Monday, July 19, 2010

Udaan (2010)

A few months back, I reviewed a film, The 400 Blows about a boy who is driven to a life of petty crime resulting from parental and societal neglect. As I watched Udaan yesterday, I couldn't help but see the striking thematic similarities between the two films. Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane who struggled for 4 years to receive funding to make the film, Udaan is a poignant, powerful and ultimately inspiring slice-of-life film which will leave you touched and uplifted.

Expelled from boarding school for disciplinary issues, Rohan (Rajat Barmecha) comes home to Jamshedpur after 8 years to his father Bhairav Singh (Ronit Roy), a small steel manufacturer. He finds out that after his mother's death, his father remarried and he now has a 6 year old brother Arjun (Aayan Barodia) from the failed marriage. Rohan dreams of being a writer but his father wants him to study engineering and work at the steel plant. His father is a tyrant who insists on being referred to as "Sir" and is never satisfied no matter how much Rohan tries to win his approval. In such a situation, he only finds solace in his caring uncle (Ram Kapoor). With no solution in sight, he starts rebelling in an increasingly serious manner till things cross a limit leading to bitter confrontations.

Sure, the plot is formulaic and predictable. However, formulas exist for a reason; when used correctly, they work with audiences. Udaan is an excellent example of that. It's themes of coming of age, struggles with family, following your dreams are universal. It weaves these into a simple story and puts it on paper and later, on the reels so well that it is hard not to like the film. It is gritty and effective with strong emotional undercurrents and tensions that are disturbing because I could immediately relate to them. The film shatters the cinematic myths about the typical Indian families. It portrays  teen angst, compromises and conflicts extremely well. In its realism, it gives us characters which we recognise immediately and care for. The music, production scale etc. is kept to a minimum to maintain that sense of realism and drama. The poetry written for Rohan is exceptionally good and appropriately illustrates his hopes, aspirations, fears and dreams. 

Each of the characters are sketched with the aim of making them as real as possible. In Rohan, we see a teenager full of hope and life. He is bursting with talent as a writer and is struggling to keep that dream alive under his father's tyrannical regime. Bhairav Singh is impossible to like. Nevertheless, the character is beautifully layered and hence, real. The writers ensure that we know where he is coming from to understand his behaviour. The scene prior to the intermission is crucial for achieving this and that is, I believe the best scene of the film, both in terms of writing and direction. Arjun is adorable as child who is innocent and is too young to understand just how awful his father really is. His relationship with his half-brother is also organically developed with moments straight out of life. It is in developing these characters and their relationships with each other that the success of the film truly lies.

A film like Udaan would be nowhere as effective if it weren't for the superlative performances. Rajat Barmecha is stunning as Rohan. His silent stares and quiet tears convey a great deal. Aayan Barodia is also unbelievably adorable as Arjun and gets his expressions spot on. Ram Kapoor is perfect as the jolly and affectionate uncle trying to hold his brother's family together. The actors playing Rohan's friends, both at boarding school and college are fantastic and provide the much needed humour both, for Rohan and the audience. However, the film belongs to one man and that is Ronit Roy. For a film like Udaan, it is imperative that we really loathe the antagonist and Roy ensures that. Breaking out of his saas-bahu staple, he gives a terrific performance as the overbearing, difficult and tyrannical father who is oblivious to what his children need. He gives what is probably the best supporting performance I have seen this year so far.

Ultimately, Udaan is a prime example in the changing nature of Hindi cinema. It is a comment on today's society and its parents. It is a very poignant coming of age film. The sequence where Rohan runs from his father is every bit as effective as the final scene in The 400 Blows. It is an important story that needs to be told. Stories like these can be found even today in several places; from small towns to big cities. Many boys and girls like Rohan are out there struggling to break out of their claustrophobic realities and deal with domestic abuse and violence on a daily basis. This film speaks for them. That alone makes the film worthy of a recommendation. That it does that job well makes this an unmissable cinematic experience.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception (2010)

Last year in September, I wrote a rather long post lamenting the dumbing down of the big budget summer blockbuster. The big budget movie today is just an excuse for burning millions of dollars in special effects and the sole purpose of a plotline is to provide for as many of these as possible. The only other area where money is spent is in aggressively promoting these films to get that one big opening weekend to recover these costs and make a neat profit. As a consequence, big budget movies are pea-brained, bloated, assembly line products which are forgotten as soon as the viewer exits the cinema. In this world of waste, Christopher Nolan is like a saviour sent from heaven to deliver to the masses food for thought; to make sensible use of big budgets to deliver us not only movies that are visually dazzling but also that are thematically strong and force the viewer to do some mental heavy weight lifting. This is why, for an informed moviegoer, Inception carries with it extraordinary expectations after Nolan's The Dark Knight. And as much as it shocks me to admit to it, Nolan's "creation" exceeds these expectations by leaps and bounds, and then some more.

