Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jump?

"Today is the day when everything
changes. One way or another."

So here is the deal. When you have to steal something in order to prove that you are not a thief how do you go about it? Well, firstly you need to escape custody while you are out attending a close family member's funeral and after that change your identity so that you can check in to a hotel without any problem and then finally step out of your room to get on the window ledge and threaten to jump off it. I know it doesn't make much sense as you read this and perhaps it won't either after you are done watching Man on a Ledge (2012).


Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) is an ex-cop, convicted of stealing a $40 million diamond from businessman David Englander (Ed Harris). As he is sentenced to 25 years in prison he maintains that he was framed by Englander who faked the theft in order to cover the losses which he had incurred in his business. With the only goal of proving his innocence on his mind, Cassidy escapes custody while he is allowed to attend his father's funeral and thus begins his quest to clear his name. He is not alone in this fight as he has his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) with his girlfriend Angie Lopez (Genesis Rodriguez) helping him prove that he is not guilty. The drama begins as he checks in to a hotel room under a false name and climbs on the ledge on the 21st floor. The idea here is to distract the police while his brother breaks into Englander's jewellery showroom nearby to steal the same diamond Nick was accused of stealing and selling by pieces and which they believe is hidden there. This needs to be done so that they can expose Englander's conspiracy against Cassidy and he can be proved innocent.
According to me this is a gem of an idea, however the script throughout its execution is not that enriching. As soon as he is seen on the ledge, a crowd gathers and police surround the building in order to stop him from jumping which in turn serves as a perfect distraction against Joey and Angie. Cassidy demands that he will talk only to Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), an NYPD negotiator who recently failed to save a suicidal policeman. Banks comes in strong but fails to impress with her performance as a negotiator with the man on the ledge. The police establish Cassidy's real identity as he is buying time by keeping them engaged while his brother is busy breaking into Englander's store to find the diamond. The couple (Jamie and Angie) sure seem to have done their training well as they look like professionals doing their job of breaking into the store's highly secured safe with some humorous moments between them.


There are a few things which made me think about the seriousness of this plot as the characters seemed half-done and weak with equally half-hearted dialogues. The policemen who plotted against Cassidy lack character and look rather dull. Sam Worthington doesn't seem like a lead actor at all and is clearly overshadowed by Jamie Bell who plays his brother. Bell and Rodriguez manage to present some thrill while they are hunting for the diamond but otherwise this movie fails to attract attention as it lacks consistency. It is a great idea to be very honest but unfortunately its execution is below par. This movie falls off the ledge and lands on the spot where there is no cushion of interest.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fundamentalists

"Time only moves in one direction.
Remember that. Things always change."
This book was big in 2007, shortlisted even for Man Booker Prize. I didn't pay it enough attention (nor did I hear enough about it) until Mira Nair decided to turn it into a movie.
The story seems quite simple. A man in Pakistan explains his path in life to a stranger he meets at a café. Yes? No. How can one be a reluctant fundamentalist? There is no such thing! Right? No.

It's true, it happens in Lahore at a café table where a bearded Pakistani man addresses an uneasy American stranger. He starts telling him his story and as the evening spills into the night, his story becomes darker, stranger and more and more dangerous. His name is Changez and he was living an immigrant's American dream. He was one of the best in his class at Princeton and was noticed by an important firm that employed him and offered him the world. New York, Manhattan, traveling, interesting people, parties, stimulating work and interesting colleagues. His relationship with the elusive Erica who is still suffering the loss of her boyfriend seemed to be thriving when on one of those business trips in Japan he switched on the tv and saw something that looked like a very interesting and cruel action movie. Only it was not a movie but the attack on twin towers back in New York. His life changed in a second. His reaction shocked even himself.

"It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins."

Back in USA he is treated like a criminal. At the airport, at work, in society. As Americans grow more and more nervous about people from his side of the world and as more and more of his fellow country men, living in USA fall victim to vandalism, attacks or simple prejudice, he grows more and more confused about his feelings towards the country that gave him all he craved. Terrorism is all that USA is thinking about. When his neighboring country Afghanistan is invaded and attacked, Changez feels less and less connection to America, its people and beliefs. The big part of the story is not (only) the ending everyone raves about but also how Changez's life changes, the increasingly ominous and dark pacing of the story as he progresses through it. But the most astounding thing about this small, short and yet big book is who Changez is really talking to and to whom he is explaining his story, showing his true side, giving a glimpse of culture, tradition, ill treatment that his people were subjected to and sharing the secrets that he's long been hiding. Are you ready for it?

