Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)

The original Karate Kid is an endearing classic whose appeal remains very much intact till today. The themes of coming of age, standing up against bullying and teacher-student relationship resonate just as strongly today. Therefore, when Harold Zwart whose repertoire includes mediocre work like Agent Cody Banks and disasters like The Pink Panther 2 was placed at the helm of the remake, I had my concerns. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot and here is what I thought:

The Karate Kid (2010) stars Will Smith’s son Jaden Smith as a 12 year old Dre who relocates from the familiar Detroit suburb to Beijing. On the very first day, he gets into a fight with Cheng, a local kung fu champion and a bully. Constantly bullied and often beaten up, Dre finds a teacher in the building handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) and together they train to participate in the Open Kung Fu Tournament where Dre must face his fears and take on Cheng.

The remake compromises on the simplicity and heart of the original in favour of a typically slick Hollywood production. The production values are considerably grander; the action more stylised and choreographed. Karate is replaced by kung fu. The participants are depicted as 12 year olds which makes the violence a tad too disturbing to stomach in places.

However, when seen as a stand alone film, it is certainly not without its merits. The story is solid and the screenplay is deliberately steady paced to allow the characters to grow. There are scenes which are extremely well written and characters which are endearing in their own right; on their own terms. The film does have plenty of heart and while the tone of the film is entirely distinct from the film, it does retain plenty of the charm. The relocation of the tale to Beijing allows the cinematographer ample scope to provide arresting visuals of city and the countryside. It is interesting to see modern China on the silver screen, which is a rarity in mainstream cinema.

The movie is also embellished with some wonderful performances by the principal actors. It is clearly designed as a star vehicle for Jaden Smith and he does not disappoint. He is a highly expressive actor and matches up to senior actors like Taraji Henson and Jackie Chan every step of the way. He is mischievous, sharp and extremely endearing. He also shines in the action sequences and his perseverance to prepare for the role clearly shows. It is admirable, albeit a little disturbing considering his age. Nevertheless, the movie clearly marks the arrival of a highly talented actor with the potential to be a star given the right roles.

It is also extremely heartening to see Jackie Chan in a real role after many years. Moving away from his usual screwball action comedy, he plays a new age Mr. Miyagi. A less refined, more weary but equally wise and caring teacher, this is a role in which Jackie Chan shines, and how! From his early silent stares to, he catches your attention and when he reveals his vulnerabilities, it is hard to believe that you are seeing the star at work. The movie marks the return of Chan the actor and it is a welcome change.

These principal performances and a screenplay that develops the story carefully and well are the reasons the movie works. In the final tournament you see the bond that has been forged and the growth of Dre from that brat who arrived to the champion that leaves with you as you exit the theatre. There are a few awkward moments where the movie seems to lose focus (like the visit to the monastery).  Nevertheless, the movie comes together well as a whole. Also, ultimately, it clearly doesn’t match up to the original. If you can overlook that, this one is well worth the time.

P.S.: This will mostly be my last review in a while with exams next week followed immediately with internship etc. However, I promise to return ASAP.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Rajneeti (2010): The Great Indian Political Film

The Hindi film industry is notable in its lack of political sagas. Apart from Gulzar’s personal and intimate Aandhi and Sudhir Mishra’s epic Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, few, if any, worthy political stories come to mind. Prakash Jha has accomplished his story telling prowess with powerful films like Mrityudand, Gangajal and Apharan. After a hiatus, he comes up with Rajneeti and gives us, arguably, not only his best film but also the finest contemporary political epic of our times.

The story draws inspiration from three major sources: the Mahabharata, Mario Puzo's The Godfather and the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It weaves these together into a seamless narrative and provides us a heady concoction of substance, story and performances. The basic premise is set on the Mahabharata. There are two brothers running a political party, one is the face of the party (a la Dhritarashtra) and the other is managing it (Pandu). The former has one son, Virendra (Manoj Bajpai, Duryodhan) who desires power above all else. The other has two: the responsible Prithvi (Arjun Rampal, Yudhishthara) and the wise Samar (Ranbir Kapoor as Arjun). Prithvi and Samar are guided by a saarthi in the form of Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar, a very interesting cross between Lord Krishna and Shakuni). Virendra finds an ally in Dalit leader Suraj (Ajay Devgan, Karna). When the face of the party suffers a stroke just before the state elections, it triggers a battle for power and control that leads to political scheming, murder, vengeance and redemption that will change the balance of power and the lives of those involved dramatically.

