Friday, March 29, 2013

Movie Review: Himmatwala

Sajid Khan suffers from a severe bout of BAPS - Bozo At the Party Syndrome - where the only one entertained by the guy mimicking animal noises is the guy mimicking animal noises. Sajid thinks the way to make a movie about half-wits and overbearing heroes descending into kitsch is for the movie itself to be half-witted, overbearing and kitschy. He presents the movie as a Sajid Khan Entertainer, completely oblivious to the fact that the end product is the entertainment equivalent of being poked in the ribs with a screwdriver for two and a half hours. Himmatwala is a lurid display of humor and a wasteful example of 100 crore flogging ‘masala filmmaking’ incompetence. After Houseful 1 and 2 this is yet another one of those films that left me with the perennial question - 'Why would anyone pay for this garbage?'

We begin the film not knowing what brought Sajid and Ajay Devgn together for a remake of a dreadful 80’s Bollywood film. We end after 150 minutes precisely the same way. Gracelessly executed, Himmatwala mangles colorful montages, satire, homage, ludicrous fantasy sequences, OTT song and dance but drags on endlessly and feels like it was soaked in dirty water. The 80’s throwback was done very well in The Dirty Picture and fairly well in OSO, here the throwback is a cocktail of freakish fashion show and mind numbing melodrama that actually makes you run to a Sherawali temple and scream ‘Bas maa bas, aur kitna imtihaan legi tu!’ The clumsily sketched homages of stereotypical village gundas and his henchmen are as boring and insignificant as the very film Himmatwala spoofs. Rule Number 1 - If you use gallows humor in an 80’s set Hindi film about rural baddies and heroes, make sure you have a feel for it first.

It takes some talent to make a collage of larger than life characters seem smaller than life, but Sajid Khan pulls it off. With the garish plot and wealth of movie knowledge Sajid has (he is genuinely, incredibly knowledgeable about cinema), Himmatwala could have been a fun nostalgia 80’s trip, or even an epic cinematic event. Instead, we get:

1) A skit of Psycho where Devgn attacks Mahesh Manjrekar in the shower with the line ‘Naha tu raha tha, dhoya maine’.

2) Paresh Rawal cuddling up with Manjrekar on a khatiya in a horse shed, kissing his ear and licking his lips, and cupping his hands on his crotch.

3) Majrekar putting a crab in Rawal’s dhoti, as the latter starts dancing to the tune of Rail Gaadi.

4) ‘Masala’, defined by five goons threatening to cut Devgn into pieces in five different languages, and Devgn’s retort in those very languages, topped off with ‘Ata maajhi satakli’.

These ‘comedic’ scenes are remarkably awful and only some other planet, maybe the one occupied by apes will hail them as a work of a genius. Scene after scene Sajid pitches the narrative at a level of blaring loud cacophony, while the editor Nitin Rokade seems desperate to sprint through Sajid and Farhad’s rotten script as quickly as possible to get on with his life.

Trapped in the abysmal mess with varying degrees of collusion are a number of fine actors – Paresh Rawal, Mahesh Manjrekar, and Zarina Wahab, hamming to the hilt, so happy with their paychecks one expects them to suddenly break into Gangnam Style. There is also Adhyayan Suman who effortlessly proves that it is better to remain in career limbo than make a big screen comeback attempt in a film like Himmatwala. It all hinges on Devgn’s star power but his cringe-inducing, overdramatic performance is about as embarrassing as it gets. His intermittently glowering and cartoonish turn is simply painful to watch, there's nothing really amusing or endearing about it. That leaves the venerable Asrani as a ticket collector who attempts to avoid looking apologetic for this drivel. The only person who really seems to be trying here is Tamanna, who at least understands that playing characters like these requires a little bit of clothing and a whole lot of passion. All her jhatkas and matkas are choreographed to perfection and cinematographer Manoj Soni lights her perpetually smug expression very elegantly. The real star is a tiger who is so terribly superimposed on the screen it makes the original Jeetendra film look like a $200 million technical masterpiece.

