Thursday, June 30, 2011

The '180' Review

180 is two and a half hours of emotional torture that is so brutally assaultive in its determination to extort sympathy from viewers that it practically leaps off the screen and into their laps in order to get to it. The film is completely contrived and uneven - by the end we are screaming to yank our engines away from the forecourt as fuel spills - all that piano music, that gilded lighting, those glycerine tears - threatening a pyre of sense, sensibility and supersensitive subject choice. Siddharth’s heartfelt performance and the exquisite cinematography can't redeem the dramatic fallacies surrounding this mess.

Mind you, 180 has a rather intriguing first act, but by the end it just left me mourning the movie that might have been.  The idea of a young character facing death can’t help but be compelling in a way, but director Jayendra and his writing collaborator Umarji Anuradha aren’t satisfied with telling the story cleanly and straightforwardly. They instead adopt a structure that tells the story from the shifting memories of the central character, (though on close inspection it’s a technique they ignore as often as they follow it).

A stranger who calls himself Ajay (Siddharth) arrives in Kasi on a spiritual journey. After a super duper ultra slow motion bath in the river, he moves to Hyderabad and stays as a paying guest in the house of an elderly couple (Mouli and Geetha). Ajay indulges in weird things like selling moong falli on the streets, helping the slum kids deliver newspapers and standing up for the common man. Photo journalist Vidya (Nithya Menen) is smitten by Ajay’s Patch Adams attitude, and she wastes no time in (telling him how she feels about him). Ajay, who hides a traumatic past rejects her and leaves the city – it’s when Jayendra pulls the rug from under our feet by involving one of the characters in a terrible accident.

The frightening escalation of Ajay’s past is glimpsed in vivid flashbacks, but the result is a laughable jumble. Moreover, Jayendra and Anuradha ratchet up the mawkish quotient mercilessly. It’s not simply that they go for the jugular in scenes like the inevitable one where a character wants to make one last visit to his beloved.  It’s that they ladle on the plot holes with grotesque profusion. A character who suffers from a broken spine is shifted from Hyderabad to San Francisco for an emergency surgery. Another sees death – which is portrayed as a sidey black man wearing trench coats and carrying ropes. And while a patient battles life and death, we’re transported to the romantic flashback between Ajay and Renu (Priya Anand), which includes a picturesque joyous song sequence, then an obligatory sad cameo from Ajay’s mother who dies, which is almost immediately followed by a wedding and another romantic number.

Tonal inconsistencies be damned, 180 suffers from sheer sloppiness of script that results in scenes of comedic frivolity.  The dramatic turns in the second half are so conceptually off-kilter that they really succeed as unintentional hilarity. A prime example of the latter would be a scene where ‘Death’ (the black dude) stands on a flowing river, and points and laughs. Not to mention the big reveal – the scene is hysterically overlaid with a dramatic song so as to dampen its persuasive power. It's as if Siddharth has to convince even the filmmakers of his plight.

Priya Anand’s performance - talk about people going overboard in an effort to make an impression. I can understand why she would want to take this role, but her work here is so shrill and overbearing (even beyond the demands of the character) that it just becomes embarrassing. Nithya Menen comes off as painfully forced for most part of the film. The best performance is given by Balasubramaniam’s high speed camera that captures some truly amazing, detailed slow-mo nuggets (although why those sequences existed in the movie remains a mystery).

180 feels like there was an explosion at the sob story factory and little pieces from dozens of different films were jammed together into one ungainly mutant. The whole terminal illness melodrama attacks your heartstrings so relentlessly that by the time it's over you’d beg for a defibrillator.

First published in DNA

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' Review

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is an unabashed work of pure entertainment made without the slightest agenda beyond replicating the look and feel of a Power Zone cartoon. It’s very nearly everything that's wrong with Hollywood, but darn if it won't give an action-hungry audience its money's worth. The story isn’t the least bit cohesive – it’s ridiculous and unintelligent, but the mayhem gets so over the top that it's hard not to have a big grin on your face.  

