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.