Los Ojos de Julia (2010) – Light and Shadow

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Twin sisters Julia and Sara (both played by the magnificent Belén Rueda) suffer from the same degenerative eye condition that leads them to blindness. When Julia finds Sara hanging in the basement, she suspects that her sister couldn’t have actually committed suicide. One thing leads to the other and Julia is all of a sudden in deep water. She’s stuck between her deteriorating vision and the apparent murderer walking loose like a shadow, a true psycho.

Directed by Guillem Morales, Julia’s Eyes is intense, sublime, and aesthetically very pleasing, but it could have been so much more. It could almost be the perfect homage to the graphic Giallo genre. The climax of course mirrors the classic neck slash scenes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento movies, but the mystery in the film is an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The air has same tension as Psycho, and no, there’s no multiple personality disorder here.

Midway through the movie, Julia’s Eyes feels like a riveting mystery—brilliant screenplay, pacing, and terrific performances all heading to a transcendental climax. The scene where Julia goes blind is part of one memorable sequence bringing together the music, shot, atmosphere, and Julia’s own expressions in summing up this incredible piece of storytelling. But from thereon, the story dips and treads on the usual path of psychotic thrillers. It loses its mystical element and becomes rather predictable, a bit too theatrical at times.

Initially set as a firm, intelligent mystery, the story turns into a watered down survival journey of a woman who was full of conviction at first, but is later devoid of rationality. Although one could suspect that the tragedies in her life play an equal part in breaking her; still, many of the decisions she makes doesn’t quite fit with the woman who’s shown to be Julia at first. That notwithstanding, Julia’s Eyes is almost a classic if you shut it right at the point Julia loses her eyesight. Howsoever the movie may have turned out, and it’s still fine, Rueda deserves all the praises for her emotive, dejected, and tragic showing as both Julia and Sara.

Julia’s Eyes has a great start, a not so great ending. The eventual twist is hardly exciting and leaves you expecting more, yet the initial hour is some of the finest exhibition in  horror/mystery filmmaking. In its visual form though, Los Ojos de Julia is sheer beauty. The second half lets it down.

The Wicker Man (1973) – That Damned Island

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A loose adaptation of Ritual (a David Pinner novel), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is a bizarre drama about pagan rituals. With a bittersweet melody and brooding suspense, Hardy tells an elusive story luring audiences into an illusionary world, hence, creating the ultimate illusion through this wonderful looking and starkly contrasting mystery.

When Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper), little does he expect the absurdities he comes to see in this thwarting island. Ushered by Christian codes of conduct, Howie is a devotee of the Lord in all its forms and virtues. In contrast, the island of Summerisle has people stuck in pre-history appeasing Gods through ritualistic sacrifices in hope of proper harvest and harmony in their lives.

Sexual liberation at its peak, Summerisle folks treat the phallus as a regenerative force, fire as the proprietor of fertility, and sex as the symbol of sacredness. For a devoted Christian, this free lovism culture leaves Sgt. Howie in a state of incomprehensible shock. But he’s here to find the missing girl. When he goes about business, he’s much shaken to realize how none of the residents seem to acknowledge her existence let alone her disappearance. Resolute in his mission, Sgt. Howie pledges to unravel the mystery of this perplexing island and in doing so, he comes to terms with the bare realities and deceitful allegiances of this sinister island.

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The Wicker Man is deceptively charming. It’s like those castles of illusions that appear blissful from the outside, but are terribly devastating from the inside. What helps the movie achieve this peripheral balminess, despite being mazy throughout, is the beautiful music. The celebratory tunes, most of the time bawdy, and the timely score keeps you expecting something warm, something feel good, but that never comes. By the end, the movie treads into tragedy. The finality of this bizarre film is all too cruel, nasty, yet ultimately true and an event that reflects the grim reality of what was once a common happening.

The king of this mystery of course is the climax. Chilling, almost nerve-wracking, it’s shocking and goads you to do something, to hope against hope for something supernatural to occur—and that is the highlight of the movie. For large portions, one is amazed at the scenes Sgt. Howie sees. The feeling is mutual as what seems normal for the isle is completely abnormal for others. Viewers would find the startling sexuality, the loose mannerisms of the natives, and the mysterious hue surrounding this island equally puzzling. But the tone makes you believe otherwise; believe that there’s a chink somewhere.

The performances of the actors here is another major plus. Edward Woodward as the staunch Christian is a fine performance, whilst the legendary Christopher Lee as Lord Isle steals the show. Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento as Willow and Miss Rose bring a sensual variation to this colorful tale and help garnish it with a dash of mystery and absurdity to make it seem sexually ripe, especially the part of Willow. As a running motif, sexuality here appears omnipresent and forms the base of this transcendental drama spiritualizing sex and presenting it in a holy, regenerative essence.

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The Wicker Man mayn’t be as popular as other horror/mystery movies from the 60s and 70s like Suspiria (1977), The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965) et al, but that has more to do with fate than quality sadly. Although, it’s not an outright horror, this movie has its own prescriptions of mystery, thrills, and suspense. It is a quality film with a seamless screenplay (Anthony Shaffer) and together with the music and the perfect direction of Robin Hardy, it’ll keeps you engaged and perplexed, but above all, the climax stands as something iconic, lasting, and utterly dismaying.

