Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thor (2011): Gods and Monsters Galore!

The Avengers is arguably having one of the greatest build ups in movie history. The movie arrives in 2012 and will be directed by the TV sci-fi genius, Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel). But before that, we have a variety of superhero movies as a build up to what will be one of two most anticipated movies of Summer 2012 (the other being Nolan's final entry of the Batman series). First, there was Iron Man which was followed by The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. Now, we have Thor which will be followed by Captain America: The First Avenger. Each film has a standalone story and at the same time, forms one large origins story together forming a bridge that leads to The Avengers. So, the one question that remains is: does Thor satisfy? The answer is yes. Hell yes.

The film introduces us to the land of the gods, Asgard ruled by the just, valiant and fair Odin (Anthony Hopkins). After defeating the Frost Giants of Jotunheim in a great war, the kingdom has maintained an uneasy alliance with them keeping their source of power while letting them live. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Odin’s first born, and the wielder of Mjolnir, the hammer with infinite power, is a spoilt, warmongering man filled with pride and vanity. The second born Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a magician beyond compare and resents his brother for all that he is. Thor, with his friends, impulsively attacks the Frost Giants, thereby breaking the truce that has existed between the two planets. For this, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, stripping him of his power to teach him a lesson. There he meets Jane (Natalie Portman), a scientist (or astrophysicist...or something like that), her mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings). S.H.I.E.L.D. gets control of the hammer. Now Thor must learn his lesson to earn his power and position back. Meanwhile, something sinister is brewing in Asgard.

As a character, like Tony Stark, Thor is arrogant and vain. However, unlike Tony Stark, there is a childishness to his arrogance; a boyishness to his pride that makes him idiotic and not cool. At the same time, he is honourable, loyal and inherently good. Therefore, you can’t help but root for him. He is a more straightforward and conventional superhero.

Kennneth Branagh, whose previous credits as a director include Peter’s Friends, Dead Again and multiple Shakespeare adaptations, directs Thor. An odd choice of director, one may say. However, Branagh handles the film well, embracing the inherent silliness of it all and having delightful amounts of fun with it. And I tell you, it is silly. There are electric super-storms, tornadoes and what not in a small town in New Mexico and the laws of science are bent and broken at convenience. However, the proceedings are engrossing throughout as the director pays due respect to the mythical elements of the comics avoids the sappy and syrupy like the plague. There is a lot of cleverness shining out of every pore of the film, whether it is in the lines or the humour or the self-referencing. So, even though the love story is half baked, the effects are shoddy in places and the two halves of the film are badly balanced (with too little happening in the first half and too much in the second), you don’t really care because you are too busy being entertained.

Hemsworth is perfectly cast as Thor. He looks the part and has the winning personality required for it also. He is most certainly destined for stardom. Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings are largely wasted and more screentime is given Jaimie Alexander who looks gorgeous and kicks some serious ass. Stellan Skarsgard provides able support and provides relief at all the right places. Tom Hiddleston is thoroughly menacing as Loki and could really do well as Snape in a remake of Harry Potter 20 years from now. Idris Elba is supremely cool as Heimdall, the all seeing Asgardian Gate Keeper.

At the end of the day, suspension of disbelief is a much abused term in cinema. However, there is a reason why the term was created and Thor is an excellent example of it. Go ahead. Enjoy.

Rating: 3.5/5

P.S.: The only thing better than watching a great movie in the cinema is watching two great movies in the cinema.

Shor in the City (2011): Chaotic Brilliance

There are few things I hate admitting. This is one of them. Ekta Kapoor, in my humble opinion, is fast turning into a remarkable film producer with a unique place for herself in the industry. Through a regular dose of wildly experimental films, she is changing the ball game entirely. Last year, it was Love, Sex aur Dhokha. This year, it is Shor in the City followed by Ragini MMS. First to hit the theatres is Shor in the City and my, what a movie this is! It is arguably the best exercise in black humour that we have seen in years in this side of the world. It is tough, gritty, mean and at times, oh-so-funny. This is the kind of movie that Dhobi Ghat wish it had been.

