Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Barfi! (2012)

Every once in a while, there comes a film where suspension of disbelief comes so quietly, so effortlessly that it is easy to forget that it did at all. Barfi! is a flawed film in many ways. It is overlong by a good half hour. The story is messy, it's screenplay even more so with the whole flashback in a flashback (in a flashback). The conclusion is unnecessarily convoluted by a dramatic sub-plot. It is repetitive, over indulgent and utterly unbelievable. I could go on and on in the many ways that it went wrong. But guess what? It didn't matter. Because, in the end, it worked quite literally, like a charm, transporting me into a world I came to love wholeheartedly and without doubt, much like the characters that inhibit it.

Although it appears anchored in a particular place and time, Barfi! is as timeless as a fairytale. It is a story that could lend itself almost effortlessly to any context, because it is one that is driven entirely by its characters, and what quirky characters these are! It is the story of Murphy a.k.a. Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), a deaf and mute boy who falls for a beautiful girl, Shruti (Illeana D'Cruz), who is engaged to be married. His uninhibited love for life lands him in a world of trouble, which includes an adventure with an autistic girl, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra). Their lives intersect at crossroads over the course of several years, leaving a lasting impact on them and the people around them.
Basu creates layered, lovable characters and therein lies his greatest success. This film would collapse under its own weight if it weren't for its strong central characters, each of which is complex and believable. Barfi is simple, but by no means a simpleton. He is exuberant and cheerful but not the saccharine-y happy type. Shruti is flawed and doesn't always do right by people. But Basu neither idolises her for her beauty nor demonises her for her actions. Jhilmil is pure of heart, but she is also stubborn, difficult and needy. It is these endearing characters, so wonderfully realised by the three actors (particularly Ranbir Kapoor), that allow the film to soar well above its clunky script.

Stylistically, the influence of Chaplin is apparent throughout the film. It is easy to see glimpses of The Kid and City Lights in key moments. Influence also comes in the form of more recent works like Jean Pierre Jeunet's Amelie. However, while Anurag Basu does draw inspiration, he does not imitate. Instead, he wisely weaves these influences into a voice that is his own. It is undoubtedly his most accomplished film as a storyteller, told with love and affection for the art form and such conviction that he almost makes you forget the holes in the plot.

Technically, the film is gorgeous to look at. The journey of Jhilmil and Barfi is strewn with postcard shots of India. The use of light and shadow adds another dimension to the relationship of Barfi and Shruti, lending emotional depth in key moments. Swanand Kirkire pens lyrics that are unique to the characters and compliment the quirky yet emotionally stirring tone of the film. Pritam eclipses not only his entire discography, but also works of more accomplished musicians and delivers an album full of tunes that are as mesmerizing individually as they are complete together. From the excitement of new love to the insatiable longing for lost love, this album is, almost without a doubt, the best we will get this year.

Ultimately, Barfi! has the melodramatic heart of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the whimsical spirit of Charlie Chaplin. The combination hits a home run with the support of a wonderful cast. This is a film that will make you laugh hard, sob in silence and leave you with a grin on your face that is as eccentric as its characters; and for a few moments, it'll make you want to celebrate life as you know best, whether that is with a tune on your lips or a beat in your feet.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Bollywood lovers will get this: Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom is like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak but with 12 year old kids for protagonists.It is the final forty five minutes of that film converted into a offbeat feature, Wes Anderson style. In 1965, two kids run away from their homes on a tranquil island and decide to start a life on their own on a secluded beach. Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphan attending a scout camp on the island where he is a misfit and a constant source of anxiety for the camp counselor (Edward Norton). Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a reader, a dreamer; someone who believes that she is wiser well beyond her years; with a slob (Bill Murray) and an adulterer (Frances McDormand) for parents. Mayhem ensues when they run away as the counselor, the parents and a cop (Bruce Willis) embark on a search for them. The remaining scouts (also pre-teens) join the search party, like a tamer version of their teenage counterparts from Battle Royale, to settle scores with Sam. Add to this an oncoming freak storm and you have the perfect setting for a odd, adventurous love story.

The first thing you notice about the film is the striking photography. Suffused with a warm colour palette, the images of the island carry a very distinct look and set the dreamy, fairy-tale like atmosphere perfectly for the quirky fantasy to play itself out. Anderson also manages to assemble a truly superb cast together. While all the stalwarts deliver competent performances, it is the kids, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward that really blow your mind and capture your heart. Gilman plays Sam as the perfect underdog; nerdy, awkward and yet, brave hearted. Hayward looks like Emma Roberts but with considerably better acting skills. She plays Suzy wonderfully; and channels the rebellious, curious spirit quite effectively. From the moment when they first meet in a church, he in his scouts uniform and she dressed as a raven for a play, you are immediately sucked into their little world, rooting for them against all odds and oddities to succeed. 

Wes Anderson serves up his personal best in the form of Moonrise Kingdom. He directs the film with a deft hand and uses his signature whimsical style to make even the most preposterous and the most perplexing bits go down smoothly. In the process, he provides us with arguably the most emotionally rewarding and heartwarming love story in recent memory. There is a purity and innocence to the love of Sam and Suzy that is a rarity in these times. Sure, as they grow, that innocence is likely to be lost and the film hints at the haunting spectre of adulthood at several points. However, Anderson here is wise for seeing Sam and Suzy not as they are (naive pre-teens) but as they see themselves (rebellious, kindred spirits). This lends to their tale of love a sincerity and poignancy that will find resonance with a wider audience. 

Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is one of the finest films I am likely to see this year. It is Anderson's most accessible work without compromising on his distinctive style. Beneath its veneer of idiosyncrasies, this is an emotionally rich and complex tale of rebellious, young love with memorable, well drawn out characters that will leave you with a big smile on your face as you exit the theatre.

Rating: 4.5/5

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Snow White and the Huntsman is a mess. That is not to say it is a bad film; just to say that it is a mess. There is a lot to like here. But there is a fair bit to dislike as well. The plot is fairly straightforward: a witch (Charlize Theron) takes over a kingdom by seducing and killing the widowed king and imprisoning his daughter Snow White. Many years later as her beauty and power begin to fade, the magic mirror tells her that Snow White (Kristen Stewart) was destined to stop her and if she were to consume the heart of Snow White, she would be immortal. At the same time, Snow White escapes from her prison into the dark forest and a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is asked to hunt her down. Instead, the Huntsman joins forces with her and along with the seven dwarves, Duke Hammond, his son William (Sam Claflin) and their army, lay siege on the witch's fortress.

There are two reasons to recommend the film: Charlize Theron and the production work. Charlize Theron looks sensuously bewitching and walks a fine line between menace and madness. She delivers a stellar performance, exercising the perfect amount of restraint over her exuberant, malevolent character. Among the actors, the film belongs to her, and her alone. It is a joy to watch her on the screen.

The second thing that works in favour of the film is the production work. The film is a feast for the eyes. The special effects, the art work, the camerawork and the action converge with each other to provide an absolutely riveting experience. Tremendous amounts of imagination as gone into conceiving these visuals, and it shows. The film is not just grand, but also beautiful to behold. They set the dark, melancholic atmosphere of the film quite well. There is a scene when injured ravens come together to form the injured queen. They converge into thick, black ooze and from there, the queen emerges in a gown of black feathers. The sheer detail with which this scene is constructed is breathtaking and the film offers plenty of such moments.

However, the film is almost undone by the rest of it. Kristen Stewart looks beautiful but is a poor choice to play a warrior princess. She looks ill at ease throughout as if still channeling the angst ridden, idiotic spirit of Bella from the Twilight series. Moreover, there is no chemistry between her and Hemsworth or her and Claflin. The love triangle is stale, soulless and without any passion. They are also done a great disservice by a script that provides very poor dialogues. At pivotal moments, when the words are meant to inspire, arouse or endear, the end result is either devoid of emotion, cringe inducing or unintentionally funny. Also, the film is overlong by a good twenty minutes. It meanders aimlessly at times, adding pointless subplots. The dwarves look and talk as if they've just walked off the sets of The Hobbit.

Ultimately, Snow White and the Huntsman has a lot to offer by way of visuals. It also has an enchanting villainess. However, there is a whole lot of mediocrity pervading the rest of the film that mars the overall impact considerably. If you love Charlize Theron or great visuals (or both), then this one is recommended viewing. For the rest, it's just another one of those summer blockbusters you will forget about soon after exiting the theatre.

Rating: 3/5

(P.S.: Notice how Hemsworth and Theron get more prominent footage in the poster? I wish that were the case with the film as well.)

Rowdy Rathore (2012)

Let me say this out upfront: Rowdy Rathore does not make a lick of sense. Seriously, looking for logic in the film is like looking for a strand of hay in a stack of needles. It is a needlessly excruciating exercise. Instead, if you choose to look beyond its nonsensical plot and simply lay back and enjoy the silliness of it all, you will have a jolly good time. 

Watching the film is like going through a time machine and landing up in the 1980s. This is the kind of cinema that made the careers of people like Jeetendra, Mithun and the like. Prabhudeva sticks steadfastly to the formula, with minimal reinvention for a modern audience. The audacity and confidence with which he does this is the prime reason why the film works. The dhinchak naach gaana, the dhamaakedaar lines, the copious jokes and the insane, over the top action is enough to keep you entertained for the most part. The villains are appropriately disgusting and ferocious and it is a delight to watch them meet their end at the hands of the hero(es). The production values are high, particularly the camerawork and production design.

The true hero of this film are the dialogues. They are full on taali maaro, seeti bajao type dialogues. Sonakshi Sinha is just eye candy. Her face is more expressive when she is dancing than when she is acting. Akshay Kumar is back in action, and he fits the part well. That isn't to say that he deserves any award for this, but he does deserve credit for not imitating Salman and playing to his own strengths. After all, only Salman has managed to pull off films like this in recent memory. This is hands down the most entertaining film Akshay has done in several years. Paresh Ganatra is hilarious as the sidekick. Nasser makes for a truly sick villain.

You will notice that I haven't explained the plot. Why bother I say? It's not like it is going to change anybody's minds. Those who are going for this film are well aware of what they are going for. Those not going, unless they are forced, will stay clear either way. I knew what I was going for. And with those expectations, I had a pretty good time.To use my favourite alliteration, this is pure, pulpy, popcorn entertainment.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

My hands are trembling as I type this. That should be sufficient indication of what I felt about The Avengers. The greatest build up in movie history, I waited patiently for four long years for it to come to fruition. First, there was Iron Man, then Iron Man 2, Thor and finally Captain America: The First Avenger. Each distinct, each entertaining. Finally, the wait is over and in the end, the payoff could not have been any better. In terms of spectacle and scale, it makes its predecessors look like small budget productions. At the same time, it is emotionally rich and very gratifying. The credit for that goes to one man, and one man only: Joss Whedon. The Avengers is testimony to what is possible when you give a creative genius nearly unlimited resources. This is Whedon at his absolute finest. The Avengers works, and works so fucking well.

