Monday, 31 December 2012

Shorthand Rants...2012

It seems wrong to end the year on my lazy 'shorthand rants', as I have not bundled a bunch of films together for a long while...but due to shortage of time, here's my final post of 2012:

Seven Psychopaths, the latest offering from writer-director Martin McDonagh, is a fitting follow-up to his remarkable In Bruges (2008). Erratic, unpredictable and ever-so-funny, it's about a writer, Marty (played by Colin Farrell), who is struggling to put a story together and with the help of his dog-thief friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), he decides to write about seven psychopaths. As Billy and his associate, Hans (Christopher Walken), make the mistake of kidnapping the beloved dog of a crazy gangster (Woody Harrelson), all hell breaks loose and Marty gets more inspiration than he ever needed to furiously finish his story about psychopaths. The similarity between this film and In Bruges is that both stories have a protagonist, who gets embroiled in a much bigger problem than he ever imagined - and between a crazy friend and a crazier enemy, he has to find some way to survive the ordeal. Both films are well-written and tightly edited - so if you liked the former, you will love the latter. I know, I did.

Life of Pi is one of those books that sucks you in and leaves you with a slightly nostalgic / slightly hopeful feeling. It has generally been regarded as 'un-filmable' - but Ang Lee accepted this challenge with gusto. The main plot of the film is about Pi, a young Indian boy, who gets stuck on a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, with only a Bengal Tiger for company, for months. Saying any more than that will probably take away some of the surprises from the story, but trust me, this is no Castaway. The struggle for survival and the amazing experiences that we witness, conclude with a choice we make as individual viewers - and that is possibly the most interesting and heartbreaking side of the novel - and of the film. There are few films that match or surpass a really good book, but Ang Lee has done absolute justice to this almost impossible-to-film story. The computer-generated tiger looks and 'feels' more real than if it was standing right in front of me. Suraj Sharma, who debuts here, has delivered an outstanding performance, especially if you consider that most of his role required him to be interacting with a green-screen. The supporting cast is excellent too, with Indian actors of the highest calibre (Tabu and Irrfan Khan) - and to put it simply, Mr Lee has made a perfect film.

Jack Reacher proves yet again why Tom Cruise is such a Hollywood icon. Despite constant scrutiny and criticism of his personal life (his religion, his love-life, his never-to-be-forgotten Oprah interview), some of which seems to spill into what people think of his professional contributions, the man just keeps delivering entertaining films. He is an excellent actor (Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, Magnolia), who is also a bankable star (Top Gun, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible series) and is not too afraid to take some risks occasionally (Vanilla Sky, Tropic Thunder, Rock of Ages). At 50, he manages to look fresh, and considering the stunts he still insists on performing himself, he is definitely very fit. I should probably say something about this film, which is based on Lee Child's novel called 'One Shot', the ninth one in his series of Jack Reacher suspense thrillers. But considering how I have started this with the allusion that Tom Cruise is a great entertainer, suffice it to say that he completely embodies the screen version of Jack Reacher - a slightly stoic, slightly ascerbic, extremely intelligent investigator, who is also a cool-headed, killing machine when the situation calls for it. The eponymous character is introduced, built and performed to perfection - and I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

It almost seems like the year ended on a high note, as I loved my last few outings at the cinema - but unfortunately, one of the last films I saw this year was Midnight's Children, directed by Deepa Mehta and based on a novel (and scripted) by Salman Rushdie. It is by far, the worst film I saw this year (tough call that one, as Cosmopolis is a also strong contender for this trophy). Terrible dialogue, bad acting, interminable scenes and excessive length, are just some of the issues with this film. Of course, I have never been a fan of magic realism, but I honestly think this was the least of the problems with this joint venture between Rushdie and Mehta. What an absolute downer!

Anyway...70 cinema outings and innumerable home viewings later, 2012 is over. Bring on the next round!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Argo 2012

Who'd have thunk it? Ben Affleck can finally act - and direct - after over two decades in cinema.

Argo is loosely based on a real-life CIA operation to rescue six American diplomats from Iran. It's the year 1979, and Iran is in the midst of a revolution, during which the US embassy is sieged and its staff held as hostages. Six diplomats manage to escape and hide away in the Canadian ambassador's house. When news of their situation reaches Washington, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is called in as a consultant on rescue operations. He comes up with a plan involving a cover story about filming a Hollywood sci-fi movie in Iran. Despite the preposterousness of this plan, it gets green-lit due to a lack of better ideas - and Tony sets out to execute a hare-brained mission, rife with uncertainties.

What Ben Affleck has accomplished with this film is that elusive quality that most films find it difficult to achieve these days - suspense. It's a spy thriller and unless you have done your wikipedia research before heading to the cinema, you really don't know whether the Argo mission was a success or a failure. For this reason alone, the film is worth watching.

Then there is the detailing. From clothes to cars, colours to commodities, immense attention has been paid to the period. Of course, I'm not an expert in this area and I am sure there will be many who will write about how a certain logo did not come into being till three months after when the film is set, or a certain phrase did not enter common parlance till a year later - but as far as the average viewer is concerned, you feel transported to a time three decades back. I only wish he hadn't used the exterior of the Blue Mosque as an establishing shot, to then have a scene inside Hagia Sophia (it's just a little confusing), but this is a minor quibble.

The level of acting and writing is more than satisfactory all around, and Ben Affleck looks more convincing and likeable in this role than he has ever done in his usual American sweetheart characters. I guess the fact that he does not use his typical Hollywood grin to get through this role, is what really makes it work! As a director, his job is to convey the story in a gripping manner and that he has done extremely well. His Gone Baby Gone (2007) showed promise, but was not powerful enough to convince me. And I thought The Town was actually quite a weak film. But with Argo, he has definitely established himself as a very competent director.

There is already a lot of criticism about the black-and-white depiction of Iranians in the film, and the downplaying of the Canadian contribution to this mission. I agree with some of the criticism, but I haven't forgotten that I chose to go and watch a Hollywood film on the subject, rather than read properly researched reports. As long as this film is seen as a cinematic re-telling of events, and not as an actual historical docu-drama, it is an entertaining, suspenseful two hours of Hollywood - and therefore highly recommended.

Silver Linings Playbook 2012

Why is everyone raving about this film? It has been winning awards at festivals and is pegged as one of frontrunners for the Oscars. I fail to understand why.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is bipolar and obsessed with getting his estranged wife back. Last time they had been together, he had caught her red-handed with her lover, whom he beat up - and consequently got institutionalised. Now, almost a year later, he has one mission - to convince her that he has got his emotions under control and is rebuilding his life. He then meets recently widowed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who, herself, is suffering from various neuroses and they unwittingly help each other overcome their mental problems. Throw in some other dysfunctional family members - OCD gambling dad (Robert De Niro), over-indulgent mum (Jacki Weaver), self-centred brother (Shea Whigham) - and we have a recipe for what is cutely termed as a 'comedy-drama'.

The problem is that this film simply does not connect. The comic situations are over-the-top and unconvincing, the dramatic scenes are unreal and none of the characters are endearing enough for me to empathise with. It seems that David O. Russell (screenwriter/director) has taken a fairly important issue - mental disorders and maladjusted individuals - and made a bit of a mockery out of them. I understand that the film is based on a successful novel by Matthew Quick, so Russell isn't completely to blame for the treatment of the characters, but as far as I am concerned it is quite an 'inappropriate' film. The lead pair have acted well, De Niro is hamming throughout (I guess he has nothing left to prove, considering his immense body of work, but still!) and the other secondary characters are delivered with no real investment from the actors.

Maybe, I'm being harsh, but I really would like someone to explain to me, why this film is being touted as such a wonderful piece of work that it deserves to bag all the awards and accolades. What am I missing?

The Master 2012

This film should be renamed The Masterclass in Acting. 

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a traumatised World War II Naval veteran, who is having difficulty adjusting in a free, post-war society. Suffering from alcoholism, he fails at sustaining a stable relationship and a stable career. A series of chance events lead him to meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a philosophical, yet oddly scientific, movement called The Cause. Dodd provides Quell with the leadership and the hierarchical order that he has sought since the end of the war, and also the impetus to rebel against authority. Thrown in the mix are other influences including Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who completely believes in her husband's work, and his son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who points out that his father is making stuff up as he goes along.

The Master is a strange, complicated story, with layers upon layers of emotion, social and political statements, and simply phenomenal character studies. It is an uncomfortable watch almost throughout, because the themes and personalities it focuses on are borderline vile, and the entire feel of the film is dark, darker, darkest.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant, as always, playing the narcissistic leader of an experimental 'cult', which some say is loosely based on Scientology. His benevolence is just as creepy as his sadistic exercises and Hoffman is very much 'the master' of all such skin-crawling roles. Amy Adams, as the fanatical wife, is just as convincing. She's a remarkable actress who matches Hoffman's brilliance in every scene.

As for Joaquin Phoenix, he is right up there, with the best actors in the world. Very much like the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis, Phoenix can completely mould himself into a character, and in this film everything (from the way he walks, to the way he talks), has been especially crafted for Freddie Quell. He is on screen in almost every scene and he made me uneasy all the way through. He is like a caged wild animal (special reference to the scene where he is, in fact, caged) and looks ready to explode all the time. He has dropped a lot of weight for this role and he constantly looks hungry and ready to attack. He is simply a treat, albeit a very sickening one, to watch - and you can't help but watch him in awe, he is that powerful.

