Saturday, June 30, 2007

Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee: The Real Luv Story

Yess. I actually watched itt.

Sometimes you go in expecting the worrst. Through loong, bittter experience, I've learnt that thiss might be a good strategy to adopt.

Howeverr, instead of being an atrocious, abominable mess of a moviee, Aap Kaa Surroor: The Moviee: The Real Luv Story turns out to be merely forgettablle. Praise the Lord!

I could continue with the awful spelling, but I'm sure you get the point. So I'm gonna spell like a decent, civilized human being from now on.

I'm assuming the odd repeated letter in the title has to do with some numerological advice. Basically, some guy told him that the movie had a better stab at commercial success if the spelling was worse than the film. I think he did follow the advice: the spelling is indeed much worse. But I don't think it has helped, judging by the number of people I saw in the movie hall. Most of them, I suppose, came there for the reason as I did: for a laugh. Sadly enough, we didn't get much of that either. Like I said, the movie is just plain insipid.

The plot involves Himesh "HR" Reshammiya, a rock star, being arrested for a murder of a journalist while on tour in Germany. Half the movie is flashback, mainly dealing with his romance with Riaa (as spelt in the credits). The rest is about how he proves his innocence.

As murder mysteries go, this one has about as much complexity as a story told in a music video. Which, I suppose might be because the makers wanted to keep the focus solely on Himesh. Everyone else - the heroine, the vamp (Mallika Sherawat in yet another jaw-droppingly awful performance) - is just garnish. There's a guy who plays a friend of Himesh and has one good line early on. After that, he too has little to do.

Our hero obliges with a predictably bad performance. His dialogue delivery is at about the same level as his singing, which is saying plenty. The worst acting comes right at the end: an ill-advised cover of Mehbooba, with Himesh giving Mallika Sherawat what is presumably his most lustful stare. Given the lady's performance, the term "good riddance to bad rubbish" springs to mind.

The singing of course is typical Himesh. Either you like it or you hate it. I hate it. Someday in the future, the Museum of Modern (and Incomprehensibly Popular) Art will put Himesh's nose on display. Along with Kumar Sanu's. And Altaf Raja's. And... God in heaven! What have we let our music come to?

I must admit, however, that the theme tune is quite decent. The background score in the scene where he tries to break into a guy's safe shows a touch of innovation. The movie is well shot too: nowadays a standard feature in the Hindi cinema.

On the whole, this isn't the worst moviee (sorry, couldn't resist) you'll ever see. But don't let that stop you from giving it a wide berth. Sometimes, in order to make something look good, you put it next to something that is even worse. After this movie, people are likely to ask him to stick to singing. Which might have been the object of the exercise.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Freeze Frame #30: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

Karan Johar's debut movie is arguably his best so far. There isn't a single unpredictable moment in the entire movie, there are moments in the first half that make you cringe, and SRK hams it up like nobody's business. But for all that, it manages to convey the palpable enthusiasm of a debutant filmmaker in love with Hindi cinema.

KKHH is essentially Kajol's movie. Not only does the story revolve around her, she gives one of the best performances of her career. The plot is straightforward: Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (SRK) are classmates and bosom buddies. But before that relationship could progress beyond that, in comes Tina (Rani) and Rahul is smitten. It helps, of course, that Tina has the whole girly-girl thing going for her. Anjali realizes this and tries to compete, but loses Round 1. In Round 2, however, Tina's no longer around (died at childbirth), and Anjali has become an amalgam of Tina and her earlier self. Which makes it that much easier for Rahul to fall in love with her.

The scene that ties these two halves together is my favourite scene in the movie: it is when you first see the "transformed" Anjali. The camera pans over a busy household in the midst of a celebration - Anjali's engagement to Aman (Salman), in fact. Aman sends some girl to ask Anjali to hurry up and, when she delivers the message, Anjali turns, smiles, and says, "Usse kaho, yeh dulhan der lagaayegi." (Meaning, tell him this bride will take some time.) Her look, her smile, the confidence she projects... all of that manages to convey in one moment what will happen over the next hour or so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sivaji: Citizen Kenai

In some ways, this was a movie just waiting to be made. Shankar is a director with a proven ability to create box office magic with movies involving middle-class supermen fighting corruption. Rajni is a star who has made a career out of playing such roles. The only question that remains is: do we get to see Rajni in a Shankar movie, or Shankar directing a Rajni movie? A little bit of both, thankfully.

