A Passage to India

A Passage to India is a grand and lavish epic, produced handsomely, and is based on the E.M. Forster novel, published in 1924 during the days of colonial England.

The values of East and West meet romantically, but also comes with a hefty dose of realism where East and West clash. British daughter-in-law and mother-in-law travel to India to with be with her fiancé and explore this exotic country. But she is caught up in a scandal and claims an Indian doctor, who was her escort on a day trip, violated her. Controversy erupts and the locals stand by the doctor, saying he is innocent and the British are unjust.

The larger meaning is the relationship between England and colonial India. The human meaning is prejudice and fear of the unknown.

Beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, it is also a personal story of life-like characters engaged vividly and vitally.

A Passage to India, Director: David Lean, Genre: Drama, Year: 1984, Rating: 10/10

Heidi (1937)

I happened to hire out this DVD for a relative, but I watched it and really enjoyed it.

I have known about Heidi but hadn’t been impelled to engage in it.

Having had a nosy on the internet, it’s based on the Johann Spyri children’s book, published in the late 1800’s. The story of Heidi has since been adapted for television and the movie screen many times.

I hired out the Shirley Temple one. It’s the color version, so there may be a black and white original.

In ten minutes I was hooked in to this sweet movie.

Heidi’s Grandfather Adolph (Jean Hersholt) is huddled away in the snowy Swiss Alps. He looks after Heidi (Shirley Temple) when her parents die and the silent and detached man becomes fond of her. Their friendship grows warmly.

Despite Adolph having had a chip on his shoulder, against people and God, his faith in God and others comes back to life. This movie is therefore spiritual as well as for a thoughtful mood. It’s also got real life themes.

As the story goes, Heidi really wants to be with Adolph, but is moved around by others. Upset by Heidi’s departure from the Alps, Adolph walks to Frankfurt to bring her back.

At Frankfurt, she becomes friends with a wheelchair-bound invalid, who is the daughter of a wealthy widower, and Heidi brings much life and joy into her life.

Adolph making it to Frankfurt is time bound, but works in making the viewer even more eager to find out what will happen next.

Some of the plot is neatly sown together, but complications arise also. This movie is most of all warm-hearted and uplifting.

Heidi, Director: Allan Dwan, Genre: Family drama, Year: 1937, Rating: 8/10

12 Years a Slave

I expected 12 Years a Slave  to be handsomely mounted and richly literate, reminiscent of films in the 1980’s. But now that I’ve seen it I realize it’s already  a classic.

As well as being strikingly produced, it shows the painful plight of African American slaves in white-owned plantations in the South before the American Civil War and the success of the abolition movement.

The film starts by telling us this is a true story.

The buying and selling slaves is then shown as business-as-usual.

Paul Giamatti has a small but prominent role as a seller, costumed finely like many other Southern men in the 1840s.

The dubious economics of the endeavor are revealed as the story unfolds, while the class system is starkly depicted along with the slave owners’ depravity.

All the cruelty occurs in the context of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) descent from a comfortable life in New York state where he lived as a free black man.

Sold into slavery and passing from master to master, he at first wants revenge. This turns to helplessness, then  the urge to survive even when facing indignities and institutional savagery.

Powerful scenes will sober and stir any viewer.

Of course, we are not meant to enjoy such brutality, but it has a way of highlighting the unfairness of slavery.

The rape of a slave is not about sex. It’s more about control, power and hate.

And if it weren’t for Brad Pitt’s small but important role, the story would be bleak and incomplete.

Central to a string of powerful performances is Michael Fassbender – a Bible mis-quoting, proud, senseless, shameless, and ruthless master of Northup.

And when his cotton crops fail, he blames his slaves for bringing God’s punishment.

We expect something better to happen, but we don’t know how when the odds are heavily stacked against it.

Perhaps the central question of 12 Years a Slave  is how do we maintain our dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice?

Northup plays games, fights back, and faces getting killed.

Slavery has almost broken his will to live, and yet he remains human.

This is a powerful film, a must-see, but it is grim and not for every taste

12 Years a Slave, Director: Steve McQueen, Genre: Drama, Year: 2013, Rating: 10/10

Revenge of the Sith

In Revenge of the Sith, the interest really lies for this reviewer in the telling of the story of young Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace.

