Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Ides of March 2011

Nowhere as powerful as George Clooney's directorial success, Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), this film, based on a play by Beau Willimon, has a stellar cast but smells like West Wing in so many ways.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) runs a tight ship as the campaign coordinator for Democrat candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), but loses his footing when he makes a few rookie mistakes in his naive ambitiousness. As he almost gets fired by campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he turns the tables by blackmailing Morris with a well-guarded secret and joins the very dirty politics he claimed to have loathed in his idealistic years.

There are flashes of The Godfather (1972) all the way through. Much like Michael Corleone, Stephen Meyers is corrupted right before our eyes and we can't really blame him. Even the last scene is extremely reminiscent of the final shot of The Godfather when Michael's fate is sealed. Clooney, Gosling, Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and various others make this an excellent lesson in acting - but the film seems to lack a soul...or a coherent mind. It gets you almost there, but never really hits the spot.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Shorthand Rants...too

So, I'm back with various half-baked thoughts, because in most cases these films do not deserve the effort of proper writing...

Larry Crowne (2011) - Why would two Academy Award winners get together and make such a pish film? There's no depth, no story, no chemistry and really no reason for this to work. So it didn't. This film was such a terrible waste of my time and yet I find myself wondering if there was a single redeeming factor about the absolutely haphazard story. I haven't found it.

Horrible Bosses (2011) - I'm usually averse to this genre of 'bromantic comedy', but this was a fun film. If for nothing else, one should watch it for Kevin Spacey's unbelievably evil role, Jennifer Aniston's sex-crazy character and above all (and I really mean that), Colin Farrell's repulsive turn. Astounding to see a man as sizzling hot as Farrell, be as comfortable as he is in such a revolting guise. Enjoyable film.

Friends with Benefits (2011) - Oh no...not again...yawn. Another story about friends having sex without commitment and then falling impossibly in love. How many times will we watch the same story in one year? Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good and Mila Kunis delivers as expected, but really this film can be easily missed without any great loss to your viewing score.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) - There are shades of American Beauty (1999) here, with Julianne Moore playing her usual over-the-top paranoid/bored/crazed wife and Steve Carrell playing the hapless/confused husband. But that's where the similarity ends. Enter Ryan Gosling with his suaveness, unending charm and raw sexuality as Carrell's self-appointed love-guru and the film glitters a bit. Emma Stone is as usual a breezy, fun addition and the final product is an ok film, not quite sure if it wants to be a rom-com or a slight satire - managing neither - but not failing miserably as an entertainer. I guess if it wasn't for Gosling, I really wouldn't have given two hoots about it, and this is definitely his weakest outing in years, but he does make it all better.

Fright Night (2011) - Colin Farrell. Vampires. Need I continue?
Trashy remake of a trashy film, worth watching only because Farrell and vampires are in it.

Don't be Afraid of the Dark (2011) - Wow. What a bad film! The horror wasn't horrifiying, the terror wasn't terrifying, the film was just plain boring and Katie Holmes should've stayed at home. Guy Pearce once showed such great potential but now seems to spend his time torn between bad leading roles and inconsequential character roles. What a waste. And the kid really did not bring out my maternal instincts. Guillermo del Toro should really think before he 'recommends' films and put his name down as producer. His goodwill is running thin.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Drive 2011

Ryan Gosling is a good actor. In fact, he's a brilliant actor. And Drive is his film all the way.

Gosling plays a car mechanic, who works part-time as a stunt driver and moonlights as a getaway car driver. He is a man with no name, no past and no real ambitions for the future. He is laconic, almost stoic - and somehow his silent presence in a scene makes everyone else seem a little bit too talkative. 'Driver' (as the character is credited) works for Shannon, the owner of the garage, who knows his potential and sets him up with movie stunts, heist deals and during the course of the story is about to set up a stock car race, with the help of the mob. Somewhere along the way, Driver bumps into his neighbour, Irene, who, along with her young son, becomes his friend and companion, his love interest, till her husband, Standard, comes out of jail. When Standard gets in trouble with the mob again, Driver offers to help out, to protect the family that he has come to love, and what follows the botched-up job is a quick spiral into a mad, violent killing spree that keeps the audience alternating between wanting to look away and not being able to take their eyes off the screen.

Drive is a very stylised, stylish film. It reminds you a little of Michael Mann films - probably because his films often have an 80s feel - but it takes that 'feel' to a different level altogether. Languid scenes, economical dialogue, electronic music, and a very particular use of lighting takes you straight back to films like Cruising (1980) and Cobra (1986) amongst many, many others - where the reticent male protagonist takes it upon himself to protect others from an evil force. From the opening sequence itself, you know that this is not an ordinary thriller. Every shot is poetry in motion - and even the opening credits, in a hot pink font, are a sign of the extreme care that has been put into this film.

The cast is worthy: Carey Mulligan (Irene), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Oscar Isaac (Standard) and Albert Brooks (the mob-head Bernie Rose). But worthy as they all may be, it's Ryan Gosling's film. He reigns over every scene, without even opening his mouth through most of them. His face speaks volumes. A smile, a glance, a glare - every move he makes says more than pages of dialogue could. He is a force to reckon with and goes from endearing to frightening in seconds. When he follows up the greatest show of romance in the film, with the most violent act, it seems ever so natural.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had earned his stars with Bronson (2008), but with Drive he has delivered a masterpiece. Whether you like it or hate it, it's definitely one of the most important films of the year. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Jane Eyre 2011

Of course it helps that Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite classic novels of all time, but that is exactly why this film could have gone so wrong and made me hate it so easily. Instead, I felt every chill and every thrill the characters felt, which is all to the credit of the makers and the actors.

But let's rewind to the beginning. This is the story of Jane, a young orphan, who having been cast out by her evil aunt after her uncle's death, is doomed to grow up in the heartless environment of a Victorian English boarding school. Through her childhood and adolescence, and despite the hardships, Jane remains a strong-willed, self-respecting individual, who does not let anyone walk all over her. She defies the norms of 19th century society and refuses to accept the 'inferiority' of her social class and gender. After working as a teacher at the school, she lands the opportunity to become governess to a young French girl, the ward of Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall. The housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, becomes the audience's guide in describing the absent Mr Rochester and his peculiar way of living. When he finally does make an appearance, we see that he is outwardly a foul-tempered, arrogant man, who has no compunction in belittling people who work for him. Little by little, Jane's intelligence and quick-wittedness capture his attention; her pride amuses and fascinates him; and soon he professes his love to her. It is at their wedding ceremony that Jane discovers the dark secrets he has been hiding from her and her fairytale romance turns into a nightmare from hell. How she deals with what fate throws at her, at every stage of her life, is the story of Jane Eyre, the woman who survives it all with her head held high.

