesn't matter when it comes to loving someone. Sevigny's performance is strong as a girl who is already dealing with her own issues and stuck in a small town where nothing is really going well for her. This love affair brings some light in her otherwise dull life. A special mention of the brilliant background score which goes well with the plot is necessary. Such was an impact of Brandon's heart-wrecking story that the US government changed the laws relating to hate crimes. Swank portrayed it in an outstanding way and got a well deserved oscar for for her performance. It is said that she lived her life as a man for at least a month to prepare for the role and with that I can say that her performance left an impression in the movie world for a lifetime


Saturday, June 1, 2013

When medicine goes bad

That's what Side Effects (2013) is about. Clever, no? Wait for it.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) plays a young woman, who's been visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in jail for the past four years. He is about to be released. It is exciting to see Tatum in a non-conventional role (for him, at least) different than that of (merely) a love interest, a stripper or a buffy eye-candy. But we'll get to that later.
Emily and Martin have been married for five years. It isn't difficult to do the math and realize they had only been married for a year when he was arrested and imprisoned for insider trading. When he gets out, it's more than obvious that the young couple isn't used to being together. Emily begins to show signs of depression and when she gets into an accident that might not really have been an accident, she is called to visit a psychiatrist, dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He prescribes Emily anti-depressants and changes them around when she doesn't like the side effects they give her. All that until they find a medicine that seems to be working well. They only seem to have one side effect that Emily records of experiencing and since it isn't that terrible, they decide to stick to this medicine. But then one night changes everything. What Emily does is horrifying and the worst part is she cannot remember anything. She is arrested and put on trial, her psychiatrist's life unravels and as the poor depressed girl is trying to realize what has happened with her life, the pharmaceutical agendas come into question. The development of the story that deals with how sick or ill mind operates is more than astounding. Is she guilty? Should she be responsible for her actions? Should she pay for them? Or is she just a victim of pharmaceutical lobbyists?
"I loved everything about him, his hands, the way he smells. He swept me off
his feet. I told him I would wait for him. I wanted to have a life with my husband."
The movie is not very fast-paced, if anything, it's slow until it gets way into the second half. That's where you start being pushed around and you realize you're second-guessing every event and person in this story. Rooney Mara has drawn attention as the dark Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Before 2010 barely anyone knew who she was but when she started shooting the Hollywood version of Stieg Larsson's cult novel and photos of her transformation started popping up, the world was amazed. And suffice it to say she will not be one to sink into comfortable roles of little darlings, girls next door or romantic interests of buffy handsome men. Even if they are Channing Tatum. Her portrayal of the suffering Emily who wants nothing more, than to resume her beautiful marriage to the man who swept her off her feet is astounding. To try and understand and get an inkling of what goes on inside a sick mind is a very, very intriguing way of drawing a viewer in. And as clear and simple as the verdict and event that led to it, seem, there is something that seems more than a little off. About Martin, about Emily, about Emily's medical history and her first psychiatrist, dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But what is it and how does the girl who seems to have lost five years of her life fit into it? Even when that question is answered and when you are confronted with the result that comes from the answer (and stirs up everything else), the ending will still leave you reeling, which is what I love. There aren't many movies that manage that but if they do, everything else seems forgotten.
Not to say that this movie is perfect, not by any chance. If I wasn't so easily intrigued by mind, its problems and twists, I probably wouldn't make it past the first half of the movie. But I'm glad I did because this is the type of movies that I miss. Psychological thrillers that not only promise but also - deliver.

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