Monday, April 20, 2015

Interstellar Blu Ray Review

Space, wormholes, black holes, time travel, love, loss, childhood, parenthood, brotherhood, death, afterlife, purgatory, the end of mankind and rebirth. There are an overwhelming number of themes in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. Nolan’s ambition is unrivaled. He’s one of the few filmmakers in the world whom you’d stand in queue for on the first day. And the themes in this movie are exactly what a Nolan fan craves for. So with such humongous expectations, is it even possible for Nolan to deliver something satisfactory? a) If you’re looking for sweeping, epic science fiction along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ll be disappointed. And you’d also be a fool to expect something of that sort – because nothing will ever be 2001: A Space Odyssey. b) If you’re looking for a moderately smart, and a ‘differently executed’ movie in the commercial Hollywood space, you’ll dig this movie.

Interstellar is two different movies trying to be one. The first film features the space stuff, where the protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is on a mission to save the human race. It’s thrilling, it’s imaginative, it’s gorgeous and it always keeps you on the edge of your seat. The second movie features the protagonist’s children on Earth, hamming, stuck in a cringe-inducing story full of mawkish clich├ęs, doing things no sane adult would do. Interstellar thus showcases both the best and the worst of Nolan. It’s clear than Nolan is trying to emulate 2001 here. A robot in the movie named TARS is basically two walking monoliths, the mysterious black slabs scattered around the solar system in that film. Some of the music is a direct homage to the film. But one wishes the filmmaker tried to make his own film instead of paying homage. If you look at Nolan’s filmography, you either get straight-up action blockbusters with simple stories, or seriously great, complex stories laced in drama. Nothing in between. Interstellar is none of those. It’s got a very simple story, without much action, laced with drama. A tad too much drama. Even a Nolan fan would accept that he’s not very good at drama, let alone melodrama. Of all the films that he’s done in the past, this has the most number of problems. Luckily, it has a ton of goodies too.

The imagery of the wormhole, called The Gargantuan is stunning. As is all the deep space exploration and the treks on other planets. It takes forever for the movie to take off, but when it does, it just doesn’t let go of you. Whether it’s tidal waves on a deserted planet, or heroically docking a space ship on a rapidly spinning port, the space stuff is great. Nolan also manages to give simple Wikipedia lessons on relativity, string theory and singularity without all of it sounding too pretentious. There is also a small sermon on love shoehorned in to debate the merits of human emotion over scientific data – and it sort of works quite well despite its potential to be silly.

The plot vehicle of relativity ageing people on Earth faster than those in space is implemented very well. Matthew McConaughey’s performance itself is enough to recommend this movie. Even in the most implausibly hammy scenarios he manages to bring in a tone of quiet dignity and reliability to the role. It seems there is no stopping the McConnaisance. The most interesting aspect of the film features a big name actor you won’t see coming. There are story and plot elements lifted from Back to the Future, Sunshine and Event Horizon (one whole scene about the explanation of a wormhole is lifted from the last named). It’s entertaining for sure, but you wish it weren’t so derivative, coming from Nolan. The most frustrating thing in the film is the rehash of the intercutting style from Inception, where we see two different dramatic things going on at the same time. In that movie all of the scenarios were relevant to the plot – here we cut from a truly thrilling action beat in deep space to a truly boring domestic drama in a farm back on Earth. And it happens constantly, during every dramatic plot point in the space story. Nolan should have kept the establishing shots of the space stuff and removed the unnecessary story back on Earth.

Regardless of its faults Interstellar offers enough big screen thrills and even has a few interesting questions to ponder over. Is it humane to abandon everyone on this planet to continue life on another? How morally sound are you to sermonize about not abandoning people if you are perfectly okay with abandoning a humanoid to save your own self? And how much would you pay to keep the magic and market of 2D IMAX alive?

