Saturday, September 28, 2013

Movie Review: Blackfish

A trip to the zoo is a delightful experience. We love looking at those animals and taking photos. They seem so happy in their little cages. They seem to like all the attention we give them. We never stop to think that we’re paying to have these animals imprisoned in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives. As humans it is in our disposition to destroy the harmony of nature and profit through the endless torture of other species.

Your guilt of visiting and liking zoos will increase a thousand fold when you watch Blackfish, a disturbing, revelatory film on the dangers of nabbing animals from their natural habitat and keeping them in captivity for our recreational purposes. Although a documentary, the film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite plays out like a razor sharp thriller on large smarmy entertainment corporations who abuse ethical boundaries and shoot animal rights to hell.

Blackfish chronicles Tilikum, an Orca who was captured in Iceland and brought to Seaworld, a popular American marine park to entertain audiences by performing tricks. To say that the film makes you loathe Seaworld is an understatement – it will make you cringe in your seat and sick to your stomach with its series of shocking exposes. Tilikum was treated like a milking commodity by the owners of the water park, and he ended up killing a few of his trainers in response. And appallingly, the Seaworld management not only refused to make changes to the way they do their business, but also blamed the victims for their own deaths.

All of that is just the tip of the iceberg and director Cowperthwaite puts together a bunch of searing interviews with former trainers and workers of marine parks who are now disillusioned and recount ghastly details of the underbelly of their industry. The filmmaker also interviews whale hunters who are absolutely disgusted with their own selves for being in a profession that slaughters other species. The details become more and more grim and disturbing as the film goes on, and you keep wondering why anyone would believe that putting killer whales in a tiny tank and making humans interact with them is a great business idea.

Seaworld refused to be interviewed for this film and the reasons are only too obvious. There is some horrific footage, least of which is when Tilikum grabs and drags his trainer to the bottom of the pool out of sheer frustration. If that doesn’t turn your stomach, the footage of hunters throwing a net and separating screaming baby whales from their mothers certainly will. It’s heartbreaking enough to crack open your home’s aquarium and set your pet fish free. 

But this is not a sensationalist manipulative propaganda film. Apart from its substantial research work, Blackfish really rises to greatness for the way it makes a case against keeping killer whales in captivity by establishing the evidence that they are highly intelligent and emotional creatures. To date there are zero reported incidents of killer whales attacking humans in their habitat, and Tilikum was plucked from his family and home and placed in a tank that is the human equivalent of a bathtub to train. Three years ago the brilliant and unsettling The Cove exposed the annual mass torture and murder of dolphins in Japan, and Blackfish is a powerful companion piece to that film.

(First published in DNA)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Movie Review: Prague

Prague has an interesting premise, I’ll give it that. Debutant filmmaker Ashish Shukla and (relatively) newbie screenwriter Sumit Saxena have lots of cool ideas and they don’t want to take the commercial route – and on that front this is a neat little experiment. The film could have been equally fascinating had it not supplanted cool ideas with tacky execution.

Starring the underrated Chandan Roy Sanyal (Mikhail from Kaminey), Prague is a psychological thriller but it merely goes through the motions of a thriller without actually delivering the thrills. It starts off on an intriguing note, and promises some sort of a cerebral exercise about a man who is so caught up in insecurity that his only way to have a relationship with someone is by feeling guilt. No doubt, this is high concept for a desi film, and that an indie film released in theaters, despite having an unsellable story and no big stars is probably triumph enough.

Sadly Prague is not the indie film to lead a revolution, because it’s just not a good movie. One would expect a movie about a man on the verge of a breakdown to be zany and gripping. Unfortunately the film winds up being as exciting as a brochure of Prague. In every scene it feels like the filmmakers used a ‘Moviemaking for Dummies’ guidebook found at a library and missed an opportunity to make a truly great movie with style and atmosphere worthy of its premise.

The problem is that Prague neither caters to the mainstream crowd nor the indie enthusiasts. The former would rue the lack of item numbers and Sallu bhai while the latter would always be 30 minutes ahead of the characters. Any moviegoer who has watched half a dozen psychological thrillers would crack the mystery 15 minutes into the film, and to hang around for two whole hours knowing what’s going to happen next becomes an extremely tedious jaunt. Even formulaic and predictable thrillers can be enjoyable if they manage to invest you into the characters, but Prague fails to do so.  

Sanyal is talented but not particularly interesting here, and he tries too hard, unlike his co-star Elena Kazan (from John Day) who is comparatively effortless. The characters are very poorly written and they turn out to be just as one-dimensional, ludicrous and unconvincing as the events that they are participating in. The dialogues range from wannabe to cringe inducing. In one scene an idealist stoner dude lends some great advice to his friend - 'If you fuck a girl, she may or may not end up with you. But if you mindfuck a girl, she will definitely end up with you'. These gems would probably work in films like Pyaar Ka Punchnama (which Saxena co-wrote).

