Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The Best and the Worst

As 2010 draws to a close, I realised that it’s been quite a mediocre year in Hindi cinema. There have some moments of brilliance, but they have been few and far between. By and large, it has been a disappointing year, with big names delivering small works. But thankfully, there have also been some small names delivering big works. It’s been the year for the newcomers, who have stolen the thunder from the biggest of names. Here are, what I think were, the best Hindi films of 2010:

3. Ishqiya: Where do I begin? There is the fearless performance by Vidya Balan, the best I have seen this year from a female actor; the confident direction by Chaubey-ji, who joins the growing legion of new kids on the block; the impeccable lyrics of Gulzar who captures something highly elusive, the soul of the film, in 8 lines of poetry; Chutiyam Sulphate and other acidic lines from that genius that is Vishal. This was undoubtedly, one of the most involving, path-breaking and innovative films of 2010. It represents the changing face of Hindi cinema. And it is a beautiful face indeed.

2. My Name Is Khan: If Ishqiya and others represent innovative storytelling, MNIK was the finest example of classic Bollywood. Kajol and SRK proved that their chemistry is ageless and timeless. After over two decades in the business, they gave the best performances of their career. The film gave its audiences the best love story of the year, an unforgettable protagonist, stellar performances from the entire cast and uncharacteristically intelligent, if loose, writing on the immigrant experience in post 9/11 America. It was the only Hindi film I bothered seeing twice at the cinema; the only one I cried in like a baby, both times. This is conventional Hindi cinema at its best; unapologetically corny and emotional; epically entertaining and enlightening.

1. Udaan: Good things come in small packages; the adage finds a great example in Udaan. A quiet, raw and intimate experience, this was the best film I saw this year. A brilliant slice-of-life story; an emotionally resonant script, sharp direction and some powerhouse performances: these were the basic ingredients that went into making Udaan. But the resulting product was more; so much more. In Rohan’s poetry, we find a silent cry for people like him, whose creativity and aspirations were stifled by parental and societal pressures to conform. In Arjun, we see a desperate longing for love, attention and affection, a longing subconsciously articulated; something which even his young mind does not fully understand. In  Bhairav Singh, there is a menacing villain, but one which is more complex and identifiable than the legion of one dimensional bad father figures littered across cinema. This is an important film that finds hope in the darkest places; serves as a vehicle for suicide prevention; and tells a story with the power to touch both, the children and their parents. It is passionate as it is simple. This is a far more intelligent and effective film about the pressures, pains and joys of growing up than 3 Idiots could ever be. It is entertainment, but of a very different kind. We need more of such cinema.

Other noteworthy films: Peepli [Live], Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, Dabangg, Break Ke Baad, Phas Gaya Re Obama, Raajneeti and Band Baaja Baaraat.

My list of the worst films of the year was considerably longer. But that is usually the case in both, English and Hindi cinema. However, I list the following three films, as they could have been something more, but fell way behind the mark.

3. Anjaana Anjaani: For its countless absurdities, its sexism, its humourless existence and its squandered potential. Priyanka Chopra’s character needs a crash course in self respect and Ranbir Kapoor looks more like a sub-standard model than an investment banker. They don’t have money to fly to Vegas but they have enough money to rent boats and sail to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Stupid, silly and painful to watch. This could have been an Indian Harold and Maude. Instead, it is one of the worst romantic comedies in a while, by any standard.

2. Kites: How can a film so gorgeous to look at be so shockingly awful? Inconsistent, erratic, hollow and mind-numbing, Kites was plagued with bad acting, bad music, a mediocre story and a disjointed and weak script. As a story, this is the worst kind of 80s road movie, the kind that should have never been made then, let alone now. It makes you wonder how such a script ever got accepted, let alone receive such an enormous budget. The cinematography was the best Hindi cinema can boast of; it had an artistic vision and finesse that was lacking in the rest of the film. Anurag Basu as a filmmaker, always lacked subtlety. But this was an awful film, even compared to his previous films. Hrithik Roshan is a terrific actor. But, he has never been the best judge of projects. Unfortunately, instead of getting better at it; he appears to be getting worse.

1. Raavan: Like in the case of Ishqiya, where do I begin? Was it the awful performances, the bizarre characters, the stranger story or the self-indulgent direction? It is remarkable how faithful Raavan is, at least broadly, to the Ramayana. However, unlike the epic, it has no depth, meaning or emotional resonance. The characters are awkwardly mixed with shades of gray without much thought and the actors rightly look confounded by them. Mani Ratnam gets it wrong; terribly wrong; so much so, that his previous work, Guru looks like a classic in comparison to this. He is, I think, to blame, singularly and entirely for this disaster. A.R. Rahman’s score, overall, lacks punch. Abhishek and Aishwarya both disappoint, even by their own self-imposed standards. But the fault lies in their characters more than their performances. If there could be a negative star rating, this movie would be a perfect candidate for it. Without a doubt, this is the worst film I saw this year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tees Maar Khan (2010): Sheila's Too Sexy For This Film

Whatever one may say about her brand of cinema, there is one thing for certain: Farah Khan knows her Bollywood. She has proved, twice over, that she is the only filmmaker who can take Bollywood conventions of yore and sell them to a modern audience. She does so by unsubtly, but gently poking fun at the little quirks and details while remaining steadfastly faithful to the broader framework. Her films, for all their fun and humour, have usually a strong emotional core which Indian audiences readily take to. Her films look gorgeous and usually have tremendous entertainment value. Hers is the kind of cinema that would make Manmohan Desai and Mukul Anand proud.

However, it is hard to imagine a Farah Khan film without Shah Rukh. It’s not just the familiarity. There is a certain comfort they had, a unity of vision, which showed in her previous films. I think that is one of the prime reasons why a lot of people have been sceptical about Tees Maar Khan, despite the otherwise appealing promos. A lot is riding on it, and it’s not just the money. It is a challenge for Farah Khan not only in terms of maintaining the same entertainment value as her previous outings but also on establishing a reputation independent of Shah Rukh Khan. It is also a litmus test of sorts for Akshay Kumar who has consistently delivered increasingly bad films such that even his better ones (Action Replayy) got a cold shoulder from the audience. So, TMK carries with it the reputations of some serious heavyweights and needs to satisfy an increasingly unforgiving (and worse, indifferent) audience. The question is: does it deliver?

Tabrez Mirza Khan a.k.a. Tees Maar Khan (Akshay Kumar) is one of India’s most notorious con-artists. He steals from the rich, but does not share with the poor. In his own words, trying to catching him is like trying to save a whore’s dignity. It’s kind of pointless. Like Abhimanyu in Mahabharata, he learned his art from the womb thanks to his mother (Apara Mehta) who feasted on 70s Hindi crime movies. He is dating a half-brained wannabe actress Anya (Katrina Kaif). Now, he must pull off a seemingly impossible task: stealing fabulous treasures worth Rs. 500 crores but weighing 10,000 kgs loaded on a train on its way to Delhi to be deposited in the State Treasury for two international twin smugglers (Raghu, Rajiv). But nothing is impossible for Tees Maar Khan.

The first half of the film is tremendously good. The opening credits may offend a few but the depiction of how TMK learns his skills in the womb is original, inventive and laugh out loud funny. There are some brilliant lines and even better comic sketches which are put together into a silly but rib-tickling narrative. The jokes work throughout. Sheila Ki Jawaani sizzles, and how! The song is electric and the video by itself makes me want to recommend the film. It beautifully pays homage to one of the most iconic item numbers of all time (“Jumma Chumma De De” from Hum). Salman Khan’s cameo, while obviously gimmicky and forced, is entertaining enough to make you forget everything else. The production is fabulous. The composition of each scene in terms of costumes, art work and cinematography is a visual feast. The first hour has Farah Khan stamped all over it.