The film has three intersecting stories set during the Ganpati Festival in Mumbai. The first is of Tilak (Tushar Kapoor) who runs a printing press that specialises in printing pirated copies of bestsellers. Recently married, he bums around with his two friends Ramesh (Nikhil Dwivedi) and Mandook (Pitobash). A bag stolen from the train opens a can of worms that none of them are prepared for. Next, we have Sawan Murthy a.k.a. Savvy (Sundeep Kishan), who needs to come up with 10 lakhs to make the team for state cricket (and from there, IPL). He also must deal with his girlfriend who is under constant pressure for marriage from her family. Finally, we have Abhay (Sendhil Ramamurthy, Heroes), an NRI returning to India, who is struggling to start a business and must deal with local thugs trying to extract money in the name of “security”.

Clocking just over 100 minutes, the film is a taut, well paced dramedy. The stories run parallel to each other and the proceedings get quite chaotic. However, the film has been directed with great precision by first timers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK. They direct the film with a steady hand and hold the attention of the audience throughout. They show a great eye for visuals and rich, atmospheric details that help set the tone of the film at several places. The movie is incredibly tense and deliriously funny in equal parts. Moreover, the romance here, particularly between Tilak and his wife, has a lovely awkwardness to it which is absolutely adorable. As they navigate through different moments of intimacy, there is a certain poignancy, humour and charm that is all but lost in romances these days.

Technically, the film is absolutely brilliant. The camerawork is stupendous and captures a completely different side of the city. While Dhobi Ghat gave us a look at the city and its culture from the outside, choosing to observe things from a distance, the cinematography Shor in the City consciously chooses a more intimate approach. Suffusing the frames with a warm colour palette, it immerses you in the city, whether it is the upper middle class milieu or the large street processions during Ganpathi Visarjan. The odd angles and the crisp editing help create the atmosphere of chaos that is central to the film. The minimal music is absolutely fantastic and used appropriately throughout.

In terms of performances, the entire principal cast delivers fine performances. And yes, that includes Tushar Kapoor. In an interesting mix of machismo, decency and almost childlike innocence, he is actually perfectly cast in the role. Nikhil Dwivedi is also brilliant as the best friend. However, the one performance that you take with you from the film is that of Pitobash Tripathy who is stupendous as the wise cracking, naive and extremely annoying part of the trio. He is impulsive, absurd, and downright daft at times and absolutely convinces you of his idiocy.

The film does have some minor flaws primarily in its conclusion where it seems to suffer from spasms and goes a bit erratic. But overall, this is easily the most fun I have had in a Hindi movie in a very long time. It does draw inspirations from Four Lions, Dog Day Afternoon and other films. However, it brings its disparate elements together and weaves them into a sharp narrative. It is smart, funny, shocking and gritty in equal measure and totally worth the price of admission. In these sad times, how rare is that?

Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rango (2011): Ambitious Animation

Rango is the polar opposite of Rio. While Rio is mostly been there done that, Rango is nothing like you have ever seen before in animation. For starters, this is an animated film for adults; that rare one that goes beyond rude humour and double entendres as an attempt to include adults within its target audience. Sure, there is plenty of humour for children, but this is a film that adults will appreciate and enjoy more. It is a marvellous little gem of a film that tries to be so many things and succeeds ultimately at most of them. This is to Pixar what Pixar was to Disney. It is a challenge; the next step in animated storytelling.

Rango is about a lot of things. The plot is arguably the least of them all. But anyway, it is a film about a Lizard with No Name (Johnny Depp) whose quiet, lonely life in a fish tank writing plays, musicals and conversing with toys is turned upside down when he gets separated from his keepers and is left in the Mojave Desert. As he courses through the harsh terrain, he comes across the town of Dirt occupied by various reptilian and feline creatures. There, he claims to be a hero from the West and dons the name Rango. With a quirk of fate and a little luck, he quickly finds himself promoted to Sheriff by the Tortoise Mayor (Ned Beatty). But there is something sinister brewing. The town has run out of water and there is no explanation for it. Together with the townsmen, Rango sets out to investigate this on a path that will lead him to discover true heroism.