The only element of the film that offers a welcome break from the dreary, amateurish and clichéd story grafted onto a two-hour ad for Prague is the music (Atif Afzal, Varun Grover). Director Shukla gets all the music montage scenes just right, but every single one of those scenes are so tonally detached that they seem like they belong in another movie. Pity.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Elysium

At the end of District 9 the ‘fookin prawns’ promised that they’d come back in four years. That sort of worked as a meta for director Neil Blomkamp because he’s back after the exact amount of time with a new, even more bombastic film.

Don’t get your hopes too high up, because Elysium is not as smart, lean and gritty as District 9, but it is WAY more action packed. It’s the masala entertainer version of sci fi, but done with the insane dedication, passion and artistry that you expect from Blomkamp. If you love science fiction, action films, video games and Matt Damon, Elysium is paisa vasool entertainment. You dig Halo? There’s two dozen references to the game, including the ‘Elysium’ being Halo. You love Third Person Shooters? Yeah Blomkamp has you covered - there’s awesome gunplay, with electrobolt rail guns shredding humans into tiny pieces.

Do you also love a good story? That’s where the film sort of fumbles around clumsily. It’s not that the story is bad, but Blomkamp includes some cringe inducing cheesy flashbacks and Bollywood style manipulative melodramatic scenes. It’s very jarring especially because you walk in expecting a no nonsense taut film like District 9. All of the themes of racial discrimination, social divide and elitist snobbery from D9 are redone in Elysium, but on a much grander scale, and sadly in a ham handed manner.

If you can ignore the three-four instances of inelegant preaching, Elysium is a blast from start to finish. There’s not a dull moment here thanks to the gravelly editing. The production design is incredible, from all the gleaming futuristic hardware of the first world to the rusty crapware of the third world. The robots are so impossibly realistic and fluid you'd think there’s a guy wearing a robot suit. In fact the film looks like a sprawling gigantic $250 million film when its budget is less than half of that. More importantly the film is more rousing, epic and exciting than most big budget films out there. More money doesn’t necessarily mean better action, and Blomkamp demonstrates that beautifully here. When you see two guys mauling each other in exo-suits you realize that this would’ve been the action movie of the year had Pacific Rim not existed.

Sharlto Copley, the protagonist from D9 is a delightfully badass baddie here – armed to the teeth with ammo and even a sword, with no semblance of pity or compassion. It’ll be interesting to see what he does as the villain in the Oldboy remake. Damon is excellent for a variety of reasons. We’ve seen him play the unstoppable assassin fighter in the Bourne films, and he makes an effort to distance himself from that character – he plays an everyman who is forced into firing weapons, and he gets his ass beaten. He wears a strength enhancing exoskeleton later on, but doesn’t become an invincible action hero – he becomes more like Isaac Clarke from Dead Space – a nice touch to make his character more believable.

If you’re wondering why there are so many video game references, it’s because that is exactly what this film is, a video game adaptation, and a damn good one at that. The film is set in 2154, the same year that Commander Shepherd from Mass Effect was born. Young modern filmmakers like Blomkamp grew up playing video games, and they understand what it takes to turn games into great cinema, a feat that Hollywood has failed at over and over again. This makes me hopeful for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed and Duncan Jones’ Warcraft. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Prisoners

Over the past decade Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has emerged as one of the most fascinating and consistently solid filmmakers of our generation. From the mesmerizing psychological thriller Maelstrom to the gripping shootout drama Polytechnique to 2010’s disturbing Incendies, Villeneuve has steadily become more adept at delving into the theme of a traumatic incident and twisting the knife into its implications. With Prisoners he’s finally found a way to make a commercial film on the subject with big stars.

With a dash of Zodiac, Mystic River and German thriller The Silence, Villeneuve’s Prisoners stands apart from most Hollywood thrillers. It doesn’t follow serial killer tropes and avoids the tactic of morbid imagery for shock value. And yet, the film manages to cause a few knots in your stomach thanks to Villeneuve’s stark, uncomplicated direction.

Hugh Jackman, in the best performance of his career plays a distraught man whose kid disappears from home after a mysterious RV pulls up alongside his driveway. Jackman is bearded, puffy eyed and constantly stringy and you wonder why this man is doing commercial stuff like Wolverine when there is a monster of a dramatic actor hidden in there. The only element in the film that manages to rival his brilliance is Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop investigating the case. The kid from Donnie Darko has come a long, long way and he’s great at hinting towards the demons in his character’s closet.  

