Friday, February 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

Now here is a type of cinema the world could use more of. Shot in gorgeous black and white, The Artist is a breathtakingly beautiful film and a passionate, funny, touching, glorious and incredibly romantic ode to the classic 1920’s silent film era. It’s criminal to even call it a film because it’s a piece of art – delightfully feisty art, packed with magnificently colorful characters and moments. Not only does this film justify its 10 Oscar nominations, but it also offers you the most fun you’ll ever have at a movie theater.

Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius weaves a rich mélange of eye-popping tones in The Artist. The story, acting, direction, artwork and costumes gracefully mingle to form a lovely portrait of the 1920’s cinema and Hazanavicius beautifully flexes the period trappings. It is 1927 Hollywood, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a colossal star of silent romantic adventure sagas. He has a grand life at his mansion with his glamorous wife (Penelope Ann Miller), his little pet dog and a chauffeur (James Cromwell). Things take a turn when his studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) comes across new technology – movies with sound, and realizes that they would soon replace silent films. George scoffs at the idea of this new technology, and parts ways with his producer. He proceeds to direct, produce and star in his own silent films, with disastrous results, while his former love-struck co-star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a talkie Hollywood movie star.

Director Hazanavicius finds the right tone and no portion of The Artist feels uneven or over-the-top. The entire cast is outstanding, particularly star Jean Dujardin who with this role has pretty much affirmed his place in Hollywood with his Best Actor Oscar nom. Dujardin effortlessly nails numerous silent film burlesque guiles that you thought were extinct. Bérénice Béjo is charming as Peppy Miller, beautiful even when her face is covered in gloom. There’s even the hilariously rambunctious John Goodman and a warmhearted cameo from James Cromwell. Sadly there is no category for cute dogs in the Oscars or the one in this film would’ve scored a nomination.

There’s sheer magic to be found in Guillaume Schiffman’s stunningly exquisite cinematography that makes every frame seem like a vintage storybook illustration. The Artist is a film that celebrates films, and it plays as homage to classics like What Price Hollywood and A Star Is Born and a brilliantly inventive update of Singing in the Rain. There’s even a dash of the Charlie Chaplin films, resplendent with the elements that made them marvelous, though with its own creative alterations. What works the best in The Artist is that beneath all the homages to Hollywood's bouncy 1920’s, beyond the references to the pantheon of filmmakers, and behind that gorgeous photography, there is this simple truth that when you watch great cinema, it duplicates the feeling of being in love.

The Artist is entertainment in its absolute crystalline form. You would be a complete fool to miss it.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Carnage

With an incredibly strong cast of Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C Reilly, Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage is so entertaining that it’s searing. It’s an absolute joy to watch the actors pour acid on the carefully molded artificial wholesome morality of modern society.  

The film is based on Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winning hit French play God of Carnage, and it takes place in a single location (an apartment) in real time. And just like in the stage play that starred Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden, the lure of Carnage is being treated to great actors playing suburban couples who attack each other as if they are on a more placid version of Bigg Boss.  

The story is rather simple - Nancy (Winslet) and Alan (Waltz) visit the apartment of Penelope (Foster) and Michael (Reilly) because the formers’ kid had punched the latters’ at a school playground, knocking out his teeth. Both couples decide to meet and sort out the issue like responsible, mature parents - they begin with having coffee and dessert over a casual chat. But the chat turns into minor disagreements, and then escalates to straightforward mocking, and then to uproarious full blast boxing matches. 

To make things more complicated internal tensions between the couples begin to boil to the surface. Alan seems to continuously answer phone calls, much to the annoyance of his wife. He also openly boasts his big job as a lawyer and makes fun of Michael’s plumbing profession. The crass Penelope ridicules Alan and Nancy's careless approach to parenting and loses her mind when her husband reaches the peak of his stupidity. The four soon shed their false sense of dignified composure and screaming matches follow, as they resort to thrashing each other and bickering in amusing ways.

The big draw of Carnage is the acting – Winslet and Foster are magnificent, while Waltz gives a sneering, controlled performance with a small glint of disdain in his eyes. Reilly is excellent as he first tries to be jovial and rational in the face of a lot of hostility but explodes when he gets his chance. It's difficult to single out the performances but if anyone deserved an Oscar nomination it is Winslet who evolves from a gracious upmarket classy wife to a disgustingly profane shrew who vomits the dessert all over the Penelope’s precious books. 

The fifth star of Carnage, however, is director Roman Polanski who effortlessly trumps the difficult task of turning a paper thin premise in a single location to a deliciously fun movie. Polanski is the master of demonstrating disorder on screen, and he does a tremendous job of piling on the tension between the couples, and timing their reactions to perfection. This is especially audacious as there is literally no room for any visual showmanship, given the single location. The wide angle shots enhance the increasing sense of claustrophobia and you’re left in splits as the characters detonate in a foul war of words in the final ten minutes.  

Carnage is a smart pitch black comedy – watch it to see four of the best Hollywood actors playing people who hilariously circle each other like vultures and tear through the fabric of feigned niceness.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Moneyball

Moneyball is one of those films that could easily be mistaken for a generic feel-good sports movie that inevitably ends with your team winning in the final seconds of the game. Yet despite Mychael Danna’s music that creates lumps in throats, and one clichéd speech by a coach, the film is extremely well-acted and engaging. And more importantly, you don’t even have to be a baseball fan or know anything about the game to enjoy it. 

