Sunday, 1 December 2013

Ranthology 2013 - Part:Five

The Counselor - Oh where do I begin? A film that stars Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz in the main roles - supported by Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Edgar Ramirez and so many other familiar and able actors - can not be, should not be, this terrible. To top it all, the film is written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Sir Ridley Scott. How then could it go so wrong? Someone needs to explain to McCarthy and Scott that gratuitous violence and weird sexual moments alone do not make for 'good' pulp fiction (whatever that means!) - you need a story that the audience can follow at least. Instead, in The Counselor, character motivation remains a mystery throughout the film, the plot veers crazily all over the place and all the king's horses are not able to put it together, the very weird situations just do not add up and the dialogue is so stilted and downright bizarre that at times I wondered if the actors were laughing inwardly at what they were mouthing. Also, 'Jeezus' is almost every character's highly overused vocal reaction to surprising moments, t-h-r-o-u-g-h-o-u-t the film. Even misspelling the title with a single 'L' in an attempt to make it more pulp, is in parts sad and hilarious. Then there are the character quirks and costumes from hell. And the cheetahs. And the 'Chekhov's Gun' principle bashed to death (a number of characters, through the course of the film, describe a number of grotesque punishments they have heard about - and all of them are later played out on the protagonists). In the entirety of the film, there is one moment of excellent acting, and that is Michael Fassbender's final scene. Everything else is so painful that the film feels at least an hour longer than it actually is (117 minutes only). Please avoid at all costs!

Saving Mr Banks - The story of P.L. Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins stories and Walt Disney - and their difficult relationship when they worked together to create the 1964 film of the same name. In parts funny, and in others a little tragic, this is a very sweet re-telling of a possibly harrowing time for all individuals involved. Regardless of what is fact and what is fiction, the film is beautifully written, brilliantly acted and is very entertaining. One of Emma Thompson's best performances of recent times. Well worth a watch.

Thor: The Dark World - Two years since my last Thor review, my feelings about Thor, the character, and Chris Hemsworth, the actor, have changed somewhat - all thanks to Joss Whedon's The Avengers and the more recent Rush. So, I went for this second instalment with a bit more hope. Big mistake! Despite a change of director (from Kenneth Branagh to Alan Taylor), a faster pace and a more realistic feel (as can be for a comic superhero story about a thunder god), this is still the worst series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is rife with bad dialogue, cluttered with terrible characterisations and is simply crap. The action is fairly decent though (save a couple of scenes where the green screen effect is so obvious, I wanted to cry). Mr Hemsworth is definitely getting more comfortable playing this character, which is a relief as he will be doing this for a long, long time. But Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is still forced, Anthony Hopkins's Odin is his worst performance ever and just don't get me started on the other peripheral characters. If this film is to be watched, and that is a very big if, it has to be for Tom Hiddleston's Loki. What Kenneth Branagh didn't do enough, and Joss Whedon relished doing, was bring out the fun in Loki. Of course Whedon not only directed Hiddleston, he also wrote the script. In this film, it seems that the writers have watched all of Joss Whedon's work over and over again and found out where he would throw in some smart lines and then gone ahead and written Loki's character. He is the saving grace - in fact, he is the only grace  - in the entire film: thoroughly amusing and exciting. So, big thumbs down to the film, and big thumbs up to more Whedonesque writing.

The Butler - A never-ending, oh-so-chronological history lesson on the African-American Civil Rights Movement that stars the who's who of Hollywood and still manages to be dull and boring. Oprah Winfrey is excellent in her first feature film role in many years, but everyone else lacks spark. Still, we will see most of the actors and crew nominated for Oscars of course, as this is one of those topics the Academy feels compelled to honour.

Philomena - Sweet, tragic, comical, and true story of Philomena, who goes searching for her son born out of wedlock, that was forcefully taken away from her by the church in the 1950s. Recently disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith, accompanies her in her search and the film focuses on this journey they undertake - which ultimately affects Martin's life just as much as it affects Philomena's. A typical tragi-comic drama by Stephen Frears, which is good for a Sunday afternoon couch viewing.

Gravity - Wow! Gorgeous, breathtaking, nausea-inducing, overpowering cinematic experience. This film may star A-listers Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, but this is not about them at all. It is a writer / director / editor's (Alfonso Cuarón and others) film, with special mention to the cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki). There is hardly a story, but the audience stays glued to the edge of their seat, with both hands firmly clasping the arm rests, twisting and turning their bodies as the action on screen unravels. The only film in many years where I had no control at all, as I was trapped to feel what the protagonists were feeling. And all this, despite the fact that I watched it in 2D on an ordinary cinema screen. Highly recommended for the full 3D IMAX experience!

Fifth Estate - This started off so well. Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. Daniel Brühl as his close associate, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The story of the notoriously powerful website, WikiLeaks. What could go wrong? A lot, as it turns out! Without giving much away, this starts off as the the story of WikiLeaks, but very quickly turns into a film that not-so-subtly plants doubts about Assange's sanity and his character. Although it isn't an outright propaganda piece, it tries to do a clever job of pretending to be a historical film, that also gives you an insight into Assange's megalomania, his paranoia, his neurosis. The problem with this approach is that the audience doesn't really know whether they are watching the WikiLeaks story or the Assange biopic - and intrinsically related as those may be, they are still very different films. As far as WikiLeaks is concerned, I have no interest in whether Assange dyes his hair, or whether he grew up in a cult, or whether he is a compulsive liar, as those stories have no relevance to what the website achieved in terms of non-mainstream / citizen journalism. Yet, halfway through the film, the focus shifts ever so slightly, and then ever so completely, that I lost all interest. Deeply flawed and very confused, the film holds merit only in that Cumberbatch and Brühl are at the top of their game - and it's interesting to see 'how it all began'. Otherwise, very avoidable.