The Fly (1958) – Help Me

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David Hedison as Andre Delambre
Patricia Owens as Helena Delambre
Vincent Price as François Delambre
Herbert Marshall as Inspector Charaz
Charles Herbert as Philippe Delambre

Although people remember the 1986 version of The Fly (David Cronenberg) mainly due to its stark take on the mangled blending of a human and a fly, the original classic from Kurt Neumann, who had specialized in making low-budget Sci-Fi movies, looks into this dreadful condition with a delicacy lacking in the remake. In doing so, the story treads a simple path that focuses more on the drama for the people related to the genius than on the consequences of the horror accident on the genius himself. Similar to the movies from related genres in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, The Fly is dramatic, not gory; it’s subtle, not crude; it emphasizes on human emotions, not events—and shows the trauma of such an unwanted supernatural occurrence on the family of the victim rather than the victim.

The start of the movie we see a woman crushing a man on a hydraulic press and fleeing the scene. Her name—Helena, she subsequently calls her brother-in-law, François, and admits to the murder of her husband, Andre. Inspector Charaz arrives at her house for investigation and later, during which, Helena narrates the story of her genius, yet tragic husband and his mercurial invention – a teleportation device.

Andre is a genius electrical engineer. He discovers an apparatus that could make teleportation a reality envisioning that it could end famine, poverty, whilst collapsing distance and shrinking time. Showing his newfound invention to his wife Helena, Andre works on resolving the minor errors that come along such transformational inventions. Obsessed with his work, Andre decides to up the ante and become the Guinea pig in this experiment. [plot point ahead] He succeeds the first time around, but in the second incident, a fly—by accident—flies into the teleportation device and the results are disastrous: the atoms of the fly and Andre mutate during the process. Andre comes out with a fly’s head and arm. The fly, on the other hand, carries off Andre’s head.

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Of course, Helena is narrating the entire story to the Inspector and her brother-in-law, so we don’t get to see the actual occurrence per se… Precisely why, it’s safe to call the movie an attempt to elaborate on the exterior effects of such an occurrence to those around the man and not an attempt to show the internal effects of the disaster on the man himself.

The Fly has a nice, smooth flow. It keeps the story interesting, even though you don’t get into the meat of the action until about half an hour into the movie. This could be interpreted either way, but ideally, Neumann directs the scenes brilliantly keeping us engaged—anticipating with curiosity the antecedent behind the starling behavior of Helena. The suspense slowly uncloaks, and when we see the reality—a bad, guilty feeling of regret takes over forcing us to hope-against-hope that Helena is successful in her mission, and Andre could revert the mutation and become the normal genius than the hideous half-fly, half-man. The scene when Helena uncovers the head of Andre is almost disgusting and grotesque—seeing this great human have a gigantic head of a fly. Almost puke-worthy and considering the time period of the movie, this has to be amongst the most daunting images up until the movie.

What tops the daunting image of Andre with a head of a fly would probably be the fly with Andre’s head! The final utterings “Help me! Help meeee!” in the shrieky voice of the fly-with-Andre’s-head just before becoming a spider’s meal may have heaved this movie as a yesteryear classic, and a science fiction that opened the door for many such movies in the future. Some found the climax whimsical, whilst some find it creepy until today. For today’s viewer, it wouldn’t probably be as disturbing as it ought to have been for the viewers of the 50s and 60s. Yet for some, it’s still haunting and is one of those lasting imageries that remain with you even after the credits roll.

Behind all of this, the story takes a philosophical stance into the enigma of Nature. Sometimes you just cross the limit and you don’t know until it’s too late. Play with Nature, but do so at your own peril as it’s not always wise venturing into unchartered territory… That’s the main message of The Fly—sound and profound, as a drama and as a concept.

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The Fly is well shot and moving. It’s unusual and raises funny questions from within existentialism to science, but at the end, it’s a masterfully rendered Sci-Fi that is both provoking and fascinating, terrible, yet magnificent.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Chaos, My Lord

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If a gigantic expansion of the world into galaxies with visceral characters, ranging from sublime to frantic, isn’t enough to tune you in—imagine these creatures of the universe as one giant, embracing family fighting for themselves and along the way ravaging baddies for fun. Good enough? The guardians, a total whizz of chaotic mortals, have their own history, sad and profound, but together these maddened beings find friendship and acceptance among each other to form a wacky team that you couldn’t help but adore even if you had venom in all your spikes. Director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy follows these wild space creatures in their journey from mercenaries to heroes, from genetic freaks to palpable souls.

