Friday, May 31, 2013

Movie Review: The Hangover Part 3

The Hangover Part 3 is an incredibly funny experience when you think about the fact that you actually pulled out notes of your hard earned money from your wallet for a film that literally reaches out to your face, slaps it hard, lunges in your pocket, pulls out your cash and gives you a wedgie. But unless you’re accustomed to seeing the funnier side of things in a daylight robbery, this film will make you poorer both financially and emotionally.

Director Todd Phillips, clearly not content with the unfunniness of The Hangover Part 2 returns for a third time and finally achieves what he hoped for – a giant explosion of humorlessness. The lack of humor is so powerful here that even Zach Galifianakis looks like he doesn’t give a single molecule of goat ordure – he actually becomes the character from his show ‘Between two ferns’. The plot was sort of novel when the first film came out in 2009, repeating the same gags for the third time plays out like a drunk standup comedian pulling out a railway platform joke book and reciting its contents.

This time the action shifts to Arizona and Mexico – the wolf pack (Galifianakis, Helms, Cooper, Bartha) is nabbed by a crime lord (John Goodman) and tasked with extracting $20 million of stolen money from an absconding Chow (Ken Jeong). Now the problem here is Jeong was hilarious in his bizarre bit part in the original film, giving a full film to him makes him significantly less interesting as he just doesn’t have the comedic chops. Moreover, the protagonists aren’t really very likable – it was fun to see the buffoons suffering for their stupidity in part one, it’s difficult to root for them when they’re in trouble here. Their lines this time are also simply crass, not the least bit funny and there’s plenty of graphic nudity to imply some sort of comedy.

The only salvation is the hilarious Melissa McCarthy as a pawn shop owner who should actually have been given all of Jeong’s screen time. The film is shot very well, but crediting an unfunny comedy for its cinematography is like admiring the impeccable bell around the bull in the China shop. It all ends with a predictable, drunken night with the threat of a fourth part, and you’ll only wish for a gigantic bottle to make you forget about the whole thing.

(First published in MiD Day)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The 15 Most Exciting Films from Cannes

The 66th annual Cannes Film Festival concluded this week and it wiped the floor with the Oscars. Unlike the Academy Awards which only recognize mediocre American commercial cinema, the Cannes fest unearths some of the best films of the year from around the world. Let’s take a look at the 15 most exciting films that debuted at Cannes 2013.

Only God Forgives reunites director Nicholas Winding Refn, his Drive star Ryan Gosling and his Menthol Noir lighting and camerawork for a beautifully violent revenge thriller set in Thailand. Refn succeeded in creating a richer canvas for his style and scored a masterstroke by casting Kristin Scott Thomas as a terrifying mob boss.

Lunch Box, India’s entry, is a constantly charming and winningly offbeat film about a man and a woman who communicate via notes placed in a tiffin box. The film, directed by first timer Ritesh Batra exudes superb performances from Irrfan and Nimrat Kaur, and even has a delightful Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a supporting role. Dabba won the Critics Week Viewers’ Choice award and became the first Indian film in 14 years to bag a trophy at Cannes.

The Congress, Ari Folman’s follow up to the devastating Waltz with Bashir has been described as an exhilarating and mesmerizing drama that combines live action with animation. Robin Wright stars as herself in a dystopian sci fi story that explores the themes of intellectual copyright and internet freedom.

The Coens won the Grand Prix for their latest movie Inside Llewyn Davis, a film described by critic Peter Bradshaw as a clean, hard crack – the sound of the Coens hitting one out of the park.

The Dutch thriller Borgman, one of the most bizarre entries at the festival combines the eerie cult themes and atmosphere of Kill List and the icy, unsettling home invasion horrors of Funny Games.

Jim Jarmusch makes a grand comeback with Only lovers left alive, a story of two centuries old vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) who are depressed with the modern world and its cold indifference and cynicism.