Inception is a film based on a simple truth. An idea is like a virus, which, if planted in the mind of the right people at the right time, can spread and result in world-changing events. These ideas are seen as coming in the form of true inspiration. Look at the work of Einstein, Mozart, Graham Bell, even J.K. Rowling and you'll know what I mean. However, what if these ideas could be planted? What if you could make a person believe something to be true and make him act on it? The result would be the greatest weapon or the greatest gift ever created.

The premise is as follows: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master of dream invasion. He can invade people's dreams and draw out information from their minds; a process known as extraction. His main partner in this is Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and an architect (Lukas Haas) who constructs the "reality" in which these dreams play out. Haunted by the death of his wife (Marion Cotillard), Cobb decides to pull off a final, seemingly impossible job for a corporate honcho Saito (Ken Watanabe). Armed with a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page) and a team of experienced invaders (Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao), he enters the mind of the heir of a energy conglomerate, Robert Fisher Jr. (Cilian Murphy) to pull off this impossible task. However, nothing is what it seems.

Christopher Nolan has reportedly been working on this project for a decade and it shows. In terms of ideas, Inception is his most daring film since Memento. The script for such a film is an absolute nightmare. One slip can raise a maze of unexpected contradictions. However, Nolan does not miss a step and constructs the film, both as a writer and as a director, in such infinite detail that I saw the movie with my jaw dropped mesmerized by the attention to detail and the perfection actually achieved. In its 2.5 hours runtime, not for a second does a film let your attention waiver. The film is a standing testament to the fact that big money can be used to fund big ideas. This is Nolan's masterpiece.

Insofar as the technicalities are concerned, this is perhaps the finest product to come out of Hollywood, dare I say it, ever. The action sequences are awe inspiring and set a new standard in Hollywood after The Matrix. The special effects are on a need to use basis and when they are, the imagination and effort put into it leaves the viewer spellbound. The production design for a movie with such diverse settings is perfect down to the last details. The background score by Zimmer is absolutely haunting mixed with a sense of thrill, horror and melancholy. The photography is nothing short of stunning in the way in which it effortlessly maneuvers through the complex action sequences, the larger than life special effects.

The characters have been sketched with care for details and the performances elevate them to a whole new level. We have Cobb, so convincingly underplayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, haunted by his past and torn between his reality and his nightmarish dreams. Arthur, the faithful sidekick who has some imagination of his own. Ariadne, the architect, the youngest and the brightest who is the only one who knows of Cobb's inner demons, or thinks she does again so wonderfully portrayed by Ellen Page. The sly and suave Eames (Tom Hardy), also a team player and creative guy. Fisher Jr. has a complicated relationship with his ailing father (Pete Postlethwaite) so nicely done by Cilian Murphy and finally, the mysterious Saito, the least developed appropriately enigmatic character so elegantly portrayed by Ken Watanabe. You care for these characters and even in the midst of the grand production and big special effects, you never lose sight of the human beings caught in the middle of it and that, is where Nolan's greatest success lies.

The final verdict? Christopher Nolan is God's gift to film making. He is a visionary; a revolutionary; and he has only just begun. He is a contemporary Kubrick armed with a distinct and unique style. Inception is his masterpiece, a work that is audacious in its complexity and yet, astounding in its clarity. It is an orgy of visuals, a great thriller, a heart wrenching love story among so many other things. It is tour de force cinema that will make you sit up, notice, think and be amazed at how important and significant a simple idea can be. It sets a new standard by which movies with ideas will be judged in the future. It proves that there is still scope for the ideas and the audaciousness of an independent film maker within the big budget studio film. It is the movie event of the year, not only in scale but also content. And to think that it all started with a simple idea in Nolan's mind is simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)

A few months back, I wrote an open letter to Pixar praising the amazing work that they have done over the last 15 years in the world of animation. As I watched Toy Story 3, I reflected over the importance of the Toy Story franchise, both in the Pixar universe and my own.

The Toy Story franchise has a special place in the Pixar universe. It isn't the best of its works. However, it is the franchise that started it all; the foundation for Pixar's meteoric rise in the animation universe. For me, the franchise constitutes a lot of good memories as a child. I was 7 years old when the first movie came out and literally screamed with childish delight as Buzz and Woody zoomed across the street on the rocket to land safely into Andy's box of toys. I wept when Jessie told the story of Emily ("When Somebody Loved Me") in the first sequel, not really understanding why though at the time. What I mean to say here is that the Toy Story franchise is a special one; one where comedy and emotions blend together to form a very wholesome and intimate movie-going experience for people across age groups. When Pixar decided to make a second sequel, 10 years after the first, I was apprehensive and yet, excited. As I took my niece for the film, I remembered that I was just about her age when I discovered the magic of Toy Story myself. With these thoughts and expectations in my head, I went into the theatre and here's what I thought:

Toy Story 3 is the least of the Toy Story franchise. However, that is not in any way to say that it is a bad film. On the contrary, nothing could be further from my opinion of it. That it's the least only testifies to the standard that the first two movies set. The third film is the least by a very small margin. It stands on its own as a darker and yet just as entertaining and emotionally gratifying entry to the franchise. It is a great addition to the Pixar repertoire and has a lot of the resonance and heart that made the first two classics.