Everyone knows the ending. Interestingly, audiences are watching how a good human being turns into becoming a wicked, mean-spirited and mechanized dictator (see The Empire Strikes Back for ample evidence of unleashing Darth Vader).

In Star Wars creator George Lucas’ finale of the prequel trilogy the result is effective in portraying a conflicted individual who concedes to the dark side because of personal ambition and quest for significance.

Your sympathies may be potentially touched in feeling for the like-able Anakin who said as an idealistic ten-year-old in The Phantom Menace that what is wrong with the universe is that no one cares for one another.

In this episode, Anakin’s trainer, a matured Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), tries to keep the reigns on his apprentice, but unsuccessfully.

This is one Hollywood movie where the conflict primarily fixates on the internal character rather than just the external obstacles. It’s saying that Anakin missed out on acquiring knowledge in his situation which would have given him wisdom and foresight.

Despite the darkness going on, there are good messages in the movie – adoption of children for those that cannot have them, faithfulness, loyalty, and friendship are all interwoven.

Despite the movie’s faults and depending on your level of commitment to the saga the viewing process may be emotionally strong and symbolically rich.

Come to visualize the Star Wars series, it all comes together fluidly as a whole now.

Revenge of the Sith cohesively sits between the other movies of the series–though won’t be as popular because it’s darker and morose and we don’t really want to go there too often. But just enough to know the darkness is to be avoided.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Director: George Lucas, Genre: Science Fiction, Year: 2005, Rating: 8/10

Star Wars Episode III Revenge Of The Sith (1)
Anakin in a darker mood

 

 

Attack of the Clones

In Star Wars episode II, Jedi Anakin is buckling under the pressure to succumb to the ways of manipulative Senator Plapatine and in episode III Anakin buckles.

Both episodes II and III take on the crumbling mantle of a grown-up Anakin, who is strong and accomplished, but also ambitious and selfish, which is his downfall. His desires of ambition and selfishness are manipulated for Palpatine’s purposes.

Here was my review of episode II:

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Forget Star Wars. I’m looking to George Lucas’ collaboration with director Steven Spielberg to make the next Indiana Jones adventure. Let’s hope that magic doesn’t get lost in the new century, as it has with Attack of the Clones. It is not all bad news, though.

Attack of the Clones is hugely entertaining mainly because of its visual experience to be only fully felt at the cinema. State-of-the-art computer effects are eye blowing and conceptual design is highly imaginative.

But the storytelling is a tad deflated and nowhere in Attack of the Clones is there a smooth operator like Han Solo, a feisty princess, an intimidating Wookie, a fear inducing dark villain and a great actor named Alec Guinness who brought a lot of expression to his character Obi-Wan Kenobi more so than his “padawan learner” Ewan McGregor who plays a younger version of Kenobi in Attack of the Clones.

Anakin Skywalker, now accomplished Jedi, falls in love with the former Queen of Naboo. He is assigned to look after her as her life is under threat from those dividing the Republic into Separatist states. The Republic is slowly crumbling and war is imminent.

Anakin also has recurring nightmares over his mother and his separation from her which has an after effect. These nightmares foreshadow Anakin’s fall from grace to become Darth Vader. Yet, we will need to wait until the third installment for it to reveal the pseudo-religious or spiritual significance to this fall from grace.

This prequel has a high sense of soap opera, especially evident in eloquent and melodramatic conversations between characters. The decisions political figures, a Jedi’s contemplation followed by wise action and the consequences of these are dished out with Days of Our Lives self-importance as if this is the story of the century.

There is pleasing development of action, if looking closer. Unlike the rudimentary action set piece that stands out because it is wham-bam, Attack of the Clones seamlessly weaves action scenes within the fabric of plot.

The special effects though eye boggling don’t overcome the central story and instead assist it. But it could have been a better story.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Director: George Lucas, Genre: Science Fiction, Year: 2002, Rating: 6/10

The Phantom Menace

I titled this review (above) as just The Phantom Menace, but the on screen title is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Why didn’t I use the full title? Just because it sounds better. The following is my review of this film that was published as a retro review a year after the movie was released because I just wanted to. It did get published nevertheless.

