Monday, July 29, 2013

The Conjuring of James Wan

The 70’s had George Romero. The 80’s had John Carpenter. The 90’s had Wes Craven and David Cronenberg. The mantle has been passed – we have a new crown prince of Hollywood horror. His new horror film The Conjuring, which releases in India this week has no blood, no gore, no violence, no sex, no foul language, but it was rated R in the United States for just one reason – it was too scary. But how could one make a decent horror film without any of those elements in this day and age? The answer lies in the Malay-Aussie James Wan, whose creativity with the camera is only matched by his staggering box office success. 

Wan was just 25 when he hit the scene ten years ago with Saw, a gory low budget horror thriller that contained a genius level plot twist. The film was set almost entirely in a bathroom where two men chained to a pipe were toyed around by a mysterious man on an audio tape. The final reveal of the villain became iconic, as did the creepy puppet Billy. Saw spawned six subpar sequels written and directed by other people and milked by the studio, a move that somewhat diminished Wan’s hard earned street cred. It was probably why Wan’s next film Dead Silence, written by his Saw scribe Leigh Whannell crashed both critically and commercially. Dead Silence was a weird and atmospheric film but Jigsaw the serial killer from Saw had become a household name and torture porn had become the go-to horror genre. He had created a monster of a genre and to stay relevant, one of them had to destroy the other.

Five years and yet another bomb later, Wan reemerged with Insidious, a hair-raising haunted house horror film that eschewed the torture porn style of Saw and relied on old fashioned jump scares. The film was made for a paltry $1 million and it ended up grossing 100 times that number. It was a critical darling and it ended the reign of both Saw and Paranormal Activity assembly line horror franchises. Insidious although familiar plot wise was an engrossing watch thanks to Wan’s artistry and his flair for timing. Before getting to work on the sequel Wan readied The Conjuring, a 'real life based' 70’s set possession story. The results are terrifying to say the least and Wan has clearly established himself as the contemporary horror maestro.

Starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as paranormal investigators, the film abjures nearly every single horror movie cliché known to man and offers a brand new set of scares to ensure you stay awake through the night. Presenting Wilson and Farmiga’s characters and the family that they investigate as ‘real life’ are more marketing bullshit than anything, but it doesn't matter because this is a blitzkrieg of a horror movie. Like the 2006 Spanish movie El Orfanato, The Conjuring employs a subtle approach to build up the atmosphere and the scares, this enables Wan to cram in dozens of unexpected jolts. The difference, however, is that the jolts are tastefully, artfully done unlike the five thousand decibel cheap thrills that most horror films utilize. Wan reuses some of the goodies from Dead Silence, like the terrifying old woman and the creepy dolls, but cleverly ties them up as references, hinting at the possibility of both films and even Insidious being set in the same universe.

The tension in the first two acts is almost unbearable and Wan rewards the viewer with a typhoon of a third act as a neat little bow tie. The finale is a crazy ride but the reason why it works is that instead of an assault of overblown special effects it is staged in a claustrophobic tiny space, and it doesn't borrow from other films. So many exorcism films tanked in the past decade because they all scrounged cliches from The Exorcist that everyone saw years ago. The Conjuring however maintains ingenuity with the way Wan stages his spooky scenes. He doesn't need blood, gore and language to frighten you. He simply puts a contorting person on a chair and covers their head with a sheet and films them. He doesn't need a bathroom mirror false scare tactic to startle you, all he uses is a music box with a tiny reflective surface that shows something appearing behind you when the music stops. Good luck keeping your eyes open when it does.

(First published in Firstpost)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Movie Review: The Wolverine

The X Men lost steam after the first two films when Brett Ratner desecrated the charm of the material with the third film. X Men Origins Wolverine turned out to be even worse and it looked like the franchise had been killed. Matthew Vaughn’s First Class brought a new shade to the series and Bryan Singer’s plans of Days of the Future Past meant that Hugh Jackman’s character would get one more movie. There’s good news - The Wolverine is significantly better than the previous installment, even though that’s a step up from a really low benchmark. 

