Friday, January 27, 2012

Movie Review: 'Haywire'

Director Steven Soderbergh takes his years of experience in mainstream cinema and his undying love for small budget indies and combines both to dole out his 25th film Haywire, a searing, handcrafted action thriller that is a work of bombastic, visceral power. Watching this mesmerizing hybrid you barely realise that your mind is being blown. 

Even with its huge star cast of Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, Haywire is an attention-grabbing showcase for Gina Carano, an MMA fighter who is a more talented, female version of Steven Seagal. Like Seagal she is mostly quiet and unassertive in appearance, but unlike him Carano is gorgeous and does her stunts without wires or trick photography and simply explodes on the screen leaving you gasping for breath. In short, she whoops some serious ass. The fight scenes themselves are rather unexpected – Soderbergh eschews the usual purgative frenzy of quick cutting bloody shaky cam style in favour of long, violent takes. Carano punches, dropkicks, clobbers and gets smashed to walls – it’s all very realistic and some of the fights are so brutal one wonders how many stuntmen she left with real bruises and bloodied cheeks. 

The only bane of Haywire is the simplistic plot – the film opens somewhere in the middle and Mallory Kane (Carano) is on the run. We learn through flashbacks that Mallory, a former marine, works for a super secret black ops firm led by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). She had been sent on a mission to Barcelona with her associate (Channing Tatum) to rescue a whistle-blowing Chinese reporter, and then to Ireland with an international man of mystery (Michael Fassbender) but the operation was botched and she’d been betrayed by someone from Kenneth’s own outfit. Lurking in the shadows are Coblanz (Michael Douglas), a US government official who financed the missions and Europe-based Mexican top official Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) who seems to have an agenda of his own. It’s basically just a long drawn excuse for Mallory to travel to various countries and pound various men to pulp with her bare hands. 

But this isn’t like the Bond movies or the recent Salt, Soderbergh treats Haywire as a finely mixed cocktail of the Oceans and the Bourne films. David Holmes’ soundtrack takes off where the Oceans films left, and Peter Andrews’ eye popping cinematography at the Berlin and Dublin locales makes the clichéd seem new. Soderbergh keeps the camera at a distance and lets you see every punch and kick, as opposed to most filmmakers’ over-edited style where you can't tell what's going on. The climactic sequence of the Berlin operation shifts from color to black and white and back again and is as close to a zen experience as a motion picture can offer. There's no discernible anti-gravity wirework and it makes Carano the most awesome action star to grace the screen since Tony Jaa. 

Haywire is a triumph of style over substance. If you’re devoted to saucy action, you’ll emerge from the theater battered and bruised from the experience, and extremely satisfied. Do watch.

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: 'Contraband'

Hollywood loves heist flicks. Nothing says entertainment like a bunch of antiheroes with guns outrunning American policemen. In fact, the only thing Hollywood loves more than heist films is remakes. So when debutant screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski began to pen the remake of the Icelandic thriller Reykjavík-Rotterdam, execs exalted ‘A remake and a heist movie! Can we get Mark Wahlberg for this?’  

Reykjavík-Rotterdam wasn’t a classic to begin with, and simply put, Contraband is a complete bastardization of everything that was at least interesting and fun in the original. Inanely directed by Balthasar Kormakur (who starred in the original), Contraband  contains a series of flabby, repetitive scenes featuring a bored Mark Wahlberg, a hammy Giovanni Ribisi and an inarticulate Ben Foster. If you were fortunate enough to have watched Reykjavík-Rotterdam, you’ll likely snooze through the remake.  

The story is quite similar to the original - Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a former drug smuggler who has come clean and now leads a respectable life at a security systems company along with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and kids. One day Kate's idiot brother Andy (Caleb Landry) gets mixed up with some nasty business and owes a huge debt to the sleazy drug lord Tim (Giovanni Ribisi). With his wife and brother-in-law’s lives under serious threat, Chris now has no chance but to revert to his old ways and steal money to even things out. He devises a plan to get a job aboard a cargo ship sailing between Louisiana and Panama and make off with millions in counterfeited bills. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan, and all kinds of mayhem happens. 

