Friday, April 29, 2011

#110: Shor in the City

It's not often that yours truly gets excited about a Tushar Kapoor movie on a Friday night. This was different. The directors were Krishna and Raj - 2 engineers from A.P. who like all well-behaved 'gults' studied engineering and packed off to US. Since their job was getting monotonous and they wanted to do something exciting they thought why not make some movies for fun. For the next five years, they made short movies, saw a number of films and did some basic workshops on lighting, editing etc. Gradually they did enough to make a delightful movie centered around match-fixing called 99 that released a couple of years ago. It's a pity that movies like 99 get buried under the trash that Bollywood unfailingly dishes out ever so often. If anything, it was one of the best movies of the year. So when Krishna and Raj were coming back with their second mainstream Bollywood movie, I did have good reason to look forward to it. After all, the promos were looking cool too.

Shor in the City is a slice-of-life account of a few characters in the city of Mumbai during the ten days of Ganesh Chaturthi. The characters are Abhay (Senthil Ramamoorthy)- a US returned businessman setting his own office in Mumbai, a cricketer Saawan (Sandeep Kishan) wanting to break into the Mumbai U-22 team and three small-time crooks played by Nikhil Dwiwedi, Tushaar Kapoor and Pitobash. It takes time to establish the problems in the lives of each of these characters but we come to know soon that Abhay is being harassed by a few local goons and Saawan needs some money to bribe a selector. The intentions of the three crooks are not so clearly spelled out. Out of the three crooks, Tushaar is the good Samaritan. He makes pirated books but wouldn't cheat while printing them. The other two operate like misguided missiles especially Pitobash. What is their ultimate need is not something that the writers dwell upon much and that story track is one of the failings of the movie.

The movie stays unpretentious in it's form and moves with an easy pace after the first fifteen minutes .The different storylines are just about connected towards the end without any dramatic twist. All along, there's a sense that the stories were going to merge in some sort of a 'wow' moment but that doesn't happen. The good thing however is that it doesn't bore you. You want the characters to take their time with their problems and since they don't jar you what they're doing on-screen, watching Shor in the City isn't a very trying experience. This, in spite of no big names or any dash of glamor. The music is another plus point and the soundtrack does make you wish the songs especially Saibo, had a reprise. The track on the opening credits is another stunner.

One has to be patient while watching Shor in the City. It is not an instant gratifier. The good moments are not few but still far in between. The sountrack lends the right earthiness to the realism in the movie and while the support cast of Radhika Apte, Amit Mistry and Girija Oak are able and fit in well, they don't exactly set the screen on fire. All in all, the movie's very much making the passing grade. There are some movies you think the directors and actors could've done more with to make it better. With Shor in the City, you get the feeling that everyone's actually given their best. Just that, it wasn't enough.

Rating: 5.9/10

Thursday, April 28, 2011

#109: Well Done Abba

A driver who is working in Bombay returns from a three-month long vacation. While driving to Pune, his boss asks why did his vacation extend from 1 month to 3 months. Armaan Ali, the driver, played by Boman Irani explains why during the course of this journey to Pune. Well Done Abba, a smart and intelligent satire much in the vein of a Peepli Live, is the remake of the 2007 Marathi movie Jau Tithe Khau.

Set in a small panchayat of Andhra Pradesh, it tells us the story of Armaan Ali and his journey to get a bavdi (well) under a government scheme. When he visits this village, he also decides to look for a groom to marry his bubbly daughter Muskaan (Minisha Lamba). How Armaan Ali achieves or doesn't achieve these two targets he has set for himself forms the core of Well Done Abba. But to put it as simply as this is only to touch the surface of this brilliant movie. In no time, Armaan Ali realizes the number of obstacles that fraught the route to these twin conquests. No one in his village seems to work without a bribe and none of the prospective families he approaches for Muskaan seem to like the fact that she's educated and would like to work after marriage. Layers and layers of bureaucracy and apathy confront Armaan. With his good-natured demeanor he tries to circumvent them all and yet there's enough and more to deal with.

With an ensemble cast of Rajit Kapoor, Ila Arun, Salim Ghouse, Ravi Kishen and Samir Dattani, ace director Shyam Benegal keeps a light-heartedness to all of Armaan's adventures. Each character lends weight to the story and the each of the actors are commendable in their performances. A topic as serious as corruption is not dealt with by being preachy but by being pragmatic. Each of the characters knows that corruption exists and they're happy to run along with it as long as work doesn't suffer. In the process, the situation Armaan lands up with reaches the corridors of the Legislative Assembly, thus throwing the whole imbroglio into the public arena. All this while, the movie is also escalating it's quotient of hilarity. This is not exactly the hold-your-tummy kind of humor but the equally gratifying you-can't-be-serious humor that takes a dig at every element of our society . Hats off to Boman for essaying a role of a lifetime-his small town A.P. diction and body language is the stuff of legends. It's a travesty that in our movie industry a role like this will never be considered for Best Actor in a Filmfare or Star Screen Awards.

Without a shade of a doubt, Well Done Abba is as befitting a movie as ever to win a National Award. It's inherent simplicity and satire in dealing with the issue of corruption makes it an epic of the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron proportions. For long, we hoped for a genuine successor to Kundan Shah's on-screen magic in 1983. Be assured, Well Done Abba is the one. Bathe it in myrrh, embalm it with the highest grade of chemicals, shower it with praises and preserve it for posterity. This is one movie you want to be telling your grandchildren you saw when it released.

Rating: 7.9/10

Monday, April 25, 2011

#108: Dum Maaro Dum

Set in Goa, Dum Maaro Dum is a thriller that centers around Goa underworld and the business of drugs. Until a couple of years ago, the traffickers were not only rampant but also had many takers on the establishment side backing them. So while this is a work of fiction, Rohan Sippy directs his favorite actor Abhishek Bacchan in a movie that has a very real context in the history of Goa's existence as a state.

