Thursday, February 24, 2011

7 Thoughts on 7 Khoon Maaf

7 Khoon Maaf may not be the ambitious masterpiece that Vishal Bhardwaj hoped, but it is easily among the more challenging and conversation-worthy pieces of cinema Bollywood has produced in recent times. Like Bhardwaj and his film, I couldn't quite get my thoughts to cohere to form a full review, so here goes:

1. Maqbool remains my favorite Bhardwaj film, and I can understand the general wave of disappointment with this film. It's not an easy film to like (and appreciate) and there is certainly truth in the claim that this is VB's weakest work to date. Still, a weak VB effort is better than what 90% of the directors out there are capable of making. And anything with this much ambition and complexity needs to be appreciated on a much deeper level.

2. The central role required an extremely versatile actress, capable of expressing genuine insanity at the right moments. Unfortunately, Priyanka Chopra is not that actress; she simply doesn't have the skills to provide the complex shadings that this role requires (her line reading of "I'm going to drink his blood" in the trailers had already made me suspicious of her ability to pull this off). One of the reasons for this could be that the character of Susanna is frustratingly opaque. Is this merely bad screenwriting or is it deliberate: we always see her filtered through the POV of someone who admittedly never understood her (a possibility bolstered by the fact that the only time Susanna's motivations make complete sense are when the film awkwardly shifts to her own voice-over towards the end). The only inkling that we do get into her psychology is when Ghalib narrates the incident where Susanna shot the dog on her way to school -- and even then she remains an enigma. Perhaps she is incapable of being understood by the rest of the world. Still, great actresses can fill in the gaps and elevate under-written roles which Chopra never does. It's a very good performance, great even in parts, but despite the changes in body language and make-up, Chopra is unable to sell the character arc completely.

3. Each of the six "episodes" have something to recommend -- the "John Abraham as rockstar" chapter remains the weakest though -- but the Musafir (Irrfan Khan), Vronsky (Aleksandr Dyachenko) and Keemat (Annu Kapoor) ones are easily the best. It helps, of course, that all three actors are excellent in their respective roles, especially Khan, who is handed one of the rare characters in the history of mainstream Bollywood with an affinity for S&M. Thankfully, he has the range to convey both the mystique of the poet that he portrays and the horror of the transformation he undergoes every night while he is in bed. Dyachenko is supremely entertaining, while Kapoor is appropriately disgusting. Bhardwaj is one of the rare directors who allows his actors brief moments of madness -- remember that fake shoot-out scene between Bhope and Mikhail in Kaminey? Here we get only a few seconds of it, but Harish Khanna absolutely kills in his mimicry of a mad dog!

4. Are we supposed to take the six husbands and their murders literally? I'm not so sure, and I have more than a sneaking suspicion that there is a lot of metaphor at play here. Almost all of them are stereotypes and each one of them seems to have a character flaw of his own. Are these individual problems supposed to be viewed as a representation of masculinity as a whole? Is Susanna merely killing these husbands or is she trying to get rid of these traits from all men? Is it simply a quest for Susanna to find the right soul mate, one without flaws, a quest which eventually leads her to her seventh husband?

5. Despite all the flaws (the scene which plays as the end credits roll is an epic misstep), few directors are capable of understanding the aesthetics of filmmaking the way Bhardwaj does. He may always be adapting from literary works, but he understands that cinema is a wholly different medium -- both visually and aurally, the film is superb. That cut from the menacing night to the white cat in snow will easily rank among the best shots of the year (and how about that splash of blood in the opening sequence for an unforgettable image!). The background score seems to have a life of its own (as was the case with Kaminey's sensational score), and at least two of Bhardwaj's songs are exceptional. As a director, he may not have been able to make everything work together in the end, but he absolutely nails the mood and tone of individual plotlines.

6. I'm still stumped regarding the use of actual historical events in the background during the course of the film. If this was just a novel way to convey the timeline, it seems unnecessary and if it has a deeper meaning or subtext, it hasn't been revealed to me after two full viewings. Any thoughts would be welcome.