In previous years, I have loved Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) and There will be Blood (2007) for many reasons, but above all it was the level of exquisite performances he was able to extract from his actors that blew me away. As far as The Master is concerned, I did not like the film so much (maybe it was the subject matter, maybe it was the story, maybe it was the taste in my mouth throughout the film), but in terms of directing his actors, this man is a genius.

Also, this review simply can not be complete without mentioning the unbelievable cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, Jr. Every single shot in the film is a beautiful image that should be nominated for an award mightier than the Oscar. In one word, the camera work is incredible.

I can not recommend this film as I personally didn't enjoy it. But I am glad I watched it, for the mind-blowing acting, cinematography and direction.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Jab Tak Hai Jaan 2012

Yash Chopra - a name that any one with the slightest interest in Hindi films will have come across a few times in their lives. If the multiplicity of Hindi cinema can be unfairly categorised as a genre called "Bollywood", then Yash Chopra is to this genre what Hitchcock is to mystery, Scorsese is to gangster and Luhrmann is to grandeur.

Having directed his first film in 1959 (Dhool ka Phool) and his last in 2012 (Jab Tak Hai Jaan), Yash Chopra has at least one film to his credit in each of the last seven decades. That may be a feat in itself, but what is far more noteworthy is that he moved with the times, changed his style over and over again, and never once compromised on quality. It used to be said that while other directors would film in India and pretend it was Europe, Chopra would film in Switzerland and pretend it was Kashmir. Despite his tremendous success with social dramas like Waqt (1965), Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Kaala Patthar (1979), he is best known for his romantic films. He defined 'real love' for more than one generation - and it is Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Silsila (1981), Chandni (1989) and Lamhe (1991) that people instantly associate him with. He created a world of beautiful poetry, memorable music, idyllic walks in the park and snow-capped mountains; he gave us graceful women in chiffon saris, who are as bold as they are beautiful and dashing men, who can be just as rakish as they are ethical - smart people all of them, with a taste for the finer things, be it lifestyle or literature. When you bought tickets to watch a Yash Chopra film, you knew you were entering a different world - conservative and yet unconventional, dripping with class but grounded in reality - and you would not be disappointed.

At age 65, he directed his 'youngest' film, Dil to Pagal Hai (1997) and raised the bar even higher for what would be considered hip and cool in Bollywood. Then nothing for seven years and out came Veer-Zaara in 2004, one of the very few films of his career that I did not like. It was old-fashioned, boring and strangely out of step with the times. Had the king finally lost his touch? I had to wait another eight years to see this trailer (anyone who has visited my blog before will know that I do not post pictures or embed videos, so this is a special concession for the grandest of directors):

And then we heard the news - only a month after his 80th birthday, and less than a month before the release of his latest film, Yash Chopra passed away. Such is his legacy that he will never be forgotten. But it is with a heavy heart that I review his last film - one I hoped would be his crowning glory, but is instead one of the weakest contributions to his vault of exceptional films.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan is the story of Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) and his undying love for Meera (Katrina Kaif), a girl he meets in London, while he busks, waits tables, sells fish and runs errands to make a living. Meera is the daughter of a rich man and is ostensibly strait-laced, but Samar recognises the playful imp within her and that is who he falls in love with. Complications arise when Meera's unwavering faith in God, and her insistence on bartering with Him, leads to her ending her relationship with Samar. Heart-broken and dejected, he returns to India and, with a death-wish, joins the bomb disposal unit of the Indian Army. While posted in Ladakh, he meets young and bubbly Akira (Anushka Sharma), who falls head over heels in love with him, a feeling that Samar is no longer capable of reciprocating to anyone but Meera. Hence, we get a love triangle, one that does not have an easy solution - and that is what the film is about.

If my description of the plot sounds flat and uninteresting, please remember to place some of the blame on Aditya Chopra, who is responsible for the story and dialogue, and part-responsible for the screenplay. It is shocking to imagine that he is the man behind one of the most successful and entertaining Hindi films of all time - Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). For this film, he has simply put together snatches of Hurt Locker (2008), Kabhi Kabhie and Trishul, and fleshed up the basic triangular structure of Veer-Zaara. 

Anushka Sharma plays the quintessential go-getter, a wonderfully 'alive' daredevil - and a rather annoying character most of the time. She looks, for lack of a better word, hot, dressed in the shortest of shorts and cotton vests, but she has gone a bit too large in her acting. Katrina Kaif, who had just started showing some promise in her acting, has delivered one of her most placid performances in recent times. Her facial muscles seem incapable of showing subtle expressions, and in this film, she is not even trying. But, she too, looks beautiful (though a bit chubby around the waist) and so all is well in the world. Shah Rukh Khan, on the other hand, is all charm and emotion, and at 46, he pulls off the mid-thirties look with aplomb. Unfortunately, in half of the film, he is meant to be in his mid-twenties and roughly three decades of smoking and drinking have left too many tell-tale marks on his face that undermine all his efforts at looking young. Still, it's SRK, the King of Bollywood, and his acting more than makes up for his appearance. With just his eyes, he conveys a thousand emotions. My only problem with his performance was the fact that after 20 years of vowing never to kiss his heroines onscreen, his cringe-worthy attempts in this film were a big mistake - resulting in many an awkward moment between him and Katrina. His scenes with Anushka were much better handled and they have far more chemistry than he and Katrina ever achieve.

There are way too many flaws in the execution of this film. The story is archaic and the twists are straight from the 80s. The scenes with the army almost always had a couple of soldiers carrying their rifles in the most comic manner. The scenes with Anushka carrying a video camera were even worse. Had a lesser director been at the helm, this would have been forgivable, but when Yash Chopra blunders, who do we turn to? This is a weak film in parts, and simply awful in others (yes, I am referring to the London bomb disposal scene and the unnecessary cameo-infested sequence at the vineyard). The audience keeps waiting for it to lift, to go somewhere - but it never does.

The music is good in general - but considering it's AR Rahman we are talking about, it is fairly mediocre. The choreography is excellent though - and Katrina is mind-blowing in the salsa-capoeira-street-inspired dance sequence. 

There is one thing in the film that I can not fault at all - and that is the cinematography. Anil Mehta is pretty much a genius with the camera, but in a seriously flawed film, he has delivered shot after impeccable shot. His work deserves a review of its own! Also, the location scout(s) should get a special mention. London has never been this well-explored in a Hindi film before and it was gratifying to see not only the typical tourist spots, but also the areas that only Londoners go to. 

All in all, it absolutely breaks my heart to give my final verdict on this film: it is sub-standard. But the colours, the actors, the style and of course the fact that it's a Yash Chopra film, his last at that, will ensure that Jab Tak Hai Jaan will be seen by all Bollywood fans and will be generally enjoyed, and possibly praised.

Hell, even I may go and watch it again!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Skyfall 2012

I had no intention of reviewing this latest James Bond offering, but I keep hearing from people how wonderful this film is, and I really can't take it anymore. So, here are my thoughts:

It has been 50 years since James Bond made his first appearance in an Eon Production (Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman). Dr No (1962) established the Bond character we have come to know and love for six decades, and set standards that we still measure the 'sequels' by. In this time, the face of Bond has changed (from Sean Connery to George Lazenby to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig), but the concept of the 'suave spy' has remained constant. Yes, he may not exactly be the secret agent that Ian Fleming had created when he started writing the novels but, like Sherlock Holmes before him, James Bond was re-imagined for the audio-visual medium. Unlike Holmes though, Bond's film characterisation has been fiercely protected by the Broccoli family, and has been far less arbitrary since his first screen appearance.

After 40 years and 20 films and 5 actors, Bond got a reboot. Daniel Craig stepped in and we went back, all the way back, to Casino Royale (2006). I was one of those who were quite apprehensive and unconvinced about the choice for this lead. Yes, Craig is a decent actor, has a strong screen presence and is fairly attractive, but he just did not look like Bond. It wasn't just that he is blond. It was the fact that if I wanted Roger Moore replaced, I'd opt for someone like Pierce Brosnan (and we had him)! And if I wanted Sean Connery replaced, I'd go for Clive Owen. Daniel Craig seemed like a replacement for Timothy Dalton, who, let's face it, was just a little less forgettable than George Lazenby. What's worse is that the trailers showed Daniel Craig pouting sexily in all his scenes, whether they were romantic, stylish or action.

Anyway, the film came out and I grudgingly went to watch it. Pouty or not, Craig put my fears to rest. The characterisation had been adjusted to suit his persona and with a little more hand-to-hand action thrown in (as per post-Bourne blues), this Bond was fresh, spirited, intelligent, suave and yet somehow inconspicuous, as a spy should be. The flamboyance was toned down, the dialogue un-cheesed and the storyline simplified to create an engaging, more believable film. Casino Royale and Daniel Craig won me over, in spite of myself.

That is why when Quantum of Solace (2008) came out, it actually hurt my feelings. I had finally opened my heart and mind to a new Bond, accepted the differences between him and Brosnan and I then got served an exceedingly boring, unbelievably irritating film, giving me no reason to root for the world's most famous spy.

