Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dabangg (2010): A Mad Mad Mad Masala Movie

Many moons ago, I wrote about the great Indian masala movie jisme action hai, drama hai, comedy hai, romance hai or naach gaana bhi. It’s become a rare thing to see out and out masala films that also entertain. It’s true that the audience has become intelligent. But one must not forget, this is still the same Indian audience that has kept masala movie farmoola intact for over 4 decades. In today’s date, making masala films is hardly a safe thing like it used to be. However, with the confidence, the farmoola, the actors and the music, masala movies can still draw audiences, not only rural but also the so-called urban intelligentsia by the millions.  This new Salman Khan starrer proves that, and how! Dabangg is not just a film, it is the best escapist cinematic experience of the year.

Welcome to Lalganj, Uttar Pradesh where politicians rule the people, dacoits loot them and it is hard to tell one from the other. In this godless world, we meet Robin Hood a.k.a. Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan), an unorthodox, corrupt but kind and fearless cop loved by the masses and hated by the plunderers. He has to deal with his ailing but loving mother (Dimple Kapadia) and his difficult stepfather (Vinod Khanna) and stepbrother (Arbaaz Khan). Things take a turn for the worse when Pandeyji is caught in a tussle with local politician Chedi Singh (Sonu Sood). Meanwhile, he falls for the beautiful but stubborn Rajo (Sonakshi Sinha). Bullets fly, bombs explode. Mayhem reigns supreme!

The story is about as old as the Hindi film. However, what makes it work in a big way is the confident direction of Abhishek Singh Kashyap. He understands the limitations and possibilities of a masala movie remarkably well and with some inventive storytelling, a dash of madness and a strong narrative structure to drive the film from its powerful start to its explosive conclusion. He keeps things crisp and does not allow for the proceedings to slow down or get clunky for a single frame. The script writers (Kashyap and Dileep Shukla) pen some of the most memorable lines in recent cinematic history which made me laugh, whistle and clap rather loudly. But I wasn’t the only one in the theatre. Great dialogues are crucial to a masala movie and in that department, Dabangg does not disappoint one bit. The copious use of hinterland Hindi is also a welcome change. The editing is slick and adds considerably to the impact of several scenes. The action sequences are typically over the top but gripping nevertheless. The rustic look is well done thanks to great production design and costume work.

The music of the film is great with three-four terrific songs. “Tere Mast Mast Do Nain” is a beautiful love ballad from Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. The title song reminds me of the title song in Omkara. The additional item number (“Munni Badnaam Hui”) is easily the best item song in many years. It is superbly penned and filmed with Malaika Arora looking sizzling as always. The great thing about the film is that the songs are smartly placed so as to not hinter the narrative. Another ace is the background score with a Mexican style guitar theme recurring throughout that gives a Wild West feel to the entire film.

Although the performances are uniformly superb, the film belongs to one man and one alone: Salman Khan. Giving the performance of a lifetime, Salman manages to find the perfect balance between his action hero antics and his funny side. It has been literally over a decade since I have seen Salman Khan in such fine form. His dialogue delivery, his body language, dance and expressions are all spot on. If there is any actor in Hindi cinema who can still pull off masala, it is only him. Without him, the film would fall apart like a house of cards. It is hard to tell where the character ends and the actor begins. This is because the writers have tailored the character for Salman without, for once, compromising on the entertainment value of the film. Sonu Sood makes an extremely worthy villain and brings out the menacing side of his character as well his cheap, crass sides with equal finesse. Vinod Khanna and Arbaaz Khan are good. Sonakshi Sinha has what it takes to be a movie star and oozes confidence and style. Om Puri and Mahi Gill are unforunately wasted.

Overall, Dabangg is not for the pretentious or the self-proclaimed pseudo movie intelligentsia. For the rest, isse mazedaar, chatpati aur masaledaar film milni mushkil hai. It is escapist cinema at its best. Go treat yourself. Now.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010): Gleeful, Glorious Violence!