7. Which brings us to the big question, of course: The seventh crime. We know that her seventh "husband" is Jesus, as we see Susanna becoming a nun at the end of the film and accepting Jesus as the only man in her life. The scene which immediately follows shows her confessing her "seven crimes" -- a number of possibilities have come up in discussions and I think two of these can be easily dismissed: It's definitely not Aunt Maggie's death (too literal) and it's certainly not the murder of the dog (too ridiculous). There are two that make enough sense to be equally possible. The first theory suggests that perhaps Susanna is referring to her own metaphorical "murder", where she kills her old self and accepts her new life as a nun. We also see Arun mentioning this to his wife in the last scene ("She is dead for ever"). My own reading of the film makes me believe more in the second theory: that the seventh crime is actually the crucifixion of Christ. As a nun, Susanna realizes that Jesus died for our sins and that all human beings are responsible for his death. It seems to be more in keeping with her constant search for God throughout the film, right from the first marriage and indicates, perhaps, that she has finally realized the gravity of sins committed by her during her life.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Social Network: Hype or Buzz?

Unless you're living under a rock, you already know about The Social Network -- David Fincher's latest, based on The Accidental Billionaires, the (fictionalized?) story of Facebook and it's creator Mark Zuckerberg.

The critical reaction to the film has been ecstatic, to say the least, and frankly that's always a cause for concern. Excessive hype almost always hurts a movie, and in this case, the hype machine is in overdrive (although Nathaniel Rogers, a film critic I've read and trusted for many years now, says it's truly "buzz" and not "hype").

Consider the names that have been dropped in the reviews that have surfaced so far: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Rashomon, All the President's Men, The Graduate, Network... you get the idea? Some reviews have called it the first masterpiece of the 21st century -- never mind the fact that films like Mulholland Drive, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In the Mood for Love almost certainly belong in the all-time lists at this point.

While the comparisons to the aforementioned classics may be legitimate, it automatically makes it a tall order for the film to live up to expectations. There's always a good chance that you may end up with a "Huh? That's it" reaction at the end (or that there's a backlash just around the corner -- just wait for the awards season). But since this is a David Fincher movie (almost always great except the last one, which had its moments) -- I'm going to remain excited for this.

I read the book last night, and it was just about ok -- never really penetrating its characters to reveal any thing substantial about them -- but I hope Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have brought their own voice to this project.

A film that defines a generation? My expectations just skyrocketed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lafangey Parindey... verdict?

Are you watching the latest from the Yash Raj stable this weekend? Here's an excerpt from a hilarious (and very well-written) review that I just read:

Make no mistake, this is a film replete with awful acting that glorifies nihilism - this is in-your-face movie-making by people with a moral compass badly askew. The title 'Lafangey Parindey' is an apt metaphor for the production house behind this flick which ultimately bobs and weaves a lot but ends up all empty air. Maybe it's a cultural thing but there's nothing remotely entertaining in 'Lafangey Parindey' - its just an exercise in silliness designed to rob you of Rs 300+.

And my favorite bit:

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when it becomes clear that this lurid, steroidal 'masala entertainer' is certifiably insane (or at least a lot funnier than it means to be), but it's pretty early on. Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through this film. Except for Deepika Padukone, who is such a terrible actress that she couldn't even act like she's sleepwalking. She is so staggeringly awful, such an ordeal to sit through, that it's hard to know where to start talking about it. But even the film's cast is done in by the deathless mediocrity of the production, an assemblage of random camera shots, messy editing, redundant scenes, and witless dialogue as haphazardly stitched together as the flesh on a burn victim's face.

Read the whole review here. I'm going to follow this reviewer from now on!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Short Notes: Udaan, Lamhaa and Inception

I apologize for this long delay, but the sidebar to the right should tell you why I couldn't muster up enough enthusiasm to write about the several films that were released during this time. Bollywood delivered dud after dud -- and Hollywood gave us only Toy Story 3 -- but thankfully the movie gods have heard our prayers and given us the best films of the year (so far) from both worlds in a single weekend. My brief thoughts on this week's releases:

Udaan (Vikramaditya Motwane)
Bollywood's "Coming of Age" films often end up in a world of their own construct -- one that may bear traces of isolated moments we may have experienced, but never come close to mirroring the real lives we lead and emotions we feel during the turbulent teen-years. In his debut film, Vikramaditya Motwane works with a new template -- Udaan is tinged with the bitter-sweet emotions of life as we know it. This moody, freeflowing film explores the claustrophobic life of a teenager stuck in a small-town with a tyrannic father, dreaming of becoming a writer (his father, of course, has other plans for him). Their relationship is complicated enough to register as completely believable -- and even the most dramatic exchanges between them ring true.

