Thursday, March 20, 2014

Movie Review: Need For Speed

There is a fundamental flaw in movies that are based on video games. It’s that most video games, if not all of them, are based on movies. So when you make such a movie, you’re making a film based on a game that is based on a movie. There is no room for ingenuity left, which is why most video game adaptations are terrible. The latest one to fall into this trapdoor is Need For Speed.

I grew up playing NFS and I still sometimes pop in a copy of Most Wanted on my PS3. But despite being such a big fan of the game I had no expectations from the NFS movie, for the simple reason that I knew it would suck. It’s a curse and the track record consists of recent duds like Doom, Max Payne and Prince of Persia. Hitman was probably the only memorable recent game based movie because it got a few things right – the aesthetics, the action, the milieu, the characters were all vintage Hitman. On that front Need For Speed achieves its goal – it looks and feels very much like an NFS movie, right down to the racing tracks.

It’s everything else that it stumbles in – the characters, the story (or lack thereof), the boring protagonist, the generic blonde love interest, the stock baddie. And when you have Aaron Paul as your hero and you still manage to make him tedious, you deserve to be whipped. I’ll refrain from making any NFS based puns but this movie just doesn’t have the Nitrous boost that it needed to be exciting.

Right from the opening scene Need For Speed takes itself too seriously. Director Scott Waugh earlier made Act of Valor which was cool for its focus on realism, but awful because it had real marines and not actors trying to act. So to remedy that Waugh cast a bunch of extremely charismatic and good looking actors like Paul, Dominic Cooper and Imogen Poots but gave them some seriously horrible lines to deliver, in a plot that is actually more clichéd and flimsy than NFS Undercover. Moreover, he superimposes the super serious tone of the film with awful cheese like this:

“You know any females? Like pretty ones?” 

“Your mom (Followed by raucous laughter)”.

And then there's Michael Keaton in a five minute role with lines like “Racing is art. Racing for passion – that’s high art”. 

To its credit Need For Speed does differentiate itself pretty well from the Fast and Furious movies. The latter actually borrowed heavily from NFS Underground but this movie uses real cars even in the crashes and big stunts to look more visceral. There are a couple of saucy action scenes, and the final race is fun. If only the film were a bit self-aware, or at least humorous to keep itself entertaining. It’s not like there aren’t good video game movies – Silent Hill and Final Fantasy were well made. The guys who made The Lego Movie could have made a great NFS movie – hopefully they’ll get to direct a video game adaptation someday.

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Movie Review: 300 Rise of an Empire

First things first. 300: Rise of an Empire has a very interesting sex scene. In fact it’s one of the most entertaining sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood film. A guy who grew up in the 90’s will remember the scenes from Nine 1/2 Weeks and Basic Instinct, and a contemporary bloke will tell his friends about the scene in this movie. It features Eva Green, a battle board and a whole lot of hilarious wrestling.

Don’t judge me for starting this review with a description of the sex scene, because the movie is aimed at people like me who want to watch some blood, gore and sexytime on the big screen. Zack Snyder’s 300 was not exactly a narrative masterpiece – it was a ridiculously good looking film with generous amounts of eye popping visuals and T&A. It had imagery never seen before in cinemas – it was fresh and bold and pretty darn entertaining. 300: Rise of an Empire is as visually arresting and well packaged as its predecessor, but herein lies the problem – it has stuff we’ve seen before many times, because it has arrived seven years after the first film.

The new film is a sequel and a prequel, jumping forward and backwards in time, sifting through the events of the first film. That makes it a narrative and editing mess, with the filmmakers having no idea of what or whom to focus on. At one point we’re led to believe that this is going to be Xerxes’ (Santoro) film, and then we’re told to follow Artemisia’s (Green) story instead. Not enough? Here’s Themistocles (Stapleton) as the Greek army hero and Queen Gorgo (Headey) who tries to jut in the party and become the ‘main’ character. I still am not sure who the protagonist and the antagonist were, although just like in the previous movie I was shown the Greeks as the good guys in the end. The first movie was based on a graphic novel so it followed its storyline, but there is no reason why the filmmakers would again choose to side with the Greeks in this film. Greece and Persia have a rich and bloody history and the film neither remains historically accurate nor makes any decent argument on why the Persians were the baddies. It’s like the Russians always being the bad guys in American video games.