Himmatwala is borderline treasonous and a disgrace to the comedy genre. The funniest thing about it is how its title actually refers to its audience, and how the song ‘Maar de bum pe laath’ is a euphemism for Sajid inviting critics to review his film.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Movie Review: GI Joe Retaliation

In the second act of GI Joe Retaliation there is a nine minute sequence without a single line of dialogue, where a Ninja has a machine gun swordfight with another Ninja and then scales a nearby mountain while simultaneously fighting multiple Ninjas leaping and swinging across the snowy peaks. It’s epic. It’s everything one wants to see in a GI Joe movie. It genuinely feels like the director has brought your childhood action figure battle between good guys and baddies to life on the big screen. But when this scene ends, so does everyone’s effort into making the movie.

GI Joe Retaliation tries to be a sequel and a reboot at the same time by desperately trying to extinguish our memories of the terrible first film. When The Rock was cast in the recent Fast and Furious movie, the move somehow breathed new life into the waning franchise. The same tactic is employed here, but sadly it fails and fails hard. Placing Jon Chu, the guy who made Step Up 2 The Streets and Justin Bieber Never Say Never in the director’s chair to correct the mistakes of the first GI Joe is a baffling move to begin with, but to cancel its release just days before it opens in theaters, and then delaying it by a year for post conversion to horrible 3D exhibits the delusional arrogance that thrives in major Hollywood studios. There was only one memorable part in the first film, where the Joes put on exoskeleton suits and engage in ridiculous stunts for an insane chase scene that culminates with the Eiffel Tower being destroyed. The sequel neither has any fun chase scenes, nor any snazzy gadgets that make the GI Joes look cool, all we get to see is a bunch of firearms in Bruce Willis’ kitchen.

The story picks up immediately after the events of Rise of the Cobra and the plot could very well have been written by a seven year old with his crayons. Cobra escapes imprisonment with the help of Storm Shadow, and the entire GI Joe unit is destroyed save for the trio of Roadblock (The Rock), Flint (Cotrona) and Jaye (Palicki). As Cobra attempts his master plan to take over the world, Snake Eyes teams up with Jinx to kidnap Shadow to extract information on his boss’ plans and help the Joes stop global annihilation. The lack of a decent story is generally compensated with great action scenes, but apart from the CGI mountain sequence there is literally nothing in GI Joe Retaliation to keep you entertained. One can’t look for logic or plausibility in a GI Joe movie but nano robots being used to impersonate the President of the United States who destroys every nuclear missile in the world with one button at a UN meeting is pushing it. Actually the movie could have been blazing fun had it all been knowingly, ludicrously over the top but it keeps offering grating back stories and daddy issues and over seriousness that seems frustratingly out of place in a story like this.

The 3D that allegedly took over a year to build makes GI Joe Retaliation look like a plastic dollhouse with flat cardboard cutouts as characters. The badass guitar crunching tone of Seven Nation Army that you saw in the trailer is misleading because the film is a misguided, tiresome mess that puts the bad in badass and the ass in badass. It’s the only movie ever produced that makes non-stop explosions and hand to hand combat seem really boring. Unless your sole intention is to see Adrianne Palicki in skimpy clothes in 3D, you’re better off spending your money on something more action packed, like a Nagraj comic for instance.

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen

Imagine an unintentionally funny 90’s era Die Hard video game, where John McLaine is the head of security for the President of the United States of America and also the last man in the White House to stand against a terrorist threat and hostage situation. Olympus Has fallen is exactly that movie, flaunting its badge of stupidity like the Medal of Honor, starring Gerard Butler as a beefier, more athletic, Kung Fu Karate McLaine.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, who made Training Day years ago, Olympus Has Fallen is a large serving of guilty pleasure for action fans looking for brainless escapist fun. The plot is a bit similar to Red Dawn and the recent news of the handsome Kim Jong Un threatening to vanquish the US and take over South Korea seems like an elaborate marketing campaign for this film. Fuqua presents a very ‘realistic’ portrayal of how the White House, one of the most secure locations in America could easily be taken over by Dr. Evil from Austin Powers and be used as a hub to control the entire world. Here we have villainous North Koreans who somehow steal an AC-130 gunship, a plane the size of a football field from the US army, then walk surreptitiously into the White House with guns, then kidnap the President and gain access to every single nuclear weapon in the country. A badass bit of maneuvering, though not successful thanks to the one and only Mike Banning (Butler) who loves his country as much as his gun, and cares more for his President than for his wife.

