Thursday, June 27, 2013

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

Prepare yourselves for a new kind of filmmaking genre, one that sounds cringe worthy but is in fact a permanent stab in the belly of mainstream Hollywood. Prepare yourselves for the arrival of Harmony Korine, L’enfant terrible and storytelling genius with the single mission of annihilating the lines between commercial, independent and arthouse cinema. Prepare yourselves for Spring Breakers – which can only be described as Dostoyevsky in a bikini.

Starring a pack of scantily clad former Disney princesses raising hell in the most disturbing possible ways, Spring Breakers is on the surface eye candy and guilty pleasure, but is in fact a stunningly well made, viscous, nihilistic diatribe of the modern world. This is a coming of age story, a horror movie, a dark comedy and a brutal takedown of our increasingly decadent civilization all rolled into one blistering neon-colored acid trip that leaves you unsure of what to feel. The combined effect is powerful to say the least and Korine leaves you with the uneasy sensation of hopelessness, despite the film’s seemingly hopeful ending.

Like Korine’s Kids, which he wrote back in 1994 when he was 17 years old, Spring Breakers chronicles the hedonistic adventures of wayward youth in today’s society that either abandons them, or is careless enough to ignore them, or spends its time inculcating useless religion based values in them. Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) play ornery college kids who so desperately want to break free from the mundaneness of their lives that they commit armed robbery with squirt guns to collect money to go on a spring break. At Florida they find something that actually makes them happy – the allure of utter decadence, electronic music, booze, drugs and sex. But Korine isn’t interested in narrating an anti-drugs cautionary tale to parents here – he uses the societally corrupted bad girls to justify the desensitization of criminals. Korine’s message is the stark reality that one tends to evade: your government has failed, your education system has failed, your religion has failed, your cultures have failed, your values have failed, you parents have failed. The human race is so blinded by its sense of self-worth that it fails to define what a crime actually is. And Korine drives home that point by casting actual criminals in the film, criminals who could not do press for the film because they were sent back to jail.

The film has the atmosphere of a neon nightmare with the help of composer Cliff Martinez and cinematographer Benoit Debie who earlier displayed ample grasp of the hallucinatory with Enter the Void. Debie’s kaleidoscopic camera captures the intoxicating, apparent invincibility of money and power, a combo embodied by James Franco in the performance of his career as a gangsta rap star who is also a sleazy gangster. And although the themes are pretty heavy Korine presents them in a campy manner to mess with us even further. In one terrific scene Franco’s character Alien, who wears mouth grills, tattoos and dreadlocks plays the piano and shifts from zenlike to funny to unsettling to menacing in a heartbeat, as the girls sway around him. Alien sings a Britney Spears song that ends with a crescendo to establish the absolute submission of the girls towards the dark side – a leitmotif that was found in the Japanese movie Suicide Club which used the idea of teenage pop songs signaling the imminent end of the world as we know it. 

(First published in DNA)

Movie Review: The Heat

It’s 2013 and certainly not a great time for 80’s buddy cop comedy clichés. The reason why movies like Hot Fuzz and last year’s hilarious 21 Jump Street worked is that those films made fun of the buddy cop clichés. The Heat, rather than breaking new ground or parodying the genre, simply embraces all the clichés.

The Heat is a disappointment from Paul Feig who made the excellent Bridesmaids two years ago. It lacks the non sequitur gags of that film and is content to just hurl expletives from an overweight, obnoxious female character as entertainment. The film puts together two cops, a ‘hot’ uptight prim and proper Sandra Bullock and Melisa McCarthy as the aforementioned obese cantankerous creature, and uses their utter dissimilarity to extract jokes – hardly an Earth shattering plot device. The majority of the film deals with McCarthy’s gigantic (personality) clashing with Bullock’s literally and figuratively skinny one as they try to crack down on a drug dealer.