I remember the last time I experienced such child like glee. It was when Woody and Buzz Lightyear zoomed across the road on a rocket to land safely in Andy's carton of toys. I was eight years old. I experienced a similar feeling when watching The Avengers. I laughed out loud, jumped for joy and jubilantly pumped my fist up in the air more than once.

The film's plot is simple. When the Tassaract (introduced in Captain America) is taken by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), he uses it to unleash his army and take over the Earth. To stop him and save the world, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) launches the Avengers Initiative. He brings together Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to take on Loki and his evil army. But first, they must learn to work together as a team if the world is to have any shot at survival.

Sure, the plot lacks nuance. Of course, there are holes in the story. But in many ways, its simplicity and single mindedness are its greatest assets; for Whedon uses the opportunity to focus on the characters, toy with them, flesh them out and establish them firmly in the collective pop culture conscience of a whole new generation. There will be plenty of time for clever plotting in Avengers 2, which is an inevitability at this point. He uses his signature skill of deftly balancing humour and high octane action and drama to deliver gripping, thoroughly satisfying popcorn entertainment, with plenty of heart.

The film has some impeccable dialogues. Few writers do attitude as well as Joss Whedon and The Avengers is bursting at its seams with attitude. Not just Tony Stark, each character in the film has their moments of unqualified glory; even Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Therein lies Whedon's greatest triumph. The masterful puppeteer that he is (testified by his TV resume), he balances these heavyweight, larger than life characters beautifully. No one character is allowed to dominate, as much as Stark (and his fans) would have liked. They are established as equals, as a team, not just on paper but also on the screen. That is a tough task; but Whedon makes it look so fucking easy.

In terms of action, the film boils down to two mammoth battle scenes, one in the air and the other in New York City. A lot of imagination goes into conjuring up these sequences and unarguably, the mammoth budget is extremely well spent. Although he takes his time to come to it, when the action does come, Whedon delivers plenty of mind-blowing moments. At the same time, he is assisted by a brilliant cast that looks absolutely stunning and works well as a team. Unlike Thor, Tom Hiddleston really gets to shine as Loki here. Scarlett Johanssen not only is a classy actor but is also undoubtedly the most beautiful woman in the world. What more can you ask for?

Ultimately, The Avengers is not only a stunning conclusion to a series, it is a refreshing start of a new one. With Whedon at the helm, the possibilities are endless. As a superhero movie, it is closer to Superman than The Dark Knight, and better for it.  It is a very American work of art, one that pays due homage to its rich cultural base and yet, reinterprets it creatively for a much wider audience. Movies like this give blockbusters a good name and remind us why we love watching them. So buckle up people. Hearts will race. Adrenaline will rush. You are about to witness an epic movie.

Rating: 5/5

P.S.: Don't leave when the end credits start to roll. You may regret it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vicky Donor (2012)

After a great debut with the beautifully shot and severely underrated Yahaan, Shoojit Sircar offers Vicky Donor as his sophomore venture, the story of a vella Dilli da launda (Ayushmaan) who agrees to become a sperm donor for Dr. Baljit Chaddha's (Annu Kapoor) infertility clinic. Although he makes pot loads of money, which make his clueless mother (Dolly Ahluwalia) and grandmother very happy, things get complicated when he falls in love with an independent, outgoing Bengali girl (Yami Gautam) working in a bank.

Sircar hits a home run in his second innings. The film is undoubtedly the finest comedy I have seen since Khosla Ka Ghosla. Every aspect of it is spot on. The script is absolutely hilarious from start to end. The dialogues are ball bustingly funny in several places and the competition for the best scene is a tough one with plenty of candidates. My personal favourites are the drunk conversations between the mother and the grandmother and the scenes leading up to the marriage of the lead pair. These have you howling in laughter.

However, what makes the film truly great is in the way it handles the drama. Although it has been promoted as a comedy about sperm donation, it is so much more than that. It is a sweet, refreshingly honest love story with endearing, well fleshed out characters. Instead of sleepwalking or speeding through the drama to allow for more humour, those moments are handled with great care and maturity. The confrontation scenes in particular have been executed exceedingly well. The result is a genuinely heartfelt and moving experience where the viewer feels invested in the characters, a rarity in Bollywood comedies.

In terms of performances, Ayushmaan nails the role. He is absolutely convincing as the tharki with a heart of gold and the sperm count of Alexander. Yami Gautam looks gorgeous and enacts the dramatic scenes with surprising amounts of conviction. Together, they have tremendous chemistry and make for an attractive pair. Annu Kapoor is laugh out loud funny. The actor has been denied his due for a long time. Let's hope this film changes that. The actors playing the families of the lead pair fit their roles perfectly.

Overall, armed with a great script, solid acting and a nice soundtrack, Vicky Donor represents the changing times of Bollywood, where the quality of the film is its selling point rather than the glossy wrapping in which it is presented. Although the pacing could have been tighter in the second half, that is a minor glitch in an otherwise excellent film. It is an endearing love letter to the city of Delhi and its inhabitants. Alternately funny and heartwarming, it will leave you exhausted with laughter and maybe even a tear in the eye.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Music Review: Ishaqzaade (2012)

Although still relatively unknown, Habib Faisal has an impressive resume already. Scripting films like Band Baaja Baraat, he made his directorial debut with the immensely likable Do Dooni Chaar, a joyous, honest celebration of middle class life. Now he offers his next film, Ishaqzaade with another star son Arjun Kapoor and the flavour of the season, Parineeti Chopra. Made on a scale typical of Yash Raj Films, the film shows great potential for a marriage of gloss and content. The theatrical trailer of the film hit all the checkpoints, and looks quite fresh. The music has been given by the versatile Amit Trivedi and the lyrics are by Kausar Munir only cements that promise further.

