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)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Opening This Weekend

Road, Movie: Director Dev Benegal (English, August, Split Wide Open) returns with his first film in ten years, starring Bollywood new wave's poster boy Abhay Deol. The film has been playing on the festival circuit for quite some time now and most people who've seen it have raved about it. From the official synopsis: "VISHNU, a restless young man, itches to escape his father's faltering hair oil business. An old truck beckons, which Vishnu sees as his ticket to freedom. He offers to drive the antique Chevy across the desert to the sea, where it has been sold to a local museum. As he sets off across the harsh terrain, he discovers he's not merely transporting a battered vehicle, but an old touring cinema."

In an interview to IANS, Abhay Deol says: "Road, Movie is a celebration of cinema. It’s actually a film that you are watching within a film. It plays upon how important it (cinema) is to us and how it is treated and accepted. It is a journey of cinema". That sounds FANTASTIC! I'll be at the ticket counters on opening day. If you haven't visited the fabulous website for the film, please do so now -- you won't be disappointed!

Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?: Is Konkona Sen Sharma looking for a change of image? Or merely a break from more meaningful work? Everything I've seen about this film suggests that it's going to be as terrible as the last Ajay Devgan comedy, but I could be wrong.

Broken Embraces: You wouldn't want to miss this one if you're a Pedro Almodóvar fan -- it features an excellent performance from Penelope Cruz (yet again!). I was slightly disappointed with this, though one of the reasons could be that this is one of Almodóvar's more subtle films and it didn't grab me immediately like his previous work -- I definitely need to see this again! 

Legion: An out-of-the-way diner becomes the unlikely battleground for the survival of the human race. When God loses faith in humankind, he sends his legion of angels to bring on the Apocalypse. Humanity's only hope lies in a group of strangers trapped in a desert diner with the Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) (IMDB plot summary)

Thanks Maa: This film has also been playing at a number of film festivals across the world, though I'm not sure what the response has been. Here's an excerpt from the not-so-good Screendaily review: "The global success of Slumdog Millionaire might help to create some curiosity about Thanks Maa, a sentimental melodrama set amongst Mumbai’s street children. Actor-turned-writer/director Irfan Kamal attempts a somewhat similar blend of urban fairytale and social commentary as Slumdog, but lacks the sure emotional touch and bravura filmmaking instincts that distinguished Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winner."
Hello Zindagi: Based on environmental themes, this film follows the life of a rebellious teenager who sets on a mission to save the endangered Olive Ridley Turtle, finally finding clarity in life. As per the official synopsis, "Hello Zindagi is the story of one young woman's journey towards self-realization."

Rokkk: The producers of this horror film have claimed that they will keep ambulances posted outside theatres where the horror film will be screened, a la RGV. Apparently people with heart problems have fallen ill during test screenings.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film Review: Karthik Calling Karthik

The psychological thriller genre has long been a Hollywood mainstay, and it finally arrives in Bollywood with Vijay Lalwani's Karthik Calling Karthik.

The first few scenes of this film set up a fascinating character study -- anyone who's an introvert of this specific kind (or knows one fairly well) will find it easy to identify with Karthik's suffocating loneliness and lack of social confidence, and Farhan Akhtar seems to be really tapping into this character's inner turmoil in this early stage of the film (he does very well in the rest of the film too). This is a great premise for complex human exploration, but the screenplay chooses to cut the tension with the film's central conceit far too soon: a phone call that Karthik receives from an unknown entity that claims to be (and sounds exactly like) him.

As you may have already seen in the trailers (or read in news articles), Karthik's alter-ego inspires him to undergo a sea change, giving him confidence to stand up against a tyrant boss and helping him in getting the girl of his dreams (Deepike Padukone, acting believably for once). Herein lies the film's biggest flaw, because this transformation never really happens on screen -- there is no connective tissue to explain how this character undergoes such a drastic transition and the film suffers for it. It would've been far more believable if the screenplay would've allowed this change to play out gradually over a few conversations. (Lalwani structures the second half far more believably, where you get to see what could be described as the reverse-transformation of this character).