However, in the post-interval portions, things start to stagnate. Jokes fall flat. The proceedings get too dull and meandering. Thankfully, the penultimate portions featuring the heist itself are quite funny and lift the film a bit. However, the climax (which is more like an extended epilogue) is just painful to watch. Ideally, the film should have ended right after the heist. But the writers stretch an already dubious premise too far; to the point where it stops being funny. The end credits (a hallmark of Farah Khan films) lack the celebratory spirit which her first two films had. The culprit here is the team of writers (led by her husband, Shirish Kunder). It’s in moments like these that you wonder: where is Abbas Tyrewala when you need him? Only he, and maybe Farah Khan herself, can make such absurdities work. In the hands of Kunder and his team, it is a massacre that manages to destroy the what little impact the film had till that point.

In terms of performance, Akshay Kumar does the best he can to make the material funny; and he succeeds, at several points. He is a better choice over SRK for such a role and brings tremendous energy to his character. Katrina Kaif looks supremely sexy and looks perfectly natural playing a bimbo. I wonder why that is. Wait, not really. Akshaye Khanna has sub-standard material to work with but still manages to pull in a few laughs. Apara Mehta is hilarious in portions. The legion of supporting actors is sporadically funny, often dull and occasionally irritating.

Ultimately, I strongly suspect that TMK suffers from that “My Hubbie Strongest” Syndrome. Sometimes, it is not a good idea to mix family and work. Kunder is a good editor. However, he has a lot to learn in the writing department. While it is not a complete failure, TMK remains several notches below Farah Khan’s previous works. The emotional resonance is non-existent and the humour is nowhere near good enough to compensate for that. It is a half entertaining, half annoying and a wholly absurd enterprise. Houston, we have a problem.

Rating: 2/5

P.S.: There is one splendid reason to watch the film though: the trailer of Saat Khoon Maaf. It is an audacious project even for Vishal Bharadwaj and may just be the crowning glory of Priyanka Chopra. A haunting and powerful trailer, it makes you wish you were watching that film instead of this one. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

TRON: Legacy (2010): A Wasted Opportunity

TRON is a very iconic film of the 80s where, for the first time, audiences saw the potential that extensive use of CGI held. It involved a programmer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who takes on a Master Control Programme, which has plans for world domination, and is digitised and transferred from the real world to the digital world (known as the Grid). There he meets some other programmes, including TRON, a programme which was specifically created to control the MCP and launches a massive attack against it. Shot in a videogame format (the kind we played in arcades as kids), visually, nothing like this film has ever been seen before, or after. Its greatest strength was to employ action movie conventions very creatively in the digital world, thereby offering a unique experience. Although as a story, it was riddled with more than a few holes, it was easy to forgive such misgivings and enjoy the experience. Today, it may look a little tacky. But, in the context of its times, despite its meagre returns, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Over time, it has gathered a considerable following not only for its stylistic visuals but also its prescient content. The term “ahead of its time” has rarely found a more appropriate example. 

Now, 28 years later, Disney decided to provide a sequel to the film. As such, sequels are usually judged in comparison to the original. But here, it would be almost pointless to do so as many of the target audience of TRON: Legacy will not have seen the original (which doesn’t enjoy the mainstream popularity of, say, the Star Wars series). Hence, the lengthy background to the original film by way of an introduction. Through its trailers, the one thing that TRON: Legacy promises, both to the fans of the first and new entrants, are eye popping visuals. In the last 3 decades, CGI has undergone a sea change from new to generic technology. Today, the emphasis is not so much on the quality of the effects per se as much as it is on the imagination gone into creating them. Therefore, TRON: Legacy has a new challenge before it: can it offer something new and groundbreaking like its predecessor after all that has followed?

The premise: Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared 20 years ago. Some think he is dead; others think he has run away from his responsibilities towards his company, Encom, and its shareholders. Left behind is his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) who believes in his father’s causes (namely free access to technology) while Encom’s new management believes in making them pay as high a price as possible despite the efforts of Kevin’s best friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). A mysterious message from his father’s old videogame arcade leads Sam to discover his father’s old office. He soon finds himself also in the Grid, reunited with his father with a new ally, Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and a new villain, Clu (also, Jeff Bridges), a programme created by Kevin in his own image who has gone rogue and taken over the Grid.

T:L cost a sizable fortune to make (a cool $200 mil) and it shows. The special effects are spectacular and beautifully build on the world created by the original film. This is one of the few movies that is, at least visually, worth watching in 3D. The set design, the programmes, the games etc. are brilliantly realised, even if they are a little short in terms of ideas. There is nothing new here per se from Tron, at least nothing good. The new bits look like they were rejected designs for Lady Gaga videos. However, they do take the ideas from the original and use modern technology to provide some truly mind blowing visuals. The soundtrack by Daft Punk is especially good maintaining a cool, yet menacing tone throughout the film and making good use of electronic pop to provide that metallic, steely, atmosphere to the proceedings, much like the Grid itself.

Unfortunately for T:L though, it falls apart in terms of story in the second hour. The premise, that starts out promisingly is destroyed under the weight of some bad ideas, terrible clichés, cringe-inducing dialogues and bad acting. It is just painful to watch the film especially in the penultimate reels because the potential here was immense. They could have taken a film that was visually iconic, but weak in content and improved it to make it something extraordinary. But instead of going anywhere near there, it creates plot holes so many and so large that it has to be seen to be believed. It falls into the trap of providing conventional action set pieces and the story itself suffers on account of that. Actually, “suffers” doesn’t even begin to describe it. The film looses any sense of coherence or originality. The character of TRON himself is just butchered. The plot makes no sense whatsoever. Every idea there has been done better in some other film. The direction is aimless and the emphasis is more on the look of a scene than its content. The dialogues are so laughably bad that the script writer(s) deserves to be shot. On the emotional front, neither the relationship between Sam and Kevin, nor that between Sam and Quorra has been properly developed. Their relationships look more lifeless and metallic than the Grid itself.

In terms of acting, Garrett Hedlund desperately needs some acting lessons. His only expressions here are stone face and constipated. The film rests to a large extent on his shoulders, and he disappoints. Olivia Wilde has to deal with a very badly written character. Jeff Bridges is excellent, both as Kevin Flynn and as Clu. The use of CGI to create a younger version of him was, I think, inspired and he essays both parts effortlessly. Michael Sheen is brilliant in a small role as a Chaplin-esque over the top, loud Zuse, an act which borders on caricature.

Ultimately, T:L is a beautiful body without a soul. It has a good first hour and an abominable second hour. It is a wasted opportunity considering the potential the premise held. It plays like a bad videogame and is just not worth the price of admission.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Band Baaja Baraat (2010): All Weddings and No Funeral

I love weddings; from the band and the baaja to the garish colours and the decorations; from the sangeet to the shenanigans; from the food to the festivities; from the rituals to the reception where 700 cousins you never know existed show up for pictures. For this reason, and a few others, Band Baaja Baraat was a thoroughly entertaining fare, much to my surprise. It lives up to its title and provides us a delightfully colourful, warm and funny look into the Great Indian Wedding, of all shapes, scales and sizes right from a wedding in a mohalla in Delhi to a royal palatial wedding in Rajasthan. Along the way, it also provides us a fun and likable love story about two wedding organizers and how their affections affect their business.

The premise: Bittoo (Ranvir Singh) is a quintessential Delhi boy. Studying at Delhi University, he spends the day being idle, gawking at Delhi women, eating bread pakodas and gatecrashing weddings. In comes Shruti (Anushka Sharma), a headstrong but fun loving girl who wants to start her own business as a wedding planner. They meet at a wedding, which she is helping organize and he is gatecrashing and soon become unlikely partners for a wedding planning business. They taste success as they organise one wedding after another. Between them, they have only one rule: there is no place for love shuv between business partners. However, romantic comedies have their own rules, before which this little rule obviously does not stand a chance.

It would not be wrong to say that this is the most solid film to come out of the Yash Raj Films banner in many years, arguably since Chak De India. Its biggest strength is that it keeps things simple and the scale appropriate. A Janakpuri wedding looks like a well done Janakpuri wedding. A palatial wedding looks like a palatial wedding. It takes us through the bylanes of the more modest areas of Delhi without being guilty of unnecessary ostentation like previous films made under the banner. The characters look and behave like they come from these sections and that helps us immediately identify and care for them.

