Movie: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Historical background: Second Persian invasion of Greek city-states which ended in a stalemate at one front and Persian loss at the other, in the year 480 BC.

The film follows the efforts of one Athenian called Themistokles, who tries to unite all Greek city-states to offer a united front against the invading Persians, and goes through gore and blood of two major battles, which ends in decisive Greek victory.

I have written about problems of portrayal in the first installment, but this film comes out as much worse than the first.

It reinforces old school Orientalist characterisation in worst possible way and at the same time frames the Persians as war fanatics interested only in death and destruction. To encapsulate it in binaries, it’s a fight between good and evil, black and white, reason and fanaticism, Let’s see how.

The Persians are portrayed as ugly-faced, wild-eyed fanatics with fiery, hateful facial expressions. In his desire for vengeance, a reasonable-looking King Xerxes I of Persia undergoes some magic spells that make him a ‘god-king’ (I don’t know well about old Persians religious beliefs to opine how much of a joke it is but you get the idea!), and he marches on a trip to visit complete annihilation on Greece.

Orientalist bit: one Persian army general is shown as spending free time on the war ship in lechery (wine & women) when he’s ordered to stand up and check preparations for a fresh attack. The Persian army is clad in black (telling) and with turbans on their heads (telling). One Persian general is named ‘Bandari’ (not referring to Bandar Al-Saud but to current Iranian cities with have ‘Bandar’ in their names) and the other is called General Kashani (city: Kashan). So they couldn’t even think up, or look up, real-sounding names from the old Persian Empire.

Fanatic bit: When Xerxes I emerges from his transformation to become god-king, all high officials at the Persian court, those who were loyal to previous king Darius and taught and raised and counseled Xerxes before his transformation, are killed in cold blood, just for the heck of it, to remove any possible dissent on the part of those officials with regards Xerxes’ plans to invade and destroy Greece. This action, of course, is incomprehensible in a humane society like Greece but perfectly understandable in a country of fanatics.

The Greeks, on the other hand, are just your pretty looking, reasonable, clean and white folks gathering themselves together to defend their freedoms from marauding Persians. When they hear of the advancing Persian fleet, in Athenian senate, they verbally fight over whether they should negotiate peace with the Persians or fight. Themistokles, the great general-politician, tells them to calm down because “this is a democracy” and they must hold their guts to “fight tyranny”. Right there!

If you’re making a fantasy war film and not a historical war film, you are at liberty to fictionalise it in any way you like, but it doesn’t mean you produce a showy, gaudy and jingoist piece of political propaganda.

If I judge the film on merits of acting, story, and fantasy war, I still would not give it more than 2/5 because it’s a very flat film with nothing remarkable about it. In fact, the first installment (300 [2007]) was a much better film. Link on IMDb.

Movie: To Kill a King (2003)

England was the first country in Europe to become a commonwealth or republic when it deposed and killed its king back in the middle of the 17th century. But it did not last long. When Oliver Cromwell, the ‘Lord Protector’ of the commonwealth died, the nobility enthroned the son of the deposed king and restored monarchy. The restoration has lasted to date while the republic lived only for about a decade.

This film chronicles the struggle between Lord Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell and their conflicting policies with regards fighting the English King.

The leader of the struggle, Lord Fairfax, who was born into nobility, rose to prominence on the back of other nobles in their dispute with the king on his extremely unfair merchant levies and misuse of absolute monarchical powers. But Lord Fairfax was a moderate who desired reconciliation with the king if he assented to nobility’s demands; his second-in-command, Oliver Cromwell, however, was a fiery fanatic, or so the film depicts him such way.

It’s pretty standard fictionialised storytelling but how faithful it has been to history I can’t say, because I’m not well read in the Cromwellian saga, which I understand to have been much mythologized in the annals of English history, to make an informed judgment.

A history lesson for sure, but nothing special. I’d rate it 3/5. IMDb Link

Movie: I am Slave (2010)

“You don’t decide when you are thirsty. I decide when you are thirsty”. A Muslim girl in the back of the mini truck is told when she asks for water from her captives.

She is captured in the wake of a raid conducted by militant Islamists and later sold to a wealthy Arab woman in Khartoum. She is only 12 when she is enslaved. She is beaten, ill treated and told that she is worthless and must stay with her master if she wants to live.

