Monday, May 18, 2015

Not a Review - Mad Max Fury Road

A desolate man stands with a heavy bag atop a sand dune, looking at the vastness of the desert sprawled in front of him. The sky is swathed with the heat of a thousand suns. He’s thirsty, his canteen is almost empty. ‘My name is George Miller’, the man’s husky voice reverberates, ‘I trawl this desert named Hollywood’.

Strewn across the desert are rectangular black boxes with pictures of movies on one face. Vacant posters float across the dunes, taking them wherever the wind turns. The sand on the dunes shifts slowly as Miller walks across them. Images from his past flash in his head from time to time, showing him a bygone era and a traumatic event that changed his life forever. An image of a dancing penguin suddenly flashes and he screams. He holds his head to remain calm, rubbing his sand soaked hair to restrain himself. It doesn’t help much because Babe, the talking pig then appears in front of him, and he falls on his knees to the ground and screams again.

‘Too much damage has been done’, Miller says, ‘there’s no going back. It’s the end of the road for me’. He’s old, no longer fit, lacking inspiration and mostly dispirited by the products in his industry. The lure of easy money had corrupted him when he made Happy feet 2. He had not once but twice made great sequels in the past, when dancing penguins were not in the league of Babe: Pig in the City and Mad Max The Road Warrior. He loathes himself, and ever since the box office of Happy Feet 2 he’s been wandering the desert, scavenging for minerals just to survive. When you spend your whole life fighting a system, winning gloriously, and then falling right into the system’s trapdoor, self-respect goes for a toss. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.

Miller walks aimlessly in the burning heat, sweating and wheezing. He stops to take a swig from his canteen, when the wind blows it away. ‘This is the moment to give up’, he thinks, ‘my life is over. I shall die remembered as the director of Happy feet 2’.

The wind suddenly blows a photograph smack on his face. He peels it off, and sees a picture of Mel Gibson in a black car. The sound of a rumbling engine kicks inside his chest. There’s a tiny spark. It all comes back to him. He throws away his bag and runs. He’s faster than the wind, as he scales a dozen dunes. He stops suddenly, and gazes upon the machine in front of him - a black car standing majestically amid the sand. ‘This is it’, Miller whispers, ‘if a sequel almost killed me, a sequel will make me reborn’.

He gets inside the car, slams the door shut, hits the ignition and slams on the gas. As the car careens through the sand Miller is formulating in his mind the greatest action movie ever made in the history of cinema. ‘It’s got to strike a balance between fans of the original movie and newcomers’, he realizes. Out in the distance a cloud of sand can be seen. Miller looks through the binoculars to see the cloud is formed by a bunch of renegade degenerates on bikes making their way towards him, with a clear intent to kill him. ‘Studio execs’, he mutters, ‘they’re ruthless’.

He jams the accelerator, and the element of surprise is too much for the execs – they just stare wall-eyed at the incoming Miller’s car that smashes through all of them, sending little pieces in the scorching air.

There isn’t much time to celebrate because a horde of gangly degenerates on All Terrain Vehicles suddenly show up on the left and open fire. ‘Goddamn Expectations, I’m gonna gut you like a fish’, Miller mumbles, 'witness me'. He presses a button and a machine gun unfurls from the side of the car and opens fire. Bullets hit the ATVs, sending the Expectations flying in the air, smashing into the rocks.

The noise of the chaos is heard by the dreaded clan of the Franchisers, who swarm into their gigantic trucks with twisted designs and begin chasing Miller’s car from behind. Miller looks in his reverberating rearview mirror and smiles. He drives straight into a desert storm, challenging the Franchisers to follow him. They take the bait, and some of their vehicles are swept away by the storm, while the others ate struck by lightening.

‘Oh what a day... What a lovely day!’, Miller screams, as he shifts gears, blazes through the storm in the direction of the city metropolis. His modern masterpiece is ready to be unleashed upon the world. He’s going to call it ‘Fury Road’.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Bombay Velvet

Few films have the ability to get your attention right from the opening shot. In Bombay Velvet Anurag Kashyap, jumping from ‘sort of mid budget indie’ to full on mainstream mode does this exceptionally well. As the opening credits roll a nostalgic surprise from the 90’s greets you to the backdrop of Amit Trivedi’s Jazz, and the world of Bombay Velvet becomes yours before you can blink. The atmosphere is intoxicating, the sets, costumes and scope are far beyond anything done in Bollywood.

The film is supposed to borrow from Gyan Prakash’s historical book, Bombay Velvet is no historical sermon, it’s a love story, pure and simple. There’s Ranbir Kapoor as Johnny Balraj, a boxer turned mobster. It’s a showy role. He looks great in a boxing vest. He looks great in a suit. He looks extremely cool as he chats up Rosie, the girl of his dreams, played by an equally attractive Anushka Sharma. She croons velvet on stage, he woos her with his eyes and smile. Paisa vasool date movie stuff, hyper romanticized at the moment Anushka beautifully lip syncs to ‘Dhadaam Dhadaam’. And they’re a great couple – deeply in love even when the girl smashes furniture on the guy. It’s been a while since we saw an on screen romantic couple to root for in a Hindi film, Ranbir and Anushka’s chemistry is a breath of fresh air.