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After what seemed an unsatisfactory five minutes in the first prequel to the blockbuster Star Wars trilogy of the late seventies and early eighties, The Phantom Menace seemed to progress into a thoroughly entertaining piece of science fiction fantasy for this once Star Wars mad fan.

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) is a master Jedi sent with his apprentice Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan Macgregor) to settle a trade dispute between the peaceful Planet of Naboo and the Trade Federation.

After an unsuccessful meeting, the Federation maintains blockades and stifles communications and dominates proceedings. Queen Amadala of Naboo (Natalie Portman) will not tolerate an impending war and is intent on protecting her people.

Leaving the planet to protect the Queen, the Jedi’s stumble across Anakin Skywalker, a slave who works in a junkyard of the planet Tatooine.  Qui-Gon feels that Anakin has special powers. After some bargaining with Anakin’s owner and a good stroke of destiny in a “pod race”, Anakin is taken under the Jedi’s wing, and comes on board. Anakin is then going to be trained as a Jedi Knight. And if you’ve seen the first trilogy you know what happens to him (and the development of that won’t be on screen until the next two episodes).

There are plenty of throwbacks to older Star Wars material, most notably in the development of plot, characters and brief comic interludes. The intention of the makers is to create a coherent series. Viewers can watch from beginning to end the life and drama of a family set somewhere other than earth, but that people can relate to.

The Phantom Menace has an over-arching theme of good defeating evil and other themes of loyalty, courage, sacrifice and redemption. The good versus evil topic has a quasi-religious undertone (though I don’t go along with The Force as such).

The battle scenes in space and on Naboo, the climatic and convincing light saber duel, the presence of Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor, the pod race, the rousing John Williams score and the visual excitement outweigh any deficiencies in an enjoyable space opera episode. And this is the perspective of once was a fan, but still has a sentimental inkling for.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Director: George Lucas, Genre: Science Fiction, Year: 1999, My rating: 8/10

The James Bond myth

The James Bond movies are based on the Ian Fleming spy novels, novels reportedly based on his experiences. The first Bond film arrived in theaters in 1962, with Dr. No.

The stories, if based on experiences, might be hyped up in the movie versions.

There’s one Bond film playing tonight that has a story that made me think twice. Of course there’s a point to a media mogul wanting to take over the media—this point is media monopolization—but getting your head around a megalomaniac media tycoon doesn’t ring true.

However, if you want to discuss the problems of a media company taking up too much market space, just leave any misappropriation to the authorities who know what to do.

Then there are the nuclear plots and snazzy sounding premises that are basically fantasies.

So we can’t trust a Bond story to ring true. If this is the case in a Bond film, it may really depend on the actors rather than the story and the action.

In terms of actors, the perennial and rather silly question is what Bond actor do you like? Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig? What about the Bond girls? What about the villains?

Some critics may praise the villains out of a sheer base instinct especially if the story is lacking, but then give the film three stars instead of two. Yet a Bond film should be about how well it’s done and if it engages on its own terms. Bond films are really unbelievable anyhow, so they’re redundant from the outset, Skyfall the only exception.

Like Bond is having too much fun with Bond girls with very little effort put into him redeeming his ways. There are the why’s of what makes Bond James Bond, but it ends in the arms of a woman rather than a serious treatment.

But we never did believe in the mythology of James Bond.

Ladies in Lavender

This UK film doesn’t sweep you up at first, but it picks up nicely.

In the 1930’s, a mysterious stranger washes ashore in Cornwall, England. Elderly sisters Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) take care of Andrea (Daniel Bruhl), a foreigner to the shores, and even bend over backwards for him, catering to his needs like good Samaritans and they discover his talent for playing violin. His talent becomes something of great interest to the locals.

Andrea’s appearance is unexplained. He is swept aside by the seas, but I don’t know how he got there. As Andrea is cared for, progression is low-key and uneventful but the movie picks up and becomes interesting.