What appears to be a typical retelling of Mahabharata is changed substantially by Jha who peppers his characters copiously with shades of grey. Instead of a virtuous Yudhishthara and an idealist Arjun, you have the modern avatars of Sonny and Michael Corleone who are honourably bound by blood and brotherly love but yet have a dark streak to them that makes them impossible to like. The movie has no heroes, only heroines in the form of Indu (Katrina Kaif), the daughter of a rich industrialist who becomes a bargaining chip in game of politics and Nikhila Trikha who is the embodiment of Kunti. The rest are just villains who will stop at nothing in their quest for power. It is in the characterisations that Jha succeeds greatly. While the characters of Suraj and Virendra are textbook adaptations of Karna and Duryodhan, they are given the look and the body language to make them instantly recognisable in modern terms as well. And my personal favourite character is that of Brij Gopal, who, in his quiet murmurings and singular lines, pulls the strings for this massive epic to play out. He is modelled on primarily the lines of Lord Krishna. However, there are moments, when the surface cracks, the act breaks down and all you see is a man who, for all his power and influence, is little more than an old, confused and weary man. It is in moments like these that Jha really shines.

The script is tightly bound and despite that run-time of 168 minutes, there is not a single unnecessary scene in the film. The dialogues are a love letter to Hindi, a language that has lost all its poetry and beauty in its own cinema. The language may become a little too theatrical sometimes but still, it is extremely gratifying to see it being used well. Jha takes on a sprawling epic tale and substantially does justice to it. He never loses focus of the primary tale which is the family saga set in a political backdrop although he does go over the top when trying to incorporate the mythological elements. However, these are small and forgivable flaws.  He more than compensates for them with powerful sequences. Even in the most predictable moments of the movie, straight out of its sources, Jha lets the camera linger a few moments longer, lets the scenes breathe and allows the lyricism and elements of karma and destiny sink in thereby leaving an indelible impact. It is these moments (and there are several) that truly make the film.

This family saga is a painful reminder of how universal the themes of the Mahabharata are even today. When it comes to money and power, no price is too high to pay, even if the cost is family. It also celebrates the irony of the Indian democracy: there is hardly anything democratic about Indian politics. It is a family run business just like any other and the public has little to do with it. The film is rife with references to the families like the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty which is, even today, like a royal family in the world’s largest democracy. As Vande Mataram plays in the background in the penultimate reels, this irony is complete. And yet, without giving anything away, the end is idealistic as we see the elections play out. Even so, considering the cost at which this idealism comes, one wonders whether it is worth the price, both, at the personal and societal levels.

The film boasts of the finest ensemble performance in recent times. Each and every actor takes to his/her character like fish to the sea. Nana Patekar is impeccable as Brij Gopal. He epitomises the sharpness and wisdom of an experienced statesman. Arjun Rampal is also stunning as a cross between Yudhishthara and Sonny Corleone. He is a loving brother, a conniving politician and a philandering man capable of frightful violence. It is heartening to see Manoj Bajpai in great form after such a long time. He is repulsive as the greedy and morally bankrupt Virendra. Ajay Devgn makes an extremely worthy Karna. Katrina Kaif is appropriately cast as the bratty, foreign bred but naïve and vulnerable heroine caught in the political crossfire. Ranbir Kapoor does a good job and gets the meatiest role in this enterprise. It is chilling to see him transform from a kind and loving person to a sly and conniving politician who will stop at nothing to see his brother in power. Naseeruddin Shah is also powerful in a small cameo. The legion of supporting actors including Shruti Seth, Darshan Jariwala, Kiran Karmarkar, Nikhila Trikha, Vinay Apte and others give powerful performances leaving a strong impact.

Ultimately, Rajneeti is not an original work. It derives its tale from a number of sources. Nevertheless, it weaves them together into one powerful narrative and becomes the Great Indian Political Saga: one which echoes its past, reflects the present and contemplates its future.

Shutter Island (2010)

Movies that play with the mind are difficult to make. More often than not, directors lack restraint and the movies are little more than nonsensical self indulgent disasters. It is difficult to walk the fine line between providing a coherent story and throwing in sufficient twists, clues, references and tricks in place to spot and interpret. Shutter Island is a departure from Scorsese's  usual works. Although it is not his best film., it is a very worthy entry in his repertoire.

The movie is based on a novel by the same name by Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone). It is certainly one of his more difficult books to film. The plot is thick with twists and turns every few pages. The characters are difficult, complex and keep you wondering what the fuck is going on till the very last page. The conversations are rich yet sometimes ambiguous in their meaning. Sometimes, answers are right in front of you, or at least so you think. But they are so cleverly veiled that it is impossible to spot them. Who is the monster here? Who is the villain? This is what you think for a long time, even after the movie is over.