Based on Michael Lewis’ book ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’, the film chronicles the true story of an underdog Baseball team’s historic season through the eyes of the coach. Written by screenwriting heavyweights Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List), and directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), Moneyball mines the emotional strings like no other sports movie. The film is set in 2001 and we’re introduced to former champ Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who manages the Oakland A baseball team. Beane faces rough weather as his team has lost a series for the second consecutive year and is losing his star players to higher paying teams. He decides to use his monetary handicap as a chance for innovation – he hires a smart number crunching economist (Jonah Hill) and founds a team of cut price players with individual faults who, according to statistical analysis, would amount to a winning combination. 

We've all seen this sort of a movie before, so we know what to expect. Director Miller throws in the oddball players, the field manager who disagrees with Beane’s tactics, and Beane’s backstory regarding his fall from grace. There is also a subplot involving Beane’s daughter and his ex-wife (Robin Wright). There are even the obligatory scenes of some nasty players who slowly learn that the coach is trying to teach them to relinquish their old qualms and prejudices, and to get to know each other and work together like a well-oiled machine. However there are splendid moments on the edges of the narrative, coupled with beautifully shot on field scenes, several excellent performances and unusually low-key brilliance from star Brad Pitt. I have no idea how great the real-life Billy Beane was, but his talent was probably nothing in comparison to Pitt’s, who brings so much passion to his role. 

Even though he has a couple of funny lines, Jonah Hill surprisingly crosses over from frat boy comedy to this drama with ease – he is no longer the overweight buffoon from Superbad and delivers a superb performance as the nervy economist. Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a minuscule role as the hypocrite manager who first fights Beane but then takes all the credit when the team starts to win. The cinematography by Wally Pfister is top notch, and the effective baseball scenes are filmed such that you can only follow the games at the gut level. 

The big problem with this genre of movies is that in trying to remain faithful to the source material, a filmmaker is compelled to include the same stock of clichés we've seen before in earlier films. Moneyball, however, offers us an entertaining time and a fascinating story that moves you, one that is much better than one would expect. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn

While watching the rough cut of a Marilyn Monroe movie, Dominic Cooper who plays the producer says ‘When she gets a scene right, there is no point in watching anyone else’.  In My Week with Marilyn Michelle Williams follows up her stunning turns in Blue Valentine and Meek’s Cutoff with a fantastic performance as Monroe, effortlessly duplicating her smile, delicate voice and mannerisms. And just like the legendary character she plays, you can’t pay attention to anything else in this film, even though Williams is paired with the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Judy Dench.

My Week with Marilyn is based on a memoir by Colin Clark, and it chronicles the tumultuous 1956 making of The Prince and the Showgirl, the first Monroe production starring herself opposite Sir Laurence Olivier who also directed the film. Clark, then a 23-year-old aspiring filmmaker (played by Eddie Redmayne) is hired as an assistant director by Sir Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) for the film shoot.  Monroe and Olivier straightaway get into on-set conflicts because of her constant late arrivals, stumbling lines and their apparent clashing styles of the Strasberg way of method acting and English stage technique. However the real problem is that Monroe, the confident media darling and powerful star is in fact a drug abusing weak mess of nerves, inferiority complex and peculiarities. 

Clark develops an infatuation for Monroe who treats him as a much needed friendly companion to help her cope with her loneliness and self-loathing. She likes the fact that he sees her soul, when most others look at her as a saucy sex object. He eventually becomes the middle-man between Monroe and Olivier, and brings Monroe to the realization that "Olivier is a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you're a film star who wants to be a great actor. This film won't help either of you”. Kenneth Branagh is brilliant as the maestro who faces the bitter truth about his own age and the fact that that he is making a forgettable movie. Branagh perfectly matches Sir Olivier’s charmingly condescending voice and vanity. Eddie Redmayne is passable as Clark, though his romantic subplot with a costume girl (Emma Watson) seems out of place and unnecessary. 

Right from the first scene where she sings ‘When Love Goes Wrong’, Michelle Williams locks on to an Oscar nomination. In fact she is so convincing that you wonder if Monroe would’ve played herself so well. It takes more than just a blonde wig and lipstick to capture Monroe’s charisma and Williams demonstrates that she had done her homework. There is nothing groundbreaking about My Week with Marilyn, it doesn’t shed any new light on the life of Monroe, but it certainly deserves a watch for the performances.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Jodi Breakers

In Jodi Breakers, Omi Vaidya plays a chick magnet Casanova while still employing the same set of linguistic and behavioral skills that he has done in every other film to date. This seems like something that should be against the law. To cut to the chase, this film lives up to its title - if you want your girlfriend to break up with you, you should take her to watch Jodi Breakers

Directed by Ashwini Chaudhary, this poor excuse of a romantic comedy is so rife with non-jokes it seems like it was shot through a specially crafted Unfunny Lens. The story isn’t completely borrowed from the French film Heartbreakers, but is instead even more idiotic. Sid (Madhavan) has been dumped, and his ex-wife has made off with a large sum of his dough and even his car. Frustrated, he decides to pull a reverse-Will Smith from Hitch and form a Jodi Breaking agency that splits up couples in exchange for money. His business takes off like it were the new gold rush, and he takes Sonali (Bipasha Basu) under his wing (who naturally falls for him). As expected Sid plots vengeance and sets his thoughts on breaking up his ex-wife (Dipannita Sharma) and her boyfriend, a rich business magnate (Milind Soman). And this for some reason causes friction between Sonali and Sid.