So, I waited another four years, in the hope that the magic of Casino Royale will be recaptured in Skyfall. Alas, I was so very, very wrong.

Opening Scene: Fans of the past films will remember some of the more iconic opening sequences from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and GoldenEye (1995). Casino Royale had a perfect, stylish, brilliant opening scene as well. Skyfall's opening was lengthy, boring and trying too hard. As much as I love Istanbul, it seems to be the filming location of choice for way too many films these days, and I'm getting a little tired of the rooftops of the Grand Market now (see Taken 2). Even the lengthy, over-the-top boat chase scene from The World Is Not Enough (1999) was classier in comparison!

Theme Song: Bond films have given us some very popular theme songs over the years. Nancy Sinatra's You Only Live Twice, Shirley Bassey's Diamonds Are Forever, Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die, Tina Turner's GoldenEye, Garbage's The World Is Not Enough and Madonna's Die Another Day to name just a few. Chris Cornell's You Know My Name (Casino Royale) wasn't amazing, but it was still good enough to set a tone for the film. Skyfall's song, despite having amazing Adele's vocals, is really no great shakes. It's too reminiscent of an age past, but is a little all over the place. I'm not about to download it in a hurry.

Gadgets, Cars, Guns: These have been signature items for Bond films, but with the reboot, there has been a concerted effort to tone these elements down. In Skyfall, this being the 50th year and all, there are corny references, for the aficionados, to past films' gadgets: a pen that explodes, an ejector seat in a vintage Aston Martin DBS, etc. And finally, in this third instalment of the renewed franchise, Q is re-introduced (played by Ben Whishaw). He will probably develop into a character less disdainful of Bond, than previous Qs (Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese). But, in this film at least, all he offers is a radio transmitter and a personalised gun. *Yawn*.

Villain: This is probably the most disappointing factor of Skyfall. Raoul Silva is meant to be deranged, out of control and very dangerous because he knows all the inside secrets. He seems to have been modeled on the Joker and Moriarty, a true nemesis for our protagonist, created from the same mould as Bond, but one who took a different turn when abandoned by M. But for some reason, he is not scary; he is simply annoying. Javier Bardem, how ever brilliant he may be considered, has given one of his worst performances, by completely over-acting in all his scenes. Considering how outrageous some of the previous Bond villains have been, it actually feels strange to say this, but this character was not very 'believable'!

Women: Another essential for Bond films: beautiful women. In recent times, especially in Brosnan's films, they became actual characters that moved the story forward, rather than the helpless, irritating damsels they used to be previously. This is why Skyfall's female 'lead' Severine, (Berenice Lim Marlohe) was such a disappointment. Not only is she completely useless, she is not even the most attractive distraction! And the twist with Naomie Harris's Eve character was so blatantly inspired by John Blake's revelation at the end of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) that I actually groaned in the cinema.

Recurring Characters: Laying the overdue groundwork for the arrival of new recurring characters and departure of old ones in the third film, is just lazy. And that's what this new Bond series is: lazy. Since Casino Royale, I have wondered why Judi Dench stayed on to play M for this new Bond. She seemed out of place and almost out of her depth, which is a strange thing to say about such a legendary actress. There has been no chemistry between her and Daniel Craig. She has just appeared tired and haggard and very disinterested in him, and he has always seemed uncomfortable in her presence. She abandoned Brosnan's Bond during a mission once (Die Another Day, 2002); his reaction to that was pain, but a grudging understanding and respect. When she abandons Craig's Bond, he really seems not to care. There has never been a connection between them. If only they had replaced her when they rebooted the franchise, we wouldn't have had to go through three films of uncomfortable moments.

Title: I've seen better. The mystery created around 'Skyfall' during the word association test Bond has to take, fizzles out so badly when you finally find out what that word means to him. Come on guys...think of titles like 'You Only Live Twice' or 'A View To A Kill' or 'Octopussy'...then think 'Skyfall'. Ho-hum.

Story: Ah what a patchwork job this was. Scenes and themes have been lifted directly from previous (recent) Bond films (Bond gets abandoned by M, Bond breaks into M's house, MI6 building blows up, etc etc). Then there's the lack of consistency. So Bond can't really shoot straight any more, he fails his tests, he can't kill Silva who is right in front of him in a tunnel; less than a week later, he is a sharp-shooter again and is able to kill an army of men in a dark house. What? Despite having the most advanced medical facilities at his disposal, Bond sticks a knife into his shoulder, pulls out remnants of a shattered bullet lodged there for months, and delivers these to the afore-mentioned facilities. Why the drama? Don't ask. Kincade (Albert Finney), the gamekeeper of Bond's estate is oh-so-wild and clever, and saws a rifle off for better you do. Couple of scenes later, like an idiot he uses a bright torch in an open field, while trying to escape the enemy, who can now obviously see him a mile away. WHAT? Was this script written 50 years ago, when cinema logic used to be a little bit skewed?

The problems with this film are not Daniel Craig's fault. HE is not the worst Bond ever (Lazenby and Dalton have ensured that), but the promise he showed six years ago is now wearing thin. The writers and directors really need to work harder to keep the Bond tradition alive - and yet, keep the premise palatable for a new generation. What they seem to be doing is mixing old Bond, with new Bourne, with future Bond and making some weird concoction, which will not withstand the test of time. This 50th anniversary offering is weak and unfortunate.

Instead of the terrible references they pulled, it would have been so much better if the producers had got all 5 previous Bonds together (they're all still alive), dressed them in dinner jackets, and sat them around a card table in a casino. Even without a single dialogue, just an exchange of looks, between them and Daniel Craig, would have delivered a scene to remember for ever. That would have been an homage.

Skyfall is a fairly tedious, interminable film, devoid of logic and grace. It's not the worst action film ever, but it is definitely one of the lesser Bond films.

Do watch it though. I hear it is 'brilliant'.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Reluctant Fundamentalist 2012

Mohsin Hamid's novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was a relevant story when it was published in 2007. Five years later, its cinematic adaptation deviates very little from the original storyline, and yet remains relevant as ever.

After the kidnapping of an American professor in Lahore, his colleague, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), meets with American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), at a small tea house in Lahore. Over the course of their conversation, Changez's life story unravels in flashbacks. A Princeton graduate, he lived the American dream - a high-flying job on Wall Street, an upper-class American girlfriend with serious emotional baggage (Kate Hudson), a Gordon-Gecko-like boss (Kiefer Sutherland) and such brilliant prospects - without ever losing the usual comforts of a middle-class Pakistani family back home. Life was good. And then the 9/11 attacks happened, bursting the bubble he lived in. As people around him start treating him differently on account of his ethnicity and religion, Changez himself starts seeing the world, and his own place in it, differently. But is the reality of the world around him enough to shake his own fundamentals? Is he really the 'fundamentalist' they see him as?

The story is quite powerful, not least because it is the voice of the 'other'. Changez's love affair with America and Americans, which turns sour through no fault of his own, isn't a far-fetched tale. The blatant xenophobia that gripped American society, after the Twin Towers were attacked, has been well-documented and analysed for years. This is one date from the recent past that effectively changed the course of history, for ever. Here we see its effects, first hand, on a character we find easy to like. But Changez's story is not just about the wider political issues; it is about his own life falling apart, it is about the identity crises he goes through, it is about the realisation that while he appears to be one of the 'villains' to people around him, he has actually become a 'victim' of their changed perception.

The novel, narrated in its entirety in the first person by Changez, poses many messy questions and leaves the conclusions ambiguous. The film, on the other hand, does tie up loose ends and concludes on a far less ambiguous note. I have heard this often, and it usually is true, that a film based on a novel, is never really as good as the original text. This is probably because when you read the book first, you imagine, on your own, how the characters look, speak and behave; you effectively direct the film in your own mind and another film maker's vision just does not measure up. 

Still, there are rare directors who can raise the written material to new heights with their renditions. Mira Nair is one such director.

Salaam Bombay! (1988) is considered her masterpiece and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) earned her some notoriety, but for me it will always be Monsoon Wedding (2001) that is her most important contribution to cinema - as it straddles a line between commercial 'Bollywood' films and 'Alternative' cinema, yet comes out a victor of 'World' cinema. When she was signed on to direct Vanity Fair (2004), it surprised me a little less than Shekhar Kapur directing Elizabeth (1998), but it seemed a bit odd to imagine her presenting a 19th-century, quintessentially English novel by William Thackeray. And yet, despite the odd casting of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharpe, the film is a decent adaptation, with interesting changes to the original characterisations and even more interesting embellishments to the atmosphere of the time. Next, she took on Namesake (2006), a particularly flawed first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes such beautiful short stories. Mira turned a mediocre novel into an excellent, moving film and extracted phenomenal performances from Tabu, Irrfan Khan and even Kal Penn. For years, her name was attached to Johnny Depp's project, an adaptation of Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram, which never got made. And now, she's back with an adaptation of another best-selling novel.

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though quite profound in its subject-matter and written in an unconventional style, is not a great piece of literature. He may be limited as a novelist, but thankfully his script, co-written by Ami Boghani, has better fleshed-out characterisations. And it is definitely to Mira's credit that she has not only done justice to the themes in the book, but has delivered a far superior product. 