Shankar is a director with an ability to think really big. His plots usually involve the sort of skulduggery you'd dream up after your third straight tequila, and believe to be plausible after the fifth. His technique is simple and time-worn: First, set up situations where the man on the street is victimized by greed and corruption at various levels - deserving students having to pay high capitation fees, doctors refusing to treat poor patients, politicos and government officials demanding bribes for everything and so on. Now, once you've gotten the audience baying for blood, have the hero blow up the logjam through some decidedly unconventional and swift methods. Usually, these methods involve some illegality - murder, robbery, blackmail and the like - but they are always directed at the established bad guys. What makes it work is the way he ratchets up the tone of the proceedings from the get-go. For Rajni, this sort of filmmaking is the perfect vehicle.

Aside: For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tamil cinema, Shankar is the man who made (either the original, or the remake as well) Nayak, Hindustani, The Gentleman and Aparichit. If you've seen any or all of these, you'll know what I mean in the above paragraph.

However, such an endeavour is not without its risks. Shankar's biggest weakness is a tendency to overdo things on occasion. Usually, this happens in the hero's tragic flashback - someone close to him gets badly burned or electrocuted, and the apathy of the people around him is what lights his fire. Rajni's weakness is a tendency to have his movies revolve entirely around him. Even while making something like Chandramukhi, he took the low-key Mohanlal role in the Malayalam original and added mucho baggage to it. Baggage of the sort his adoring fans have come to expect from every one of his outings. Maybe it's his fault, maybe it's the makers'. It doesn't matter.

Both these aspects - the synergies and the double-flaws - are on full display in Sivaji. Clocking in at around three hours, the movie takes its time to tell a story of a rich man who becomes poor trying to do good, then rich again by beating the crooks at their game, then arrested, then out, then... you know the drill, I'm sure.

Much of it could have been told in less than two and a half hours, and some of it needn't have been told at all. Large portions of the first half, especially the scenes dealing with Rajni wooing Shreya and her family, could have been done away with. It's unfunny, loud, occasionally crude and mostly cringe-worthy. The most shocking part of it all is that one of Rajni's best attributes - excellent comic timing - has deserted him here. What salvages it somewhat is a triumphant return to form by Vivek. He manages to lampoon just about everybody, including the man who has taken his place on the popularity charts in the last few years - Vadivelu.

The song sequences are about as hopeless as the music (A. R. Rehman having an off-day of mammoth proportions), and watching Rajni flap the odd limb at high speed in an effort to approximate dancing is painful at best. And don't even get me started on the costume design.

The only scenes that work in the first half are the serious ones involving his fight to realize is dream of providing free education and medical care to the poor. In this he comes across a dangerous adversary, a corrupt kingmaker named Adiseshan. The biggest problem with Rajni movies in recent times has been finding a worthy foe with sufficient screen presence. What Shankar and Suman have accomplished here is fantastic: aided in large part by a low-key Rajni performance in the first half, Suman creates an Adiseshan who is as soft-spoken as he is menacing. By the time we reach the halfway point, he's made us want to figure out how Rajni would destroy him.

The second half is where it all comes together. Rajni and Shankar both stop fooling around and get down to business, and the effect is electric. Pure masala, peppered with inside jokes that would have seasoned Tamil film goers in splits. And the coup de grace: a Rajni in the final scenes looking and acting like the old Rajni from Thai Veedu, Thanga Magan and Moondru Mugam. Fantastic stuff! There's a dodgy little sequence involving an amalgam of medical science and biblical resurrection, but I'm inclined to forgive that in light of what follows.

On the whole, this is far less of a movie than it could have been, thanks to some disastrous choices in the first half, but delivers its share of vintage Rajni entertainment in the second half. Worth a dekko? Hell yeah! The Rajni you see in the last fifteen minutes alone is worth the price of admission.

ps: The title was inspired by a comment by my friend Gora. For the uninitiated, Kenai is a Tamil word that broadly translates to "imbecile".

Rajnikanth, Amitabh Bachchan and the necessity of dodging bullets

In the beginning, there was Rajnikanth the actor. He wasn't the best actor anyone had ever seen, but he was quite okay. His biggest gift was an undeniable screen presence. The man had style to burn, and it shone through even when he had a bit of a paunch, a leather belt that could hide Adnan Sami no matter how you draped it, and dance moves that seemed inspired by epileptic robots.

Somewhere along the way, he figured out what his best attributes where, amped up the style, smoothed out a few rough edges, added comic timing to his arsenal and set out to conquer the world. He became Rajni the star. He managed to do it often enough and consistently well, and the public ate it all up. Hence Rajni the Super Star. Whatever happened after that was just momentum.