None of this will keep you awake, let alone expecting it to be even remotely funny or enjoyable. You know the drill – there’s the usual roadblock where the protagonists split up until finally everything falls into place for a happily ever after cliché-thon. Maddeningly all the characters act surprised through all the hackneyed chestnuts and Chaudhary’s direction can’t the least bit hide the structural woes of his own script. It doesn’t help that the Gym Bod Geronimos Bipasha Basu and Milind Soman compete against each other to come across as more monumentally dim and talentless. 

Omi Vaidya is called ‘Nano’ in this film because he is tiny. What he should really have been named cannot be printed here in the interest of readers’ harmony. He repeats the same speech gag from 3 Idiots - presumably to remind complete dullards in the audience that he should never be placed in front of a rolling camera ever again. Madhavan, clad under a jarring chin rug tries desperately to pull off a boyishly handsome shtick but fails utterly. As the lead, he exudes the charm of someone who is simply glad to have picked up a quick paycheck. One must also deplore the total waste of Helen who has a few jaw-droppingly poorly written scenes as a shrill grandmother. 

Of course, you can enjoy Jodi Breakers simply for the beautiful sunlit Greek locations which are in fact nicely shot in widescreen by cinematographer Arun Verma - the Greek tourism board would be pleased - even though we’re expected to believe that a Greek club features Bollywood songs and dances (cue the jhatkas and matkas!). But for the sake of all the lovely scenery, you’ll have to put up with an asinine plot, mindnumbingly boring characters, painfully unfunny dialogue, and more Omi Vaidya shenanigans than your eyes and ears can endure.

(First published in Mumbaiboss)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The First Annual Fauxscar Movie Awards

From milking cash cows to ludicrous PR stunts, across unashamed digital IMAX thievery to complete disregard for the audience's well being, the land of Hollywood brings many-a-joys.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the premier edition of the Fauxscar Awards! Hit it John Williams!


WINNER: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Why make one movie when you can split a book into two? That's one whole more billion dollars right there! Kaching!

Runners up:
  • Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
  • Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides
  • The Hangover Part 2
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks 3: Chipwrecked


WINNER: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

A barefaced franchise cash in to begin with, the 3D in 'On Stranger Tides' was beyond any acceptable or known levels of terrible. Arrr .. the only words from Hollywood execs to a paying patron's eyeball were 'Thar she blows'. 

Runners up:
  • Priest
  • Green Hornet
  • Sanctum


WINNER: I am Number 4

A chock-full of teenage hammy ham-handedness and a hilariously shabby hodgepodge of 'Twilight' and Nicolas Sparks, 'I am Number 4' is as uninspiring as they come. This movie presents Michael Bay as a producer of a romance drama, an idea so ridiculous it could never even happen in fiction, let alone in real life.

Runners up:
  •  Red Riding Hood
  • The Art of Getting By
  • Abduction
  • Beastly


 WINNER: J Edgar

The most sugar-frosted biopic since 'A Beautiful Mind', this movie makes you feel like a child who was forcibly fed half a bottle of cough syrup and asked to finish three weeks of pending algebra homework.

Runners up:
  • Anonymous
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • War Horse


WINNER: The Change-Up

With a script that seemed like it was written on used toilet paper, 'The Change-Up' brought us the two most unlikable characters of 2011 in the form of Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman. The 'jokes' are so unfunny it's impossible to not be overcome by an urge to strangle yourself 30 minutes in.

Runners up:
  • Just go with it
  • Horrible Bosses
  • Zookeeper


WINNER: Battle: Los Angeles

This was not only the worst movie of 2011 but also one of the worst movies to ever have arrived in theaters. In fact the best way to describe this abominable piece of garbage is the Bin Laden of action movies.

Runners up: 
  • Your Highness
  • One Day
  • Red State
  • In Time   

And now, to present four Hall Of Fame awards, please give a big warm welcome to Fauxscars Academy High Priest daddy_san! *Cue in dramatic swing music*


WINNER: Monster's Ball.

We honor the most innovative use of conjugated genitalia in creating Academy-baiting perceptions of "Intense" storylines. Full frontals are entry prerequisites, sexual thrusting guarantees consideration and a combination of both as well as inter-racial or same-sex situations is a winner.


WINNER: My Left Foot.

Two arms, two legs, ten fingers and toes is plain vanilla. There's almost 7 billion of us just like that. What the we like to see is NOT JUST how people with disabilities rise above their lot, but how that lot is really the worst cesspool of existence. Don't judge us for that! The Academy would like to provide a FRAME OF REFERENCE for chrissakes! Makes you people feel less entitled while allowing you a secret laugh at these poor fucks. Win-win!


Winner: Shakespeare in Love

We at the Fauxscars Academy value linguistic integrity. With much of it missing in America (I mean, "ax"? Seriously?) it would like to satisfy its secret colonial hangover and inferiority complex by honoring well-enunciated English which makes the Academy's members go wet between the legs. Story, acting prowess or relevance is a plus but not compulsory.  

Best Iraq-Was-A-Bad-Idea-And-We'll-Keep-Showing-You-Bodybags-Until-You-Agree-Award

WINNER: Hollywood.

