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Archive for the ‘Movie Recommendations’ Category

I came across the Bollywood historical epic, Padmaavat, via its music videos on YouTube and have become obsessed with it. If you are unfamiliar with Bollywood movie conventions, think old Hollywood–actors tend to play the same type of character from movie to movie (e.g. the leading man, the heavy, etc.) and the characters tend to burst into song and/or highly choreographed group numbers at the drop of a hat.

As the movie opens, Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), the princess of Singhal (modern day Sri Lanka) is hunting deer in the forest when she accidentally shoots the visiting head of state, King Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), with one of her arrows thus giving a new meaning to the term “meet cute”. For his part, Ratan discovers that archery skills are what he most wants in queen and, during his recovery, the two fall in love. Ratan takes her home to Chittor in Mewar (Rajasthan), upsetting his first wife, Nagmati, who was expecting a pearl necklace, not a new interloper. Ratan and Padmavati’s domestic bliss is disturbed by the arrival of the ambitious Muslim Sultan, Aluddin Khaliji, who has been told about Padmavati’s beauty and, fancying himself as both a collector of beautiful objects and as a second Alexander the Great, beseiges the Chittor Fort in hopes of destroying the Rajputs and carrying Padmavati off to his harem.

The costumes, music, songs, and cinematography of this movie are truly beautiful. The storyline, however, leaves much to be desired. The characters are portrayed in strictly black and white terms–no grey areas. Aluddin checks off all the boxes on the “wicked sultan” list (e.g. evil laugh, check, sniggering henchman, check, etc.) while Ratan is noble to the point of imbecility.

As happens in Western movies (but not generally in Indian ones), the villain becomes the most interesting character. A round of well-deserved applause to Ranveer Singh who really threw himself into this part. The result is that Aluddin is one of the few characters to have a full range of emotions while the others tend to be one note baddies or good guys. Interestingly enough, it’s the negative characters (Nagmati and Aluddin) who are the voice of common sense and reason while the good guys are unduly optimistic.

On a more sinister note, religious and ethnic tensions between Indian Muslims and Hindus are definitely on the rise so I have to question the filmmaker’s motives in turning out such a blatant piece of Hindu propaganda. It’s one thing to have Aluddin be the antagonist, but the film openly portrays Muslims as barbaric savages.  And, in fact, the film shoot and opening were plagued by various extremist protests.

The historical Aluddin was a warrior-king who did besiege and capture the Chittor fortress, but it wasn’t because he was obsessed with a woman. Instead this seems to have been part of his larger campaign to expand the Delhi sultanate in between fending off various Mongol armies.

The real villain of this film–and one that is never questioned–is the patriarchal social system which limits options of Padmavati and the other women. Despite her archery skills, Padmavati is not encouraged to act as or even considered as a warrior. Her only option when faced with defeat by Khaliji’s army is not to die in battle, but to commit jaukar (mass self immolation) along with the other women. It’s tempting to put this down to the social customs of the time, but, in fact, Northern India is replete with stories of women (usually noble women) taking to the battlefield to defend their families, land, and position.

 

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When I saw this video, my first reaction was “I didn’t know Thorin Oakenshield made a musical”. But no, friends, this is not a lost song-and-dance number from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (although, how cool would that be?), this is actually from the Indian historical epic, Padmaavat.  In this video, Sultan Alauddin Khaligi (Ranveer Singh) is celebrating because he thinks that he will soon possess the beautiful Rajputi queen, Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), whom he has lured to Delhi by taking her husband, Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) hostage. Despite the martial quality of the dance, the song is actually about love. Alauddin sings that his heart is aloof from the world and his eyes are clouded by dreams [because he is in love with Padmavati]. Here’s an English translation of the song lyrics of “Khalibali”:

Habibi Habibi Habibi
Beloved! Beloved! Beloved!