Like the Autobots themselves, director Michael Bay’s latest succeeds by simply crashing headfirst through every obstacle in sight. There's no way to take this movie seriously, and that's exactly what makes it so much fun. But when the action begins there’s nothing one can do but sit back and witness the carnage in awe – there’s huge robots mercilessly gutting each other, as they transform from military jets, tanks, trucks, concept cars into heavy artillery wielding biomechainsed warriors. The parajump/skydiving scenes are spectacular. And some scenes are just gorgeous massacre – like Shockwave's huge driller strangling an office tower, as the mirrored glass sprays everywhere.  Bay’s long, evolving shots are mouth-agape stuff, and their intricacy is remarkable. The 3D is glorious – it is the best usage of the format I've seen since ‘Avatar’, it even tops the latter in some places. There’s none of that gimmicky in-your-face drivel, (aside from a scene where a character points two gun barrels in our eyes). The depth of field in each shot is eye popping stuff.  Most impressively, the action is shot wide enough for one to make sense of it. Bay pulls the camera back, and it becomes sheer guilty pleasure to witness Optimus ripping mechanical spines and Decepticons blasting humans into ash and skull-dust.

In fact the only real drawback of Dark of the Moon is that the Transformers themselves aren’t the central characters. The fearsome Soundwave, who makes a return from the previous movie makes a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance. Starscream, one of the best damn villains of pop culture is reduced to a puny minion. But thankfully, most of the hogwash from the previous installments has been fixed. The attempts at comedy are far more respectable – there are no robots making racist comments or anal raping cement mixers in front of pyramids. No one pees on people’s heads, the dog doesn’t hump the cat, Sam’s parents don’t show up as often.

The plot doesn’t make much sense – we’re treated with a full blown CGI prologue that explains the presence of the Autobots and the Decepticons on earth. Writer Ehren Kruger goes the whole hog by connecting the incident with NASA’s first moon mission, and Bay responds by throwing in cameos by Edwin Aldrin and Bill O'Reilly. We learn that Sam (Shia LeBoeuf) has just graduated from college and is living with a different, hotter girlfriend (Rosie Huntingon). It isn't long before Megatron makes an impressive entry, wandering in a desert, preparing to implement his master plan to wipe out mankind. The Decepticons pop up in Chernobyl to steal a mysterious piece of a spacecraft that landed on the moon fifty years ago. And the Autobots bring Sentinel Prime, who was marooned on the moon back to life. 

The human characters are introduced, including newcomers played by John Malkovich, Patrick Dempsey, Alan Tudyk , Ken Jeong, and Frances McDormand. Add to them the returning actors Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson. Thankfully, the humans are nowhere as annoying was the case with the previous two films.  From here, the film zips from point A to point B, and Bay merely edits for convenience. He even brings us a series of quick cuts separated by blackness in order to reduce major plot points into a sort of trailer reel. Steve Jablonsky’s score blares in the background, reminding you of the Inception gong, as the final hour of mayhem takes over all your senses.        

Transformers: Dark of the Moon doesn’t just offer a veritable feast of special effects chaos - Industrial Light and Magic has crafted some of the best CGI I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I challenge you to find faults in the action. The film dwells so far away from the realms of reality, that it would be foolish to condemn its cartoonish violence. You could step in after the first hour, but you can’t afford to miss the rest. Do watch. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

The 'Paul' Review

Paul features an alien who drinks beer, smokes pot, makes dick jokes, drops his pants to moon in public and hurls expletives like his life depends on it. He is like a quirky combination of Jay and Silent Bob, only from outer space, and he is hilarious.

But regardless of its R-rated edge, Paul is a goofy, good-hearted spoof that works well as a fluffy genre parody. Director Greg Mottola (Advenureland, Superbad) and writer-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost economically fulfill the mandate of their limited goals without veering off toward the grating self-indulgence of anal probing jokes. Oh wait, they do. But what they also do is cater to geekdom and Comic Con nuts the way Kevin Smith’s films do. 