Prisoners does something different early on to bring a new twist to the serial killer genre. What would you do if your kid suddenly disappeared and the only suspect is let go by the cops for lack of evidence? Would you just watch helplessly or let nihilism take over you? That’s the path that writer Aaron Guzikowski takes to question the basics of morality, guilt, law and justice, and he does it with stomach turning realism. As Gyllenhaal’s cop sifts through the murky layers of strange basements, creepy clergy and sex offenders, Jackman’s goes through a Dostoyevsky-eqsue breakdown to uncover the truth. There’s plenty of religious symbolism but Villeneuve establishes a chilling moral subtext to it all and lets you make judgments – little details like these is what makes Prisoners so good. And when you veer from feeling hate to pity for the suspect, you know you’re watching great cinema.

Like in Incendies Villeneuve connects various strings together with a neat little bow – even the final scene cuts to black in the most precise possible manner. Cinematographer Roger Deakins absolutely nails the cold, isolated atmosphere here and it goes well with the nearly nonexistent music. Villeneuve’s minimalist, fluff-free approach to filmmaking is refreshing, as is his decision to cast the young Paul Dano as the suspect, whose real life felony is being criminally underrated.

(First published in Mid Day)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Lunchbox

A character in The Lunchbox wistfully notes that if a man who slipped into coma ten years ago woke up today, he’d be disgusted with what’s become of the world and he’d rather go back into coma than live this unspectacular life.

However, if that man watched The Lunchbox, he’d perhaps relinquish his cynicism, because he’d be filled with hope and a wonderfully upbeat sense of purpose. That is the effect that Ritesh Batra’s debut feature has on you. It is the most optimistic film of the year, and one of the best. Batra is our very own Ramin Bahrani.

Happiness is relative and nostalgia is a drug – both these themes jimmy in and out of every scene in The Lunchbox. Yet the direction is so slight, the film barely even registers as a film. Batra, working with Bahrani’s director of photography Michael Simmonds, directs with warmth and affection for his characters and adds subtle poignancy to their story. There are no dramatic twists in The Lunchbox and there is believability to all the characters in it. Moreover it’s a pleasure to see a Hindi film that exudes a mature portrayal of adult characters who put their vulnerability on the line. It’s almost as though Batra made this film for the sole purpose of changing the rules of Indian cinema.

Irrfan Khan plays Saajan, an aging grouch nearing the end of his professional career. Saajan is Carl Fredricksen crossed with Max Goldman and Frank Slade. He’s the neighborhood uncle who stands alone in the balcony and refuses to return cricket balls when they fall in his garden. People put up with him, rather than enjoy his company. His abhorrence for human interaction hilariously contrasts with his assistant’s (Nawazuddin Siddique) overfriendly nature. Nimrat Kaur is Ila, a young, unhappily-married woman whose sad, expressive eyes mirror the life that is passing her by. Apart from a friend and confidante in her neighbour Mrs Deshpande, Ila is utterly alone in her contemplative gloom.

Saajan and Ila somehow manage to contact each other via handwritten notes in a lunch box. It’s a ridiculously romantic plot device, buoyed by terrific performances from Khan and Kaur. It is a pleasure to watch these two characters charm each other with moments of quiet vulnerability. At times, the film even flirts with the familiar tropes of a miscommunication and that of the hero running after the girl to win her back, but Batra somehow finds new ways to prance over the clichés, letting the story eventually fade out like a cute little daydream. Batra’s camera, like Saajan, goes through the motions of the world around him but lingering on details, instead of zipping away. Nobody in Bollywood does that. Done by a less talented filmmaker, it would seem indulgent or mundane.

Khan has never been one to dive head first into the golden pond of commercial success – his roles have skewed formula time and again. It’s as if he’s afraid of being mediocre and forgotten, and keeps outdoing himself in every role. Nimrat’s debut as a leading lady should catapult her to instant stardom – holding her own opposite Khan requires massive talent. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s extended cameo is charming to say the least, and Bharati Achrekar’s voicing of Ila’s neighbour is both hilarious and awesome.

There are plenty of moments to treasure in The Lunchbox, and they’re all small and delicately crafted. Those looking for romance will swoon with delight as they discover two lonely people can find a way to make things work. Even loveless, heartless audiences would probably have to to try really hard to appear unmoved. In one scene, Saajan notices his neighbours eating dinner, sitting around a table, passing food to one another, chattering as families do. When one of the family members – a little girl who he didn’t let into his garden to get a misdirected cricket ball – notices he’s watching, she goes and shuts the window. Later, he eats his dinner alone. It’s one of the many scenes in The Lunchbox that make you sigh with gratitude for their emotional whiplash. That’s when you realise Indian cinema is undergoing a renaissance, right in front of your eyes. 

