Tuesday, May 31, 2011

#129: Straw Dogs

Majorly criticized in the year of it's release for a prolonged rape sequence, Straw Dogs is a movie, that will jolt you. Based on a novel, acclaimed director and screenplay writer Sam Peckinpah released the movie in 1971 after fighting a mean battle with the censors. The protagonist is David Sunmer (Dustin Hoffman), a peace loving mathematician who has moved to Wakely, a small community town in English countryside with his wife Amy (Susan George).

From the first scene itself, we know that the sexual quotient in the movie is going to be high. Amy, for instance, is a woman who doesn't believe in wearing a bra. Candice, the fifteen year-old daughter of the village hooligan Tom has her eyes on David. The lustful energy of the four workers who are helping the Sunmers set up the garage is also rising because they keep peeking into the house and Amy's nude jaunts around the house aren't helping matters. The centerpiece of all the protest against Straw Dogs, the rape of Amy by two of those workers, is the very catalyst the movie needed to jumpstart itself after a slow first 30 minutes. Till then with a pace that matched that of the village life, the movie was ambling nowhere. The sequence where Amy gets physically molested is as unnverving as brutal for one of the perpetrators is her ex-lover. To intensify the effect, Peckinpah keeps cutting to another location where David is waiting for some birds to hunt them down subtly conveying his helplessness and ignorance about the crime.

What happens from thereon spins the movie into a different planet. Candice, is accidentally killed by a simpleton called Niles. When Tom and his friends -the four workers get to know that Niles is recovering after being hit by David's car, in the Senmer home, they literally shake up the house to get to Niles. Except that David wouldn't let them in. The last thirty minutes of the movie are an uninhibited display of David's raw courage as the Senmers try to stave off five goons. The intensity of the climax matches the ingenuity of David as he pulls out all stops to prevent their house's hijack. The movie's poster as you will see is a disturbing close-up image of Hoffman with a half-broken pair of specs. Not only is that poster a piece of art, it also conveys the one-man show that the movie, really is. This is not to say that the others weren't good but that the movie revolves around David's character transformation.

The numerous layers involved in Straw Dogs make it one of the most complex movies of the 70s. At one level it's a movie about a couple defending their basic rights of dignity. At another level, it's a movie about our violent inner selves- cementing the belief that there's a beast in all of us. Every character in the movie had it's flaws. David, in spite of his academic bent is actually someone who has got the sharp instincts of a bird-hunter and for all his amiable disposition towards the end, in a way relished the violence he underwent. Amy is a loyal wife but she loves dressing provocatively in public. The same trend holds for the supporting characters.

Straw Dogs is every bit an engima. It has the air of a thriller and the compulsion of a drama. No wonder, some are still calling it Peckinpah's best.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, May 30, 2011

#128: The Italian Job

The 1969 one of course. Not so much an obvious 'of course' but it feels good to be a little condescending about the sequel and say 'of course' not the silly remake but the original. Because if there's a genre that revolves around cars and heists, Italian Job is perhaps the original.

The good thing about the average heist movie is that you know the plot from the beginning- a group of people are going to attempt robbing a bank or a jewellery store and there'll be a hitch. Either the plot will go wrong or the modus operandi will be a treat to watch or dividing the spoils will be an issue or all three. If it's someone of the calibre of a Melville or a Dassin piecing it all together, the drama will be intense. If it's someone like a Soderbergh, humor will be an integral part. The Italian Job fearlessly takes the middle path and comes out unscathed.

Michael Caine (Crocker) is a recently released prisoner from England who has a plan to take down a consignment of gold in Turin. He convinces Bridger (Noel Coward), a man of authority on the right side of law to assist him in the plan. With 4 million USD on stake, Crocker goes about assembling a team of experts to finish the job. The hitch in this movie is that the Italian mafia has got wind of this plan and wouldn't let him get away with it. The Italian Job has Michael Caine at the peak of his acting prowess and he carries the movie with an elan befitting a sophisticated criminal. The world was yet to see him in defining roles in movies such as Get Carter and Sleuth but this was as good as anything that he was going to do.

Noel Coward with his limited on-screen time leaves an impact even as an edge-of-the-seat background score keeps you hooked to the fast-paced action. Replete with some stirring chase sequences and a terrific open-ended climax, the movie saves it's best for the last fifteen minutes. Not too many movies can pull off an open-ended climax but this one does it a manner guaranteed to leave the viewer smiling at the end of it. One can't help but wonder if another British filmmaker who married a pop sensation was inspired for yet another cult movie from the climax of The Italian Job. That apart, the movie's iconic lines and sequences made it one of the most-loved British films of all time.

When it finishes, I am not sure if all of it is as timeless as a movie like this should've been, but you sure as hell can't help but think of it as one neat movie.

Rating: 7.2/10

Saturday, May 28, 2011

#127: Urf Professor

Filmmaking is an arduous journey and nothing exemplifies it more than the life of Pankaj Advani. If you're a fan of movies and haven't heard of him yet, let me say that you're doing yourself a big favor by reading this post.