The Wolverine is based on Frank Miller’s limited series and setting the film in Japan was the best thing that could’ve happened to the franchise. The new setting gives viewers a break from the New York and European locales found in dozens and dozens of modern superhero films. Some may call it a display of Japanese exotica but director James Mangold does his best to make it not seem like a lame exotic pagoda Asia tour for American viewers. While the previous film was set in the 70’s, this one is set in the present where Logan is tired of being immortal and seeing his loved ones die. He’s bitter about the events the unfolded in X Men 3 and haunted by the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) wherever he goes. Shit gets real after Logan is summoned to the death bed of a rich business titan at his palatial house and his wish of forgoing immortality soon begins to come true.

The first thing you’ll notice about The Wolverine is its considerably bleaker and mature tone compared to Origins. This is a more character driven movie, more sure footed and self-assured, perhaps due to prior knowledge of the direction the franchise is taking in the future. Until the third act the film is pretty much a noir, focusing on the dual nature of its protagonist rather than throwing in as many cool looking mutants as possible the way the previous films did. The studio guys screwed up the last time and it is admirable that they understood their fans’ frustration and fixed a lot of their mistakes. Logan falls for a Japanese woman and feels guilty of betraying the deceased Jean, an emotional adult oriented theme rarely found in superhero films. Jackman once again runs the show single handedly, he’s an unstoppable monster in one scene and suddenly a compassionate tragic hero in the next, it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. There’s also a geekgasmic post credits scene to please those looking forward to the big X Men ensemble that arrives next year.

Unfortunately The Wolverine keeps falling into the trapdoor of cartoonish violence that has so often plagued the series. Every heavy duty character moment is offset by some action scene hurriedly written in to keep ADD teenagers from falling asleep. While the ninja stuff is fun, the big action scenes have some over the top dodgy CGI which is made even worse by the abysmal 3D. Mangold stays quite faithful to the comics and Svetlana Khodchenkova's Viper is a sassy if one note nemesis. Fans of the Silver Samurai, however, will have a bone or two to pick with Mangold because he is shoved into the story the same way Deadpool was in the previous movie. It doesn’t matter because the film appeals to the casual viewer who isn’t very familiar with the comics, and it is a passably fun entertainer on that front, just not a memorable one. It's time to accept the fact that the X Men and the Avengers are fun only when they're together, their standalone films won't ever be as entertaining.

(First published in MiD Day)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Only God Forgives

Nicholas Winding Refn is an interesting guy. He wakes up one morning, takes a shower, and decides to make a movie about fingering. And he does it – he makes a gorgeous, glorious, meditative, profoundly philosophical movie about fingering.

Only God Forgives is Refn at his creative peak, it’s not just the most stylish and visually hypnotic film of the year but also a Katana blade swipe into the rules of filmmaking. The characters in this film don’t behave the way humans in a movie should. It’s not a silent film but they don’t have dialogues. They neither act, nor react, nor express much. They’re more of a ‘presence’, immersed into the rich dark red neon sprayed textures of the tapestry around them. They don’t even walk much, and when they do they inch ahead in slow motion. In fact the only time they don’t sit around is when they slash people’s arms and necks off. This is Refn gleefully raising Cain with his slow burn indulgence, yet astonishingly, not a second of his film feels sluggish. The effect is actually quite the opposite – you’re thrilled by the sheer intensity of the film because each scene is wolfed down by the next, even more intense one.

This is a very different Refn from the guy who made the 1995 classic Pusher. That film was a stripped down crime thriller that made use of natural light and locations, bereft of any special effects and even music. The technique was called the Dogme manifesto, a style that was introduced by Refn and his Scandinavian filmmaker pals Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to rebel against the mainstream film tropes and clichés. Refn never did take the commercial route but he did begin extensively using special effects to heighten the atmosphere in his films. His Bronson had goofy comedy and horror relayed with dreamlike sequences while Valhalla Rising was a nightmare through hell with extensive CGI blood.