Prisoners - Despite being a huge fan of Hugh Jackman, I have never deluded myself into believing that he is a great actor. He can definitely hold his own, but he rarely delivers beyond that. Prisoners was different. The film starts off with two families getting together for Thanksgiving dinner in a Pennsylvania town and by the end of the evening, the young daughters from both families have gone missing. The fathers (Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) react in very different ways. While Howard's Franklin Birch worries and grieves and waits for the police to investigate, Jackman's Keller Dover very quickly takes matters into his own hands and starts on a very slippery slope where justice and revenge are no longer separate entities. As the religious Dover gets more and more desperate, and loses control of his humanity and his faith, we see Jackman deliver that desperation and that naked savagery in a way I did not think he was capable of. He is unbelievably good in this surprisingly powerful film. Another surprise is a very strong performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, who achieved fame through a fantastic cult favourite all those years ago, and has since then had a fairly mediocre career. In this film, he not only has a very interesting role, but he has delivered it to perfection, with characters quirks, et al. The trailer for this film reveals little - but suffice it to say that there is a lot more in store when you watch the film. Definitely recommended.

Blue Jasmine - One of the few Woody Allen films that had me hooked and involved from the first scene to the last. A fresh take on Tennessee Williams's play, A Streetcar Named Desire, the plot revolves around Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a former socialite who refuses to accept her new semi-destitute status even when she is forced to move in with her 'underprivileged' sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine's constant flashbacks into a life past with wealthy husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), her inability to be honest about herself with rich suitor, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), and her complete detachment from reality, all spiral out of control as the story progresses. Cate Blanchett is possibly the finest actress in Hollywood, aside from Meryl Streep, and in this film she is once again par excellence. She has played a very dishonest and disturbed character with complete honesty and dignity - and is absolutely mesmerising in every scene. If nothing else, Cate deserves her first Best Actress nod from the Academy for this one. Well worth a watch for the quality of performances from the entire cast.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Rush 2013

This has to be the best race car driving film I have ever seen. Based on the true story of the British James Hunt and the Austrian Niki Lauda, whose rivalry fed many a media story in the 1970s, Rush focuses on this very phase of their careers and lives.

Born to wealthy parents, both Hunt and Lauda went against their families to pursue their car racing careers, and through their own narrative voices, both men's fears and motivations are unravelled through the film. They are as distinct from each other as an outgoing playboy can be from a reclusive geek, and the manner in which they pursue ultimate victory is also very different, but they are both driven by ambition and passion, qualities which unite them. And somewhere along the way, mistakes are made - mistakes, which cost them both heavily (although the price Lauda pays is far more obvious).

Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth, who has never looked better, and has most definitely never acted better. He slips into the character effortlessly and surprises in many a moment with priceless expressions and excellent delivery of dialogue. He is instantly likeable as Hunt, which is exactly how it is supposed to be. Lauda is played by Daniel Brühl, an actor who has never disappointed me in any films of his that I have seen (from Good Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators a decade back to the more recent, and more American, Inglourious Basterds). Brühl makes Lauda a difficult one to like, but an easy one to respect. He grows on you through the film, as he must have grown on Hunt in real life. Watching them both on screen is a pleasure and every scene is perfectly acted, directed, edited and timed.

Peter Morgan's screenplay is very well-balanced - and offers just the right proportions of drama, comedy, style and above all, the rush of the races. The driving scenes are well-shot, but are also at times interspersed with actual footage, to push the adrenaline just that much more. The film is ably directed by Ron Howard, who I have always considered a very hit (Apollo 13, Ransom, Frost/Nixon) and miss (Far and AwayThe Da Vinci Code and even *gasp* A Beautiful Mind)  film maker. Here, there isn't a note out of place, a scene too long, an emotion too high-strung. Definitely one of the best films he's been at the helm of.

I wouldn't say that Rush is so good that it can not be missed - though in a year when film after film has disappointed me, this comes as a breath of fresh air - but I can say that it should not be missed. For pure entertainment and a lesson in sport history, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Ranthology 2013 - Part:Four

2 Guns (2013) - Directed by Baltasar Kormákur (of Mýrin 2006 fame), this is a refreshing and fun take on the typical cop-buddy film. Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) are undercover agents, who are forced to work together when they get framed for crimes they did not commit and their respective agencies disown them. Blame the 80s action film fan in me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the barbs and exchanges between the two main characters - and after a very long time loved Denzel in a film. And Wahlberg just keeps knocking them out of the park! Recommended only for gun-action film fans.

Only God Forgives (2013) - Ryan Gosling gave us The Believer, Blue Valentine, Drive and so many, many other great performances. Nicolas Winding Refn gave us Bronson and Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas has given us countless plays and films, which are uplifted just by her presence. What could possibly go wrong when any one or all three of these turn up together? Oh so, so much! This is one of the most difficult and exceptionally bad films I have seen this year and it almost physically hurts me to say that about a Gosling film. If it was just pretentious or just gruesome or just soulless or just boring, it would still be alright. But this was all of the above and then some. An excruciating experience.