It's difficult to describe the rest of the plot without giving away spoilers so I'll refrain from revealing any further details. Anyone who's seen enough Hollywood films, though, will be able to stay a couple of steps ahead of the screenplay; and that's part of what ruined the experience for me. Early on in the film, there's a flashback to Karthik's childhood and if, like me, you've seen a fair number of psychological thrillers, you'll easily guess one of the film's central mysteries. (The big reveal comes at the end when it doesn't seem like a reveal at all, destroying any expectations of a crackling climax, which this film needed). 

The second half of this film is much stronger than the first -- the screenplay and editing post-interval are very tight. In contrast, the pacing of the first half can be described as wobbly at best. Cinematographer Sanu John Varughese mixes a number of styles to shoot this film, though the flashbacks have been shot in the same tones (and include the same unnecessary voice-overs) that a lot of Bollywood films seem to be using these days. The scenes switch to black and white at pivotal moments, even as you see a bright red light flickering behind the window.

In the end, Karthik is a film defined by its disappointments almost as much as it is defined by its strengths -- at every stage, the screenplay sets up an interesting character arc and then doesn't seem willing to pursue it for fear of losing audience love. The film succeeds as an exercise in style, and is engaging for most of its runtime, but a number of elements in the story could've been used far more effectively. It refuses to fully embrace its dark side, wimping out of an ending that could've added much more to this story. 

In the closing shot, we're left with an image of the Rubik's cube Karthik has been working on, lying on the table, completely solved (a metaphor for his life you see!). I have a feeling this would've ended differently in Hollywood. Grade: B-

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Opening This Weekend

The latest offering from the Farhan Akhtar/ Ritesh Sidhwani stable, Karthik Calling Karthik arrives this weekend. Ad-man Vijay Lalwani makes his directorial debut with this intriguing feature, supposedly based on the concept of "Depersonalization". I was reading up on this and here's what the Wikipedia entry on depersonalization states:

Depersonalization is a malfunction or anomaly of the mechanism by which an individual has self-awareness. It is a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation. It can be considered desirable, such as in the use of recreational drugs, but it usually refers to the severe form found in anxiety and, in the most intense cases, panic attacks. Sufferers feel they have changed, and the world has become less real, vague, dreamlike, or lacking in significance. It can be a disturbing experience, since many feel that, indeed, they are living in a "dream".

Individuals who experience depersonalization feel divorced from their own personal physicality by sensing their body sensations, feelings, emotions and behaviors as not belonging to the same person or identity. Often a person who has experienced depersonalization claims that life "feels like a movie" or things seem unreal or hazy. Also, a recognition of self breaks down (hence the name). Depersonalization can result in very high anxiety levels, which further increase these perceptions.

The article goes on to state that this is the third most common psychological symptom after anxiety and depression! The last film (that I know of) to have used this concept was 2000's American Psycho, starring Christian Bale (if you haven't seen this great film, see it now!).In an interview for Hindustan Times, Farhan Akhtar says that during the making of the film... "I did stop meeting friends, answering the phone and even exercising. The character I was to play was lonely and feeling sorry for himself. I ended up feeling depressed too."

I don't know about you, but all this sounds extremely interesting to me. I'll try to catch the film on Friday and will hopefully have a review up soon!

(Edit: I just discovered that Wikipedia is the only place which states that Karthik is based on depersonalization. In fact, it says "This Film Base on Depersonalisation".

Under Box Office, it says:

This is Farmans One of the most awaiting Film in to the all of youth
After Rock on Farhan Need one other Hit
Deepika Look Gorges in this movie
This movie shall go in to the this year hit list

LOL. So not sure if the earlier information is correct, but it'd be cool if it is)

Also opening this week

It's Complicated: At the unlikely age of 60, the great Meryl Streep has turned into quite a box office draw. This Nancy Meyers directed romantic comedy also stars Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin and has grossed almost $200 million worldwide.

Invictus: Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela biopic failed in its Oscar bid for a spot in the expanded Best Picture line-up, but it did manage to score nominations for its two main stars: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. This will be a good choice if inspirational dramas are your thing.