While last year’s Drive acquainted us with the mute, bottled down antihero with the angelic face of Ryan Gosling, Only God Forgives is closer to Valhalla Rising in tone and execution. It’s not just abstract reality but a fetish film made with dynamic conviction. The real and surreal are nearly impossible to decipher here, and the Yakuza sword wielding villain (Vithaya Pansringarm) often vacillates between a God and the Devil. Pansringarm doesn’t have lines but is terrific as a cop who respects the sanctity of justice but defies the law and chops people's arms off to maintain justice and ethics, a character which clearly reflects upon Refn’s approach to the laws binding cinema. Refn in the past has often delved into the lack of clarity of what is perceived as amoral by society, and here he has transformed into an utter beast of a technician to explicate the balance of integrity, the absolution of guilt and the misguided necessity of the law. The only way he could deal with the frustration of not getting any answers to the existentialist mysteries of life was by fantasizing of having a kickboxing match with God, and that is exactly what we get to see in this film.

While it is many things, Only God Forgives is mainly about the Oedipal issues of Ryan Gosling’s character, whose mother is played to barn burning excellence by Kristin Scott Thomas. She flips on the bitch switch so hard in one instance she even calls Gosling’s beautiful girlfriend a ‘cum dumpster’. Thomas gets the bulk of the lines but the other characters are juxtaposed to Cliff Martinez’s mystical, infectious score that gets the Thailand set Muay Thai atmosphere down to pat. The musical cue ‘Wanna fight’ that kicks in during Gosling and Pansringarm’s brutal brawl is a truly great modern cinema moment. It’s fine that Refn decided to ditch Dogme, because he’s certainly doing a hell of a job picking moody music for his set pieces.  

He'd been sculpting it all these years but Refn has finally perfected his own style of filmmaking, Menthol Noir. Unlike the Malicks and the Lynches his indulgence is action packed, constantly energetic and entertaining rather than a patience testing arthouse grind. He approaches violence like sexuality and considers a film as a build up to a climax. He calls himself a pornographer that way, and considering his films’ elegant balance of violence, sex and ideology he’s a damned good one. What he is extremely gifted at, however, is the way he makes murder look beautiful and stylish, quite like his Korean colleagues and the Coens from the 90’s. 

(First published in DNA)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Movie Review: Ship of Theseus

More than any other genre, the arthouse 'cerebral film' is shackled by its conventions - the pretentious philosophical babble, the overtly quiet minimalism, the flimsy budget and production values, the shots of foliage and smoke plumes atop melancholy mountains, and the eventual box office tragedy followed by cult favouritism. It's a never-ending cycle that keeps on repeating and we've seen the circular scenario so many times. So is there any room for expansion in such a genre, that too in India where only the Khans and the mind numbingly terrible Simply South remakes command eyeballs? The outstanding Ship of Theseus answers this question as its director Anand Gandhi lobs grenades at the system and the cycle. This is not only a good looking, splendidly directed, shot and acted film, but also a hopeful snapshot of Bombay producing intelligent, challenging yet entertaining cinema on a mainstream scale instead of star studded commercialized hogwash.

The title Ship of Theseus refers to the ancient Greek paradox that questions if every part of a ship is changed over time, would the ship remain the same. The film is soaked in metaphor but rooted in everyday life thanks to Gandhi's  superb realization of the paradox in an Indian setting and all the moral contradictions that follow the paradox. We follow three mildly entwined stories, one featuring a blind photographer, one that chronicles a scholarly monk, and one that contends with illegal kidney transplants. All three stories hark back to the titular theme but the film's deep thinking philobabble is gorgeously elucidated without ever becoming pretentious. In fact the film's credibility is in its simple and solid ideological arguments, echoed constantly throughout its unforgettable imagery and music. Gandhi's style is deliberate and the build-up is provocative, carefully laid out for the personal odyssey of the protagonists of the three segments to reach a powerful and moving conclusion.