The album opens on a relatively ordinary note with the title track "Ishaqzaade". Given that the trailer is practically exploding with attitude, the song is fairly safe. A romantic ballad, it is ably voiced by Jaaved Ali and Shreya Ghoshal. It is buoyant, melodious and grows on you after a while. However, it remains the least of the tracks in the album.

Next is the item song "Chokra Jawaan". This is where you see Trivedi get into the groove. The song reminds me of Kajraa Re from Bunty Aur Babli. The premise is similar: horny young man trying to woo a dancing hottie. However, the unconventional execution makes it a great outing. The 90s style beats, heavily reminiscent of Ek Do Teen days gives it a distinct flavour. Also, some stunning singing from Dadlani and Sunidhi Chauhan, who happily shed every shred of pretense and embrace their inner sleaze and tease, elevates the song to another level.

After this, we have a powerful, lilting tune in the form of "Pareshaan". A song about the exasperating confusion of first love, it is sung with great restraint by newcomer Shalmali Kholgade. It is also arranged beautifully by Trivedi who fuses Indian and Western instruments almost effortlessly. The use of the harmonium in the song is particularly noteworthy.

The penultimate track of the album if "Jhalla Wallah". It is also, in my humble opinion, the finest song of the album. It features Shreya Ghoshal in her post-Ooh La La avatar and she nails it. She really is shaping up to be the Asha Bhonsle of our generation. Few female singers today can claim that level of versatility. As a tune, the song reminds me of "Namak" from Omkara, in the best way possible. However, the true star here isn't Trivedi; it's Kausar Munir. A song about a woman bitching about her jhalla aashiq, the lyrics of the song are some of the freshest I have heard in years.Sample this:

Aashiqon mein jiska title Titanic,
Muaa! Kinaara dikha kar ke dubba ke gaya.

Humne samjha tha golden jubilee jise,
Woh toh matinee dikha karke chumma le gaya.

Hands down, this is the best dance song I have heard this year.

The final song of the album is "Afaton Ke Parinde" which serves as an alternate title track. This one's is more in sync with the mood and attitude of the film as conveyed the trailer. It's position is similar to that of the title track in Tashan, a severely under-rated album in my opinion. Again, the star here is Munir who brings his best to the table as a lyricist. His lyrics are fresh, contemporary and yet, are purer and truer to the linguistic roots of Bollywood music than most recent albums I have heard. The effortlessness with which he toys with language reminds me a lot of Gulzar. That is the greatest compliment I can offer for him. Seriously, where did they dig this guy out of?

Overall, Ishaqzaade isn't Trivedi's best album. That still remains Dev D, and maybe always shall. However, the songs work together well as an album and capture the youthful, mofussil charm of the film quite well. Featuring some great singing and a phenomenal new talent in the form of Kausar Munir, this is undoubtedly an album worth adding to your playlist and playing in loop.

Music: 3.5/5
Lyrics: 4/5

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Battleship (2012)

As tempted as I was to copy and paste my review of Battle: Los Angeles from last year here, I have decided to evaluate Battleship on its own terms, howsoever scant (read: non-existent) those terms may be. The fundamental difference between a game of any kind and a film is that you can't play the film. A film needs a premise, a plot and some themes to engage the viewer. It needs characters that you feel invested in and/or empathise with. A flashy film without these is like watching someone else play a game. It's boring, no matter how loud the explosions or how snazzy the special effects are. Battleship greatest folly is that it falls in that trap, and how. Its plot makes no sense. The script is a mere convenience to shoehorn senseless action and somehow fit in the format of the game. Cardboard has more depth than the characters. Basically, even by bad movie standards, this is a really bad movie.

You have a hero (Taylor Kitsch), an intelligent naval officer who has no aim in life (do they ever?). He looks like a cross between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hardy but unfortunately, has none of the acting skills. He has an overbearing brother who is a bundle of bad American army cliches (why Alexander Skarsgard, why?). He likes this hottie, who is also a physical therapist with a heart of gold (but not enough 'impact' when running a la Megan Fox). She has a daddy (Liam Neeson) who is barely there, and better for it. Then there is the token black woman (Rihanna) to deliver "clever" lines like, "Damn!", "Boom!" and "Ain't that sweet?" There's also a Kentucky white guy who has the only remotely likable character around and a Japanese bloke who starts out fighting the hero, but then becomes his best friend.

So where's the plot you ask? Well, an alien ship lands and decides it will only attack what it sees as a threat. Despite all its advance weaponry, it cannot see beyond line of sight and hence, must attack on instinct, which is convenient because the American warships can't see them on radar either. So it's all about "hit and miss", conveniently incorporating the game's main angle. Why are they here? Do you really care to know?

At an exasperating 131 minutes, I really felt like going for that gun and shooting the editor. The film is far too talky for its own good, which may have been okay if the talk made any sense, but the dialogue delivery is so poor, that you can barely make head or tail of it, let alone evaluate its quality. There are a few decent lines here and there. However, looking for those is like looking for a strand of hay in a bag full of needles. It hurts.

I have a lot of respect for people like Michael Bay and Rolland Emmerich. They really know how to make a silly film entertaining. In all fairness, they have more hits than misses, and for good reason. They know what the audience expects of them, and more often than not, they deliver. Unfortunately, try as he might, Peter Berg is no Bay. He failed in Hancock. He failed in The Kingdom, and he fails monumentally here. His directorial skills are practically non-existent. His film is all over the place. He has no control over it, and from the look of things, he doesn't seem to have tried too hard to avoid that.