Abhishek plays ACP Kamat, a cop who is brought back into the police force to check the rising crime rate in Goa, the root of which lies in drug trafficking. His target is a man named Michael Barbossa- the boss of the underworld network in Goa. In two other storylines which also revolve around people whose lives have turned upside down because of the dreaded powder, Prateik Babbar plays the 17-year-old Lori and Rana Daggubati plays Joki, a musician. The three storylines are parallel but only for a short time and merge soon. The brilliant screenplay in the first half doesn't have one dull moment as these characters confront you with their problems. The editing is street-smart and the performances eye-caching. The screenplay that's going back and forth sets the movie up for an appetising second half in spite of a few dialogues that defy logic like the needless, " Aajkal criminals bhi Facebook aur Twitter pe hain...'

Little would you know however that the best the movie has to offer is behind you by the time the second half starts taking shape. Instead, it becomes a bits and pieces movie. For Abhishek Bachchan hams a bit and acts a bit. Rana tries his bit to act and Prateik is good in whatever bits he is in. The story starts getting long-winded and the ending is downright boring. Aditya Pancholi and Bipasha as part of the supporting cast are relevant but not entirely impressive. Deepika Padukone brings herself a lot of discredit but gyrating in a song that didn't seem to have a costume designer or a choreographer at work. Maybe it's Rohan Sippy who is to blame but if Deepika's intention was to have a song hotter than Munni... or Sheela..., it's time she starts gorging on that massive bowl of humble pie.

To sum it up, Dum Maaro Dum is at best watchable. It's one of those movies that seem like two different movies in the two halves. If you plot the watchability of the movie on a graph, it will resemble one of those bell curves you studied in school. It ascends beautifully till the first half and then nosedives. Rohan Sippy surely knows how to make his movies stylish and contemporary and while he was at it, one will have to say, he did come close to making a good second movie.

Rating: 5.8/10

Friday, April 22, 2011

#107: 3 Idiots

A team of Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan in marketing terms will never be short of consumer insight. As academic as it may sound, all it means is that these are both men who will know exactly what appeals to a consumer. There is no other explanation for the fact that the man who came up 'Jaadu ki jhappi' also is the man who came up with 'Gandhigiri'. Similarly, Aamir's last five movies on the other hand have not just been box office hits but also been examples of genre-defining, trend-setting, high-quality cinema. When two people of such stature come together, the output has to be special. And 3 Idiots is not just special, it's deliciously special.

There's not much to write about in terms of a plot because the movie's about a journey in the lives of 3 friends in an engineering college. It tells us the tale of everything around them from their dreams to their fears, from their families to their professors and from their pranks to their ambitions. The underlying element in any Raju Hirani movie is the message that the movie is carrying and 3 Idiots takes a funny but a relateable route to making a point about the ills in our education system. The funny part of the script should be attributed to Hirani and his actors. The relateable part of the script should be attributed to the original author of the book on which the movie is based - Chetan Bhagat.

Hirani, with his writing partners Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Abhijat Joshi, brings the story alive on screen. Yes, there are quite a few liberties thrown in- like the scene in which Aamir's scooty drives right into the foyer of a busy hospital or that delivery scene with Mona Singh. If the first instance was shoddily weak, the second bordered on the absurd. And yet if the movie works it is because of the two oldest tricks in the filmmaking books- those that speak of character definition and acting that delivers. So Rancho (Aamir) is the gifted student, Raju (Sharman Joshi) is industrious, Chatur (Omi Vaidya) is sly and Farhan (R. Madhavan) is the guy-next-door with closet dreams of becoming a photographer and ambition to get a well-paying job. And let's not forget what was probably the character act of the decade in Bollywood- Boman Irani as Prof. Sahastrabudhe. For his is an out-of-the-galaxy-of-Milky Way kind of performance. His act is comic and cruel at the same time and it takes an actor of great caliber to pull something like this off.

3 Idiots is the highest grossing Bollywood movie of all time. Something has to be clinically right about it but it's not. It's flawed but it works because it works on consumer insights. Between Aamir and Hirani, they exactly know what is the point that makes an Indian movie-goer laugh, the exact kind of joke that just gets a giggle and the one that elicits a roar, a scene that makes you go weak in the knees and the scene that leaves a lump in your throat. They just know it and in Bollywoodland where quality is at a premium, they stand tall with their choices of scripts. It's because of them that we have a movie that any movie-goer in India should pay any amount to watch because this is the pinnacle of feel-good cinema.

Rating: 7.5/10

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#106: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

George Clooney must be an influential person in Hollywood if he can call up Julia Roberts and ask her to act in a role for his film for free. And get people like Johnny Depp to be on Executive Production team. And apart from him bring in friends like Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Soderbergh in his team. Of course, it helped that the movie had a script that had people like Sam Mendes, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher interested in directing the movie. The fact remains that George has steadily built a reputation over the years as a man who has a good nose when it comes to selecting movies- either as an actor, producer or director. With his debut as the director of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he did his reputation no harm. If at all, he cemented it.

Based on the life of TV show producer and host Chuck Barris, the movie is an account of his autobiography which also suggests that Barris was a covert CIA operative. Charlie Kaufman adapted the script from the book based on Barris' autobiography in 1997. A lot of people were quite blown away with Kaufman's script and different actors and directors on the project changed hands until Clooney came on-board with Sam Rockwell as the lead actor in 2000. George speaks about choosing Rockwell as the lead actor for such an important role on the DVD of the movie mentioning how since the first time Rockwell gave his audition and seemed a perfect fit for the role. It wasn't just the physical similarity to Barris but also the mannerisms that Rockwell brought to the table. Drew Barrymore as Rockwell's love interest Penny was someone who kept track of the script since 1997 and probably the only constant on the movie since then. Whether or not the movie is a true account, given then CIA has always denied that Barris was ever involved in their operations, is irrelevant. Even people who were working on the project weren't sure if they were working for a true story. What matters though is that the movie has a brilliant narrative peppered with some smart sequences in the screenplay.