Mia Wasikowska would not have been my first choice to play the most dignified of heroines in classic English literature - but I was pleasantly surprised by her in this film. She plays Jane in a fairly different way from how I imagined her to be, but I can't say that she plays her badly. Mia brings a measured level of naiveté and hope, laced with a reserve, that is interesting to watch. Having Judi Dench in the cast (playing the housekeeper), is like the director showing off that he has important friends. She isn't entirely wasted, and definitely lends a touch of prestige to the project, but the role could have been delivered by almost any one else. Jamie Bell and Sally Hawkins, along with the rest of the supporting cast, play their parts well and bring in the right dose of 'creepiness' to this master Gothic romance. But it's Michael Fassbender, who once again takes my breath away, with his perfect delivery of Rochester. Part-tyrant, part-wretch, despicable one minute and desperate another, he brings the animalistic appeal of Rochester come to life. It doesn't take him long to own the screen and the audience and, like Jane, we wait for him to return to Thornfield, every time he departs. He literally makes the scenes crackle, just by being in them.

Well-put together, well-directed and executed, this is a worthy Jane Eyre and manages to suck the audience into its dark world of lies, deceit and horrors without ever seeming to be trying too hard. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

I'm Still Here 2010

When Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from films in 2008, the news divided the camps pretty quickly into people who believed it and were stricken, people who believed it was an elaborate hoax, people who didn't believe it at all and thought it was a publicity stunt...and people who thought it was a very cleverly staged project. I fell into the last category.

Having admired Joaquin's acting for years, I distinctly remember watching him talk to the press after receiving the Golden Globe for Walk the Line (2005) and thinking that he is genuinely uncomfortable with crowds and does not know how to deal with praise and attention. He came across as a humble guy, who loves his job, and does not quite know how to handle the perks. Every interview or public appearance I saw since then just reinforced this image of someone who does not speak intelligently or confidently, but still tries to be nice when confronted with a mic and a camera. So, the entire retirement announcement, and Joaquin's subsequent appearances, where he seemed clueless about how rude and arrogant he sounded, just did not seem to fit the bill.

A lot has been written about how disturbed his upbringing was, about how the drug-induced death of his brother further destroyed his sanity, about how he is sometimes not able to tell the difference between reality and a character - and who knows all that may be true - but I just think that what ever his inner demons may be, he's not really insane - and Joaquin Phoenix, the rapper, did not only look insane, but also completely unprepared for this new career. For an actor, who is so true to his characters, so well-prepared for his craft, being this unaware of the music industry and his inaptitude as a rapper, reeked of a staged stunt. Soon, there was talk of Casey Affleck directing a documentary about Phoenix's new life and I was sure of my initial suspicions.

It has taken me a while to get to I'm Still Here and though quite disturbing at some points, I found it amusing. If Affleck and Phoenix genuinely went out to make this film, as they claim, to illustrate how most celebrity reality shows are staged efforts, then they have done a good job.

The film starts with Phoenix's turmoil about his professional life, about the lack of creativity in his so-called 'creative' career, and his conclusion that he will express himself through music, as that's what he feels he can relate to. We then chart our way through the announcement, the reactions from friends and media, the attempts at building the new career, the spiral into drugs and debauchery, and most cringe-worthy of all, the disintegration of all Phoenix's relations with his staff and associates.

Way before the end credits, where real names of some of the main characters in the film are revealed, it's quite obvious that this isn't a real documentary. The absolute lack of family members or friends in the story, the excessive focus on drugs earlier in the film and next-to-none later, the reactions of some of the people (Ben Stiller and P. Diddy, so very clearly trying to deliver to the camera) are dead give-aways. There are scenes, which are so over-the-top, it's hard to believe they're real (even though we all have read stories about celebrities treating staff in a worse manner, drunken and drug-fuelled parties that are far more out-of-control, and egos that are far more inflated), but there are moments in the film, where we can't help but believe, in spite of ourselves, that this may not be Phoenix's story, but it could be any one else's story (Joaquin runs out of his car into the bushes and breaks down about how he's told everyone he's quit acting, but has now made a mess of singing, and has 'fucked' his life).

The film may have been conceived with the idea that reality shows aren't real, but through the course of its narration, it highlights the pressures a celebrity is constantly under. How a decision, how ever misguided, is covered by the media and is mocked at every given opportunity. The coverage Joaquin Phoenix received, over the year after his announcement, is used in the film. The disastrous David Letterman interview, the spoofs at awards ceremonies, the discussions on entertainment news shows, all portray how quick everyone is to put celebrities on pedestals and remove them when required and trample over them, without much effort from them for either position. One of my favourite scenes is when a reporter comes to speak to Joaquin and says that all reporters standing outside are discussing how this entire thing is a hoax, but he can see how Joaquin is actually really into his music. Joaquin beats the reporter at his own game and says that he finds it disrespectful that anyone would consider this a hoax or a joke, because this is his life, and they're implying that his life is a joke. Joaquin goes on to tell the reporter that he may pretend that the other reporters are asking this, but it's obvious that the reporter himself is asking this question. The indignation that Joaquin is faking through the film, could have been real if this film was real. And it would have been fair.

Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix are two very interesting actors of their generation, who have put together an interesting film (albeit, a bit too long), which is successful not for the reception it got itself, but rather for the reception that its making got. Worth a watch.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Shorthand rants...

There is a bunch of films that I have watched over the past couple of months that I never got a chance to rant about...and rant I must. So here goes:

Easy A (2010) came highly recommended by friends I trust and yet I did not trust them about a teenage comedy. Big mistake. The film is an absolute delight! Olive is an ordinary high-school girl, who jokingly tells her best friend after a boring weekend that she spent the last couple of days living it up with a boy. The rumour mills are immediately set ablaze and she earns herself a huge reputation, which she initially tries to quell and later milks to advance her financial and social prospects. It's an amusing story, held together by excellent scripting, characterisation and editing. Emma Stone is brilliant as Olive and there is a stellar cast to support her. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, who play her parents, are equal parts nuts and equal parts endearing. Of course, I will never be able to hear Pocketful of sunshine without it invoking hilarious images from the film. Don't be put off just because it seems to be just another teenage comedy. It really is much more than that.

Biutiful (2010) is the latest Alejandro González Iñárritu film, starring Javier Bardem as Uxbal, a man caught between life and his mortality, needs and his guilt, hopes and his nightmares. The film was heavily nominated for various international awards (including the Academy Award) and won quite a few along the way. Iñárritu uses his usual style of interlinking multiple threads to show the audience various sides of a story - and the film has moments of joy, always underlined with deep melancholy. I tried really hard to like it as much as everyone else, but it somehow did not touch me as much as I hoped. In fact, it left me quite cold and I couldn't wait for it to end, so I could move on to something a bit more interesting. A shame really - as I continue to wait for Iñárritu's next Amores Perros, 2000, which just doesn't seem to get made.

Reservation Road (2007) - an old one, which I decided to watch for Joaquin Phoenix, and did not find disappointing. The film shows us two sides of a tragedy - the accidental death of a young boy - from his parents' and from the perpetrator's points of view. Beautifully crafted, it continually puts the audience in an uncomfortable position, where taking the moral high ground is no longer that easy. Mark Ruffalo plays the troubled 'killer' and his pain is just as raw as the traumatised father's (played to perfection by Phoenix). The story is a simple slice of life, where things are never completely black or white - and this film has an abundance of grey. Very well-made.

