Friday, September 30, 2011

'Drive' - Not a Review

The best way to describe Drive is ‘Menthol Noir’. This film is fully engaging on several levels, thanks to the masterful narrative, the silky smooth direction from Nicholas Winding Refn, the '80s-esque pop music and the near perfect blend of suspense, humor and interesting characters. Hollywood blockbuster fans weaned on the adrenaline flowing through ‘The Transporter’ and ‘Taxi’ may feel short-changed, but the rest of us can appreciate the old-fashioned craftsmanship of Drive. This is a big recommendation for adult audiences in search of something that won't insult their intelligence.  

Juggling a splendid lead (Ryan Gosling) and an easy to follow plot, director Refn (Valhalla Rising, Pusher) makes sure Drive’s pacing rattles and shakes as he delivers a narrative that, instead of climaxing with the heist, only gets more intriguing once the money is stolen. Refn puts on screen what he wants. It almost feels like the material in Drive is Viagra to him - lively and effective, rolling around the known gray qualities of the characters. In a marketplace that tends toward cranked-up action thrills, it's very nice to watch a level-headed crime movie aimed at actual grown-ups. 

Drive isn't a one-man show. The dexterous cast absorbs itself in convincing performances. Albert Brooks (Broadcast News), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Carey Mulligan are all excellent, each bringing their own bit of flavor to the film. There isn't a single weak link among them.  Brooks in particular is subtly spectacular as the aging gangster-turned-film producer-turned pizzeria owner. And it's nice to report that star Ryan Gosling (better known for the sappy ‘The Notebook’ and last year’s ‘Blue Valentine’) continues to improve as a leading man. 

Gosling plays an unnamed auto mechanic who moonlights as a Hollywood stuntman, a racer and a criminal getaway driver. He handles his role with quiet power, even during the intimate moments with his beautifully tragic neighbour (Mulligan). He is equally unassuming with the limping garage owner (Cranston) and with shady mobsters (Brooks and Perlman), as he is while repeatedly kicking the bloodied face of a man who’s sent to kill him. The most remarkable thing about all these characters is that when they're double crossed, they don't waste an ounce of energy dwelling on it - they immediately start scheming their retaliation. It's all part of the business. And Refn gives all of this to us in a very plain, brown wrapper. This is perversely refreshing and is exactly what makes Refn’s handiwork so invigorating.  

Some may label this film ‘predictable’, but they’d be missing the point –Refn plays with the formula and a long tradition. It is the savvy with which he tells his story that makes Drive an arresting watch. There are only so many heist films one can see before they all start blending together and feeling obsolete. Unless a filmmaker is particularly ambitious, breaks new ground or concentrates on something larger than the robbery itself, the success of a heist film relies solely on how engrossing it is. Drive passes this test. 

Drive contains many of the hallucinogenic aural tones of Refn’s own ‘Valhalla Rising’. He avoids sentimentalising or glamorising the material, keeping it dry and edgy. Drive is swathed in atmosphere, with plentiful neon lights, low angle photography, '80s juiced music, sprightly slo-mo and tense sound design. If the nostalgic music doesn’t win you over, then the title scrawled in the 'Purple Rain' font will. Older viewers will get a kick out of the primitive style used in the movie, a reflection of the times.

Well-paced, smartly told and unpretentious, Drive is a welcome break from the steady diet of pulpy Hollywood we get every week. Please watch.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The 'Mausam' Review

This movie should be declared a health hazard. Directed and acted with the flatness of someone who's taken a handful of anti-psychotic medication, Mausam is not merely unwatchable, but also unlistenable. The film is part love saga, part history mumbo jumbo and 100 percent cheese. The bulk of this nearly three-hour epic is third-rate schmaltz that pays only lip service to romance. Take along some Fevi Kwik glue – it is the only thing that will keep your eyes from rolling repeatedly at the hoary clichés.  

Writer-director Pankaj Kapur’s script is riddled with so many inanities, you count on Shahid Kapoor’s mustache to wake you from your stupor. In fact Mausam has very little on its mind other than making sure that 14-to-16 year old Shahid fans who see it would be impressed enough to tell their Facebook friends about it. As for the military sequences, IAF personnel would find this film to be strictly laughable material, and would want to boot it out of theaters on its blue-uniformed rear. Even as a date movie the melodrama is too silly and improbable to be enjoyed as trash. 

As the plot plays out it not only follows formula but italicizes every element of it. Punjabi youngster Harry (Shahid Kapoor) hooks up with a Muslim girl Aayat (Sonam), but bizarre twists of fate keep separating them constantly. With gaping plot holes Papa Kapur seems to deliberately sabotage the film’s strengths at almost every juncture. For reasons unknown, Harry and Aayat don’t rely on standard modes of communication like forwarding address, Email or telephone numbers to keep in touch. The first 20 minutes set in Punjab are breezy, but all the characters are stereotypes, and their interaction is numbingly predictable. Also, they seem to be out of a pre-independence era despite being in the 90’s. Even the latter scenes set in Scotland and Switzerland have the corny eighties throwback, complete with cringe-inducing mush and tacky montages to match.