Is the action any good? Hell yes. The pitch sea battles are stunning, as is the thumping music that accompanies them. That way the film is never boring. Like video game levels the Persians keep sending different ships with different bosses and the Greeks device ways to counter them. It’s the exact same structure of the first film, and there’s even an Ocean version of the Hot Gates. There is enough sword smashing, cutting, slicing, punching, decapitating and necrophilia to keep you interested. The action sequences are certainly not as iconic as the ones in 300, barring one where in a huge uncut take Themistocles horse rides across three ships and battles Artemisia. The problem arises in the scenes in between the action mayhem where we’re forced to look at people who are even blander than in the previous movie. It’s when you want to tell director Noam Murro dude just give us the action, not the lame and boring attempts at character development. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Queen

Watching the closing credits roll in the wonderful Queen, there was only question in my mind, and it was for Kangana Ranaut: how does it feel to turn into a well-respected actor?

Directed by Vikas Bahl, Queen is in the English Vinglish zone,but with many elements in its material to elevate it way beyond that film. Bahl, working from a script by Parveez Sheikh and Chaitally Parmar has produced a lovely little comedy that has rare subtlety and quality for a mainstream commercial film. It’s even a bit self-aware to make all of its genre contrivances seem fresh. And it’s got Kangana Ranaut, who after a string of duds finally gets a chance to shine as the centerpiece of the film.

Queen gets almost everything right, beginning with its unusual plot. A small town Punjabi girl named Rani has her heart broken right before her wedding. But instead of moping around Rani decides to use her honeymoon tickets to Paris. Rani is frightened, a bit dorky, extremely soft spoken, confused, wallowing young girl in a new world that she thinks is about to kill her. That character makes Kangana the perfect heroine for a movie that bends the rules of ‘small town girl in a big city’ comedies. In one funny early scene Rani keeps running away from the Eiffel Tower as if it is chasing her everywhere. Later she downs a few drinks for the first time in her life and hilariously wails about her life coming to an end. There are plenty of character moments like these, and it’s this sort of meta personality exploration that keeps the film over the trapdoor of clichés.

Even so, Queen does not rely only on Kangana’s meta personality to tell its story, but simply uses it as icing . Apart from the laughs and the sheer entertainment value, the feminist angle in Queen is quite terrific. I don’t remember the last time I saw a mainstream Hindi film that championed women empowerment so well. The entirety of Rani’s problem comes from being heartbroken due to marriage and society’s expectation of it, and Queen pretty much goes after the concept of marriage. In one scene Rani, after chilling out in Amsterdam calls up her childhood friend who is hassled with changing her baby’s diaper. ‘Tum Europe ghoom lo yaar, hum yahan potty dhote rahege’, she says to Rani. There’s even one stripper who waxes elegant Urdu like ‘Unhe zara bhi ilm hua ki hum yahaan kaam karte hai to hum Allah ke pyaare ho jayenge’. This is subtle evisceration and I loved every second of it.

But don’t let the heavy stuff get you down because Queen isn’t a soap opera. It’s consistently funny thanks to Bahl’s direction. That Bahl was the same guy who co-directed the tacky and reprehensible Chillar Party makes your head spin. There are some understated flourishes in the film, like the moment where Rani’s fiancé wipes off the Mehendi pellets from the table right after dumping her. There’s a fun long uncut take where Rani is piss drunk and sings loudly and dances to a Parisian man mildly annoyed with her. The film's got a nice pop feel all the way to the Facebook style closing credits, and a sharp soundtrack by Amit Trivedi. Slyly, Queen is a film that can be enjoyed by teens and their parents, although probably not together. There’s stuff like Rani fiddling with sex toys, completely oblivious of what they are, and more things related to the super hot Lisa Haydon which a youngster might not want his parents to hear which jokes he’s finding funny. The film could generate some conversations afterwards though.