Here we have two UK science fiction nuts – an artist (Simon Pegg) and an aspiring novelist (Nick Frost) who are on a road trip to visit the famous San Diego Comic Con, and the numerous UFO-related sites around the area. Things take a turn when they stumble across an actual alien (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul is the stereotypical gray alien, but the big twist is that he is a more tranquil version of Jeff Lebowski, complete with a laidback fratboy hipster attitude. Paul has escaped from a top secret government facility and plans to go back to his planet. Hot on his trail are two bumbling federal agents (Bill Hader, Jo Lo Truglio) and a Man in Black (Jason Bateman) who wants to deliver Paul to the Govt head honcho ‘Big Guy’ (name withheld to preserve the awesome cameo).

There are so many humorous references to Spielberg’s ET films, Star Wars and Back to the Future that Paul should really have been named ‘Close encounters of the laidback kind’. Pegg and Frost are in their element with their ginger-soda dialogue and the subtle pop-culture digs. The duo have come a long way from their cult hit ‘Spaced’ days to ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ glory, and even in Paul they dole out US pop-culture jokes by transposing them to the ET settings for amusing effect. 

What works best here is the understated nature of the comedy. Paul is not just a parody of alien films and their legendarily geeky fans. There is some of that kind of humor, but Mottola wisely realizes that making fun of the fans is not particularly funny anymore, since it's been done so much. There is a scene where the alien makes fun of the grown-man geek fandom of its two leads (neither has ever had sex nor has dressed as a Klingon) – it makes way for three dozen in-joke references for sci-fi geeks.  And there is some marvelous hilarity in presenting irreverent characters like Kristen Wiig, who plays an awkward one-eyed love interest to Pegg. Seth Rogen does well, his verbal bombast and egotism are amusing. The film gets a little too serious in the third act when Paul tries to correct a mistake he made years ago, but it picks up again after the hilarious reveal of the ‘Big Guy’. 

Paul is a fun, keenly satiric film that manages to simultaneously spoof popular ET movies and replicates the very elements that have made them so prevalent. Do watch it. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

The 'X-Men: First Class' Review

Bryan Singer delivered the fantastic ‘X2: X-Men United’ back in 2003, since then the franchise lost its sheen in Brett Ratner’s disappointing third installment and finally imploded with the release of the horrid ‘Wolverine’ spinoff. Thankfully, X-Men: First Class has a sharp, intelligent script - it’s everything an origin story should be, complete with a cool 60’s James Bond-esque retro vibe. The reboot particularly stands out because this is one of the very few superhero films where the big budget CGI is merely an accessory to the snazzy character development, energy, power struggles and dollops of humour.

X-Men: First Class begins in 1944 Poland with a sequence reminiscent of the opening scene of the first film. A young Jewish boy named Erik is separated from his mother at a concentration camp; as he is dragged away by German soldiers the boy manages to bend the metal fences around the camp by will. Intrigued, Gestapo chief Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon) summons the boy and orders him to demonstrate his mutant abilities.  Erik is unable to control his power, until Shaw kills his mother  - an incident that finally unleashes his power and decides his vengeful future. Elsewhere, a mind-reading rich young kid named Charles becomes a surrogate brother to a cobalt-blue shape-shifting little girl called Raven. 

Flash forward 20 years and we’re thrust bang in the middle of the cold war. Enter Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who is now a brilliant scientist and also a playboy who picks up women using his telepathic powers.  Erik (Michael Fassbender) has learned to use his metal-bending abilities to quench his thirst for vengeance. Shaw is still alive and is secretly making arrangements for World War 3 for the greater good of the mutant species. A CIA operative named Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) recruits Charles and Erik to help her uncover Shaw’s plans. Charles and Erik strike up a friendship and eventually work together to recruit and train other mutants, including the shape-shifting Mystique (the lovely Jennifer Lawrence). Needless to say, Charles and Erik have contrasting philosophies, and polarizing views of the role mutants should play in society. And if you’ve seen the earlier X-Men films, you know what their friendship turned out to be.  