Motwane has a beautiful eye for details: the lived-in feel of the places these characters inhabit, the languid pace of small-town life, and those heady nights spent dreaming of the future. Udaan is anchored by superb performances from Rajat Barmecha, Ronit Roy and Aayan Boradia and boasts of another wonderfully atmospheric score from Amit Trivedi. More than anything, the screenplay -- colored with Motwane's own experiences -- never loses focus or betrays its complicated characters. Bollywood believes that estranged father-son relationships always end with emotional reconciliation -- Motwane and Kashyap understand that sometimes, in real life, walking away and finding your own path is the best solution. A-

Lamhaa (Rahul Dholakia)
Where Udaan becomes universal despite its specificity, Lamha suffers by eschewing individual plot threads in favor of a macroscopic viewpoint about a subject that yearns for a fresh perpective. It crumbles under the weight of too much crammed into too little space -- there's a mish-mash of filmmaking styles and decades of issues fighting for survival in this tale, and unfortunately none of them get fully formed, leaving a half-baked product that may be commendable for its subject, but not much else. Rahul Dholakia made a brilliant debut with Parzania, but bigger stars -- and possibly bigger studio money -- have made him lose his individuality as a director. He can't decide if this film should be a masala thriller (slo-mo, electric-guitar scored star entries) or a documentary. It's not like these two disparate styles are impossible to mix (ask Paul Greengrass), but Dholakia's attempt feels disjointed and pointless -- and the jarring background score doesn't help the narrative. The performances range from a sleepwalking Sanjay Dutt to a hysterical Shernaz Patel, who isn't given enough time or backstory to earn those dramatic line deliveries. Disappointing. C

Inception (Christopher Nolan)
Surrounded by deafening pre-release hype, Inception has generated unexpectedly divisive reactions from the critical community. Count me among its huge fans -- it may not, outright, be Nolan's best product (a case could be made for The Dark Knight or Memento) or his least flawed (The Prestige), but it is easily his most ambitious. The film is helped, more than anything, by Nolan's enhanced ability to compose action sequences -- a skill that he has certainly improved upon, compared to his earlier films -- that jaw-dropping anti-gravity sequence is going to be talked about as much as the freeze frames or the bullet sequence from The Matrix. The core themes are not entirely original -- Mulholland Drive, eXistenZ, Vertigo, Waking Life and this year's Shutter Island immediately come to mind -- but the screenplay manages to distinguish the film from those mentioned by moulding those ideas in the shape of a heist movie.

The chemistry between the ensemble cast stands out more than individual performances here, though Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent (as always, even if this is almost identical to the character he played in Shutter Island) and after being a staple on the indie circuit for the past few years, Joseph-Gordon Levitt finally gets introduced to the mainstream movie-watching world in spectacular fashion. Lee Smith edits the hell out of this thing -- especially post-interval when four different worlds fight for screen-time and audience attention. That the film never sags and the audience never loses interest is testament to both his and Nolan's ability for being able to juggle with so many balls up in the air all at once. The film is not without its flaws -- after two viewings, I feel that the film explains too much through exposition, but that is a minor quibble in what is otherwise an exhilarating movie experience. A

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Film Review: Love Sex Aur Dhokha

The moral fabric of a rapidly transforming urban India comes under the scanner in Dibakar Banerjee's audacious new offering: Love, Sex aur Dhokha. Banerjee's is an altogether distinct voice in Indian cinema today -- his attention to detail and complex characters manage to create a completely authentic North Indian milieu (those who've lived in that part of the country will attest to the fact that his characters possess an uncanny resemblance to people they know in real life). Shot entirely in Dogma-style, using hand-held and "hidden" cameras, unknown actors and a complete disregard for vanity, LSD looks destined for cult status.