(First published in Firstpost)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance this year, and it is quite obvious why. The film is not just well made but also an important one, given its context. It’s also not a film as much as it is a heartfelt paean for the utter lack of justice in the world.

On New Year’s Eve 2009 America was shocked by an incident of police brutality against a young black man named Oscar Grant at a subway station in California. Onlookers whipped out their cell phones and videotaped the incident – the footage spread like wildfire and the ugly head of racism was paraded over the internet. In Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler recounts this incident with grit and a shade of tightly controlled anger.

Michael B Jordan, who appears in the television series The Wire recreates Oscar with earnest charm, making him the sympathetic everyman without hogging the drama surrounding him. Director Coogler spends majority of the film going through the events that led to the tragedy. Throughout the film we meet Oscar’s family and friends, his struggle to escape the shadow of his incarceration and deal with the lack of job offers. He is a flawed character, with bouts of selflessness followed by moments of violence and temper. And Jordan brings out those traits beautifully, his reactions are raw and real thus making us connect with his character. We know how things are going to pan out for him, but Jordan’s establishment of his character’s infirmity makes the incident at the station all the more tragic.  

The innate flaw of the film is that it relies too heavily on the assumption that the audience will already be familiar with Fruitvale. That might work in American theaters but most foreign audiences probably wouldn’t be aware of the incident. It’s a tiny, but important snag, and Coogler tries to bypass it by including real archive footage in the narrative early on. What he does best, however, is he ascertains the racial overtones without sermonizing on them. That makes Fruitvale Station the anti-Crash, and a damn good film to boot.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Rush

A Formula 1 driver is in the pit lane during a race, dark rain pounds the circuit, and visibility is almost zero. The driver loses track position as the cars that didn’t pit storm past. He needs to win the race to win the championship, and it would be suicidal to attempt overtaking. The driver says ‘Fuck it’ as his car storms out of the pit lane and overtakes ten cars in one go. Rush is a wet dream for Formula 1 fans, and one of the most thrilling and entertaining auto racing based movies ever made.

The Frost Nixon writer-director team of Peter Morgan and Ron Howard not only understand the spirit of Formula 1 but also know how to tell a compelling F1 story to people who aren’t familiar with the sport. Rush chronicles the incredible cutthroat rivalry between former F1 legends James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and does it in style. Howard and Morgan jettison biopic and sports drama clichés and instead deliver a smart, gripping and gorgeous movie. It helps that the film stars the hugely charismatic Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Lauda – both actors not only look like the people they play but are also pretty spot on in their mannerisms.  

The title of the movie might seem mundane but you’ll relate to it the moment it begins. Most auto racing films contain tacky looking hyper edited scenes that cheat their way to give the impression of speed. This is not the case with Rush, because Howard and his DOP Anthony Dod Mantle have filmed the racing sequences with such energy you feel your blood pumping in your chest. They pull the camera back to actually show the racing instead of jamming it against the actors’ faces. The stylized edits are there too, but Howard and Mantle do it with snazzy new techniques, maintaining the tasteful sophistication of F1 and without giving in to the silly action spectacle of the Fast and Furious films. 

The detailing is pretty slavish as well – Howard captures every minute element of an F1 race, from the cars to the circuit to the frenzy of the chequred flag. Those familiar with the story of Hunt and Lauda will be glad to see the respect given to the sport, the drivers and their battle, while others will be biting their nails to figure out who ends up winning the championship.

The visual beauty of Rush is complemented by the film’s solid narrative. Just like a Ferrari the film zooms past its two hour runtime. Howard sold out and messed up factual accuracy in A Beautiful Mind but he seems to have learned from his mistakes. Rush boldly sticks to the facts surrounding Hunt and Lauda without Hollywoodizing the story, and it is a bonus that their lives were just like a massive dramatic Hollywood film. The fierce enmity, mutual respect and insecurity between the two drivers is superbly established. 

Last year’s F1 documentary Senna was a well made albeit one-sided story of its protagonist, but Howard and Morgan delve into the unsympathetic sides of Hunt and Lauda as well. And surprisingly, they do it without making it melodramatic. Lauda suffered a horrible accident in the middle of the season where he battled against Hunt for the championship – but Howard films Lauda’s tragedy and the events that follow in such a way that you end up cheering for the character rather than feel pity for him. There are plenty of heroic moments in the film and you can’t help but clap till your hands bleed. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Movie Review: Grown Ups 2

I have peered into the dark, dank chasm of bubbling sulphuric acid where humor unwillingly takes a dip and dies a slow screechy excruciatingly painful death. The chasm is called Grown Ups 2

Every time Adam Sandler makes a movie, the comedy quotient of the world shrinks by a few degrees, but with Grown Ups 2 it approaches apocalyptic levels of low. That the first Grown Ups was an affront to cinema, humor, celluloid, art and the environment is well known, but the sequel elevates terribleness so high up the film becomes borderline hazardous to humans. It’s a bit unfair to call the audiences stupid for watching Sandler’s films, but the knowledge of the man making twelve $100 million films in his career makes me want to grab a flamethrower and set the entire human race on fire. We have failed as a species and we deserve death and even more horrifying punishments, like Grown Ups 2.