Her travails and troubles do not stop when she is handed like a parcel over to a cousin of her master’s in London who has been “nagging me for help”. There in London she lives the same life of captivity, not allowed to leave home or answer phone, and treated like a shadow, till, she finds her salvation.

There is a lot of literature and films about obsolete institution of tradition slavery but little about modern-day slavery. This film fills the gap. I was astonished to know that there are up to 5000 people living in slavery in London of all places.

This film is based on a true story told in this book. My rating 5/5. IMDb Link

Movie: The Last Station (2009)

Based on the last months of Leo Tolstoy – the story of the conflict between him and his wife over Tolstoy’s decision to give away his vast estate and copyright of his works to the public.

Happy married for 45 years, the relation is breaking apart under the weight of Tolstoy’s idealism who, being, as he was, a proponent of anarcho-pacifism and an opponent of private property.

Tolstoy, at age 82, gifts copyright of his works to public and finally leaves his estate for good when things do not work out between him and his family. He dies at a train station but the legend lives on. The filming of relevant scenes is done at the real station of Astapovo in the real surroundings he died in.

Nothing magnificent about the film but it was an emotionally charged drama with good acting and a lesson into the history of the last days of Tolstoy and the decisions he eventually made just before he passed away.

Helen Mirren as Countess Tolstoy has again lived up to her reputation of being really good at playing Royal roles (Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth I”, Elizabeth II in “The Queen”, Queen Consort in “The Madness of King George, Geruth in “Prince of Jutland” etc). Her’s was without doubt the best performance of the film.

My rating 3/5. IMDb Link

Movie: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Year 1805. Off the Coast of Brazil. England and France are at war over the lordship of Europe. English navy captain Jack Aubrey receives orders to intercept a formidable French frigate which is twice in size and strength of arms and soldiers. Action begins.

You get to see a glimpse of how life would have been in the middle of the deep blue seas for men away from land and women. The pressures, the fatigue, and the sense of duty that was slowly transforming into full blown national patriotism at that time.

I enjoyed limited action scenes interspersed with depictions of intrigues and personal rivalry of comrades on a ship. The language of the script didn’t quite live up to the vernacular for a story set in early years of the 19th century. Film’s visuals were nonetheless a treat to watch. Rated at 4.5/5. IMDb Link

Movie: Django Unchained (2012)

Typical Tarantino flick through and through. 1850s. America. A charismatic dentist-turned-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) teams up with a black slave (Jamie Foxx) to take out outlaws and bandits wanted by the federal government. Personal dislike for slavery and his humanity compels him to help the black slave find his wife who was separated from her husband and sold elsewhere.

Straight films dealing with a topic of historical importance tend to be too heavy for light entertainment. The issue of slavery and African slave trade is one such cliche ridden and overdone theme. This film is all about slavery in America during mid 19th century but the theme is so masterfully enmeshed in a light, entertaining and personal story of a black slave and his quest to find his wife that you don’t really feel the heaviness of the topic. It’s cleverly funny and offensive at the same time.

2 hours 45 minutes run time is 45 minutes too long. The plot and sequence of events doesn’t quite justify the length. Tarantino’s films are known for their non-linear and chaotic plot lines. This one is pretty linear and drags half way.

The unceremonious and sudden death of the intelligent and savvy Christoph Waltz, the lead character and bounty hunter, at the house of the plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) also didn’t go down well with me.

The dramatic escape of Jamie Foxx too was too oversimplified. I’d give it one star less than I’d have if not for these weaknesses. 4/5

Best actor of the film is undoubtedly Christoph Waltz for his excellent delivery of intelligent dialogue followed by Samuel L. Jackson, the house Negro at Leonardo DiCaprio’s estate, a self-hating black. IMDb Link

Movie: Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece depicting events leading to the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US constitution amid the civil war. It shows the pressures of the war on Lincoln and his family. He suffered from “melancholy” according to people close to him. Today we know it as clinical depression.

Nearly everybody believed that the attempt at the amendment would be defeated in the Congress as it had already been a year or so ago. But Lincoln is confident after his re-election and must go through with his plans. He did.

And so it happened. The amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude and led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by a disgruntled and famous stage actor who hated the President for his sympathetic views toward the “Negros”

Daniel Day-Lewis without doubt has been outstanding in the character of Lincoln. Not everyone’s cup of tea but for those who know, it’s a must watch. 5/5 IMDb Link

Movie: Trade of Innocents (2012)

Why is self righteous indignation the preserve of the White West? Only if Edward Said was around to watch this film.