India's biggest star Shahrukh Khan's best movie perhaps with the exception of Chak De India has to be Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa If you're looking for something exceptional that Pankaj Advani did in the mainstream arena, this would be the easiest reference: he co-wrote the movie with Kundan Shah. The next reference is that he wrote and directed a comic caper thriller called Sankat City in 2009. It was one of those movies that only lasted for a week in the theaters because there were no big stars and a small budget movie inevitably fails to draw audiences because the funds spent on marketing is limited. The movie though was kickass.

The third reference for Pankaj Advani is that he edited, wrote and directed a movie called Urf Professor- a movie that didn't get a cinematic release due to it's explicit language. When asked to tone down the language of this movie, that was shot in 13 days for 13 lakhs, Pankaj preferred to let the movie remain as is. So a lot many of us didn't hear of it or seldom read about it. What Urf Professor has done though for every young filmmaker in the country and the world-over is set the standard in independent filmmaking. When I say this, I mean not so much in terms of the excellence in craft part of it, that will always be a subjective call, but in the stretching the limits of how much can be packed in a movie irrespective of the budget. How execution of a story lies in being street-smart and how handheld-filming will always be the purest form of transporting a story from paper to screen.

I am deliberately steering away from reviewing Urf Professor because this movie doesn't require a score or a judgement for it to be hailed as a classic. This is the kind of movie because of the which the word cult was coined by the saint. Pankaj Advani passed away last year but his legacy will remain a lingering beacon of hope for anyone who nurtures the dream to be an auteur. May his soul rest in peace.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

#126: The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version) is a movie with a plot, that if you're a crime thrillers devotee, will get you salivating from the word go. A young couple (Leslie Banks and Edna West) on a vacation witness a murder. The victim falls in the arms of the husband, passes on a note to him and whispers something in his ears before dying. Someone sees this and kidnaps the couple's daughter threatening to kill her if the husband divulged anything to the police. I don't know about you but my mind is racing even as I write about a movie that I have seen more than a couple of times.

It's got to do a lot with the tension that builds in after a happy start to the movie. Everyone seems to be nice and sweet, the young couple is having fun and all of a sudden something untoward happens. The husband and wife have not only to divert the cops from believing that they've any relevant information about this and yet with what the husband has, they make an effort to find out who the kidnappers might be. The storyline used to be such a personal favorite of Hitchcock's that he even re-made this version in the sixties marking the only time Hitchcock's remade a movie.

At a crisp 75 minutes, the movie sucks you into the heart of it's action with no apparent effort. What works well is the breezy buildup, the desperation of the child's parents and the perennial question- 'What is the bad guy (the irrepressible Peter Lorre in his first English speaking role) after? " With Charles Bennett, one of Hitchcock's first writing collaborators, the pair escalate the climax into a gunfight with an ending that very smartly justifies one of the earlier scenes in the movie. There is a touch of genius in all this but the downer was the manner in which Peter Lorre gets implicated- all because of some in-time detective work that Leslie Bank and Edna West display. It seemed a bit too easy and hard to believe. While it's amateurish streak might have made for a thrilling comic book for a 11-year old, it might not get your pulse racing towards the last 20 minutes.

Be that as it may, when you see Hitchcock's earlier movies, silent or otherwise, you realize how he was always improving with every movie he made. It also assures you that even Hitchcock didn't wake up one day and started filming classics. It was a journey of immense hard work and an unrelenting quest towards perfection. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a substantive reflection of it all. It might not be the perfect crime thriller but it sure is a worthwhile watch.

Rating: 6.8/10

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

#125: The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man is a typical Hitchcockian plot. Like North by Northwest for example. A man is falsely accused of a crime he didn't commit. Hitchcock then entices you to empathize with the protagonist and make his suffering your own. The thing with this one though is while a lot of those others were stories that were either written or adapted from novels, this was the first time that Hitchcock took inspiration from a real life story. What's more, like those episodes of Hitchcock on TV, he also appears in the movie's beginning- the only time he introduces a movie in his career.

Ballestero (Henry Fonda) is a bass player at the high-flying Stork Club in New York. At home he is a doting father who also gives music lessons to his kids who want to play the piano like Mozart. To his wife, he is a caring husband. So when his wife needs an extra $300 for a routine dental operation, with no hint of the trouble that is all set to befall him, he goes to the Insurance Office to enquire about the money that's acrrued to her. Employees at the office, however, seem to recognize him as someone who threateningly held up a colleague for $200 not too long back. They immediately call the police and after a couple of routine checks, Ballestero finds himself behind bars. From thereon, is he the wrong man, is the question Hitchcock want us to be engaged with.

Most Hitchcock movies work because of the sheer desperation of a protagonist towards a situation, the mind-boggling nature of it all and perhaps the interplay of a 'MacGuffin'. Some of those classic Hitchcock movies like Rebecca, Vertigo or a Rear Window had all these elements. The problem with The Wrong Man is that it takes only the first and tries to thrive on it. Henry Fonda touches us with his steely hope even as Mrs Ballesterto (Vera Miles) slips into depression. In spite of a straightforward storyline, Hitchcock employs myriad camera movements to bring us close to the protagonist's complicated situation- some of the close-ups and the techniques conveying the sombre mood of the movie with telling effect. It is an effect that found favor with someone no less than Martin Scorcese who rates The Wrong Man as one of his favorite Hitchcock movies.

