Saturday, July 30, 2011

The 'Cowboys & Aliens' Review

 Cowboys and Aliens is a convoluted visual spectacle, marvelous to look at but woefully devoid of entertainment. In throwing out wit, humour and intelligence for meandering action, director Jon Favreau ends up with a noisy, overlong, over-serious mess. There's nothing in this film you haven't seen before, especially if you own an Xbox. 

There are cowboys, aliens, James Bond, Indiana Jones and buck naked Olivia Wilde, so what possibly could the superstar writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci do wrong? A lot as it turns out - Daniel Craig’s one-note dullard, the oppressive production design and the underwhelming special effects crush this film like a trash compactor. Favreau is gifted with a much bigger budget than he was for the first ‘Iron Man’ film, but here he makes the all-too-common mistake of believing money can substitute for imagination. The uninspired alien design, the cooky spaceship, the corny Old West dialogue, the hilariously pathetic characters, the obligatory naked woman - it feels as though we are immersed in a low budget video game. A game that never seems to end. The biggest frustration is being unable to care about the plot, unless you are content to root for dozens of people whom you can’t give a tinker’s cuss about. The best we get is a spectacularly hamming Harrison Ford, who always seems to have dialogue scribbled on his palm.

For a film that combines two big genres, there isn’t much of a story. We have a man (Daniel Craig) who awakens in an 1873 Arizona desert with a metal bracelet fixed to his wrist. Like Jason Bourne, he has no recollection of who he is or how he got there. He stumbles into a sleepy town where he learns of his identity, and witnesses strange lights attacking the place with devastating death rays and crafts that snatch people with mechanical lassos. Unfortunately, the whole alien abduction sequence is an eye-glazing fiasco which leaves us totally uncaring whether anyone survives the massacre. This is perhaps because the aliens and their ships look hideously unoriginal. The villainous invaders physically appear as, for all intents and purposes, mutant humanoids with stronger than usual strength and just the one emotion. This was the wrong way to go with these creatures, who never seem to pose much threat and, therefore, are giant bores. It doesn't help that their motives, like that of the rest of the characters, are highly sketchy. Even the big finale is a moldy cliché of a science-fiction film without the vital feeling of release from danger.  

Cowboys and Aliens is the kind of project that is a dream-come-true for composers, but Harry Gregson-Williams' score neither brings Sci Fi nor Westerns to life.  Daniel Craig is supposed to be the classic lone ranger, the stranger, the man with no name, the anti hero we have to have in post modern cinema. But the man has neither wit nor emotion.  Equally distracting is his British accent which he frequently drops in.

The silly third-person-shooter style action scene is mildly interesting, but Favreau miscalculates the outcome of his overriding vision by making every action sequence edited into jump cut frenzy. The supporting cast, an excellent lineup of Sam Rockwell, Harrison Ford, Paul Dano, Raoul Trujillo (the villain from ‘Apocalypto’) is absolutely wasted. Favreau clearly wanted to make something more than your average explosion-laced popcorn film, but we expect an explanation to why the aliens invade the Old West when people like Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman bring us the story.    

Cowboys and Aliens is just an inane film that is mostly laughable due to it’s atmosphere of dead-serious reverence. You’re better off watching Tree of Life this weekend. 

First published in DNA

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 'Tree Of Life' Review

The Tree of Life is not a film. It is the product of an artist's imagination on the loose. You cannot just watch it, you experience it’s masterful, maddening power. You can’t dismiss it by calling it pretentious. But you can compliment it by calling it indulgent because it literalises the theory of surrealism as an everlasting dream state. Nobody creates cinematic hypnosis like Terrence Malick, and Tree of Life is his most intense and ambitious film to date.

The film's innovativeness lies in its visual design and complex, shifting tone. Malick’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki invents a whole new technique – a sort of ‘Godcam’ - and renders haunting, floating imagery. The camerawork is unlike anything you’ve ever seen on the big screen. The narrative here follows the logic of a bad dream dealing with repressed memories.  And Malick preaches to his clan - hardcore fans will hail it as an evocative, difficult masterpiece, and others need not apply.  Everyone who dismissed ‘The Thin Red Line’ as tedious will throw up their hands once again. But the rest like me will rise to the challenge of piercing Malick’s layered surrealities.  Each frame here is otherworldly, absorbing and transporting in the way only a Malick film can be. You may walk out with a big question mark over your head, you may walk out frustrated and angry, but you will not walk out unaffected.