It also helps that in spite of a budget contsraint, there's no dearth of quality in the credits of the movie. One of the first things that Clooney did once he got on the project was getting on-board the best technicians. Along with Clooney and his formidable cast, Newton Siegel as DOP (Usual Suspects, X-Men) and Stephen Mirrione (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven) formed the core. The result is the dark comedy that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind really is. With a completely character-driven plot, the movies takes us through Barris' life till the time he meets CIA-man Jim Byrd (George Clooney) outside a restaurant in what can be considered as the first half. Jim coaxes Barris into committing for covert operations for the CIA even as he in-charge of NBC's TV shows and that's the second half of the movie.

At one level, the movie tries to tell us the intricacies of being a spy and how messed up a spy's life can get. On another level, it is just a comedy about the eccentric man that Barris was. The good thing about Confessions... is that it delivers at both levels. The acting is deliberately understated and effective. The screenplay is where Clooney brings out the wild side of his script. With a bit of experimentative indulgence, he brings a style that is unique to the movie and keeps the visuals inventive without ever crossing the line. Kaufman has gone on record saying that Clooney's handling of the script was less than adept while Clooney has responded saying the original script wouldn't have interested a studio in 'greenlighting the project.' Whatever, the verdict on that might be, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an experience you just shouldn't miss out on.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, April 18, 2011

#105: Cincinatti Kid

Just for the fact that Norman Jewison directed And Justice for All, I will pick up any movie that credits him as a director. And just for the fact that Steve McQueen did what he did in The Great Escape, I will pick up anything that credits him as an actor. Now imagine Steve McQueen directed by Norman Jewison- so even as I picked up the DVD without checking Imdb, the expectations were higher than any bar Sergei Bubka would've surpassed in his lifetime.

An upcoming poker play Eric Stoner (McQueen) gets to take a shot at poker legend Lancey Howard, played by the ever-reliable Edward G. Robinson. Both men with reputations in the poker room get together with a bunch of friends and well-wishers for the duel. As time passes by, people start falling asleep but the two men are engaged in a fight to the finish. Karl Malden, the dealer, has a vested interest in McQueen's victory but is he going to help him ? Cincinatti Kid is an incredible story of two men, so passionate and so skillful, they will make you forget everything else as this absorbing tussle unfolds in a closed room.

A basic ingredient that goes into any good sports movie is that how realistic the filmmakers have brought the game on-screen to the actual sport. In the Cincinatti Kid, the action and the players seem to have been carved out of a real poker championship. As the tension builds towards a riveting climax, both McQueen and Robinson not just elevate their performances as players in a poker game but also as actors adept at their craft. This is as cat-and-mouse a game can get and the fun lies in the fact that there is no permanent cat between the two. Apart from the three men, there are also memorable roles for Ann Margaret, Tuesday Weld and Joan Blondell- the latter playing a character called Lady Fingers. In a DVD extra there is actual footage of Joan learning how to deal the cards from a magician- all this put to good use in her scenes as a dealer. If you like Steve McQueen, the Cincinatti Kid is a must-watch. His steely resolve is a strong opponent to the calm nerves of Edward G. Robinson. But if you do watch the Cincinatti Kid, there is no way you will not become a fan of Edward G. Robinson, for the movie derives it's spark from the cold and calculating responses of Lancey Howard.

The movie is setup with nuggets of information of Howard's mastery over poker and then it revolves around him and his aura. Much before Howard faces Stoner, he is supposed to face-off against Slade, a rich poker addict who fancies his chances against the master. On the eve of the match, both men are in their respective environs. Slade is brooding over the fate of his game the next morning and as his wife moves a hand over his chest, he removes her hand. He is too occupied to think of anything else. Howard, on the hand, is seen dipping into a soup in a restaurant and asking for some more Tabasco.

It is such fabulous character exposition that makes the Cincinatti Kid an eminently watchable classic. Just play along with this one. For the match is well worth it !

Rating: 7.4/10

Sunday, April 17, 2011

#104: In the line of fire

Clint Eastwood must be the kind of man who can be boring material for a reviewer which is why perhaps this is his first movie that is featured on this blog. When I saw boring, I mean how many ways can you actually say that the man knows how to put together a great movie and that he is a great actor. Even if you're not into Hollywood, one look at his acting filmography is enough for you to get an idea about his talents. And then there's his filmography as a director. And then as a producer. One cannot know the man and not be in awe of his talents.

One of Eastwood's lasting legacies in cinema is his portrayal of the cop Harry Callahan in the 70s. 'Dirty Harry' as the character came to be known was the kind of cop who wouldn't think twice before endangering his or anyone's life in the interest of nabbing a criminal. There were five movies in that series and the last he appeared as Dirty Harry was in Dead Pool in 1988. In In the line of fire, one can say that Dirty Harry is making a comeback as secret service agent Frank Horrigan. Just the name is different and years have passed in the interim otherwise the style is the same. This time he is playing the security officer in-charge of the President's election campaign and a man named Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) has openly challenged Frank that he won't be able to save the President. Since Frank also happened to be the security officer when President Kennedy was shot, he has taken up this recent assignment as a means to redeem his past. His only friends on the establishment side are Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) and Sam (John Mahoney)-an old friend of Frank's. Everyone else on the team thinks old Frank is going to be a liability.