The writing is fresh, particularly in the first half which is frothy and cackles with wit and sarcasm. As a storyteller, Maneesh Sharma keeps things straight and saves the film from any serious convolutions. He tells his story with confidence and focuses on getting the look, the performances and the timing right, in which he, by and large succeeds. The film does best in depicting the chaotic wedding planning and the growth of the business. It does stagnate in the post-interval portions as the genre conventions kick in and the obligatory sequences are done. However, the film picks up in the penultimate portions once more and cruises coolly to a satisfying conclusion. The music is good and the production design is fabulous.

In terms of performances, the film would fall like a pack of cards without the performances of the leads. Ranvir Singh proves that one needs confidence, personality and acting ability to be leading man material, and not good looks. He quickly wins you over as the crass but caring and hardworking Bittoo. Anushka Sharma gives her career’s best performance and makes us love and firmly root for Shruti Kakkar. Forget all the Kiara-s and the like, this is the quintessential modern girl with determination, confidence, an acid tongue and yet, some vulnerabilities. Anushka Sharma looks completely at ease with the character and gives a very natural performance. Together, the couple has great chemistry and they carry the film on their broad shoulders.

Ultimately, there are several reasons to recommend Band Baaja Baraat. If you like weddings, this is a delightful treat of one kind of Indian wedding after another. If you like Delhi, few films have captured the essence of what it is to live in and be from Delhi than this film. The lingo and the characters are straight out of day to day life. Finally, if you like romantic comedies, this is a lovely little exercise in pure formula that should keep you entertained mostly throughout. This isn’t groundbreaking cinema. But it surely is good cinema.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, December 10, 2010

Guzaarish (2010): Good's Not Good Enough

Sanjay Leela Bhansali brings dreams to life on celluloid. He is perhaps the only Indian director that can qualify for such a statement. In each of his films, good or bad, right from Khamoshi to Saawariya, he has an eye for visuals that is unparalleled in Hindi cinema. This makes his cinema, for better or for worse, unique. Sometimes, his visuals can add considerable depth to the story as in the case of Black. In other times, it can overpower the story altogether as in Saawariya. However, irrespective of the film in question, a common thread throughout Bhansali's considerable repertoire (both, in terms of accolades and money) is the weak scripting. At best, the scripts he co-authors and works with range from well-intentioned (Khamoshi: The Musical) to the downright deplorable (Saawariya). Further, his direction, though technically flawless, is loud and hammy in technique. Black is the only film where the performances and the sensitivity and daring in addressing the subject matter overcome these flaws. It is, in my opinion, not only his one masterpiece but also his only truly memorable film. However, his films are usually an uneven balance of style and substance.

In terms of subject matter, Guzaarish is the kind of film one would expect Bhansali to make after Black. It is a bigger challenge as it involves greater complexities and nuances. The topic of Euthanasia is not, in any way, an easy one, especially in cinema. The challenges are not only emotional but also political, ethical and legal. The final product we get, is a mixed bag.

Ethan (Hrithik Roshan), once a world famous magician is now a quadriplegic after a near-fatal accident at one of his performances 15 years ago. He is paralysed the neck below and is entirely dependent on his nurse, Sofia (Aishwarya Rai) for his care. Sofia cares for him more than a friend, a wife or a lover and has even given up on her marriage to attend to him. He is dying as his organs give way one by one. He calls upon his lawyer friend, Devyani (Shernaz Patel) to file a petition in court for euthanasia. What ensues is a legal battle where a man seeks a right to die within his fundamental right to live. 

Visually, the film is stunning, as is expected. Each frame is a canvas and on it, Bhansali and his cinematographer paint a portrait so beautiful that it is simply breathtaking to behold. Some have criticized the film for looking unrealistic and nothing like what Goa and its people are really like. These people I think miss the point entirely of Bhansali's films. His films take place in moments largely suspended in space and time. The costumes, the sets and the production are meant to provide a surrealist look and add to the visual appeal. It is this surrealism that adds a certain amount of universality to the story. Guzaarish is no exception where Aishwariya Rai appearance seems to be a cross between gypsy and Victorian styles. The house is again Gothic/Victorian in Architecture. A wide palate of dark, deep, moody colours is used to paint the visuals and it helps set the atmosphere of the film well. Ethan's memories as a magician take place in the same theatre in front of similar, if not the same crowds. This is because the importance for him is not so much because of the place or the people before whom he performed but simply the joy and thrill he got from the performance itself. The only time his audience ever mattered was when he performed his first magic trick. The music, also by Bhansali, is an eclectic mix of styles ranging from Westerns classics like Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" to Arab and Turkish influenced tunes.

On the emotional front, Bhansali manages to give us characters we care for and creates some truly wonderful cinematic moments. The sequences involving Ethan's first magic trick, for example, are wonderful as much as they are painful. However, it is hardly an unqualified success as the script falls prey to loud, painful emotional overkill, especially in the later reels. Although the relationships are well defined and carefully developed, the abandonment of any semblance of restraint in the second half of the film severely dilutes the impact. While Ethan's individual relationships with Sofia, Devyani and Omar are beautifully defined with considerable maturity and complexity, on the whole, especially in the collective moments, the film falls prey to severe emotional spasms with one too many passionate outbursts. Also, the one relationship that deserved more was that between Ethan and his mother (Nafisa Ali). The potential there was immense and the ease with which she acquiesces to the idea of mercy killing for Ethan seems a tad unbelievable.

There are problems in terms of plotting as well. The changes in public opinion hardly seem believable. The legal portions, while somewhat convincing in the courtroom, become really half baked once the drama shifts to Ethan's house. The authenticity of the proceedings is done great disservice by shoehorning emotional moments. Further, going beyond the emotional issues, the political and ethical dimensions are so poorly explored here that the film comes off as amateurish, a fall in standards for Bhansali who addressed some difficult and complex issues in Black. By couching Ethan's plea for Euthanasia simply in terms of personal choice, the film stops short of exploring the real issues of why a person would opt for mercy killing like dying with dignity etc. 

In terms of performances, Bhansali succeeds in extracting some wonderful ones from the entire cast. I have said this before and I will say it again. He is the only director capable of extracting a powerful performance from Aishwarya Rai. She was stunning in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas. Guzaarish is no exception. Here, she has a chemistry with Hrithik Roshan that goes far beyond the damp couple that they were in Jodhaa Akbar. Their relationship is more complex, more endearing. Hrithik gives a lovely restrained performance. The still water runs deep act suits his character perfectly. One can't say that he takes giant strides as an actor or manages a performance like Rani and Amitabh's in Black but it's nevertheless a very good performance. However, the real find in this film is Aditya Roy Kapur who pitches in a solid performances as the relentless, determined but extremely endearing Omar. He demonstrates talent both as a comic and dramatic actor. Shernaz Patel is one of my favourite character actors today. I have seen her both on stage and screen and she is a dazzling actress who deserves more footage. Here also, she excels as a friend who is called upon to put aside her personal opinions and fight for an ailing man's right to die with dignity. Rajat Kapoor, her partner in several stage productions, is wasted as the opposition lawyer.

Overall, Guzaarish is an improvement over Saawariya and yet, several notches below Black. Although it boasts of a daring story with wonderful visuals and performances by the entire cast, it is severely afflicted with emotional overkill that takes away from the political and ethical dimensions of the theme and robs some great individual sequences of their gravitas. It is like an omelet with too much oil in it. Its failure has been likened to Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool. However, I think it has more in common with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Delhi-6: well intentioned, in places good even, but nowhere near the standards that the material could have reached. But maybe it's just me: Euthansia is very important to me not only as a liberal but also on a more personal level. I have seen someone suffer like Ethan in the film with no escape and therefore, have some idea what that feels like. Maybe that's why I think a topic like this deserves a better film than this overproduced, over the top film. If you don't mind watching a film trying to attach a vacuum cleaner to your tear-ducts, be my guest. If not, do yourself a favour: rent Million Dollar Baby or Mar Adentro instead.

Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Anjaana Anjaani (2010)

Anjaana Anjaani is perhaps one of the most annoying films I have seen in recent memory. That is not so much because it is a terrible film but because it had potential to be infinitely better. It is an excellent example of how you cannot take an offbeat and quirky premise and employ mainstream romantic comedy conventions to tell the tale. It just does not work. For that reason, Anjaana Anjaani sits uncomfortably in an odd place where a few strong sequences dissolve thanks to too many weak ones. It's like a drop hydrochloric acid mixed in a gallon of water. It is ineffective at best, and a complete waste at worst.

Akash (Ranbir Kapoor) and Kiara (Priyanka Chopra), two strangers, meet at the George Washington Bridge in New York City on a cold December night. Both come there with the intention of committing suicide; he because of losing everything in the 2008 Financial Crisis; she because of her boyfriend (Zayed Khan) issues. Unsuccessful, they make a pact to commit suicide on New Year's Eve which is 20 days away. In the mean time, they intend to do everything that they always wanted to do but kept putting off. Thus begins a journey that makes them rethink their entire lives.

The premise had immense potential I think for providing a refreshing, daring and interesting romantic comedy. However, the film collapses under its own weight as it tries to be faithful to rom com conventions. It tries to be youthful but comes off as achingly artificial. It attempts humour, but comes off as awkward. It tries to be serendipitous but appears too unbelievable. It throws logic out to the winds, at too many places. For example, there is a particular sequence where they are both in the (literally) freezing ocean about to drown and it is there she decides to tell him her life story. They decide to drive from New York to Las Vegas. In addition to showing them reach rather too quickly, they also get their car stolen in the middle of the desert and still manage to make it look as if finding civilisation is an easy task.

It also has too many songs. Despite the glossy production and the good music, that is a hindrance as it adds to the already long runtime. At a time when Hindi movies are restricting music on a need to use basis, this film goes mad with it. Further, its placement of songs is problematic to say the least. Songs like "Aas Paas Khuda" which should've come in the penultimate portions is the first song in a completely wrong context.

Further, it has problematic characters. While I love Priyanka Chopra, and she does do extremely well as an actor in the emotional sequences, her character is just plain stupid and for all her modernity, is in desperate need of a crash course in self-respect and maybe, feminism if her tiny little fictional brain can handle it. Ranbir Kapoor hardly looks like the investment banker he apparently was. He is funny in places but his character has none of the brains to look even a wee bit convincing. They have great chemistry together but that cannot cure the disease of inept writing which plagues the film. Even something serious like the Financial Crisis is used so carelessly and with such little regard for its impact that it is frustrating (How many times can you say "The Market has crashed" and its grammatical in a single scene? According to this film, the answer is countless. The more you say it, the more you will make the audience feel sorry for you.)

I did start this review mentioning some strong sequences. I like the back story of Kiara even though it is horrible placed in the narrative. Priyanka Chopra I thought did exceedingly well in those portions. There were some small scenes here and there as well. However, overall, this is a shockingly bad film that had the potential to be an amazing one, maybe even an Indian answer to Harold and Maude. Do not bother with it unless you are stuck in a long plane ride and this is your only option. That was the case with me.

Rating: 1.5/5

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

The Narnia series had, in my opinion, a fantastic start with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I haven’t read the books but the film was a gorgeous production with a coherent story (unlike most Harry Potter adaptations), an exuberant spirit and loads of heart. It provided us a magical new world with characters we could care for. Prince Caspian was an adequate and yet, in every way, underwhelming follow up which was too dark, too dull to enjoy the same kind of reception. The film was weaker both, visually and as a story. However, when Andrew Adamson who helmed the first two films, was replaced by Michael Apted, I was even more skeptical as his only film I have seen is one I have disliked with some intensity (The World Is Not Enough). However, I was pleasantly surprised with this one.

The premise: Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are now teenagers who are living a mundane life in the middle of the War with their Uncle Albert and irritating cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) while Peter and Susan are in the US with their parents. They find themselves called into Narnia once more, this time with Eustace and find themselves on the Dawn Treader, the finest ship in Narnia in the company of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and Narnian sailors. But there is no war going on this time. Instead, they are on a voyage to investigate into the fate of seven warriors who supported Caspian’s father before his death. What starts out as a simple voyage becomes a quest against something far more sinister that threatens the new established peace in Narnia.

Although the third instalment still falls short of the standards set by the first film, it is an improvement over Prince Caspian in every way. Visually, it is stunning, not just in terms of the scale of production but also in terms of the imagination. The film has an epic look in that classic way and considerable imagination has gone into creating the worlds. Several moments in the film are simultaneously terrifying and awe-inspiring.

In terms of story also, it is far more enjoyable a tale with the right mix of humour and drama, good and evil, swashbuckling action and magical fantasy. What I particularly liked in the film is that the way the human relationships were handled. Characters were better developed and each relationship signified a different theme. In Eustace and his relationship with Reepicheep, the film explores what it means to live for something more than yourself and finding courage in the most difficult of circumstances. In Lucy, we see the importance of self-worth and individuality. In Edmund, we see the struggle to understand what it means to be a man. In his relationship with Caspian, we have the exploration of what it means to be a brother. These are themes and ideas that both, kids and adults can engage with. These are dealt with simplistically, but well (at least considerably better than Prince Caspian) It is endearing to see the growth of Lucy and Edmund as characters, more so than Peter and Susan’s.

Ultimately, Voyage of the Dawn Treader falls short by a margin in matching up to magic of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. However, it is a vast improvement over Prince Caspian, in every department and makes for a thoroughly entertaining fare for people of all ages. It is an epic film with a marriage of scale, content and spirit that has become seriously rare in American productions.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Easy A (2010): Make That an A+

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The 80s teen movies were the shiznit. John Hughes sketched intelligent and interesting characters that people across space and time have identified with. His film made people laugh, introspect and provided comfort to many teens, troubled or otherwise. Most teen films that followed just didn’t match up to them. Then came American Pie which, though a good film, singlehandedly shifted the direction of the teen comedy genre. What followed was a legion of films that provided a barrage of increasingly unfunny poop jokes and fake characters obsessed with losing their virginity. The last decent comedy set among high school teens was Mean Girls. That was 6 years back and before that, there was 10 Things I Hate About You which was 11 years back. Now, we have Easy A.

The premise starts off with a deceptively simple lie: Olive (Emma Stone), in order to get out of a camping trip with her best friend (Alyson Michalka) and her bohemian parents, tells a lie that she has a date with an imaginary college guy. Then, to stop her friend’s badgering, she admits to having had sex with the imaginary guy. The rumour mills get to work and soon everyone is talking including the Jesus freak antagonist (Amanda Bynes). Things complicate when she agrees to pretend to have slept with a gay student (Dan Byrd) to protect him from further bullying for his sexual orientation. One thing leads to another and suddenly, Olive is in the business of doing similar “favours” for monetary benefits. Although initially hesitant, she embraces the slutty image and needless to say, the situation quickly spirals out of her control.

Easy A does not have an iota of originality in its premise. It borrows liberally from (and often takes a dig at) better and more popular teen comedies like the Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie, Grease, Say Anything etc. It even has clear literary influences, the most obvious of which is The Scarlet Letter. However, it ties in these inspirations (and in some cases derivations) into a sharp, witty script with an extremely likable and intelligent protagonist and some wonderful supporting characters. Instead of denying its sources, it embraces them and works from there. Therein lies its greatest strength. It may not be realistic, but that can’t be called one of the strengths of the teen comedy genre. It is, however, consistently hilarious and filled with some brilliant references to the aforementioned films and several others. It would be wrong to reject it outright as shamelessly derivative. It is better seen as a great homage to the movies that defined the genre. Even on its own, it wisely sidesteps half baked sentimentalism opting for wit, sarcasm and outrageous humour instead and provides us some thoroughly entertaining moments.While not knowing the sources that inspire it does not take away from its sheer entertainment value, knowing them helps appreciate its virtues even more.

Another thing I realised is that all great teen movies have a memorable soundtrack. Easy A does a respectable job in that department as well. Apart from the songs it borrows from the aforementioned movies, it has a great collection of contemporary and classic tunes in its armoury that fit the tone of the film perfectly well.