Now the problem here isn't the usage of loud, foul language and scrappy appearance from a woman, nor is it the filmmakers’ choice of lazy storytelling by depending on those factors to extract laughs. The problem is the loudness, the language and the appearance don’t make for anything substantially comedic, because the plot is hackneyed. The reason why rotund comedians like Seth Rogen and Jack Black are hilarious and successful is that their F bombs, politically incorrect takedowns and potty humor are used in good scripts with fun plots. Putting Melissa McCarthy in a movie with a terrible script is a scandalous waste of a great comedienne and writer director Paul Feig clearly deserves the blame. While Feig made McCarthy’s character endearing and likable in Bridesmaids, the one in this film is at times chortle worthy but most times borderline unbearable, because the character tries to overcompensate for the lack of a good script.

At the other end is Bullock who at 48 looks terrific but is a bizarre mixture of her characters from Miss Congeniality and The Proposal, both of which were unpleasant to say the least. Bullock and McCarthy indulge in nonstop back and forth but the results are at best lukewarm, again due to the terrible plot. This may be recommended to some as a harmless chick flick, but chick flicks don’t need to be unintelligent and inane – just ask the people who saw Easy A and Pitch Perfect. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Movie Review: Monsters University

Since making grown men cry like babies in 2009’s Up and turning us all into softies in the final scenes of 2010’s Toy Story 3, Pixar has been experiencing a slow but steady decline. Cars 2 was a disappointment and last year’s Brave was shockingly underwhelming, despite its huge budget. Unfortunately the trend continues with Monsters University, a prequel that is emotionally inert and charmless compared to Pixar’s earlier work.

The silver lining here is that even a disappointing Pixar film is significantly better than most other animation films. The bonus of Monsters University is that you get to revisit your favourite characters, even though you know they are on screen to sell toys and T shirts to kids off screen. The plot of the prequel is frustratingly simplistic - Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) are youngsters who become friends at Monsters University’s Scare School in the hope of becoming professional scarers. Mike is the obvious loud overachiever while Sully is the underachieving Moose. Majority of the film chronicles their contrasting personalities to whip out the clichéd themes of friendship in unlikely circumstances. The disappointment would not be this stark had this film either been direct to DVD or made by another studio, but Pixar has set the bar so high that you expect a film of theirs to be different, and entertaining to both kids and adults. 

The failure of Monsters University can be dissected with a simple scrutiny of the product. The original Monsters Inc was made by Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and David Silverman and they went on to make Up, Toy Story 3 and The Simpsons Movie, all of which turned out to be classics. This film is written by Dan Scanlon who wrote Cars, which was earlier the weakest Pixar film, and his lack of grasp over story and characters is only too obvious. There were around a hundred standout scenes in Monsters Inc and so many characters, like the little Boo for example, who remained ingrained in our memory forever. Monsters University does not have even one scene or laugh or character that makes you feel like it has the worthy DNA of the original movie. What Monsters University does feel like is one of those dozen or so cash grab sequels and prequels of Aladdin and Lion King that almost killed Disney, and the results of Pixar being taken over by that company are now showing. The animation is gold standard, as is expected from Pixar but yet again the 3D feels like being punched in the eyes.

Pixar did prove with the Toy Story movies that they can make great sequels, but the expectations for Finding Dory now remain low. Hopefully the discontent of the past three years will be erased with the studio’s very intriguing upcoming movies – one about a Dinosaur and the other that is set entirely inside a young girl’s mind.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: World War Z

Let me say it up front – World War Z doesn’t the least bit follow Max Brooks’ book which it claims to be adapted from. Like the I am Legend movie, this film absolutely desecrates the source material, exudes none of the various geo political themes and offers a blasphemously different ending. So if you’re a fan of the book and worship Brooks, this movie is definitely not for you. But here’s the good news – World War Z is more proof that tabloid news stories about troubled film productions are irrelevant, because the film is a surprisingly polished and entertaining end product.

Directed by Marc Forster who was blamed for everything that went wrong during filming, World War Z doesn’t offer anything new, but it takes all the familiar tropes of modern zombie films and presents them on an extremely large scale. It’s a disaster pic that mixes the soulless excess of Roland Emmerich and the pseudo realistic procedural style of Soderbergh’s Contagion. The film doesn’t waste any time – we’re plunged straight into the zombie apocalypse that breaks out in an American city. We follow Gerry (Brad Pitt), a former UN personnel who is tasked with shifting his family to a safe zone and traveling the world to find the origin and cure for the epidemic. The narrative structure is fun as Gerry jet sets from one country to another, even though we’re left wondering why the other experts of the world don’t procure the vital information that he does. The zombies are terrific and they make the ones from Walking Dead look like Teletubbies - their transformation is established in a superbly shot early scene where Gerry watches a man painfully twitch, contort and turn into a zombie in 12 seconds.

