Thursday, January 23, 2014

American Hustle (2013)



Few directors, even great ones, enjoy the kind of prolific creative resurgence that David O’Russell is currently enjoying.  After a six year hiatus, he has bounced back and how! In four years, he has made three films. All three have received critical acclaim. Two have received Oscars, and American Hustle, his third and most recent feature seems destined to go down the same path. Each film is very different from the other and yet very similar, in that they depend greatly on individual characters and performances than on the plot itself.

American Hustle is set in the 70s, in the background of disco, swag, garish styling and the resurgence of Atlantic City. Irving Rosenfield (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are in love. They are also the Bonnie & Clyde of New York, swindling people for money on the promise of imaginary arranging for loans. This goes on until Richie DiMaso (Cooper) catches them in the act (so to speak) and cuts a deal. They must help him nab other white collar criminals in exchange for escaping prison time. What starts out as a game to catch smaller fish, soon lands them on the doorstep of the mayor of New Jersey (Renner) who is seeking to revive the economy by legalising gambling and getting investment to rebuild Atlantic City. Soon Congressmen, senators and the mob get involved and the situation threatens to get out of control. Add to this mix Irving’s unpredictable, depressed wife Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and you have a powder keg ready to go up in flames, taking everyone with it.

The film transports you in the sweaty, grimy, seedy, greedy world of 1970s New York. The production design, costumes, music and cinematography is spot on. The story is good and the script sharp. However, they aren’t particularly exciting. Apart from one or two surprises, the writing is fairly straightforward and suffers on account of its predictability. Much like Silver Linings Playbook, it isn’t the writing that sets the film apart from the rest of its ilk. It is O’Russell’s confident direction and his uncanny ability to infuse humour in unexpected places and extract wonderful performances from his cast.

As an ensemble, you don’t get better performances than here. All five of the principle cast members are given meaty characters and they waste no time in sinking in their teeth. Bale shines throughout, grotesque pot belly and all. Cooper shows some serious acting chops as the eager, ambitious, power tripping cop, who is under the illusion of having everything under control. Renner is great as the mayor who sees corruption as a means to an end.

Despite all this, the men are outshone by the women here. Amy Adams has been convincing in many roles in her career. However, one wouldn’t consider her as an obvious choice to play a manipulative, sexy seductress. Yet here, she is exactly that and excellent at it. When the veneer of sensuality cracks, she brings out the vulnerability and survival instincts of Sydney rather brilliantly. At the same time, there is Jennifer Lawrence, who is undoubtedly the most talented actor of her generation and fast on her to entering the annals of time as one of the greats. She displays dexterity that is well beyond her years and a brazen attitude that is just devastatingly sexy.

Overall, this is a good film made great fun by some fantastic performances. Expect a master class in acting but not a masterpiece and you’ll have a great evening out.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Before Midnight (2013)

We first met Jesse and Celine on a train to Vienna when they were in their early twenties. They were young, beautiful and vibrant, eager to leap without thinking and take a chance on each other. In the process, we received arguably the best modern cinematic romance. As they left with the promise of seeing each other in six months, we thought to ourselves, will they? Won't they?

In 2003, we caught up with them once more, this time in Paris. They were older, wiser, more jaded and cynical. Yet, over the course of 90 minutes, they reminded each other of how things were, enticed each other by ruminating on how things could have been and reconnected giving us one of the best surprise endings ever.

Now, in 2013, we see them in their forties. The romanticism that brief encounters inspired is long gone. These are now two people who have chosen to grow old together, committed and invested, with children and other encumbrances. The question for them and us is, can a love story sustain its charm over two plus decades? I dont want to speak for them, but for us, Before Midnight answers that question with a resounding yes.

There are some films that have no reason to be made. They have neither the financial success to warrant a sequel nor a story arc that needs completing. Before Sunset and Before Midnight are both excellent examples of these. While the first film still left us with a burning question worth answering, the second completed that void, leaving us to happily think of ever afters. It is, therefore, tempting to dismiss the third chapter as an unnecessary one. Yet, as if just the pleasure of watching Jesse and Celine talk about any and all things wasn't enough, Before Midnight reminds us that life goes on, people evolve and happily ever afters in fiction as in life, are false assumptions.