The Tree of Life (2011) is a Terrence Malick film, which has been praised by almost every critic out there and has not only left me unimpressed, but so angry at the praise, that I am not sure if I should even write about it. I feel positively stupid for not liking it, as everyone else seems to have 'got' it, whereas I found it lengthy, boring and completely interminable. I wish I could sum up what the film was about - there was the creation of the world, some dinosaurs, some human birth and death, a lot of whispering to God, some cliché-ridden characters and rites of passage situations, and a whole lot of pointless wandering. People keep saying how beautiful the film was and I'd honestly prefer to watch a few hours of Discovery Channel than waste my time on a film that is so 'artistic' that it alienates the ordinary audience completely. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are two of the stars in the film, but it's not about them and they don't carry the film forward, so I don't think I can blame them. In fact, I would like to blame Malick himself for making such a pretentious piece - but then I don't know what I was expecting from the man who is the creator of the worst film ever made, The New World, 2005. And with this rant, I will either lose some of my meagre audience for ever, or will have gained a couple of readers.

So many films...so little time.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara 2011

Finally, a Hindi film worth reviewing!

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is Zoya Akhtar's second film after Luck by Chance (2009) - and she has once again written and directed a slick, well-put-together, entertaining film. Coming from a family of talents (dad Javed Akhtar - poet / lyricist / screen writer; mum Honey Irani - actress / screen writer; brother Farhan Akhtar - actor / director / producer / singer / writer), she obviously has no problem fitting right in - and though her second film is much like an updated version of her brother's Dil Chahta Hai (2001), she has proven herself by directing two very different films in two years.

ZNMD is the story of three friends - Kabir, Arjun and Imran - who take off on a 3-week road trip in Spain, which serves as the 'bachelor party' before Kabir gets married in India. The trip is to include challenges that each one of them has dreamt of since college - and each challenge is a surprise to the others. With this seemingly fun-filled adventure serving as the backdrop, the trip tests relationships, strengthens some bonds, breaks others and answers questions each one of the characters has been struggling with. Love is found and love is lost - but the holiday establishes one thing for them all - life is short and has to be lived to the fullest.

There is never a dull moment in the film - the dialogue (penned by Farhan) is crisp and witty, the situations are fun, but believable, the characters are identifiable - and the film allows the viewer to go on a dream holiday with some of the coolest people ever, from the comfort of their seats. In this and so many other ways, the film reminds me of Dil Chahta Hai (just without the interminable Akshaye-Dimple love story). Farhan manages to be in and around so many films where male friendship is rendered with the loftiest of depictions - makes me think he's either had some really great friends in his youth or he's making up for what he doesn't have by being in films about great friendships.

Hrithik Roshan (Arjun) plays an ambitious, money-minded, focused man and has delivered a very balanced performance - which is always a surprise when it comes to him, as he has a general tendency to try too hard and end up looking forced and annoying. Abhay Deol (Kabir) is as always a pleasure to watch - he's relaxed, natural and absolutely comfortable in what ever character he plays - and this film is no exception. It's good to see him in more mainstream films, as he has so much potential and it would be sad to see his career die a quiet death in unwatched off-beat films. Farhan Akhtar (Imran) doesn't need much discussion - he's consistently good in pretty much every film that he's involved with. Here he plays the most flawed of the three friends and manages to be endearing all the way through. Other actors, including Katrina Kaif and Kalki Koechlin, have short roles, which they do full justice to. The film rests on the three actors though - and they're all excellent.

Everything about this film is top-notch, including the music, visuals, editing and the general 'feel'. The main star of the show is the script though - whether it's the 'bag-wati' story or the chit-chat about Doordarshan, the underlying humour is natural and at times a bit Tarantino-like. And the end credits are definitely a homage to the You Tube sensation 'JK Wedding Entrance Dance'. But it's all done in a very classy manner - and that is what puts Farhan and Zoya at the forefront of this generation of Hindi film-makers.

An excellent film - and well worth a watch.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Dhobi Ghat 2010

Despite being an avid Hindi film viewer, this is the first Indian film I am writing about. It deserves a 'review' here partly because it has managed to impress me and partly because it has made me pretty angry.

Released internationally as Mumbai Diaries, the film follows the lives of four characters in Mumbai: Munna, the washerman(dhobi)-by-day and rat-killer-by-night, who works two jobs to make ends meet and aspires to be an actor as so many others do in this city of opportunity; Arun, the acclaimed artist, who shuns his adoring audience whenever possible but lives a comfortable life thanks to that very rich audience in this city of affluence; Shai, the US-based investment banker, who is on sabbatical and spending her time photographing the dirty areas of this city of extreme poverty, which people in her social circle would not tread into; and finally, Yasmin, who comes to this city of dreams, with hope in her heart, but finds, like everyone else, that this is also the city of disappointment. Four inter-woven lives - against the backdrop of the fifth very prominent character of the story - Mumbai, the city itself.

The casting, acting and direction, throughout the film, is flawless. Kiran Rao, a first-time director and writer, has done a fantastic job. Aamir Khan (Arun), Monica Dogra (Shai) and Kriti Malhotra (Yasmin) look the characters and perform them well. But it's Prateik Babbar (Munna), son of actor-politician Raj Babbar and late actress Smita Patil, who takes your breath away. His face manages to portray vulnerability, street-smart, shyness and jealousy without ever showing any signs of effort. Like Kunal Kapoor and Sharman Joshi before him, he can carve a nice little niche in Hindi films, if he continues to be an actor, rather than trying to become a Bollywood star.

In all this positivity, where is the anger I speak of, you probably wonder. Well, the film manages to break away from Bollywood clichés and classic narratives, by being song-and-dance-less and by not giving the audience an obvious resolution - the end - which is normally expected from Hindi films. In all this, and so much more, it has managed to bring in European sensibilities and, through that, has found respectability amongst film viewers and reviewers all over the globe. But what it has not managed to do is to break away from emulating another cinema.

Classic 'Bollywood' (regardless of how much that name is hated in India) was very much based on classic Hollywood narrative and over the years has developed its own identity (hence the issues with the derivative name). Hate it or love it, Bollywood speaks a different cinematic language, which is very much its own (and is shared by other South Asian cinemas). So, breaking from the convention is worth appreciating, but breaking from it to make a European film instead is not exactly heroic.

In fact, it's not even a general language of cinema that Dhobi Ghat borrows from, which would have been very acceptable. It very specifically emulates the style of Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose films are very popular in Europe (as well as, all over the world). The effects of a person's life on other lives, the interlinks between human beings, the disparity between people belonging to different socio-economic classes and the use of cityscape images as well as shots of people going about their business in the city - used together these are such signature themes from Iñárritu's films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) that it's difficult not to see the obvious 'inspirations' for Kiran Rao's work. And then there's the music...simple, but melancholic...a little haunting. As if I needed any further proof for my claims, the end credits of the film named Gustavo Santaolalla as the composer for the film. Santaolalla just happens to the Argentinian who has composed the music for almost all of Iñárritu's films!

So, a film I would have appreciated for its 'different' storytelling and excellent performances - and would have criticised for the absence of an engaging story - is a little difficult for me to like, because of its very obvious borrowing from a genius director's work.

Still, a good watch - and definitely recommended.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Case 39 - 2010

An over-worked social worker, Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger), reluctantly takes on her 39th case and helps save a 10-year-old girl from her abusive and obviously insane parents, just as they are trying to kill her by putting her in an oven and turning it on. Emily then tries to give the little girl a new life, 'a new beginning', not knowing that what she's doing has far more sinister consequences for her and everyone she is close to.