The bad news is, I'm not entirely sure he can stop it anymore. In order to ensure box office success, the man ends up having to do a whole bunch of stuff that his age and physique no longer permit him to do. The fight sequences in Sivaji alone should get the editor of the movie a national award. Watching him dance is an almost painful experience. It's like he's come full circle, except the robots no longer have epilepsy, they have arthritis.

When you think about it, not too long ago, one could write roughly the same story about Amitabh Bachchan. If this were the Matrix and AB was Neo, the Oracle might've told him at some point that he needed something, maybe death, to take him to the next level. And so it was, that Mrityudaata proved to be his Mrityudaata. A few more filmmakers nailed that particular coffin in movies like Lal Badshah.

And then the man resurrected himself, french beard and all, and became a bankable star again. So bankable, in fact, that scripts like Cheeni Kum and Nishabd and Ekalavya get written now because there's someone like him to star in them. (I said star in them, mind you, not just act in them. AB is a damn good actor, no doubt. But so are Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor. Would these movies have gotten made with them?)

The bottomline is, Neo woke up from the dead and can now stop bullets in mid-air. So can AB. Rajni on the other hand is still dodging them. Action sequences to the contrary notwithstanding.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom

When I was driving back home after watching Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, I asked myself how I would describe the experience to my friends. My top three candidates were:

3. A lengthy rant involving the occasional throwing of cosmic questions into the void, such as "What were they smoking when they wrote this?" or "What moron heard this pitch and decided to put money into this?"

2. The horror, the horror... (Ideally in my best Marlon Brando voice, which unfortunately doesn't sound much like Brando.)

1. An expression of muted shock and misery, held for about 30 seconds.

If you're an avid moviegoer like I am, with tastes spanning multiple genres, languages and levels of absurdity, you tend to walk into a movie with appropriate expectations. Watching a Yash Raj film and complaining about the lack of realism is akin to watching a West End production of Hamlet and complaining about the lack of car chases.

So, when you walk into a theatre to watch a movie that involves Amitabh Bachchan dressed like a cross between Bappi Lahiri and Bjork, you prepare yourself for more such outlandish excursions. The extraordinary thing about JBJ is that it defies all expectations. Unfortunately not in a good way.

The plot involves two people waiting at a London railway station and falling into conversation. They both claim to be waiting for their respective lovers, and talk of how they fell in love. And somewhere along the way, they fall in love with each other. As it happens, there are no lovers in the background: they just made it up. So now they have to do all the crazy stuff people do in romantic comedies before they finally kiss. None of this is particularly novel, but if done well, it could've been a serviceable rom-com. Ah, well...

I guess what brings it down is, lemme see... the wafer-thin characterization, zero chemistry between the leads, a screenplay with no sense of flow, an average score and bad acting. Short list, don'tcha think? Priety Zinta and Bobby Deol lead the pack with truly atrocious performances. Lara Dutta can be forgiven for not being capable of anything better. To give her some credit, she doesn't do too badly in the second half. And Abhishek Bachchan... considering how many comedies he's been doing in recent times, it's amazing how little his comic timing has improved. The man is often half a second late in his dialogue delivery, which essentially means that half the comic potential of his lines are lost while he's getting there. I've already spoken of his facial hair in an earlier post, but I must admit that his look and mannerisms in this movie aren't half-bad. To do him justice, he delivers the occasional zinger quite well. However, these do little to salvage what is yet another bad performance in a movie chock-full of them. The only one who manages to come out relatively unscathed is Piyush Mishra, who plays Abhishek's friend Hanif.

And now for costume design and art direction. It's so atrocious, it deserves its own paragraph instead of being part of the laundry list above. It even deserves its own blog, but I don't think I have the energy for it. Suffice it to say that some of it makes Baz Luhrmann's work look like German expressionism in comparison. The rest of it is just plain bad.

The music has gotten much airtime in recent weeks, particularly the title number with Amitabh stepping out of a Salvador Dali painting to do a song-and-dance routine. Which is just as well, since the rest of the album is pure noise, while this one has the glimmer of a tune. However, it appears so often in the movie that it begins to get on one's nerves. The argument, I suppose, is that the music would grow on you. Well, so would fungus, except you don't let it.

Traditionally, reviews like this are supposed to end with some sort of savage punchline. But then I ask myself, why bother putting in more effort into the review than the makers put into the movie? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Ah, there you go.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Does he plan it all out, or just make it up as he goes along?

So wonders an admiring British officer after yet another of those insane Jack Sparrow escapades that leave him, improbably, out of harm's way (for the moment) and at an advantage over his rivals. With Sparrow, one really couldn't be sure.

