Friday, April 27, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

Yet again, cult filmmaker Joss Whedon has doled out a white-hot entertainer with glorious characters and enough action mayhem to make nearly every other Marvel/DC superhero blockbuster look like a zoo. The Avengers takes all your wildest expectations and smashes them like the Hulk - it's everything you want in a superhero movie, and more. While other films might win awards this year, I really doubt that they’d top this one in sheer entertainment mojo.  

The Avengers is a result of the biggest buildup in cinema history, with the quartet of Iron Man and its sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger made to pave the way for an epic boss fight, and it delivers in thoroughly awesome ways. Nearly every minute of The Avengers throbs with heart-pounding fun, from the big opening apocalyptic scene at the S.H.I.E.L.D base to the gargantuan effects-soaked final battle. Director Whedon combines extremely clever lines, bombastic CGI with unexpected character development, and elevates the overused superhero genre to something much more substantial. He completely resists the temptation to make a dark brooding drama, and in taking a more gregarious direction, The Avengers becomes infinitely more refreshing.

Firstly, you are unlikely to find a more likable ensemble of characters in any movie anywhere. Popcorn entertainers work entirely based on the level of the cast rather than the CGI razzle dazzle, and in The Avengers the gang truly makes for gleeful delight. Not only do you get to witness the spectacle of Iron Man and Captain America fight alongside each other, and The Hulk and Thor smashing people together, but you’re also greeted with terrific witty back and forth banter between them all. It’s clear that Whedon is crazy about comic books and he balances the large and iconic cast of characters with the passionate dexterity of a fourteen year old genius surgeon. 

The plot is naturally an excuse to get the big guys together. Baddie Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on earth to rule humans and has an alien army to enforce his regime. To deal with the threat S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) assembles the motley group of Avengers to kick copious amounts of alien buttock and defend the planet. But putting all these guys in a single room doesn’t go too smoothly initially – they bicker hilariously and bombard each other with scathing one liners. While Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is super serious and methodical, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is amusingly narcissistic, Thor (Hemsworth) is a vengeful foreigner, Black Widow (Johansson) is menthol cool and sexy as hell, and unlike in her previous appearance, she is smart and suave. There’s an interesting twist to Hawkeye’s (Renner) character, but Mark Ruffalo brings a wonderful new shade to Bruce Banner and really steals the show as the Hulk. And miraculously, each character feels spot on and it's insanely fun to see these guys having their arguments. In one scene Stark in a pseudo Shakespearian theater voice mocks Thor by asking him why he is wearing his mother’s clothes. The big assemble in the second half and the scene preceding it makes you want to tear your shirt off and scream in ecstasy. 

That’s not to say the special effects aren’t present – they’re colossal and eye popping, and there are plenty of bigger than life moments. In fact the whole second half is one ambitious action scene grander than all the other Marvel movies put together. Hiddleston makes a very interesting villain, and a scene involving him and the Hulk towards the end will leave your face with the widest possible grin. Samuel L Jackson is his usual pulpy self and Whedon goes one step further and gives Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) a meatier role. The film wasn’t shot in 3D, and though it’s well done, you’ll garner the most enjoyment in bright and colorful 2D. 

The Avengers took almost fifty years to appear on screen together, and the wait has indeed been worthwhile. It’s one of the most entertaining movies ever made - it’s total delight to just sit back and enjoy the fireworks. 

(First published in Mid Day)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Movie Review: Mirror Mirror

After the masterpiece that was The Fall and the mess that was Immortals, director Tarsem marks his entry into the fairytale terrain, a crossing that draws mixed, unexciting results. Mirror Mirror, the new Snow White film tumbles on the big screen with weak writing, exaggerated visuals and mildly nauseating acting. Its tedious humor can't provide that effortless magical touch that the Disney classics are made of. 

