Friday, August 30, 2013

Poll: The Most Disappointing Film of the Year

My personal choice is Star Trek Into Darkness. What's yours? Vote away.

If your answer doesn't figure in the poll, do mention it in the comments section.

Movie Review: The Mortal Instruments City of Bones

The horrendous Twilight movies didn’t just make money and leave quietly. They took a giant dump on the world and left skid marks all over so that Hollywood could scrape away the yellow and sell it as gold. The last thing we needed was Twilight spawning a whole barrage of even stupider films targeted towards intellectually vacuous teenagers. But as The Host showed, the trend has clearly declined, and the absence of the shiny soap bar Robert Pattinson would prevent The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones from finding success at the box office.

Based on the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, City of Bones is a rare film that invokes an emotion that is seldom felt by audiences – pity. The awfulness of City of Bones’ narrative is explained when you get to know that Harald Zwart, the guy who previously made the Karate Kid and the Pink Panther remakes directed this film. The latter was responsible for pretty much ending Aishwarya Rai’s Hollywood journey, and though it may not reflect on Zwart’s talent as a filmmaker it is nearly impossible to forgive someone who launched Jaden Smith’s career.

The story is formulaic to begin with but the lack of creativity in this film is staggering. Girl begins to see strange otherworldly things. Girl’s parents disappear. Girl discovers that there is a world within our world and that she has a gift. Girl joins a band of other boys and girls with gifts to overthrow the evil dark forces of the other world who want to take over our world. This is as unimaginative as it gets and the only explanation for this film being funded is that the studio is under the impression that Buffy the vampire slayer, Harry Potter, Star Wars and Twilight never happened. In the film people who aren’t gifted are called ‘mundane’ – it’s a term that can be used to describe the film itself. 

You can’t help but feel bad for the star – Lilly Collins is a gorgeous, talented young girl who clearly thought this film would make her the next Kristen Stewart. It must be frustrating for the poor girl because this is not the first time Stewart stole her thunder – they both had Snow White films last year and Stewart’s version made money, albeit with a little cushion for the pushin’.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: We're the Millers

I get that humor is relative. For some it may mean the dark feisty stings of British satire. For others it means the unbridled entertainment of watching a spider sting a kid in the ball sack, or the unrelenting pleasure of watching said kid kissing women pretending to be his sister and mother. I won’t judge you if you have an appetite for the latter, it’s just that We’re the Millers isn’t nasty entertainment, it’s only nasty.

Director Rawson Thurber made the passably funny Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ten years ago, so it’s a little surprising that he doesn’t understand what risqué comedy actually is. He simply throws in one offensive gag after another and forgets to make the gags funny. The whole film is an assembly line of grotesque things that the director picks up and shows you and asks if you were offended. This is not comedy, this is lazy filmmaking. Sure, there are some people in the world who laugh just because someone mentions the human body’s nether regions but there are significantly more people who prefer a well written quality comedy over tedious skits. It’s not that you can’t make a comedy by only relying on shock value – Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura are just offensive sight gags but somewhere between the smut is also a heart, apart from Jim Carrey’s gynormous funny bone.

Which brings me to another major reason why the jokes fail - the bland cast. Dodgeball had the consistently funny Ben stiller and Vince Vaughn before he turned into someone who looks like a coke dealer hanging outside schools. We’re the Millers has Jason Sudeikis who is at best a harmless side kick in Saturday Night Live but is as funny and likable as a tumor in a lead role. When he’s not flexing his unfunny muscles on screen, the film relies on its lone joke of Jennifer Aniston being a stripper and pretending to be his wife. It’s not that Aniston is a bore, it’s that she is a sad pathetic mess. The poor thing is clad in stripper clothes but is not only an unconvincing stripper, but is also a really tedious comedienne. Rachel Greene was a one trick pony and this film is even cruel enough to mock this very fact during the end credits.

What really infuriates is the wastage of the gigantic talent of Nick Offerman, who exists in this film only to finger bang the ear of Sudeikis’ character. Ron Swanson is capable of dismantling the innards of your stomach with his hilarious lines, but it looks like he needs to get a new agent.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Frozen Ground

Nicholas Cage is a legend. He deliberately stars in bad movies and hams his way to glory to make them entertaining on some bizarre B-film level. So it’s a pity when he takes a break and doles out a decent performance in a terrible film.

The serial killer thriller The Frozen Ground is so clunky a guy who has seen less than five movies in his life could come up with a better script. It is so clichéd and derivative that directly ripping off some other thrillers would still make for a comparatively fresher film. Reminiscent of Chris Nolan’s Insomnia but sans the stellar acting, photography and direction, the film is set in an Alaskan town and is allegedly based on a true story of a guy who killed 20 young women in the 80’s. Cage stars as a cop assigned to catch the killer who is played by a one note, completely unthreatening John Cusack.