The casting for this film is unbelievably good. The actors may not look like teenagers, but they do know how to act their parts. Emma Stone gives a pitch perfect performance as Olive, the girl who goes from anonymity to notoriety within 2 weeks. I have loved her in films like Zombieland and Superbad and she is only getting better. She is to this film what both, Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck were to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Without her, the film would crumble into mediocrity. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are side splittingly funny as the progressive, quirky and caring parents of Olive. They may not be the most realistic characters, but they sure are immensely likable. Lisa Kudrow is very good as the stereotypical guidance counsellor with a few twists of her own. Amanda Bynes plays the vamp for a change and does it well. Malcolm McDowell and Thomas Haden Church are wasted. The rest of the cast is adequate.

Overall, Easy A reminds us how good a teen comedy can be. While not ground breaking, it is a nostalgic throwback to the great films that defined the genre and features an immensely likable protagonist and borderline fantastic performances. It has great repeat value and that is more than enough to give this film a recommendation. Hopefully, it will not be another 6 years before another good entry in the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, November 26, 2010

Break Ke Baad (2010): A Potential Classic

I have never walked into a romantic comedy expecting more than what is conventional. Many films try to be contemporary or realistic with the end result ranging from mixed to farcical to downright disastrous (read: Love Aaj Kal). However, very rarely does one find a film that does not try any of these and yet, manages to be all of them. Break Ke Baad is one of those.

Meet Aliyah Khan (Deepika Padukone) and Abhay Gulati (Imran Khan), or Al and Gelato. They met when they were 5, started dating when they were 15 and have been dating ever since. They are both in love with each other, there’s no doubt about that. But Aliyah wants to be an actress, travel, see the world and be adventurous while Abhay does not know what he wants, works in a dead end job at his father’s office but is unconditionally in love with Al. She wants space, he wants her. The relationship is put to test when they decide to take a break with her leaving for Australia to learn acting. Things complicate, tough decisions are taken and they must find a way to love each other without losing their individual selves.

Break Ke Baad is, in my opinion, one of the most honest, natural and relatable films about today’s generation. It has seriously flawed but immensely likable characters that we care for within the first ten minutes. He is a caring, understanding and patient boyfriend who may be struggling to find himself but is sure about his commitment to her. She is lively, vivacious, funny but insensitive, self-centred and fiercely protective about her individualism. These characters are extremely well sketched; the themes are given thought and the emotions resonance. It had all the ingredients of a conventional rom com. What makes it more than one is that it confronts the conflicts between individualism and commitment and deals with them in a sensitive, intelligent and balanced manner without falling prey to either aggressive individualism (like Eat, Pray, Love) or worse, some form of chauvinistic hypocrisy.

The writing is impeccable here. Very rarely are lines clichéd or the jokes dull. The script is written well not only in the humorous moments but also in the dramatic ones. The elders have the required wisdom of age and the younger characters have the chutzpah and spunk. Thankfully, no one uses terms like “Mango People” here. One may instantly be able to identify with many aspects of the relationship, the good bits and the bad. The final half hour of the film may be too long and meandering for some but I think it is necessary to show the growth of the characters gradually (even if the sequence of events if circuitous) rather than abrupt changes of heart. Moreover, the lines here are written well enough to play along anyway. The only flaw in the film is the climax which has been seen one too many times in Hindi films. But by then, it doesn’t matter.

Danesh Aslam directs the film straight without unnecessary frills focusing on timing and performances instead. The running time is kept on a tight leash. The music is on a need to use basis and furthers the story rather than hampering it. The lyrics by Prasoon Joshi are refreshingly different and break several conventions. The production design is classy without being excessive. Any and all extravagance (like Al's house in Gold Coast) is sufficiently justified in the script.

The acting is good throughout. Imran Khan cements his position as the leading man for romantic comedies. He has never been more likable or emotionally expressive. Deepika Padukone is true to her character and pitches in a solid performance, a pleasant surprise. Yudi and Shahana Goswami do well as the sexed up brother and the bohemian and slighltly emo sister who are friends with Al and Gelato. Lilette Dubey gets away with some of the best lines in the film and Sharmila Tagore brings a distinct elegance and poise to her character that adds weight to her few words.

All in all, I have rarely given rave reviews to romantic comedies. Break Ke Baad qualifies as one of those rare occasions. It is not the most original film. It has its inspirations. But, it is at times brutally honest, often surprisingly deep and almost always intelligent. It cackles in wit and humour throughout. It is the film that Love Aaj Kal should have been. In Bollywood, it represents another entry in a growing group of storytellers who can tell contemporary stories with maturity, intelligence and youthful charm. I walked in expecting, at best, Jab we Met but instead received a film that has the classic romantic charm of When Harry Met Sally and the honesty and relatability of (500) Days of Summer. How often does that happen?

Rating: 4/5

P.S.: Yes, I have now introduced a star rating. Saves time for those who can’t or don’t care for reading.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (2010)

Few things have had an indelible impact on my life: the Harry Potter series is one of them. I was 12 years old, when a friend (you know who you are.) introduced me to the awesomeness of Harry Potter. Four books had been released until then and what started out as a sceptical read turned into an unrivalled obsession. Few books I can claim to have read, let alone re-read over and over till I have lost count. The Harry Potter books fall in the latter category. I stood in line at 5:30 a.m. on a dry, cool Bangalore morning to buy the first few copies of the Deathly Hallows and threatened to sock the first guy who bought it, opened to the last page and gasped. Yes, that is the only time I have ever threatened to beat the crap out of anyone and actually meant it. What I’m saying is that the series meant something to me and to millions others of my generation: we literally grew up with Harry Potter.

How does one judge a Harry Potter film? I, for one don’t judge it for its special effects, camerawork or production design. And I wouldn’t dare be pompous enough to comment on the performances of the veteran actors, arguably the most talented ensemble ever assembled for a single film/series. The quality of their work is a foregone conclusion. No, I judge a Harry Potter film by how it tells the story I loved so much on the screen. I am not a purist and I don’t care for imitation. I expect liberties to be taken; it’s a different medium and hence, must play to its own strengths. But what I do care for is that the spirit of the book is captured on screen and that the film tells a coherent story which would be accessible even to someone who has not read the books. 

On that scale of expectations, the films have, by and large, butchered the books: the first two massacred its spirit in favour of an unimaginative imitation of the source material; the third just butchered the story, removing key elements of the plot which were crucial to the series and unforgivably truncating two of the most interesting characters in Harry’s world then: Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. The fourth was too complex to condense into a single film, perhaps the only entry in the series that actually deserved two films. Basically, until then, the films to me were  both, a commercial hack job and an artistic embarrassment.

However, the entry of David Yates has perhaps been the best thing that happened to the series. Like his previous works (State of Play, the BBC miniseries among others), he demonstrated an ability to balance the serious themes with whimsical, humorous elements without derailing the emotional core of the story. In fact, cinematically, his approach was the closest to literary style and tone of Rowling in the books. Surely, he took liberties with the source material but did so keeping in mind the strengths of cinema as a medium and those of the books themselves. In doing so, not only did he capture the spirit of the books, a feat I believe far more crucial, and difficult to achieve than mere factual imitation, but also managed to give an emotionally gratifying cinematic experience, something I thought this series was incapable of. It’s for these reasons, if no other, I looked forward to the 7th film in the series with some guarded optimism. And thankfully, the first part of the final entry impresses...for the most part.

A quick overview of the plot: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 17, has come of age and has chosen to leave Hogwarts to go find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes. Accompanying him on this journey are his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Dumbledore is dead and the Ministry has been infiltrated by the Death Eaters. The peril is more pronounced and the danger more immediate than ever before. With the enemy catching up inexplicably fast,, Harry must learn how to destroy the Horcruxes before time runs out. He must also deal with leaving and in some cases, losing loved ones.