Before Midnight is as different from Sunset as Sunset was from Sunrise. Hawke, Delpy and Linklater return to act, co-write and direct the sequel. Unlike the first two films, there is no plot or story here. There is nothing at stake here. The structure is minimal, simply to allow for conversations between Jesse, Celine and their friends. In fact, the entire film consists of four long scenes involving conversations in a car, over lunch, in the evening walking around a Greek island and in the night in a hotel room. In an age when films are more about flash bang explosions and contrived romances, the film is a love letter to the forgotten art of fine conversation. The long, lingering takes provide an intimacy and sense of realism that is rare in cinema today.

There are a few delightful quirks here and there. There are meditations on the ideas of love, ageing and long term commitment. Unlike the peachy happily ever afters we would love to imagine, there are regrets, frustrations and deep seated issues that make you think, can love really bear the baggage of all that over several years?

Ultimately, Before Midnight is another wonderful encounter with Jesse and Celine. Hawke and Delpy inhabit these characters like second skin. They may have the privilege of growing old with and as Jesse and Celine. But we have the greater privilege of watching them do so. It'll probably take a decade, but I sure could use another encounter.

Rating: 5/5

12 Years A Slave (2013)

There is a moment in the film when a slave dies of exhaustion. His body is buried. The slaves congregate around the grave and start singing a farewell song. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped, sold into slavery and forced to take on the name of Platt and life as a plantation worker, stands with the slaves but does not join in song. As the song goes on, we see him crumble and give in, slowly at first and then with full fervour. For a brief moment, it is as if the transformation is complete. Northup has died to give way to Platt.

12 Years A Slave is a difficult film to watch. McQueen's uncompromising vision demands some serious emotional heavy lifting from its viewers. Even for someone like me, who doesn't flinch at the sight of violence easily, the lashes, brutalities and scarring do take their toll. More than anything, it is the helplessness of Solomon, Eliza and Patsie that linger with you for a long time after. At the end, there were sobs and sniffles echoing throughout the cinema hall, and the sources included grown men and women alike. Without a doubt though, the effort is not only worth it, but almost essential.

It is difficult not to see some parallels between McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Polanski's The Pianist or for that matter, the fate of Jews in concentration camps and that of African Americans in slavery. Both Northup and Spillman are forced to forgo their lives in light of rapidly changing circumstances. Spillman gives up his music. Northup gives up his identity. Any mention of true identity would mean certain death. The moment when Northup is finally able to breathe a word of it is little different from the moment when Spillman pretends to play the piano in his apartment, reminding him of who he is.

12 Years A Slave is stunningly filmed, effortlessly contrasting the undeniable natural beauty of the South with the grotesque treatment of slaves. In scenes of torture, the camera shifts focus from the torturer to the tortured, from the tyrant master to his cruel wife, capturing the most complete experience of the moment possible.

It also features an excellent ensemble, with particularly noteworthy performances from Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano. However, in the end, the film rests on the broad shoulders of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who delivers a masterful, layered performance as Solomon. Through his silence, he conveys the agony, anguish and determination of his character exceedingly well. Just as Solomon becomes Platt, Ejiofor transforms into Solomon and delivers an arresting, unforgettable performance. Lupita Nyong'o is unbelievable as Patsy. It is difficult to believe that this is her first film. In pivotal moments, she outshines the likes of Fassbender and even Ejiofor and leaves an indelible impact.

Ultimately, 12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch, but it is an important one, shedding light in dark places of American history. Masterfully crafted and acted, it is an exquisite work of art that reminds us what human beings are capable of, at their best and worst.