To say the film scrapes the bottom of the barrel would be giving it too much credit. Director Scott Walker makes absolutely no effort to make any part of the film interesting or new. The procedural style follows the plot points and tropes of nearly every single serial killer film made in Hollywood. The killer is a mild mannered man with a dark secret. He has a basement. He kidnaps and tortures women. These are scenes shown a zillion times in cinema and it is strange that the filmmakers seem to believe that bathing the audience in a stinky mud of clichés would entertain them. It’s not that we’re perverts and want different or new twisted scenes of torture, but the film neither gets into the mind of the mad man nor keeps us guessing the identity of the killer. There is nothing exciting about watching a film where we know who the killer is and what he would do next.

There’s also Vanessa Hudgens who almost bursts a vein or two in her effort to get out of her Disney persona and play an ‘adult’ character. Her role of a prostitute is so terribly realized and acted it makes you appreciate the stereotypical serial killer victim Ashley Judd character from the 90’s. Perhaps had Cage let fly, hammed to the hilt, stole bicycles, swallowed some bees, worn a bear costume and punched women the film could’ve salvaged some unintentional off-kilter entertainment. As for John Cusack, he needs to stand with a boombox under the window of those who saw this film and apologize.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters

There were problems with the first Percy Jackson film – it was a really bad Xerox copy of Harry Potter. It’s been three years since the first film and one would imagine Hollywood would learn from its mistakes and make the sequel unique and interesting. Sadly Sea of Monsters is also a really terrible copy of Harry Potter, and with worse looking visual effects that the first film.

I do not know how closely Sea of Monsters follows Rick Riordan’s book on which it is based, but the film is such an uninspired, inconsequential waste of resources it doesn’t really matter. It’s hard to figure out whom the film was made for. It’s certainly not for kids because most of the jokes and the story are young adult based, but it’s not a date movie for young adults because the romantic angle is practically nonexistent and the CGI is lame, and it’s certainly not for adults because no self-respecting adult with a day job would step into a movie theater playing such cinematic drivel.

I deign to get into the story details not because I don’t remember much of it but because it would mean crediting the screenwriter for something he didn’t do. What I will mention is that it is a miracle that writer Marc Guggenheim got another job in Hollywood after lending his skills in Green Lantern.

Director Thor Freudenthal fortunately makes the wise choice of keeping the runtime short and the film mostly action packed and urgent. But like in the first film the ancient Greek mythology set in the modern world just doesn’t work on any comedic, fantasy or narrative level. The film looks way too cartoonish but pretends to have an air of seriousness throughout, it makes for a series of very clumsily staged scenes. It is frustrating that a film named Sea of Monsters doesn’t deliver the titular goods - the tiny sea monster battle in Beowulf was more epic than this entire film. Moreover, the big finale is an assault of special effects that is huge in scope but fails miserably because of the less than spectacular 3D conversion.

The film’s star Logan Lerman is a massive talent, he was absolutely terrific in last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and he seems to be annoyed with being stuck in a contract in this film. He’s got Darren Aronofsky’s Noah lined up and he makes it clear in Sea of Monsters that he couldn’t give a damn if the film bombs. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Act of Killing

Genre: Docu Drama | Country: Denmark | Year: 2013 | Dir: J Oppenheimer

Imagine if Hitler didn’t die and lived on to become the supreme leader of Germany, and turned it into his little playhouse to endlessly massacre people whenever he pleased. This is what happened to Indonesia, a country whose history isn't congruent to the beautiful vistas shown on TV. In 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, and any citizen who opposed the military dictatorship was accused of being a communist and executed. In less than one year with the direct aid of the army, local gangsters and the CIA, over one million 'communists' were murdered.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing doesn’t just chronicle the horrors of 1965, but takes an insane new direction. It doesn't give us a history lesson but instead taps into the psyche of people who were proud of committing the genocide, and questions how someone who has indulged in unspeakable violence views their actions and dodges guilt. The film focuses on one former executioner, Anwar Congo, who agrees to enact the killings in a faux film about the genocide. At first he and his accomplices are very pleased with what they did, but as the filming and the enactment goes on, he begins to see the horrors he's committed and begins to regret all the brutality of his past. It’s a searing plot device and the film becomes what every documentary sets out to be – something different. An average filmmaker could have made The Act of Killing about the victims but Oppenheimer makes it about the murderers.  