Sadly, there is precious little that is memorable or even exciting in Contraband. The film only works in fits and starts as none of the cast members manage to replicate the grimy B-movie vibes of Reykjavík-Rotterdam. Mark Wahlberg is again the exact same character he played in Planet of the Apes, Four Brothers and Shooter, and even here he seems uninterested with the proceedings. Contraband comes off as extremely formulaic, totally messy with its insipid directorial style, and boasts characters so stock that we're left to just sit and wait for these guys to shake us out of our naps. There is a twist in the second half but you can see it coming just 10 minutes into the film. There are decent amounts of bullets, explosions and expletives and Contraband does have a reasonably big budget, yet the film just fails to demand any attention whatsoever and continually proves itself to be a run-of-the-mill potboiler.

Contraband  is not migraine-inducingly stupid like some recent films in the genre, but nor is it the least bit fun or innovative. It is exactly what you'd expect - whether that's good or bad depends on your mood.

(First Published in Mid Day)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Review: 'Agneepath'

Email from Karan Johar

To Karan Malhotra

Subject: Top Secret recipe for the success of ‘Agneepath’

Instructions: Take 5 ounces of blood , 4 kilos of makeup, 3 ounces of Cheddar cheese, 2 ounces of Blue cheese, 1 ounce of Feta cheese, 4 blue screens, 3 villains, 1 finely built shirtless hero, 1 item number. Mix everything together and half bake it. Avoid insignificant ingredients like innovation, likeable characters and intrigue. Sautee with 300 plot holes. Add kitsch for (bad) taste. Serve blockbuster chilled. 

Agneepath, Karan Johar’s remake (read: cheesy vulgarisation) of the cult classic Amitabh Bachchan movie of the same name is a labor of love that reminds you that love is blind. The 1990 film was a B-movie to begin with, and this putrid remake wears its contempt on its sleeve. Agneepath is in fact not even a remake, it’s a ‘reimagining’ and it feels like watching a below average 90’s Telugu gangster action film where all the characters speak in Hindi. Director Karan Malhotra’s debut sits in a patch somewhere between a shameless cash grab and a callow vanity project.  What is certain though, is that the film is compulsively horrible and full of unintentionally hilarious OTT drama.

A sane writer would’ve strangled all the characters 30 minutes into the film, but then Agneepath would have ended too soon. It’s been 20 years since Big B’s remake of Scarface released, but there is not a shred of freshness to be found in the new Agneepath. The movie leaves absolutely nothing whatsoever for the viewer to digest - Mr Johar and co just offer a frozen dead cadaver of Bollywood tripe and expect it to be reheated by paying audiences who can find nothing else in their fridges to snack on. It's hard to say what's worse, the film's utter lack of entertainment value or the unabashed condescension towards its viewers. 

The story remains the same, but when you have big stars like Hrithik Roshan, Priyanka Chopra, Sanjay Dutt and an item song from Katrina Kaif, why do you even need a story? Mega baddie Kancha Cheena (Sanjay Dutt, looking like Uncle Fester) descends upon the town of Mandwa to turn it into a drug haven. A schoolteacher (Chetan Pandit) who dares to oppose him is framed and hung to death. The man’s son, Vijay Dinanath Chauhan (Hrithik Roshan) joins forces with the high profile rival gangster Rauf Lala (Rishi Kapoor) and plots revenge against Kancha.

But none of this is interesting, new or arresting in any way - the film keeps throwing melodrama and songs and just trudges unbearably on for almost 3 hours as a how-to manual for budding migraine-fetishists.  Agneepath is completely devoid of humour, and there isn’t a single memorably witty line of dialogue, save for the deadpan Sanju Baba quips. Not even the love story between Vijay (Hrithik) and Kaali (Priyanka) manages to divert from the boredom. In fact few Bollywood movies have ever asked audiences to care for couples as repugnant and irredeemable as Vijay and Kaali. 