Her lead actor does not disappoint either. Not enough praise can be levelled at Riz Ahmed for his brilliant portrayal of Changez. He is an emerging British-Pakistani talent, whose string of politically-charged films and music put him in very good stead for this role. And he has already 'played' this part for Radio 4's 'Book at Bedtime' series, so he may not have needed as much time in figuring out Changez's motivations, as another actor might have. Riz's face records every emotion so effortlessly - from innocence to awareness, from joy to silent rage - it is quite breathtaking. In fact, in the first flashback of the film it is almost jarring to see the switch from the hardened features of the protagonist now, to the bright, young, hopeful look he carried in the past. Also, I was particularly impressed by his Urdu accent - yes, in the long eulogy at the end (written by Javed Akhtar), you can hear his struggle to get it just right, but it's barely noticeable unless you are a Lahori yourself. Best of all, his accent in English never becomes caricaturish - being a British Asian, it must have been difficult for him to deliver the convincing Asian-American accent that private-school-educated Pakistanis often have. Riz has carried the entire film on his young shoulders and there is not a single scene to which he has not done full justice.

As for the other performances, Liev Schreber is excellent and the scenes between him and Riz have the kind of chemistry that the writers could only have aspired for. Veterans Shabana Azmi and Om Puri, as Changez's parents, and Lahore-born newcomer Meesha, as his sister, deliver strong, natural performances in their very short appearances. Nelsan Ellis is typically charming and Haluk Bilginer brings his usual poise to the canvas. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland. Their characters seem half-baked at times - and for some reason, their acting is quite unreal and unconvincing in some scenes. Kate's scenes with Riz lack the chemistry essential to the story and Kiefer's last scene is a tad over-the-top. Though not actually bad, theirs are the most disappointing of contributions to this otherwise strong ensemble.

The cinematography is exquisite - from the hand-held camera work for indoor scenes to the beautiful shots of the various cities the story travels to. And as usual Mira Nair's choice of music for the soundtrack is simply brilliant. She has selected well, from the vast array of Pakistani music styles, with Kangna, a mystical qawwali by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, Atif Aslam's classical-based Mori Araj Suno and Overload's rock-based Dhol Bajay Ga. Mira, who is not from Pakistan, has managed to recreate Pakistan on screen with far more authenticity in dialogue and soundtrack than most of her peers from India have ever done (except for one odd use of 'bhaiya' instead of 'bhai' at the beginning of the film - you will almost never hear the former term in Lahore).

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an important film, a film that matters. Its success will hopefully facilitate dialogue, debate and discussion about the harsh times we live in. It is not a masterpiece though, and it is not Mira's best work. But it is a vast improvement on the book. And while the writing, direction and editing of some peripheral scenes could have been much better, the overall experience is quite excellent.

Definitely recommended, even if only for the mesmerising effect of Riz Ahmed's intensity.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Taken 2 - 2012

In 2008, when Taken came out, I went to watch it with no expectations. And like many other viewers, I was blown away by the slick action, limited dialogue and crisp execution of the script. Above all, it was seeing Liam Neeson pull off an action role with finesse, and lending class to what was essentially a Steven Seagal film, that I found so impressive. I could never have imagined soft-spoken and graceful Neeson to be so deft with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. Within minutes, he shifted from genial to menacing - and from the first time he threatened to find and kill his daughter's kidnappers, he convinced me that he could and would do just that.

So, when trailers for Taken 2 came out, I was instantly excited. But you see, I forgot that lightning never strikes the same place twice.

Taken 2 is the story of Bryan Mills, a retired CIA operative, who in the previous film managed to track and kill members of an Albanian human-trafficking-gang, who had kidnapped his daughter during a holiday in Paris. Some time has passed since then and life is slowly returning to normal for Bryan, his daughter Kim, and his ex-wife Lenore. Brian gives driving lessons to Kim, like a father would, but watches over her personal life, like only a secret service agent can. In the meantime, the leader of the afore-mentioned Albanian gang is seeking revenge for his son, who Bryan had killed. Things come to a head when the estranged family decide to holiday together in Istanbul and the Albanian gang strikes again - this time to 'take' them all. How Bryan saves not only his life, but his family's, is what the film is about.

Yes, the plot is razor-thin, but most action films have even thinner story-lines. The lack of a meaty premise is the least of my problems with this film. I have too many other issues. So, where should I start?

The dialogue is awful and the ensuing scenes, awkward. Family moments look forced and uncomfortable, because the things they are saying to each other are unnatural and clunky. The first 30 minutes of the film just seem a bit pointless and scenes are tacked on to each other without flow. By the time the real action begins, all the characters have managed to irritate the audience with their listless interactions, which really doesn't help to build any empathy for when they finally get taken.

Then there's the flawed action routines. Where Taken had succeeded in establishing Liam Neeson as an ageing, but quick-witted and limber trained agent, Taken 2 really struggles in delivering a single well-choreographed fight sequence. The camera work is all over the place and is camouflaging the main lead's limited participation in the action scenes. The special effects are jaded and unconvincing. To paraphrase a friend, even the blasts were over-acting.

The thriller elements are just as flawed. For example, the 'clever' little methods, with which Bryan Mills gets his daughter to find the location where he is being held, are actually fairly unscientific. In fact, his own system of noting where he is being driven to, though inspired by Sherlock Holmes, is quite ridiculous (he categorises a call to prayer as 'man singing', which for a long-time international CIA operative smacks of pure ignorance and ineptitude; and seriously, in a city of almost 3,000 mosques, is a call to prayer the best 'milestone' to navigate with?). The pièce de résistance of this badly-constructed action film, is a terrible car chase scene, that has been teleported from the 80s - possibly from a Bollywood film of the time - where there is a constant exchange between father (who is passenger-seat-driving) and daughter (who has not even managed to pass her driving test on an automatic car in the US, but in Turkey is a fantastic getaway car driver on a car with a stick-shift). Bryan keeps shouting 'Move', 'Go Faster' and 'You Can' every 5 seconds; Kim keeps responding with 'Dad' and 'I can't'. The script for this scene should be framed - 3 sheets of paper, with these phrases and nothing else.

I wish I could say that Liam Neeson's acting saved the day, but it really didn't. He is so detached from his character that he might as well have been going through an out-of-body experience. Famke Janssen, as Lenore, hardly has anything to do. Somewhere early on, she gets hung upside down once, and so spends the rest of the film in a strange haze - it really makes no sense why she's 'playing dead' like she's been tortured for days! Maggie Grace, as Kim, was quite endearing in the first film, but here she is just annoying. Even the villain is the most useless bad guy, ever - and his gang of amateurish cronies are too ill-equipped to be scary gangsters! It's not just their acting that sucks - it's everything about their characters and screen presence that needs an overhaul.

Supposedly the location, Istanbul, is a character in the film. The director has made sure with every second shot to establish and re-establish that we are indeed in Istanbul. Here is a shot of the Blue Mosque. Here is another shot of the Blue Mosque. Now here is the Blue Mosque with the Turkish flag in the forefront. Here is the Bosphorus - how do we know that? - well, there's a Turkish flag on the boat and of course, a silhouette of the Blue Mosque.

Taken 2  is not a mediocre film; it is simply a bad film. Pierre Morel, the director of the previous film, is no genius. But Olivier Megaton has done such an abominable job of directing the sequel, he should be banished from film-making for ever.

If it wasn't for the fact that I could not stop laughing hysterically at the terrible dialogue, acting, scripting, direction, special effects and soundtrack, I would have been cursing myself for falling victim to this horror of a film.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Untouchable 2011

I had no idea about the hype around Untouchable (original title: Intouchables) when I decided to see it. The fact that it was a French film and Francois Cluzet plays the main protagonist was incentive enough, but after watching it, I have read various articles describing it as one of the biggest worldwide hits from France.

The story goes thus: Philippe is a rich quadriplegic, looking for a full-time carer, and along comes Driss, an ex-convict from the ghettos, who is at the interview with the aim to get rejected, so he can show just cause to claim his welfare benefits. Driss's irreverent manner and disregard for social norms win him a probation period as Phillippe's carer, which Philippe and his staff actually have to convince Driss to try out, on the basis of the extravagant perks. What develops is an unlikely friendship between two men who are as different from each other, in every way, as can be. Philippe is able to bring purpose to Driss's life and in turn Driss gives him the gift of laughter. The story is based on the true-life relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his carer Abdel Sellou.

This is possibly one of the funniest films I have seen on the subject of disability. As bizarre as that sounds, Untouchable constantly provides uninhibited laughter, but there is not a moment where you feel that Philippe's condition is being made fun of, for cheap thrills. Even when Driss puts Philippe through some awful situations, somehow the disabled character does not come across as helpless. All the way through, Driss treats him like an equal, like someone for whom concessions don't need to be made. Even when Philippe dwells on the tragedies in his life, Driss dissipates the gloom with an idea that challenges the norms of how one should behave in that situation.

Unlike A Sea Inside (2004), which evokes compassion, or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), which inspires hope, Untouchable brings mirth, without apology. Instead of reflecting on the heroism in a paralysed person's life, it focuses on friendship and crossing barriers set by society. 2004's Inside I'm Dancing came close to this sort of story-telling, but it played on the pity/heroism attitudes too, which it is sometimes criticised for.