The gang from the original film is back, and is puckered up even more tightly to flex its back cleavage for our hungry eyes. Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock and David Spade reunite for a decomposing landfill of stupid skits, lame puns, sexist one-liners and offensive sight gags. The plot is pretty much nonexistent, even though the ‘story’ is written by three (yes three) people who presumably stay in a redneck farm where wrestling naked with pigs in the mud is considered avant-garde art. I also assume that these same people snigger every time someone says the words 'pussy', 'balls', ‘ass’, ‘homos’, ‘fags’ and consider roadkill necrophilia as rib tickling comedy.

The above presumptions were made because Grown Ups 2 is full of scenes that resemble animal excreta but are passed off as comedy. In one scene a man in really small shorts climbs a rope and everyone around him witnesses his gross hairy golden globes, while a black kid remarks “Y'all he's got to put those Easter eggs back in the basket dayummmnn”. Another scene, which becomes a running gag and an important plot point of the film, has Kevin James doing a Burp Sneeze Fart and espousing the values of the same to his kid. One scene has the four heroes attending their kids’ school dance recital and ogling at the dance trainer who displays her wares like a stripper – a police officer remarks “I want to arrest her for disturbing the peace, in my pants”.

That funny enough for you? Maybe you like some variety in humor. Don’t worry, Sandler’s got your back because Grown Ups 2 also has the unrelenting hilarity of an ice cream man fixing his machine and inadvertently looking like he’s defecating into the cones. That is indeed some A grade comicality right there. Sandler and gang thought that all that still wouldn’t be enough to send you to the nearest neurologist, so they even bring in Taylor Lautner from the Twilight movies as a ‘frat boy’ to destroy whatever brain cells that remain after an hour of colossal mental torture. One ought to thank Sandler though, because thanks to this movie the dreadfulness of all future films will be measured on a scale of 1 to Grown Ups 2

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: John Day

Imagine I Saw the Devil with the fun stripped out, or The Horseman without actual choice, characters, or consequences. That is what John Day is.

John Day does a few things right. It stars the venerable Naseeruddin Shah in his best performance since Sona Spa. It is a straight up revenge thriller without any songs to interrupt the flow. It’s shot in some locations that have seldom, if not never been used in Bollywood thrillers. Some of the dialogues are good. We've now reached the end of the rosy section of this review.

The best thrillers are the ones with an imaginative protagonist, story or climax. There is absolutely nothing about the characters, story, or climax of John Day that is new, exciting or fun. Every single element of the film is borrowed from the Spanish film La Caja 507. In any case the story doesn't matter, and first time director Solomon mixes the Spanish film and Bollywood chestnuts for something that feels both bland and routine.

The protagonist (Shah) is out for revenge, hunting down the people who killed his daughter. He is so overcome with vengeance he procures a gun and goes from realizing everyone he loves is dead to shooting bad guys in about 30 seconds. That plot would have been fun had it not been for the fact that John Day is content with getting in its own way as much as possible. The film might work as a slice of bold cinema that goes against the commercial Bollywood route, but as a standalone movie it is maddeningly dull and bad. None of John Day’s ideas are fully explored, so the film feels like a series of check lists in a world that is hard to care about, in which a dull character is doing dull things against dull stock enemies using dull guns and dull investigative methods.

To lift the film from the constant dullness Solomon inputs loud blaring Gospel based music at every dramatic turn, with hilariously bad heavy handed Christian imagery. Someone is shot, and the chanting music kicks in; like RGV’s Govinda Govinda the chants here are JEEEESUS HOO HAA HOO HAAA. It's absurd and pointless. Why can't this film be subtle? What think tank members sat down and said that the only way to convey the Christian themes to the viewer is by beating up the protagonist in front of a Church and having him bleed on the cross? Why should a film that goes against Bollywood tropes embrace the very same tropes every now and then? You walk into this movie expecting something different and you’re treated with clunky formula that takes you out of the story.