Friday, May 24, 2013

How real are *your* dreams?

"No idea is simple when you need to
plant it in somebody else's mind."
There is no guarantee that ideas are safe inside a person's mind and that the mind can't be infiltrated. Through dreams one can enter a mind and go deep inside it to steal an idea without leaving a trace. Such is the imagination of the brilliant Christoper Nolan who has presented it in an unbeatable fashion in his dream project, Inception (2012).

"I can access your mind through your dreams."
What is the most resilient parasite? An idea, as suggested by Dom Cobb while he answers his own question. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a skilled extractor, who specializes in stealing ideas from people's minds in their dream states. His infatuation towards his skill cost him his love and he is forced to live out of his country and away from his family. His only goal is to regain his old life and in order to achieve that he agrees to do Saito's work of planting an idea in his competitor's mind. Saito (Ken Watanabe) is a wealthy businessman who doesn't want Cobb to steal an idea but plant one instead and in return offers him freedom to go back to his country. It might sound like an unimaginable concept but once you ride on this Inception train it keeps you more than occupied. Nolan has picked up a great cast to execute his inception to the masses as DiCaprio is very well supported by his team of trusted aides in Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Ariadne (Ellen Page). Also shown from Cobb's past is his wife Mal (Marion Cottilard) who falls victim to the world of imagination which they had created together. Her presence is inseparable from his life as her memory becomes a big part of his thinking and she keeps showing up in his subconsciousness during his missions. Beside her interference Cobb's task also gets more challenging as his target, the heir of a major corporation Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) is trained against extractors and his mind is protected by his security. According to the characters an Inception was never done before but it wasn't impossible and Cobb went ahead with it despite the challenges as that was the only way for him to reunite with his family.

                 "Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up
that we realize something was actually strange."
               
The roles of all the characters in the movie are of critical importance to the basic theme of it and they have been delivered in style. DiCaprio is strong with his deep and grim character who is extremely talented in what he does but is unable to conquer his inner demons. Gordon-Levitt and Page are crucial to the mission and have both given praiseworthy performances. My personal favourite is Hardy who impresses with his easy going yet focused character and I enjoyed his acting the most. Nolan makes sure that the plot keeps growing and it gets more and more interesting as the minds travel into a dream within dreams. This makes it a complex viewing which needs undivided attention but the ever so brilliant script kept me occupied right till the end. In fact, after two and a half hours I did think that I could do with some more of Inception. This movie is based on a very unique concept and be it reality or a dream, it has planted a seed of joy in my mind for sure.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Eye of The Tiger('s Wife)

They say the eye of the hurricane is the quietest, calmest place. But the eye of the tiger? Survivor say it's the thrill of the fight. And the fight is what ravaged the country in the Balkans which Téa Obreht is writing about. She is the youngest author to ever receive the Orange Prize For Fiction and her way of telling the story is quite extraordinary, especially for a 25-year old. But what is truly lacking is the story itself.

I'm a firm believer in the power of stories as well as storytelling. One cannot exist well without the other. So if the story is good but is told sloppily, it loses the magic. But if the storytelling is magnificent and the fabula is lacking, the whole amazingness of words loses meaning. That's what I missed in this beautifully written novel.

Because that's what it is. Beautifully written. But I could have fallen asleep during it. Which is never a good sign. When I realized that I am pushing it away and postponing time at which I'd return to the it, I knew something was wrong. I wanted so badly to love this book. I was thrilled with Ms Obreht success, her personal story and choice of topic. Maybe that's why the execution of this novel was so much more disappointing to me.