I doubt anyone else could have played Rani’s role because Kangana’s performance is so believable. Every moment she gives us something to watch: deer-under-headlight stares, awkwardness, shifty-eyed suspicion, physical comedy and a ton of innocence. She’s honest and naturally funny, which makes the small town girl in big city observations fun rather than artificial. After all these years this is the breakout role she so badly needed and hopefully this will not be her only good movie. Even those in small roles are stellar, particularly Rajkumar Rao as Rani’s fiancé.  The actors who play Rani’s parents are swell as well. Major props to Anurag Kashyap and Vikram Motwane for producing the film – it’s a tricky tightrope between offbeat and commercial, and they’re doing it right.

There are two or three things that seem to not be in sync with the rest of the film’s pitch perfect balance. Rani’s roommates in Amsterdam, whom she becomes friendly with are clichéd. The Japanese guy does loud crazy ‘movie Japanese’ things, the black guy is the quintessential black guy, and a tall brooding Russian is a wall artist. A few times English lines from one character are repeated (read: spoonfed) in Hindi by another character. Strangely there is not one but two endings in the film, and the second one seems shoehorned and unnecessary, because the first one does everything and does so perfectly. But all these are just small complaints, not jarring enough to make one dislike the film. So go watch it. 

(First published in Firstpost)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ten Reasons Why I don't watch The Oscars

I hate the Oscars.

I passionately hate the Oscars.

It’s not because every year they clog up my Twitter timeline with unfunny jokes and overenthusiastic people live tweeting the ceremony as if they’re breaking the news.

It’s not because they turned Jennifer Lawrence into a star and made the whole internet fall in love with her much later than I did.

It’s not because of the heartbreak of the brilliant, masterful and life changing The Good Road not being nominated.

It’s because the Oscars don’t celebrate art, talent and creativity – they celebrate lobbying. And cable TV network ratings.

So stop kidding yourselves. The Oscars ain’t something unique - it’s just a show. It’s no better than the Filmfare Awards. So don’t be a clueless elitist by telling me you only watch the Oscars but not desi award shows because they’re ‘fixed’. The Oscars are as fair as healthcare in North Korea, as impartial as gay rights in Russia, as transparent as Subrata Roy’s Swiss bank accounts, and as sincere as Raza Murad in Mohra.  

Don't take my word for it. Even Julie Delpy agrees with me. Sample her quote in a recent interview - the Academy is 90% white men over 70 who need money because they haven't done anything in a long time. You just need to give them two or three presents and they're in your pocket.

Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t even like attending the Oscars. He publicly loathes them and in return the Academy didn’t nominate him for Her. I can almost hear the jury members huddling up and mumbling ‘Yeah, that’ll show him up!’

It has been documented that some of the Oscar voters have not had anything to do with the movie industry for more than 30 years. That is why we see old fashioned, politically correct films get nominated over more radical and challenging stuff.

So here are my 2014 Oscar predictions: a bunch of entitled panjadrums will present the awards to a different bunch of entitled panjadrums.

And here are ten reasons why I won’t watch the 2014 Oscars:

1) Adele Exarchopolous was not nominated for her role in Blue is the Warmest Color. Her performance was raw, devastating, and so powerful that Spielberg made an exception for the Palm d’Or at Cannes to ensure that she shared the award. It was the first time in the history of Cannes that an actress shared the award. But what do the French know. The Academy is clearly more knowledgeable about cinema.

2) Brie Larson didn’t receive an acting nom for Short Term 12. Anyone who has watched a movie in his life will tell you that Larson’s performance as a foster care worker with a troubled past was incredible. The film itself sits at 99% on Rottentomatoes, but of course what do film critics know. The Academy is the boss.

3) Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach and Frances Ha were all robbed of nominations. This brilliant little film is for everyone and anyone who would like to gain some perspective on their own lives through a film. Oh silly me, why would the Academy members need any perspective when they’re busy pocketing gifts from the biggest film stars on the planet.

4) Hugh Jackman in Prisoners was one of the strongest male performances of last year. Granted, the race in this category is tight this time, but what’s stopping the Academy from making an exception and including a sixth nomination slot? It’s not like they’ll give the award to Leo anyway – they just keep nominating him and constantly rendering him what can only be described as a KLPD.

5) Pacific Rim was not nominated for visual effects, but Lone Ranger scored a nom. I’m not an expert on 3D animation, but even a blind man can tell you that the critically acclaimed Pacific Rim had more eye popping visuals, more complex graphics and better CGI artistry than the Disney flop. Pacific Rim had a Rocket punch. Lone Ranger had a falling train. Seriously, which is more innovative, exciting and rewatchable?