The investigation that the protagonist does isn’t too exciting either – Shah simply ambles from point A to point B before the film tells you that he’s accomplished his mission. The only thing that adds tension to the film is the dynamics of Shah’s and Hooda’s characters hunting down each other. And even that isn’t explored much and it feels more like filler to justify the bloody violence. John Day also doesn't have a good way to make us empathize with the characters of Shah and even the corrupt cop of Hooda. There is no personality in them - they’re just cardboard cutouts with hackneyed problems of alcoholic spouses and the guilt of estrangement, both of which are clumsily established and severely underdeveloped. There’s a gamut of recognizable faces in the supporting cast including Vipin Sharma, Anant Mahadevan, Shernaz Patel, Makarand Deshpande yet none of them are memorable as such.

Moreover, the villains are so poorly sketched out its amusing. Sharat Saxena, in a laryngitis voice seems to be great big baddie, but a baddie with great integrity, and no one really explains why. But that's fine, you’re supposed to be content to just let Naseeruddin Shah slaughter baddies as he follows the clues. What really destroys the film is that even in the final hour it never feels like anything is at stake. The climactic scene falls completely limp because the story never makes you care about anything that's going on. The film never presented me a hook to continue watching and ultimately I could finish watching John Day because I am a huge film buff, and the process was a struggle. Most film viewers will be fine skipping it altogether.

(First published in Firstpost)

Monday, September 9, 2013

The East

Dir: Zal Batmanglij | Genre: Thriller | Country: USA | Year: 2013

What if there was a secret group of individuals who formed a cult and had access to the dirtiest secrets of the biggest corporations in the world? What if their intention was to bring down pharmaceutical companies that knowingly kill millions of people with their drugs’ side effects? Would you side with the cult for their quasi noble albeit vengeful intentions, or would you expose the cult and let the law take its course?

This impossible choice is faced by the protagonist of The East, a small independently produced and criminally overlooked film that is one of the most interesting thrillers of the year. The film was written by and stars Brit Marling, the gorgeous talented young woman who hit the indie circuit three years ago with the brilliant sci fi Another Earth and Zal Batmanglij’s cult thriller Sound of my voice. She reteams with Batmanglij here and the story is similar to their previous collaboration - The East also chronicles a character who infiltrates a shadowy cult but gets lost in the battle between the right and the wrong.

What makes The East a fascinating watch is how thematically relevant the story feels, despite its many implausible twists and turns. Batmanglij, apart from having an awesome name is good at making a tall story 'realistic'. He does this by dabbling in ‘real world’ scandals like corporations knowingly draining toxic effluents in rivers when no one’s looking, or pharma companies treating humans as guinea pigs, or large conglomerates indulging in price fixing. This sort of stuff doesn’t just exist in pulp novels, it happens every day in your town. In fact director Steven Soderbergh, his frequent writer Scott Burns and Tony Gilroy who wrote the Bourne films have stated over and over again that pharma-based scandals are an immediate threat to the world and are grossly overlooked by the media and investigators. With all this nasty shit happening the formation of an Environmental Terrorist Group like The East doesn’t sound so far-fetched. There already are people like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and the Hacktivist group Anonymous, and they’re not much different from The East.

While making the story germane is a coup in itself, The East would’ve looked silly had it been handled by a less talented filmmaker and cast. Marling plays a high level private investigator who penetrates the cult to gather evidence to hand them over to the cops, but finds herself falling for charms of the cult’s leader. She is supposed to be a former FBI agent, and the scenario of such a strong, intelligent, happily married person falling for a charismatic cult leader and changing her stance after seeing the wrongs of villainous corporations sounds silly on paper. This is a tough role to pull off in a serious film and Marling somehow manages to make her transformation believable. The film even directly connects with Sound of my voice as an Easter egg, you’d need to watch both the films to appreciate Batmanglij’s cheeky indulgence.

Alexander Skarsgard plays the leader of The East – he isn’t as hypnotic as John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene (a much superior cult based thriller) yet manages to have a strong screen presence. There’s even Ellen Page in a small but important role, but the film’s best attribute is the way it makes you ponder over the righteousness of an anarchist cult. Films like Martha Marcy May Marlene give a downright negative view of ochlocracy by focusing on the weird customs of a cult, but The East makes you wonder how ‘decent’ and ‘civilized’ you are as someone working in a scummy corporate world. We look down upon cults due to their bizarre sexualized practices, yet we are content to trample upon colleagues to climb the success ladder, treat women like objects, knowingly amount to the genocide of thousands of human guinea pigs and still consider ourselves as noble and ‘cultured’. 

(First published in DNA)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Movie Review: Riddick

What a divisive film Riddick is. On one hand it is much better than the misguided hot mess that was The Chronicles of Riddick, but on the other hand it is a horribly clunky 80’s style film and is still a far cry from the sleek thrills of Pitch Black.