The Wolverine (2013) - A massive disappointment, after 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which in itself isn't a masterpiece to begin with but at least had charm on its side. With continuity errors galore, bad dialogue, worse acting and only barely decent stunts, this sequel felt flat and stale. Four years of anticipation, which was further heightened by a strong marketing campaign, felt completely wasted.

Monsters University (2013) - OK, the statement above shows some correlation between time spent in anticipation and the depths of my disappointment. So, this dud of a follow-up to 2001's unbelievably cute Monsters Inc disappointed me to a whole new level. Why this film needed a sequel, I fail to understand. And even if it did, did it have to be like a high school musical? An unfunny, uninspired, half-cooked animation that is best avoided.

Wadjda (2012) - Who'd have thunk it? A film conceived and made in Saudi Arabia. Written and directed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour, with a cast of mostly women, led by Waad Mohammed - a 10-year-old girl who packs more punch than many an established Hollywood actor. A story that tries to cover as many social issues as possible, like it has only one chance of getting the message out, that still manages to strike the balance between witty, realistic and relevant. It is the story of a pre-pubescent girl, Wadjda, who is a bit of a tomboy and would much rather be riding a bike (completely unacceptable in her society) with her best friend (a small boy around her own age), than be like her far more 'proper' classmates. Since no one would buy her a bike, she decides to take matters in her own hands and enters a Qur'an recitation competition that would provide her with the required funds through the prize money. With that as the front, the story has various threads running, some of which expose the hypocrisy, the double-standards, the paranoia and the difficulties facing women in Saudi society. But rather than portray them as victims, Haifaa has highlighted the strength of these women and made the audience privy to an ongoing struggle, leaving us with hope, rather than despair. Made in extremely difficult circumstances, in a country where the female director couldn't freely interact with the male crew, the completion of the film itself is testament to the will of the people. Wadjda is a lively, funny film - but at its core is a message of female empowerment. The best thing about it is that it never feels preachy. Instead it is very tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating. Very highly recommended, despite the low production values.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ranthology 2013 - Part:Three

Despicable Me 2 (2013) - I have one word for you: MINIONS!
The story in this sequel is a bit less novel, as Gru (Steve Carell) continues to be a wonderful dad for the tots and is requested to assist with crime-fighting, where he puts his villainous skills of yore to good use. Along the way, he also falls in love with his partner on the case, Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig). All very cute and adorable and fairly bland.
But it's the legendary minions that make this film just as much fun as the last one. They are absolutely hilarious and bring unbridled mirth to every scene. Bring on Minions (the film) in 2014! Best news ever!!

The Hangover: Part III (2013) - Too much of a good thing? Maybe!
The last part of a so-far-so-funny trilogy that does not amuse at all. Besides the 'Ave Maria' moment, I literally did not laugh once.

The Big Wedding (2013) - Watching cinema giants like Robert de Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton and Robin Williams waste their talent, while being accompanied by pretty young things Topher Grace, Ben Barnes, Katherine Heigl and Amanda Seyfried, was absolutely heartbreaking. A really bad 'comedy' that did not work at all.

Stand Up Guys (2012) - Watching cinema giants like Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin waste their talent, was just as heartbreaking (see above review).

Mud (2012) - A coming-of-age drama where teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) come upon a fugitive called Mud (Matthew McConaughey), whose sole purpose for being in town is to reunite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and as soon as he can do that, he plans to escape with her. As the boys get more and more involved with Mud's story and help him out with his plan, they go through a series of life lessons about love, loyalty and lies. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (of Take Shelter 2011 fame), the plot is very simple, but it is the succinct storytelling and the perfect performances that lift this film from mediocrity to award-worthy status. McConaughey has been choosing role after role, for the past couple of years, that have ensured that his shirtless loverboy image is shed for good and is replaced with the reputation of a bankable actor. He is mesmerising in the title role. The film belongs to the two boys though - and at the heart of it all, it is their lives that concern and elate the audience. Highly recommended film.

The Great Gatsby (2013) - I don't seem to be seeing eye-to-eye with either the fans or the detractors of this film. The fans think it's a beautiful, exciting, moving piece. The detractors think it is completely over-the-top and doesn't do justice to the greatest American novel. To me personally, it's the ultimate visual representation of our concept of Art Deco. It is also an excellent adaptation of the novel. And yet, I did not like it because it is so true to the novel! I have never been moved by the soulless, hollow characters of 'West Egg' and their decadent, excessive lifestyle. Cautionary tale or not, the novel never gripped my interest - and in turn neither did the film. Still, Baz Luhrmann has recreated a visual delight and everyone, from Leonardo di Caprio to Carey Mulligan to Joel Edgerton and even Tobey Maguire, has put in an excellent performance.
But I remain unconvinced.

Iron Man 3 (2013) - Robert Downey, Jr. Multiple Iron Man suits. Guy Pearce as a deranged villain.
What else could one wish for?
And if one wishes for more, then one shouldn't really be watching a film called Iron Man 3.

Star Trek into Darkness (2013) - Have you seen Star Trek (2009)? Well, this is like that, with less novelty and more Benedict Cumberbatch. Perfectly acceptable!