Then there’s Karan Johar as the villainous newspaper baron Khambatta, pulling off an unlikely, uncontrollable snigger when you least expect it, and Satyadeep Mishra as Balraj’s pal, chewing scenery with just his stare. They’re all only matched by the incredible production design that recreates 50’s Bombay with such detail it’s impossible to differentiate real sets from CGI. Truly gorgeous and entertaining stuff, and the first half glides along to perfection, with Trivedi’s background music always on to stitch scenes together.

In the second half of Bombay Velvet there’s a sequence featuring a massively long buildup with sexy lighting and music, that develops into a dazzling slow motion shot of a vengeful man firing dual tommy guns in slow motion. The walls are peppered with holes, the furniture explodes into pieces, it’s so powerful it seems like he’s spraying the whole world with spitfire, extinguishing whole countries in the process. He ends up killing two, inconsequential and faceless people and you’re left wondering what the buildup was for.

This scene accurately reflects the essence of the second half of Bombay Velvet, and the effect it has on the audience. Post interval the story wilts out and Kashyap dedicates himself to making everything look cool, and that is the problem - the film looks like a million bucks but has no depth. It feels like a beautifully crafted, well-timed shot only to be caught at the boundary.

While the first half is a homage to 70’s films, the second becomes a 70’s film, complete with clichéd blackmail negative rolls, double rolls, madh island gold biskut maal, damsels in distress. Kashyap is known to take cinema clichés and subvert them, but here he goes head first into the clichés with great seriousness. Despite the magic of Thelma Schoonmaker (and there’s a lot of it), the film’s story elements are mostly incoherent. There is a 50’s Bombay real estate scam plot point which is pretty much indecipherable. It’s tough to figure out what Khambatta actually is about, and what his deals with the real estate barons are, and what exactly is at stake. There is a rival newspaper too, the intentions of the editor of which (Manish Choudhary) are unclear. There is some history about the World Trade Center force fed to us during the end credits which makes even less sense.

Rather than being its own beast this is more a throwback to older, better gangster films by Scorsese, the Coens and Curtis Hanson. There’s a Goodfellas car trunk nudge, and a Miller’s Crossing hat wink, and neither of them add anything to the plot except for fan service and a strain for greatness that remains out of reach. There’s a noticeable lack of humor in the film, but the film’s elements are not dark enough to warrant such seriousness. All the elements are mainstream ‘filmi’ things, and it’s hard to imagine why there is only one joke in the whole movie.   

Needing some sort of punch in the second half, Kashyap makes a late grab for thrills and renders the aforementioned tommy gun scene, but it speaks more of the desperation to compensate for a weak story than it does about delivering a great cinematic moment.

Make of it what you will, ultimately what Bombay Velvet lacks in complexity it makes up for in sheer beauty. It’s a cinematic achievement for sure, but it doesn’t always succeed in camouflaging its narrative limitations with its imagery. Clearly, the curse of the second half gets to even the best.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Piku

Having already watched and being disappointed by Finding Fanny last year, the thought of seeing another modestly budgeted Deepika Padukone quirky road trip comedy didn’t inspire much confidence. It’s rare for expectations to be smashed to smithereens and even rarer for a Bollywood film to do this with so much confidence. Shoojit Sircar’s Piku has arrived smack in the twilight of the blue moon. This film features the best ending to a Bollywood movie in a long time, and the stuff that happens prior to it is also quite lovely.

So here we have Piku Banerjee (Deepika Padukone), a Bong architect who live in Delhi her dad Bhashkor (Big B). Pappy is a raging hypochondriac, and perpetually constipated, and also, naturally, highly irritable. Everything in his life, and also somehow everything in the life of people around him depends upon his ungodly bowel movement. It doesn’t take much for his antics to drive people insane. So it becomes a task when Bhaskor plans to travel from Delhi to his native Kolkata, and naturally Pappy declares traveling by flight could be problematic for his bowel. The solution? Piku has to accompany Pappy on a cross-country road trip, along with Rana, a cab company owner turned driver (Irrfan), Pappy’s Pot and Potty assistant, and even the Pot seat.   

It’s incredibly easy to dig this movie at the onset, not just because of fun performances from Padukone, Bachchan and Irrfan, but because it’s so darn easy to relate to it. There is a Bhashkor in every family – the stubborn, grumpy old man with the temper of a child and a heart of gold is omnipresent. And Big B portrays the character to perfection - he’s a well-meaning chap, just a bit forward in his manner and cranky owing to his illness. His utter lack of empathy for those on the wrong end of his forwardness is hilarious, as is his unreserved innocence regarding his prickly nature. You can’t stand the guy’s eccentricities but you can’t help love him.