With this background, if you add the cliche of Lilly falling in love with Frank and his showdown with Mitch being the climax of the movie, you have got a good picture of this picture. Why you still must watch this is because Eastwood is in top form and so is the menacing and psychotic Malkovich. The constant mind games between them and their quest to upstage each other keeps the movie alive and kicking. Having said that, Rene Russo is wasted and her love track with Eastwood is something that writer could've done without but in director Wolfgang Peterson's hands, the movie has a neat pace that steadily builds itself towards a decent ending.

In the Line of Fire
is your average cop thriller that keeps pushing the boundaries because of some excellent acting by it's protagonists. It has the charm of the old Dirty Harry movies but not the flourish, the structure but not the finish.

But it still has Eastwood chasing a killer with a gun and you can't go wrong much with this, can you ?

Rating: 6.4/10

Saturday, April 16, 2011

#103: New York, New York

The year was 1976 and Marty Scorcese had not only become a bankable director but also had critics eating of his hands. The man had already impressed with Mean Streets in 1973 and then to follow it up with a movie like Taxi Driver was not a mean feat. It was colossal. He was the guy you would go to to make a movie on street fights, gangs and murders. So when out of nowhere he decided to direct New York, New York - a musical drama, it must've raised a few eyebrows in the industry. The fact is, the reason Marty took up the project was because he wanted to get away from from his trademark style of filmmaking that revolved around battle-hardened characters.

If you saw any of Marty's movies you will know that the man knows how to pick his music. So with help from writers Earl Mac and Mardik Martin (a frequent Scorcese collaborator) he directed this 1976 musical drama based on two interesting characters. Francine (Liza Minelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) play a talented singer and a mercurial saxophone player respectively. If Francine is steady and headstrong, Jimmy is all impulse and flair. Their first chance meeting is mastered-minded by Jimmy. He tries to dominate Francine in having her believe that he is a good guy to spend time with but she will have none of it. It's an elaborate 15 minute conversation but it's important because this is where you get to know about both of them- how they react when put in a spot.

From here on, we see of their gradual ascent in show business as a successful boy-girl combination. But seldom does anything go right in a Scorcese movie for long. Soon enough, Francine is pregnant and wants the baby. Jimmy doesn't but accedes to Francine's wish to stop touring. This is classic conflict between two people who love each other but have irreconcilable differences. One gulps it down, only to let it all out at a later date. It's the peak of filmmaking when two people who inseperably love each other want to part ways because they're getting on each other nerves. New York, New York is one such story woven with the fabric of music. For music has as much of a center stage as the characters themselves. As the story progresses, there's enough to keep you interested but soon it begins to get tiresome. The musical performances of Francine and Jimmy become a substitute for dialogues and their songs reflect their state of mind. Here is where Marty loses a bit of the plot. In his attempt to make this movie a tribute to the music he grew up with in the 40s and 50s, Marty seemed to have fallen in love with his own idea. In the process, the execution suffers.

New York, New York had a wonderful premise when it began. With such superb actors as De Niro and Minneli, the movie has everything going for itself in the first half. The drag that it becomes towards the later half could've been handled better and quicker. At 163 minutes, it could put you to sleep, especially with that extended version that has the segment of Happy Endings.. I suspect if it just were probably smartly edited, this review would've been a tad different.

At any rate, it's Scorcese, De Niro and Minelli in one movie- why miss it !

Rating: 6.3/10

Thursday, April 14, 2011

#102: Bheja Fry

When a successful movie is remade in another language, it is surprising how little of the credit actually goes to the dialogue writer when the remake also becomes successful. The directors and the actors have a ready template to follow but it is actually the dialogue writer who puts the right words in place. This is especially true in a comedy because the lines that are being re-written have to be as funny as the original. The director knows exactly what the original did, the actors know what the emotions were but the actual creativity comes from the dialogue writer who has to manufacture something new in another language and hit the nail with the import of his words. Which is why apart from Rajat Kapoor, Vinay Pathak and Sagar Ballary, I think this review merits more than an honorable mention for Anigaw Tew- the man who wrote the dialogues for Bheja Fry- a comedy as hilarious as ever you will see in Hindi.

That it's been remade from the French movie Le Dinner De Cons might be held against it but by itself, Bheja Fry is simply put, superbly funny. The focal character of the movie is oddball Bharat Bhushan (Vinay Pathak)- an aspiring singer who vows by Hindi music directors and knows his musical trivia inside out. Knowing the answer to something as inane as "Aayega aayega gaane mein aayega kitni baar aaayega?' is his idea of musical mastery. To exploit his shortcomings, Ranjeet Thadani (Rajat Kapoor), a music producer invites him for dinner. The idea is for Ranjeet to have a laugh over dinner- something Ranjeet regularly derives immense humor from. Except that this evening with Bharat Bhushan is just about to go horribly wrong.

Vinay Pathak as the goofy simpleton is the archetypical village idiot. As a viewer, you will be amazed by how idiotic he really is and it is the inventiveness of the original writer of the French play that should be revered here. Francis Veber layers his plot with Bharat Bhushan's actions and those become the driving force that work beautifully for the movie. Rajat Kapoor, the person at the receiving end of Bharat Bhushan's actions is the man who will get your sympathy. As the movie begins, you don't like his condescending ways but gradually you realise the joke is turning back on him.

But that's what great scripts always do- change your perception about the characters during the course of the movie. Both Vinay Pathak and Rajat Kapoor keep you glued with their performances- their chemistry being nothing short of perfect. One is a prey and the other a predator. The beauty of the movie lies in the fact that one doesn't actually realize when the roles interchange. Bheja Fry is your money's worth not just once but probably three times over. Now, you really can't say that about too many Hindi comedy movies in the last 50 years, can you ?

