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!