The film's cast often surpasses its direction in brilliance - Aida Elkashef is extremely compelling as a blind photographer who has learned to compose images using a voice activated camera. Neeraj Kabi as the monk in particular stands out thanks to his alarmingly convincing portrayal of a man gradually falling ill. His weight slackens as the story progresses and you know we've got our own Christian Machinist Bale in our midst. Kabi's conversations with his protégé, a young lawyer who questions his guru's stubborn proclivity to his ethics are striking and very entertaining. The back and forth between the characters gets under your skin in ways that very few Indian films ever have. In all three segments the actors manage to infuse quiet moments of reflection and fear, and Ship of Theseus relies on this construction of rumination in between hope and desperation to heighten the impact.

Gandhi avoids aesthetic escapades into surrealist imagery and instead dishes out the raw streets of Bombay - it makes the film accessible to a large demographic rather than just the arthouse snobs. Most of the film's affecting moments happen on relatable territory (a hospital, a slum, a common man's house) and they are crafted well enough to influence even those who've disavowed emotion. The story's focus on physical and mental fragmentation is fully apparent early into the film. Even when the film suddenly shifts to a foreign locale there's palpable sensitivity to it. Naren Chandavarkar's music and Pankaj Kumar's fluid handheld camera haunt these characters through the chaos of blindness, dank rainy skies and gloomy corridors, sometimes holding on them for long takes that capture an entire experience in a matter of minutes.

Sure, there are a few flaws that crop up once or twice. The most apparent is Vinay Shukla who plays a fun contrarian protégé but recites some of his intellectual, philosophical lines as if reading off a teleprompter, with no passion in his delivery. When a person debates the dilemma of physical and spiritual rescue and the dissolution of hope you'd imagine they'd be extremely passionate about it. But you could say what you wish, nitpick the night away, dissect and dismantle every part of the film and rearrange it the way you want, it won't change the fact that Ship of Theseus is the work of a visionary. Anand Gandhi's debut feature clearly is a window to his journey of becoming a great filmmaker, and hopefully he won't succumb to the wet kiss of the God complex. As it is, we get far too few opportunities in India to see sharp, intelligent cinema on the big screen.

(First published in Firstpost)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Movie Review: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Farhan Akhar struggles to sprint in slow motion, a waterfall of sweat dribbling down his face, his eyes blood red, his mouth grimacing in agony, his thighs straining due to the wounds on his feet, the bleeding bandages on his limbs dramatically unwrapping and falling off to the backdrop of loud, melodramatic music. Farhan struggles to sprint in slow motion, a huge rubber tyre is attached to his waist, he falls to the ground as dry sand swathes his contorted face and Arif Lohar’s voice booms at speaker shattering levels. Farhan sprints histrionically in slow motion on the tracks of France, Nairobi, Ohio, Helsinki as a patriotic song roars through the speakers, assaulting the ear drums like a baseball bat on the groin. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is one of, if not the most manipulative film ever made in the history of Bollywood.

Shooting for inspiring, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra only delivers the exaggerated and devolves the plot into a tangle of ditsy overwrought scenarios in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And at three hours and ten minutes, the film is as bloated as its protagonist’s pectoral muscles and as emotionally resonant as Sunny Deol’s boxing matches in Apne. If the filmmakers hope to render Milkha Singh the respect that he deserves, they’re going to need movies a lot better than Bhaag Milkha Bhaag to do it. Prasoon Joshi is a gifted writer but a strong director would have been of utility here because ROM here seems to have been preoccupied with only staging mawkish over the top sepia toned flashbacks. Though some of the cinematography is stunning, and practicing gymnasts and torso enthusiasts will love Farhan’s exceptional physique, it's neither riveting entertainment nor smart filmmaking for the rest of us.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag calls itself a biopic but it never stops feeling like an exaggerated yarn – the creative liberties taken are just ridiculous and expecting anything factually correct goes out the window when Farhan starts singing a country western style Hindi song at a Melbourne bar with an Australian girl. It’s not that obfuscating facts is always bad filmmaking – A Beautiful Mind was a well made film despite paying zero attention to John Nash’s real life. But unlike that film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is shabbily filmed and poorly acted, its lone positive is a thoroughly awful performance by Dilip Tahil whose hamming caricature of Pandit Nehru is the most unintentionally hilarious turn you’ll see this year. Despite Farhan’s charming screen presence and admittedly impressive dedication it's a losing battle with a plot this clichéd, a script this underwhelming and truly woeful direction that makes you yearn for the assured hand of Shimit Amin.

