Friday, September 30, 2011


Movie Review : Agora
Director: Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar
Genre : History / Drama
Released : 2009
Starring : Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I have always yearned for movies based on the lives of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. Not all highly intellectual persons are whimsical, nor are their life stories boring. Quite contrary. Their stories are not as well known as those of kings and queens, and are often full of struggles and dramatic elements. Especially tragedy, which was always a strong possibility if the thinker was living in a society controlled by religious extremism.

Such is the story of Hypatia, perhaps the last woman scholar of antiquity, and around whose life the movie Agora is built. A bit of historical context might be helpful to understand and appreciate the movie.

Hypatia lived in 3rd - 4th century Alexandria, in Egypt. She was of Greek origin. Most Greeks and Romans in Alexandria were pagan. She probably was not religious, and was more devoted to science and philosophy. It was not uncommon in Egyptian society - especially in Alexandria - for women to have almost the same rights as men. Hypatia was a well-known scholar, a very well respected teacher and almost universally admired. Agora means a place for public assembly. In this case, the library hall, where Hypatia taught.

Alexandria was always a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city ever since Alexander the Great established it. With the growing strength of Christianity, it also became a multi-religious society. This led to religious friction, which led to extremism and violent conflicts. During such times, intelligent, outspoken and respected women like Hypatia are considered threats by extremist men who want to grab power in the name of religion. Hypatia was lynched by a Christian mob in a most brutal fashion.

The movie picks up the story when trouble had just started brewing in Alexandria. It is not a story of Hypatia. It is a story of a city in transition. This choice allows the director to reconstruct every detail of how life was and how it changed. This turned out to be a mixed bag. The city life is magnificently reconstructed with clever techniques. While the political drama and mob violence is effectively portrayed, the central figure of the story, Hypatia, is a bit under-developed. It just doesn't feel complete. This is a fault of the script. Rachel Weisz, who won Oscar for The Constant Gardener, does a superb job as Hypatia. Other actors are not as well known. You might recognize Max Minghella (as Davus) who played Divya Narendra in The Social Network).

This is a movie based on good research of historical facts and tries very hard to remain accurate and fair. The pagans, the Jews and the Christians are all depicted without any bias. Among the graphic scenes of carnage, there are also moments of thoughtful reflection. Of course, the director has every right to take some artistic freedom and Hypatia's research is definitely fiction. It is not known if she really knew if the Earth revolved around the Sun or if the orbits were elliptical. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't.

This is a good movie. If you don't know much about the history of that period, you will definitely enjoy it. If you are just interested in watching well-directed movies, this fits the bill too. It is definitely not for kids.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jalapenos !

Now the jalapenos are ripening ! Finally, I am getting a decent yield of something from my backyard :-) As I mentioned previously, 2011 season has been disappointing. In contrast, I had bumper crops of tomatoes, jalapenos, bell peppers and cucumbers in 2010.

These are deliciously hot !

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Debt

Movie Review : The Debt
Director : John Madden
Genre : Thriller / Drama
Starring : Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen
Released : September 2011
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I rarely get to watch movies in a theater. When the opportunity came last weekend, there was only one choice suitable for my taste - "The Debt" by John Madden.

The story outline is very interesting. In 1967, 3 Mossad agents are in East German side of Berlin on a mission to capture an ex-Nazi - a German doctor who performed experiments on Jew prisoners. These are young, passionate, idealistic agents. They are not there to kill him, but to bring him back to face trial. In spite of their homework and thorough planning, things go wrong. They don't succeed in bringing the monster alive out of East Germany. Instead, they have to bring him back to their apartment and wait for more help.

We pick up the story 3 decades later. We learn that 2 of the agents - Rachel Singer and Stephen Gold -  had gotten married and later divorced. Their daughter has written a book about this assignment - the movie opens up during the publication of this book. The third agent, David Paretz, has returned to the country many years later. There is tension between all these characters, and we are led to suspect that there is more to their story than meets the eye.

The movie jumps back and forth between the 2 periods. But the jumps are not frequent, and they are not used to make things unnecessarily complicated. As a director, John Madden reveals his cards slowly. This approach will successfully grab viewers who are willing to pay attention and do some thinking on their own. And the payoff is worth it. There is enough drama and suspense, without much action and violence. As you can expect from the synopsis, this is not a spy thriller like a James Bond, or even Jason Bourne movies. There are many aspects to this movie. There is a romantic love triangle, and the brevity of its presentation makes it more effective than any love story we have seen lately. There is also a morality angle, but it's not handled as well as other aspects of the movie. What the movie really excels at is maintaining tension.

John Madden is known for his "Shakespeare In Love". I fell in love with his "Proof", a much better movie, I urge you to watch it, if for no other reason than Gwyneth Paltrow's acting. Even here, acting is top notch across the board. Interestingly, different actors play the characters from different periods. I liked it better than seeing the same actors with heavy makeup to change their age.

I thought it was a pretty good movie. My wife found it to be good as well, but she was not as impressed as me. I definitely recommend watching it, but you can wait for the DVD.

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