There’s a lot going on in Piku, and writer Juhi Chaturvedi’s strong script coupled with Sircar’s solid direction somehow makes it all cohesive. The film explores some rather interesting themes – what does one do when the parent becomes difficult to handle and is totally dependent on you? How does one react when the parent is clearly upset about no longer being able to be independent, and becomes passive aggressive to assuage his frustration? Where does one draw a line between the parent being merely difficult and being a life stopping burden? How much can you sacrifice to make a relatively thankless invalid parent happy? Is it noble to consider moving out of the house and giving your invalid parent in the care of someone else so that you can focus on your career and social life? What can the parent do if he thinks he’s being a burden to his children? Piku doesn’t have the answer to all these questions, but it is bold enough to take you through them and make you ponder.

The film also makes the best case for women empowerment since Queen. In the film Piku is single, but has a casual sex life, and this fact is established very subtly, and not in a pointedly manner. This is not a ‘character trait’, but it just happens to be another normal thing that this normal girl does. And to top it all, even her father is liberal enough to not make a fuss over that. He has the occasional well-meaning concern, but he’s not the regressive honor killer that is so prevalent in both in and outside our cinema. When was the last time you saw a Bollywood film where the father suggests to his daughter that getting married soon is only for those with low IQ? Last I checked, Sonakshi Sinha wanted to be ‘blessed for marriage’ by seeing Ajay Devgn’s schlong. In this film, the Bechdel Test is effortlessly kicked in the nuts in a terrific ‘will they won’t they’ scene between Piku and Rana that warrants a huge applause for both Chaturvedi and Sircar.

Most importantly, the film glides over all of these heavy-duty themes with breezy lightness and consistent, well-timed comedy. This is a road trip movie after all, and it’s got hysterical rapid-fire montage of cuts of the back and forth between the trio of Piku, Bhaskkor and Rana. The teeny bit of melodrama is handled beautifully by shuffling laughs and tears together like a pack of cards, making Piku one of the more emotionally honest films to have come from the industry.

(First published in Firstpost)  

Movie Review: Gabbar is Back

I was always curious to know why the new Akshay Kumar movie was called Gabbar is Back. This isn’t a sequel to any movie called Gabbar, so why does its title indicate otherwise? My existential query was answered during the opening credits of the movie, where we pretty much see the whole film through GIF images. To the backdrop of blaring music, we see that Akshay Kumar is a vigilante named Gabbar, he fights corruption, and finally kicks the villain in the nuts. And then the actual film begins – voila – Gabbar is back!

Hold on to your seat belts because this is going to blow you away - Gabbar is Back is a Hindi remake of, a Tamil version of, an Akshay Kumar flavored version of, a Gabtun Vijaykanth flavored version of, V for Vendetta. That’s right, Akshay Kumar’s character Gabbar is the man in the Guy Fawkes mask, out to avenge his dead family and lead the young men of India to also wear masks and revolt against corruption.

The film is directed by someone named Krish, who, presumably also wants to remain anonymous, either as a meta homage to the anonymous Gabbar character in the film, or evade the blame for this laughably bad movie. The thing is, this was originally a Gabtun Vijaykanth movie, and anyone who’s seen his amazing work in cinema will know taking the content too seriously will only invite ridicule. Ramanaa, the film on which Gabbar is Back is based on, was the same film that contained the worldwide sensation of a scene where Gabtun types a document in Windows Media Player. The same guy has also performed a heart surgery with the aid of a mobile phone.

It would have been perfect had this movie featured Akshay Kumar pulling a Gabtun and going the whole hog with ridiculous VLC Player typing and smartphone surgeries. For some reason the filmmakers decided to root his character in reality, and attempted to address some ‘serious’ issues and actually ‘inspire’ the youth with eyeball shattering manipulation. The ‘corrupt officials’ are caricaturist as hell, as are the ‘long suffering common man’ characters. You literally get characters expanding their chests, looking at the camera and declaring something either villainous or jingoist. You get wailing vidhwas, mustache twirling goons, doctors sniggering and frothing at the mouth while charging money for treating dead bodies, pot bellied police officers constantly eating, and a police van driver who somehow takes medical leave, goes undercover and unearths the identity of Gabbar when the whole Mumbai police couldn’t.

You also get a main villain named Patil, who constantly declares that ‘he is a brand’, accompanied by shots of the brand in question. You also get Gabbar grabbing Patil by the collar and shouting ‘GABBAR IS A BIGGER BRAND THAN YOU’. It feels like watching Gunda without the amazing characters and lines.

There is, of course, an attempt at amazing lines, as Akshay drones in his trademark passive voice ‘Tum corrupt officials ko rishwat aur naariyal dono ek cheez ho gaye hai, roz chadhana padta hai’. There is also a cringe-inducing cameo from a big star, including a song featuring the star and Akki breaking the fourth wall, in a totally white setup, as if in a soap ad.

V for Vendetta is not just ripped off visually but also aurally, thanks to Sandeep Chowta who simply recycles the background score and makes it loud enough to turn the Guy Fawkes mask’s smile into a sad emoticon. The only ray of light in this rumbling assault of stupidity is that the film is only two hours and ten minutes long, short enough to return home and assuage your grief by browsing Vijaykanth’s resplendent clips on YouTube.

(First published in Firstpost)