Rating: 4/5 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Misérables (2012)

There are several ways of seeing and analysing Les Misérables. It is an evocative social commentary, as relevant today as it was in the 19th century. It is a bombastic musical, which is not everybody's cup of tea. It is a Dickensian tragedy, very similar to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. In its simplest, most universal form, however, it is a story about people struggling to be a good in an unforgiving world that encourages them to act otherwise. There are no villains here: not Javert , not even the innkeepers. There are simply characters fighting their fates and the place that society decides for them; people choosing to be good (or evil) in a cruel world that tests them at every step; acting morally, even if, sometimes, it is a choice condemnation and damnation. Their goodness takes the form of sacrifices, courage, bravery and a naive sense of hope and optimism. Tom Hooper's adaptation makes their moral choices its focus and therefore, emerges as a gratifying, magnificent and glorious adaptation of the musical phenomenon.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save his dying nephew. On release, he breaks parole and with the kindness of a clergyman, chooses to make an honest living and rise in society as the respectable Monsieur Lemar. Chasing him relentlessly is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a man who sees the law and is blind to the social realities in which it operates. Due to a misunderstanding at Jean Valjean's factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired and forced to take up a life of prostitution to pay the cruel innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen) responsible for the upbringing of her illegitimate daughter Cosette. When Valjean realises this, he promises a dying Fantine to be a father to Cosette. As Cosette grows old (Amanda Seyfried), she falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is also loved by Eponine (Samantha Barks), the destitute daughter of the  innkeepers. But revolution is brewing in Paris, and the ensuing events shape the fates of all these characters.

The film remains faithful to the musical from start to end adapting the sing-song format. There are no spoken dialogues in the film. At a sprawling 158 minutes, it does test your patience, particularly with the overlong epilogue. However, this is a minor flaw in what is otherwise, a soulful, haunting adaptation of the stage production. Hooper executes the story playing to the strengths of the medium, making it a truly cinematic experience rather than a stagey one. His decision of recording the songs live rather than using pre-recorded music lends the movie an emotional depth not seen in musicals before.

Despite the tremendous production values, Hooper never lets the scale upstage the story and keeps his camera squarely focused on the actors. In The King's Speech, I thought his off-centre camera placement in key moments helped establish the characters better. Here again, his camera placement lends an added layer of intimacy and urgency to their emotional experience. The camera doesn't waver from Anne Hathaway's face even in the slightest during "I Dreamed a Dream", bringing every tear, every bruise, every vein and wrinkle into sharp focus. Because of this, the song (and the film) packs an emotional punch that is difficult to dodge.

Of course, this would all be a disaster if it wasn't for the stupendous performance of the entire cast. Hugh Jackman delivers a career-defining performance as Jean Valjean. He mesmerises us as he undergoes physical transformations and brings to life the agony and the pain of Jean Valjean. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful performance than his at the Oscars this year. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks as the doomed Fantine and Eponine are sure to drive up the stocks of Kleenex and other tissue making companies. Playing perhaps the two most memorable tragic characters in musical history, they brings these characters alive for the silver screen and immortalise them. Carter and Cohen are absolutely wicked as the innkeepers and are sure to bring the house down. Daniel Huttlestone as the child, Gavroche is absolutely unforgettable.

At the end of the day, Les Misérables is a great story that is adapted exceeding well by Tom Hooper. He does well to relegate the grand production to the background and bringing the characters to the fore; making us love them, hate them, root for them and cry for them. This is strong storytelling at its best. Carry tissues though. You are probably going to need them.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Barfi! (2012)

Every once in a while, there comes a film where suspension of disbelief comes so quietly, so effortlessly that it is easy to forget that it did at all. Barfi! is a flawed film in many ways. It is overlong by a good half hour. The story is messy, it's screenplay even more so with the whole flashback in a flashback (in a flashback). The conclusion is unnecessarily convoluted by a dramatic sub-plot. It is repetitive, over indulgent and utterly unbelievable. I could go on and on in the many ways that it went wrong. But guess what? It didn't matter. Because, in the end, it worked quite literally, like a charm, transporting me into a world I came to love wholeheartedly and without doubt, much like the characters that inhibit it.