Rating: 7.8/10

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#101: Dabangg

This had to be done. Why do I say so?
Dabanng is the Sholay of our times.

Really ?
Well, not entirely in content but surely in form and complexion.

It's about ?
Chulbul Pandey, a U.P. cop who in the words of his own colleague (or some such) is the kind of Robinhood who steals from the rich but doesn't give it away to the poor.

And ?
Salman Khan plays that cop with a moustache. Rest is irrelevant.

What's special ?
Did you ask the same question to Shane Watson when he smashed 185 in a chase of 220 odd?

Hopeless story or what ?
Cliched and contrived but no. Not hopeless.

So still it worked? Nudity?
Nope. Sonakshi looked like an angel and acted like one too. Earthy elegance!

Some item number also right ?
Yup. Some overrated rage of the month called Munni but Salman shakes hips better and dances to entertain.

What else?
Sonu Sood as bad man Chhedi Singh. Great characterisation- bad man raised to the power 10 types.

Such a big hit ! How?
Revenge climax set in U.P. was last seen in Bollywood in probably 1928. Okie, Omkara too- but that was dark, gritty...
Neat but helpless characters to gain sympathy especially of those who are watching in Lakhimpur.
Dialogues that Salim-Javed would've been proud of.
Good soundtrack- eminently sing-able songs- Tere mast mast do nain... waah waah !
That rogue actor- Salman ! One can't remember last time acting and Salman were in one sentence together.

What's bad ?
Plays out like a fable, it's more like a mythical tale, you know this can't be happening.

110% paisa vasool !

Rating: 7.3/10

Monday, April 11, 2011

#100: Love and Death

The setting is 18th century Russia and Napoleon is at his plunderous best and Boris (Woody Allen), a harmless Russian peasant is packed off to assist his fellow countrymen in fighting against Napoleon's forces. Now, Boris is the kind of person who would say sorry twice if he as much got in the way of a butterfly so you can imagine what our man goes through when he's undergoing rigorous army training under the watchful eyes of officers. To add to his woes, Boris' childhood crush Sonja (Diane Keaton) married a merchant just before he left for war. Boris' subsequent days as a soldier and his role in the war forms the basis of this 1975 classic that's written and directed by that bespectacled, clarinet-playing, hyperactive genius who was born as Allen Stewart Konigsberg.

If the travails of a protagonist produces great drama, Love and Death just shows you how and why. Except that Love and Death is a comedy. Of all the themes that Woody Allen explored in his lifetime as a writer- relationships, betrayal, lust, power and envy , Love and Death has them all and has them with liberal doses of humor. And then there is Woody's tribute to past masters in movies, then the spoof of some famous Russian works and then those references sneering at the complexity of some of the greatest thinkers of our times. There is so much packed in, it's difficult to keep track of all these layered elements and yet it's a movie that's so easy to laugh with.

The unabashed comedy that Love and Death is, you will laugh at not at just those witty references, but also the inane jokes, the farcical situations and all the slapstick fare that goes along with it. Humor is so all-pervading, if you'll blink, you'll miss something funny. The writing is sharply designed to crack you up and the lines keep coming thick and fast. Sample this surreal exchange between a young Boris and Death.

Death: You're an interesting young man. We'll meet again
Young Boris: Oh don't bother.
Death: It's no bother.

Or this rant from Boris: You think I am made in God's image. Take a look at me. You think He wears glasses ?

To sum it up, Love and Death is absurdist comedy at it's best. It makes a mockery of all things in life - love and death included and it does so with dignity and intelligence. If there is some lowbrow humor in the midst of all this, the movie manages to regain it's composure at all such rare times to take the alternative route soon enough to not irritate your senses much. Woody has been nominated for fourteen writing Oscars in his lifetime and this movie really makes you wonder how this one got away. If I meet people who tell me, they're Woody Allen fans, my first question invariably is: Have you seen Love and Death?.

For if you haven't, you just don't belong.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, April 10, 2011

#99: Sahara

After the Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Casablanca in 1942, one can only imagine the heights of stardom that Bogey must've achieved in the early 1940s. I find it thus surprising that he did Sahara in 1943 - a movie with no leading lady, no other big names and directed by someone who was yet to set Hollywood on fire, in a manner of speaking. But if you want an idea of what Bogey had become by then, just glance once at the poster, where if you're not into Hollywood, you might end up thinking that this is a movie called Bogart starring someone by the name of Sahara.

The movie is set against the backdrop of WW II where the battle is at it's peak. The Nazis are advancing in north Africa and US and British forces are doing their best to thwart them. One such fight for post is being played out in a portion of the Sahara desert. The man in focus is Commander Joe ( Bogart) who is only left with his battle tank Lulubelle and a trusted aide. He's seperated from the rest of his team and is scrapping his way across the desert. The bad news is that he's been surrounded on three sides by the enemy. Devoid of food and water, he meets some more Allied soldiers and takes them with him hoping to find a way out of this gruelling terrain.

Bogart leads this all-male cast and turns in a gritty performance as Commander Joe. In unexceptionally difficult circumstances his character takes the leader's mantle and with the guile of a chess player and the instinct of a gambler takes a few crucial calls on how to handle the enemy. The story sits easily on Bogey's shoulders and just when you thought this was going to an average WWII movie, the writers spring an unexpected twist that gives the movie the much required impetus towards the end. Some of the dialogues are quite memorable too as a bunch of no more than ten soldiers stay together for most part of the movie. Between a Sudanese, an Irish, a Londoner, a Parisian, a German and a few Americans, the movie serves a platter of emotions from these people who have been forced into conflict- of their fears, hopes and dreams. Their conversations and resultant camaraderie not only keeps the story alive and kicking but these characters also end up opening themselves to you in a manner that makes you feel for them.