The biggest problem is the filmmakers mistake contrivance for construction every time the plot shifts to Milkha’s childhood in the 1940’s. The segments between Milkha and his sister (Divya Dutta) become quite comical after a while – a scene where they reunite after the partition makes you wonder why in 2013 Bollywood still makes films like Gadar. It's understandable that the filmmakers want to highlight Milkha’s harrowing past, but overblown exposition and keeping the most obvious event as a suspenseful plot point isn’t the only way to construct a gripping and moving narrative. The reliance on manipulative emotional wrangling was the case with Rang De Basanti as well but at least that film had good music and acting to conceal its gluey side. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag literally every single dramatic turn is given the 80’s Bollywood and 2000’s desi soap opera treatment to wrench emotion out of you. Every time a character appears on screen to say something weighty, sappy piano keys begin playing. In fact the entire movie has the self-pitying Shehnai based background music from the parody scenes in 3 Idiots that feature Sharman Joshi’s parents. Adhering to the Bollywood formula of the predictable the film’s focal point is hinged towards a triumph at a competition against Pakistan, and there is Meesha Shafi cast in the worst, most tasteless possible role to embarrass our neighbors a tad further. Paired with the dull sports based storyline is an even duller romance between Farhan and Sonam Kapoor who, I can say with only a little irony that she plays an eye shadow and Revlon lipstick wearing small town girl in 1950’s India. 

(First published in Firstpost)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Remember when Neo is attached to the Matrix for the first time and ‘logs in’ to the system. Remember that sequence in Fellowship of the Ring where we two enormous statues as the heroes in a small boat cross the Gates of Argonath. Remember when in Terminator 2 the T-1000 is frozen by liquid nitrogen and is shot to smithereens by Arnie. Remember your shit eating grin while you watched all these scenes and the endless hours you spent geeking out with your friends discussing them. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim will generate a whole new generation of geeks, because it has such scenes of, as Panda Po would say, Pure Awesomeness.

It’s not often that we get to see a large scale science fiction blockbuster movie that renders that sense of total admiration on your face. Somewhere in the mid 2000’s giant monsters and robots became a perfunctory, soulless aspect of modern cinema (thanks, Michael Bay). Every tentpole summer blockbuster became simply bigger in scale, but significantly smaller in energy. Del Toro understands that, and rocket punches the apocalypse of mediocre Hollywood cinema in the scrotum. In Pacific Rim he brings his trademark flair for the escapist fun, the entertainingly gross, the nerdy weird, the cheekily comic and the subtly terrifying on a ginormous canvas and delivers the most satisfying action movie in a long, long time. As the audience, we are fortunate that the man adores robots and monsters, because he toys with the material with passionate, childlike enthusiasm with a mature and imaginative foresight to sell it to us.

Del Toro knows the inherent stupidity of the premise, so instead of wasting time with some origin story ala Emmerich and Bay, he cleverly lays out the entire plot in the opening five minutes – there are huge monsters (Kaijus) oozing out of some vortex in the Pacific Ocean and they want to kill everyone, and the only way to fight these guys is to build huge manually controlled robots (Jaegers) to punch them in the face. The opening minutes have more bombastic momentum than the whole of The Avengers, and by offering the buffet of exposition before the title even shows up the film avoids the burden of pulling a rabbit out of a hat and convoluting the story with some lame twist.

An ignorant viewer will be unhappy with the story, characters and dialogue because he will only consider them as clichés, without realizing that Del Toro is playing with most of the clichés that plague Hollywood blockbusters. They won’t realize that they’re in on the joke when in one scene two characters speak in Japanese but are clumsily dubbed over in English, a clear nod to the Godzilla and Motra movies. The protagonist is a square jawed gravelly voiced archetype, and the characters have names like Hannibal Choi, Miko Mori, Herc Hanson and Stacker Pentecost – these are straight out of a comic book and, it is fun to see these guys instead of some superheroes with existentialist angst or mommy issues. There is quirky scientific mumbo jumbo camaraderie between Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as bickering scientists who are clearly a modern day homage to Doc from Back to the future. Stealing the show is Idris Elba who is probably the greatest actor in the world because he convincingly hurls the corniest possible lines in booming zeal beating even Bill Pullman from Independence Day. The last movie that so blatantly fiddled with comic book style typecasts was Paul Verhoeven’s nihilistic satirical classic Starship Troopers.