That said, The Act of Killing is a terrifying watch. The scenes where Congo and his friends cheerfully enact the way they killed different people with minimum and maximum suffering is one of the most chilling things you’ll experience in a film this year. In one scene Congo proudly takes a wire and demonstrates the cleanest way to strangle someone. In another scene he wears a cowboy hat and gleefully shows that he executed a man with a coffee table leg on his throat. He even does a cha-cha dance on the rooftop of a building where he slaughtered a dozen people, with no semblance of remorse. Sometimes there was even an orchestra playing as the throats of men, women, and children were slit, and the army encouraged people to kill innocent families. It’s maddening, to say the least. There is surrealism in the reality and reality seeping out of the surreal movie-within-a-movie segments. You end up questioning the definition of reality and justice and makes you wonder if the latter truly exists or even matters in our world.

The film was backed by the legendary Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and it is not surprising  that it won top honors at the Berlin film festival. Director Oppenheimer does a swell job of making you simultaneously hate, empathize with and even laugh with Congo. The latter part makes you feel guilty when you realize you’re laughing with a mass murderer making jokes about murder, and the fact that the film elicits this emotion in you is testimony to its power. Oppenheimer builds up a crescendo where Congo finally experiences the full force of fifty years of guilt and self-loathing in one long poignant scene. Like Herzog’s own films, it reveals attributes of human nature through the extreme. The irony this film exudes is that Congo the executioner reflects most humans, and that these same people won't recognize that fact.

Every large nation has a bloody secret, and The Act of Killing drives home the message with large doses of the horrific, the funny and the fantastic. It’s a tad disturbing to find the parallels between the horrors charted in this film and the events that transpired in a certain part of India years ago. The head honcho of Indonesia was never tried for his war crimes and continued to become the most influential politico of the country. Many were arrested without trials and many more were killed. Moreover it is now taboo to talk about the incident and it’s become a sort of a public secret that could be erased from history texts. Sound familiar? 

(First published in DNA)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Movie Review: Jobs

Steve Jobs was an enigma. He made products with and for the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the ones who see things differently, the ones who are not fond of rules. You could quote him, disagree with him, glorify or vilify him. The only thing you couldn’t do was ignore him. Because he changed things. He pushed the human race forward. And while some saw him as the crazy one, we saw genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The film Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher is quite unlike its titular visionary. It is not made by the crazy ones, the misfits or the rebels – it is made by people who don’t see things differently, people who follow formula. You can neither quote the film, nor glorify it. The only thing you can do is forget about it. Because it says nothing and doesn’t push the storytelling forward. And while some saw the film as genius, we see a lame cash grab. Because the people who are crazy enough to think this film could change the world are the ones who reach for your wallet when you’re not looking.

Perhaps it’s the case of David Fincher setting seriously high standards with The Social Network. Perhaps it’s the fact that Pirates of the Silicon Valley arrived more than a decade ago and told the exact same story in a much better way. Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t even try to be factually correct. Perhaps it’s because Kutcher does a caricature of Steve Jobs, content to let his facial resemblance do all the acting. Or perhaps it’s that the film plays like a checklist of Steve Jobs’ Wikipedia page. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of those things, because Jobs simply fails on every imaginable level, tanking at every turn, much like Apple’s Power Mac G4 Cube and the Bandai Pippin. This is neither a film made for the geeks nor for audiences who aren’t familiar with Jobs’ life and persona. This is an extremely lame high school play, made by a bunch of hilariously clueless people who don’t seem to know the concepts of attention to detail and internet backlash.

There’s nothing really more to say about the film, apart from its sheer ineptness oozing through every agonizing second of its excruciatingly long two plus hour runtime. Pointing out each of its flaws would mean typing out a 1000 page document in bold Goudy Stout and thanking Jobs for paying attention to calligraphy and being adamant about including fonts in the word processor. Jobs was extremely impressed with Noah Wyle’s performance in Pirates of the Silicon Valley, he even invited Wyle to 1999's Apple keynote and had him fool the audience. But had he seen this film he’d have critiqued it with his trademark product review triage of words that made him infamous – This is shit. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Kick Ass 2

The biggest reason why I quite enjoyed watching Kick Ass 2 is that Hit Girl watches a boy band music video in disgust and mumbles ‘I would rather be waterboarded that listen to the songs of One Direction’. Hit Girl kicks ass. Even if there is little else in the film to appreciate, Hit Girl makes it a fun and entertaining watch.