Make love, not war. No, make a little war so we can accompany you and make movies with realism. Movies that argue against the very reprehensible, pointless activities that aid their existence and authenticity. And when they succeed, heck we'll gather up a bunch of Saudi goatherds and dress them in fatigues. But until then, we would like to honor the most brutal depictions of war, the ensuing carnage and the terrible lives of its limbless, spiritless survivors.

That was daddy_san, ladies and gentlemen. *Exits to swing music and rapturous applause*

We've saved the most inelegant for the last, so without any further procrastination, I present:


WINNER: The Iron Lady.


WINNER: The Blake Lively nude photo scandal that 'coincidentally' happened right before the release of Green Lantern.


WINNER: Nicolas Cage in Drive Angry 3D.


WINNER: Emily Browning in Sleeping Beauty.


WINNER: Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House 3.


WINNER: Adam Sandler in and as Jack and Jill.


WINNER: The Sleeping Beauty DVD release PR stunt. Which offered one lucky winner 1000 pounds to be tucked up in a luxurious bed in a public place for 12 straight hours.



Runners up:


WINNER: Roger Ebert, for his heartfelt eulogy on the tragic death of 'Jackass' star Ryan Dunn.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Movie Review: Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance

It remains a mystery how the turgid 2007 campfest Ghost Rider made $228 million worldwide, considering the movie’s sophistry was on the level of a kid floating his plastic boat in a bathtub. But somehow people filled theater seats and as a result we now have an even more horrid sequel slash reboot – Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. 

The new film, just like the first one wears its grindhouse crudeness as a badge of honor. There’s plenty of bad dialogue, terrible acting, and an awful story that simply puts Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in the growing list of unnecessary Hollywood reboots. The good news is that it runs just short of 90 minutes, and the CGI is a minor improvement over the previous film. But it suffers from more of the same infirmities that made Ghost Rider a bore – appalling writing, irritating characters and Nicolas Cage attempting to act. And it’s in dreadful eyeball-hurting 3D.

Cage makes a roaring return with his over-the-top hamming as the titular motorbike rider with a flaming skull – and he is even more grotesque than in the previous film. He urinates fire, spits bullets, commandeers flaming cranes, grapples a car with a chain, yet he is as threatening as a parking valet at a Colaba restaurant. In fact Cage’s colossal hamminess is just one of several cringe-inducing factors here. There is Ciaran Hinds as the devil who is just painful to watch, especially during his back-and-forth with the Ghost Rider. Idris Elba is completely forgettable and Johnny Whitworth who plays the embarrassingly ill-conceived Blackout the villain has nothing to do but sneer in bloom. Then there is the love interest Violante Placido who is lovely to look at but seems more worried about the critical reception to this film than her acting. Everyone else is asleep, none more so than directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor who landed this franchise with their infamous Crank films to their credit.

There’s not much of a plot – the Ghost Rider makes a deal with a European church to save a boy from the devil in exchange for becoming human again. The sheer lethargy of Neveldine and Taylor’s direction is so prevalent that it seems like the plot was an afterthought to all the CGI buffoonery. To make matters worse, the stunt work is incorporated to the point of ridicule – in one scene a character hangs around in mid-air and shoots bullets to topple a car. Then in a big highway action scene Cage leaps from a moving motorcycle to a truck, fights baddies and jumps back on the bike. The whole thing is clumsily put together and instead of offering any entertainment it just lurches along stupidly. Perhaps this is what is fundamentally wrong with the Ghost Rider movies – not only is the action boring, but none of the characters are likable, and there’s nothing particularly heroic, fascinating or even interesting about the Ghost Rider himself. 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a garbled mix of a few cheap special effects and a couple of clever ideas, but it doesn’t have enough creativity to offer any fun. If ever a film franchise needed to be shut down for good, it’s this one. Even Catwoman and the first Ghost Rider film seem like masterpieces compared to this hogwash.

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: Ekk Deewana Tha

A remake of the 2010 Tamil film Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa clocking in at two and a half hours, Ekk Deewana Tha is so excruciatingly long and tedious that it knocks you straight into a nap—one could market it to parents of hyperactive kids. This remake is good for nothing other than to prove how the same story and songs can be turned into either a classic audience pleaser or a turgid dump.  

The story remains almost the same. Kokanastha Brahmin Sachin (Babbar) is an engineer who dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He falls for his slightly older Malayali Christian neighbour Jessie, much to the chagrin of her father and brother. Jessie is reticent at first, but Sachin lays it on thick and manages to charm her, and she slowly begins to give in. The story takes a slight detour from the original in the second half and it leads to a climax that strains not only the temples on your head but also the margins of suspension of disbelief. The final ten minutes are tacky and cheap, and completely enraging, and go against everything the heroine supposedly believes in. There is a ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film, also currently playing in select cinemas, that has a different climax, but the remainder contains the same shortcomings as the mainstream version.  

It’s impossible to detail the number of ways where Ekk Deewana Tha goes wrong. Firstly, Prateik is to acting what a chunk of baked ham is to Tambrahm cuisine, which is to say offensive from the outset. He also strikes me as a 12-year-old girl trapped in the body of a 25-year-old man. This works just fine when he is cast as an extra in unintentionally hilarious films like Aarakshan but it is disastrous when he appears as a romantic lead.  