The movie starts with young Peter Quinn summoning the last words of his cancer-stricken mother. She leaves him forever, even though in spirit never, and hands over her coveted archives to him, and some physical antiques of music collection, which becomes the pivot of Peter Quinn’s character, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as he evolves to become. Call it Karma or right timing; a UFO adopts this 8-year-old recluse. Once he’s in that thing, he’s no longer citizen of this terrain, but Star-Lord now. A ladies man 101, he has a quick tongue and is a negotiator, as he calls himself, although he’s really just a space scavenger who’s retrieved a silvery orb, the most searched about piece of jewel in the galaxy, but for him—none important than his own 80’s style Walkman. Bad luck for him though, everybody wants the orb, some his Walkman. He can’t let it slip into the hands of the dark men of the galaxy or else, you guessed it, doomsday would behold the universe.

On his mission to sell this orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the sexy mutant assassin, tries to steal it from him. She works for Ronan, the Accuser (Lee Pace) – the baddie of this episode out to retrieve the orb for it contains the power of all powers and would make him the King of the Universe. Joining the mayhem, the smart and condescending Rocket, the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable walking tree with heart and soul—Groot (Vin Diesel), they create quite a scene in the utopian land of Xandar, the Nova capital. The well-quipped and savvy Nova Corps arrest Star-Lord and the mischief mongers. They’re jailed and are forced to live under one roof. It’s in this state of art facility, a technological haven, these losers come together and are forced to bond. Attended by the matter-of-fact Drax, the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), these mischief mongers now have a chance to evolve into bedlam warriors, if they bond… Do they though? Oh well, they do sort of, but well, not really…

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With such chaotic characters and a wild premise, Guardians of the Galaxy has too much to deal with. It’s a madcap of eccentric characters, sadistic villains, quirky monsters, and plain, dumb folks, but that’s the charm of this cinematic journey. It takes all the possible recipe of superhero flicks and blends it in one delicious dish that ticks all the right boxes. A loud and hilarious Raccoon, a footloose leader, an insipid destroyer, a compassionate tree mouthing three innocuous words and an alienated assassin—they form an unlikely tribune and find a purpose to their otherwise uninspiring lives.

The story is gripping right from the go and the dazzling special effects style it as an epic showdown. But there are other far deeper cursors setting apart this galaxy from similar superhero ventures. The witty one-liners and hilarious dialogs apart, the story is beautifully weaved, under an apparent structure, and with perfect layering of the main plot and the sub plots; the actions only serve as tangible products of an otherwise emotional journey of these people dazed and confused.

What works for Guardians, amongst the dwarfing world of the galaxy, is the simplicity of each character and the creaseless rendering of their emotions. The movie simply transports an ordinary story about a bunch of people who we’ve seen many times into a larger than life setting. Swift and emotional, the film succeeds in inducing warmth and affection for the citizens of the galaxy, specially the eccentric characters that are all cute for their own reasons. You relate to them in peculiar ways and actually care for what they do—rooting for them, giggling with them, laughing at them, and feeling sorry for them.

Together, these bunch of jerks, travel across the galaxy and come close to each other. Drax finds his lost family in his new friends. Gamora learns emotions though Quill and the crazy people around her. Rocket finds a purpose. Groot serves as the all-embracing Nature phenomena, caring for all, loving all—a nice little metaphor in one story rich in metaphors and beautiful in harmony. And, the street smart Quill gets the affection he never got from these unlikely combatants.  Emotional, warm, and rich—Guardians has amazing visuals, terrific villains, a promising setup, and brilliant execution, but what holds it as one silvery orb of value are the idiosyncrasies of these characters and their convergence into a dynamic troupe. Similar to the magnetizing star of Star-Lord, these lost souls gravitate towards each other like iron to magnet.

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In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy makes you appreciate clutter giving you 2 hours of terrific entertainment and taking you from humor to admiration to a state of feel-goody bliss in awe of these pathetic beings who just happen to be earnest and beautiful. Coming from Marvel Studios, it’s commendable how they’ve taken the less popular Superheroes to brilliance, whether it’s Captain America, Iron Man, or now the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians is splendid—a madcap of a superhero blockbuster flick—where the amazing visuals is only the starting point of an adventure so engrossing, deeply engaging.

The Dark Mirror (1946) – Crude Reflections

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Olivia de Havilland as Terry Collins and Ruth Collins
Lew Ayres as Dr. Scott Elliott
Thomas Mitchell as Lt. Stevenson
Richard Long as Rusty

Two sisters form a cumbersome bond that shields them from the ulterior motives of the world. This bond helps them fend off unwanted predicaments. It’s almost like having an automated backup plan to everything. When these sisters happen to be identical twins, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other, which works as an added advantage for both.

The same advantage turns into a gross disadvantage when, allegedly, one of the sisters commit murder. All reflections could be useless, but as with the nature of the beast itself, who is to distinguish the criminal from the innocent, the captive from the free?

Terry and Ruth Collins are identical twins. Physically indistinguishable they may be, but their attitude towards life is completely different. When Dr. Frank is murdered one evening, the Police led by Lt. Stevenson follow their cues and reach the twins. Unable to discover concrete evidence against the twins because both have their own alibis, the police accept the inherent weakness in their accusation and turn to ace psychologist Dr. Scott Elliott instead to unravel the mystery. Performing various tests on the twins, Dr. Elliott arrives at a deadly conclusion [plot point ahead]: one of the twins is paranoid, with conscience of a 2-year-old and a ravaging jealousy for her sister. One of the two cannot accept the other being liked, whilst she continues to be rejected in favor of her sister. Who is nice and who is not so nice? That’s all this thriller is all about.