The Blu Ray transfer is as expected, quite gorgeous. The sound issues that some people faced in the theatrical version will not be found in the Blu Ray disc - everything looks and sounds crystal clear. The special features include behind the scenes, which for a change, are actually quite entertaining and fascinating. There's an interesting one hour McConaughey commentary on the science behind the film. If you're a fan of the film you won't really find anything out of the box in the bonus features but it's a nice addition to an already great addition to your movie collection.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Not a Review: Fast and Furious 7

Blackness. A familiar, haunting tune from a children’s music box plays. There’s a low rumbling sound of a car engine idling in the distance.

White light floods in. Writer Chris Morgan appears in close up, facing his laptop. As his hands approach the keyboard in slow motion the sound of the car increases exponentially. He hits the first key and the camera zooms out to reveal he’s sitting shotgun in a black Lamborghini Murciaglo.

Next to him is the driver, a familiar oriental face looking sadly at the tiny music box on the dashboard. He suddenly throws out the box, stamps his foot on the accelerator with full force, and as the car screams away Morgan begins writing the script of Furious 7.

Cue in blaring, boisterous rap music as the backdrop to various flashy angles of the car zooming like a bullet through a Californian desert.

‘We need to make this one special’, Morgan’s deep and throaty voiceover booms, as the car dangerously swerves left. Cut to the men inside the car, at full Zen despite the insane speed of the car.

‘You did well in the preceding trilogy’, the mysterious driver says. ‘We sure did’, Morgan replies, ‘Justin Lin had the balls to change the racing format of the films to a heist game’. The driver nods in approval and curtly adds, ‘I can take this to the next level’.

The Lamborghini approaches a stream that magically seems to exist in the middle of a desert. Around the stream are young nubile girls prancing around aimlessly. Morgan begins writing the first scene of the film – ‘It has to be a race of some sort’, he says, as the car runs through the stream, splashing a few of the nubile girls much to their delight. The driver shifts gear.

‘Enough racing and heists, make this one a revenge tale’, the driver says.

‘That sounds good,’ Morgan replies, ‘but which of the six antagonists from the previous films would still matter? They were all as cookie cutter as they come.’

‘The one with the British accent. We need to appeal to a wider audience than the great kingdom of America. Give that guy...’

‘… a brother. Right on’. Morgan finishes the backstory of this new character, Deckard Shaw, the brother of the random British guy in the previous movie. ‘Whom do we know who kicks a lot of ass and can look good while driving cars like a maniac’?

The camera zooms slowly on the driver, who quietly responds ‘You know who’.

Cut to the driver frenetically shifting gears and Morgan sending an email to Jason Statham. The car is now careening through the snakelike highway. A metropolis is seen on the horizon.

Morgan looks contemplative. He’s unsure of the plot structure and character arcs of the film.

‘Are you unsure of the plot structure and character arcs of the film?’, the driver asks.

‘Yes, I am unsure of the plot structure and character arcs of the film’, Morgan replies.

‘Mix it up this time’, the driver says, ‘make the characters say everything they’re doing. Like “I am back guys”, when someone who has disappeared comes back. Or “I am a great shooter”, when someone does some great shooting’.

The car does a screaming sideways drift as the desert sand whirls around like a tornado and Morgan attacks his keyboard.

A couple of song montages and flashy cuts later the car enters a Middle Eastern metropolis. ‘Let’s pick the stunts bro’, Morgan says.

‘You did cars and you did planes and you did choppers’, the driver replies, ‘this time lets do cars diving from a plane like a Halo Jump, and cars smashing into choppers’.

‘Like in Die Hard 4?’

‘Yeah, but furiously’. The Lamborghini smashes into a shopping mall, breaking everything in sight, exits back on to the road without a single scratch and comes to a standstill. A bunch of girls in ridiculously skimpy skirts flock over to observe the magnificence of the car and its occupants.  

‘Tom Cruise hung from the Burj Khalifa, we should do better than that’.

