Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Five Massively Underrated Animation Films

Most animation lovers of today consume the commercial, pop culture-laced, colorful artistry of Dreamworks, or the visual and aural poetry of Pixar. Everyone loves Toy Story, Wall.E, Shrek, the Ice Age films, the Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda movies. Lots of folks have seen the excellent Studio Ghibli films and stop motion flicks like Coraline. The recently released Tintin set a new benchmark for visual sophistication rendered by motion capture. Adult-oriented movies like Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir and The Secret of Kells found their audiences thanks to overwhelming critical acclaim and/or Oscar buzz.

But two things are certain - no one likes the princesses of Disney anymore, and not many have seen these brilliant films listed below:

Chasseurs de Dragons (Dragon Hunters)

Dragon Hunters is a beautiful French computer animated adventure that is as fun and hilarious as it is gorgeous. Set in an otherworldly locale terrorized by dragons, the film revolves around the story of Gwizdo and Lian-Chu, two unlikely friends who hunt dragons and con people for a living. Dragon Hunters works so well because it has very original characters and none of the saccharine of Disney. The imagery is stunning, but some sequences are truly jaw dropping - take a look!

Titan A.E

This one was a box office disaster, thanks mainly to poor marketing, and Pixar's Toy Story 2 completely obliterating the competition that year. But that doesn't mean it was a bad film - it is extremely entertaining. Combining computer graphics and traditional hand drawn animation, Titan AE is a zippy, quirky, exciting Sci Fi adventure. It's not exactly a kids' film, considering the post apocalyptic themes and settings, and that's probably another reason why the film didn't make money.  

The Triplets of Belleville  

Before director Sylvain Chomet shot to fame with The Illusionist, he made a little film called The triplets of Belleville. Chomet's animation and characters are extraordinarily fresh and unique. The story itself is very interesting - an old woman teams up with a trio of aging Jazz musicians to rescue her grandson from the clutches of the mafia. Chomet abandons straightforward for the trippy, and it makes for an imaginative, witty and delightful adventure. Just watch this scene.

Perfect Blue

The world lost a genius when director Satoshi Kon passed away last year. His eerie, surreal anime films transcend greatness. Unbelievable as it may sound, Darren Aronofsky's films Requiem for a dream and Black Swan are ripoffs of Satoshi's Perfect Blue. Just like in Black Swan, the central character of this film pursues a career and is increasingly haunted by the distortion of fantasy and reality. To get a better idea of how much Aronofsky lifted the scenes, check here and here. Perfect Blue isn't as famous as Miyazaki's Spirited Away, but it totally deserves to be. I also urge you to watch the director's Paprika and Millenium Actress.


This is the most underrated animation movie of all time. Bad marketing made sure no one heard about the film. That changed when someone decided to upload it on torrents, and it immediately became a cult favourite. Renaissance is a black and white sci fi noir action thriller that grabs you by the balls in the opening scene, and proceeds to pound all your senses with sheer novelty, craft and artistic ingenuity. The visuals are arresting to the point of being utterly intoxicating.

This French motion capture movie effortlessly mixes balls-to-the-wall action and thrills with intrigue, mystery and science fiction. It offers imagery of a futuristic France, glowing black and white as if under the influence of LSD, complete with saucy gizmos, high tech weaponry, invisible assassins, digital rain - the works. But don't let the visual wizardry fool you - the story is pretty exciting. A cop (Daniel Craig) is assigned the duty to locate a young woman, a key scientist of a huge cosmetics firm, who is kidnapped the day she arranges to meet with a man about some secret documents. Still not convinced? Watch this clip.

Note: I personally feel Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within never got it's due - it was a technological marvel far ahead of it's time. Also, Shane Acker's 9 was another masterpiece that was curiously rejected by most audiences. If you didn't like 9, perhaps you'll dig this short film that it was based on.

More reccos: The Plague Dogs and Princess - both of which are recco'd by Anurag Kashyap.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The 'Rockstar' Review

Burdened with a wooden story, anemic characterisations and two hours forty minutes of focused, exaggerated emotion, Rockstar boasts very pretty visuals, but faint soapy story-telling. Ranbir Kapoor as Sufi Rock God Jordan charms millions of young folks of the world, but from Imtiaz Ali’s staid direction you'd scarcely see why. It is something more than a shock that a story of an Indian Rock idol not only fails to raise the spirits, it also tramples on them. It makes for a cinematic belly-flop instead of a picturesque swan dive.