The Wrong Man had a premise that Hitchcock relied too often in the past and if you've seen something like a Birds or a North by Northwest, this is unlikely to impress you. Catch it only if you're a die-hard.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

#124: Rajneeti

At a creative workshop I attended a couple of years ago, I recall the participants being asked to write a summary not exceeding a page of their favorite story. Given that it was an advertising workshop meant to throw some light on the process of creating stories around brands, this seemed like an appropriate beginning. While I brushed across my movie collection and handpicked The Pursuit of Happyness as the story to write about, I was surprised that a good number of people had chosen the epic tale of Mahabharata as the story of their choice. Often touted as the greatest story ever in our nation, what surprised me was that those people thought that the story could be summarized in a page. Not for nothing, is it called an epic. Can an epic be summarized in a page ?

When Prakash Jha, the man behind gritty movies like Gangajal and Aparahan, set about to make Rajneeti I wonder how many times he must've asked himself, ' Can I summarize an epic within a movie? ' When a story as complex as Mahabharat is compressed into a movie, the most important part becomes the writing process because one needs to carefully select the right sub-plots, the right dialogues and most importantly the right ending for the movie to leave a memorable imprint much like that TV series that we all grew with. With Anjum Rajabali as his co-writer, Prakash Jha just about managed to cull out the right elements and when that version moved on-screen, his stellar star cast did not let him down either.

Yet what doesn't seem to work for Raajneeti, is the context that the writers choose to set. Karna's abdication by Kunti- a crucial and most poignant part of the story is given a lame background of a night of passion. The friendship between Duryodhan and Karna is barely embellished to justify both of them willing to give up their lives for each other. Having said that, there are more than a couple of scenes that light up the screen- Manoj Bajpai's stirring political speech in front of an audience is exactly the kind of stuff that set the cash registers ringing and made this movie the third highest grosser of 2010. Nana Patekar as Krishna, Ranbir Kapoor as Arjun, Ajay Devgan as Karna and Manoj Bajpai as Duryodhan were seamless in essaying these iconic mythical characters. Katrina Kaif did well in a role of substance and for a change wasn't just around as the hero's arm-candy.

The west is known to make their legends and stories bigger them showcasing them on television and movies and on-screen adaptations galore from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes. It is a pity that for our greatest story, there are too few attempts that have been made in India. Its complexity notwithstanding, we require more and more filmmakers to bring it alive on-screen. After all, a teenager of today will know nothing of B.R. Chopra's magnum opus and for that Prakash Jha deserves all credit. While this one might've lacked the finishing touch, at least, Prakash saw it through.

Rating: 6.3/10

Saturday, May 21, 2011

#123: Kerala Cafe

This is the first vernacular movie being reviewed on this blog though there's no specific reason why I chose Kerala Cafe for such a privilege if you will. But the movie does have significance for the Malayalam industry in that it is the first anthology movie from Mollywood. Malayali movies have a rich legacy and the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shaji N. Karun are revered as legends in their own right not just in India but abroad as well. In recent years, Malayali movies have become a regular feature at the National Awards. Since 2000, five Malayali movies have won Best Film honors- more than any other language- a clear indicator that Bengal can no longer claim the throne of best regional cinema state. In that light, Kerala Cafe comes across as an interesting experiment from God's own country.

Kerala Cafe is a compilation of movies from some of the state's most successful directors - including the likes of Shaji Kailas, Revathy, Shyamaprasad and Lal Jose amongst others. It doesn't matter if the names don't ring a bell but you will recall Revathy as Nana Patekar's doting wife from Ab Tak Chappan. What's important to note is that these are all seasoned names. What the movie has also done well is getting some of the state's best actors playing short roles. As a result, I suspect the curiosity amongst the audience to see what a star like Mammooty would've done in a cameo role might supersede the need for a decent storyline. Kerala Cafe for about two-thirds of the movie seems to bank on that theory as some of the stories are plainer than vanilla.

At 139 minutes, it packs ten stories with no specific theme or connection though there is an element that binds them all and that is Kerala Cafe, a restaurant. The protagonists of these stories are not connected to each other yet in a very simple manner are shown towards the end to be bound by this restaurant. This extremely effective cohesion apart, (remember there were ten different directors and they had to all agree on how to make this work) there are only a couple of other stories that are worthy of a recommendation. These being a hard-hitting Makal (meaning Daughter by Revathy) and the stark Puram Kazchakal (meaning 'Views from a Window 'by Lal Jose). Understandably actors like Dileep, Mammooty and Sreenivasan are more effective in their roles than the others.

On the whole, Kerala Cafe is a good place to start if you want to sample the current pulse of Malayalam movies. It does no justice to the legacy that I wrote about in the beginning but it's also more than your median masala Malayalam movie.