The story remains similar to the Brothers Grimm version – a king (Sean Bean) of a faraway kingdom vanishes and his daughter Snow White (Lilly Collins) is raised by her scheming, deceitful step-mother (Julia Roberts), who plans with her crony (Nathan Lane) to take the kingdom away from Snow. Prince Charming (Armie Hammer) shows up and falls in love with Snow, and the outraged queen sends the girl away to the silver birch forest to be killed by a beast. Snow is rescued by the dwarfs (Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Martin Klebba, Sebastian Saraceno, Jordan Prentice, Joe Gnoffo) who teach her how to fight back and overthrow the evil queen. 

The problem is that the film is too visually opaque, quite unlike Tarsem’s previous movies. There is a bit of his trademark surrealist imagery, like the world where the queen enters by passing through the magic mirror, but there’s not enough of it. The kids would find most of the dialogue boring and the film clichéd - the CGI monster that appears in the end is too generic to generate much interest. Even the dwarves are painfully uninteresting, and one begins to realize that Tarsem is a great stylist, but a jaded storyteller. 

While the writing lacks depth and surprise, it’s the characters which disappoint the most, and Mirror Mirror fumbles along as a pastiche of classic Disney. While Lilly Collins is just about watchable as Snow White, Julia Roberts is disappointingly dull and not evil or menacing enough to make an impression. The film leaps to life only during the few moments when Armie Hammer satirizes his own good looks. The most fun part, however, is the Bollywood-esque climactic musical number that at least ensures you leave the hall not completely annoyed.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street

When you’re rolling in your seat writhing with laughter, clasping your stomach and experiencing a sharp pain in your jaw, you know you’re having a good time at the movies. Make no mistake, 21 Jump Street renders many such moments. Cheekily directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, brilliantly written and featuring terrific comic performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, this is a thoroughly enjoyable comedy that delivers non-stop gut busting laugh-out-loud gags. 

Based on the 80’s TV series of the same name starring Johnny Depp, 21 Jump Street is a great send-up of the show and it buries a surprising amount of sweetness under the layers of snark. Coming up with a fresh angle to tackle the buddy cop genre is a tall order, and the film makes for an inside-out reconstruction of the overused theme. In fact Lord and Miller seem determined to tickle moviegoers frustrated with the predictable formula of the mismatched cops stories. They take down nearly every buddy cop movie cliché dating back to 48 Hours resulting in an utterly mischievous one that works better than it has any right to. The film’s closest cousin is Running Scared though shades of Freebie and the Bean crop up as well. That's fine company to keep, and the film ultimately earns it. 

21 Jump Street loosely follows the series - here we have former classmates Channing Tatum as Jenko, an unintelligent but popular chick magnet and Jonah Hill as Schmidt, a geeky overweight goofball who end up as security guards at a park. They chance upon drug dealers and are sent on an undercover mission back to high school to nab the suppliers. Things take a hilarious turn when they accidentally mix up their new identities at school, and it lands Jenko in the science classes meant for Schmidt, who poses as Jenko’s brother and enrolls in track and theater. The role reversal becomes a gold mine for laughs as Jenko begins to learn about the ‘awesomeness’ of science and outrages as Schmidt gets the ladies. The two keep forgetting that they’re on a mission, they even end up taking the very drug they’re trying to stop and hallucinate their gym teacher’s head turning into an ice cream cone. 

Lord and Miller deliver a lot of the fresh, boisterously quirky comedy of their previous film Cloudy with a chance of meatballs, and it seems like their inner monster was unleashed by getting a permit to make an R-rated film. There are a lot of dick jokes, and the plot is just an excuse for them to tinker with the audiences’ expectation of the riotous. The drug they’re after is called Holy F*****g Shit and it has the appropriate visual icon too. But what makes all the nasty humor work is all the stuff you don’t see coming, and the comedy has panache rather than a crude stink. There’s even a big car chase with a running gag that mocks Hollywood action scenes. 

Not to mention the hilarious Hill and Tatum, who are so devoted to their roles that you almost see a glint in their bromantic eyes. Tatum is way better at comedy than you imagine him to be, and his inherent woodenness is milked endlessly here. Ice Cube as the hysterically profane Captain Dickson is a delight. There’s also a fun cameo towards the end that tops Dali’s surprise in Midnight in Paris.
21 Jump Street is a clever and unexpectedly fresh film that is funny enough to make your face hurt with laughter. Watch it.