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) doles out a truly well-written and plausible origin tale here, together with sumptuous, stylish visuals and a faux historical twist that gives us a comic book version of a Tom Clancy bestseller. The pacing is relentless – X-Men: First Class rarely stops for a breather, and when it does, it offers a couple of cameo appearances from familiar faces that should have X-Men fans cheering. The film hits the sweet spot with the casting of McAvoy and Fassbender who’re so effortlessly dedicated to their roles you won’t believe they’re newcomers to the franchise. Fassbender in particular, gives an arresting performance with his ever-present righteous anger. Kevin Bacon is supremely villainous here, doing away with the smarm we’ve seen of him in the past. We’re introduced to some of the most popular X-Men like Emma Frost (January Jones) who can also transform her body into a diamond casing, the winged mutant Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), a demon-like teleporter named Azazel (Jason Flemyng), the ultrasonic Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the whirlwind creating Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who also made an appearance in X3. 

The bald spot of X-Men: First Class is January Jones as Emma Frost, who seems clueless and doesn’t do much else than stand about in bras and big hair, looking mildly PMS-y, oblivious of the words coming out of her own mouth. Another niggle is the character of Angel whose introduction is the most fun moment of the film but whose crossover to the antagonist’s side is very shoddily established.

However the in-jokes themselves are worth the price of admission. Sample the scene where Charles is trying out the Cerebro for the first time - McCoy asks “Are you sure we can’t shave your head?”, and Charles is quick to respond with “Don’t touch my hair”. The retro score by Henry Jackman (Kick-Ass, Monsters vs Aliens) just about perfectly goes with the gritty, stripped down look of the film. That’s not to say the CGI is underwhelming – it’s first rate, and the bombastic, epic finale is more than just satisfying for all the senses.  

X-Men: First Class is an exceptional entry in the series. It is smart, witty and a lot of fun. Watch it on the biggest screen possible.

First published in DNA

The 'Shaitan' Review

Let me cut through it and tell you straight – Shaitan blew me away. I'm not used to desi films this good being released in our country where normally studios throw unwatchable formulaic twaddle and wait for Khan season to roll around again. 

This movie had me alternating between a sugar-high and sheer awe. One minute, I struggled to keep my jaw closed, the next, I was jumping in my seat. Both extremes were equally pleasurable. Without a doubt, Shaitan is one of the boldest, most challenging Hindi films I've ever seen. It is also one of the most memorable. What a debut by Bejoy Nambiar; Park Chan-wook himself couldn't have directed a more feverishly thrilling bit of cinema. 

Take a dash of Boyle’s electric fuzz and generous helpings of the mojo of Chan-wook, and you've got a slightly derivative, though maddeningly gripping film. Nambiar wastes no time in setting up the players in this story about a fivesome of wayward youngsters - Amy (Kalki Koechlin), Dash (Shiv Pandit), KC (Gulshan Devaiya), Zubin (Neil Bhoopalam) and Tanya (Kirti Kulhari)  - who stage a kidnapping to pay off a slimy cop. The fact that these players are lacking any real depth or substance is actually of little consequence, for Nambiar drops them in a clever, complex caper that takes its share of mind blowing twists and turns.

There are the usual cross-section of characters with witty tongues involved in shady activities that get themselves into sticky situations in which no one survives unscathed. But despite the influences, Shaitan has an intensely authentic feel to it. And I know you're thinking Fadnavis, Bejoy Nambiar is an urban Indian, how could he not write an authentic "Urban Indian film"? Well, consider how many fake terrible ‘youth centric’ films written by Indian youths you’ve recently seen, and you’ll understand my sentiments. How did he do it? Well, the script is very smartly written, so you never think, "Desi youngsters don't talk like that" or "Kids would never do something like this". It's just the right mix of violence and humor with most of the intense bloodshed happening off-camera. Add to all of that a double helping of Nambiar’s even-handed directing complete with just the right amount of cool cinematography by R.Madhie.