Rating: 5.8/10

Thursday, May 19, 2011

#122: Breakfast at Tifannys

Audrey, Audrey, Audrey
The rest of this breakfast is dreary
Might this shock you cos it's meant to be a classic
But I can't call good, what couldn't make my attention tick

Days of yore, such stories were rare
Not anymore, they come as free as air
George Peppard tried to be a poor man's Cary Grant
Devoid of grace, humor, poise and act he can't

Only thing that matched Audrey was her cat
A decent expected last kiss but the climax was flat
Watch this only if you swear by these supposed classics
There's hardly anything in it I can call fantastic

Rating: 5.6/10

Monday, May 16, 2011

#121: Stanley ka Dabba

Stanley, a IV standard student isn't bringing his tiffin during the lunch time at school. His ever-hungry Hindi teacher who also doesn't bring his lunch box ridicules Stanley because it means the other students would rather share their food with Stanley than with this gruff middle-aged teacher. It comes to a point wherein one of them has to go hungry during the lunch time. Who is going to blink first ? With a story that's as basic, Stanley Ka Dabba will manage to keep you glued to your seat for two hours.

Writer, producer and actor Amole Gupte finally gets to direct a movie that he can call his own after his more famous spat over creative differences with Aamir Khan during the making of Taare Zameen Par.. Gupte's languid filming here has a charm of it's own even though Amole tends to repeat the protagonist's dilemma in the movie more often than required. Partho Gupte (Amole and editor Deepa Bhatia's son) as Stanley acts with an air of an expert at work and at any moment has his eyes speaking louder than words. The supporting cast led by Amole Gupte and Divya Dutta ably shore up the movie as teachers with contrasting approaches even as a host of other child artistes bring all the required innocence of the days of school to the fore.

The most remarkable thing about Stanley Ka Dabba is that it emerged out of a series of workshop sessions conducted by Amole Gupte. It is believed that half the time the students didn't even know that they were being shot for a movie. The resultant simplicity gives the movie a very realistic feel and some of those scenes with tiffin boxes being opened are guaranteed to transport you back to your school days. It must've required enormous discipline on Gupte's part to ensure that none of the students missed a class during the filming of the movie over a year and for that he deserves all the credit. As Anurag Kashyap tweeted last week, 'this is all what indie filmmaking is all about.'

The movie leaves you little room to complain but it's one shortcoming is the crawling pace of it's screenplay. Add to it six songs in a two hour movie and you know your patience is being tried a bit. That said, Stanley Ka Dabba is a movie during which you will find yourself reminiscing about those little moments of laughter during class breaks in school and the dread of steely stone-faced teachers who would make you stand outside the class if you were caught speaking while she was writing on the blackboard. Its nostalgia apart, Stanley Ka Dabba is like a box of your favorite chocolates from childhood, the joy of which would multiply, if you managed to share it with your best friend. So go right ahead, dip into it's flavors and while you're at it, spare some time to savor the aftertaste.

Rating: 6.8/10

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#120: Shagird

Shagird written by Kamal Pandey and Tigmanshu Dhulia is a thriller based on the politico-crime nexus in Delhi. The movie stars Nana Patekar as a dishonest cop for a change and a welcome change at that for two reasons. One, for the brilliant actor that Nana Patekar is, he is doing far fewer films than his prowess deserves. Secondly, till now we had only seen Nana as the honest rebellious cop who was all set to take on the system and we know he can sleepwalk through a movie playing that role. Yet what's nice about Hanumant Singh in Shagird is that in spite of the late-90s hangover of Nana with a cropped haircut and the salt and pepper beard in a khaki attire, you are served something that's refreshingly different from the days of yore.

Hanumant Singh is the kind of cop who bribes his own ilk on their traffic beat to get away at a signal. He leads a team of the ruthless Delhi Crime Branch who will kill anyone as long as they can get some money out of it. As a fearless but corrupt cop, Hanumant has no qualms in encounter killing the so-called criminals even in front of news channels and as a leader his team loves his ways because his autocracy comes into play only when he has a gun in hand. Shagird, thankfully, is not a one-pony show. Apart from Hanumant, it is the character of mafia don Bunty Bhaiyya (Anurag Kashyap) that works as pivot around which the story is built. Bunty's capture early on in the movie sets the cat amongst the political pigeons of the government and in particular the cunning external affairs minister Rajmani played by the brilliant Zakir Hussain. Since Bunty has too many secrets to spill, Rajmani instructs Hanumant to kill Bunty. Hanumant is all set to play along except that he has got an agenda of his own. Enter the new member in the Crime Branch team, Mohit Ahlawat, an upright inductee who won't bite the bullet along with the rest of the team whether it's in terms of recklessly killing the bad guys or in sharing the rewards of a job.