Sahara is a movie that begins slowly and escalates it's pace and tension by the second half like a meandering journey acquiring momentum, purpose and intent. It's raw form allows for immense intensity from Bogart and that keeps the movie in extremely good stead. As far as war movies go, Sahara might not be your first pick while you're building your DVD collection, but it surely is one that you mustn't miss out on.

Rating: 7.1/10


Saturday, April 09, 2011

#98: Broadway Danny Rose

'Agita, my gumba in the banzone, tra la la la' thus begins Broadway Danny Rose and I am laughing already as I am writing this. To give you a context, this is the song that plays out in the beginning as the opening credits start appearing in that familiar Woody Allen font as I like to call it. ( It's Windsor Light Condensed for the record.) We don't know the song and we don't know the singer and then we see four people at a restaurant probably meeting over a weekend for a drink and the conversation veers towards Danny Rose.

Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a talent manager whose clients range from a blind xylophone player to a balloon folder ( yes, that's correct). Somewhere in between this range, is a temperamental but an immensely talented Italian singer Lou Canova ( Nick Apollo Forte). Lou Canova used to be a big hit not so long ago but his drinking and fights with his girlfriend had begun impacting his career. Danny Rose, the ever loyal manager, however continues to pitch him favorably to all and sundry. We see the movie in flashback through that very conversation that those four friends are having in the restaurant. This particular narrative style was also later seen in Forget, Paris and much later in our very own Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Was Broadway Danny Rose a pioneer in this narrative style, I think it was but am not sure.

While Danny Rose and Lou Canova are working towards a comeback, hope springs from an opportunity that Danny Rose lands up with. Lou is getting to perform at the Wardorf Astoria in front of a key show business person - someone who if Lou managed to impress, the careers of both Lou and Rose could sky rocket. There's just one hitch - Lou refuses to perform unless Danny Rose brings his ex-girlfriend Tina (Mia Farrow) to come to Wardorf Astoria. Now our man Rose is going to do whatever it takes to get Tina on D-Day to the hotel and that is the essence of Broadway Danny Rose the movie and Broadway Danny Rose , the character. It is this character that's the backbone of the movie and Woody Allen in one of his finest performances rises to the occasion. He's boringly nice but effortlessly funny. He also strings the story together between the irascible Tina and the unstable Lou Canova. Both Mia Farrow and Nick Forte bring the requisite flimsiness of their characters to the fore. They are both alike and that's why get along well. Their chemistry emerges because they fight and that's a credit to some excellent writing by Woody Allen.

The movie works not just because of these three seasoned actors but also a neatly streamlined story that has it's surprises in place. The context of stand-up acts in the city of New York is something that Marty Scorsese had explored in 1977 with New York, New York and while one can't help but think back to that movie, you can be assured that Broadway Danny Rose has genes that are so uniquely funny, that spending time on it is more than your money's worth. And just when you thought that the movie's good enough to end on a high, there's this one last stroke of brilliance that Woody brings in with help from his long-time collaborator DOP Gordon Willis, that springboards this movie into my list of top 10 romantic comedies ever.

If I say any more, I might just give away too much. But to keep it simple, Broadway Danny Rose is a class act. Take a bow, Woody, the applause will continue to be heard for generations !

Rating: 7.9/10

P.S: Agita my gumba is Lou Canova's signature song composed and sung by the Nick Apollo Forte himself.

Friday, April 08, 2011

#97: Ek Ruka Hua Faisla

If you watch an average Basu Chaterjee film, you will know that the man is a middle class man's director. His movies will inevitably revolve around an average family and their habits as in Chitchor or Baaton Baaton Mein or zero in on a particular character's travails as in a Chotti Si Baat or a Chameli Ki Shaadi. If he would've done just these kind of movies, he would've still earned your respect. The brilliance of the man of course lies in the fact that he also would back himself to do a movie with no songs and no heroine and yet come up with an Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. For the record, he is also the man who took the reins of direction on India's greatest detective - Byomkesh Bakshi.

Yes, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla is adapted from a Sidney Lumet Hollywood classic. Yes, the story is not new. And yes, Basu did not add any special twist in the movie. But let me also remind you here, top of my head, I can tell you five other movies adapted from Hollywood, scene by scene and yet coming a cropper because of absolutely poor execution. What Ek Ruka Hua Faisla lays down, are the ground rules to make a solid adaptation. What one needs, if one is not tampering with the original story, is a group of brilliant actors so that one doesn't compare the difference in performance levels on-screen. The movie is about 12 jurors meeting to pronounce the verdict on a murder. 11 of them agree that the accused is guilty. One differs and therein lies the central conflict that the screenplay resolves in a little over two hours.

Half of the credit for the movie has to go the original play written by Reginald Rose. The other half is the magic that's created by actors such as Pankaj Kapoor, K.K. Raina, Annu Kapoor, Amitabh Srivastava, M.K. Raina amongst others in this intense courtroom saga. It is an embarassment of a goldmine of acting talent on-screen. No names half as famous as any mainstream Bollywood hero but each of those 13 actors (including a moderator) worth their weight in gold. The movie builds up a tense pace and strikes a note so high that it's difficult to imagine that the momentum could be maintained. But the best is reserved for the last - a no-holds-barred climax and thanks to that man Pankaj Kapoor who delivers a monologue so riveting, it could be used as an adhesive the next time you want someone to stay glued to the TV. So is there a flaw in the movie ? None but would you give a movie that's a scene to scene copy from another classic 100% marks. Personally, I wouldn't.