The story takes off many years after the second film. Andy is now all grown up and heading off to college and the toys fear that they will be either put in day care or worse still, in the garbage. In an odd twist of fate, they end up in day care where the other toys seem welcoming and are led by a cute looking bear Lotso (Ned Beatty). However, Woody leaves to join Andy as he knows Andy wanted to take him to college while the others stay back. Things take a turn for the worse at the day care centre and Woody must decide what's more important: returning to Andy or saving his friends.

There are several things about the film that work. The humour is still very much brilliant. The opening sequence is absolutely fantastic in its hilarity. It is funny, cool and in its culmination, charming all at once. Also, with the help of new characters, particularly Ken and Barbie, there are many moments where you laugh, and then laugh some more. More importantly though, you still very much care about these little toys who are little more than plastic junk. They make you laugh, cry and jump with joy all over again. You think of the 15 years you have spent getting to know these characters and you truly give a damn about their fate. This is the true achievement of the franchise and the third entry does not disappoint here which is a very pleasant surprise indeed.

There are two central themes that the film explores: the sense of ownership and belonging on the one hand and that of friendship on the other. The sense of belonging that Woody feels towards Andy is contrasted with the bond he shares with Buzz, Jessie and the rest of his friends. While the two are linked in origins, they are distinct and when Woody is asked to choose between the two, it is a difficult choice indeed, for him and the viewer.

(minor spoilers alert)

There are several poignant moments that left me teary eyed. As the toys hold hands in the climax, you see the bond that has been forged between them. You feel their fear and their sense of  impending doom. And yet, you sure as hell are glad they are together at that moment. Most of all, the most beautiful moment  of the film  was when Andy plays with his toys one last time. You see the culmination of the last 15 years and everything comes full circle. That sense of ownership and letting it go and beautifully epitomised in those few moments. It is a reflection of the mutual love they share and the inevitable nature of change.

(spoilers end)

While it is not the masterpiece that the first two movies were, Toy Story 3 is a great film that dazzles, frightens and uplifts. It had me in tears in the end and I am sure it will touch you as well. It is a highly satisfying culmination of an epic saga about a bunch of plastic toys spread over 15 years. It is a powerful tale of friendship, ownership and that sense of belonging. But most of all, it is a testimony to the fact that Pixar's awesomeness really does extend to infinity, and beyond!

I Hate Luv Storys (2010)

I hate the incorrect use of language. Whenever I see people making mistakes in spellings etc. I have this anal habit of correcting them. Therefore, I was very put off by the title of the film in the beginning. On seeing the posters or promo, I found the spellings too distracting to have any sort of expectations from the movie. Nevertheless, being the movie whore that I am, I decided to give it a shot and I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

I Hate Luv Storys works for the most part; not because of novelty but because of some witty writing and great chemistry. As a story, it is very much like the same clichéd romantic comedies that it claims to mock. A man who does not believe in love (Imran Khan) and a girl who does (Sonam Kapoor); both work in the film industry, he as an assistant to the director and she as a production designer. She has her Mr. Right (Sameer Dattani) who she is happy to sign away her life to till she meets Mr. Wrong. They become great friends and over the course of time, he of course starts questioning his beliefs regarding the existence of magical true love.

Like I said, the plot does not have much going for it. In fact, story-wise, I thought the film bore a striking resemblance to the abysmal Kyun? Ho Gaya Na! However, unlike that monstrosity, this one has highly likable characters and good performances. The dialogues are the best thing about the movie. While the story takes the very much tried and tested path, it is in the dialogues where the magic lies. They are fresh, contemporary and exude urban cool. The lines are witty, sharp and in most places, hilarious. Also, its gentle mockery of the genre that is romantic comedy is funny and yet is peppered with affection. This is why it is no surprise that it finally settles very much into the same clichés in that knowing way and is yet, so comfortable with it.

The second thing that works well is the chemistry between the two leads. Both Imran Khan and Sonam Kapoor are capable of being very good actors. They are attractive and highly likable leads. The film uses their personality and their chemistry with great success and that helps the movie tremendously. Imran Khan is funny, charming and sweet. Romantic comedies are his forte and he really should stick to them instead of digressing to mainstream action films. Sonam Kapoor finally gets a role that really suits her. She looks gorgeous, can be extremely funny and exudes sunshine and all things nice. Together, they look excellent together and as actors, complement each other every step of the way. It is their pairing that adds greatly to the freshness of the film which is its central appeal.