After the disappointment of This must be the place director Paolo Sorrentino returns to form with The Great Beauty, a movie that has been compared to Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita and described as the film equivalent of a magnificent banquet composed of 78 sweet courses.

Heli, a Mexican drama by Amat Escalante is a difficult watch, nihilistic to the core as it chronicles corrupted innocence in the story of an 18-year-old living with his wife, his child, his father and his 12-year-old sister.

In Nebraska Alexander Payne attempts yet another road movie after the excellent About Schmidt and the even better Sideways. This time he follows an aging, alcoholic father making a road trip with his estranged son to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Bruce Dern, who plays the dad won the Best Actor prize at Cannes.

Roman Polanski follows up last year’s superb Carnage with Venus in Fur, a sharp and dark story of a filmmaker who is in a hurry to return home to his fiancé but is manipulated by an actress to do a reading just because her name is the same as the character in the script.

Steven Soderbergh’s allegedly final movie Behind the Candelabra is a glorious goodbye from the filmmaker. The Liberace biopic did not get a theatrical release as it was rejected by Hollywood studios for being ‘too gay’. The studios missed the bus as HBO scored record breaking viewership during its premier. The film is a hilarious, campy, dark dramedy with terrific lead performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.

Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola casts Emma Watson in The Bling Ring as a crazy teenager who jams with her friends to burgle celebrities’ houses for fun. It's the second film this year after Antiviral that delves in the modern sickness that is celebrity obsession.    
Chinese arthouse filmmaker Jia Zhang’s A Touch of Sin is ambitious, ultra-violent and the most significant film of the year – it’s a pessimistic tirade against China and throws the spotlight on issues the Chinese government wouldn’t be too happy to advertise to the world.

After delivering four masterpieces in a row, the latest being the Oscar winning A Separation ,director Asghar Farhadi is back with The Past, shooting for the first time outside his native Iran. Like his other films The Past is a complex relationship drama, with a psychological angle to boot. Its star Berenice Bejo (who was last seen in The Artist) won the Best Actress trophy at the fest.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s French film Blue is the warmest color quickly became the most talked about title at Cannes and eventually nabbed the prestigious Palm d’Or. Based on a graphic novel, the film stars Léa Seydoux as an older woman who falls for a precocious high school girl. Adèle Exarchopoulos who plays the younger woman is receiving tremendous buzz and is already being hyped as the next big thing in cinema.

(First published in DNA)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Movie Review: Fast & Furious 6

Although credited to Chris Morgan, the script of Fast & Furious 6 was actually written by a five year old sitting in his room playing chor police dashing cars with his toys. After 15 minutes of doodling the entire story with his crayons, the kid read his own script, took a giant dump on it and left the room. Morgan somehow chanced upon this wreckage of bodily fluids and drawing paper and decided to send it as his draft of the next Fast & Furious movie.

It’s not that one expects a David Mamet script in a Fast & Furious movie, it’s just that the previous film was so darn entertaining and fun, one expects its follow up to be at least as fun and interesting. Fast & Furious 6 is a Lamborghini Murciaglo with the engine of a Maruti Alto and the tyres of a Bajaj Chetak – a ghastly contraption that starts last on the grid and gets totalled on the first lap. Director Justin Lin, who made the previous three films returns for his fourth and final stab at the franchise and sadly leaves with a whimper instead of a skirt blowing engine roar. Lin makes the whole gang return - Diesel, Walker, The Rock, Gibson and even Michelle Rodriguez is back from the dead with a plot twist that shames 80’s Hindi cinema. They’re all back, but they have no idea what to do apart from standing around and looking masculine and overtly thoughtful while a thunderstorm of clichés swathes them.