As the terror threat rages on, bodies fly everywhere, and the villains torture the POTUS to extract information, Banning sweeps quietly through the White House walls, punching North Koreans to death and picking up their weapons like in an FPS game. The President is played by Aaron Eckhart who exudes a ridiculous amount of sincerity and commitment in a role set in a boiling lava of cheese and schlocky clichés. He even gets to do some boxing with his head of security and when clipped on the face asks his sparring partner not to hit the President. 

Director Fuqua throws in more offensive, ludicrous B-movie material than you can imagine – from nuclear launch codes to loud blaring patriotic music to unexplained double crossing. In one scene our hero is seen punching in keys to abort a catastrophic nuclear meltdown while experts from the Crisis Room recite the codes, and when he asks what ‘hashtag’ is, the secretary of the state triumphantly decodes it for him by shouting ‘SHIFT 3’. Later, a woman who is beaten, kicked, slapped and tied up asks the President how her hair looks. After a point even the filmmakers give up and proceed to directly rip off Die Hard – in one of the funniest scene of the film a double agent who is in cahoots with the enemy instead of killing Banning, shares a cigarette with him like Hans Gruber, and then gets his ass handed to him after exposing himself.   

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Master

There will be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love. Those familiar with Paul Thomas Anderson’s films don’t need to read any review to watch The Master. Those unfamiliar with his films have never been exposed to cinema of a higher order. He is the Orson Welles of the modern era, and he demonstrates the same with exceptional passion in his latest. A story dealing with a Scientologist may seem like an odd choice for Anderson but he pulls it off and presents to us his most sublime and most underrated film.

The Master is an impeccably crafted, surreal fever dream, a story told through a lens that gives the most mundane a heightened sense of realism and the real world a strange hallucinatory effect. Anderson explores the themes he so often plays with – loneliness among a crowd and the need to be reclusive when everyone needs you. Like in his previous films he doles out frames of technical brilliance and considerable beauty, with the trademark deliberate slow pacing that continually make his characters and their creator all the more fascinating.

But this is not just a surreal film for the sake of being a trippy movie. Anderson has never been so simple to make a film which is ONLY a love story, or ONLY an ensemble drama, The Master has a lot of depth and a hidden meaning. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie, a mentally unbalanced man, a drifter and societal menace, losing himself in alcohol after a stint in the Navy during WWII, becoming more and more agitated each day. Things take a turn when he sneaks into a ship to steal some alcohol and meets the charismatic, mysterious Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual man leading a semi-religious cult called The Cause that indulges in mental auditing to ‘heal’ damaged people. Lancaster takes pity on Freddie and becomes attached to him, determined to purge him of his troubles. Freddie is awestruck by the Master’s organization and techniques built on the his beliefs of past lives and rigorous mental testing, but confronting his own past during the ‘healing’ sessions becomes a struggle as the Master’s erratic behavior is complimented by the increasingly bizarre foundations of The Cause. 

Phoenix and Hoffman are absolutely electrifying in their roles with method performances taken to extreme levels. Phoenix’s scowl showing utter disdain towards society is unsettling to say the least, as is Hoffman’s take on Scientology founder Ron Hubbard. Anderson doesn’t outright demonize Scientology but it is easy to spot the parallels – the recording audit sessions, the financial frauds, the unintentionally hilarious ego of the Master, the delusions of him and his followers. It’s creepy and fascinating to explore the fact that humans when pushed to the extreme rely on any kind of delusion to survive the real world. The other standout performance comes from Amy Adams as Lancaster’s supportive wife, she is excellent at looking naïve and melancholy in one scene and batshit crazy in the next.

Anderson is always intriguing because his films are never really easy to fully ingest the first time around. Even Punch Drunk Love has a deeper subtext to the romantic text, that it’s a film about isolation and entrapment in an unjust society. The Master seems to be about two men trying to become the ruler of their own worlds, but ultimately failing. Both Freddie and Lancaster constantly strive for prominence, but can never escape their own speciousness. Both men are opportunists who feel that taking risks will ultimately get them some pride in the festering bunghole that is the human race. Neither of them have any real dignity, honor, or even scruples (Lancaster embezzles govt funds while Freddie uses women), and eventually when they undergo a great deal of suffering they try to be good people but fail miserably, despite not having any fault of their own.