Love is All You Need (2012) - Having seen the posters with Pierce Brosnan against an Italian backdrop, I thought this was a typical Hollywood rom-com. So, I was quite surprised that this was a Danish film, for one thing, and was directed by Susanne Bier (whose last film In a Better World 2010 was an Academy Award winner). Then when the film opened with Trine Dyrholm (star of my favourite non-English-language film, Festen 1998), being told that she has cancer, my presumptions about this film were dashed. All in all, it's still a simple love story, but with some of real life's surprises and unkindnesses thrown in to keep it grounded. Definitely a notch better than what I had bargained for, but to be avoided if you are averse to any sweet, romantic films.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) - Directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance, of Blue Valentine (2010) fame, and starring Academy Award nominees Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, this film had set high expectations. Unfortunately, it did not live up to them. The narrative is divided into three acts, and though each stands quite well on its own, each feels almost completely disjointed from the other parts, which is a major flaw here. Even the last act, which is notable for its relative 'star'-less-ness and raw intensity, would have benefited from some more integration. Also, for a film that's pretending to be slightly off the beaten track, it really is the most unsubtle parable about how crime doesn't pay. Still, despite the scripting issues, Cianfrance has managed to extract great performances from his actors, whether it is Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, or the teenagers Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. Ryan Gosling, as always in my reviews, gets a separate nod. He is exquisite in his portrayal of a man suffering from senseless loyalty, intensity, bull-headedness and sheer bad luck. If this film is worth watching, it is for him and him alone. Otherwise, it's a pass.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Oblivion 2013

A friend recently asked, very rhetorically, 'When was the last time Cruise made a bad film?' and my honest answer was that I can't remember. It took a viewing of Oblivion today for it to come rushing back to me - it was 2005, when he bored me to death with War of the Worlds.

Oblivion is set in 2077, which we are told is 60 years after aliens ("scavengers") attacked and lost a war against Earth. But to win the war, humans used their nuclear weapons, which caused the end of the world as we know it, and the survivors had to move to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Small units are still sent to Earth to continue with the excavation of natural resources - and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), along with partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), are one such unit, coming to the end of their term on Earth and about to return 'home' to Titan. But Jack is plagued with memories of a life on Earth he simply could not have experienced, and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) he could not have known.

When an unknown shuttle suddenly falls out of the sky and on to a site nearby, Jack goes to investigate and comes face to face with the mystery woman of his dreams. Suddenly, he questions all the 'truths' he knows about his life...and the more he learns, the less real everything becomes.

The biggest problem with Oblivion is that almost every scene and idea seems like a lift from another film. The first quarter showcases the isolation of the two main characters' existence - and I was reminded heavily of Solaris (2002), WALL-E (2008) and Moon (2009). In fact, as the story unravels, it takes up so many of the themes already explored in Moon, that the impact is completely blunted. Then there is the guerrilla army that shows up later in the film - and everything, from their costumes to their stance, screamed a mix of post-apocalyptic images already seen in films like Reign of Fire (2002), Total Recall (2012) and Dredd (2012). Add to that, Tom Cruise on a bike (very inspired by his first shot in Days of Thunder 1990) and Tom Cruise flying planes (Top Gun 1986), and nostalgia hits you hard! Of course, after a while I could hardly concentrate on the film I was watching, as reference after reference came to mind. Unfortunately, when I started getting especially bored and annoyed by the plot, memories of War of the Worlds hit me - and it was all downhill from there.

Despite all the criticism I can level at the writing and directing of the film (both credited to Joseph Kosinski, by the way - and he also wrote the graphic novel on which the script is based), the visuals are beyond reproach. The art direction for the protagonists' living quarters is stunning and the cinematography, whether it is for the outdoors or for close-ups, is arresting and beautiful.

I can't even blame the acting. Tom Cruise is perfect in the role. Everything from his confidence to his confusion is portrayed convincingly. He keeps me hooked for at least half the film, without complaint. Andrea Riseborough complements him perfectly - and her expressions, especially in the scene where she is covering for the man she loves, are excellent. And though Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (he really seems to have walked off of the sets of Game of Thrones, by mistake) don't add anything to the canvas, they don't take anything away either.

Yet, the film simply fails to connect with the viewer. As the plot thickens, it also seems to be stretched pointlessly. The story is so old and so oft-repeated, with nothing really new said in this offering, that I don't understand why this film was made in the first place. In fact, I spent half my time thinking that something unexpected is about to happen, because everything I see is all too obvious - and surely there must be more to it than this. Alas, there wasn't much more and the final 20 minutes were much worse than I anticipated.

I hate to say this, but despite the visual treats and Tom Cruise's undeniable star quality, this film has little else to offer. And as I walked out of the cinema, I realised that I have quite possibly wasted two hours of my life.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Ranthology 2013 - Part:Two

Stoker (2013) - I don't have the words to describe this film. It is a sensation so dark...and delicious...that words are just not enough.  It is a twisted tale of a family with secrets, and on the cards is passion, lust, pleasure and murder...and lots of it all! Park Chan-wook, whose Oldboy (2003) remains one of the most fascinating Asian films ever made, has surpassed his own genius, by taking an idea so simple and presenting it on the most beautiful canvas. Every shot is painstakingly put together...and the entire experience is simply gorgeous. There is a transition shot of hair being combed that turns into a field, that is flawless. Some kooky details (a character who cooks, but never eats; a spider that keeps flitting about; a strangely tanned look, while every one else is as pale as can be) keep the audience hooked, but explanations are never offered...or needed. The ambience is romantic, the costumes are from a bygone era, and every scene has the charms of noir. Nicole Kidman is sensuous, Matthew Goode is electric and Mia Wasikowska, sublime. Stoker is definitely my favourite film of this year, so far. It is a ride that must be taken!