So what's it really about? It's about Natalia, a young doctor, who arrives to an unnamed Balkan country on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. Even she is holding back a secret. The death of her beloved grandfather who recently died in inexplicable circumstances. As she is uncovering the layers of the country's many secrets as well as her grandfather's, I can't really say that much happens. Every person in this book really isn't that important and yet they all receive many descriptions, adjectives and metaphorical expressions. I love magic realism but if it's a river, it needs story in the shape of a boat in which we can float to follow the river. The story is quite simply not interesting. 
She gave tons and tons of importance to the descriptions of inanimate objects and events in her life but she got so caught up in the description of them, the description of the way the grass smelled or the old book looked that she forgot to input the emotional connections. I wanted to care for Natalia and I wanted to like the grandfather but I just didn't care. I wanted to understand why Zóra and Natalia were friends in the first place when there was clearly no connection between them (except for what she has told us about it) and when Natalia didn't even tell her that her grandfather passed away. Okay, maybe she was the quiet type, didn't want to share. I can believe that. But why was there no emotion? Nowhere? I rack my brain but can't find the answer.
I also didn't understand the need to keep the country and its capital a secret and yet name other little towns and villages. It is well known to any movie aficionado that in Kusturica's Underground there is the raid of Belgrade in which the ZOO suffers as well and wild animals run around. Did the author not want to have Serbs upset with her for exploring her roots this way? Was she afraid that it would seem like voyeurism since she left her hometown of Belgrade in 1992 when the wars started and practically never returned? Of course now everyone wants a piece of her and her heritage, everyone is proud of her. Perhaps the fact that I know the area quite well makes me a bit more baffled as to why all the secrecy. Especially since it's inconsistent.
Natalia is a person with the story but no depth, no explanation, no character, no flaws, no emotion. She keeps revisiting memories and never truly sharing how they make her feel.

If this was a blog on only the perfection of (the art of) writing, I'd give her thumbs up. Wrapping up sentences in adjectives, big words and long explanations and tying them with a beautiful magical bow is her strong trait, no doubt. Many times I went through a whole passage thinking what beautiful language I am reading! Now if only ten pages later I knew what I had read or maybe found out something important for the story. I will be watching her because she has great potential but I truly hope this won't be her best work.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Music saves lives

"Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. Well, that's what we have to believe."

Nothing can stop a musical mind, it is very difficult to break the outflow of music and it takes an explosion to shake it off the musician. The Pianist (2002) begins with Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish-Jewish pianist who is lost in playing the piano on radio as the German troops attack the station during World War II. Based on the real life holocaust survival experience of Polish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, the movie also has connections with director Roman Polanski's escape from the Krakow Ghetto after the death of his mother.

The story's main focus isn't on how badly the Jews were treated under the hands of Nazi Germany but at the same time it shows the harsh reality of what they went through. There is not a scene in this movie which shows any kind of extreme torture however there is total honesty that will leave you speechless. It shows how they were treated like dirt and forced to stay away from the city in their own so-called Jewish district. Szpilman's family once rejoiced the fact that the British and French would initiate a war against Germany but their happiness was short-lived as they ended up being oppressed by them. Such was their misery that they went from being in a nice and comfortable house to a small, crammed apartment. Polanski has focused on the details as he shows how the hatred against Jews grew since the time the Germans captured Warsaw. There is a scene in which the Jews are waiting to cross the tracks and the German soldiers make the old, weak and disabled dance just for a few laughs. Poverty and hunger led to diseases and deaths both mental and physical. With so much happening around him, Szpilman still managed to keep himself together with hope that things will get back to normal soon. He lost his job as the radio station got bombed and ended up playing in a restaurant where there wasn't much appreciation for his music. On the other hand his brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) who is shown as a rebel right from the beginning is on the brink of exploding with all the growing tensions. There is so much injustice shown against the Jews in such little time that it makes one wonder if it really happened.

Radio announcer: "Poland is no longer alone."
Now, that is just one side of the story which brings us to the most difficult part in Szpilman's life: survival. He lost his entire family as they were constantly moved and finally transported to meet their end. He was lucky to escape his end and thus his quest to stay alive had begun. It wasn't easy for a Jew to just walk around the streets without being beaten up or shot in the head unless he was one of the few select ones who worked as labourers. Fortunately for him, he was one of them. What was once his home had become a minefield with no option but to walk over it. Brody is terrific in his role, his quiet suffering is moving and the way he has delivered the impersonation of a man who witnesses everything dear to him disappear helplessly, is highly impressive. Szpilman gets busy fighting death and hiding from one place to another with the help from a few good people, becomes a part of a failed revolution started against the Germans and finally ends up sick and alone. Through all his escapades his music was always there with him, deep in his mind and heart and it was the main reason that kept him alive. There is not a single moment during his struggle that didn't keep me involved right from the beginning till the very end. With Germany getting under pressure to surrender as the Soviet army fought hard to end their control in Poland, Szpilman was sick and hurt by then and sought refuge in a house, of course in the form of hiding. His encounter with a German officer there turns out to be the different from his previous ones. The initial reason for his doom was the reason behind him surviving in the end.

