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!