Saturday, January 03, 2015

Ender's Game

A lot of science fiction has been written in the last 100 years. Also a lot of science fiction has been made into movies and television. The original sins perhaps are Asimov's Foundation Series in books, and Star Trek on television. There is an episode of Star Trek, first aired sometime in the late 1960s, in which James T. Kirk, alias Jim, is tried by a military court for dereliction of duty. Now Star Trek series on television had many new and remarkable science things. However what it really talked about was leadership. Jim's showed leadership of a commander amidst lots of unknown and previously unseen problems, not to mention a mountain of data which was often contradictory. Jim is the quintessential leader among men. The essence of a good leader, as depicted, is to assess the risk and make a decision. In this particular episode of Star Trek, Jim's lieutenant Spock (the one with the funny ears) vouches for the countless times in which Jim has led from the front, been decisive and saved the ship and in turn the federation (human race). Now, the folks who created Star Trek of course had a first hand view of the World War II and so they inherently understood leadership in the direst of times, when even survival is at stake. That is of course hard to say in the modern times. However, I recently saw a film which went back to this original definition of leadership in the science fiction realm. Ender's Game is a year 2013 film based on an older short fiction story first written in 1977 and then later in 1985 as a book. What is perhaps the shrewd post modernistic charm of the story is that Andrew Wiggin, alias "Ender", the military commander and master strategist, is a young boy of about 12 years age.

Wikipedia Link - Ender's Game
IMDB Link - Ender's Game

What Ender ultimately achieves is that he becomes a leader amongst his peer children. He outshines them during basic and advanced training. He also starts to anticipate the future and makes course corrections accordingly. The basic premise is really very simple. Modern warfare, as we know and have learnt since the Iraq war of 1991, is won by geeks in front of computers. A good warrior is effective at strategy. She uses the resources offered by modern science to win against the enemy. Technology, weapons and minions are ultimately pawns for winning the grand objective (the War) Ender is not only the best player of his generation but, through war games and strategy lessons, he is learned military strategist. With his youth he does not have any inhibitions or guilt or indecisiveness. Perhaps like the alien enemy, the Formics, he takes violent action first and then thinks of the consequences later. Film is phenomenally written. Very well executed.

More on Foundation Series
If you have kids they should read these books. Nothing fires your imagination more as a 12 year old!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Object of Beauty

What defines a good film? 

My definition is a story and experience which resonates so with feelings of one's heart that one keeps awake late after midnight thinking about it. When a motion picture, in all its soliloquy experience, brings tears to one's eyes and stirs one's heart then, in my definition, it has become a film worth writing about. The best experiences are those where a film jolts you and stimulates emotions which are a polar opposite from ones inventory of feelings of that particular day, week or month. John Malkovich and Andy McDowell star as the Bartholomeo couple in the 1990 film called The Object of Beauty. They are a unmarried cohabiting pair who are in love and live recklessly in a London Hotel. Andy has an valuable bronze statue by Henry Moore. The statue is less than 6 inches (a tiny one) but it is only of one of nine ever made. Andy received the statue from her separated husband as a gift. When the Bartholomeos get the statue appraised at a pawn shop they are told it is worth 25,000 pounds. To cover their increasingly debt ridden situation they plan, albeit without seriousness, to hide the statue and file an insurance claim. However in a twist the statue is actually stolen from their hotel room. 

The hotel had recently hired Julie, a young deaf and dumb immigrant woman, as a housekeeper. Julie is obviously poor and has a brother, Steve, who is a disaffected youth dependent  on his sister. One day when Julie is cleaning the room she notices the statue from the corner of her eye.

I think the film truly came alive from the experience Julie has with the statue. With apparently little to no formal education, and without any acquired appreciation for works of art Julie (a mute) falls in love with the little Henry Moore statue at a first glance. She subsequently steals it and keeps it hiding from her troublemaker brother. The statue keeps her awake at night and she is obviously very very happy to acquire it. And all of this is without her being aware of its monetary or artistic value. Towards the end when asked why she stole it, she confesses that "it (the statue) spoke to me". When the Bartholomeos file a claim, a hotel investigator shows up at Julie's house. Steve discovers the statue and tries to sell it. With no basis of comparison Steve's contact agent dealing in stolen goods think that the statue is worthless. When Julie discovers the status is not in her possession she completely loses herself. In a fit of sadness and urgency she searches her house, even breaking her other things in the this effort. Steve confesses that he stole the statue and the two of them go the junkyard where he lost it. When Julie finds the statue she breaks down crying while holding it in her hands. At the the end the Bartholomeos get back their statue and Julie does not have the go to jail. She does, however, lose her job at the hotel.

At the beginning I did not pay any attention to the name of the film. Instead of naming the film as "An Object of Beauty", the filmmakers named it as "The Object of Beauty". And that truly does makes sense once you see the film. 