A significantly lesser film than the original 2010 hit, Kick Ass 2 offers more of the same, with an amped up sense of nastiness and a smaller heart. That doesn’t necessarily make it an uninteresting movie, given the film’s premise, the characters that inhabit it. The film picks up a year post the events of the previous film, Dave (Aaron Taylor) has had enough of getting his ass kicked and asks Mindy (Chloe Moretz) to train him to be a proper fighter and become a real superhero instead of a mugging embarrassment. Mindy is forced to deal with the choice of being a normal school girl and a crime fighter. Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is bitter and becomes a supervillain named The Motherfucker to avenge the death of his father. It’s a relatively clichéd plot but the film knowingly employs the familiar story just to suspend it in the crazy whacked out teenage setting.

The previous film had Nicholas Cage in the best role of his career, and Jim Carrey fills the void this time to somewhat middling results. It’s great to see him back on the screen after his decade long slump, but it is sad to see that his star power has been reduced to a sidekick role in a sequel to a minuscule budget film. Director Jeff Wadlow takes over from Matthew Vaughn and offers a lot of the edgy violence but little of the absurdist humor the first film became famous for. The original film established the brash and mean spirited tone, the shock value of kids swearing and punching people, and the interesting theme of the world needing the reassurance of superheroes being around to keep things afloat. The problem with the sequel is that it banks on the very same things to sell itself. More of the same is passable fun, but not satisfying enough to people who loved the first film and look forward to an expanded universe in the sequel. Given Kick Ass’ relatively tiny profit it was a miracle that the sequel got made, and in a way the filmmakers wasted a golden opportunity to create something truly great.

There’s a scene where Hit Girl shoots her crush in his bullet proof vest clad back, and another scene where a villain is defeated by being impaled on shards of glass. You could take these scenes on face value as satiric social commentary, but these sequences give one the impression that the film actually becomes an example of the social issues rather that satirizing the issues. That said, there are plenty of laughs courtesy of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl. Perhaps one day we’ll see a movie that stars Moretz and Jennifer Lawrence and witness the theater screen explode due to excessive awesomeness.

(First published in MiD Day)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Madras Cafe - Not a Review

I was too lazy to write a whole review, so here’s the snack version: 

Madras Café is not a terrible movie by any stretch. Shoojit Sircar is a talented filmmaker. The plot is very, very intriguing but Shoojit’s direction is clearly the highlight of the film.

* How often do you see a mainstream Bollywood Hindi movie that has no songs? Shoojit and producer John Abraham have gigantic balls, and full credit to them for making such an honest effort.  

* 99.99% of the thrillers, especially the ‘political’ or ‘military’ ones made in India are either tacky, or jarringly commercialized or just plain turds. Madras Café is not a heap of horseshit like Tango Charlie. This is a genuinely slick, decently put together thriller, almost as good as the first half of D Day.

* Madras Cafe isn’t the Zero Dark Thirty of India, and expecting anything even remotely close to that film’s quality is stupid. If anything the film is a wannabe Blood Diamond. Shoojit borrows heavily from Blood Diamond – the style, the camera angles, the blocking, the action scenes, the editing, the music, it’s all reminiscent of that movie. Except instead of an emotional Leo DiCaprio there’s an Oak tree in the lead role.

* The action scenes are staged well. There is a lot of violence, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. And the military tactics are (passably) well done. The CGI and special effects are also not shitty. That’s rare in Hindi cinema. That said, keep your kids at home.

* While it’s not a bad film, it isn’t an Oscar winner. It stumbles a lot of times as the narrative swings from taut to gripping to cringe inducing. It’s as if Shoojit vacillated between sticking to a non-commercialized gritty thriller and giving in to Bollywoodization to cater to the mainstream dodos.

* It’s also over-edited. Some important plot points just race past, and the film doesn't stop to focus on them. It’s a little unfortunate but given the running time I am not sure slowing it down further would've helped the film.

* It is endlessly frustrating to watch John Abraham in the lead role because someone more talented would've really elevated the film to a higher order of cinema. He tries very hard, but his facial muscles just don't budge. Clearly John is a better producer than an actor.

* The rest of the cast isn't any better. Everyone from Nargis Fakhri to Siddharth Basu are hilariously bad. There is enough ham in this film to feed Pepperoni Pizza to Versova for a month. Really wish the film had a better cast.

* I do not know how factually accurate the film is. I am not an expert on LTTE and Sri Lanka. I am only acquainted with the surface level details. And I am too lazy right now to research the topic. But I can tell you that the politics shown in the film is at best Chetan Bhagat level. So don’t expect much. The procedural action anyway glosses over the political and police work, and it’s sure as hell better and more polished than the likes of A Wednesday and the misbegotten Special Chabbis. And hey you can make good films without being factually 100% accurate.