The plot is as follows: U.S. Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Shutter Island, a rocky island which also houses a hospital for the criminally insane. A patient, Rachel Salondo (Emily Blunt), has gone missing on the island and they are responsible for locating her. On this, they are assisted by the Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) who is running the hospital and his army of officers and doctors. What starts out as an ordinary witch-hunt soon appears to develop into something far more sinister leading the Marshals to question everything, including reality itself.

Martin Scorsese clearly has fun with the source material. He summons all his technical finesse to create an atmosphere where there is a constant sense of danger, even impending doom. The tension is palpable and the visuals, frightfully effective. He teases us with deliberate continuity errors and subtly veiled references while still managing to provide us with a discernable and clear storyline. The twists are well placed and the tight script by Laeta Kalogridis includes some beautifully written scenes that are haunting and faithful to the spirit of the book. The movie keeps you engrossed throughout and the culmination, in its quiet, unassuming way, hits you like a ton of bricks.

The performances are uniformly excellent. It is heartening to see just how much Leonardo Dicaprio has grown as an actor from a child actor in This Boy’s Life, to chocolate boy in Titanic and now this. Under the tutelage of Scorsese, he has pushed himself consistently and evolved into one of the finest actors of his generation. Here again, he gives us an unforgettable performance as the Marshal as a man of violence haunted by his dark and violent past. Ruffalo and Kingsley do a fine job in supporting roles. Max Von Syndow leaves a strong impact in the small but important role of Dr. Naehring. Ditto for Jackie Earl Haley.

Shutter Island is highly entertaining thriller. It is dark, violent and yet, oddly enough, delirious fun. It has been a long time since a movie so successfully teased its audience and made them think this long and hard. Scorsese’s direction is very much Hitchcockian: tense; flamboyant and yet, restrained. The movie is well worth the price of the admission ticket. And in the end of it, I would like you to ask yourself: could it have ended any other way? The more you think about the possibilities, the more you will appreciate this little gem of a film.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010)

There is an important thing one must understand before going into this movie: screw history. This is a movie based on a videogame with no basis in history except that it is set in Persia. For that matter, it could be set in any Oriental kingdom with the same plot and it would not make a rat's ass of a difference. A careful eye would see references to Mughal architecture and even idols of the Hindu lord Ganesha! The actors speak a mix of ridiculously out of place English and American accents. Their sole aim is to entertain and that they do!

The story is about Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a street kid who is adopted by the king as his own son. He grows up to be a warrior for his father and a prince of Persia. The kingdom invades the holy city of Alamut under suspicion that it is selling arms to its enemies (Iraq, anyone?). However, a more sinister plot is brewing. The king is killed and Dastan is accused of the murder. Fleeing from his own brothers (including Richard Coyle of Coupling), his uncle (Ben Kingsley) and their minions, with the beautiful and feisty princess of Alamut, Tamina (Gemma Aterton) and armed with a mysterious dagger, Dastan must prove his innocence, foil the sinister plot and save the day.

Prince of Persia is a fairly typical Jerry Bruckheimar production. Like Pirates of the Carribean and The Rock, the action sequences are fantastic. Swashbuckling entertainment rarely gets much better than this. The special effects, especially the aerial panoramic views of Persia and Alamut are awe-inspiring. The plot is that of a typical Hindi masala movie meant to keep you entertained at any cost. Mike Newell (whose earlier works include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Donnie Brasco), does a surprisingly good job at handling yet another genre.

In addition to the action, what makes the movie worth the money is the chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Aterton. They are sizzling together with the right mix of humour and epic romance. Gyllenhaal is surprisingly good as an action star! As he soars across the rooftops chasing his brothers' troops, it is hard to believe this is the same kid from Donnie Darko or the nervous investigating reporter from Zodiac. He maybe a little too human in his performance for classically heroic character like Dastan but he still does a very commendable job! Gemma Aterton is fabulous as the ethereal yet feisty Princess Tamina. With her sharp wit and sarcasm, she rises above the typical damsel in distress act and emerges as an equal to the character of Dastan. In the supporting acts, Alfred Molina is hilarious as an entrepreneur out to make his quick buck.

Ultimately, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a videogame adaptation. Yet, it is far better than most other videogame adaptations. This is because it has a decent plot, good actors, dollops of entertainment and that sense and spirit of epic adventure. While its no Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, don't let that stop you. In a time, when there is a dearth of entertaining mainstream films in the cinemas, Prince of Persia is like a breath of fresh air. This one is definitely worth watching on the big screen!