Too many films try to be scary and thrilling these days - most just manage to be gross slashers, and very few are able to completely creep us out like the horror films of the 70s. Case 39 has the potential of those films. The best thing is that the film's trailer does not give the story away, which in today's overly-informative-trailer-age is a huge plus.

Highly recommended at the cost of a few sleepless nights.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

My Sister's Keeper 2009

Since I missed it at the cinema, I put it on my DVD list, but I was in no hurry to watch this film, as I had presumed this was another tear-jerker with no real story. Of course, I should have realised that it was Nick Cassavetes' tear-jerker, so it wouldn't be all that ordinary...

In short, Kate Fitzgerald has had a rare form of cancer since she was 5. Her sister Anna was especially conceived to be her donor, her 'keeper' in a way. This is Anna's story, but it's also Kate's, their mother's, father's and brother's story. It's the lawyer's story and the doctor's story. It's a beautiful, painful story, where everyone is right, but wrong too.

Stellar performances from Sofia Vassilieva, Cameron Diaz, Jason Patric, Alec Baldwin, Thomas Dekker and Evan Ellingson. But the film rests on the small and so very capable shoulders of Abigail Breslin. She was good in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), but she's breathtaking in this film. Nick Cassavetes has once again made a film that makes you laugh and cry and love and die with the characters.

Excellent and highly recommended if you like to weep with your movie, sometimes.

X-Men: First Class 2011

I have been a fan of the X-Men series since 2000, when the first film came out. Since I didn't grow up with the comics, every new character in every new film fascinates me. If it wasn't for the disaster that took place in 2006 (I prefer to think that that film was never made and does not exist), so far each film has just been an exciting new chapter.

So, it was with a lot of enthusiasm that I went to see X-Men: First Class this weekend. Boasting a strong cast, a talented director and all the material for a great script, the film promised to kick-start the new franchise. Such high expectations generally lead to a hard fall.

Except, in this case, the expectations were met. Head on!

First, the script is pretty sound. The story (co-written by Bryan Singer) covers aspects of everything we have been watching for the past decade, neatly ties up the ends and continues to give us more to chew on . The dialogues are well-written and economical. The characters are interesting and intriguing. And best of all, there is something for everyone to enjoy. Wholesome entertainment!

The actors are at least adequate and at best perfect for their characters. Of course, I am biased here. I have always enjoyed Kevin Bacon's devilish charm and watching him play the unpredictable, power-hungry, ruthless villain Sebastian Shaw was completely believable. James McAvoy as Charles Xavier was inspired casting, as he brought a boyish charm to the Professor's usual sincere wisdom. But it was Michael Fassbender, who once again stole my heart. After Hunger (2008), Inglourious Basterds and Fishtank (both 2009), I've been waiting for his next big role. And Magneto could not have been better cast. There's a natural animalistic beauty in his body language, which makes his Magneto all the more dangerous and sensual. At once troubled and roguish, you can see how at a later age, he could grow into becoming Ian McKellen's Magneto from the earlier films.

Besides these three, most of the actors playing the young mutants have done justice to their roles. They're sort of dorky and awkward, but I think it works because they're teenagers AND mutants. I'm looking forward to seeing them again (except Darwin, of course - the token black man, who was promptly killed)! My only disappointment was Mystique's and Beast's make-up / hair. They looked more like fancy dress costumes than their real selves.

Hugh Jackman's, by now well-known, cameo appearance was good for a few laughs (and sighs) and the other surprise cameo (now you see it, now you don't) was quite cool too. But what I don't understand is why Brendan Fehr signed on to do a non-speaking two-minute appearance - surely he can do better!

Matthew Vaughn's delivered yet another good film. He has a small portfolio as a director, but every film has been well-made and a little, well, 'different'. X-Men: First Class never loses track and never bores (Vaughn co-wrote the screenplay), even though it has  the hefty job of explaining how it all started. In fact some of the best scenes include the initial recruitment of the X-Men and the montage of their training. With just the right dose of humour and seriousness, Vaughn has once again made us believe that this world of mutants exists - and has left us wishing we were part of it.

I hope he continues to make us 'believe' by directing the next one in this franchise.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Thor 2011

Yet another film that does not deserve a real review!

I went to see a comic book superhero film, based on a Norse myth, so I expected plenty of computer-generated sets and dramatic dialogue, along with some good old-fashioned 'kapow'. What I did not expect was the Asgard scenes to be so unnecessarily theatrical in a Shakespearean style (never forget your roots Kenneth Branagh, even when you should), the earthly romance to be so trite and the comedy in the God-meets-humans scenes to be so forced. Watching Thor was like watching 3 scrambled films - the Asgard scenes were shot in a slight Tron: Legacy (2010) crossed with Troy (2004) manner; the Earth scenes were shot in a War of the Worlds (2005) crossed with Iron Man (2008) manner; and Thor's time with the humans had the farcical feel of a Coming to America (1998)! If I don't sound impressed, it's because I really am not. I didn't put up with the constant drone of comic book geeks for months, to receive this half-baked attempt as consolation. And I'm getting especially tired of being told that this film leads to the next big series of films (heard it when The Incredible Hulk, 2008, came out, heard it again when Iron Man 2, 2010, came out and heard it yet again when Thor came out). I wish they'd concentrate on making one decent film at a time and quit worrying about launching the next big thing - at least then I'd remember not to get excited when Jeremy Renner shows up for one scene, which is supposed to be the introduction to his character in The Avengers film (2012).

'it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness'

Over the past couple of months, I have seen some very average films - the kind of films that were not even inspiring enough for me to give them bad reviews. It has been very frustrating.

So, I have decided to give them all a collective review here.

127 Hours (2010), despite all its accolades, failed to impress me. I can't fault the script or the director or, for that matter, the actor. But the story itself, as true and harrowing as it was, was just not strong enough to warrant a 94-minute-long film. It has been beautifully executed, but I found myself feeling listless and bored pretty quickly.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is one which has inspired a number of different reactions in me. When I first watched it, I thought it was interesting and somewhat different, albeit a little predictable. As time goes by, the fond memories are fading rapidly and I now remember it as yet another useless blip of film.

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) - Please torture me no more by reminding me that I watched this painful film...

Rango (2011) - ...or this one, for that matter! Having watched pretty much every film that Johnny Depp has done since Cry Baby (1990), I don't regret watching this one - but it was a difficult task. With lots of cute references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and various Clint Eastwood films thrown in to 'spice' it up, the film remains flavourless and unappetising. Definitely not a kids' film, it barely qualifies as a grown-up film and is one of the crazier stunts Depp has pulled since Dead Man (1995) - besides The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), of course!

The Rite (2011) - Tries too hard to be The Exorcist (1973) and does not manage to come even close. Creepy, at best, but generally just tedious.

Sucker Punch (2011) - While I really can't recommend this film, it was oddly entertaining. The cinematography and post production special effects are exquisite (can't expect any more or less from Zack Snyder), the story is adequate for a film of this genre and the actors all deliver what is required of them. I feel compelled to not complain about and not praise this one.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) - Nothing extraordinary or surprising about this film. It's an average thriller, with decent performances from Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei and William H Macy. The 'twist' isn't too unfathomable, but not too obvious either, and the film isn't especially bad.