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The Dark Mirror is mysterious, but for all the thrills and intrigues, it’s a cool watch and a breezy ride of 90 minutes. The content is light for the heavy themes it carries. A psychological study of human nature, The Dark Mirror trots from psychiatry to romance, crime, jealousy, and murder with ease. And, considering the grave story, it’s perplexing how easy on the eye (and mind) the movie is. One of the simplest made Noirs, the pace is swift, the story ticks on—building to the climax gently almost like an education of sorts. Such blending of hard-hitting realities with the subtle emotions really makes it stand out as an early classic in the genre.

Olivia de Havilland plays the twins—one who is charming, other who is deranged. What’s amazing is the masterful showcasing of special effects considering the era. Implanting both the sisters together on-screen, and that’s for good parts of the movie, director Robert Siodmak fascinates with the powerful combination of early special effects, gripping storytelling, and tight direction. The show stealer obviously is the show itself, Olivia de Havilland. It’s her movie, hence, her role, and she portrays both personalities with point precision. Adding her poignant touch to the roles, one is bound to appreciate her performances as both Terry and Ruth. The fact that these performances aren’t talked about is a nothing short of a shame. It’s one of the finest performances by a lead.

Stark cinematography (Milton Krasner), terrific use of lights and shadows, and the powerful motif of the mirror signifying the theme of reflection—opposite of what we are and never the exact copy—The Dark Mirror is a classic. Almost 70 years have passed since it hit the screens. Back then, it didn’t rake in as much appreciation as it ought to have. Today, it stands out as a tense psychological study balancing the various components of storytelling, with stylish use of cinematic techniques.

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It wouldn’t be precise to call Noir movies warm and uplifting, but those words wouldn’t be wasted if showered on The Dark Mirror. It manages to be intriguing, while maintaining a coziness that makes this movie a pleasant watch and an entertaining journey about two sisters cut from the same fabric, designed by different couturiers.

The Expendables 3 (2014) – Intolerable Cruelty

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There aren’t many movies I’ve regretted watching. Even the uninspiring action movies from the action stars of the 80s and early 90s promised some engaging moments. Lackluster they may be; some were very entertaining. The Expendables was a nostalgic ride for fans of brute action. The second one seemed right, as the Expendables had now turned into a milking cow for the aging actions stars passed their peak. The third one, this one, is just a train wreck. One of the lousiest movies of the year, it’s dreadful and nothing—not one single facet—redeems this movie. It’s downright bad.

Barney Ross (Sly Stallone) is in a mission to wipe out the bad guys again. His old cast seems too emotional and stuck in a period opposable to their leader. He needs to do it without them for the risk is ominous and he doesn’t want to harm his buddies. With that, Ross recruits a younger, livelier crop to take on Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), former ally, now arch nemesis.

It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? It sounds monotonous more than bad, I admit. But once the movie opens, the badness begins. The over the top destruction of locales has become as common as a fly in Hollywood territory. In this case, it goes a notch up with these men destroying people and sceneries just for fun. That’s the purpose of the movie, you may say, so we let it pass. Nonetheless, the purpose from director Patrick Hughes surely wouldn’t have been to execute a horribly scripted, insipid, and chaotic movie that not only breaks the bones of those on the screen, but also triggers headache to those off the screen. Precisely, what the squad of Expendables do to your head.

The whole motive behind this series was paying homage to the action movies of the past. That was fine with the first one, but with this, you just stop caring. The emotions the characters try to force were funny, not moving at all. Watching them joke, argue, or fight with each other gets irritating after about 10 minutes into the movie. I didn’t even care, nor would you. In fact, saying that it fails to capture the fancy would be a compliment here. The screenplay commits the horrendous sin of making you indifferent to the subject. The sad part is that it’s not even remotely entertaining.

If you want to torture somebody, make sure you take them with you to watch the Expendables 3. Beware though, you must have a thick head to tolerate the parody on-screen yourself, whilst have 2 hours to waste watching this pathetic wanna-be bad ass action movie that does nothing but feed the egos of these actions stars, especially Stallone as it seems.

And, did I mention that the movie is racist and sexist too? As if, it could get any worse… Tasteless, plodding, a sham of an action movie, the stuff churned out here is bloody depressing and watching the alleged Kings of Action perform a mockery of their own testosterone-pumping manhood is not what a viewer would pay their hard-earned money for. Avoid, at all costs.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – The Life and Times of Adam and Eve

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What could Jim Jarmusch add to the obsolete and worn down folklore of vampires? An offbeat reprise, with harmonic scores from Jozef van Wissem and Jarmusch’s own, SQÜRL, entrenched with yesteryear musical classics would seem adequate. Not quite, it would seem, as Jarmusch weaves a simple Goth drama about two eternal lovers and ultimately brings about a compelling movie contrasting with traditional vampire myths and symbols.