You’ve got to hand it to director David Twohy – the only thing he has done in the past thirteen years is make Riddick films with Vin Diesel, so their dedication to the material deserves a hat tip. This is their Avatar. They’ve created a whole futuristic otherworldly universe, except with an antihero at the center. And they deserve even more praise because hardly anyone else in the world is making big budget hard R sci fi films, so the fact that Riddick is playing in theaters and is not terrible is a feat in itself.

The story picks up after the events of the second movie, but those who haven’t seen the previous film need not worry because of its sheer inconsequentiality. Riddick is now marooned on a planet full of creatures who want to eat him alive, and his only way out is to somehow activate a distress signal and get someone to pick him up. But seeing as he’s a wanted criminal a bunch of intergalactic bounty hunters descend upon his location to nab him and make some quick cash.

This is a plot that is incredibly reminiscent of the first film, and the movie seems almost like a reboot, which is where things start to tank. There is nothing else in the film apart from the singular danger of aliens emerging from the ground when it gets dark and the ship’s crew running around shooting things to deal with Riddick and get the hell out of there. This is a little frustrating because we’ve already seen this done in a much better fashion back in 2000, and that film even had the talented Radha Mitchell in the lead role.

What is really bizarre is the constant, blatant misogyny in this film – the lone female character played by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff is a standard issue ‘hot’ soldier from 80’s Hollywood who is hit on by nearly everyone in the film in various disgusting ways. Why are there rape innuendos in a film where Vin Diesel has to kick alien ass? The woman even develops feelings for Riddick just because he is a hunky dude with fine ass ‘ceps. Does not compute.

Riddick works when it isn’t trying to be like the first film or isn’t dabbling in misogyny. The action is fun, and the raw gritty hard science fiction aspect of it is a nice change from flimsy fare like Oblivion. The creatures though limited in variety are quite imaginative, and there’s even an alien dog to give Riddick company. But that’s about it. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Shuddh Desi Romance

Ladies and gentlemen, the love triangle and rom-com a la Bollywood has been redefined: Shuddh Desi Romance is a classic and one of the best dissections of a relationship that has ever come out of the Hindi film industry. Audiences failed writer Jaideep Sahni in 2009 when they didn't flock to theatres to watch his utterly brilliant Rocket Singh, but he's brushed away that film's failure and come back even stronger.

Shuddh Desi Romance appeals not only to college kids or married couples or the ‘arty’ crowd, but to anyone and everyone. It’s competent, challenging, bright, delectably-relatable and heartfelt and hopefully, it that signals the beginning of a major shift in the industry and the audiences’ taste in mainstream feel-good Hindi cinema.

Director Maneesh Sharma and writer Jaideep Sahni have crafted an entertainer that defies every beat of a traditional desi rom-com, and they’ve done it with such expertise and sincerity. By ignoring the Bollywood rulebook and not bothering about any particular audience demographic, the duo have created a light-footed and sassy film that remains true to its characters. And what sharply drawn characters these are – he’s indecisive, she’s needy, then he becomes needy, she becomes indecisive; they hurt each other, but they love each other, yet they gradually get on each other’s nerves. And as they go through all this, we get to watch. This is a delight. We have all been in this sort of a relationship, and that makes the protagonists as recognisable and weirdly warped as a look in the mirror every morning.

Sharma and Sahni’s sophisticated and incisive style of storytelling establishes the conflict between the three characters by not relying on dramatic screaming matches, but on stinging black comedy. This is not an easy feat to pull off in the deranged circus that is Bollywood. Sushant Singh Rajput, Parineeti Chopra and newcomer Vaani Kapoor understand this and are absolutely terrific in their complicated roles. Their awesome chemistry is complimented by the way they completely swallow the oblique dynamics between their characters. It's gratifying to see new Bollywood actors and actresses take on an edgy, bold story with panache and deliver a new age edgy-relations comedy drama usually associated with filmmakers like Jonathan Levine, Lynn Shelton and Marc Webb.

Rajput may be the most likable shuddh desi newcomer since Siddharth. He's got depth beyond goofy for sure, and his portrayal of Raghu in Shuddh Desi Romance is so natural without it seeming like a forced departure from his role in Kai Po Che. The lovely Chopra’s eyes can effortlessly seduce you with their ability to show conflicting emotions. It’s great to see that she isn’t just a one trick pony, stuck in the cheerful feisty Punjabi kudi mould. She has genuine depth and nuance to boot. Kapoor is quite the surprise package and the fact that she can hold her own in the company of the other two is a testament to her screen presence. Aside from the main three, there's Rishi Kapoor in the most charming role of his career as a wedding planner worried about youngsters not respecting the sanctity of marriage and the impact of this attitude on his business in the future.