Then there’s the ludicrous casting of former Miss Teen Great Britain Amy Jackson as a thoroughly desi sari-clad girl caked with layers of fake tan. It’s fortunate that Jackson is easy on the eyes because she crashes head on into the craft of acting like a derailed goods train. Every time her character tries to emote or smile, it comes across as if both the actress and the character are pleading at us to not look at them as over-priced wooden furniture. There isn’t an iota of chemistry between Prateik and Jackson, and we’re the ones who’re left to deal with their characters, mainly because the actors choose not to. 

The pacing is so slack that like my companion, you may fall asleep during one key plot point. The other big problem is that Ekk Deewana Tha is two movies in one, and both are shoddy. What this means is that the audience has to endure not one but two sets of contrivances in the climax. The second half is bitingly predictable and director Gautham Menon might as well have handed out copies of the script to the folks in the ticket lines.  

But the biggest gaffe of Ekk Deewana Tha is its terribly transitioned music. In bringing the songs to Hindi audiences, Menon and lyricist Javed Akhtar have sold themselves and the audiences short. A good translation of AR Rahman’s Tamil soundtrack into Hindi doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but it does need to treat its composer with the same respect he put into creating the songs in the first place. Ekk Deewana Tha fails spectacularly in doing this, mistakenly believing that everyone will be happy to just see Prateik singing “Hosanna” in Hindi.

(First published in MumbaiBoss)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Movie Review: The Woman in Black

Unsettling as it is entertaining, The Woman in Black is a deliciously creepy old fashioned ghost story, and the most enjoyable chiller since 2007’s The Orphanage. The film, an adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 book (which spawned a fantastic 1989 TV movie and a popular stage play) is a slickly crafted Gothic spookfest that fiddles with fear in a delightfully cinematic manner.

What makes The Woman in Black work is its unpretentious, increasingly alarming and emotionally jangling tone. Director James Watkins refreshingly doesn’t resort to gore for the scares or shock value - but the tension becomes almost unbearable as the film progresses and Watkins, his cinematographer Tim Maurice and composer Marco Beltrami keep the bloodcurling atmosphere going for the entirety of its 90 minutes. It really is pure eye and ear candy for young horror enthusiasts hungry for thrills. And it helps that Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe headlines the film with a mature, understated performance - it's great to see him tackling such a diverse role.

The story is fairly straightforward – Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer and a widower with a four year old son who is sent to a rotting mansion in the English countryside where the dead owner has left the estate a mess of paperwork. A sinister stench greets Kipps, there is no telephone or electricity; the townspeople seem to hide a secret and Kipps soon realizes that he is being watched from a distance by a ghostly figure in black. Soon enough, the bump in the dark frights assume full control all the way up to the smashing thrill ride of an ending. If you've seen half a dozen horror movies, you'll already know where the scares are. The standard clichés are a plenty - from the intimidating toys to the unexpected blasts from the music brass. Yet the jump scares are delivered exquisitely because director Watkins consistently finds new ways to sell them.

But the bigger coup of The Woman in Black is the pleasing climax coupled with the ample backstory. Moreover, the film marks a great return for the legendary Hammer productions that brought us such seminal horror films as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy. Not only does The Woman in Black serve as a fabulous reminder of the renowned studio's heyday, but it also enriches the things that made Hammer so famous. The lighting and set design is gorgeous and constantly offers spine-chilling visual cues and shadows. There are startling noises in the fog, grimy hand prints on window panes, the mansion itself is adorned in strange decorations and is cut off from the land by a lake, but none of the supernatural overtures are the least bit cheesy. They’re just enough to keep horror veterans entertained and newbies shifting at the edge of their seats.

The Woman in Black is a simple haunted house tale but it’s beautifully nerve-racking. If you’re on the lookout for sheer atmospheric horror then you really should double bill this movie with a DVD of The Orphanage and call it a night.

(First published in Mid Day)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hey Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Oscars Suck

A week ago someone asked me a question – Who decides who wins the Oscars? The wrong people, I replied. 

But hey, I’m a cantankerous critic who often questions the taste of the Oscar voters and the credibility of movie awards. The Oscars don’t celebrate true artistic achievement, because every year quality cinematic gems are ignored in favor of bourgeois beanbags. Nor do the awards celebrate commercial success, since the Academy regularly turns its nose up at blockbusters, even good ones. 

What the Academy actually champions is an odd mixture of commercial, indie, garishly overblown, and politically correct tripe. It’s all about studio lobbying and network ratings, and the Best Picture award is just meant to serve as Hollywood’s poster-child. In fact some of the Oscar voters have not had anything to do with the movie industry for more than 30 years. That is why we see old fashioned scum like War Horse get nominated over more radical and challenging stuff like Martha Marcy May Marlene

I stopped watching the Oscars three years ago. Because the winners not only don’t let me reflect my feelings about them, but they also make me reach out for a baseball bat and storm towards the Kodak Theater. An ideal awards ceremony would fairly represent all sides of filmmakers’ struggle, but the Oscars are simply rating-hungry Teevee shows that pummel an urgent need of self-gratification upon your face. Year after year the Oscar voters continue to prove that they are unconnected to any known human behavior. Year after year they set out explicitly to demonstrate their belief that there is no relation between art, showmanship and intelligence. And judging by this year’s nominees I’m beginning to wonder if the Academy deliberately invites ridicule. 