Living in two distant cities, Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Tangier and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Detroit, these lovers have endured the depths of time in the veracity of the world’s glooms living through every major movement, phase, and epidemic the world has experienced. Life, however, doesn’t take a stark turn for them until Eve’s ungrown sister (Mia Wasikowska) appears and when she does; it coagulates their haven with practices of traditional vampirism. You could say the last resort. From there on, eternal darkness it is for the only two lovers left alive or undead, as Stoker would charm them, yet plodding in their own ambience of seclusion.

Right from the onset, Only Lovers Left Alive induces a cool feeling. The serene environment here is almost meditative and as a viewer, you clutch on to the atmosphere, which seems divinity until you watch the red juice (wine?), the red ice on stick (Popsicle?), or the red juice inside an alcohol tumbler (whisky?). The blood doesn’t gross you out. Think of a situation when somebody is sucking on a Popsicle of iced blood. Sounds sordid, doesn’t it? Sure, it does, but it also makes you sympathize with these innocent beings and their unusual dilemma. Serves as a bona fide testament to the storytelling prowess of Jarmusch—vampires seem innocent despite feasting on blood.

It would be an understatement to suppose that Jim Jarmusch brings his indie touch to this conventional and downright preposterous sub-genre. But it’s also the truth. In today’s 24-hr. media frenzy society where active isolation is considered a defect, Jarmusch poses a scenario for people who’d want that seclusion amidst the bareness of society. Having no option per se, Adam and Eve are forced to constrict themselves to their passions—music for Adam, literature for Eve. Melting together, we’d find two geniuses with centuries of training talking about hypothetical concepts beyond the comprehension of zombies, as Adam refers to humans, and the descendants of decay that is humanity. When these obtruding zombies threaten to devastate their utopian romance, life itself becomes a challenge for these oblivious lovers. As viewers, we could only journey alongside them in this tussle, never with them.

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Only Lovers Left Alive deviates from standard vampire norms and puts spotlight on the precariousness of vampires in today’s world. Distinct to other movies of the same kind, we don’t observe guilds of vampires here, or petty rivalries between vampires and humans or wolves. The story isn’t about Count Dracula or any count, nor does it unswervingly source itself from the bundles of vampire movies that have come out since Transylvania. Is it enchanting though? Absolutely.

The pastels decorate Only Lovers like painting, art, which is what the movie is. The nocturnal filming together with the distant use of lighting, the musical scores, the performances, and the subtle camera movements brush the dreariness of life on each frame invoking a glumness, arresting our spirit, and reflecting the world that could be in front of our eyes with elegance.

Misery is latent in this drama about melancholy. The performances of both Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston mirror misery, but it’s not the misery of isolation; it’s misery after failing to attain a dignified recluse. And for vampires to survive they need fresh, red juice. Adam has his own supplier thanks to the heavy chunk of money he exchanges for the O negative. Eve, in Tangier, has the maestro Marlowe (John Hurt) giving her the good stuff. For how long? That is the catch and when such is the delicateness of the situation, one would ponder—when stacked against all odds, would these lovers respond to the call of Nature or Nurture? Remember, geniuses they may be through centuries of reflection, but they are mere slaves of the unnatural, without which, life is untenable for them.

The movie as a whole feels like a soulful opera. Warm lights, beautiful images, and a disheartening tone—mirroring a tragic play. At 2 hours long, the pace is slow and brooding, but it doesn’t let go. Drawing you into the action, it holds onto you, even after the curtains have rolled. The plot is hardly significant, almost insubstantial for the dramatic eye and that may appear the weak point, yet is it? On the contrary, it’s perhaps the most absorbing part. The story is centered in its subtlety—a musical gothic drama, the most accomplished one in vampirism, we could suggest.

Flowing like music itself and gripping the viewer in awe of the world of Only Lovers Left Alive, the movie explores the horrors of vampires in a way never been done before. Only Lovers is contemplative and exposes the bleakness of such a life, almost drawing a parallel to an outcast. Who is this outcast in reality? Only vampires or any human bold enough to defy the norms of society; that is up to the viewers to decide. Nonetheless, it’s a question worth pondering upon and this artistic drama would tempt you to put on those thinking hats and ponder upon the value of emotions over actions, living over life.

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One of the simplest movies from Jarmusch, but also the most complex perhaps, Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t everybody’s wine. For those who appreciate the deeper quality, the sheer redness of the fruit, and the romantic taste, Jarmusch’s latest is a thrilling entry into the legend of vampirism and a movie worth applauding for its beauty and contrast.

Ek Villain (2014) – A Hero’s Journey

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Listening to Shraddha Kapoor’s loud chatter five minutes into the movie, one feels like cringing—something too melodramatic and uncompromising to all senses of the body. As Aisha (played by Shraddha) prattles on and on about the innate goodness in human beings, the typical bubbly, girl-next-door persona, an uber incarnation of a good-hearted and joyous personality riddled in her own grief comes to the fore, viewers realize that this is yet another rehash of a typical Bollywood heroine. By this time, we’re already in the flashback taking us to an episode in Goa when our heroine finally meets her villain, or hero—or perhaps just a human being whom she wishes to save played by Sidharth Malhotra (as Guru).