During all this atrocity we are treated with plot holes that can let a tiptoeing Woolly Mammoth through.

- Vijay attacks Kancha’s lair by carefully placing and detonating big bombs, but refuses to carry a simple pistol to overpower the villain, and gets beaten to pulp.              

- Vijay stages an assassination attempt on Rauf Lala’s son and takes a bullet to his own shoulder. Why? To get in Lala’s good books? Then why make a speech about not needing either of them?

- Kancha’s lair is guarded day and night by dozens and dozens of his armed henchmen around the coast, so how does Vijay, carrying all those firearms moor his boat and sneak past all of them?

- When Vijay is 12-years-old, he refuses to hand Lala over to the cops – and that angers his mother so much that she abandons him. But 15 years later when Vijay is busy taking revenge and Lala’s life, she screams at him to let him go – despite the fact that Lala a few minutes ago had prostituted her own daughter.

There are many more gems but recounting them all would be spoilerish and rather painful. Oh but how can you consider plotholes in a masala movie, you say? KJo and his team had twenty years to iron out the kinks from the story, and the fact that it is even more ludicrous and less believable than the 1990 version says a lot. 

The performances range from great (Hrithik) to good (Sanju Baba and Rishi Kapoor) to horrendous (Deven Bhojani) to hilariously awful (Om Puri). Hrithik Roshan growls, kicks, punches, laughs, weeps, sweats, bleeds – he gives it his all, but he is sadly eclipsed by the overall stupidity of the film. There isn’t much he can do to leverage his star power to avoid the embarrassment. A smart, talented and versatile actress, Priyanka Chopra for some reason believed in this film’s merits before she signed on. It is sad to realise that her turn in Agneepath is not a highlight but a terrible misstep in her glowing career. Uncle Fester Sanju Baba clearly has more fun than the audience, as does Rishi Kapoor in his lecherous role, but neither of them are as suave or threatening as Danny Denzongpa. Om Puri is screen poison, uninteresting in every way.

Agneepath is a tedious, worthless mass of filth and an absolute insult to both Scarface and Big B’s 1990 recreation. Its only redeeming quality is that it reminds us of the things that used to be so much fun about bad 90’s movies.

(First published in MumbaiBoss)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Movie Review: 'The Descendants'

Seldom do movies make the struggle to keep a dysfunctional family together seem so sobering and lucid. Beautifully shot, exquisitely written and featuring an excellent turn from George Clooney, The Descendants features a narrative that persistently subverts your expectations to almost hypnotic levels. Alexander Payne is a gifted, thoughtful filmmaker, unafraid to tackle difficult subjects, and his latest is his most engaging, most accessible film to date and a testament to the power of cinema. 

As heart wrenching as the plot is, The Descendants opts for comedy in the face of modern ruin. The film is not the least bit a gloomy existentialist diatribe on the state of modern families, it is neither a celebration or dirge of the human condition, nor the lassitude of imminent death, but simply a cynical meditation on the ambiguous present. It moves you without resorting to melodrama and tackles the themes of personal loss with astonishing candor and depth. Quite like the cancer comedy 50/50, this film diligently avoids cinematic grandstanding and emotional manipulation in favor of extremely subtle but effective dramatization. The bittersweet leitmotifs carry a message of redemption so powerfully restrained that you’re carried away on its wave of resplendence.  

The film itself is set in Hawaii – a broken paradise which makes for a fresh spring of visual wonder. Matt King (George Clooney) is a wealthy lawyer whose wife is left in a vegetative state after a boating accident. He is left to deal with his two daughters, the 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the rebellious 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). King also has to handle the impending disposition of his family plot in Hawaii that his broke cousins want to sell off for a huge sum. Complicating things further, King comes to know of a secret about his comatose wife that he is simply unable to cope with. Distraught, King decides to takes his daughters on a trip to a nearby island for family-bonding and to find closure about Mrs King.  