Teen Patti: Amitabh Bachchan and Ben Kingsley star in what seems to be a remake of 21. Leena Yadav, who earlier directed the terrible Aishwarya Rai-Sanjay Dutt starrer Shabd says: "Teen Patti is a study of materialism, greed and acquisitiveness in our times", while denying any relation to 21.... right.

The Princess and the Frog: Disney's latest attempt to re-capture its old magic. The film was well received by critics and has been nominated in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Multiplex Decade: The Best of Bollywood (2000-2009)

It's hard to narrow down a decade into one list, but it's also a great way of looking back at how radically Bollywood changed in the last ten years. As multiplexes opened (and flourished) across the country, re-invigorating the "experience" of movie-watching, new filmmakers began to realize the potential of a new kind of cinema. The seeds had been sown in the late nineties, when Nagesh Kukunoor's Hyderabad Blues proved that urban viewers were ready for a new wave (sure, films like English August came earlier, but Hyderabad Blues was the one that showed that this brand of movies had real commercial viability). The ease of access to cinema from around the world influenced new filmmakers in the best of ways -- they were willing to break out of the Bollywood formula that had survived for decades.

In many ways, this second new wave was very different from the "parallel cinema" new wave that began in the eighties. This time, there were no parallel movements; instead, everything seemed to converge -- art house directors were willing to work with big stars, and mainstream actors and directors were experimenting with new subjects and pushing the boundaries of what can be defined as mainstream. These changes resulted in what is perhaps the best and most varied set of films any Bollywood decade has ever produced. We may not have completely returned to the golden age of Indian cinema when filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were establishing their own cinematic language, but thanks to the current crop of filmmakers (who've drawn inspiration not only from these icons, but also from modern filmmakers ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Wong-Kar Wai), we're almost there.

The following list is not an objective list of the best films made in the 2000s. I don't know if it's possible to make such a list. The reaction to art is, after all, subjective; and the effect of one film is never exactly the same on two viewers. This is, therefore, a list of my "personal favorites", a chronicle of a decade in which I changed both as a person and a film-viewer. It was tough to pick ten films; I love most of the films that missed out almost as much as the ones that made the final list.

The honorable mentions, in alphabetical, order: Asoka, Black Friday, Chandni Bar, Dor, Gulaal, Hera Pheri, Kaminey, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Life in a... Metro, Mithya, Monsoon Wedding, Naach, No Smoking, Omkara, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Parzania, Rang De Basanti, Socha Na Tha, Swades, Taare Zameen Par

10. Company
(Ram Gopal Varma, 2002)

It's difficult to remember a time when Ram Gopal Varma was among the best directors in the country, but this film is a reminder that no one could make it like Ramu in the good old days. Satya may be the better film, but this is his magnum opus: a sprawling, exhaustive underworld saga where Varma juggles characters and scenes with the kind of finesse rarely seen in cinema at the time (or since). Even minor members get to play fully realized characters in this stupendous cast but Ajay Devgan towers above the rest with a magnetic performance. Varma's recent output isn't all bad, but he hasn't been able to find his groove since Company, and Bollywood cinema is all the lesser for it. 

9. Black
(Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2005)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's brand of artistic melodrama has been ridiculed for a long time, but there are few directors who can claim to possess the same understanding of cinema's sensory experience as Bhansali. Black's heavily-stylized aesthetics aren't for everyone. You will often hear people complaining about elements of this film being excessively over the top: Amitabh Bachchan's performace, the background score, the almost completely black production design and costumes; but they're missing the point. Bhansali's films are essentially filmed operas, and the notes in this particular symphony are always in sync and never less than perfect.

8. Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na
(Abbas Tyrewala, 2008)

Of all the films on this list, Jaane Tu is probably the least important -- it's not about overcoming disabilities, history-defining events or the mysterious people of the Mumbai underworld -- but that's also what's so great about it: It's about people like you and me, about the process of growing up, something all of us are familiar with. At its core lies an uncommonly observant screenplay; Abbas Tyrewala lays out all the cards on the table right at the start: Best friends falling in love! Fight! Airport Climax! And part of the fun is how this screenplay spins each of these "masala" movie cliches into something completely fresh and entertaining. Tyrewala details even minor characters in this story with the kind of care rarely seen in Bollywood screenplays -- this beautiful texturing results not only in real, complex characterizations, but also brings out memorable performances from the most unexpected places (Pratik Babbar, Sugandha Garg). Years from now when people think of films that best encapsulated the current generation, Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na will have few contenders for a place on the list. 

7. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer
(Aparna Sen, 2002)

As a country, we're defined by our diversity. Having grown up in a certain environment, it's difficult to come to terms with the other religions, castes, cultures, and sub-cultures that exist within our country. This is one of the many things that Aparna Sen is trying to tell us through this story in which a conservative, Hindu Brahmin from Tamil Nadu must come to terms with the fact that the passenger sitting next to her in a bus to Chennai is a Muslim man. Sen is never judgmental as she brings out the prejudices of the film's characters, and she is wise to keep the focus on the central couple's journey. It's as romantic as the best of love stories, without so much as a kiss shared between the two. More than anything else, this film will be remembered as our introduction to Konkona Sen Sharma --  this was the starting point for the incomparable resume she has built in the multiplex era -- and it remains her best performance to date.

6. Luck By Chance
(Zoya Akhtar, 2009)

Luck By Chance is essentially an inside joke and everyone involved with the film is in on this joke, especially the stars who make cameo appearances in the film. Not surprisingly, the joke was lost on the (few) people who went to watch this film while it was in theaters. Zoya Akhtar's film feels nothing like a debut -- her screenplay and direction reveal more nuances with every viewing (being an industry kid obviously helped) and she beautifully captures the insecurities of those who make it in the industry (Hrithik Roshan, playing superstar Zafar Khan, a stand-in for you-know-who) as well as those who don't (Arjun Mathur, delivering the film's most heartfelt performance). This is a film full of beautifully observed moments: In one unforgettable scene, Karan Johar appears at a party and discusses with Zafar how outsiders make it in the film world; as Hrithik turns to look at the star he unknowingly helped create (a million thoughts running through his head), the look on his face and the music that swells in the background never fail to send a chill down my spine.

5. Lagaan: Once Upon A Time in India
(Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2001)

Too much has already been said about this film for me to add anything new. The fact that it ended up on the Oscar nomination list takes the focus away from the real backstory, the effort that went behind bringing this film to the screen. No producer was ready to back this seemingly outlandish concept because of the sheer number of rules that this film was breaking at the time. Despite its international success (if you can call the Oscar nomination that), this is a film for an Indian audience -- it's impossible to forget the electric atmosphere in cinema halls across the country where this movie played, eliciting the kind of reactions and celebrations seen only seen during live matches in cricket stadiums.

4. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
(Sudhir Mishra, 2005)

The title of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi comes from a Mirza Ghalib ghazal:
हज़ारों ख़्वाहिशें ऐसी की हर ख़्वाहिश पे दम निकले
बहुत निकले मेरे अरमान लेकिन फिर भी कम निकले 
("A thousand desires worth dying for, So many fulfilled and yet they seem to be so few")

There isn't a much better way to describe this astonishing film about three people trying to find their place in the most horrifying political era this country has ever seen. It may be one of the most important works of our time, a film that needed to be made to give voice to the generation that lived and struggled through those times. This isn't a film as much as a rich novel -- we may never completely understand what it felt like being part of a revolution at the time or agree with the choices these characters make, but thanks to Mishra's writing and the brilliant actors, we understand why these characters head down the paths they choose. You will find it difficult to forget the way Chitrangada Singh's face reflects the entire gamut of emotions this character feels through the course of this story. That she didn't do any substantial work after this film remains one of the great tragedies of our time. 