While Rio played it safe and by the numbers, Rango has ambition to spare. Gorgeously animated in traditional 2D, it starts out slow but grows on you over time. The first half is interesting but offbeat and not very funny. But once you accept and get accustomed to its deliberate awkwardness, the second half is brilliant, near perfect in its execution. The film is bursting at its seams with originality and uncharacteristic amounts of intelligence. It is a nice reminder of what Gore Verbinski is actually capable of when he is not busy churning out crappy box office blockbusters (Read: PoTC 2 & 3). The film is abound with clever movie references from Chinatown to the Leone’s Dollars Trilogy; from Lord of the Rings to Depp’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Having said this, there are flaws in the film. The sudden shifts in tone throughout the film seem odd and awkward. There are times when the film is overtly serious or slapstick, particularly in the first half. Plus, the resolution of the mystery itself is unclear and inadequately explained. However, these are forgivable flaws in an otherwise stupendous enterprise. The animation is stunning in places, particularly the slow motion depiction of the accident that leaves Rango stranded in the desert, the aerial battle in the second half of the film as well as the scenic beauty of the desert throughout. The music by Hans Zimmer is excellent and testimony to his versatility as a composer. It incorporates traditional Country/Western instruments and tunes and gives it a very contemporary spin.

Johnny Depp is brilliantly cast as Rango and gives us arguably a character even more interesting than Captain Jack Sparrow. His voice modulation is stunning in places. Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin are quite cute as Rango’s love interest, Beans and the little rodent Priscilla. Ned Beatty and Bill Nighy are menacing as the Mayor and Rattlesnake Jake. However, the true standout voiceover is that of Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West. He nails the Clint Eastwood style and accent, and had me completely fooled.

Ultimately, Rango is soaked in ambition and is a wickedly funny, smart and deliriously original film. It may be imperfect in certain respects but it certainly represents a bold step forward in the field of animation. It is a fantastic return to form for Depp and Verbinski and is an absolute treat for those who expect their movies to have brains. 

Rating: 4/5

Friday, April 15, 2011

HappyThankYouMorePlease (2011)

It is easy to dismiss the Sundance favourite HappyThankYouMorePlease as just another sitcom-ish pretentious New York movie about self-absorbed young people whose little problems are made to look like the end of the world. I choose not to tread down that path. Personally, I found HappyThankYouMorePlease to be a disarmingly charming, sweet film about a bunch of New Yorkers dealing with life, adulthood and all the little quirks that entails. It features believable, endearing characters caught between the teenage mentalities left behind, their present carefree existences and the increasing demands of adulthood. Like any set of interconnecting stories, there are portions I liked more than the others. But what is surprising, is that I loved them all and the film as a whole. There was not a single story that was odd or pale in comparison to the others.

The film has three distinct stories. We first meet a young, struggling writer Sam (Radnor) who finds a kid (Michael Algieri) in the New York subway and takes him in. He also manages to seduce Mississippi (Kate Mara), a waitress at a restaurant trying hard to hold her own life together. His family friend is Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan), a stationery store employee who is in a steady relationship with the bum Charlie (Pablo Schreiber). Their relationship is tested when he asks her to leave New York and move to Los Angeles for his work. Finally, there is Sam’s best friend Annie (Malin Akerman), who suffers from Alopecia; does philanthropic work and is deeply unhappy with her life. However, things take an interesting turn when she meets the ordinary looking and slightly odd Sam (No. 2) (Tony Hale) who works in the legal department of her office.

The film is wonderfully written and directed by Josh Radnor (Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother). The dialogues are offbeat and insightful. Although the influence of Woody Allen is evident in certain portions, there is vibrancy and joy throughout that is all Radnor. The narrative is surprisingly even with all the stories interconnecting almost seamlessly. The greatest bits are in the last half hour where each story is poignantly concluded, with honesty, realism but a strong sense of hope and optimism. It is here that Radnor, the writer really shines. The themes are nicely wrapped together in this portion and equally reflected in each of the stories. As a New York movie, it is the best I have seen in recent years.