Although there isn’t a shred of the pragmatic philosophy from the book, World War Z doesn’t end up as dumb summer hokum. In one scene Gerry gets zombie blood on his face and runs to the ledge of a building terrace and waits for 12 seconds to jump off. Pitt wonderfully underplays it, making a decent effort to not shove his mega movie star persona down our throats – something Tom Cruise needs to learn. It’s a shame that Pitt’s production will forever be maligned as yet another Hollywood movie that didn’t respect its source material. The Bourne films didn’t follow Ludlum’s books either, and though World War Z isn’t as good, it still works as a decently put together standalone movie. It’s beautifully shot too – from red flares illuminating a pitch black abandoned building to a rain soaked bicycle ride amidst sleeping zombies, it’s candy for the eyes, poisoned by the zombie plague of cinema – 3D.

There are some welcome character moments between the pounding action set pieces to make us care about Gerry and his family, and Forster handles these scenes just right, effortlessly avoiding the chasm of melodrama. It’s difficult to pull off an intriguing serious tone in a disaster movie of this scale, a zombie one at that. Where Forster does fail is the close quarter action department – as exhibited in Quantum of Solace, the man just doesn’t have the chops to film a decent close up without shaking the camera like a snow globe, and the effect is even more awful in 3D. To fix the supposedly disappointing third act the filmmakers had turned to the one man who in Cabin in the woods created the mother of all third acts – Drew Goddard. But despite his rewrites and reshoots it is easy to sense a sudden drop in quality in the last twenty minutes. The final scene is a whimper and just terrible in every possible way, it sets up a sequel but given the budget it would technically be impossible to fund any further films in the franchise. It’s a mystery why the studio didn’t realize this and decide to end the storyline in this film with the epic battle of Yonkers. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Park Chan Wook's Stoker

Around the halfway mark, a riled up Nicole Kidman sits at her dining table and philosophizes about children in the modern world. She believes that people no longer have children to expand their family and continue their lineage; they have them so that they can make their children avoid the mistakes that they made. She then contorts her face, looks at her daughter and spits out that she isn’t one of those parents, and that she cannot wait to watch life tear her daughter apart.

The characters of Park Chan Wook’s first English language film Stoker are every bit as eccentric, unsettling and dysfunctional as the ones found in his Korean films. Mildly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a doubt, Stoker is a gothic psychological thriller that further cements the fact that no other filmmaker in the world makes death, murder, blood, mental breakdown and other related morbidity seem poetic and beautiful. The film chronicles a young girl named India (Mia Wasiokowska) whose life takes a huge turn when her father dies and a mysterious man (Matthew Goode) who claims to be her uncle moves in with them. India’s distraught and vulnerable mother (Kidman) is drawn towards the man’s charm, but India suspects that he hides a dark secret. Soon enough, a rash of murders breaks out and India is pulled into an irresistible vortex of violence to face a disconcerting realization – that a family can be bonded by something other than just blood and genes.

Right from the opening scene you’re magnetized by the film’s inherent, gestating mystery. Director Chan Wook throws in curveballs with his references to the Hitchcock film and the film’s title, which hints towards Bram Stoker and his famous character Dracula. Piecing together the puzzle becomes a guilty pleasure and you’re kept on the edge of your seat, courtesy of Chan Wook’s incomparable knack of infusing unpredictability in every single scene. As the mystery slowly begins to unfold you can’t help but be thankful for the distance between you and the film’s characters – a testament to the terrific performances from the three leads.