Jabse Pehna Hai Maine Yeh Ishq-E-Sehra
Ever since I have worn that crown of love

Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I’ve let it go. I have no longer care in my heart
/My heart has become detached
Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go /
My heart has become detached from the world (and I’ve let go of it all)
Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I’ve let it go. I have no longer care in my heart
Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go
Jabse Pehna Hai Maine Yeh Ishq-E-Sehra
Ever since I have worn that crown of love
Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I’ve let it go. I have no longer care in my heart
Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go

(A line in an unrecognizable language)

Taar Vaar Dil Ke Sab Toot Se Gaye
My heart is now in tatters
(All the strings of my heart have broken)
Neendon Waale Jugnu Rooth Raaton Se Gaye
The fireflies of sleep have now become upset with the nights
Taar Vaar Dil Ke Sab Toot Se Gaye
My heart is now in tatters
Neendon Waale Jugnu Rooth Raaton Se Gaye
The fireflies of sleep have now become upset with the nights
(My sleep is lost)
Taar Vaar Dil Ke Sab Toot Se Gaye
My heart is now in tatters
Neendon Waale Jugnu Rooth Raaton Se Gaye
The fireflies of sleep have now become upset with the nights

Lag Sa Gaya Hai Khwabon Ka Aankhon Mein Dera
The dreams have made a home in my eyes

(There are dreams in my eyes all the time)

Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I have no longer care in my heart

Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go
Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I have no longer care in my heart
Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go

Saara Jahaan Ghoom Ke Hum
I travelled across the world

Tujhpe Aake Ruk Gaye
But I stopped when I found you

Tere Jaise Aasmaan Bhi
Before you, even the skies

Tere Aage Aake Jhuk Gaye
Have come and bowed down

Padh Loon Kalmah Teri Chaahat Ka
Let me read the holy verse of your love

(Kalma is actually the name given to verses written in the Holy book of Quran, that is sacred to Muslims)
Kehta Hai Ishq Ka Yehi Mazhab
It is said that this is the religion of love

Dil Pe Lagaa Hai Ab Mere Tera Pehra
Now you have become the owner/protector of my heart

Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I have no longer care in my heart
Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go
Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
I have no longer care in my heart
Duniya Se Mera Khalibali Ho Gaya Hai Dil
My care for the world is gone. I’ve let it go

Habibi Habibi Habibi
Beloved! Beloved! Beloved!

At end of the video, Alauddin collapses to the floor, shot with arrows, due to an assassination attempt by his nephew.  If you want to see the dance in context, Padmaavat is available on Amazon Prime.

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Spoilers ahead: Do not read any further as crucial plot points will be discussed ….

 

Let me just say first that I really enjoyed the Last Jedi and thought it was better than its predecessor, The Force Awakens. That being said, the Last Jedi had some plot holes large enough to sling a bantha through which is mystifying given writer/director Rian Johnson’s otherwise solid workmanship. Were there not enough eyes on the script or too many? Hard to say at this distance.

Briefly, The Last Jedi takes place immediately after the events in The Force Awakens. The First Order has destroyed the capital of the Republic, but the Resistance has managed to destroy the new, improved Death Star, Starkiller Base. The Resistance forces are now on the run pursued by a First Order fleet that’s determined to wipe them out.

What I liked:

  • Excellent flow and pacing: The cuts between scenes were very well done, the switching between the storylines of different characters was seamless,  and the story clipped along quickly.
  • Central role of female characters: I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a Star Wars movie where the female characters (Leia, Holdo, Rose, Rey, Paige) played such crucial roles in the plot. The male characters are there certainly, but the women are linchpins of the story.
  • Improved costuming especially for Leia. The costume designer, Michael Kaplan, took his inspiration from Queen Elizabeth II and the result is much better clothes for Leia–more regal, more flattering. Especially noteworthy Leia’s striking cloak with a high collar.
  • Captain Kannady: The smart, no nonsense commander of the Imperial dreadnought. Kannady is one of the few competent officers that the First Order seems to have–which is probably why he lasts all of five minutes.
  • Sightings of British actors from Games of Thrones and other Brit TV shows: Apparently the First Order is very British in make up.
  • General Hux: Hux began as a one note baddie, but he actually begins to become somewhat sympathetic in this movie. The sibling rivalry between him and Kylo Ren as the competing, dysfunctional sons of the same abusive father (Snoke) was seeded in the first movie, but is now very much in evidence and can only become more pronounced in the upcoming third film.
  • Adam Driver as Kylo Ren: It’s a testimony to Driver’s skill and charisma as an actor that he invests Ren with so much interior conflict. This is the Darth Vader origin story that the prequels never delivered.
  • Best new character: Rose Tico played by Kelly Marie Tran. Introducing a new character into the Star Wars verse is always fraught with peril–think Jar Jar Binks–but Rose is very likeable and spunky. Also kudos to Veronica Ngo who plays her sister, Paige, early in the film. And I enjoyed Benicio Del Toro’s turn as D.J., the hacker. Del Toro’s character isn’t even given a name on screen, but he still delivers a nuanced performance.
  • The exquisite sets for the fight sequences especially the battle in the throne room and the final fight on Crait.