Sahni’s meticulous research is on full display here. This is not Jaipur exotica and the amount of detailing is just extraordinary, from the costumes to the sounds to the lights to the smells – everything feels so real and living and breathing. Even the songs are perfectly placed, and I doubt that you’ll find a more beautifully shot desi film this year.

The most enjoyable thing about Shuddh Desi Romance is that Sharma and Sahni happily resist the temptation to drift into the conventional problems of shuddh desi cultural traditions. Sloganeering and sermonising about the ‘new age youth’ is often heavy handed, but this film has enough well-placed laughs to bridge the cultural and generation gaps without alienating either. There is a scene late in the film where the two girls have a confrontation, and to say it annihilates formula and brings the house down would be an understatement. Rather than beating you on the head with its message, the scene charms you into seeing the characters’ point of view as your own.

It becomes clear about halfway through the film which girl Sushant’s character will wind up with, but Sahni constantly plays with the character by making him choose unwisely, much to our amusement. We have all been in his situation, newly out of adolescence, eager to be adults and utterly bungling when it comes to love and it’s damn good to see ourselves portrayed so vividly on the big screen. Kudos, Messrs Sahni and Sharma. More please.

(First published in Firstpost)

Movie Review: Zanjeer

I generally try to avoid feeling depressed while writing about a movie, especially when it's a brainless, un-classy, humourless piece of festering crud that stars not only the thoroughly-unthreatening Prakash Raj as a villain but also has him seducing Mahie Gill by scratching his chest and murmuring "Meeowww Meeeoowww".

Why classic films like Zanjeer get remade into slushy puddles of horse manure is an inexplicable phenomenon, much like alchemy – except in this case gold becomes trash instead of the other way round. To those who counter Zanjeer's lack of intelligence with the ready advice of, "Hey it’s a masala movie so turn off your brain and enjoy", I don’t have a switch to just turn my brain off. If I did, maybe I’d be make a film like Zanjeer instead of writing about it.

Zanjeer is not just a bad film, it is proof of a filmmaker who is barely even trying. To say this remake defecates upon the legacy of the original film would be giving it too much credit. The film doesn’t waste any time in establishing its terribleness – while the 1973 original opened with a gritty scene at a police station, Lakhia’s remake opens with a wannabe James Bond number with females clad in S&M costumes, lasciviously touching chains (to modernise the Zanjeer innuendo) and writhing in orgasmic pleasure. In the original Amitabh Bachchan makes a low key entry as he wakes up from a nightmare (he probably dreamed about Priyanka Chopra in the remake, but more on that later). In this film, our hero Ram Charan makes an entry with a large establishing shot of his dad Chiranjeevi and beats up gundas as 'Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram' blares in the background. People look on, nodding their heads to the rhythm and applauding. Yeah, real subtle.

Lakhia isn’t interested respecting Prakash Mehra; he is just hell bent on assaulting the audience with an endless array of cheap jokes, gratuitous violence, generic item songs, unpleasant characters in garish costumes and a deluge of bad acting. In one scene, Prakash Raj licks his lips and says "Chicken and chicks are the two meows of life". In another, a little boy at a hospital asks a policeman, "Uncle mere daddy kahan gaye?", despite his daddy lying next to him, burnt to char. This film is not merely cacophonous; it is spiteful, as if Lakhia wants to lace the cartoonish 'Simbly South' style of Rohit Shetty with the smutty Mumbaiyya masala of Sanjay Gupta. As a result, the tone of Zanjeer wavers from dreadfully unimaginative to smugly lazy.

When the director makes no effort to make an interesting movie, one relies on the actors to compensate. Sadly the talent on that front is equally abysmal. Ram Charan, a superstar in the South, achieves the impossible feat of being even more wooden than John Abraham. The guy’s facial muscles are so tightly attached, his eyelids would close if he scratched his cheek.

If you thought Priyanka Chopra couldn’t do anything more embarrassing than Exotic, you’re in for a real surprise. She plays a rich NRI who flies to India to attend a Facebook friend’s wedding, does an item number at said wedding and becomes the surrogate wife of a police officer she meets a day later. She does bubbly, she does Pinky, she does slapstick, she does quirky and she does cute, all at once. Maybe her character is a parable of the human condition, or an allegory of psychic intervention, or social commentary regarding the existence of bipolar serial killers breeding in our midst. I have no idea.

What is most annoying about Zanjeer is that it's a filthy leech of a movie that simply uses the rights it owns and absolutely desecrates the sanctity of the original. Lakhia goes so far as to use the late journalist J Dey as a character and caricaturises him. Because that’s what a crime journalist who chronicled the underworld and eventually paid for with his life deserves – a mockery of his life's work, Bollywood-style.

(First published in Firstpost)