Stoker may not be a classic like Chan Wook’s Oldboy or Thirst, but the brilliance of Stoker lies in the fact that the filmmaker managed to turn a mediocre script into a great movie. The film works both as a really twisted metaphor for a teenage girl’s coming of age story and a straightforward horror thriller, and it scores well both ways. Chan Wook tosses various visual and aural clues along the way, from a spider crawling into India’s shoe to a brutal murder juxtaposed with sexual awakening. India is somehow able to hear sounds of significantly lower frequency than most humans, and the filmmakers do a terrific job with the sound design to make us identify with the protagonist. Apart from Clint Mansell’s moody score, craft, aesthetics and timing, the trademarks of Chan Wook are on full display here. His camera wafts around the mansion like a spirit, peering into tiny details which only India’s heightened senses can detect. One memorable scene seamlessly cuts from Kidman’s brushed hair to swaying grass, another is a lusty and darkly funny piano duet where the man provokingly reaches around the girl to hit higher notes. 

Chan Wook doesn’t speak a word of English, he managed to make Stoker with extensive storyboards and an interpreter. Whether he will return to the US for another project remains unclear, but if he does, he deserves to do a film with his own story, rather than one from the grimy drawers of Hollywood. 

(First published in DNA)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Movie Review: Man Of Steel

It has finally arrived, the progeny of Chris Nolan, the godlike father of all superhero movies and Zack Snyder, the mother of them all. The progeny is significantly stronger than most of its brothers from the land of Hollywood, possessing the gritty métier of its father and the resilient power of its mother. It heroically saves its hometown from the evil clutches of the villainous clichés, and falls prey to the Kryptonite of filmmaking – fake post converted 3D.

Audiences have outgrown the candyfloss casual tomfoolery of 80’s and 90’s blockbuster cinema, and are weary of the overload of the modern dark gritty origin story and the humanization of the superhero. The only solution to this problem was by pairing Nolan and Snyder, and it works on some insane level, because Nolan is the maestro who excels at constructing superheroes by stripping away their morality and immortality, and Snyder is the master of deconstructing the superhero genre. The new Superman story needed to lose its red underwear and its accompanying monkeyshines, without becoming an all too serious and depressing guilt ridden drama. Nolan brings the real world legitimacy to an otherworldly character and Snyder uses that legitimacy to make the character accessible to his fans. It’s a very tricky tightrope, and Man of Steel becomes the best possible Superman movie you’ll get in this day and age.   

There are three things that make Man of Steel more interesting than you expect it to be. First, it gives you the reason why Superman came to Earth and why he chose to stay on the planet and save humans. The latter existential issue was never brought up in any previous Superman film and Snyder (and Nolan) do a great job of lending the character an air of innate heroism over his surface level integrity. Secondly, the film offers a villain who has a genuinely tragic, logical and most surprisingly, a relatable motive to hunt Superman, rather than a ludicrous plan to ‘take over the universe’. The protagonist and the antagonist have the exact same goal – to protect their own race, so the big bombastic fight scenes between them don’t just exist for mindless escapist entertainment - you’re given the choice to actually wonder if the villain is actually a villain. Third, the film lays its characters’ motivation cards on the table right from the opening scene – this keeps Snyder from convoluting the story with a false sense of mystery - we’re given large helpings of the story the moment the film opens, and it’s a pleasure to see it all unfold from one glorious action set piece to the next. The only forseeable downside of this tactic is that the sequel might not have any more Superman content to offer, considering we’re handed nearly everything there is to know about the character. Another interesting theme that the film lightly alludes to is how the people of the world would react, when they come to know that a God is amongst them. Perhaps we’ll see more of this in the next film.

Calling the action scenes ‘set pieces’ would be doing injustice to the film, for the scenes, set against the backdrop of Hans Zimmer's terrific score are some of the biggest, most expansive, most destructive, most eye popping CGI mayhem ever splashed on screens. This is an expensive movie and Snyder makes sure you leave the theater feeling happy about investing your money in his work. The frustrations arrive in the form of 3D, which absolutely hacks the cinematography and the special effects with a scythe and murders the fun out of the film. Post converted fake 3D was the worst thing that could have happened to this film and it is utterly greedy and shameless of the studios to present the film in overpriced IMAX 3D, a format it was NOT filmed in. When Superman breaks the sound barrier and literally punches an extraterrestrial machine in the nuts, you want to see it in its bright colorful 2D glory, not in dim, pixelated 3D. When the Superman and Zod hand to hand brawl kicks into action, you should be able to sit back and watch the city being torn to bits, rather than witness underwhelming imagery through cheap quality rented glasses. The 3D blurs out the fine details meticulously crafted with tremendously long hours of SFX detailing work, by paying to watch this film in 3D, you’d be kicking the already underpaid CGI animators in the stomach.