The Tree Of Life opens with a verse from the Hebrew Bible in which God prompts Job of his creation of the earth and his power over all life on the planet. Cut to a suburban Texas home where the O’Brien couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are informed of the death of one of their sons. We then flit to a future where the eldest O’Brien son Jack (Sean Penn), now a successful architect, wakes up on the anniversary of his brother Steve’s death. Jack is clearly disturbed, and we hear whispered voiceovers and illusory scenes as clues to unlock the mystery of the O’Briens’ past. What follows is a brooding, meditative examination of the infirmity of life on earth. The narrative seamlessly shifts from the subconscious to the conscious, and from one universe to another, stressing the need for ordinary life and love. The final segment leaves you with a few questions, but also a whole lot to discuss, dissect and debate long after the melancholy journey reaches an end. What it all means is up to the viewer to decide, and if you can handle unconventional nourishment for your senses and mind, you'll have a profound time piecing everything together.

I am sure that the most attention will be paid to the film’s hallucinatory stretches, but far more important than the surface trickery is The Tree Of Life’s greatest accomplishment – it redirects the focus from the dreamlike imagery to it’s emotional core and it’s characters. Malick scatters the beautiful CGI & special effects with seeming randomness, but makes it clear that what matters are the emotions boiling within the characters. Hunter McCracken, in particular, who plays the younger Jack is impressive – his subtle disintegration is a wonder on par with the events’ transformation. Pitt and Chastain are excellent as well. Sean Penn doesn’t get to do much more than wander helplessly in his own fractured mind. Malick throws in plenty of visual clues and symbolism, even the ideological distinction between Jack and Steve is visual (the dark-haired versus the blond look).

About 20 minutes in, Malick strikes a sharp knife into the profitable heart of Hollywood that has supported him over these years with a sequence involving the creation of the universe. A sense of astonishment gnaws behind your eyeballs as you witness the modern day pinnacle of filmmaking where cosmos shift, volcanoes erupt and dinosaurs walk the earth - all of it juxtaposed to a gut-wrenching operatic score by Alexandre Desplat. It does indeed remind you of Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. No matter what you think of this movie, this sequence will get you to stare in awe and reach out for an oxygen mask.

The Tree of Life has an intoxicating narrative groundwork. It is unique, visually lush, and Terrence Malick’s conviction for his self-indulgences, coupled with his extraordinary filmmaking skills make this the best film of the year, and one of the greatest ever made. The question isn’t ‘if’ you want to see it, it is ‘how many times’ you want to see it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The 'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara' Review

 According to scientists, black holes can slow down the progress of time. A similar effect can be felt by viewers of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a staggeringly inept coming-of-middle-age story as it drones on from one lame overly lit set-up to the next.

So what’s wrong? The plot itself is hackneyed, the tone is inconsistent, and what aspires to be funny leaves us just embarrassed. What’s more, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara does feel like a stale rehash of Dil Chahta Hai - take away the ‘Dil’ and you get this dismal, lumbering mess. The trio of Arjun (Hrithik), Imraan (Farhan) and Kabir (Abhay) are almost apologetic-looking, as they tread gingerly through the wreckage of the script.  While trying so hard to have such a good time, they simply forget to be funny, and begin to grate before the body even cools.  The plotting is far from watertight, and the curiously unlikable characters fail entirely to cover up this film's flimsy underpinnings.   

The stench of desperation wafts from the screen, as writers Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti randomly grasp at one clichéd device after another. Yes, the Spanish locales are gorgeous to behold, and we have seldom seen imagery as pretty as this in Indian films. But watching it feels like walking into a fancy restaurant and being served a dead mouse. Abhay’s stilted dialogue delivery is itself sufficient to discolor the entire experience.  

Zoya Akhtar goes for Hollywood-style physicality, marching her players around a country in which a scantily clad diving instructor (Katrina Kaif) and ‘fear’ plays a big part. As interesting as self-obsession can be when handled properly, it's unbearable when the writers and actors can't nail that tenuous tone between empathy and absurdity. There are splendid shots of parajumping, underwater exploration, tomato-bathing, bull-running – these are the moments when Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara spins, whirls, sputters and wheezes, but never at exactly the right moments. It seems almost as if the Akhtar clan thought it was stimulating enough for the film that they create these jerks. As opposed to better road trip films like The Motorcycle Diaries where the location, the experience and the characters' insecurities feed the story, Hrithik’s Arjun sheds a tear as Imraan delivers dull poetry throughout.

The story often goes in circles when it could be advancing things. For instance, we see Arjun’s back-story involving his ex girlfriend, but nothing ever comes of it. There's also a big to-do about the fact that Kabir doesn’t really want to marry his fiancé (Kalki) but is too afraid to say it, obviously setting us up for a moment where he finds his voice. But by the time we get there (nearly three hours), the plot vehicle winds up being rather tedious and the whole point is lost.  Meanwhile, the subplot about Imraan’s estranged father kills the levity even further injecting a completely superfluous detour that much like everything else seems more dull than intriguing.   