Limitless (2011) - This one surprised me. Again, not an extraordinary film, but it's well-shot, well-scripted, well-directed and well-acted. And the story is a bit unusual too - with its part-fantasy, part-sci-fi idea. Bradley Cooper is impressive, in that he is never boring...there's a bit of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack in Being John Malkovich, 1999) about his look, which is later replaced by Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale in American Psycho, 2000) and he carries both with equal aplomb. Impressive.

Source Code (2011) - Disappointing. After Moon (2009), my expectations from a Duncan Jones film were sky-high, even though my expectations from a Jake Gyllenhaal film have been massively lowered over the years (he disappoints me on a regular basis) - so this was an unpleasant surprise. The film has enough of a Vantage Point (2008) styling for it to be extremely annoying and just not enough of the sci-fi storyline that I had gone to see for it to compensate for its pitfalls. A very bleak effort.

Red Riding Hood (2011) - Surprisingly entertaining. Yes, it's Catherine Hardwicke at the helm, so let's not expect great performances from the actors, but she has definitely improved since Twilight (2008). The visuals are stunning, the pace not too slack and the film generally holds the audience's interest. A twist here and a turn there and the final product is fairly decent.

All in all, these haven't been the best of months, but they haven't exactly been the worst either...and I live in hope for May...

Monday, 28 February 2011

Love and Other Drugs 2010

Due to the overuse of the Pfizer name, as well as the repeated mention of various real-life drugs, I was misled into believing that Love and Other Drugs was the depiction of a true story, which made me instantly uncomfortable to comment on the lack of credibility of this so-called love story. Now that I know that only certain aspects of the film (that is, the male protagonist's career) have a connection with a real-life story, I am far more comfortable trashing this cliche-ridden, awfully cheesy film.

In short, Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a money-grabbing, promiscuous asshole, who works as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company (Pfizer) and falls in love with brazen photographer slash part-time waitress, Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), who ironically suffers from a so-far-incurable Parkinson's disease (stage 1). Randall sticks by her, despite his usually asshole-like attitude towards everything else in life, thereby proving himself to be a better person than we ever expected him to be. Yawn! Oh and of course, abiding by what is slowly becoming a current trend in Hollywood 'rom-coms' (No Strings Attached 2010, The Ugly Truth 2009, amongst many others), Randall and Murdock are commitment-shy and want to have a healthy, sex-only relationship (how very European of them), till their beautiful hearts collectively let them down. Barf! This story arc allows the film makers artistic license to have Hathaway's breasts and Gyllenhaal's ass constantly in the audience's face. Gasp (the first time)! Ho-hum (every time after, which is basically most of the film)...

The film is by no means boring. There are some excellent lines, some funny situations, some endearing and some very silly characters. I even laughed out loud various times in the first half of the film. Gyllenhaal is sufficiently charming and suave and Hathaway pulls off a decent sexy lass. But it is the long list of loose ends and cliches that lets the film down big time. Characters with back stories that somehow pertain to their current lives, but are referred to in the vaguest terms; lame situations that have no purpose or conclusion except to inspire a sick laugh (Randall's Viagra-induced erection, Dr Knight's slight sex addiction, Randall's brother's pointless presence in his house etc - and why do we need to know about Trey Hannigan's relationship with Maggie?); the undying love between two people (and I am still perplexed about why exactly they are in love) that transcends all difficulties and emerges victorious. Compared to a Blue Valentine (reviewed here), where you understand how the relationship began and why it has to end, Love and Other Drugs explains nothing, answers nothing and expects the audience to suspend belief when Randall chases Murdock to the Canadian border to profess his love and propose to her, because she has made him believe that he is worth something. Oh boo-hoo! It would have been far more believable to see Randall leave Murdock for good, knowing that her health will only deteriorate and that life can only be downhill from here. That, though heartless, would have seemed far more plausible considering the lack of bonding between the characters. When will Hollywood have the guts to make a film about characters that are flawed, and yet so human?

Anyway, as far as this one's concerned, it's entertaining to watch, but by the time it ends, it's already too late to say 'WTF?' Watch for the sex and a few laughs; or avoid for the sake of sanity.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

True Grit 2010

I want to start by saying that I am not a Coen brothers fan. In fact, I am either ambivalent or have an active dislike for most of their films that I have seen. Out of the 17 titles accredited to their direction on IMDb, I had seen 8 until today. I vaguely recall liking 3 (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There and Paris Je T'Aime - "Tuileries"), am perplexed by the popularity of  2 (O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country for Old Men) and absolutely can not bear 3 others (The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading). I know it's not a good start for me, if this is being read by any of the millions of people who think the Coen brothers are God's gift to cinema. Unfortunately, I beg to differ.

Today I watched the Oscar-nominated True Grit and, for the first time, I have no problems with an Ethan Coen and Joel Coen film. Based on a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, the film is narrated by Mattie Ross, who we see as a 14-year-old (Hailee Steinfeld), on a quest to avenge her father's murder. She, on her own, manages to acquire money owed to her father and convinces Deputy US Marshall 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to work for her and hunt down the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, in an all too short appearance). Along the way, they are aided by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), despite both Mattie and Rooster's initial disdain for him. The story takes us through their journey together - the melting of their distrust for each other, the birth of their concern and a semi-unity that forms between them, whereby they end up saving each others' lives. The novel was filmed first in 1969, with legendary John Wayne playing Rooster Cogburn. I have not seen that film, but it seems the 2010 version has less to do with the earlier screen adaptation and far more to do with the original source material.

There is no doubt that Jeff Bridges is par excellence. He was always an excellent actor but it is reassuring to see that, after a quiet decade or so, he has been back in demand for the past few years. And it seems he was saving much of his talent for his old age! As Cogburn, he is at once brutal and tender, heartless and compassionate. Even in his most drunken, disorderly state, Cogburn counts amongst the worthiest of men - and Jeff Bridges embodies that. His appearance is pure grit, his voice hard gravel and his performance flawless. Matt Damon is an established, versatile actor and yet, I find myself surprised every time to see his range. He is brilliant as the self-satisfied, slightly obtuse, but very focused LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin is a bit wasted here. Despite the fact that he's the subject of most conversations in the film, he has little screen time and he is not very convincing as the coward he is supposed to be. He just doesn't look the part of the snivelling, whiny crook that he is portrayed as in the scenes when we finally see him.

With all the media attention on Jeff Bridges, the Coens and Matt Damon, not enough has been said about 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (who, it appears, was only 13 throughout the filming). She is absolutely stunning in the film. Precocious, yet charming, her character is of a strong-willed teenager, who has a sense of purpose and a strange unemotional stance towards reaching her goal. Mattie seems oblivious to the fact that a person of her age is a child, especially when she deals with older, hardened men, but she is quick to remind anyone who asks her a seemingly sarcastic question ('You have a lot of experience with bounty hunters, do you?') that 'That is a silly question. I am fourteen'! Steinfeld breathes life into this character and the entire film. She is never once annoying, her acting never looks strained and she never seems to be posing. Her performance is just as matter-of-fact as her character's attitude towards the situation she is in. She is a delight to watch.