The patriotism pervading through the film results in serious overkill and makes Indian war movies like Border look mellow in comparison. Cringe-inducing is a word that often comes to mind. Japanese and American sailors playing against each other in Hawaii. American hero versus Japanese stud. And worst of all, there is a scene where the hero is looking helplessly at a WWII battleship and wondering use it against the enemy and in the background, one after another, ancient looking war veterans appear out of thin air to drive the ship, and the hero, to victory. The special effects are okay, nothing great really. The overdose of CGI makes everything look artificial. How I missed the model based realistic destruction of Independence Day and Titanic. Now that shit really made me go, "Holy fuck!" Unfortunately, nothing like that is in sight here.

Ultimately, Battleship is the ultimate American big budget cliche of a film; it's loud, silly and mindless. However, it is also deathly boring and you couldn't give a rat's ass about what the hell is going on. It's pathetic excuse for character building in the first hour just makes you long for the explosions, and when those come, you can't help but think, "Is that it?" Do yourself a favour. Ditch this and play the Hasbro game instead. Or better still, pop some corn, rent Independence Day, and have your mind blown all over again.

Rating: 1/5

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

It's been a long time since a film made me smile this much and for this long. Several minutes after I had left the theatre, I had this broad, goofy grin on my face as I remembered the memorable scenes of the film, and they were many. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a beautiful film about travelling, ageing and finding yourself no matter at what point of life. It's optimism and hope is almost addictive. It is a conventional film by all accounts. However, it employs conventions well and assembles a cast of some of the finest actors in the British film industry today. These depth they bring to the script elevates it well above other conventional fares and the results is a sweet, emotionally rich and personally, a very nostalgic experience.

7 people in their twilight years decide to move to a hotel in Jaipur, India which promises to be an oasis for the elderly. Evelyn (Judi Dench) just lost her husband and leaves the sheltered life of a housewife for a new experience. Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) lost all their savings and are looking for a new start. Graham (Tom Wilkinson) returns to India after 40 years looking for a man who changed his life. Muriel (Maggie Smith), a racist English woman is forced to come for a hip replacement surgery and Madge(Celia Imrie) & Norman (Ronald Pickup) refuse to acknowledge their age and are looking for some action. The hotel, they find, is a derelict establishment run by Sunny (Dev Patel) who has great ambitions to turn the hotel around. As we see them navigate through the chaos of India, bonds are formed and broken; lives begin and end.

The film is scripted wonderfully. Although it stereotypes often and borders on racism at times, one must acknowledge the fact that it is scripted from the perspective of outsiders who are experiencing India for the first time. Having said that, it has a rare maturity when dealing with these issues and more importantly, it succeeds in capturing the experience of ageing quite truthfully. The narration by Evelyn as she writes her blog in India anchors the film in meaning. Certain scenes linger with you for a long time after they've concluded like when Graham meets Manoj, the man who changed his life and the conversations between Evelyn and Douglas.

The performances are wonderful. Even Dev Patel, who is usually annoying manages to endear by the time the film concludes. The older actors bring the required subtlety, experience and sincerity to their performances. They are the lifeline of the film. Of these, the film belongs to Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. It is a delight to watch Nighy take on a dramatic role and do it complete justice. The moment when he confronts Jean about the elephant in the room is powerful and heartbreaking.

At the centre of all of this is India, a country I belong to and love. In November last year, I took a solitary trip for a month in North India and the film evoked many memories of my experiences. The camera captures the colours, sounds and the sense of ordered chaos rather brilliantly. The dialogues reveal insights about the country that are both, genuine and honest. The country becomes another character in the story, driving these people towards their epiphanies and experiences.

Overall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is feel good without being syrupy. It is moving without being sappy and honest without being preachy. By the end of it, you may fall in love with the characters, as I did; leave the theatre with the urge to celebrate the life that you have and be greatful for the privileges it has to offer.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

If Manmohan Desai and Manoj Kumar were given Rs. 1000 crores to make a film today, the result would probably resemble Wrath of the Titans. It is an unabashed masala movie from start to finish and if you embrace that fact, you will have a jolly good time. It's plot boils down to a bunch of cardboard characters with some serious daddy issues out to screw each other over (with the fate of the world hanging in the balance). Seriously, the depth of their issues could be worthy of several Freudian analyses.

At the same time, I haven't seen such shameless display of machismo since 300. Testosterone seems to be  pouring out of every orifice of the film. But while 300 had at least a fixed villain, by the end of Wrath, you have all the heroes and villains (post spontaneous change of hearts) on the same side battling against a CGI monster and it took some effort for me to suppress the urge to shout, "Group hug!" For some of you, that may be a spoiler. It hardly matters, really. If it is the plot you are concerned about, you've entered the wrong cinema hall.

Having said that, the film is a substantial improvement over the first in every department, though that is not saying much. The 3D quality is great. The special effects are genuinely breathtaking in places, both in terms of imagination and attention to detail. The production is slicker; the pacing tighter. Bill Nighy provides some great comic relief. Rosamund Pike looks gorgeous. The acting sucks uniformly. But who cares right? When so much is happening on the screen, things like actors and plot become merely an excuse to stitch all the action scenes together and market as a film. Someday, computers will be able to direct a film like Wrath on auto pilot and those things will become redundant altogether. You just wait and watch.

Ultimately, Wrath is as spectacular as it is silly. But as far as visuals go, it is definitely a feast for the eyes. As long as don't waste your time with pointless things (like a plot), you may just have an enjoyable time.

Rating: 2.5/5

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games doesn't have the most original story. The premise borrows copiously from other films and books (1984, Battle Royale etc.). Also, its philosophy has been visibly mellowed in the transition from book to film. However, what it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in its execution. Thrilling from start to end and packing a surprisingly strong emotional punch, the film works both, as a teen phenomenon and as an entertaining film for adults.