Of the individual stories, the story of Annie and Sam (No. 2) is the finest. The characters are beautifully realised there and the story is extremely touching and beautiful. Radnor’s use of the camera is interesting in places, particularly the close ups and the lighting that create a sense of intimacy. The production quality is good and soundtrack is excellent featuring some fine songs by Jaymay specially produced for the film.

The performances are outstanding. In the hands of a more amateur cast, the film would fall apart despite the scripting. However, the cast here is extremely competent. It also benefits from the fact that they are somewhat known but not hugely popular which allows them to bring a distinct freshness to the film. The performances you really take home are those of Tony Hale and Malin Akerman. Akerman (Watchmen, 27 Dresses) sheds her glamorous image and takes up a complex and challenging role, doing it complete justice. Hale brings a lot of depth to his few lines. The other outstanding performance is that of Pablo Schreiber as the passionate but frustrated Charlie. The final confrontation scene between him and Kazan is particularly excellent.

While it may not be The Station Agent, HappyThankYouMorePlease is an intelligent and remarkable debut for Josh Radnor as a writer and director, who shows great potential for storytelling. As a 20 something, I found much in the film I could relate to. Thematically, it reminded me of Garden State but without the grim and melancholic tones. So, give it a shot with an open mind and you are unlikely to be disappointed. This is a buoyant, lovely little indie that will make you feel warm, joyous and put a smile on your face for a long time after. And like the film says, we all deserve to be happy and feel loved. Dear Mr. Radnor, thank you. More please?

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Rio (2011): An Exuberant Trifle

In Hollywood, animation has grown considerably in the last twenty years. With each entry in the genre pushing boundaries, technically as well as in terms of storytelling, it is difficult not to be critical of the ones that settle for less. Last year, we had Megamind, which played, in my opinion, like a poor man’s version of Despicable Me. I walked into Rio expecting a similar moviegoing experience, particularly because 20th Century Fox Animation hadn’t delivered anything remotely memorable apart from the Ice Age franchise. But I must admit, I was very pleasantly surprised. Although it will not win any awards or accolades, Rio is a wonderfully animated and quite an adorable film that has something for all ages.

The plot of Rio is expectantly quite routine. Think Madagascar done as a generic love story with a strong conservation theme. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is the last male Macaw of his kind. Caged and taken away from his natural habitat, he was found and raised by Linda (Leslie Mann) in Moose Lake, Minnesota. He can’t fly and is quite comfortable living in captivity. A visit from a bird specialist Tulio (Rodrigo Santaro) reveals that there is a female Macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) held in captivity in Rio and that Blu could save his species. This brings them to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where Blu must deal with vicious bird catchers, being lost in the Wild, saving the species and winning the affection of Jewel, all in the middle of the Rio Carnival, the biggest carnival in the world.

The first half of the film plays it safe and by the numbers. There are no surprises or twists worth talking about. The characters are introduced and you can see every twist and turn along the way well before it arrives. However, the love story has enough heart and the humour is spot on. The double entendres are a little too obvious in places but my god, they are funny! The second half of the film picks up quite well and the finale is absolutely entertaining. The original music by John Powell is very good overall and the film features some great foot-tapping tunes.

The quality of the animation is quite simply, outstanding. The detail with which Rio de Janeiro is brought to life is mesmerising to behold. It reminds you of the recreation of Paris in Ratatouille. The scenes running to the favellas of Rio are particularly well done. However, the truly stunning moment in the film is in the penultimate portions where the Rio Carnival is animated in all its glory. Those portions are awe-inspiring and pretty spectacular. The quality of the 3D is superior as it does not dull the colour pallette and therefore, the moviegoing experience.