So, the Coens have finally made a film that has not only been nominated and awarded with various accolades, but has also managed to win my appreciation.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Black Swan 2010

We have seen these characters before. A dedicated, neurotic perfectionist replaces someone, who was once at the top of their game, but is now past their prime; a younger, more energetic person that the protagonist fears will replace them; and behind it all, a controlling, almost sadistic, master, who everyone desires approval from. Yes, we've seen it before - and yet, as Darren Aronofsky's mouthpiece, Vincent Cassel, says in the film, “Done to death, I know, but not like this.”

Aronofsky's Black Swan is the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a prima ballerina, who has just landed the role of a lifetime - that of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. But it seems that despite her perfection as a dancer, director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has almost grudgingly picked her; he knows she will do justice to the role of the White Swan, but she lacks the passion of the Black Swan. Nina is further distressed to find out that the last Swan Queen (played by Winona Ryder) hates her for taking her place, while Thomas pointedly praises the new girl, Lily (Mila Kunis), for her honest sensuality. If all this wasn't enough to tip her over the edge, Nina's obsessive, stifling mother, who is almost incestuously protective of her, keeps pushing and controlling her. What ensues is Nina's dark madness that seems to spiral faster and faster out of control and we no longer know what is reality and what is fantasy.

The film is, in one word, perfect. It swings from a story of ambition, to a story of passion and is soon unhinged to become a story of delusions and hallucinations. And it is scary...very scary. We watch everything from Nina's point of view and, as she loses her sanity, the world through her eyes slowly becomes a sick orgy of colours, sounds and actions that no longer seem probable. And Aronofsky has made sure that we're on this ride with her all the way. Yes, we know that the sketches on the walls are not actually whispering to Nina, but do we really know whether or not someone just got stabbed in the face with a nail file? The shadows, the whispers, the paranoia are just as real for the audience as they are for Nina and soon we are just as unsure of the difference between fact and fiction as is the ballerina herself.

This is Darren Aronofsky's fifth film and, in my opinion, his best. His use of fast editing and loud music to attack the audience's senses is present here as usual, and his actors deliver their best as they always do. But there is something inherently creepy and confusing about this film that makes it more spectacular than anything else he's done before. It is especially noteworthy how he has made it obvious from the very onset of the film that Nina suffers from psychological problems, thus setting the stage for disaster. Whether it is the inferences to self-harm and eating disorders or the constant feeling that something on the wall just moved, some shape just shifted in the reflection or some sound just did not belong, every scene in the film left me feeling insecure and creeped out and convinced that it is all downhill from here.

Cassell and Kunis are well-cast and well-directed. One brings ruthless charm and arrogance to the table, while the other brings an unruly, untethered wildness. Barbara Hershey's turn as Nina's mother has shades of actual tender love, mixed with nastiness and possession; and Winona Ryder is suitably bitter and scary. But it is Natalie Portman's show all the way. There is not a single scene where she is not present and it is through her eyes that we see the events unfold. Being naturally blessed with a beautiful, innocent face could have proved to be as difficult to overcome when playing the other side of Nina, as it was for Nina to play the Black Swan. But Portman takes us by the hand to witness her innocence and wickedness, her joys and misery, her dreams and especially her nightmares. Her performance appears to be effortless and real and suddenly all those calls for her to win the Academy Award tomorrow make complete sense.

Black Swan is an absolute masterpiece and should NOT be missed.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

I Am Number Four 2011

The poster looked boring, but the trailers promised a brainless action thriller, which was good enough to make me buy the ticket when I Am Number Four came out. The offering actually managed to surprise me.

The story goes thus: Alien boy has escaped the destruction of his home planet, Lorien, along with eight others and they have all moved to Earth with their warrior protectors. Number Three is killed in the very beginning by evil aliens called Mogadorians and we are told that it's Number Four's turn next. Number Four keeps moving from city to city to protect his identity and when he moves to Paradise, Ohio, he is called John Smith. Through the course of the film, John discovers some of his special powers, protects the weak from bullies and shows his general awesomeness. He is aided, towards the latter half of the film, by Number Six, who is a hot female, but John's heart can only be given away once and he's already found love with his high school classmate. The film ends with ample substance for a sequel, if this one does well.

In so many different ways, I was reminded of the Twilight saga. I Am Number Four is based on a series of books (like Twilight), has an extraordinary boy fall in love with an ordinary girl (again like Twilight) and fight forces of evil to save humanity in general (need I repeat myself?). And that's where the similarity ends. Unlike the Twilight films, this cast can actually act, the make-up is actually good, the story actually progresses and the audience actually gets to like the characters! Alex Pettyfer (Number Four) is endearing without trying ever so hard to appear cool (as opposed to R-Patts); Dianna Agron (the love interest) does the 'simple girl' routine, but never appears to be a loopy damsel-in-perpetual-distress (think the forever-shrugging-shivering-lip-biting K-Stew); and the protector, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a strong, able character, who speaks well and takes charge, unlike the father figure characters we have seen before (Charlie Swan and Carlisle Cullen). The fact that Marti Noxon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer series fame) is co-writer and co-producer, may have something to do with the trend of demonic humour and the way the villains look.

Of course, the script is full of loopholes and issues. There are scenes galore that could have been better written (explaining some of the half a dozen artefacts and icons that are introduced randomly, would be a start), but in general, if you're prepared to leave all bits of your brain behind, this is a pleasantly entertaining film. There is lots of action (some of it very good), a cutesy love story and some decent dialogue. Not bad for a film with such a thin premise and such little promise.

Blue Valentine 2010

There are actors who immerse themselves into a character and become the character...like Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale. And then there are actors who bring much of themselves into the role they're playing, but are still able to give credibility to the character and bring it to life...much like Johnny Depp or Edward Norton. Or Ryan Gosling.

I first saw Gosling in 2007's Fracture, while everyone was talking about how good he was in the previous year's Half Nelson. I was amazed at how well he carried himself against a giant like Anthony Hopkins and so I rented, in quick succession, The Notebook (2004), Half Nelson (2006), Stay (2005), The United States of Leland (2003) and even Murder by Numbers (2002). I had thus seen almost all the films he's ever been in (I have only missed two and don't remember him from a third) when I went to see him in 2007's Lars and the Real Girl. By this time, I was a certified fan. He has done some mediocre films and some outright bad films...very few good ones; yet, his performance is always, always flawless. He makes the characters his own, bringing his own voice and mannerisms to every role, and yet making it all very real.

So, after a quiet three years, when I heard that he is in 2010's Blue Valentine, which has been nominated for various awards, I knew I had to watch it. I did not want to know anything about the premise - it wasn't important. I knew that if Ryan Gosling was in it, he will be worth it. And I was right.

The story revolves around a married couple, Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), who have lost the love they once shared. Interspersed with moments from their soulless relationship today, are scenes from their beautiful love story in the past. How they met, how they fell in love, how they made it all happen. It is the current relationship, with all its painfully real emptiness, which makes this film worthy of attention. It is Dean's unbeatable optimism and Cindy's struggle to breathe freely that is so true-to-life, and yet so hard to watch. Dean and Cindy are not very likable characters but both Gosling and Williams have brought them to life with an honesty that is breathtaking, without ever making them look like caricatures: allowing the audience to understand them, even when it is to hard to ever condone their actions.