On the other hand, with the screenwriter(s) of the three Pirates movies, you could be 100% sure: they made it up as they went along. My guess is, they sat down each day and wrote three scenes or so, and didn't really worry about whether or not they could remember what they wrote the previous day. After it was all done, they might've spent, oh, about half an hour or so tying up a few loose ends. The entire process being lubricated with vast quantities of rum (yo-ho-ho and all that jazz), of course.

Not that this amounts to a criticism of the movie, really. If you've seen Gore Verbinski's The Mexican or the first Pirates movie, you already know that to expect narrative discipline is an exercise in futility: just enjoy each moment and don't worry about how it adds up, or how long it takes. To his credit, the guy knows how to make a movie look visually appealing, and he knows how to make each scene play well enough to keep you interested. Which is essentially what saves this gloriously shot and acted mess called POTC:AWE.

Johnny Depp is as good as ever: who else can carry off a line like "Can we just ignore that she is a woman scorned, the fury the likes of which hell hath no?" And then there's the little pleasure of having watched Jack Sparrow's spiritual father (Keith Richards) play his real one. Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom do their shtick - they do it well, but it's not high wattage, and I suppose they know that they're not what makes the movie tick. Geoffrey Rush brings a marginally kinder, gentler version of Barbossa to the screen in this installment - not surprising, given how many other Part 3s this year have resorted to Karan Johar-esque screenplays.

On balance, I'm not entirely sure if I'd recommend this movie. It's an overlong, unedited, and mostly senseless. But if you can look past that flaw, it does entertain. Hey, if you've watched David Dhawan, I don't see why you should thumb your nose up at this one.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

I think the first thing that strikes you when you see this movie is the level of emotion on display. The earlier movies had a certain cool reserve that masked whatever emotion the main characters were feeling. This one dared to be sentimental. Not that I think this is a bad thing, mind you.

However, the movie does have its share of problems. First of which is Al Pacino. In the first movie, Andy Garcia conveyed a sense of menace - you felt that he could, and readily would, hurt these guys. In the second one, Vincent Cassel conveyed the sense that he was competent enough to beat these guys. Although with the trick ending right at the end, it was difficult to tell whether he really was. In this one, however, Al Pacino seems to be filling in for the villain that the makers thought Al Pacino could play. He displays less than a tenth of the energy the character needs to have, and less than a hundredth of what he could. However, not all the blame for this performance can be laid at his door. His character is written as someone who is supposed to be quite smart, but the script never really bothers to demonstrate it.

The thing is, intelligence doesn't work the same way as evil in the movies. You could merely hint at the evil a character is capable of and not really show it except in the occasional instance, and people would fill in the blanks for themselves. But with intelligence, you need to demonstrate that the guy is smarter than the people around him - if you don't do that, you can't make people invest in the hero's success. If there was no-one of Lex Luthor's calibre, would you feel happy when Superman won?

The second problem is the payoff. The movie has a sort of kind, gentle tone throughout the elaborate process of setting up the con, which would've been okay if it really managed to deliver a zinger of an ending. But the movie prefers to play it straight, and just brings up a few small surprises, none of which are really surprising to anyone who has watched the two earlier movies closely enough. Maybe it's a problem of expectations, but that's a burden that any third installment in a series would doubtless carry.

The third problem is the humor. The material is so obvious, it's almost juvenile. The Ellen Barkin character, for instance, is written and played too broadly. As is the entire segment in the Mexican factory. You get humor when you're looking for wit. The movie does have the occasional laugh-out-loud moment that really hits the spot. But these are too few and far between.

Let it not be said that this review is one-sided. The movie does have some good things going for it. For one, it's not boring - there's the pleasure of seeing an elaborate con being set up. Then there's the pleasure of watching a bunch of talented actors who have grown comfortable with each other over three outings. And then there's the pleasure of watching George Clooney and Brad Pitt interact with each other. Danny and Rusty have so much history together that their communication has by now become some kind of code. They speak in half sentences and faint gestures, and yet it manages to work.

Clooney is a master at conveying volumes while not moving a single facial muscle, and Pitt has always been a great comedian (I thought he was dynamite in The Mexican, although James Gandolfini hogged all the glory). Watching them react to Linus' (Matt Damon) earnest statements is a master class in how to evoke laughter with the barest minimum of effort.

However, on the whole, this is yet another in a series of disappointing third acts that we've been subjected to this year. Especially so because so many of these series had fantastic second outings. I remember telling my wife that it seemed like the Sophomore Jinx was now a thing of the past. To paraphrase the promos of Ocean's Twelve, it looks like three is the new two.