Amidst all the melodrama, the movie treads a routine path, albeit following a non-linear approach, but as the slogan of the movie reads, “Every love story has a villain,” this love story has plenty. The story reveals about Shraddha’s fatal condition. The audiences realizing that she is on borrowed time dying from cancer it seems—something that’s completely left to the viewer to decipher.

Taking a page off countless medically doomed love stories and of course the plot being a watered-down version of I See The Devil (2010), Mohit Suri packs this movie with some tight scenes and solid story progression amidst a rather poorly constructed plot and underdeveloped motives, ultimately, standing as a movie somewhere in between good and poor.

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Ritesh Deshmukh as the psychotic serial killer, Rakesh Mahadkar, is one fine showing and a deviation from what he usually portrays on the screen. Showing his restrained, twisted, and manipulative self, Ritesh is excellent as the meek family man—who loves killing for a hobby—and devastatingly creepy as the man under the raincoat, when he takes the avatar of a killer. This is arguably the deepest point of the movie, yet the manner in which Rakesh’s leisure collides with the juggernaut called Guru is rather predictable and when that happens, it doesn’t entice the viewer into feeling what the director would want viewers to feel. Mohit Suri tries to use the cause-effect relationship and is partly successful in doing so. The problem lies in the unconvincing revenge drama more so than the overtly Bollywood-ish romantic saga.

Shraddha Kapoor has a strong screen presence and whenever she’s on the screen, it’s a delight. Her loud acting in the opening sequences and prolixity apart, Shraddha is okay in her role of the goody, good princess who finds her prince charming in the unlikely goon, the angry young man, Guru. Sidharth Malhotra was better than he was in Student of the Year (2012), and even though, he looks like a clear-cut model for men’s inner wear than the badass shown in the movie, not his fault to be honest, he deliverers a decent performance.

The various analogies and tidbits Suri uses in the movie calls for a smart sense of detail like the first marriage in the Church between an old couple—where Guru starts developing feelings for Aisha—becomes the holy ground where Guru realizes his path towards redemption. The scene between Rakesh and our very own Kamaal Rashid Khan (as Brijesh) shows Rakesh minutely observing the reaction of Brijesh’s wife to the outburst of her husband, expecting some sort of reaction, giving us a glance into Rakesh’s mentality and his loathing for women who blabber too much, except his beloved wife played by Aamna Sharif.

Despite all the inspirations, Ek Villain is a movie that could have been a classic thriller if Suri had created meaningful semblance between the two parallel layers of the movie. It’s still a decent watch and many would perhaps enjoy it. It has the Mohit Suri ingredients, which has resulted in many box-office successes for him over the years. As a movie though, Ek Villain rides high on the performance of Ritesh Deshmukh, the inspirational quotes of inspiring personalities, and the evolution of Guru—from a ruthless killer to a devoted messiah. The final scene of the movie is a beautiful gesture and when the ending is spot on, it’s hard not to come out vindicated.

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Don’t go in with high expectations. It’s a typical (hence, imbalanced) Suri flick, but with excellent music and a strong performance by the antagonist (Ritesh Deskhmukh). The story is passable, the revenge drama not quite so.

Maleficent (2014) – The Tenant of the Moors

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Cast

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Elle Fanning as Aurora
Sharlto Copley as Stefan
Sam Riley as Diaval
Imelda Staunton as Knotgrass
Lesley Manville as Flittle
Juno Temple as Thistletwit
Isobelle Molloy as Young Maleficent
Michael Higgins as Young Stefan

Every moment has a long trace behind it. What our eyes see is hardly closer to the imperial realities leading to that moment. Keeping that in mind, Poe approved, “Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” The story of Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault is the version all of us have heard, read, and seen. The old fairytale about Princess Aurora’s 100 years a sleep slave is revamped in this new version of Sleeping Beauty, this time from the perspective of Maleficent, going back to her roots and learning about her, a bit, and discovering that she is not exactly the preacher of evil as portrayed in the original fairytale.

As such tales usually start, once upon a time, there lived a fairy by the name of Maleficent who protected the Moors from humans, utterly savage humans enslaved by greed and lust. She was the generous Queen Fairy who befell into humanly love with a mortal, Stefan—the future ruler of the Kingdom and father of Princess Aurora. In his lust for power, Stefan betrays Maleficent using her weakness against metals and detaching her wings from her body—turning her into the Dark Mistress of All Evil that she went to be known as—from the original Compassionate Fairy and Protector of the Moors that she was. As the fairytale has it, Maleficent curses Princess Aurora on her christening to fall in a deep sleep after pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday. The rest, as they say, is history—but not quite in this reinvigorated tale of Maleficent directed by Robert Stromberg and prudently adapted by Linda Woolverton.

The basic premise remains the same to the fairytale, but this live-action epic retells the story of Princess Aurora from Maleficent’s point of view. The narration by Janet McTeer (as the elderly Princess Aurora) embezzles the movie with an almost bookish, fairytale-esque aura—rekindling the warmth of the classic fairytale that we have all felt in our childhood. The same warmth in McTeer’s voice carries on to the screen showing us young Maleficent bubbling in her own charms filled with innocence, and falling for a meager human, Stefan.

