Movie Reviews

Snapshot Movie Reviews – Episode 001

A Call to Spy, Stranger than Fiction, Drive, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, 12 Monkeys

Objective movie reviews are dumb. Movies, like any work of art, are impossible to be viewed or judged without them passing through through the filter of the reviewer’s sentiments and convictions. In other words, each one of us with our individual and unique likes, tastes, perspectives and conditioning will appreciate the same movie differently depending on our inherent biases and the angle from where we look at it being a multi-dimensional construct. Just like the the same prism puts out light differently depending on the angle you shine the light at it. This is why we regularly see movies panned by critics being widely loved and followed and the other way around because professional movie critics who see movie-watching as a “job” see them differently from people who watch them for enjoyment. When one reviews movies, one should actually be talking about what they found worth watching in it and how they “felt” watching it, rather than analysing and slicing and dicing it as if they were gathering insights from an Excel spreadsheet.

So, I picked up this movie watching habit (nearly one a night) during this lockdown thanks to the proliferation of OTT platforms and Vodafone (oops, Vi) being generous enough to provide both mt Netflix and Prime subscriptions. Thought it would be a shame to keep how I felt about all these films to myself, so here I start a series of short and concise movie snapshots purely based on how and what I enjoyed about them (or did not) in short and concise paragraphs and the message they deliver. Things happening in the movie should not necessarily be 100% “real” because again, reality is subjective. Enjoyable should mean how one “felt” after watching the movie.

For the first of my “snapshot” reviews, here are A Call to Spy, Stranger Than Fiction, Drive, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and 12 Monkeys.

A Call to Spy (2020)

Female fronted world war 2 spy drama

Female intelligence operatives spy for England in occupied France during World War 2.

“Yay, goody, a new World War 2 epic!” I thought, when Prime first announced it, though I realised I wouldn’t call it an epic after watching it. A Call to Spy is still a very remarkable, enjoyable and thoroughly period (spy) movie with an exceptionally different premise and some magnificent performances by its cast. Who would’ve known that a team of women played a major role in sabotaging Nazi efforts in occupied Europe? A Call to Spy plays out the story of two such extraordinary women and the woman who led their organisation in raw and unflattering brushstrokes. Oh, and it also displays in vivid detail what is often missing from spy movies – actual spying.

By end 1942 nearly all of Europe had either fallen to the Nazis or allied with them. Britain was standing alone and was getting increasingly desperate in their mostly unsuccessful attempts to stop the Nazi war machine. This was when the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Britain’s newly constituted secret intelligence organisation during world war 2 launched a project to recruit women as spies to organise the resistance and sabotage Nazi efforts in occupied France. The search for such women turned out some most unsuspecting characters, like a differently-abled, aspiring American diplomat and a timid, pacifist Indian Sufi girl. Not exactly the best spy material, one would agree, and the mission would be as foolhardy as it would come. Would it be even possible for such amateurs with limited training of both self and state will have any hope of even putting a dent in the designs of the cruelly efficient Nazi state that will tolerate no opposition to its plans? How far will “pluck”, determination and the belief in goodness help them pull this off?

I would rate this one right up there with the greatest spying movies for presenting what spying is about as they have written in the books, as opposed to movies that insist “spying” be exploding pens and laser watches and Inspector Gadget cars. I like that things that constitute “real” intelligence gathering operations like establishing contacts, building networks, creating drops, sending and receiving messages, getting operatives out etc. are given quite the airtime in the movie. It is these things that are deemed to be mundane but are the real and incredibly dangerous details of landing and operating clandestinely deep in enemy territory under unimaginably hostile circumstances that are often passed or skimmed over in favour of the more glamorous bits and clever one-liners in movies. The tone of the movie is terribly bleak and very tense. However, it is very limited in the scope it exhibits, possibly due to budget constraints and COVID, the movie not moving outside a few sets. In the end it will be remembered for the stellar performances of its two female leads. Watch it on Amazon Prime.

“Don’t you know yet? It is your light that lights the world.”

Noor Inayat Khan

Lingering image: Noor Inayat Khan at the Dachau concentration camp.

Palette: Bleak world war 2 grey, bleak world war 2 green, bleak world war 2 blue, Musty office brown

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Unconventional narrative literary dark comedy drama

The voices a dreary taxman hears in his head turn out to be nothing like what he was expecting.

I wonder what took me so long to unearth this gem. Stranger than Fiction presents a novel (pun intended – you will understand when you watch the movie), unconventional and memorable way of telling a story backed up with some fantastic, solid performances by a stellar cast – Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Emma Thompson. It was one of those movies that you can literally see and watch the plot being planted, sprout, develop, grow, and bloom as it develops. There are no detours or side plots or even any remarkable plot devices to tell the story, it just develops, and that is such an utter joy to watch. And the best part is how it tries to put a message across in the form of a narrative backed up by some very nice literature, about our lives and how they are written and the directions we take. Some very gorgeous, clean and sanitized-city cinematography with very well-laid out shots give an otherwordly feel to the movie, which it is.