3. Maqbool
(Vishal Bhardwaj, 2004)

Makdee was an accomplished debut, but Maqbool is the film that heralded the arrival of one of contemporary Hindi cinema's best directors: Vishal Bhardwaj. Bhardwaj transports Shakespeare's Macbeth to Mumbai's gritty underworld with stellar results; the three witches turning into two corrupt cops (played brilliantly by Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) is this screenplay's master stroke. The underworld portrayed in this film carries no hint of romanticism seen in many other gangster films: this is a dark, corrupt, brutal world and the violence is often sudden and abrupt. Plus: This film is an acting textbook, featuring career best work from a menacing Pankaj Kapur and Tabu, who turns the Lady Macbeth role on its head, adding layers of emotion and vulnerability to one of the most ruthless and ambitious female characters in history.

2. Dil Chahta Hai
(Farhan Akhtar, 2001)

Film critic extraordinaire Baradwaj Rangan notes in his Best of the Decade list: "2001 was Aamir Khan’s annus mirabilis. If Lagaan was the sixer that landed on the Oscar stage, as Best Foreign Film nominee, Farhan Akhtar’s debut earned itself a worthier distinction. It birthed the über-cool multiplex cinema as we know it today. But historical distinction apart, it was also one hell of an entertaining ride."

That sums it up rather well. 2001 was a watershed year for Aamir Khan -- Lagaan may be the consensus choice for the decade's best film (and it's hard to argue with that) but this was the film that influenced and shaped new age mainstream cinema as we know it today. Few films have made such an impact, but even fewer have been this enjoyable.

1. Dev D
(Anurag Kashyap, 2009)

I could think of no better film to symbolize the changing face of Indian cinema in this decade than Dev D -- no other director in the industry today shares Anurag Kashyap's uncompromising artistic vision and this is his masterpiece, a dizzying, subversive take on one of Indian literature's most well-known stories. It's easy to see the influences: Wong Kar-Wai, Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky; but Kashyap distills these film-making styles into a cinematic language of his own. The dazzling cinematography and editing are an integral part of this film, but it's the music that outshines every other contribution here. Songs have always been an integral part of Bollywood cinema, but never before have they been used within the fabric of the narrative as in the case of Dev D. Each of the 18 (!) tracks in this epic soundtrack find a place in the film, and Kashyap uses them to add texture and mood to the images on screen. He doesn't make it easy to follow the emotional arc of this story, but for those who manage to look beyond the intoxicating exterior and follow the maze, there is a bruised and beating heart at the center of this tale. Once the surface shock begins to wear off, Dev D will take its rightful place as a landmark in the history of Indian cinema.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Film Review: My Name is Khan

Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan's latest arrives amidst overblown controversy, expected hype and the mainstream critical community firmly on its side. My Name is Khan is the first directorial effort by Johar that isn't based on his own writing, and right from the outset, you can tell that the director is trying to break away from his previous work -- the opening credits do not arrive with a booming chorus or fancy lettering. Instead, they quietly play over the scene as we find our lead character, Rizvan Khan, heading to the airport. We follow him to the security checking area, where his co-passengers look at his behavior with increasing suspicion. With its dramatic camera angles and background score, the strip search scene that follows immediately sets out to plant the viewers on the protagonist's side.

It is here, that Johar makes the most over-abused narrative choice -- the voice-over. We are taken back to Rizvan's childhood in Mumbai. He suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, and the screenplay establishes his relationship with his mother (wonderfully played by Zareena Wahab) which will deeply affect the choices that he will make in his life. By the time these early scenes end, the first of this film's many half-assed sub-plots has already been set up and tossed aside -- that of Rizvan's brother and how Rizvan's condition affects the relationship between him and his mother (as Baradwaj Rangan notes in his review, this angle was already explored by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black).

After a series of events that follow, we find Rizvan heading to the US, to live with his brother and his wife. In San Francisco, Rizvan meets Mandira (Kajol), who as we discover later, is a single mother who walked out of an unhappy marriage (the screenplay isn't interested in the effect that this situation may have had on Mandira's son). The early scenes of their relationship are shot extremely well, and cinematographer Ravi K Chandran deserves as much credit as the director for bringing to life the sequences and locations of their early courtship (as well as the gorgeous locales on display in the second half). They're soon married but blissful life doesn't last very long, as the whole family finds itself being affected by the 9/11 and the events that follow in the its wake. The rest of the film follows Rizvan on his journey to meet the President, to tell him that he's not a terrorist.