What I didn’t like:

  • One note villains: Is it really too much to expect that Star Wars antagonists be something other than mustache-twirling-style baddies? Apparently, the answer is yes to that. Snoke is dispatched before we learn anything about him, even how he got that massive scar. The only thing we learn is that he hates Luke Skywalker with a passion. Did Skywalker give him that scar? Was there a battle between them? We will never know. It’s a shame to see Snoke go because Andy Serkis does a great job with the character. Serkis simply exudes power and charisma even under all that CGI. Ditto for Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie) who is dispatched before we ever learn her back story.
  • Excellent actors whose characters aren’t developed: Laura Dern as Adm. Holdo has a wonderful chemistry with Leia (Carrie Fisher).
  • The entire “we must go a whole different planet in order to sabotage a flagship that is DIRECTLY behind us” plot. Don’t get me wrong–the casino planet visit was fun, but it should have come much earlier in the story.
  • Along those same lines, the “there is a suspected spy in the ranks” is also a plot line that is not played out well. It should have been introduced earlier which would have made Holdo’s secrecy and Poe’s mutiny much more credible.

And file this one under “Hmmm, Suspicious”:

  • In the extras, director Rian Johnson mentions at one point there was a rumor that General Hux was going to be killed off and he received a number of e-mails pleading for Hux’s life from Russian accounts. Just Russian Star Wars fans with an attachment to a fascist baddie as Johnson seems to think or another one of the Kremlin’s cyber warfare sallies?

 

 

 

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Shepherd Fairey’s poster for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

I’ve watched (and read) any number of Arthurian stories so I was interested in seeing Guy Ritchie’s new movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. First off, this movie wasn’t as bad as the reviews made it out to be. Think of it as an Arthurian action-adventure story and you’ve got the gist of the film.

Ritchie takes a number of liberties with the familiar Arthurian legend. The main conflict is not between Arthur and his nephew, Mordred, but between Arthur and his wicked uncle, Vortigern, who has usurped the throne. There is a whole lot more magic–the sword Excalibur is a powerful magical weapon as opposed to being just a significant blade, the initial conflict that opens the film is between mages (magic-users) and non-magical humans, and Vortigern himself dabbles in sorcery.

In other ways, Ritchie holds close to certain medieval tropes. The bond between Arthur and his lads reflects the Anglo-Saxon idea of fellowship between a leader and his picked band of fighting men. Arthur does pull the sword from the stone revealing himself as the rightful king only in this case the stone is the transmuted body of Uther Pendragon.

 

Vortigern (Jude Law) and Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) confront each other after Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone.

To recap the story, young Arthur is orphaned after Vortigern kills his parents and grows up in a Londinium brothel where he discovers that skills like pimping, con artistry, extortion, and street fighting are the perfect preparation for a career in politics. Vortigern, meanwhile, has spent the past 20 or so years building a large, phallic-shaped tower which when completed will make him the most powerful mage in the land as well as king. When Vortigern discovers that his brother’s son is still alive and in possession of Excalibur, Arthur suddenly finds himself on the run, dodging government troops, with a magical sword he can’t control, and a sudden change of career that he’s not sure he wants.