But, be that as it may, let me end with something hypothetical to complete this review. Let's just say it's the end of the world and God gives you one chance to save your life provided you give the correct answer to what has best courtroom drama ever in Indian cinema. I say, you just utter the words 'Ek Ruka...' and you will see a happy forgiving smile on God's countenance.

Rating: 7.5/10

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

#96: I Confess

I Confess was directed by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock at a time that can be loosely referred as his peak -1953. Adapted from a French play, it has a story that is blessed with a mouth-watering plot. A murderer confesses his crime to a priest- Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). Through a series of circumstances the priest himself becomes the accused and is forced to undergo trial. Under the vows of a church, the priest can never reveal a confession to the police. What will the priest do ? Or as the tagline of the movie goes - What would you do, if you knew what he knew...

Shot in the city of Quebec, that tantalizing question becomes the focal point in the movie. All the characters in the movie - investigating cop Larrue ( Karl Malden), the priest's friend Ruth (Anne Baxter) and the killer and his wife Alma played by O.E. Hasse and Dolly Hass respectively, all observe the priest on the periphery asking different questions. Larrue is a man of reason and wants to know the motive a priest might have in murdering someone. For the murderer it's a constant feeling of alarm as to how long will the priest hold up before giving into police interrogations and Ruth is worried if Logan will be wrongfully implicated in the murder. The beauty of I Confess lies in the single-minded pursuit of these characters towards these questions and the fact that all of them tie back to the protagonist Father Logan.

The dashing Clift, one of the finest method actors of his era, essays Father Logan with incredible assurance. From his gait to his expressions that just about betray the sense that he knows more than he should, Clift slips into the role easier than the proverbial duck to water. While Anne Baxter is a tad irritating as the overzealous lover friend who had a past with Father Logan, the supporting cast of Karl Malden, O.E. Hasse and Dolly Hass play crucial roles and play them well enough to merit praise. With the help of some stunning photography, the movie saves itself from being an average offering. A particular area of predictability is the climax scene and yet Hitchcock wove an interesting twist in the tale to sustain viewer interest. This is not to fault Hitchcock but because the buildup was so strong, irrespective of what came in the end, the climax would've fallen short.

Having said that, I Confess is a neatly bound story in the hands of a director with oodles of experience in the suspense and thriller genre. The movie is brilliant in parts but it just didn't have the ending it required to become yet another North by Northwest. An innocent man running away from cops because of a falsely accused crime is the stuff that Hitchcock can conjure up in his dreams and still make a hit out of. I Confess lays a fertile context to exploit this strength of his and almost comes out a winner. It might not have hit the bulls eye but let it be known that it barely missed it.

Rating: 7.1/10

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

#95: Modern Times

Made in 1936, Modern Times was slated to be Chaplin's first talkie and it begins as such. Set in a factory, one sees the supervisors mouthing orders and in a departure from previous Chaplin films, one can hear those orders too. As the story moves forward, we are soon acquainted with the familiar track of a Chaplin movie- hilarious gags backed with yet another outstanding music score..

Modern Timestells the story of the tramp now working in a factory screwing nuts onto a device. The extremely mechanical nature of his job affects his being and he ends up replicating that action even when he is not working. In a symbolic representation of how machines came to our lives even for the most mundane of activities, he is used as a subject in an experiment with a feeding machine that affects him further and he ends up at a rehab center. Paulette Godard plays a gamin that the tramp runs later into and the two work towards getting themselves a job. The movie from there on is the story of the different jobs they end up landing themselves in.

Like most Chaplin movies, Modern Times represents a slice of the tramp's adventurous life. The tramp is still how he was when we first saw him in 1914 in physical appearance. But times have changed and a new mechanical world is not his preferred home. With a storyline that revolves around the misfortunes of the tramp, the movie has enough and more gags to keep you laughing. You also end up feeling sorry for him as this is a world he is not accustomed to. And in all this, let's also remember the relevance of this being the tramp's final on-screen appearance.

Modern Times is an eminently watchable movie for the foremost of reasons in Chaplin movies- Sir Charlie Chaplin. It's funny and guaranteed to give your stomach a painful time with it's laughs. Watch it for some of it's iconic scenes, for if you're a Chaplin fan, you would be incomplete without dipping into this delicious fare.

Rating: 7.5/10

Sunday, April 03, 2011

#94: Mulholland Drive

Oh Mama! This is going to be difficult.

An aspiring actress Betty ( Naomi Watts) comes to LA. She is to stay in her aunt's plush apartment in Sunset Boulevard. No sooner has she settled herself in her temporary abode that she sees another lady named hiding in that very apartment. The lady has just escaped a car accident and calls herself Rita (Laura Harring). From their first encounter, one realizes that this is going to be a story about how their relationship unfolds. The chemistry is apparent and so is the mystery around Rita. That's as much as I can coherently summarize about Mulholland Drive- a movie that has been acclaimed as one of the all-time great psychological thrillers.

It is said that David Lynch had originally intended this to be a TV series but since it got rejected he gave it an ending that suited a feature film. I will have to say here I don't know what that ending was. For the movie ends in as much of a shroud of mystery as the beginning. My version is simply this: David Lynch has made this movie because he wanted to make one peach of a mystery movie. He put in two sexy women from whom you just wouldn't have been able to take your eyes off and to make things even more difficult he even had them both bare breasted. Not once but twice. And then he added a haunting background score and gave the movie a foreboding sense that this mystery is going to solve itself in no time. After doing all the hard work, he couldn't piece together a proper ending and at some point he gave up. What we ended up with is an incomplete masterpiece.

I say it's a masterpiece because this one will have you by the proverbial jugular with it's intensity. It's dark, surreal and beautifully shot. And then there's a complex story with multiple threads that we all love to see connected. A lady who has been in an accident with at least $100,000 in her purse and an odd-shaped key, a man who commits three murders for a simple black book with phone numbers, another man who dreams of a grotesque person and a Hollywood director who doesn't want to compromise on the choice of his leading lady. I say the movie's incomplete because none of those events reach a logical conclusion.