Blue Valentine is a love story that went wrong. It is a real, honest, gritty film and my only complaint is the cinematographer's heavy use of a shaky, hand-held camera that seems to have become a requisite for all films purporting to capture 'reality'. Apart from the dizzying camera work, the film is quite excellent. A must-watch.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Green Hornet 2011

Should be renamed 'The Green Turd'!

Wow! There are few films that are so bad that I find it difficult to sit through them. And yet, The Green Hornet had me squirming in my seat, struggling with myself, forcing myself to watch it, just so that I could write this review. Based on a radio series and subsequent comic books, neither of which I am familiar with, this is the story of Britt Reid, a rich newspaperman's son, who moonlights as a masked vigilante with his trusted aide, Kato, by his side. This could have been a fun film; instead it's an absolute disaster.

From the first appearance of Seth Rogen (actor, writer and producer of this monstrosity) it's obvious that he has so fallen in love with his celebrity that he thinks it's not necessary to 'act', when hamming will suffice to bring the fans in. He delivers all his lines in the same tone throughout the film, which means that he shouts out every alternate word...and THAT is NOT cooool MAN! Also, I have a strong feeling that I saw him look into the camera by mistake a couple of times. Taiwanese-born Jay Chou plays Kato - a role once played by Bruce Lee and this is paid homage to, when Rogen's Reid flips through a sketch book that belongs to Chou's Kato and finds sketches of cars, machines and Bruce Lee. Chou is satisfactory, at best, but mostly he could have benefited from some elocution lessons. Cameron Diaz stars as Rogen's secretary and is once again too old to be playing the cute, fresh-faced muse (as with 2010's Knight and Day) - but at least in this film, there is a reference to her being in her 'twilight', which, though not very funny, is at least an acknowledgement.

Then there is Christoph Waltz. How unfortunate that the man who took Hollywood by storm with 2009's Inglourious Basterds (winning many awards, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), followed that up with a badly-written caricature in a painfully memorable film. He is good, no doubt about that, but he has little to prove when working with such a terrible set up. The worst shock for me came at the very end, when the credits started rolling, and I saw the name 'Michel Gondry' appear under 'Directed by'. The fact that the semi-genius, responsible for kooky Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and kookier Science of Sleep (2006), is also responsible for this badly written, badly acted, badly presented wannabe comedy feature, is even more disappointing than the knowledge that I have just wasted a couple of precious hours of my life on this film.

Avoid at all costs.

Monday, 14 February 2011

No Strings Attached 2011

Close to Valentine's Day each year, Hollywood makes sure that there is some romantic fare in the theatres for the girls to drag their boyfriends to. 2011's No Strings Attached definitely fits the bill. An emotionally-stunted hospital resident (Natalie Portman) embarks on a strictly sex and no feelings attached relationship with her childhood acquaintance (Ashton Kutcher), despite the latter's claim that she will not be able to resist him. It takes little imagination to see where this story is headed. En route are typical complications (he has a famous father who never 'grew up' and has more inappropriate affairs than the son; she has an emotional family and feels like she has to be the only practical voice of reason to keep it all together), typical supporting characters (boy friends who think Portman is the ultimate lover; girl friends who think Kutcher is the ultimate boyfriend) and of course typical secondary love interests (a pedantic, neurotic female colleague who is obviously socially inept; a hard-working, financially stable male resident who is obviously full of himself). There are cliches galore throughout the story - and a bizarre, gold-digging British nymph is thrown in for good measure.

And yet, with a dash of funny situations, a handful of good dialogues and oodles of 'cuteness', the film is fairly decent. I definitely enjoyed it far more than last year's V-Day film, aptly titled Valentine's Day, which boasted a better star cast. In this one, Portman is convincing, Kutcher is awfully charming and Kevin Kline is brilliant as usual. Not a bad film to watch on DVD!

The King's Speech 2010

The British film industry is fairly small compared to Hollywood. And as far as national cinemas go, it does not have the impact that its Indian or French counterparts have. Yet, every year there are a number of British films that deliver everything one expects from seriously good cinema. Without getting into an in-depth analysis of British films over the decades, and their relevance in the construct and de-construct of 'Britishness', it should suffice to say that I am excited to see more and more of these films figure in international film festivals as well as Academy nominations. Although international recognition is not all that counts, it has made it easier to discuss British cinema without someone snorting that Hugh Grant is the quintessential Englishman or that England produces nothing but soppy love stories and dated heritage films.

Just within the noughties, there has been a change in the output of the UK film industry. There seems to be less concentration on 'standing out' and more on making good films. The budgets seem to have improved too, bringing the 'slick' factor to an already talented industry. And with all this, I think there has been a change in Colin Firth's career too.

After many years of acting, Firth found stardom when he played Mr Darcy in the 1995 TV drama Pride & Prejudice. But despite appearing in other mini-series and films thereafter, he did not strike a chord again till he played another Darcy in 2001's Bridget Jones' Diary. Since then, he has tried to play varied characters, but mostly in mediocre or outright bad films, probably in an attempt to break his typecast. Of course not all his films have been absolute wastes and Mamma Mia, Genova and Easy Virtue (all in 2008) did much to establish his credibility as an actor and showcase his range. Finally in 2009, he struck gold. Tom Ford's gorgeous A Single Man was not only an excellent film, but it gave Firth a new status; it earned him Golden Globe and Oscar nominations and a Best Actor nod from BAFTA. Without wasting any time it seems, Firth has made heads turn with his 2010 performance as King George VI in The King’s Speech

The film opens with the Duke of York's awkward stammering speech in 1925, leading to his wife's renewed efforts to find him a speech therapist, so he can fulfil his public role on live radio without embarrassment. Enter Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who not only trains the Duke 'Bertie' through speeches but becomes his close friend and ally. When King George V dies and the Prince of Wales takes the throne, only to abdicate soon after, Bertie has to step up and become king. Logue is there for him, every step of the way and though the film ends with an address to the nation in 1939, just before World War II, a final title card proclaims that Logue and Bertie remained allies and friends for years after. 

The film's accuracy in the portrayal of historical events has been contested and the film makers cite artistic license as their excuse; but the performances are undoubtedly par excellence. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush seem to have ingested the roles they are meant to be playing and have become the characters. Their timing is immaculate, their expressions sublime. Every scene they have together, especially during the time Logue is trying to convince Bertie of his abilities, appears to be a boxing match, where the players dance around each other, delivering expert blows. Helena Bonham Carter, as the Duchess of York, pulls off a good performance too, but one can't help notice her inherent kookiness, which is probably difficult to erase after working with Tim Burton in film after film, for years. Guy Pearce, as King Edward VIII, has not disappointed either - he appears to be a silly fool, uninterested in leading his nation and besotted with his lover. In all fairness, his character is fairly one-dimensional and he has no problem delivering what is required of him. The script writers have obviously devoted themselves to creating high drama in all the scenes featuring Firth and Rush, so if one forgets the historical weaknesses in the story, it is an excellent rendition of a battle of wills and a beautiful story of trust and an unequal friendship. 