‘We’ll freaking triplicate the Khalifa and we’ll drive the freaking cars through the fiftieth freaking floors of the freaking Khalifa’.

The car leaps into motion as the blast from the exhaust blows away the skimpy skirts, displaying designer underwear. The music amps up, Morgan and the driver slowly turn towards each other. Even as the car speeds up neither of them look at the road, they just look at each other, smiling and nodding. They know they have to bring back every single character from the previous films. They know they have to introduce a Nick Fury type person who teams them all up. They know they have a blockbuster on their hands.

‘This is our Avengers’, they say in union, as the Lamborghini at full speed leaps off a cliff, unspools a parachute, and floats away into the sunset.

A fade out later, two shadowy figures approach the cliff, watching the car going away from them. The camera pans to reveals their faces - a creepy white-faced puppet in a black suit on a tricycle, and a ghostly woman with a rope around her neck. Suddenly someone claps twice and we black out.

(First published in Firstpost)

Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

Let’s first get the pink elephant out of the room – Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is not for purists. If you’re a raging fan of Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s classic character, you will find a billion things that don’t match your expectations. This Dibakar Banerjee film is a new take on the character. If you can’t accept that, exit this review and go back to your VHS tapes. For the rest, let’s get to the good stuff.

The opening scene of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is iconic. It’s a wintry 1940’s Calcutta night, a boat moors along the coast and we see a pack of Orientals up to no good. A hooded figure emerges from the darkness, its shadow cast on the wall in a sinister outsize. The figure warns the Orientals that it wants Calcutta back, guffaws terrifyingly and slits everyone’s throats open. It’s spine tingling. Hair raising. Mouth frothing. It plunges you into the euphoric trance of a film buff getting the most potent possible cinematic fix. At this point you know you’re about to see something special.

Cut a few days later straight to the case – the Chemical engineer father of Ajit (Anand Tiwari) has gone missing, so he enlists the help of a certain Mr Bakshy. Often times a movie about a larger than life hero showcases the protagonist’s entry in a bombastic manner. Banerjee’s Bakshy, however, makes an unexpectedly subtle entry playing carom and getting knocked in the face. It’s one of the several instances where Banerjee’s direction subverts your expectations. There isn’t much time to waste - Bakshy gets cracking on the case rather quickly. Clues begin flooding in and he begins zooming around town sniffing at the breadcrumbs. Sure enough, a body turns up, so does a seemingly antagonistic femme fatale (Swastika Mukherjee), and Bakshy and Ajit find themselves afoot a deliciously seedy conspiracy.

The film’s storytelling style is pure unbridled sex with the camera. Every passing clue is a thrilling experience, dragging us deeper into the murky mystery with Sneha Khanwalkar’s insane industrial death metal music. Your jaw will remain on the floor for most of the runtime because at any given instance there’s always something leaping out to dazzle your eyes. Every frame of every scene has an insane amount of intricate detailing that really brings the pre independent Calcutta to life. At certain times the film even haughtily shows off the gorgeous production design, like during the opening credits when the camera slowly shows us poster clad Calcutta streets through a tram window. The intoxicating visuals are complemented by the breakneck pace of the case, that makes the two and a half hour runtime seem like a cool breeze.

The question on everyone’s mind is if the film borrows any elements or style from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes or its BBC counterpart. Fortunately it doesn’t. This is neither an action movie nor a tale of an unstoppable super genius. This detective is refreshingly human and grounded, despite being a Bollywood hero. His ‘heroism’ exists on a level that’s exactly between Rajit Kapoor and Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s surely a tough balance to pull off, considering Bakshy is up against Samurai tuition teachers, Japanese drug lords from Shanghai and a mysterious figure that is more dangerous than either of them. So Bakshy is beaten, both physically and intellectually. This is his first big case and the rust and mild vulnerability is on full display.