(First published in MiD Day)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interview: '21 Jump Street' directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller

A few days ago I watched Phil Lord and Chris Miller's outrageously hilarious and entertaining 21 Jump Street - the film stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum and is a buddy cop comedy that can make your face hurt with laughter.

Lord and Miller have doled out a deliciously wicked film that exudes the fresh, boisterously quirky tone of their previous movie Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs. The film releases in India this Friday, my review will be out the same day.

I had the chance to interview Lord and Miller - they talked about changing gears from animation to live action, their leads, their inspirations and their very interesting upcoming project. Embedded below is the transcript:

MF: Being a HUGE  fan of Cloudy with a chance of meatballs, I must ask you, what was the biggest challenge of shifting from animation to making a live action feature? Is there going to be a follow-up?

PL & CM: Animation is a much slower process, so you can take your time to discuss any tough decisions. With live action it came down to preparation. Going into every day we knew we would only have a limited time, so we would try to get as many options as possible since we would only get one shot at it. Fortunately we had a great creative team around us so we managed to come up with a lot of material that we could toy around with in editing.  

MF: Did you guys always plan on making both live action and animation films? Or is animation your first love? 

PL & CM: We come from a background in animation, but at the end of the day they are both just different ways to tell a story with characters you care about and hopefully make you laugh. Both certainly have their distinct advantages and limitations, but it has been a lot of fun broadening our horizons.  

MF: What was it like working with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum? 

PL & CM: The two of them are absolutely fantastic and it was so great getting to collaborate with them. They both have very different backgrounds so they were able to add their unique experiences into the film. Jonah obviously is so experienced in the comedy world and you know what he brings to the table with his improvisational skills. Then with Channing he has a much more physical background and it was amazing to see how he brought his own improvisation to the action scenes. It was great to see both of the guys learning from each other on set and expanding their own skill sets, and benefitting from the natural chemistry that arose from the friendship they developed on set. 

MF: 21 Jump Street is by far the funniest buddy cop action comedy I've seen in years. What are your favorite films from the genre?

PL & CM: We looked back at several as we were developing Jump Street. Some of the major influences were the classic ones like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours,  but also some less well-known films such as Freebie and the Bean and the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines movie Running Scared.  

MF: You've got a Lego movie lined up next - it does seem like a pretty radical idea. Could you give us a few details on the project and how you landed it? Is it going to be animation or live action? 

PL & CM: It is mainly going to be animated, but will have a live-action component. The interesting thing we have discovered is there is this whole library of Brick Films that exist online, where people are just going into their basements making their own stop-motion films. So we decided to adopt that spirit but just bring it to a much bigger scale. We are still developing the story and many of the designs but it has been a lot of fun and we are very happy with where it is headed.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Movie Review: Battleship

Technically, Battleship is big CGI mayhem with some of the best special effects that money can buy. The rest is a rambling, ear-splitting, daft exercise in alien invasion clichés passed off as entertainment.

Director Peter Berg’s movies have been rather well constructed and visually interesting (The Rundown, The Kingdom, Hancock) despite having second-rate plots. Battleship has a few memorable big action sequences, and at a budget of $200 million it just limps along with the smarmy fingerprints of studio interference smudging up the imagery. It's hard to imagine whom the filmmakers had in mind for this huge production – it’s a movie based on a board game, and it has aliens. But it has far too much boring character-talk for kids and is far too dumb for adults. 

The premise of Battleship makes sense for about four seconds, after which you begin to wonder what writers John and Erich Hoeber were smoking. Half a dozen alien ships appear in the midst of a naval exercise, and missiles fly. That’s the entirety of the plot, which is juiced by the opening half an hour that plays more like a recruitment video for the US Navy than any character development. Thrown in are a few lead characters (Kitsch, Rihanna, Decker, Neeson) that make cardboard look like titanium. 