The best of Shagird is the last 20 minutes whereby an engrossing cat-and-mouse game between Rajmani and Hanumant Singh emerges in all it's glory. Their oneupmanship towards the second half makes for a mouth-watering setup for the climax. As the intricate traps they've set for one another start coming to the fore, the action becomes more and more arresting. Nana Patekar essays the larger-than-life Hanumant with as much elan as simplicity. There are a couple of those typical Nana scenes that you want to clap and whistle to and while he's at it you know the man hasn't lost his touch. Mohit Ahlawat, however, is a disappointment more massive than the Black Hole. Shagird means a protege and Mohit in spite of this opportunity to play the title role had too little conviction in his performance let alone energy. His frozen performance could put an Eskimo to shame. Part of the blame for his ineffectiveness also lies with the writers who have a shabbily loose backstory to tell us about his childhood at a dinner party. If that wasn't bad, wait till you watch the scene in which his love interest Rimi walks into his room. When he confesses his feeling towards Rimi, you want to squirm in agony, the cheese quotient being higher than in all of Italy. Zakir Hussain, on the other hand, is a complete show-stealer.

The genre of crime, evidently is a comfort zone for Tigmanshu Dhulia, who had previously directed the much-loved Haasil. With the erratically impressive Shagird, he undoubtedly cements that reputation but one will have to say the movie was also a case of a missed opportunity. Fifteen minutes tighter, someone else instead of Mohit Ahlawat, some mature writing and we would've had our rare Bollywood crime classic. But even for what it is, it does deserve an applause. You needn't make it a standing ovation but surely the well-played kinds.

Rating: 6.9/10

Saturday, May 14, 2011

#119: Ed Wood

A Tim Burton movie nine times out of ten will be a experience akin to that of going to a carnival. It typically will be an agglomeration of fairy-tale characters, crazy rides and a whole load of fanfare. One can watch any number of movie classics and yet if one hasn't seen a Tim Burton movie it's only fair to say that such a film lover's resume is all but incomplete. Though not yet on the same platform as a Hitchcock or a Scorcese, there's no denying that over the last 15 odd years, his signature style of filmmaking has left fans over the world more than impressed. And Ed Wood is yet another proof of his acute understanding of the craft of filmmaking.

Based on the life and times of erstwhile filmmaker Edward Wood Jr., Ed Wood has Johnny Depp essaying the protagonist. Conventionally biopics are based on men or women who have achieved extraordinary things, been successful in their lifetime or been very talented. Ed Wood is the antithesis of that theory. For if ever there was a title to be conferred for Hollywood's least successful and worst director of all time, Edward Wood would beat everyone else in that race. To sum it up in a line, not only did each of his movies make a loss but he also did enough to win the Golden Turkey Award for the worst director of all time. The movie begins with a media screening of Ed Wood's latest play where the theater has all of 4 people. The next morning the cast members that include his wife (Sarah Jessica Parker) gather around to read the plays reviews. When it turns out to be a scathing indictment, everyone else is heartbroken but not Ed Wood. He sees enough in it to nurture his dream of making a film. A chance encounter with the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi feeds his hope that he can make it big in Hollywood. Except that no one in Hollywood knows if the antiquated actor Lugosi is even alive. What Ed Wood lacks in his filmmaking sense, he makes up for with his persuasive skills with producers who open doors for him to release one bad movie after another.

Shot aptly and entirely in black and white, Tim Burton handles this chronicle with a subtlety seen only rarely in Hollywood and probably never in Bollywood. Johnny Depp is so much on top of his game while displaying the mind-numbing stupidity of the choices Ed Wood made as a filmmaker, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a fictional story. In director Ed Wood's world every scene is perfect, there isn't any need for a retake and footage of elements however disconnected can always be joined together to complete a movie. Martin Landau plays Bela Lugosi, the man who was once popular as Dracula and who in real life was happy to join the mediocrity of the movies Ed Wood made. Landau's performance while invoking peals of laughter is also sensitive enough to not reduce Lugosi to a joke. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar Landau gained for his performance was well deserved to say the least. The warm friendship and mutual admiration that Wood and Lugosi have for each other grows deeper in spite of one bad movie after another. It is funny but and yet you find yourself sympathizing with them both.

The understated and linear approach that Burton takes in telling us the story of Edward Wood Junior is in sharp contrast to Ed Wood's own flashy and whimsical style of filmmaking and the irony is not just befitting and but also a delight to watch. For as bad a filmmaker Wood Jr. might've been, his story is extremely absorbing and Burton takes that story a notch up to serve it like a refreshing cocktail. The effect is what any good cocktail should deliver - a happy high feeling !

Rating: 7.8/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

#118: Romeo+Juliet

What novelty might a new chronicle bring
When 'tis a play much filmed
Yet this one has a pleasant ring
The old love story swankier but trimmed.
Luhrman directs, writes with Craig Pearce
On-screen Claire Danes plays Juliet to DiCaprio
Born to families whose rivalry is fierce,
Yet fighting for his love is lovestruck Romeo.
Slick and fast, like a beer brewed new
It binds you to screen more often than not
Old English in this new version is all askew
But neat visuals still justify a DVD that's bought.
Watch with patience, it might feel fresh
Expect not much, it's got the air of a just-born in a creche.