There are some moments of brilliance in the film. The opening sequences are the most poignant in the series and in their quiet, unassuming way leave a surprisingly strong impact. The atmosphere of fear, paranoia and constant danger has been created here with unparalleled success as compared to the rest of the series. The moving out of Hogwarts provides an opportunity to embellish the film visually with beautiful scenery and breathtaking vistas; an opportunity David Yates makes full use of. Yates also scores well once again, in adding humour and relief even in some of the darkest moments in the film. There are emotional moments that, though departing from the book are spot on especially the plot devices used to create the tension between Harry, Ron and Hermione. There will be purists who will criticise them but I think they work extremely well in the film. The greatest moment of the film, however, is the revealing of the Deathly Hallows. The tale of the three deathly hallows is exquisitely conjured up on screen and is a testament to the power of cinema as a medium of storytelling. Those few minutes are awe inspiring and remain with you for a long time after.

However, there are a few serious errors here as well. In its over-zealousness to stay true to the source material to satisfy purists, a few sequences from the book do not translate well on the screen at all. This is particularly true in the emotional moments that are, in fact, taken from the book which are more awkward than endearing on screen. Further, there is no artistic justification whatsoever for splitting the last book into two films. Although faithful to the source material, the narrative is slow in the middle the languorous pacing proves that in adapting a book, condensing is not only inevitable, but also imperative. Film is a different medium and it is a wholly different task to hold an audience’s attention span for 150 minutes of film as compared to 500 pages of a book. Honestly, the story could have been condensed into a single longer film much like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and been just as good, if not better. As expected, the end is abrupt and it will be excruciating to wait for 6 months to see the final film.

Although I said that performances are not a basis to judge a Harry Potter film on, I would single out one performance here. Rupert Grint takes giant leaps as an actor and delivers an intelligent and powerful performance. For once, he gets a chance to do more than just humour and he seizes the opportunity to shine. He has had most success in making the transition into an adult actor and the tension between him and Emma Watson is electric in the film.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I has some flaws, the most serious one being the last two words in its title. But as a prelude to the finale, it is a surprisingly satisfactory adaptation with moments of true cinematic brilliance in all the right places. It sets the stage well and gets important little details right which are crucial to Part II although people may not realise immediately. Moreover, it patiently tells a coherent story keeping in mind an audience that would be unfamiliar with the source material, howsoever few. Purists will still find faults in the film. However, as the beginning to the end, as much as I am shocked to admit to this, it not only met my expectations, it surpassed them.

A cautionary final word: Part I howsoever good is only one half of an entire film. Its greatness or mediocrity will only truly be determined by the quality of Part II. But looking at Part I, hopefully, we may have a Return of the King in our hands and not a Matrix Revolutions. However, until we know for sure, it's best to remember that this is an incomplete film and expect accordingly. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Unstoppable (2010): An Intense Ride!

I often think that it is a serious risk, if not outright mistake to mention in the beginning of an action/thriller that it has been inspired by or is based on true events. That’s because it dooms the film to at least a certain level of predictability, which can be the death knell for an average action thriller. You know the film will turn out in a certain way, in most cases, a happy ending (otherwise you would have heard about it, like say, 9/11) thereby making the task of creating reel tension a difficult, if not near impossible job. Few true stories translate well into thrillers: the one that comes to mind immediately is Greengrass’ United 93. Therefore, when Unstoppable came with the tag “inspired by real events”, I was skeptical. However, Tony Scott overcomes obstacles to give us a heart stopping thriller and arguably the best mainstream action film of the year.

The premise is simple: due to a mix of human error and sheer bad luck, there is an unmanned half mile long train carrying some seriously hazardous material heading at the speed of 70 mph towards a city with 750,000 people. I did not understand much of the details and honestly, I doubt that anyone would care. Two rail employees, a veteran driver (Denzel Washington) and a rookie conductor (Chris Pine) are driving a train on the same track from the opposite direction and come up with an ambitious, risky plan to stop the train before it reaches its horrific conclusion. Also involved in the plot is a station master/train dispatcher (Rosario Dawson), who is trying to help the situation and the company’s vice president (Kevin Gunn), who is in denial about the options available.

Now, Unstoppable works because the writer and director get a few crucial things right. First, and foremost, they wisely sidestep gooey sentimentality, cornball humour and similar clichés and thereby give us lead characters that look heroic without unnecessary overkill. Second, the tension is built steadily in the first half to give way to a seriously intense second half instead of a chaotic “all hell breaks loose” approach, something filmmakers like Scott and Michael Bay are very much guilty of in the past. Scott packs a real punch by keeping the premise simple and relying on a docudrama style, a feverish pace, a serious tone and some sharp editing. Third, the action, though relentless is real with minimal use of CGI. This gives a sense of believability, a feature so rare in big budget action films these days that it is worth appreciating for its own sake.

Also, for me, the film works particularly because of its choice of a villain. Here, the villain is not a human, a superhuman or even an alien. It is a train; a lifeless, mechanical and ordinarily harmless vehicle converted into a demonic, out of control missile with nothing but the promise of horrific destruction. It makes no mistake, breaks no rules, and misses no steps. It has its basis in human error, but that is irrelevant. It is its cold, clinical precision that gets under our skin. That is why films like Speed worked so well. Its appeal lies in its conversion of a harmless bus into a speeding bomb with a simple rule: fall below 55 mph and you’re dead. Honestly, how many people remember, or care about what happens after people get off the bus? The rush lies in that ride. And that is precisely what Unstoppable delivers: a massive adrenaline rush.

Last, but not least, simple but effective principal performances help keep the viewer’s interest alive throughout. Denzel Washington does nothing here that he hasn’t done before. But he does it so well that the familiarity is more endearing than annoying. Post Star Trek, Chris Pine is shaping up into a fine action star and his work here only helps him along that path. After a few initial missteps (namely Princes Diaries 2 and Just My Luck), he finally looks capable of becoming an A list Hollywood actor. Rosario Dawson does a fine job as a headstrong woman in a man’s world and gets away with some of the best lines in the film.

At the end of the day, there is nothing in Unstoppable that you haven’t seen before. It is as conventional as they come. The only difference is that you rarely get to see it done this well. As far as edge-of-the-seat action entertainers go, this is arguably your best bet this year.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Due Date (2010): No Hangover Here

One year, some months and 245 films earlier, I experienced the phenomenon that was The Hangover. The definitive guy movie, the film pushed boundaries and made us laugh harder than almost ever before and most certainly ever after. The film became one of the highest grossing R-rated films of all time and was even awarded a Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical.

Now we have Due Date, the latest offering of director Todd Phillips. It marks the return of Zach Galifianakis and Todd Phillips, a match made at the Elvis Chapel with blessing of all the cinematic saints and gambling sinners. Added to this already exciting duo is Robert Downey Jr., one of the greatest (and most under-appreciated) actor of his generation. Even before the film hit the screens, everyone involved knew that they had a winner on their hands. I was very excited by the prospects and when I finally saw it, I must say I was a quite underwhelmed.

Don’t get me wrong. Due Date is a laugh out loud funny, in parts. Seen as a whole, however, it is an uneven film with moments of raunchy humour, warm character building and just weird, inexplicable antics meshed together to make a feature length film. The pedigree of this film makes you expect a lot more than that. It tries to mix gooey sentimentality with disgusting (and admittedly, sporadically funny) raunchy behaviour but is never able to find its centre of gravity. Many critics have called it a shameless copy of John Hughes’ Plains, Trains and Automobiles. Now I haven’t actually seen the film. However, even on its own, it is easy to see the flaws in Due Date.

The plot is simple. Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr) must travel from Atlanta to Los Angeles to his wife who is about to have his first child. However, a chance encounter with the strange Ethan Trembley (Zach Gilifianakis) and a series of misunderstandings lead to his removal from the plane and he is forced to take a cross country road trip with his new “friend”. On the way, they will get beaten up, ripped off, doped up, shot at and even arrested among various other things.

Now, the premise is funny but the film as a whole is not. Basically, the writing here is weak, confused and leaves behind a disjointed screenplay for the cast to work with. Ethan Trembley is one of the most unlikable characters I have seen in a long time. His characterisation is not only problematic but also inexplicable of sorts. The reason for this is that the film seems to fit its characters around the jokes it creates rather than the other way round. Which is why, when Ethan laughs out loud at Peter’s story about his father, it makes no sense whatsoever, even given Ethan’s strange little mind. Also, there is meanness to the humour in the film which looks completely out of sync with the sentimental portions of the film. And just when you think things couldn’t get worse, the last half hour of the film is just plain annoying. This is because the writers throw logic to the winds and the situations make no sense whatsoever. It makes you wonder what they were smoking when they wrote that garbage. 