There are no arthouse shots of depressing adage-expounding sermons in The Descendants as director Payne sticks to a quirky, often darkly humorous tone. There is a lovely offbeat comic allegory throughout that elevates the astuteness of Payne’s humanist observations. In fact some of the jokes are downright unsettling - they evoke the sort of laughter that is uncomfortable because Payne simply refuses to sentimentalize the proceedings. The film's idiosyncratic beauty is recommendation enough, but the way the characters’ personal and symbolic tensions seethe silently turn it into powerfully real drama.  

One cannot let go of the cast – the performances lift The Descendants from the level of the ordinary to a special realm of storytelling. Matt King knows that simply being a human being isn’t enough – he has an injunction against a world that requires him to be a hero, and he is brilliantly personified by George Clooney who renders emotions that seem almost inexpressible. Shailene Woodley is incredible in her breakthrough role as a recalcitrant teen weary of being just like her mother. Nick Krause is unforgettable as the stoner, but good hearted friend of Alexandra, as is Robert Forster as King’s father-in-law. Matthew Lilard has a small but important role and is excellent as he effortlessly carries his dishonest, yet painfully realistic character as opposed to the more obvious Hollywood clichés. Judy Greer has a brilliant extended cameo as Lilard’s wife.   

The Descendants is very slight, yet overflows with wisdom and emotion. Don't be surprised, if days after seeing this gem, you discover it has taken up residence in your head.

(First published in Mid Day)

Friday, January 20, 2012

The 'J. Edgar' Review

 When director Clint Eastwood was filling J. Edgar with pitch perfect makeup, costumes and other accurate artwork, he forgot to add a story that would interest the audience or even keep them awake. This film is not the thrilling, incendiary biography of a great man, but is mostly ponderous and dull, with absolutely nothing to say in its two hours twenty minutes runtime. 

J Edgar is a rambling and monotonous look at someone whom millions think of as an idol. The movie is supposed to be about J.Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, the legend who revolutionized crime fighting, but we don't learn a thing about him other than the fact that he was gay. Eastwood just tosses together randomly chosen events from Hoover’s life and gives us a series of fickle illustrations cobbled together by a slack narrative. To say the script is meandering is putting it mildly – writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) seems more intent on constantly shoving Hoover’s sexual orientation down our throats than telling his life story. And the effort to almost completely ignore Hoover’s achievements and controversies results in a film whose ideology is little more than pedestrian.

A great deal happens on the screen right from the opening scene, but very little of it makes sense as far as story or character development goes.  The film fumbles along from chapter to chapter, forgoing necessary chronology and continuity in favor of past-present flitting.  Yet, no segment actually delves into Hoover’s story, and every segment lags badly in tempo.  Hoover made forensic and surveillance innovations for 48 years at the FBI - there’s so much great material for Eastwood to explore and it’s a pity that J Edgar flubs the opportunity by dumbing things down, continually sticking with Hoover’s homosexuality and imposing sentimentality.

Majority of the film focuses on the dynamics between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). There are all too brief mentions of John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, a half-baked retelling of the ‘crime of the century’ in which Charles Lindberg’s baby was murdered. The second half drags along to an ending that is as dreary as all that came before it. Hoover spent five decades indulging in controversies, which is longer than this film, although not by as much as you might hope. In a criminal waste of opportunity, Hoover’s issues of racism and solitary life are barely touched upon, nor is the Venona Project which he called as one of America’s greatest counterintelligence secrets locked in his office.