The Paperboy (2012) - Matthew McConnaughey's now made it his business to not be known as the guy who can't keep his shirt on, and instead be taken seriously as an actor. Based on a novel, The Paperboy, is a sweaty, dirty, very violent film - thematically and actually. Set in the '60s, it is a tale of two investigative journalists, Ward and Yardley (Matthew McConnaughey and David Oyelowo), who are out to prove the innocence of convicted murderer, Hillary (John Cusack). On this journey are Hillary's penpal, Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who has fallen in love with Hillary even though she has never met him; Ward's younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron); and Jack's family maid, Anita (Macy Gray). As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that almost none of the characters are what they seem, and the film gets darker and murkier with each scene. I am sure I did not like the film at all, because it is trashy and almost sickening, but in that, it is a huge success. The actors have done an extraordinary job, whether it is Kidman or Cusack, McConnaughey or Oyelowo, Gray or even Efron. Every one of them has delivered an award-worthy performance and the film crackles all the way through. But the story, coming of age, or what ever it is meant to be, is just a little bit too much for my sensibilities. Still, I recommend it because it is quite an experience.

Compliance (2012) - What an uncomfortable film to sit through! And yet, what a compelling watch! Based on a number on true incidents, this is the story of unquestioning obedience to authority. A fast-food-joint employee is subjected to sexual and psychological abuse, when her manager receives a phone call from a man proclaiming to be a police officer, who says that the young girl has stolen from a customer. The plot is bizarre and unbelievable - it is almost fantastical and obviously not possible that good, decent folk would sink to such depths just because someone told them to. Except the story is very closely based on the actual events that took place in 2004, in Kentucky. So, not only is this possible, it actually happened. The acting is top-notch and the film is very well-made. Highly recommended, despite its disturbing nature.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) - I fell asleep in the cinema, it is that boring.

Arbitrage (2012) - Richard Gere's best turn in years, this film is about a rich businessman, Robert Miller, with a perfect family and a successful business, who seems to have it all. Bubbling underneath the perfection is the minor accounts fraud he has committed to make his business look plumper than it is, and the mistress he has on the side. The cracks deepen, the slope gets slippery, one mistake leads to another - till there is nowhere left for him to run or hide. Despite Miller's flawed personality and major crimes, the audience can't help but identify with him and hope that he gets away scot-free. Brilliantly written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, this film is part drama, part suspense thriller and part black comedy. Both Gere and Susan Sarandon (who plays his wife) deliver perfect performances and it is a treat watching the story unravel. Do watch!

Frankenweenie (2012) - Tim Burton's dark, twisted mind applied to a dark, twisted children's story. Very enjoyable!

Hotel Transylvania (2012) - It tries too hard to be cute, pulls in all the possible gothic and otherwise supernatural characters, and really falls flat on its face. Maybe watch it if you're really bored on a Sunday and have no other DVDs...but otherwise it's quite a bore.

Trance (2013) - A plot so obvious that it literally takes 10 minutes to figure out what's what, and when the 'reveal' finally happens at the end of the film, the attached details are so ludicrous and nonsensical, that the entire pleasure of watching the film gets diluted. Still, the thrill of the thriller is well-paced, and the film is well-directed (Danny Boyle) and well-edited (Jon Harris). Shame about the story, though! James McAvoy is satisfactory, Rosario Dawson is convincing and Vincent Cassel is extremely charming. Worth watching on a weekend when it shows up on television channels; otherwise can be easily missed.

GI Joe: Retaliation (2013) - A film boasting a cast of Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis should have had some great action, lots of cheesy one-liners and lots of fun. Instead, this one can't decide whether it takes itself seriously or not, and is in turn so boring and bad, that it is just bad. Also, Channing Tatum seems to be making a career out of doing cameo appearances. What a waste of some seriously good casting! Avoid, unless you are a 3D-action-junkie and there's nothing else to watch.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Side Effects 2013

Whether Steven Soderbergh is actually retiring or whether this is a publicity stunt that has been going on for some time, Side Effects is the best film he has directed in a while. I say this probably because I had little respect for Magic Mike (2012) and Haywire (2011) and a number of films that came before those. To be honest, the last time a Soderbergh-directed film really impressed me was 12 years ago...and it was Ocean's Eleven!

Side Effects opens with what looks like a crime scene, with blood smears in the hallway of an apartment in a tall building, and no body in sight. It then immediately jumps back in time to introduce us to Emily (Rooney Mara) and her husband Martin (Channing Tatum). He has been serving time for a hedge fund fraud, and just as he is released back into society, we see Emily losing her grip on sanity. Due to fears that she may resort to self-harm, she is advised to see a psychiatrist, Dr Banks (Jude Law), who promptly prescribes her with a series of anti-depressants, and after consulting with fellow psychiatrist, Dr Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he finally settles on Ablixa as the best mode of treatment. This leads to some catastrophic results - which then pave the way for the rest of the story.

What initially seems to be a social commentary on the pharmaceutical industry, false advertising and the issues with mental health treatment, soon turns into a psychological drama, dissolving into a mystery and finally becoming a complicated suspense thriller. The less said about the plot, the better - as there is a Hitchcockian feel to the way the twists and turns come about (even though some of them are very obvious), and there is a real old school mystery in the backbone of the film.