And Colin Firth simply shines. His stammering, insecure 'Bertie', who swings from a sweet husband and father, to a temperamental Duke, and on to a petulant king-to-be, is a delight to watch. He has already repeated his BAFTA success of last year and has additionally won the Golden Globe too. What remains to be seen is whether last year's winner of the Academy Award, Jeff Bridges, repeats his success and once again steals Oscar glory from right under Firth's nose...or not. Only a couple of weeks before all shall be revealed...

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Fighter 2010

There is no dearth of biopics about legendary sportsmen, who made it big against all odds. In that The Fighter (2010) is no different. It charts a few years (between 1990 and 2000) in the life of junior welterweight boxer Micky Ward, when he had taken a hiatus from boxing and had worked on his comeback. The story is less about his achievements in sport - much of his fame is from his fights from 2002 onwards - but rather about his family life and the hardships he faced on a personal level.

With his mother as his manager and his older half-brother as his trainer, Micky was put in various terrible boxing situations, as he was the family bread-winner and ultimately the family pawn. His mother doted on her elder son, Dicky Eklund, who was once a boxing legend. Her adoration for Dicky made her blind to the fact that he was a crack addict, which made him an irresponsible coach. She was also blind to Micky's well-being and far more interested in how his work could support the family and Dicky's comeback to professional boxing. In all this madness Micky found Charlene, who not only loved and nurtured him, but helped him win back his confidence and get out of the rut. There is of course a predictable redemption theme in the film, but it's a true story and so the drama is acceptable.

The main character of the film may be Mark Wahlberg's Micky, but the most author-backed role is Christian Bale's. Bale plays Dicky Eklund with such aplomb that it is staggering to watch. As is usual for him, he has dropped weight, adopted mannerisms, changed his accent, speech pattern and his body language, to look and sound as convincing as possible. At the end credits of the film, we see the real Dicky Eklund, providing proof of Bale's unbelievably authentic performance - but even without such evidence, it is obvious throughout the film that he is phenomenal. He has made very few bad choices in his career (bar 2005's The New World) and he continues to pour his soul into every role he takes on. He is a giant of an actor.

I wish I could say that Bale wipes the floor with the other actors, but it seems that this is a director's dream ensemble. Mark Wahlberg is extremely convincing, in looks and performance, and wins the audience over from the beginning. Ditto for Amy Adams, who straddles the line of superior bitch and small-town under-achiever with absolute dedication. She is fantastic. But the surprise package for me was Melissa Leo, whom I can not recall from all the other films I have seen her in but, who has now left an indelible mark on my mind. She is a hateful, vile character all through the film and yet without a single melodramatic moment, we almost forgive her at the end. The actress is nothing short of exceptional in every single scene she has.

David O' Russell's handling of his actors, the story and the very tight script, and Michael Brook's excellent score, take The Fighter from an average rating straight to top billing. No wonder the actors are winning awards, right left and centre - and if there's any justice in the world Bale and Leo will get the Oscars they so deserve.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Lud See Lud 2011

In 2003, when Ram Gopal Varma (RGV) presented an anthology of horror stories with Darna Mana Hai and followed that with another one in 2006, titled Darna Zaroori Hai, it was a major step in Hindi cinema. Anthologies in any genre, especially in horror, are not very common in India and this was a brave move on RGV's part. So, despite the films' lukewarm reception at the box office, they stand apart as innovative efforts made by one of the best horror film-makers in the country.

While in Bangkok, I am on a quest to watch a number of Thai films, as my experience so far is limited to Ong Bak (2003). So, it was this that led me to Lud See Lud (2011), which is an anthology of four unconnected horror stories, each made by a different director, but somehow carrying a bit of the afore-mentioned RGV style.

The first story, about a bunch of college students and their aspirations of global annihilation, is the shortest and the weakest production out of all four. The next story, which revolves around an office environment with pride and sabotage taking centrestage, has a strong Stephen King feel to it. The third story, starring heartthrob Ananda Everingham, is a mix of a heist, ghost and slasher film and satisfies the key elements of all these sub-genres. The acting, filming and editing of this part are comparable to the big-budget presentations from other countries and this has some truly horrific scenes. Finally, the comedic ghost story at the end provides the audience with enough laughs and enough screams to be the hands-down winner of the lot. It is the sweet story of a dead patriarch, whose embalmed body is the source of much fear for the characters, which in turn is the source of much merriment for the audience. This was the section that seemed most like an Indian film to me, with its exaggerated humour.

Although, I don't think Lud See Lud is a masterpiece by any standards, it is thoroughly entertaining - it is scary in some parts, funny in others and engrossing most of the way. I know it may not be the best example of a typical Thai film, as it is essentially a 'masala' film, packing in various flavours and stories into one, but at least it has given me the impetus to come back for more Thai...which I plan to do very soon.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Welcome to Burlesque

Christina Aguilera's existence and career have passed me by and I have not really paid much attention to her. For one thing, she looks completely different in every photograph I see of hers and therefore it's difficult for me to keep track and secondly her brand of singing tires me out. So, it was definitely not for her that I went to see Burlesque (2010). Instead I was sucked in by the colourful costumes, loud make-up, jazzy dance numbers and the bright lights - in short it was the burlesque I was most interested in.

The film unfolds pretty much like all other 'dream big' stories - cross Honey (2003) with Devil Wears Prada (2006) and you will know what I mean. Aguilera is part-Alba and part-Hathaway - a mixture of talent, grit and naivete. Cher is the impossibly-difficult-to-please iconic older woman (Meryl Streep in DWP) and we have all the other requisite characters including the understanding right-hand man, who knows the diva best; the bitchy soon-to-lose-favours starlet; the sensitive, sweet but struggling Mr Right; the suave, rich and famous Mr Wrong; and the final character: our heroine's immense talent that will save the day.

The script obviously presents no surprises and the dialogue is sometimes so trite that I found myself mentally re-wording it and thinking of how to better the delivery! The actors are satisfactory at best and amateurish at worst. Christina Aguilera is not good, but she is new and obviously her unbelievable lungs are the main reason she fits the role, but I expected better from Cher. Unfortunately, not only does her face look plastic, even her acting is completely synthetic. Eric Dane is happily playing Mark Sloane again (Grey's Anatomy); Alan Cumming is doing his usual routine; and most of the other cast members are throwing in just the right amount of enthusiasm into their lines that a few months at drama school will teach you. The surprise ingredient for me was Cam Gigandet, who despite not being any great shakes, at least puts in a compelling performance. And last, but definitely the best, is Stanley Tucci. Although he is simply reprising his DWP role, with very little variation, every single lame bit of dialogue he delivers, sounds like a gem. He has the uncanny ability to infuse life and likeability into a character as well or as badly written as everyone else's - and he's simply the saving grace here.

The songs are decent, with 'Bound to You' becoming my top favourite. The dancing is average and the costumes are good, but not great. To be completely honest, this film could have taken some tips from Nine (2009), which made singers and dancers out of non-singers and non-dancers - and did a far better job.

Having said all this, I will maintain that I did not feel like I wasted my time watching Burlesque. Besides various cringe-worthy moments, where I was back-seat writing and directing it, the film was fairly entertaining. It's just a pity that it was so mediocre, when it had so much potential of being far better than it was.