If that last part makes it sound like this is a movie dealing with terrorism (as the filmmakers and studio would like you to believe), you are in for disappointment. New York and Kurbaan at least set out in that direction -- of trying to understand the mindset of the terrorist and what causes them to cross the line over to the other side -- even if they were failures in the end. My Name Is Khan is not bothered with those details, choosing to focus on its lead character's journey and the challenges he faces in overcoming a life affected with Asperger's Syndrome. The obvious template is Forrest Gump, another simplistic tale of a man beating the odds; "Life is like a box of chocolates" is replaced here by "Duniya mein sirf do tarah ke log hote hain, acche or bure" ("There are only two kinds of people in the world: Good and bad"). But the main ingredients that made Forrest Gump work -- a continuously inventive plot and a focused screenplay, even as it chose to skirt around the complexities of the events that unfolded in the span of Forrest's life -- are evidently missing here.

Human complexity is not Johar's strongest suit -- he failed on almost every level the last time he made an attempt at exploring complicated characters and situations (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna). But I can sense that there is a desire in Johar to prove his "seriousness" as a director. Although his first two films were huge box office hits and were very well received by mainstream critics, he's had his fair share of vocal detractors who've labeled his brand of melodrama and flashiness as "bubble gum" fare. Johar is out to prove that he has matured as a director and is capable of handling serious themes. Sadly, that is also the ultimate undoing of this film, as it sits uncomfortably between an all-out mainstream melodrama and a more serious "message movie". 

The film depends on its lead actor to sell the story and Shah Rukh Khan is mostly effective in that department. It's an uneven performance that has honest, believable moments and self-aware, "look at my performance"  scenes in equal measure but it's certainly among his better performances and has flashes of brilliance that rival his best work in Swades. Kajol has always been a natural performer, and she is exceptionally good here -- even if she's hitting the same notes that we may have seen in her earlier performances. (Johar reigns in any possibilities of the actress going over the top, as she tends to do in excessively comedic or dramatic scenes). Other actors are mostly wasted -- most notably Arjun Mathur, Sonia Jehan and Sugandha Garg who have delivered memorable performances earlier in small roles (Luck By Chance, Khoya Khoya Chaand and Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, respectively) and are relegated to the most troubling part of the film -- the last act.

I'm deliberately trying to avoid writing about the last act, which is as insulting, unfocused and unforgivable as anything you might've seen. The screenplay creates a series of events that are devoid of any realistic emotion or credibility, undoing all the better moments that have worked in the film till that point. It is essentially a repeat of the "Shah Rukh Khan as Messiah" last act from Kal Ho Na Ho, another film that lost its way in the final stretch. At more than two and a half hours, the film overstays its welcome and would have hugely benefited from a more disciplined editing.It is evident that Johar understands mainstream cinema extremely well, and as much as I may choose to ridicule that brand of film-making, I would love for Johar to go back to his strengths in his next project.

In one of the film's most memorable visuals, Shah Rukh Khan holds up a signboard that says "Repair Almost Anything". Unfortunately, this screenplay and film are beyond repair. Grade: C+

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Welcome to my new blog!

I'm Sid, a film lover from Mumbai, India. Between 2002 and 2005, I ran the now defunct website Oscar Race (here's the Web Archive link). My obsession with movies has only grown since then but it has taken me five years to finally sit down and start working on something again.

This blog has been a long gestating idea that has finally come to fruition, though I'm unsure as to what finally pushed me to actually do it. At the outset, I intend for this to be mostly a film blog but we'll see how things work out. Most of this blog is going to focus on Bollywood, Hollywood and World Cinema. There will be occasional musings on other obsessions: Music, Books, Television, Tennis and much more. 

I will start off with a round-up of this year's Bollywood releases and then hopefully retrospectives focusing on the best of 2009 and the past decade (2000-2009). Stay tuned!