Yes Ranbir Kapoor is incredible here. But even though he does his utmost to live in the skin of his character, he is too suffocated to be believable. The story of Rockstar is an inventive mess filled with pock marks. One gets the feeling that writer-director Imtiaz Ali took a bunch of incongruent films, hurled them in a blender and poured the results on the screen. Mr Ali invokes the contemporaneous presence of grunge, sufi rock and forbidden love, but believes that those alone would magically produce narrative or thematic substance. At some parts Rockstar even quits being a film, and turns into high-brow tourism when the gorgeous locales of Prague take over from the muddled up plot.

Here we have college boy Janardan Jakhar (Ranbir), who worships Jim Morrison and dreams of being a rock god himself. His friend and mentor (Kumud Mishra) advices him that one must experience the sorrow of a broken heart to produce truly great music. Janardhan tries to achieve this by flirting with and eventually befriending a pretty Kashmiri girl named Heer (Nargis). Needless to say, hell breaks loose, and Janardhan transforms into Jordan - a bitter, torn, successful star, while Heer struggles to swallow her own grief. It doesn’t help that our heroine can’t deliver a single line without hamming uncontrollably. You need buns of steel to sit through the dramatic scenes that she appears in.

Imtiaz and co seem to have a wealth of compelling material at their disposal, but somehow the film doesn't quite cohere. Flitting through past and present, the bloodless screenplay runs dutifully through Jordan’s life as though ticking off the points against a checklist. The story’s themes of creative genius, complex humanity, irony and misery seem to have defeated everyone involved with the film. There was so much more there that could have been told, more struggles that should have been shown. Moreover, the second half feels like walking down a never-ending aisle. Everything after the interval makes for a barrage of ludicrously banal and pretentious verbiage. To make matters worse, Imtiaz ends up presenting the bitter and ‘evolved’ Ranbir as little more than a fatuous groupie, instead of a terrific shattered hero.

Technically, Rockstar is breathtaking. The lovely Prague locales are complimented by the otherworldly pulp rock hues of Jordan on stage. Though the dreamlike climax is a stylistic jumble and is mostly wrongheaded. Rockstar is not a grand work, but it is terrifically tasty eye and ear candy – Rahman’s music extracts full attention. ‘Kun Faaya Kun’ and ‘Sadda Haq’ are as stunning as they are superbly picturised. Sadly, all the plusses here are negated by the superficial soap opera treatment.

The magnetically gifted Ranbir is an acting tour-de-force. He tries his best to bury the film's sillier tendencies in a performance of lively despair. Nargis, on the other hand, comes off not as a sassy trailblazer but as an indiscriminate oaf afflicted with a short attention span. She is so bad an actress, so clumsy and oblivious with her dialogue, one wonders why she was cast. Any sober viewer who tries to follow her facial contortions is going to wish he'd brought along a cache of aspirin. The supporting characters, including Shernaz Patel and Piyush Mehra are jarringly superficial and icy and it's hard to care about them. Aditi Rao Hydari’s character exists in the film for the simplistic twofold message – that she is hot and that she is a supreme rhymes-with-witch.

Rockstar has neither passion nor vivaciousness, let alone a decently constructed screenplay to deliver the goods. It is far too demure to explore the subject matter and make much of a lasting impression. Catch it to see a major performance by a charismatic actor, but go in with patience and the realisation that the film is something of a fascinating failure.

First published in Mumbai Boss

Thursday, November 10, 2011

'The Adventures of Tintin' Review

Written with a ton of heart and shot with ten tons of love, the gloriously animated The Adventures of Tintin plays like a beautiful love letter to Herge’s works. It is 105 minutes of pure, uninterrupted, thundering typhoon of adventure. I didn't think Steven Spielberg would be able to do it this well, but I stand corrected.