"They all want to be better Nazis than Hitler."

There are many true stories that have been turned into movies and books. Some are accepted as truthful, others as fictional (despite the historical data) but they are all inspirational.
After watching this movie, I was saddened by the immense suffering of the Jews and at the same time amazed by Szpilman's determination to make it till the end. Polanski has managed to show the ugly truth without stressing much on the visual aspect of it. The performances of all the characters are commendable and touching especially Adrien Brody's Szpilman who lost everything but his music which becomes one of the main reasons behind his survival. Music was his passion, Survival his masterpiece.

  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What happens when we sleep?

This was one of those books that were recommended by people who loved this fantastic book, and OF COURSE I had no other option than to read it. I have to admit that in the connection with one of the best books I've read (at least in the last year!), my expectations were pretty high. Hearing that Before I Go To Sleep is being translated onto the big screen, I wanted to see what the fuss was about before trailers started cruising the web. So let's see what actually transpired.

"As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I'm still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me ..."

Yes, that is basically the deal. Christine's life has been a mess. Only she doesn't know it. She wakes up every morning, unaware of who she is, where she is and what she's doing there. She has no idea how old she is and whenever she thinks she knows her age, it's most certainly not compatible with the image in the mirror. She does not remember her husband nor the therapist with whom she is apparently working. She lives with her husband Ben, who explains to her every morning who she is and who he is, how she came to be this way and why she has good and bad days. Not that they're very fundamentally different but some days are a tiny bit better than others.
From the first moment on you have an eerie feeling something is not quite right. But you are just as clueless as Christine is. She starts her day off confused and usually ends it tired and sad. She has no friends because they all gave up on her during the many years of her condition. She never had children and she is wondering whether her psychiatrist is telling her the truth. Is anyone? When she finds a diary she's been keeping and tries to follow stories she's being told, she realizes the scary thing - there is no pattern. And when she finds an inscription in her diary that says "don't trust Ben", we all know something is up. But what? Did her psychiatrist play a trick on her so he can take advantage, study her case and write a book about it? Or is her husband truly hiding more than just painful little tidbits from her life? And what about the accident that left her this way?

Given that it's a debut novel, I should probably praise this more than I am. I got a bit tired of the back and forth wondering about Ben. Is he a good guy or a psycho? Who is the psychiatrist, really? Where is her best friend? Same questions every few ten pages. I sighed a lot. But the point is, even the shocking little revelations that came along the way, did not come with a boom. Gillian Flynn does this much more craftily. I know comparing art is ridiculous and a good book is nothing short of an art piece but when I think of how cleverly Flynn put little bits of information in the story in a way that made your spine crawl ... That's what I wish this book had. Because it had potential and the final revelation was horrifying. The ending was a bit too cliched for my liking but the way the book wrapped up, the really final few sentences, were perfect.



Now, Ms Kidman is supposed to star as Christine and I have to admit I like the casting choice. As of now, IMDb lists no other details of who plays Ben or who plays Christine's psychiatrist. Unfortunately this book also reads like a movie script. And if that was the goal - well done. After all, Ridley Scott jumped right in. What can be better for a first time author. Right?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

All men are created equal


"Are you a homo? Are you a queer? Are you a faggot? Are you a fruit? Are you *gay*, sir?"

Discrimination has no boundaries, it's not limited to ethnicity or colour of the skin. It exists while judging a person by character or personality, likes and dislikes or even sexual orientation. There are no ground rules or limitations to it and one such example is the case of an intelligent and skillful lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who gets fired from his job because he is a homosexual and is also suffering from AIDS in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993)

The story begins with two lawyers, Beckett and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) seen together as the former is defending a construction company accused of spreading harmful dust. Beckett is a successful lawyer working for a prestigious law firm and is liked by his bosses which is noticeable as they assign him a high profile case and make him a senior associate. With all the success in his work life he has two big secrets which he managed to keep from his colleagues, one that he is a homosexual and the other that he is suffering from AIDS. His life turns as the papers which he was working on for the high profile case mysteriously disappear and are found just in time before submission at court. Due to this incident he gets fired from his job. 

