Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mini-Reviews: Quick Reading

The Ugly Truth: Never has a romantic comedy been so self aware of its chauvinistic & misogynistic perspective of the sexes and yet been so unabashed about it. A horrible script with some occasional hilarious moments never allow the film to come together as an enjoyable whole. However, there is one thing that is right here: Katherine Heigl. The woman is, by far, the funniest lead actress of the current generation. I just wish she got better roles though.
How to Train Your Dragon?: Not since Shrek have I seen an animated adventure with such a beautiful combination of fun and spirit. The story of a Viking trying to train a dragon instead of killing one like the rest of his clan is a tad Avatar-esque I admit. However, the film is far more entertaining for the entire family while managing to maintain surprising dramatic depth like The Lion King. Jay Baruchel as Hiccup sounds like a young Tom Hanks and Gerard Butler is superb as the Viking chief. The animation is dazzling and this is the best use of 3D technology I have seen so far on screen. Heavily recommended.


Did You Hear About The Morgans?: You know a self proclaimed romantic comedy is in trouble when in 98 minutes of film, you only laugh once. Despite a promising premise with a terrific cast, Marc Lawrence really hits the pits in terms of both, the script and the direction. Another movie after Bruno that made me want to get my lost time back.

Duplicity: Another terrible waste of a terrific premise. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts have the most sizzling chemistry on screen in a long time and are perfectly cast as corporate spies out to con their respective bosses. However, instead of being speedy, saucy and suave like an Ocean's Eleven, it is dull and clunky and rarely ever funny. Wilkinson and Giammati are also never allowed to realise their full potential. Sad indeed.

 The Devil's Advocate: An absolute delight of a film featuring a rare, fresh and terrific performance from Al Pacino, The Devil's Advocate is part John Grisham and part Exorcist with a powerful morality play thrown in. The direction is excellent in certain sequences and although the movie never really comes together as a seamless whole, there is enough meat in each part to gratify the viewer. The last third is exceptionally well written with a lot of thought having gone into it. The trick ending is unnecessary and, by that time, irrelevant as well. A thoroughly disturbing film that may leave you pondering for a long time after it is over, it is still well worth the 132 minutes long run time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bruno

Just saw Bruno. It's about as entertaining as watching someone take a crap (and just as disgusting). Borat was still funny. Stereotypical and bloated, Bruno is rude, offensive and yet shockingly unfunny.  I want 79 minutes of my life back. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Sasha Baron Cohen. Die.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Hurt Locker: A Unique War Movie

What can I say about The Hurt Locker that hasn’t already been said? I could tell you about my theory about how Katheryn Bigelow is actually secretly a man named Keith Bigelow who is macho and everything but masquerades as a woman to grab special attention with his films. I mean how else could one explain a woman defying gender stereotypes and making films which lack that typical gendered touch. See Stop Loss by Kimberly Pierce (director of Boys Don’t Cry) and you will know what I mean. She has taken on futuristic science fiction (Strange Days), gone into the depths of the ocean in a Russian nuclear submarine (K19: The Widowmaker) and even broken into the exclusively white male club of Academy award winning directors. I'm telling you, that's not a woman. But I’m not going to go into the details of that.

Or I could tell you about the excellent script by Mark Boal that takes on a few stray incidents involving a bomb squad (Jeremy Renner, Brain Geraghty and Anthony Mackie) during a 38 day rotation and weaves them into a narrative, so powerful and disturbing, that will leave you pondering about the film for a long time after it’s over. I could talk about the superb direction of Katheryn Bigelow, her cunning use of cameos and her amazing ability to build tension in scenes so effectively that it is almost excruciating to sit through them and yet, impossible to actually leave. I could also tell you about the flawless technical details: the sound work, the art direction and the documentary style cinematography. Or I could even tell you about Jeremy Renner superb restrained performance that anchors the film or Brain Geraghty’s excellent act as the manic, distressed third man in the squad who is struggling with the psychological scars of war. But then, all that has already been said, hasn’t it?

Instead, what I want to tell you is that I think that The Hurt Locker is not just a great war movie but it is also a unique one. If you look at war movies (particularly, American war movies), you can easily classify them into two categories: pro-war and anti-war. The great pro-war movies include The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape etc. The anti-war classics include Platoon, No Man’s Land, The Deer Hunter, The Thin Red Line and others. It is interesting to note that most great pro-war movies are about World War II and the anti-war ones are about Vietnam and other similar conflicts. This sort of appears to stem from the whole justified and unjustified war dichotomy. In that sense, the Iraq War has been the most unjustified war the world has seen since Vietnam. And this is where The Hurt Locker, which is undoubtedly the Platoon of Iraq War, defies the above classification.