Cambodia. Child prostitution is rife. Since the local officials can’t deal with it, they hire an American human trafficking expert to clean up their house. He has personal interest in the matter after he lost his young daughter to kidnappers (in the US, surprisingly) when he was on duty in Afghanistan.

So it begins. No one in Cambodia wants to do anything about it. “You Americans don’t know anything about the Asian culture. The best way to survive is to remain silent”, tells the Cambodian police chief who is deputed to the American agent to assist in operations. “You think by capturing one criminal you can change the system?”, he asks again of the American later in the film.

Nearly all local Cambodians seem to be indifferent to the problem of child prostitution which should suddenly ignites massive levels of indignation and sorrow in the human heart. Those few who seem to want to do something about it are staff of the American agent and, one would think, doing it for money. Their good motives if any do not find expression in the film’s narrative. Moreover, only one grandpa and his granddaughter who put some resistance are shown to be Cambodian-Americans, who left America for Cambodia after some family tragedy befell them.

To give some credit to the film and on a positive note, it does show us how acute poverty turns out to play its role. Even those few girls who are rescued eventually leave rehabilitation centres to go back to brothels so that “they can provide for their families”. Compulsions of basic survival probably blinds parents who are depicted as willing to sell their daughters to traffickers without a hint of pain and a trace of shame.

Even if I ignore old school Orientalism and judge it by the merits of good film making, it still falls way short of anything worth applauding. It’s a blandly linear plot with oversimplified scene of the capturing of the ringleader. Happy ending!! I’d say 1/5 but I’m generous  so 2/5.

Movie: American History X (1998)

It’s a story of two American brothers who are sucked into the Neo-Nazi ideology and go on about cleaning their neighbourhood from social problems created by blacks and immigrants, or so they believed. The elder brother is gaoled for manslaughter where he learns his lessons and comes out as a changed man. His younger brother follows him into Neo-Nazi activities to his dismay.

The film weaves a complex and nuanced narrative in the first half, such as showing the human side of seemingly hateful Neo-Nazis who believe in spilling blood of everyone who is different from them and also informing us of the socioeconomic reasons that might lead intelligent and ordinary people down that path.

However, the narrative falls short of pulling things together later on. The sudden change in protagonist’s beliefs was rather simplistic and the ending put everything in disarray. The younger brother is killed in school by a black youth due to a previous grievance.

Derek’s (Edward Norton) change of heart itself wouldn’t appear far fetched if it was better incorporated into his subsequent actions apart from impulsively punching his mentor. I think this twist in the tale could have been utilised better in the narrative. It could have led to a better ending too.

“Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” is arguably the film’s punchline. Edward Norton has been excellent. Good film to watch. My rating 4/5. IMDb Link

Movie: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)

It is rare to find a woman as remarkable as Joan of Arc (1412-1431) in the annals of European Middle Ages who left a lasting influence on history in her short life before she was burnt at stake when she was only 19.

The film portrays the life of the French war heroine and her efforts to reinstall the deposed French ruler whose throne was usurped by the English as the latter inched along conquering the rest of whatever was left outside their control.

Joan of Arc’s presence, deemed heavenly and miraculous at that time, boosted French morale. She literally led the French army from the front to decisive victories against the English Crown which changed the course of the battle. The French ruler managed to become King after English defeat. Joan of Arc was caught by Burgundians who were English allies. She had a sham inquisition, convicted of witchcraft in a politically motivated religious trial and subsequently hanged.

Historical drama has the license to add in fiction to history to make it a presentable whole. However it doesn’t have the license to distort history in a way that depicts major and decisive events completely falsely, unless, of course, it’s “alternate history”.

The film, therefore, is grossly misleading in so far as it depicts major historical events. One example is French betrayal of Joan of Arc after she’s captured by the English. There was no betrayal in reality and it was out of the power of the newly installed French King to help Joan out of English captivity.

The other thing that irked me greatly was the use of modern language especially the dialogues and (disappointingly) American accent of few actors. The guy who played Dauphin/King of France was a complete joke. He with his looks, hair cut, and peculiar constitution is well suited for a character of a baseball junkie in downtown Philadelphia but certainly not the King of France in the 15th century.  My rating 3/5. IMDb Link