Slipping seamlessly between shyness to good-natured cockiness to enthusiastic charm, Sushant Singh Rajput is a fun Byomkesh Bakshy. A lot of times he underplays the character, letting his costumes and unibrow do the work. Banerjee has no doubt refined Sushant’s quiet, soft-spoken presence into a likable and offbeat acting style. He has his showreel moment in a scene in which he gets high and unlocks a puzzle to the mystery.

Beyond the hundreds of plusses in the film, there is a shadow of a minus. The third act of the film will forever be the subject of bickering and argument between people who’ve seen the film. It’s not that the finale is disappointing – it’s actually much more than that. It’s really hard to describe what goes wrong without going into spoiler territory, but there is a certain dependence on red herrings that Banerjee suddenly indulges in, and it feels cheap and also frustrating. Something huge happens half way through, and in the third act the film leads you to believe it’s more than what it is, when it actually isn’t. And despite that the film runs an hour and a half post interval, making that huge event a dubious attempt at whodunit storytelling. What makes it stranger is that the final few minutes go into over the top masala Bollywood territory, totally out of place when the tone of rest of the film is so beautifully controlled on a tight leash. No matter how you look at it, the sense of disappointment is very hard to shake off once you leave the theater .

Another aspect that falls flat is the femme fatale of Swastika Mukherjee who makes the worst Bollywood debut since Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar. Most of her seduction is unintentionally hilarious at best, and her big dramatic moment only hurts the film at its weakest point. Fortunately she’s balanced out by the rest of the excellent cast, including Neeraj Kabi, Divya Menon and particularly Tiwari as the sidekick who literally kicks down doors with his side.  

What works best in the film is that you absolutely do not have to be familiar with the old cases of Byomkesh Bakshy to enjoy this film. It’s perfectly calibrated for both old hats and newcomers to the character. It’s made to render a bit of pop culture to today’s audiences – after all we’ve never really had an adventurer in desi cinema. The film, ultimately, is a wicked cocktail of clues, images, sounds, emotions and sensations, and from start to end you’ll be firmly affixed to the edge of your seat. Hopefully this is the start of a franchise, and the dawn of a bold new era for Yash Raj.

(First published in Firstpost)

Review: Mission A7000

‘Mission A7000’ opens with a dark figure locked in a basement in a rainy night in a remote European location. Dogs barking outside, a bunch of machine gun wielding masked guards patrolling the area. It’s a saucy opening, heavy on atmosphere and intrigue. It turns out to be a perfect calm before the storm because utter mayhem breaks out in a matter of minutes, and the dark figure from the basement escapes captivity in a grand manner.

Full of thrills, mystery, snazzy gadgets and exploding chopppers Mission A7000 is like a Tom Clancy book. The protagonist Louis is a young college kid and also a tech prodigy who is sucked into a gigantic government conspiracy because he somehow gets his hands on classified information on his phone. Louis is on the run throughout the movie, zooming from the streets of Bombay to the bylanes of Istanbul to the dunes of Arabia. Pursuing him is a mysterious figure called Blackcat, a seemingly special ops personnel gone rogue, operating outside the jurisdiction of government officials.  Blackcat’s face is never revealed until the end of the film, so the filmmakers throw us a bunch of red herrings along the way.

Majority of the movie is Louis running around, using his gadgets and know how to uncover the mystery at hand. There’s a great one take scene where Louis and Blackhat spar each other at an abandoned building, one chasing the other wherever the advantage lies. As ridiculous as the ‘high concept’ style of the film sounds, the film also shoehorns in a heartfelt love story between Luois and a sultry French woman who calls herself Vek whom he meets in Istanbul. Surprisingly, the love story actually adds some gravitas to the plot rather than a side track. The most interesting part of the film, however, is not the conspiracy involving a major tech corporation but the brain hacking concept reminiscent of Minority Report. Mission A7000 takes the concept to a further level and the results are a ton of fun. 

I managed to catch a secret screening, get your chance to be invited to the Special  MissionA7000 Launch event happening in your city. Book your date here