Rooney Mara is excellent - at once, helpless and dangerous, a victim and a perpetrator. Jude Law, himself, has done a great job of playing the kind but distracted doctor. Catherine Zeta-Jones overacts ever so slightly, as she usually does. And Channing Tatum is such a strange choice to play a polished member of the financial services industry that I am left wondering why Soderbergh picked him, of all people, to play this character.

There are a number of holes in the script that will be jarring on repeat viewings, but having seen the film only once, I noticed and promptly forgot these - because the film is paced extremely well. The editing is sharp and the audience never loses interest in what may happen next, how ever disconnected some scenes may be. The unique style of cinematography, which is Soderbergh's trademark, is getting a bit old and for this film it was a bit of a mismatch, but again, because of the flow of the story, and the level of performances by Mara and Law, all else seemed less important.

This is not a flawless film, by any standards, but it is thoroughly thrilling and very entertaining. The suspense doesn't lose its edge - and so, without reading anything further into the motivations of the characters, I just enjoyed the ride.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Seedlings (Lamha) 2012

I am generally sceptical of creative output from Pakistan. I have no doubt about the talent in the country, but due to lack of finances and facilities there (and hence, international-level experience), I find myself dumbing down my expectations, which makes it difficult to assess the quality of work, impartially.

So, it was with apprehension that I watched Meher Jaffri and Summer Nicks's Lamha (literal translation is 'Moment', but it is strangely titled Seedlings for the non-Urdu-speaking audience) at the 15th London Asian Film Festival, presented by 'Tongues on Fire'. Imagine my surprise, when I realised I had no need to 'dumb down' my appraisal.

The story revolves around three main characters: married couple Raza (Mohib Mirza) and Maliha (Aamina Sheikh), and a rickshaw driver, Anil (Gohar Rasheed). All three seem to be in a state of melancholy, grieving over some deep sorrow, when we meet them. As the film progresses, it is clear that Raza and Maliha have been driven apart by an unbearable personal tragedy - and that Anil played a very important role in that. Will any one of them be able to forgive the other, or more importantly, themselves? Is there any redemption for a mistake, a 'moment', that destroys lives? Is there any way to move forward when your core being has been ripped to shreds? How can you hope, when there is no hope to speak of?

The best thing about Seedlings is that it does not preach, for even a moment. There is no lengthy dialogue to explain the situation to the lowest common denominator in the audience. It is not an overly complex film, but the emotions it deals with, common as they are, can be difficult to understand. And the film does not spend extra energy on making it simple for any one. It is a journey of self-discovery for the characters, and the deepest insights come from short conversations with secondary characters. It is also a journey for the audience, to try and understand how they feel about the situation.

There are many lengthy silences, aided by a very appropriate background score (by Usman Riaz). Long scenes, where nothing happens, but you can feel an over-arching loneliness. Unlike many Pakistani dramas, where shouting is considered a must to express emotions, even that is used very sparingly. Less is definitely more, in this film.

The acting is very mature. Aamina Sheikh has already won accolades for her portrayal of a woman in constant emotional pain, but Mohib Mirza and Gohar Rasheed are excellent too. They never once overact or cross the lines of believability.

What the film confidently achieves in scripting (Summer Nicks), direction (Mansoor Mujahid), and acting, it loses in production values. The budget is quite apparently limited, but unfortunately, that is also obvious in some technical aspects like cinematography and sound recording, and at some points in the editing too. There is a slight amateurish quality to it all, which makes it less palatable to an audience used to slicker products. I am also curious about why this was shot on a 4:3 aspect ratio, more suitable to television than cinema - but honestly, these are all minor issues.

The lack of sophistication is more than made up by a strong script and detail-oriented direction, and some very involved performances. If a case can be made for independent cinema in Pakistan, then this is Exhibit A.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Ranthology 2013 - Part:One

Gangster Squad (2013) - Smooth, stylish and sentimental, but lacking in substance, this was a fairly enjoyable film, very loosely based on real-life events from the 1940s and '50s. A bunch of cops create an unofficial 'squad' to bring down the mighty gangster, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who has been difficult to nab within the guidelines of the law. Josh Brolin leads the pack, while Anthony Mackie, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Ryan Gosling make up the team - each officer chosen for his very distinct abilities. Predictably Gosling's character falls for Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who happens to be Cohen's moll, and that complicates matters further. After a number of sacrifices and and heroic moments, all that is good prevails, as it almost always does. This film tries hard to be another The Untouchables (1987) or LA Confidential (1997), but it does not achieve the formidable heights of either, because the script is just not tight enough. Also, Sean Penn has gone so large with this role that he is [paradoxically] reduced to just being a caricature of Robert De Niro's Al Capone. Definitely an enjoyable film, but it achieves nowhere near the potential it had...

Django Unchained (2012) - Quentin Tarantino's latest has won him pretty much all the major awards for original screenplay, so I have little need to describe how perfectly taut the words and situations in this film are. Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave, is freed in 1858 by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, who needs information about three men that Django can identify. They then start a journey together, in which the former slave becomes very much a partner in the hunting; and in return, Schultz promises to help him find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a German-speaking slave girl who has been tortured and sold to new owners because of her relationship with Django. When they finally do locate her, it appears she is at Calvin Candie's (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation - and the pseudo-sophisticate Candie is just as merciless as all the other slave-owners we have met so far. Only difference is Candie's senior servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who appears to be overly subservient in public, but is almost the puppeteer holding the strings in private. It's a Tarantino film so there are plenty of long dialogues, tense scenes, bloody mutilations, surprise deaths, bad language...and weirdly inappropriate moments of hilarity. Acting-wise, Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson are simply outstanding - and though Foxx and Washington are very good, their efforts are completely overshadowed by the former three. This is a must-see for lovers of Tarantino...and an education for lovers of cinema. May he make many more...