Barring Amy Adams who suffers from her clumsily written Lois Lane character, the cast is top notch. Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel is circumspect and handsome in equal portions, you could say he isn’t a patch on Christopher Reeve but he is given the much more challenging task of being simultaneously heroic, troubled, otherworldly and human, a far cry from what Reeve did back then. Michael Shannon is fun as Zod, the villain who is deemed a maniac only because the hero says he is. Russell Crowe has an excellent extended cameo, he was once referred to as the new Marlon Brando and it is only fitting that he plays Jor El in this film.

A major criticism would be the way the film rushes from one dramatic plot point to the next, without really focusing to create any lasting impact. Settling down and fleshing out the relationships between the characters would have added to the already long two and a half hour runtime, but it would definitely have made it a classic, rather than a mere enjoyable blockbuster. Zack Snyder is a gifted filmmaker, you could criticize him for a few things, but he’s one of the rare individuals who absolutely LOVES comics and commands the technical artistry to convey that on a big screen. Whether or not Nolan was responsible for grounding the Superman and having him referred to as Kal El remains a mystery, but the Nolan-Snyder team should make more movies. These are the guys who have cleverly looked at the notion of the ‘S’ logo being short of ‘Superman’ and replaced it with the logo being a Krypton symbol for ‘hope’. It is a symbol that we humans on Earth should embrace and hope for Superman to swoop by and save us all from the tyranny of 3D. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Movie Review: After Earth

After displaying a steadying quality decline with The Village, The Happening and The Last Airbender, one expected M Night Shyamalan to next make the worst, most unintentionally funny movie of his career. After Earth is a disappointment, because it is only bad, and not terrible enough to be entertaining.

On fears that Shyamalan could be box office poison, the poor guy was kept hidden during the marketing and promos of the film. However this time, the overall dreadfulness of the film isn’t attributed to Shyamalan, that honor goes to Will Smith, who wrote the story and actually believed that shoving his untalented kid and a Scientology based film down our throats would be tremendous entertainment. The last time a film with Scientology overtones hit theaters, John Travolta’s career ended, hopefully After Earth won’t be to Smith what Battlefield Earth was to Travolta.

The premise sounds interesting on paper - Smith and his son Jaden play Cypher Raige and Kitai, a father-son duo who crash land on a futuristic Earth that is inhabited by ‘creatures that have evolved to kill humans’. As Cypher nurses his wounds in the ship, Kitai is sent on a mission to travel 100 kilometers to a volcano to send a distress signal back to his colony. With the plot firmly placed, one expects some epic action sequences with the futuristic terrifying creatures that have evolved to kill humans, what we get is one sleepy oversized eagle and one clumsy sabre tooth tiger. There are also a bunch of monkeys who are pissed off because our hero throws a rock at them. As if to make up for the sheer lack of thrills, the film also offers a badly rendered CGI alien in the final two minutes of the film, leading to a climactic battle that is as exciting as a paint drying contest.

Apart from the characters, most of the futuristic technology doesn’t make any sense either. Kitai’s suit has a POV camera that lets his father see what he sees, but in some instances the dad accesses movie camera vision and sees Kitai on his monitor filmed from a few feet away. Moreover, we’re told that a race of blind aliens who smelled fear had almost wiped out the cowardly human race on Earth, but how the blind aliens walked around without bumping into a rock or a tree is left untold. Will Smith is shown as the heroic warrior who felt no fear and got rid of the aliens, but After Earth would’ve been more fun had the aliens resembled Jazzy Jeff and were thrown out the mansion by Uncle Phil. 

(First published in MiD Day)