If anyone behind the scenes of ZNMD deserves praise without reservation, it is cinematographer Carlos Catalan. Besides Hrithik (whose plainness here will make him unrecognizable to those who swooned over his ‘Kites’ persona), ZNMD wastes the always-likable Farhan  whose frequent outbursts of juvenile antics and wisecracks are made to pose as comic gems.

If you thought the supply of the Akhtar factory’s talent was unlimited, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is surprisingly convincing evidence to the contrary.

(First published in MumbaiBoss)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The 'Delhi Belly' Review

 Make way for over-the-top profanity and delightfully absurdist humour. Delhi Belly is a raunchy, witty and irreverent film that is bound to please all but the most strait-laced audiences. I haven't had this much fun at the movies in a long, long time.

Newbie Akshat Varma’s script is hilarious and bitingly perceptive. Delhi Belly is perhaps the first Hindi film to not just understand potty humour as a pop cultural form, but to play it like a master pianist. You can’t help but grab your stomach and guffaw as the bumbling trio of Tashi (Khan), Arun (Das) and Nitin (Roy Kapoor) stumble through a landscape defined by stolen diamonds, botched shootings, dumb sexism and gleeful disrespect of the commode. What works here is that these characters are very real — they bicker and blunder like idiots but not like movie characters, and they toss snappy one-liners the way you and I slough off dead skin-cells.

For most of its short 90-minute runtime, Delhi Belly is sly and darkly humorous, and the post-modern satire playfully deconstructs most Bollywood genres and cliches. I'm aware that Bollywood is an easy target in today’s movies, but the intentionally crude dialogue and the plot move quickly and humorously enough to make me believe that the film is smarter than it is lazy. Rather than A-list stars, sophomore Deo directs relatively unpopular actors and gives them a new chance to shine. Moreover, he has taken Shehnaz Treasurywala, an actress who killed our brain cells in films like Radio, and actually made her likeable in her brief cameo.

Here we have three youngsters — an unseasoned reporter Tashi, a meek cartoonist Arun and an unkempt photographer Nitin — slumming it at a rundown Delhi apartment. A particularly nasty day begins as Tashi’s fiancé (Treasurywala) decides to hitch him, Arun’s girlfriend dumps him, and Nitin’s appetite begins to overpower him. Enter new colleague Menaka (Poorna), followed by an unhygienic piece of tandoori chicken, and all hell breaks loose. The excrement finally hits the ceiling when Nitin’s stool sample gets mixed up with a Russian doll containing diamonds, much to the annoyance of smuggler Somayajulu (Raaz).

But never mind the story. It doesn’t have layer upon layer of intrigue, and except for the blackmail subplot involving Nitin and a prostitute, Delhi Belly could have been a short story published in an adult version of Tinkle. It's fun, but that's not the point. The point is how screwy it all is, with Deo playing with the rules of Hindi movies. As for the dialogue, I won't repeat any of the uproarious lines that pass between the characters, in part because they often feature ferocious swear words, but also because they'll be funnier if you discover them yourself. Rest assured, the jokes are about as lowbrow and raunchy as any filmmaker in India will ever get with an ‘A’ rating.

It's not high art, nor is Delhi Belly even close to the pinnacle of originality, but it is a jolly good time nonetheless. The running gag of Nitin’s protesting stomach reigns smack down in the middle of the plot, and miraculously it never comes across as tawdry. Vijay Raaz seems have a whole lot of fun as a gangster — it’s clearly the best thing he has ever done. Kunaal Roy Kapoor does well as the typical ‘fat guy with flatulence issues’; Vir Das is quite likeable as well. Imran Khan sans the irritating chocolate boy look is surprisingly good here. The trio’s English delivery is mostly convincing.

What works best in the film is the subtle, smooth nature of the comedy — the actors don’t try too hard, nor do they make stupid faces to extort laughs from you. Another big positive is the restrained use of music — unlike in Rohit Shetty and Sajid Khan products, there are no loud, annoying musical cues that accompany every joke.

Deo directs with a zippy pace and clarity. The only problem is that Delhi Belly is overtly calculated, and the songs, though gorgeously relegated to the background, are mercilessly sliced and diced. Hat tip to producer Aamir Khan for shepherding a zany, truly cheeky jet black comedy for adults in an industry that generally delivers stuff like Ready and Tees Maar Khan. Mr Khan even makes sure you stay during the end credits where he makes a hilarious cameo.

Delhi Belly is lethally funny and cynical. It is so gaudy and profane that you can't say it isn't fun in its own exuberant way. Do watch.

First published in DNA