Remarkable. Very well done.

                                                                The Object of Beauty

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Two Mules for Sister Sara

Being a sucker that I am for Western genre American films I hit upon Two Mules for Sister Sara. All I knew when I started watching was the movie had Clint Eastwood. Well lo and behold we are faced with a stark naked woman trying to protect herself from three banditos. 

Confession - I am at 11 minutes 30 seconds from the beginning of the film

What do I notice - Shirley McLaine has mascara, false eyelashes and plenty of foundation. Now that, of course, is not surprising. What is surprising is that in the film she is playing the role of a nun in a 17th or 18th century American West. Boy do I love Westerns or what? The casting team could have easily picked a nobody for the role. But they picked the Shirley McLaine. They cast her as a nun getting raped by a couple of thugs in 18th century barren American countryside. Quite an irony, huh.

Love it, love it, love it.

Image courtesy - Nothing is Written

Its good to be back.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

'Writers Block' and something 'tru'-ly brilliant

What was the name of the film again? The one that I have been so impressed with lately? The one with Jim Carrey in it > about whom a film reviewer from NY times wrote – who conveys an edge of secret fury. Yes now I remember the name of the film. It is ‘The Truman Show’.

It’s been a few days since I watched the actual film and, unsurprisingly, at this time I am unable to recall names of characters or the entire plot in great detail. But that’s not everything, is it? More importantly I have been mulling over the story and its events in my head. Each and every time I am convinced the film is brilliant, almost surreal. Take for example the time when Truman’s dad drowns in the film. Truman had been adopted by the corporation which produces the show. However his dad had been allowed to stay with him and raise him as a little boy. And then the storywriters decide to put a twist in the plot. They create a storm when the father and son are out fishing. Truman’s dad urges the young Truman that they turn back and head towards the shore lest they are trapped in a storm. However the young Truman wants to go further in the ocean. And then when the seas turn really wild, Truman’s dad is shown to drown in waves.  This scares the hell out of Truman, and from this point on he is just too afraid to go over water (even across a bridge). Now I don’t a lot about psychology but this seems to be so distinctly Freudian. The events from Truman’s childhood continue to have an effect on all his adult life even when he is more than thirty years old. And it takes a lot of courage and almost a superhuman effort (in Truman’s context) to be able to overcome those fears. Isn’t this so true about all of us? So often are we not held back from venturing into uncharted waters because our mothers told us not to do something or because we have had an unpleasant childhood incident whose memory continues to haunt us? If Christof, the producer of the show is indeed a representative of the Supreme Being in our lives then the chains that have been put around us are also like Truman’s hydrophobia. Further when Truman tries to break free he is tested to the limits of his endurance (when his boat runs into rough seas). Only when Truman finally defies Christof and challenges him outright does the test finally end and the seas are calmed. The crowning moment for me comes when one of the crew members with Christof yells – “Where did he (Truman) learn to sail, he is an insurance salesman?” Similar to Truman so often we are typecast into being what we do to earn a living. Salesmen sell, programmers program, and postmen deliver mail. The profession becomes you. And you become the profession. Economics drives this and will continue to drive it. However in each one of us there are talents which are hidden and come out if and when we are suitably challenged. The key is to overcome that fear. Defy that authority (or the voice in your head which is yelling ‘don’t do it’) and just go for it.

Ok, back to the film. Another scene which was fantastic for me is when Truman decides to run off from it all and heads out of town with his wife in the car besides him. Almost immediately the traffic is jammed on the freeway and the car is hardly moving at all. Truman’s wife makes him change his mind and only moments later when Truman circles around and returns to the road all the traffic is all gone. Fantastically this all seems to be so true in real life as well. As soon as you decide to do something chances are a several hundred if not several thousand people will also begin to do the same thing. You’ve decided to visit Miami. Go ahead – chances are there will be traffic on the way to the airport. The airport will be packed and all the hotels in Miami will be near full. Change your mind and see what happens!

All in all The Truman Show is a lot of head games (it plays with your head, that is). Brilliantly, if not a little surprisingly, at times it appears that even Jim Carrey’s acting is almost making fun of the film itself and the idea behind it all(“The” + “True” + “Man” + “Show” run byChrist” + “of”?). The final lesson being that no one can really solve the ultimate riddle there is – also a chest pin button caption in the film– What are we doing here? All we can do is play the part with panache, a whole lot of sense of humor and a great big ‘ole pinch of salt.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Love, Liza

Philip Seymour Hoffman is not someone I would normally think of as a depressed person. He is perhaps best known for his goofy, funny and over-the-top roles in several films during the 90's and 00's. With this image in mind I was kind of surprised to see him as a suicidal, depressed man in 'Love, Liza'.