Eastwood surrounds himself with top-notch technicians – including cinematographer Tom Stern who has shot every Eastwood film since Blood Work. The production clearly involved months of research and meticulous design, and it is frustrating to note that the story of J Edgar is shrunk to a comparatively miniscule scale. Sian Grigg, the makeup artist does an extraordinary job as Leo DiCaprio turns into a dead ringer for Hoover, except for the familiar eyes. In every movie since 2002’s Catch Me if you Can, Leo has been demonstrating his ability to completely ingratiate himself with the viewer. In J Edgar you can practically see in Leo’s eyes that he has a fervent and extreme love for this biopic, and that he will be shattered by its failure. Naomi Watts as Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy, on the other hand, wears a shroud of imitation throughout and never shows any real emotion. Armie Hammer is decent but when in the prosthetics there is little to his character aside from being jarringly schmaltzy. 

Edgar Hoover deserved a comprehensive full-length biography. It's a shame that J Edgar is such a mess when it could’ve thrown light on a most controversial figure, during a most interesting, transitional era in criminology and forensic science.

(First published in Mid Day)

The 'Underworld: Awakening' Review

The audience is forced to choose one of the two realities in Underworld: Awakening, both of which are extremely hideous – either writer/creator Len Wiseman is a cash-grabbing deluded buffoon or he’s constantly making more Underworld movies to prove to the world that mediocrity makes you rich.

I’d vote for the latter, because Underworld: Awakening is a movie that clearly loathes its audience and laughs at those who write essays about how shamelessly Hollywood milks cash cows. If it were something like Fast 5, then the newest Underworld film would have had a leg to stand on. As it stands, Len Wiseman, his wife and star Kate Beckinsale and everyone at Lakeshore Entertainment are simply shoveling muck and wasting everyone’s time. If this sounds like your idea of a good time, by all means watch it. I laughed a dozen times during the film, mostly at the lame philosophical commentary where humans, and not vampires or werewolves are described as the real destructive species. It does work as an unintentional comedy, but the real joke is on anyone who pays the premium to see it in the eyeball-maiming 3D and anyone who actually thinks 3D is the future of cinema.

Like Fast 5 proved so well, fourth or fifth installments of sagging franchises can be fun – there is always potential for something interesting, but directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein’s lack of interest in entertaining us at any point in the film makes Underworld: Awakening a mostly unbearable watch. The film opens a few months after the events of Underworld: Evolution.  Vampires and Lycans (werewolves) still war against each other on earth. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) loses her lover and is captured by humans who have discovered the existence of vampires and lycans and are exercising a global pest control operation. What follows are a series of events so predictable and repetitive that it makes the Mortal Kombat movies feel wholesome. And seeing Stephen Rea as an antagonistic scientist, squandering his talent and wasting his time with this migrainefest is a real shame. 

Kate Beckinsale as usual looks mouthwatering in jet black leather, but mostly emotes and behaves as if her brain had been instantaneously replaced with gajar ka halwa. Neither does she kick butt nor does she carry the film on her shoulders. What she does accomplish is make us see that she doesn’t care, which would be fine if only she didn’t ask us to either. 

None of the previous Underworld films had smart dialogues, and Underworld: Awakening takes the exact same route - there's not a trace of wit or imagination in the entire film. The movie even fails when it comes to the action, which is frustrating because the least it should’ve done was to create a fun rapport between Seline and outsize machine guns. Majority of the CGI set pieces are frequently tedious, loud and insipid as Selene just keeps pulling the trigger in the vague direction of the werewolves. Underworld: Awakening is a tiring, pointless fourth installment that annoys thanks to its horrid script, unexciting vampire-lycan thumbwrestling, laughable characters, a complete absence of intelligence and the nonexistence of anything even remotely resembling a plot. Watch it if you’re an acute insomniac, you’ll snooze so peacefully even the constant lycan roars won’t get you awakening.

(First published in Mid Day)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The 'Arthur Christmas' Review

At 97 minutes, Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas is a rollicking fun adventure, and is refreshingly shorter than most other tent pole animated features that run well over two hours. This CGI gem is as delightful as a children's book that one wants to read aloud over and over again. It isn't classic storytelling by any stretch, but it's the best one I've seen in quite a while.