Taxman Ferrell is a nondescript, uninspiring but highly meticulous office drone who leads a shatteringly monotonous but ordered life (he brushes every one of his 32 teeth 72 times each every day and goes to bed at 1013 every night). It all changes when he starts hearing voices (don’t we all?) narrating his day to day experiences in a very proper narrator-like British female voice. The voice seemed to know it all, including the direction his life would take. What follows is a series of remarkable incidents that changes Harold’s life completely (he stops counting his toothbrush strokes) while also sending him spiralling into an abyss or existential anxiety, making him wonder who he is and what his life is. He tries to find out what is happening and how it ends, but when he find the answer it is not pretty. However, he fights to change it but can it be changed? Only the one who writes the fiction that is his life can change it, but will they? Little does he know.

Stranger Than Fiction is such fulfilling to watch. It shows us things that we know and don’t like, such as the devastatingly depressing life of an average office worker, and what we like, such as cleverly embedded situational (and spoken) humour, and things like how it would be like for us to control others’ lives. It also lays out the utter randomness and complete unpredictability of our lives that is nothing more or less of a series of chances and coincidences that could be as much as written by some random novelist. It does not matter how organised and meticulous we try to make our lives, it takes only nearly nothing to turn it into a messy, disorganised mess. A chapati of English literature then wraps all these ingredients around itself making for a very tasty snack. Highly recommended, especially if you like unconventional narratives and a very satisfying ending.

“No one wants to die but unfortunately we do. You will die someday, sometime. Heart failure at the bank. Choke on a mint. Some long, drawn-out disease you contracted on vacation. Even if you avoid this death, another will find you and I guarantee that it won’t be poetic or meaningful.”

Professor Jules Herbert

Lingering Image: Will Farrell’s conversations with Dustin Hoffmann in his amazing study

Palette: Paper white, Chartreux grey, Sky blue, Pastel yellow, Dark blue

Drive (2011)

Pretentious arthouse getaway driver bore

Monosyllabic getaway driver-cum-stuntman-cum-mechanic with a kind heart puts everyone to sleep.

Absolutely everyone on the internet seems to be totally head over heels about this movie. I hated it. The Cannes-celebrated Drive was the only movie in a long time that I fell soundly asleep watching. I was plain boring. Watching it felt like wading through knee-deep, thick syrup that was creamy black mixed with violet and golden hue around the edges. I know a lot of people loved the movie, but it did not work out for me. Some fantastic twist might have happened at the end, but I did not see it, and I can’t bear sitting through all that again. I think it is the necessity for a lot of the pretentious critic-type champagne people to fawn over such “artistic” movies to derive deep, philosophical thoughts, but I watch movies for entertainment, and entertainment this is not.

So, Ryan Gosling is the Driver, a man of very, extremely few words, who is a stunt driver and mechanic during the day and moonlights as a getaway driver during the night. Like every getaway-driver movie (is that a genre now?) it features the customary robbery and high-speed getaway chase at the start of the movie but with a twist – there is no high-speed chase there but rather a series of smooth moves to outwit pursuers (which actually was pretty cool). The 300 hp Impala (!) without as much as even redlined is never heard from again (which enraged me and kind of switched me off from the rest of the movie). There is a second getaway chase shortly after involving a Mustang that surprisingly does not crash, but has “staged” written all over it. I was not exactly expecting Jason Stratham, but I thought there would be something more given it is advertised as an “auto” movie. Oh, there is also something about a woman and her kid whose husband is in jail who he keeps running into and falls for.

Drive is lovingly called an arthouse movie. Yeah, it what in India we call an “art” film and in Kerala, an “award” film. Remember those Adoor Gopalakrishnan fares featuring long silences between characters punctuated by crow calls and stuff? This one is the Hollywood version. It would be prudent to guess that around 34.76% of the movie’s running time consists of various shots of Ryan Gosling’s face not doing any talking, while both other characters and the audience (me) frustratingly want to yell at him. “Man, bloody say something!”. The other characters get a passing mention but what dominates is the silence. The scorpion jacket is cool, but what kind of getaway driver wears such a very easily identifiable and very uncommon piece of clothing? Might as well drive around with a neon sign on the car. The movie has some neat night shots though.

The Driver

Lingering Image: Ryan Gosling’s fresh face that does not say anything.

Colour Palette: Midnight blue, Shining black, Pulp Fiction Violet, Skyline Gold, Urban green.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

Biographical war journalism comedy drama

Life and times of a war correspondent who has the time of her life covering the Afghanistan conflict.

There are enjoyable movies and there are terribly enjoyable movies, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is one of those. The acronym of the movie title might make it seem over the top or ridiculous, but WTF is anything but. It is a comedy that follows a journalist across the Afghan conflict, modeling how she develops from the bound, overt city-slicker rookie to the tough, confident, self-effacing, and independent war journalist. The movie is based on the true story of Afghan war correspondent Kim Barker who is portrayed very believably by Tina Fey, one of my favourite actors. The movie contains little to not “war” scenes, but flies though Barker’s life in Afghanistan who survives three years in some of the world’s most inhospitable places to tell stories.