The unreasonably schmaltzy War Horse, one of the worst ever Spielberg movies garnered an unbelievable SIX nominations. This wouldn’t matter if the film were universally acclaimed or the least bit interesting. Instead it is mind-numbingly saccharine and melodramatic; the direction is banal and the acting (apart from Benedict Cumberbatch) is just embarrassing. I am not an expert on filmmaking but I would like to know why a horsey movie that requires you to consume half a dozen Hajmola tablets to digest its cheese scored over a true masterpiece like 50/50. The Joseph Gordon Levitt-Seth Rogen starrer achieves the impossible – it is a cancer comedy that combines humour with painful subjects, and not once do we feel the film’s tone shifting from one to the other. 50/50 is critically acclaimed, but the Academy didn’t bother to nominate even the cancer survivor writer Will Reiser, who lived to tell his story because of his belief that comedy can alleviate pain and make it easier to bear.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a movie that’s been disliked by every film lover I know and derided by the majority of the top Hollywood critics, received a Best Picture nomination.  The Steven Daldry film is so self-important and manipulative in milking the 9/11 theme that it encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for tolerating it. But Richard Ayoyade’s exceptionally quirky bittersweet dramedy Submarine, and Steven Soderbergh’s magnificent Contagion, two films that bowled over both critics and audiences didn’t get even a whiff of the nominee ballots. Both those films also feature the best soundtracks of the year, but the Academy decided to have just two nominees for Best Original song, booting out Alex Turner’s glorious tracks for Submarine in the process. To add to the tomfoolery, neither of the two songs that were nominated will even be performed during the Oscars show.

The travesty doesn’t end there. Tilda Swinton, whose turn in We Need To Talk About Kevin tops even her own previous roles could not find a berth in the Best Actress slot. Among the year’s great performances you won’t find a greater one than Swinton as a traumatized mother. Anyone unable to find something extraordinary with her character should not only be not allowed to vote, but also not be allowed to watch films. 

Laughably, Rooney Mara scored a Best Actress nom, despite playing a watered down version of the character played by Noomi Rapace three years ago in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher’s remake has a lot of nudity, and I can think of two reasons why Mara, and not Swinton delighted the Oscar voters. 

Moreover, the jury seemed to be stoned or confused about which of the six Jessica Chastain films to vote for. She received a Best Supporting Actress nom for her one dimensional character in The Help instead of for Tree Of Life which required thrice as much conviction. And the less said about Elizabeth Olsen’s snub and Glenn Close’s inclusion, the better - if makeup and costumes add to an actor’s Oscar eligibility then Eddie Murphy should’ve won a statuette or two for Norbit.

If all that weren’t enough, Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, a double Annie award winner and a favourite to win the Animation Oscar failed to score even a nom.  I am all for endorsing films about cats, but Puss In Boots’ nomination made me gag. The fact that the Academy embraced a spinoff of the Shrek franchise and ignored a fresh film with a five-minute long single-take motorbike-boat-tank chase baffles me. 

But the biggest, most shameless display of the Academy’s moral simplemindedness comes with their complete disregard for Steve McQueen’s Shame and its star Michael Fassbender. The Oscar voters didn't pick Fassbender’s character, a shallow self-gratifying wanker, because they probably are the same. Independent Cinema is an oxymoron, and it looks like poor McQueen will have to sculpt his whole career out of jumping from festival to festival, keeping his work alive with the grants, prizes, and prestige that come at international festival screenings. Instead of Fassbender, Gary Oldman was curiously nominated for his role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - his character is neither a crowd pleaser like Brad Pitt in Moneyball nor even especially likable. The real reason behind Oldman’s nomination seems to be the Academy’s addiction to high grade cocaine or the need to flaunt their ‘generosity’ of including commercially unsuccessful cinema.

But ultimately it is futile to criticize these ludicrous awards. Everyone will be glued to their Teevees on Feb 26, because people regard the Oscars as an occasion to sit with family and friends, and admire the celebs, make fun of their daft acceptance speeches, or gaze at their gowns and cleavage. 

I, on the other hand, shall be busy with my Joe Sacco graphic novels, not giving a fuck.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Movie Review: Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

There is always a market for sleek, superficial, Valentine’s day date movies about the liberating power of love and being true to your own self. The new Karan Johar-produced rom-com Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu is one such film, and it almost manages to succeed over the hackneyed conventions of the genre. 

Debutant director Shakun Batra’s ripoff, correction, homage to What happened in Vegas and Recien Cazado is unabashedly slushy and syrupy, and if your favourite movie is Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na or The Notebook, then Ek Mai Aur Ekk Tu is just the film for you. The less romantic will find the entirety of this movie to be a tremendously trite, ham-handed endurance test.

On the bright side director Batra’s twist on the standard rom-com clichés is that Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu isn't bogged down by the ‘made for each other’ machination that makes a sappy Bollywood ending inevitable. The film is mostly breezy and fun as Batra and his co-writer Ayesha Devitre avoid formulaic pomposity one finds in garbage like Jhootha Hi Sahi. It helps that Amit Trivedi’s music here is just as lighthearted and inviting as the glossy Vegas locales where the first half is set. Fifty percent of the leads are excellent - Kareena  Kapoor is bright as sunshine and cruises with charming quirks and cutesy details, but Imran Khan’s mechanical performance, where he bumbles over his attempts at humor, almost sabotages her role. He labors so hard to whip life into his character that he possibly pulled a muscle or two. Teenage girls will squeal at his dreamy eyes and hair, but Imran’s forced tedium just drags us through his character’s daddy and mommy issues and uncomfortable whims that he makes you want to grab and shake him awake.