Hitchcock (2012) - This film is smart and a lot of fun. Based on the time around the making of Psycho (1960), it covers aspects of master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock's private life: his marriage, his muses and his insecurities. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are excellent in the lead roles and this is a perfect accompaniment for a relaxed Sunday afternoon.

Movie 43 (2013) - Calling this a black comedy is an insult to comedy...of any colour. Calling it tasteless is giving it too much credit. This was pure, unadulterated shit. Yes, that's how deep my review is going to be: 'this film was shit'. I never enjoyed previous films by Farrelly brothers, but this latest venture by Peter Farrelly has been universally panned. It's astounding that A-listers signed on for this, and to be honest, they have done nothing wrong. Each separate segment may have seemed like a funny idea - but just two of them together, let alone the entire film, is simply gross-out crap. Farrelly is reported to have said: “Kids, teenagers, 50-somethings who still smoke pot — they’re all going to find something here”. This is possibly the worst attempt at reaching out to the 'lowest common denominator' and the end product is vile, disgusting and pure waste. Watch it only if you have a disturbing curiosity to watch...shit.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) - Disney's latest animation. Cute. Dull. Forgettable.

Cloud Atlas (2012) - Touted as art, this film bored me so much that I actually walked out. It's not the fact that it was confusing (I knew there were a number of seemingly unconnected storylines and usually that sort of thing rocks my boat), but rather the fact that I could not connect with a single character or story. I did not want to know what happens next to any one of them. I understand that this has been nominated for many awards, but I simply could not sit through it.

Song for Marion (2012) - I have probably never cried so much while watching a film. Vanessa Redgrave plays Marion, who is terminally ill and yet full of life and love. Her seemingly grumpy husband, Arthur, played by Terence Stamp, is in pieces but will not let anyone help or support him. After Marion's death, he severs ties even with his son (Christopher Eccleston), but finds solace in talking to Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), Marion's community choir teacher. This is a simple story, yet so real, and so beautifully rendered, that it stands out over and above so many other similar stories. The entire cast is remarkable, but Redgrave and Stamp have delivered outstanding performances, where every expression, every glance, every quiver speaks loudly. Recommended only for those who like to bawl once in a while...

To the Wonder (2012) - Ah, Terrence Malick creates another film that critics will rave about, a certain section of the audience will mark as the most beautiful film of the year, media will discuss in profound terms...and the rest of us will simply scratch our heads about. After Tree of Life (2011), I was convinced I had seen the worst film ever made. Well, here is a sequel. Olga Kurylenko, a grown woman, constantly twirls, dances, hops and walks lopsided; she is full of life, you see. Ben Affleck, quietly smiles, follows and watches her; he is a conflicted man, you see. Rachel McAdams, also twirls and dances a bit, but she isn't as full of life as Olga, so she can actually walk in straight lines, sometimes. Javier Bardem is quiet and expressionless; he, too, is a conflicted man. Everyone touches everyone else, then goes away, then comes back to touch, then goes away again. They all speak in half-sentences, and mostly in their minds. They are all searching for something...maybe it's God. I too spoke to God. I asked him to make this torture end. He didn't listen to me for a while. But later, I was saved. The end.

Broken City (2013) - Absolutely nothing new or surprising in this tale of an ex-NYPD detective (Mark Wahlberg), hired by a powerful mayor (Russell Crowe), just before the mayoral elections, to spy on his wife (Katherine Zeta-Jones), who seems to be having an affair with another man. The twists and turns are fairly predictable, yet there is something about this film that is like comfort food. You know exactly what it's going to be like, but also that it will be good, and sometimes that is all you need. A decent 'thriller' straight out of the '80s.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) - Hollywood really seems to be running out of story ideas, prompting screenwriters to run to the Brothers Grimm for help. After two bleak Snow White adaptations last year, and a Red Riding Hood the year before, now we have a twisted Hansel and Gretel story, with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton playing the lead characters. The plot is a bit boring, the action mediocre and the entire film is just a pointless venture, really. Still, as a Van Helsing (2004) fan, I can't be too picky about trashy fairytale / monster story adaptations - so I didn't hate it. Still, this one is not recommended in the least!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Les Misérables 2012

I don't review books on this blog - but I feel compelled to mention the French historical novel, written by Victor Hugo and published in 1862, that I had the misfortune of reading in its unabridged entirety, some years back. Aptly titled Les Misérables, it was a miserable tale of a miserable man whose life is so beset by misery, that it's a mystery how he continues to live.

The idea that Jean Valjean's pathetic story could be used to create a musical, where people sing and occasionally dance, made absolutely no sense to me. The fact that that musical is one of the most successful ones out there, is even more shocking. Still, I refused to watch it. Having read the book, I refused to subject myself to more of Valjean's misery.

The story goes thus: Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread in his youth, to save his sister's life. He got arrested and instead of the five years he would normally serve for the theft, he spent the next 19 years in prison as punishment for his numerous escape attempts. Finally released back into society, he faces constant hostility for being an ex-convict and so when a priest actually treats him with kindness (despite Valjean stealing from the church), his heart fills with the love of God and His creation. The rest of the story is about him creating a new identity for himself, trying to be a good person, and finding some success and happiness - when *boom* Javert, one of the jail-keepers turns up round the corner and Valjean has to give it all up, go to a new place, create a new life, find some happiness, this time in the form of an adopted daughter...and yep, Javert turns up there too. This keeps happening over and over again - and Valjean barely gets 10 pages of happiness before he is made to run and be unhappy again. Yes it is really miserable.