"We're standing here in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, the birthplace
of freedom, where the founding fathers authored the Declaration of Independence,
and I don't recall that glorious document saying anything about all straight men
are created equal. I believe it says all men are created equal."
Homosexuality was and still is looked down upon by the society. It raises eyebrows and is an easy target of abuse by this so-called perfect world. Beckett being a homosexual couldn't find a way to bring it out in the open as he witnessed how his bosses joked about homosexuals. As if that wasn't enough, him suffering from AIDS just added to his woes and being a homosexual having AIDS was too much for him to disclose. After being given charge of the high profile case, one of the partners in the law firm noticed a lesion on his forehead which perhaps raised a suspicion. There was a similar case when a woman who contacted AIDS through blood transfusion had lesions and had told all the partners that it was because of the disease that she had them. Beckett suspected that his bosses sacked him due to his condition and not because of their accusations that he was incompetent and not doing his job well. He went out to seek a lawyer to file a lawsuit against his wrongful termination without much luck as nine of the top lawyers in Philadelphia rejected his case. 

After those series of incidents Miller enters, a damage claim lawyer often known to the locals as the guy from the television. He is a firm believer in justice and grabs onto every opportunity when it comes to advertising his services. He detests homosexuals and thinks very low of them which becomes obvious while he discusses his views with his wife. Beckett approaches him with his case in anticipation that he will help him. But it doesn't work as Miller refuses so he decides to fight it himself. However, Miller has a change of heart and decides to take up his case as he feels strongly for the discrimination against Beckett which he witnesses at a public library. Both of them work well together with their characters and it's heartening to see how Beckett's suffering changes Miller's outlook on homosexuals and opens up his mind. The courtroom drama is interesting and kept me involved throughout as both the lawyers fight to defend their clients. Belinda Conine (Mary Steenburgen) however was not that dynamic as a cold-hearted lawyer whose only goal was to win the case. Also it's a little disappointing to see that Antonio Banderas, who plays Miller's partner Miguel Alvarez is under used and the couple lacks character in terms of having any chemistry between them. 

Judge Garrett: "In this courtroom, Mr.Miller, justice is blind to matters
of race, creed, color, religion, and sexual orientation."
Joe Miller: "With all due respect, your honor, we don't live in this courtroom, do we?"
Philadelphia is a solid story which deals with topics of homosexuality and AIDS, that are mainly a cause of discomfort among people. Hanks and Washington play their characters exceptionally well especially Hanks who is brilliant in all aspects. The scene in which he plays an aria from his favourite opera and translates it to Washington is one of my all time favourites. You will witness how homosexuals are looked down upon and they way AIDS patients are isolated but at the same time you will also see how their loved ones offer them undying support right till the end. Love is not limited to being just between Adam and Eve, it could also be between Adam and Steve. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How much time does a tree need to grow?

Turns out quite some.
The beloved American classic about a girl's growing up is a long tale, filled with tiny bits of detail. Francie is the firstborn of Katie and Johnny Nolan and a sister to Neeley (Cornelius). A family living in Brooklyn, trying to make ends meet, facing the war and poverty and finding little joys in life to be monumental on the way.
The book is divided in to five "books", each covering a different part of the characters' lives. As it so happens, you will learn not only about Francie and her beloved little brother but also about her parents and her aunts and her grandparents. Despite being a firstborn, Francie is always second-loved by her mother who prefers Neeley. And even though she does her best to cover that up, Francie is a very insightful young girl who loves books and will not be uneducated. Her father and mother have decided so for her and despite themselves not having a good education, they still insist that she gets one.
The match of Francie's parents is a strange one but very fitting for that time. The big eyes with which she follows her father's every step and adores him almost overlook his mistakes or shortcomings. Given that the story is written from Francie's perspective (for most of the book), Johnny seems like the perfect father at the beginning of that century. The hard work with which Katie almos ruins herself is not emphasized with such empathy as is his loss of work as a singer.


“Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.
Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...
have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be
sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable
and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep,
let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” 


But Francie tries to find the beauty in everything, in ugly and shiny, believes in the good of people and is often taken advantage of. To say that she's naíve would be an understatement.
It also turns out a tree grows with detail, not only slowly. And during the story you wonder what's with the tree. Hold on, you'll get there. This is one of those books that are beautiful for what they are. Don't expect some big twist or huge surprises along the way. Don't even expect to love all the characters. Not by far. And there is really no shocking killer in the end. This is one of those coming-of-age stories that enchant if you only give them enough time to suck you into their story. It takes a while but once you're in... you're in.

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