This is not to say all disability stories are the same and should be dealt with in one particular manner. Most of the films I have mentioned were, in fact, based on true stories and each patient had their own circumstances. But in Philippe's case, the focus was on the fun times he had, and still has, with his carer. The film is unashamedly funny all the way through, and memory of the scenes where Philippe exposes Driss to modern art and classical music, or when Driss shaves Philippe's facial hair, will always make me giggle. If the real Philippe and Abdel are anything like the characters on screen, then their relationship is utterly enviable.

Francois Cluzet is an extremely dignified actor, a class act. As Philippe, he has to rely only on his facial expressions and his voice to convey all emotions. It helps, of course, that he has such a warm face and is instantly likeable. Omar Sy, who plays Driss, is a total revelation to me. His entire body is active and alive, his face is absolutely fluid and his performance is completely unhindered by any rules. He is not acting, he just is. And, I must say, besides being a refreshing actor, he really is easy on the eye! All other actors, including Anne Le Ny and Audrey Fleurot, just add to the mix and make it work.

Untouchable is a particularly beautiful story about friendship and living life, and without ever getting preachy for even a moment, it has all the compassion and hope and belief that a film about disability is 'expected' to have. An excellent, excellent film, that is very highly recommended.

Looper 2012

I'm befuddled why so many reviewers are making it sound like Looper is a very confusing sci-fi, time-travel story, when really it is not. Writer-Director Rian Johnson has made sure that everything that could ever confuse you about the science of time-travel is either kept to a minimum or explained in painful detail through the voice-over narration by the main character, Joe. I'm worried that people who are reviewing this film have never seen a sci-fi film before, and this, coming from someone who's not even a sci-fi fan!

The story mostly takes place in the US in 2044. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a well-paid specialist assassin, known as a Looper. A Looper's job is to assassinate marks that are sent by a crime syndicate from the future, that is, 30 years from the 'current' time', leaving no trace of the body or the murder in the year 2074. For this, they get paid handsomely in silver. And one day, they have to 'close the loop', or have to kill their own future self, for which they get paid in gold and are instantly retired from their profession, to live as they please for the next three decades. Failure to close the loop, results in gruesome death for both the assassin and the mark (and I really mean gruesome). So, when older Joe (Bruce Willis) shows up as the mark, current Joe has no intention of letting him go, but obviously that is not how it plays out. And thus, an action-filled chase begins where both 'Joe's fight for their own survival, while trying to get the other to understand the choices they are making.

This is definitely an interesting story, and has been told in an efficient manner. Of course, I have many unanswered questions. For one, the whole concept of sending someone back in time to be killed because it's not easy to get rid of a body in the future, feels a bit shaky when we actually see a murder happening in the future without the killers even pausing to think. Also, if the whole idea of 'closing the loop' is so problematic, why make loopers kill their future selves? Why not get another looper involved?

And finally, and this is the only spoiler, which would make sense if you have seen the film: the entire premise of the Bruce Willis character's mission to kill the child is baseless - because if Bruce Willis exists, then Joe managed to kill him in the last round (and we see that happening), so the child's mother was not killed by Bruce Willis in the last round and he shouldn't have grown up to be the Rainmaker at all. And if there's no Rainmaker in the future, then we have no film! OK, that bit is confusing, but that's because it's a flaw and the reviewers aren't really picking up on this just yet!

It is good to see Bruce Willis toting a gun again and looking slightly John McClane-esque. Also, he's obviously very comfortable with these time-travel set-ups, after Twelve Monkeys (1995) and well, The Kid (2000)!! Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a  good job too - but the prosthetic nose and flattened mouth are quite distracting. He does the best he can, but at times, he himself seems distracted by his make-up. Emily Blunt and Jeff Daniels pull their weight and Pierce Gagnon gets pretty creepy. So, all in all the cast is more than capable and the pace of the film is consistent. It's a well-executed effort, and despite the holes in the story, the film holds the audience's attention and interest.

Definitely recommended, especially if the genre rocks your boat. Otherwise, it's a decent action film, but not exactly destined to become the next Terminator...

Note: Some of my questions answered, but not really answered, by the director. This is full of spoilers, so no point reading it unless you have seen the film:

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Total Recall 2012 vs Dredd 2012

I've debated about whether I need to write reviews for these two remakes of popular 1990s sci-fi films, which were in turn inspired by a short story and comic series, respectively. Honestly, I have no good excuse to write this, except to get it off my chest!

I'm not a sci-fi fan - and have never been. But I have watched many of the 'essential' films, to better understand the genre. Also, growing up in the '80s and '90s meant that, like it or not, some of the biggest blockbusters I watched invariably had elements of a stark world of the future, where the existence of cyborgs is common, and even humans are more mechanical.

Total Recall (1990), which over time has adopted cult status, always seemed to me, to essentially be a B-movie. It is garish, with awful acting and many scenes set up to make the audience laugh. It is, at the heart of it all, just a fun, cheesy ride. It helped in creating Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'legend' status and is probably Sharon Stone's second most famous role. Why, just after 22 years, they decided to remake the film, is beyond me (besides the obvious hope to cash in loads of money). Yes, the special effects now look dated, but the film is not old enough to need a remake, and still commands a fair fan following that would not like it to be tampered with.

To justify this effort, I guess, 'they' have made some minor changes to the look and feel of the film. The new Total Recall is greyer and quite humourless. By casting Colin Farrell, whose selection of films is really diverse, they have hoped to bring in an actor who is not yet typecast, but generally respected for his work. And with Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, 'sexy action' can be expected, so that should bring in the lads. Unfortunately, what they forgot to bring to the table was a new angle to the story. And though I enjoyed the 'look' of the film (in all its shades of grey), I'm not really sure if the screenplay, the dialogues, the action or anything really impressed me. Yes, Colin and Kate look hot, and that should be reason enough to go to the cinema, but there wasn't much that made me want to stay.

I wasn't thoroughly bored. I was just thoroughly confused about why 'they' felt the need to make this film. With very average action and acting, it's a very average film, which will be massively panned by anyone who actually loved the previous version.

My experience with Dredd was even worse. Judge Dredd (1995) was a fairly miserable film, but here too, over time there was a cult feel about it. Most action fans have seen it, and remember it well, and will probably list it amongst Sylvester Stallone's top films. When the trailer for the new film came out, I wasn't sure if I was quite excited about it, because though Karl Urban doesn't have a half-paralysed face like Sly's, his constantly down-turned mouth, underneath the helmet, seemed like he was aping Stallone (which is weird, because why would you want to repeat a portrayal that has been mocked for almost two decades?). When I finally watched the film, I was further distressed by the fact that his voice kept changing from gruff to normal, like he couldn't make up his mind whether to 'copy' Stallone or not.

The film makers did try to bring something new here though. They did not repeat the story from the first film. Since this character is from a series of comics, there is a definite possibility of bringing new ideas to the table (unlike Total Recall, which is based on a short story). So, what did the writers do? They wrote something completely 'new', that is heavily inspired by an Indonesian film Serbuan Maut (The Raid, 2011), and hoped that no one will notice! Unfortunately for them, The Raid not only had an international release recently, but has been so highly regarded all over the world, as one of the greatest action films ever, that the cat is, sort of, out of the bag. Of course, in the US, where international cinema isn't that widely distributed, it will be business as usual and I am sure this 'new' story will be appreciated.

Except for the stunning visuals and clever cinematography, Dredd bored me so much that I contemplated leaving the cinema a few times. The story was copied, the acting was dull, the dialogues were as cheesy as can be - and the only reason a cheesy action film works (the 'action', itself) was so slow and ungratifying that I really did not see the point of putting up with the movie.

So, in my opinion as dull as Total Recall is, it's still a little more interesting than Dredd - but if I could have my way, I'd go back in time and remove the idea of remaking these films in the first place.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Anna Karenina 2012

It has been a while since I wrote a real opinionated rant, and not a trying-to-be-objective review, but this film has once again brought out the 'animal' in me...!

I have not read Anna Karenina, mainly because anything Tolstoy-related makes me imagine losing the rest of my life to reading one novel. And when there are so many films to watch, why lose your life to written words, I say?! So, this film seemed like the easy way to get my literary education. Instead, I got a theatrical one.

It is set like a theatre production. Stage hands appear and replace pieces of scenery and props, to create new scenes, while the camera watches. A character's walk through the back of the stage implies a journey through town to reach a different destination. Sounds and colours and gestures denote things more poignant than what is apparent. Etc, etc. It's all quite ingenious! And pretentious. And once you have gotten over the novelty of the very stylised film-making, it actually becomes very jarring. The antics around the actors become more than a little distracting, and admiration turns into annoyance. The cinematography is exquisite, though - and the perfect lighting and make-up contribute to some brilliant tight close-ups of the actors.