Now the CGI wizardry is great, though most of it seems like a slightly tweaked version of the Transformers movies – complete with the same orange and green colors and drunken camerawork. The aliens look like the guys from the video game Halo with their helmets and like Bruce Willis without them. The film itself plays like five video game levels - majority of the action takes place right on the ship, and it involves one ship firing big guns on the other, and facing return fire. In the film’s most fun moment, the board game Battleship is incorporated in a crucial action scene, and as crazy as it sounds, it works.

But the rest is so typical of the alien invasion genre that it's hard to summon any real enjoyment. There are plot holes the size of the aliens’ planet, and the mystery surrounding the aliens is never massaged hard enough for anyone to care. Taylor Kitsch looks completely bored and miscast as the baffled hero – which is basically a repetition of his turn in John Carter. Alexander Skarsgard seems like filler for the spots that Kitsch doesn’t appear in, while Brooklyn Decker is a blonde eye candy clone of Megan Fox from Transformers. Then there is Rihanna who has quite a substantial part but is expectedly no Meryl Streep in front of the camera. It all seems like a corny Hollywood exterior under which a fun movie wasn’t allowed to shine through. In fact the only thing certain about Battleship is that Kitsch got a chance to work with Liam Neeson who was in it for the money. Full credit to Neeson, though, because he manages to keep a straight face throughout. 

Battleship is CGI-porn, but everything else about it is banal, achingly predictable and dimwitted. Watch it if you want to witness a two hour long tech demo.

(First published in Mid Day)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Movie Review: Housefull 2

One evening ten years ago I visited a dentist who for two and a half hours pulled out a tooth and then drilled the largest hole on my body. The pain was excruciating, but what kept me going was the knowledge that the throbbing pain was for a meaningful purpose. Housefull 2 is like that miserable evening, but instead it doesn’t have any meaningful intention. If one films all of my grumbling, hair-tearing, eye-rolling, sighing, groaning, whimpering, whining and slouching throughout this movie and sped it up, it could be marketed as a found footage comedy funnier than the whole of Housefull 2. Because it would be more unique, vastly more watchable and mercifully shorter. 

Housefull 2 is stark proof that watching Sajid Khan’s movies can fill one with the compulsion to plunge a large syringe full of Novocain into oneself with hope of ending the pain. A worthless story told in numbing images, the film merrily dances on the line between the completely unpleasant and the utterly distasteful. It's been five years since Sajid vomited out Heyy Baby and brought a new, satanic power to Bollywood with his own style of loud, cloyingly horrible filmmaking - a lethal combination of a large cast and obtuse jokes that have enraged critics, but scored big at the box office. And just like 2010’s Housefull, the sequel has all the cinematic value of donkey porn.

The first atrocious thing about this movie is its two and a half hour plus runtime. The longer the film rambles on, the more irritating it is, and the more you see how little Sajid cares for your threshold level of pain. I'd go into the ‘story’ and ‘plot’ but it’s nothing more than an excuse to get one dozen characters inside the house of a wealthy British Goonda Mithun, so I won't insult your intelligence by implying that Housefull 2 has anything new or exciting to offer. If you watch this movie, you will have to endure a musical cue of Akshay Kumar producing a sound that is a mixture of burping and orgasming. You will also have to witness a snake biting Shreyas Talpade’s crotch while John Abraham slaps his head and makes contorted faces. You will have to see a crocodile biting Ritesh deshmukh’s ass while Akshay Kumar squints his eyes and screams. You will have to see a horny Mithun running behind an overweight dwarf maid while folding his lungi. And when Johnny Lever is the lone voice of reason in the film, then you know you’re in for a turgid ride. 

The jokes are woeful and are delivered by the actors with the subtlety of a seizure. What Housefull 2 does have in abundance is an unending parade of flimsy mistaken identity gags, prudish movie-star mugging camera angles, grotesque makeup, a distasteful devotion to malignant humor and the intolerable air of self-satisfied moviemakers cobbling drivel together for a 100 crore weekend.  