But when the trailers for the film came out - with Hugh Jackman and Rusell Crowe leading the cast, my interest was piqued and I decided to bite the bullet and watch this musical, onscreen.

So, first off the camera work is pure perfection - from extreme close-ups to sweeping shots, the technique is flawless and the film is a delight to watch. The make-up is quite theatrical and therefore less perfect, but it is still very good (though Jackman's prosthetic teeth really bugged me throughout the movie). The direction by Tom Hooper and the performances he elicited from his cast - very, very commendable. And then there's the singing.

I have to admit, one of the factors that got me into the cinema was the opportunity to hear Hugh Jackman sing - and that was the most disappointing of all voices in the film for me. The songs just did not seem suited to his natural voice and he constantly seemed out of tune, which I am sure he wasn't. On the other hand, Russell Crowe, from whom I expected nothing, sang to his strengths and was really very good. Plus, he looks great in the film and Javert's role suits him perfectly. Besides these two, Amanda Seyfried (as Cosette) and Samantha Barks (as Eponine) do full justice to their roles and their songs. But it was Anne Hathaway (as Fantine) who completely blew me away. Her 'I dreamed a dream' gave me goosebumps, she is that good. And very surprisingly it was Eddie Redmayne (playing Marius), who was the other actor that made me react like that, with his 'Empty chairs at empty tables'. His rendition is exquisite. To be honest, all the actors sang beautifully, except for Hugh Jackman, who clearly can sing well, but his songs just seemed wrong for him.

Does this mean I enjoyed the film - and take back everything I said, like 'how can anyone sing about being so miserable'?
Having seen the musical now, in its cinematic avatar, I still think it's a terrible story, with misfortune upon misfortune ladled on one soul, and his 'goodness' is absolutely sickening. To hear them all sing throughout the film did not make me like the story any better, but instead managed to piss me off a little bit more about why they couldn't just talk to each other in a normal voice!

Still, for people who enjoy this sort of film, it is an excellent offering. If the genre is acceptable, and the story is not a problem, then Les Misérables is at the top of its game.

I really didn't enjoy it.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Pitch Perfect 2012

I know this is the 21st century. I know this because there was a big Y2K scare 13 years ago and just a couple of weeks back I celebrated the start of 2013. So, why are the writers of this latest Hollywood high school musical pretending that it's still the 1970s, when creating comedy with racial and sexual stereotypes was still considered funny?

Beca (Anna Kendrick), an angst-ridden teenager with lots of dark make-up to prove the point, wants to be a music producer in LA; but her professor dad persuades her to attend Barden University for at least a year, with the promise that if she hates it, he will help set up her music career. The condition he lays down is that she has to give university life, including clubs and societies, a real shot. In the meantime, the 'Bellas', an A Cappella club, are desperately looking for new members, after a humiliating loss at the previous inter-collegiate competition (projectile vomiting was involved).

Despite her reservations, Beca is enlisted, along with a bunch of other girls who are presented as clear misfits. There's Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), black AND closet-lesbian Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean), nymphomaniac Stacie (Alexis Knapp), and silent but deadly Asian Lilly (Hana Mae Lee). Heading the Bellas is control-freak, blond perfectionist, Aubrey (Anna Camp) and of course, she has a trusted side-kick, Chloe (Brittany Snow). All these characters speak and act in extreme stereotypes (Fat Amy does not exercise and cracks food-related jokes; Cynthia-Rose tries to force CPR and grabs on to other girls' boobs every opportunity she gets; Stacie constantly thinks about and has sex; Lilly speaks so quietly that no one gets her, but she is dark and twisted inside; Aubrey is shrill and obsessive-compulsive about traditions; and Chloe lets Aubrey walk all over her). Of course Beca is the only slightly normal character, but she has oh such difficulty trusting anyone, because her dad left her mum. Her Asian roommate bizarrely detests her for no reason at all and treats her appallingly (which Beca never once reacts to) and she has almost no backbone with anyone except the one person who is good to her - Jesse (Skylar Astin), a member of the rival, all-male A Cappella group, called Treblemakers.

I will not go any further into the story and I have only explained thus far to show how unbelievably stale the premise is - and how awfully repugnant the stereotypes are. The script is replete with nerd jokes (they are weird), racial jokes (Asians are weird), disability jokes (DJ = Deaf Jews...and they're weird), lesbian jokes (gay people are desperate...and weird)....and when all else fails, there are puke jokes. Seriously.

The script was probably written on toilet paper, by monkeys who had no imagination at all. No sorry - scratch that. It was written by Kay Cannon (of 30 Rock fame), based on a book by Mickey Rapkin. Yup, that must be one literary masterpiece. Character motivation is a mystery throughout the story - and the film is completely devoid of any chemistry, between anyone and anything. After this, director Jason Moore should definitely return to television, where he has obviously done well.

Most disheartening aspect of this film was watching Anna Kendrick, who is a good actress, playing a freshman at the ripe old age of 27. If it wasn't for the excellent - and I really mean that - singing voices that almost all the actors possess, this film was the absolute pits. It could not have been more wasteful of cinematic space.

I'm really sorry that my Film 2013 has started off with this trash.