In the Transformers films one couldn’t give two shits about the diverseness of the robots, in Pacific Rim each Jaeger has a distinct personality depending on the country it originates from – it’s unadulterated geeky pleasure to wolf down the gourmet meal of details that go into their design. One has energy cannons, one has a retractable sword, another has missiles. The attention to detail in the CGI is phenomenal as the hulking seven storey high robots move with the correlation of their physical limitations; they even have limited ammunition which forces them to have brawls with the faster moving Kaiju. The fight scenes are, well, wild and iconic to say the least, best enjoyed in 2D because the 3D becomes jarring in a dark, rainy pitched sea battle. The big disappointment is that Del Toro leaves out the roles of pilots of the non-American Jaegers on the cutting room floor and makes the US Jaeger Gipsy Danger the hero just to make the rednecks scream AMURICAAAA. That said, Del Toro has reminded us what blockbuster cinema used to be like, he has created a terrific new world and mythology, and for a change a more expansive sequel would actually be welcome.

(First published in MiD Day)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Movie Review: New World

It is no secret that the Koreans make the best damn films in the world. The South Koreans, naturally, because the ones from the North are still yet to discover the magical Super 8 video capturing instrument designed by their enigmatic leader. Since the early 2000’s a gang of ridiculously talented South Korean filmmakers have been delivering a new kind of visceral cinema. Park Chan Wook burst upon the scene with Oldboy, which is currently being Hollywood-ized by Spike Lee. Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder became a timeless whodunit, Kim Jee Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters reinvented the horror genre while Hong Jin Na’s The Chaser is considered a narrative masterpiece. All these guys went on to make many more classics, but they all have one thing in common – their films are extremely violent, beautifully violent. The way Bollywood is good at song and dance numbers, South Korean films are known for excelling at pitch dark serial killer and mob thrillers.

The latest entry into the Korean mob genre is New World (not to be confused with Terrence Malick’s 2005 film). The film stars the legendary Choi Min Sik, the protagonist of Oldboy and the antagonist of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and the brutal I Saw the Devil, and Lee Jung jae, who previously appeared in the terrific heist thriller The Thieves. New World is directed by Park Hoon Jung, who wrote I saw the Devil, and though shades of that film only cameo here, Jung lobs grenades at South Korea’s hilariously corrupt and feeble police department and the towering might of established crime lords in the country. Staying true to its genre, the film opens with a shot of a severely bloodied face of a snitch being tortured – his mouth is jut open and is force fed liquid cement before being pitched into the ocean. We’re introduced to Goldmoon Inc, a sprawling ‘fictional’ crime syndicate, a sort of a conglomerate between various crime lords who feign a legitimate large scale business and use its resources to carry out laundering, murder, extortion, the works. As the corporation goes beyond the control of the police and greases the justice department, various gangs which are part of the syndicate hatch plans to assume total control over the firm, while detective sergeant Kang (Min Sik) launches a covert mission to destroy the organization from within. Kang sends over a mole (Jung Jae) to infiltrate the gang, but over a few years the rat rises to become the right hand of one of the top mob bosses.

New World twists, turns and spasms into giddy thrills as characters leap from one shade to the other. Although the informant angle is not too new in cinema (we’ve seen the best of this in Donnie Brasco, Infernal Affairs and Scorsese’s remake), the filmmakers lay out an extremely tense and engrossing narrative even while fiddling with the predictable. It helps that the film is exudes style, razor sharp editing and panache seldom found in contemporary Hollywood. As shown in the excellent A Bittersweet Life, South Korea has strict gun laws, and we don’t see any shootouts in New World. Instead we get dozens of suave goons in black suits, carrying baseball bats and large knives, brutally going at each other in long, uncut scenes. Whether it is the camerawork or the choreography or a combination of both that deserves credit, director Jung stages large scale knife fights in parking lots and elevators but manages to make it all look convincing. The bloody carnage on display is incredible, as are the actors who eschew melodrama even though the situation calls for it. 

