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 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.