The cinematography of The Master is dreamy to a fault, but so visually breathtaking that its excesses guarantee drool. This is Anderson’s most visually exquisite film and he has lavished on his project a kind of attention to emotional detail that will remain unmatched in the years to come. In an effort to recreate the look of the post WWII era, Anderson and his DOP Mihai Malaimare shot the film on 65mm which yields significantly greater image area and more depth, clarity and emotional impact on the screen. Most of the film is naturally lit but it is hard to overstate how gorgeous it looks:

Music, as always with Anderson, is integral to the film and here Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of Radiohead composes some otherworldly stuff that is extremely well used with the unreal visuals. There is so much squeezed in the two hour twenty minutes runtime that you'd think it could be either too much or too little, but Anderson finds a fine balance and allows the characters and story to unwind perfectly. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Texas Chainsaw 3D

One doesn’t expect exquisite family entertainment from a film called Texas Chainsaw 3D but those who’ve seen the original 1974 movie do hope for some good old slasher thrills. Unfortunately John Lussenhop’s reboot slash quasi sequel cannibalizes the franchise in the clumsiest possible manner. And when Leatherface is made an unlikely ‘hero’ in a groan inducing bit of character dynamics, you want to reach out for a chainsaw and run towards the producers.

Texas Chainsaw 3D arrives on the heels of Michael Bay’s 2003 reboot and 2006’s prequel to the reboot and the new film overlooks both those movies and in turns becomes a sequel to the original while also trying to be a reboot. It’s not hard to smell the whiff of the studio’s desperation to milk a franchise with no regard for creativity. The story picks up where Tobe Hooper’s original left off – the people of a small Texan town unearth the grisly murders that Leatherface’s Sawyer family had committed and in retaliation burn their house down. A few decades later a young woman travels to the very town to inherit some property, unbeknownst to the fact that a gruesome secret from her past would spring up and decimate her and her friends.

The film was not screened for critics and it is quite obvious why. The plotting is painfully clichéd, with the obvious set of hackneyed teenagers on a road trip stumbling across a mass murderer – this seemed new and exciting back in 1974 when the first movie came out but it is atrocious to think that a filmmaker relies on the same old shtick in this day and age and expect a big box office hit. Even Wes Craven, the guy behind the legendary Nightmare on Elm Street movies spoofed the genre with the Scream series decades on, and even those seem dated now. Adding in more gore and playing louder musical cues don’t make a stale genre and decaying storytelling means the least bit exciting. That the 3D is unpleasant is an understatement, that it is not scary is frustrating – in one scene Leatherface runs after a victim through a crowd at a carnival. What’s worse is that the film neither caters to the fans of the franchise nor to newbies. The only apparent consolation in this mess is that four of the cast members from the first two films make an appearance here, but the real succor is its very short runtime. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic, and since the 1939 film version there has been a hand drawn animated sequel, another Disney sequel and even a Michael Jackson musical spinoff. 74 years on, Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz is a whimsical, funny and mildly scary ride for kids, and that’s about it. One expects huge entertainment from the guy who made the Evil Dead and the Spiderman films, but Oz the Great and Powerful is the all too familiar mixture of visual wonder and storytelling disappointment.

Like in the 1939 film, Oz the Great and Powerful opens in black and white 4:3 format and slowly changes to widescreen in color when the wizard arrives in Oz – it’s a great moment because the Alice in Wonderland style artwork leaves you as awestruck as the protagonist staring at the imagery. It’s difficult to not draw parallels to Tim Burton’s movie because the colors and aesthetics make you feel like this story takes place on the other side of Wonderland. Sam Raimi opens with Kansas in 1905 when a circus magician Oscar (James Franco) gets stuck in a tornado and arrives in Oz, where he is treated as a prophesy fulfilling powerful wizard by three witches (Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz) who all seem to seek the throne of Emerald City. One of them is secretly the ‘bad witch’, and anyone who has seen the original film won’t take long to decipher her identity.