Here we have Rahul Kapoor (Imran), the obedient 25-year-old son of a rich couple (Boman Irani and Ratna Pathak Shah) who loses his job at a top construction company in Las Vegas. Rahul has never made a choice of his own in his life, and is afraid to go against his dad’s plan of being drafted into the family business and get married a colleague’s daughter. Rahul chances upon the happy-go-lucky hairstylist Riana (Kareena) at a shrink’s office, and after a drunken night on Christmas, he wakes up to find out that they got married at one of the infamous Vegas chapels. Rahul and Riana decide to procure an annulment, but as expected, Rahul realizes that Riana might just be the beacon of light in his perfunctory life.  

We’ve had too many rom-coms that feature mid-twenties boys and girls complaining about daddy issues and how they find someone who changes their lives, but in the case of Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu Imran’s character manages to keep the plot truism to a thankful minimum. A more mature and realistic portrayal of the same, however, was done by Siddharth in the Telugu film Bommarillu

The production design and David Mac Donald’s photography are crafted with meticulous care - the Vegas locales are menthol cool, graciously not the least bit schlocky like in Anjaana Anjaani. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the dialogue, which seems as if it should come attached to big white balloons hovering over the characters' heads. Sample Imran saying to Kareena: ‘Duniya me do type ke parents hote hai, jo Cola aur Candy allow karte hai, aur jo nahi’. The comedy isn’t particularly hilarious, in fact most of the jokes are just sitcom level - all they’re devoid of are the accompanying laugh tracks. Most of the giggles arise from the few physical comedy bits, one of which involves Imran falling over a couch and another where he walks out of a restaurant bathroom dripping wet.

What Ek Mai Aur Ekk Tu has going for itself is the excellent supporting cast. Ratna Pathak Shah proves yet again that she is by far the most likable person on both the telly and the big screen. Ram Kapoor as Irani’s business partner is fun in his cameo, more so is Nikhil Kapoor who plays Kareena’s jovial dad. Both Ratna Pathak and Irani are given minuscule roles, one wonders why they weren’t given full reigns towards the climax, a plot point that was again better explored in the climax of Bommarillu

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu is a generic predictable lollypop rom-com date movie and star vehicle all rolled into one lustrous package. It isn’t the least bit original, but it doesn’t annihilate your patience levels the way I Hate Luv Stories and Break Ke Baad did. 

(First published in Mumbaiboss)

Movie Review: 'War Horse'

If only the magnificent opening shot of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was followed up with a story half as profound, then disappointment would not be so tangible. Shot with a truckload of affection by Janusz Kaminski, and intentionally evoking the films of John Ford, the imagery is the most compelling feature of War Horse, a maddeningly schmaltzy movie.

The elements are all in place - superb casting (newcomer Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston and Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch), gorgeous cinematography, John Williams’ lovely score; unfortunately the story never connects. War Horse falls into the clutches of long, intense ‘Spielberg Stares’ from nearly every character in the movie, inducing little drama that feels tiring and shallow. God’s rays could not have done a more admirable job of lighting War Horse, but the film’s aesthetic beauty doesn't compensate for the lack of a rewarding story.  

Based on a popular 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse revolves around Joey, a remarkable horse who is cared for by Albert, a young farm boy in England. World War I breaks out and Joey is taken away from Albert to be used in battle. The book focused on Albert's search throughout Europe to find Joey but the film only follows Joey's harrowing journey, where he is befriended, claimed and used by several different people across the continent. As Joey is passed from Albert to a soldier to a general to a little French girl to another soldier, War Horse plummets from sweet eye candy to agonizing melodrama. The conflicts are predictable and all the actors speak in frustratingly over the top histrionic dialogue. And by the hundredth beautifully crafted trail of smoke and explosion of artistic splendor, War Horse loses more than a little steam.  

Spielberg employs a visual style that is a throwback to classic John Ford movies. Every single shot is meticulously framed and flawlessly lit, but the movie completely fails at the human level. Most of the characters remain strangers to us, and it gets difficult to sympathize with any of them. Spielberg is the grandmaster of milking themes like family, home and longing, but unlike in his other films he offers too few moments of genuine emotional power. Even the leitmotifs of loss and moving on seem too labored and superficial. The attempts at wrenching out tears are unbelievably corny - one plot point contains the horse being mercilessly snatched away by soldiers from a sickly young French girl who lives with her grandfather.

The battle scenes are astounding, and a reminder of how talented Spielberg truly is. Long, uncut shots pretty much throw you into the nightmarish trenches and the battlefields. But however admirable the film’s sense of foreboding may be, it is impossible not to be put off by a story that’s increasingly contrived, saccharine and schmaltzy. 

War Horse is a ho-hum affair, watchable but not the least bit memorable. At two and a half hours it is too long and predictable, when 90 minutes would have been plenty. By the time it reaches its passionately sappy ending, it succeeds in making us remember it as dispassionately as possible.