The remainder of the film bulls ahead through hackneyed scenes and uproariously contrived historic plot twists, grinding out an endless supply of platitude, not once offering so much as a marginally interesting moment. It just makes for an embarrassingly limp drama that could only please folks who have never been out to see a movie before.

The editing in Mausam is all over the place. One scene in particular, involving our hero piloting a malfunctioning aircraft is hysterically bad. While Binod Pradan's camera locks onto Shahid’s every clenching jaw muscle, he obliterates the footage with blurry close-ups and jagged cuts. Also, the hideously fake CGI plane shames the likes of the special effects used in the 1967 low budget sci fi ‘Wahaan ke log’. The only thing that detracts from the mossy holes in the script is the waxy imperfection of the production design.

It is difficult to judge the quality of the acting in Mausam. The lines are so corny, the characters written in such a one-dimensional manner, it is hard to take any of the performances seriously. Throughout the film, Shahid Kapoor wobbles unsteadily between an underclothing model and an overly made up caricature of a model. Nearly every line of the script drops from his mouth with the muffled thud of ham, timed with sidesplitting ineptness. 

Sonam struggles with the cornball dialogue and often looks as uncomfortable delivering it as you'll feel sitting there watching her do so. Anupam Kher does what he can with the material, but is generally left floundering. Supriya Pathak simply seems lost in all the emotional claptrap. There is zero chemistry between Shahid and Sonam - Sadashiv Amrapurkar would have more chemistry courting Madhuri Dixit in a deep coma.

And yet, nothing compares to the mind bogglingly awful climatic scene that grabs you by the collar and laughs uncontrollably at you. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say there’s a white horse, a Ferris wheel, an orphan and the leads strolling around a riot-hit Gujarat, and it makes for a sequence that takes everything terrible that has come before it and transcends it to almost cartoonish levels of absurdity. It is an ending so bad, that it might become legend among film critics as one of the most hilariously appalling Hindi film endings of all time. 

Mausam is a bloated, sludgy catastrophe that looks and feels phony in every detail. It’s hard to imagine a worse movie will come out this year.  

First published in Mumbai Boss

Monday, September 12, 2011

15 Films I desperately want to watch this year

This is not a list of the most anticipated commercial films of the year. This is a list of films that I fear might never release in India. And I desperately want to watch them.

15) 50/50

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard, 50/50  is a bittersweet 'cancer comedy' that has garnered some glowing reviews at TIFF. The film is loosely based on the life of its writer Will Reiser.

14) Drive

Everyone wants to watch this one. Everyone will riot if it doesn't release in theaters. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the popular 'Pusher' films and the underrated 'Valhalla Rising' took the Cannes Film Festival by storm when he bagged the best director trophy.

13) Shame

Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender, who brought us the devastating 'Hunger' reunite for a controversial NC-17 rated new film. Fassbender just won the Best Actor trophy at the Venice Film Festival for his role of an NYC man who has trouble controlling his sexual compulsions. Also starring the lovely Carey Mulligan.

12) A Monster in Paris

The trailer itself excited me. But this review of the film positively made me drool. The animation looks stunning. But when was the last time a French animated film made it to Indian theaters?

11) Martha Marcy May Marlene

This film has been under my radar for a good six months now. I first heard about it when the movie blog Slashfilm lavished praise upon it in a videocast. 'MMMM' is supposedly a very complex thriller, here's the trailer, tell me if you aren't intrigued.   

10) Carnage

A black comedy, directed by Roman Polansky, starring Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. The folks at the Venice film Festival didn't dig it so much, but that didn't reduce my interest in the film. What's more, the Guardian loved it

9) The Descendants

It's been six years since we saw director Alexander Payne's excellent 'Sideways', and it looks like his new film starring George Clooney is well worth the wait.

8) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas star in Lasse Hallström's latest. As per this review, 'Salmon Fishing' is "a peppy, quick-witted British comedy filled with great performances, clever dialogue, and the mature development of a romantic relationship". Good news for Hallström fans who were let down by his increasingly disappointing films over the past ten years.

7) Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes directs the violent, modern day rendition of the Shakespeare play of the same name. Indiewire has called it 'well acted and challenging', and the trailer looks great.

6) A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg is back with another polished thriller, starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung. Cronenberg started off as a more intellectual companion to horror maestro John Carpenter, but while the former has slumped to making dogs like 'The Ward', Cronenberg has evolved as an Oscar hogging legend.

5) God Bless America

Bobcat Goldthwait's follow up to the critically acclaimed (and my personal favourite) pitch black comedy 'World's Greatest Dad' is a mixture of 'Super', 'Kick Ass', 'Defendor' and 'Taxi Driver'. Loads of positive reviews leaked out today, and I can hardly wait to watch this.