* In any case none of these shortcomings mean that you should avoid this film. Watch it. Ignore the ham acting. Ignore John’s military beard. Occupy yourselves with something else every time Nargis Fakhri appears on screen - count prime numbers, take a Komal Nahta style loo break, whatever. But watch the film. It’s interesting.

* As for the MDMK outraging over the film portraying the LTTE in ‘bad light’, I offer them a gift wrapped goodie bag full of irony and the following tweet by my pal Over Rated.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara

Let me begin this film review with a question – has anyone ever seen Milan Luthria, Anil Sharma and Kanti Shah in the same room at the same time?

Sample these:

Kaam to mai gande karta hu, lekin saaf sutra rehne ki bahut gandi aadat hai hahaha.

Meter kitna bhi tezz bhaage, taxi se aage nahi bhaagta.

Doodh me jo nimbu nichode, Paneer uska.

You'd think that a Hindi movie with a plot that chronicles a 90’s Mumbai don starring Akshay Kumar would be a campy fun watch, filled with entertaining dialog, humor and action. Those would be fair expectations right? 


Featuring an utterly awful screenplay and more overbearing pulpy dialogues than you can shake a fist at, the unfortunately named and spelled Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara is a plodding and tiresome experience.

A terrible thing that happened was that we made the original Once Upon a Time in Mumbai a huge hit, which led to the beliefs that - 

a) Milan Luthria is a great filmmaker,

b) ‘Masala movie’ lovers will pay anything to see a film in which a big star smokes slow mo cigarettes and hurls dialogues, 

c) Bollywood will cannibalize a brand name as long as the franchise makes a ton of money. I don't know who it was that said ‘Alright listen this Akshay Kumar and Dawood style genres ooze money from every pore so let’s mash things together’, but someone at the meeting should have said ‘Honey no, are we still making Dawood a hero? Might as well turn Kasab into a comedian, like RGV did’. Unfortunately this rebuttal never happened because if it had then Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara would have ended up in a trash can rather than in theaters that cost Rs 500 per stub.  

The film takes a bunch of familiar modules, coats them with some fresh paint and hopes paying audiences won’t notice how old and tired the clichés are. A Middle Eastern gangster, who has come to Mumbai to rule the city, and his right-hand stooge fall for the same girl – an actress in the Hindi film industry. Ah yes, the love triangle. Is there a more overused and abused genre in Bollywood? Our hero villain Akki aka Shoaib Khan in OUATIMD is a lumbering mess and the film has no heart, humor, wit or even a semblance of fun. The film’s biggest joke is a half hour misunderstanding between ‘intermediate’ and ‘intercourse’, which makes it seem like a rejected episode of Three’s Company. The comedy, however, is salvaged because the censors bleep out ‘inter’ in ‘intercourse’, but not the word ‘sex’.

Director Luthria populates his film with stock gunda characters, lethargic plotting and 80s-style nonsensical contrivances, padded with a barrage of punchlines; none of which are particularly amusing or exciting. In one scene Shoaib fondles a lady and while admiring her red bra strap lasciviously mumbles, “Laal batti se purana rishta hai, hamesha peeche rehti hai, lekin aaj aage hogi.” Punch lines like this don’t make a lick of an impact coming from Akshay Kumar, who after a string of lukewarm box office numbers from Joker, Special 26, Khiladi 786, decided the only way to keep paying his rent was to leech off big franchises. Whoever thought it was a good idea to let Kumar, who sounds like a drunk Yogi Bear, deliver 300+ punch lines in one film should be made to listen to the actor sing “Ave Maria” and recite a whole phone book.

The non-Akki portion of the film consists of a meandering subplot featuring Imran Khan and Sonakshi Sinha’s blossoming romance, just enough to fill three very unremarkable hours. Sadly, Sinha lays waste to the goodwill she garnered with Lootera and Imran transcends new levels of ineptitude with his terrible performance. To be fair, the poor guy is saddled with a lousy role – in one scene he robs a guy and then saves his life because he cannot do two wrongs in one day; the logic of which is explained with “Mujhe samajhne ke liye dimaag nahi, dil lagta hai” – a reasoning that probably applies to understanding this film as well.

Although Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara boasts decent production design and some rather fine cinematography from Ayananka Bose the main problem here is pacing. The film has incredibly long dry stretches, including a ludicrous conflict of 'loyalty vs love' that waddles onto the screen every now and then. Luthria just plunges everything in front of the camera with little attention to pacing or common sense, and even if you ignore the slack pace or the unintelligent characters there's no getting around the fact that there's nothing remotely new or exciting about the film.  

