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.