Although it appears anchored in a particular place and time, Barfi! is as timeless as a fairytale. It is a story that could lend itself almost effortlessly to any context, because it is one that is driven entirely by its characters, and what quirky characters these are! It is the story of Murphy a.k.a. Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), a deaf and mute boy who falls for a beautiful girl, Shruti (Illeana D'Cruz), who is engaged to be married. His uninhibited love for life lands him in a world of trouble, which includes an adventure with an autistic girl, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra). Their lives intersect at crossroads over the course of several years, leaving a lasting impact on them and the people around them.
  
Basu creates layered, lovable characters and therein lies his greatest success. This film would collapse under its own weight if it weren't for its strong central characters, each of which is complex and believable. Barfi is simple, but by no means a simpleton. He is exuberant and cheerful but not the saccharine-y happy type. Shruti is flawed and doesn't always do right by people. But Basu neither idolises her for her beauty nor demonises her for her actions. Jhilmil is pure of heart, but she is also stubborn, difficult and needy. It is these endearing characters, so wonderfully realised by the three actors (particularly Ranbir Kapoor), that allow the film to soar well above its clunky script.

Stylistically, the influence of Chaplin is apparent throughout the film. It is easy to see glimpses of The Kid and City Lights in key moments. Influence also comes in the form of more recent works like Jean Pierre Jeunet's Amelie. However, while Anurag Basu does draw inspiration, he does not imitate. Instead, he wisely weaves these influences into a voice that is his own. It is undoubtedly his most accomplished film as a storyteller, told with love and affection for the art form and such conviction that he almost makes you forget the holes in the plot.

Technically, the film is gorgeous to look at. The journey of Jhilmil and Barfi is strewn with postcard shots of India. The use of light and shadow adds another dimension to the relationship of Barfi and Shruti, lending emotional depth in key moments. Swanand Kirkire pens lyrics that are unique to the characters and compliment the quirky yet emotionally stirring tone of the film. Pritam eclipses not only his entire discography, but also works of more accomplished musicians and delivers an album full of tunes that are as mesmerizing individually as they are complete together. From the excitement of new love to the insatiable longing for lost love, this album is, almost without a doubt, the best we will get this year.

Ultimately, Barfi! has the melodramatic heart of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the whimsical spirit of Charlie Chaplin. The combination hits a home run with the support of a wonderful cast. This is a film that will make you laugh hard, sob in silence and leave you with a grin on your face that is as eccentric as its characters; and for a few moments, it'll make you want to celebrate life as you know best, whether that is with a tune on your lips or a beat in your feet.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Bollywood lovers will get this: Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak but with 12 year old kids for protagonists.It is the final forty five minutes of that film converted into a offbeat feature, Wes Anderson style. In 1965, two kids run away from their homes on a tranquil island and decide to start a life on their own on a secluded beach. Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan attending a scout camp on the island where he is a misfit and a constant source of anxiety for the camp counselor (Edward Norton). Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a reader, a dreamer; someone who believes that she is wiser well beyond her years; with a slob (Bill Murray) and an adulterer (Frances McDormand) for parents. Mayhem ensues when they run away as the counselor, the parents and a cop (Bruce Willis) embark on a search for them. The remaining scouts (also pre-teens) join the search party, like a tamer version of their teenage counterparts from Battle Royale, to settle scores with Sam. Add to this an oncoming freak storm and you have the perfect setting for a odd, adventurous love story.

The first thing you notice about the film is the striking photography. Suffused with a warm colour palette, the images of the island carry a very distinct look and set the dreamy, fairy-tale like atmosphere perfectly for the quirky fantasy to play itself out. Anderson also manages to assemble a truly superb cast together. While all the stalwarts deliver competent performances, it is the kids, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward that really blow your mind and capture your heart. Gilman plays Sam as the perfect underdog; nerdy, awkward and yet, brave hearted. Hayward looks like Emma Roberts but with considerably better acting skills. She plays Suzy wonderfully; and channels the rebellious, curious spirit quite effectively. From the moment when they first meet in a church, he in his scouts uniform and she dressed as a raven for a play, you are immediately sucked into their little world, rooting for them against all odds and oddities to succeed. 