It's not that making a masala or a ‘throwback’ film is a bad idea, it's that Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara doesn’t capture what makes this genre a fun ride in the first place. The ‘throwback’ details (such as the wardrobe and the music) exist only to annoy old-school Bollywood fans, because Luthria’s film clumsily flings the basics together and then rambles around aimlessly. No amount of Mumbaiyya gangsta razzle dazzle can mask the fact that OUATIMD is a wearisome and uninteresting. The film’s only impactful point is that Cigarette smoking is injurious to health, as per the helpful pop up text which appears every time someone reaches out for a drag, which is 90 percent of the film’s running time.

(First published in Firstpost)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ruby Sparks

You sit at your desk, fire up your laptop, open a word document and crack your knuckles, ready to compose an art form that will get you loads of attention and admiration. You glance at the keyboard, intent to smash the keys to bits to squeeze out a masterpiece. You end up staring at a blank document for an hour. Your creativity has eluded you. You call it writers block. Whether you’re a writer or an artist or a software coder or a banker or a scientist, your talent evades you at some point of your life. It could be because of social circumstances. Or as the film Ruby Sparks expounds, it could be because you paid more attention to the keyboard and fell in love with the idea of the ideal woman rather than the woman herself.

Admit it. Don’t lie. Either you’ve done it in the past or you’re doing it right now. Rather than being in love with a girl for the way she is, you spend all your energy trying to make her the way you want her to be, and then emotionally manipulate her to feel bad about not being good enough. The dark comedy-fantasy-drama Ruby Sparks, a quaint little masterpiece, chronicles the unfortunate proclivity of men to influence situations so that they can have things their way. The brilliance of the film lies in the fact that it addresses this issue not in a heavy duty depressing manner, but in a quirky and often laugh out loud hilarious way.

Ruby Sparks stars Paul Dano as Calvin, a very young and famous writer who had written a best seller during high school, but has since been struggling to come up with a definitive piece of literature. Calvin is stuck in his past, unable to get over his premature celebrity, unable to reconcile with his ex, unable to come up with fresh ideas and stories. In fact he is so horribly jammed in the past that he still uses a typewriter to work, despite living in a very plush modern house. Calvin’s moment of clarity finally arrives when he dreams of a manic pixie dream girl named Ruby and proceeds to scribble a story about her. Things become complicated when Ruby somehow comes to life, and Calvin realizes that he can alter her behavior through his writing.

The film becomes an unpredictable and fascinating watch as Calvin fiddles with the moral choice of manipulating Ruby. The constantly surprising and entertaining turns are courtesy of Zoe Kazan who not only wrote the film but also stars as the titular character. Her script is clever enough to avoid the pitfalls of feminist rants and instead establishes how postmodern culture frequently falls back on the Bechdel test. Whether it’s rom com or drama or magic realism, it’s so darn charming that it just works on every level. Kazan happens to be the legendary Elia Kazan’s granddaughter and also Dano’s off screen girlfriend which probably makes their back and forth in the film feel so real. It also makes you wonder how much of her script was based on their own relationship.

Dano is known for his roles in There will be blood and Little Miss Sunshine but this is clearly his best work. His unbroken shifts from bewilderment to anger to helplessness to pure awe are incredible. He’s excellent in the scene where he realizes that it is ethically wrong to make Ruby do what he wants but then proceeds to pull the strings anyway. In another scene he holds Ruby’s ragdoll like face, looking at her as if she were his malfunctioning science experiment, yet realizing that he is incapable of treating his significant other with the freedom and the respect that she deserves. He is absolutely brilliant because he manages to garner sympathy despite the character he plays. The man is not only the most underrated actor in the industry and it is especially sad considering the massive online fan following of Joseph Gordon Levitt. Dano’s significant dramatic chops are all too obvious but he has a vulnerable style of comic timing that is very rare in contemporary Hollywood.

It becomes clear how dark comedy and drama were so beautifully augmented in Ruby Sparks when you get to know that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed the film. The duo last made the terrific Little Miss Sunshine and waited six years to find the right script. Dayton and Faris are legends themselves, they’re the reason why we get nostalgic about our childhood - they directed some of the best music videos of REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis. These guys are responsible for making the 90’s the most memorable part of my life and it’s thanks to them I’ve spent most of my adult life listening to Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979. In Ruby Sparks they demonstrate their aptitude for subverting comedy with drama when Calvin in a fit of rage fires out lines on his typewriter to torture and spite Ruby.