The triptych narrative features characters caught in a web of familiar human emotions: insecurities, jealousy, despair; and the astonishingly natural performances add to the surprising emotional resonance of this film -- especially during the stunning denouement of the seemingly frivolous and light-hearted initial chapter. This first story lovingly mocks traditional Yash Raj romances -- the film-school student making his diploma film addresses his dialogues to Adi sir while re-creating the Raj/Simran love story for his film (makes sense for such a radically different film to acknowledge the existence of mainstream Bollywood).

The three stories featured here are inspired by real life events -- and LSD makes us realize how desensitized we've become to these shocking stories that appear in our newspapers everyday, thanks to the onslaught of reality television and a hyper-invasive media. The actors here perform as if they are unaware of the cameras focused on them -- ironic, since Nikos Andritsakis's camera is almost a character by itself, an inherent part of this film's voyeuristic impulses. 

The dialogues and interactions between the characters are painfully real. I swear I've seen the disgustingly hilarious conversation that's played out in the second chapter at the store between the day-time store girl and the character played by Raj Kumar Yadav in front of my eyes! This is also the strongest of the film's three chapters -- shot entirely using security cameras and featuring excellent performances by Yadav and Neha Chauhan and scene-stealing turns by the watchman and the actress who plays the day-time store girl (must look up her name!).

I must admit that I was very wary of this film coming off as too gimmick-y when I first read about it months ago -- primarily because the themes handled here have already been explored with varying levels of success in recent movies (MMS porn clips, casting couch and sting operations form the basis for the other two stories). But Banerjee and co-screenwriter Kanu Behl have managed to dig deep into these issues and they pull no punches in embracing the disturbing nature of these pulp-y tales. The narrative is consistently engaging (thanks in no small part to Namrata Rao's superb editing). 

Love, Sex Aur Dhokha may as well have been titled Sex, Lies and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh's Palme d'Or winning 1989 film that went on to shape an entire decade of independent filmmaking in Hollywood. Whether LSD will be as influential as that film remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: with three brilliant films already under his belt, it's time to officially induct Dibakar Banerjee into our list of great Bollywood directors. I can't wait to see what he does next. B+

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Battle of the Exes: Oscar Predictions

My predictions for the big night. The full list of nominations is here

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Avatar led this race early on when it nabbed the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama, but since then The Hurt Locker has emerged as a favorite with the guilds. Among its several trophies in the past few months was a jaw-dropping upset win over Avatar at the Producer's Guild Awards (where James Cameron's film was a shoo-in). If things go according to plan, The Hurt Locker will become the lowest grossing Best Picture winner in decades.

Alternates: Everything currently points towards The Hurt Locker, but if there's an upset, Avatar and Inglourious Basterds are likely candidates.

Should win: This year's Best Picture roster is easily the best in years -- the decision to expand the nominees to ten worked well this year (though it remains to be seen if it'll work just as well in the coming years, so I'm reserving my final assessment of this experiment as of now). My favorite films of the year (in order of preference): Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker. I'll be happy to see either of them win.

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
This should be an easy win even if the film goes on to lose Best Picture. She won the Directors Guild award (a very accurate predictor of the eventual Oscar winner) and her win will make history as the first directing win for a woman (not to mention the fact that she'll be winning over ex-husband James Cameron). Academy voters will find it hard to ignore that. Expect a standing ovation.

Alternates:  I can't think of a scenario where Bigelow loses this -- Cameron would be an upset, Tarantino would be a stunner.

Should win: Tarantino or Bigelow are equally deserving candidates, though I love Cameron's work on Avatar as well. Still, I really hope to see Bigelow win this thing!

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Bridges is one of Hollywood's most respected actors and his Oscar-less status has been discussed quite often (4 previous nominations, 0 wins). After a clean sweep of the precursors (including the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe), and numerous Critic's group citations, he will finally win that elusive Oscar.

Alternates: None. Colin Firth won the BAFTA but it's hard to imagine Bridges losing this one.

Should win: Colin Firth's is the one performance I haven't seen from the group -- three of the remaining four are excellent performances -- George Clooney (Up in the Air), Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) and my favorite: Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker).