As for the actors themselves, well, what can I say about Keira Knightley, who plays the title character. It confounds me how successful she has become, with really very little to put her there - but I do have some theories about this:
Britain produces some extraordinary acting talent, and in British cinema conventional good looks are often not the main criterion for casting. Thus, the better-looking actors find themselves lured by better-paid jobs in a much bigger playground called Hollywood. Whether it's Christian Bale or Michael Fassbender or Tom Hardy - men whose good looks are matched by immense talent - they all made their global impact from the other side of the pond. But with the 'fairer' sex, Hollywood has had less luck with recruitment. After Kate Winslet, there have been few actresses that look good, act well and can become stars. Yes, there's Carey Mulligan, but she's not on a film-signing spree for some bizarre reason. Keira Knightley, on the other hand, has caught Hollywood's eye. Who cares if she can't act? She's got those bushy eyebrows, can stare vacantly at things and there are the ever-dependable pouty lip muscles she can exercise. She's the female Robert Pattinson! Also, she has that jutting jaw and high shoulders, that extremely eager, toothy grin - and best of all, she has a British accent and hurried diction, which come in handy for all period films, regardless of their original language. What else could an audience want?
Oh stop being pesky about the acting! We, the audience, are paying for her acting lessons, aren't we? Every time she gets cast in another film that we go and watch, she learns an extra expression, which she uses next time. That's thrifty of her.

In this film, Ms Knightley has employed her best stiff-body-and-multiple-pouts routine so well that some critics actually think she wasn't half-bad. That may be because they're comparing her acting to an even worse, wooden performance by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Count Vronsky. If there's a saving grace in the main casting, it's Jude Law (seriously...can you believe that?) as Alexei Karenin. His portrayal of the character is sufficiently worthy of both pity and hatred, so a job well done, I guess. Otherwise, there's zero chemistry between any of the actors and every one just seems to be going through the motions at a rehearsal for a stage play.

Yet, despite all this negativity, I'm glad I watched Anna Karenina. I continue to be an admirer and student of cinema, and this film has definitely been created in a very unique manner - so it felt like going to school to learn some really boring, but essential theorems. Otherwise, the acting, the emotions, the characters, all left me fairly cold.

Avoid it, unless you too are afflicted like me.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Lawless 2012

The last time writer Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame) and director John Hillcoat got together to make a movie, the result was the extraordinary The Proposition (2005), a film I am known to refer to as 'the most powerful Western made in recent times'. Seven years later they have returned with a 1930s Gangster Film, a genre that has been explored over and over again, and recently even made it big on television with HBO's Boardwalk Empire.

Lawless is based on Matt Bondurant's historical novel, The Wettest County in the World, which tells the story of his grandfather and grand-uncles, who ran a successful bootlegging business during Prohibition (1920-1933) in Franklin County, Virginia. The film introduces us to the Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and to myths about their, or at least Forrest's, invincibility. With the help of family friend Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), their liquor business runs efficiently, while their 'bar' serves as a front for illegal activities. But when a new law-enforcer, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), comes to town and tries to intimidate Franklin's bootleggers into sharing their profits with him, the Bondurants stand up against him and a war gets waged between good and evil, except the lines between these two become extremely fuzzy.

Though the focus of the film is often on Jack, it is Forrest who is a legend. It is his determination that makes the brothers a force to reckon with. He is the brains of the family, Howard the brawn, while Jack is the heart - but none of them is quite as one-dimensional as that. Jack's open infatuation and crazy antics for Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) bring on the laughter, but it is Forrest's silent longing for Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain) that really melts your heart.

The acting in the film is above par. For me, Shia LaBeouf is the sort of performer that rarely leaves an impression - and here, he is playing a character that not a lot of people take seriously. So, it is to his credit that he has done full justice to his role and slowly grows on you through the film. Jason Clarke and Dane DeHaan have small roles, but they are written so well that both actors make an impact. Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain not only provide the much-needed female distraction in this male-dominated drama, as they would have done in the original Gangster Films of the '30s, but they also have a presence that the film could not have done without.

As for Guy Pearce, he has such a mixed bag of roles in his repertoire, and pretty much each one has been delivered to perfection, but he strangely doesn't seem to make enough waves in Hollywood. He was mind-blowing as Charlie Burns in The Proposition, with the same Cave-Hillcoat crew, and now, as Charlie Rakes, he is so deliciously creepy and repulsive that I wanted to get up and clap for him. But he isn't alone in deserving a standing ovation: Tom Hardy, after an under-whelming turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which wasn't his fault but rather the writers', has shown once again why he is in so much demand right now. Using a combination of limited dialogue, small grunts and smouldering glares, he has managed to appear just as fearsome, as he is endearing, in this film.

All the actors have delivered measured and perfect performances, but their job has been made easy by the scriptwriter. Nick Cave has interlaced the extreme violence of the story, with real-life absurdity; his warm, believable characters often deal with bizarre, funny situations, just before something terrible happens. Even at the best of times, the dark clouds are always looming, and during some dark moments, there is a weird urge to laugh. But the writer and director never digress, they never lose grip of the story they are telling and the manner in which they want to relay it.

Lawless is not as flawless or as brilliant as The Proposition, but that may just be because it takes place in a very different era (and is a different genre too). It is a film I would recommend very highly, especially if the sight of blood and gore, at very unexpected moments, does not put you off.

This is, quite simply, the sort of film that reaffirms my love for cinema!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Ek Tha Tiger 2012

Note: I don't review many Hindi films, but this one seemed special. I watched and reviewed it on opening day - now 2 weeks later, it's broken all but one Bollywood box-office record, which it's very likely to break soon. 29/08/12

Salman Khan is sitting atop a hat-trick of record-breaking successes (Dabangg 2010, Ready 2011, Bodyguard 2011), and with his latest release - timed perfectly for India's Independence Day celebrations and in anticipation of Eid - he is expected to deliver another shattering success, which he just might.

Ek Tha Tiger is the story of a dedicated RAW agent, Tiger (Salman Khan), who has been on field missions continually for 12 years and has hardly had time for a personal life. His boss (Girish Karnad) sends him to Dublin to observe and report on a retired Indian scientist (Roshan Seth), who is suspected of leaking information to international intelligence agencies. Tiger tries to infiltrate the scientist/professor's home and life, by enlisting help from his housekeeper, Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Despite warnings from his trusted friend and colleague (Ranvir Shorey), Tiger ends up falling for Zoya, in his attempts to make her fall for his charms. All should've gone well, except that Tiger's secret identity isn't the only secret in this story - and as other hidden tales are revealed, our protagonist has to choose between love and his duty to his country. Thus begins a wild chase spanning continents and beautiful locales (we jump from Ireland to India to Turkey to Cuba) - finally proving, once again, that love shall conquer all.

The problem with this film is that despite a hint of an actual story (unlike some of Salman Khan's recent ventures), the twists and turns can be spotted a mile away. Some of the dialogue is trite and most of the conflict, completely banal. A 65-year-old animosity is simplified to the extent that it looks like a silly rivalry between RAW and ISI.

Yet, there is something quite compelling about this film.

From the opening sequence itself, where we see a silhouette of Salman Khan appear against a beautiful Middle Eastern backdrop, the film sets up enough moments for the audiences at home to whistle and clap in the Khan-mania that usually turns even his most ridiculous films into runaway successes. The cinematography is out of this world, aided heavily by formerly unexplored locations (instead of the usual London, we have Dublin; instead of Dubai and New York, we have Istanbul and Havana). The music and song picturisations are also worth mentioning as they never really break the flow of the story and provide just the right amount of Bollywood-style entertainment. Save a couple of typical toilet jokes that have become synonymous with Salman Khan's films, the humour is generally quite subtle (too subtle, at times), which is almost refreshing. And though no one can ever accuse Salman Khan or Katrina Kaif of actually acting well, they are not half bad in this film - and for the first time ever, they appear to have some onscreen chemistry.

Above all, it is the action that's the life of this party. Even though you can clearly identify Salman's stunt double whenever he appears (thank you for that, cameraman), the action is smart, quick and mostly believable (let's not dwell on the tram madness or the helicopter sequence, shall we?). There are no scenes where 10 men circle the 'hero' and go flying in the air with his one kick. True, it's not Jason Bourne action (even The Bourne Legacy 2012 couldn't recapture that level of coolness), but it's definitely quite awesome. The kicks and punches look and sound real, the crazy jumps are almost possible - and for the first time (ever?), the woman gets to kick ass as much as the man in a Bollywood film. Yes, Katrina Kaif isn't a damsel in distress; in fact, she's possibly the most 'equal' female character I have seen in a film named after the male protagonist!

The biggest issue with Ek Tha Tiger is the usual problem with all of Kabir Khan's films: they're always gorgeous and they make sense, but they lack a connection with the audience. There's something clinical about them that keeps the viewers at a distance. So, despite the stunning visuals and a half-decent plot, the very slow-edited, pointlessly lengthy shots, where we wait for a character to react to the information just received, put the viewers off quite a bit. If only he'd spent more time tightening the edits, the final product would have been far superior.

Having said that, this film has all the makings of a blockbuster. There's action, romance, songs, comedy and a couple of very attractive actors. What more could one possibly want from a Salman Khan film, which could just as easily be a hit because he is in it?

Ultimately, if you like 'masala films' and enjoy basic Bollywood, do not miss this one. It will not disappoint!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy 2012

I am a little confused as to why most reviewers are finding it necessary to explain that this film stars Jeremy Renner and not Matt Damon. Surely, anyone who hasn't seen the earlier films doesn't care, as the posters and trailers only show Renner; and anyone who has seen the 'Bourne Trilogy' has heard from at least one of the many reports, that have announced for months, that this is not a Matt Damon film.