Village life is potentially fertile material. Everyone knows everyone, has an opinion on everyone, but may prefer their own company best. It’s that kind of place where everyone is in everyone’s pocket.  The villagers are colorful and interesting with hints of depth and shades. Well-sketched characters shine through.

Such as Ursula’s loneliness unravels as a result of her attraction to Andrea. Janet is supportive and her character is strong. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith again show their class and pedigree as actors who make their roles natural and real.

Distinguished English actor Charles Dance wrote and directed this low-budget, independent British film, which is based on a short story. While the movie stalls in the beginning, nevertheless the developing story and sense of humanity draw you in and the two enigmatic sisters and the stranger garner empathy. The ending is uplifting.

Ladies in Lavender, Director: Charles Dance, Genre: Drama, Year: 2004, Rating: 8/10

Clash of the Titans

Of the Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans films—films about the myths of ancient Greece—the 1981 original, Clash of the Titans, is the better one.

In the 1981 original, the writer follows the mythology closely, but it is not overdone.

The story gets going when god Zeus (Laurence Olivier) gives his human son Perseus (Harry Hamlin) gifts worthy of a knight on a journey. Zeus then tells Perseus that the gifts are there to help him on a journey of executing his destiny.

In that vein, Perseus attempts to save Andromeda (Judi Bowker) from various forces such as the sea beast the Kraken, and a vengeful, spurned lover.

The gods are dramatized the more by British stalwarts Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith. Well-known actors that includes Clare Bloom play other gods and goddesses in their midst.

Formidable roles were not the usual for Olivier, but as Zeus there is a formidable streak, and at the end of his career was a departure from his earlier theatrical roles.

The gods’ inflamed passions and schemes, in the god’s home on Mount Olympus, is all a bit of a farce in essence. However, if you strip down the elements of the mythology, there’s a theme of taking up one’s courage. The Greeks didn’t know if there were gods, but they did know how to tell a story that has spiritual or universal application.

It is a telling which is not spectacular or fantastic as the marketing tells us is. The telling is straight forward, but it holds a steady pace, a tone of gravitas, and some excitement especially in Medusa’s lair as Perseus ventures out on his journey.

Clash of the Titans, Director: Desmond Davis, Genre: Fantasy, Year: 1981, Rating: 7/10

Rated PG (Contains fantasy action and brief nudity)

 

Monster Trucks

Monster Trucks treads a familiar route. The oil company should reveal when digging in environmentally risky places, but it has been skirting the authorities. The company doesn’t tell the authorities about monsters, as implausible as it sounds to have monsters in the way. Again, it’s about the bad company that doesn’t care about the environment. It’s at least framed as the bad company and framed as the poor monsters in the environment getting undeserved treatment. But the target audience probably wouldn’t care.

There are too many awesome trucks and neat things going on to divert their attention away from the environmental message. Teenager Tripp (Lucas Till) happens to stumble on a monster—which is rather cute, a cross between a dolphin and a squid with Free Willy’s set of teeth. The monster soups up a four wheel drive truck that Tripp drives. The truck somehow moves faster with a monster underneath that ingests oil. The truck now has a real daredevil streak. But Tripp can’t escape his humdrum life in the country and get on the road with it. He is protecting the monster from the company men. If the company can hide their tracks then the authorities won’t get wind of the monsters they are hiding. They are bad, bad boys.

So the story has a moral slant with Tripp the good guy with a good girl by him and some assorted companions along the way, aiming to save the monsters from the greedy. The story is quite engaging more or less. I didn’t have an aversion to the action scenes with four wheel drive trucks which will keep the kids engaged more than the adults. The kids who like this sort of film, may play with bulldozers or four wheel drive trucks, the toys they play with in the lounge room and sandpit. These action set pieces will give them extra incentive in playing imaginatively, if that’s the right word. Perhaps with more energy. As a family, they might have seen truck racing events and so watching this movie is a natural step.

The good guys and good girl are likeable in a family film I didn’t have an aversion to, but which isn’t all on the mark either. It is one and a half hours of pleasantries, action, and an okay story, one which will make you like monsters.

Monster Trucks, Director: Chris Wedge, Genre: Family, Year: 2016, Rating: 6/10