The Tintin phenomenon is unlike anything I’ve seen in entertainment history. Rather than being the result of clever marketing, Tintin’s popularity began at the grass roots level. And, what's more, this craze is not derived from a movie, video game or TV series, but from one of the oldest forms of mass-market entertainment - books. Now there are Tintin toys, bags, coasters etc, but these things followed the phenomenon, they didn't drive it. Much has been written about why Tintin is so popular with readers of all ages. All you really have to do is read a few pages of any of the books, and you'll understand the appeal. HergĂ© developed an intensely likable hero and drew his stories with a free-and-easy style that mixes high adventure with uproarious comedy. The books walk the literary tightrope of never taking themselves too seriously while avoiding the easy pitfall of self-parody. That tone is what Spielberg’s movie adaptation strives for, and, for the most part, achieves.  
Tintin is based on three books of the series - ‘Crab with the Golden Claws’, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ and revolves around an ancient riddle, a mysterious curse, a shipwreck and a bounty of buried treasure. In this day and age of computer games, quick fix takeaway electronic happiness and incessant CGI violence, it is brilliant to be excited by the sheer power of storytelling. Lovers of the Tintin books will find most of their favorite moments beautifully realised, perhaps even bigger and more wondrous than they imagined them. The lovely 60’s-set 2D opening credits are followed by an opening scene that immediately sucks you in with its visual sophistication. It even contains an awesome cameo that makes for the single most satisfying movie moment of the year. There are in fact several moments like these, and it becomes clear that Spielberg treats Herge’s work with a reverence that isn't even accorded to The Bhagawat Gita. 

But the references are never merely sly homages, and there isn't a line or a scene designed to go over children's heads to amuse their parents. Also, at least 80 percent of the writers’ (Steve Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish) dialogue is lifted directly from the text. Indeed, Tintin delivers as promised – we’re treated to a herd of colorful characters, and led on a fast-paced, inventive adventure, with liberal doses of comedy, and even a little pathos. The fact that this film works so well is testament to the people on the production. Peter Jackson’s WETA churns out an amazing blend of Herge’s iconic art and photorealistic mo-cap imagery. If the breakneck pace, white knuckle action, impossible tracking shots and match cuts don’t impress you, then the character animation certainly will. A big technical triumph is the lifelike eyes and mannerisms of the characters. Gone are the dead eyes and the uncanny valley effect from Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture movies. Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock are exactly the way you want them to be – they aren’t waxy talking dolls, but charming, warm characters brought to life by Spielberg’s digital lens. Andy Serkis in particular steals the show as Haddock, the short tempered sea captain with the drinking problem and a large supply of one-liners. 

Tintin has its share of standout sequences, including an astonishing pitched sea battle that cleverly cuts between the past and present, as sand dunes morph into swirling ocean waves. But nothing can prepare you for the incredible motorbike-boat-tank chase which unfolds superbly in one single 5-minute-long continuous take. It really is an outstanding marriage of technology and art, and for Tintin fans looking to see how their favorite scene or character appears on screen, this is a boon. Contributing to this is composer John Williams who, never known for being a slack, turns in one of his more impressive scores in recent years.

The film is not flawless, though. Thompson and Thomson are disappointing - they fail to evoke laughs despite being voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The movie is 20 minutes too short as most of the third book's plot is jettisoned. But even the plot changes don’t matter, because by making the alterations, Spielberg makes the story accessible both to those who are familiar with the source and those who aren't. Fans of the books will likely love or hate the ending based on how closely things match their preconceived notions. Regardless, when viewed exclusively as a piece of cinema - something extraordinarily difficult to do with Herge’s property – Tintin stands out as a solid piece of entertainment. And the nod to Indiana Jones, coupled with its early 20th century period charms elevates the film to even greater heights.

Make no mistake, The Adventures of Tintin is a kids’ movie. But it is one that transcends through time and makes even the most cynical crestfallen adult smile and feel like a child again. Whether or not you’re a grown up, all you can do after watching this movie is go home and just look at your own beaming face in the mirror. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for making this fan extremely happy. Blistering barnacles I eagerly await the sequel now.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

13th Mumbai Film Festival Roundup

The 13th Mumbai Film Festival offered blockbuster sneak-peeks, underground gems and a clash of festival circuit heavyweights. I sample the films that generated the most buzz at the event.