As Oz finds out the real prophesy, he meets a host of characters who join his quest including the monkey bellhop Flynn (Zach Braff) and a little girl made of China (Joey King). The problem is that these characters serve absolutely no purpose in the film. The cowardly lion, the scarecrow and the Tinman were all significant characters in the original film as they actually added to the story, here the only thing the supporting characters add are terrible lines and unconvincing CGI. The ‘bad witch’ makes a great entry with her claw when her face isn’t visible, but when she does show up, she is not only not scary but also looks like a green colored Sonakshi Sinha. It doesn’t help that our hero James Franco is crushingly miscast, veering from haughtiness to befuddlement every other scene. 127 Hours showed us that he is a great actor but even his namesake duck from Ted exuded more nuance and histrionic skill than him here. Weisz and Kunis are pointedly whimsical and hammy, aiming for the younger audience with their forced laughs and Williams is simply a stoner version of her role in My week with Marylyn. You could call them all classic Disney villainesses and witches, but there’s no getting around the unintentional hilarity the gratingly simplistic characterizations.  

The biggest misfire of the film is the 3D which actually is fun in the opening credits but gets more and more wearisome as the film progresses. Despite the many ‘showy’ sequences it is clear that Raimi is no Scorsese and Oz is no Hugo. The wonderful glowing artwork here is dimmed and scrubbed with smut by the 3D glasses. How the studios behind films like this one and last week’s Jack the Giant Slayer don’t realize that the 3rd dimension don’t really help the box office remains a mystery. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Movie Review: Jack The Giant Slayer

Hollywood needs to stop handing out budgets of $200 million to people like it is pocket money, because it is not, and 99 percent of these humongous budget movies fail to do what is expected of them – entertain. It is harder to please audiences nowadays, but in this day and age, no one wants to pay a premium to watch a terribly scripted tech demo of colossal visual effects.

Jack The Giant Slayer is a mess from start to finish. The romance is painfully clichéd, the adventure is dull and the only thing Giant in the film is its budget. As the film goes on it becomes increasingly shocking to assimilate the fact that the writer-director team of Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer who made The Usual Suspects have been responsible for the muddle on screen. Singer seems like a two hit wonder thanks to the horrid Superman Returns and the even worse Valkyrie that preceded this film and it is not hard to figure out why he has decided to direct the next X-Men installment next. In Jack the Giant Slayer Singer comes dangerously close to demonstrating that the genius behind Keyser Soze’s story was a fluke. Not only does he fail to create a fresh or likable bunch of central characters but he also fails to create a sense of adventure despite the $200 million CGI entrusted to him.

The film tries to be a radical adult version of the ‘Jack and the beanstalk’, here we have a young man (a miscast Nicholas Hoult) as a farm boy who falls for the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) and inadvertently chances upon a bunch of fabled magic beans. Upon contact with water the beans sprout into a giant tree that connects the kingdom to the land of the villainous giants. One thing leads to another and Jack sets off with the king’s elite guard to rescue the princess – a plot that seemed stale even when Super Mario Bros came out. Like Snow White and the Huntsman last year, the film falsely promises to offer a twisted and unique take on a beloved children’s property. What it does offer is a dreadfully written villain (played by Stanley Tucci) whose backstory and intentions were either left on the cutting room floor or were never scripted to begin with.

The giants are incredibly detailed, each one of them has a distinct character – Fee, Fi, Fo and Fum are given some serious screentime and even some character dynamics which is a nice touch. The giants are also quite disgusting, some dig their noses and then taste their fingers – something kids will enjoy giggling over. The humans are quite terribly sketched though, each given worse dialogue and motives than the next. Seeing as the film fails completely in story and character, one expects to at least see a decent CGI demo. The special effects are great and expensive looking no doubt, but not something you have never seen in cinema before. The characters stare at the imagery as if there is something epic going on but you never once share their sentiment, and the 3D feels as tacked on as ever. The action and big finale are downright boring and everyone involved in the film seems constantly confused about its target audience. Hopefully Singer’s X-Men reunion won’t disappoint as well.