Fulfilling the promise they showed in 2005's Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit, Aardman has made another hysterical visually striking feature. The film triumphs over most other Santa-centered comedies because it doesn't feel familiar. For the most part, Arthur Christmas provides a superb blend of thrills, characters and crackerjack humor that keeps both kids and their parents amused and engaged throughout. First time director Sarah Smith and the animators whip out a lush 3D look and a consistently fun story that boasts enough bombastic bravura effects to keep everyone entertained. What’s more, this is one of the best ensemble voice casts for such a movie - in addition to James McAvoy and Hugh Laurie, there are Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton for company.

Free of the schmaltz of The Polar Express, Arthur Christmas answers a most interesting question - how does Santa Claus deliver all those presents around the world in a single night? Santa (Broadbent) no longer relies on magic dust for a lone floating sleigh and reindeers; he helms a full scale military operation, complete with futuristic hovercrafts, cloaking equipment and an army of black ops style soldier elves. Santa is on the verge of retirement, and mission control chief Steve (Hugh Laurie) is set to take his place. All hell breaks loose when it is discovered that one present was left undelivered – to complete the mission Arthur Christmas (McAvoy), Steve’s brother joins forces with his 135-year-old granddad Grandsanta (Nighy) and Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an adventurous elf from the wrapping division.  

In most animation movies the biggest hurdle for older kids is the imbalance between the ‘social message’ portions that champion values of kindness and the big money action thrills. It's a disparity that hurts all animation movies including the Pixar films, because the gap between their visually sophisticated fun and their conformist text is inevitable. Arthur Christmas mostly escapes unscathed, and commands terrific artwork and ingenious color scheme, with superb backgrounds and set pieces. It also offers awesomely grandiose views of the logistics of Santa Claus’ high tech operation, including commander elves who direct field agents in real time to dodge insomniac kids and nosey pets. 

The second half suffers from an overwritten scenario, but it’s easy to ignore that thanks to the wryly English sense of humor – a charming blend of erudite sarcasm, goofy gags, and dollops of silly slapstick comedy. Grandsanta is an absolutely hilarious character, an irritable old man who constantly gives you examples of how things were different and better back in the days when he was Santa. Indeed, Arthur Christmas is pure fun from start to finish. Do watch.

(First published in Mid Day)

The 'Heartbreaker' Review

If Heartbreaker were made in the 90’s, it would have benefited from its quirky subject matter. However such films as There’s Something About Mary and Hitch over the past decade have broken almost all ground on ‘relationship experts’, resulting in the characters in this film coming across as deja vu. 

In fact Heartbreaker plays like a smudged inverted photocopy of Hitch, mixing a love expert-conman with a dash of charm, and gratuitous amounts of pretty locales. There is absolutely nothing in Heartbreaker that hasn't been done originally in other films. What we get is the same old cookie cutter rom-com that would be considered an interesting failure, if it were the least bit interesting. The film is supposed to be a light comedy, but it is choppy and thoroughly laugh-free, the characters are unlikable, and the film’s tone constantly vacillates between goofy and schmaltzy. With first time director Pascal Chaumeil behind the wheel, the movie just feels clumsy and unsure of itself.

Romain Duris plays Alex, a professional breakup artist who accepts jobs to split up couples in which the woman is unhappy without realizing it. An amalgamation of Will Smith in Hitch and Matt Dillon in Mary, Alex gathers information on his clients by spying and eventually seduces them. His latest assignment is Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), a rich PYT who is engaged to an equally wealthy guy. No points for guessing that Alex falls for Juliette. The film gets more and more unsurprising as it progresses, and the third-act detour into sappy romance is as predictable as it is annoying. The conman angle offers plenty of opportunity for cheeky hilarity, unfortunately only the ideas seem interesting, and the movie never runs with them. Majority of the film is constantly interrupted by director Chaumeil’s hackneyed staging of the comedy. He sniffs around for easy Hollywood clichés when the story needs a fresh turn. 

