Musings of a Moving Image Enthusiast
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Until I encountered the trailer of this movie, I had no idea about the existence of R.L. Stine’s series of fantasy horror books. The books weren’t available in India and any literature that I got from my relatives’ foreign visits revolved mostly around DC and Marvel publications. So when I did read up about Mr. Stine’s series of horror fiction novellas, my curiosity as well as expectations were naturally piqued. Given the fact that the film stars Jack Black, who I know bites into every role with furious tenacity, I was preparing myself to watch a fine film primarily aimed at young adults but has a little something for everyone.
But all the movie did was disappoint. Instead of picking a tale that defined the essence of the Goosebumps series, the producers decided to create a tale to fit all the characters that had been written down by the author into one single story. How did the movie receive a nod of approval from an author like R.L. Stine will forever be a massive mystery for me.
The movie focuses on Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette), a clean cut teenager who has moved from New York City to the town of Madison, Delaware with his mother Gale (a criminally underused Amy Ryan). His dark cloud of moving from a bustling city to a small town has a silver lining in the form of Hannah (Odeya Rush), an attractive girl who lives next door. But Hannah has a father, Mr. Shriver (Jack Black) who seems to harbor a perpetual hate for everyone and orders Zach to stay away from his daughter and his home.
But somehow that’s a tall order for Zach and he breaks into Mr. Shriver’s house with his new and only friend Champ (Ryan Lee). While in the house, Zach and Champ stumble upon,original manuscripts of the Goosebumps series. However, they discover the hard way that opening a manuscript will free the monster the book is about. This leads to hell being unleashed on the small town, as the monsters descend upon Madison and with the aim of destroying the town and its inhabitants.
There isn’t much to say about the movie that’s as predictable as an episode of Full House. Though there are some high-energy chase scenes and some genuine creep factor, the movie loses focus on who is its target viewer. Also you get a feeling that the movie is depending way too much on CGI rather than actual storytelling. While Jack Black is the saving grace of the film, there’s only so much he can do with a script that fails early on.
This film looks like something a pre-2000 Tim Burton would have been able to exploit to its full potential (something he was attempting until plans fell through). Alas Rob Letterman makes the proceedings seem uninteresting. I somehow feel he should stick to his animated features rather than attempting live-action adventures.
If the subject matter of a movie involves life in prison, you can be sure that there’s a lot of loneliness, despair and violence coming your way. That doesn’t mean Jacques Audiard’s Oscar nominated A Prophet (Un Prophète) doesn’t have any of those elements. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a story about strength, survival and power. May I also mention that it’s one of my favourite non-English movies ever.
A Prophet is the story of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19 year old petty criminal who is sent to prison to serve a six-year sentence for a crime that isn’t quite described. A Frenchman of Arab descent, Malik is a timid individual who is sure that the next few years of his life will be a hell he isn’t quite prepared for. Sure enough he is stripped of what little courage and self-respect he had on his first day behind the merciless walls. His fear also marks him as a target for César Luciani (Neils Arestrup), a Corsican mobster who seemingly rules the prison by employing an equal mix of bribes and violence. César decides to use Malik to murder an inmate who is about to testify against his associates. With no escape and no choice, Malik is forced to go against his will and carry out the task.
Thus begins Malik’s transformation into a man who is willing to do whatever it takes to survive. Though looked down upon by César’s thugs due to his race, Malik manages to form a bond with the man in charge due to his unquestioned loyalty, despite his rising rank within the prison social system. Malik also uses his time in the prison to make most of the opportunities he gets that he never had on the outside. He waits, he listens and he learns. Once he becomes eligible for furloughs, he uses his short trips outside the prison to lay the foundation of his own criminal empire.
Audiard has done a fabulous job of creating a dark and sordid tale which grips you from the beginning to the end. The hazy atmosphere in tight spaces that serve as prison cells gives you an idea of how life is for a prison inmate. From the first scene to the last, he has your attention and the enigma that Tahar Rahim is only aids him in completing the picture he wants to paint. Rahim is so good at showcasing Malik’s transformation from the meek inmate to a member of the group that makes the rules that you may be excused for believing that it’s all real. The metamorphosis is tough on the senses and so believable that it will leave you shaken for quite some time after the movie ends. A word of appreciation for the able supporting role by Neils Arestrup as a ruthless mob boss who can be sympathetic at times.
By the end of the movie you will realize why it won almost every award it was nominated for around the world. It’s one of those rare films that are so satisfying to watch that you feel bad that it wasn’t longer.
Let me start by saying that I am yet to read Andy Weir’s bestseller this film is based on. It was a conscious decision. When it was announced that Ridley Scott will be directing the screenplay penned by Drew Goddard to bring the book to the big screen, I made it a point to stay away from the book to see how good the movie can be. But since I come from a tribe of bibliophiles, I had heard enough for my expectations to be sky high. Was I disappointed? Not one bit.
The Martian is the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut who is presumed dead during a storm while he and his team are on a Mars exploration mission. But Watney survives, and finds himself alone on a desolate and severely hostile planet. Rather than giving up hope and awaiting his unavoidable demise, Watney uses his wit and ingenuity to survive until the next spacecraft that can rescue him arrives. In his mission to “science the shit” out of the planet, Watney creates a functioning farm in his habitat that will generate food until it’s time for him to leave. Meanwhile on Earth, a team of NASA officials are looking for ways to communicate with Watney, send him supplies and an eventual rescue mission, which most people are sure is doomed even before it has begun.