Then the casting. Of the five leads, Pandit, Devaiya, Bhoopalam and Kulhari are absolutely marvelous playing insubordinate screw-ups with believable camaraderie and a kind of precarious charm. Rajeev Khandelwal is solid as a cop and Kalki is decent, but Udaan wonderboy Rajat Barmecha makes a hilarious, brilliant cameo. Shaitan is intricately edited by Sreekar Prasad. Not enough can be said about R.Madhie’s camerawork. Dominated by blue-orange tones and making frequent use of overcranked slow-motion shots and distancing low and high angles, Shaitan at times feels like a crazy, disturbing dream. The trippy effect is but emphasised by the incredible music, which combines close to a dozen genres. A remixed, souped-up version of ‘Khoya Khoya Chaand’ is set against the backdrop of a shootout and ‘Pintya’ is gloriously juxtaposed with a chase scene. Stunning stuff. 

Beneath the visual and aural pizzazz, and the snazzy dialogue, Shaitan offers a sombre view of directionless, immoral Indian youth. There is something reactionary in the broad portrayal of young people as hopelessly self-centered, callous and insensitive, but the pessimism includes the adult characters too. There is no possibility of redemption for anyone, and social relationships here are just a web of rebellion, rejection and cruelty in which everyone is guilty. Hat tip to producer Anurag Kashyap for shepherding fresh, high quality stories - without him we'd still be living in the 90's pyaar-mohabbat deluded hogwash. 

Shaitan is a marvelously crafted, stylish bit of filmmaking. It's a saucy thriller. It’s the perfect example of twisted perfection. You’d be a complete fool to miss such edgy entertainment.  

Friday, June 3, 2011

The 'Hanna' Review

 I won't tell you ‘Hanna’ is great, but it's great fun. Director Joe Wright’s latest is a revenge action flick that is deliberately preposterous and often morally reprehensible. It’s not high-art, nor is it especially logical, but it's a damn good entertainer, provided you don't take any of it too seriously.

It’s hard to believe that ‘Hanna’ is directed by the guy who made ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Atonement’, and it’s even harder to digest the fact that 16-year-old Saoirse Ronan makes Jason Bourne look like a wimp. It’s a shame that writers David Farr and Seth Lochhead saddled her with indigestible dialogue and preposterous situations.  ‘Hanna’, unlike ‘Sucker Punch’ is not a film about hot girls with big guns. Saoirse (pronounced Ser-sha) Ronan stays in a remote Finnish jungle with her father Erik (Eric Bana) who trains her to become an unstoppable killing machine. Hanna is proficient in hand-to-hand combat, arms and ammunition, archery, Jujitsu and is pretty much devoid of emotion. Erik is revealed to be an ex-CIA operative, who then sends his daughter on a mission to assassinate a CIA honcho named Marissa (Cate Blanchett) and zip from Finland to Morocco to Spain with a purpose that's not entirely clear until the second act kicks in.

The action is brutal and uncompromising, and is elevated by the heart-pounding score by the Chemical Brothers. Joe Wright’s long tracking shots are delectable to behold – one fight scene filmed in a parking lot is particularly eye popping. Wright seems to have an outstanding vision for aggression, the chase scene in the tunnel underneath the CIA stronghold is filmed with pure amphetamine.  I should, however, note that ‘Hanna’ takes a little while to get going, because Wright devotes the first 20 minutes to establishing the relationship between the father and the daughter.  And there are colossal plotholes throughout - Wright cowardly tries to sidestep the obvious fate of some of Hanna’s characters, hoping we won’t remember to question him later. Moreover, just about anyone could devise the premise of ‘Hanna’. But the real measure here isn’t what happens but in how it happens.