The sixth film picks up a few days after the events of Fast 5. Toretto (Diesel) and his gang of retired criminals are sucked back into lawlessness when his ex-girlfriend is found to be in league with another gang of street racing thieves. Once the masterpiece of a plot is built in the opening scene, precisely fifteen minutes of action is what you get coated with two hours of drama where everyone takes each other seriously. Infuriatingly, every single one of those action sequences have been given away in the trailers, a whole highway chase is already available online and one can’t help but wonder about the size of the doobies that pass around in Hollywood. Even if you somehow managed to avoid seeing the trailers, you’ll be disappointed with the action. Hyper editing, quick cuts and engine noises were cool back in 2001 when the original film came out, to repeat the same shtick for the sixth time without bringing anything new to the table is just lazy filmmaking. There is one fun airborne stunt on a bridge but it has nothing on the drift races in the third film or even the drag races from the original. The previous installment had some badass hand to hand combat between The Rock and Diesel – this time there is a catfight between Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez that is so badly choreographed it makes the mitten fight between Monica and Rachel seem more sophisticated and thrilling.

The filmmakers save the worst for the last, a never ending chase scene on an airport runway that could only be 15 kilometers long, as a final lump of cheese on a greasy but tasteless hamburger of a film. Tyrese Gibson provides minor comic relief but most of the jokes range from the elegance of Sajid Khan’s repertorie to the panache of Shirish Kunder’s tweets. The only parts where the film really works is when it wears its stupidity on its sleeve. Although at times it feels like Lin is trolling us – the British special ops honcho is named ROFLS. A slight glimmer of hope is provided by Jason Statham who makes an entry and establishes himself as the antagonist of the 7th film – a bold career move for Statham, seeing as we have never seen him drive, shoot or punch on screen before. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Movie Review: Upstream Color

Back in 2004, a young man named Shane Carruth created Primer, a groundbreaking science fiction film that dealt with a storage unit and time travel. The film was made for an unbelievable $7000, a thousandth the budget of most science fiction films made in Hollywood and it was a thousand times smarter, more complicated and well-staged than most science fiction films made in Hollywood. It wowed genre fans and quickly became a cult classic. Carruth’s followers waited patiently for his follow up ‘A Topiary’, and were devastated when that project fell through. The man went off radar, slipped away into oblivion and it seemed like he’d disappeared for good. It’s been nine years since Primer, Carruth is back, with a sci fi story that is even more complex, engrossing, innovative and thought provoking than his previous effort. And just like his first film, Upstream Color crushes the mainstream competition from Hollywood.

There have been plenty of movies where the filmmaker explores the post Old Monk questions of man’s free will and the musty feeling of a higher power controlling humans. Carruth makes the question ‘Are we who we think we are’ outdated by introducing an imaginative query: What if a man and a woman are drawn together because they were entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism? Wrapping your head around that plot immediately becomes a challenge as Carruth starts spinning your head right from the opening scene, inviting us to invest our grey cells into the oblique imagery on screen. This is neither a film that you can sit back and consume with a bucket of popcorn, nor is it a film that you can figure out by constantly hitting rewind. This is an intricate stream of arthouse storytelling that can be understood and appreciated only if you’re willing to go with the flow, rather than hitting pause and looking for hidden meaning and coherence in the frames.

The whole film is an array of mostly dialogue less scenes with electronic music montages, Carruth is clearly derivative of Terrence Malick’s work, where you’re required to breathe in and experience the film. Making sense of Primer was arduous given the insanely technical dialogue driven nature of the film, Upstream Color is just as labyrinthine but is more pleasurable to decode thanks to Carruth’s technical proficiency and his ability to make the narrative foggy without obfuscating the story or meandering into self-indulgence. There is no poetic voiceover or shots of foliage, Carruth is able to convey some insightful philosophy on why humans long for togetherness by sticking with his characters. The bizarre imagery, elliptical narrative and overall weirdness may turn off less patient viewers who would call it needlessly complicated, but there was no other visual or aural way Carruth could communicate the film’s ideology about love and inseparability across to the viewer. The genius of the film is in fact the way Carruth shrouds the relatively simple plot with an aesthetic layer that makes it seem like it is more byzantine than it actually is. Like a magic trick, Carruth cleverly shifts our attention by making us look at things that he wants us to see, the trick is to be able to embrace the convolution on screen rather than try to fight it.