Every once in a while, there comes a film so obnoxiously silly and deliriously entertaining that, despite all your pretentious claims to watching only the “good films”, you want to indulge in it for all it’s worth. Alexander Aja’s Piranha is one of those films. A mad dose of blood, gore and nudity, Piranha is one of those films that is very much aware of its silliness. However, it chooses to celebrate that in all its bloody glory rather than pretending to be different or intelligent. Its intelligence lies in that self-awareness. It more than makes up for its lack of originality by paying homage to some of the greatest films within the creature-horror subgenre, some superb cameos, its campy, B-movie style and a willingness to dish out blood and gore by the buckets.

The story: An underwater earthquake connects Lake Victoria to a subterranean ancient lake which has been a breeding ground for a particularly ferocious species of Piranha. This also happens to be the time when the Spring Break is in full session (and you know what that means). Instead of enjoying the time, 17 year old Jake (Steven McQueen) is forced to babysit his young brother and sister by his town cop bad ass mom (Elisabeth Shue) but bribes his way out of the task when he gets an opportunity by a film-maker (Jerry O’Connell) to be a location scout for the making of Wet Wet Girls (…or was it Wild Wild Girls? Anyhow, you get the picture). However, his fun is spoilt when his best friend and the girl he loves (Jessica Szohr) decides to join him and the crew on the boat. The stage is set. The babes are in the water. Let the bloodbath begin!

This is the first film of director Alexander Aja that I have seen. It makes it practically mandatory for me to see the rest of his repertoire. The film is horrifying in its gore and yet, hilarious in many places. The humour is clearly intentional and it’s hard not to laugh at Jerry O’Connell’s perverted porn film-maker act, the silly one liners and the ridiculousness of the violence. Having said that, this is one of the goriest films I have ever seen and you do need an iron stomach to digest it. But unlike movies like Hostel, the violence is too fast , less painful (and more humorous) here making it easier to watch. Nevertheless, if gore and nudity is your cup of tea, Piranha is as good as mainstream films get.

The cameos: the choice of Richard Dreyfuss in the opening scene (and the references to Jaws) is an inspired choice. The use of Eli Roth in the wet t-shirt contest (and his subsequent disposal) is absolutely brilliant. Christopher Lloyd’s inclusion as Mr. Goodman, the fish expert is another nice touch. And finally, you see Ashlynn Brooke and Gianna Michaels being fed to piranhas which is a delight to watch.

Much like The Heartbreaker, Piranha is as good as it gets within its genre. Embracing the formula, Piranha is gleefully campy, gloriously violent and deliriously fun. Its liberal dosage of gross humour, violence and nudity may not appeal to all. However, for adolescents, fans of the genre and people that can stomach the gore, this is going to be one hell of a ride.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Heartbreaker (L'Arnacoeur) (2010)

I have mentioned time and again in this blog that formulas exist for a reason: when used well, they work. For a romantic comedy, take a basic story, add to it attractive lead actors, keep the dialogues fresh and the humour in steady supply and little can go wrong. A perfect example of that is the new French film, The Heartbreaker (L'Arnacoeur). For English speaking people, don’t be put off by the subtitles. This is a great date movie which will keep you laughing throughout and leave you smiling for a long time after you have left the cinema hall.

The plot is simple: Alex (Romain Duris) has a unique job. He breaks up couples for a living. With a team that includes his sister and her husband, he is a professional at seducing women and convincing them to break up with their boyfriends and husbands. They have one rule though: they only break up unhappy couples. Facing financial  difficulties, they decide to break that rule for a lucrative job requiring him to break up a seemingly happy couple, Juliette  (Vanessa Paradis) and Englishman Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) a few days before their wedding. Of course, things complicate when he falls for the girl and risks getting his own heart broken.

The Heartbreaker has a story that will remind you of popular romantic comedies ranging from old classics like It Happened One Night to Dirty Dancing (which it references heavily), There’s Something About Mary and many others. However, that goes in favour of the film rather than against it. It works despite no originality as such because of several reasons: first, it has two disarmingly charming leads in the form of Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis. Duris is handsome, charismatic and has a great comic timing. Paradis is extremely graceful and yet, feisty and fun. She looks beautiful with her gowns, gap toothed smile and harsh but elegant features. Together, they work beautifully as a couple and their romance is developed carefully and allowed to simmer long enough for audiences to care.