(First published in Mid Day)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Movie Review: 'Chronicle'

Chronicle is an astonishing achievement, as enigmatic as its title, and absolutely razor-sharp entertainment. First-time director Josh Trank combines intricate handheld live-action camerawork with CGI wizardry to stunning, if often baffling effect. This found footage thriller rises above the genre dreck like Apollo 18, and offers a distinctive visual perspective that confirms that there's art left in the genre after all.

The story of Chronicle is similar to the X Files episode ‘Rush’ where a school kid finds a cave that gives him superpowers, except it doesn’t have the gauche allegorical monochrome of the show. In Chronicle the kid is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), whose dreary life consists of a drunkard dad, a sick mom and constant humiliation from society. His cousin Matt (Alex Russel) sometimes visits him out of pity. Andrew’s only friend is his video camera which he uses to record everything that goes on in his life. Things take a turn when Andrew accompanies his cousin and his classmate Steve (Michael B Jordan) to investigate a mysterious underground cave in the woods, where they discover otherworldly crystals and develop telekinetic superpowers. As any human adolescent would do, they use their powers for mischief and before you know it the film turns into a wild mirror image of X-Men.  

Director Trank’s imagination and vision is terrific - he immediately eliminates the contrivance of the POV camera and effortlessly balances all kinds of aesthetics like dark surrealism and compositional thingamajig. His work recalls Matt Reeves’ in Cloverfield but there's pizzazz in what Trank attempts. Chronicle arrives a full 12 years after The Blair Witch Project which put found footage on the commercial cinema map and the genre has since been littered with all kinds of tripe. Yet Chronicle, thanks to its optical and creative fertility manages to rub shoulders with the genre’s best offerings like Rec and Monsters.  Trank uses every inch of every frame to fill scenes with exciting tidbits, mixing natural light with colorful characters and barn-burning action to deliver a truly unforgettable experience. Some of the visual effects look like big money Michael Bay sequences, yet have been achieved with an astounding one-tenth of the budget. 

But it’s not just all eye candy razzle-dazzle, because Chronicle does a fantastic job of putting us inside the heads of socially rejected teenagers who acquire powers to destroy lives – it is astonishing to realize that such a painfully clichéd theme can be thrillingly provocative if done right. It is possible that this film could’ve worked without the found footage gimmick and shot naturally, but the apparent realism of the characters and their existential rumination would’ve taken a beating. 

Chronicle cleverly merges handheld action and CGI with quirky storytelling, stylish lensing and assured performances. The result is an extremely inventive film, a special kind of visual ecstasy. I’m tempted to find comparisons to other more electrifying films, but the simple truth is that there’s nothing out there that's anything like this.

(First published in Mid Day)

Movie Review: 'Man on a Ledge'

Five minutes in, Man on a Ledge loses believability and devolves into near-farcical amusingly ludicrous improbability. If that’s the sort of braindead farce you’re likely to enjoy, watch the movie. For the rest, it would be a shame to see rising star Sam Worthington reduced to taking part in such grotesquely formulaic drivel. 

Man on a Ledge is just heavy handed schlock that balances unrealistic action movie howlers with painfully contrived dialogue, its only redeeming factor being the relatively short running time of 100 minutes. The film fails to generate any real excitement, though loads of ‘faux thrilling’ music is provided by Henry Jackman. All the characters here are numbingly unbelievable throughout the hackneyed script, even the scantily clad Genesis Rodriguez fails to distract from the predictable story.

Sam Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, an honest NYC cop who is wrongly accused of stealing real estate tycoon David Englander’s (Ed Harris) diamond and is sent to jail. Angered, Nick stages a prison break, makes his way to the ledge of a hotel’s high rise and threatens to jump to his death unless the cops produce Detective Mercer (Elizabeth Banks). Simultaneously, a few blocks away Nick’s brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and his girlfriend Angie (Rodriguez) attempt a reverse-heist to break into Englander’s vault to prove the diamond wasn’t stolen. Will Nick jump? Is there another twist? It’s all neither fun enough nor intelligent; instead it just slogs on without offering any real thrill.

The film is written by Pablo F. Fenjves, who won director of the year from the Directors Guild in 2008 for his documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, but Man on a Ledge seems like it was written by school kids. The trailer frustratingly gives away the biggest twist, and the final surprise, although obvious after the first half doesn’t make its appearance until the end, leaving plenty of time for the film to detour onto annoying avenues. The characters and the Mission Impossible-esque heist action are so flat that you can almost feel an invisible barrier that keeps you from any emotional involvement in them. There are also clumsily improbable twists of fate, some of which include the same cops being dispatched to every police action in the whole of New York. Things even go from implausible to completely absurd - nobody ever notices that Nick is wearing an earpiece to chat with his accomplices the whole time. 

But the most shocking thing to come from this film is the fact that Sam Worthington is a stunningly flavorless leading man. Worthington has done half a dozen films since his breakout role in Avatar, none of which showcased his dramatic skills. In Man on a Ledge he struggles with his accent so much that you can’t tell if he is American or British or Australian. Complimenting Worthington’s bland role are the unintentionally comedic offerings by Edward Burns and Elizabeth Banks as the police negotiators. The talented Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie (who plays Nick’s former partner) and Kyra Sedgwick (who plays a reporter) behave as if this movie was just another paycheck.

Man on a Ledge is a snoozy film – it has no great stars to show off, yet has the nerve to not even offer us any decent thrills.

(First published in Mid Day)