What keeps the viewer engaged is that despite the extravagant amount of science in the movie, the logics are easy to understand. The calculations are explained in everyman terms. It’s one of those rare sci-fi films that breaks down a difficult concept while keeping it as simple as possible, though some may still find them too geeky. So most of the times, as a viewer, you understand the perils Watney and the NASA officials are facing during a particular moment and how they are planning to overcome the obstacle.
The best thing for me in this film is that it marks Ridley Scott’s return to form. After a sour patch which consisted of films like Robin Hood, Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott is back in master mode and proving that he is one of the finest when it comes down to visually representing the written word. This movie will also make you realize why Matt Damon is one of the best actors we have around. Through his video logs, he keeps the viewer hooked to this mostly one-man show. The video log also serves as a great narration tool instead of the usual background narration we are used to.
Much like all great space movies, The Martian gets us to cheer for the bright, curious minds at space agencies around the world. NASA has itself been making attempts to promote this film and you realize why. It brings to the forefront the greatest minds who solve some of the most unsolvable problems without the incentive of recognition. Overall the movie is about hope and the triumph of the human spirit and the movie makes that abundantly clear. When there’s a life threatening situation, you aren’t worried whether Watney will survive it or not, you are interested in how he will find a way around it.
There’s a scene in Pearl Jam Twenty where the camera is following Stone Gossard around Jeff Ament’s house exploring the band memorabilia Ament has collected over the years. When they get down to the basement to see if there’s any discarded collectible that can be featured in the film, Gossard points to a dark dusty corner and says, “Oh look, there’s a Grammy.” That scene perfectly encapsulates the attitude with which Pearl Jam has gone about its more than two decade long career. Giving importance to music over everything else and being a non-conformist while creating popular art throughout their career.
An ode to one of the great American bands, Pearl Jam Twenty is Cameron Crowe’s homage to the Seattle band. Of all the documentaries that focus on a band’s career, I think this is one of the most effective. I guess we can credit that to Crowe’s early career of writing for the Rolling Stone magazine, a glimpse of which we got to see in the seminal Almost Famous. The fact that Crowe hails from Seattle and had friends in the local music scene, including members of Pearl Jam, before it blew up played a major part in ensuring that the film covered the turning points in the bands life rather than focusing on how the band composed ‘Alive’.
Shuffling between early footage and present-day interviews, the documentary does a more than a fair job of covering the moments in the band’s life that made them who they are today. It offers an insight into how the band could have gone the way of several other 90’s bands that released a couple of albums and faded into obscurity, but instead chose to focus on making music and maintaining their artistic credibility. Crowe also takes the viewer through the band’s grudge with Ticketmaster, an event that pushed the band’s popularity among several music aficionados.
The documentary is filled with several instances that help you understand how the once chaos inducing band turned into the mature musical outfit it is known as today. Though some people may not find the documentary quite engaging, viewers who were around in the 90s and loved the band as much as I do should watch it as a solid tribute to one of the greatest alt-rock bands that has ever existed.
Here’s a pro-tip, if you ever stumble across a great piece of filmmaking, or just love a movie you watched out of nowhere, look into the filmmaker’s repertoire. There’s a good chance you will end up finding more movies you haven’t heard of which are worth watching. If you’re lucky you might end up finding a movie that’s better than the one that make you look into the filmmaker’s work in the first place.
I used this trick after I got done watching Pearl Jam Twenty (read the review here), an ode to the world’s greatest (in my opinion) alternative rock band. Produced by Morgan Neville, the documentary is a look at how a local band from Seattle made its mark as one of America’s greatest bands . This led me to explore some more work done by Neville and that’s when I discovered the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom. The documentary offers a rarely encountered insight into the lives of the givers of the indispensable, but usually overlooked, harmonies in our favourite songs – the backup singers.
Funny, honest, amusing, brash and brazenly emotional, the movie is a first-hand account of what it means to be a supporting voice to some of the greatest rock acts in musical history. The stories are told by some of the most legendary yet largely unknown backup singers like Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega and Judith Hill. Another notable thing about the movie is that Neville successfully convinced the icons, who used these singers to enhance their music, share their insights and sing praises about the contributions these ladies made to their music. It’s quite satisfying to see legends like Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Sting and Bruce Springsteen speak about the humble backup singer’s contribution to their music.
Though seemingly random and non-chronologically assembled, the documentary as a whole allows you to relish the stories filled sometimes with triumph and most of the times with heartbreak. It does a fine job of letting you into a world of musicians who started off as choir singers, made their way to the outskirts of fame, tried their best to be at the centre stage, but always found an invisible string holding them back.
The movie also offers a fantastic insight into the evolution of music and the state it’s in today. Fascinatingly it was the artists from the British invasion in the 70’s who let these singers, usually African-American, sing with the passion they wanted to in an attempt to sound “blacker”. Also why the music produced today lacks the richness it once had, because producers prefer to set aside a budget for auto-tuning rather than backup singers.
It’s a documentary full of music, joy, heartbreak and life as you look into the morose eyes of bona fide stars who had the talent but just couldn’t find their rightful space under the spotlight.