Love Liza begins with Hoffman as Wilson returning to his home after attending his wife's funeral. The viewer can only guess that something tragic has happened here. The film has long spells when there are no dialogues, only a sense of despair, gloom and failure which hangs about the house and everything Wilson does. Eventually Wilson steps out of the house and goes to work. We come to know that he is a computer graphic designer of some sort. This is when a reporter calls Wilson at his desk and after a quick, insincere condolence asks him whether the paper should report his wife's demise as a death or suicide. And this is the crux of the film. Wilson's wife has committed suicide, and in a rather violent manner. A car in Wilson's garage has a blocked exhaust pipe so appaently Wilson's wife choked herself to death.

The film progresses with Wilson's attempts to come to terms with his wife's death. One can guess that everything in the house reminds Wilson of her and the life they shared until she was  suddenly gone. Wilson cannot bring himself to sleep in the bedroom and so he sprawls near a wall in what looks like the living room. One night he needs a pillow and he picks one up from the bedroom. And that is when he discovers a letter from his dead wife. The letter is addressed simply  as 'Wilson'. This is the tipping point for Wilson. He is utterly devastated and hysterical. To ease his sufferring he tries to get high by sniffing gasoline. He cannot bring himself to open up the letter and at the same time he just cannot forget it either.

In the final minutes of the film, when Wilson finally opens up the letter it reads something lilke -

"I probably left a big mess, didn't I? I need you to carry me in your heart. Find another.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A California lake and 'An Unfinished Life'

I am writing this from near the Clear Lake in Lake County, California. This part of the world is worth visiting - Clear Lake is a large and quiet mountain lake surrounded by a hilly countryside full of wineyards. This area is north of east of Sonoma county and north of Napa (the well known California wine region). The sunset and sunrise views on the lake alone are worth a thousand bucks.

'An Unfinished Life' is a film about American country life and the associated values. Country life here implies life in the countryside, or rural living , even though that may be a misnomer as rural living in the US is far different than most other places in the world. The cast includes the ever so great Morgan Freeman, an aging Robert Redford, and Jennifer Lopez in a surprisingly unconventional role. I think I read that the director of the film is european - nevertheless the story, cinematography and overall direction blend with each other nicely and give the viewer a good overall package.
For me the most important thread which brings the film together is the value system espoused - it is mostly the same kind of values that you will see in typical Western film. A friend of mine who is an ex-US army man once said something like caring for your friends, hurting your enemy (in another context). I think this applies well to the film. Two examples - the first is the relationship between Einar (Redford) and Mitch (Freeman), which shows the best of what friendship is all about. Mitch has been mauled by a bear and needs constant care and medication.  I'll spare you the details of the plot but some of Mitch's request seem downright ridiculous on the surface (although they have a deeper meaning and it comes out nicely in the film). Even if Einar's first response to them is caustic he gives each request time and thought and eventually completes them. Second, the manner in which the Wyoming town people stick together to help each other talks about that value system. Ultimately even Einar helps Jean (Lopez), his dead son's wife even though he first holds her responsible for his death. Of course sarcasm, good old ribbing and verbal fights are common but when it counts they protect their own.
I would recommend An Unfinished Life to anyone who has not seen it (except those who are not too fond of country life & values and for that matter Western films!).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Lawless Frontier

The Lawless Frontier is the oldest film I have seen. It was made in 1935 (or 1934 as per IMDb). It is black and white and stars John Wayne, who of course is very young in the film and still has all of his Western cred for which he is well known. In 1935 the United States was (as I understand) just beginning to come out of The Great Depression. And of course the infamous Hitler ruled Germany - am I mistaken or the villain in The Lawless Frontier has a curious resemblence to the Fuhrer (especially the moustache)? The film has some terrific horse chase scenes - caused me to wonder whether those horses were fed well in those days when people were anaemic or were they merely whipped harder for the scenes in the film?! The lead actress Sheila Terry wears pants throughout The Lawless Frontier. And she rides a horse too (or rather several horses). The first woman to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart, used to wear pants. I know that because I once saw several of her photographs at an exhibition in Queens, NY. I hope women wearing pants did not draw as much attention as Amelia seems to draw here!

But I digress.

I am impressed by The Lawless Frontier. For a film that runs just 49 minutes (I hope they had made that standard), the script has surprising twists. Also surprising are the numerous sub-genres - there is drama, suspense, action as well as good 'ol Western theaterics.

I visited the hypothetical State of Jefferson today. The towns of Grenanda, Yreka and Hombrook in Northern California and Ashland in Oregon, and the region around river Klamathon might as well have been straight out of The Lawless Frontier. For miles there is only untouched land, beautiful mountains, valleys and forests. Now I cannot but wonder how crossing all that land must have felt like on a horse or on foot, when the first mass migrants arrived in this region, a mere 110 years before The Lawless Frontier was made.

Mount Shasta
Today evening the mountain had a cloud cover just like this one - A volcano with a halo of its own!