So, Kim is disillusioned by her life as a low-key television anchor and her boyfriend who travels all the time. On a whim she takes up a mission as a correspondent in Afghanistan. She finds the community of foreign journalists there an assortment of strange characters who live a raving Bohemian lifestyle while putting their lives on the line every day. Starting off with usual first-time-in-the-wilderness rookie goof ups she pretty quickly finds her footing and then grows into a seasoned, well-weathered war correspondent. Having arrived in Afghanistan for three weeks she ends up staying for three years coming to cherish the freedom and individuality the place offers despite its dangers and finds it difficult returning to the “developed” world. Margot Robbie is wasted in a slim role.

Conflict correspondence movies usually end up looking like either a languid documentary or a full-blown chestbuster, both depicting the vagaries of war in graphic detail. It is a refreshing take that a movie depicts the lives of war correspondents themselves in a light-hearted way with their banter, camaraderie, and brotherhood while being less preachy with none of the self-righteousness that comes with such movies. And their parties, of course! The anecdotes about life and people in the conflict zones and the cities strewn throughout the movie adds to its charm. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offers few “great” moments or any pretentious messages that critics expect of a war-related movie, which is actually its redeeming factor. Unnecessary sentiments would’ve muddled the plot and overall the experience stays very comfortable inside its course. WTF is an incredibly enjoyable, fun to watch movie for its breezy presentation and an endearing and realistic performance by Tina Fey.

“There’s only so much any of us have any control of, good or bad.”

Specialist Coughlin

Lingering Image: The Bohemian living quarters of the journalists and the “Jump Around” party.

Colour palette: Afghan sand, Pastel green, Mountain brown, Vest black, Wind-swept yellow

12 Monkeys

Dark apocalyptic time travelling philosophical cyberpunk science fiction

Future Prisoner travels between 2036 and 1996 to find the origins of a world-destroying pandemic

This is (very timely for today’s times) cult classic was a sensation when it came out in 1996 for being an intellectual, cerebral mind-bender that is even today rated as one of the greatest science fiction and apocalyptic movies ever. 12 Monkeys shows a dark and grim future where human civilisation is reduced to a degenerate Cyperpunk society that lives beneath the surface of the earth. The movie is soaring in its scope and execution and a psychological assault on the senses in parts with some excellent twists in its plot. It is also very, very dark, brooding, decaying and apocalyptic, with a very ominous pall hanging over it the entire time. Bruce Willis does what he usually does, which is wearing a world-weary look, squinting at things sideways and mumbling. Brad Pitt’s hands deliver an outstanding performance. He is also not seen eating anything. But seriously, this movie is less apocalyptic science fiction but rather an entire bullet train of cultural philosophy that binds together tropes ranging from psychology, consumerism, certainism, fatalism and existentialism to behavioural science, alternate realities, civilisational trajectory and metaphysics. It was a crazy trip as far as I was concerned.

So, it is the year 2026, thirty years after most of humanity was wiped out in a pandemic caused by a bio-engineered virus. The remnants of the human race is forced to live underground as the as the surface remains deadly contaminated with the virus. The survivors have formed a kind of Cyberpunk society though low on human rights and good looks but very advanced scientifically very advanced with mecha-robots and time travel. Prisoners like Willis are kept in claustrophobic cages and are sent above ground to collect samples to be used to try and find a cure to the virus. After one such mission Willis is offered by the scientists of his time a reduction in his sentence if he volunteered on a super-dangerous mission to go back in time to 1997 to find how the virus originated so they could try to synthesize a cure. Willis, who was struggling with nightmares learns answers to all his questions on the mission, and offers us some as well.

12 Monkeys consists of the same fare that most apocalyptic stories are made of. As a story, it does not contain much that we haven’t seen, and by today’s standards of CGI and film-making, one would be forgiven if they were to feel the entire thing dated. What is most poignant about 12 Monkeys is its surreal atmosphere of unforgiving hopelessness and the associated message it delivers. Willis’ character is sent back into time to find the source of the pandemic, which he does, but it gets into his brain to prevent it and save the world, which he tries to, but fails, just like he has seen countless times in his dreams. You cannot change the past, and what has happened, has, and is unchangeable. The scientists realise this, which is why they never try to change the past though they have access to time travel. And the urban decay of 1997 seems to seamlessly interchangeable with the apocalyptic underground of 2026 with both equally doomed and grim. The message of the movie is clear. You don’t have to wait for an apocalypic future, you are already living in it, and you cannot change the past, you are already dead.

Or was it all in Bruce Willis’ head all the time as he was trying to convince a woman to help keep him out of the asylum he just escaped from, where he was institutionalised after being traumatised watching a man die in front of his eyes as a child?

“We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers, Jim. Yeah. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally ill.”

Jeffrey Goines

Lingering Image: The grey everything of utter hopelessness.

Colour Palette: Apocalyptic grey, Urban decay grey, Pandemic brown, Dystopian orange, Winter green.

Thank you for reading!

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