The other reason for its working is its wicked sense of humour courtesy the sister (Julie Ferrier) and her husband (Francois Damiens). There are moments in the film that are pure gold and will leave you in splits.  The script uses its 105 minutes well and keeps the proceedings light, peppy and fun. There isn’t a single dull, clunky moment in the film. The photography is spectacular and the sunny Monaco setting adds to the sheen of the film. The soundtrack (mostly English) is remarkably good ranging from Dusty Springfield to George Michael.

All in all, The Heartbreaker is as good as formulaic gets. It is old wine in new bottle, have no doubt. But this is fine French wine with a bold flavour that goes well with a date, and without. Treat yourself to this one.

We Are Family (2010)

Stepmom is a good example for me of a mediocre script translated into a very good film simply because of great performances. Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon gave such delicate and yet, powerful performances that it was difficult not to be impressed. Each glance, glare or tear was spot on and together (along with a very good supporting performance from Jena Malone), they rose above the clichéd script and gave a film with a good mix of humour and emotional resonance. When news came of an official Indian remake of the film, I realised that the film wouldn’t be that difficult to translate for the Indian screen at all. Hindi moviegoers (including myself) have always been, and to a great extent still are, suckers for good emotional dramas. As long as the premise could be sold, it shouldn’t have been difficult for someone like Karan Johar to make the film work for Indian audiences.

However, We Are Family is a mixed bag, at best. While comparisons to the original are inevitable, it adapts the premise well making some interesting changes in the characters and the narrative structure which help make the premise more acceptable to an Indian audience. Also, they help the film stand on its own vis-à-vis the original, in parts for the better but more so, for the worse.

The premise is as follows: Maya (Kajol) is a perfect mother to three children: Aleya (13 years), Ankush (10 years) and Anjali (5-6 years). Despite her divorce, she has managed to maintain cordial relations with her husband Aman (Arjun Rampal) for the sake of the children. Things complicate, however, when Aman attempts to introduce his long time girlfriend Shreya (Kareena Kapoor) to the family. Resentment and insecurities quickly crop up and Shreya struggles to befriend the children and gain acceptance from them. An unexpected turn of events forces all of them to confront bitter truths and find ways to make this new “family” work.

The movie is messy and although it works in individual sequences, it just does not come together as a whole. Sure, there are improvements over the original. The character of the husband is far well developed here unlike the original where the man (played by Ed Harris) was completely upstaged by the women.  However, there are many flaws as well. The culprit here is the script which is quite a few notches below even the original. The dialogues are absolutely uninspired and have none of the emotional resonance that the original did. The character development, especially of the teenage daughter is extremely flawed. In an attempt to be different from the original, the writer makes a mess of it in more than one place. In fact, the film does best when it’s literally translating the original like the final dialogue between the mothers or the gift exchange in the end. But such moments are few and far between and as a whole, it just doesn’t have even half the emotional impact such a story could have had. The direction by Siddharth Malhortra is good for the most part. It’s the script here that lets him down.

The only reason perhaps to recommend this film at all is the performances. Both Kajol and Kareena are perfectly cast as the mom and the stepmom. Kareena is perfect as the feisty, outgoing and independent career women. She looks less like a supermodel and more like a character which is refreshing. Kajol is even better taking to the role of the responsible, caring but insecure mother like fish to the sea. She proves that, irrespective of age, beauty or any other factor, she is arguably the most talented mainstream actress we have today. She emotes effortlessly and manages to leave me teary eyed despite the banal lines. Arjun Rampal demonstrates his growth as a dependable actor since Rock On by giving a very mature performance. Here, he isn’t given the lines but manages to make his presence felt through his expressions. He looks like an ex husband, a father and a weary man caught in an unusual situation. The younger children are extremely sweet and adorable but Aanchal Munjal as the teenage daughter is no Jena Malone and manages to annoy a lot more than endear.

On the whole, We Are Family is a disappointing fare thanks to a weak script. and bad dialogues. Kajol, Kareena and Arjun Rampal deserve better than this considering the effort they have put in. So do I for the $8 I spent on the ticket. Do yourself a favour, rent Stepmom instead.