6) Inside Llewyn Davis is a moving, terrific film about artists struggling to catch their break and make ends meet. It’s about the tough choice an artist makes between an easy career in an office and following his dream. By not nominating this film the Academy has beautifully pissed upon these very artists, while still posing as an organization which honors fine art and artists.

7) Before Midnight was nominated for its screenplay. But just one nomination for a film of its quality backs up Delpy’s remarks about the Academy. There are plenty of other incredible films like A Touch of Sin, Blackfish, TPB-AFK, Upstream Color and Tonerre that received zero nominations, but that could only be because the Academy hasn’t even heard of them. And expecting American Oscar voters to support the superb F1 film Rush is like expecting Suppandi to solve a differential equation.

8) Everything would be forgiven if the Oscar show was actually fun. It’s not. It's not even funny. It’s a clichéd bore. It’s followed the same template since the last fifty years. Celebrities walk the red carpet in ridiculous gowns; journos compliment them as if they’re wearing something made out of Unobtainium; the show’s host cracks mostly lame jokes on the stars attending the event, thereby plugging their films; cameras cut to the stars for reaction shots – this is pre-decided and negotiated by the stars’ PRs. It’s the exact same show every year, just with different faces (and often with the same faces). It’s not surprising that viewership has declined drastically over the past decade.

9) The show isn’t streamed live online. People don’t watch TV anymore, they watch shows on laptops, tablets and even phones. Hilariously, the Oscars will be streamed online this year – only to those who subscribe to cable TV in the US. This is a confirmation of the greed and the IQ levels of everyone involved with the Oscars.

10) The irritating orchestra music that orders Oscar winners to stop their acceptance speech and get the hell off the stage. The worst, most disgusting and shameful example of this was seen last year when Life of Pi won the Oscar for best VFX. The head of Rhythm and Hues, the company that designed the VFX and had gone bankrupt just a few days before the Oscars, was kicked off the stage by the Academy when he tried to make a statement on the same. If this is the organization credited with propagating the spirit of cinema and artists, I’ll pass on the opportunity to watch their show. When do the Independent Spirit Awards air on teevee? At least their films are better, the hosts are cooler and the jokes are funnier. 

(First published in Firstpost)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gravity Blu Ray Review

There is a scene in Gravity where the camera pans around two astronauts in space for fifteen minutes in one single continuous take, then goes inside the helmet of an astronaut, swirls around showing the suit’s UI, and seamlessly pops out of the helmet. It’s at this moment where you realize that in space no one can hear you scream but everyone in the movie theater can hear you shout DAAYUUMMMNN.

Seven long excruciating years after Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron is back behind the camera with some sort of vengeance to entertain the crap out of you. For some reason Gravity is being billed as a Sci Fi movie. It’s not. There’s no fiction here. Gravity is in fact a horror movie, and it’s a masterpiece. Think 127 Hours in space, but significantly more visceral, moving and immersive. Miraculously, it’s also 3D done right – it really is an astonishing cinematic achievement and it’s the only film I’d watch once again on a 3D IMAX screen. And the results on the Blu Ray transfer are stunning to say the least. 

So what’s different in Gravity given that there have been other films about astronauts stranded in space? For one, Cuaron is a deadly filmmaker, a shaman. He absolutely nails the staging and pacing of the film, making it a 90 minute tense, dizzying, breathless experience. The detailing, the digital effects work and the long, uncut takes will divorce your jaw from the rest of your face. It’s not just one of the great CGI films of the decade but one of the five greatest uses of CGI in the history of cinema. When James Cameron was fawning over the film, he wasn’t kidding - Cuaron, Lubezski and their special effects team really have crafted something extraordinary here. 

All flaws of Gravity become infinitely smaller the bigger the screen you watch it on. But even on Blu Ray the film is perfect. Cuaron clearly takes inspiration from video games with POV shots of Bullock’s character shuttling from one space station to another. One first person sequence where she changes her space suits and heads out to repair the damaged station is straight out of Dead Space. It’s also the only film whose filming techniques would be as interesting to watch as the film itself, and that's where the Blu Ray featurettes come in handy.