While Ritesh is borderline likable, Akshay Kumar plays the same character he has played in every comedy film of his to date. Shreyas Talpade and the ultra-pretty Shazahn Padamsee are almost nonexistent, but Jacqueline Fernandez, Zarine Khan and John Abraham make you want to jam a pen in your ears. If you have ever seen Asin at work before, then you can tell already that she was miscast - I just felt sorry for her and wondered if another director might be able to showcase her better. The less said about Rishi and Randhir Kapoor, Boman Irani and Chunkey Pandey the better, because their performances are straight out of a drunken game of dumb charades. Sajid-Wajid’s music makes the songs of the first Housefull sound like the works of Mozart. 

Housefull 2 is the zenith of ugly filmmaking. As someone who loved Sajid Khan’s TV shows in the past I found myself regretting that affection less than 10 minutes into this movie. Any filmmaker naturally evolves as he makes his films, Sajid strives to devolve and count his currency notes. The only explanation for the existence of Housefull 2 seems to be Sajid wondering how terrible a film can be and still cross the 100 crore mark.

Movie Review: Titanic 3D

When it released in theaters back in 1998, people either desperately loved Titanic or pretended to hate it. It was impossible to genuinely dislike the movie because it was an immensely stunning technical triumph, so far ahead in terms of visual grandeur that one could not look away from the screen. The eye-roll inducing love story might now seem like a rejected Mills & Boon novel, but even to this date the chemistry between stars Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet has not been replicated in Hollywood. It was easy to be won over by the $200 million kitsch, and it was clear that director James Cameron had brought a turning point in modern cinema history, for the third time in his career.

So what better way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the second highest grossing movie of all time? Re-releasing the film worldwide in post-Avatar 3D, of course. Avatar recently went on to become the biggest money spinner of all time, and thanks to that 3D rehash of Pocahontas, there are now far more 3D movies being catapulted into theaters than we ever received from Hollywood. More and more studios are converting their films into 3D and asking audiences to pay a premium ticket price. Most big animation movies are being rendered in 3D as well. The 3D hasn’t exactly taken the industry by storm, because for every Avatar or Tintin, there is a Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender. Ninety nine percent of the current crop of 3D films are buoyed by Hollywood’s greed, and are either disappointing or downright torture to the eyes. These are ‘fake 3D’ movies, shot in 2D and post converted to 3D – it’s Hollywood hustling the public because the resultant picture quality is dim and/or out of focus. Then there are movies like Resident Evil: Afterlife which are shot in 3D but feature a lousy story and are unbearably ugly to look at. 3D hasn’t transformed the movies, it has made them gimmicky. 

So how does the 3D rendition of Titanic fare here? For one, Cameron has gone on record saying that he wanted to get the 3D done right – close to $20 million and 50 long weeks have been spent in carefully enhancing the seminal movie into 3D. He went so far ahead as to re-edit the astral pattern of a scene featuring the night sky to make it more scientifically accurate. The good news is that in some parts, the 3D works brilliantly, and we still get the visual and aural epic that we hoped for. Russel Carpenter’s camera and James Horner’s gorgeous music glide you through a breeze of fresh air and the practical sets rather than the digital claustrophobia of Avatar. The 3D becomes more apparent only during the wide shots of the ship, but the interiors shots are a joy because they almost make you feel like you’re strolling about the ship along with the characters. Unlike in Avatar, where the 3D cinematography was used to overtly define the landscape, there’s a lot more subtle shifting in Titanic 3D

Apart from the marginally dim colors, the gaffes of Titanic 3D are still the clunky dialogue and Billy Zane’s unintentionally amusing turn, and most of the plot contrivances become more jarring in the current era of sophisticated audiences. The 3D does add more visual depth to the final hour where the ship sinks, but whether or not it adds to any intimacy you share with the story or the characters is moot. That said, sometimes you need to let nostalgia get the better of you - despite being a film that is fifteen years old and available on your DVD shelf, Titanic miraculously again becomes the best movie to see in theaters this weekend. Watch it with the people you love, because nothing compares with watching grand cinema on a huge screen with a big crowd. Just don’t let anyone catch you secretly listening to that Celine Dion song on your iPod afterwards.

(First published in Mid Day)