Most importantly, Carruth doesn’t bombard the viewer with lectures on transcendence, spirituality and the human condition – the themes are all there, but are coated around the science fiction mystery thriller that the film ultimately is. There are no conventional Hollywood style cheap thrills but the astounding sound design, the soundtrack, the cinematography, the editing (all done by Carruth) exudes a higher order of filmmaking. Take Upstream Color as a thriller and you get terrorists, a conspiracy, a serial killer and bizarre insects. Take it as a love story and it’s a beautiful analogy of two people drawn together because they can relate to each other’s emotional scars. Take it as a looking glass that allows you to peer into the glorious depths of Shane Carruth’s mind, and hope that it doesn’t take him nine more years to make his next film.

(First published in DNA)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

If it weren’t for Baz Luhrmann’s name attached to the credits, it would seem like The Great Gatsby is Subhash Ghai’s best film in years. The only thing missing in it is a sequence that has Leonardo DiCaprio singing ‘Meri Mehbooba’ for Mahima Chaudhry.

The 1974 Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby was a dull bore, and it seemed like a good idea when Baz Luhrmann announced his plans to make his own version, given his proclivity for over the top imagery. His signature excessive style is very much present here yet the narrative is as hollow and intrinsically bankrupt as most of the characters in the film. Like his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge Luhrmann uses the stylistic touch of remixed modern hip hop and pop music in a period setting but to very choppy effect. Like a lovechild of a Ghai and a SL Bhansali product everything here is overwrought and grand, overtly melodramatic at every beat, blaringly extravagant at every turn. It’s the America of the roaring twenties shown through Luhrmann’s kaleidoscope of gluttony, which works on some levels but not all of them.

At the center of this sea of overindulgence is the suave Mr DiCaprio, whose introduction  twenty minutes into the film is as showy and goofy as it can possibly get, his face jutting into the 3D camera, grinning a foot away from our glasses clad faces. He wears pink clothes, like Shahrukh Khan in Don, has a charming swagger with just the shade of some sort of insecurity that he tries to mask. Leo is just right for the role, an irresistible gentleman in the sun who hides a secret in the dark and longs for a woman who may never be his. He has played similar characters in the past and he’s at the top of his game here. The problems arise from the people surrounding him, beginning from Tobey Maguire whose curiously adolescent role delivers droning voiceovers to explain each and every character development, as if the audience is too stupid to keep up and figure things out on their own. The advantage of great movies is they don’t need to explain their characters and their motivations, only a badly made film needs a voiceover.

With the constant reliance on music, sound cues and special effects, Luhrmann forgets the most important aspect – the characters. It is true that the characters in the story are shallow and empty but that point can’t be driven by shallow and empty performances. Apart from Leo’s constantly involving and tragic Gatsby and Joel Edgerton’s rich chauvinistic pig the characters are simply high school level incompetent. There’s Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s desire played by Carrey Mulligan who utterly fails to effectively convey the dual nature of her character. She is cloyingly unconvincing as the woman torn between an unhappy but practical married life and a dreamlike forbidden love. Every time Mulligan stumbles to add any emotion to a scene, Luhrmann tries to balance things out by adding music, resulting in a superficial mess. He also adds cheap CGI to romanticize the imagery but it just cheapens the film further. The fact that the filmmakers chose to screen this story in 3D only mirrors the rich, slimy, callous businessmen from the film who would cheat the public into squeezing more money from them. Moreover, unlike Moulin Rouge, the music doesn’t work either, except for the song used in the end credits which actually fits with the mood of the story. The music is neither colorful the way Bollywood does it nor is it coherent like in good Hollywood musicals. In fact it isn’t the choice of the music as much as it is the way it is awkwardly jammed into the visuals that hurts the narrative. The silver lining in this high-strung surfeit muddle is Amitabh Bachchan who makes a tiny cameo but thankfully manages to avoid hurling the reputation of Indian cinema in the gutter

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Epic

The creators of Ice Age and Rio aim to deliver their biggest film ever and on the visual front it delivers the goods in a tremendous way. Story wise though, Epic does a huge belly flop when it attempts to live up to its name.  