In a dystopian future, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district of the Capitol must compete in the Hunger Games, a fight where only one person can survive. When her 12 year old sister's name is picked, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers herself for the Games. Together with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she must prepare and compete against trained, lethal fighters from other districts in the Games which are telecast throughout the Capitol as a source of entertainment.

The film is very well directed by Gary Ross who takes his time to establish his characters and their relationships. He uses close ups and hand held camera movements to create a visceral impact. Also, the minimal use of music in key places helps set the stark, menacing tones of the film quite well. Consequently, the characters and themes resonate with the audience from the beginning and the connection remains till the very end.

The writing isn't perfect. At times, you can feel the political undercurrents of the story have been dumbed down for the audience. But it is easy to overlook that in favour of the characters. Katniss makes for a wonderful protagonist. She isn't the conventional underdog. She is a rich, complex character and the perfect foundation for a series. Jennifer Lawrence essays the role with the right mix of ferocity and vulnerability. Her relationship with Peeta, which is crucial to the film, is evolved organically and with great care, a rarity in big budget films today. Josh Hutcherson gives a solid performance, complementing Lawrence at every step. Also interesting is her relationship with her mentor. The film benefits greatly from a competent cast with effective performances from Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland. Although Liam Hemsworth has little to do in this film, I suspect he will get plenty of opportunities to offer a lot more as the series progresses.

If I have to pick a serious fault in the film, it would have to be in the action. In terms of cinematography, the close ups which help set the emotional undertones of the film so well do a great disservice in some of the action work. The editing is jarring and makes the action sequences almost incomprehensible in places. I strongly suspect this has to do with the PG-13 rating. Although the film does push the rating hard, given that it uses hand to hand combat rather than stylised action, the end result seems too tame in places, for example, the initial minutes when the Games begin.

Nevertheless, overall, The Hunger Games is a thrilling roller-coaster ride with clever direction, good acting and a strong emotional undercurrent which makes up for most of its flaws. What it lacks in blood, it more than makes up for in brains; a far more valuable commodity in blockbuster cinema these days. Ladies and gentlemen, buckle up. A potentially great series has just begun. May the odds be ever in its favour.

Rating: 3.5/5

Housefull 2 (2012)

Yes. I saw Housefull 2. I told myself, if I like this film, then either Sajid Khan has been abducted by aliens and replaced with a clone or it is time for me to stop reviewing films. Thankfully, neither is the case here.

In my previous review, I mentioned how certain scenes in Agent Vinod would make a great prelude to a porno. Scratch that. Housefull 2 takes the cake in that department. It's 159 minutes would be a whole lot more entertaining if it were a steamy porno, and the script offers several situations for one. Alas, it is not to be.

There was a time when the term "comedy of errors" meant works like Gulzar's Angoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Golmaal and even David Dhawan's No. 1 series. Unfortunately, those times are long gone and they have been replaced by utter trash which offer plenty of errors but little by way of comedy. Such is the case with Housefull 2 as well. You will spend far less time laughing and far more trying to keep up with the numerous characters and disentangle the ridiculous plot. In its 159 minute runtime, there is about 30 minutes of humour, and that is a generous estimate. There are some truly hilarious moments particularly in the final 20 minutes. However, those are few drops of water in an otherwise barren terrain.

The first half is literally too difficult to endure. It's humourless, silly and meandering. I was tempted to leave in the intermission, but the prospect of Anarkali Disco Chali held me back. Some of the humour is highly offensive (particularly a scene involving Mithun and a dwarf); but by then, so much has gone wrong in the film, that it matters little.

The performances range from wooden to over the top. When Mithun is the most restrained actor in the cast, you know you are in trouble. It is cringing to see Randhir and Rishi Kapoor make utter fools of themselves with their loud, hammy performances. Chunkey Pandey should just stop acting (like really, someone stop him please!) and Boman Irani is wasted in an extended special appearance. The women are stick figures (figuratively of course, given Fat-rina is a part of the cast) that merely exist for eye candy purposes. The only saving grace is veteran villain Ranjit, who is riotously funny in a cameo appearance. 

There is not much else to say really. Housefull 2 is a bad, bad, bad film. It's plot...well, there isn't one there to begin with. If you find yourself laughing too hard (like me), it's probably at the atrociousness of it all; either that, or you've been exposed to nitrous oxide in the theatre.

Rating: 1.5/5

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Agent Vinod (2012)

I thoroughly enjoyed Agent Vinod, which is not at all to say that it is a good film. On the contrary, it's quite a trashy one, delightfully so; though that is not for lack of trying. There is a great film there, somewhere. There are some truly juicy ideas on paper. However, the end result is a hideously convoluted mess with unintentional humour as its primary redeeming feature. Broadly, the film's scenes fall into three categories: some would make a great prelude to a steamy porno, some are straight out of a 70s masala film (with little care for reinvention for a modern audience) and a few, fleeting moments are truly brilliant.

An arms dealer in Russia is murdered. He possessed a portable nuclear device that is stolen. It's detonator is about to be auctioned and several terrorists groups are in hot pursuit of both. A RAW agent with no name (Saif) is the only one that can stop them and to do so, embarks on a mission that takes him to Afghanistan, St. Petersburg, Morocco, Latvia, Somalia and anywhere else you can think of. On his journey, he meets the enigmatic Iram (Kareena Kapoor), who can't decide whether she's a criminal, a spy or a damsel in distress and plays all three parts as the script demands. The plot thickens and thickens and then thickens some more till the point where its just too thick to savour (or rationalise for that matter). At the same time, it is as transparent as boiled wax and the twists and turns are as predictable as they come.