Anyhow, my quibbles with reviewers aside, The Bourne Legacy is the fourth instalment, and also a reboot, within the Bourne franchise. The story revolves around Aaron Cross (Renner), who is a member of Operation Outcome, a black ops programme that, amongst other things, is running genetic experiments to enhance human capabilities, both physical and mental. We meet Cross on an Alaskan training exercise and learn about his skills and his dependencies. Parallel to this narrative, Jason Bourne is busy exposing Treadstone and Operation Blackbriar (as per the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum 2007), which leads to panic within the darker, more secret wings of the CIA, and consequently Eric Byer (Edward Norton), who oversees such projects, orders the 'shutdown' of Operation Outcome. Along with his Outcome doctor, Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who herself is being hunted, Cross ingeniously escapes his fate and begins the international chase that is synonymous with Bourne films. 

Unfortunate for any spy thriller made post-2002, when The Bourne Identity was released, comparisons with the Jason Bourne films are inevitable. This one is of course just a little more unfortunate as it is not only a spy thriller, but also bears the name of the trilogy that effectively altered the canvas of this genre. There are some obvious similarities in the way this film has been shot, in the way the music accompanies the narrative, in the way the 'evil' characters are written and portrayed. Where it differs massively is the characterisation of its main protagonist. 

Jason Bourne was so clear about self-preservation that he was almost cold and mechanical. We knew that underneath his robotic front was a lost soldier, but he could operate without stopping to feel anything for a long time. Aaron Cross appears to be the kind of person who would stop to smell the flowers. He smiles, jokes and asks 'too many questions'. He is also a lot more open about himself, his dependencies and his shortcomings. He is aware of who he is and there is a lot less angst in him. It is his characterisation that provides the freshest and most interesting hook in this film, because otherwise, the film would just appear to be a cheap imitation of an excellent trilogy.

Jeremy Renner has very quietly climbed the rungs of recognition and success over the past decade or more. I remember him from an episode called 'Somnambulist' in the TV series Angel (2000), where he was a more than impressive adversary. Then nothing. I did not recognise him in a few outings I did see him in, till his daredevil turn in the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008) and later The Town (2010). Of course, since then he has become a lot more recognisable due to roles in major productions like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) and Avengers Assemble (2012). In all his performances, regardless of the standard of the production, he has always been excellent. And once again, in this film, Renner is excellent. Whether it is a success or not, and whether they make a sequel or not, he will be praised for a brilliantly natural portrayal of Aaron Cross.

The rest of the cast is adequate - as is the film. If we can get past the comparisons with a much more superior story, tighter scripts and more believable chase scenes in the previous trilogy, The Bourne Legacy is an exciting thriller. It has some plot holes and some slightly unbelievable moments, but generally it's a decent ride. Worth a watch.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises 2012

There will be no end to analysis and commentary on this last part of a truly epic trilogy. Just as there was no end to speculation around it for the past four years since the previous film had graced our screens. So, here's my drop of wisdom in the huge ocean of Batman discussions.

Traditionally, the third part in a trilogy is often the worst. Take, for instance, The Godfather: Part III (1990), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spider-Man 3 (2007) - all were sorely disappointing, especially as they came after a sometimes stronger second instalment than even the first film. Keeping that in mind, The Dark Knight Rises had a lot at stake. If Batman Begins (2005) had started the fire, the reaction to The Dark Knight (2008) could be likened to the size of an inferno. And since then all eyes have been on what Nolan-Bale would do next.

First, let's cover the story very quickly and spoiler-free. It's been eight years since DA Harvey Dent's death and the horrors inflicted by the maniacal Joker on Gotham City. Batman, blamed for Dent's death, has fled the scene. Ostensibly, there is peace all around and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), now a recluse, finds no reason to be a hero. But as Alfred (Michael Caine) points out, he also seems to have lost all taste for life since Rachel, his childhood friend and hope for a normal life, died in an explosion orchestrated by the Joker. Enter a breath of fresh air, cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway); a young man looking for his inspiration, Officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a new reason to believe in the future, honest businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard); and a new threat to the city that is bent on destroying everything on a much bigger scale, terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). With the help of trusted Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce and Batman both re-enter the worlds they had exited - in a final bid to save Gotham City and its inhabitants from certain death.

The 164-minute-long film builds slowly, and with many sub-plots, to reach the ultimate hour of multiple revelations and conclusions. To be honest, I could have done without so many minor plots. The story did not need to have these diversions, as the fabric of the main story was already rich enough. But this is somewhat reminiscent of the previous two films - they too had too much going on, which on further viewings always felt distracting to me. Here, they expose another flaw, which is that a lot of questions from these subplots are left unanswered. It would have been a better use of footage to concentrate more on the why and how of some character motivations than having haphazard sub-plots. Also, not having seen this on an IMAX screen, I am not sure, but aside from some breathtaking shots, this did not feel like Wally Pfister's best work to date. The sound recording choices too had me a bit perplexed at times. Other minor quibbles include Anne Hathaway's make-up (red lipstick which 'bleeds' in real life is bad enough, but on screen, where make-up is re-touched after every shot, it is just intolerable), a very unnecessary and cheesy lovemaking-by-the-fire sequence and also, the less-than-impressive action choreography (in places, it's almost clunky and slow, which I partly blame on the cinematography).

Now for the good parts. Despite the slow burn, the film sucks you in anyway. A lot of this has to do with Batman's immense appeal, but a lot more is because of well, quite simply, Christian Bale. The audience Batman and Bruce Wayne back. And so from his first appearance on screen, we are hooked. Also, my one and only, but fairly huge, complaint about the previous film was that it was the story of the Joker. And aside from a couple of powerful interactions between them (did you not literally salivate when Batman 'interrogates' Joker or when Joker stands in the middle of the road challenging Batman to kill him?), the dark knight was barely worth talking about. It's true that his character arc was deliberately setting the scene for the third instalment, but it still annoyed me that the least impressive character in The Dark Knight, was the dark knight, himself. I have no such complaint about this film. This one definitely is about his rising. It concentrates on what goes through his head, what he sees and why he does what he does. This time I felt invested in his fate - I cared again. I do understand that both the second and third parts got the reaction they were meant to - but that doesn't mean I have to be happy about being so uninterested in Batman last time round.

As for the actors, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine, get their usual moments in - though I felt I didn't get enough of Alfred this time round. Marion Cotillard does a good job of being dignified and desirable, but then she never needs to do much to put that across (her final scene of the film though, was awful). Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries his role very well - he's real, instantly likeable and never once comes across as weak, which was possible in a story where the other characters are fairly larger-than-life. As for Anne Hathaway, I've heard way too many people say that her Catwoman (a name she's never called by in the entire film) is the perfect rendition of that character. I found it hard to believe before watching the film and I still disagree. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman; Anne Hathaway is a pretty girl in a leather suit with cat ears. On the sexy scale, I'd give far more marks to Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow (The Avengers 2012). So ultimately, though I liked Hathaway in this, she really just seemed to be wearing the suit and doing the character. She never lit the screen on fire.

Finally the forces of good and evil. So, evil first - Bane is meant to be sheer brute force and Tom Hardy's bulk owns that part of the character. But the way he delivered most of his lines sounded like he was constantly asking a question. His intonation was very strange. Also, he never once scared me. I know what his character is known for - and I saw him being brutal and evil on screen. But he still didn't feel menacing. This is a FAR cry from Heath Ledger's Joker, whose very presence gave me the creeps. So, honestly, for me, this film was heavily dependent on Batman / Bruce Wayne - and thank God he was as well-written as the one in Batman Begins. His face, now ageing gracefully, records the journey Bruce has had through the trilogy. There is humility and determination there, very different to the angst and arrogance we remember from his early days in Gotham City. Christian Bale is excellent, as always. He must be the only actor to lend so much dignity to a comic-book character. And everything about his physique is believable - when he leans on a walking stick in the beginning and when he retrains to be Batman, Bale is Bruce Wayne.

Overall, the film is more than satisfying. There are identifiable characters, strong interactions, reasonably interesting twists, a fantastic build-up and a clean conclusion - with some excellent tying up of threads by referring to and including themes we have seen in earlier films. Above all, there is a sexy Batpod!

There's no point in me recommending this film, because every film and comic geek will watch it and will probably take a friend or four. So, I'll just end by chanting Deshi Deshi Basara Basara (what ever language that may be in)!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Magic Mike 2012

It's a little pretty, a little not. A little gritty, a little not. What ever it is, it's definitely not the film I thought I was going to watch. So, five stars for the trailer that incidentally did not give away everything about the film - or make that one star because it sold a completely different film!

Do I sound confused?

Adam (Alex Pettyfer) moves to Tampa to live with his sister Brooke (Cody Horn), after getting into trouble and being kicked out of college. While working at a construction site, he meets Mike (the eponymous Magic Mike - Channing Tatum), who helpfully initiates Adam into the world of stripping, where the money is fast and the women even faster. Cue scenes of gyrating male pelvises, followed by lots of alcohol and sex, followed by more gyration. Oh and of course the club owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), is cool but a little mad, and predictably as nurturing as he is conniving. Through Mike's special tenderness towards Brooke, we become privy to the cracks in his facade, and share his hopes and dreams, which are much bigger than his current lifetsyle. We also witness the impressionable Adam corrupted by the pull of the fast life. Things go up and things go down (no pun intended) - and the film ends.