Director Chris Wedge, who made the first Ice Age film and the voice of Scrat seems to be chasing the illusive box office acorn because everything about Epic has the musty whiff of stale storytelling. The film chronicles a teenager (Amanda Seyfried) who moves in with her estranged mad scientist dad (Jason Sudeikis) after the death of her mother. The dad has ruined his career by being obsessed with searching for a colony of fairy-like creatures in the nearby woods. The kid’s disappointment in her dad quickly gives way when she walks into the forest and is shrunken down to size after being handed a task to help save the people of the woods. It could all be a major psychological breakdown but seeing as this is a kids’ film we’re forced to believe the legitimacy of the rabbit hole.

Tiny warriors, magical forests, fairy queens, evil toads, a young girl changing fate and destiny are not exactly new concepts and Epic falls hard once we know that there isn’t anything new coming our way. Once the protagonist sets off on her journey to save the forest from doom you’ll be ticking off a list of clichés the story relies on. The filmmakers make no effort to establish why the evil Boggans want to destroy the forest – they’re simply painted black and we’re expected to accept the evilness of that color. Despite a fairly likable protagonist Epic dwindles every time the camera cuts to the bland and unfunny supporting characters - even the generally hilarious Aziz Ansari does the same shtick from Parks and Recreation as a slug who constantly hits on the girl. The only fun sequences are the ones shot from the perspective of the tiny men who see the humans as huge, slow, lumbering idiots. The 3D does more harm than good in an already problematic story – the exquisite shots of the jungle foliage and its many colors are once again dimmed and blurred down by the 3D conversion. Ultimately Epic doesn’t work as an adventure and it doesn’t work as a comedy, what it does is it succeeds in making us hate musician turned voice actor Pitbull even more than usual. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

There is no other way to say it – The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a clunky, undercooked hot mess that absolutely wastes its culturally relevant subject and favors heavy handed moralistic arm twisting over nuance and subtlety. Quite frustrating, seeing as the gaffes in the film overshadow its most important plus point – a great performance from its lead Riz Ahmed.

Director Mira Nair takes every word of every page of the 2007 book of the same name and makes it as superficial and melodramatic as humanly possible. While the book was known for its open ending that left the true nature of its protagonist ambiguous, the film version pretty much milks the tempest in the teapot. Riz Ahmed stars as Changez, a Pakistani man who leaves his family behind to become a top dog at Wall Street but is disillusioned by the post 9/11 atmosphere in America. He is routinely selected for random strip searches at airports and harassed by cops on the street simply for being brown. His unstable American girlfriend first puts up some offensive art gallery about his Pakistani heritage and then leaves him.

Until this point, it is fairly easy to sympathize with Changez, but then Nair takes an unintentionally hilarious turn by drawing parallels between the ideals of Wall Street and religious extremists. The cops that arrest Changez are straight out of a B-movie, almost parodying the characters they play. There are dozens and dozens of closeups of Changez’s face in turmoil but Nair never goes beyond the surface level obvious issues, let alone delving into the religious fervor of fundamentalism. The film is framed as a flashback, where Changez is narrating his story to a CIA agent posing as a writer while the CIA monitors the meeting, ready to spray bullets if things go bad – a plot device that is incredibly crummy and illogical and exists sorely to render the illusion of the film being a thriller. The agent (flatly played by Liev Schreiber) is aware of Changez’s extremist views and Changez’s story is meant to justify his actions, but Nair throws in a sappy curveball in the end that negates the whole point of the interview. Add to that the horrible performances from Kate Hudson as the crackpot girlfriend and Meesha Shafi as Changez’s sister who only wants ‘a loft in SoHo, a weekend in the Hamptons and big, American boobs’ to settle down after marriage. Moreover, every subsequent scene has different tone, lighting and music, robbing the film of any semblance of a flow.