Unlike the abovementioned movies, instead of being pro or anti war, The Hurt Locker seems to revel in its moral ambiguity. I’m not saying that it is a neutral film, most certainly not. However, it is clearly not a message film. There are no heroes here. Interestingly though, unlike Platoon, there are no villains like Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) here either. It chooses to display a viewpoint that makes you think and interpret. It’s easy to see the movie as anti-war when you see the opening line (“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”) or the psychological effects of war on all the principal characters especially Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). However, the movie also looks at the addiction that is war without making any moral aspersions about the addicts. It doesn’t look upon them as deranged savages or mentally fucked up. It humanises them showing their insecurities, weaknesses and passions. That they consciously choose war doesn’t automatically make them inhuman. In that context, it is interesting to see the contrasting tones in the characters: William James has a cowboy-esque cocky demeanour when he is dealing with bombs. However, he also is capable of treating Iraqis like Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) as humans; something both, the more rational Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge seem incapable of. 

This is where the triumph of the film truly lies. It takes us through the moral greys of war and its participants in a way that few, if any war movies have. Sure, it shows us the horrors of war. Each character manifests these horrors in different ways. However, the film doesn't use that to drive home a message in black and white terms. It realises that there can be no such universal message and instead of conjuring one, it leaves us to struggle with that idea. That is the great thing about it. It never loses sight of what it has to say. Even in the third act, where things seem to get a little too far fetched, Bigelow has the sense to exercise sufficient restraint to prevent the film from getting derailed. The final chapter and epilogue to the film are audacious and yet, so well structured and thought out, that they catapult the movie to a level of greatness that few war movies have ever achieved.

At the end of the day, that is what you take away from The Hurt Locker. The film portrays the excruciating and alternately, exhilarating lives of the bomb squad with superb precision and detail. It succeeds for the most part in showing these bits as they are. And then it calls upon the viewer to make an assessment. I’m fairly certain that the makers of the film may have their own differing views on the moral aspects of the subject. It can be seen as an anti war film and in some ways, even a propaganda film. That a war movie allows for so much interpretation makes The Hurt Locker a unique war film; certainly the best to come out of last year and arguably, maybe even the best war film ever made. And I'm telling you: that woman is a man!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Under Scrutiny: Yash Chopra

Yash Chopra is often known as the King of Romance; the man who single-handedly sold Switzerland to desis and Hindi movies to videsis. But one often forgets that there is a lot more to Yash Chopra’s repertoire than just great romances. In a career spanning 5 decades, he has dabbled successfully with family sagas, dramas, action films and even thrillers. He has experimented and taken chances with his movies. While some have been successful, others not so much. However, his repertoire firmly places him amongst the finest filmmakers of this country.

Yash Chopra’s career took off in a big way with his third feature, the highly successful Waqt. While this film was a very typical masala movie with dollops of action, drama and emotions, there were certain aspects of his style that were visible even then which would later form an integral part of his films. First, the music was excellent and that has been true of just about every movie of Yash Chopra. Songs like Ae Meri Zohra Jabi and Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu are immensely popular even today. Second, his movies almost always carried a distinct elegance, style and opulence and Waqt was no exception. He always seemed most comfortable in depicting the upper middle class and elite (often Punjabi) sections of the society and that has been common to nearly all his films. Also, right from his early films, like this one, he seemed to be remarkably comfortable with big, all star casts. He had the knack to extract wonderful performances from all of them and give adequate screen time to all.

Coming to the tag of the King of Romance, it is interesting to note that, of the 21 movies that Yash Chopra has directed, only 7 films could be regarded as romances. The rest of his films were mostly dramas and action films. He even experimented with a sharp, song-less thriller with Rajesh Khanna called Ittefaq in the 1960s where he was still finding his distinct voice. In fact, some of his best movies were dramas. Some were inspired by real life events like Kaala Patthar which was based on a Chasnala mining disaster. Deewaar where he took inspiration from the tale of the smuggler Haji Mastan featured Amitabh Bachchan’s most iconic performance as the angry young man. It had superb lines, unforgettable scenes and was overall, a great masala movie. However, my personal favourite drama by Yash Chopra was Trishul. The illegitimate son’s quest for destroying his father construction empire for avenging his mother’s abandonment is perhaps the greatest modern family saga ever to be portrayed on the Hindi screen. All the typical ingredients of a Yash Chopra movie mentioned above, the music, the opulence and style, were very much present here. The execution of the story was epical and the performances from the four principle actors (Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar and Rakhee) were uniformly superb making the film a classic. Hell, he even came up with an entertaining but lesser remake of the film in Vijay.