Sriram Raghavan is one of the more promising voices of his generation. His previous film, Johnny Gaddar, was slick and cleverly plotted. It's impact was only marred by the sedate and lackluster performance of its leading man, Neil Nitin Mukesh. However, with Agent Vinod, he is absolutely all over the place. While the signature touch is there in individual scenes, he loses grip over the sprawling narrative surprisingly early on. He reveals all his cards in the initial reels leaving little by way of surprises or thrills. The film rambles on rather unnecessarily as if its sole purpose is to add as many fancy locations to its list as possible.

In terms of writing , if one were to start poking holes in the plot, it would sink faster than the Titanic. The word "preposterous" frequently leaps to mind. The film is overstuffed with characters, none of which leave a major impact. The villains are as cringe inducing as they are numerous. Not since Ram Lakhan have I so quickly lost count of the number of villains in a film. The most memorable of the lot is Ram Kapoor as a sleazy Russian drug lord and that's only because of how cringe-inducing his performance is. The central villain Colonel (Adil Hussain) is never fleshed out and is consequently, just dull. The editor deserves to be shot for butchering the action sequences with incessant, disorienting three second cuts.

There are some great moments though: the single take action scene in the seedy hotel in Latvia with Raabta playing in the background is a stroke of genius. The interaction between Agent Vinod and Freddie Khambatta is very well executed and the aunties in the auto are hilarious. There are plenty of cool cultural references from 70s masala movies to Charlie Chaplin. Alas, clever gimmickry alone does not a good film make, even if you add a sterling performance from Saif Ali Khan. He is the anchor of the film and gives a sincere, stylish and physical performance.

Ultimately however, the biggest problem of Agent Vinod is that it has no reason to exist, let alone exist for that long. It's like Harry Potter stuck in an endless maize filled with Basilisks, Blast Ended Skrewts, Boggarts and  other colourful beasts with no exit. It's amusing to look at for a while, but all rather pointless. If you go with a chatty bunch (as I did), you may just enjoy the film, but for all the wrong reasons.

Rating: 2/5

P.S.: Dear Mr. Raghavan, how could you, of all people, misquote the final line from Casablanca? Very disappointing.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012)

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu is a rather brilliant bait and switch. The promos & marketing promise one movie and the makers deliver another. Personally, I would take the other any day over the expected one. However, going by the reactions of the people in the hall, I suspect that this is a film that will be enjoyed more by the people dragged to watch this movie than the people dragging them. Although it looks like a What Happens In Vegas-esque predictable romantic comedy, it isn’t. It is formulaic, sure. But it isn’t the formula you expect, and that is where the film works.

A night in Vegas later, uptight architect Rahul (Imran Khan) wakes up to a new bride, Riana (Kareena Kapoor) thanks to an Elvis Chapel and lots of booze. She’s a carefree hairstylist. He’s a neat freak, depressed wreck with extremely controlling, overbearing parents (Boman Irani and Ratna Pathak Shah). They apply for annulment immediately and over their two week marriage, they grow from strangers to friends and maybe, something more.

The humour in EMAET is plentiful and thankfully, the promos save the best moments for the cinema hall. There is a hilarious bathroom sex scene (well, as close to sex as Bollywood can get), an adorable re-imagining of “Koi Mil Gaya” from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, some great granny humour and several solid one liners. The good thing about the humour is that the writers don’t try to make every scene laugh out loud funny. They stay true to the characters and provide enough guffaws and giggles as well.

Beyond humour, the film benefits from more nuance in the characterisation than is expected from the routine rom com fares. Imran Khan handles the transformation of Rahul from uptight to easy remarkably well. From the expressions to the body language, he gets most things right. Kareena Kapoor’s Riana is something of an urban avatar of Geet from Jab We Met. However, they are different in small but important ways and Kapoor does a solid job throughout. It’s great to see her do something more than just play damsel in distress for Salman or SRK.

However, the true stars of the film are Ayesha Devitre and Shakun Batra. The writing is fresh and barring a few awkward scenes, the execution is clean and highly competent. The writing has the urban authenticity of Wake Up Sid and a quirky touch that is new (and very welcome) to mainstream Bollywood. Except for Rahul’s caricatured parents, the characters and their relationships are easy to identify with and their conversations are straight out of life. Although the second half has too many songs, the runtime is economic and pacing perfect.

Overall, EMAET is one part laugh out loud funny, one part disarmingly, achingly sweet and a whole lot of fun. Although the first half has all the trappings of formulaic romance, the second half quietly & successfully drives the film to a more mature, slice of life comedy. It is that rare treat that has something for everyone: from hipsters to hopeless romantics; from adolescents to aunty-jis.

Rating: 4/5

P.S.: On a side, mostly unrelated note, are the 20s the new teens as far as the romantic comedy are concerned?

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

There is a major spoiler in the penultimate paragraph of this review. It has been sufficiently marked. If you haven’t seen the original or read the book, then avoid.

As I saw Fincher’s take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I was constantly reminded of another Swedish film that got a Hollywood remake: Let The Right One In. While its remake (titled Let Me In) was structurally similar to the original, it set itself apart by stressing on different emotions and themes, without compromising on elements that made the original iconic. Consequently, both were terrific films worthy of being appreciated on their own. Unfortunately, the remake of TGWTDT, while technically impressive, brings very little that is new to the table apart from a few cosmetic changes.