Jude Law as Vortigern.

The best thing about this movie, next to the epic soundtrack, is Jude Law. Some are to the manor born; Law was clearly born to look fabulous in a fur cloak while plotting evilly.

The main flaw of the film is the lack of well-written female characters which was a problem in Ritche’s Sherlock flicks as well. To give you an idea, there are only two female characters with any major presence in this picture: one is The Mage (below) and the other are the Syrens, a trio of tentacled witches who hang out in the castle’s basement moat.  Every other female character in this story is flat, underwritten, and apparently only exists to be window dressing or to perish horribly when the plot requires.

Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the Mage.

The Mage, who’s name we never learn, is absolutely critical to Arthur’s success, saving his life twice and helping him to learn to use Excalibur. Does she get a knighthood, a seat at the Round Table, or any kind of public thank you or acknowledgement from the guy she helped put on the throne? Oh, heck no.

The Syrens–essentially Macbeth’s three witches with squid bodies–are consulted by Vortigern (pro tip: never accompany this guy to any body of water) and are critical to his rise to power. Again, we never learn their names and their fate at the end of the movie is unclear. Presumably, they’ve swum off to a new moat or lake.

Personally, instead of watching powerful women help lesser men to the throne, I’d like to see a movie where the powerful women take the throne and the men play the helpmate roles.

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Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show (circa 1973), you may want to watch it before you read further as I will definitely be discussing plots points. Read on at your own risk.

 

I recently ran across two versions of that cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that I thought I would share with you. The first is a “re-imagining” (you can say “re-make”, I know I do) of the film starring Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank N. Furter. As a transgender woman, Cox brings a refreshing, feminine energy to the part. If Tim Curry has the moves like Jagger, then Cox has the moves like James Brown and Tina Turner. The made-for-TV 2016 version is also tighter paced and emphasizes the rock ‘n roll roots of the original.

While there is no shortage of name talent in the show, I’d like to single out relative newcomer Staz Nair for his portrayal of Rocky. Although Nair has songs and some speaking lines, it’s his nonverbal body language and facial expressions that make the show. Nair invests Rocky with both great comic timing and a touching sensitivity.

The casting of Cox as a more feminine Frank does change the subtext of the story somewhat. In the original, the big reveal was straight-laced Brad’s latent homosexuality. In this new version, Janet’s dalliance with Cox and then with Rocky (the Creature) confirms her bi-sexuality. Frank’s jealous rage at Janet after her affair with Rocky has definite “lesbians in bondage” undertones.

In the 1973 film, Frank’s death at Riff-Raff’s hands is justified by Dr. Scott as protecting society–although what society is being protected from is never clear. Is it sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll? Kids from Transylvania and their loud music? Fishnet stockings? In the 2016 version, Frank’s execution seems to be a reference to the high levels of violence directed against transgender men and women.

While the 1973 film is probably the version of Rocky Horror that most people are familiar with, the show was originally a stage production. As a theatrical show, it is still performed all around the world with many different actors assaying the role of Frank and the other characters.

The following (bless you, YouTube) is a 2015 London stage production of Rocky Horror done as a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Stephen Frye is one of the guest narrators as is the musical’s author/composer, Richard O’Brien.

If you’re familiar with Rocky Horror, you know that audience interaction is encouraged and that there are set things for the audience to call out at various points during the movie. In a live show that tradition continues and the audiences sometimes levels up by shouting out new things to the actors which occasionally plays havoc with their composure.

David Bedella plays Frank in this production and brings a wicked charm to the part that’s a lot of fun to watch. If you’re wondering (as I did) who Bedella is and why you haven’t heard of this awesome actor before, the short answer is that Bedella is an American making his name across the pond in the London musical scene. In 2004, he won an Olivier award (the British equivalent of the Tonys) for his role in Jerry Springer: The Opera. As he was filming this version of Rocky Horror, Bedella was also in rehearsals for In The Heights for which he won a second Olivier for Best Supporting Actor (2016).

Verdict: Watch both versions and enjoy!