Nevertheless, he is called the King of Romance for a reason. I think only two directors in Hindi cinema really understood romance and translated that understanding successfully into their films. Both of them had very different ways of seeing love. However, romance as a genre would be little more than running around trees without them. The first is, of course, the master director Guru Dutt who explored the melancholic yet passionate side of love through movies like Pyaasa, Saahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam and Kaagaz Ke Phool. His real life was his inspiration. The other is Yash Chopra. He depicted a different side of love: the happiness, the exuberance and a different kind of passion. His cinema was more light hearted, more mainstream and yet, more deep and resonant than the conventional. I believe what distinguished him from the rest was that he never played to the galleries the way others did (like Raj Kapoor in his later films). He explored serious themes such as infidelity (Silsila), age differences (Lamhe), unfulfilled love (Kabhi Kabhie) with a certain zest. Of course, he usually opted for a traditional happy ending and consequently, these themes were always explored with a light hand. However, that is not to say that he always played it safe with his films. Movies like Silsila, Lamhe and Darr are testimony to his ability to take risks as a storyteller.

While Guru Dutt most often focussed on the male protagonist of the story, Yash Chopra’s movies, more often than not, have been about the women in the story. His movies consisted of strong female protagonists like Sridevi’s characters in Chandni and Lamhe, Rekha’s and Jaya Bahaduri’s characters in Silsila and Rakhee’s character in Kabhi Kabhie. Of course, his female characters were traditionalists to a fault and would perhaps invoke the ire of many a feminists. However, within that boundary, there were modern, bold and a lot more than mere stick figures running around trees. For the time in which these films were made, they had plenty of gumption, sensuousness, poise and charm.

Another aspect of Yash Chopra’s romances was the interesting stories that he brought to the screen. Kabhi Kabhie took several love stories over two generations between three families and provided us with an unforgettable film about the agelessness of romance. Silsila, allegedly based on the real life affair of the on-screen couple Amitabh and Rekha, quite successfully explored the theme of infidelity and successfully maneuvered through the grey areas instead of ignoring them altogether. Darr looked at the obsessive nature of love and gave us a haunting performance from Shah Rukh Khan. Veer Zaara gave us a romance about star crossed lovers spanning three decades set in the backdrop of the conflict between India and Pakistan. Lamhe told two stories: one of unrequited love and the other of an inter-generational romance. The film met outright rejection at the time of its release due to its incestuous undertones but it remains Yash Chopra’s boldest and most mature work to date.

The dialogues were terrific and scenes unforgettable. The sequence where Vijay (Shashi Kapoor) confronts Amit (Amitabh) and Pooja (Rakhee) about their incomplete romance in Kabhi Kabhie is really well written. Ditto for the scene in Lamhe where Prem (Anupam Kher) tries to knock sense into Viren (Anil Kapoor) about his love for Pooja (Sridevi), the daughter of his deceased first love. In the hands of any other director, these scenes could have easily been messed up. But thankfully, Yash Chopra and his writers brought the required maturity to the scenes making them poignant and beautiful. Poetry is integral to his characters in Silsila, Kabhi Kabhie and Veer Zaara. Shah Rukh Khan’s four words, “I love you, K-k-k-kiran,” are like the “Luke, I’m your father” of Hindi cinema. It is for these reasons that these 7 films manage to overshadow all of the remaining work of Yash Chopra.

When one looks through his work, it is interesting to note some creative collaborations that were critical to the kind of movies he made. His collaboration with Salim-Javed resulted in superb masala movies like Deewaar, Trishul and Kaala Patthar. Javed Akhtar even made his debut as a lyricist with the controversial Silsila. With writer Sagar Sarhadi, he made Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila and Chandni and with Honey Irani, he made his best romance Lamhe, the chilling Darr and the absolutely forgettable Parampara.

However, without a doubt, his most significant collaboration was with two people: Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, two of the great maestros of Hindustani Classical music, better known as Shiv-Hari. Their collaboration over six films (Silsila, Vijay, Chandni, Lamhe, Parampara and Darr) led to the creation of the music that became synonymous with Yash Chopra. The symphonic sounds of the many violins, the use of the santoor and saxophone in equal measure gave their music a distinct sound. Together, the trio set new standards for music in the 80s and the 90s. Lata Mangeshkar sang her best songs of the time in these movies. Shot in places like Switzerland and Holland (a rarity in those days), their music was integral to the film and is remembered and savoured by many even today. This same music style was emulated by Uttam Singh in Dil To Pagal Hai with remarkable success.

At the end of the day, it is easy, even cool to be dismissive of Yash Chopra’s works as mere candy-floss romance. However, his romance has more meaning, class, style and elegance than most directors can ever lay claim to. His movies have content and depth, another rarity in mainstream cinema. They bring memorable stories to the screen and feature unforgettable characters and performances. His movies are like poetry on celluloid. He has inspired an entire generation of filmmakers not only through his romances but through his dramas. Trishul and Deewaar are just as important to his repertoire as Lamhe and Kabhi Kabhie. Surely, his earlier works were better than his more recent ones. But that does not take away from the fact that he is one of the finest directors of Hindi cinema, in any genre. He is one of those few directors who makes one film in 3-4 years which is remembered for decades after its over and gone. It has been 6 years since his last work. Dear Mr. Chopra, let’s have another one soon, please?