(First published in DNA)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Movie Review: The Lone Ranger

Johnny Depp. One of the biggest movie stars of all time. Teaming up with his Pirates of the Caribbean and Rango director Gore Verbinski. For a $200 million dollar plus action epic. Seems like a surefire idea. It’s not. The Lone Ranger is a sprawling, bloated, messy dud. The only real good faith it exudes is that it is not in 3D.

There are plenty of reasons why this is a stillborn film. The production was a mess, the budget was first slashed, then it went overboard, then the film was delayed. More importantly, this is a Western, a genre that doesn’t find much love in 2013 – (look at what happened to Cowboys & Aliens). It was brave of the filmmakers to attempt a Western, and if anyone could do it is, it was Verbinski and Depp – the duo had taken on Pirates after the genre had crashed and burned with Cutthroat Island, a movie that ended the careers of literally everyone involved with the film, including the gorgeous and talented Geena Davis. The Pirates film became a trilogy that was fun, adventurous albeit a tad inconsistent. The Lone Ranger also tries to become a franchise, and that burden keeps it from becoming a free flowing entertaining ride.

Granted, there are some huge action set pieces. The one with the train swooping in the sky and crashing down on the ground is just one of the many epic money scenes. The film sure as hell wears its cost and shows it off with style. It’s the stuff in between the action spectacles that grates the nerves. When even the sight of a super powered pony eating scorpions off the hero’s face looks dull, you know there is something innately wrong with the film. On the other hand there is Johnny Depp who is as alive in the film as the dead crow that sits on his head. The character has a shade of the quirks from Jack Sparrow and the stoneface of Barnabas Collins. It’s a jarring combo, and one that hogs all the attention from Arnie Hammer’s charmless titular character. The film has all the scale and pompousness of a Jerry Bruckheimer film but sadly the heart of Will Smith’s disastrous Wild Wild West. There’s really nothing more to say about the film, because that’s what it is – a great big ball of nothingness. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Movie Review: Lootera

From Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap. The guys who brought us the stunning Udaan. What could go wrong? Lootera is a masterclass in lighting and blocking a scene, a tremendous display of artistry, craft and detailing. It’s a grand, beautiful looking film that constantly gives you hope that it will come up with something sweeping to say. Sadly it’s far from the film that you would expect it to be considering the talent involved. It is lyrical, twee, gritty, romantic, poignant. Lootera is a lot of things, but mostly it’s a failure. An ambitious one for sure, but a failure.

Directed with admirable dedication by Motwane, the film vaults like a skier across the slippery terrain of the Dalhousie Himalayas. It’s a film that wants you to register an emotional response instead of an intellectual one - on a scale of 1 to Mills and Boon, Lootera falls right around Nicholas Sparks territory. Hopefully Motwane recognizes this because the plot is ridiculous, and even as a romantic tear jerker that requests your suspension of disbelief to part ways with you, the film is simply pretty but uninvolving. There is Amit Trivedi’s exquisite music to keep the atmosphere intact but it only serves as window-dressing to a film that is at best unmemorable and inconsequential.

Lootera might have worked had there been a semblance of chemistry between its stars Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha, but there isn’t. It makes the movie a hollow, soulless watch. I felt nothing watching the film. Neither love, nor hate. Nothing. The protagonists of Lootera are in desperate need of a glass of decaf, and a human being for the lead actor rather than a gormless stand-in. Throughout the film Ranveer has two basic expressions – grim, and grim with a stubble. Sonakshi is not bad, a far cry from the terrible 100 cr films she has appeared in, but she’s always pained, always looking tragically sad, with her under eye dark circle makeup doing all the requisite acting. I’d trade every last morsel of the pretty artwork, old world charm and period detailing for a single moment of authentic emotion from these characters.