 

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ghostbusters-ii

“We just gave a ghost a nuke. We should probably run.”

                                                                            –Abby (Ghostbusters 2016)

I have shamefully neglected this blog, friends, but I’m back now and ready to rumble.

Just spent an excellent couple of hours watching two really great sf/f movies with surprisingly feminist subtexts. Be forewarned: plot developments are discussed so if YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS, READ NO FURTHER.

First up is the new Ghostbusters movie which is probably most famous for receiving a large amount of misogynist and racist hate mail before and after its release. Having watched it, all I can say is that the haters must be evil spirits who want to wreak havoc upon the earth because this is a great movie and easily three times better than the original which was, let’s face it, a raunchy ’80s locker room comedy.

In this version, the focus is on the relationship between two estranged former friends–physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and paranormal investigator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Erin is on the verge of her tenure review at Columbia when she is drawn back into Abby’s world of paranormal investigation by a desperate curator of a haunted mansion and a whole lot of ectoplasm. Out of work and on their own, Erin and her team must race against time to find out who or what is triggering a city-wide outbreak of ghostly activity. Kate McKinnon steals many scenes with her cool-yet-crazy turn as team engineer Holtzmann while Leslie Jones is local historian/subway worker-turned-ghostbuster Patty. Sprinkled through the movie are lots of great shoutouts to the first movie as well as cameos by the original cast.

What intrigued me the most, though, is the feminist thread that runs throughout the storyline. For example, a number of critics found the character of Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the handsome yet thick-as-a-plank receptionist to be unrealistic. I, on the other hand, found it completely realistic. Kevin is the type of lousy assistant that the Ghostbusters team has to tolerate because as women they don’t have the leverage to hire someone better. I flashed immediately to two male student assistants I was once asked to find work for. Both of them bungled the simple jobs they were asked to do and both seemed to resent being corrected or given orders by women. Needless to say, I got rid of them as soon as I could.

Throughout the film, the Ghostbusters team receives constant flack because they are female with pretty much every sector of society questioning their competence, their honesty, and their sanity. As Abby puts it, “we get dumped on all the time.”  One of the underlying themes of Paul Feig’s movies is the power of female friendships and this is what the team relies on to get them through, save the day, and New York City.

 

alice-through-the-looking-glass

“You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it.”

                                             —Time Himself (Through the Looking Glass)

Next up is Alice Through the Look Glass, another sequel that has unfairly received negative reviews. Again, I can’t understand it because this film is a beautiful, touching allegory. Bring your tissues because unless you have a clockwork heart, you will tear up.

When we last saw Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) at the end of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she was sailing away on trading vessel bound for China, having chosen a life as a Company apprentice over marriage to the pompous Hamish. As Through the Looking Glass opens, three years later, we see Alice, now the captain of her father’s ship, returning triumphant to England.

But there’s no cheering crowd and congratulations for young Captain Kingsleigh. On the contrary, there’s trouble from every corner.  In the interval, old Lord Ascot, Alice’s father’s friend, has died and has been succeeded by the unpleasant Hamish who is out to exact vengeance on Alice for refusing him. Hamish has extorted Alice’s company shares from her mother, Helen Kingsleigh (Lindsay Duncan), and is now threatening to take the Kingsleigh family home unless Helen and Alice sign over her father’s ship.

Alice also receives a summons back to Wonderland where the Hatter’s wits seem to have finally turned: he insists that his family, the Hightop clan, is still alive despite them having all perished in the Red Queen’s coup. To save him, Alice must confront Time Himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and travel back into the past. In doing so, we learn more about both the Hatter’s family and the relationship between the sister queens, Mirana and Iracebeth.

Through the Looking Glass also has a feminist thread running throughout its storyline. Again and again, Alice must assert herself against the obstacles both English and Wonderland society put in her way in order to do the right thing and to live her life freely. Alice, closer to her idealistic, unconventional father, has always clashed with her more traditional mother, Helen. Without giving too much away, it’s a pleasure to see these two start to learn from and respect other.

 

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