The real problem though, is the clumsy establishment of Changez’s tipping point where he finally leaves America and returns to Pakistan – he has a realization when on a Turkey business trip a writer shows him his father’s book of poetry and says that foreign corporations are eating into cultures and devaluing humanity. Changez’s big transformation has the nuance and effectiveness of Hrithik Roshan in ZNMD climbing out of the sea and crying. Riz Ahmed is a fine actor but it’s about time he moved on to different roles – he has played the racially discriminated Muslim in The Road to Guantanamo and even parodied the same in the hilarious Four Lions, both of which are vastly superior to this film.

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Early on in Star Trek Into Darkness, a stressed out Jim Kirk says ‘I have no idea what I am supposed to do, I only know what I can do’. That line clearly emulates JJ Abrams’ state of mind stepping into this film, because while the 2009 movie boldly went where no man had gone before, the second one timidly goes where most sequels have gone before.

Riddled with gigantic lapses in logic, blockbuster clichés, feeble characterization and terrible 3D, Star Trek Into Darkness is a singularly inert action movie that neither depends on the first film nor makes you wait for the (inevitable) next one. It’s a standalone chunk of CGI demo that seems to have recycled ideas that were rejected back in 2009. Lack of logic is not uncommon with writer Damon Lindelof attached to a project, but this time the problems are even more jarring because of Benedict Cumberbact, who is an awesome, badass villain with a commanding presence, but one who delivers his lines with extreme, committed seriousness through all the specious tomfoolery on display. Cumberbatch’s character hurls a searing, tear filled, moving monologue, tops that by promising to walk over the heroes’ cold corpses, then proceeds to execute a grand plan that has the reasoning and threat level of a five year old folding his arms and holding his breath till he gets his candy. Abrams repeatedly tries to pad up the character’s lack of backstory and motives with action scenes and is less successful with every subsequent such attempt.
The sequel picks up an unknown amount of time post the first film, Kirk (Chris Pine, still sleeping with attractive aliens) saves Spock’s life but gets a demotion after he breaks rules by exposing an ancient civilization to superior technology. Spock (Zach Quinto) being a half Vulcan is unable to place the value of friendship over company’s orders. Soon enough, the team of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, Bones, Sulu and Chekov is assembled to catch a mysterious man named John Harrison (Cumberbatch) who blows up buildings and attacks the Starfleet headquarters.
Once the mission kicks off, it’s familiar territory for fans of both the series and the previous film – the bickering bromance between Kirk and Spock is still fun and Abrams paces the movie with the same battering ram urgency as before. The film seems burdened with its own title and Abrams falters every single time the film chooses Darkness over the light comedic tone that we saw and loved in the original film. And despite knowing that camaraderie between the Enterprise crew was what made the original film so good, Abrams gives the others very little screen time, and instead introduces Alice Eve, a crushingly bad actress who exists in the film just to pose in lingerie. The time travel maguffin from the previous film is reused here, but in a frustratingly clumsy manner. Abrams even throws in the ridiculously clichéd plot point of the villain deliberately being captured to execute his plan. An intergalactic chase scene at Klingon was clearly added to ‘add more action’, because the journey to Klingon makes no sense. Worse, the action set piece in the grand finale is muted letdown, much less epic in scope and execution (and logic) than the ones preceding it. All this is disappointing, coming from someone who shook up the tentpole sci fi landscape and in three short years turned from cult favourite to geek god to household name.  

(First published in MiD Day)