Fantasy and reality meld together seamlessly and Dayton and Faris often make you take the magic realism at face value instead of Ruby metaphorically being a therapeutic exercise of a writer trying to break through his block. With a theme like this it is easy for a filmmaker to stumble into the mawkish levels of melodrama, but the staging here is pitch perfect, and moving rather than deafening. A confrontation that Calvin has with his ex is quietly powerful and Dano brings the house down in a scene where his God complex takes over him.

The film does a great job of sketching the egotistic self-aggrandizing baggage that generally comes with intellectual superiority and even the inherent insecurity of men in relationships. Calvin is a gifted individual, but like many of us, can’t digest his significant other being more successful than him. How would he, a man, establish his superiority if his girl commands equal power and fame? Like many of us, he is afraid of being abandoned by the girl he loves, and like many of us, he’d rather manipulate the girl and push her away first. Like many of us, instead of looking for solutions to problems in a relationship, he’d rather hurt the girl and dwell in his egotistical plane of existence. And like many of us, he gets what he deserves and spends an eternity regretting his mistake. The genius of the film, however, lies in its climax, because the final scene delivers a meta message – it transpires the way you want it to be.

(First published in DNA)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Movie Review: Chennai Express

Mai bachpan me Baazigar dekhi. Sharukh ka eyes color change dekh ke, anarkali ko ice cream khila ke suitcase me fit karte dekh ke mai full SRK fan ho gayi. Phir mai Darr dekhi. Sharukh Sunny Deol ko pundai bana ke Juhi Chawla ko Ray Ban glasses me romance kari. Life me first time mai negative role ko support kari.

Phir mai Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa dekhi, usme Sharukh jo cap pehni, mai dhoond dhoond ke khareedi aur mere neighborhood girl ko motorcycle me ghuma ke ‘Deewaana Dil Deewana’ gaane ka sochi. Life me first time mai ‘hero who doesn’t get the girl’ irony samjhi. Kaafi powerful cinema experience lagi.

Phir mai Ram Jaane dekhi, aur life me first time brain aneurism feeling lagi. Mai sochi, bade bade industry me aisi choti choti galatiyan hoti rehti. Lekin Sharukh ek ke baad ek, saalon tak romba ketta commercialized ‘easy’ fillims karne lagi aur mera fandom poora erumai malam ho gayi. Mai ab sochi, Sharukh risk kabhi nahi leti, sirf ham acting karti aur consistently disappoint karti. Aisa disappointment aur aneurism mujhe Chennai Express me waapis lagi. Kashtam.

Rohit Shetty car porn karti aur sab A list hero log Simbly South style fillims karke nuru crore kamaati. So Sharukh sochti, mai bhi Madonna. Results: romba payankaramana.

Chennai Express bahoot schizophrenic film. Kabhi homage, kabhi self-reference masturbatory exercise, kabhi OTT action drama, kabhi slapstick comedy. Film bahut kuch karti, lekin sab kuch bokwas karti. Homage elements tacky banati, self-referencing poora grating banati, action aur drama boring banati, comedy mind numbingly unfunny banati. Itna bada budget and cinematic resources sab kalutai apanam me daal deti.

Fillim ‘Rohit Shetty style’ present hoti aur Deepika ka name before Sharukh name aati. Sharukh romba sweetu. No wonder sab wimmen usko like karti. Lekin sirf star power fillim nahi banati. Hum fillim buff budget nahi, balki accha story appreciate karti. Sadly Chennai Express story bahoot stupid story. Iska story Jab Tak Hai Jaan ko Citizen Kane jaisa dikhaati. Fillim me Deepika uske Periyathalai (fother) ke darr se ghar se bhaag jaati. Isliye Periyathalai se chupne ke liye, Deepika Chennai train pakadti. Logic train window ke bahar girti. Aiyyo aise fillim me mai logic to nahi chhati, lekin interesting story maangti. Aajkal movie ticket price tum dekhi? 500 rubees ho gayi. Family ko leke gayi to ticket khareedne ke liye lungi bechni padti.

Fillim me ek silver lining dikhti – Deepika Padukone bahoot lively and entertaining hoti. Comedy me Sharukh ko mokkai bana deti. Also, wo bahoot cute dikhti. Mai poochti, poora film Deepika jaise lively and entertaining kyun nahi hoti. First of all fillim ka running time Rameshwar to Goa train time se zyada lamba hoti. Plus wo tulai songs sunke mai SOOTHE MOODU chillati.

Kabhi kabhi filmmakers periya shameless ban jaati. Chennai Express me five minute long Nokia ad hoti. Product placement happens everywhere, but iss fillim me Sharukh camera ko dekh ke teen baar Nokia phone model number aur price bolti. Hamara patience test karti. Isliye jab wo phone gaadi ke bahar keechad me girti, hum happy hoti. Waise bhi wo bokwas Windows Mobile phone kaun mollamari mai ka laal leti. Sab Android phone leti.