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Going to a period before Maleficent became The Maleficent; the backstory is detailed and has a comprehensiveness to tell us what really happened, why it happened, and how did it all come to a head in the grand finale. Very convincing, we ultimately feel for her predicament and as evil as she turns out, every drip of pain and anguish in Maleficent’s life caused by King Stefan shakes the viewer in support for her and in sympathy towards her degeneration from the sunny protector fairy to the dreaded, almost gothic, dark mistress of evil.

For somebody who grew up reading these tales, Maleficent will be another trip back to those nostalgic lanes. With a plot that ventures into the psychology of the Dark Angel, the story is rich in allegory. A critic gives life to art, said Wilde, and taking that liberty—in this aesthetic restating of an immortal story, the themes of politics and democracy live subtly within. After all, Maleficent protected her Kingdom from humans and by hook or crook, in this retelling, she manages to unify the Moors and the Kingdom into one utopia  under a compassionate, noble, and worthy Princess, later Queen, Aurora. It could count as a master class lesson of chess by the tactical genius within Maleficent, no doubt, but the story might be a bit deeper for the fairytale that is Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent is without question profounder than the archetypical children fantasy, and that makes it stand out as a unique recycling, whilst bestowing a fresh life into this universal classic.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent overpowers the ginormous special effects, dazzling in its own right, with the role of the enigmatic mistress giving her a much-needed reprise as an actor. There are several scenes in the movie featuring Jolie, not being specific to maintain sobriety, which makes you feel for her loneliness, with the pain visible in her mannerisms and the grief in her expressions. The transformation of the Moors swiftly reverberating Maleficent’s transformation from the bright, sundry angel to the dark, twisted fairy makes it a sight to watch, which along with the dark composition vindicates the change, in turn inventing the movie as an emotional rollercoaster and an engaging watch, rich at times, gloomy at others—but thoroughly enjoyable at all times.

Many were skeptical about Sleeping Beauty getting a makeover, yet Maleficent is not only just a makeover relevant to this time and age, it also reveals the inner conscience and psychology of a woman left to shreds. It is like peeling the layers of an onion going a notch deeper exploring human nature and psychology—why events turn out to be as they are and how everything is an effect of some cause that is never visible, yet the effect is always pronounced. In that way, Maleficent is stark, philosophical, and reflects the graver aspects, which is why it seems many have not been able to digest the gravity of the matter here.

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With some of the best CGI and special effects complimented by a strong performance by Jolie and a joyous flip of an old story, Maleficent is Disney’s classic feel-good tale that tells about love, forgiveness, redemption, and the virtue of goodness. Maleficent makes you emotional with the story showing that love exists at all levels—not merely as described in original fairytales or in the glamorous world of romance. A complete family extravaganza full of emotions, and with a strong message of transformation attached to it, do thyself a favor: watch Maleficent. It will really make you feel good.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Once upon a Time

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People only ever remember the grand moments far and in between their lives. Life is but a series of moments with a few defining ones and the rest existing because of the great excursions in the few moments that shape us as who we are and define our lives from here until one remains alive in the memories of those who care. Quite fitting, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story about such moments from such times about certain people who dared to think higher, and about a fragile period in history—only told in a romanticized manner by the unsanctioned King of Romanticism in movies, Wesley Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel starts with a statue of a deceased author at a cemetery. A girl, carrying the book The Grand Budapest Hotel is seen paying homage to The Author. As she dwells into the book, the story flows along narrated by The Author (Tom Wilkinson). Soon we reach the fictional nation of the Republic of Zubrowka, in a dreaded condition due to the savaged war, and usher into The Grand Budapest Hotel, bereft of the charm, as The Author, now young (Jude Law), enquires about an old man meditating in silence on his chair—amidst the vast space of the hotel.

Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), his name and as it stands, the owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Author comes to know about this hermit, who lives as a meek in one of the staff quarters despite owning the hotel. The camera rolls to that room—a small, insignificant hermitage of Zero, but with a legacy unparalleled dating back to the heyday of Grand Budapest Hotel, when he was a tiny lobby boy (Toni Revolori as the young Zero). Zero Moustafa invites The Author for dinner and with this excuse, he would finally tell his story, the story of the grand hotel—revisiting the life and times of the greatest concierge of the hotel, the man, the myth, perhaps legend, Monsieur Gustave H. (played by the unmistakable Ralph Fiennes).

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Travelling through three generations in a mere 100 minutes, The Grand Budapest Hotel gives us a sneak peek of Europe at its most happening age. The story moves from the modern age of democracy going back to the fringes of communism and further back into an age of military power, class distinctions, and the peak of bourgeois culture—when riches was heritage and power was inheritance. Amongst all these heavy dynamics of politics and ideologies, we have M. Gustave H., managing The Grand Budapest Hotel—the most happening hotel in all of Europe. This mystical concierge who is also prone to loving embraces with elderly beauties, rich and wealthy, seeking love only this man could bring to their empty safe boxes, Grand Budapest Hotel is nostalgic—expositing art and sophistication.