Rating: 6.4/10

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

#117: Limitless

In director Neil Burger's Limitless, there's a believable premise that there is a pill out there that can enhance your brain's performance to it's fullest. Like all good things, this too comes with a pitfall- the side effects of this pill could eventually prove fatal. We don't know the whys and hows of it but the movie gives you more than a fleeting impression that there's something to that effect. Is there another pill that can prevent an individual's downfall? Is there a quantity of consumption upto which the pill works absolutely fine? We aren't told. The overall script and the workings of the key characters in the movie is somewhat similar to this premise - seemingly real but inexact and loose.

Bradley Cooper plays Edward Morra, a writer who is given a pill called NZT-48 by his former brother-in-law. Edwards' girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) is dumping Eddie because she is tired of paying his bills and listening to Eddie's excuses about completing his novel. Once Eddie sees the positive effects of the pill on his work, he wants more of it and a couple of fortuitous incidents later ends up with a complete sachet of pills. During this time, he assumes the role of a financial trader and impresses Carl Van Loon (De Niro)- a wealthy businessman who takes Eddie on his payroll. And soon enough Lindy comes back into his life. This picture perfect turnaround in his life however gets threatened by Gennady (Andrew Howard) a Russian goon who is hellbent on extracting those pills from Eddie. Now what ?

The characters in Limitless speak to you directly with their problems especially Bradley Cooper and it is refreshing to see him in a role that required a considerable change from some of his previous avatars. Edward is a man in a mess who finds a ray of hope and wants to cling on to it in spite of the repercussions. His act is concrete and with a near flawless performance he is constantly reminding us that a lot is to be sorted in his life before we come to the end in the movie. What's perplexing, however, is De Niro accepting the role of a business tycoon that has as little substance as spunk. His appearance towards the end in what is supposed to be a story twist is too muted for an actor of his stature. They probably handled the props better in this movie. The rest of the supporting cast is always around and to be fair to them-they fill more than just the screen space. But in a movie where Bradley Cooper becomes a potential candidate for U.S. Presidency and runs for Senate in a span of 12 months with no prior political experience, there's only so much a supporting cast can do to redeem the mediocrity of it all.

Limitless is found wanting in it's impact largely due to a story that fails to excite. With the kind of cast it had, it should've delivered more punches that what it eventually managed. There are parts in the movie that will get you going and you wish they were more of those. You know those key moments in movies where a character or a particular plot point stands up to deliver that knockout punch- well, let's just say, Limitless was quite limited on that count.

Rating: 5.8/10

Monday, May 09, 2011

#116: Fast Five

It was always about racy sleek cars and some bravado around it. Vin Diesel played the protagonist and came up trumps most times. It had luscious women swooning around beefy men and the guy who trumped in the end was always the guy who raced quickest in a fancy automobile.

The above would broadly summarize all the previous films in the series. If the producers of The Fast and the Furious franchise were coming up with a fifth one, they had to make it inventive and thank heavens they did. Fast and the Furious 5: Rio Heist released in April 2011 is indeed very different from any of the previous movies in the series and features a heist of $100mn as it's centerpiece. So those luscious women are still around but they're not having their skirts lifted by engine horsepower that passes them by. Neither are they taking off their tops and making out with guys on the road. Instead, Mia (Jordana Brewester) is pregnant with her child from O'Connor (Paul Walker). And her brother Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is hopeful of securing the family's future by undertaking a daring heist on Rio's #1 ganglord Reyes (Joachim Almeida). Meanwhile Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is on Dom's trail to put him behind bars.

The movie takes quite sometime to arrive at the heist and the first half trudges on with some really dull moments. A car robbery from the train is the highlight in this half that also gets sappy at times. By the time Dom assembles a team to pull off the heist, you're almost beginning to wonder if this is going to get anywhere. Thankfully, the second half doesn't disappoint one bit. As the planning for the final job gets underway, different characters from Dom's team start bringing in their charm to the movie lending both comic and visual relief from the worn down couple of Mia and O'Connor. The story preps itself for a three way showdown between Dom, Hobbs and Reyes and the climax delivers unerringly with a jaw-dropping execution of the plan. Vin is still the star in the movie and his team of assembled experts give the movie the much needed momentum in the second half. As an escaped convict, his tenacity is infuriating for Hobbs but Dwayne Johnson does little else apart from looking the part. His inspid acting, however, does little to take away from a denouement that's reminiscent of the Ocean's Eleven heist.

Universal Studios know they've a money-spinner in this franchise and they're out there to exploit it. The heartening thing about Fast Five is that the writers and the director could've taken the easy way out with yet another story with racing as the plot but they didn't. Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan do exceptionally well in making this version easily the best of the series. Notwithstanding some logic-defying action sequences, it is guaranteed to bring you to the edge of your seat. I can't say it's an unmissable action flick but it does come close to being one.