And self-referencing sab fillimmakers karti. Martin Scorsese bhi karti. Lekin acchi karti. Chennai Express me har two minutes ko Sharukh aur Deepika Sharukh ke old songs gaati. Romba bore maarti. Old songs sunne ke liye mai 500 rubees nahi deti. Free me iPod pe sunti. Sharukh ek self-referencing scene me camera ko dekh ke fourth wall tod ke eyes wink karti. Hum eyes roll karti. Ye fillim nahi balki ek romba ego ko Thai massage lagti.

Fillim ke sab shortcomings mai ignore karti agar comedy funny hoti. Ye film comedy lagti jaise lingam gonorrhea comedy lagti. Sharukh ek scene me ‘natures call’ bolke sussu finger dikhaati, fir nature ko phone se call karne ki acting karti. Mai facepalm karti. Sharukh Rajini aur Balaiyya jaise comedy stunts try karti lekin execution me embarrassing belly flop karti.

On top of that Sharukh laugh mining ke liye cringe inducing overacting aur ham karti. Itna ham hoti mai Sharukh ko Babe the pig bulati. Ek scene me Sharukh uska Chewing gum gunda ke face se bounce karke chew karti phir tongue bahar nikalti. Mera lunch pet se bahar nikalti. Poora jokes fillim me ‘funny facial expressions’ and gimmicky ‘funny noises’ se juxtapose hoti. Sharukh real life me bahoot smart, witty and funny hoti. Sharukh ko ye sab bokwas backround noise aur facial exaggeration zaroorat nahi lagti. Audience muttaitanam loosu koodhi nahi hoti, joke understanding ke liye indicator nahi lagti.

Fillim se mera ek hi takeaway hui. Hero-heroine against 80’s style small town don Himmatwala me bokwas hui, Chennai Express me bhi bokwas hui. Ada chi.

(First published in Firstpost)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Movie Review: RIPD

Sometimes a film arrives that is so brutally bland, unoriginal and unentertaining that you can’t help but feel bad for everyone associated with it. RIPD is one of those films.

Starring The Dude Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds and directed by Robert Schwentke, the guy who made Red, RIPD is a film that should’ve catered to comic book geeks but somewhere in its production went awfully wrong to the point of irreparability. Ironically Schwentke dropped out of making the surprisingly entertaining sequel to Red to make this movie. It’s a bullet that he should certainly have dodged.

RIPD is based on a graphic novel and is clearly proof that not every comic need to be made into films. The studio earlier brought us a mixed bag of films including Hellboy, 300, the horrendous Virus and the hilariously bad Alien vs Predator movies so it isn’t entirely shocking that it decided to fund yet another box office bomb. There must surely be a fanbase of the RIPD novel for the film version to exist, and to be fair a story of two ghost cops who battle the forces of evil on Earth doesn’t seem too dull. In fact with that plot it was easy to make a full on slapstick comedy or even a smart satire. Unfortunately what the film has turned out to be is a miserable ripoff of Men in Black, with the joyless tone of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and the half-baked quality of Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters.

There’s only a glimmer of the irreverent comedy that the film could’ve been in its running joke where the dead Jeff Bridges appears as a hot woman to humans. It turns out to be the only joke in the movie, and even that was spoiled in the trailers. It doesn’t help that the two leads are dull as ditchwater, incredibly happy to grab their paychecks and run. And to make their banter even more tedious to endure, most of the lines they speak are plot exposition to spoonfeed the audience on the villains’ grand plans. It’s one thing to be a dumb movie but another to consider its audience as equally unintelligent. Hell, even Kevin Bacon as an undead antagonist managed to be unexciting here, it speaks a lot for the effort that went into this movie.

The biggest problem is that the whole film is extremely heavy on fake looking cheesy CGI that makes the graphics from 1984’s Ghostbusters look more sophisticated in comparison. When there is no forced, witless dialogue between the two leads, the filmmakers cram in oodles of computer trickery to pad the lousy narrative. Even the action sequences are soulless and humorless, which is kind of surprising considering the director choreographed some fun stuff in Red and his earlier movie Flightplan. What is actually hilarious is the way RIPD has been edited, because we hardly even see the actors’ faces when they utter their dialogues, which only means that the film went through the editing shredder over and over again till the studios’ egos were massaged to their content. It’s a little unfair to Schwentke because all the resulting amateurish content on screen is attributed to his shortcomings as a filmmaker. 

(First published in MiD Day)