4) Rampart

Director Oren Moverman reunites with his 'The Messenger' stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster for this corrupt cop drama. Harrelson plays twisted policeman Date Rape Dave, and according to this review the film is "a wildly ambitious slow burn that succeeds immensely, powered by one of the best performances of Woody Harrelson’s career".

3) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 

This one is based on John le Carré's novel of the same name, and comprises of the strongest male cast since 'The Departed' - Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong. Oldman plays George Smiley, a legendary spy recruited to sniff out a Russian mole lurking in the agency. Everyone at Toronto loved this film, and I doubt that I won't follow suit.

2) The Raid

A Welsh filmmaker and a Thai producer saw 'Tropa De Elite' and thought 'heck, we can do better than this'. Behold 'The Raid' - an action film that has been described as as a nonstop action bonanza that will kick you in the head and make you like it. Martial arts actor Iko Uwais could just be the next Tony Jaa. Still not convinced? Watch THIS trailer and have your mind blown.

1) The Artist

This one is my second most anticipated film of the year. Second only to 'Tintin'. Michel Hazanavicius' 'The Artist' is an ode to the black and white silent film era, and it has opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews. But you don't need to read reviews, you just need to watch this beautiful trailer and pick your jaw up from the floor.

Honorable mentions: 'We need to talk about Kevin', 'Beginners' and 'The Skin I Live in'

Honorably not mentioned: 'Trishna'. Because The Hollywood Reporter liked it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The 'That Girl in Yellow Boots' Review

 That Girl in Yellow Boots is undone by a filmmaking methodology that's just unimpressive enough to alienate the mainstream audience, while ringing clichéd to hardened indie-heads. As a colossal fan of visionary director Anurag Kashyap’s previous work, it pains me to digest this fact.

Everyone involved in this film seems better than the material. The meager plot is nothing more than a clothesline upon which to hang some heated scenes and ugly Mumbai imagery. TGIYB is gritty and graphic, with artsy takes where the camera holds on motionless actors. It's not that the film's subject is too abstract to be understood by the ‘mainstream Bollywoodians’. It's that there doesn't seem to be much point to the whole thing, other than the usual real/reel gambit. Indie it may be, but art it isn't.

There isn’t much of a story here – a girl named Ruth (Kalki) searches for her estranged father in Mumbai. She works at a dingy massage parlour where she offers certain pleasures (‘handshakes’, she calls them) to her clients for some extra dough. With a distinct lack of pacing, Kashyap resorts to far too many close-ups of his star until, as good-looking as she is, you tire of them. There's also something patronizing about the zeal with which Kashyap wallows in the Mumbai muck, especially since his characters' lives revolve entirely around the same.

In trying for realism, Kashyap only achieves dramatic inertness. He also doesn't seem to have a particular cinematic destination in mind for his supporting characters – the gangster Chitiyapa (a splendid Gulshan Devaiya) makes a solid entry but then just keeps popping in and out of the plot; a mysterious man (Kartik Krishnan) keeps taking bribes from Ruth, but it is largely unclear as to who he is; Ruth’s boyfriend (Prashant), though integral in the first half is curiously ignored in the second. Naseeruddin Shah and Puja Swarup are the standouts, but are given thankless roles. Shah in particular drifts through the film with no purpose other than to fill gaps in the long runtime. One scene involving Shivkumar Subramaniam and Kalki at a bar is perhaps the ultimate expression in upscale slumming passing for avant-garde art.

The video work is suitably grainy and rough, but at times is dependent on being overtly naturalistic rather than carefully lit and set up – which is very frustratingly unlike an AK film. Naren Chandavarkar’s moody, minimalistic electronic background score is excellent but the lone song that plays in the film is gratingly upbeat, and seems out of sync with the humourless, somber tone of the movie. But the technical snags don’t hurt the film as much as the annoying red herrings do. Dabbling in laughable red herrings in a modern, idealistic, subtle film just defeats the purpose.

Only in the second half does the story begin to move toward its brutal, hopeless conclusion. The climax is devastating, but the art house nuts will complain of the slim dramatic rewards it offers. There aren’t many allegories here, and they don’t amount to much. But suckers will still go hunting for meaning in the trite metaphors, interpreting the ‘handshake’ act as some kind of philo-babble about the human race or the world in general. For the rest, it just makes for a movie that is more interesting to read and speculate about, than to actually see.

That Girl in Yellow Boots is a disappointing film that's less than the sum of its sporadically involving parts. It is unlikely that even the most sophisticated or jaded of festival audiences will endure the onslaught of gloom on display. Several of Kashyap's earlier films were hailed as the works of an artist. Sadly, TGIYB plays like the work of a dilettante. This is definitely not the explosive birth of the indie revolution he no doubt was wishing for. 

First published in Mumbai Boss