The story is full of romantic pronouncements that translate to a film that is neither believable nor enchanting. That Motwane and screenwriter Bhavani Iyer chose to adapt O Henry’s The Last Leaf needn’t have been the kiss of death, but it set up its own set of problems. These start with improbable plot devices which attempt to be masked by the wonderful period setting. They’re compounded by a screenplay that can’t establish why two lovers would remain together despite one of them completely ruining the other’s life. The crucial scene set years later when the two lead characters meet again lacks the overwhelming feeling that these two people are star-crossed lovers meant to be together. There is no clarity at all about whether the hero Varun is a villain, a good villain or simply misdirected, because none of his shifts in behavior are properly established. So when he takes a massive U-turn in the second half, going against everything he has done in life in a matter of two minutes, it is jarringly unconvincing. And there's no real suspense – Motwane is so deadly earnest about the ‘power of love’ that you’re left to simply twiddle your thumbs and wait for the inevitable. The abruptness of the second half as it leaps from an obscure chase scene in the bizarrely isolated town of Dalhousie is unsettling, revealing that either Motwane had a five hour rough cut or he just didn't know where to take a stand with his film's focal point.

That said, you can’t deny Motwane the credit for rising above the tackiness and schmaltz found in mainstream Bollywood - the cinematic flair of someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali is applied by a waxy sopping wet sugar coated roller, but Motwane in Lootera applies it by obsessive compulsively perfect paint strokes. Even if the climax is a corny beast of sentimental claptrap. Given the cloying, saccharine premise, this is probably the best possible film that could be made.

While the leads are mostly vacuous, and Arif Zakaria and Adil Hussain have perfunctory roles, there's one performer in Lootera who looks completely at ease with what he's doing – Barun Chanda, who plays the father of Sonakshi’s character. The man is terrific, and it is cringe inducing to later see Divya Dutta who has precisely one line of dialogue and serves absolutely no purpose in the film. Two or three individual sequences, like the scene leading up to the interval, juxtaposed with Trivedi’s BGM are well done, but they can’t hold the movie together. The specter of what Lootera might have been comes to the forefront during these scenes when Motwane briefly looks like he’s going to breathe life into the sentimental slushy hogwash of its source material. Unfortunately he must have realized he couldn’t pull it off, and stops short of going the extra mile. Too bad, because Lootera could have been something more than the forgettable and unpersuasive stopover that it ultimately is. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

Kids and young adults are in for a lot of fun because Despicable Me 2 is certainly funnier and more expansive than the 2010 original. Unlike Cars 2 which was made just to sell toys, this film actually manages to offer a reasonably pleasing story. And yet every kid (and even his parent) will crave for a stuffed toy of one of the adorable Minions.

Despicable Me 2 picks up a few months after the events of the first film - Gru is now happily living with his kids, he has given up being a villain and is trying to start a jam and jelly business with the help of his Minions. But while Gru has shed his image as a baddie, a mysterious Supervillain has a sinister master plan to become the supreme boss of the world, a plan so terrifying that the Anti Villain League is forced to seek help from Gru. It’s not a particularly good plot, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud do a good job of avoiding the inevitable animated sequel clichés and the need to make things simply bigger and louder. The clichés that do make it to the story aren’t too jarring thanks to the frequent cutways to the Minions and their hilarious shenanigans. It helps that the film has the familiar voice cast of Steve Carell and Kirsten Wiig to keep things entertaining. The only element that is sorely missed here is Gru’s wicked, icy cynicism from the first movie, since he is the good guy now.

The animation is terrific, though yet again let down by the 3D glasses. There isn’t a single frame of a single scene that needed to be shown in 3D, except for the end credits where three Minions do a side spitting audition for their own spinoff movie that is coming out next year. The little yellow one and two eyed creatures are given a bigger role this time, and while they’re amusing every time they pop up on screen, one wonders if they would be this funny in their own standalone movie. After all there’s only so much Helium induced high pitched cutsey gibberish that one can take. What I really want is a crossover film between Scrat from the Ice Age films and the Minions from Despicable Me – I would brave even the hellish tortures of 3D to watch that.

(First published in MiD Day)