These melodious visual hymns deflect the serious topics of human bonding, the frivolous nature of social norms, and the constraints of time into a well-packaged crime caper satirizing the ever-changing dynamics of society and showing life in its mutability and the triumph of moments over the whole, quality over quantity, and depth over superficiality. Nobody quite paints such stories as Wes Anderson himself and in this fairytale about larger than life characters, Anderson draws a picture of European society just around the same period as the second manifesto of the Surrealistic Movement appeared.

The first glimpses of The Grand Budapest Hotel take us to a visual ride of the almost surreal landscape of the hotel and the surroundings of this state of the art luxury repose. The camera flies past these vibrant scenes and settles on the dreamlike railway soaring towards the peak, the hotel itself, almost signifying the heights of this grand hotel in comparison to the lowlands of the ordinary. Yet, The Grand Budapest Hotel is specialized in accepting the affluent as guests and the prosperous as friends akin to the social traditions of the 30s when the gulf between the oppressor and the oppressed was as wide as the elegance of the grand hotel and the coarseness of reality.

Wes Anderson’s artistic palette once again works extra time in glorifying the, almost, absurd drama—nothing more than a crime caper, as a genre, but richer and deeper as a cinema, as a story. Nostalgia almost seems to be the theme of this movie, with Anderson paying a tribute to the ultimate dysfunctional story, that of Europe itself. In fact, the movie is one for those who love to live in the past. Zero Moustafa, in the story, clings on to the best days of his life and keeps hold of his cherished, The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite the pangs of communism destroying the once central hub of joy and hospitality. The Author pays his version of remembrance to Grand Budapest Hotel and the great lives around this grand hotel. As a viewer, one finds many such levels of individual nostalgia in this embroidery knit with various sentiments, values, and moments—almost defining the lives and times of the people in the mesmeric world of the movie (shot exclusively in Germany).

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The splendor of the characters in the movie is almost like those legends people hear with each person considering himself or herself an authority on the subject. Summoning their version with panache, as if they were present when all that occurred, yet due to its mythical status, every individual has something to offer and more often, it would be worthy of lending an ear to in an attempt to grasp all the legends surrounding this docile place as it turned out, but once the beam of glory. The same enthusiasm is present in every frame; Anderson bringing his signature style and giving life and vigor to each scene, whilst concealing the deeper meanings behind the majestic mise en scène and the humorous comedy of errors.

Under these masks, we find the other secrets of human solidarity and the value of acceptance and friendship flying high, but masterfully, the themes of degeneration and innocence—that has always remained with Anderson—finds ample space in this magnum opus. Perhaps why Grand Budapest Hotel is so alluring is due to the inherent yearning of the past and the wish to grope with past glories, even in darkness, viewers themselves are lost in this mesmeric realm rafting in the scenic storm with quirky characters, themselves vain but adorably inspiring.

The story of this absurd movie is so very simple, yet the contrasting elements of seriousness hidden almost propels the movie as one bewildering piece of art, where one cannot comprehend whether to smile in appreciation or frown at the emancipation of such glorious times. Wes Anderson sets a subtle, light tone and adds his own spice to a movie that is simply about proving a man’s innocence, but you are left to ponder because it does contain so much than mere jailbreak that it’s almost hypnotic in the way it draws you to into the story, into that era. All such conceptions were squashed when I realized the man behind Anderson’s inspiration, Stefan Zweig—the great European writer from the pre-Nazi era, perhaps stretching to the Nazi era during an age of stupendous literary movements in Europe. Without any wondering, the philosophical tilt of this rather metaphorical story is inspired from Zweig’s own psychoanalytical interests mixed with realism, the longings of Anderson, and their ethereal collaboration—ironical on its own.

Common in Anderson’s previous movies too, Grand Budapest Hotel feels like one of those Shakespearean plays, but perhaps more so than ever. The bittersweet ending not merely one of the devices, the plotting is in a style Shakespeare structured his plays, and the rich ambience so mirroring the operas and the staging—almost like uttering poetry—Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a rehash of Shakespeare’s great plays on the screen. With the intelligent wits and the spiky twists and turns before the great climax, the story, apart from the alluring visuals, is engaging until the end and when it does end, a positive vibe ensues. How fitting, the verses define this movie—a lyrical staging on the screen, and a walking tribute to those who love to look back.

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Grand Budapest Hotel is a treat to watch and has everything you’d expect from a Wes Anderson film. Alluring visuals, assorted characters busy in their own unions, a time and space in oblivion, a unique variation of aspects ratios adhering to the era on-screen, and a humorous spin of an otherwise grave topic—it is picturesque showcasing the photography of a painter and the storytelling quirks of a neo-Shakespearean. Undoubtedly one of Anderson’s finest attempts and last but definitely not the least, a paramount performance by Ralph Fiennes mixing humor with panache with hospitality with wits with ardor and with bravura, one of the best from Fiennes and how lucky that he got the role of Gustave H. instead of the original choice, Johnny Depp.

Watch it to experience it, absorb it to realize it—Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel brings back memories of the glory of Romanticism.