Rating: 6.7/10

Saturday, May 07, 2011

#115: Chalo Dilli

Very early in the movie, an advertising agency is pitching a TVC for an investment product for Lara Dutta's firm. While critiquing the film, Mihika (Lara Dutta) confidently says that something is amiss in the TVC and that she can't put a finger on it. At that exact instant, suspecting some particle in her water, she uses her index finger to remove it from her glass. She sees off her advertising agency who address her deferentially as 'Ma'm' and as her secretary enters, she brushes her off about being late with one swift and brusque remark. These events within seconds of each other tell you that Mihika, a thorough professional, is also a perfectionist. Assertive to a fault, she is the kind of boss who would be a pain in the ass.

Mihika rushes off to catch a flight to Delhi to meet her husband. Enter Manu Gupta (Vinay Pathak), a cloth merchant in his mid-30s, who is seen taking an auto in the midst of a traffic jam in Bombay. While stuffing his suitcase in the auto, his baggage accidentally opens up and apart from all the paraphernalia that gets strewn onto the roads, it throws open his baggy striped underwear right on Mihika's windshield. Vinay Pathak is yet to utter a dialogue but you can probably guess from this little incident that he must not be the most civil person in the world and perhaps a tad disorganized. Even if you didn't see the promos, you the know the comic element in the movie is going to stem from how Mihika and Manu get along with each other in the movie. More importantly when a writer- director team tells you so much in so little time in the beginning, you know as a viewer that you're in good hands.

This is director Shashant Shah's second movie. His first being the journey undertaken by his protagonist in the touching Dasvidaniya.. While writer Arshad Syed had previously done the screenplay of the forgettable Go and MP3, one can unequivocally say that both these men have bettered their previous accomplishments. For Chalo Dilli is one deliciously scripted light-hearted movie. While the film's title and the promos were giving away the fact this was a movie in which it's lead actors travel to Delhi together, it's surprise twists and story turns keep you laughing and guessing all the way to the end. Vinay Pathak is sublime as the typical Delhi-ite for whom bragging is a birthright. He is known to essay all such character roles to perfection and this one is no exception. With his actions and diction, he wears the hat of the Karol Bagh businessman much too easily. Lara, on the other hand, is convincing and completes the lead cast with a self-assured performance. Once the movie begins, there is no letting up of the intensity in this comedy with a host of characters, each of whom are guaranteed to surprise you for good reasons. The drawbacks would probably be the couple of needless songs that are thrown in between and an end that flirted with melodrama. Thankfully, both these are addressed very quickly and the movie gets back to it's feet before boring you.

Chalo Dilli is a lovely piece of cinema that is as breezy as funny. Like Dasavidaniya, it ends with a message that is not preachy but might just make you reflect on your life. Vinay Pathak yet again proves his bankability at the box-office while Lara Dutta not only gives her acting career a boost with this performance but also puts her money where her mouth is by backing this project on the production end. Movies like these are a symbol of the new-age Bollywood that gives some importance to the quality of script that is being made into a movie. That quality is there you to see very clearly because irrespective of the kind of mood you start watching Chalo Dilli in, it is guaranteed to leave you with a smile by the end of it.

Rating: 6.8/10

Friday, May 06, 2011

#114: Yuvvraj

I have said this once before I watch all kinds. And somewhere I do want to write about all kinds too but at times a movie is so bad, you cringe at the thought of adorning it with words in a review. Yuvvraj is that kind of a movie.

And so after a quick but thoughtful deliberation, I decided I will review this one but with just one word.


Rating: -6/10

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

#113: Shakespeare in Love

With an ensemble cast of Judi Dench, Ben Affleck, Tom Wilkinson, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Gywneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, director John Madden brings alive a time from the 15th century when William Shakespeare was struggling with his most famous romantic tragedy- Romeo and Juliet. Even as Shakespeare begins writing it with the intention to make it a comedy, a chance meeting brings him face to face with Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow)- an avid follower of theater. Cupid strikes and so does inspiration for the Bard as he transforms Romeo and Juliet into a tragedy. Shakespeare in Love is the fictional account of that journey set against the Elizabethean era.

That crisp air that British productions typically wear makes Shakespeare in Love a compact and commendable effort- an effort that went on to win 7 Oscars and is still the last comedy to win a Best Picture award. The best thing about the movie is that it's fantastic attention to details makes it seem a story that's convincingly carved out of that era. The deft costumes, sharp dialogues and a lively background score work beautifully in unison to make it a treat to watch.

Joseph Fiennes as the lanky Bard might take time to capture your imagination but as the story progresses you accept his shortcomings as those of Shakespeare himself. His urgency in writing, his cheeky demeanour and above all, his irrepressible desire for Viola De Lesseps comes forth as naturally effective. Colin Firth plays the bad man for a change. What doesn't change is the effortlessness he is so used to displaying. The same goes for seasoned actors such as Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson while Paltrow is plain charming and brings immense credit to her part.

It is a travesty of sorts that one can easily count the really good Shakespeare movie adaptations. To that end, Shakespeare in Love is a laudable addition to that list. And even though this one was voted in a BBC poll once as the least deserving Oscar winner of all times, I would recommend this as a must-watch if you're a Shakespeare fan. If you're not, watch it still because as far as movies based on Shakespeare are concerned, this is as close a movie can get to being solidly good.