There are two things worth mentioning here though. The camerawork is gorgeous capturing the beauty of the southern states in the US with their stark landscapes and unbelievable sunsets exceedingly well. The Grand Canyon sequence is particularly breathtaking for its camerawork. Also, the soundtrack is excellent as is usual for Todd Phillips’ films. The only problem is, this is a comedy and when the humour is sporadic, audiences are hardly going to care about the sights and sounds that the film has to offer.

The two man cast really tries hard to make the film work and it does succeed to some extent. Both Downey and Gilifianakis are, in essence playing themselves, or rather their Hollywood stereotypes. Downey is the suave, good hearted but mean-spirited guy with some Tony Stark left overs. Gilifianakis is playing what is essentially a bad retread of Alan from The Hangover. He is being stereotyped and that is never a good thing. The two of them do put in an effort and are perhaps the only reason the film is worth seeing. Jamie Foxx's cameo appearance is a complete and utter waste of screen time.

In the end, Due Date is not a terrible film. But it is not a particularly good one either. It suffers from weak characterisation and bad writing. It is also uneven and is better seen as a series of short comic sketches rather than one whole film. However, the funny bits are mostly hands down hilarious. If that is enough for you, give this one a try. But be warned, there is no Hangover here. And for just this once, it is a bad thing.

P.S.: My suggestion? Wait for the DVD.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010): Game On!

Now this is one movie I was looking forward to with some anticipation. And I had to wait a long time before I could get to watch it. With expectations like these, movies usually disappoint. However, Scott Pilgrim is a hyperkinetic, stylistically exuberant film with copious doses of mirth and humour. Armed with a fantastic soundtrack, a clear vision and some winning performances, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a highly satisfying film.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is an indie rock loving, 22 year old guy who spends time jamming with his band and dating a Chinese girl, Knives (Ellen Wong) who is still in high school. He lives with his gay roommate Wallace (Kern Culkin) and is constantly lectured by his overbearing younger sister (Anna Kendrick). The story really begins, however, when Scott meets Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams (quite literally). They start dating and he is quite soon in love with her. However, things take a sinister turn when he learns that, in order to date Ramona, he must defeat her seven evil exes, from her first boyfriend to her most recent one before Scott. Battle face ready? Game on!

Scott Pilgrim is a visually dazzling treat. The screen is immersed is bright and shiny fluorescent colours during every battle scene and the videogame format suits the film really well. Plus, the intercutting between several scenes throughout lend a lightning pace to the film which means the 120 minutes fly by fairly quickly. It pays homage to the videogames that we grew up on, from Mario Bros to Street Fighter and more. I promise you, you haven’t seen a film like this before. And that is Scott Pilgrim’s greatest strength. Visually, it is revolutionary.

At the same time, Edgar Wright knows how to tell a clean, straight story. The characters are nicely established in the first 20 minutes leaving Ramona suitably enigmatic. The script could have been better and yet, the dialogues are sharp and the wit cackles in places. There is a certain resonance in the awkward sweet romance between Scott and Ramona that I think the Juno generation will instantly identify with and lap up to. The only flaw: the final half hour drags on a fair bit. However, by then I was so immersed in the proceedings that I was more than willing to forgive such misgivings.

Coming to the performances, Michael Cera is the king of the dorky generation, by which, I basically mean he plays the same dorky roles over and over. However, in Scott Pilgrim, you see an improvement in his style and range of emotions. The battle sequences are fairly physical and Cera does a convincing job as Pilgrim. The entire remaining cast is perfect, irrespective of their screen time. Special mention though must be given to Kieran Culkin who is brilliant as the sarcastic roommate and manages to steal the thunder from everyone, including Cera in all his scenes. I like how the focus is on him as a roommate, a friend, even a gossiping bitch but not so much on his sexual orientation, which is treated very naturally. He is an actor who deserves a bigger role.

At the end of the day, Scott Pilgrim is a good marriage of style and substance. It is fast, funny and thoroughly entertaining. At the same time, it is bursting with an innocence and charm that has been all but lost in the teen genre in recent years. It is every gamer and geek’s dream come true; well, on celluloid at least. Indulge yourself in this one.

P.S.: November is shaping up to be a most interesting month. Instead of an average of 4 posts in a month, I seem to be writing 4 a week. Let's see if I can beat my own record of 8 posts this month. :)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Action Replayy (2010): Retro Revisionist Entertainment

I have said before, judging a film has a lot to do with expectations. To this writer, the names Akshay Kumar and Vipul Shah have lost a lot of credibility in recent years. Once the source of highly entertaining films, both artists have fallen prey to mediocrity in recent years. Therefore, for all its bright colours and glitzy style, I expected little from Action Replayy. And I must say, I was very pleasantly surprised.

The film cites a Gujarati play by the same name as its inspiration. However, it also draws a lot of inspiration from the classic Back to the Future. This film is also about a guy who goes back in time to unite his parents. Thankfully, it limits itself to inspiration and does not stretch to imitation. The subplots, the situations and the plot devices are entirely different. The film chooses to downplay the time travel aspects and concentrates on humour, romance and emotions, 70s ishtyle. The result is an entertaining film and a festive treat for the entire family.

The story: Kishen (Akshay Kumar) is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Mala (Aishwarya Rai) for 25 years. Their son Bunty (Aditya Roy Kapur) does not believe in marriage and refuses to commit to his girlfriend Tanya. When he meets Tanya’s eccentric scientist grandfather (Randhir Kapoor), he uses the time machine invented by grandfather to go back to March 1975 to repair his parents’ non-existent romance. There, he finds that the task may be more difficult than he realised as he faces warring parents (Om Puri and Kirron Kher), competition for his mother’s affections (Ranvijay) and a loser father.

Now, there is nothing really original about the film. It is as conventional as it gets. What makes the film worthwhile is that it tells its tale with great confidence, good humour and enough heart to make you care for these characters. Sure, there are holes in the plot from Bunty’s inexplicably modern attire in the 1970s to time travel paradoxes. Also, the music is relatively lacklustre; the film drags in the pre-climax portions. and is too convenient in places. However, it is bursting with such warmth, colour and copious amounts of pulsating energy that I found it relatively easy to overlook these. The emotional moments pack a punch and the humour is dished out in regular doses. It is definitely a return to form for Vipul Shah, the storyteller who gives us his best work since Namastey London.

On the look of the film, for anyone who has seen the trailer, it is foolish to expect accuracy in the depiction of the 70s in the film. The film is an interesting example of revisionism, looking at the past in modern terms, drawing inspiration from sources that today’s audiences use to understand the 70s i.e. the films of the era. It uses modern retro clothing, styling and draws from Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra rather than Gulzar and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. It isn’t realistic, and for its subject material, that is a good thing. To expect otherwise, is much like expecting factual accuracy from Inglourious Basterds. It’s possible but it would be a whole lot less entertaining.

In terms of technicals, special mention is in order for the art direction of Nitin Chandrakant Desai which is perfect. The costumes and styling are an interesting mix of retro and how we see retro. The background score by Salim Sulaiman is impeccable in adding to the impact at several points. Lastly, also worth mentioning is the camerawork which captures the vibrant colours and the scenic beauty with equal aplomb. It is a visual fiesta and each frame looks gorgeous.

In terms of acting, the film achieves two remarkable feats. First, it transforms Aishwarya Rai from ice queen to someone alive, energetic, graceful and lovable. She looks ethereal in every frame, in a way she has never looked before. At the same time, she is bubbly and vivacious, two things I thought she was incapable of. She manages to bring a theatricality that fits her character perfectly. After nearly a decade of sub-standard work, she finally gives a performance that is endearing and thoroughly enjoyable.