Frustratingly, it becomes difficult to care about any of the characters on any level, and the laughs are just absent. We’re supposed to root for Alex and Juliette to wind up together, but it’s impossible because he’s such an unfunny dolt and she’s so unappealing that she’s practically nonexistent. Chaumeil doesn't seem to realize that his film utterly gives up on being a comedy in its second half. He also extracts such dreadful performances from his cast that it's hard to tell who is most appalling. Whatever his comic strengths, Duris never once pulls off his timing. Julie Ferrier and Francois Damiens, who have no business trying to be funny are handed thanklessly loony roles. The real stars of Heartbreaker are costume designer Charlotte Betaillole and cinematographer Thierry Arbogast who takes full advantage of the lovely Monaco locales. 

There's no fun to be had in Heartbreaker – just various, sterile yawns. One can’t help but wish the film had a little more faith in the audience’s intelligence when trying to evoke laughs.

(First published in Mid Day)

Friday, January 6, 2012

The 'Players' Review

For years, people have joked about a big budget Bollywood movie that would eradicate plot and characters altogether and simply cut to the idiocy. Abbas-Mustan have finally done it.  SFX, car chases and a big cast making loud noises do not camouflage  an idiotic movie, and Players emerges as a spectacular achievement in stupidity and monotony. Just when you thought Prince couldn't have been any more rubbish, along comes Players to prove you wrong.   

Players stars the extremely talented ensemble of Abhishek Bachchan, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Bobby Deol, Sonam Kapoor, Bipasha Basu and it makes you pay for every two seconds of pleasure with 10 seconds of pain, courtesy of the ghastly acting and plot holes colossal enough to fit Mars in. Although terrible, this film does raise valid questions - Why does Bollywood keep assuming the audience is a flock of extinct flightless birds? Why would anyone still hire Omi Vaidya to act in a movie? Why would someone like Vinod Khanna agree to be in this mess? Extensive market research shows that there's a niche audience out there for such travesties like Players - orangutans whose hearing and mental abilities are diminished. 

Messrs. Abbas-Mustan mercilessly mutilate both The Italian Job movies and replace their chic vibe for one that resembles an acid-trip episode of Yule Love Stories. Where both the Hollywood films were enjoyable thrill rides, Players is more like a sudden kick in your jewels. Here we have good guy Charlie (Abhishek Bachchan) who wants to build a school for kids by drawing up a plan to steal some gold that is on board a train from Russia to Romania. He rounds up a motley gang of Victor Dada (Vinod Khanna), Ronnie (Bobby Deol), Riya (Bipasha Basu), Spider (Neil Nitin Mukesh), Bilal (Sikander Kher), Sunny (Omi Vaidya), Naina (Sonam Kapoor). Just like in the original, one gang member double-crosses them and makes off with the booty.   

Like in Race, there are twists, and the plot jumps more signals than a fugitive ambulance - in fact the second half is so topsy-turvy that even the actors are unable to keep track of what exactly is meant to be happening. It becomes clear that the cash-hungry Abbas-Mustan never really understood what the makers of The Italian Job did that made it great. The whole of Players seems to sweat from Abbas-Mustan’s effort to just make every single scene masaledaar.

The characters, just like the lines are monumentally foolish. Ten years ago it was cool for Bollywood actors to mouth ‘babay’. Players is the punishment for relishing that. In fact if you collect all the scenes with legible dialogue, they still wouldn't add up to the time one needs to boil one egg. At one point our heroes buy their ‘heist equipment’ from a store called Gizmo - a great example of the sort of visionary heavy-handedness that conduits generations of filmmakers. The special effects are plenty but are not very special, and they're just flung at us mechanically. The tone of the movie is posh gloss, but it stinks of landfill.   