Beneath the electronic music and intense imagery of ‘Hanna’ lurks a subtle (albeit ham-fisted) societal message – the protagonist is forced to deal with new elements such as family, friendship, love - difficult tasks for a person who has no compassion, a person who runs away, leaving friends behind to face the fate she has brought down upon them at the hands of her pursuers.  Saoirse Ronan is an absolute powerhouse who effortlessly veers from being a child to an adult. It’s rather unsettling to see the skinny little child actress convincingly pull off a character that can snap a person's neck like a twig. Cate Blanchett’s steely gaze and Bana’s single shot fight scene are themselves worth the price of admission. Tom Hollander is surprisingly creepy as the sleazy hitman hired to take Hanna down.

‘Hanna’ doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s delightfully agile. It crams all the revenge rage it possibly can into 110 minutes without taking its eyes off Ronan and her beautifully intimidating performance. Do watch.


First published in DNA

The 'Ready' Review

What a painful, bunkum, morally bankrupt movie this is. How does one possibly laugh when one chokes back vomit? Ready is a sort of a film that justifies traveling back in time to pre-emptively kill Salim Khan. The whole thing feels as if director Anees Bazmee threw film clips on the floor and strung them together haphazardly. 

The fact that a film like Ready got made raises some important questions – like why ‘masala entertaining’ stars like Salman Khan seem to be no more discriminating when picking scripts than zoo monkeys are when they eat their own stool? Are they that desperate to see themselves on the big screen? What kind of producer can live with himself after spending money to make a film in which kids take off their chaddis and pee on people’s faces? Do these producers and actors have any shame or integrity whatsoever?

If Ready is any indication, clearly they do not. We’re treated with an aimless parade of puerile ploys for Salman to launch into unwatchably histrionic slapstick buffoonery, as Asin nancies her way through a lobotomized plot about a runaway bride staying at a stranger’s place to escape her goonda fiancĂ©. I mean, is it all about not going to the cops? This woman gets off a flight in a bridal costume and moves into a random dude’s home, and pretends to be his fiancĂ©. One of those zoo monkeys could come up with a more intelligent script than this – that too by just by doodling on the walls of his cage with that aforementioned stuff he'd been eating off the floor.

Bazmee, as he generally does with all his films, presents a vision of comedy defined by forgetful characters, potty jokes, loud women, porn star-ready item numbers, and warring clans gripped by an irresistible, insatiable urge to dominate, humiliate and emasculate each other and the audience. Every third joke in Salman’s latest is self-referential, from naming his own films to mouthing the punchlines of dozens of advertisements. And almost every frame oozes of schlock, from 360 degree flips, to noisy villains, to horrendous CGI shots for the sake of comedy, to a character mistaking Asin’s kindness for sluttiness. There are countless other such migraine-inducing bits scattered throughout but mentioning any more of them would only be a stretch. The majority of the film is all fart jokes and no-brow gags aimed at the mentality of 11-year-old Sallu fans.

The supporting characters make absolutely no sense, the talented Akhilendra Mishra is reduced to an annoying, gelatinous loudmouth; Puneet Issar is faintly unsympathetic with anime-character hair while Mahesh Manjrekar is grating to both the eye and the ear. The less said about poor Sharat Saxena the better.

Ready is nothing but a morally numbing assembly-line Z-grade Bollywood product, surpassing even the likes of the soul-gangbanging ‘Thank You’. Bazmee doesn't even try to give the movie continuity (Sallu takes off his shirt in one scene and is completely clothed in the next) or an ounce of common sense (why is no one looking for the missing Asin?) In fact, he does little but point the camera at Salman while he does his schtick, which only amounts to bumbling self mimicry without any hint of the star’s own absurdist magnetism.  

Ready is an unkempt clearinghouse for cheap, thoroughly laugh-free scenes. For those who regard that as a recommendation, I have two words - grow up.