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
This is where I'm breaking away from the consensus (Sandra Bullock): I have a hunch that Streep will finally win that third Oscar. Of course, everything points towards a Bullock win -- she has the Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award -- and fits the pattern of Academy rewarding stars in this category. But Streep hasn't won in so long (her second Oscar came way back in 1982) that voters may want to reward her (especially since she delivers the better performance!). Plus, I'd like to predict at least one surprise.

Alternates: The likely winner here is Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side and a possible shocking upset - Gabourey Sidibe, Precious (be prepared for the water works if this comes to pass!)

Should win: Some of the year's best performances weren't nominated here - Tilda Swinton (Julia), Abbie Cornish (Bright Star), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist). Among the nominees, Sidibe is my favorite but Streep is great in her film so I have no issues if she wins. Just as long as it is not Bullock, I'll be happy.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Mo'Nique, Precious
They are both such overwhelming favorites that I won't even bother to analyze the competition. And there's a good reason why they've steamrolled over the other contenders and why they will win on Oscar night -- they are the best in their respective categories by miles (it'll be awesome to finally see an acting win for a Tarantino-directed performance!)

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
This will be a close call -- voters may look at rewarding Tarantino for his film in this category, or it could get caught in a Hurt Locker sweep. Should be an interesting race!

Alternate: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Should Win: The Coen Brothers, A Serious Man (brilliant!) or Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds (audacious and brilliant!)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
This will be the category where they will reward once-thought-to-be-the-favorite Up in the Air.

Alternate: Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Should win: Up in the Air or In the Loop

Best Foreign Language Film: A Prophet (France) (Alternate: The White Ribbon, Germany)

Another close race -- it's a toss-up between A Prophet or The White Ribbon (if they want to finally reward Michael Haneke with an Oscar). I love both the films but haven't seen the rest of the nominees yet.

Best Animated Feature: Up (Alternate: None)
As the only animated film in the Best Picture race, Up will find it easy to win, just like the past Pixar products. There is some great work nominated here though, and I think Fantastic Mr. Fox is actually a slightly better film (though Up is amazing as well).

Best Film Editing: Bob Murawski and Chris Innis, The Hurt Locker (alternate: Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron, Avatar)
This category traditionally lines up with the Best Picture winners (the Best Editing winner has gone on to win the Oscar more than 60% of the time). This will also be an early indicator if there's an Avatar upset in the works in the big categories.

Best Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker (alternate: Mauro Fiore, Avatar or Christian Bergen, The White Ribbon)
One of my favorite categories at the Oscars every year, this is also a close race between The Hurt Locker (BAFTA winner) and Avatar, but The White Ribbon won the Cinematographer's guild award, so that's in play too. I think that the CG-nature of Cameron's film may work against it and Hurt Locker may take this one home. But it's a close call.

Best Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, Avatar (alternate: None!)
Can't see anyone else winning this!

Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell, The Young Victoria (alternate: Catherine Leterrier, Coco Before Chanel)
Sandy Powell is a favorite in this category (2 past wins from 8 nominations). She'll probably add a third Oscar to her shelf. Nine and Coco Before Chanel could upset.

Best Original Score: Michael Giacchino, Up (alternate: James Horner, Avatar)
Another one of my favorite categories. Giacchino should finally win this after doing some amazing work in the past few years (Pixar's earlier Ratatouille and The Incredibles). His music has also been an essential ingredient in Lost, often improving an already terrific TV show. PLUS: Just watch this clip -- how can he not win?

Best Original Song: "Weary Kind", Crazy Heart (alternate: none)

Best Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker (alternate: Avatar)
Best Sound Editing: Avatar (alternate: The Hurt Locker)
Best Visual Effects: Avatar (alternate: NONE)
Avatar might win all three of these but war movies also fare well in the sound categories, and The Hurt Locker's Best Picture front-runner status may carry it to a win in Best Sound. It did win the Guild award for Best Sound, and the Cinema Audio Society guild winner is usually the same as the eventual Oscar winner.

Other categories:
Best Makeup: Star Trek (alternate: The Young Victoria)
Best Documentary Feature: The Cove (alternate: Burma VJ)
Best Documentary Short: China's Unnatural Disaster: Sichuan Province (alternate: ??)
Best Short Film (Live Action): The Door (alternate: Kavi)
Best Short Film (Animated) The Lady and the Reaper (alternate: A Matter of Loaf and Death)