The film also benefits from an outstanding voice cast. Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway work exceedingly well as a pair. As expected, she is effortlessly charming; he is awkwardly so. Together, they give the protagonists depth and flair in equal measure. The other outstanding contributions are from will.i.am and Jamie Foxx as Pedro and Nico, the two birds accompanying Blu and Jewel after they are on the run from bird catchers. They are funny, musical and play like more melodious versions of Eddie Murphy in Shrek and Mulan. Jemaine Clement is hilarious as Nigel, the aging bird who is helping the crooks.

Overall, there is little in Rio that you haven’t seen before. However, it is saved by some wonderful animation, an exuberant spirit and just about enough heart to make you feel the love. It is a trifle, and nothing more. But this is exactly the kind of trifle you want to indulge in. So. Indulge away. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday, April 11, 2011

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

Edward Zwick is a bit of a wild card with his films. He constantly experiments with the subject matter of his films and he has his share of advocates and adversaries. His works often divide critics and Love and Other Drugs was no exception. Plus, it was dumped into the markets rather unceremoniously by 20th Century Fox. Despite this, I looked forward to the film with some anticipation. And it wasn’t in vain because even though it isn’t an extremely well crafted motion picture, I found it highly refreshing in its frank, honest take on adult relationships.

The film is set in the late 1990s. Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aimless, empty womaniser is trying to make a career in the highly competitive pharmaceutical market as a sales representative. He flirts his way up; it’s a part of his job description. On one of his sales visits, he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a carefree artist who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. What starts out as just casual sex gradually develops into romance which soon gets complicated as her disease and his career path are moving in opposite directions.

With Love and Other Drugs, Zwick moves into entirely uncharted territory i.e. romantic comedies. The script has its moments and they are peppered throughout the film such that the proceedings are rarely dull. The conversations between the two lead characters are  always interesting and insightful. The humour moves beyond jokes and gags and relies on wit, irony and sarcasm. Thankfully, the writing is also solid in the dramatic portions as well. In fact, it is these portions that stay with you. The scene where an old man tells Jamie of his experience of living with his wife suffering from Parkinson’s disease is brutally painful in its honesty. Hathaway’s outburst when she is unable to get her medication is also extremely well done.

Thematically, the film does come off as an awkward mix of romance, comedy and social commentary. It succeeds most in the as a love story as it doesn’t try to do much with the rest. Had these been integrated better into the narrative, then we would have a classic on our hands. Nevertheless, Zwick uses Maggie's disease and pharmaceutical industry (particularly the introduction of Viagra in the market) well as plot devices to move the romance forward. Thankfully, he refrains from being preachy and never moves the focus away from the romance. The dialogues are stunning in places, particularly in the second half of the film. The sex is fairly graphic, a rarity in an American film with mainstream stars but it is also emotional and aesthetic, which is a rarity in American films altogether.

The film also benefits from bravura performances from Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, both of whom shed all inhibitions for the camera, quite literally so. Their chemistry is electric. Gyllenhaal is very good as the funny and charming Jamie and brings out the transformation of his character quite well. But it is Hathaway who steals the show. She is absolutely outstanding as an outgoing, assertive woman struggling with a debilitating disease at a young age. She particularly performs exceedingly well in portraying the character at her most vulnerable and volatile. It is remarkable to note how much she has grown as an actor from The Princess Diaries or even The Devil Wears Prada. It is on their broad shoulders that the film rests and they deliver excellent performances.

I guess the best way to see Love and Other Drugs is to see it as a love story set in the backdrop of the pharmaceutical market in the mid-1990s. It works that way quite well. It has moments of outrageous humour and emotional resonance in equal measure. It’s not a particularly strong comment on the state of the practice of medicine in the United States. But I don’t think it was ever intended to be. For that, I highly recommend Michael Moore’s Sicko. This film is for those who like a dose of honesty in their romantic comedies. It is not the classic it could have been given that the film appears quite disjointed in portions. Even so, it still qualifies as a heart-warming, earnest and oh-so-adult romance whose honesty sets it apart from the legion of trashy romances and rom-coms. 

Rating: 3.5/5