For the plot, read my review of the original. The opening credits are phenomenal. Visually and aurally, they are quite a treat and innovative in conveying the themes of the film. Christopher Plummer is also perfectly cast as Henrik Vanger. The three biggest assets of the film are the cinematography and the background score. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor provide a haunting background score that despite its electronic base has deeply rooted in classic noir and Hitchcockian mysteries. Their cover of the Immigrant Song is very good. The cinematography is effective in creating the sense of dread, danger and melancholia. Rooney Mara gives a phenomenal performance, undoubtedly. However, the screenplay simplifies her character in key aspects that robs her performance of the nuance and subtleties that Noomi Rapace brought to Lisbeth Salander.

Moreover, there is a distinct lack of imagination in the remake that is alarming. The setting remains the same. The execution of the scenes is similar. It’s all very by the numbers. The few changes that are made actually make it pale in comparison to the original. And although Daniel Craig is a better actor than Michael Nyqvist, what is with the English accent? Everyone around him (including Rooney Mara) has an exotic (Swedish sounding) accent. But he doesn't. His accent is distracting, out of place and tempts me greatly to dismiss his performance as just, plain lazy.  

Spoiler Alert

The worst decision the film makes is in casting Stellan Skarsgard as Martin Vanger. This isn’t because he is a bad actor, it’s because he is too popular a face. As the most recognizable Swedish actor in the world since Ingrid Bergman and Max von Sydow, one knows his character is likely to play a “significant” role, which robs the film of the element of surprise. The great thing about Peter Haber was that he blended in with the rest of the family. Therefore, one expected him to be no more or less significant than the rest of the lot. Unfortunately, Skarsgard is a bad choice for the role. It would’ve been interesting had they brought someone new/relatively unknown.

Spoiler Ends

Ultimately, the most unfortunate thing about the remake is that there is very little Fincher brings to the table in terms of vision. Barring a few clever touches, it's almost as if he directed the film on autopilot. In his repertoire, this is Fincher’s weakest film since Panic Room. For me, the film’s greatest failing is that its inability to meet its maker’s self imposed standards. While someone who hasn’t seen the original will enjoy it, others who have will find little of interest in this remake. And between the two films, I strongly suggest you see the Swedish version. 

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Agneepath (2012)

One of the ways I measure the strength of a masala movie is in the amount joy I derive in watching the villains fall. By that standard, Agneepath is a phenomenal film. It brings not one, but two detestable villains to screen and it is a delight to watch them both meet their downfall at the hands of the iconic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan. A remake of a remake of a remake, like a game of chinese whispers, the story of Agneepath bears little resemblance to Brian De Palma's Scarface which originally inspired it. In the hands of Karan Malhotra, it undergoes a formidable transformation resulting in a final product that is gutsy, intelligent and bold.

For standing up against a land grabbing feudal lord, Kancha Cheena (Sanjay Dutt), Vijay's father is framed and brutally executed for a horrific crime he didn't commit. Driven out of their home in Mandva, his mother (Zarina Wahab), sister and he find shelter in the slums of Mumbai where he comes under the tutelage of sleazy child trafficker and drug lord Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor). Fifteen years later, as Rauf Lala and Kancha Cheena are locked in a gang war, Vijay quietly awaits his time for revenge. When the chips are finally set in place, he puts his plan in motion to exact a bloody revenge from Kancha.

Agneepath is skillfully executed by Karan Malhotra. He demonstrates a solid eye for detail in scene construction and tells the story with remarkable gusto and conviction. He focuses on the raw emotions to pack a visceral punch in several key scenes. The death of Dinanath Chauhan, the songs Shah Ka Rutba and Deva Shri Ganesha are particularly masterfully executed. His characters are well drawn, complex and rich. He effectively pays homage to the original at key points. However, he does well to steer clear from imitating it. The production design and cinematography are breathtaking. From the slums of Mumbai and their celebrations to the hellish remains of Mandva, each frame is saturated with colours and is alternately & equally, gorgeous and haunting. Of course, given the time setting, there are several anachronisms. But it's easy to overlook them. Ajay-Atul's score may not be a chartbuster but it fits the situations and the mood of the film very well.

The film also benefits from a strong ensemble. The casting is perfect. Sanjay Dutt is menacing as Kancha Cheena. Hrithik brings a youthful ferocity to his take on Vijay Dinanath Chauhan. This is easily his strongest performance since Lakshya. Priyanka Chopra finally returns to form as the lovable Kaali. Om Puri is perfect as Gaitonde. The supporting cast also consistently delivers competent performances. However, the true stud of the film is Rishi Kapoor. As Rauf Lala, Rishi Kapoor delivers a fearless performance, outshines everybody and emerges as a force to be reckoned with. It is heartening to see the veteran actor grow and experiment in films like this and Do Dooni Chaar at his age.

Unfortunately, the film is not without its flaws. Chetan Pandit's Dinanath Chauhan is nowhere nearly as effective as Alok Nath's. While the first half of the film is perfect, the second half is significantly weaker. The pace slackens especially after the introduction of Shiksha, Vijay's sister, with a barrage of songs. The over extended, unrealistic climax and the use of tacky special effects don't help things. Also, Malhotra recklessly drives the film into unnecessary melodrama in these portions resulting in emotional overkill. 

Overall, Agneepath is a well executed, powerful film for the most part. It is a great throwback at the grand masala movies we grew up on like Khuda Gawah, Hum, Saudagar and Tezaab. At the same time, Malhotra reinvents the formulas of yore for a modern audience and succeeds unconditionally until the final hour. Nevertheless, Agneepath offers a well plotted, violent, gripping yarn of vengeance that will most probably feature in my year's list of best Hindi films.

Rating: 4/5