Rating: 7.2/10

Monday, May 02, 2011

#112: Source Code

Science fiction is a bloody difficult genre to make movies for because at some level the writer asks a viewer to suspend reality and embrace something hitherto unheard or unseen. The genre is such that only a thin line divides a story that's stays believable and one that becomes laughable. Source Code is a story that can't help but be the latter. Let me elaborate. Source Code is supposed to be a period of eight minutes whereby a half-dead person can reassign time in the past into doing something else but cannot actually prevent something from happening. If this sounds confusing, you're let known by the end of the movie that the person who invented Source Code in the movie actually got it all wrong. Asking you once - laughable or believable ?

Source Code has it's own source code (read the script) going haywire after a strikingly ominous beginning filled with suspense and intrigue. Jake Gyllenhal is Captain Stevens, an officer who served in Afghanistan, and who now finds himself awake in a rackety metal enclosure. He can't remember how he got into this enclosure and is only left with a TV screen to communicate with Commander Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and her boss Rutledge (Jeffery Wright). Stevens doesn't know Goodwin but keeps agreeing to the task Goodwin has set for him while trying to find his own identity. Rutledge works for US military and is the inventor of this program called Source Code and Stevens is his guinea pig.

What seems like an interesting premise gives way to gaping holes in the script that could perhaps have been used better as a golf course. I do not intend to spend much time on this review so I will leave you with just one gem which is the basis of all the action in the movie. There is a character in the movie who goes about planting bombs in Chicago and Jake has to prevent him from doing any damage to the city. When pushed into a corner, you get to know that his is a one line motive - 'The world can be made better but first it has to be turned into rubble.'. Asking you again- laughable or believable ?

One can't take away the fact that with a stirring background score and some good-looking photography, Source Code pretends to be intelligent. (Not to mention throwing in lines with "parabolic calculus' in between.) It's lasting memory that will stay with you, however, is that this is a script that's as hare-brained as any in recent history. It's a joke that the movie is rated a 7.8 on Imdb. If making incredulous movies can be made to pass off as good cinema, it is time I start working on a script that will have as it's protagonist a one-eyed turtle who will compete in 2012 Olympics against Usain Bolt because of a special in-built computer program called- 'Duh Code'.

Rating: 2.5/10

Sunday, May 01, 2011

#111: I am...

The movie has probably the maximum number of producers in a film. Here's how- since director Onir wasn't getting a producer to fund his movie, he reached out to people on Facebook for donations. So even someone like me who is so unconnected in the circle of Bollywood, could've contributed to the film and seen their name on the end credits. It wasn't just a novel idea, it was effective as well for it would've been a shame if a movie that dealt with such explosive issues had fallen through because of lack of financial support. I am is a collection of four short films titled Afia, Megha, Omar and Abhimanyu- stories dealing with themes of artificial insemination, child abuse, treatment of Kashmiri Pandits and gay rights.

Like any anthology, there had to be a standout piece amongst these. That segment is very clearly Omar, a story based on gay rights. With Rahul Bose and Arjun Mathur, the film focusses on exploitation of gays in the mainstream society. Since it's based at a time before the Delhi HC judgement came out, it makes you aware of the humiliation they had to go through just because of an alternate sexual preference. Playing a character named Jai, Rahul Bose's performance as the wronged protagonist is jaw-droppingly brilliant. Omar is not a story without loopholes and yet it's enactment is so powerful, it will hit you harder than falling head-first onto a floor of marble.

The segment on the fate of Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, titled Megha, is the next best. In Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala, the story had two wonderful actresses to work around with and this one does justice to their combined talent. Without going into the hows and whys of the bleak period of the late 90s in Kashmir, it's a reflection of the residual effect of terrorism on the families that were left behind and the Pandits who had to flee the state fearing oppression. Kashmir is a topic that everyone has a viewpoint on and for Onir to deal with such a complex issue on film in about half an hour was no small feat. The objective wasn't to point fingers but to portray what became of the place that was once known as Paradise on earth. The other two segments Abhimanyu and Afia are based on child abuse and artificial insemination. While Afia was simple, direct and had a dash of warmth with Nandita Das and Purab Kohli, Abhimanyu was stark, layered and complex with Sanjay Suri and Anurag Kashyap in the lead. Both stories equally worthy to be on film. Abhimanyu as the end credits tell us is based on the story of real-life characters.

The best of I Am is it's stellar cast. These are actors with whom one doesn't go wrong nine times out of ten and a director of Onir's capability was surely not going to be the tenth on this scale. Onir's previous movies ranged from light comedies like Sorry Bhai to the pioneering My Brother Nikhil. As a director, he brings perspectives in films that you and I will probably not think of but still be able to relate to and that is his greatest strength. Movies like I am are extremely courageous in form it's a credit to Onir's conviction that he can weave stories around these issues, find no producer to back the project and yet come up with enough funding to complete it. In spite of the long wait and the struggle, he's indeed made something that deserves every seat in that neighborhood theater to be full when the curtains go up on I am... this weekend and for the sake of that arduos journey of filmmaking , hopefully of many more to come.

Rating: 7.1/10