Wes Anderson serves up his personal best in the form of Moonrise Kingdom. He directs the film with a deft hand and uses his signature whimsical style to make even the most preposterous and the most perplexing bits go down smoothly. In the process, he provides us with arguably the most emotionally rewarding and heartwarming love story in recent memory. There is a purity and innocence to the love of Sam and Suzy that is a rarity in these times. Sure, as they grow, that innocence is likely to be lost and the film hints at the haunting spectre of adulthood at several points. However, Anderson here is wise for seeing Sam and Suzy not as they are (naive pre-teens) but as they see themselves (rebellious, kindred spirits). This lends to their tale of love a sincerity and poignancy that will find resonance with a wider audience. 

Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is one of the finest films I am likely to see this year. It is Anderson's most accessible work without compromising on his distinctive style. Beneath its veneer of idiosyncrasies, this is an emotionally rich and complex tale of rebellious, young love with memorable, well drawn out characters that will leave you with a big smile on your face as you exit the theatre.

Rating: 4.5/5

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and the Huntsman is a mess. That is not to say it is a bad film; just to say that it is a mess. There is a lot to like here. But there is a fair bit to dislike as well. The plot is fairly straightforward: a witch (Charlize Theron) takes over a kingdom by seducing and killing the widowed king and imprisoning his daughter Snow White. Many years later as her beauty and power begin to fade, the magic mirror tells her that Snow White (Kristen Stewart) was destined to stop her and if she were to consume the heart of Snow White, she would be immortal. At the same time, Snow White escapes from her prison into the dark forest and a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is asked to hunt her down. Instead, the Huntsman joins forces with her and along with the seven dwarves, Duke Hammond, his son William (Sam Claflin) and their army, lay siege on the witch's fortress.

There are two reasons to recommend the film: Charlize Theron and the production work. Charlize Theron looks sensuously bewitching and walks a fine line between menace and madness. She delivers a stellar performance, exercising the perfect amount of restraint over her exuberant, malevolent character. Among the actors, the film belongs to her, and her alone. It is a joy to watch her on the screen.

The second thing that works in favour of the film is the production work. The film is a feast for the eyes. The special effects, the art work, the camerawork and the action converge with each other to provide an absolutely riveting experience. Tremendous amounts of imagination as gone into conceiving these visuals, and it shows. The film is not just grand, but also beautiful to behold. They set the dark, melancholic atmosphere of the film quite well. There is a scene when injured ravens come together to form the injured queen. They converge into thick, black ooze and from there, the queen emerges in a gown of black feathers. The sheer detail with which this scene is constructed is breathtaking and the film offers plenty of such moments.

However, the film is almost undone by the rest of it. Kristen Stewart looks beautiful but is a poor choice to play a warrior princess. She looks ill at ease throughout as if still channeling the angst ridden, idiotic spirit of Bella from the Twilight series. Moreover, there is no chemistry between her and Hemsworth or her and Claflin. The love triangle is stale, soulless and without any passion. They are also done a great disservice by a script that provides very poor dialogues. At pivotal moments, when the words are meant to inspire, arouse or endear, the end result is either devoid of emotion, cringe inducing or unintentionally funny. Also, the film is overlong by a good twenty minutes. It meanders aimlessly at times, adding pointless subplots. The dwarves look and talk as if they've just walked off the sets of The Hobbit.

Ultimately, Snow White and the Huntsman has a lot to offer by way of visuals. It also has an enchanting villainess. However, there is a whole lot of mediocrity pervading the rest of the film that mars the overall impact considerably. If you love Charlize Theron or great visuals (or both), then this one is recommended viewing. For the rest, it's just another one of those summer blockbusters you will forget about soon after exiting the theatre.

Rating: 3/5

(P.S.: Notice how Hemsworth and Theron get more prominent footage in the poster? I wish that were the case with the film as well.)