Second, just when I thought it was impossible, the film makes Akshay Kumar funny again. He undergoes a physical transformation to look as unattractive as possible. And yet, there is a sincerity and earnestness to his character that makes him instantly likable. He manages to make us laugh, cheer and quite firmly root for him. Aditya Roy Kapur is confident and leaves an impact as the son. Ranvijay and Rajpal Yadav are good. Randhir Kapoor and Neha Dhupia are left with half-baked characters.

Finally, Action Replayy is not, in any way, path breaking cinema. It is not even particularly intelligent. But it is a highly energetic, colourful and fun film with enough heart and humour to make you overlook its flaws and play along. This is not a film for retro purists or pseudo intellectuals. It comes as no surprise therefore, that Rajiv Masand and Mayank Shekhar disliked the film with some intensity. However, for those seeking escapism, this is satisfaction guaranteed.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Megamind (2010): Minor Entertainment

Megamind is a good film. That is its basic problem. It’s just good. Animation today has set itself to too high a standard to just settle for good. At a time when mainstream cinema has, by and large, run out of ideas, animated cinema is getting more daring and original every passing year. While mainstream cinema regards its audience as having cheese for brains, animation studios respect their audience and expect them to engage with the films and their ideas intellectually. Even if we exclude Pixar for its unparalleled awesomeness, Dreamworks Animation itself has churned out some fantastically entertaining films like Shrek, Chicken Run, Kung Fu Panda, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit and most recently, How to Train Your Dragon. The problem with Megamind is that it is ordinary. It doesn’t have the inventiveness of Shrek, the humour of Kung Fu Panda or the heart and exuberance of How To Train Your Dragon. It has a bit of everything put together into an uneven film with a few highs and lows in an otherwise whole lot of middle. Nevertheless, some good laughs, smart twists and a borderline great climax save it from being a total waste.

The story is familiar terrain: Megamind (Will Ferrell) enjoys being evil and finds his nemesis in Metroman (Brad Pitt). Since birth, the fates of these two have been intertwined and they have battled several times with Megamind always on the losing side. However, in an unexpected turn of events, Megamind finally defeats Metroman and becomes the ruler of Metro City. He also creates an alter ego that starts dating Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), a TV journalist who also has to deal with the advances of her bumbling, creepy cameraman (Jonah Hill). However, he realises that a villain has no purpose without a hero. To amend the situation, he decides to do something unthinkable with disastrous consequences.

Considering the talent involved, Megamind could have been sharper, funnier and just, plain and simple, better. Even Will Farrell lacks his usual infectious energy, perhaps because of the lack of his usual poop jokes. Tina Fey tries really hard to make the one-liners work but succeeds only in part. The real culprits here are the story which is painfully routine for the most part and a script that is flat and falls prey to clichés. The film lacks the heart that made How To Train Your Dragon so endearing. It also feels like a recycling of the Dreamworks formula of telling the story of the likable but ugly, misunderstood hero/villain. It's true: look at the Shrek series, Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon. It's always broadly the same story and themes being recycled over and over. That by itself would not be a fault except that Megamind has none of the other qualities that made some of those films great, at least not in the same measure.

Having said that, the film is not without its share of bright moments. The Superman references, in particular, are absolutely spot on and evoke much laughter and nostalgia throughout. The soundtrack puts some very popular tracks to good use. The pre-climax twists help retain the viewer’s otherwise dwindling interest in the film and a surprisingly well executed climax saves the film from oblivion. IMDB tells me Guillermo Del Toro was called in to edit the film to make it more exciting. I have a strong suspicion that the final half hour was all his doing.

At the end of the day, Megamind is not really a bad film. In general movie sense, it is good one. It will keep the kids entertained for sure and should elicit at least a few chuckles from the adults as well. However, in the animation universe, where the bar is being pushed higher with every passing year, Megamind is too run of the mill, too mediocre to be remembered for long after you leave the theatres. And that’s just not worth paying the premium for a 3D experience.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love (2010): Twilight for the 30+ Woman

Eat, Pray, Love is a most vexing film. It has some wonderfully talented people doing good work in telling a story unworthy of their effort. I can imagine women calling me sexist and other similar (mostly worse) names in different volumes by, if not before, the end of this review. Yes, I am a man. But that is not why I dislike this film. Eat, Pray, Love has breath-taking visuals, very impressive acting and some solid direction. In terms of craft, its only sin is its excessive length, which would be easily forgivable but for its protagonist. I have not read the book or ever met Liz Gilbert. However, if she is anything like the character in the film, I will do everything within my power to ensure it stays that way. Despite all the merits of the film, it is positively agonising to spend 134 minutes with a character who is so selfish, conceited, privileged, elitist and self-absorbed that all you want to do is strangle her. The story is so problematic in terms of characters and themes, it can be likened to Twilight, but for women over 30.

Eat, Pray, Love is the story of Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts). One minute she is a successful New York writer considering motherhood and the next minute, she is convinced she’s in an unhappy marriage, gets a divorce from a loving but indecisive husband (Billy Crudup), has a fling with the yoga doing stage actor (James Franco) and then dumps him to spend a year in Italy, India and Bali. In Italy, she discovers the joy of food, friendship and the need to enjoy the good things. In India, she learns to forgive herself. Finally, in Bali, she learns to fall in love again, both with herself and another.

This would be a good story, maybe even a great one. But when you look at Elizabeth Gilbert (the character, not the person), it is hard to feel anything for her. You don’t feel sorry for her when she gets a divorce. And you certainly don’t feel happy for her in the end either. Why? Because there is no change; no transformation. Unlike Julie and Julia, where cooking saved two women and helped them find meaning in their life, travel does nothing like that for Miss Gilbert. She is the same self-absorbed person she was, it’s just that she has conveniently learned to forgive herself for it. She forgives herself for walking out on the people who made the mistake of loving her; for only thinking about herself. She accepts herself for who she is and moves on.

My problem with such a "way of life" is this: Sure, we are all flawed people. However, what makes us human is that we make an effort to overcome these flaws. In the meantime, it is important to love yourself, without a doubt. But in Gilbert’s story, you find loving yourself as an excuse, a justification you give yourself for who you are and remaining that way. It’s just something that’ll allow you to sleep at night. And the worst part is, the story shamelessly uses some hokey version of Eastern philosophy to add to her “revelations” an artificial sense of profundity. How exactly does this philosophy help her reach such conclusions is never clearly explained. It’s shallow and superfluous and consequently, so is the film. And what a travesty that is!

That’s because visually, this film is dazzling. It showcases all the three places beautifully on camera. Murphy works with his editor to create the right atmosphere in each of the countries. He shows great sensitivity and taste in those moments. Together, they allow you to almost actually experience the elegance of Italy, the culture of India and the serenity of Bali. Murphy also knows how to tell a story and creates several poignant moments in the film to convey the themes and emotions. It’s just the wrong story to tell.

Coming to the acting, Julia Roberts was my first crush as a teenager. I fell head over heels in love with her in films like Notting Hill, Pretty Woman, Stepmom and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Here, she is as always, otherworldly, with her beaming smile and her boundless charm. She plays her role well; but it’s the role that’s the problem. The men in this film are treated as little more than trifling eye-candy with no little or no development. Considering the talent involved (all three men have some fantastic films in their resume), that is a disappointment. The only man with a real character is Richard Jenkins who plays a Texan in India struggling to forgive himself for his past. He gives a memorable performance in the film.

Ultimately, Eat, Pray, Love is a problematic film. It is not a romance, unless you consider a relationship with yourself romantic. It is not a comedy because there are some serious, weighty themes there. As a travel film, it is one of the most pointless travelogues of all time, howsoever elegant. It has a loathsome protagonist, one who is oblivious to the people she hurts on her quest for meaning. I would much rather have seen a film about Sofie (Tuva Novotny), Gilbert's best friend in Rome. Don’t get me wrong. It will certainly have its legions of female supporters. I can imagine lots of smiles with glistening tears, tissue papers and everything. But beyond that, I think that the film is doing little more than encouraging women to be like the stereotypical man: selfish, conceited, and insensitive. As a feminist, I find that insulting and dangerous in its counter-productivity. In an age when men are being criticised for these things, this film advocates that women should be the exact same way. That’s just sad. Because woman, you are better than that!