Abhishek Bachchan is as uncharismatic as ever. The inconsistency between Mr. Bachchan’s 'hey look at me' heroic posing and his expressions, which come off as a hilarious cross between Vivek Mushran and Nakul Kapur, has never been more jarring. Sikander Kher’s character carries all the intensity of a Sesame Street warrior. Sonam Kapoor delivers her lines in a monotone - her mood is red, her clothes are blue and her performance is horrible. A few actors grace the big screen, a few excel on the small screen, and those like Neil Nitin Mukesh are obscured by your palm screen. The less said about Bobby Deol the better – it is actually physically painful to watch him here. Bipasha Basu gives the impression that even if you turn your mind off to its lowermost possible functionality, you’ll still over-think her.   

Players is an awful, uninteresting, infuriating, and never ending disaster. Those with low threshold of pain should skip it. But the film is legendarily bad, and fans of truly wretched cinema will love Bollywood history's most inept remake just for the jaw-drop value alone. Double bill Players with the also ludicrous Luck and you’ll have a new kind of accidental torture-porn cinema.

First published in Mumbai Boss

Thursday, January 5, 2012

'The Darkest Hour' Review

How could a science fiction action movie that cost $30 million end up looking cheap, stupid and lifeless? To find out, see The Darkest Hour. The film, a sophomore feature by well-known art director Chris Gorak is no more compelling than a pile of bricks. The $30 million apparently has been spent on morphing electric-flash lights that fall from the sky and swallow humans. Mostly the film morphs into a block of idiocy.

As bad as it gets, which is pretty awful, at least you can say that The Darkest Hour isn't pretentious. Why it has released worldwide in 3D rather than going direct-to-tv is its only mystery. The plot is the usual waffle - aliens attack the Earth. To its credit, the film starts out well enough. It opens in Moscow instead of in New York, has two moments of thrills and humor, and sets up the premise without insulting our intelligence too much. Unfortunately it soon resorts to visual aids, eschewing fun in favor of lame one-liners and cheesy Adobe After Effects. As the aliens arrive, people start dying in ludicrous and unintentionally comical ways. We don’t care. We don’t give a damn about anyone in the movie. Let the whole planet die. The hell with it. We just want to go back home and have an aspirin.

The characters in The Darkest Hour are a recycled version of every alien invasion movie ever made. Being Russian is no substitute for acting. The usually likable Emile Hirch and Max Minghella deliver performances that are one-dimensional even by the undemanding standards of the genre. The sultry Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor hang around between Hirsch and Minghella’s characters, mouthing some of the most clichéd lines written for an action movie in several years. The aliens, who can be rendered on a Pentium 3 computer, are as frightening as Kestho Mukherjee in a mock angry mood, and just as ridiculous. I hoped the movie would salvage some dignity by killing all the heroes off. That would’ve earned some respect. Sadly Deus Ex makes an appearance - you know how it goes. The last two leads are trapped somewhere, facing aliens and certain death. And then someone gives that ‘hey presto brilliant idea that could work’ look. 

But to Beelzebub with the characters and the story, who was the scientific advisor on The Darkest Hour? Vishwa Bandhu Gupta? Besides the aliens’ electromagnetic circuitry, not one premise in this movie is the least bit digestible. I can suspend my disbelief for all kinds of codswallop. But a homemade microwave gun that can quash an entire alien army that traveled eons to get to earth? I’m no scientist, but I am prepared to endorse unabridged BS only if you dress it up intelligently enough.

The Darkest Hour has a slight edge over other bad sci fi films - it is so ineptly directed that it becomes mildly fun to watch after a couple of pegs. The choicest moment is when one of the leads makes plans to counter the aliens, and another interrupts saying ‘Be careful! They are out here!’, as if no one knows that there are that extraterrestrial beings killing humans out on the streets. Needless to say, The Darkest Hour is the nadir of sci fi filmmaking. They definitely don't come any worse than this.

First published in Mid Day