Host Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) had secured the promo-oriented Brad Pitt-starrer Moneyball as the opener. The baseball film, written by Aron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian boasts great performances from Pitt and particularly Jonah Hill, but is curiously vague about what precisely the titular revolutionary math-based analytical method was.

Generation P, a Russian film about a copywriter on the precipice of creative nirvana is a glorious, simulating film that boasts some terrific, provocative imagery and splendid acting. Packed with trippy philosophical metaphors, the film is guilty pleasure bursting with dark, outrageous material.

The Turkish thriller Monsters' Dinner is undeniably impressive indulgence. Director Ramin Matin's single-location, ferociously dehumanised dystopian satire builds a highly credible atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue. The only major fault with it is the Turkish actors speak in English — it distracts from the striking visuals as well as the tone.

The indie Another Earth is a brilliant, meditative film that makes for a phenomenal viewing. Made on a shoestring budget of $150,000, Mike Cahill's debut film stars writer-producer Brit Marling as a young woman who gets involved in an accident just moments before scientists discover a twin Earth. Miraculously, the riveting first half is bettered by the devastating climax that has you dissecting it long after you see it.

Michael, based on the true story of an Austrian man who kept a child locked in his basement, offers enough unsettling moments to make director Markus Schleiner's distinctive vision clear. His ability to make a twisted situation both credible and emotionally involving has no contemporary parallel. Michael Fuith as the lead delivers a phenomenally creepy performance that complements Schleiner's decision to steer clear of deliberate shock scenes.

The French silent film The Artist had been one of the most talked-about titles of the festival circuit, and it easily lives up to the hype. Jean Dujardin is extraordinary as a fading star dealing with the death of the silent film era.

The Slut is a well-observed and powerful drama, but it isn't an easy film to sit through. Set in rural Israel, director-star Hagar Ben Asher provides an unsettling portrayal of a voracious sex addict in a drama that ends with a very disturbing reveal.

In The Ides Of March, director George Clooney does a good job of unleashing serious political drama and concentrating on clarity rather than grandstanding. It is by no means flawless, but star Ryan Gosling carries it off in style.

Wim Wenders' dance film Pina lacks the punch of 3D docus like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but its images are extraordinarily powerful. Wenders makes far better use of 3D than anything one has seen to date.

Tabloid is a sly and intriguing Errol Morris documentary about the strange adventures of a former beauty queen who travels across the globe, getting involved in abduction, Mormons and cloning just to find the man she loves. The content is terrific, and the gradual stripping off of her layers of artifice is highly affecting and artistically justified.

Dad Made Dirty Movies is an interesting if somewhat hagiographic documentary about legendary sexploitation filmmaker AC Stephen. The film essentially allows his family to ruminate at length about his quirky ideologies, his rise to fame and his sudden fall into obscurity.

Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is a gripping, voyeuristic slow burn shocker that unfortunately betrays the subject matter at the climax. Star Emily Browning spends far too much time gazing into some imaginary distance, fingering her inner pain until it's worn thin.

In the Marathi film Deoul, young director Umesh Kulkarni (Vihir) pulls off some nice sequences in the first half. The middle third is rhythmically edited and often moving, but in the final act he tries to shoehorn so much material one barely gets to dip a toe anywhere before being whisked off somewhere else.

Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse is hard to love, but easy to respect. It is neither warm nor approachable, and contains very long, dialogue-less shots of potatoes, livestock, and decrypt imagery. It makes for a borderline hallucinogenic, bullishly fascinating watch.

Melancholia, Lars von Trier's follow-up to his acclaimed but divisive Antichrist, had some of the highest expectations coming into the festival, but fails to impress. The film is a pale shadow of its predecessor, neither as hypnotic, nor carrying an element of climactic surprise.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia is a film that sets itself up as a searing drama about a doctor, cops, grave diggers and two suspects who drive through rural Anatolia in a single night in search of a dead body. But the plain truth is it isn't searing at all — neither does it eviscerate the crime in the way most of the audience would like, nor does it summon up character machismo the way David Fincher's Zodiac did. However, the beautiful imagery makes for a haunting Kafkaesque landscape that's both moving and strange.

First published in The Hindu