The reason I am confused is that like many other women in the audience, I went to see some male booty and some comedy. That's what the trailer had somehow led me to believe this film was about. I had even made some comparisons to the Bollywood comedy Desi Boyz (2011), where two friends - played by Akshay Kumar and John Abraham - turn to stripping for some fast money, under the tutelage of a nutty club owner - played by Sunjay Dutt.

But Magic Mike isn't that film. It is, in fact, a mixed bag. There is definitely a lot of booty (male and female), some very sexy dancing (mainly by ex-stripper Tatum) and some quite funny dialogue. And then there's the curveball thrown in - the film tries to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And then swerves in a different direction and gets overly dramatic. In some scenes it works brilliantly and in others it jars. Like some recent Steven Soderbergh-directed films, I am not sure exactly what he is trying to do here. None of the characters or situations are explored fully - and nothing makes complete sense. Scenes jump, in tone and framing, from moody to thoughtful to cliched. So do the characters.

Adam's change from vulnerable to confident to cocky comes about too quickly. Dallas's character seems to make no sense either - is he a don or a prima donna? What does Mike really want? His relationship with Joanna (his go-to-shag) is in direct contrast with his relationship with Brooke - and his supreme sacrifice to save Adam has no basis or precedent. And Brooke has an inexplicable character arc too - is she earnest or just playing hard-to-get? Most importantly, none of these puzzle pieces fit together. Even the camera work, with Soderbergh's new pet, the Red digital camera, goes from edgy to boring. There are so many different styles and tones at work here, that the film seems to have been directed by someone suffering from bipolar disorder.

Does this mean I didn't enjoy it? On the contrary! What the film does not deliver in consistency, it more than compensates in 'visual treats', alternating with some beautifully shot, well-written, character-driven scenes. Also, the actors pulled their weight. Matthew McConaughey does a decent turn as sleazy Dallas; Cody Horn has the right proportion of angst and oomph; Alex Pettyfer is surprisingly well-cast to play the endearing misfit and the slimy bastard; and in his own production, Channing Tatum has shown acting chops I did not know he possessed. For someone who's been nothing more than an all-American jock for me, Tatum really impressed me with his expressions, his voice and body language, and his comic timing. His scenes with Cody Horn are raw - and the dialogue between them is written and acted in the most natural, believable manner. So, he gets a gold star for really carrying the film through (yes, yes, I know - it's supposed to be based on his experiences, but that doesn't mean he has to act well!).

I'm not sure what basis to recommend this film on. It's pretty in places and thoughtful in others - and if you're interested in film-making, it could serve as a masterclass on what not to do. So, really I'm not recommending it, even though I did enjoy it myself!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man 2012

He is amazing indeed, this Spider-Man. Barely a decade after the previous franchise was launched, Spidey gets a reboot and is recast - much to the delight of old lovers like me. But I have to admit, it's been quite a journey to get here.

When I was growing up in the eighties, I had a huge crush on sweet Spider-Man. I don't know whether it was the less than adequate cartoon series that did it, or the even worse TV series, but he was my hero. I loved his graceful movements and his ability to hang from ceilings and swing across buildings - his ability to save the day without a big, black cape or the need for a low, raspy voice.

All that was wiped clean with the onset of my teen years. I was suddenly more fascinated by dark, brooding, unpredictable men (cue Angel, the vampire with a soul and Batman, the dark knight). When first Michael Keaton, then Val Kilmer, and later Christian Bale became Batman (yes, I love George Clooney as much as the next breathing homo sapien, but c'mon, even he apologises for desecrating the very best of DC Comics), I completely gave up on Spider-Man. It didn't help that when he finally got to grace the silver screen, Tobey Maguire was picked to play Peter Parker, along with Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson - two actors who I saw as neither innocent, nor sweet - and so the very premise of the first film seemed flawed. I just wanted Peter to wipe the stupid smile off his face and MJ to not be such a self-centred, conniving girl all the time. They did not win me over at all - and their struggles meant nothing to me.

So, when I saw it announced that the franchise was getting a fresh start, I was happy. And when I learnt that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are the lead pair, I was ecstatic. Garfield had had me mesmerised during 2010's Never Let Me Go and Stone's natural freshness in 2010's Easy A and 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love had brought me hope for a future Sandra Bullock. This sounded like a dream team.

Then the trailer came out. The trailer that carefully, painfully, in the most detailed way, explained the story of the film, in near-chronological order. I thought, 'that's it...what's the point of going to the cinema now?' Well, obviously I did go (even though it's taken me five paragraphs to get to the point) and I am so glad I did.

The Amazing Spider-Man repeats much of the storyline of 2002's Spider-Man. You see how Peter (Andrew Garfield), bullied and battered at school, tries to keep his head down and be good. You see how his curiosity gets him bit by a radioactive spider and how he acquires an alter-ego. The corresponding rebellion, the ensuing guilt and the desire for revenge from the first film, is imagined in a very similar manner - but there are slight deviations from the original tales, all the way through, which surprise you a little bit. There is definitely more creativity in reference to the back story about his parents, and the secrets they guarded, than in previous films - and this time, it isn't MJ, but rather Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter's comic-book first love, who shares the screen with him. Also, the villain is new, though so many villains have such a similar story that I can hardly tell the difference nowadays. So Dr Curt Connor (Rhys Ifans) too wants to improve his life and humanity in general - but ends up as The Lizard, because of his personal greed and ambition. And of course, it is left to Peter / Spider-Man to save the world from certain darkness, because no one else could ever face the villain like our hero.

But this film is a joy, from start to finish. The entire script is speckled with comic moments and the dialogue is hardly ever cheesy. In fact, the cutest moments - especially between the young lovers - work because the script doesn't actually give them mature, unnatural lines to spout. They're awkward, tongue-tied and very, very smitten - and they show it, with the way they look at each other and how they express their feelings with incomplete, nonsensical exchanges. Garfield and Stone have buckets of chemistry, which helps immensely to bring about the light frothiness of their love story.

Others seem to be doing what they do best. Rhys Ifans plays Dr Connor's insecurities and aspirations to perfection, but honestly, it doesn't seem like he had to act much differently from many of his previous appearances. Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and Sally Field as Aunt May are genius choices. Excellent actors both, they don't need to be overly dramatic to show pride or disappointment - and again, these weren't difficult roles for them. All three of them are the familiar faces that do exactly what we expect them to do - but they do it so well.

Despite the predictability, and the very expected moments, it is Peter's discovery of his new abilities, the development of his relationship with Gwen, his teenage angst and silent rage, and the realisation of what his mission should be that are portrayed excellently - not only because Andrew Garfield's face is like a canvas of emotions, but also because the scenes are very well-written, directed and edited. Director Marc Webb, with 500 Days of Summer (2009) behind him, certainly knows how to pull at heartstrings. I can't say I have been emotional while watching many other comic-book films, but I sat with moist eyes through quite a bit of this one.

A thoroughly enjoyable ride - with great special effects (all that swinging made me nauseous!), strong acting and a very engaging script. My original crush on Spidey is back - and I would like more of this, please!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 2012

Normally, I would research the facts before reviewing a historical drama. But when the title of a film has the name of one of the most influential leaders of the United States, followed by the words 'Vampire Hunter', any need to research facts goes out the window.

With this anything goes spirit and an understanding of how tongue-in-cheek (read wafer-thin) the premise is, I went to see the film in 3D today. And I must say, despite what ever the serious critics may say, I thought the film was a riot.

So, there is Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker), the 16th POTUS, who as a child suffered the consequences of a vicious vampire attack on his mother. He grows up with revenge in his heart and is rewarded with a mentor, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who trains him in vampire slaying. He is aided by childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and boss Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) in this endeavour. He also finds time to love, woo and marry Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) - but the mission continues to be 'find and kill the original, 5,000-year-old vampire, Adam' (Rufus Sewell), who it seems is a bigger enemy of the state than even slavery.

Does that sound like a really bad plot? Honestly, it is no better watching it, than describing it. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Let me explain by first stating that I'm a Timur Bekmambetov fan - and he has directed this brainless venture. Ever since I saw his Night Watch (2004) and its sequel Day Watch (2006), I thought he had made two of the most interesting vampire / monster films and I couldn't wait for Twilight Watch, which Fox was supposed to produce. Of course, it was depressing to see how Bekmambetov sold his Russian / Kazakh soul to the American devil, who shelved the third instalment of this brilliant story and made him direct Wanted (2008) instead. And that was a painfully bad film, which even Angelina Jolie's fabulous body and some beautiful shots couldn't save. So, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (I snigger every time I think of the title) was actually a surprise because I didn't expect it to be worth my time at all.

There are some great jump-in-your-seat moments, some average dialogue and acting, an amazing scene amongst horses and lots of very satisfactory slaying. But above all else, is the director's undeniable stamp on every shot and every post-production special effect. Timur Bekmambetov seems to delight in creating smoky effects and trails of particles on air. That's been his constant in all previous films I have seen - and is used here in abundance. So, the film looks beautiful and generally feels like fun - but is not expected to make you run out and grab a copy of the novel it is based on.

Seriously, what else did you want from a movie with a title like that? Leave your brain resting at home and just keep your eyes open for a visual feast.