In terms of production, the look of the film is glossy and yet, not over the top like Johar’s own films. Karan Johar, I have come to realise is a very smart producer. He knows how to make a movie on a relatively small budget but give it the glossy look of a big budget film (the same is true of Wake Up Sid). Moreover, like Aamir Khan, he knows how to market it well enough to generate curiosity and sell it without having A-list stars or expensive price tags. The youthful, urban spirit is very well captured in the sets, costumes etc. The cinematography is excellent, particularly in the New Zealand portions. The music by Vishal-Shekhar is zesty and fun, clichéd and yet thoroughly enjoyable.

Having said that, there are quite a few things that go wrong. The Samir Dattani track looks fake and silly. It could have been written a lot better to leave a real impact. The film industry backdrop also is hardly believable at all. It is difficult to believe that a girl in her mid-20s is the main production designer on a big budget film. The director of the film (Samir Soni) looks more like a obnoxious idiot than a real director. I didn’t expect the setting to be as realistic as Luck By Chance or anything. However, the absolute flakiness of the depiction of the production of a film does mar the impact a lot. At the same time, the film settles into a very predictable mode half way through. While that is not surprising and the dialogues do salvage it to some extent, it is a little disappointing because of the sheer potential the basic premise actually had. Also, the final act of the film is too long drawn and meandering and made me check my watch several times. Trimming it by 15 minutes or so would have been ideal.

Nevertheless, there is just about enough here to recommend the movie. It is a great date movie and does not try or pretend to be anything more than that. It gives a fresh and fun treatment to an otherwise ordinary story. It's embellished with some great lines and even better performances. These help elevate it to a good romantic comedy worth your time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Remember Me (2010)

Greetings from the dark.

Most people think I am too soft when it comes to movies. I like movies too easily; over glorify their strengths and underplay their weaknesses. However, when it comes to movies, my theory is this. Each movie carries with it certain expectations: these expectations may arise at the time of promotion or even while watching the movie as you realise you are watching something potentially worth your time. Also, expectations are not a question of how much you expect but also what you expect. As in, from Prince of Persia, I expect a non-serious fun outing whereas from Raajneeti, I want a movie that has a fair amount of thought going into it. Hence, there are movies I watch with very few expectations and come out surprised (like say, The Karate Kid) or where I watch with high expectations which are largely met (like My Name Is Khan and Ishqiya). The movies I do not like are the ones where my expectations aren't met and the ones I hate are those where these expectations are built up during the film and dashed badly some way down the line. Remember Me falls in this last category.

Remember Me is the story of two New Yorkers. We have Tyler (Robert Pattinson), a caring, charming man who has lost his way in the wake of his brother's suicide. He struggles to deal with his over-emotional mother and his overbearing father (Pierce Brosnan). The only person he really cares for is his little sister. Then there is Ally (Emilie De Ravin) who has never used the subway since her mother was murdered before her eyes there 10 years ago. Her father (Chris Cooper) is overprotective and controlling. Together, they take a chance with each other and what starts out as a beautiful relationship soon gets into troubled waters as each person's baggage comes in the way.

I watched the movie with very few expectations. Despite the bad mouthing by some of the critics, what drew me in was the premise. The trailer made the film look like a fairly promising drama. As I saw the film, I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although the characters were well sketched out, believable and ones I could even care for. The performances were also surprisingly effective. Although Pattinson took time to settle into the character, he is highly likable as the awkward and detached Tyler. Emilie De Ravin also shines as Ally. Ruby Jerins who plays the little sister is also well cast; with a character that is more than a mere filler and is genuinely interesting and believable. Pierce Brosnan is superb in his confrontation scene with Pattinson in the Board Room. Chris Cooper is wasted though in a small(ish) role. However, that is still a relatively minor fault compared to the rest of the film which seemed to be progressing reasonably well.

Then the climax came. I have seriously never been more offended by a film's conclusion. In one swoop, the characters become irrelevant and the director loses any of the intimacy that the story had in favour of making a larger point, which he fails at miserably as well. The end is absolutely pathetic and not only destroys the film but also insults your intelligence. It is completely unnecessary and seriously overreaching. In my mind, as the climax unfolded I went, "You've got to be kidding me." But the writer and director clearly seem to have thought otherwise. Without giving much away, it's as bad as the fake heaven scene in Delhi-6 between Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan. Enough said.

All in all, Remember Me could have been something special. It had the potential to be memorable and was interesting almost throughout before that wretched climax. When the rest of the movie is seen as leading up to that conclusion, it appears positively sillier, idiotic and more and more like a terribly squandered opportunity. The well drawn characters seem irrelevant and the solid performances seem wasted. This is one of the most disappointing films I have seen in recent times.