Greater critics and reviewers before me have failed to provide a clear explanation for the events in the movie. You can read what the big guys said in this Guardian piece. And now form your own conclusion and it will still hold water against any of those interpretations. Is this a drawback of the movie? David Lynch wants us to believe that this is what he intended with Mulholland Drive- to each, his own. Honestly, I don't know. This one is going to take a one-on-one interview with him to get to the real deal, though he was always declined to speak about it. On Wiki though, there's a list of ten clues that he had given in a DVD that if you can crack is the key to unlocking the mystery in the movie. If you ask me, I wouldn't trust those- maybe it's yet another decoy by Lynch and the man is laughing in his living room with a glass of scotch in hand as poor souls like us tormented by those questions we have, watch the movie again and again.

Nevertheless, what I did love about the movie is the whole sense of an unexpected twist around the corner that's seeped in the movie. That sticky feeling just doesn't let up and that is what is going to keep you at the edge of your seat. When directors give all what they've got for the last 20 minutes in a climax of a thriller, it is a part of their vocation. To do it for 2 hours and 23 minutes at a go has to be an art- an art that David Lynch seems to have mastered. I would recommend Mulholland Drive simply because it stretches the boundaries of conventional storytelling and asks a pertinent question. Once you've built enough suspense in a story, is it really important to break it ?

For me the answer is a resounding yes but I suspect David Lynch is going to let this one pass.

Rating: 6.8/10

Saturday, April 02, 2011

This one makes up for everything !

For those classes bunked in school, those excuses of tummy upsets, the days spent on the ground imitating Azhar's flick, Sachin's stance, even Prasad's slower delivery, those dreamy times when while laying the mat and setting the nets we thought of playing for India, for those bleak days when we assumed not getting selected in state trials was the end of the world and for those depressing months when we shied away from the game because it was tainted.

For those hours spent trying to explain cricket to girlfriends, ditching those who didn't like the game, for reading cricketing biographies under the guise of improving RC skills for CAT, for the times we shared one TV among 150 students in a college hostel to watch the game, for never switching it off until the presentation ceremony got over and for getting chided for spending money on Sportstar, Cricket Talk. and Cricket Samrat- on all of them for the same week.

For those times we debated endlessly with friends that even though it's spread over five days this is a game greater than any other, for never having an answer when questioned by elders - 'for what good?', then growing up and asking that question ourselves, for standing and peering over shoulders outside a TV showroom when one wasn't going to reach home before the last ball, for still sneaking onto Cricinfo in the midst of a team meeting and in spite of maladies like spot-fixing still believing that the game is above the dirt that surrounds it.

For that searingly painful one-run loss to Australia in 1992, that blunder of bowling first in 1996, the horror of seeing S. Ramesh and company give their wickets away in 1999, for that nightmare of a first over in 2003 and for that dreadful loss to Bangladesh in 2007.

Yes, I can sense it, 2011 makes up for everything !

Friday, April 01, 2011

#93: Love, Sex and Dhoka

In the 'Making of LSD' feature on the DVD, Dibakar Banerjee tells us how there is an unmistakeable crudeness to digital films and how our world today is so defined by content that has a digital source. Whether it's on the cell or the pictures we see on our TV news channels, we're getting used to it like our daily bread. We might not like the format in which it is served everyday to us but we cannot escape it.

The idea to make a digital movie first struck Dibakar when he was at a film school giving a lecture on the various modes of cinema. A Q&A session that day led to Dibakar finally putting together, less than a year later, India's first full-length digital feature film. If I proceed to let you in on the story of LSD, I would perhaps not be doing justice to the director's vision. To keep it simple, let's call it a movie that has three stories. Somewhere I suspect Dibakar intended the plot to be a surprise for you, so we will keep it that way and it deserves that respect of secrecy for the benefit of those who haven't seen it. For this is a movie that's unique, that's not just the proverbial 'hatke' movie in thought but in reality, something that is truly innovative in it's concept, story, execution and finish.

Dibakar has an advertising background, so I guess it comes naturally to him to visualize scenes and elements in scenes with flair and conviction while he is making a movie. What he does with LSD is actually take a leap from conventional filmmaking and write his own grammar in every scene. He makes it very clear in his director's commentary that his objective was to make a digital movie and if he had to stay true to the format, he couldn't have had picture perfect composition. It had to be astray, asymmetrical, and at times, arrogant in it's look. And it is this brilliant DNA that Dibakar infuses LSD with, that lends the movie it's distinctly unnerving identity.

The two other important architects of the movie are Nikos Andritsakis, the cinematographer and editor Namrata Rao. The three conjure up magic of the voodoo kinds with their teamwork as each and every frame is in absolute sync with the story, character and mood of the movie. Looking back, I don't remember a single scene that seemed unnecessary or trivial. LSD is not only minimalism personified, it is also minimalism at it's nadir. And I have written about all this without even coming to the performances in the movie. It will be interesting to watch how these very performers, who did exceedingly well in their roles in LSD, will perform with other directors. Was the brilliance of the actors a result of some fabulous casting or was it still the director who made it work ? The answer would be so fascinating to know we should wait to see more of what all the performers do in other movies. Oh, forgot to add, these actors went through a 2 month intensive acting workshop supervised by the director himself before commencing their work on this project.

To borrow and twist a cliche, some movies are just great, some attain greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. LSD is one movie that qualifies on all three counts. I don't know how many times in my last 92 reviews on this blog have I called a movie perfect.

Let's just say LSD would be a perfect start to this list.

Rating: 9.5/10